Category Archives: Random Blogging

Interesting Parallels

History doesn’t really repeat itself, at least in the sense of “re-enactment,” but there are historical cycles with striking resemblances. We really can learn from history–if we are open to pondering its lessons.

Because I think the past can illuminate the present, I found this article by a Brookings Institution scholar fascinating.

Philip Wallach looked at various pieces of evidence offered by November’s elections–the electoral dominance of the GOP, followed by dissent and disarray, and asked whether America might be on the cusp of a realignment:

A month-and-a-half into Trump’s presidency, however, the tensions are looking more overwhelming than manageable. Internecine fights between Republicans, about both the party’s biggest priorities and the president’s unprecedented persona, erupt into headlines daily. And so we find ourselves wondering: could the GOP coalition be impossible to hold together? Might we be witnessing the beginnings of a serious partisan realignment, perhaps even the end of the long era of Democrats vs. Republicans in federal politics?

Wallach proceeded to analyze this question by comparing today’s political landscape to a “neglected chapter in American history”: the downfall of the Whig Party from its peak in 1848 (the year its outsider candidate won the presidency and gave Whigs effective control of American government), to 1856, when for all intents and purposes, the party no longer existed.

That period featured surging nativism, profound uncertainty for both major parties, and a striking number of rhymes with our current political moment. Then, as now, the issues that provided the traditional lines of contestation between the two major parties were losing potency while new divisions were taking their place.

Wallach proceeds to enumerate the schisms within the GOP that might well lead to that party’s disintegration–the various factions rejecting Paul Ryan’s healthcare “reform,” similar disputes over tax policies, deep disagreement with Trump’s populist policies on trade, and concern over what Wallach delicately refers to as Trump’s “preoccupations” and “personality.” He then turns to the Democrats.

Although the GOP’s troubles are more vivid just now, Democrats are in some ways in just as serious a predicament. Insurgent populists and establishment neoliberals are deeply suspicious of each other and divided on where the party’s future lies, as was made apparent by the bitter fight over the DNC chairmanship.

What internal conflicts ultimately fractured and dissolved the Whigs? The most important was slavery, but there were also deep divisions over prohibition and the rise of anti-Catholic nativism. There had been a major influx of Catholic immigrants, especially German and Irish, and the “native” Protestant Americans, who tended to be  Whig voters, accused these immigrants of “popery,” criticized their use of foreign languages, and decried their participation in “corrupt” urban political machines. (They also tended to drink demon alcohol.) A number of Whig politicians adopted virulently nativist positions as a way of energizing their base. (Sound familiar?)

Wallach identified a lack of leadership continuity as another reason the Whigs imploded:

As the party looked for a champion going into the presidential election of 1848, a majority of its members opted to put their trust in a man who had no political history in the party at all. General Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War, seemed to be “a new Cincinnatus, a man who, like the revered Washington, stood above party.” There were even those who were enthusiastic about rebranding the party, abandoning the “Whig” label in favor of “Taylor Republicans.”

However, Taylor’s policies enraged a substantial number of Whig partisans, allowing the “Know Nothings” and others to step into the breach.

It is hard to exaggerate how rapid and widespread the expansion of Know-Nothingism was in the 1850s. Founded as the secret “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” in 1849, Know-Nothings built up a vast hierarchical organization of lodges and established themselves as the dominant force in many parts of the country. Officeholders of both parties, but especially Whigs, found that their political fortunes depended on having themselves secretly inducted into the rapidly growing order. As long as Know-Nothings remained officially secret, they seemed to offer a kind of symbiotic relationship with the Whig Party rather than posing a direct threat. But members of the movement, active in both the North and South, soon desired a more public arm of their movement, leading to the founding of parties variously called “Native American,” “American,” or “American Union,” in 1854 and 1855.

I won’t belabor these parallels further (although I can’t resist comparing the Tea Party to the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner”).

It may be that the American political structure–a structure that overwhelmingly privileges a two-party system– will end up saving both Republicans and Democrats in their present form, although not necessarily in their present, respective substances. But the parallels–and their implications– are worth pondering.

On the other hand, we may truly be in previously uncharted waters….

The Inmates and the Asylum

Remember the old line about the inmates running the asylum? We’re so there.

Catherine Rampell’s recent column in the Washington Post spelled it out:

Time to trade in those red #MAGA caps, Trumpkins. If you want your headgear to fit in with the latest White House fashions, invest in some tinfoil.

From top to bottom, this administration has been infested with conspiracy theorists. Most appear to be true believers. Take Stephen K. Bannon and his anxieties about the “deep state,” or the recently ousted Michael Flynn and his propagation of suggestions that Hillary Clinton was tied to a child sex ring run out of a D.C. pizza parlor.

Others, such as Kellyanne Conway, appear to just be paranoiacs for pay.

Conway, as you’ll recall, says our microwaves are spying on us…. Then there’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney , who shared his suspicions of his predecessor’s job reports:

We’ve thought for a long time, I did, that the Obama administration was manipulating the numbers in terms of the number of people in the workforce to make the unemployment rate, that percentage rate, look smaller than it actually was,” Mulvaney told CNN’s Jake Tapper. Mulvaney declined to say exactly how the numbers were being manipulated, saying the explanation might “bore people.”

In case you were concerned about this numerical manipulation, you will be pleased to know that when the numbers made Trump look good (or so he believed–he actually hadn’t been in office long enough to have an effect on employment one way or the other), they suddenly/magically became credible.

Rampell points to others in the administration who hold–how to put this?–unconventional ideas. There’s Scott Pruitt, of course, who dismisses settled science on climate change. There’s  Curtis Ellis, an appointee in the Labor Department who has argued that Democrats engage in “ethnic cleansing” of working-class whites. There’s Sid Bowdidge, a massage therapist with no discernible relevant credentials, appointed to the Energy Department, Rampell tells us, “despite tweeting that Muslims ought to be exterminated and Obama was related to radical Islamist terrorists”.

It’s hardly just coincidence that the Trump executive branch is rife with beliefs that are wholly disconnected from reality. Such beliefs were a foundation of his campaign. Of course this would be the talent he attracts. Not scientists, experts or others who believe in weighing evidence, but people who heard Trump’s many malicious lies and reckless insinuations — that vaccines cause autism, that Ted Cruz’s dad was connected to the JFK assassination, that Mexicans are flooding over the border to rape and kill, that Antonin Scalia and Vince Foster may have been murdered, that 3 million people voted illegally, that our first black president was born in Kenya — and said: “Sign me up!”

Not long after reading Rampell’s funny-but-sad-and-scary enumeration of the Trump Administration’s nutballs and conspiracy-theorists, I came across a report confirming her assertion that many Trump voters shared and applauded these sentiments. And worse.

Maricopa County burnished its reputation as the Trumpiest in America last weekend as hundreds of locals, including heavily armed militamen, white nationalists and even a few elected officials, gathered to support the 45th president. The ensuing “March for Trump” was as horrifying as it sounds.

Aside from the predictable misogyny, the continued calls to “lock her (Hillary Clinton) up,” and angry rejection of the notion that America has any obligation to take in refugees, there was lots of that “old time religion” aka unrepentant bigotry.

Some even dared to tell Dan Cohen of the Real News Network how they’d make America great again now that Trump is in office. And Muslims weren’t the only religious minority unwelcomed.

“If she’s Jewish, she should go back to her country,” a 13-year-old Trump supporter said of a protester.

“This is America, we don’t want Sharia law,” one attendee explained. “Christian country,” he added.

One man insisted that Senator John McCain was a “secret communist.”

Beam me up, Scotty!

Today’s deepest political schisms aren’t partisan, and they aren’t political in the traditional sense of that word. Americans aren’t arguing about policies, about different prescriptions for solving problems, or conflicting interpretations of constitutional restraints.

The reason we are having so much difficulty communicating is because today’s divisions are increasingly between people who live in the real world, and people who have long since lost touch with it.

And guess who’s running the show?

More Than Just Worrisome

The Guardian recently had a chilling account of the tools available to today’s purveyors of what we used to call the “big lie,” and the people using those tools. As the reporter began,

Just over a week ago, Donald Trump gathered members of the world’s press before him and told them they were liars. “The press, honestly, is out of control,” he said. “The public doesn’t believe you any more.” CNN was described as “very fake news… story after story is bad”. The BBC was “another beauty”.

That night I did two things. First, I typed “Trump” in the search box of Twitter. My feed was reporting that he was crazy, a lunatic, a raving madman. But that wasn’t how it was playing out elsewhere. The results produced a stream of “Go Donald!!!!”, and “You show ’em!!!” There were star-spangled banner emojis and thumbs-up emojis and clips of Trump laying into the “FAKE news MSM liars!”

The reporter then consulted Google, typing in only “mainstream media is.” The first several “autofills” were negative: “dead” “fake” “biased” and the like. SEO (search engine optimization) at work. (Search engine optimization is a technique that catches Google’s attention, and ensures that a site’s URL will be prominent among search results.)

The reporter clicked on the first of the sites that Google returned; it was an obscure website named CNSnews.com.

Another couple of clicks and I discover that it receives a large bulk of its funding – more than $10m in the past decade – from a single source, the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. If you follow US politics you may recognise the name. Robert Mercer is the money behind Donald Trump. But then, I will come to learn, Robert Mercer is the money behind an awful lot of things. He was Trump’s single biggest donor. Mercer started backing Ted Cruz, but when he fell out of the presidential race he threw his money – $13.5m of it – behind the Trump campaign.

Since just 2010, it turns out that Mercer has donated $45 million dollars to Republican political campaigns, and another $50 million to an assortment of rightwing, ultra-conservative nonprofits. As the reporter noted, he is a billionaire who, “as billionaires are wont, trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs.”

And he evidently possesses both the money and the technological skills to reshape a good portion of it.

Robert Mercer very rarely speaks in public and never to journalists, so to gauge his beliefs you have to look at where he channels his money: a series of yachts, all called Sea Owl; a $2.9m model train set; climate change denial (he funds a climate change denial thinktank, the Heartland Institute); and what is maybe the ultimate rich man’s plaything – the disruption of the mainstream media. In this he is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist. The money he gives to the Media Research Center, with its mission of correcting “liberal bias” is just one of his media plays. There are other bigger, and even more deliberate strategies, and shining brightly, the star at the centre of the Mercer media galaxy, is Breitbart.

Mercer’s money funded Breitbart; the express intent was to “take back the culture.” (I shudder to think just how far back.)

But there was another reason why I recognised Robert Mercer’s name: because of his connection to Cambridge Analytica, a small data analytics company. He is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group. It specialises in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations”, refined over 25 years in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In military circles this is known as “psyops” – psychological operations. (Mass propaganda that works by acting on people’s emotions.)

I encourage you to click through and read the entire Guardian article. It goes a long way toward explaining what I have found inexplicable: popular beliefs and attitudes that legitimize the antics of a man whose increasingly obvious mental illness has allowed him to be used as the tool of ideologues like Mercer and Bannon.

According to Andy Wigmore, a key figure who worked for the Brexit “Leave” campaign,

Cambridge Analytica had worked for them, he said. It had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles. A video on YouTube shows one of Cambridge Analytica’s and SCL’s employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.EU’s launch event.

Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”

There has always been propaganda. There hasn’t always been the Internet or Facebook. We’re about to find out just how malleable and gullible we are.

Tearing Down the Bastille

This blog has a lot of very perceptive readers. The fact that my “day job” precludes my weighing in on conversations among commenters doesn’t mean I don’t read what is posted, and I was particularly struck by the following observation, in a comment to last Tuesday’s post on the politics of resentment:

I would describe the executive orders and Congress’ legislative “agenda” (such as it is) so far as governing by revenge. Nothing done or proposed has any constructive elements in it. You’d think they were tearing down the Bastille.

As another commenter remarked, the mob won, and they’re cheering every brick that comes down, even when it lands on them.

I’m certainly aware–as the old academic adage has it–that the plural of anecdote is not data. But the image of “tearing down the Bastille” is eerily consistent with the attitudes of the Trump people I have encountered.

Most of the Trump voters I know personally ( I’m happy to report that I don’t know many–but then, I live in one of those diverse urban bubbles) nurse attitudes that I can only characterize as racist and misogynist. In at least two cases, both older white men, their bigotries were on  display long before Trump emerged. They both were among the fringe crazies who appeared to “lose it” when Obama was elected; it was obvious that they experienced the ascension of a black man to the White House as incomprehensible and deeply disturbing, not to mention a personal affront. (In an email, one of them recently characterized President Obama as a “Fabian socialist progressive.”  I have no idea what that terminology is supposed to mean, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t either; he just knows that the black guy must be a commie.)

I have also been made aware, however, of Trump voters who seemed less motivated by racial animus or sexist attitudes than by a general hostility to “the system,” and a desire to tear it down. For these voters, Trump’s intellectual and emotional deficits and general buffoonery were assets–his lack of experience, his ignorance of government, his recklessness, volatility and especially his eruptions of uncontrolled anger–all promised chaos, and chaos was precisely what they wanted.

I am unable to fathom a fury that reckless. I can only assume that it is the result of a life experienced as deeply unsatisfying coupled with a conviction that things will not or cannot improve, and that the only satisfying course of action is therefore a destructive one.

If the destruction hurts a lot of innocent people, well, those are the breaks.

Whatever the motives of the 26% of (disproportionately white and elderly) eligible voters who cast ballots for Trump, the rest of us are left with a choice: man (or woman) the barricades and try to minimize the harm being done, especially to the powerless and  disadvantaged; or sit on the sidelines and watch the bricks fall.

The Politics of Resentment

A Wisconsin friend recently sent me an article about a book written by a Professor at the University of Wisconsin. (I realize that the professorial status of the author automatically makes her a member of a suspect “elite” whose observations or theories are thus automatically to be rejected..)

Kathy Cramer’s journey to the center of the political landscape began with road trips to corners of Wisconsin many people only drive through — if they drive there at all.

It accelerated after Election Day, when those same places had a key role in making billionaire celebrity Donald Trump the 45th president.

Suddenly there were national implications to a theme Cramer explored for more than a decade: how Wisconsin’s rural-urban cultural divide affects its politics. Cramer, a UW-Madison political scientist, published a book in March: “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.”

Cramer spent five years researching the book–research that revolved around extended discussions with rural Wisconsin voters. Although her research focused on Scott Walker, a number of commentators have drawn parallels between the resentment Cramer uncovered — and the way in which she says it was politicized — and Donald Trump’s  appeal to rural Midwesterners.

Cramer said the book she wrote was not quite what she set out to write.

In 2007, Cramer laid out maps of Wisconsin on her floor, looking for places to visit to conduct research. As a Grafton native, she already knew some of the terrain.

Cramer said she began the work with a guiding insight.

“I’ve found that the best way to study how people interpret politics is to listen to them talk with people they know in their own settings,” Cramer said.

Cramer’s initial plan was to explore issues around social class, but as she talked to people in rural Wisconsin, she discovered a deep resentment of “city dwellers,” who were seen as getting more attention from government, and looking down on rural residents.

“I never expected that a big driver for the way people were thinking about politics was their attitudes toward the cities,” Cramer said.

Into that environment, Cramer said, came Walker, elected governor in 2010. In early 2011 Walker proposed Act 10, a measure to curtail collective bargaining by public workers.

Cramer said Walker was able to tell rural voters: “I hear what you’re saying, and it’s time we step back government, because clearly it’s not working for you. And public employees pensions, health care, salaries are quite a bit higher than yours, many times, so I hear what you’re saying. Let’s pull that all back.”…

But how does rural resentment toward big-city elites explain those areas embracing a Manhattan billionaire?

Cramer’s explanation: Trump “validated their resentment.”

“The way I interpret his message is, ‘You are right to be pissed off. And you do deserve more. And what you deserve is going to these people who don’t deserve it.”

“Those people” is a familiar phrase to any member of a minority group, of course. The article doesn’t delve into the identification of minorities with “city dwellers,” and I haven’t read Cramer’s book to see whether she addresses that issue. But it was impossible to listen to Trump’s campaign rhetoric without understanding–quite clearly–who “those (undeserving) people” were.