Not All Right Now

There’s alternative news. Just before “Monday with Putin in Helsinki” there was an alternative to all that:

Over an extraordinary weekend in London, two groups of emissaries from America brought drastically distinct ways of relating to international constituencies, approaches that cast into sharp relief Robert Frost’s timeless poem about diverging roads in the metaphorical wood.

Along one path came President Trump, whose visit to Britain en route to his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin motivated thousands to take to the streets of the English capital in protest.

His commitment to the politics of disruption was on display yet again in an interview he gave to the British tabloid the Sun that was seen as damaging the U.S. relationship with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Down the other path, however, came three beloved veteran American musicians: Paul Simon, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, who gathered Sunday in Hyde Park before an estimated 60,000 fans…

This was the underreported alternative news:

Neither Simon, Taylor nor Raitt mentioned Trump by name, but each alluded to the divisive effect he has had at home and abroad, and sought to quietly assure the thousands spilling out in front of the festival’s main stage that he does not speak for everyone in the U.S.

“I feel I have to say something, there are so many of you out there,” Taylor, 70, said in the middle of his hour-long set. “There is another America than the one that is represented by that other guy… and it has a soul and it is coming back.”

No one really believes that now, but these folks did their best:

There’s hardly a sadder song than Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” inspired by the suicide of a lover, in which he sings “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain / I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end / I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend / But I always thought that I’d see you again.”

Simon also grappled with the loss of ideals in “American Tune,” one of his cornerstone songs he has added to the farewell tour set since bypassing it during his opening-night show at the Hollywood Bowl in May. He introduced it with a short and sweet reference to the tumultuous atmosphere around the world today, saying, “Strange times, huh? Don’t give up.”

Written during the Watergate scandal of President Nixon’s administration, “American Tune” continues to feel topical: “I don’t know a soul that’s not been battered / I don’t have a friend who feels at ease / I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered / or driven to its knees.”

Where Simon originally followed that by singing, “But it’s all right, it’s all right,” on Sunday, he changed “it’s” to “we’re,” making the sentiment far more personal, inclusive and immediate.

We’re all right? That giant balloon – Trump as an angry diaper-clad infant with a cell phone – was floating in the background. There were hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets. Simon should have closed with Still Crazy After All These Years – because this is crazy, as usual.

And another week of this begins – Monday, July 23, 2018 – but a bit of perspective is useful. July 23, 1921 – the Communist Party of China (CPC) is established at the founding National Congress. They’re still at it. July 23, 1929 – the new Fascist government in Italy bans the use of foreign words. The far and so not so far right in America has argued for an “English only” America for decades – no more ballots in other languages, no more anything in other languages. Donald Trump may get around to banning other languages – but he’s been busy with other things.

There’s more. July 23, 1940 – Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles issues a declaration. The United States now has a non-recognition policy regarding the Soviet annexation and incorporation of three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They can’t have those and now they’re part of NATO – so that’s settled – but now Trump wants each NATO nation to do more to arm themselves. Let them take care of themselves. NATO is a bunch of freeloaders and deadbeats, so maybe that isn’t settled. And on July 23, 1967 – the Detroit Riots started. Many died, but many have died in other American races riots. The specific date is just a coincidence. America is still crazy after all these years.

James Taylor was wrong. There isn’t another America. There’s only this one that is represented by Donald Trump, at the moment, and an outvoted slight majority of Americans who doesn’t like that, but things do seem a bit crazier now. Donald Trump loves free trade but has started a trade war with everyone in sight – tariffs on everyone and everything – to bring them all to their knees. Reagan had his “evil empire” but Trump’s evil empire is Canada and Mexico and the EU and China, and Japan and sometimes South Korea. They’re all evil, but Russia isn’t. This is all part of putting America First, to make America Great Again, but no one knows what that means now, other than this has something to do with white resentment and xenophobia – while Trump refuses to say whether he thinks Putin is lying about Russia’s actions. He agrees with our intelligence agencies – Russia messed up our 2016 election – big time – but then says it could be someone else. There’s our FBI and CIA and NSA but there’s also the parallel Russian agencies – and Fox News too. He’ll keep an open mind, and Putin is a “strong” leader – a far better leader that Obama was. So is Kim in North Korea. So is Erdogan in Turkey. So is al-Sissi in Egypt and Duterte in the Philippines. They know how to get things done. They lay down the law – unlike Theresa May and Angela Merkel and Justine Trudeau. Those three are wimps. They “listen” to their people.

This is an odd realignment. The good guys are now the bad guys, and now the press is the “enemy of the people” – trust nothing they say. It’s all fake news. And don’t trust anything the FBI says – ever. They’re out to get “your favorite president” after all. Yes, he says he’s that, and the FBI “witch hunt” has to end – but he says he’s tough. He’s as tough as Putin. No one, he says, has ever been tougher on Russia.

America is not still crazy after all these years. America is crazier, but not that crazy:

Republican Senate nominee Corey Stewart (Va.) was interrupted by audience laughter during a debate on Saturday after saying President Trump “stands up” to Russia.

Stewart, the controversial chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, was participating in a debate against incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

He was attempting to attack Kaine’s responses to acts of Russian aggression during the Obama administration, such as when Russians shot down an aircraft over Ukraine, or invaded Crimea.

“We have a president who is standing up to the Russians,” Stewart said.

He was met by loud laughter from both the audience and his opponent.

Laughter helps, but there’s more to this:

Stewart has been a vocal Trump supporter and previously worked as the co-chairman for his presidential campaign in Virginia.

Kaine was Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s running mate in the 2016 presidential race.

A poll from the end of June found that Kaine led Stewart by 18 points.

Stewart is known for his controversial views, including his defense of Confederate monuments.

The chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia resigned earlier this month over Stewart’s success in the primary race.

That was nice but Trump has said he fully supports Corey Stewart, and Jane Coaston notes that this means Republicans have a problem:

In at least five state and national races across the country, the Republican Party is dealing with an uncomfortable problem. Their party’s candidates are a card-carrying Nazi, a Holocaust denier, a proud white supremacist, or all of the above.

In North Carolina, for example, GOP officials are stuck with Russell Walker, a white supremacist running for the state House of Representatives. According to his personal website (littered with the n-word), he believes that “the Jews are NOT Semitic they are satanic as they all descend from Satan.”

Republicans in the state have regrets. “This is a very Democratic district, one that we failed to keep our eye on,” Dallas Woodhouse, executive chair of the North Carolina GOP, told me in an email. “However, we can’t stop him from running.”

In Illinois, meanwhile, the Republican Party shrugged off Arthur Jones, a candidate for the state’s 3rd Congressional district who boasted of his membership in the American Nazi Party. But Jones won the GOP primary, and now party officials, including ones who called Jones “morally reprehensible” and “a complete nutcase,” are scrambling to launch a write-in campaign. Jones’s campaign website features a section called “Holocaust?” in which he argues that the “idea that six million Jews, were killed by the National Socialist government of Germany, in World War II, is the biggest, blackest lie in history.”

This had to happen:

Candidates like Walker and Jones threaten to further inculcate the idea that the Republican Party is inherently susceptible to candidates who espouse racist and anti-Semitic ideas. The Republican Party is, after all, both the party of Lincoln, and the party of Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater’s Southern strategy aimed at getting racists on board without, in Atwater’s own words, “saying, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.'” And it’s also the party of the nation’s most prominent birther, who rode to the White House on a wave of what researchers in December 2017 called “racial resentment.”

In the wake of Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comments after Charlottesville, and with his outward support of Corey Stewart and silence on other extremist candidates, and with what feels like more and more Republican candidates with connections to racist and anti-Semitic ideas and figures emerging by the day, that idea isn’t likely to go away.

America is getting crazier, but Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University – the editor of The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment – does note this:

In the Boston Globe last week, distinguished scholar Andrew Bacevich put forth some strong criticism of President Donald Trump’s opponents. He said he increasingly has come to believe that “Trump’s election has induced a paranoid response, one that, unless curbed, may well pose a greater danger to the country than Trump himself. This paranoid response finds expression in obsessive attention given to just about anything Trump says, along with equally obsessive speculation about what he might do next.”

As opposed to a danger to democracy or a threat to constitutional rights, Trump, in Bacevich’s view, is just a “clownishly incompetent and willfully ignorant buffoon.”

Bacevich’s main point is that despite the fact that many of Trump’s statements are “nonsense” and that much of what he does has not produced long-term impact beyond a “single news cycle,” his opponents act like the sky is falling with every piece of breaking news.

The Bacevich item is behind an impenetrable paywall but this is the gist of it:

International alliances are still in place, Bacevich reminds us, and there are real sanctions on Russia. “America First” has not resulted in US troops leaving hot areas such as Syria or Iraq.

Too many people, he concludes, are consumed with “sensationalistic ephemera” from the White House and are losing sight of key issues such as economic inequality or endless wars abroad.

The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer, and there soon may be no one in the middle as this get worse and worse, the worst it has ever been, and there are endless wars everywhere, but Trump is no more than a clownishly incompetent and willfully ignorant buffoon. No one should take him seriously. Those who do are paranoid.

Zelizer disagrees:

Trump’s rhetoric should not be quickly dismissed. Presidential rhetoric is extraordinarily consequential. More than almost any other figure in public life, the president has the ability to inject ideas into the body politic and to shape the topics of debate in national life – and that was true even before a Twitter blast could rivet the nation’s attention.

So take this ignorant buffoon seriously:

There are many ways in which the President’s rhetoric has an impact. While the media is still fully intact and doing its work, Trump has successfully sown doubt and distrust about major news organizations with his talk about “fake news.” Ninety-two percent of Republicans, according to an Axios poll in June, believe that the media intentionally produce misleading stories.

While Robert Mueller’s investigation continues and the intelligence community still works to stop a future intervention in our election, Trump’s ongoing attacks against the legitimacy of these efforts have become a subject of perpetual conversation as well as of very real congressional investigations.

The President’s verbal assaults on immigrants, undocumented and legal, matter very much in helping to give legitimation to hardline rhetoric that many Republicans – such as George W. Bush – hoped would remain on the fringes of political life.

Even as he does not literally dismantle NATO, Trump’s words do immense damage, raising questions about how the United States would react in a crisis with a president who blasts key allies such as Germany while praising Vladimir Putin for his leadership.

If NATO and the G-7 survive, it is not because Trump’s attacks are insignificant, but because leaders in the alliances might work around him.

America is crazier and now, so is one of our political parties;

Trump is having an important effect within the GOP. He is clearly solidifying and accelerating the sharp rightward drift in the party since Barack Obama took office.

During Republican primaries, we have seen more candidates embrace the President’s policies and even style, if not the commander in chief himself. There are fewer voices of dissent.

While the President is not the cause of the party’s rightward drift or toward a take-no-prisoners approach to governance, his total embrace of the Fox News-era style of Republican politics is wiping out other kinds of voices in the party. This is highly significant since it has the potential to define one of the two major political parties in such a way that it will continue to espouse his views and style long after he is gone. Trump entrenches Trumpism within the GOP.

Zelizer says that Bacevich misses what Trump is doing:

Making his opponents look paranoid has in fact been a conscious strategy of the President. This is why he warns that critical news is not real and how a “deep state” is driving the investigation against him.

America is crazier. More than half of America is paranoid now. That was the plan.

In fact, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie notes that even Republicans are paranoid now:

In private, according to reports, most Republican lawmakers agree that Donald Trump’s press conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin was a horrifying display of contempt for American institutions. But they won’t speak out. “Most Republican members are willing to admit POTUS doesn’t operate in reality, but know they’re doomed in their next primary if they say so publicly,” says Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report. “Republicans see no upside in speaking out – and fear political suicide if they do,” note Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan for Axios.

The plan is working:

Retiring lawmakers like Jeff Flake of Arizona can make impassioned cries against President Trump – “We have indulged myths and fabrications, pretended it wasn’t so bad, and our indulgence got us the capitulation in Helsinki,” he said last Thursday – but few Republicans will back him or take any action to hold the president accountable. After that speech, for example, Senate Republicans blocked a measure to affirm and support the nation’s intelligence agencies. Fear of the base is just that strong.

Or the plan isn’t working:

Yes, polls show high Republican support for President Trump, but those polls don’t measure change in party identification. Most Republicans back Trump, but there might be fewer Republicans. If so, the dreaded GOP base might be less fearsome than it appears.

Most coverage of Republican voters paints them as a unified, unmovable bloc in support of the president. “Huge GOP majority backs Trump’s Putin performance,” reports Axios, summarizing results from a new poll. In it, 79 percent of Republicans endorse the president’s handling of the Helsinki press conference, similar to the 68 percent who supported Trump in a CBS News survey, and the 66 percent who backed him in a poll from ABC News and the Washington Post. General approval polls – which give Trump upward of 90 percent support from Republicans – reinforce the perception that, among GOP voters, the president is untouchable.

But that perception misses important context. Presidents always have partisans, and it’s rare that they break ranks. On the eve of his resignation in 1974, half of Republicans still supported Richard Nixon, and 59 percent said he shouldn’t be forced from office. Likewise, around 80 percent of Republicans backed Ronald Reagan at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal. For Trump, the key question is less “how many Republicans still support his administration” and more “how many voters are still Republicans?”

That number is dropping:

Trump’s base may have eroded significantly from where it was at the beginning of his administration.

According to the Pew Research Center, Republican Party identification fell 3 points, to 26 percent, from 2016 to the end of 2017. The number of self-identified independents increased at the same time, from 34 percent to 37 percent, while the number of Democrats remained steady. Gallup shows a similar change: From November 2016 to November 2017, there was a 5-point drop in the number of people who called themselves Republicans, from 42 percent to 37 percent. Democratic self-identification remained unchanged at 44 percent.

The sheer size of the United States makes it easy to find vocal support for anyone and anything, and Donald Trump has his vocal supporters. But their staunch commitment overshadows the reality: a shrinking base for a president who won by the skin of his teeth, reliant on a small group of voters in just a handful of states.

So that’s the good news:

Republican Trump critics in Congress insist there’s nothing they can do, lest they enrage the base and jeopardize their seats. But the steady erosion of Republican self-identification throws this into question. Perhaps there’s more space for resistance and critique than appears at first glance, and perhaps GOP lawmakers are playing themselves by hesitating – essentially allowing Trump to drag them down alongside him with the public at large.

That could be happening, but Bouie isn’t that much of an optimist:

Of course, there’s one other possibility: That these “critics” aren’t as serious as they appear. They might disagree with the president – even think he’s dangerous – but not so much that they would jeopardize tax cuts or additional conservative judges. If that’s the case, then the dreaded “base” may just be an excuse to avoid hard questions about inaction, and to blame their complicity on something beyond their control.

They want their tax cuts and conservative judges. Trump may be a clownishly incompetent and willfully ignorant buffoon, and his base may be equally ignorant, but they can live with that. This is a matter of priorities. America has always been a bit crazy. They can live with a world where Canada is America’s mortal enemy, where Putin and Kim are fine fellows and no one should trust the FBI ever again.

The “crazy” won’t end, and Slate’s Osita Nwanevu notes another reason it won’t end:

A week ago, Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, brought some attention to a growing threat to the integrity of our elections. “[B]y 2040 or so,” he tweeted, “70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30% will be older, whiter, more rural and more male than the 70 percent.”

That locks in the crazy:

Beyond holding an advantage in the House even before the recent wave of Republican gerrymandering, the most conservative regions of the country – places more white, more male, and more rural than the country at large – have and will continue to hold a lock on the United States Senate that will grow ever more absurd as the country’s actual population centers grow, a situation that grants them a veto over legislation that the majority of Americans might want, and the power to shape or shrink government programs and initiatives disproportionately needed by women and minorities living in less conservative states.

The phrase “minority rule” is going to be written and said a lot in the coming years, and not just because the election of two popular-vote-losing presidents so far this century has given lie to the idea that every citizen’s vote matters equally. A vote cast in Wyoming mathematically counts nearly four times as much in presidential elections as a vote cast by a Californian.

Nwanevu says there’s only one thing that can be done about that:

The Democratic Party should be doing more to increase the salience of the issue in addition to pushing reforms that would equalize the balance of power, including the crafting of a new voting rights act, ditching the Electoral College via interstate compact, and, when next they hold Congress, eliminating the filibuster and adding a new state or two, starting with D.C., to the Senate. The alternative is the slow, steady collapse of American democracy at our own hands, not Vladimir Putin’s.

The only other thing to do is to sing along with Paul Simon. We’re all right. James Taylor says that there is another America, one not represented by that balloon-baby guy, one that has a soul and is coming back. No. America is still crazy after all these years, if not crazier.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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