Trump, the Wall, and Ruling by Emergency Decree

Paul v. Hindenburg
As President of Weimar, Paul von Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree, becoming a proto-dictator.  Is America heading down that road?

W.J. Astore

In the Weimar Republic of Germany during the early 1930s, the President of that time, Paul von Hindenburg, ruled increasingly by emergency decree due to a hopelessly divided and ineffectual Reichstag (parliament or congress).  In 1932, for example, Hindenburg issued 66 emergency decrees while the Reichstag itself succeeded in passing only five laws.  Even before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Hindenburg had emerged, in a supposedly democratic Germany, as a fuhrer or dictator, issuing decrees in the name of getting things done.  A time-limited “emergency” executive power, in sum, became Weimar’s new normal, setting the stage for a much more malignant autocracy in the future.

As Donald Trump contemplates declaring a national emergency to enlarge America’s preexisting wall along the border with Mexico, Americans would do well to remember the Weimar example.  Ruling by emergency decree is the path to authoritarianism, and Congress, no matter how divided or ineffectual it is, should act to stop executive overreach before it finds itself neutered and irrelevant.

Of course, the U.S. Congress has already largely refused to exercise its “power of the purse” over the military as well as its power to declare (and control) America’s wars.  Whether America’s elected representatives have the collective guts to stop Trump’s potential usurpation of power remains to be seen.

One thing is certain.  Americans are growing accustomed to a divided, dysfunctional, even a shutdown, government.  And we’re growing accustomed to presidents acting like dictators, especially under circumstances couched as “wars” or other national emergencies (as determined by that same executive branch).  No matter your political party or allegiance (or lack thereof), this is not how democracy works — it’s how democracy dies.

A Few Observations on War, Sports, Fortresses, America, and Life

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America the beautiful?  Yes, that’s a stealth bomber designed for nuclear attack cruising over a football stadium, because America!

W.J. Astore

It’s a new year!  And as we adjust to 2019, I thought I’d share a few random observations (hopefully of some import).

“Retirement”: Many Americans fear the concept of retirement.  Part of the challenge is coming to grips with the word.  In America, your identity often hinges on your title, your job, and your paycheck.  Since retiring from teaching (after retiring from the military), I’m still mentally adjusting to not having a fixed schedule, to not having expectations on the job that have to be met. I’ve never been an especially driven person but I’ve always sought to do well. Now I have to do well on terms defined by me. It’s a mental adjustment.

One thing is certain: society is always trying to pigeonhole us.  When I tell people I’m “retired,” the immediate response is “You’re too young” or “But what do you do?” said in an incredulous voice.  To avoid this problem, sometimes I tell people I’m a writer or a historian, both true, though I currently have no salaried position as such.  To state the obvious, American culture is job-centered. Look at our health care: lose your job, lose your health insurance. So much of our identity, as well as our ability to navigate American society, is based on our jobs.

People find meaning in work.  But inspiration can be found elsewhere.  Find something of value to you that’s inspiring and I don’t think you’ll ever be “retired.”

“A man’s home is his castle”: Is it good that men are encouraged to think of their homes as their castles?  For what are castles but fortresses? And fortresses need defending, with guns and security alarms and fences and all the rest.  And if a man is Lord of his Castle, then everyone else is his subject, including his wife and children. Perhaps especially his wife and children.  We need to think of home as home, not as a castle, not as a fortress in which a man fortifies and actuates his own fears and aggression.  (This observation was inspired by an article on male violence in the home.)

On Mourning America’s War Dead: A subject worthy of discussion is how we mourn our troops. When flag-draped caskets return to American soil, our troops are honored. But they are mourned mainly within family settings, or among neighbors in close-knit communities. Rarely are they mourned within wider communal settings. And I sense that some families are torn: there is little serenity for them, not only because they lost a loved one, but because there is a sense, a suspicion, that loved ones died for lesser causes, causes unrelated to ideals held sacred.

Of course, a soldier never dies in vain when he dies for his fellow troops. But that can be said of all soldiers on all sides in all wars. In a republic like the USA, or a polis as in ancient Greece, soldiers are supposed to die for something greater than the unit. That larger purpose is a communal ideal. Call it truth, justice, and the American way. Or call it something else, a sense of rightness if not righteousness.

But where is the rightness in America’s wars today?

On America’s Standing Military and Congressional Authority:  The nation’s founders knew there’d be national emergencies that would require a larger “standing” military (i.e., not just state militias of “minutemen”), but they wanted to prevent a state of permanent war, which they attempted to do with the two-year appropriation clause. They were well familiar with history and all those hundred years’, thirty years’, and seven years’, wars.  By giving the people (Congress) the power of the purse, they hoped to prevent those long wars by cutting off open-ended funding.

Of course, today that doesn’t apply.  The AUMF (authorization for the use of military force) that dates from 2001 is used to justify a state of perpetual war and the funding of the same.  Congress has abnegated its responsibility to check overweening Executive power for war-making, but actually it’s worse than that: Congress has joined the Executive branch in pursuing perpetual war. We no longer even bother with formal Congressional declarations; permanent war is considered to be the new normal in America: business as usual.

Not only have we created a permanent standing military — we devote the lion’s share of federal resources to it and brag about how great it is.  That reality is antithetical to our national ideals as imagined and articulated by this nation’s founders.

Sports, Movies, and the Military in America:  There’s a tendency for people to dismiss sports as “just sports” or movies as “just movies.” Yet astute people recognize the power of both. The classic case is Nazi Germany and the 1936 Olympics, and of course Leni Riefenstahl and spectacles like “The Triumph of the Will.” These, of course, were blatant, in-your-face, rallies. Today, U.S. sports/military celebrations may not be as blatant, but sports connects powerfully to feel-good patriotism as fanatical boosterism, which is precisely why the military is so eager to appropriate sports imagery (and to infiltrate sporting events). The corporate sponsors see it as a win-win: a win for profits, and a win for their image as “patriots.”

Hollywood is the dream factory. Sports too has a strong fantasy element. Speaking as an American male, who hasn’t dreamed of hitting the big home run like Big Papi or pitching a no-hitter like Matt Scherzer?

Man does not live by bread alone; to a certain extent, we live by dreams. Through our aspirations. And our dreams and aspirations are being channeled along certain lines: along more military lines, both at and by sporting events as well as at the movie theater.

It’s not just crass commercialism. It’s about shaping dreams, defining what’s appropriate (and what isn’t).

Thank you for indulging me as I cram into this article a few observations I’ve been kicking around.  I’d also like as ever to thank all my readers and especially my faithful commenters and correspondents.  Fire away in the comments section, readers!

Putting Labor back in Labor Day Weekend

WPR: Marches & Pickets

W.J. Astore

Labor Day weekend is a reminder there’s no labor party in U.S. politics.  Instead, we have two pro-business parties: the Republicans and the Republicans-lite, otherwise known as the Democrats.  Both are coerced if not controlled by corporations through campaign finance “contributions” (bribes) and lobbyists (plus the promise of high-paying jobs should your local member of Congress lose an election or wish to transition to a much higher paying job as a lobbyist/influence peddler).  With money now defined as speech, thanks to the Supreme Court, there’s a lot of “speech” happening in Congress that has nothing to do with the concerns of workers.

Nevertheless, a myth exists within the mainstream media that “socialist” progressive politicians are coming this fall to take your money and to give it to the undeserving poor (and especially to “illegal” immigrants, who aren’t even citizens!).  First of all, the so-called Democratic Socialists are not advocating nationalization of industry; they’re basically New Deal Democrats in the tradition of FDR.  Just like Republicans, they believe in capitalism and the “free” market; they just want to sand down some of the rougher edges of exploitation.  Consider, for example, Bernie Sanders’s efforts to get a living wage for Disney employees.  Disney has finally promised to pay workers $15.00 an hour (phased in over the next few years), even as the corporation makes record profits and the CEO stands to earn hundreds of millions.  Second, you’ll notice the bulk of the Trumpian tax breaks aren’t going to the workers and middle class: it’s the richest Americans (and corporations) that benefit the most from these cuts.  Some of that money is supposed to “trickle down” to workers, but most of it doesn’t.  (Funding stock buy-backs, not pay raises, is especially popular among corporations.)

My father knew the score.  As a factory worker, he lived the reality of labor exploitation, and fought his own humble battle for decent wages.  I’ve shared this lesson before, but it bears repeating, especially since it’s Labor Day weekend.

My Dad’s Story

(My dad was attempting to get a dime pay raise at the local factory.  This was about the year 1950.)

It seems that Mike Calabrese on his own asked Harry Callahan [one of the owners] for a pay raise and he was refused. Mike decided to organize the men members and go down in a group. In our group he got ten men to approach Harry C. for a raise. But when it was time to “bell the cat” only three fellows went to see Harry. Well Mike said he couldn’t join the group because he had already tried to get a raise. I knew I was being used but I was entitled to a raise. Well Harry said to me, “What can I do for you men?” So I said to Harry: 1) Living costs were going up; 2) We deserved a raise. So Harry said, “How much?” and I said ten cents an hour would be a fair raise. So he said I’ll give you a nickel an hour raise and later you’ll get the other nickel. We agreed. So, I asked Harry will everyone get a raise and he replied, “Only the ones that I think deserve it.”

Well a month later I was drinking water at the bubbler and Harry saw me and said what a hard job they had to get the money to pay our raises. Well, Willie, Harry Callahan and his brother Sam and their two other Italian brother partners all died millionaires. No other truer saying than, “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.”

My dad was no political radical.  He later became a firefighter and served for more than 30 years before retiring.  It’s precisely because my dad wasn’t a political firebrand that his words resonate so powerfully: “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.”

It’s a good lesson to keep in mind.  Isn’t it high time we put Labor back in Labor Day weekend?

National Defense versus Global (In)Security

armada
Carrier strike forces, bombers, fighters: As American as apple pie

W.J. Astore

Our government likes to talk about global security, which in their minds is basically synonymous with homeland security.  They argue that the best defense is a good offense, that “leaning forward in the foxhole,” or always being ready to attack, is the best way to keep Americans safe.  Hence the 800 U.S. military bases in foreign countries, the deployment of special operations units to 130+ countries, and the never-ending “war on terror.”

Consider this snippet from today’s FP: Foreign Policy report:

If Congress votes through the massive tax cuts currently on the House floor, it would likely mean future cuts to Pentagon budgets “for training, maintenance, force structure, flight missions, procurement and other key programs.”

That’s according to former defense secretaries Leon E. Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, who sent a letter to congressional leadership Wednesday opposing the plan. “The result is the growing danger of a ‘hollowed out’ military force that lacks the ability to sustain the intensive deployment requirements of our global defense mission,” the secretaries wrote.

“Our global defense mission”: this vision that the U.S., in order to be secure, must dominate the world ensures profligate “defense” spending, to the tune of nearly $700 billion for 2018.  Indeed, the Congress and the President are currently competing to see which branch of government can throw more money at the Pentagon, all in the name of “security,” naturally.

Here’s a quick summary of the new “defense” bill and what it authorizes (from the Washington Post):

The bill as it stands increases financial support for missile defense, larger troop salaries and modernizing, expanding and improving the military’s fleet of ships and warplanes. The legislation dedicates billions more than Trump’s request for key pieces of military equipment, such as Joint Strike Fighters — there are 20 more in the bill than in the president’s request — and increasing the size of the armed forces. The bill also outlines an increase of almost 20,000 service members — nearly twice Trump’s request.

In the House of Representatives, the bill passed by a vote of 356-70.  At least Congress can agree on something — more and more money for the Pentagon.  (The $700 billion price tag includes $65.7 billion “for combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, various places in Africa, and elsewhere,” notes FP: Foreign Policy.)

Besides all this wasteful spending (the Pentagon has yet to pass an audit!), the vision itself is deeply flawed.  If you want to defend America, defend it.  Strengthen the National Guard.  Increase security at the border (including cyber security).  Spend money on the Coast Guard.  And, more than anything, start closing military bases overseas.  End U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the greater Middle East and Africa.  Bring ground troops home.  And end air and drone attacks (this would also end the Air Force’s “crisis” of being short nearly 2000 pilots).

This is not a plea for isolationism.  It’s a quest for sanity.  America is not made safer by spreading military forces around the globe while bombing every “terrorist” in sight.  Quite the reverse.

Until we change our vision of what national defense really means–and what it requires–America will be less safe, less secure, and less democratic.

The Missions Unaccomplished Force

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At least we win in Hollywood …

Tom Engelhardt.  Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich has a new article at TomDispatch as well as a new book on America’s War for the Greater Middle East (my copy is already coming in the mail). Bacevich’s main point in his latest article couldn’t be more clear: Congressional cowardice.  Congress refuses to exercise the people’s authority over presidential warmaking, a gross dereliction of duty that ensures perpetual wars with missions perennially left unaccomplished.  And that is the theme of Tom Engelhardt’s introduction to Bacevich’s article.

You’ve heard of the Impossible Missions Force, or IMF, which somehow always gets the job done, whether led by Martin Landau or Peter Graves or Tom Cruise?  Well, that’s Hollywood.  In the real world, we have the MUF, or Missions Unaccomplished Force.  Yes, they always muff it, no matter if the “Decider” is the strutting George W. Bush or the cool and calculating Barack Obama.  But let Tom Engelhardt tell the tale …  W.J. Astore  

The Missions Unaccomplished Force, by Tom Engelhardt

It was a large banner and its message was clear.  It read: “Mission Accomplished,” and no, I don’t mean the classic “mission accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln under which, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush proudly proclaimed (to the derision of critics ever since) that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”  I’m actually referring to a September 1982 banner with those same two words (and an added “farewell” below them) displayed on a landing craft picking up the last Marines sent ashore in Beirut, Lebanon, to be, as President Ronald Reagan put it when they arrived the previous August, “what Marines have been for more than 200 years — peace-makers.”  Of course, when Bush co-piloted an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto the deck of the Abraham Lincoln and made his now-classic statement, major combat had barely begun in Iraq (and it has yet to end) — nor was it peace that came to Beirut in September 1982: infamously, the following year 241 Marines would die there in a single day, thanks to a suicide bomber.

“Not for the last time,” writes Andrew Bacevich in his monumental new work, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, “the claim proved to be illusory.”  Indeed, one of the grim and eerie wonders of his book is the way in which just about every wrongheaded thing Washington did in that region in the 14-plus years since 9/11 had its surprising precursor in the two decades of American war there before the World Trade Center towers came down.  U.S. military trainers and advisers, for example, failed (as they later would in Iraq and Afghanistan) to successfully build armies, starting with the Lebanese one; Bush’s “preventive war” had its predecessor in a Reagan directive called (ominously enough given what was to come) “combating terrorism”; Washington’s obsessive belief of recent years that problems in the region could be solved by what Andrew Cockburn has called the “kingpin strategy” — the urge to dismantle terror organizations by taking out their leadership via drones or special operations raids — had its precursor in “decapitation” operations against Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid with similar resulting mayhem.  The belief that “an additional increment of combat power might turn around a failing endeavor” — call it a “surge,” if you will — had its Iraq and Afghan pretrial run in Somalia in 1993.  And above all, of course, there was Washington’s unquenchable post-1980 urge to intervene, military first, in a decisive way throughout the region, which, as Bacevich writes, only “produced conditions conducive to further violence and further disorder,” and if that isn’t the repetitive history of America’s failed post-2001 wars in a nutshell, what is?

As it happened, the effects of such actions from 1980 on were felt not just in the Greater Middle East and Africa, but in the United States, too.  There, as Bacevich writes today, war became a blank-check activity for a White House no longer either checked (in any sense) or balanced by Congress.  Think of it as another sad tale of a surge (or do I mean a decapitation?) that went wrong.

Above the people, beside the people, against the people

abe

W.J. Astore

Remember when Abraham Lincoln wrote about our government as being “of the people, by the people, for the people”?  Even after 150 years, those words still resonate, but they are increasingly less true.  Today, our government places itself above the people, and when the government is not working against the interests of (most of) the people, it acts as if the people’s interests are beside the point.

We’ve entered a new historical moment in America, which is precisely the point of Tom Engelhardt’s latest essay at TomDispatch.com.  As Engelhardt notes, our electoral process is “part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession, and part media money machine.” Our foreign policy, and increasingly our domestic policy as well, is dominated by the national security state, the one leviathan in our government that is never paralyzed.  The political process itself is ever more divisive, polarized, and disconnected from the hardships faced by the working and middle classes.  Even planetary dangers such as climate change are either denied or ignored, as if denial or ignorance will keep seas and temperatures from rising.

The very disconnection of our government from painful realities explains in part the appeal of “maverick” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  Yes, they are two very different men, but what they have in common is their willingness to take the side of ordinary Americans, who have seen their standard of living stagnate or drop over the last thirty years.  Trump says he wants to make America great again: the implicit message is that we pretty much suck now, that we are a nation in decline, and that the sooner we admit it, the sooner we can take action to restore America to greatness.  Sanders says he wants a future we can believe in, which is at its core much like Trump’s message.  America has serious problems, both men are saying, but greatness is still within our grasp if only we act together as a people.

Again, much separates Trump and Sanders, yet both are willing to admit the times are bad for many hardworking Americans.  What they’re saying is this: the American dream is increasingly a nightmare.  And part of the nightmare is a government that doesn’t act in the people’s interests because it’s been co-opted by special interests.  A government that can’t even do its job, such as to declare war or to advise on a Supreme Court nominee, in accordance with its Constitutional duties.

The promise and potential of our country remains.  But that promise, that potential, is being squandered by an alliance of various interests that are no longer responsive to the people.  If not dead, representative democracy in America is on life support.  Unless we can reinvigorate it, as Engelhardt notes in his article, we will continue to suffer a decline analogous to the declines of other great empires (think Rome, for example).  The difference today is the possibility of planetary-wide destruction, whether quickly from nuclear weapons or slowly from climate change.

Never was a revival in American democracy more urgently needed, not only for ourselves, but for the world.

The Yearly Federal Budget for Planned Parenthood: About the Cost of Two F-35 Fighter Jets

Misleading and dishonest chart shown at Congressional hearing to attack Planned Parenthood
Misleading and dishonest chart shown at Congressional hearing to attack Planned Parenthood

W.J. Astore

My wife and I were talking about the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood and how ludicrous it is in the grand scheme of things.  The Federal Government contributes just over $500 million to the budget of Planned Parenthood.  That’s the equivalent of two F-35 jet fighters to support vitally important health services provided at 700 clinics across the country.  Talk about bang for the buck!

If a person playing with a full deck had to make a choice, which would she choose to fund: basic medical and information services for nearly three million Americans each year, or two underperforming F-35 jet fighters?  Indeed, for the projected cost of the F-35 program, you could easily fund Planned Parenthood for more than 2000 years!

Speaking of Planned Parenthood, it’s reassuring to know such centers and clinics exist, especially given how squeamish Americans are, generally speaking, about sex.  Planned Parenthood provides invaluable services at low cost, but I guess Congress prefers funding extraneous jet fighters at sky-high cost.

The true chart for the services rendered by Planned Parenthood is below, courtesy of Politifact.  The false chart had been used to suggest Planned Parenthood was increasing abortions and decreasing cancer screening services.  But a decline in cancer screening is due mainly to changes in frequency of pap smears, and abortion rates have held steady across time.  Note all of the other services provided, to include screening for STDs.

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Of course, phony charts and Congressional hearings are all about politics and hot button issues like abortion.  Hysterical opposition to Planned Parenthood is a cynical exercise in emotional manipulation by disinformation and scare-mongering.  The sad thing is how easily it gains traction in our country.

Even as Republican men (yes — it’s mostly men) beat their collective chests about Planned Parenthood, consider that the Federal Budget (discretionary) for FY 2016 is $1.168 trillion.  Recall that total federal funding for Planned Parenthood is a mere $500 million.  If this was shown on a pie chart, the budgetary piece for Planned Parenthood would not be a slice; not even a sliver.  It would be a flake off of the crust.

Compare this to defense spending, Homeland Security, and war funding, which constitutes more than half the federal pie (discretionary spending), and which a Republican Congress wants to increase.  Still think we should focus on flakes off the crust of the pie?

For shame, Congress.  For shame, all of us, for allowing our politics to be manipulated by liars, opportunists, and ignoramuses.

(Note: Planned Parenthood “provides sexual and reproductive health care, education, information, and outreach to more than five million women, men, and adolescents worldwide each year.  2.7 million women and men in the United States annually visit Planned Parenthood affiliate health centers for trusted health care services and information.”  Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?  Except that it’s true.)