Saturday, December 9, 2017
Last Wednesday president Donald Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It's a move that rolls back decades of American policy and it was swiftly condemned not only by Palestinian leaders, but also by many European leaders and Pope Francis. While many political analysts see this as mostly symbolic move, it's one that could lead to increased turmoil in the Middle East, and also set back the always difficult peace process between Israel and Palestine.
While the move was not surprisingly cheered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hard line American supporters of Israel like billionaire Sheldon Adlelson, there was also rejoicing from the American Evangelical movement. But why? Obviously Jerusalem has enormous resonance with Christians given that it's where Jesus Christ was crucified, but why should American Evangelicals care so much about where the capital of Israel is located? It all has to do with their interpretation of the biblical book of Revelations and their belief in the so called rapture.
As lined out in the surprisingly popular Left Behind book series, (and the not so popular, crappy looking movie series of the same name) millions of American Christian Evangelicals believe that at any given moment, they will be magically spirited up to heaven in what they call the rapture. The rest of the earth will then be plagued by years of violent turmoil, leading to armageddon and the return of Jesus, who will cast all people who aren't Christians into the fiery pits of hell. Furthermore, they also believe that for the rapture to take place, a Jewish homeland must be created in the Middle East. This belief has lead to an interesting phenomenon: conservative Jews from Israel who oppose a two state solution will often travel to American Evangelical churches to speak about their beliefs to the churchgoers, who happily receive them and donate money to their cause. Left out of their discussions is the fact that the Evangelicals all believe that, as non-Christians, all of the Jewish people they're donating money to are doomed to burn in hell! I would assume that the Israelis themselves are also aware of this, but don't care as long as they can get financial support. While it should be pointed out that the Left Behind books do have a Jewish character in them, and that he, after the rapture, converts to Christianity and gets to go heaven at the end. Yet this would seem more like an absurd fig leaf defense against anti semitism (Jews for Jesus get to go to heaven!) than any real acceptance of Jews (or Hindus or Buddhists for that matter) as anything other than unholy.
It would appear that Trump's goal for the move was to appeal to both conservative donors like Adelson and white Evangelical voters who voted for him in high numbers. So Trump has just made a a major foreign policy decision that could have tragic, fatal consequences, at least partly driven by the pipe dream belief of Evangelicals that they can go to heaven any minute while avoiding that whole pesky dying thing. It's crazy things like this that make me wish that religion and politics could just move to mostly neutral corners, accepting that their goals rarely sync up in a positive way, which is the prevailing wisdom in most industrialized nations. Just not in the US. But then, I also can't believe that our president has decided that his son in law Jared Kushner, who has no foreign policy experience whatsoever, (and who very well may soon be indicted for his relation to the ongoing Russia scandal investigation) should be in charge of Middle East peace talks. Sadly, this disastrous move will be seen as just another in the long list of reasons why Donald Trump should never have gotten anywhere near the White House.
Sunday, December 3, 2017
In what is yet another ground breaking moment in modern presidential history, President Trump recently marked his first big legislative victory and then almost immediately saw a scandal explode in his face. He is the first president ever to be so heavily investigated about a possibly impeachable scandal so early in his regime. While it seems like decades since he first ranted his way into office, it hasn't even been a year yet.
First, the good news for Trump; the Senate recently passed a massive tax cut bill that he has been pushing for. Although there will have to be a few changes made to square the Senate bill with the one that the House of Representatives passed a short time ago, that's mostly a formality, and the bill will probably be on the president's desk before the new year. After he was unable to get the Senate to repeal Obamacare, this is a big win for him.
But is the bill good news for the American people? For the vast majority, the answer is a resounding no: it's centerpiece is a reduction in the corporate tax rate; it is assumed that the money saved by companies will be spent on hiring more workers and raising salaries for the workers they already have. But there's no guarantee that that will be the result, and, based on past corporate behavior, it's far more likely that the money will be used to benefit the companies already wealthy stockholders and CEO's. While the tax plan does contain some cuts for most middle class people, those cuts are set to expire sometime in the next decade, while the ending of the estate tax, which benefits literally only the wealthiest 1% of Americans, will not be coming back. The tax bill will blow a hole in deficit of well over a trillion dollars, the same deficit that the Republican party was so worried about increasing while Obama was president. And the changes it makes to the Affordable Care Act are estimated to take healthcare away from a stunning thirteen million people. This bill is a complete repudiation of the populist campaign that Trump ran; from his claim to speak for "the forgotten man" to his frequent bashing of Wall Street, he always said that he wanted to help the common worker. And he's about to sign a bill that will do nothing for them, and even worse, the lowering of government revenue may very well result in cuts to Medicare and Social Security, the very programs he pledged to protect. To top it all off, he recently gave a speech claiming that this bill was going to be bad for him; as the New York Times pointed out, his leaked tax returns of 2005 show that the plan will save him at least a billion dollars. So, add yet another lie to the list of the many, many ones he has told as president.
Even the drafting of the bill was despicable; it was passed on a party line vote with little to no real debate, and once it was sure of passage, new provisions were literally penciled into it in the wee hours of the morning. There's even an antiabortion provision! Quite frankly, the passage of this bill will see the country drift even more towards third world status, with more and more total wealth being held by fewer and fewer people, while the poor and middle class will have worse healthcare and education choices. It may be a bigger disaster than the aborted Obamacare repeal, and that's saying something.
And now to the bad news for Trump: former National Security Advisor Micheal Flynn has admitted guilt to lying to the FBI (among other charges) and has accepted a plea bargain in return for aiding special prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation into just how much the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian government in the 2016 election and whether or not the president has obstructed justice by trying to kill the investigation. This is very bad news for Trump: for one thing, it's the third felony conviction made against members of his administration (Paul Manafort and George Papadopolous were both charged last month) and it definitely looks like this is just the tip of the iceberg. The investigation will probably lead to an inquiry and possible charges made against the president's son in law Jared Kushner. Yes, it's quite possible that very soon we will get another unprecedented political moment; a president that pardons a member of his own family.
Just how far will the investigations go? At this point it's hard to say. But one thing to note is that, once the tax bill is passed, the congressional Republicans may be more willing to cut him loose. With his low approval ratings and increasingly erratic behavior, there may come a time when the Republicans feel that President Pence (or even Ryan) would be easier to deal with. And the fact that Trump's constant state of anger and childish tweets have lead him to attack Republican members of congress may come back to haunt him. It would be nice for once in his life for Trump to realize that lying, boasting and childish insults are not the way to run a country, or even manage an Arby's, for that matter.
Monday, November 20, 2017
Human beings are innately tribal animals and that is not always a bad thing. Immediately identifying with other people in your tribe is a way to bond people together and create strong communities. Thousands of years ago it was important to our survival as a species. But tribalism can make someone too loyal to members of your own group. What's happening with the Republican party in Alabama is a perfect example, with party members dismissing the sexual assault of a minor charges against Senatorial candidate Roy Moore as just part of the deceptive liberal media. Some have even said that they will support him even if the charges are true, because they still couldn't vote for a Democrat. Tribalism at it's worst!
But if there is one thing that is truly bipartisan, it's powerful men engaging in (or being accused of) sexual harassment. From Democratic big money donor Harvey Weinstein to Republican Senator David Vitter, men in leadership positions often can't seem to control their libidos. Recently, Democratic Senator Al Franken has come under fire; back in 2008, when he was just known as a comedian and author, he went on a USO tour with a woman named Leeann Tweeden. She claims that he wrote a sketch that ended with him kissing her, and he then proceeded to kiss her aggressively in rehearsal. A picture of him pretending to grope her while she was asleep has also emerged. To Franklin's credit, he has apologized for his behavior and encouraged an ethics committee investigation into it. In a desperate attempt to deflect attention away from Moore, the Republican party has seized on Franklin's behavior as deplorable, which is kinda like robbing a bank and then distracting people by pointing at someone shoplifting a candy bar!
The Franklin charges, such as they are, are relatively easy for Democrats to deflect. Even Tweeden herself has said that she doesn't think that he should resign. But other charges against Democrats aren't so easy to dismiss; recently Senate member Kirsten Gillibrand bluntly stated that she thinks Bill Clinton should have resigned during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a shocking statement given that Clinton is still a popular party figure. While I don't agree with her on the Lewinsky scandal, I admire Gillibrand's courage in taking on a former president. Let's remember that the Lewinsky scandal was about Bill Clinton having a consensual affair with an intern and then lying about it under oath; while I think it was a stupid thing to do, I think congressional censure would have been enough punishment. But the Lewinsky scandal was just one of several charges made against Clinton. There was also Paula Jones, who claims that Clinton once exposed himself to her and demanded oral sex, and Juanita Broaddrick, who claims that Clinton once tried to force himself on her, biting her lip hard enough to draw blood. Given Clinton's acknowledged womanizing, are these charges unbelievable? Certainly not, and the fact that Jones was given a settlement of over eight hundred thousand dollars (but no public apology) would seem to imply that there was some merit to her charges.
So should Clinton have stepped down because of these charges? I must admit that I certainly didn't think so at the time. In the 1990's, the right wing media was awash in outrageous claims against the Clintons: some said that they had had former White House Aide Vince Foster murdered (the birther movement of the 90's!), or that they had dealt drugs from the Governor's Mansion when Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas. In this climate of mud throwing, the charges of Jones and Broaddrick seemed like just more baseless right wing attacks. But were they? In my rush to defend a member of my tribe, was I, and other progressives like me, dismissing charges that very well may have been true? It's hard to say; I certainly remember the excitement I felt when Clinton was elected after twelve years of Republican rule, and the fact that under him, the 90's were a time of peace and prosperity in this country didn't hurt my opinion of him either. But does any of that matter, given the nature of the charges against him? Is my disgust at the sexual assault charges against Moore and President Trump as much political as it is personal? I honestly can't say, although I do now think that perhaps Clinton never should have been the Democratic candidate way back in 1992, and that for all his rhetorical gifts and leadership skills, his already established record of womanizing should have disqualified him. But, given his victory in that election, maybe I'm wrong. There's really no way to know just when our personal bias towards people ends and our political beliefs begin. It's seems sexual harassment charges have made hypocrites of all of us.
Monday, November 13, 2017
The state of Alabama recently voted for former judge Roy Moore to be the Republican candidate for the Senate. This was in spite of (or perhaps, because of) controversial stands and statements that Moore has made in the past. He first came to national attention in 2003 when, as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he refused to remove a ten commandments monument from the court house despite there being a federal order to do so. He then went on to stake positions on the right that even most Republicans would find repulsive: from saying that homosexuals should be jailed to believing that Muslims should not be allowed to hold public office. He was also a prominent birther, attacked evolution and defended the Confederacy. Sadly, none of these views hurt his standing in the party, and even worse, probably will help him in his Senate race.
It seemed like Moore was coasting to a victory until November 9th., when a Washington Post story broke claiming that when Moore was thirty two years old, he dated and had sex with a fourteen year old girl named Leigh Corfman. The age of consent in Alabama at the time was sixteen, making this a crime. Several other women have come forward to say that Moore dated them when they were under eighteen; he also allegedly bought them alcohol. Moore has denied all the charges, claiming that they were "a desperate political attack by the National Democratic Party and The Washington Post". This despite corroboration on the story from Corfman's mother, the assertion by one of his former colleagues that "It was common knowledge that Roy dated high school girls", and the fact that Corfman herself is a Republican Trump voter, the notion that these charges are the result of a progressive media hit becomes less and less likely. Some right wing media members have even tried to compare these allegations to the various Bill Clinton sexual scandals, as if a childish cry of "everybody else does it too!" somehow exonerates Moore's behavior.
The response to these allegations have been sadly predictable: while Senator John McCain and former Governor Mitt Romney have stated that he should step down, and some other Republicans have withdrawn their support, party members in Alabama have mostly stood by him. And, in what may be the single loopiest defense in political history, Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler compared Moore to Joseph in the bible, saying "take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.” Not only is he defending a modern law breaker with something that supposedly happened thousands of years ago, but he seems to have forgotten the meaning of the words Virgin Mary!
And then there's the Trump administration; today White House officials have released a statement saying that Moore must be given a chance to defend himself before dropping out of the race. This certainly is no surprise given that the president himself has been accused of sexual assault by no less than twelve women, all of whom he has dismissed as liars, despite the appearance of an Access Hollywood videotape in which he clearly can be heard bragging about making the exact same kind of assault on women that his accusers have claimed that he did. An accused sexual assaulter defending an accused sexual predator is where this country has gotten to, and it's really no surprise.
The worst part of this is that there is still a very good chance that Moore will win his special election next month and join the Senate. Unfortunately, the country is now so divided that even criminal allegations of pedophilia are not enough to stop Republicans in the state from voting for their side. Really, why should they be expected to? The same party that preaches family values and moral rectitude nominated a man for president who's been married three times and has had his sexual exploits paraded in tabloids for years. All that really matters is winning. Just ask one of Moore's defenders, Bibb County Republican chair Jerry Pow, who said he vote for Moore "even if the candidate committed a sex crime". That, in a nut shell, is everything wrong with this deeply divided country today.
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Just over a week ago, America suffered through the worst mass shooting in our nation's history, with more than fifty people killed and over five hundred wounded. The shooter was an older white man with no religious affiliation or history of violence, who horrifically carefully set up his hotel suite to be a killing stronghold to maximize the number of people he could shoot before being stopped.
As always, the first reaction in the wake of such a shooting is for the blue side of this country to say that some kind of gun control laws must be passed, while the red side responds that now is not the time to have that discussion because it politicizes" the tragedy (although if the shooter had been a Muslim, there would have been no hesitation to politicize the shooting). While it appears that this shooting will inspire the same thing as every other recent mass shooting has, that is, little to nothing, there does appear a possibility that both the NRA and their friends in congress will support banning bump stocks, a device that the shooter used, which can, when attached to a rifle properly, turn a semi automatic into a fully automatic. While this is hardly a major shift in the NRA's normal reaction to mass shootings, it does show that they are at least open to some kind of legislation.
But then a cynic may point out that bump stocks are mostly manufactured by a small independent company that can't afford the kind of enormous donations to the NRA that other larger gun manufacturers can. In other words, banning bump stocks won't hurt the bottom line for the gun companies who pump millions of dollars into the NRA every year to support what they see as their unfettered right to sell guns to almost anyone with the money to buy one. And that really gets to the root of the problem: money.
American politics is awash in money. Although there are some limits to just how much money can be donated, there are numerous loop holes that allow the rich and the powerful far more influence than the average voter. And it's only gotten worse in recent years: in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that donations from corporations and unions are considered a form of free speech and are unlimited when given to a candidate's Political Action Committee instead of a candidate directly. Which opened the floodgates; in 2016 Clinton raised over a billion dollars for her campaign, with Trump closely behind. And that doesn't count the countless billions that go into congressional elections, state and local elections and votes on propositions.
Personally, I think that the Supreme Court's ruling that equates money with speech was undemocratic, essentially legalizing political bribery. While running a campaign is obviously expensive, the debt that politicians owe to big money donors dwarfs the debt they owe to their constituents, not to mention the amount of time they have to spend calling potential donors and attending fund raisers instead of doing the jobs they were elected to do.
And then consider just how much advantage political spending gives to the rich in spreading a message to the world. For decades now, billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have been funneling massive amounts of cash into campaigns and think tanks with the intention of discrediting the science behind climate change. Sadly, their spending has had an effect; even as more Americans believe that climate change is happening and is man made than not (48% to 31% according to a 2016 Pew research poll), the Koch brothers money has brought victory to conservative candidates opposed to any kind environmental regulations across the nation, public opinion be damned.
Money in politics effects so much in this country: it's why Republicans tried to pass a repeal of Obamacare that was supported by only 20% of the country, because their big money donors demanded action. It's why our income taxes are so complicated, because big corporate accounting companies like Turbo Tax don't want Americans to do their own taxes. It's why we keep minting new pennies every year, even though we certainly don't need any, because the Jarden Corporation lobbies congress to get the penny minting contract every year.
So what can we do about this situation? Well, other countries have realized that a mix of government funding and private funding, but as long as we have a Supreme Court that feels that money is speech, there really isn't much that we can do. Unfortunately, political groups like the NRA and donors like the Koch brothers will pushing their agendas with cash for years to come.
Saturday, September 30, 2017
With his continual lying, childish insults and petty vindictiveness, Donald Trump has proven to truly be a president like no other. But in some ways, he has been just another modern Republican: he denies the science of climate change, surrounds himself with hateful homophobes, and now he has just released a tax plan that greatly favors corporations and rich Americans, in much the same way that Ronald Reagan and George W Bush's tax plans did. So much for the forgotten middle class man that he claims to stand for!
The constant drum beat for more and more tax cuts really began in the nineteen eighties, when Ronald Reagan, promoting a theory put forth by the ironically named Arthur Laffer, claimed that tax cuts paid for themselves by increasing economic growth. During the primaries, then primary opponent to Reagan George Bush called the idea "voodoo economics", although he later swallowed his pride and supported Reagan's tax cutting after becoming vice president. And while there definitely was some economic growth during those years, the massive national deficit that those tax cuts created, showed just how absurd the idea of tax cuts paying for themselves was. And the eighties sadly began a trend that continues to this day, with the middle class losing ground in this country as the rich get richer.
And yet, here it is decades later, and the Republican party is still pushing this crazy idea. This despite the enormous economic growth that occurred in the nineties even after President Clinton raised taxes, and the lack of growth that occurred after George W Bush cut them.
The tax issue is just another way that the modern Republican party is both supported by and completely out of touch with its base. They win elections on racial divisive issues like building a wall with Mexico and demonizing undocumented immigrants, and then once in office go about trying to overturn Obamacare, which would hurt states that went for Trump most of all, and cutting taxes for the rich, which has hardly any benefit to the blue collar middle class white voters who put him in office.
Trump's response to this is, as always, to lie, claiming that the tax cuts wouldn't benefit him at all, even though his most recent released tax returns show that he would save millions every year under the plan. The rest of the party is more subtle in their lies, claiming that the tax plan would help "middle class" families, implying that people who have six figure salaries are somehow in the middle class! While I do think some Republicans honestly believe that tax cuts will help the country on the whole, I believe privately most of them realize that modern politics is run on money, and big money donors to the Republican party expect a return on their investment with tax cuts for them or their businesses.
There's an even more cynical aspect to this: the Trump plan, if passed, would blow a hole in the federal deficit to the tune of one and half to two trillion dollars over the next ten years! It would take an awful lot of economic growth to make up for that, but do Republicans really want to? Remember that for years now they have wanted to reduce the size of (or privatize) Social Security and Medicare, despite how popular those programs are with the general public. Why? Because they disprove the argument that federal government programs designed to help the poor (Social Security was created during the depression to help impoverished seniors) actually work. Just cutting the programs as a matter of course would be politically dangerous, but by saying that the cuts would have to be made in light of the government having less revenue might be the way to convince the public that those cuts are necessary to save them. It's the kind of bait and switch that is falsely called "fiscal responsibility", when what it should be really called is a hand out to rich donors, paid for by the poor and middle class.
Friday, September 1, 2017
In a depressing, but not surprising move, last Friday Donald Trump pardoned convicted Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was famous for his racially motivated profiling of latinos in the state of Arizona. In a typical lack of sympathy and human emotion, the following Monday Trump admitted that he picked the day that Hurricane Harvey was bearing down on Texas to make his announcement of the pardon because, “Actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they were normally.” Yes, that is the President of the United States saying that he wanted to use the media hurricane warnings to help raise the ratings of his controversial announcement. Once again, Trump has shown that his only interest in office is the same as it is in the rest of his life: to pump up his own bloated sense of self worth!
The Arpaio pardon is just the latest chapter in Trump's long string of playing to white supremacist attitudes, from saying that Barack Obama was not an American citizen to calling Mexican immigrants rapists. But the Arpaio pardon is particularly galling in that his crimes were so horrible; known as "America's toughest Sheriff", he was actually far worse: he and his men would round up anyone that was Latino, demand citizenship papers, and jail anyone without such papers. The conditions of his jail were so bad, he himself referred to it as a "concentration camp". The prisoners were routinely brutalized and humiliated. One woman claimed that she was shackled during her pregnancy, and not allowed to hold her baby after giving birth. All in all, the legal bills the state was forced to pay out during his reign of terror ran into the tens of millions of dollars. The final straw came when he refused to follow a court order that he stop racially profiling people who were not accused of committing a crime, an order that he publicly said he would refuse to follow. Can we just sit back and take a minute to gawk at the spectacle of a self styled law and order candidate pardoning someone who openly broke the law?
Now let's look at the recent history of white supremacy in this country: the Klu Klux Klan, which had mostly disbanded in the 1870's, began their second reign of terror around a hundred years ago. The number of Americans involved in that movement, or others like it, has waxed and waned over the last century. A real spike in their membership began in the year 2000, when the gallup poll reported for the first time that white Americans were projected not to make up more than 50% of the population within forty years. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 also sadly led to an increase in their numbers.
Given all of this, Trump's successful sowing of white resentment was really more an inevitability than many of us thought: Trump is much worse than a terrible president, he is a negative reflection of the racist attitudes of country, attitudes that so many of us wished were at the very least in decline. Recently, in the wake of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, a recent poll found that 9% of Americans are OK with people having pro Nazi or white supremacist views. While that may not sound like a lot, remember that in a country that has around three hundred and twenty million people, that 9% amounts to somewhere around thirty million. Look at the math, Trump won the presidency with sixty three million votes; assuming that all of those thirty million people who are OK with Nazi views voted for him (a safe assumption, given his campaign) and we can see that almost half of his voters were racially motivated bigots, who will never turn on him, no matter what he does, as long as he continues to do things like defend Nazi marchers and pardon people like Arpaio. Those thirty million are single issue voters of the worst kind. (Clinton was right, half of Trump's supporters were from a "basket of deplorables"!) All we can do is hope that we can sway the remaining thirty million not to support him next time. Assuming he isn't impeached or resigns before then, which, given his erratic behavior, is a possibility.