The Senate Trial of Donald Trump

Senate Impeachment Trial Of President Donald Trump Begins
Chief Justice John Roberts.  Ten years ago, he gave us Citizens United.

W.J. Astore

The Senate trial of Donald Trump is a colossal waste of time and energy.  Why?  The result is a foregone conclusion: Trump is not going to be removed from office.  Nevertheless, the mainstream media is obsessed with gavel-to-gavel coverage of what is mostly a non-event.

As my wife said to me yesterday, where is all this energy and outrage from Congress and the media about homeless people living in the streets?  So many of whom are suffering from mental and physical illnesses of various sorts?  Where is the attention to people who can’t afford to pay for their prescription drugs?  What about all the veterans committing suicide?  What about all the corruption that is systemic and endemic across Congress and the Executive branches?  Where’s the attention to that?

The presence of Chief Justice John Roberts in the Senate provides a salutary reminder that a decade ago, the Supreme Court issued its “Citizens United” decision that declared corporations are citizens and that their “speech” in the form of money in politics is protected.

That decision is yet another example of America’s legalized system of political corruption.  Why can’t we get Congress to change that?  Where’s the media coverage of electoral corruption?  The outrage about corporate money in politics?  There isn’t any, since the mainstream media is complicit in the corruption.

To repeat myself: Ten years ago this week, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are citizens.  Except for a few ultra-rich “citizens” like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, that meant corporations had (and have) superhero-like powers, but with none of the humility of Peter Parker (Spiderman), whose gentle Uncle Ben reminded him that, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Our superhero corporations just want the power, thank you very much, and our government and its three branches willingly bow down and serve them.

Where’s the trial for that offense against the republic?  Bang the gavel, John Roberts.

Bonus Lesson: Democrats!  Want to remove Trump from office?  Nominate a coherent and charismatic candidate for the presidency, have a compelling platform, and inspire people to get off their duffs and vote in November.

Trump’s Wall and Its Meaning

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They’re so proud of Trump’s wall, though new sections proved surprisingly easy to cut through

W.J. Astore

I caught this snippet via the New York Times today:

Border wall funding: President Trump plans to divert $7.2 billion from the military for the construction of a wall on the southern border, two people familiar with the plans told The Times. Congress set aside $1.375 billion for it last month.”

Diverting money that’s been appropriated by Congress is an impeachable offense, but the Democrats will do little since they know Trump will spin their opposition as being pro-immigrant and anti-American, irrespective of the lies contained in that spin.

Trump was elected in part through his fear-mongering about immigrants (he spoke of murderers, rapists, gang members, even Muslim terrorists hidden within the “caravans” approaching America’s southern border).  “Build the wall” is a popular chant at his rallies, and Trump knows the issue still stirs up his base.

What’s it all about?  Recently I was reading “Shadow of the Silk Road,” by Colin Thubron.  This is what Thubron had to say about the Great Wall of China:

As a true bulwark the Wall was senseless.  Huns, Mongols, Manchus overswept it almost at will.  The Sinologist Owen Lattimore proposed that it was built to keep the Chinese in rather than the nomads out.  Perhaps, unwittingly, it was less a physical defence than a monstrous definition.  It separated civilisation from barbarism, light from darkness.  It was an act of shuddering denial: over there is not what we are.  And it was steeped in fear. [Emphasis in original.]

“Over there is not what we are”: Trump recognizes how “his” wall serves as a dividing line between the “good” people (Americans) versus the “bad hombres” (his term) seeking to “invade” America.  And it is, as Thubron says, both a monstrous definition and an act of shuddering denial.

Of course, the wall already exists, as Greg Grandin notes in his book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.”  Trump merely wants to lengthen it, mostly in areas where a wall is redundant due to already forbidding terrain.

But the wall is not about protecting America from “hordes” of “invaders.”  It’s about defining America in retrograde ways, contrasting the alleged barbarism of brown-skinned people with the civilization of (mostly) White America.

Walls demarcate and divide.  They are also a denial of common humanity.  They pit us against them in battles over turf.  In short, they’re a perfect symbol for Trump’s vision of greatness.

The Welfare Myth: Confessions of a Former Caseworker

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Richard Sahn

“They drive to the supermarket in their Cadillacs and buy steak, lobster, and cartons of cigarettes.” How many times have I heard that description of welfare recipients? And it’s always a Cadillac, by the way. I inform welfare haters that I used to be a caseworker in New York City and that I and my caseworker colleagues in the unit I was assigned to never came across a serious case of cheating in two years. In fact, I became convinced that welfare recipients rarely cheat. If anything, I sometimes had to persuade my clients to pursue their rights within the system, which typically meant an increase in their benefits.

In the late 1960s, a massive state-sponsored study of the then new “Declaration System” of the New York City Department of Social Services produced startling results. Welfare applicants were not investigated to determine their financial needs. They were approved for assistance based on their word, their declaration. Researchers found very few false statements on thousands of applications.

So why does the myth of the welfare cheater continue? Whenever I bring up the welfare issue in my sociology classes students who are usually quiet invariably seize the opportunity to denounce the very idea of welfare. They try to convince me that all welfare recipients “cheat” and that nobody really needs welfare.  They assert “welfare people” are just too lazy to work and are not victims of the economic system, despite what bleeding-heart liberals, sociologists, and Marxist economists have to say.

The work ethic and the American dream are so ingrained in our culture that cognitive dissonance is produced by the very thought some people need continuous financial assistance. A more friendly position toward welfare is seeing it, not as a permanent way of life but as a temporary fix to allow an individual or family to “get back on its feet.”  But is every American equally qualified to recover from hard times, and equally able to get off public assistance?  Empirical evidence suggests not, but the myth of everyone having equal opportunity to compete and excel in America’s dog-eat-dog version of capitalism still drives national, state, and local welfare laws.

Why So Many Americans Hate Welfare

Ordinary Americans are usually anti-welfare, almost as if it is un-American to support the idea of public assistance. Even some former welfare clients I’ve encountered tend to be opposed to the idea of welfare. They may even feel guilty for accepting help from the state in the first place.

There appear to be several reasons for this opposition to welfare:

  1. Rugged individualism (from the frontier era): The belief Americans are equally able through hard work to take care of their economic needs without government assistance.
  2. The idea welfare recipients are big contributors to the national debt.
  3. The idea people on welfare don’t really need the money; that they are simply greedy and lazy. Related to this is the idea welfare recipients are all able-bodied and not impacted by mental health and related issues.
  4. The idea welfare mothers (“queens”) have children out of wedlock to get on the rolls or have their allowance increased.

When I was a welfare caseworker it took me a while, coming from a white middle-class family, to understand not only the humanitarian necessity of welfare but also the advantages to society of a generous welfare system.  For instance, making it more difficult if not impossible to obtain welfare causes needless suffering and even premature death.

Parenthood as a Full-Time Job

Aside from literally saving lives—as if that weren’t enough in itself–welfare allows parents, usually single mothers with young children, to spend more time with their children.  Isn’t motherhood, or fatherhood in some cases, a full-time job?  While a caseworker in New York City I began to realize that raising children as a single parent—most of my clients were single parents—entails hard work that is generally unrewarded by society. In answer to the question, “What do you do?” I could say I worked as a civil servant.  Welfare mothers, even as they worked hard to raise their children, had no culturally and socially respectable answer to the question, “What do you do?”

The Societal Benefits of Welfare

In my two years working for the Department of Social Services I had two epiphanies. One was that being employed, or starting one’s own business, is simply not what every adult can do. The other epiphany was that society may be better off if many jobs did not exist in the first place (such as manufacturing assault rifles for the masses). Are we not sometimes better off with people not working but living on welfare?  Welfare recipients are free to do other things with their lives which may contribute more to society rather than “work.” My reclusive friend in California who has been on SSI most of his life not only has time to converse with people in person, on the phone, or via Facebook but has also written three books and numerous articles on literary and political criticism.

Politics and Ideology

Republicans on every level of government consistently vow to drastically reduce or eliminate various social safety net programs. In the extreme this includes social security, even for the disabled. More tax breaks (mainly for the rich) can be achieved if we just didn’t give tax money away to people who didn’t deserve it, or so these Republicans claim.  Social Darwinist ideologues see economic handouts as conflicting with the laws of nature.

Even liberal Democrats rarely say they will work to improve the plight of the poor or make it easier to get on the welfare rolls. After all, the poor (underclass) don’t vote as frequently as the higher income populations. (Voter suppression is one reason.)  Welfare will continue to be a dirty word until it becomes respectable to say, “I’m on welfare. What do you do for a living?”

Richard Sahn is a retired professor of sociology and a former welfare caseworker in the Big Apple.

Americans want free stuff!

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W.J. Astore

Once again, I’ve come across the talking point that Americans who support candidates like Bernie Sanders just want a bunch of free stuff.  You know: non-essentials like health care and education.  What are these freeloading Americans thinking of?

We live in the richest country in the world, yet we seemingly can’t afford health care and education for our people.  Yet we can afford roughly a trillion dollars each and every year for national “defense.”  Why does the Pentagon want so many “free” bombers, fighter jets, drones, aircraft carriers, and missiles?  Why do the militarists always get what they want, with few complaints about the price?  (And let’s not forget roughly $6 trillion wasted on the Iraq and Afghan Wars, or for that matter the trillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street and the banks.  Why did they get so much “free” stuff at taxpayers’ expense?)

We truly need a political revolution in this country, which is why I support Bernie Sanders.  He’s the only candidate who truly gets how rigged our system is — how it’s become an oligarchy, even a kleptocracy, that favors the richest and most powerful among us.  Sanders has been a model of consistency for decades, and he’s as genuine as a public servant can be.

No candidate is perfect, but Bernie will move this country in a fairer, more humane, direction.  He realizes health care is a human right.  He realizes education shouldn’t put students into a form of debt peonage.  He realizes hardworking Americans deserve to be paid more, deserve better benefits, deserve to be treated with dignity.

We need to combat an attitude in this country that says rich people are our winners and the poor are losers.  We in America are still taught to idolize the rich and fear or despise the poor. The rich represent “success” and the poor are supposedly lazy or just losers. Can’t they just get a job?  Can’t they pull themselves up by their boot straps?  If you’re poor, it’s all your fault — this is still an all-too-common idea.

We need leaders who understand the working classes and want to work for them.  Bernie Sanders is that kind of leader.

Hating America?

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Really?  Which America?

W.J. Astore

I’m always baffled when I get a message from a reader that accuses me or my site as being “America haters.”  Of course, I shouldn’t be.  There’s always a strong element of “America: love it or leave it” in our popular discourse.  It’s an element the government actively encourages.

There was a time I identified with the U.S. government because I was part of it.  Having served in the US Air Force for twenty years — having worn this nation’s uniform with pride — I can understand those who think that the government and its actions represent them, or that patriotism somehow requires deference toward our elected representatives or government employees.

But this is indeed a dangerous attitude to have.  It’s not we who are supposed to serve the government: it’s the government that is supposed to serve us.  Even when I was in the military, I took an oath to defend the Constitution, not the government.

Governments are human constructions composed of imperfect humans.  They are vested with power, which feeds corruption.  So governments must always be kept in check.  They must always be viewed critically.  “Question authority” should be the byword of all true patriots.

Government is supposed to represent us.  When it fails to do so, we should elect new leaders who will do their jobs as public servants.  And if that fails, people need to organize and protest.  Sometimes, direct political action is all that works to right wrongs.  Think of union strikes; think of the civil rights movement; think of antiwar protests, as in the Vietnam War.

Government requires constant criticism.  That is the very reason why we have rights such as freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press.  It doesn’t help when people reject criticism as unpatriotic.  Indeed, it just empowers the worst elements within government.

I know all of this is obvious to my readers, else they wouldn’t be here.  Suffice to say our incredibly powerful government, which is increasingly shrouded in secrecy and therefore often unaccountable to the people, needs a lot more criticism.

Don’t confuse criticism with hate.  In fact, criticism may indeed be driven by a kind of love.

Too Far Left?

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W.J. Astore

Boris Johnson’s victory in Britain is generating predictable headlines in the USA.  Scanning the New York Times this morning, I saw a headline suggesting the Democratic Party is drifting too far to the left to win in 2020.  What arrant nonsense.

In the mainstream media, political issues in America are almost exclusively presented in terms of left and right.  Again, this is nonsense, because America has no leftist party.  We have two rightist ones: the Republicans and the moderate Republicans, otherwise known as Democrats.

In America, the true political divide isn’t about left-right; it’s about top-down, as in the richest Americans and corporations against the rest of America.  When Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos are worth as much as the bottom 50% of Americans (that’s 160 million people), do you think top-down disparities in wealth and power might just be a bit more important than left–right issues?

At least Warren Buffett is honest about this.  “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”  The only candidate who’s willing to tackle this issue consistently, Bernie Sanders, is the one who’s either ignored or vilified as extreme by the mainstream media.

Sanders is right.  America needs a political revolution, one in which workers’ concerns would finally take first rather than last place.  And that has nothing to do with being a leftist or rightist.

No Money, No Speech, No Say

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Have Money, Will Rule

W.J. Astore

When in January 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech and corporations are citizens, our democracy (or, if you prefer, our representative republic) took a serious hit.  Since then, we’ve witnessed America’s ongoing transition to an oligarchy, and an increasingly militarized and authoritarian one at that.

This was obvious even to me when the Supreme Court rendered its Citizens United decision in favor of corporations.  Right after that decision, I wrote this article for Truthout, which I’m re-posting below.  What do you think, readers?

Corporations Are Citizens – What Are We?
January 24, 2010

This week’s Supreme Court ruling that corporations are protected by “free speech” rights and can contribute enormous sums of money to influence elections is a de jure endorsement of the de facto dominance of corporations over our lives. Indeed, corporations are the new citizens of this country, and ordinary Americans, who used to be known as “citizens,” now fall into three categories: consumers, warriors and prisoners.

Think about it. Perhaps you’ve noticed, as a friend of mine has, that the term “citizen” has largely disappeared from our public and political discourse. And what term has taken its place? Consumer. That’s our new role: not to exercise our rights as citizens (perish the thought, that’s for corporations to do!), but to exercise our credit cards as consumers. Here one might recall President George W. Bush’s inspiring words to Americans after 9-11 to “go shopping” and to visit Disney.

Think again of our regulatory agencies like the FDA or SEC. They no longer take action to protect us as “citizens.” Rather, they act to safeguard the confidence of “consumers.” And apparently the only news that’s worthy of note is that which affects us as consumers.

As one-dimensional “consumers,” we’ve been reduced to obedient eunuchs in thrall to the economy. Our sole purpose is to keep buying and spending. Corporations, meanwhile, are the citizen-activists in our politics, with the voting and speech rights to match their status.

At the same time we’ve reduced citizens to consumers, we’ve reduced citizen-soldiers to “warriors” or “warfighters.” The citizen-soldier of World War II did his duty in the military, but his main goal was to come home, regain his civilian job, and enjoy the freedoms and rights of American citizenship. Today, our military encourages a “warrior” mentality: a narrow-minded professionalism that emphasizes warfighting skills over citizenship and civic duty.

And if that’s not disturbing enough, think of our military’s ever-increasing reliance on private military contractors or mercenaries.

The final category of American is all-too-obvious: prisoner. No country in the modern industrialized world incarcerates more of its citizens than the United States. More than 7.3 million Americans currently languish somewhere in our prison system. Our only hope, apparently, for a decline in prison population is the sheer expense to states of caring and feeding all these “offenders.”

There you have it. Corporations are our new citizens. And you? If you’re lucky, you get to make a choice: consumer, warrior or prisoner. Which will it be?