Tag Archives: GOP

Wehner On Tribes

Peter Wehner is one of those “homeless” Republicans--a category composed of principled people whose primary allegiance was to their country and intellectual honesty, not a political party. He is currently a contributing editor to the Atlantic. Wehner titled a recent article for the magazine “What I’ve gained by leaving the Republican Party,” and noted that he is “more willing to listen to people I once thought had nothing to teach me.”

Like so many of the people who have left the GOP, Wehner was anything but a “casual” Republican.

For most of my life, I’ve been closely affiliated with the Republican Party. My first vote was cast for Ronald Reagan in 1980. I worked in his administration, as well as that of George H. W. Bush; for seven years, I was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush.

Most of my professional friends and almost all of my former colleagues—those with whom I served in government as well as in the think-tank world—have been Republican. The GOP has been my political home since college, a party I was once proud to be a part of, and a source of cherished relationships. Part of my identity was undoubtedly shaped by my party affiliation.

Leaving a political party, or a religion, or a cause in which one has been deeply involved is like losing a limb. In my more charitable moments (which are admittedly few and far between) I sympathize with the lifelong Republicans still standing with their party despite its metamorphosis into an irrational and dangerous cult.

It’s their tribe, and we live in a very tribal age.  Wehner is eloquent on that subject.

When I was a card-carrying member of a political party, I wasn’t automatically blinded to other points of view, or unable to challenge conventional orthodoxy. I did it on issues ranging from climate change, to the Tea Party’s anti-government rhetoric, to the characterological and temperamental defects of Newt Gingrich; so have many others. Nor did I knowingly put party above country. That’s a common charge made against party loyalists, when in fact most members of a political party believe that the success of their party is tied to the success of their country. They might be wrong, but that’s how many of them see things.

 But here’s what I think does happen. People who are part of a tribe—political, philosophical, religious, ethnic—are less willing to call out their own side’s offenses. That’s human nature. To be sure, some are more willing to show independence of judgment than others, but none shows complete intellectual independence. I certainly didn’t.

Some of this has to do with feelings of solidarity, of not wanting to alienate those whose affirmation and support are important to us. Some of it has to do with the fact that our brains filter information differently, depending on whether it confirms or challenges our preexisting political commitments and affiliations. When we’re part of a team, we have a natural tendency to let our sympathies shape our views and opinions of others. As a result, we perceive the world differently, often more narrowly and sometimes incorrectly.

The entire essay is well worth the time it takes to read it.

The thoughtful Republicans who drew a line at Donald Trump–whose intellectual honesty demanded that they leave what had become of their “tribe”–deserve our profound respect. We can only hope that whatever ultimately replaces today’s GOP is their creation, and not that of the troglodytes who control the current remnants of a once Grand Old Party.

Wow

The title of a recent article by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine was eye-catching: “I”ve seen the future of a Republican Party that is not insane.”

Chait’s essay focused on a relatively unknown think tank: the Niskanen Center. The Center was named for a now-deceased economist who served in the Reagan Administration and then worked for the libertarian Cato Institute. Toward the end of his life, he began to question libertarianism’s rigid ideological lens. He developed– and expressed– doubts about supply-side economics, based upon–gasp!–evidence that those theories hadn’t worked.

Niskanen’s observation that tax rates needed to reflect actual rather than desired spending levels is banal to right-of-center economists in almost any country. But it was (and is) absolute heresy on the Republican right, which has elevated anti-tax absolutism into a theological principle.

The Center has developed a research agenda that is detached from what Chait calls the “theological certainties” of the current GOP.  Its scholars begin with the audacious assumption–scorned by fringe political activists on the left and pretty much all of the right– that policy should be based upon empirical evidence rather than ideology-cum-theology.

Center scholars have argued against “small-government monomania” and in favor of a social safety net to “increase the public’s tolerance for the dislocations of a dynamic free-market economy.” They have accused libertarianism of hostility to democracy and attributed persistent Republican efforts “to find ways to keep Democrats from voting” to that hostility.

Center scholars have compared libertarian political theories to empirical data, and concluded that the data rebuts “the notion that downward redistribution picks the pockets of makers and doles it out to layabout takers.” They have acknowledged that countries with more generous social safety nets have more robust market economies and more individual freedom.

The Center recently issued a paper conceding that an oversimplified small-government vision fails to come to terms with important facts about political and economic life, including the persistence of structural racism. The libertarian belief that capitalism’s rewards are based almost exclusively on merit and hard work ignores the massive inequality that was originally produced by brute force.

Although the paper argues convincingly that market forces do a better job than central planners, it also notes that most of the regulations movement conservatives target are those that advance legitimate social objectives — protecting health, safety and the environment — and impose costs on existing firms. The regulations they believe do need to be scaled back are rules imposed by state and local governments to protect owners of businesses and land.

That is, they recognize that regulations can be either good or bad–and they argue that Republicans are attacking the wrong ones. To oppose regulation per se is to ignore the realities of 21st Century economies.

Chait’s reference to ideology as “theology” illuminates the central problem of our times: “true believers” of all sorts who elevate fact-free belief over evidence, who reject the complexities of the real world in favor of a simple one defined by  bright lines and moral absolutes, and who are profoundly uncomfortable with ambiguity.

It’s a short step from “true believer” to cult member–and today’s GOP looks more and more like a cult. If insanity is the rejection of evidence-based decision-making, Chait’s title makes perfect sense.

“Mad Dog” Departs

It’s disconcerting enough when the most level-headed and trusted member of an administration is nicknamed “Mad Dog.” It is positively terrifying when that individual concludes he can no longer restrain the actual madness of the President he serves. But that is where America finds itself today.

The full text of General Mattis’ resignation letter is eye-opening.

Mattis quit after the Child-In-Chief ignored his advice and that of the Pentagon and State Departments, and decided (evidently after consulting his “gut”) to pull American troops unilaterally out of Syria. This rash move leaves our Kurd allies at the mercy of the Turks who have threatened to eliminate them; it endangers Israel; and it plays directly into the hands of Iran and Russia.

A Washington Post column was one among the many pointing to the strategic consequences of Trump’s abrupt and foolhardy move, and Mattis’ departure:

From the day Jim Mattis took over the Pentagon, he was seen by Washington and the world as a safeguard against a president addicted to chaos and animated by a different moral code.

At home, he was the seasoned battlefield commander who was willing to check Trump’s often-impulsive instincts when it came to deploying force. As long as Mattis was at the helm of the Pentagon, Republicans and Democrats trusted there was someone who would fight to ensure military actions weren’t taken on a whim.

Overseas, Mattis was perhaps the only Trump administration official who had the unconditional trust of America’s closest allies.

In his resignation letter, Mattis described the “resolute and unambiguous” leadership style that he had tried to bring to his position, particularly when dealing with threats posed by countries such as Russia and China.

Unstated, but implied, was that Trump’s erratic and impetuous approach to foreign policy isn’t up to the threats America faces.

The implications of Mattis’ resignation, underscored by the unprecedented language he employed when he submitted it, are deeply worrisome. Mattis has been one of the very few members of Trump’s administration widely perceived to be competent and honorable. His departure will make it much more difficult for partisans to ignore the damage Trump is doing to America’s standing in the world community, and his constant, dangerous assaults on global stability.

In an administration that has seen unprecedented turnover, Mattis’s conclusion that he could no longer work with Trump is likely to alter the course of the administration’s foreign policy more than any other departure.

In Europe and Asia, Mattis often traveled in Trump’s wake and calmed allies who were unnerved by the president’s threats to abandon allies who didn’t pay more for their defense. His decades of service and commitment to alliances reassured allies who were put off by Trump’s tendency to kowtow to strongmen, such as Russia’s Vladi­mir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and insult traditional partners in Canada and Great Britain.

It is highly unlikely Trump will find anyone even minimally qualified who is willing to replace Mattis. (As one of my favorite bloggers, Juanita Jean, noted in her inimitable way, “Trump, you have no Secretary of State, no Attorney General, no Chief of Staff, no Secretary Defense, no border wall, and you probably don’t have a winkie. All you have left is the little Nazi-guy with the spray on hair.”)

Most of the people who were willing to join this administration have proved to be grifters, incompetents and/or outright thieves. A few, like Mattis, evidently concluded that duty to the country required subordinating concerns about working for an ignorant and manifestly unfit President.

Republican politicians who justified their public support for Crazy Town by reassuring themselves that people like Mattis would control the nuclear button, and Congressional Republicans willing to go along with a loony-tunes President in order to get those deficit-ballooning tax cuts for their rich patrons need to face up to the facts: America is being endangered daily by a mentally-ill narcissist who knows absolutely nothing about government or foreign policy,  is uninterested in learning, and unwilling to listen to people who do actually know something.

Congressional Republicans have been consistently willing to put party above country, and  must be held equally culpable for the incredible damage being done by this rogue administration. History will not be kind to them.

Not The Onion. Really.

A recent headline in the Washington Post read: “Taxing Churches to Help Corporations.” It really was the Post, and not the Onion.  It wasn’t Borowitz. (This assurance does prompt me to give credit to Donald Trump for providing consistent, excellent assistance to political satirists…)

E.J. Dionne explains:

You would be forgiven for thinking this is a headline from the Onion or the fantasy of some left-wing website. But it’s exactly what happenedin the big corporate tax cut the GOP passed last year.

Now — under pressure from churches, synagogues and other nonprofits — embarrassed leaders of a party that casts itself as religious liberty’s last line of defense are trying to fix a provision that is a monument to both their carelessness and their hypocrisy.

The authors of the measure apparently didn’t even understand what they were doing — or that’s their alibi to faith groups now. It’s not much of a defense. And the fact that Republicans increased the tax burden on nonprofits, including those tied to religion, so they could shower money on corporations and the wealthy shows where their priorities lie.

I do disagree with E.J. on one point. He dismisses legislators’ excuse that “they didn’t know what they were doing.” I don’t. No one who saw the recent hearing where a Congressional committee was “grilling” the CEO of Google could come away believing that our elected lawmakers have the slightest idea what they’re doing.

Evidently, the GOP’s slap-dash effort to relieve the rich from the rigors of taxation had a negative effect on houses of worship.

At stake is a provision in the $1.5 trillion Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that directednot-for-profits of all kinds — houses of worship but also, for example, universities, museums and orchestras — to pay a 21 percent tax on certain fringe benefits for their employees, such as parking and meals.

The new levy on the “armies of compassion” former president George W. Bush liked to extol would raise an estimated $1.7 billion over a decade.

That’s a vanishingly small amount in the scheme of the GOP’s deficit-inflating tax extravaganza, but it’s revealing. To lower the price tag of their confection for the wealthy, Republicans effectively hiked taxes on all sorts of other people and entities — most controversially, by sharply curtailing deductibility of state and local taxes. This was another two-faced move from a party that regularly assails “unfunded federal mandates” and lauds the importance of state and local problem-solving.

This story provides critics with an abundance of riches: we might focus on the mounting evidence that the Grand Old Party is filled with doofuses who haven’t the faintest idea how to structure public policy. We might focus on the “bought and paid for” identity of today’s GOP, and the party’s willingness to throw its religious base under the bus if pandering to its corporate base requires that. Or we might agree with E.J.’s accusation that this was a deliberate, nasty, entirely partisan assault–yet another example of Republicans putting the interests of their party over the good of the nation.

GOP leaders have told representatives of religious organizations that they had no intention of taxing them. They were focused on what they saw as liberal bastions in the third sector: universities, foundations and the like.

But this excuse only makes the story worse. It shows how slipshod the architects of this tax bill were, and it demonstrates their deeply partisan motives. After all, limiting the state and local deduction raises taxes far more on middle-class and well-off taxpayers in Democratic states than on their counterparts in Republican states.

Calling these assholes slipshod is way too kind.

That said, I think a stronger case could be made for taxing churches than universities and non-profits….

Someone To Blame

One of my all-time favorite movies was 1995’s “The American President.” I loved its full-throated defense of the ACLU, its “rom-com” elements, and the excellent acting, but most of all, I loved the part where the President, played by Michael Douglas, turned to his antagonist–a slimy, political “dirty tricks politician” named Bob Rumson (played by Richard Dreyfuss)– during a press conference  and said

I’ve known Bob Rumson for years, and I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.

Making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. A perfect description of Donald Trump and his despicable tribe.

As political scientists have continued to amass data in an effort to explain the 2016 election and figure out why any sentient American would cast a vote for Donald Trump, that scene looks more and more prescient.

As Paul Krugman noted in a recent column, there is little if any support in voting data for the notion that “economic anxiety” drove people to vote for Trump. The data pretty clearly shows that what distinguished Trump voters wasn’t financial hardship but “attitudes related to race and ethnicity.”

Those attitudes tend to manifest themselves largely, although certainly not uniformly, in the more rural parts of the country–in areas Krugman identifies as economically “lagging.”

Yet these attitudes aren’t divorced from economic change. Even if they’re personally doing well, many voters in lagging regions have a sense of grievance, a feeling that they’re being disrespected by the glittering elites of superstar cities; this sense of grievance all too easily turns into racial antagonism. Conversely, however, the transformation of the G.O.P. into a white nationalist party alienates voters — even white voters — in those big, successful metropolitan areas.

I remember attending a session at an American Political Science Association conference several years ago, and being fascinated by the presentation of research analyzing the role of “dissing” in (primarily teenage) violence. As I recall (and my recall, unfortunately, isn’t so hot in my dotage), the feeling of being “dissed,” or disrespected, was the single most important factor triggering rage in teenaged boys and in members of socially marginalized groups.

In parts of the country where young people are increasingly leaving for cities offering better job and social opportunities, where small farms and mom and pop enterprises are overwhelmed by corporate enterprises, where main street shop windows continue to be boarded up and the grandkids who moved to the city not only have friends who don’t look, love and pray like they do, but hold and express opinions that would once have been considered scandalous, it’s entirely understandable that many of those remaining would feel disoriented, discounted and left behind, even if their own finances are secure.

These are people who fear losing the America they thought they knew, people who are angry and resentful at what they see as a lack of respect, a “dissing,” from those in the nation’s growing and affluent cities.

Fox News and Trump’s GOP feed that fear, and tell them who’s to blame: people of color, Jews, Muslims, uppity women, smarty-pants intellectuals and self-satisfied “experts.”

And of course, Democrats.

“The American President” was ahead of its time.