Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lindsey Graham Slanders Senate Democrats

Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat from Illinois, made an important distinction when he addressed Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch in yesterday's Judiciary Committee hearing.

"The Democrats of the Senate Judiciary Committee will extend to you a courtesy which Senate Republicans denied to Judge Garland, a respectful hearing and a vote," Durbin said.

Democrats are still fuming that the Supreme Court seat in question was "stolen" from President Obama and his nominee, Merrick Garland. Republicans refused to even meet with the centrist and unquestionably qualified Garland, let alone hold hearings on his nominationdespite there being nearly a year remaining in Obama's term when the vacancy occurred. In a maneuver without historical precedent, Mitch McConnell decided instead to bequeath the nomination "right" to the next president, not the one then holding office. Republicans, as is their wont, fell into line. So here we are.

On the matter of Obama, Garland, and, indeed, basic decency, Senator Lindsey Graham tellingly uttered that which should not be spoken in public.

"I have no doubt in my mind," said Graham, "if the shoe were on the other foot, the other side would have delayed the confirmation process until the next president were elected."

In other words, Graham justifies the McConnell maneuver by rhetorically dragging Democrats down to the of sleazy level of Republicans and sayingsee?we're all the same. But condemning Democrats thusly in his "mind" is not something the senator is allowed to do: they need to earn his condemnation, and they haven't.

Claiming on no evidence that your opponent is as despicable as you, in order to justify your own reprehensible behavior, is out of bounds.

And the Republicans' move was reprehensible; if it wasn't Graham could have just said so: no need to refer to the Democrats, and what he has "no doubt" they would do, at all. But Graham instead claimed equivalence, even though his is the only "side" that did, indeed ever did, the deed in question. Needless to say, claiming the other guys are just as bad as you are isn't something to put on your résumé.

Note that I have used derogatory words here such as "sleazy," "despicable," and "reprehensible." By contrast with the senator, my usage is quite proper, because I am referring to sleazy, despicable, and reprehensible behavior that actually did happen. See how it works?

Senator Graham and his party need to wear that despicable behavior exclusively, themselves. Leave the Democrats out of it.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 06, 2017

An Autocrat In Tweets

This piece was originally written as private correspondence. It contains certain allusions that might make more sense in that context.

On Friday night in Seattle a federal judge, James Robart, issued a temporary stay of Donald Trump's immigration, travel, and refugee executive order, in a suit brought by the state of Washington. Washington argued the order is unconstitutional. At least 15 state attorneys general concur.

Unlike earlier court actions staying parts of the order in particular circumstances, this one has the effect of blocking the order entirely and across the government. This has, for the moment, the effect of restoring conditions to what they were before the order was signed, which means travel from the seven excluded countries has for now resumed.

For our purposes here, it's instructive to look at how Donald Trump reacted to the judge's ruling, with an eye toward assessing his temperament, judgement, and honesty. Any thinking person acting in good faith can go a long way in making such an assessment, even without an in-depth understanding of long standing immigration, travel, and refugee policy that preceded the order. Give it a try.

As usual, Trump's reaction comes to us primarily through a series of tweets. Thus we have a good sequential record about how he's thinking and what he's trying to communicate to the American people.

Here is a gaggle of tweets sent by Trump on Saturday and Sunday. As a first pass, read these with an eye toward considering decorum, civility, respect for a co-equal branch of government, appreciation of checks and balances in our constitutional system, and understanding of the rightful and necessary functioning of the judicial systemin other words, temperament.

TRUMP: The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!
TRUMP: When a country is no longer able to say who can, and who cannot, come in & out, especially for reasons of safety & security - big trouble!
TRUMP: Interesting that certain Middle-Eastern countries agree with the ban. They know if certain people are allowed in it's death & destruction!
TRUMP: What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?
TRUMP: Because the ban was lifted by a judge, many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country. A terrible decision.
TRUMP: Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!
TRUMP: I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY. The courts are making the job very difficult!

It's quite unusual, for reasons of decorum and constitutional propriety, for a president to attack a judge. This "so-called judge" (Trump's words), a conservative jurist appointed by George W. Bush and duly confirmed by the Senate, occupies a rightful place in our legal system. When the executive branch finds itself at odds with a court, the normal approach is to be civil and courteous; to acknowledge the disagreement calmly but forcefully (eg., "we strongly disagree"), perhaps indicate some disappointment, and express confidence in the rightfulness of your position and in a favorable outcome as the legal process proceeds.

Instead, Trump is petty and demeaning. He snipes and attacks, and gratuitously insults whoever stands in his way. He alonethe great leaderis right and righteous, and any impediment to his designs warrants withering attack. "If something happens," Trump tweets, "blame him [Judge Robart] and court system." And bring your pitchforks.

Thus Trump undermines the rule of law by attacking the judicial process upon which it depends, and erodes the public's support for a constitutionally essential processexactly as he eroded the public's trust in our electoral systems by making hyperbolic unsubstantiated claims that the system is "rigged" and fraudulent. In this way does he tear at our most important and necessary democratic institutions. The court as an independent co-equal branch is one of the founding geniuses of our system, and I hope it is obvious that it literally, and by design, stands in the way of tyranny.

On that previous point, it should occur to you that an executive who can't abide an independent constitutional check on his authority is one hallmark of an authoritarian. Pause for a moment and let that register. Can you see how thoughtfully paying attention to events as they unfold allows you to "connect the dots"in this case, to give credence anew to what others have been saying for a long time about Trump's authoritarian dispositions? In particular, I told you [my email correspondents] that conservative intellectual David Frum recently wrote a thoughtful essay on the heightened risk of our sliding into autocracysomething novel in our history. Here, then, is another data point, small in isolation but connected to all the othersthat illustrates Frum's warning.

Importantly, I don't expect you to take these insights on my say-so. Rather, this is all "food for thought" that points to a preponderance of evidence you yourself ought to be observing, and that stimulates your own thought processes and allows you to connect the dots for yourself. The observing and thinking and dot-connecting becomes second nature with a little practice, and I highly recommend it.

More dot-connecting: Remember during the campaign how Trump attacked Judge Gonzalo Curiel over what Trump deemed unfavorable rulings in his "Trump University" lawsuit? Trump slurred the judge by claiming his "Mexican heritage" prevented him from being impartial and once again attacked not just the judge but our system of laws. Judge Curiel is an American of Hispanic descent, born in Indiana. Trump said the judge couldn't be fair because "I'm building a wall." Trump, who eventually settled the lawsuit for $25 million, was publicly scornful of the judge's rulings. During the campaign, many pointed to the Curiel incident as evidence that Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president. Now we see things haven't much changed.

Another hallmark of authoritarianism is to manufacture a crisis that requires decisive action by a strong leader. And so suddenly, according to Trump, our borders have been thrown open and dangerous throngs are descending: "people pouring in" (Trump's words). The situation is fraught with danger; chaos and "peril" (Trump's word) are upon us. "Dangerous people may be pouring into our country," Trump tweeted. Pouring! "Anyone""even with bad intentions, can come into U.S." Trump warns darkly of "death & destruction," but has never articulated exactly how we're vulnerable.

But no: "anyone" can't come in. Our country is still "able to say who can, and who cannot, come in & out" (Trump's words). As always, a properly issued visa is required. And as always, extensive vetting is required to obtain a visa. Trump tweeted hysterically and disingenuously that "I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY." Well, ok, but that was already happening.

During the next several days while Trump's order is on hold, the persons entering the country will be those, and only those, who had already completed the process, including vetting, and been issued visas. The U.S. has some of most thorough vetting in the world. That's particularly true for refugees, where the process easily takes two years or more, with layer upon layer of security checks. By the way, of the roughly 3 million refugees who have entered the U.S. over the past couple of decades, not one has killed a U.S. citizen in a terrorist attack.

The point is that nothing is different now from how it was before Trump's order, and before Trump's order there was not the slightest indication of anything amiss. The U.S. already practices the "extreme vetting" Trump claimed to want, and nothing is stopping him from making a thorough review of the system this very moment and ensuring it is adequate. There has never been the slightest articulation of how the system is broken from a security standpointbefore the election, or now. Trump is simply making good on a campaign promiseone that earned him the label "xenophobe"to drastically reduce certain foreigners coming into the country. In particular, Trump said before the election that he would stop the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Refugees, for God's sake! And yes, dear Christian, "God's sake" is a pun. You might wish "those people" stay out, but there is no acute security basis for your wish.

So Trump's implication that the borders have been suddenly thrown open is a lie, pure and simple. Add it to long litany of other lies that have earned Trump the "serially mendacious" designation by commentators on the right and left. These things matter. We need to be able to take a president's words at face value, but with Trump all bets are off. You just can't believe anything he says, because he lies continuously. And by the way, yet another hallmark of authoritarianism is the leader's propensity to continually promulgate his own reality, to the point where the populace simply doesn't know what is real. See: Orwell, George.

You can certainly see how Trump's "base", persons of the "low information" variety who are far less informed, thoughtful, and sophisticated than you, would be easy prey to such a lie. But ask yourself: What kind of president would use such shameless deceit and dishonesty to whip his supporters into a frenzy in this manner? There are many millions of people who literally don't have a clue about how travel into the U.S. is managed, or how refugees are vetted. If Trump tells them we're in great peril, and that "anyone" can get in, they'll believe him. What a despicable human being to use his position of authority in such a manner.

We can be thankful that our system is designed with checks and balances that can, at least for now, stand in the way of a would-be despot. (Erosions over time that weaken those checks are another matter. Trump is not a one-act show but a constant, pernicious threat.) The judicial branch is one such check, and the legislative another. In moments of acute crisis it typically falls to the judicial branch to act, as it is now doing.

Incidentally, Trump's slander aside, Judge Robart's ruling was not on its face improper. We can see this is so by noting that an "emergency" appeal by the administration to overturn the ruling was rejected Sunday morning by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court directed each side to provide additional arguments by 3:00 Pacific time today (Monday). This could end up before the Supreme Court in short order.

A final word on dignity and decorum being so sadly lacking in this president. Shortly after Trump's order was signed, acting attorney general Sally Yates, a career attorney in the Justice Department, said she would not defend the order in court because she was not confident that it was lawful. So far the courts have validated her concern. I say "concern" because neither she nor they have advanced a final judgement.

And so Yates was immediately fired, which is the president's prerogative. Normally when someone is fired it is done quietly, or perhaps with a neutral, low-key public statement. But in Yate's case, the White House released this statement containing Trump's trademark personal attack:
WHITE HOUSE:  Ms. Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration. It is time to get serious about protecting our country. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals traveling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country.
The thing reads as if Trump wrote the statement himself.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Political Witch Hunt

Remarkably, a Republican Party that for four years fixated unwaveringly on the third-rate Benghazi "scandal" now seems generally nonchalant about the intelligence community's high-confidence bombshell that Russia intervened mightily in the U.S. presidential election.

That's the same Russia that is actively opposing American and western interests around the world.

Some Trump supporters have even said that if Russian intervention was required to obtain the desired result, then it's a good thing it happened.

As many commentators have already opined, Ronald Reagan must be turning over in his grave.

Ronald who? The Republican Party has undergone a breathtaking transformation these past few years, one which has only accelerated this election season. As events over the past year have made starkly clear, this is no longer the party of Reagan.

A few notables such as George Will lament the change and have departed; many just shrug.

But whose party is it? Trump's? Too soon to tell. With past orthodoxy seemingly jettisoned, the only discernible operative "ideology" appears to be political power. We will have to wait to see if there's anything more to it than that, because core Republican principles are in tremendous flux. At present very little can be described as "core."

The upheaval has been going on for a while, even if Trump has elevated things to a striking new dimension. Benghazi, for example, was never a principle but a political cudgel, wielded hysterically and incessantly until it was no longer useful.

The only enduring lesson from Benghazi is that consulate security wasn't what it should have been in an undeniably dangerous part of the world. Congressional hearing after congressional hearing in Republican-controlled committees could ultimately reach no greater conclusion. Five separate Republican committee investigations over the years finally led to the formation of a "select committee" to investigate it all again, and to reach the same result.

All this churning to discover how it came to happen that four Americans (including two diplomats) died in the swirling chaos of post-Gaddafi Libya.

Will Republicans, who are soon to exercise almost total power, take the same trouble to understand the nature and extent of Russian interference in our democratic institutions? It's hard to discern any particular inclination to do so, except by a few forlorn souls such as John McCain, whose principles at least occasionally transcend politics.

Russia might be a pariah, but in this instance it's our pariah. Or Trump's, anyway.

Asked about the new U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia to punish its meddling, the president-elect opined that we should just "move on." All's well that ends well, right?

Whatever happened is in the past. Not, mind you, that we're acknowledging that it happened.

There's this from the New York Times on a Friday morning interview with Trump, shortly before his meeting with the nation's highest intelligence officials to discuss their report (the unclassified version is here) on Russian influence in the election:

Mr. Trump told The New York Times in an interview that the storm surrounding Russian hacking was nothing more than a “political witch hunt” carried out by his adversaries, who he said were embarrassed by their loss to him in the 2016 election. Speaking by telephone three hours before the intelligence briefing, Mr. Trump repeatedly criticized the intense focus on Russia.

No witches here, people. Move along.

As a thought experiment, ask yourself how this would all be different were it Clinton instead of Trump who had stood to benefit from Russia's interventions. Funny, right? Benghazi would be a smoldering ember compared to the high intensity conflagration of howling Republican outrage.

As I said, this is no longer Ronald Reagan's Republican Party. Whose party it is remains to be seen.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The Politics of Power

If anything, the politics of power have gotten even more brutish as Republicans begin to exercise their newfound near-absolute control of government. Previous norms of conduct continue to fall. That's saying a lot, coming as it does after eight years of Republican scorched-earth obstruction culminatingit's still stunning to contemplate thisin the denial of a sitting president due consideration of his Supreme Court nominee.

Recent examples include the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) warning that several of Trump's cabinet nominees have not been properly vetted prior to beginning their confirmation hearingssomething that except for one relatively minor example is unprecedented in the four decades the office has existed. The OGE says the dearth of vetting of current nominees is a matter of "great concern."

There is an established ethics review process, including a requirement that nominees submit certain paperwork, that is supposed to be completed before hearings begin. Members of the relevant Senate committees can't perform proper due-diligence without those materials, but several of Trump's nominees haven't provided them, even as the process is allowed to move forward. The OGE director said that not only had a number of nominees not completed the ethics process, but the "OGE has not received even initial draft financial disclosure reports for some of the nominees scheduled for hearings."

This is highly irregular, to say the least.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's plan is to fast-track Trump's nominees by, as it were, "flooding the zone" with an onslaught of hearings, thereby having the effect of a bare minimum of Senate, press, and public consideration of any one of them due to sheer information overload.

Hearings for multiple high-profile nominees will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a cacophony of other concurrent events (such as Trump's first press conference in almost half a year) also competing for attention. You can only drink so much from a fire hose.

This is actually an improvement. Initially six hearings were scheduled for Wednesday alone.

Only two days of hearings have been allocated to Trump's controversial Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions. That's less review than Sessions received several decades ago when a Republican Senate rejected his nomination to the federal bench because of concerns of racism. Those concerns remain. Democrats are only being allowed four witnesses in the Sessions hearing.

While always important, vetting is especially crucial for this administration because so many of its highest profile nominees are relatively unknown to legislators, or are decidedly controversial. Some have expressed views that are openly hostile to the very missions of the departments they have been nominated to head.

The Trump transition seems to think the requirements for proper vetting consistent with constitutionally-mandated Senate consent are less a standard of good governance than a political nuisance. We should quit nit-picking and take it on the new administration's say-so that all its nominees are superb. How else to interpret this statement from the transition:

President-elect Trump is putting together the most qualified administration in history and the transition process is currently running smoothly. In the midst of a historic election where Americans voted to drain the swamp, it is disappointing some have chosen to politicize the process in order to distract from important issues facing our country. This is a disservice to the country and is exactly why voters chose Donald J. Trump as their next president.

Thus do those who insist on established norms of conduct "politicize the process."

And in an Orwellian turn, "drain the swamp" means less, not more transparency. Just trust us.

Brace yourself; we're just getting started.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Monday, December 26, 2016

Fossil Fuel Subsidies

I've recently argued with somebody who should certainly know better about the fact that the fossil fuel industry receives extensive subsidies. Here's a quick survey I conducted to demonstrate what ought to be obvious.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Doublespeak and the Right-Wing Mind

The right-wing mind is fertile soil for Orwellian "doublespeak" in all its variations.To a large extent this derives from a tenuous relationship with facts that psychologists who study the conservative brain think might be a feature that's in some sense "hard wired," perhaps with a genetic predisposition. Whatever its cause, an ignorant mind makes the propagandist's job ridiculously easy. The right-winger's perennial difficulty with objective reality makes him particularly susceptible to all kinds of deliberate misinformation.

A constellation of characteristics is apparent. Having its druthers, the right-wing mind prefers symbol over substance to convey truth. Similarly, banal platitudes are commonly elevated to high profundity. All this occurs superficially, with little thought or effort. Right-wingers see little need to plumb the depths of ideas or evidence, and often seem to not know how to do so.

Thus the right-wing mind prefers "truths" that it just knows over facts that must be empirically discovered. Accordingly, the right-wing worldview is dominated by prejudice rather than thoughtful examination of objective reality. That's why conspiracy theories slide so easily into its corpus of common knowledge.

Finally, the right-wing mind's ideological rigidity causes it to invert truth to maintain a predetermined worldview, in ways that are often shockingly outrageous from the perspective of rational thinkers. Consider an example that in a sane world ought to be dismissed as trivial silliness, but which in many respects is a paradigmatic exemplar of how the right-wing mind inverts truth in a manner that is genuinely Orwellian.

I recently received an email with this image and the subject "Hypocrisy"; the sender was convinced it said something truthful:

While I can't vouch for the actual quotation, it's quite true that before the election Hillary Clinton did warn about the danger to democracy from threatening to not accept the election outcome. She did so in response to Donald Trump's claims that the election was "rigged," and his implication that the result might be illegitimate. And here is what Clinton said after the election, in her concession speech; pay attention to the word "accept":

We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought. But I still believe in America and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.

I quote from the speech's transcript, adding my emphasis. Clinton went on to say that "our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don't just respect that, we cherish it."

At no time did Clinton or anybody associated with her campaign say or imply that the election outcome was invalid or should be questioned. Quite the contrary, she stated her acceptance of the result unequivocally. Her position could not be more clear.

By contrast, Donald Trump actually did imply, darkly and frequently, that the election result might be illegitimate. After catching flack in the media for his insinuations, Trump eventually said somewhat cheekily:

I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election, if I win.

So the right-wing Clinton "hypocrisy" meme contained in that image not only inverts Clinton's clearly stated and consistent position both before and after the election, but it also attributes to Clinton a sentiment that was actually articulated by Trump! That's pretty remarkable propaganda given how well it seems to be working. Orwell would be impressed.

In the face of such incongruity the reality-based observer is left sputtering in bewilderment. What can you possibly say in response to such prima facie absurdity? You might try presenting facts (as I have done here), but I assure you that will not work.

It won't work because, as I said above, facts (and reason, too) mean nothing to the right-wing mind. The right-winger will dismiss your facts any number of ways. Commonly, he will simply refuse to acknowledge or engage with themeven a transcript of Clinton's concession or, if you insist, a video of itor with your dishonest liberal media from which they come.

Alternatively, he might say that if you actually believe Clinton sincerely meant what she said in her concession, then you are hopelessly naïve. Which is brilliant, because the right-winger can make up whatever reality he wants, regardless of any ostensible "evidence" that may appearevidence which he can see through with his superior insight and wisdom about how things are. And happily for him, there is no work involved in any of this.

Your own failure, rational though it may be, comes from not understanding that from the right-winger's perspective Clinton doesn't need to actually say or do anything to demonstrate she's a hypocriteshe just is one, essentially by definition. Remember: right-wingers just know things. These things are just asserted, not proved. And because she is a hypocrite (and "crooked," too), it is even acceptable to ascribe sentiments to her (such as the "unless it's me!" in the image above) that she never actually espoused, and that her opponent did espouse!

The upshot is that reality is whatever the right-winger wants it to be, to the point that he makes up and promulgates "truth" that is diametrically opposed to objective fact, thereby rightly earning the adjective "Orwellian." False is true. Down is up. Since everything Clinton has said demonstrates she has never deviated, whether before or after the election, from her insistence that the results be accepted, accusing her of "hypocrisy" is thus the epitome of Orwellian doublespeak. It's remarkable to behold its power over the right-wing mind.

Yet the human mind, capable as it is (in some persons, anyway) of magnificent feats of reasoning, might even in the right-winger choke from time to time on too large a helping of doublespeak, and thus look about for quasi-rational ways to justify the "hypocrisy" claim. Should the evidence from Clinton's concession become too much for even him to deny, the right-winger will naturally point to certain recount efforts in three states by Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and lay them shamelessly at Clinton's feet. It's sort of analogous to invading Iraq in response to being attacked by an Afghanistan-based al Qaeda.

Indeed, the Stein recount is the proximate cause of right-wingers' ire against Clinton. The reality-based observer remains bewildered. Not only is it Stein, not Clinton, who's driving the recount, but the Clinton campaign has said all along that it saw no evidence of fraud or misconduct, and that it would not opt to pursue any recounts. And it hasn't. Once Stein's recount efforts seemed to be gaining momentum, the Clinton campaign repeated that it did not believe that the recounts would result in any material change in the outcome. Interestingly, Stein has said the same thing, but (giving her the benefit of the doubt) she seems to think it's important to conduct a sanity check on the systems and the processes in a few close states.

As before, Clinton could hardly be more unequivocal. Clearly, the Clinton campaign is not particularly interested in doing a recount, and didn't ask for one. It certainly has never given the slightest suggestion that it doesn't "accept" the election result. Quite the opposite: Hillary said we must (her word) accept it, and that "Donald Trump is going to be our president."

Ah, but there's this: The Clinton campaign has said it will send observers (my word; and, to be clear, this includes election lawyerssee Postscript below) to monitor the recount process. Which of course is what you'd expect. And of course, the Trump campaign is doing exactly the same. For a campaign to not send observers to an official recount would be not just unexpected, it would be malpractice. Whatever one thinks about the desirability of a recount, once it is happening all relevant parties need to be present.

Right-wingers, unsurprisingly, don't see it that way. They'd rather fabricate a conspiracy theory. Because they just know things, they know Clinton is "supporting" the recount, even though it is doing no such thing. (This word-parsing gets wearying.) Such "support" is presumably to challenge the outcome, yet the Clinton campaign has never remotely suggested the election results are invalid, and has said the outcome is highly unlikely to change. No matter how carefully and clearly you explain yourselfeven trying to get out in front of a developing situationand no matter how reasonable your action, a right-winger will always find a way to invert and twist your meaning and intentions, and cast dark aspersions. Sadly, there is no evidence you can present which will have any effect at all, and don't bother reasoning either.

Thus the right-winger just knows Clinton really wants there to be a recount; that Clinton doesn't actually "accept" the election results despite what she has unambiguously said, andergo!she is a hypocrite for not accepting the results after she castigated Trump for suggesting before the election that he might not accept them. What a steaming mess of inanity.

If all this leaves you in intellectual despair, then it's likely you are sane. I, for one, have concluded that it is simply impossible to have a rational discussion with a right-winger. Their minds just don't work properly, and I have no idea what to do about it. Sadly, it seems that outvoting them is the only ultimate solution, but one that will always leave us bitterly divided. It would be far better if we could at least engage in rational dialogue along the way, even if we ultimately disagree on direction. But as I said, that seems impossible.

The particular danger now is that we are about to have a president who is an especially accomplished propagandist: one who makes up his own reality to suit the moment's needs, often for purposes of personal aggrandizement; one who was for good reason called "serially mendacious" during the campaign, and is continuing that pattern without pause. A large fraction of our citizenry will gladly swallow whatever alternate reality he chooses to dispense. The foundations of democracy are about to take a beating.

Although we've been moving in this direction for a long time, we are now accelerating toward a tipping point on our way to a post-fact (and post-reason) society, in which far too many of us have no reliable touchstone for gauging what's real. Be terrified.

Postscript: The Clinton campaign's statement of its judgements and intentions regarding the recount is more nuanced than I described above; you might want to read it for yourself. In a lengthy statement the campaign's general counsel, Marc Elias, described the numerous steps the campaign has taken to ensure there was no "outside interference [eg. hacking, Russian or otherwise -mb] in the vote tally." The campaign has quite understandably looked for anomalies using a variety of means, and will continue, says Elias, "to perform our due diligence."

Elias says the campaign had not "uncovered any actionable evidence" of irregularities, and thus had not planned to request a recount. "But," he said, "now that a recount has been initiated in Wisconsin, we intend to participate in order to ensure the process proceeds in a manner that is fair to all sides." Even though the campaign does not envision any change in the outcome, "we feel it is important, on principle, to ensure our campaign is legally represented in any court proceedings and represented on the ground in order to monitor the recount process itself."

As I said above, the recount is an official process and all parties need to be present.

Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Friday, December 02, 2016

Trump's Landslide

I watched most of Trump's Cincinnati rally last night. There was much to be disturbed about. Pre-election warnings about fascism remain relevant; at a minimum we seem to be entering the "Berlusconi" era of American governance. For now, though, I'll confine my remarks to one thing.

During a couple minutes of indecorous, self-aggrandizing chest-thumping, where Trump relived his election-night glory, he said this:

"We won in a landslide; that was a landslide."

I wrote down the quote as he said it, not wanting to get it wrong. I may have mistaken a period for the semicolon in my transcription.

At the moment he uttered those words, current tabulations had Hillary Clinton with 48.1% of the popular vote, whereas Trump received just 46.2%. Not only did Trump not receive a majority of the vote, he did not even receive a plurality. Some landslide. (Other recent presidents not claiming landslides got more than 50% of the popular vote. See table below.)

I am not arguing about who won the election. Trump won it under the rules as constituted. I am saying that a candidate and now president-elect who incessantly makes up his own reality and propagates blatant falsehoods to credulous adoring supporters is a danger to democracy.

In his "landslide" win Trump got 2.56 million less votes than Clinton. (This margin is still slightly fluid.) [Update: Dec 15, 2016 - The margin has grown to 2.85 million; see table below.] In his "landslide" Trump won the Electoral College by the scantest of popular vote margins. Had Clinton won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania as had been expected she would now be president-elect. Trump won those three states by a combined margin of around 100,000 votes. [Update: Dec 15, 2016 - The margin is now less than 78,000; see updates here.]

We might complain that Trump has employed hyperbolic bluster to redefine "landslide" to meaninglessness, but that isn't quite true. What he's doing isn't frittering away meaning; he's redefining reality. It's Orwellian propaganda, in which a clearly false reality is simply asserted from a position of power. Many ignorant or thoughtless people will take it on Trump's say-so, despite it being baldly untrue. Others who understand the absurdity will opt to passively acquiesce. That's incredibly dangerous.

Inventing reality is well-worn territory for Trump. It's why so many have described him throughout the campaign as "serially mendacious." An egregiously destructive recent example was his claim that "millions" of persons voted illegally in the election. Trump just made that up, providing no evidence whatsoever, presumably because his ego can't abide losing the popular vote to Clinton. But the harm that does to our democratic institutions is immense and intolerable.

We can expect Trump to assert all kinds of bald untruths during his coming administration, and to act upon those assertions. Whether or not he really believes these things is almost irrelevant. A president should speak the truth, but truth is becoming increasingly fungible and manipulable.

Such manipulation of reality is rightly called "Orwellian," and Orwell warned us against it for good reason. It's the stuff of authoritarian and especially totalitarian governments. We are about to experience something unprecedented in American governance: something with which our citizenry, with its increasingly flaccid critical-thinking organ, is ill equipped to deal.

I'll conclude with results from some recent elections to put Trump's "landslide" into historical perspective:

Trump's "Landslide" Compared To Recent Elections
Year Electoral Votes, Winner Loser(s) Popular Vote Margin Popular Vote Pct
2016 Trump 306 Clinton 232 Clinton +2.85 million Clinton 48.1%, Trump 46.0%
2012 Obama 332 Romney 206 Obama +4.98 million Obama 51.1%, Romney 47.2%
2008 Obama 365 McCain 173 Obama +9.55 million Obama 52.9%, McCain 45.7%
2004 Bush 286 Kerry 251 Bush +3.01 million Bush 51%, Kerry 48.5%
2000 Bush 271 Gore 266 Gore +0.54 million Gore 48.4%, Bush 47.9%
1996 Clinton 379 Dole 159, Perot 0 Clinton +8.20 million Clinton 49.2%, Dole 40.7%, Perot 8.4%
1984 Reagan 525 (that's a landslide!) Mondale 13 Reagan +16.88 million Reagan 58.8%, Mondale 40.6%

Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Unpopular Trump

In some true sense Democrats got shellacked in the just completed election. Republicans will control the presidency, both houses of Congress and, soon enough, the Supreme Court.

Much analysis in the punditry now fixates on how Democrats lost their way by trying to ride a long changing demographic wave and over-emphasizing Trump's flaws, while failing to understand that working class voters, especially whites, were tired of being left behind. True enough, this was a "change election."

But how big, really, was the mandate for change? Consider:

Hillary Clinton has a lead in the popular vote that will continue to grow as additional votes are counted in heavily Democratic states such as California, New York, and Washington; that lead could reach nearly two million. Clinton will likely end up with around 1.5 percent more of the popular vote than Trump. (Which is close, by the way, to the margin by which Clinton lead in national polls in the final days. Keep that in mind if you're tempted to think the pollsters got things badly wrong.) As some commentators have put it, Clinton won the vote but lost the election.

[Note: An earlier version of this post referred to a current Clinton lead of 1.8 million in the popular vote, but my source for that figure, The Huffington Post, now says that was a "projection," not a then-current count. As of Nov 16 the Cook Political Report pegs Clinton's lead at almost 1.2 million. Update: Nov 23, 2016 - Politico now reports that Clinton's popular vote lead has passed 2 million. Update: Dec 1, 2016 - Clinton's popular vote lead is now more than 2.5 million. Her percentage of the vote is 1.9% higher than Trump's, a margin better than 10 previous presidents. Update: Dec 15, 2016 - Clinton's popular vote lead is now 2.86 million. She received 2.1% more of the popular vote than Trump.]

Hey, that's how it works in the U.S. (And can you imagine how Trump would have reactedthe system is rigged!were the tables reversed?)

But consider this too:

Trump's win in the electoral college was, effectively, by a mere 107,330 votes. That's the combined margin by which Trump won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michiganthree "blue" states Clinton was expected to win but didn't, and whose loss cost her the election. [Update: Dec 15, 2016 - The latest tallies have Trump winning these three states by a combined total less than 78,000 votes. Here are the results for Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.] Yes, indeed, rural white working class voters were absolutely crucial to flipping these three states and sealing the outcome, but the margin as a share of the national vote was tiny. Had Clinton won 55,000 Trump votes in the right proportions in those three states, she'd now be president elect.

Or this:

Democrats managed a net gain of two seats in the Senate and and a handful in the House. Not nearly what they were hoping for, to be sure, but not an overwhelming repudiation either.

As "change elections" go, this one was long on impact but short on mandate. What's undeniably true is that the country remains deeply, profoundly, divided. It will be fascinating to watch how President Trump and the Republicans proceed to govern. And watch we shall.

Update: Nov 14, 2016Dean Baker explains that white voters are over-represented in the electoral college because smaller states are whiter and less ethnically diverse, and small states get disproportionately more electoral votes relative to the size of their populations than do larger states. To take an extreme example, Wyoming (which is largely white) gets one electoral college vote for every 195,000 residents, whereas California (which is only 38 percent white) gets  one electoral vote for every 711,000 residents.

Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Friday, November 11, 2016

Trump Watch: Infrastructure, Debt, Politics

Donald Trump is calling for a large (half a trillion dollars) infrastructure spending program. The nation's infrastructure is in serious disrepair, and such a  program would provide a significant boost to the economy by creating large numbers of well-paying jobs.

This is nothing new. President Obama has been calling for an infrastructure program for years, for the same reasons, but a recalcitrant Republican Congress would have none of it. Will things be different now? And if so, why? A largish infrastructure program was also a central Clinton proposal. Everybody except Republican ideologues understands why it's needed.

Yet to be explained by Trump is how it will be paid for, especially since the huge tax cuts promised by Trump would add greatly to the deficit and debt. Borrowing would be, economically speaking, a fine way to go (although note that Clinton actually had a rather detailed plan for paying for her proposal), but dire debt warnings have been a recurrent feature of Trump's presidential campaign, and debt hysteria has been a perennial theme of Republicans when they're out of power, particularly during the Obama years.

But now that they have a lock on power, perhaps Republicans will  discover once again the debt isn't such a big deal. It's long been suggested that Republicans don't really care about the debt anyway, and there's plenty of solid historical evidence that that's the case. To put it mildly, there's been a lot of Republican inconsistency on debt over the years, depending on whether they're in or out of power.

This is a politically complicated and ideologically muddled topic. Infrastructure spending really could juice the economy, with undeniable benefit to the country and a nice political payoff to the party in power. Is it possible that past Republican opposition has been in large part a way to deny Obama and Democrats  (and, as an unfortunate side effect, the country) that success? Oh yes. And it's despicable. Republicans actively sought to make Obama a failure from the very first moments of his presidency, and have fought to block every Obama initiative, even during the brutal depths of the economic bloodletting, over the past eight years. (Note by way of contrast the poignant and characteristic grace Obama has exhibited by showing even at this very early stage that he is determined to do everything he can, for the good of the country, to help his successor be successful.)

A source of perpetual frustration to me is that a disturbingly large swath of the electorate is of the "low information" variety, and is thus subject to all kinds of ignorance and mythology bandied about by politicians. Such voters understand neither the economics of the situation (particularly what we've been through these past eight years) nor (at the level of attributive detail required) the cynical and destructive games played by their politicians. And, yes, the political dysfunction really is skewed to one side. A Johnny-come-lately Republican infrastructure program would be a bitter irony lost on such voters.

I am straying from my original point now, but Thomas Jefferson warned that the success of democracy requires a well educated and well informed citizenry. If that is so (and how can you think otherwise?), there's much to despair. The election of 2016 seems ominous in that light.

Update: Nov 14, 2016 - Paul Krugman notes that the promised Trump tax cuts and resulting deficit spending could have a strong stimulus effect in the short to mid-term, even if those tax cuts are less efficient than they might otherwise be by being largely tilted to the rich. The point is that deficit spending right now could be economically beneficial. I underscore my point that Republicans are likely to embrace all kinds of policies under Trump that they considered anathema under Obama.

 Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Politics of National Destruction

So it has come to this.

What a long, sordid, destructive, unraveling we have seen these past two decades, as one of our two major political parties has descended into a death spiral of dysfunction, and dragged our system of governance down with it.

Far from being a surprise, an accidental and tragic mistake, Donald Trump is the inevitable outcome, the crowning capstone, the terminal end stage of a political party that has continually devolved: one that has been unable all these years to find its way back to some semblance of governing partnership that we once took for granted.

Although they are happy to rule, Republicansdriven by mindless ideology in ways that Democrats simply aren'tare not able to govern. The result is a destructive nihilism that rips apart the national fabric.

It is no accident that a party that has elevated and embodied ignorance has chosen as its presidential nominee the most ignorant and unqualified candidate in modern history. Many words ("dangerous", for example, or "repugnant") describe Donald Trump, but if you had to choose just one, one that appears in commentary again and again, it would have to be "unfit". An unfit leader atop a dysfunctional party.

If we were to trace the historical arc backward, we might say the dysfunction began with the bomb-throwing Newt Gingrich, who deliberately adopted the strategy of scorched-earth politics as a way out of the minority-party wilderness in which the GOP had perennially found itself.

By 1998 we'd already had two government shutdowns, a long-running political witch-hunt directed at the president and, finally, an impeachment of that president over charges that he perjured himself in sworn testimony about a private consensual sexual relationship. "Clinton derangement syndrome" had taken hold, and partisan polarization was rapidly and rabidly ascendant in ways it had not previously been in American politics. Republicans had developed a particular taste for tearing down Democratic presidents, and for playing dirty. Add to that a penchant for fact-free mythology, and the pathology is complete.

In the new millennium, Republican rule (with some Democratic acquiescence) led us to invade a country that had not attacked us and that did not threaten us. As a war-weary and Bush-weary nation elected a new president in 2008, in the midst of a historic financial and economic collapse, Republicans settled on a united strategy of destructive opposition at all costs. On the day of Obama's inauguration, Republican leaders huddled to plot out that strategy. It should never be forgotten that at the very moment they were doing so, financial markets were in turmoil, and the nation was bleeding 800,000 jobs per month. Nearly 10 million jobs were ultimately destroyed. Yet in a troubled time at the dawn of a new presidency, Republicans intentionally chose obstruction over governing.

As the economy (which had officially been in recession for 14 months prior to Obama's inauguration) sank into depression, Republican opposition became entrenched in ways barely imaginable under the circumstances. The Obama "stimulus" plan (The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) became law less than one month after Obama's inauguration, getting only three Republican votes in the entire Congress! There was simply no desire on the part of Republicans to work with the new president from even the earliest days. It is almost impossible to fathom a political party so recalcitrant in the midst of such national crisis.

Thus was the stage set from the very beginning of the Obama presidency, and the stonewalling and obstruction continued throughout. The administration's health reform law was enacted without a single Republican vote. Mitch McConnell said his top objective was to make Obama a one-term president. McConnell saw to it that nearly every piece of business before the Senate was filibustered, something unprecedented in American history. Bad as all that seemed, political scientists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein came out with a book that explained that, as the book's title said, It's Even Worse Than It Looks. And it was. Mann and Ornstein laid the blame of governmental dysfunction squarely at the feet of the Republican party.

The litany of ways Republicans have impeded the functioning of government is long and depressing. There were irresponsible threats to default on the national debt, for example. Republicans shut down the government in 2013 specifically to block the implementation of the healthcare law even as open enrollment was about to begin. What kind of governing partner shuts down the functioning of government to block a law that has duly passed the legislative process, and also survived a Supreme Court challenge? Hostage-taking is just part of the party's M.O., and you'd better believe it is willing to shoot the hostageeven if the hostage is the country itself.

Likewise, Republicans refused to confirm a director of the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because they disliked how the bureau was structureddespite the fact that that structure was laid out in law.

Just this year Republican obstructionism hit a remarkable new low with the Senate's refusal to hold confirmation hearings for Obama's nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Scalia. Such disturbing refusal is unprecedented in post-Civil War American history, and is a dereliction of the Senate's duty under the constitution.

In the wake of the 2010 healthcare legislation, Republican fury erupted under the banner of the so-called "Tea Party". Among other things, the movement sought to delegitimize the president in ways that make the earlier Republican opposition seem tepid by comparison. The "birther" movement (with Donald Trump becoming its most prominent public figure) sought to cast doubt on Obama's American birth, despite the fact that documentary evidence that he was born in Hawaii had long existed, including his birth certificate placed in the public domain months before the 2008 election. Polls consistently showed that a large fraction of Republicans believed Obama was not American-born, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Republican leaders took no trouble to disabuse the rank-and-file of that belief. Polls also showed many believed Obama was a secret Muslim, against all evidence. In these and so many other ways, Republicans have existed in their own made-up alternate reality that borders on bizarre.

If self-governance requires a reasonably well informed citizenry, then one wonders in dismay how a national polity can survive such pervasive ignorance in one of its two major political parties. The Republican denial of climate change, despite overwhelming scientific consensus, is perhaps the most prominent example of such ignorance, but it is far from the only one.

In almost every aspect of national importance, Republicans weave unhinged mythology into the governing narrative with varying degrees of derangement. For example, Republicans are convinced that voter fraud is rampant, despite complete lack of evidence for it. Whenever it is looked for, in-person voter fraud is shown to be essentially nonexistent in U.S. elections. And yet Republican state politics is fundamentally driven by various kinds of disenfranchisement efforts, with voter fraud being one excuse. (Cynical observers see such disenfranchisement as a Republican response to unfavorable demographic changes in the electorate.) Donald Trump has repeatedly made the claim that his loss would prove that the electoral process is "rigged" against him; his supporters are convinced of the reality of widespread fraud that would deny him the presidency, and some are even advocating a "revolution" should Hillary Clinton be elected. Thus do Republicans and Trump undermine faith in the electoral process, deeply poisoning the well of national civics, and ensuring a pathologically divided citizenry after the election.

For his part, Donald Trump embodies ignorance in ways few presidential nominees ever have. The Republican party, which routinely embraces conspiracy theories and alternate realities, was ready-made for such an ignorant, authoritarian leader.

Trump says the country is descending into anarchy requiring a "law and order" solution, even as national statistics show violent crime remains near historic lows.

Trump says illegal immigration across our southern border is rampant, but net illegal immigration has been flat or declining for years, and more Mexicans are leaving the country than are entering it.

Trump says illegal aliens are a particularly serious source of crime in the U.S., but in fact illegal aliens are far less likely than Americans to commit crime. Which, by the way, is exactly what you would expect of persons who are mostly economic migrants trying to keep a low profile so they can work without being caught.

In all things Trump amplifies the worst tendencies of the Republican party. He is a culmination, not an aberration. He is the bursting boil, hot, festering, putrid. He epitomizes a party that is tearing itself asunder, and that threatens to take the nation down with it. As we have seen, much has already been accomplished in that direction. Republicans aren't Trump's victims: they are his creators. Trump is what you get when you embrace dysfunction.

I have no idea how this will all shake out. Perhaps the fall election will be usefully cathartic, but I have my doubts. The electorate is too polarized. Still, some commentators on the right see hope in a huge Trump loss.

George Will writes that "Trump is the GOP’s chemotherapy, a nauseating but, if carried through to completion, perhaps a curative experience." Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich says a third or more of Republicans are "literally face down in the Kool-Aid," but that "in many ways, I think that the election process itself will take care of this."  He adds that "one of the things we're going to learn here is that you can't be crazy and win a large constituency general election."

The problem is that nobody seems to acknowledge the long and deep rot that has pervaded the Republican party. Excising the Trump crazies will not itself solve the problem. The party itself is infused with ideological derangement. Its adherents occupy a made-up reality with no understanding of how to gauge what is and isn't true.

Stipanovich says that "if we have to wander in the wilderness for a decade until we can get a party that stands for the right things and can make a contribution to the future of America, then we need to wander." But can the country wait?

 Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Faith In Feet

Two penguins walk into a bar ... Wait! Wrong joke. However penguins do walk, and have feet, but (for cartoon penguins, at least) can't see their own feet. How do they know they have them? Faith! Faith in the unseen.

The person who sent me this cartoon intended penguin faith-in-feet to be a telling analogy: People have faith in God even though they can't see Him. Some things can't be seen directly and just have to be taken on faith. Thus we find our way to simple truths by simple analogy.

But maybe not. If we take this (bad, it turns out) analogy at face value, we can easily see that the penguins' faith is well justified (as some kinds of faith certainly are), but the faith of the believer in God, which I claim is belief without evidence, is not.

A cartoon penguin can rightly and without embarrassment say he has "faith" that he has feet, even though he's never actually seen them. How so?

For one thing, he can point out that something is providing his locomotion across dry land, and feet are the most sensible hypothesis. Indeed, the waddling stepwise sensation he experiences while moving about is more in line with feet than, say, wheels. You'd be surprised at how well penguins reason.

Further, the two penguins in the cartoon might hit upon the idea of examining each other for the existence of feet. "You have feet," says one. "So do you," says the other. More generally, a penguin who has seen feet on every fellow penguin he's ever looked at can justifiably take it on "faith" that he himself has feet, even if nobody actually told him he does.

A scientist-penguin might even devise an experiment where he is able to see his own feet in a reflecting pool of water.

These are all examples of how we (and cartoon penguins!) apply reason and empiricism to learn about reality. Some things that are arguably real can't be seen directly (such as atoms), but can nevertheless be taken (once the necessary investigations have been done) on "faith," and rightly so.

The difference is that faith in these things is backed by some kind of actual evidence that is sufficiently strong, whereas faith in God is not. Faith in God is truly blind faith: the belief in something that can't be proved or even strongly inferred. (The universe is not evidence of God; it's evidence of the universe. To say more than that is to overplay your hand. Unfortunately, we don't have time to argue about that here.) Alas, there is no virtue in believing things on insufficient evidence, and what God who gifted his creatures with rational minds would want it to be otherwise? But you can certainly understand why religions have tried to make it a virtue, because their existence depends upon it.

When you believe in made-up things, your belief becomes arbitrary. And why not? When you're allowed to believe anything you want, with no empirical grounding, then there are no universal authorities to which everybody can refer to resolve disagreements, so "arbitrary" is what you end up with.

Thus believers tend overwhelmingly to believe (occasionally with minor variations) in the God of their parents, which is almost as arbitrary as any belief system can be, because belief then becomes something you're born into, not something you judge to be true by examining evidence. The indoctrination is well nigh complete before you reach the age of reason, and then you're stuck. (A friend once remarked that the "escape velocity" of religion is high.) Parents are equally unmoored: they believe what their parents believed, and so on working backward. Regardless of how much one admires one's parents, that can't be a basis for discerning truth.

But absent evidence that everybody can examine and (through the application of reason) acknowledge, there cannot be a universal authority, so anything goes. Thus we have faith that really is "blind," which is to say ignorant. It is fascinating too that all believers have high confidence that they personally (lucky them; and there's nothing more arbitrary than luck!) are correct, even when the myriad beliefs in circulation profoundly contradict each other. That Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, whatever, is as sure of himself as you are, and with just as little actual evidence. What a mess.

And so believers argue among themselves, trying to persuade their opponents to somehow, irrationally, find their way (have faith!) to whatever arbitrary position is being defended. The answer, you see, is to just believe, and by "just" we mean I should believe what you believe, and for no better reason than that you believe it. The penguins, who at least require a little evidence, would be appalled!

A cute cartoon that makes a simple but relevant point can be useful. There's explanatory strength in good analogies. But unfortunately for religion, the penguin cartoon describes a faith-in-feet that can truly be justified, even as faith-in-God cannot be.

Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved