The Republican Party of Wreckers

W.J. Astore

I used to think the Republican party had principles of substance.  I supported Gerald Ford in 1976 and found common cause with Ronald Reagan during the early ’80s.  Ford was a decent man, a moderate Republican (imagine such a thing in 2017!), and people forget that Reagan worked with Gorbachev on the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Today’s Republican Party?  The only “principles” they seem to have are driven by profit and power.  When you sell people’s privacy, conspire to deny them health care, and authorize projects that threaten the very air they breathe and the water they drink, you are the antithesis of public servants.

President Trump, of course, is partly to blame, but he’s often little more than a blustering figurehead.  Republicans in 2017 would be seeking to gut Obamacare, rape the earth, and sell everything in and out of sight regardless of which of their candidates had won the presidency.  Would it really be much different under President Ted Cruz or Ben Carson or Jeb! Bush?

Who’s to blame?  It sure isn’t the Russians or Comey at the FBI.  You might blame Hillary Clinton in part for running a horrible campaign. And surely the Democratic Party for favoring her over Bernie Sanders.  I’d also blame all those who voted for Trump and who were driven to do so for their own unprincipled reasons.

May 29, 2016
We can’t say we weren’t warned

America is already paying a high cost for Republican rule.  Lindy West at the Guardian puts it well: “America has never seen a party less caring than 21st-century Republicans.”

As she explains:

I don’t know that America has ever seen a political party so divested of care. Since Trump took office, Republicans have proposed legislation to destroy unions, the healthcare system, the education system and the Environmental Protection Agency; to defund the reproductive health charity Planned Parenthood and restrict abortion; to stifle public protest and decimate arts funding; to increase the risk of violence against trans people and roll back anti-discrimination laws; and to funnel more and more wealth from the poorest to the richest. Every executive order and piece of GOP legislation is destructive, aimed at dismantling something else, never creating anything new, never in the service of improving the care of the nation.

Contemporary American conservatism is not a political philosophy so much as the roiling negative space around Barack Obama’s legacy. Can you imagine being that insecure? Can you imagine not wanting children to have healthcare because you’re embarrassed a black guy was your boss? It would be sad if it wasn’t so dangerous.

A close friend put it well: “I think much of it is about spite — let’s take away whatever Obama did just because we hate him and because we CAN. Whatever he did must be wrong. Have they [the Republicans] done anything or passed any regulation since they took office that actually benefits anyone other than big business (and maybe coal miners)?  I honestly can’t think of anything!  Isn’t [Steve] Bannon’s philosophy to deconstruct and destroy the government? I’d say he’s succeeding.”

Yes, it’s always easier to destroy than to create.  And when you destroy, there’s money to be made from the wreckage.

Behold, I give you today’s Republican Party, a party of wreckers.

What Should Democrats Do About Gorsuch?

3355

W.J. Astore

What should Democrats do about Neil Gorsuch?  They should filibuster.

The reason is obvious: Merrick Garland, President Obama’s eminently qualified and moderate nominee for the Supreme Court, never even got a hearing from Republicans. Unlike obstructionist Republicans, the official party of no, a party that with a clear majority can’t even pass its own wealth/health care plan, the Democrats gave Gorsuch a fair hearing. It’s now time to oppose him.  To do anything else would be an admission of gutlessness.

Democrats, at the risk of stating the obvious: Republicans are not going to respect your sense of fair play, your bipartisanship, your willingness to compromise.  Just keep one image in mind: Republicans are Lucy holding the football, and you are Charlie Brown.  No matter how many times Lucy tells you she’s going to let you kick the ball, she’s always going to pull it away, betraying her promise while making snide comments about your gullibility.

There’s another reason not to vote for Gorsuch: the man lacks compassion.  Sure, he’s urbane, intelligent, and well-read.  He knows his way around the law.  But he seems to believe humans were made for the law, rather than the law being made for and by us.

The higher a judge rises in our system of justice, the higher the premium on compassion. The law is not a bunch of words and statutes and rulings to be adjudicated soullessly while citing “original intent,” whatever that means.  In certain rulings, like the “frozen trucker” case, Gorsuch came across as soulless, allowing strict interpretations to trump common humanity.

I’m a historian, not a lawyer, so my view of the law is somewhat different from the experts.  I see it as an artifact of history, a fluid substance, an imperfect product of imperfect humans.  That doesn’t mean it’s not vitally important; that it doesn’t deserve our respect and our protection.  But, again, the law exists for us: to uphold life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The law shouldn’t exist solely for the powerful, for corporations, for the government, for the richest.

Justice shouldn’t be blind.  Justice requires judges to use all their senses, and not just those, but their hearts and souls as well.  It’s not enough for a judge to be learned; he or she should have empathy, a strong sense of fairness, and, again, compassion.

Gorsuch is a fan of Dickens.  While listening to him, it was difficult for me to tell whether he was Scrooge before his moral awakening, or Scrooge after it.  He came across more as the Scrooge of “Are there no prisons, no workhouses,” rather than the Scrooge who embraces charity and who freely gives to those in need.

So, Democrats, your direction should be clear: In the name of Merrick Garland, and in the cause of compassion, resist Gorsuch.  For even if you naively choose to support him, in the name of highminded fairness, Lucy will always be there to pull the football away, laughing all the while at your spineless gullibility.

Incurious Donald: The Woeful Trump Presidency

Trump-immigration-ban-extreme-vetting-670x450
Look at what I signed!

W.J. Astore

President Donald Trump is incurious, ignorant, and ill-informed.  He hides this with rudeness, bluster, and lies.  As an anonymous German Foreign Ministry official said during Chancellor Merkel’s visit, Trump “uses rudeness to compensate for his weakness.”

Trump couldn’t hold his own with a brilliant woman of substance like Angela Merkel, so he changed the narrative.  He accused Germany of not paying up with NATO; he said Obama wiretapped Merkel, just like he tapped Trump tower; he whined about unfair trade with Germany.  In public, Trump showed little substance and no sophistication.

It’s not that Trump can’t learn; he doesn’t want to.  He’s happy watching Fox News or movies like “Finding Dory,” golfing at his expensive resorts, signing executive orders and holding them aloft like a proud second-grader (Look Ma!  I can sign my name!), and holding rabble-rousing rallies (“Lock her up!”) and basking in applause.

Trump operates in the shallows.  His experience is in high-priced real-estate and media.  He’s best at hyping a certain image of himself.  He’s a bull-shitter, and he’s had lots of practice.

A big part of the presidency is ceremonial: the U.S. president is king and prime minister all in one.  Trump is failing at both jobs.  As a symbol of America, he’s boorish, boastful, and bullying.  As a prime minister, he’s incurious, ignorant, and vain.

Five examples: Candidate Trump knew nothing about America’s nuclear triad.  He didn’t know it consists of SLBMs (on Trident submarines), ICBMs (land-based), and “air-breathing” bombers.  All he “knew” is that allegedly the U.S. nuclear arsenal is obsolete and inferior to the Russian arsenal.  But actually the U.S. arsenal is more accurate, more survivable, and far superior to that of any other country, including Russia.

Second example.  According to Trump, before he came along, nobody knew how complicated health care could be.  We owe that stunning insight to Trump.  Third example.  According to Trump, Germany owes vast sums of money to the U.S. for defense costs, a false claim rejected by the Germans.

Fourth example: Based on a false Fox News report, Trump accused the previous president of committing a felony by tapping his phones during the campaign season, a charge for which there is no evidence whatsoever.  Yet Trump refuses to rescind the charge, despite its repudiation by the FBI, NSA, British intelligence, and his own party.

Fifth example: Trump refuses to admit his Muslim ban is, well, a Muslim ban.  Yet the ban refuses to target the one country that supplied 15 out of the 19 hijackers on 9/11: Saudi Arabia.  Most experts agree that Trump’s ban is unconstitutional and counterproductive in the war on terror.

Being Trump means never having to say you’re sorry.  In his unapologetic blustering, Trump echoes the foreign leader he seems to admire most: Vladimir Putin.  In Putin’s Russia, with its history of Tsars and other strong leaders, uncompromising firmness and unyielding certitude are expected if not always applauded.  In democratic America, an ability to compromise and a willingness to yield on matters of fact are generally seen as signs of adult leadership by statesmen who serve the people rather than themselves.

Trump’s behavior is better suited to that of Tsars and other anti-democratic strongmen.  Trump the incurious has surrounded himself with loyalists, family members like his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, and commissars who watch over his cabinet appointees to ensure their loyalty.  Pettiness, paranoia, and score-settling characterize the Executive branch.

Trump often harkens back to World War II and the likes of Generals Patton and MacArthur.  How does he compare to the president back then?  Franklin D. Roosevelt had a global view of the world while exhibiting a mastery of detail. (So too did Winston Churchill.)  Self-confident, FDR looked for no-men, not yes-men.  He and his administration took pains to be inclusive and bipartisan.  And FDR, with help from Allies like Churchill and Stalin, won World War II.

By comparison, Trump has a parochial view of the world and can’t even master himself (witness those temper-driven tweets).  He hires yes-men and demonizes Democrats and indeed anyone he sees as against him.  Alienating allies like Britain, Australia, and Germany, Trump seems least critical of Russia.

Some leaders surprise: they grow in office.  But Trump’s smugness, his unwillingness to admit when he’s wrong, his showboating to hide uncomfortable truths, are stunting him.  Effective at selling himself and entertaining as a blowhard on (un)reality TV, Trump is failing as a statesman.

Rather than grow, it’s likely Trump will wither in office.  The problem is he won’t be alone in his decline and fall.

Update: To state the obvious, Trumpcare is not a health care plan: it’s a massive tax cut for the rich combined with a cut in services for the working classes and poor.  Under this “plan,” the CBO estimates that 14 million will initially lose coverage, rising by another 10 million in the next decade.  How is this a health care plan?  Add cynicism and broken promises to Trump’s qualities.

Update (3/25): As Heather Digby Parton puts it, Trump “truly believes that he’s never ever been wrong about anything and when he lies he’s actually telling the future. He said it over and over again in that astonishing interview [for Time Magazine].”

Matt Taibbi, in his inimitable style, captured Trump during the election season: “On the primary trail we had never seen anything like him: impulsive, lewd, grandiose, disgusting, horrible, narcissistic and dangerous, but also usually unscripted and 10 seconds ahead of the news cycle … maybe he was on the level, birthing a weird new rightist/populist movement, a cross of Huey Long, Pinochet and David Hasselhoff.  He was probably a monster, but whatever he was, he was original.” (Insane Clown President, pg. 221)

Trump Is Hurting the Pentagon!  (By Giving It Too Much Money)

Pentagon-Money
Throwing money at the Pentagon is never a good idea

W.J. Astore

Anyone who’s been in the military knows what happens as the end of a fiscal year approaches: wild spending.  Any money that’s left in your budget must be spent, if only to justify next year’s budgetary appropriation.  Woe to any unit with leftover money!  Not only is there no incentive to economize at the Pentagon: there’s a negative incentive to save money, and a positive one to spend as much as possible within your yearly allotment, while complaining to anyone within earshot that you never have enough.

Trump has already promised to enlarge Pentagon funding by 10% next year, or roughly $54 billion.  According to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, Trump’s budget is all about “hard-power,” a signal to “our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration.”  At $54 billion, that is indeed a very expensive signal.

Forget about the global fight against ISIS: The big focus at the Pentagon is now going to be on spending that windfall of taxpayers’ dollars.  And, unlike the ISIS fight, which is expected to last for at least another generation, the “fight” to spend lots of money quickly is one that the Pentagon will surely win.  Believe me, the military-industrial-Congressional complex knows how to spend.

Want to make the Pentagon a better, more effective, place?  Cut its budget by 10%.  And keep cutting, year by year, while downsizing its mission.  Force it to economize – force it to think.

Let me give you a few examples.  How does the stealthy, super-expensive, F-35 jet fighter contribute to the war on terror?  It doesn’t.  Does the U.S. Navy really need more super-expensive aircraft carriers?  No, it doesn’t.  Do U.S. nuclear forces really need to be modernized and expanded at a cost of nearly a trillion dollars over the next few decades?  No, they don’t.  More F-35s, more carriers, and more nukes are not going “to make America great again.”  What they will do is consume enormous amounts of money for little real gain.

Throwing cash at the Pentagon is not the way to greater security: it’s a guarantee of frivolous military wish lists and “more of the same, only more” thinking.  In case you haven’t noticed, the Pentagon’s record since 9/11/2001 is more than a little mixed; some would say it’s been piss-poor.  Why is this?  One thing is certain: shortage of money hasn’t been the problem.

Want to send a signal about “hard-power,” President Trump?  Go hard on the Pentagon by cutting its budget.  Spend the savings on alternative energy development and similar investments in American infrastructure.  That’s the best way to put America first.

Trump: Yet Another War President?

trump
Yet another war president?

W.J. Astore

Is Donald Trump going to be yet another American war president?  Come to think of it, is there any other kind?

This is no accident.  Tom Engelhardt has an insightful article at TomDispatch today about how Trump the blowhard is a product of blowback from America’s failed wars, notably Iraq.  There’s much truth in this insight, since it’s hard to imagine demagogue Trump’s rise to power in a pacific climate.  Trump arose in a climate of fear: fear of the Other, especially of the terrorist variety, but also of any group that can be marginalized and vilified.  Think of Mexicans and the infamous Wall, for example.

In a separate post, Engelhardt noted the recent death of Marilyn Young, an historian who found herself specializing in America’s wars, notably Vietnam.  He cited a New York Times obituary on Young that highlighted her attentiveness to America’s wars and their continuity.

Since her childhood, Young noted, America had been at war: “the wars were not really limited and were never cold and in many places have not ended — in Latin America, in Africa, in East, South and Southeast Asia.”

She confessed that:

“I find that I have spent most of my life as a teacher and scholar thinking and writing about war.  I moved from war to war, from the War of 1898 and U.S. participation in the Boxer Expedition and the Chinese civil war, to the Vietnam War, back to the Korean War, then further back to World War II and forward to the wars of the 20th and early 21st centuries.”

“Initially, I wrote about all these as if war and peace were discrete: prewar, war, peace or postwar,” she said. “Over time, this progression of wars has looked to me less like a progression than a continuation: as if between one war and the next, the country was on hold.”

As George Orwell wrote in 1984, all that matters is for a state of war to exist (whether declared or, nowadays in the USA, undeclared).  A war mentality is the driver for autocratic excesses of all sorts.  It serves to focus the attention of people to various perceived enemies, whether from without or from within.  It promotes simplified thinking and generates fear, and fear is the mind-killer.  “Us and Them,” as Pink Floyd sang.

Aggravating simplistic and hateful “us and them” thinking in the USA is the lack of a major political party dedicated to peace.  In the USA, we have two war parties.  Trump knew this and readily exploited (and continues to exploit) it.  He knows the modern Democratic Party won’t seriously challenge the war rhetoric that drove and drives America’s new militarized reality.

Why?  Because the Democrats nurtured it.  Recall that in 2004 John Kerry “reported for duty” by saluting the Democratic National Convention.  Barack Obama in 2008 quickly morphed from a “hope and change” liberal to a drone-wielding assassin-in-chief while pursuing his “good” war in Afghanistan.  Hillary Clinton in 2016 proudly embraced Henry Kissinger and projected a harsh exterior as a hardheaded hawk.  “We came, we saw, he died,” she famously chuckled about Libya and the death of Qaddafi.  Even Bernie Sanders, with all his dreams, said little about cutting the Pentagon’s budget.

You can go back further and tag other recent Democratic presidents, such as LBJ during the Vietnam War or JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Candidate Kennedy wantonly exaggerated the “missile gap” in nuclear capability between the US and USSR (JFK had it backwards; it was the US that had clear superiority).  Jimmy Carter took a different approach, but he too soon learned his lesson, ordering a huge military buildup (overseen by the Reagan Administration) and declaring the “Carter Doctrine” to safeguard Persian Gulf oil supplies as a vital US interest.  That policy contributed in its own way to America’s recent disasters in the Greater Middle East.

Did Jimmy Carter, then, lead to Donald Trump?  Indirectly, yes.  America’s insatiable hunger for global resources (especially oil) and its desire for global power bred the conditions under which blowback came to America’s shores.  Blowback helped to generate the fear and confused desires for revenge that Trump tapped with great success in his campaign.

Today, America’s state of incessant warfare is consuming its democracy, yet President Trump’s answer is to call for more military spending, more violent attacks overseas, and more walls at home, all in a vain quest to “win” again.  Small wonder then that he’s ramping up military spending while ordering more attacks.

Trump knows what got him to the Oval Office, and it wasn’t his keen intelligence or gentlemanly charm or skill at diplomacy.  Recall that his favorite generals, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, were all about “winning” even as they both wanted to wage the wrong wars (Patton was ready to take on the Soviets in 1945; MacArthur wanted to cross the Yalu River and invade China during the Korean War).

Will Trump, like his favorite World War II generals, seek to wage the wrong wars?  Will he recognize that fighting the wrong war is a loss even when you “win”?  Does he want to be a “war president,” and, if so, who will stop him?

Afghan War Update: Fail, Fail Again

Khanabad 08-04-2008 carpenters
Afghan carpenters: the peaceful, “normal,” Afghanistan that Americans rarely see, because “Afghan” and “War” are always co-joined in our minds (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

According to General Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Central Command, several thousand more U.S. troops will likely be sent to Afghanistan in an attempt to stabilize Afghan governmental forces and to halt, and eventually reverse, recent Taliban gains.

Basically, the U.S. is rewarding Afghan governmental forces for failure.  The more they fail, the more aid the U.S. sends in the form of money, weaponry, and troops.  Naturally, warrior-corporations (among others) profit from this, so even though the Afghan war itself is unwinnable (you can’t win someone else’s civil war), someone always wins in the sense of making loads of money.

The motto for the U.S. war in Afghanistan might go something like this: If at first you succeed (in defeating the Taliban in 2001), fail and fail again by overstaying your welcome and flailing around in a country that has a well-deserved reputation as “the graveyard of empires.”

There are several reasons why U.S. folly in Afghanistan persists.  First, there’s our national conviction that all wars must be won, else American credibility will be irreparably damaged.  We’d rather persist in a losing cause than to admit defeat and withdraw.  Smart, right?

Second is the domestic political scene.  Afghanistan is already being advertised (by the New York Times, no less) as “Trump’s war.”  Do you think “winner” Trump wants to be seen as backing away from a fight?

Third is the men in charge of the fight and how they see the war.  Trump’s generals and top civilian advisers don’t see the Afghan war in terms of Afghanistan; they see it in terms of themselves and their global war on radical Islamic terrorism.  They can’t be seen as “losing” in that global war, nor can they see themselves as lacking in toughness (especially when compared to the Obama administration), so queue up more troop deployments and future mission creep.

Parallels to Vietnam in the 1960s are immediate and telling.  The refusal to admit defeat.  Domestic politics.  War in the name of containing a global enemy, whether it’s called communism or terrorism.  Nowadays, since there’s no military draft and relatively few U.S. troops are being killed and wounded, there’s little opposition to the Afghan war in the U.S.  Lacking an opposition movement like the one the U.S. experienced during the Vietnam War, the Afghan war may well continue for generations, sold as it has been as a critical “platform” in the war on terror.

Two comments.  First, we’ll never win the war in Afghanistan because that’s the only way we understand the country and its peoples: as a war.  Second, as the saying goes in Afghanistan, the U.S. has the watches, but the Taliban has the time.  Sure, we have all the fancy technology, all the force multipliers, but all the Taliban (and other “insurgent” forces) has to do is to survive, biding its time (for generations, if necessary) until Americans finally see the light at the end of their own tunnel and leave.

It’s been sixteen years and counting, but we still don’t see the light. Maybe in another sixteen years?

Update (3/11/17): I wrote the following to a reader:

Most of what I read or see about Afghanistan is filtered through the U.S. military, or journalists embedded with the U.S. military.  Rarely do we see in the USA the “real” Afghanistan, the one that’s not synonymous with war or terrorism or corruption or violence or drugs.

chick pea
Afghan Chick Pea Vendor (Anna M.)

That’s a BIG problem for our understanding of Afghanistan.  We see what we want to see, which is mainly (to repeat myself) terrorism, violence, IEDs, and heroin.

Back in 2008 or thereabouts, I had a student who’d been in the Army and deployed to Afghanistan.  I asked him what he remembered: he said “dirt” and primitiveness.  That it made him think of Biblical times.  So I think Americans see Afghanistan as “primitive” and “dirty” and benighted. Again, how can we “win” there, with that attitude?

The Madness of King Trump I

trump
Mad King Trump, promising a new American Armada

W.J. Astore

At TomDispatch.com today, Rebecca Gordon writes about “American carnage” resulting from forever wars across the globe.  Her article references King George III, the “mad king” of Britain during the American Revolution, which raises an interesting point.  In Britain today, there’s a Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force, but there is no Royal Army.  That’s because the British acted to limit the authority of the monarchy, notably in the aftermath of the disastrous English Civil War and the rise of Cromwell in the 17th century.  Royal armies, the British learned, can be powerful forces for suppression of the rights of citizens.

In the 18th century, America’s founders tapped into a commonly held fear of royal armies to motivate fence-straddling colonists to rebel against King George III.  The colonists, as Gordon notes, accused the king in the Declaration of Independence of making “the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”

Thus it was when the colonists gained their independence, they acted to keep America’s standing army as small as possible while subjecting it firmly to civilian control.  America wanted no “royal” army, no class of aristocrats whose identity resided in that army, and certainly no leader who postured and posed as a military commander, as kings of that age typically did.

What America has witnessed since the end of World War II is the emergence of a large standing military that is increasingly identified with our president as a quasi-monarch “commander-in-chief.”  And like monarchs of the past, U.S. presidents now dress up in military uniforms, strutting about as if they literally are “the king” of their military.  (Trump, for example, talks of “my” generals.) Meanwhile, a U.S. president has, with the paramilitary CIA, his own private military augmented by a newly empowered military within the military, Special Operations Command, whose operations are often so highly classified as to be beyond effective civilian oversight.

America has regressed to the pre-revolutionary 17th century, when monarchs fought long wars against other monarchs, often in religious/confessional conflicts which were also motivated by money, power, resources, and similar concerns and which lasted for decades or even centuries.  These wars, often involving mercenaries and warrior-corporations, ran out of control and eventually came to bankrupt states, leading to an “enlightenment” witnessed at the creation of the United States, whose founders tried to rein in the tyranny of monarchs and their wasteful forever wars.

Sadly, America is no longer “enlightened.”  King Trump is a mix of Mad King George III and France’s imperious and vainglorious Louis XIV (“I am the state”), but without George’s or Louis’s interest in science and wider forms of knowledge.  And, much like royal courtiers of the past, King Trump’s courtiers are often “aristocratic” generals or slithering sycophants.

Consider a Trump courtier who’s been getting a lot of press lately: Sebastian Gorka.  He’s embraced the idea of a war against radical Islamic terrorism, tracing that war to jihadist flaws within Islam.  This virulent disease within Islam, Gorka and likeminded advisers to Trump argue, must and can be wiped out by American-led military action.  Much like Catholic King Philip II, who launched the Spanish Armada to extirpate the heresy of English Protestantism under Queen Elizabeth I, Trump and Gorka and Crew seek to unleash the American armada against the heresy of radical jihadist Islam.

King Trump I is about to escalate what he and his courtiers see as a religious/civilizational war.  Donning a military cap and flight jacket, Trump promises quick victories against a dastardly enemy.  Even as he pursues his wars, the U.S. military will continue to expand, as will paramilitaries and warrior-corporations.  Even as victory proves as elusive as the fighting is enervating to domestic concerns, Mad King Trump will persist.  America must win.  For he is the state.

Under Trump, as with mad King George III, big changes are ahead.  Just not the ones these monarchs imagined for themselves and their empires.