The Incredible Shrinking Relief Check

W.J. Astore

Isn’t it nice to see them having fun?

I read the news today, oh boy …

Remember when Joe Biden promised a $2000 Covid relief check if the Democrats won both senatorial races in Georgia? He said they’d “go out the door immediately.” Well, immediately has turned into weeks and probably will turn into months. First, the Democrats reduced the amount to $1400, saying they’d meant all along that the previous $600 check had been included in Biden’s promise. OK–I almost believe that. Now the $1400 amount has shrunk to $1000, if the wishes of “moderate” Republican senators are upheld. Biden and Kamala Harris are meeting with these moderate Republicans today, seeking “bipartisan” accord on a much smaller relief package ($600 billion versus $1.9 trillion). It’s now all about “targeted” relief, based on family income as reported to the IRS.

Let’s think back, way into the past, when Donald Trump was president. Do you recall the Republicans meeting with Democrats to secure bipartisan support for what they wanted to do? Me neither. I recall Trump and Republicans doing pretty much what they wanted, with most Democrats along for the ride.

So, how does a $2000 relief check become $1400 become $1000 become nothing (if your income exceeds $50K, or $100K as a family)? When you have miserly and dishonest politicians in charge.

Democrats could have moved immediately (there’s that word again) to pass a simple Covid relief bill for $2000 checks, instead of trying to pass a complex relief package that’s scheduled for next month at the earliest. But simplicity would not allow room for pork-barrel politics as usual, hence the complicated course we’re now on. Meanwhile, struggling Americans wait … and wait … and wait.

Joe Biden is a business as usual president — emphasis on “business.” As Chris Hedges recently wrote, he’s papering over the cracks in a rotting edifice, doing the job he was hired to do by his paymasters. But bipartisan accord will mean less than nothing when the whole rotting building crashes down around us.

Is the USA the new USSR?

A shining example of awesome splendor and timeless exceptionalism

W.J. Astore

A Few Heretical Thoughts as America Celebrates Itself

Back in the days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, most Americans took pride in not being like the USSR, or our image of the USSR. We, the USA, were not a militaristic empire. We, the USA, didn’t have state propaganda. We, the USA, took in Soviet dissidents who spoke out against state abuses of power and for personal freedoms. We, the USA, didn’t have old sclerotic leaders who were simply figureheads for elites. We, the USA, didn’t have military forces in the streets to maintain order. And so forth.

I was thinking about this today because Trump didn’t pardon Edward Snowden, whose only sanctuary is Russia. I was thinking about this today because some of the more interesting shows with critical coverage of the USA are on RT, a Russia-owned network. (I’m thinking here of shows hosted by Jesse Ventura and Chris Hedges. Their outspoken criticism and honesty is rarely heard on America’s mainstream media networks.) I was thinking today of a mainstream media that’s celebrating the inauguration of an aging man, Joe Biden, who’s visibly in decline and who is a tool for the establishment. I was thinking today of the nation’s capital that resembles an armed and fortified camp for a “peaceful” transference of power.

These are uncomfortable thoughts, I know.

Similarly, my wife and I were joking this morning about what the Washington Football Team should call itself, now that the “Redskins” has finally been rejected as impolitic and inappropriate. An innocuous name like the Washington Monuments came to mind. But if we wanted to be more honest, how about the Washington Lobbyists? The Washington Bullies? Or the Washington Awesome Splendor of Timeless Exceptionalism (WASTE)?

The idea for the latter name came from a recent statement the Trump administration released in support of a “Garden of American Heroes.” Here’s a sample of the rhetoric:

The garden’s purpose is “to reflect the awesome splendor of our country’s timeless exceptionalism.”

The garden of heroes “is America’s answer to [a] reckless attempt to erase our heroes, values and entire way of life. On its grounds, the devastation and discord of the moment will be overcome with abiding love of country and lasting patriotism. This is the American way.”

A garden of heroes is a perfect antidote to “a dangerous anti-American extremism that seeks to dismantle our country’s history, institutions and very identity.”

So, what Trump was saying is that America’s main enemy is “a dangerous anti-American extremism” that’s seeking to destroy our very identity. Meanwhile, anti-Trump forces are similarly arguing that Trump and his minions represent a dangerous anti-American extremism that’s out to destroy our way of life. Not much room for compromise and unity here, is there?

The Soviet Union collapsed in part due to internal tensions and disorder, massive military spending, and lost wars. A sclerotic leadership was incapable of changing course, and by the time the empire attempted to change course with Gorbachev, it was too late for restructuring and openness.

Is it already too late for the USA? Or does today’s pomp and ceremony promise a new beginning? Readers, what do you think?

Monday Musings

An increasingly common sight. This image is from the BLM protests in June. Note the POW/MIA flag below the American flag.

W.J. Astore

Remember when Trump said he wanted a military parade on the streets of Washington, D.C.? Looks like his dream’s come true, as the streets of Washington are filled with troops in preparation for Biden’s inauguration.

Biden’s message is supposed to stress “unity.” But unity for what? For single-payer universal health care? For an end to wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere? For much higher wages for workers? For a Green New Deal? “Unity” for “normalcy” is empty rhetoric of the worst kind. We need unity for policies that help the most vulnerable among us.

Republicans play to and favor their base. Democrats demobilize and betray their base.

Those rioters who stormed the Capitol — are they all lost causes? What would have happened if Obama had actually been a Progressive in 2008? What would have happened if Sanders had run against Trump in 2016? What I mean is this: Trump is offering a vision (even though it’s a lie) to his followers that mobilizes them. They want to “take back America,” but for the wrong reasons. What if Obama or Sanders (or someone like them) had offered a Progressive vision to “take back America”? But of course any meaningful economic reforms are blocked by the owners and donors of both parties, hence protest and its energy can be seized and directed in dark channels by charlatans like Trump.

Remember the old days when rulers — at risk of being killed or captured — led their troops into combat? And, if they refused to lead, were dismissed as cowards? We’re not living in those days.

Trump is the kind of schoolyard bully who instigates a fight but then stands on the sidelines, cheering and sneering until the teacher comes, after which he smirks and says, “It wasn’t me.”

I know 74 million Americans voted for Trump. But not all of them voted for all of the Trump circus. Many Republicans and Democrats are tribal voters — they’ll vote for their candidate no matter who he is and what he’s done. And I don’t blame all Trump voters for sticking with him when I consider the alternative choice of Joe Biden, a career pol who failed so miserably when he ran for president back in 1988 that he became a laughingstock in his own party.

I can only hope that Biden has learned something since 1988, when he stole speeches from Neil Kinnock and Bobby Kennedy and bragged he graduated near the top of his class on a full scholarship while winning a political science award. Fact is, he graduated near the bottom of his class on a half scholarship and won no such award. He also boasted about his IQ. He further falsely claimed to have participated in civil rights demonstrations and activism in the 1960s. (Bernie Sanders, by contrast, was arrested for his civil rights activism in the 1960s.)

More recently, Biden falsely claimed he’d been arrested while trying to see Nelson Mandela. In short, “alternative facts” won’t die when Trump leaves office.

All this is to say that Joe Biden is a typical politician, only more so. As Jimmy Dore says, politicians are not your friends; they are supposed to be public servants. It’s up to us to hold them to account, not to cheer for them. And if the Democratic party refuses to serve the people — as it likely will — a third party may be the only alternative.

Cutting the War Budget

We need McGovern-size cuts to America’s bloated war budget

W.J. Astore

This week, Congress will attempt to override President Trump’s veto of the NDAA, the national defense authorization act, which in 2021 provides $740 billion to the Pentagon and its wars. As usual, there is strong bipartisan support for this massive war budget. Democrats will join Republicans in bowing and scraping before the military-industrial complex, even as they frame it in terms of “supporting” the troops and defending America. In short, Trump’s veto will not stand.

I’m so fed up with Democrats serving the war party, denying health care to all Americans, and so on that I finally changed my political party designation in my home state. I am now a no-party independent instead of a registered Democrat. (My wife joined me as she’s no fan of “handsy” Joe Biden and the refusal of “centrist” Democrats to help people in meaningful ways.)

Perhaps that’s what we all need to do. Reject the Republican and Democratic parties and fight for a political establishment that would put people first rather than billionaires and corporations. Short of revolution, I don’t see other options that promise meaningful change.

To my knowledge, the last major party presidential candidate who called for meaningful reductions in war spending was George McGovern. For example, McGovern called for a defense budget in 1975 of $54.8 billion, roughly $32 billion less than what the Nixon administration had proposed. McGovern, of course, had to couch this in terms of America still being a superpower with a nuclear arsenal that would be second to none, but at least he had the courage to talk of peace and of new approaches to foreign policy that would put diplomacy first instead of weaponry and war. What a loser he was, right?

If we applied a McGovern-size cut to today’s NDAA, we’d be talking about a “defense” budget of roughly $470 billion a year, still plenty of money, one would think, for the Pentagon to defend America. The $270 billion in savings could and should be applied to stimulus checks for Americans desperate for help in these Covid-disturbed times.

Imagine Americans getting a check from the government — a rebate of sorts — as a peace dividend! What would Americans rather have: a bunch of expensive F-35 jet fighters; ultra-expensive newer nuclear weapons on top of the ultra-expensive older ones; or some cash in pocket to buy groceries and pay their rent? I don’t know about you, but more F-35s and more nuclear bombers and missiles are not helping my bottom line.

To return to my changed political party affiliation: When a Democratic president-elect nominates a retired general and board member of Raytheon as the best person to exercise civilian oversight over the Pentagon, you know the Democratic party is a toady to the military-industrial complex and devoid of integrity as well as fresh ideas.

War? What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Time for some peace dividends, America.

Because China

Why will this man be happy when Trump vetoes the NDAA?

W.J. Astore

President Trump says he will veto the NDAA that funds the Pentagon at $740 billion for FY 2021. Congress appears to have the votes to override his veto.

What caught my eye was part of Trump’s rationale for the veto: China. China will apparently be outraged when Trump vetoes the bill. Here’s the report (from the Guardian):

Trump says he will veto defense bill

Donald Trump once again said he intends to veto the annual defense authorization bill, setting up a potential veto override by Congress.

“I will Veto the Defense Bill, which will make China very unhappy,” the president said in a tweet. “They love it. Must have Section 230 termination, protect our National Monuments and allow for removal of military from far away, and very unappreciative, lands. Thank you!”

We just witnessed four years of red-baiting by the Democrats against the Republicans and Trump (“Moscow Mitch”?) with Russia as the Bad Red Guy. Prepare for four years of red-baiting by Republicans against the Democrats and Biden (“Hunter, Made in China”?) with China as the Bad Red Guy. The winner: the military-industrial complex. The loser: the American people, and perhaps the world.

Actually, Trump has a point about the NDAA inhibiting his ability to pull troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s too bad he didn’t focus on that and the issue of bipartisan support of endless wars.

But he had to hit the China gong, and it will resound loudly in the coming years. You know what they say about payback, Democrats …

Monday Musings, October Surprise Edition

My vote for 2020 is in …

W.J. Astore

The real October surprise is that there is no surprise. Trump or Biden will win, meaning Wall Street, Big Finance, and the Military-Industrial Complex win. (Biden is on record as saying he would increase defense spending!) All you “little people,” whether you’re for Trump or Biden: you lose.

My dad, born in 1917 and a survivor of the Great Depression, used to remind me you need three things in life: A roof over your head, three square meals, and clothes to keep you warm. (Nowadays, given the high cost of getting sick, I’d add health care coverage.) How sad is it that America may soon face a massive eviction crisis, and is already seeing people hungry in the streets, even as Wall Street booms? (Yes, I know America has had trouble housing and feeding people for decades — and it’s only getting worse.)

Amy Coney Barrett was picked for one reason, and one reason alone: Her mentors and handlers know how she will vote in the future. So much for judicial independence.

When you think about it, there shouldn’t be “liberal” or “conservative” justices. Each justice should interpret the law based on her understanding of it informed by her conscience. If this were true, justices would be more or less unpredictable in their rulings. But the justices are hopelessly politicized, rendering “justice” politicized as well.

Speaking of justice, Amy Coney Barrett is a friend of corporations; she’s also uncertain whether global warming even exists. Does this sound like a person with a strong conscience, someone who will fight for equality under the law?

What does it mean that the U.S. military is still at war in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but that few Members of Congress even attempt to exercise oversight of the same, let alone make an attempt to end these wars?

I got my ballot this weekend. Faced with a choice of voting for Biden and Harris versus Trump and Pence, I wrote in Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders, in that order. It’s the only way I couldn’t waste my vote.

Tulsi would make a great president. Young, insightful, smart, she’s taken a critical stance against the military-industrial complex and wants to end America’s awful regime-change wars. Bernie would make a terrific vice president. Seasoned, dedicated, he could focus on domestic policy while Tulsi remakes U.S. foreign policy. Imagine if Bernie really could advance his essential policies: Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, free college education, relief of student debt, and so on. Gabbard and Sanders are the closest candidates to my positions, so I voted for them.

There are still plenty of good people in the USA, but callousness and cruelty are on the rise. Who knew that as the Covid-19 death toll soars past 200,000 to approach possibly as high as 400,000 by the new year, so many people would just shrug collectively and then consider voting for a man who so disastrously mismanaged the pandemic response? Trump — what a loser!

Speaking of Trump, is he even our president? As near as I can tell, he’s spent most of his presidential days golfing, tweeting, attending rallies, signing statements and holding them up like a child, and traveling to and from his various resorts. America’s next authoritarian autocrat will be far less lazy and spoiled — and far more dangerous to the world.

The Election Without a Future

Their vision for the future is stuck in the past

W.J. Astore

Isn’t it remarkable that Joe Biden and Donald Trump have no compelling vision of a future America?

Both Biden and Trump are retrograde candidates. Biden talks of restoration. He wants to restore comity and decency. To turn the clock back to a mythical time of bipartisan accord. A time when Americans sought to help other Americans. Trump, of course, is about division and carnage but he has his own vision of restoration. Trumps appeals to the America of the 1950s, before the Civil Rights movement, before the Vietnam War protests, before the Women’s Liberation movement, before Roe v. Wade was the law of the land, and (taking it back even further, to the Roaring Twenties, perhaps), before FDR’s New Deal.

It tells us something that Biden and Trump are so past-oriented. It suggests our best days are behind us, that we know, on some level, the future is in the crapper, what with extreme weather, anti-social technologies, forever wars, pandemics, exploding deficits, and the ever-growing gap between the richest few and poorest many.

The America I grew up in was future-oriented. Space travel would be routine. We’d have a moonbase; we’d have journeyed to Mars and Jupiter; we’d have flying cars; we’d have rewarding work, with more leisure time; we’d live longer, healthier, richer lives. That was a vision of the new millennium, but here we are, twenty years into it, and our political candidates look desperately (Biden) or maniacally (Trump) to pasts that never really existed.

A saying attributed to Yogi Berra is that the future ain’t what it used to be. Now it seems we have no future. Just one day after another, chasing our tails and calling it “progress.”

Why is this? Perhaps it’s because certain powerful forces in American society like things just the way they are. They’d rather have us fighting over which past is more comfortable to us than have us reaching for a new future without them in charge. That’s one big reason we have two presidential candidates in their seventies with their gear shifts locked permanently in reverse.

Biden and Trump both want us peering closely into the rear view mirror (even as Trump’s is more distorted) when we should be looking ahead through the windshield. Put differently, Biden is comity without change, and Trump is American carnage on steroids. Considering both, it’s an election without a future.

Monday Musings: On Russia, Helplessness, and Polls

W.J. Astore

A few items for this Monday:

1. A strategic analyst wrote to me about how America can improve relations with Russia. The gist of my response was this:

I totally agree on ending the “new” cold war. But the military-industrial complex (MIC) seems determined to use threat inflation to justify high Pentagon budgets. Meanwhile, establishment Democrats think they can use Trump’s alleged softness toward Russia against him. Hardline policies rule the day.

What is to be done? First, I suppose, is recognizing the vital importance of domestic politics — and profit and power — vis-a-vis our foreign relations with Russia. As long as the MIC keeps exaggerating the Russian threat, and as long as the Democrats keep exaggerating the Russian threat to the election while alleging Trump is a Putin-puppet, there’s little we can do. We simply need to work to change the narrative.

2. So many Americans have a sense of learned powerlessness. We simply think there’s nothing we can do to effect change. As I wrote to a friend this weekend: Lots of people have lost faith in government. But they’ve lost faith in collective action as well. They just don’t think they can do anything to fight corruption and a rigged system.

They feel powerless — then a Messiah-like candidate comes along offering hope and change. (In a strange way, Trump is the yang to Obama’s yin.) Trump said he’d drain the swamp — but it proved fetid and fertile land for his long con. His supporters just love the guy even as he hurts them — but at least he makes them feel good, empowered, liberated from the libtards …

A true confidence man, Trump poses as a helper. He’s going to drain the swamp, make things better, make us (you) great again. Turn back the clock — when America was America, men were men, women were women.

Interestingly, Trump has no vision for the future. His vision is relentlessly retrograde. The only way we can be great “again” is by rejecting change and today’s “kids” who support BLM, LGBTQ, and so on.

A new wrinkle is the reactionary and authoritarian “blue lives matter” narrative. Who could have guessed that American activism would culminate in societal militarization and the glorification of police forces?

I’ve seen a few of these on cars and trucks — and I live in an allegedly strong Democratic state

3. Recent polling suggests Joe Biden has a lead of up to 14%. Don’t believe it. As I wrote to a friend: My sense is that this election will be very close. Many people support Trump but they keep that support quiet. And his people show up to vote. Maybe twice if they follow Trump’s advice. Plus, of course, it’s the electoral college that matters, not the popular vote. And there’s still a lot that can happen in the next month.

Readers, what are your musings for this Monday?

The Biden-Trump Debate: The Agony Booth

W.J. Astore

In the Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” Captain Kirk and a few other crewmembers find themselves in a parallel universe on a more barbaric ship. On this imperial version of the Enterprise, disobedient or otherwise malperforming crew are punished, tortured really, in an “agony booth.” And that’s exactly how I felt last night watching the Biden-Trump debate. What did I do wrong to be put in this agony booth? Fortunately, I was able to escape after 75 minutes. The “full-duration” just may have killed me.

I watched the debate with my wife (agony loves company), and she had some of the best lines of the night. Here’s a sampling:

  • Great, two old white guys again. It’s blinking Biden versus bully-boy Trump.
  • Trump’s just a horrible, badgering bully.
  • Biden’s already muddled and is mixing up his numbers.
  • Trump never smiles, never laughs. Mean people suck.
  • Trump is steamrolling over everything.

Really, the less said about this “debate,” the better. It was insult after insult, interruption after interruption, most of the insults and interruption coming from Trump. His followers, I assume, enjoy his bully-boy tactics, but they left me cold and made the “debate” unwatchable.

As usual, Trump played some of his greatest hits. Covid-19 is “the China plague” and is “China’s fault.” A vaccine is “weeks away” (with no mention of how many weeks. Five? Fifteen? Fifty?). He’s going to make insulin for diabetics as cheap and available as water. Even that he was the one who brought back Big Ten college football.

Speaking of football, Trump earned many penalties in this debate. Taunting. Unsportsmanlike conduct. Delay of game. Unnecessary roughness. The list goes on. Next time, instead of a debate moderator, I suggest a team of NFL referees with whistles and plenty of penalty flags.

Media spokespeople and candidate spin rooms are most concerned about which candidate “won” or “lost” the debate. My sense is that Trump, in dominating the debate — what a nasty man he is — “won.” And who lost? Anyone who was expecting a real debate.

Welcome to the agony booth that is politics in America.

There I am, in the Agony Booth (actually, it’s Ensign Chekov)

Proud to be a deplorable

W.J. Astore

Today, my wife got stuck behind a pickup truck sporting a bumper sticker of considerable meaning: “Proud to be a deplorable.” No, this wasn’t red state Mississippi; it was blue state Massachusetts.

It’s worth a chuckle or two, until you realize its larger meaning. Many people are proud to vote for Trump because establishment Democrats like Hillary Clinton don’t speak to them, except when they’re dismissing them as deplorables that are “irredeemable,” as Hillary put it in 2016.

Take that, Hillary and all you “libtards”!

It’s never smart to dismiss potential voters as dumbasses without hope, but Hillary thought she had the election in the bag. She lost because she ran a poor campaign and because her elitism and sense of privilege were so obvious. But she also had no compelling messages for the “deplorables.” And Trump did. Trump talked about bad trade deals, the offshoring of jobs, the betrayal of ordinary Americans by the financial set, the big money people, the ones who paid Hillary so handsomely for a few empty speeches.

Of course, Trump didn’t and doesn’t care about ordinary Americans. From all appearances, Trump cares only about himself (and perhaps his immediate family). Nevertheless, he was smart enough to offer the people something, even if all they were left with in the end was a rebel identity as a deplorable.

Establishment Democrats, demonstrating their ability to learn nothing, are once again offering “deplorables” nothing specific. No universal health care (indeed, Joe Biden said he’d veto such a bill if it reached his desk as president). No firm and trustworthy commitment to a $15 minimum wage. No firm and trustworthy commitment to ending those endless foreign wars. Biden promises nothing more than he’s not Trump, end of story.

His choice of Vice President backs this up. Kamala Harris is a conservative Democrat; she’s establishment through and through. But she’s a woman who’s multiracial, so this is considered proof of her diversity and her commitment to helping the less fortunate. Come again?

As Tulsi Gabbard pointed out during a debate, Harris smugly joked about smoking marijuana even as she put “deplorable” users into prison, among other positions that showcased her privileged hypocrisy, but no matter. Even though Harris dropped out early (after boasting of being a top-tier candidate), even though she couldn’t win a single delegate in the primaries, she was handpicked by Joe Biden to lend some excitement to the ticket. Mission unaccomplished.

So I fear, like Michael Moore, that Trump could win again, probably losing the popular vote but winning enough swing states to put him over the top in the electoral college. Trump could win because the “deplorables” in their trucks across blue- and red state America know how to stand by their man. Even though he’s a no-good cheatin’ fool, Trump offers them something, something unquantifiable but powerful, an identity, perhaps, and the ability, in casting their votes, to give a big FU to all the elites that keep telling them they don’t measure up — and never will.