Tag Archives: Trump

The Downside Of Democracy…

It’s hard to disagree with the pundits and political scientists who point to the vote for Brexit (and the worrisome number of votes for Donald Trump) as evidence that majority rule is not necessarily a blessing.

In the idealized version of democratic systems, a majority of citizens cast informed votes after considering the positions articulated by the candidates or descriptions of the issues vying for their support. (Political scientists Achen and Bartels dubbed this the “folk theory’ of democracy in their book Democracy for Realists. I recommend it…)

One problem is that much of 21st Century policy has become too complicated and/or interdependent with other aspects of our common lives to allow the average voter to be genuinely informed. Another is that campaigns and candidates are richly rewarded for misrepresenting reality. There are electoral advantages to be gained by turning issues into “us versus them” choices, and plenty of political actors willing to do so.

Brexit is a good example. The Week recently had a very good description of the “unanticipated consequences” of the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Those who followed the campaign noted that it played heavily upon resentment of EU bureaucracy, and especially tensions over immigration. The Vote Leave campaign was led by Boris Johnson, who led rallies in a red bus featuring the slogan “We send the EU 350 million pounds a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.” Johnson and the other proponents claimed that the U.K. would keep its tariff-free trade with the EU, but no longer would be subject to EU law; best of all, the U.K. could “take back control” of immigration. Wages would be higher and the country would sign new trade deals with better terms. 

All gravy, no gristle.

Reality–as Brexit opponents warned– has been considerably different. Import/export companies face a raft of new paperwork that will cost them millions of pounds a year. Worse, the trade deal doesn’t cover the services sector, which represents some 80 percent of Britain’s economy.

As for the financial savings, the true net amount that the U.K. paid to the EU was $208 million a week, less than half of what was claimed, and little of that money is going to the NHS, which remains strapped for cash. While the border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain open, there will be customs checks.

There’s a lot more (grim) detail in the linked article, but the bottom line is that Brexit is predicted to cost Britain about 4 percentage points of its gross domestic product over the next 15 years, and unemployment, inflation, and public borrowing are all likely to rise.

In the United States, we have plenty of examples of campaigns that over-simplify or distort the issues involved, and count for their success on the likelihood that most voters will not recognize the complexities or potential pitfalls. But thanks to demographic shifts and the peculiarities of our electoral system, we also have a growing problem that most other Western countries don’t have.

In 2018, Norman Ornstein explained it in a tweet:

“I want to repeat a statistic I use in every talk: By 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 percent will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent. Unsettling to say the least.”

Ornstein’s analysis was checked by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service of the University of Virginia, which concurred. 

Democratic systems are those that accurately reflect the wishes–expressed through the ballot box– of a majority of citizens. In the U.S., majoritarian preferences are constrained only by constitutional safeguards of individual rights, primarily those protected by the Bill of Rights.

I have posted before about the reasons that Indiana’s legislature is dominated by–and answerable to–rural areas of the state, and the multiple ways in which that reality makes us backward and dysfunctional. If Ornstein is correct–and he is–the entire country will be in our shoes–dominated in the very near future by voters whose priorities simply do not reflect–or even include– the preferences and needs of urban America. 

I don’t know what you would call that outcome, but it sure isn’t democratic….

 

 

Something ELSE To Worry About….

Well, I really should apologize: I’ve been on a depressing roll lately!

The problem is, just as I try to focus on good news, and there is good news to find (for example, the NRA just declared bankruptcy) someone gives voice to a danger I hadn’t previously considered and sets my hair on fire.

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed a few days ago, and came across a conversation between a couple of my more politically savvy friends. They were discussing what one of them termed “an interesting point.”

In theory, at least, Donald Trump is in possession of a lot of confidential information about foreign threats and the United States’ security measures to counter them. There is apparently a worry among Intelligence and Homeland Security personnel  that he will reveal highly sensitive information after he leaves office. As the original post noted, “after all, he’s shown he’ll do it while in office.”

Although Trump would undoubtedly sell state secrets if he could monetize them, the danger is amplified by the even more foreseeable possibility that he would disclose classified information inadvertently–that in the course of one of his grandiose, “look at me I’m so important” word-salads, he would blurt out state secrets.

 If, as many lawyers predict, Trump is prosecuted in New York for his financial crimes (a federal pardon is ineffective against state-level criminal convictions) and if, as a result, he is actually imprisoned, it would be totally in character for him to take his revenge by intentionally disclosing classified information.

Evidently, the possibility of such disclosures has become a real worry within the Intelligence Community. As one of the commenters noted, Trump has over $400 million in debt coming due just within the next couple of years. We can all identify the foreign powers–adverse to America– who would be happy to help him pay off that debt. For a quid pro quo.

A column by a former Intelligence official told me something I hadn’t previously known: former presidents are given routine intelligence briefings with access to classified information. These briefings are thought to support a former President’s presumed continued involvement in advancing America’s interests. As the official noted, a “more purposeful decision” should be made about Trump, who she characterizes as “uniquely vulnerable” to” bad actors and ill intent.”

My recommendation, as a 30-plus-year veteran of the intelligence community, is not to provide him any briefings after Jan. 20. With this simple act — which is solely the new president’s prerogative — Joe Biden can mitigate one aspect of the potential national security risk posed by Donald Trump, private citizen.

Since the publication of that column, Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Sen. Angus King (I-ME) — who sit on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, respectively — have publicly urged President-elect Biden to prohibit outgoing President Trump from receiving those briefings.

Anyone who has been watching his behavior over the past four years (and especially the last two months) understands that Trump has no loyalty–zero, zip– to the United States. Actually, he has shown zero loyalty to anything or anyone but himself (and possibly Ivanka).  That, as my Facebook friends noted, makes him a continuing threat to the republic even after he leaves office.

The only mitigating factor I can see is the same one that has saved us from an even worse fate than we have experienced in the presidential term that is mercifully ending–his incompetence. Trump, as he has made painfully obvious, is none too bright. He is also incredibly lazy, thoroughly ignorant of government and how it operates, and has a significantly limited attention span. It is doubtful that he paid much attention during briefings, and even more doubtful that he understood them at the time or can remember them now.

If I were Putin or another one of Trump’s autocrat friends, I think I’d hesitate to bail Trump out in return for information that has a high likelihood of being wrong. But that’s a pretty thin reed on which to rest confidence in America’s security…

What was that book that Rick Wilson wrote? Everything That Trump Touches Dies.

COVID deaths have already been bad enough. Let’s hope millions more Americans aren’t exposed to foreign attacks because Mr. Psychopath couldn’t–or wouldn’t– keep his mouth shut.

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….