Tag Archives: Trump

Vaccines??

One lesson Americans should have learned from the past four years is that competent governance matters.

I understand that most Americans don’t follow the “inside baseball” of agency regulations, don’t realize the ways in which EPA rules, for example, affect the air they breathe and the water they drink, or how the disaster named Betsy DeVos has undermined their children’s education.But every sentient American should be able to appreciate the consequences of federal ineptitude in the face of COVID-19.

Perhaps it’s true that America was always going to bungle the vaccine rollout, as Ryan Cooper recently wrote in The Week, but if there was any doubt, the last couple of weeks should have dispelled it. Throughout the last, ghastly year, we’ve been treated to a do-nothing federal government–an administration unwilling and unable to provide coherent leadership or even accurate information. The effort to develop a vaccine was successful thanks to international cooperation and the allocation of a lot of money (although I should point out that the first vaccine “past the gate” didn’t even participate in Operation Warp Speed.)

The rollout has been equally unfocused, with the federal government shipping vaccine to the states and telling them to figure out how to distribute it. According to Bloomberg, as of January 2d, something like 12.5 million doses had been sent out, but just over 3 million shots had actually been administered. If efforts continued at this rate, it would take  seven years to inoculate the whole country

President Trump, of course, has completely failed to organize anything at the federal level. For all his manic shattering of political norms, his most characteristic behavior is simply not doing anything in a moment of crisis. Since early November, over a thousand people a day have died of COVID, steadily increasing to nearly 4,000 on some recent days, but Trump has done virtually nothing except try to overturn the election with tweets, play golf, watch television, and pardon his criminal friends…

That of course is making things exponentially more difficult for those lower levels of government. The federal government has always played a central role in previous mass vaccination efforts, because it is the only entity that can coordinate the whole country. States and cities have already endured brutal austerity, laying off millions of employees and cutting back services. Now they are trying to organize a massive logistical operation during a murderous pandemic by the seat of their pants.

It isn’t simply a lack of experience with this level of responsibility. As public health officials have repeatedly pointed out, the state-level public health departments that suddenly find themselves responsible for distribution of the vaccine have been starved of resources for decades.

Here in Indiana, that lack of experience and resources has sent the 80-and-up cohort who have finally been told they can now get vaccinated to a website that wouldn’t be considered “user friendly” even by tech-savvy youngsters. Their alternative is a telephone number that takes callers to an automated phone tree and an interminable wait. (As an aside, whoever designed that website should be tarred and feathered…)

Cooper notes that the utter incompetence that has characterized America’s response to the pandemic means that the task facing the incoming Biden Administration will be enormous.

Frankly I do not believe [Biden] will get very close to the standard of other wealthy countries, but on the other hand he could not possibly do any worse than Trump. Let’s hope when the void at the center of the American state is filled by something, the pace of vaccination can be drastically accelerated, and 2021 isn’t the nightmare that 2020 was.

Meanwhile, as Americans continue to die in horrific numbers, our insane President has taken up full-time residence in la la land, entirely absorbed in his delusional effort to overturn the election and hang onto a job he has shown absolutely no interest in doing.

As the old saying goes, this is no way to run a railroad–or a country.

 

Give Him Credit For Consistency…

Give Trump credit for one thing: he’s consistent. He has gone through a year of campaigning and four years with the title of President without learning much of anything about effective political strategy or even how government operates. He has remained fixated on one thing and one thing only: himself.

As Americans have been treated to yet another in a tiresome stream of Presidential hissy-fits–this time, about affixing his signature to a document negotiated by his own administration–we’ve once again allowed a Trumpian tantrum to distract from a very interesting provision contained in the National Defense Authorization Act that he vetoed at about the same time. His explanation for that veto–the first time ever that an NDAA has been vetoed–was that it included a provision requiring the renaming of military bases that are currently named for confederate generals, in what I’m sure he agrees was a war of northern aggression…

Heather Cox Richardson pointed to what was likely the real sticking point.

It includes a measure known as the Corporate Transparency Act, which undercuts shell companies and money laundering in America. The act requires the owners of any company that is not otherwise overseen by the federal government (by filing taxes, for example, or through close regulation) to file a report that identifies each person associated with the company who either owns 25% or more of it or exercises substantial control over it. That report, including name, birthdate, address, and an identifying number, goes to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). The measure also increases penalties for money laundering and streamlines cooperation between banks and foreign law enforcement authorities.

America is currently the easiest place in the world for criminals to form an anonymous shell company which enables them to launder money, evade taxes, and engage in illegal payoff schemes. The measure will pull the rug out from both domestic and international criminals that take advantage of shell companies to hide from investigators…

As Richardson points out, the ability to use shell companies to mask what is really going on means America’s political system is awash in secrecy. The Donald almost certainly wants to keep it that way.

We know that the Trump family has embraced the use of shell companies. Michael Cohen used such a shell company to pay off Stormy Daniels. Media outlets have recently reported that Jared Kushner created a shell company that allowed Trump to secretly spend more than $600 million in campaign funds. New York prosecutors have been investigating a number of other money-laundering accusations–many including Deutsche Bank, where officers managing his accounts recently resigned.

Not only would the Corporate Transparency Act make shell company shenanigans illegal going forward, its provisions would apply to existing entities. As Richardson writes,

Congress needs to repass the NDAA over Trump’s veto—indeed it is likely that the CTA was included in this measure precisely because the NDAA is must-pass legislation—and both the CTA and the NDAA bill into which is it tucked have bipartisan support. Trump has objected to a number of things in the original bill but has not publicly complained about the CTA in it. It will be interesting to see if Congress repasses this bill in its original form and, if not, what changes it makes.

Follow the money…

 

 

This Is Your Brain On Grievance

Most of the people I consider “normal”–assuming there is such a thing–view America’s current dysfunctions with incomprehension. A phrase I hear more and more frequently from all sides of the political aisle is “what on earth is wrong with those people?”

Two articles from Politico suggest an answer.

The first is a collection of “explanations of the election” by twenty voters who display the various attitudes we’ve come to expect from an assortment of geographically and philosophically diverse Americans. (Hint: It’s the other guy’s fault…)

The second was a really fascinating article by James Kimmel, Jr., a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, and a co-director of the Yale Collaborative for Motive Control Studies.  Evidently, people can become addicted to grievance in much the same way they can be addicted to drugs.

And as the collected opinions of those twenty Americans demonstrates, there’s a lot of grievance around.

Kimmel’s studies show that a brain on grievance looks a lot like a brain on drugs.

In fact, brain imaging studies show that harboring a grievance (a perceived wrong or injustice, real or imagined) activates the same neural reward circuitry as narcotics

This isn’t a metaphor; it’s brain biology. Scientists have found that in substance addiction, environmental cues such as being in a place where drugs are taken or meeting another person who takes drugs cause sharp surges of dopamine in crucial reward and habit regions of the brain, specifically, the nucleus accumbens and dorsal striatum. This triggers cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through intoxication. Recent studies show that similarly, cues such as experiencing or being reminded of a perceived wrong or injustice — a grievance — activate these same reward and habit regions of the brain, triggering cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through retaliation. To be clear, the retaliation doesn’t need to be physically violent—an unkind word, or tweet, can also be very gratifying.

Evidently, people can become addicted to seeking retribution against those they consider their enemies. Kimmel has a name for it: revenge addiction, and he suggests this may explain why some people just can’t “get over it”  long after others feel they should have moved on. (He also warns that some of those people may resort to violence.)

The hallmark of addiction is compulsive behavior despite harmful consequences. Trump’s unrelenting efforts to retaliate against those he believes have treated him unjustly (including, now, American voters) appear to be compulsive and uncontrollable.

Unfortunately, this addiction to revenge doesn’t only affect Trump.

Like substance addiction, revenge addiction appears to spread from person to person. For instance, inner-city gun violence spreads in neighborhoods like a social contagion, with one person’s grievances infecting others with a desire to seek vengeance. Because of his unique position and use of the media and social networks, Trump is able to spread his grievances to thousands or millions of others through Twitter, TV and rallies. His demand for retribution becomes their demand, causing his supporters to crave retaliation—and, in a vicious cycle, this in turn causes Trump’s targets and their supporters to feel aggrieved and want to retaliate, too.

If a revenge addiction is as contagious as Kimmel believes, what can we do about it? Kimmel warns that addiction interventions are risky and that they often backfire.

Unfortunately, Kimmel doesn’t have any quick fixes to offer; he says we’re in for a long haul. Worse, neither Trump nor those he’s “infected” are likely to heal until we (and he) realize how the politics of grievance is damaging us.

Several commenters to this blog–not to mention pundits and academics, among others– have worried about the weaponizing of grievance by political parties and interest groups who recognize that playing on our fears and anger generates donations and motivates voters.  Similarly, media outlets and social networks use grievance to attract clicks and increase sales. In a very real sense, they’ve become dealers.

We need to turn down the heat.

I still remember those old (ineffective) anti-drug TV ads that showed a hand breaking an egg into a hot frying pan, and a voice-over intoning: This is your brain on drugs!

Can we avoid frying that egg by turning off the burner beneath it? As Trump departs, can we “turn off” some of the incivility and nastiness he promoted–the rhetoric that generates grievance?

Maybe “political correctness” isn’t such a bad thing….

 

The Real Checks And Balances

It always comes back to culture–the paradigms into which we are socialized. We call the color of the sky “blue” because that’s what everyone else calls it. We wear clothing that (usually) covers our genitals because we have been socialized to believe such coverage is appropriate. (I’m waiting for the anti-mask “patriots” to insist that laws requiring such clothing are an assault on their liberties…but I digress.) 

We accept society’s expectations for large areas of our behavior: the side of the road we drive on, what we consider edible, how many people there are in a marriage…(my students are always shocked to discover that–despite the anti-same-sex-marriage insistence that marriage is between “one man and one woman,” in many countries those unions are between one man and two or three women…)

Culture is incredibly important. True, changing a culture is a very slow process, a fact that tends to “bake in” unjust rules and attitudes. But without cultural expectations, we humans would have to make decisions about every aspect of our daily lives. I once heard a lecturer ask why men in certain businesses/professions routinely and unthinkingly wore a patterned piece of cloth around their necks. (A tie.)That expectation does appear to be changing.

All this is to say that most behaviors are not simply the result of explicit laws or rules. We call expectations of many behaviors, especially ethical ones, “norms,” and those expectations are frequently more potent that statutes and ordinances–especially when they guide political behavior.

A recent column from the New York Times is on point.Tim Wu asked “What really saved the Republic from Trump?” Assuming the Republic actually was saved–I worry that the jury is still out–I think Wu makes an important point.

Americans are taught that the main function of the U.S. Constitution is the control of executive power: curtailing presidents who might seek to become tyrants. Other republics have lapsed into dictatorships (the Roman Republic, the Weimar Republic, the Republic of China and so on), but our elaborate constitutional system of checks and balances, engineered largely by James Madison, protects us from despotism.

Or so we think. The presidency of Donald Trump, aggressive in its autocratic impulses but mostly thwarted from realizing them, should prompt a re-examination of that idea. For our system of checks and balances, in which the three branches of government are empowered to control or influence the actions of the others, played a disappointingly small role in stopping Mr. Trump from assuming the unlimited powers he seemed to want.

What really saved the Republic from Mr. Trump was a different set of limits on the executive: an informal and unofficial set of institutional norms upheld by federal prosecutors, military officers and state elections officials. You might call these values our “unwritten constitution.” Whatever you call them, they were the decisive factor.

Wu described the failures of multiple, explicit “checks and balances” over the last four years, pointing out that Senate Republicans mostly allowed Trump to do whatever he wanted. They allowed “acting” appointees who could not have been confirmed to run the federal government. They treated the impeachment process as nothing but a party-line vote. It’s hard to dispute Wu’s conclusion that the Senate “became a rubber stamp for executive overreach.”

Wu identified as “firewalls” what he called the three pillars of the unwritten constitution.

The first is the customary separation between the president and federal criminal prosecution (even though the Department of Justice is part of the executive branch). The second is the traditional political neutrality of the military (even though the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces). The third is the personal integrity of state elections officials.

I had considerable concern about the first of those firewalls under William Barr, but it ultimately did hold; Barr refused to find massive vote fraud where it didn’t exist. And a large number of lawyers with the DOJ protested, quit and otherwise made it clear that efforts to turn the Department into Trump’s personal law firm were a violation of DOJ culture.

Members of the military have been pretty uniformly admirable, and to my great surprise, so have Republican election officials–even in Georgia.

The question going forward is:  how do we sustain and nourish those democratic norms? How do we reinforce a small-d democratic culture, and ensure that future generations share its expectations? I don’t have the answer, but I’m fairly certain it involves a significant improvement in civics education. 

That New Old-Time Religion

The recent behavior of thousands of members of the GOP sent me to Google to read up on collective delusions. One academic has explained such delusions, and differentiated them from mass hysteria. (Hysteria evidently involves physical symptoms.) Collective delusions are defined as the spontaneous spread of false or exaggerated beliefs within a population at large, temporarily affecting a region, culture or country.

I found the term “temporarily” soothing…

What I certainly did not find soothing was an article by Andrew Sullivan, sent to me by a friend. I’ve always found Sullivan thoughtful, although I have philosophical disagreements with him. In this essay, he makes a very persuasive case for the marriage of Evangelical Christianity with Trumpism. I say “persuasive” because his theory offers an explanation for what is otherwise inexplicable: the belief that an election lost decisively in the Electoral College and by over seven million popular votes–an election overseen in many states by Republicans, an election in which down-ballot Republicans did well–was “rigged” against Trump.

In a post-election Marist poll, 60 percent of white evangelicals said they did not believe the 2020 election result was accurate, and 50 percent believed that Trump should not concede.

Sullivan has coined the term “Christianist” to describe the Evangelicals to whom he refers:

In a manner very hard to understand from the outside, American evangelical Christianity has both deepened its fusion of church and state in the last few years, and incorporated Donald Trump into its sacred schematic. Christianists now believe that Trump has been selected by God to save them from persecution and the republic from collapse. They are not in denial about Trump’s personal iniquities, but they see them as perfectly consistent with God’s use of terribly flawed human beings, throughout the Old Testament and the New, to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven.

This belief is now held with the same, unwavering fundamentalist certainty as a Biblical text. And white evangelical Christianists are the most critical constituency in Republican politics. If you ask yourself how on earth so many people have become convinced that the 2020 election was rigged, with no solid evidence, and are now prepared to tear the country apart to overturn an election result, you’ve got to take this into account. This faction, fused with Trump, is the heart and soul of the GOP. You have no future in Republican politics if you cross them. That’s why 19 Republican attorneys general, Ted Cruz, and now 106 Congressional Republicans have backed a bonkers lawsuit to try to get the Supreme Court to overturn the result.

Sullivan says that these beliefs don’t simply characterize a few “fringe nutcases.” He offers examples of what he calls “the fusion of Trumpism with religious fundamentalism,” and Evangelicals’ ahistorical insistence that the United States was founded as a Christian, rather than a secular, nation.

As most Americans, religious or not, recognize, the word “faith” means a belief for which there is no empirical evidence.  Believers who reject science are threatened not simply by this or that scientific conclusion, but by the scientific method itself– by its approach to reality and insistence upon falsification. (They shouldn’t be, of course–many things we all believe in cannot be falsified: beauty, love…but they seem unable to grasp that distinction.)

I suppose if one has been raised in a religious culture that puts primacy on faith in the unknown and unknowable, a culture that insists on the superiority of one’s religion and skin color (because make no mistake, this particular version of “Christianity” incorporates white supremacy, along with male dominance), being forced to confront a reality that challenges those beliefs is intolerable.

I’d love to dismiss members of the cult that was once a political party as inconsequential, but I’ve read enough history to know how much war, devastation and human misery fundamentalisms have caused. (The nation’s founders read that history too–which is why they separated church from state..)

I sure hope this eruption of a “collective delusion” proves temporary.