A good friend of mine, a Kiwi, sent me an update on Jacinda Ardern’s priorities for action in New Zealand. It’s known there as a “Wellbeing Budget.”
* Creating opportunities for productive businesses, regions, iwi and others to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy.
* Supporting a thriving nation in the digital age through innovation, social and economic opportunities.
* Reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing, including addressing family violence.
* Supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders, with a special focus on under 24-year-olds.
* Lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities.
I know: New Zealand is a small country on the other side of the world; a superpower like the United States has nothing to learn from Kiwis, right?
What struck me about these priorities is, well, that New Zealand has some. That they’re clear and concise and focused on well-being for children and teenagers and families. That they address poverty. And that climate change isn’t forgotten (“sustainable” and “low-emissions” economy).
What about America’s great leader, Donald Trump? What are his priorities for national well-being? Near as I can tell, these are Trump’s priorities:
1. Enriching himself and his family.
2. Avoiding impeachment, or exploiting it if he is impeached.
3. Getting reelected.
4. More golf.
5. Screwing anyone who resists him.
What about issues like “build the wall”? I don’t think Trump cares whether the wall is built; it’s merely a convenient issue to exploit as he rallies his base. What about ending access to abortion? Again, I don’t think Trump cares about this issue, except as it energizes a key component of his base. What about appointing lots of conservative justices and judges? Again, Trump cares only in the sense that such judges and justices will rule in a way that upholds his privileges.
My Kiwi friend’s list got me to reflect on the lack of consensus for action in the USA today among our “leaders”/politicians. (Well, there is bipartisan support for enormous military budgets, but that’s about it.) Put differently, most Americans express support for single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the richest Americans, climate-friendly policies, and so on, but our bought-and-paid-for politicians act against the people’s wishes.
Various power brokers may laugh at Trump’s vanities and object to his vulgarity and his selfishness and greed, but they also abet him because he serves to divide people while protecting elite privileges against reformers like Bernie Sanders.
I know one thing: the answer isn’t Joe Biden or any other DNC-approved candidate. The answer is a movement that unites behind a candidate that actually cares for people like us, someone like Bernie Sanders. Short of that, well-being will be in very short supply in America’s future.
Donald Trump is exploiting a weakness in our media — its quest for eyeballs at any cost. Trump is best at gluing eyeballs to the screen — he inflames his supporters and infuriates his detractors. Meanwhile, he oversees a train wreck of an administration that dominates headlines. “If it bleeds, it leads” — and our country is bleeding under his leadership.
Media owners seem to see synergy here: empower Trump with free and sweeping coverage and watch ratings and profits soar. But Trump is a parasite. He’s drawing strength from the media even as he sucks its power and influence dry. But the biggest loser is democracy, since the Trump-media nexus is degrading (and perhaps destroying) fact-based decision-making.
These thoughts came to mind as I read Tom Engelhardt’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. Trump, Engelhardt notes, has the unique and ultimately pernicious ability to drive — and often to dominate — discourse:
Never, not ever, has a single human being been so inescapable. You can’t turn on the TV news, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, wander on social media, or do much of anything else without almost instantly bumping into or tripping over… him, attacking them, praising himself, telling you how wonderful or terrible he feels and how much he loves or loathes… well, whatever happens to be ever so briefly on his mind that very moment.
Engelhardt highlights an important truth later in his piece: Trump’s true “base” is the very “fake news” media he’s so happy to attack.
Of course, Trump has always been a relentless, even ruthless, self-promoter. Now that he’s president, the media can’t exactly ignore him (or can they?). But what’s truly shocking is how the mainstream media is so supinely subservient to him. How unwilling they are to call him a liar when he lies; and how unwilling they are to critique their own obsequious coverage in a way that would lead to meaningful changes.
The media can’t get enough of Trump. Knowing this dependency, Trump exploits it, relentlessly. He reminds me of Agent Smith in “The Matrix” movies. He’s a rapidly-replicating virus that, if left unchecked, will destroy the matrix of American democracy . The question is: How is Trump to be neutralized, or at least contained, when the media keeps feeding him?
Breaking News: Jim Acosta got his press pass back. Big deal. Now Trump can score more points off of CNN and its “fake news” machine.
Here are a few random thoughts I’ve had over the last few days.
1. I’m still reeling from Donald Trump confessing how he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love.” Imagine if Barack Obama had gushed about falling in love with a communist dictator? Fox News and the Republicans would have crucified him.
2. Brett Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court justice. But imagine if he’d been black. Would he have survived sexual assault allegations from three white women? Or imagine if he’d been a woman and boasted of liking beer, lots of beer, while losing self-control before the Senate judiciary committee. A female Kavanaugh would have been dismissed as hysterical and unsuited for the pressures of the court, methinks. In sum, a certain type of privilege still exists for certain types of white males.
3. Last night, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of colluding with the Russians. Trump’s tactics on this issue have run the gamut from denying he colluded, to saying it’s not illegal to collude, to charging his opponent with the (apparent) crime of colluding. This is not to say I believe Trump colluded with the Russians (though his constant denials make me think he’s got a lot to hide). While we wait for the Mueller investigation to conclude, it’s worth recalling that candidate Trump asked the Russians to hack Hillary’s server to find her missing emails. Perhaps this was merely a snide remark by an unhinged candidate, but why were Trump campaign staffers meeting with Russians? To help speed adoption of Russian kids by Americans?
But here’s a key point: Trump didn’t win because of Russian “collusion.” He won because Hillary ran a poor campaign. The collusion story (assuming there’s something to it) is a minor issue compared to the real damage Trump does every day as president, e.g. dismissing the perils of climate change as a “Chinese hoax.”
4. At TomDispatch.com, Juan Cole has a fine piece on Islamophobia and how it’s promoted by the Trump administration. It has at least three components. The first is resentment stemming from 9/11, which embarrassed the Republicans since it happened on their watch. The second is religion, that old crusading spirit of evangelicals and conservative Catholics. The third is entitlement/resentment. You know the saying: Who put America’s oil under the desert sands of the Middle East? America’s leaders, and so many of their countrymen, believe all that oil should be theirs.
5. There’s an argument that Trump is no worse than other politicians like Obama or the Clintons. Indeed, that in some way his mendacity is refreshing: that he’s torn the mask off American exceptionalism, revealing all the hypocrisy, all the duplicity, all the crimes against humanity, that other politicians work to keep hidden.
It’s tempting to say “they all do it.” But Trump’s dishonesty is constant. He lies just to stay in shape. And his lies are calculated to sow discord — to divide. Divide and rule is his strategy. Reaping profit for himself is his goal. He’s always been a con man, but now the entire country, indeed the entire world, is his mark.
Because he’s anti-democratic, because he’s a divider, because he loves dictators while mocking people weaker than him, for these and many other reasons, Trump is worse. Trump is making cruelty normal, even admirable (at least to his followers). He’s not so much ripping a mask off America as he is reveling in his own nastiness while encouraging likeminded people in America and around the world to join him.
News of the death of Senator John McCain from cancer has generated enormous sympathy and praise. When he ran for president in 2008, McCain was known as a “maverick” in the media, even though his views were rarely that far removed from traditional Republican orthodoxy. Maybe it was his style that won him that nickname. A former Navy fighter pilot and prisoner of war during the Vietnam war, McCain was less guarded than most politicians, and he courted the media with candor and humor (what a contrast to Donald Trump, who denounces the media as “the enemy of the people”).
Rolling the dice in the 2008 campaign, McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, a folksy governor from Alaska with virtually no experience in national or international politics. But what Palin had was strong populist instincts and a certain plain-speaking charisma. If McCain was the “maverick,” Palin was the “rogue” candidate. She helped to unleash a populist (anti-intellectual) fervor in the Republican party that culminated with Donald Trump.
I well remember the 2008 election. I was living in rural Pennsylvania and both vice-presidential candidates came for a visit. Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, filled a high school gymnasium — roughly 600 people. Sarah Palin filled a minor league baseball stadium to overflowing — roughly 13,000 people.
Back then, Rebecca Traister wrote about Palin’s triumphal tour of rural Pennsylvania here. She also wrote about Palin’s rally at that minor league baseball stadium, Bowman Field. For some reason, the link to that article (which appeared originally at Salon.com) no longer works, but another blogger (“Lowell”) at Contextual Criticism cited portions of it back in early November 2008. Here’s how that blogger, quoting Traister, set the scene:
Palin is in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It is a cold Thursday night. Thirteen thousand faithful, with “their Christian literature and thundersticks in tow,” have come to an outdoor baseball stadium to see the hockey mom from Alaska, the moose-slayer, the pit bull who ignites their basest instincts.
“Finally, about an hour before Palin’s scheduled arrival, Bowman Field kicked off its pre-party with the National Anthem sung under the giant flag suspended from a crane over the ‘Victory in Pennsylvania’ sign. A security sniper ogled the chilly crowd with his night-vision glasses, and a local minister took the stage to offer a benediction that hit the trifecta of guns, gays and abortion. The preacher asked forgiveness ‘for so many [who] have shed innocent blood through the course of abortions, and so many [who] would stop the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.’ With these abominations in mind, the preacher continued, ‘Thank you for raising up a woman like Gov. Sarah Palin at a time like this. Bless her for standing against those who would remove the guns from our cabinets, and those who would want to remove the baby from the womb of her mother. Bless her family as they adjust to changes in their lives that are going to be taking place on Tuesday.'”
Ms. Traister writes that “Palin was her down-home bestest, peppering her brief address with references to First Dude’s four snow-machine world championships, a lot of gratitude toward the veterans in the crowd, and a lot of folksy, g-droppin’ references to how ‘the time for choosin’s comin’ real soon,’ a golden-oldie reference to Ronald Reagan’s famous 1964 speech in support of Barry Goldwater. Combined with Palin’s repeated use of the phrases ‘You betcha!’ and ‘Drill, baby, drill!’ and her guess that the crowd was ‘so doggone proud’ of the Phillies, and her environmental justification that ‘God has so richly blessed this land with resources’ that [we] should probably strip-mine it, Palin seemed to be imitating Tina Fey’s imitation of her on ‘Saturday Night Live.'”
Toward the end, Palin invoked Reagan again, saying “In the end, what John McCain and I believe in is what Ronald Reagan believes in … we believe that America is still that shining City on a Hill that Ronald Reagan used to speak of.”
Now, lest you think Ms. Traister got out of that God-lovin’ bunch of folks without incident, think again. Here’s how she tells it:
“While I was interviewing some of the attendees, accompanied by another Salon staffer who was holding a video camera, a Palin fan in a newish silver sedan drove by and hit me hard in the back with the side mirror of the car, hard enough to bend the mirror back. Then the car drove off without anybody inside pausing to ask if I was all right. The middle-aged woman in the passenger seat, however, might have saluted me with an un-Christian hand gesture.”
Yes — that happened. Traister, a journalist, was hit “hard in the back” by a car, earning a middle-finger salute for her pains from one of the passengers. Talk about being anti-media! Small wonder that Trump’s diatribes resonate so well with “God-lovin'” people across the USA.
After the rallies in 2008, I asked my students (I was teaching college at the time) about them. They gushed about Palin. One of my students was especially taken by Palin’s husband, whom she considered to be a stud. None of my students had anything to say about the (much smaller and comparatively sedate) Biden rally.
Then and now, the mainstream media and the Democratic Party dismissed Palin as a joke, just as they initially dismissed Trump as a joke in 2015. Yet, as I wrote about Palin in 2010:
Much of what’s been said about Palin was also said of another backwoods American whose values were honed on the frontier: President Andrew Jackson. Palin may be no Jackson, but the liberal media’s sneering dismissal of her constitutes an indulgent, often self-congratulatory, narrative. It’s also a repudiation of our Jacksonian heritage of tough-minded, plain-speaking independence.
Like Jackson, Palin makes no pretense about being a cultivated American. Like it or not, she’s seen by her admirers as genuine precisely because she’s not a conflicted intellectual — precisely because she doesn’t confuse her followers by revealing a fourth side to every three-sided problem. Gosh darn it, she just loves God and loves America and loves our troops and loves her special baby and … well … that’s more than enough for her many admirers and followers.
Rural people in “fly-over” country are naturally suspicious of slick politicians who are both too smarmy and too clever for their own good. Palin is naturally “aw shucks” and seemingly content with her knowledge of the world. And, like Andrew Jackson before her, Palin is unapologetic, undeferential, and unabashedly proud to be an American. One simply can’t imagine her making a “patronizing apology tour” of European capitals, as President Obama was accused of doing by conservatives.
And which past president does Trump believe he’s most like? Andrew Jackson. Trump is, in a way, a male Palin with a lot more celebrity, lots more money, and scads of mendacity.
By selecting Palin as his running mate in 2008, McCain helped to open a door for future populists, a door Trump jumped through in 2015. It may not be McCain’s defining legacy, but it is, perhaps, his most negative.
Reference: See David Smith, “John McCain opened Pandora’s box – Sarah Palin came out, but Trump was right behind her. The senator regretted his choice of running mate. In 2008, no one could have imagined what it would mean,” at The Guardian, which got me thinking about this issue.
America’s MAGA President, Donald Trump, has generated enormous criticism for his news conference with Vladimir Putin. Typical of this is James Fallows at The Atlantic, who wrote that “Never before have I seen an American president consistently, repeatedly, publicly, and shockingly advance the interests of another country over those of his own government and people.” A “national nightmare,” opined The Washington Post. A “train wreck,” said NBC News, that made Russians “gleeful.”
Is Trump advancing the interests of Russia? Is this an example of high crimes and misdemeanors, perhaps even rising to treason?
Methinks not. Trump, if he is advancing Russian interests, is doing so indirectly. Because only one thing matters to Trump: his own interests. With Trump, it really is all about him.
Consider the accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Trump is never going to side with his intelligence agencies on this issue. He thinks that, by doing so, he’d be admitting that maybe he didn’t win fair and square over “Crooked Hillary.” He refuses to countenance Russian meddling, not because he’s a Putin stooge, but rather because he’s an egomaniac. He’ll admit to nothing that diminishes, however slightly, his victory — and his ego.
Russia doesn’t matter to Trump. Indeed, America doesn’t matter to Trump. With Trump, it’s really all about him. Recall how he visited the CIA and boasted about himself while standing before the wall that commemorates fallen CIA officers. Recall how he declared the military would follow his orders regardless of their legality. He rashly accuses Democrats of not caring about the troops or border security whenever they oppose his policies. He does best with foreign leaders, like the Saudis and Israelis, who are at pains to flatter him. He apparently can’t stand Angela Merkel because she doesn’t play the flattery game.
Trump lives in his own reality, a narcissistic swirl of fabrications, falsehoods, and lies. He’s happiest when he’s commanding the scene, when people are kowtowing to him, when he can boast about himself and advertise his businesses (during this latest trip, he went to a Trump golf course in Scotland and waxed about its “magical” qualities).
In short, Trump is not treasonous. He simply has no concept of public service. He has no capacity to serve any cause other than himself.
Readers, what do you think of the treason accusations against Trump?
[This essay is the introduction to Tom Engelhardt’s new book, A Nation Unmade by War, a Dispatch Book published by Haymarket Books.]
(Since 2007, I’ve had the distinct honor of writing for Tom Engelhardt and TomDispatch.com. Tom is a patriot in the best sense of that word: he loves his country, and by that I mean the ideals and freedoms we cherish as Americans. But his love is not blind; rather, his eyes are wide open, his mind is sharp, and his will is unflagging. He calls America to account; he warns us, as Dwight D. Eisenhower did, about the many dangers of an all-powerful national security state; and, as Ike did sixty years ago, he reminds us that only Americans can truly hurt America. I think Ike would have commended his latest book, “A Nation Unmade by War.” Having read it myself, I highly recommend it to thinking patriots everywhere.W.J. Astore.)
Tom Engelhardt, A Staggeringly Well-Funded Blowback Machine
As I was putting the finishing touches on my new book, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute published an estimate of the taxpayer dollars that will have gone into America’s war on terror from September 12, 2001, through fiscal year 2018. That figure: a cool $5.6 trillion (including the future costs of caring for our war vets). On average, that’s at least $23,386 per taxpayer.
Keep in mind that such figures, however eye-popping, are only the dollar costs of our wars. They don’t, for instance, include the psychic costs to the Americans mangled in one way or another in those never-ending conflicts. They don’t include the costs to this country’s infrastructure, which has been crumbling while taxpayer dollars flow copiously and in a remarkably — in these years, almost uniquely — bipartisan fashion into what’s still laughably called “national security.” That’s not, of course, what would make most of us more secure, but what would make them — the denizens of the national security state — ever more secure in Washington and elsewhere. We’re talking about the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. nuclear complex, and the rest of that state-within-a-state, including its many intelligence agencies and the warrior corporations that have, by now, been fused into that vast and vastly profitable interlocking structure.
In reality, the costs of America’s wars, still spreading in the Trump era, are incalculable. Just look at photos of the cities of Ramadi or Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa or Aleppo in Syria,Sirte in Libya, or Marawiin the southern Philippines, all in ruins in the wake of the conflicts Washington set off in the post–9/11 years, and try to put a price on them. Those views of mile upon mile of rubble, often without a building still standing untouched, should take anyone’s breath away. Some of those cities may never be fully rebuilt.
And how could you even begin to put a dollars-and-cents value on the larger human costs of those wars: the hundreds of thousands of dead? The tens of millions of people displaced in their own countries or sent as refugees fleeing across any border in sight? How could you factor in the way those masses of uprooted peoples of the Greater Middle East and Africa are unsettlingother parts of the planet? Their presence (or more accurately a growing fear of it) has, for instance, helped fuel an expanding set of right-wing “populist” movements that threaten to tear Europe apart. And who could forget the role that those refugees — or at least fantasy versions of them — played in Donald Trump’s full-throated, successful pitch for the presidency? What, in the end, might be the cost of that?
Opening the Gates of Hell
America’s never-ending twenty-first-century conflicts were triggered by the decision of George W. Bush and his top officials to instantly define their response to attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center by a tiny group of jihadis as a “war”; then to proclaim it nothing short of a “Global War on Terror”; and finally to invade and occupy first Afghanistan and then Iraq, with dreams of dominating the Greater Middle East — and ultimately the planet — as no other imperial power had ever done.
Their overwrought geopolitical fantasies and their sense that the U.S. military was a force capable of accomplishing anything they willed it to do launched a process that would cost this world of ours in ways that no one will ever be able to calculate. Who, for instance, could begin to put a price on the futures of the children whose lives, in the aftermath of those decisions, would be twisted and shrunk in ways frightening even to imagine? Who could tote up what it means for so many millions of this planet’s young to be deprived of homes, parents, educations — of anything, in fact, approximating the sort of stability that might lead to a future worth imagining?
Though few may remember it, I’ve never forgotten the 2002 warning issued by Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League. An invasion of Iraq would, he predicted that September, “open the gates of hell.” Two years later, in the wake of the actual invasion and the U.S. occupation of that country, he altered his comment slightly. “The gates of hell,” he said, “are open in Iraq.”
His assessment has proven unbearably prescient — and one not only applicable to Iraq. Fourteen years after that invasion, we should all now be in some kind of mourning for a world that won’t ever be. It wasn’t just the US military that, in the spring of 2003, passed through those gates to hell. In our own way, we all did. Otherwise, Donald Trump wouldn’t have become president.
I don’t claim to be an expert on hell. I have no idea exactly what circle of it we’re now in, but I do know one thing: we are there…
Read the rest of Tom’s article here at TomDispatch.com.
Who are we supposed to hate today? The Russians for allegedly throwing the presidential election? The Chinese for allegedly stealing our jobs? The North Koreans for allegedly planning our nuclear destruction? The Iranians for allegedly working to acquire nuclear weapons? The “axis of evil” for being, well, evil?
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told Americans that the only thing they had to fear is fear itself. However, recent American presidents have encouraged us to fear everything. Let’s not forget the stoking of fear by people like Condoleezza Rice and her image of a smoking gun morphing into a nuclear mushroom cloud. That image helped to propel America into a disastrous war in Iraq in 2003 that festers still.
One of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in any movie came in the adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. The film version begins with the “two minutes of hate” directed against various (imagined) enemies. Check it out. Doubleplusgood!
Especially disturbing is the rant against Goldstein, the enemy within. Here I think of Donald Trump claiming that the Democrats are anti-military for not rubberstamping his budget, a dishonest as well as ridiculous charge, since both parties support high military spending. Indeed, high Pentagon spending is the one bipartisan area of agreement in Congress.
This is among the biggest problems in America today: the stoking of hate against the enemy within, e.g. “illegal” immigrants (rapists, gang members, killers, according to our president), Democrats who allegedly don’t support our military, rival politicians who should be “locked up,” protesters who should be punched and kicked and otherwise silenced, high school students who are dismissed as phonies and professional actors, and on and on.
Irrational fear is nothing new to America, of course. Consider the fear of communism that produced red scares after World Wars I and II. Consider how fears of the spread of communism led to criminal intervention in Southeast Asia and the death of millions of people there. Massive bombing, free-fire artillery zones, the profligate use of defoliants like Agent Orange, the prolongation of war without any regard for the suffering of peoples in SE Asia: that behavior constituted a crime of murderous intensity that was in part driven by hatred and fear.
And when hatred and fear are linked to tribalism and a xenophobic form of patriotism, murderous war becomes almost a certainty. When the zealots of hate are screaming for blood, it’s very hard to hear appeals for peace based on compassion and reason.
Anger, fear, aggression: that way leads to the dark side, as Yoda, that Jedi master, warned us. Hate too, Yoda says, must be resisted, lest one be consumed by it. Sure, he’s just an imaginary character in the “Star Wars” universe, but that doesn’t negate the truth of his message.
God is love, the Christian religion says. Why then are we so open to hate and fear?