Is There Anybody More Shameless than Trump?

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Trump hugs the flag at CPAC

W.J. Astore

Trump’s “superpower” is his utter shamelessness.

He’ll tweet lies and conspiracy theories about Martin Gugino,  a 75-year-old activist who was shoved to the ground and sent to the emergency room by Buffalo cops.  He’ll shamelessly use both the Bible and the flag as props.  He infamously teargassed peaceful protesters so he could pose with a Bible in Washington, D.C.  Trump, of course, knows nothing about said Bible; when asked, he couldn’t name a single passage from it, nor did he seem to know the difference between the Old and New Testaments.  No matter — Trump knows a useful prop when he sees one.

When the Bible fails to impress, it’s back to the flag again.  Trump is reviving the whole kneeling dispute in the NFL, when Colin Kaepernick and other black players took a knee in protest against police brutality.  Allegedly finding this “disrespectful,” Trump hugs Old Glory to his body while grinning like the cat who swallowed the canary.

For a refreshing dose of reality, I was watching George Carlin and he reminded me politicians have three favorite theatrical props: the Bible, the flag, and children.  Trump is two for three; when will he start arguing that he should be reelected to save the children?

There’s a breathtaking shamelessness to Trump.  It comes with his all-consuming ego and astonishing narcissism, but it’s more than that — Trump enjoys tapping into his shamelessness so as to inflame his base and further divide America.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party empowers him because they find him both intimidating and tractable.  Trump intimidates because he can fire-up his cult-like base against any Republican with a single tweet; Trump is tractable because he largely does the bidding of corporate elites and financial powerbrokers.  They may not like Trump’s egotism and vulgarity, but they sure do like all the money flowing upward to them.

This dynamic reminded me of a line from the Bob Seger song, “Night Moves“: I used her, she used me, but neither one cared/we were gettin’ our share.  But even those who are getting their share should be wary of Trump: his utter shamelessness means he has very little to lose.

America’s Forever Wars Have Come Home

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com

Here’s a little portrait of the United States in June 2020, a passage from a New York Times report on the National Guard’s treatment of a recent protest march of people chanting “We can’t breathe!” in Washington, D.C.:

“A Black Hawk helicopter, followed by a smaller medical evacuation helicopter, dropped to rooftop level with its searchlights aimed at the crowd. Tree limbs snapped, nearly hitting several people. Signs were torn from the sides of buildings. Some protesters looked up, while others ran into doorways. The downward force of air from the rotors was deafening. The helicopters were performing a ‘show of force’ — a standard tactic used by military aircraft in combat zones to scatter insurgents.”

Talk about America’s wars coming home! George Floyd’s recent killing is both a long way, and yet not far at all, from the police shooting of the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Many Americans felt shocked then on seeing that city’s police force respond to the ensuing protests togged out in Pentagon-supplied gear of every sort, including sniper rifles and Humvees, often directly off the battlefields of this country’s ongoing wars. As Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver put it then, referring to an Iraqi city largely destroyed by the U.S. military in 2004, “Ferguson resembles Fallujah.”

The question is: What does the U.S. resemble six years later? You know, I’m talking about the place that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently referred to as a “battle space” (as in “dominate the battle space”) in a contentious discussion he and President Trump had with the nation’s governors. I’m talking about the country where that same president has been threatening to call out the troops as police forces. (When retired military brass screamed bloody murder, Esper began backing down.) I’m talking about the land into which Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton has the urge to send the 101st Airborne Division, or Screaming Eagles, whose assault troops have previously seen action in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. (“If local politicians will not do their most basic job to protect our citizens, let’s see how these anarchists respond when the 101st Airborne is on the other side of the street.”)

Could you ever doubt that America’s wars would sooner or later come home in a big way? I suspect retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore didn’t. After all, he’s been writing for years at TomDispatch about how our former citizens’ military has, in those very wars, become the equivalent of a foreign legion. Fully militarizing the police and bringing the legionnaires home, a subject he explores today, seems like just the next obvious step in this country’s precipitous decline. Tom

“Light ‘Em Up”
Warrior-Cops Are the Law — and Above the Law — as Violence Grips America
By William J. Astore

From their front porches, regular citizens watched a cordon of cops sweep down their peaceful street in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rankled at being filmed, the cops exceeded their authority and demanded that people go inside their houses. When some of them didn’t obey quickly enough, the order — one heard so many times in the streets of Iraqi cities and in the villages of Afghanistan — was issued: “Light ’em up.” And so “disobedient” Americans found themselves on the receiving end of non-lethal rounds for the “crime” of watching the police from those porches.

It’s taken years from Ferguson to this moment, but America’s cops have now officially joined the military as “professional” warriors. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, those warrior-cops have taken to the streets across the country wearing combat gear and with attitudes to match. They see protesters, as well as the reporters covering them, as the enemy and themselves as the “thin blue line” of law and order.

The police take to bashing heads and thrashing bodies, using weaponry so generously funded by the American taxpayer: rubber bullets, pepper spray (as Congresswoman Joyce Beatty of Ohio experienced at a protest), tear gas (as Episcopal clergy experienced at a demonstration in Washington, D.C.), paint canisters, and similar “non-lethal” munitions, together with flash-bang grenades, standard-issue batons, and Tasers, even as they drive military-surplus equipment like Humvees and MRAPs. (Note that such munitions blinded an eye of one photo-journalist.) A Predator drone even hovered over at least one protest.

Who needs a military parade, President Trump? Americans are witnessing militarized “parades” across the U.S.A. Their theme: violent force. The result: plenty of wounded and otherwise damaged Americans left in their wake. The detritus of America’s foreign wars has finally well and truly found its place on Main Street, U.S.A.

Cops are to blame for much of this mayhem. Video clips show them wildly out of control, inciting violence and inflicting it, instead of defusing and preventing it. Far too often, “to serve and protect” has become “to shoot and smack down.” It suggests the character of Eric Cartman from the cartoon South Park, a boy inflamed by a badge and a chance to inflict physical violence without accountability. “Respect my authoritah!” cries Cartman as he beats an innocent man for no reason.

So, let’s point cameras — and fingers — at these bully-boy cops, let’s document their crimes, but let’s also state a fact with courage: it’s not just their fault.

Who else is to blame? Well, so many of us. How stupid have we been to celebrate cops as heroes, just as we’ve been foolishly doing for so long with the U.S. military? Few people are heroes and fewer still deserve “hero” status while wearing uniforms and shooting bullets, rubber or otherwise, at citizens.

Answer me this: Who granted cops a specially-modified U.S. flag to celebrate “blue lives matter,” and when exactly did that happen, and why the hell do so many people fly these as substitute U.S. flags? Has everyone forgotten American history and the use of police (as well as National Guard units) to suppress organized labor, keep blacks and other minorities in their place, intimidate ordinary citizens protesting for a cleaner environment, or whack hippies and anti-war liberals during the Vietnam War protests?

Or think of what’s happening this way: America’s violent overseas wars, thriving for almost two decades despite their emptiness, their lack of meaning, have finally and truly come home. An impoverished empire, in which violence and disease are endemic, is collapsing before our eyes. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” America’s self-styled wartime president promised, channeling a racist Miami police chief from 1967. It was a declaration meant to turn any American who happened to be near a protest into a potential victim.

As such demonstrations proliferate, Americans now face a grim prospect: the chance to be wounded or killed, then dismissed as “collateral damage.” In these years, that tried-and-false military euphemism has been applied so thoughtlessly to innumerable innocents who have suffered grievously from our unending foreign wars and now it’s coming home.

How does it feel, America?

The End of Citizen-Soldiers, the End of Citizen-Cops

I joined the military in 1981, signing up in college for the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC. I went on active duty in 1985 and served for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. I come from a family of firefighters and cops. My dad and older brother were firefighters, together with my brother-in-law and nephew. My niece and her husband are cops and my sister worked for her local police department for years. My oldest friend, a great guy I’ve known for half a century, recently retired as a deputy sheriff. I know these people because they’re my people.

Many cops — I’d say most — are decent people. But dress almost any cop in combat gear, cover him or her in armor like a stormtrooper out of Star Wars, then set all of them loose on the streets with a mandate to restore “LAW & ORDER,” as our president tweeted, and you’re going to get stormtrooper-like behavior.

Sure, I’d wager that more than a few cops enjoy it, or at least it seems that way in the videos captured by so many. But let’s remind ourselves that the cops, like the rest of America’s systems of authority, are a product of a sociopolitical structure that’s inherently violent, openly racist, deeply flawed, and thoroughly corrupted by money, power, greed, and privilege. In such a system, why should we expect them to be paragons of virtue and restraint? We don’t recruit them that way. We don’t train them that way. Indeed, we salute them as “warriors” when they respond to risky situations in aggressive ways.

Here’s my point: When I put on a military uniform in 1985, I underwent a subtle but meaningful change from a citizen to a citizen-airman. (Note how “citizen” still came first then.) Soon after, however, the U.S. military began telling me I was something more than that: I was a warrior. And that was a distinct and new identity for me, evidently a tougher, more worthy one than simply being a citizen-airman. That new “warrior” image and the mystique that grew up around it was integral to, and illustrative of, the beginning of a wider militarization of American culture and society, which exploded after the 9/11 attacks amid the “big-boy pants” braggadocio of the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as they set out to remake the world as an American possession.

Why all the “warrior” BS? Why “Generation Kill” (one of those memorable phrases of the post-9/11 era)? Was it to give us a bit more spine or something to rally around after the calamity of those attacks on iconic American targets, or perhaps something to take pride in after so many disastrous wars over the last 75 years? It took me a while to answer such questions. Indeed, it took me a while to grasp that such questions were almost beside the point. Because all this warrior talk, whether applied to the military or the cops, is truly meant to separate us from the American people, to link us instead to wider systems of impersonal authority, such as the military-industrial-congressional complex.

By “elevating” us as warriors, the elites conspired to reduce us as citizens, detaching us from a citizen’s code of civics and moral behavior. By accepting the conceit of such an identity, we warriors and former warriors became, in a sense, foreign to democracy and ever more divorced from the citizenry. We came to form foreign legions, readily exploitable in America’s endless imperial-corporate wars, whether overseas or now here.

(Notice, by the way, how, in the preceding paragraphs, I use “we” and “us,” continuing to identify with the military, though I’ve been retired for 15 years. On rereading it, I thought about revising that passage, until I realized that was precisely the point: a career military officer is, in some way, always in the military. The ethos is that strong. The same is true of cops.)

In 2009, I first asked if the U.S. military had become an imperial police force. In 2020, we need to ask if our police are now just another branch of that military, with our “homeland” serving as the empire to be conquered and exploited. That said, let’s turn to America’s cops. They’re now likely to identify as warriors, too, and indeed many of them have served in America’s violent and endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. These days, they’re ever more likely to identify as well with authority, as defined and exercised by the elites for whom they serve as hired guns.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the warrior-mercenary mindset of the police has been fully exposed. For what was Floyd’s great “crime”? At worst, if true, an attempt at petty theft through forgery. He’d lost his job due to the Covid-19 crisis and, like most of us, was lucky if he saw a one-time check for $1,200, even as the rich and powerful enjoyed trillions of dollars in relief.

Rarely are the police sent to prosecute scofflaws in high places. I haven’t seen any bankers being choked to death on the street under an officer’s knee.  Nor have I seen any corporate “citizens” being choked to death by cops. It’s so much easier to hassle and arrest the little people for whom, if they’re black or otherwise vulnerable, arrest may even end in death.

By standing apart from us, militarized, a thin blue line, the police no longer stand with us.

A friend of mine, an Air Force retired colonel, nailed it in a recent email to me: “I used to — maybe not enjoy but — not mind talking to the police. It was the whole ‘community partners’ thing. Growing up and through college, you just waved at cops on patrol (they’d wave back!). Over the last five years, all I get is cops staring back in what I imagine they think is an intimidating grimace. They say nothing when you say hello. They are all in full ‘battle rattle’ even when directing traffic.”

When military “battle rattle” becomes the standard gear for street cops, should we be that surprised to hear the death rattle of black men like George Floyd?

Speaking Truth to Power Isn’t Nearly Enough

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “speaking truth to power.” It’s meant as a form of praise. But a rejoinder I once read captures its inherent limitations: power already knows the truth — and I’d add that the powerful are all too happy with their monopoly on their version of the truth, thank you very much.

It’s not enough to say that the police are too violent, or racist, or detached from society. Powerful people already know this perfectly well. Indeed, they’re counting on it. They’re counting on cops being violent to protect elite interests; nor is racism the worst thing in the world, they believe, as long as it’s not hurting their financial bottom lines. If it divides people, making them all the more exploitable, so much the better. And who cares if cops are detached from the interests of the working and lower middle classes from which they’ve come? Again, all the better, since that means they can be sicked on protesters and, if things get out of hand, those very protesters can then be blamed. If push comes to shove, a few cops might have to be fired, or prosecuted, or otherwise sacrificed, but that hardly matters as long as the powerful get off scot-free.

President Trump knows this. He talks about “dominating” the protesters. He insists that they must be arrested and jailed for long periods of time. After all, they are the “other,” the enemy. He’s willing to have them tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets just so he can pose in front of a church holding a Bible. Amazingly, the one amendment he mentioned defending in his “law and order” speech just before he walked to that church was the Second Amendment.

And this highlights Trump’s skill as a wall-builder. No, I don’t mean that “big, fat, beautiful wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico. He’s proven himself a master at building walls to divide people within America — to separate Republicans from Democrats, blacks and other peoples of color from whites, Christians from non-Christians, fervid gun owners from gun-control advocates, and cops from the little people. Divide and conquer, the oldest trick in the authoritarian handbook, and Donald Trump is good at it.

But he’s also a dangerous fool in a moment when we need bridges, not walls to unite these divided states of ours. And that starts with the cops. We need to change the way many of them think. No more “thin blue line” BS. No more cops as warriors. No more special flags for how much their lives matter. We need but a single flag for how much all our lives matter, black or white, rich or poor, the powerless as well as the powerful.

How about that old-fashioned American flag I served under as a military officer for 20 years? How about the stars and stripes that draped my father’s casket after his more than 30 years of fighting fires, whether in the forests of Oregon or the urban tenements of Massachusetts? It was good enough for him and me (and untold millions of others). It should still be good enough for everyone.

But let me be clear: my dad knew how to put out fires, but once a house was “fully involved,” he used to tell me, there’s little you can do but stand back and watch it burn while keeping the fire from spreading.

America’s forever wars in distant lands have now come home big time. Our house is lit up and on fire. Alarms are being sounded over and over again. If we fail to come together to fight the fire until our house is fully involved, we will find ourselves — and what’s left of our democracy — burning with it.

A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, William Astore is a TomDispatch regular. He is proud to count many “first responders” in his immediate family. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

Copyright 2020 William J. Astore

 

Will the U.S. Military Hammer Strike the Citizen Nails?

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Caption at the Guardian: Members of an airborne military unit are deployed on the streets of Washington DC on Thursday. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

W.J. Astore

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails.  This year alone, the U.S. government will spend roughly $740 billion on its military, though the real figure when you add in all costs exceeds a trillion dollars.  With so much “invested,” as the Pentagon likes to say, in that military, there’s a strong tendency to see it as the solution to the most stubborn problems.  All problems become nails either to be whacked down or pulled out and discarded depending upon which end of the military hammer our rulers choose to employ.

Americans are used to “our” military being used to hammer home American exceptionalism in faraway, foreign places.  But what about when that hammer is deployed to Main Street USA to hammer peaceful protesters into line?  Or, alternatively, to pull them out of the streets and into the jails?  That hammer doesn’t seem to be such a solid “investment,” does it?

It appears the Trump administration has now backed away from plans to commit regular federal troops to “dominate” protesters.  Opposition from retired generals and admirals like James Mattis, John Allen, and Mike Mullen may have helped.  But if and when protests become more widespread or embarrassing to Trump personally, don’t be surprised if the “bunker boy” calls again for troops to be committed, the U.S. Constitution be damned.  After all, he’s described peaceful protesters led by clergy in Washington, D.C. as “terrorists,” and we should all know by now what a “war on terror” looks like, led by generals like that same James Mattis.

Remember when a militarized hammer was a symbol of that Evil Empire, the Soviet Union?  Remember when violent suppression of peaceful protests was something “they” did, you know, the bad commies, in places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia?  As Paul Krugman has noted, today much of the GOP would cheer on Trump if he launched a military coup in the name of “law and order.”

Echoing this, one white American from Michigan told a reporter he “applauds” Trump’s crackdown and “fully supports” Trump if he orders federal troops into American streets to suppress protests.  In the same story from the Guardian, reporting from the white suburb of St Clair Shores, many residents “share the president’s world view that the police and national guard are heroically battling violent agitators, not brutally suppressing largely peaceful protesters.”

The story noted that “Several men who were part of a construction crew called the protests ‘stupid’ and a ‘waste of time and energy.’  Some even suggested Floyd was at fault for his death because he allegedly committed a crime, despite general worldwide outrage at the brutal manner of his killing and the criminal charges it has now brought against the officers involved.”

So, you have Americans who support the brutal murder of George Floyd, with the police acting as judge, jury, and executioner, simply because Floyd allegedly passed a counterfeit bill.  They even support a military crackdown, again in the name of “law and order.”

Who’s the evil empire now, America?

Whose Law, Whose Order?

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The face of lawlessness and disorder in America

W.J. Astore

Along with being a self-styled wartime president (in a totally incompetent attempt to contain COVID-19 that has cost tens of thousands of American lives), Donald Trump now claims to be the “LAW & ORDER” president (the all-caps echoes his tweet on the subject).

But whose law and whose order?

Trump is lawless.  He had peaceful protesters gassed, including Episcopal clergy, just so he could pose with a bible in front of a church.  And, by the way, mixing religious law with civil law is a practice the radical right allegedly condemns (they always cite Sharia law here), but not when the holy book is their bible.  By the way, what was the Democratic response to Trump’s shameless bible stunt?  Nancy Pelosi got out a bible, only she read from hers.  Great “opposition,” Pelosi.

Again, whose law and whose order.  Order imposed by violence and weaponry, non-lethal or otherwise, isn’t order.  It’s tyranny.  And the law in America seems to be what the rich and powerful say it is.

I come back to a crucial point made by Matt Taibbi:

You don’t elect politicians to commit crimes; you elect politicians to make your crimes legal. That is the whole purpose of the racket of government.

So, what is the law in America?  That which has been defined as legal by politicians who are bought — who follow the orders of their paymasters.

That’s the kind of “law and order” Trump is talking about.  The law of the already privileged and the order of the fist.  And it’s also why so many people are fed up, so many people are protesting, and so many people want real change.

We Put A Man on the Moon …

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Earthrise as seen by Apollo 8

W.J. Astore

Is it possible the U.S. hit a peak of sorts in 1969?  I know – 1969 was a Nixon year, another year of destruction in Vietnam, though the music in those days was far better than today.  But I’m thinking of Apollo, as in our landing on the moon in July of 1969.  Having recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, that momentous event is still on my mind, especially when I think of the old poster I had on my bedroom wall that showed the Apollo journey from earth to the moon, its various stages and maneuvers.  It was all bewildering to a young boy caught up in the space program, but at least I knew my country was at the forefront of science.

In 1969 America reached the moon!  We respected science.  Many Americans were trying to end a disastrous war in Vietnam.  People marched for civil rights, they fought for equal rights, there was a sense America’s potential was nearly limitless.

WTF in 2020?  Many Americans, including our president, don’t respect science.  We fire doctors for calling out quack medical cures.  We put a breeder of labradoodles in charge of our Covid-19 pandemic response.  Wars just go on forever with little resistance.  We’re sliding backwards in rights for minorities, for women, for workers.  And the space program?  Moribund in the USA.  We’re very much stuck on earth, an earth that is less hospitable to life than it was fifty years ago.

The years 1970-2020 has defined a half-century of American decline.  Perhaps we might speak of five bad “emperors”: Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Shrub Bush, and Obama, now joined by Trump, our very own blend of Nero and Caligula.  He fiddles and diddles while America burns.

Joe Biden and the establishment Democrats are hardly the answer.  Even Jesus isn’t the answer unless we start taking His words about the rich (and so much else) seriously.  The Jesus of my youth had no use for greed and money and material goods – He taught us our treasure was in heaven, gained by righteous living through faith while manifesting love.  That sacrificial message is drowned out today by the so-called prosperity gospel, preached by ministers who are cashing in even as they tell their followers that wealth is the most legitimate form of God’s grace.  Back in the Catholic church of my youth, such ideas would have been blasphemous.  At my church I recall the example set by Sister Emily and Sister Jane Elizabeth – they sure weren’t living in luxury.  Forgive them, sisters, they know not what they do.

Here we are, in 2020, in a land of un-truth, in a universe of alternative facts, in belief systems where money matters more than anything, where even ministers stoke conflict, and we wonder why we can’t come together and develop a clear, coherent, and coordinated response to the coronavirus crisis.

How to change this?  How about letting experts lead us?  You know the saying: it ain’t rocket science.  But Apollo was rocket science, and so we deferred to experts, and they got us to the moon and back six times and patched together an amazing rescue of Apollo 13 when it went wrong.  To beat Covid-19, we can’t listen to Trump and his band of grifters and losers.  We must listen to the scientists, the doctors, and act collectively based on sound medical science.  The “rocket scientists” will get us through this, together with the humanists and the selfless efforts of so many medical workers and (mostly) nameless others.

Longer term, we need to re-create our government, because it has, quite simply, betrayed most of us.  Simultaneously, we need to move beyond nationalism and think and act on a global scale to save our earth.  If Apollo taught us one thing, it’s the wondrous value of our own planet.  The moon may be a place of magnificent desolation, but who wants to live permanently in desolation?  We need global vision and action, not only to help prevent future pandemics, but also to preserve our planet as a viable biosphere for a global population projected to top ten billion people in the coming decades.

Nobody said it would be easy; yet if we stay on our current course, just about anybody can guess humanity’s fate.  But if we can put a man on the moon, surely we can come together to create a better future for ourselves and our children.

The year was 1969, and this song by the Youngbloods went gold: “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.  Right now.  Right now.”  It wasn’t – or shouldn’t be — just hippie dreaming.  Indeed, it’s the essence of true Christianity.

The Last Honest Speech by a U.S. President

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Former President Jimmy Carter

W.J. Astore

I was sixteen when President Jimmy Carter gave his so-called Malaise speech in 1979.  Focusing on America’s wasteful energy consumption, Carter vowed to cut America’s dependence on oil imports while pushing alternative energies such as solar.  In crafting his speech, he listened to regular Americans and diagnosed a national peril far worse than America’s wanton consumption of energy.  And for his honesty, Carter got voted out of office in 1980.  The sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan arrived, though the “sunny” part didn’t include the solar panels that Carter had added to the White House.  (Under Reagan, these were quickly removed.)  For Carter’s expertise in science (he was formerly a naval nuclear engineer under Admiral Hyman Rickover) came Reagan’s fossil-fuel-friendly policies and Nancy Reagan’s penchant for astrology.  It was morning again in America in the sense that profit once again took priority over policy and people – and fantasy took precedence over reality.

Let’s take a fresh look at Carter’s speech, one in which he never used the word “malaise.”  Carter told Americans in 1979 that: “We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”

The second, much to be preferred, path was: “the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.”

Does anyone have any doubt about which path America chose under Reagan and his successors?

The “certain route to failure.”  A route where tens of millions of Americans lose their health care during a pandemic; a route where the government bails out the richest corporations first and the poorest Americans last, if at all; a route where division and fragmentation are the order of the day, embraced by a president who revels in chaos and his own self-interest.  And a route where that same man is likely to be reelected as president in November, despite his colossal mismanagement of a health crisis that he can’t even bring himself to understand, let alone attempt to control.

Jimmy Carter caught the looming dysfunction back in 1979: “What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests.”

In the four decades since then, Congress has been totally consumed by these “well-financed and powerful special interests,” so much so that, to repeat myself, they get bailed out first during a pandemic, tapping into a slush fund that may rise to $4 trillion, while most Americans are lucky to see a one-time payment of $1200.

Meanwhile, what is the message to regular Americans from President Trump and his handlers?  You must get back to work.  Never mind a deadly pandemic.  We must get the economy humming again.  We must make and consume, just as we always have.  Yet Carter had a warning here as well:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Small wonder that he lost, right?  What madness was Carter talking about in 1979?  Material goods aren’t the source of happiness?

Carter made matters worse by calling for energy conservation and gasoline rationing.  He even asked Americans to lower their thermostats in the winter and to reduce their speed on the highway.  That commie!

In 1980, Americans rejected Carter’s call for sacrifice, preferring the fantasy sold by Reagan.  Forget conservation and gas rationing.  I can’t drive fifty-five!  Don’t you know the best way to help the poor is by empowering the rich?  It’s called trickle-down economics (don’t listen to that guy who called it “voodoo economics”).  Might makes right and the Vietnam War was a “noble cause.”

In 1980, it was like the country took a collective journey to “Fantasy Island,” maybe on the “Love Boat,” a TV show where Ronald Reagan could have had a star turn as an ageing, washed up, actor.  Reagan gained the Oval Office instead, and the former pitchman for GE got to work selling a corporate-dominated America as the natural end state of Democracy.  Yay capitalism!

Is it any surprise that real wages for workers in America have basically been flat since the time of Carter?  Reagan instituted Robin Hood in reverse, facilitating an economy where the rich got far richer, mainly by trampling on the backs of the middle class and poor.

So, we collectively bought a cancerous fantasy in 1980, one which has now metastasized with a malignant and sociopathic exploiter, Donald Trump, at the helm.

One thing is certain: you won’t get any honest speeches from Trump.  Nor from his predecessors back to the time of Reagan, as they all did Wall Street’s bidding, Democrats and Republicans alike.  Nor can you expect any future honesty from the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

For the last honest speech by an American president, you must go back to Jimmy Carter in 1979.  The malaise came, not from his speech, but from our failure to listen to him.

Trump’s Motto: Pass the Buck

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President Truman: Unafraid to take action — and responsibility

W.J. Astore

President Harry S Truman famously had “The buck stops here!” on his desk.  He was unafraid to take responsibility — to make the tough decisions when they reached his desk.  And for this and other reasons he’s gone down in history as one of America’s better presidents.

News that President Donald Trump will soon disband his COVID-19 Task Force is consistent with Trump’s (unofficial) motto: “Pass the buck.”  Trump has apparently decided that Covid is a losing issue in 2020 with respect to his reelection, and if Trump knows one thing, it’s how to dodge responsibility for his own mismanagement.  Just consider his many failed casinos and business ventures.

If Trump appeared as a contestant on his own show, “Celebrity Apprentice,” is there any doubt he’d be the first guy fired?

Despite his complete lack of empathy and his total failure to take responsibility for his actions, Trump’s supporters still embrace him.  As they might say themselves, the Lord truly works in mysterious ways.

Yet despite all his tough-guy posturing, Trump is a very weak man indeed.  He doesn’t have Truman’s guts.  When Trump faces a difficult, demanding, or tough issue, his instinct is to avoid it, or spin it, or lie about it.  He’s both craven and lazy.  And uncaring to boot.  And in the coming months that combination is going to cost America a lot more lives.

As Don Henley sang, “These days the buck stops nowhere/no one takes the blame/but evil is still evil/in anybody’s name.”

What’s “Great” About Donald Trump?

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Trump: Legend in his own mind

W.J. Astore

MAGA: Make America Great Again.  That was Donald Trump’s slogan for 2016.  He obviously believes he has succeeded, since his slogan for 2020 is Keep America Great.  “Great” is obviously vague, protean, and labile in meaning, but what does it mean to Trump?

It’s a serious question that deserves consideration.  Here, to my mind, is how Trump thinks he’s made America great, keeping in mind that greatness to Trump is all about that which produces adulation for, well, one Donald J. Trump.

  1. Military might. Trump loves to brag about how he’s “restored” the military, making it bigger and badder than ever.
  2. More riches for the richest. Hence that huge tax break for the richest, perhaps the signature achievement of his first term.
  3. A galloping stock market. Well, until Covid-19.
  4. More power and money for Trump and his family. Trump views greatness in terms of what’s best for him and his family empire.
  5. Walls to keep out “the other.” For Trump, part of being great is denying that status to others.  A world of great heads like Trump demands lots of little people suffering.
  6. A neutered press (the “enemy of the people”). For Trump, the press is his foil, his lapdog, his trumpet, and his enemy, all in one.  When it’s dancing to his tune, Trump knows he’s winning – and he feels like a winner, too.
  7. Permanent partisan divide in which the Democrats are seen as almost demonic. Trump needs an enemy to measure himself against, and “Demoncrats” like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are tailor-made rivals to belittle, which helps to make him feel bigger.
  8. Near-total dismissal of expertise, especially of science (climate change as a “hoax”). A “very stable genius” needs no help from others; he is omniscient.  He even knows the best way to tackle and treat a pandemic!
  9. Always blaming someone else for any setback. Greatness, to Trump, means never having to say you’re sorry.
  10. Disenfranchising or discouraging as many “bad” Americans as possible from voting. Not every American can wrap their heads around Trump’s greatness.  Those who can’t really don’t deserve to vote.

In all seriousness, Trump is great at one thing: shameless deception.  The man knows the craft of the con.  He often can fool most of the people most of the time.  Imagine the good a man like this could do if he had empathy, ethics, and truly sought to serve others.  But Trump serves only himself.  A petty tyrant, he has commanded the attention of Americans in an almost unprecedented way, only to divide them and diminish democracy.

Herein lies a conundrum: How has a man whose spirit is so small, whose sense of service is so shriveled, whose judgment is so un-great, convinced so many that greatness lies within their grasp if only they listen to him, follow him, cheer him on, and reelect him?

Great may indeed be a protean concept – but by any definition the greatness of America does not reside in enabling or empowering one Donald J. Trump.

Losing “Wartime” President Trump Wants Absolute Authority with No Responsibility

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This photo never gets old

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump, the self-anointed “wartime” president, the one who believes he deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor, is losing his version of the Vietnam War.  No, not to STDs (sexually translated diseases), which Trump once said was his version of that war.  Trump’s Vietnam is his woefully mismanaged efforts against the coronavirus; even his efforts at propaganda are transparently missing the mark, much like the Five O’Clock Follies (the official government briefings) did during the Vietnam War.

Indeed, Trump even echoes the language of that war, speaking of seeing “lights” at the end of “tunnels” in the “war” on the coronavirus, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com.  Here is how Tom put it:

And yet few who lived through the Vietnam War would be likely to forget that phrase. It was first used, as far as we know, in 1967 when the war’s military commander, General William Westmoreland, returned to Washington to declare that the conflict the U.S. was fighting in a wildly destructive manner was successfully coming to an end, the proof being that “light” he spotted “at the end of the tunnel.” (He later denied using the phrase.) That memorably ill-chosen metaphor would become a grim punch line for the growing antiwar movement of the era.

So let’s say that there’s a certain grisly charm in hearing it from the president who skipped that war, thanks to fake bone spurs, and has talked about his own “Vietnam” as having been his skill in avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, in various home-front sleep-arounds. He once even claimed to radio personality Howard Stern that he should have gotten “the Congressional Medal of Honor” for doing so. (“It’s Vietnam. It is very dangerous. So I’m very, very careful,” he told Stern, speaking of those STDs.)

In any case, to have picked up that metaphorical definition of failure from the Vietnam era seems strangely appropriate for a president who first claimed the coronavirus was nothing, then a “new hoax” of the Democrats, then easy to handle, before declaring himself a “wartime president” (without the necessary tests, masks, or ventilators on hand). In some sense, President Trump has been exhibiting the sort of detachment from reality that American presidents and other officials did less openly in the Vietnam years.  And for this president, Covid-19 could indeed prove to be the disease version of a Vietnam War…

Give Donald Trump credit. He seems to be leading the richest, most powerful country on the planet in an ill-equipped, ill-organized, ill-planned battle (though not in any normal sense a war) against the pandemic from hell. Whether or not it ends in a Vietnam-style helicopter evacuation from that hell (or even from the White House) remains to be seen, but at least the imagery chosen so far has been unnervingly apt, though next to no one in our increasingly bunkable world even noticed.

By any metric, but especially by the daily body count for COVID-19, Trump is overseeing a defeat of monumental proportions, a flailing response and a failing “war” that may end up killing as many Americans as the Korean and Vietnam wars combined.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.  But Trump seems more concerned about getting his name added to COVID-19 stimulus checks than he is about saving lives.  What next?  Coinage that reads, “In Trump We Trust”?

Here’s the thing about Trump: He claims he’s got “absolute” and “total” authority over America, as if he’s a king, yet he takes no responsibility for his actions (or inactions).  All military members know that authority and responsibility are inseparable.  You can’t — or, you shouldn’t — have authority if you’re unwilling to take responsibility.  Authority without responsibility is the very mark of a tyrant or a sociopath.  Yet Trump is already on the record for wanting total control even as he utterly denies any responsibility in his self-declared “war” on the coronavirus.

But this deadly virus doesn’t care about Trump’s vast ego, his empty posturing, and his endless lying.  Sorry, Mister President, you’ve already lost your self-declared “war.”

Update: Three years ago, I compared Trump to the child/petty tyrant in the original “Twilight Zone” episode, “It’s a good life.”  I said “Trump is sending us all to the cornfield.”  Nothing has changed, except now we face a pandemic that can kill in days or weeks rather than the slower calamity of climate change.  Here’s the link: https://bracingviews.com/2017/06/02/trump-is-sending-us-all-to-the-cornfield/

What Is the Coronavirus Really Changing?

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Have the courage to speak up and act, America

W.J. Astore

On the surface, our lives are changing.  We’re staying home.  We’re practicing social distancing.  We’re wearing masks when we go out.  Many of us have lost jobs and maybe our health insurance as well.  People are suffering and dying.  I don’t want to diminish any of this.

Yet how much is really changing?  Two of my dad’s sayings come to mind: the more things change, the more they stay the same; and the rich get richer and the poor, poorer.  The latter saying defines our coronaviral moment.

The Trump/Congressional stimulus package favors corporations, banks, financiers, and other forms of big business.  Ordinary people will be lucky to see a one-time $1200 check, maybe not until this summer.  Once again, the trickle-down philosophy rules.

The stimulus bill itself is a grab-bag of special interest legislation.  Did you know there’s a “provision in the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package [that] allows Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to seek congressional approval to waive parts of the federal law protecting students with disabilities”?  Crises are always a good time to attack the most vulnerable while extending the privileges of the most favored.

Meanwhile, truth-tellers are being vilified or punished.  Did you hear that “Dr. Anthony Fauci has been given added security after receiving threats”?  His “sin” has been to tell the truth about the perils of COVID-19, thereby contradicting all the spin and happy-talk of the Trump administration.  That pisses off the most fanatical of Trump’s cult, leading to threats against a medical doctor who’s trying his best to save lives.

Speaking of being punished, consider this report: “The Navy removed the captain of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, saying an outbreak of the virus aboard his ship had ‘overwhelmed his ability to act professionally.’ Days earlier, Capt. Brett Crozier had sent a letter asking for help, using an unclassified email system.”  According to Reuters, the move could have a “chilling effect on others in the Navy looking to speak up about issues they are facing at a time when the Pentagon is withholding some of the more detailed data about coronavirus infections for fear of undermining the perception of American military readiness for a crisis or conflict.”

Here’s what Navy Captain Crozier had to say before he was relieved of command: “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset – our sailors.”

Crozier made two “mistakes” here: he cared too much about his sailors while highlighting the uncaring nature of his chain of command; and he dared to say “We are not at war,” when the accepted wisdom is that America is always at war (how else to justify gargantuan “defense” budgets?).  By embarrassing a callous and mercenary military abetted by the Trump administration, Crozier had to go.  And as he left his ship for the last time, his crew chanted his name in a rousing sendoff.

Today’s final lesson to illustrate how “the more things change, the more they stay the same”: the story of Christian Smalls, a brave Amazon manager who spoke out against unsafe conditions at a fulfillment center.  For his honesty, Smalls was fired by Amazon, which then considered smearing him as not smart or articulate in a leaked memo.  Smalls just happens to be Black, so Amazon resorted to racist words (not articulate, not smart) to imply he had nothing to say of any value.  Interesting that Smalls worked for Amazon for five years but only became dumb and inarticulate when he began to protest unsafe conditions related to the spread of COVID-19.  I watched Smalls in an interview, and he made a great suggestion: stop clicking and buying from Amazon, America.  That’s the only language Jeff Bezos understands.

I’ll close with some words of wisdom from one of my readers.  This is what she had to say:

No reason to complain however, we are the lucky ones.  As with all pandemics, it will be the poorest and weakest in the pecking order who will bear the brunt.  People in countries engulfed by war, refugee camps, metropolitan slums, prisoners in overcrowded prisons stand no chance against this medieval plague.

Excuse my French: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.