Pandemics and Partisan Politics

download
From the Oval Office: Beware of foreign viruses

W.J. Astore

If ever there was a time to put aside partisan politics, you’d think it would be now, as the United States faces the COVID-19 virus.  (When the American Mecca, Disney World, closes, you know times are tough.)  Instead, partisan politics are raging, especially in the White House, as President Trump implausibly blames his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the chaotic response by the Trump administration.  (Will “Crooked Hillary” be blamed next?)

Americans need to come together, and I think we are; Bernie Sanders gave a fine speech emphasizing science and teamwork as well as compassion and aid for those who lose their jobs and so on.  We need a much better testing regimen and we need to give doctors and health care personnel the resources they need to do their jobs.

But as I read David Lauter (LA Times Essential Politics), I despaired at the games being played as America faces a serious health crisis.  Here’s what Lauter had to say:

The Democrats have made clear what their line of attack will be: As Biden showed, they’re poised to say that while Trump didn’t cause the coronavirus outbreak, he made it worse by cutting government agencies designed to deal with epidemics and by refusing to take the advice of health officials and act aggressively to counter the illness when he could.

What Biden offers voters, Doyle McManus wrote, is a return to normalcy.

Trump has also tipped his hand on his likely response: Portray the disease as a foreign threat.

In his address to the nation Wednesday night, Trump repeatedly used rhetoric of a foreign invasion to describe the virus, as Noah Bierman wrote. His main policy response was to ban Europeans from traveling to the U.S., blaming them for having “seeded” many of the disease outbreaks in this country.

The speech did nothing to calm markets — indeed it roiled them further, as Bierman and Eli Stokols wrote. But it did provide a preview of Trump’s likely path.

Since the first moments of his astonishing political rise, with his opening blast against Mexican rapists, Trump has campaigned against immigrants and foreigners. And, despite much talk about blue-collar workers voting for him because of economic distress, the overwhelming weight of evidence is that opposition to immigration, concern about the changing demographics of the country and a belief that white Americans face discrimination form the biggest factors in predicting a person’s support for Trump.

In 2018, faced with the prospect that Republicans would lose control of the House, Trump tried to turn the election into a referendum on the supposed threat of immigrant caravans moving north through Mexico — a specter that largely evaporated soon after the election.

In 2020, deprived of the chance to campaign on economic prosperity and a rising stock market, it’s near certain that he will return to the theme that has powered his rise.

That approach might not work. His effort failed spectacularly in 2018 as suburban voters turned against Trump in droves. But Democrats would be wise to avoid overconfidence: The history of epidemics is also a history of xenophobia.

It would be a disaster if COVID-19 led to yet more fears of “foreigners,” however defined.

If anything, a threat like COVID-19 should remind us of our common humanity.  We are all vulnerable, and the smart way to meet this threat is to remain calm, to work together, and to listen to the experts.

Sure, the people who’ve botched America’s response so far should be held accountable.  But let’s first and foremost get a grip on the virus itself and stop its spread.  Because one thing is certain: partisan politics won’t stop a pandemic.  It’ll just make a bad situation worse.

A Message of Uplift Won New Hampshire

SUB-TRUMP2-videoSixteenByNine1050
He’ll make America great again — it says so on his podium!

W.J. Astore

My wife and I watched the results come in last night on MSNBC and the four speeches by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and John Kasich.  Surprisingly, the best speech of the bunch was by Kasich, but more on that in a moment.

Hillary charged ahead with a concession speech that was basically a recycled stump speech.  It looked like she was using teleprompters.  She offered the obligatory thanks to her supporters, to New Hampshire, and so on, but you could tell she just wanted to move on from her crushing defeat.  She has real difficulty connecting with an audience, and her campaign’s message that she’s the most competent candidate, the one best able to step into the Oval Office on day one, simply isn’t resonating with voters who are fed up with establishment politics.

Bernie went next and also gave a modified version of his stump speech.  He spoke too long, but I’m guessing he was doing his best to exploit his “prime time” moment.  He offered kind words for Clinton but then proceeded to attack the politics as usual that she represents.  What got me most was the genuine excitement in the room for Bernie.  The people cheering behind him were an especially eclectic and vibrant mix (I know the “optics” are usually managed, but still).  There was a young black guy wearing a hat and a Bernie t-shirt who was simply a riot.  (He was standing behind and to Bernie’s left.)  My wife and I looked at each other and said: “He should be Bernie’s Vice President.”

Trump came on the heels of Bernie, and the shift in tone was immediate.  With Bernie, it’s all about the movement.  With Trump, it’s all about Trump.  Flanked by his photogenic family, Trump once again told Americans how he is going to make America “great” again, how America is going to win again — at negotiating treaties, with the economy, with wars — heck, I guess we’re going to win at EVERYTHING with Trump in command.  Again he boasted how he’s going to make the U.S. military so big and so strong that no one will dare attack us.  In a word, he bloviated.  But Trump should never be dismissed lightly, certainly not after his decisive victory in New Hampshire.

Kasich came next after Trump, and again the tone shifted.  Coming in a strong second in NH, Kasich talked about listening to the American people, and how the 100+ “town halls” he had done had changed him as a candidate and as a person.  He told personal stories and connected with the audience; he closed on a note of compassion, asking Americans to decompress, to take time to listen to one another, to find time for reflection.  His speech was the most personal and heartfelt of the four that I heard, and I found myself hoping that Kasich’s message would ultimately triumph over the bellicosity of Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and the rest of the Republicans.

Overall, last night was a night of surprises, with two unconventional candidates, Sanders and Trump, winning convincingly.  Their messages, of course, are polar opposites. Bernie wants a better future for all Americans, especially for the disadvantaged, whereas Trump is all about making America big and strong, a “winner.”  Put differently, Sanders sees a lot of ordinary Americans who are losing in today’s “rigged” economy, and he wants to lift them up.  Trump sees America writ large as losing, even some of the wealthiest, vis-a-vis foreign competitors like China, and he says he’ll lift all of America up.

It’s that message of uplift, expressed so differently by Sanders and Trump, that resonated so powerfully in New Hampshire.

 

The 2016 Presidential Candidates in a Word

face plant
Politics: Sometimes I just want to do a face plant (Photo: Barbara Neiberg)

W.J. Astore

Continuing our election coverage, I thought I’d try to sum up each major candidate with a single word (excluding profanities).  I encourage readers to submit your own words for each candidate in the comments section below.

 

The Democrats

Clinton: Compromised.  No candidate is more beholden to special interests and the establishment than Hillary.

Sanders: Revolutionary.  Let’s face it: It would be revolutionary for a Socialist Jew to win the Democratic nomination.  And “revolution” is one of Bernie’s favorite words.

O’Malley: Eclipsed.  I had to strain to remember his name, and I’ve watched the debates.  Simply overshadowed by Hillary and Bernie.

 

The Republicans

Trump: Bombastic.  Trump makes a lot of noise, and my dad always told me “the empty barrel makes the most noise.”

Cruz: Oleaginous.  There’s something slippery about Cruz.

Rubio: Callow.  An eager beaver, apple-polishing type.  Not quite ready for prime time.

Bush: Uncertain.  He doesn’t seem to believe the words coming out of his own mouth.  This is one reason why Trump calls him “weak,” because The Donald never doubts himself.

Carson: Serene.  His calm is perfect for a neurosurgeon, but he’s out of his element on the political stage.

Christie: Angry.  He seems to despise both Obama (“feckless weakling”) and Hillary.  Like Tony Soprano but without the charm.

Kasich: Grey.  A conventional Republican governor, he blends into the background due to the strutting peacocks that surround him.

What do you think, readers?  Have at it!

 

The Republican Alternate Universe of Paranoia

repubdebate-162-master675
Paranoia will destroy ya

W.J. Astore

I watched last night’s Republican debate so you wouldn’t have to.  Leaving aside the usual mugging by Donald Trump, the usual jousting over side issues like whether Ted Cruz is a natural born citizen, I thought I’d take an impressionistic approach to the debate.  You can read the debate transcript here (if you dare), but here is my admittedly personal take on the main messages of the debate.

  1. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are coming to take your guns. So you need to elect a Republican who will allow you to keep your guns and to buy many, many more guns while carrying them openly in public.
  2. Related to (1), ISIS is coming to these shores. In fact, they’re already here.  That’s one big reason why everyone needs guns – to protect ourselves from ISIS and other terrorists out to kill Americans on Main Street USA.
  3. America is weak. Obama has gutted our military.  The Iranians and Russians laugh at us.  To stop them from laughing, America needs to rebuild its military, buy more weapons, and use them freely.  In fact, all the next commander-in-chief needs to do is ask military leaders what they need to win, give them exactly that, then stand back as our military (especially Special Ops troops) kicks ass.  Victory!
  4. America is weak (again), this time economically. The Chinese are kicking our ass.  They’re tougher than us and smarter than us.  We need to teach them who’s boss, perhaps with a big tariff on Chinese imports, combined with intense pressure on them to revalue their currency.
  5. The American tax system is unfair to corporations. We need to lower corporate tax rates so that American companies won’t relocate, and also so that American businesses will be more competitive vis-à-vis foreign competitors.
  6. The most oppressed “minority” in the U.S. are not Blacks or Hispanics or the poor: it’s the police. Yes, the police.  They are mistreated and disrespected.  Americans need to recognize the police are there to protect them and to defer to them accordingly.
  7. The only amendment worth citing in the U.S. Constitution is the Second Amendment.
  8. The National Security Agency, along with all the other intelligence agencies in America, need to be given more power, not less. They need broad and sweeping surveillance powers to keep America safe.  Privacy issues and the Fourth Amendment can be ignored.  People like Edward Snowden are traitors. “Safety” is everything.
  9. Bernie Sanders is a joke. Hillary Clinton just might be the anti-Christ.
  10. Immigrants are a threat, especially if they’re Muslim. They must be kept out of America so that they don’t steal American jobs and/or kill us all.

What I didn’t hear: Anything about the poor, or true minorities, or gender inequities, or the dangers of more war, and so on.

My main takeaway from this debate: Republican candidates live in the United States of Paranoia, a hostile land in which fear rules.  Think “Mad Max, Fury Road,” but without any tough females about.  (I have to admit I missed Carly Fiorina/Imperator Furiosa on the main stage.)

Only one candidate struck a few tentative notes of accord through bipartisan collaboration and compromise: Ohio governor John Kasich.  In his closing statement, he spoke eloquently of his parents’ working-class background.  He’s also the only candidate with the guts not to wear the by-now obligatory flag lapel pin.  I’m not a Republican, but if I had to vote for one, it would be him.  Why?  Because he’s the least batshit crazy of the bunch.

Yes, it was a depressing night, one spent in an alternate universe detached from reality.  In the end, old song lyrics popped into my head: “paranoia will destroy ya.”  Yes, yes it will, America.

Hillary Shillary: A Deeply Compromised Presidential Candidate

Hillary Clinton (NY Times)
Hillary Clinton (NY Times)

W.J. Astore

Hillary Clinton will soon be announcing her candidacy for the presidency.  She has learned from 2008, or so reports say, and will be reaching out to voters in “intimate” settings like pseudo-town halls, rather than the mass rallies of her previous candidacy, which were supposed to anoint her as the “inevitable” Democratic candidate in 2008.

Yes, Hillary is searching for the common touch, the touch that came so naturally (in more ways than one) to her husband Bill.  It’s an act, of course, for there’s no candidate more calculating and controlling and imperious than Hillary.  This is not necessarily a bad thing in a leader; nice gals finish last, especially in the man’s world of U.S. presidential politics.  Hillary knows it’s not enough for women to “lean-in”; you have to be willing to get down and dirty to beat the old boys at their own game.

No, the main problem is not Hillary’s imperiousness.  It’s her shilling for major corporate donations, and her willingness to accept major “donations” from foreign governments (via the Clinton Foundation) while claiming that her hands remain untied and unsullied.

An interesting graphic from LittleSis illustrates the point, which explains that: “Of the 425 large corporate donors to the Clinton Foundation, the Wall Street Journal found 60 of those donors lobbied the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s tenure.”

http://littlesis.org/maps/534-hrc-complex-corporate-ties/raw?embed=true&zoom=0.617

As Peter Van Buren notes, the Clintons have already broken their promises of transparency with respect to donors and their donations.  It’s say one thing and do another: business as usual for the Clintons.

When she was in high school, Hillary was an enthusiastic supporter of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, whose campaign slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” was appositely funny.  Yes — far right, people said. Hillary’s slogan for 2016 should be, “In my heart, I know I’m right,” so vote for me, peasants.  Never mind where and how Bill and I got our money, and to whom we owe favors.

Shilling for money is a large part of the American “democratic” process, and Bill and Hillary are masters at it.  This shouldn’t necessarily disqualify Hillary.  But the broken promises, the dubious ethics, the constant evasiveness: well, those qualities are far more worrying.  And deeply compromising.

A Lame Duck Nation on Steroids

Lame duck, indeed.
It’s not just the Tea Party that’s lame (Toby Toons)

W.J. Astore

The more the United States has come to talk about dominance, the less dominant we’ve become.

To compensate, we’ve become a steroidal nation, to include the violent side effects associated with steroid use (just look at the latest stories out of the NFL about spousal and child abuse, or our steroidal police forces, including MRAPs and M-16s for school police).  If the story of the last fifty years is the gradual decline of the U.S., most notably in the economic and political realms, the story of today is how we’ve compensated with militarized Viagra.  We’ve reached “the age of knowing” that we’ve lost much of our potency as our country.  To compensate, we’re forever popping pills and flexing our muscles.  (Just look at John McCain’s enthusiasm for bombing.)

It’s precisely those steroids that are weakening us as a country.  As we’ve overcompensated with military weapons and bases, we’ve allowed our economy to slide.  As we’ve sought domination overseas, we’ve weakened our country right here at home.  We feverishly build and repair roads in Afghanistan but not here in the USA.  Same with schools — we’d rather build prisons, to include Gitmo, than colleges (since 1984, California has built 21 prisons but only one university).

Consider our binary debates on foreign policy.  It’s the hawks versus the doves, militarized “engagement” versus isolationist “appeasers,” the implication being that the latter is wrong — that minding one’s own business is not an option in a globalized world.  But the world is not some “global village”: it’s a conglomeration of fragments.  And U.S. efforts to dominate those fragments by military means are only accelerating that fragmentation.  Just look at what our government did and is doing to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fragmentation facilitates dominance by multinational corporations even as the U.S. military is misused and overextended.  The result is more global instability and a retreat (or a return) to ideologies that promise coherence and order.  Witness the rise of militant Islam and ISIS.  By attacking it, the U.S. is acting as an accelerant to it.

As the U.S. weakens itself as a country, as it accumulates debt by constantly fighting wars while passing the costs along to future generations, large multinational corporations grow in power.  They are today’s equivalent to the British East India Company, the Dutch East India Company, and similar entities of the past.  Combine powerful multinationals with privatized mercenary outfits and you see echoes of the seventeenth century, to include wars over religion and resources.  Three centuries ago, it was Catholics versus Protestants and wars over spices like pepper and nutmeg.  Now it’s divisions within Islam and wars over oil.

We’re witnessing the decline of Enlightenment ideals and community-based Democracy, as seen by the way in which the U.S. government routinely betrays those ideals.  Any sense of shared, community-based, obligation is tainted by “socialism,” meaning that a Darwinian capitalism based on selfish individualism is promoted instead, which only feeds the growth of multinationals competing to sell “product” to the masses.

Everything is becoming a consumable, including the most vital parts of life.  As a consumable, it can be marketed, sold, and controlled by those same multinationals.  Even education is now an ephemeral product, marketed and sold as a commodity.

Corporations think and act for short-term profit.  But democracies are supposed to think strategically, over the long term.  Now the quarterly business cycle controls all.  Look at politics: A congressman is elected and instantly starts fund raising to win his next campaign.  Obama wins a second term and is almost instantly branded a lame duck.

But it’s not Obama who is the lame duck – it’s America.  And all the militarized steroids in the world won’t cure that lameness.  Indeed, they just aggravate it.

What Is Terrorism?

My copy.  Not the sexiest cover, but a good primer nonetheless
My copy. Not the sexiest cover, but a good primer nonetheless

When I entered the Air Force in 1985, I grabbed a pamphlet by Brian M. Jenkins of Rand.  The title caught my eye: International Terrorism: The Other World War.  Back then, the country was focused on the Cold War against the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union.  Jenkins suggested there was another war we should be focusing on.

In his pamphlet, he provided a “working definition” of terrorism:

“Terrorism is the use of criminal violence to force a government to change its course of action.”

And: “Terrorism is a political crime.  It is always a crime…”

But Jenkins also knew that terrorism, as a word and concept, was contentious and politicized.  As he explained:

“Some governments are prone to label as terrorism all violent acts committed by their political opponents, while antigovernment extremists frequently claim to be the victims of governmental terror.  Use of the term thus implies a moral judgment.  If one group can successfully attach the label terrorist to its opponent, then it has indirectly persuaded others to adopt its moral and political point of view, or at least to reject the terrorists’ view.  Terrorism is what the bad guys do.  This drawing of boundaries between what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, between the right way to fight and the wrong way to fight, brings high political stakes to the task of definition.”

Jenkins correctly notes that the word “terrorism” implies both a political and moral (and legal) judgment.  By his working definition, to be a terrorist is to be a criminal.

Can nation-states be terrorists?  Interestingly, no.  Not if you accept the definitional imperative common to international relations.  Nation-states draw their identity (and authority) in part by and through their ability to monopolize the means of violence.  Because a state monopolizes or “controls” violence in a legally sanctioned international system, it cannot commit a criminal act of terror, however terrorizing that act might be.  (By this definition, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killing 200,000 people were not terrorist acts, even though the intent was to terrorize the Japanese into surrendering.) Put differently, a state can sponsor terrorism, but it cannot commit it.

It’s an unsatisfying definition to many.   As Glenn Greenwald, constitutional lawyer and journalist for the Guardian, has noted many times, terrorism as a concept is now so highly politicized, so narrowly defined and closely tied to evil acts committed by Muslim extremists, that the word itself has become polluted.  It’s more weapon than word, with an emotional impact that hits with the explosive power of a Hellfire missile.

Terrorism, in short, has become something of an Alice in Wonderland word.  As Humpty Dumpty put it, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”  Such is the case with “terrorist” and “terrorism”: they’re often just epithets, ones we reserve for people and acts we find heinous.

Terrorism exists, of course.  But so too does politically-motivated manipulation of the English language, as George Orwell famously warned.  If terrorist = criminal = always them but never us (because we’re a nation, and a good-hearted one at that), we absolve ourselves of blame even as we shout, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice, “Off with their heads!” at the “terrorists.”

That shout may be satisfying, but it may also be all too easy — and all too biased.

W.J. Astore