Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Remember Knowledgable Republicans?

I’m getting used to having my students express surprise when they discover that I used to be a Republican–that I even ran for Congress as a Republican.

I try to explain to them that the radical fringe that constitutes today’s GOP is nothing like the party I worked for over a period of 35 years. I tell them that although both parties have always included zealots and know-nothings of various sorts, I remember a time when serious people who cared about America’s prospects and were even willing to work across the political aisle could be found in both parties.

A recent media release from the Lugar Center is evidence not just of the accuracy of that recollection, but the distance between then and now.

Washington–Former Sen. Richard G. Lugar said today many of President Trump’s stated foreign policy goals are “simplistic, prosaic and reactive,” and are characteristic of “a selfish, inward looking nation that is being motivated by fear, not a great superpower with capacity to shape global affairs.”

In remarks prepared for a Washington event hosted by the Foreign Policy Association, Lugar, a former chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that if Trump fully followed through on his current policies for trade, immigration and international alliances, “the net effect…would be an economic and geopolitical disaster.”

Lugar, a Republican from Indiana who served 36 years in the Senate, said the president is relying too much on beefing up the military while “squandering America’s international leverage.”

“We cannot bomb our way to security,” Lugar said.

Always the diplomat, Lugar attributed the “missteps” of the Trump Administration to a period in which it was “finding its footing.” (Those of us who are far less diplomatic might suggest that in order to find one’s footing, it is helpful to know what a floor is…But I digress.) He did, however, address several of the issues that he clearly considers troubling, if not disastrous.

What worries him Lugar said,

are Trump’s “campaign-driven foreign policy themes that are fundamentally contradicted by centuries of world history.”  For instance, Trump’s protectionist trade agenda ignores the powerful impact of technology on job displacement, Lugar said, and “attempting to isolate a nation from trade competition is a self-defeating strategy that will hurt those at the bottom of the economic ladder before anyone else.”

“On immigration, we are mired in a debate of distraction,” Lugar said. “In a world where dampening the rise of new terrorists is as important as dealing with existing ones, the ban on entrants from Muslim countries represents the most obvious recruitment tool against the United States since Abu Ghraib…The ban has been a steep net loss to U.S. national security.”

Lugar, a strong supporter of NATO throughout his Senate career, also expressed concern about Trump’s willingness to question U.S. commitment to our allies as he seeks to wring more contributions from them. “Such ambiguity is not clever,” Lugar said. “It is dangerous and can lead to deadly miscalculation.”

A couple of things about these public remarks struck me: first–and most obvious–is the monumental distance between statesmen like Richard Lugar and the Keystone Kops party of Trump, Pence, Ryan, McConnell and “Freedom Caucus” ideologues who now are both the face and the substance of a once-responsible GOP. Where we once had thoughtful, intellectually-honest elected officials who understood the complexities of government and world affairs, we now have posturing fools who don’t know what they don’t know.

The second thing that struck me was how unlike Dick Lugar it is to voice these concerns publicly. Lugar has always been a good “soldier,” unwilling to go public with criticisms of others in his party (and muted in his critiques of Democrats, for that matter). Even out of office, he has been collegial to a fault.

He must be really, really worried.

 

 

An “Existential Moment”

One of the political scientists whose work I follow is Thomas Mann. Mann, a Democrat, has received numerous awards during a distinguished career, but he may be best known for his collaborations with Norman Ornstein, who served in Republican administrations. Their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks documented the radicalization of the Republican Party and received a good deal of publicity.

Mann has a recent commentary on the Brookings website, in which he characterizes the election of Donald Trump as an “existential moment” The lede sets out the nature and extent of that moment’s challenge:

His candidacy, campaign, victory and actions halfway through the transition to governing, heretofore unimaginable, pose a genuine threat to the well-being of our country and the sustainability of our democracy.

As I write, the immediate concerns are the president-elect’s reactions to the Russian cyber attacks on the Clinton campaign; his refusal to takes steps to deal responsibly with the massive conflicts of interest his businesses pose to his conduct of his presidency; his designation of a prominent white nationalist as his chief political strategist and a trio of unlikely appointees to lead the National Security Council team in the White House who appear to lack the personal qualities essential to their critical role; a breathtaking contempt for the media evidenced by his refusal to hold press conferences and his Orwellian reliance on tweets and rallies to communicate with the public; and an assemblage of Cabinet nominees characterized mostly (though not entirely) by their inexperience in public policy and their contempt for the missions of their departments.

In the remainder of the article, Mann considers whether our traditional checks and balances-the rule of law, a free press, an institutionally responsible Congress, a vigorous federal system, and a vibrant civil society–are healthy enough to provide the counterbalance that will be required. He is not sanguine about the rule of law.

Trump’s choice for Attorney General was rejected by the Senate for a federal judgeship because of racist comments and has a history as a prosecutor more interested in prosecuting African Americans for pursuing voting rights than those trying to suppress their votes. His White House Counsel was Tom DeLay’s ethics counsel and demonstrated a blatant disregard for the law as chair of the Federal Election Commission. The courts play an equally essential role. The egregious partisan politicization of judicial appointments, which reached a nadir with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented refusal to even consider Merrick Garland’s nomination to fill the Supreme Court vacancy during the last year of President Obama’s tenure, has weakened the capacity of the courts to fulfill its responsibilities in the face of attacks on the fabric of our democracy.

The free press, as Mann notes and we all know, is in disarray (to put it as kindly as possible). We live in a “post-truth” media environment, surrounded by spin, propaganda and fake news. If the press is our watchdog, it has been de-fanged.

Congress? Mann points out that the “silence of Republican congressional leaders to the frequent abuses of democratic norms during the general election campaign and transition” has been deafening.

The risk of party loyalty trumping institutional responsibility naturally arises with unified party government during a time of extreme polarization. A devil’s bargain of accepting illiberal politics in return for radical policies appears to have been struck.

What about federalism? Can “states’ rights” be mobilized to constrain the incoming Trump Administration? Mann holds out some hope, but ultimately concludes

And yet the nationalization of elections and with it the rise of party-line voting has led to a majority of strong, unified Republican governments in the states, some of which have demonstrated little sympathy for the democratic rules of the game. For starters, think Kansas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. The latter has just pulled off the most outrageous power grab in recent history, designed to reduce sharply the authority of the newly elected Democratic governor before he takes office.

As many commenters on this blog have noted, and as Mann concludes, it really is up to us.

The final wall of defense against the erosion of democracy in America rests with civil society, the feature of our country Tocqueville was most impressed with. Community organizations, businesses, nonprofit organizations of all types, including think tanks that engage in fact-based policy analysis and embrace the democratic norms essential to the preservation of our way of life. The objective is not artificial bipartisan agreement, but forthright articulation of the importance of truth, the legitimacy of government and political opposition, and the nurturance of public support for the difficult work of governance. It is in this sector of American society in which citizens can organize, private-sector leaders can speak up in the face of abuses of public authority, and extreme, anti-democratic forces can be resisted.

I hope we’re up to the task.

Happy New Year….

The Incomprehensible Attack on Medicare

I understand a lot of the fixations of the far Right (although I disagree with virtually all of them). But I’m at a loss to understand their vendetta against Medicare, or their belief that access to healthcare should be considered a privilege, not a right.

If we take Paul Ryan and his ilk at their word, they evidently believe that market competition will bring healthcare costs down, and that guaranteeing access to healthcare promotes overuse (i.e. you’ll go to the doctor more frequently than you really need to). They believe these things–if they really do– despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The great virtue of markets is that they enable voluntary exchanges; they provide an incentive to provide goods at a price buyers are willing to pay. The classic description of a market is “an exchange between a willing buyer and a willing seller, both of whom are in possession of all information relevant to the transaction.”

That is not a description of the “buyer” having a heart attack. Even in the absence of insurance requiring the use of specific providers, people do not–cannot–“shop” for medical care. We are  generally not “willing” buyers, and as non-experts, we certainly do not have sufficient “information relevant to the transaction.”

As Josh Marshall pointed out at Talking Points Memo,

You think it’s hard getting good insurance when you’re 30 or 50? Try getting good private insurance when you’re 70 or 80.

Providing health insurance coverage to seniors will unquestionably cost more if run through private insurance. No one who has looked at the comparative data on the cost efficiency of Medicare and private carriers can question this. There’s no money savings. Quite the opposite. The only difference is that seniors will pay vastly more out of pocket because the vouchers won’t come close to the costs of a policy. The upshot of the Ryan plan is significantly increasing the cost of what society pays for the medical care of seniors and then making seniors pay dramatically more out of pocket. All with none of the bedrock gaurantees Medicare provides.

There’s a reason administrative costs of Medicare–which doesn’t need to advertise, show a profit or cover outsized salaries to upper management– are dramatically lower than those of private insurance companies. As Marshall points out, the irony is that at the same time they are attacking Obamacare, Ryan and his cronies are proposing to replace Medicare with something that looks very much like Obamacare.

But building an exchange and subsidy adjunct for non-seniors onto an existing and fairly robust private health insurance system is one thing. Creating one from scratch for people who are all pretty much by definition bad risks is close to laughable. Laughable if you’re not bankrupted or dying because you couldn’t get care.

Remember the other things Medicare significantly guards against. If parents have insupportable medical bills or have no way to pay for care, they go to children. In the absence of any other options, that’s how it should be. But that money comes out of other things: buying homes, putting kids through college. The social insurance model of Medicare has positive effects well beyond direct beneficiaries.

Recent polls suggest that significant majorities of Americans don’t want to get rid of Obamacare, let alone Medicare. I still remember that senior at a Town Hall meeting carrying a sign that said “Keep Government’s Hands Off My Medicare.” He may not have recognized that Medicare is a government program, but he’ll certainly identify the perpetrators of attacks on it.

Fortunately, even in the Time of Trump, efforts to deprive millions of Americans of access to basic healthcare will not be a slam-dunk. As Marshall has also reported,

Many Republicans can see the political danger of touching Medicare. No one campaigned on this in 2016. Support for phasing out Medicare and replacing it with private insurance and vouchers is minimal outside libertarians and conservative ideologues. That’s why word play about ‘reform’ and averting ‘bankruptcy’ and ‘saving Medicare’ are the catch phrases. If anyone said, ‘We have an idea to have seniors get private insurance instead of Medicare and a check from the government to pay part of the cost’ they’d be laughed out of whatever room they were in. What’s most salient is that it is toxic within the coalition around which Donald Trump has at least temporarily remade the GOP.

In the real world, nothing about this Ryan/Trump effort makes sense. Practically, fiscally and politically, it would be a disaster. Given the characteristics of those who would be in need of coverage, it wouldn’t even benefit insurance companies or Big Pharma.

This is ideology-cum-religious fundamentalism: don’t confuse me with the facts.

 

The Looters Have Arrived

Wednesday, I posted about the “partnership” approach Trump proposes to take to infrastructure repair.

Paul Krugman had a recent description of that plan, which he concludes is not about public investment, but about ripping off taxpayers.

Trumpists are touting the idea of a big infrastructure build, and some Democrats are making conciliatory noises about working with the new regime on that front. But remember who you’re dealing with: if you invest anything with this guy, be it money or reputation, you are at great risk of being scammed.

So, what do we know about the Trump infrastructure plan, such as it is? Crucially, it’s not a plan to borrow $1 trillion and spend it on much-needed projects — which would be the straightforward, obvious thing to do. It is, instead, supposed to involve having private investors do the work both of raising money and building the projects — with the aid of a huge tax credit that gives them back 82 percent of the equity they put in. To compensate for the small sliver of additional equity and the interest on their borrowing, the private investors then have to somehow make profits on the assets they end up owning.

The description of this rip-off reminded me rather forcefully of the “looters” described by Ayn Rand in  Atlas Shrugged.

I have frequently been bemused by the actions of politicians and others who claim to have been influenced by Rand’s philosophy (and who all seem to see themselves as one of her protagonists. Remember those “I am John Galt” bumper stickers?) I particularly recall an Indiana agency head during the Daniels administration who made all his employees read the “two most important books”–Atlas Shrugged and–wait for it– the bible.

Rand, of course, was a very outspoken atheist who insisted that her philosophy was an explicit rejection–and antithesis– of Christianity.

Then we have Paul Ryan, another Rand fan, who is intent upon keeping Americans from becoming dependent on such “giveaways” as health care (and who was able to go to college after his father’s death thanks to Social Security).  I wonder if he will see the parallels between an infrastructure scheme that will enrich crony capitalists and Rand’s withering description of the morally indefensible “looters” who used government to enrich themselves at the expense of the truly productive  (Rand’s version of the “makers and takers” worldview).

Ayn Rand had an excuse for her extreme worldview; she was a product of  Soviet collectivism, and saw first-hand the danger that such a system posed to human diversity and individual excellence. What she failed to see was the equivalent danger posed by a society that defines success solely as the attainment of wealth, however acquired, and encourages contempt rather than compassion for the weak and powerless.

The latter society is the one that produced Donald Trump, who is already promising to be looter-in-chief.

It Seems We Aren’t So “Exceptional” After All

The election is over, but the racial and cultural resentments that led to the election of  Donald Trump are not over, and the incalculable damage he will do to America and the world is just beginning. Unfortunately, when the largely rural and less-educated population that voted for him realizes that he cannot deliver on his fanciful and frequently unconstitutional promises, they are likely to blame it on all the “others” they already resent–immigrants, Jews, Muslims, African-Americans. Uppity women.

Several people have compared this election to England’s Brexit, and there are obvious parallels (including, I’ll predict, significant levels of “buyer’s remorse.”)Nativism and white nationalism, not economics, motivated both votes.

A recent essay by Zach Beauchamp in Vox makes a pretty convincing case that–much as we like to believe America is somehow different from other Western democracies, as much as we pride ourselves on our “exceptionalism”–what we are seeing here is not that different from the nativist movements currently challenging European democracies.

It’s tempting to think of Trump as something uniquely American, but the truth is that his rise is being repeated throughout the Western world, where far-right populists are rising in the polls.

In Hungary, the increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has started building a wall to keep out immigrants and holding migrants in detention camps where guards have been filmed flinging food at them as if they were zoo animals. In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League, led by a politician who has attacked the pope for calling for dialogue with Muslims, is polling at more than three times its 2013 level, making it the country’s third most popular party. And in Finland, the Finns Party — which wants to dramatically slash immigration numbers and keep out many non-Europeans — is part of the government. Its leader, Timo Soini, is the country’s foreign minister.

These politicians share Trump’s populist contempt for the traditional political elite. They share his authoritarian views on crime and justice. But most importantly, they share his xenophobia: They despise immigrants, vowing to close the borders to refugees and economic migrants alike, and are open in their belief that Muslims are inherently dangerous.

Beauchamp dismisses the notion that this wave of anti-immigrant activism is rooted in economics or even rejection of globalization. In his analysis, what is driving this is something far more primal: fear of difference and social change.

A vast universe of academic research suggests the real sources of the far-right’s appeal are anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance.

Beauchamp cites research done by Roger Peterson, who wanted to understand why social change led to attacks on minorities in some situations, but not others. Peterson argued that in order to understand what triggers ethnic violence, we need to understand and appreciate the role of resentment, which he defined as “the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn’t previously held it.”

Peterson concluded that a major cause of ethnic violence was change in the legal and political status of majority and minority ethnic groups, change that is met with a sense of injustice, because members of dominant groups believe they deserve to be dominant, and deeply resent it when members of other groups advance their status or pose a challenge to their pre-eminent positions.

During the 2016 campaign, that resentment–against minorities, against immigrants, and especially against women–was repeatedly found to be a more reliable predictor of support for Donald Trump than any other personal or economic characteristic.

It is that fury over social change that offers the best explanation we have for why the forces of intolerance are currently on the rise in the West. If we want to understand the world we live in today — and the one we’ll be inhabiting for years to come — we need to understand how immigration and intolerance are transforming the way white Christians vote. We need to understand that the battle between racist nationalism and liberal cosmopolitanism will be one of the defining ideological struggles of the 21st century. And we need to understand that Donald Trump is not an accident. He’s a harbinger.

People of good will have our work cut out for us.