Tag Archives: Joseph Stalin

The Party Line

I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, May 12, 2021.

I don’t think that anybody on our side has been arguing that [voter fraud is] pervasive all over the country. — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, May 11, 2021.

You can’t have the Republican conference chair reciting Democrat [sic] talking points. — Republican Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, in defending the purge of Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, May 11, 2021.

You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January 6, you’d think it was a normal tourist visit.Republican Representative Andrew Clyde of Georgia, who claims calling the insurrection at the Capitol an insurrection “is a baldfaced lie,” May 12, 2021.

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Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

There may not be, in former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s infamous phrase, “alternative facts,” but in today’s Republican Party there is clearly an alternative reality. No one who follows the news these days can be oblivious to repeated unfounded claims by Republicans of fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Nor can anyone seriously believe that the truth is merely a “Democrat [sic] talking point.” And, everyone who watched at the time or has since seen clips is fully aware that those were not tourists on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021. 

And, yet, here is today’s Republican Party promulgating shameless lies — shameless because they are easily shown to be falsehoods — with impunity. The most apt historical analogy is the machinations of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, where truth was what the party said on any given day, endlessly repeated in party organs like Pravda and Izvestia. The same for Republican leaders, who spew the party line, knowing that it will be repeated by Fox, One America News Network, Breitbart, and other right-wing mouthpieces for GOP lies. 

For today’s Republican leaders, the truth is malleable. McCarthy, McConnell, and the like get away with their lies because they know that, in the tribal environment of the 21st century, the Republican base gets its news only from right-wing sources. So, they lie with impunity in the realization that the voters to whom they are speaking are never exposed to the truth in fair-minded newspapers or television news shows. 

McCarthy cannot be so naive as to believe that no one in his party is questioning the results of the presidential election. He cannot be oblivious to the post last week in which former president Donald Trump said, “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” (Which raises a question: Has McCarthy purchased his airline tickets to south Florida to grovel once again before the emperor? Trump cannot be happy with McCarthy’s comment.) And, does the senator from Kentucky really believe no one is claiming massive fraud in American elections? (See above, Trump and “THE BIG LIE.”) Is McConnell unaware of polls that consistently show a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump? And, McConnell must be savvy enough to understand that the party’s base believes the unproven lies about election fraud because that is what party leaders have repeatedly told Republican voters.

Jim Jordan is certainly correct — and many other Republicans have said, as well — that party leaders cannot be so diametrically off-message as Liz Cheney and keep their posts. But, the issue for which Cheney was purged Wednesday is not some policy difference over tax rates or infrastructure projects. No, the Wyoming Republican was ousted as conference chair because she told the truth, because she repeatedly has said that the 2020 election was fair and that Donald Trump bears responsibility for the criminal attack by the mob he — as she said — “summoned.” No, Representative Jordan, the truth is not a Democratic talking point. 

If it were not so perverse, the claim by Representative Clyde that January 6 resembled a normal tourist day at the Capitol would be laughable. Not many tourists hang nooses on the Capitol grounds. Not many law-abiding visitors smash windows and break down doors. Not many of those who come to see where the nation’s laws are made attack law-enforcement officials. Representative Clyde may be the boldest of the bold GOP liars because most of the American public saw or has seen what happened on January 6. 

The comparison of such lies to the old Soviet Communist Party is apt. The Republican Party has not descended to the level of the Soviet Union during the iron-fisted rule of Joseph Stalin. Dissidents or those whom the party simply no longer trusts are not executed or sent to some American gulag. No, the analogy is to the Soviet Union of the Brezhnev era in the 1970s. Opposition still was not tolerated, but conformity was imposed by less brutal means than in Stalin’s day. Anyone who dared to question Leonid Brezhnev or other leading party hacks might be denounced by name, lose his or her nice apartment, or be fired from a plush job and sent to some remote province.

Like the Soviet Communist Party at its sclerotic worst — when leaders simply mouthed tired, old Marxist dogma, which no one seriously still believed — the current Republican Party no longer stands for anything except maintaining its hold on power. To do that, the GOP must purge truth-tellers like Cheney, rewrite election laws in enough states to enable it to win future elections, and repeat the “Big Lie.”

The truth, after all, is only what the party says it is. But, always stay tuned, the truth is malleable. The party line may be different tomorrow.

Posted May 14, 2021

 

Transparency About Presidential Health

The White House is consistent. It has been frequently less than truthful in the past, so it is no surprise that information from President Donald Trump’s doctors and spokespeople has been a muddled stew of confusing and contradictory updates about his health. Trump’s doctors painted a rosy picture of the president’s health Saturday, only to have White House chief of Staff Mark Meadows give a more downbeat analysis later. Then, Sunday, Trump’s lead doctor admitted he was less than forthcoming the day before. The contradictions continued Monday as Trump returned to the White House and said people should not be afraid of the coronavirus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. At the same time, Trump’s doctor said the president is “not out of the woods yet.”

Contributing to the confusion has been Trump’s drug regimen, which appears to include, almost simultaneously, drugs given to treat patients in the early stages of COVID-19 and steroids offered later to combat the ravages the disease presents to a patient’s immune system. On top of that, Dr. Sean Conley, the White House physician, admitted Sunday that he had declined to share the information that Trump required oxygen Friday for fear of causing alarm. “I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, over his course of illness, has had,” Conley said. “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.” Conley’s mea culpa was somewhat mystifying, but Conley, like most who have to report on Trump, has to please an audience of one. In addition, it is possible that Trump — who is convinced he knows everything — is directing his own medical care, such as why and when he receives oxygen and what drugs he takes. 

The Trump White House is notoriously allergic to truth-telling, but the issue of presidential health has often been the subject of dissimulation in the past. The difference today, of course, is that with the advent of 24-hour cable and social media, the absence of information — or the presence of obvious misinformation — leads to the wildest speculation that then instantly becomes the “truth” for many.

The assassination of President James Garfield

Medical bulletins painted a rosy picture of James Garfield’s condition, even as the president was in agony from an assassin’s bullet. “The president has passed a comfortable day and this evening appears better than for some days past,” Garfield’s doctors wrote on September 2, 1881, two months after Garfield had been shot twice by Charles Guiteau. Garfield died on September 19, probably from sepsis, a massive infection caused by doctors probing Garfield’s wounds with unwashed hands. Guiteau may have been right when he said, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

Twelve years later, rumors spread that President Grover Cleveland was suffering from oral cancer, yet on July 6, 1893, the president’s personal physician said Cleveland was “suffering from rheumatism” and “from the teeth.” In truth, the president had a lesion on the roof of his mouth, but Cleveland did not want the public to know, especially during a crash of the stock market. The tumor was removed successfully aboard a yacht moored off Cape Cod, and the story became public only twenty-five years later.

President Woodrow Wilson and Edith Wilson on tour just before the president suffered a series of strokes in 1919

Woodrow Wilson suffered several bouts of ill-health while attending the Versailles Peace Conference after the end of World War I, including a case of influenza (though probably not, according to a Wilson biographer, the notorious “Spanish” flu, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide from 1918-1920; other historians disagree). In September and October 1919 Wilson suffered a series of strokes while campaigning for Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and its League of Nations, an international organization that Wilson hoped would preserve world peace. The public never knew that the left side of the president’s body was paralyzed. Doctors said the incapacitated Wilson suffered only from “nervous exhaustion.” Wilson spent the rest of his term hidden in the White House and conducting virtually no business while his wife effectively ran the government as de-facto president.

The public also never knew how sick Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at the end of World War II. Already in declining health by the time he ran for a fourth term in November 1944, Roosevelt was weakened by congestive heart failure and extraordinarily high blood pressure when he traveled to Yalta in the Soviet Union in February 1945 to meet Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The outcome of the Yalta conference set the stage for the postwar world. Averell Harriman, an envoy for Roosevelt during the war years, later said, “At Yalta, I believe, [Roosevelt] didn’t have the strength to be quite as stubborn as he liked to be.”

Roosevelt’s deterioration in 1944-1945 was not his first health problem. He had been stricken with polio as an adult in 1921, but the public knew little of his condition. The press was discouraged from photographing Roosevelt being helped out of cars or in his wheelchair. Roosevelt disliked drawing attention to his paralysis, probably from a mixture of vanity and fear that images of him in a wheelchair might demonstrate a weakness suggesting he was not up to the task of combatting the Great Depression. But, vanity is one thing; concealing medical conditions that might impair a president’s job performance is quite another.

Hiding the health of an American president is more difficult today than in the past. The public demands full disclosure, and doctors routinely offer statements after presidents undergo routine medical procedures and annual physicals. Those statements are not always fully transparent, because, after all, a doctor’s loyalty is to his or her patient — in this case a president — and not the public. 

Perhaps the president who was most transparent in discussing his medical condition was Jimmy Carter, who in late 1978 insisted his aides forthrightly announce that the president was canceling appointments for a day because of a “an aggravated hemorrhoid problem.” Carter deserves compliments for being forthcoming, but hemorrhoids are just an embarrassment, not a serious medical problem. President Trump suffering from COVID-19 is a national security issue, and the public has a right to and a need for — especially with the election just a month away — full disclosure of his medical condition. That, so far, has been wanting.

Posted October 6, 2020

A Bogus Historical Analogy

There is an ahistorical syllogism common on the political right that goes something like this: “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist” meaning Hitler and his supporters were socialists. Also, everyone knows Benito Mussolini began his political life as a socialist. Many prominent Democrats — such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — proudly wear the socialist mantle, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden welcomes their support. So it follows that Democrats today are the same as Nazis and fascists. Get it?

Jonah Goldberg, until recently editor of the National Review, wrote a book with the telling title Liberal Fascism. Dinesh D’Souza — a loud and often uninformed voice on the American right — claims to “turn the tables on the Left, refute their bogus narrative, expose their big lie, and pin the Nazi tail precisely where it belongs — on the Democratic donkey” because the “Left is basically attempting a fascist coup.” The political right takes this argument one step further when noting that many “progressives” in the early 20th century embraced eugenic ideas later praised by the Nazis. Since leftists today boast of their “progressivism,” the guilt by association becomes clear, and, at the same time, anyone who opposes modern “progressives” cannot possibly have ties to the Nazis and fascism.

It is tidy argument with only one glaring problem: It is not true. It is true “socialist” was part of the official name of Hitler’s party — National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or NSDAP.  It is also true that the Nazis favored government intervention in the economy, but it was at the behest of their conservative sponsors from Germany’s industrial behemoths, and it helped further both economic recovery and Hitler’s war aims. Many planks in the NSDAP’s early platforms — before Hitler came to power — included socialist-sounding ideas such as denouncing banks and “interest slavery,” but these were also traditional anti-Semitic tropes well understood as such by Germans at the time. As Benjamin Carter Hett explains in The Death of Democracy, many Germans viewed the Nazis as a bulwark against the political left, not as socialists. And, even the most cursory knowledge of German history in the early 1930s includes an awareness of street battles fought between German socialists and communists on one side and Nazi supporters on the other.

Much of the appeal of the Nazis inside Germany before Hitler’s rise to power was because Germans saw the Nazis as protection against the spread of revolution. Many Germans readily sacrificed democracy because they viewed socialism as a greater threat. The only German political party that consistently resisted the Nazis was the Social Democratic Party, a clear sign that socialism and Nazism have little in common.

The Nazis’ political strength always lay with small businessmen and artisans — backed by the major industrialists — and not the industrial proletariat, which supported the socialists and communists. The party’s early electoral success came from small town and Protestant voters in Thuringia and Saxony who were suspicious of “cosmopolitanism” (a code word for Jews). Once in power, the main impetus for Hitler and his henchman was pursuit of their racist ideas and world domination. Everything else eventually became subordinated to these goals, which ultimately led to the Holocaust.

The linkage of socialism and Nazism became a congenial political concept after the end of World War II as the Cold War conflict between the former wartime allies — the United States and the Soviet Union — heated up. Hannah Arendt, in her influential book The Origins of Totalitarianism, linked Nazism and Soviet Communism as twin examples of “totalitarianism,” making it easy for Americans to slide comfortably from viewing the Soviet Union as a wartime ally to considering it an existential threat. Both ideologies sought to control every aspect of political life and both used violence as a political weapon. Since they shared these characteristics, it logically followed that there was little difference between Nazis and socialists.

Again, it is a neat argument that ignores historical complexity. While Hitler and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin cooperated in 1939 to carve up Eastern Europe, this was a marriage of convenience rather than an ideological mating. Germany and the Soviet Union went to war in 1941 and no nation suffered more at the hands of Nazi Germany than the Soviet Union. The Nazis in Germany — and the Fascists in Italy — preserved private property and viewed themselves — and were viewed by others — as the last buffer against the spread of Soviet Communism. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was committed to the creation of a Marxist planned economy. 

Historical analogies can usefully simplify and clarify history, but they must be used carefully. Nothing in the historical record supports the American political right in its attempt to portray today’s democratic socialists, progressives, and, ultimately, the entire Democratic party as a reincarnation of the perniciousness of the Nazis. If there is an example of fascism in America — and recent events indicate that there is — it is currently situated in the White House. We can argue over whether President Donald Trump is truly a conservative — a good case can be made that he is not — but his actions in invoking racist and anti-Semitic tropes and sending what amounts to stormtroopers into Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere are evidence of where his ideological roots can be found.

Posted July 31, 2020

 

A Frightening Place

It was all bullshit. —  President Donald Trump, February 6, 2020, celebrating his Senate acquittal. It was the first time a president has used that profanity in a formal event on camera in the East Room of the White House. 

It does not quite have the forgiving tone of Abraham Lincoln’s “With malice toward none; with charity for all;” or Franklin Roosevelt’s call to struggle, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself;” or John Kennedy’s appeal to action, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country;” or Ronald Reagan’s challenge, ”Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” “It was all bullshit” passes for eloquence in the era of Trump, and the words exemplify the destruction this president has wrought on the nation’s sense of decency, fair play, honesty, and political comity.

Trump has wreaked havoc on the nation, from a dysfunctional foreign policy that rewards dictators and punishes longtime friends and allies to domestic policies that hasten environmental destruction, exacerbate climate change, contribute to increasing income inequality, and undermine healthcare. Many of Trump’s regressive policies can be undone by the stroke of a pen by the next president. Some of the recovery from Trumpism requires voters not only to throw him out of the White House but to elect enough Democrats in the fall to control both houses of Congress.

But, unfortunately, I fear Trump has done lasting damage to the nation, setting dangerous precedents for future presidents. His coarseness, his meanness, and his ability to corrupt the nation’s political processes and escape retribution may serve as a template for future presidents. The president’s ability to bend one of the nation’s political parties to his will damages the proud tradition of independent political action and the long history of courageous politicians speaking truth to power (Utah Senator Mitt Romney is the exception). Trump has recast the Republican Party into an instrument of his narcissism, making it a willing accomplice in his campaign to accrue near dictatorial powers and his undermining of the Constitution and the rule of law.

Trump also has succeeded in converting roughly 40 percent of the electorate into slavish supporters of his ill behavior willing to turn a blind eye to his lawlessness. Trumpistas support what can only be termed a “cult of personality,” which believes the leader can do no wrong. They go further, implicitly sanctioning Trump’s crass speech and despicable actions, suggesting that if the president does it, it is not illegal. Richard Nixon would have approved.

The president’s recent behavior is evidence that his impeachment and subsequent acquittal have emboldened him in his pursuit of dictatorial powers. In this, he is aided by his lackeys in control of key governmental agencies and his sycophants in Congress. 

Exhibit number one: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has turned over Hunter Biden’s confidential financial records to Republican Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin to aid Trump in his quixotic attempt to smear former vice president Joe Biden. Mnuchin acceded to the request the senators made one hour after Trump’s acquittal despite refusing to release Trump’s tax returns as required by law. 

Exhibit number two: South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham — often an unhinged defender of Trump — says Attorney General William Barr has “created a process” for Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, to feed the Justice Department dirt on the Bidens dug up in Ukraine. As in authoritarian nations, the organs of government are used to smear and damage the leader’s perceived enemies. At the same time, Barr has shut down six investigations into Trump and his businesses, and the attorney general has issued new rules to prevent the FBI and other law enforcement agencies from conducting politically sensitive investigations. Barr’s decree may be an attempt to prevent abuses such as those that occurred in 2016, or, it might be an attempt to insure that there are no probes of possible foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Exhibit number three: Trump has retaliated against two aides who testified under subpoena in the House impeachment inquiry. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was recalled from Brussels, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman was removed from his position at the National Security Council. Now, a president certainly is entitled to have aides whom he trusts, but the haste with which these firings were announced and the manner in which Vindman was ousted suggests Trumpian retribution against those he blames for impeachment. In Vindman’s case, his brother — who also had a government post — was removed as well (shades of Joseph Stalin ordering the deaths of the families of those he purged), and both Vindmans were escorted immediately from the White House. Both Sondland and Alexander Vindman were planning on leaving the administration soon, but Trump sought public vengenance. 

The recent firings confirm the suspicion that Trump wants only yes men and women working for him. Any president benefits from diverse opinions, but in the case of the current occupant of the Oval Office, the wish for lackeys serving him is particularly dangerous. Trump is an ignorant man made more dangerous because he is oblivious to his ignorance. No Team of Rivals as depicted in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s seminal study of Lincoln and his Cabinet for Trump. 

The nation is in a frightening place. Romney has been warned he would not be safe if he attends a conservative conference, and one-third of Republicans have a positive view of Vladimir Putin, the murderous, autocratic president of Russia who Trump clearly admires. And, our nation is led by a man who utters expletives in the White House, fires those who are not 110% for him, utters lies with abandon in the State of the Union, and blasphemes at the National Prayer Breakfast. Matters will only deteriorate if Trump is reelected and is encouraged to further consolidate authority. As it is, I fear what the months until the election hold for us.

Posted February 11, 2020

Trump’s Campaign Strategy: The Big Smear

President Donald Trump is fixed in his beliefs and prejudices, incapable of learning anything new. The two major events of this week — his acquittal by pusillanimous Republican senators (Utah’s Mitt Romney excluded) and the Iowa caucuses — only reinforce his preconceived political modus operandi.  

What does that mean? On the one hand, the failure of the Senate to demonstrate spine and oust the rapscallion from office confirms Trump’s lifelong conviction that the rules do not apply to him and he can engage in further lawless behavior. On the other, Trump will interpret the results of the Iowa caucus as confirmation that sliming opponents works. 

This is the nexus of Trump’s Ukrainian escapade and the 2020 presidential election — scandal meeting campaign. They are the linked outcomes of Trump’s amoral approach to politics. Trump has no ideas; he is incapable of articulating a political thought beyond shibboleths taught him by his handlers and slogans tested at his cult-like rallies. The words “Trump” and “thought” do not belong in the same sentence. But, attacks and insults come naturally to him. The veracity of those attacks and insults is irrelevant.

Trump knows most people view him as ethically challenged. He understands that stink follows him from his business career and personal life. He hides as much as he can (remember those promised tax returns?), but what we know combined with what he keeps from us makes us justifiably suspicious. That goes for his followers as well as his opponents. His core strategy is not to appear ethical, certainly not to suggest he is more ethical than his adversaries. No, the Trumpian approach is to make his rivals appear no better than he. If voters conclude that both candidates — Trump and whomever the Democrats nominate — are scandal-ridden, then voters well throw up their hands and vote for the candidate who entertains them. And, for many voters, Trump is entertaining. (Note: His Tuesday night State of the Union was pure theater, from having First Lady Melania Trump hang a medal on controversial talk radio host Rush Limbaugh to reuniting a military family in the gallery.)

So far, the strategy works. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and I am sure he believes he wounded Joe Biden in Monday’s Iowa caucus. It is irrelevant that Trump’s accusations against his opponents are either downright erroneous or highly exaggerated. What matters is that he — and his sycophantic surrogates — repeat the accusations frequently and loudly. The attacks gain currency through frequent repetition in the media, and as totalitarian leaders such as Hitler and Stalin demonstrated, a lie told often enough becomes accepted “truth.”

Every day of the 2016 campaign seemingly brought a new Trump scandal, yet he succeeded in deflecting his ethical challenges by aggressively pushing the Clinton email story. Clinton was certainly sloppy in caring for her emails, but any suggestion of equivalence between her purported “scandal” and Trump’s many scandals was absurd. Still, chants of “lock her up” certainly did damage.

I am not suggesting that Clinton lost because Trump attacked her. She ran a bad campaign, former FBI Director Jim Comey’s mishandling of the investigation into her emails wounded her as did Russian interference. But, I am suggesting that Trump believes his attacks worked, just as he probably believes sliming Joe Biden contributed to the former vice president’s disappointing apparent fourth-place finish in the muddled Iowa caucuses. 

Trump launched the Ukraine scandal because he believed Biden was his most dangerous opponent. Even though a whistleblower exposed the scandal and the House impeached the president, Trump, his congressional allies, and rightwing media outlets have been hammering the accusation that Biden is corrupt — or, at least as corrupt as Trump. 

He will use the same approach on other Democratic candidates. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will be attacked as a socialist bordering on communist, and Trump will not shy away from mentioning Sanders’ honeymoon in the Soviet Union, insinuating Sanders engaged in treasonous activities. Trump’s friends in the Russian government may help in this campaign. 

Critics rightly accuse Trump of racism and corruption, but if Pete Buttigieg is the Democratic nominee, Trump will deflect charges of his racial insensitivity with allegations of racism against Buttigieg stemming from his tenure as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. As for Trump’s overt corruption? What about Buttigieg’s consulting work at McKinsey? 

If Trump cannot conjure a scandal, he will engage in ad hominem attacks on his opponents, calling Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” or referring to “Mini” Mike Bloomberg. Trump’s ability to engage in critiques of other people’s physical appearance is mystifying. But, it entertains his followers and works as a substitute for serious discussion of issues.  

How should Democrats pondering who best to nominate against Trump respond? That is a relevant question considering the Democratic side’s emphasis on which candidate is most “electable.” Certainly if electability means a candidate free of scandal, that is an irrelevant criterion. All of the Democratic candidates are, as far as I know, clean. That will not stop Trump from smearing each and every one. But, Trump’s big smear ought not to influence how Democrats choose their nominee.

Posted February 7, 2020

“I Alone Can Fix It”

It is truly extraordinary where the president’s defense has landed. President Donald Trump’s defenders have retreated from one justification after another in the face of incontrovertible evidence of his wrongdoing. They now assert he cannot be impeached because a president may do anything he wants to secure his reelection as long as he thinks his continuance in office is in the “national interest.”

Extraordinary and appalling! I am sure Hitler and Stalin believed they acted in Germany’s and Russia’s “national interest,” but the rest of us are permitted to judge them for what they were. Trump is not Hitler nor Stalin (we still have a few protections against that, and Trump is too much of a buffoon), but the rationale offered by his defense team is the same as theirs. Trump foretold this when he said, “I alone can fix it,” as he accepted the Republican nomination in 2016, but no one (or, at least, not many) realized at the time that statement’s deeper significance. Truthfully, though, where can Trump’s defenders go, considering that no one — on ether side of the impeachment divide — argues that Trump did not strong-arm Ukraine to aid his reelection? So, yes, he did it, and it is permissible. “Get over it,” in acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s infelicitous phraseology!

The president’s lawyers hardly can be blamed for raising an absurd defense. After all, they have no more arrows in their quiver after every defense the president and his team have presented has been demolished. First, it was a “perfect” call (which Trump alone still claims), only it was not, as indicated in Trump’s confession, er, release of notes of his phone conversation on July 25, 2019 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Then, Trump and his lackeys said, “no quid pro quo,” only to have  Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, tell the House impeachment inquiry that everyone was “in the loop” on the this for that. With that defense gone, the defenders said, but Ukraine did not know the aid was held up, only, it turns out, it did. Finally, Trump’s sycophants said, but Ukraine got the money. Yes, it did, but only because the administration, as California Representative Adam Schiff, a House impeachment manager, put it, “got caught.” 

Only this is left: “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” according to Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor emeritus. The definition of the public interest, Dershowitz went on to tell the Senate, can be simply, “‘I want to be elected. I think I’m a great president. I think I’m the greatest president there ever was. And If I’m not elected, the national interest will suffer greatly.’” Dershowitz argued, “That cannot be an impeachable offense.” 

“I alone can fix it!”

Dershowitz is telling us that it is permissible for a president to mix the public interest with his self-interest. Never mind that there was no public interest in the Ukrainian shakedown scheme because Trump’s claim that he merely was rooting out Ukrainian corruption is belied by the facts. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton knew full well when they took part in drafting the Constitution that a president acting to advance his own interests was abusing his power and that it was an impeachable offense. And, Dershowitz knows that abuse of power, and not the commission of an indictable crime, was the basis of the impeachment articles drafted against President Richard Nixon in 1974. But, he ignores history, constitutional law, and precedent to advance his defense of Trump.

Dershowitz is not the only alleged constitutional expert to advance silly arguments. Kenneth Starr, the Grand Inquisitor of soft porn, had an out-of-body experience when arguing before the Senate on Trump’s behalf. Starr, with a straight face, warned against “the culture of impeachment” before the trial, then asked the senators earlier this week, “How did we get here, with presidential impeachment invoked frequently in its inherently destabilizing as well as acrimonious way?” This is the same Kenneth Starr who listed 11 grounds for possible impeachment of President Bill Clinton after a four-year probe into obscure land deals, conspiracy theories involving suicide, and lurid sexual details. As a colleague told Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes, “Does Ken Starr know he’s Ken Starr?”

There was more, including an attempt to portray Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as a peripheral character in the Ukraine escapade (character yes, peripheral, hardly), little more than a “shiny object designed to distract you.” But, none of that mattered, once Dershowitz gave Republican senators an off-ramp to acquit the obviously guilty Trump whose criminality even his lawyers tacitly admit. And, the GOP desperately needed that exit strategy, given John Bolton’s  devastating testimony — in the form of his leaked manuscript — that Trump told his former national security adviser that the president intended to freeze aid to Ukraine until Kyiv announced investigations into the Bidens. 

Republican senators reeled at the Bolton revelations, until Dershowitz told them no matter the facts, none of it mattered. “Let’s say it’s true, okay? Dershowitz… explained that if you’re looking at it from a constitutional point of view, that that is not something that is impeachable,” said Senator Mike Braun of Indiana. Missouri’s Roy Blunt echoed the new GOP talking point: “Alan Dershowitz said it was not” impeachable. North Carolina’s Thom Tillis agreed: “The charges at the extreme don’t rise to the level of impeachment.”

So, here we are. Senate Republicans are poised to exonerate a president who clearly abused his power because the eminent Alan Dershowitz has convinced them — even as he concedes the facts — that a president cannot be impeached for self-dealing. Donald Trump already has said Article II of the Constitution gives him unlimited power. The Senate — the Republican side, that is — is on course to ratify that dangerous view.  

Hitler believed only he acted in the interests of the German volk, in the process unleashing a cataclysmic war and the Holocaust. Stalin built a “cult of personality” around the notion that only he embodied the route to a communist future. Millions starved to death or were murdered along the way. Now, we have an unfettered Trump convinced “I alone can fix it.” 

L’etat c’est moi,” said Louis XIV, France’s “Sun King.” Power in the hands of one man was dangerous then, dangerous in Germany and the Soviet Union, and equally dangerous in the hands of Trump here in the United States.

This is not what the Framers intended.

Posted January 31, 2020

Is This Who We Have Become?

Is this what we have become: A nation in which a two-year-old Honduran girl cries as her mother is searched at the southern border, as depicted in Thursday’s New York Times? A country in which border officials snatch a breast-feeding infant from her mother at a detention center, as a mother alleges? Or, a people who look the other way as immigration officials deceive new arrivals, telling them their children are being taken away to bathe only never to return, according to public defenders in McAllen, Texas? The all-too-obvious historical comparison of the last example with the horrors of the middle of the last century are too odious to contemplate.

Is this who we are, a nation that unconscionably divides families for the crime of seeking a better life? To paraphrase Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who spent seven years in a Nazi concentration camp, “First they came for the immigrants, and I did not speak out — Because I was not an immigrant…. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” Well, some are beginning to speak out, and not just the usual critics of President Donald Trump and his racist policies. Evangelist Franklin Graham, up-to-now a fervent Trump supporter who has been willing to ignore the president’s boorish behavior, including allegations of an affair with a porn star and bragging of grabbing women’s genitals, now says, “It’s disgraceful, and it’s terrible to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit.” And, a leading Catholic bishop — Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — called the Trump administration’s immigration policies “immoral.”

Yet, the vast majority of leading Republican politicians remain silent, condoning evil. They are silent because they are scared for their political lives. Republicans in Congress see what happened to South Carolina Representative Mark Sanford, a fellow Republican, and vote out of cowardice to keep their jobs or to stay on the good side of the president. Sanford, who is a rock-ribbed conservative, had the temerity to criticize Trump for fanning “the flames of intolerance,” though Sanford supported Trump faithfully in Congress. For the sin of telling the truth about the autocrat, Trump retaliated with a tweet endorsing Sanford’s opponent, Katie Arrington, shortly before the polls closed in Tuesday’s primary. “Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA…. I fully endorse Katie Arrington for Congress in SC, a state I love. She is tough on crime and will continue our fight to lower taxes. VOTE Katie!” Trump tweeted.

Trump made sure no one missed the point, tweeting the next day, “My political representatives didn’t want me to get involved in the Mark Sanford primary thinking that Sanford would easily win – but with a few hours left I felt that Katie was such a good candidate, and Sanford was so bad, I had to give it a shot. Congrats to Katie Arrington!” Trump used Twitter to announce that the Republican Party is now the party of Trump, a point reinforced by Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel. “Complacency is our enemy. Anyone that does not embrace the @realDonaldTrump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake,” tweeted McDaniel, a day after the election. (McDaniel is a niece of Mitt Romney, and she no longer uses “Romney” in most official communications at the request of the president.) As former House Speaker John Boehner observed last month, “There is no Republican Party. There is a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”

Any sentient human being with a moral compass knows separating families is heinous. But, most Republicans, at least those seeking reelection, know that breaking with the president will rile Trump’s base. The vast majority of rank-and-file Republicans — more than 85 percent in some polls — support Trump, and they vote in the primaries. Republican officeholders who wish to stay in office have to decide between bucking the president — and risk losing a primary election — or putting their consciences in a blind trust. Most opt for the latter.

Some are venturing tepid criticism. House Speaker Paul Ryan — who is NOT running for reelection in his Wisconsin district — says, “We don’t want kids to be separated from their parents.” Ryan, however, refused to blame Trump for the current policy, putting the onus instead on the courts and calling for legislation to stop a policy that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly calls a “tough deterrent.” GOP leaders are considering adding a family protection provision to an immigration bill that may come to the floor next week, though most analysts say any proposed legislation on immigration has little chance of becoming law. After all, look who would have to sign such a bill if it ever made it out of Congress.

Trump is not much of a conservative. He has upended traditional Republican dogma on limited government, trade policy, and foreign relations. Most Republicans do not care. They march in lock step with the putative strongman, a phenomena reminiscent of the Stalinist “cult of personality.” (It was Soviet party leader, and Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev — in his famous “secret speech” at the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956 — who popularized the term.) Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker — who is NOT running for reelection but has voted with Trump 86 percent of the time — said of Republican devotion to Trump, “It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?” 

Stalin’s personality cult led to adoration of the dictator and unswerving support by Soviet citizens who cheered loudly when Pravda — the Soviet Communist Party newspaper — praised a policy or a party official, and cheered even louder when the policy or official was condemned. The burgeoning Trumpian cult of personality explains why the president’s supporters agree when he calls North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man” and promises to punish North Korea with “fire and fury,” then accept Trump referring to Kim as “a very talented man [who] loves his country very much.” If the agreement, such as it is, between the two leaders breaks down, Trumpistas will, no doubt, applaud whatever barb Trump hurls at Kim.

A Trumpian cult of personality is upon us, but it is not who we are, or, at least, not who we should be. We are, as is often said, a nation of laws, not men or women. (Despite what White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders says, separating families is not the law.) We have adored leaders in the past — Washington, Lincoln, FDR come to mind — but that adoration has never meant uncritical support. Until now, that is. Trump’s supporters — devotees of the cult — will follow him anywhere — even endorsing a dehumanizing immigration policy that separates families.

Is this who we have become? Hopefully not yet, but if more do not say stop, it is who we will be.

Posted June 15, 2018

Red Meat to the Base

Shoring up the base appears to be President Donald Trump’s strategy to deflect attention from the all-too-numerous crises and self-inflicted wounds plaguing his administration.

Trump shows little interest in broadening his support beyond his core backers. Trump rarely travels to states he lost in the general election (other than for military-related events or to visit a property he owns). His administration’s recent policy announcements — for example, on immigration and college admissions — are geared to appeal to the white working-class constituency that, for the most part, elevated Trump to the presidency. At the same time, the president apparently calculates that this constituency is not synonymous with the institutional Republican Party, which he disdains as shown by a Trump tweet distancing himself from the GOP-controlled Congress: “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!”

Frustrated by his inability to get Congress to provide him with a win (repealing Obamacare is dead, tax reform is delayed, and an infrastructure plan does not exist), Trump is moving instead to implement some of the planks of the ultra-nationalist agenda favored by alt-right supporters inside and outside his administration. This strategy has been unveiled concurrent with recent polls that reveal Trump’s base is shrinking. A just-released Quinnipiac University poll shows Trump’s approval rating plunging to 33 percent. The president is in the uncomfortable position of intensifying his appeal to an ever smaller constituency.

The Trump administration has prepared a document instructing the Justice Department to investigate and sue universities over affirmative action admissions policies thought to discriminate against white applicants. The document targets admissions programs that give members of generally disadvantaged groups, such as African Americans and Latinos, an edge over other applicants with similar test scores. The policy likely will appeal to many whites who believe they and/or their children are at a disadvantage in an increasingly multiracial society.

The president endorsed a new Senate bill to slash legal immigration levels in half over a decade. If passed by the Senate — a big if — the proposal fundamentally would change immigration policies that have been in place since the 1960s. Trump defended the proposal by claiming the bill would protect the jobs of American workers. He said the existing immigration policy “has not been fair to our people, our citizens, and our workers.”

The proposals to attack affirmative action and cut immigration — combined with changes in policies on voting rights, gay rights, transgender people, and criminal sentencing — are designed to appeal to Trump supporters who largely fear the many cultural and social changes occurring in contemporary America and the nation’s growing diversity. The announcements of these policies are often accompanied by rhetoric intended to reinforce the signals sent by the proposals.

An example of this occurred earlier this week when the administration trotted out Stephen Miller to discuss the new immigration plan. Miller was questioned by CNN’s Jim Acosta — who has had run-ins in the past with the president and White House briefers. Acosta asked if the administration favored admitting only immigrants from Great Britain and Australia, since the proposed law requires new arrivals to speak English. Now, Miller correctly chastised Acosta for suggesting that only people from English-speaking countries know English. But, Miller went on to say that Acosta’s question “reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.”

The word “cosmopolitan” is a historical signaling device, a dog whistle to those who fear diversity and cultural change. The word “cosmopolitan” had a long and unsavory history in the last century’s totalitarian regimes that employed anti-Semitic tropes. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin frequently railed against “rootless cosmopolitanism,” especially in his later years. In 1946, Stalin met with Soviet intellectuals to denounce “cosmopolitan” tendencies in the arts. The anti-cosmopolitan campaign actually started during World War II as an adjunct of Soviet patriotism, and the use of the word “rootless” as an adjective before cosmopolitan suggested that Jews were not citizens of the Soviet Union and hence their patriotism was questionable.
The Nazis, too, used the word pejoratively: Cosmopolitan was the opposite of racial purity. The Nazis and their Fascist allies in Italy believed cosmopolitanism — typified by the rootless and stateless Jews of Europe — threatened traditional and racially pure states. The Nazis particularly feared cosmopolitan art, by which they meant modern and abstract representation. The term has also been adopted by contemporary authoritarian governments such as in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, and the ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland.

Miller must know the ugly history associated with the word, which is also a favorite of chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon. Yes, I know Miller is Jewish, which did not stop former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke from tweeting about Miller earlier this year, “I can’t help it. I like this guy – I think he’s genuinely #AmericaFirst.” Miller would probably deny any wish to emulate the totalitarian Soviet and Nazi regimes, but there is no evading that labelling someone “cosmopolitan” implies that person is somehow not a “real American.” (It may have been only a coincidence that Miller accused Acosta, the son of Cuban immigrants, of “cosmopolitan bias,” but Miller also may have been not-so-subtly associating the media with the liberal, “elitist” coasts and big cities, which tended not to be Trump country.)

The announcements of recent policy changes are meant to mollify the Trumpian base, to insure that the president has a modicum of support as he battles Congress and fends off the Russia investigations. As for the historical signals, many on the nationalist right will recognize the connections. It is a risky strategy that may yet backfire, but Trump quickly is running out of options.

Posted August 4, 2017