Category Archives: Politics

The Heavy Water War: TV review

If you’re looking for some terrific television to Netflix, I have a recommendation for you. It’s called various things: The Heavy Water War, The Saboteurs, Kampen om Tungtvannet. It’s a six part miniseries, which also happens to be the most popular television program in Norwegian broadcast history. It was recommended to us by a friend, and my wife and I decided to watch the first episode. We found it so compelling, we ended up bingeing the whole thing. It’s in several languages, so you’ll have to read a certain amount of subtitles, but I promise you, it’s worth your attention. We were completely riveted.

It’s about the Allied effort to destroy a Norwegian factory that was the main European source for heavy water: deuterium oxide. Heavy water was, in the 1940s, a significant element in nuclear energy research, including nuclear reactors attempting to produce isotopes to use in building nuclear weapons. In short, heavy water was needed by the German nuclear program. There was only one place they could get it from: Norway. And so, for the Allied forces, it became a matter of some urgency to prevent the Germans from getting it.

So the series cuts back and forth between essentially four locations. First, Ryukan, a small town in Norway, built by a waterfall, next door to the Vemork power station, where the heavy water was produced. We primarily focus on Axel Aubert (Stein Winge), an executive with Norsk Hydro, the power company that owned the factory. Aubert was in charge of the Vemork plant, tasked with increasing production–this was a lucrative contract for the company. But his wife, Ellen (Maibritt Saerens), desperately lonely, is also deeply concerned that his professional actions might constitute collaboration with the German enemy. Which is a fair thing for her to worry about. And of course, everyone there is under constant Gestapo scrutiny.

Second, cut to England, where a Norwegian scientist, Leif Tronstad, the man who designed the Vemork facility, puts together his Norwegian team of saboteurs. Their training is supervised by Major Julie Smith (Anna Friel), a tough-as-nails military planner, who, over time, finds herself falling in love with Tronstad, and he with her (though both are married to long-absent spouses). They never act on their mutual attraction, but that tension underlies their scenes together. Third, we follow two teams of Norwegian saboteurs, code-named Operation Grouse, and then, when that failed, a second group, called Operation Gunnerside. The Norwegians in Grouse were meant to parachute into the bleak Northern mountains, then rendezvous with a British team coming in with gliders. But the gliders malfunctioned, and the captured British commandos were executed by the Gestapo. The Grouse men were able to ski clear, but had no supplies, and had to survive in some of the most desolate terrain on earth. At one point, they find some moss, boil it up, and choke it down; that’s all there is, until a lucky kill of a reindeer. Eventually, they did meet up with their Gunnerside colleagues; their combined teams skiied in, blew up the Vemork plant, then skiied 300 kilometers east to safe haven in Sweden.

The fourth main story the series follows takes place in Germany, and follows Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), as he attempts to unlock the secrets of the atom, and built a nuclear reactor. And, of course, Heisenberg’s work on the German atomic program is one of the central enigmas of the whole history of science and politics.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to direct Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s wonderful play about Heisenberg and a meeting in Copenhagen between him and Niels Bohr in 1941. (There’s also a 2002 film version, starring Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea). Directing that play was one of the great experiences of my professional life. Of course, if there’s one word that popularly captures Heisenberg more than any other, it would be ‘uncertainty.’ Did he, prior to 1945, solve the mystery of how to build a bomb? If he had made such a discovery, would he have shared it with the Nazi authorities who were so ubiquitous in his lab?

For what it’s worth, The Heavy Water War does include a shorter version of the meeting with Bohr. The suggestion is that Heisenberg wanted Bohr to know (and to pass on to the Allies) the fact that he was, in fact, working on building a reactor. The series goes on to further suggest that at one point, Heisenberg did have the creative and intellectual breakthrough he needed to figure out how to build an atomic bomb. And that he erased it. Loyal and patriotic German though he was, Werner Heisenberg was also a decent and loving human being. Eventually he could not bring himself to give Adolf Hitler the bomb.

If this is the case, then the Allied efforts to destroy the heavy water factory were not necessary. But there’s no way they could have known it. Certainly, from an Allied perspective, if there was any possibility that the Germans might be on the way to completing an atomic bomb, and if preventing them from getting heavy water might forestall that possibility, then their actions had to one of the war’s highest priorities. Norwegians are immensely proud of the fact that it was Norwegian saboteurs who destroyed the Vemork plant, and who sank the ferry that was shipping the last of its heavy water to Germany. They should be proud. And the story of those two great operations, Grouse and Gunnerside, is a powerful one, beautifully told in this series.

But did they prevent the Germans from building (and subsequently deploying) a nuclear device? This series should be applauded for suggesting that no, we don’t know the answer to that question, but probably not. Probably Heisenberg either couldn’t build it, or, more likely, decided not to.

In any event, this series does a tremendous job of telling a powerful and important historical story. And it does not shy from certain central moral ambiguities. Even after Vemork blew, a ferry full of heavy water was shipped out from Ryukan. The Allies knew that ferry needed to be destroyed. It was a passenger ferry, and carried a number of civilians, including families with small children. Nineteen civilians died. Those deaths, Julie Smith argues, were military necessities. Yes. But she’s crying when she makes that argument; not quite convinced.

And yes, it’s a very good thing that Hitler never had the Bomb. And a good thing that the Allies did have it. Hitler would have deployed it, over a civilian target. As we Americans did, over a civilian target. As President Obama just reminded us, speaking in Hiroshima.

I’m not going to re-litigate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But we must mourn. Our hearts must be filled with compassion, with humility, with a profound sense of loss. Maybe, strategically, the decision was inevitable. But as President Obama reminded us, sixty million people died in World War II. And that war made little distinction between civilian and military targets. Every one of those losses, every single one, diminishes us. Every life was precious, every one beloved. Surely, at least, our response must be ‘never again.’

 

 

 

Trevor Noah talks economics, and it’s so refreshing

On The Daily Show last night, Trevor Noah played this clip from Donald Trump, part of a speech he’d given in New Jersey, a speech which was greeted by wild applause:

A company moves to Mexico . . . and they think they’re going to take our people, fire all of our people, move to Mexico, make their air conditioners, and sell ’em right across the border, no tax, no nothing, guess what, folks? Not going to work that way anymore. Every unit you make, that you sell in the United States, you’re going to pay a 35% tax. 35, very simple. We’re losing our shirts, folks!

Here was Noah’s response:

When Donald Trump says you’re going to pay a 35% tax, you do understand that he means ‘you.’ The American consumer. That’s who ends up paying the tariff. It seems like just yesterday shoppers were pulling knives on each other to save ten bucks on a blue-ray player. And now people are cheering for more? When everything coming from another country is suddenly a third more expensive, Trump is essentially putting sanctions on America. You know, sanctions, the same things the US uses to cripple other countries. That’s basically the Trump economic recovery plan. A plan that could deepen the trade imbalance, throw our economy into recession within a year, and lead to trade wars with China and Mexico. That’s a trade war.

Cut back to Trump:

These dummies that say ‘oh, well, that’s a trade war.’ A trade war?! We’re losing five hundred billion dollars a year in trade with China; who the hell cares if there’s a trade war? That’s crazy.

And here’s Noah’s response:

No, you’re crazy! How is this guy a Presidential candidate? I know you don’t care, Donald Trump, but you know who would care? The four million Americans that would stand to lose their jobs if a trade war happened! There’s no war with China that you can say you don’t care about. It doesn’t matter what kind of war it is; a military war, a trade war.

Here’s why I liked this moment so much. I watch a lot of media, and a lot of political media. I watch Sunday morning political talk shows. I watch several shows on cable. I read several political and news websites every morning. And of course, Donald Trump has been covered extensively throughout. But not like this. Not analysis of the economics of his plans. It took a Comedy Central fake news host to point out what has seemed obvious to me from the beginning. Donald Trump’s economic program, with high protectionist tariffs and unilaterally re-negotiated trade agreements, would, if enacted, seriously and negatively impact the US and world economies.

Here’s how this entire exchange would have played out on mainstream news media outlets. There are two possibilities: “New Jersey supporters applauded Donald Trump today, as he reiterated his call for a 35% tariff on imports from Mexico if elected, as he continues to tighten his appeal heading into the fall election.” That’s the more likely approach; the focus entirely on the horse race. Or, a second, rarer possibility: “Donald Trump continues to call for a protectionist tariff on Mexican imports. Some economists believe that such a tariff could lead to a trade war with Mexico. Other economists disagree.” Mainstream media folks are exceedingly reluctant to even appear as though they’ve taken sides on issues, even on issues as seemingly black and white as, you know, the idea that starting a trade war is a good idea. So they play this ‘some people say . . . on the other hand, others believe. . .’ And that constitutes appropriate balance. (“Some Americans believe that the earth is flat. Others, however. . . “)

In fact, though, the vast majority of economists agree that Trump’s actions would, in fact, constitute a trade war, and lead almost certainly, to a recession. And that a sudden, immediate price increase on some (but not all) consumer goods would be inflationary, and harmful to most US consumers.

Because Trump is a businessman, there’s an assumption that he knows what he’s talking about on economic questions. Because he’s successful, people assume that his economic plans make sense, and are a good idea. Maybe, on foreign policy questions, he’s a little uninformed, but surely on the economy, he’s a guy we can trust. He has a chance to renegotiate trade agreements, and that will be good for America.

But it’s on economic matters that Trump’s invincible ignorance is most pronounced. His plans are insane. They won’t work. They won’t Make America Great Again. They’ll lead to trade wars and a recession. He really, genuinely, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And it took a comedian to say so. Well done, Mr. Noah.

Green Room: Movie Review

As Green Room opens, we see a van in the middle of a corn field, everyone in it sound asleep. The camera pulls back, and we see the path the van followed as it swerved off the highway and into the field. A sleepy driver drove off the road; funny, though also scary. And a metaphor for the entire film, which is about a group of musicians that has veered off the road, and is trying to survive.

In the van, The Ain’t Rights, a punk band, traveling from gig to gig, siphoning gas to keep going, playing wherever they can. They’ve essentially decided to call it quits, at least short-term, but accept one more engagement, because it pays enough to get them home.

So they show up, to a log cabin-ish venue in the woods, a bar where most of the patrons are skinheads, on the walls neo-Nazi regalia for decorations. And so their lead singer, Pat (Anton Yelchin), picks what I think was a Dead Kennedys anti-skinhead song, ‘Nazi Punks F off’ to begin their set. Very punk rock; edgy and tense and real. The crowd reacts furiously, throwing things and spitting at the stage, but we don’t sense The Ain’t Rights are in actual trouble. Yet. But that will come.

When they finish their set, they’re escorted by security up some stairs to a green room. And on the floor, they can see a woman with a knife sticking out of her head. Dead.

Panicked, they pull out a cell phone and call 9-1-1, reporting ‘a stabbing’ and the address just before the phone is confiscated by security. The rest of the movie is about this punk band, fighting for survival, attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads working for the venue’s owner, Darcy, played by none other than Patrick Stewart.

Darcy’s basically trying to clean up a mess. The venue’s headline band’s lead singer, high on drugs, killed the girl, his ex-girlfriend, because she was planning to leave him, and the whole skin-head lifestyle, behind. (That mystery, about who killed the girl, isn’t particularly important, and gets resolved very quickly. This movie isn’t about who-dun-it, it’s more about who is likely to survive).

The result is a fascinating film, a horror thriller that manages to transcend the essential conventionality of its structure. The writer/director, Jeremy Saulnier, clearly knows his subject matter. The day to day interactions of the band is completely convincing. I don’t know Saulnier’s background, but the film felt like it was written by someone who toured once with a band, who then based a screenplay on the jokes they shared about some of the sketchier venues they played. ‘What if we went into the green room and there was a dead body on the floor?’ That kind of thing. And then Saulnier took it from there.

I don’t know much about the whole punk rock/skinhead death metal scene. I sense that it contains an almost infinite numbers of sub-genres, and that Saulnier knows intimately the differences between them. The details of the world of this film is so convincingly rendered, I was completely with it throughout, despite my own ignorance of the film’s background. It felt very Zola-esque, a perfectly realized simulacrum of the denizens of a demi-monde. I loved Alia Shawcat as Sam, their guitarist, her shoulders hunched over her instrument as she plays. I loved the way they started songs, with Yelchin suddenly shouting, very quickly, “2, 3, 4” and instantly a hard-driving punk beat starts up. I loved the camaraderie of the band, how quickly spats get resolved and decisions made.

Although it’s not remotely a political film–its a horror thriller, with punk rock/skinhead setting–I can’t help but see a tremendous political subtext. It’s a film, after all, about neo-Nazis terrorizing punk rockers. About skinhead death metal vs. punk–immensely political music worlds colliding lethally. All under the deceptively benevolent direction of Patrick Stewart.

Because Darcy, the film’s uber-villain, is also genial and sympathetic. We instinctively feel that we can trust him; that when he tells the band members that he wishes them no ill, that he means it. Of course, he’s lying. Of course, he’s using a gentle manner to mask an essential sociopathy. So what is that characterization intended to convey about skinheads generally?

Darcy gives orders, intending them to be obeyed, and at times his followers do just as they’re told. For example, knowing that a 9-1-1 calls has reported ‘a stabbing,’ he orders one of his followers to stab his brother. The cops show up, are given a stabbing victim and perp, and drive off, satisfied. Leaving Darcy to complete his clean-up. Including, of course, disposing of witnesses.

Those extra resonances, the film’s implicit politics and the intersection of politics and music in the genres it explores, are what moved this film from exciting and powerful to unforgettable. I don’t know what it all means, but I want to learn, and spent the morning listening to The Misfits and Fugazi, trying to understand. Green Room got under my skin, is what I’m saying, and I’m grateful. It’s very seriously R-rated, and some will find it an unpleasant viewing experience. But I loved it.

Bathroom madness

People have–how to put this?–certain sanitary needs. Men, women, young people, old people, all races; we all gotta go number one and number two. Straight people have to; gay people have to, and transgender people have to. We all gotta pee and we all gotta poo. And since America is a civilized society, we have provided sanitary and comfortable public spaces where we can take care of those needs with some measure of privacy. Typically, we have separate men’s and women’s restrooms. And generally, all of it works out just fine.

I suppose, to some extremely limited degree, transgender people might be said to complicate the issue of restrooms. Except that’s not really true. Gender dysphoria is a real thing. Transgender people aren’t confused about themselves. If someone who looks like a woman, and considers herself a woman, goes into the women’s restroom, no one thinks anything of it. It’s not like we can tell if she was born with male genitalia. And it’s not like we have any reason to care. In fact, generally, when we go to a public restroom, we pay as little attention as possible to the other people we’re in there with. What we do, and what we want everyone to do, is to conduct our sanitary business as quickly and anonymously as possible.

(We don’t like to think about it, which is why it can become comical when people do think about it. As, for example, with the several websites out there on the interwebs having to do with urinal etiquette. This one is my favorite. Haven’t found many corresponding comical women’s restroom etiquette sites. Odd, that.)

Except that oh-so-welcome restroom anonymity that we all rely on and are grateful for has disappeared, and the issue of which bathroom to use has suddenly become politicized. Now, suddenly, the fact that trans people have been using their own gender appropriate public restrooms for years has become a whole new thing.

The pattern has gone like this. It tends to start with well-meaning attempts to pass some local ordinance prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, followed by conservative backlash. That’s what happened in Houston in 2014, and in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2015. In Houston, the local ordinance looked like a winner, until opponents raised the issue of transgender bathroom use. In North Carolina, the local bill passed, alarming the state legislature, which again used issue of trans folks using public restrooms as the wedge to pass a bill overriding the Charlotte bill, denying other LGBT rights. And anti-trans bathroom bills are pending in a number of other states.

We should be clear about this; this really isn’t about where people go potty. In North Carolina, people are required to use the bathroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. But central to gender dysphoria is the individual’s realization that s/he is, in the profoundest, most personal way, not the gender s/he was born with. Webmd.com covers it nicely. That’s what the North Carolina bill, and other similar bills in other states, denies.

These bills are the equivalent of legislators holding their hands over their ears and shouting ‘la la la la’ whenever anyone mentions transgender people. Which, of course, only has the effect of drawing unwelcome attention to what they’re doing. Next thing you know, Bruce Springsteen is canceling concerts, and businesses are moving out of state, and the federal government is filing lawsuits. Bathrooms are places where something messy is handled as neatly and cleanly as possible. These bills take that neatness and make it all messy again.

It’s important that we recognize this. The issue is not ‘which restroom should folks use.’ It’s ‘are transgender people dealing with a real condition.’ Is the central sexual and gender identity of a person what he or she says it is, or is that an issue that the state should decide for them?

Amazingly enough, though, that’s not how it appears on the right. The North Carolina bill is defended as a measure that protects young women from sexual predators. The idea is that trans women, or unscrupulous men dressing like trans women, could sneak into a women’s bathroom and harass or assault women. And that’s a potent argument, I suppose, because let’s face it, public restrooms are places where we all feel particularly vulnerable.

There is no factual basis for this fear, however. This article summarizes the existing evidence. Certainly, women are occasionally assaulted in public restrooms, but not by men pretending to be trans. Men do awful things sometimes. But assault and harassment are already illegal. A bill banning trans women from using women’s facilities would accomplish nothing. In addition to being almost impossible to enforce.

And yet the paranoia and fear this issue generates has become quite extraordinary. Watch Megyn Kelly’s takedown of Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. He consistently says ‘I don’t want an eight year old girl in a public restroom with a thirty year old man.’ ‘A man,’ asks Kelly, ‘or a transgender woman?’ That’s the key distinction and it’s one Patrick never manages to get his head around. To Patrick, there’s no such thing as a trans woman. Just a man in a dress, in a place where he shouldn’t be.

Here’s another expression of the same fear, from a Facebook post. And I know; it’s just a Facebook post. But it captures a certain level of paranoia so perfectly that I finally decided to use it:

As I recall from Roman/Hebrew history the Romans made it a law that all Hebrew brides had to be raped on their wedding night by a Roman officer to consummate the marriage. Finally the Jews rebelled and it was stopped.
This similar thing happened in Scotland when the King of England made it a law that all Scottish brides had to be raped by an English officer on their wedding night.

Principally I think that this Obama gender coed bathroom thing is similar and will foster a lot of feelings and many problems and I think cases of rape will go way up!

Yes, this person actually cites the imaginary medieval legend of ‘droit du seigneur’ as somehow similar to this bathroom controversy. It’s as though the Obama administration, for siding, quite properly, with the LGBT community, is not just indifferent to the epidemic of rapes that’s sure to follow, but actively encouraging it. ‘Cause, you know, Obama=pro-rape. And, by golly, that’s where we’re going to draw our line in the sand. Over bathrooms.

Obviously, this will eventually all die down. Six months from now, it won’t be an issue. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that something as mundane as using a public restroom can become a battlefield in the cultural wars?

Veeps

Let’s talk Veeps. We’re a few weeks out from the conventions, and the two major party nominees have essentially been decided, (with all due respect to my Bernie-phile friends). So, who should Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump choose as their running mates? Who are they likely to choose? And what difference will it make?

Apparently, Sarah Palin is on The Donald’s short list. She’s apparently up for another go. As Salon’s Bob Cesca recently reminded us, last time, she never really did seem to get her head around what being vice-President actually meant. In her debate with Joe Biden, Palin clarified her understanding of the role of the Vice-President with this splendid word salad:

“Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president’s agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we’ll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation.”

Yes, indeed. Thank you for reminding us of the ‘Flexibility Clause’ right there in the Constitution. Article II, Section 5, if I recall correctly.

In fact, the Vice-President has just one constitutional duty: to break a tie in the Senate. In addition, thanks to the 25th Amendment, the Vice-President officially becomes President in the case of the death or disability of the President. And, as Al Gore reminded us on Futurama, the VP’s job is “to prevent disruptions of the space-time continuum.” In fact the Vice-President’s job is, constitutionally, pretty useless. Some Veeps have made more of the job (or been allowed to by their POTUS)–Dick Cheney, specifically. Others would likely echo “Cactus Jack” Garner, elected Roosevelt’s VP in 1932 and ’36, who opined that the office wasn’t “worth a bucket of warm piss.” That vivid characterization of a constitutional office is today about the only thing for which anyone remembers Cactus Jack.

Of course, when it comes to choosing a running mate, pundits set out the usual criteria, none of which ever seem to matter much. You want someone who ‘balances the ticket.’ You want someone who appears ‘Presidential,’ (though not too Presidential). You want someone who will support your legislative agenda, and who will campaign effectively. Ultimately, though, Presidential contests aren’t won by having brilliant VP picks. But they can be harmed, even lost, by particularly bad VP choices. (See Palin, Sarah, above. Or Quayle, Dan).

It seems to me that the choice of a vice-President is a particularly tough call for both of these candidates. Secretary Clinton still has to wrestle with the false impression that she’s not really a progressive, not really a liberal. That she doesn’t represent the ‘Democratic’ branch of the Democratic party. And the challenge from Bernie Sanders has largely been driven by the passion and energy of the Sanders insurgency, which is in turn driven by the excitement of Sanders ‘democratic socialist’ policy proposals. Ordinarily, a liberal candidate, like Clinton, would want to choose a more moderate running mate, for ticket balancing purposes. In her case, a competing rationale may suggest itself; shoring up the base.

Her obvious running mate would be Bernie Sanders himself. There are several objections to this. First of all, he may not accept the job. Second, wouldn’t there be a danger that he would overshadow her? Although she’s winning fair and square, Sanders’ supporters have an energy that has transformed this race. She wants to make positive use of that energy, but risks offending those voters? And there are age considerations. As I write this, she’s 68, and Sanders is 74. Should she choose a younger running mate?

I think her ideal candidate would be someone like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. He’s known as a solid, unimpeachable liberal. At 64, he’s younger than Secretary Clinton. He would fit all the ticket-balancing criteria. And he’s an aggressive, effective campaigner. There are other excellent possibilities–New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former San Antonio Mayor (and current HUD Secretary), Julian Castro, plus of course, every liberals’ fave-rave, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. I expect Clinton to choose from someone on that list.

For Donald Trump, the choices get even trickier. He’s run as a maverick, as an anti-Establishment candidate. He’s not well liked by the Republican leadership. He’s despised by wide sections of the electorate, with exceedingly high negatives from women, blacks, and Hispanics. There are concerns about his temperment, and about his basic fitness for the Presidency. If he picks a Washington insider, he risks losing his entire constituency. On the other hand, if he picks someone equally maverick-y–looking at you, Governor Palin!–he could appear even more out-of-his-depth than he does right now.

In the past, when asked who his ideal vice-President was, he has responded ‘Oprah Winfrey.’ Oprah has supported President Obama pretty strongly in the past, but she has also voted for, and supported, Republicans. She would help Trump with women voters, and she’s a charismatic and powerful presence on the stump. And she’s not a political figure.

On the other hand, the chances of her accepting that particular nomination aren’t good.

If Oprah turns him down, I actually have the perfect replacement. Donald Trump should ask Shonda Rhimes. She’s the most successful TV producer in Hollywood. And the shows she produces are smart, compelling, and at times, highly political. Rhimes has talked about politics on occasion, and insists that she’s non-partisan–that she sees herself as a moderate, political patriot. A successful African-American woman would help Trump enormously.

But–see Oprah comment above–the odds or her accepting a VP nomination from Donald Trump are very poor. She’s added a nasty nasty new character to the show Scandal, who she says is based on Trump.

And that’s Trump’s problem. The people who really would help his cause–highly respected non-politicians–have no interest in joining that cause. Colin Powell would be a great choice for him, for example. He’d add foreign policy expertise to Trump’s campaign. He also won’t do it, he’s said.

So what about the politicians who have already joined his candidacy. Chris Christie? Another big blustery white guy? Newt Gingrich? Adding his three marriages to Trump’s three?

Honestly, I think the best choice for Trump may well be Sarah Palin. Why not? It’s not like this race can’t get funnier.

 

Donald Trump, making politics funny

He’s going to make America great again. There’s going to be so much winning, we’ll get tired of it. He’ll pay off the national debt (not reduce the deficit, pay off the debt) in eight years. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President, in large measure because a sizeable number of Americans are convinced that this guy, more than anyone ever before, knows how to fix the American economy. For everyone. No tradeoffs, no trickle-down, no pain, pure gain.

How is that not funny?

When Stephen Colbert took over the late show on CBS, he knew he would be covering the election. He was desperately afraid that Donald Trump’s candidacy would end before he had the chance to make fun of him. I remember a similar sentiment back in 2004, when, on David Letterman’s show, one of his writers came out and announced his support for the re-election of George W. Bush. His reasons? “I’m sixty one years old, and a professional comedy writer. And frankly, I just don’t want to work all that hard anymore.” It’s our right, as Americans, to make fun of politicians.

In Ohio, it is against the law to knowingly and recklessly lie about an opponent or policy or ballet initiative. This law was challenged in court by a non-profit, the Susan B. Anthony List. Their suit is winding its way through the court system, with one finding, by the US Supreme Court, that the non-profit did have standing to sue. What I love about this lawsuit is an amicus brief filed by the Cato Institute and comedian P. J. O’Rourke. Can government criminalize political statements that turn out not to be true? O’Rourke argued that the answer has to be no. As O’Rourke put it: “This case concerns amici because the law at issue undermines the First Amendment’s protection of the serious business of making politics funny.”

This Politico article includes the O’Rourke amicus brief in its entirety. If you read it, don’t skip the footnotes; they’re funnier than the brief itself, which is plenty funny. But O’Rourke makes a serious argument:

While George Washington may have been incapable of telling a lie, his successors have not had the same integrity. The campaign promise (and its subsequent violation), as well as disparaging statements about one’s opponent (whether true, mostly true, mostly not true, or entirely fantastic), are cornerstones of American democracy. Indeed, mocking and satire are as old as America, and if this Court doesn’t believe amici, it can ask Thomas Jefferson, “the son of a half-breed squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Or perhaps it should ponder, as Grover Cleveland was forced to, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”

In modern times, “truthiness”—a “truth” asserted “from the gut” or because it “feels right,” without regard to evidence or logic—is also a key part of political discourse. It is difficult to imagine life without it, and our political discourse is weakened by Orwellian laws that try to prohibit it.

The preposterous overstatement, the unsupported assertion, the ad hominem attack, the construction of various straw men, they’re all an accepted and essential part of our political discourse. As, of course, is the outraged denial, the counter-accusation, the competing fantasy narrative. And, yes, it’s true that The Donald exemplifies everything coarse and ugly about our politics. But also everything ridiculous, foolish and preposterous. Human beings, are, after all, pretty ludicrous. Shouldn’t that be reflected in our most elevated discourse?

Is Donald Trump a serious threat to American democracy? Of course he is, through his xenophobic nativism, his astounding ignorance, his buffoonish notions of foreign policy. But aren’t those same qualities–ignorance, prejudice, buffoonery–also pretty funny? Trump is literally clownish. Best of all, he’s astonishingly thin-skinned. And that’s funny too.

We wouldn’t want to live in a country where we can’t make fun of our leaders. And we need to recognize exactly what country it is we do live in. This is America, home of hucksters and flim-flam artists. This is the country of tacky late night commercials and used car salesmen and televangelists. This is the country that invented the mullet. We’re named after Amerigo Vespucci, for heaven’s sake. Have you read his book describing this cool place he discovered? It’s pure P. T. Barnum.

And that’s why Trump’s candidacy strikes me as so . . . American. He’s salesman, first and foremost. I mean, his signature achievements are a whole bunch of hilariously over-decorated hotels with his name on them. The name Trump isn’t so much associated with success as tackiness. And, again, that’s funny.

So we have a Republican candidate for President who isn’t remotely qualified for the job. A thin-skinned, obsessively litigious, sexist bozo. Surely laughter is our best response.

As long as he doesn’t win.

 

Trump and Bernie

Blame this on Matthew Dowd. On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Dowd suggested that the young people who support Bernie Sanders might not automatically turn to Hillary Clinton, but to Donald Trump. Dowd argued that Trump’s positions on issues were more likely to resonate with those who feel the Bern than with folks committed to trudging up the Hill. That seemed preposterous when he said it, and more so the more I considered it. And then, suddenly, I saw it. I’ll explain.

I don’t presume to tell other people how to vote, nor can I read anyone else’s thoughts and/or feelings. I’m also less interested in politics than in policy. I care about what works, regardless of ideology. I have been consistent in my views all along when it comes to this election. I am a liberal. I am a progressive. For that reason, I support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for Presidency. If Bernie Sanders were the Democratic nominee, I would cheerfully support his candidacy. And I find Donald Trump frighteningly unqualified for the job.

Let’s start here: as someone who does study the issues pretty carefully, the idea that there exists any compatibility whatsoever between the views of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is simply laughable. No such compatibility exists, either in terms of domestic policy or in terms of foreign policy.

Bernie Sanders believes in raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. Donald Trump believes that the current minimum wage is too high. He does say that when he becomes President, everyone will, magically, have higher wage jobs, without specifying how he would make that happen–renegotiating trade deals, mostly. Bernie Sanders wants the United States to provide free college tuition. Trump most emphatically does not, and started a for-profit, non-accredited on-line university that is accused of fraud in a major lawsuit. Bernie Sanders has called wealth and income inequality the biggest moral issue of our time. Trump is a rich guy who clearly intends to get richer. He proposes a tax cut that would sharply reduce the top tax rate on individual income from 39.6% to 25% and lower the tax rate on corporate income from 35% to 15%. It would increase the federal deficit by $10-12 trillion. It’s the most preposterously profligate tax proposal in US history. I mean, Fortune Magazine opposed it, in part because of how much it would increase inequality. Let me repeat this: the Trump economic plan is so extreme, it drives Fortune to Bernie’s side of this issue.

But what about foreign policy? Didn’t Trump oppose the war in Iraq? Which Sanders also opposed, and which Hillary Clinton, famously and wrongly, supported? It’s certainly true that Bernie Sanders was outspokenly opposed to the Iraq war. Good for him. Hillary Clinton was unequivocally wrong to support it, which she has, repeatedly, acknowledged. So if Trump did oppose the US intervention in Iraq, that’s an issue where he and Sanders were in agreement.  And Trump is certainly plenty vocal about how strenuously he opposed the war back in 2003. If he did.

Which he didn’t. No one has found the slightest shred of evidence that Donald Trump opposed the Iraq war at any time in 2001-3. Factcheck.org couldn’t find a single statement, prior to the war, in which he opposed it. Politifact rated that claim, by Trump, as Mostly False. He certainly did come out against the war later on, in 2004, when everyone else could see what a fiasco it had become. But before the war? Didn’t happen.

Salon.com has run a number of articles strongly supporting Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. Salon’s best political writer, Digby, recently examined Trump’s foreign policy. (May I strongly urge you all to start your day reading Digby–she’s terrific). As she points out, Trump has consistently, regularly talked with great enthusiasm for torture, and for the commission of war crimes. Repeat: he’s pro-torture, pro-war crimes. 26 years ago, Trump was interviewed by Playboy, and he talked approvingly about how the Chinese government dealt with the Tiananmen Square protestors.  “That shows you the power of strength,” he concluded. There is absolutely no evidence that Donald Trump is an isolationist, or a dove, or anything but an imperialist thug.

(The more you read Trump’s foreign policy statements, the more he sounds like a mafioso. “You want our protection? You gotta pay a lot more, pal.”)

Donald Trump wants to build a massive wall on the American/Mexican border, so he can keep Mexicans out of the US. It’s the one issue he mentions at every rally. He also intends for Mexico to pay for it. Bernie Sanders, um, does not support anything like that. Donald Trump wants a national registry of Muslims, and wants to refuse Muslims into the US, even if they’re US citizens traveling abroad. Bernie Sanders does not. Donald Trump’s rallies have been frequently punctuated by acts of violence. That cannot be said about Bernie Sanders rallies. Bernie Sanders believes that billionaires have too much influence over our politics. Donald Trump is a billionaire who wants to be President of the United States. Bernie Sanders wants the US to take bold action to combat the threat of global climate change. Donald Trump believes that the notion of global climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese.

An important Sanders’ issue is health care reform, and it is an issue where there is a superficial resemblance to his plan and Trump’s. Sanders’ plan is simply to extend Medicare to cover all Americans. Trump’s plan? Well, that gets complicated. He has variously suggested something similar to Medicare-for-all, but also has offered a seven-point plan full of unworkable conservative bromides: selling insurance across state lines, making premiums tax deductible. The one thing we can say for certain is that Trump loathes Obamacare, and intends to replace it. With what? Hard to say. He wants the government to ‘cut deals’ with hospitals, if that helps. Suffice it to say that Bernie Sanders has offered quite specific proposals for reforming health care, along with detailed funding mechanisms (which may or may not add up), while Trump has spoken off-the-cuff on the subject in contradictory ways.

So okay. There’s no single point of convergence between Trump and Sanders. They don’t believe in the same things, they don’t support even slightly similar proposals. They have essentially nothing in common. But I do think that at least some Sanders’ supporters might vote for Trump nonetheless.

This isn’t a matter of logic, or reason. It’s about emotion. Both Sanders and Trump are fervently supported by very large crowds of people who are angry with the status quo. Both candidates speak to and for people who are disaffected from the political process, who believe that the ‘establishment’ is hopelessly out of touch with and unresponsive to their needs. Put it stronger. Both Trump’s and Sanders’ supporters feel lied to and ripped off. Both feel that mainstream candidates have no viable solutions to the very personal issues with which they contend. Both groups of supporters are in the mood for a revolution. And so, both groups have turned to candidates who are, at the very least, unorthodox. Outsiders.

There are simply no issues of significance on which Trump and Sanders agree. What their supporters have in common is something beyond reason. They’re pissed off. They’re furious. They have that in common. And their rage may be enough to bring them together, strange bedfellows though they are.

What’s really strange, though, is that the sensible, pragmatic progressivism of Hillary Clinton is likely to come much closer to solving the specific problems that have become issues in this campaign. But that’s not an easy case to make in a weird year like 2016.

 

 

 

Donald Trump’s foreign policy

As this year’s Presidential election continues to veer randomly between surrealism and farce, on a day when the former Speaker of the House compared a leading Presidential candidate from his own party to Lucifer, and another former Speaker went to prison for child molestation, Donald Trump, the probable Republican nominee, gave a speech on foreign policy. I read it. It’s almost completely incoherent.

Read Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ Foreign Policy Speech

“America first will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”

I’m going to start in a spirit of good will, and cut him some slack. Let’s assume that his use of the unfortunate phrase ‘America First’ was not intended to invoke Charles Lindbergh’s anti-war movement from the early ’40s. The America First movement, which flowered from 1940 right up until Pearl Harbor, is popularly associated with Lindbergh’s, um, less savory pals in Germany and Italy. In fact, America First was more isolationist than fascist, and was bi-partisan, with leadership that included the socialist Norman Thomas, Potter Stewart and Sargent Shriver. Nowadays, ‘America First’ sounds more like the name of a credit union than the nascent neo-Nazi movement it turned into back in the day. In fairness, I think Trump is just saying that the central principle of American foreign policy should be national self-interest. Fair enough.

Trump then does a quick historical survey, from WWII (good for us!) and Reagan demanding that Gorbachev ‘tear down this wall.’ (Even better!)  But then, he insists, our post-cold-war foreign policy veered off-course, as “logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance, which led to one foreign policy disaster after another.” And what specific examples of foolishness and arrogance does Trump mention? Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Obama’s line in the sand in Syria. Each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper. Very bad. It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a western democracy.

Let’s break that down. The invasion of Iraq was indeed an example of neo-conservative nation building. ‘Egypt’ and ‘Libya’ however refers to the Arab Spring events, beginning in 2010. Certainly, the US took sides. Egypt and Libya were ruled by brutal dictators. The people in their countries revolted. The Obama administration supported what we believed might be pro-democracy movements. There were factions in each of the Arab Spring nations that did want democracy. American policy did backfire badly in Libya and Syria. But we do see some progress towards democratization in Yemen, Tunisia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and Oman.

But Trump does not differentiate between an invasion, like Iraq, where a US-led coalition toppled a dictator and tried to impose democracy, and Tunisia, where the US offered logistical support for pro-Western factions leading protests in their own country. And that’s a crucial point. Perhaps the US shouldn’t have tried to intervene at all. But Trump doesn’t say that either. Just that our foreign policy is “bad.” Largely, it seems, because our policies have strengthened Iran.

It’s at this point that Trump’s speech becomes almost completely contradictory. For example, he insists that President Obama’s economic policies have weakened our military, making it difficult for the US to intervene internationally. But he also criticized the Obama administration for trying to intervene internationally. Well, which is it? He insists that the US foots too much of the bill in order to support NATO, and he calls for our European allies to pay more. “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.” In the next paragraph, though, Trump says “your friends need to know that you will stick by the agreements that you have with them. You’ve made that agreement, you have to stand by it and the world will be a better place.” In other words, he intends to present Europe with a large bill for all the military forces we’ve been providing. That, in his view, is what it means to be a good ally.

He promises, of course, to complete wipe out ISIS. By acting “unpredictably,” I suppose. And although he doesn’t specify where his policy would require military intervention, it doesn’t seem likely that ‘wiping out ISIS’ could be done without ground forces. He talks about solving problems through diplomacy. But he absolutely intends to unilaterally renounce the international Iran nuclear deal. His first act as President, as far as I can tell, will be to start a trade war with China. He’s opposed to NAFTA, and intends to rescind the US involvement in that trade agreement. Same for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Amazingly, he seems to think that pulling out of every major trade deal of the last twenty years will strengthen the US economy, and lead to better relations with our allies.

It’s an amazing speech, in part because of its lack of organization. He really does just jump from topic to topic; the entire talk is one extended non sequitur. He particularly jumps from right wing talking point to right wing talking point. This silly nonsense about how President Obama ‘refuses to name the problem,’ by not using the exact formulation ‘radical Islamic extremism’ is a case in point. And, of course, the persecution of Christians in Syria is much more important to him than the sufferings of many more Muslims. But to his credit, Trump isn’t afraid to criticize the war in Iraq, and to correctly identify that intervention as leading directing to the establishment of ISIS.

Still, it’s simple-minded. Muslim=bad. American strength=good.

The purpose of this talk is to help Trump appear more Presidential. In one sense, the talk succeeded. Trump stood behind a podium, read from a teleprompter, seemed more subdued and reflective, and didn’t gratuitously insult anyone. He also demonstrated only the most simplistic understanding of the world we live in and the diplomatic challenges the United States faces. It’s a talk by a man who is not just ignorant of the subject he is addressing, but uninterested in learning more. It’s really quite terrifying.

 

Republicans against Republicans

Lately, I’ve been noticing the most interesting phenomenon; life-long Republicans who are completely fed-up with the current Republican party. Bruce Bartlett, for example. No, that’s not President Bartlet’s brother. Josiah Bartlet’s brother was named Joseph, plus he was a Democrat, and also, you know, fictional. No, Bruce Bartlett is an historian and economist who worked for Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He recently endorsed Donald Trump for President, which endorsement, given Bartlet’s policy preferences and personality, seemed a bit surprising. Then, when asked in a recent interview why, said this: “my goal is to try to destroy the Republican party.” He then elaborated:

“I think only when it has reached rock bottom can responsible Republicans once again come back and make it a reasonable governing party. Right now the party is just a coalition of cranks, and racists and bigots and religious kooks. The Tea Party have to be run out of the Party completely. And I think Trump is the vehicle that will allow that to happen. I think if he gets the nomination, and I hope he does, he will go down to a historic defeat. I think the Republican establishment will have no choice but to disown him. I think there will be a very substantial “Republicans for Hillary” effort and I think he will lose disastrously and hopefully bring down a lot of Republican senators and congressmen with him.”

Remember, this isn’t from Bill Maher or someone. This is from an eminence grise of the Republican party. Here’s another one, Lindsey Graham, Senator from South Carolina, who appeared on The Daily Show a month ago.

What’s remarkable about this clip is the thinly disguised contempt Graham has for his party’s presumptive nominee, that nominee’s main opponent, and his party in general, which he calls ‘totally screwed up.’

Charles Koch said on Sunday that he and his brother were strongly considering ‘sitting this one out,’ and not donating money to any of the candidates running for President. GOP voters routinely speak of their party’s candidates as ‘sophomoric,’ and ‘disgusting.’

Of course, a lot of this reflects a general mainstream Republican distaste for Donald J. Trump. His xenophobia, religious bigotry and bullying manner are seen, by power brokers and party insiders, as inconsistent with the kind of gentlemanly politics they were raised with. In other words, I suspect that a lot of the opposition to Trump is more stylistic than substantive. Candidates for President of the United States are expected to comport themselves with some dignity. That’s why the candidacy of John Kasich is so appealing to a lot mainstream Republicans. He’s managed to distance himself from the antics of Trump and Cruz and Rubio and the rest of that sad lot.

But there’s a reason Trump voters are so fervid in their support for him. The American economy has done fairly well over the last seven years, but not for some people; not for blue-collar lower-middle class white folks. Trump seems to get it. He says ‘hey, this economy stinks. Vote for me, and we’ll win again. We’ll have so much winning, you’ll actually get tired of all the winning. The problems we’ve had have been caused by Others, by All Those People. We’ll build a wall between the US and Mexico, and we’ll start trade wars with China, and we’ll keep Muslims out, and if we do those things, Americans will begin to win again.’ And that’s an appealing message.

Now, absolutely nothing in the actual policies Trump seems to favor will accomplish any of that. From a wonkish perspective, his policy proposals are nothing but complete and utter rubbish. None of the numbers add up, and there’s no discernible path to prosperity. By rejecting ‘political correctness,’ Trump seems to suggest that we just need to be ruder to each other, and then we’ll be fine. That’s just silly. And to people like Bruce Bartlett and Lindsey Graham, of course Trump’s success is incomprehensible.

But Trump’s supporters are right too. Mainstream Republican dogma insists, for example, that massive tax cuts pay for themselves, that cutting taxes authomatically stimulates the economy sufficiently to create jobs and prosperity. That wealth trickles down. That insight–supply-side economics–was the focus of Bartlett’s work for Reagan. And it’s nonsense too. This new rebuilt, freshly relevant Republican party Bartlett and Graham imagine needs to be built on something substantive. Supply-side economics is not it.

One of the great under-reported stories in politics right now are those states who took supply-side orthodoxy most seriously, cut taxes, and now are in a world of fiscal hurt. Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Florida are all in big trouble, right now, thanks to the ideological conservative purity of their governors and legislators. Cutting taxes confers no particular economic benefit to anyone except for the wealthy folks who get the extra cash.

Voters may not understand policy with much sophistication, but they know a political system rigged against them, and they know a bad economy. That’s where Donald Trump’s snake oil finds customers. But it’s not Trump’s fault and it’s not the fault of the voters. It’s the Republican establishment, pursuing foolish policies for ideological reasons. And if the Republicans do re-invent themselves, dumping ideological movement conservatism might be a good place to start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to save Puerto Rico

For the last few weeks, every time I turned on my car radio, I would hear an ad attacking Representative Rob Bishop for supporting what it calls a “radical plan called Super Chapter 9” to allow the U.S. territory bankruptcy protection. It’s a deal, the ad suggests, that would take money from American pension plans, and give it to those profligate, irresponsible Puerto Ricans. “What’s worse is that Congressman Rob Bishop is standing with the Obama administration to support a bailout of Puerto Rico instead of supporting negotiations between Puerto Rico and its creditors,” the ad concludes.

There’s also a television ad:

These ads are produced by an entity called The Center for Individual Freedom. That’s a political non-profit organization, either a 501 (c) (4) or 501 (c) (6), which is to say, a group that doesn’t have to disclose its funding sources.

Let’s not mince words: every word in these ads are complete nonsense. The ads are lies, in their every detail. Congressman Bishop isn’t pushing for something called “Super Chapter 9” or anything like it. The Congressman chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico and other US territories. The Republican House and President Obama are currently negotiating a way to help Puerto Rico deal with its crisis; Bishop’s the Republican point man in those negotiations. They’re close to a deal, a crucially important, deeply necessary one.

I know that John Oliver is a comedian, not a journalist, but his show last night dealt comprehensively, and as far as my research suggests, accurately, with the real causes of the Puerto Rican collapse. I wish I could link to it. In general, though, I prefer not to link to R-rated material. May I suggest that you look it up. Look up John Oliver Puerto Rico on YouTube.

The fact is, though, Puerto Rico has historically attempted to deal with its debt crisis through the sale of municipal bonds, which have tax-free properties that make them an attractive investment. At least some of the measures that Congress is considering might cost hedge fund investors some money. I can’t prove this, and neither can Oliver, but it doesn’t seem unlikely that this Center for Individual Freedom is funded by hedge funds. They stand to lose some ill-gotten gains, so they put some money into a TV/radio disinformation campaign.

What they’re not is patriotic. There does not exist some coalition of Americans in favor of individual freedom. ‘Individual’ and ‘freedom’ are two words that, when put in the same sentence, sound like something we should all be in favor of. But no. The Center for Individual Freedom was founded by tobacco companies opposed to regulating tobacco. Literally lethal. They’ve morphed. Now they’re in favor of letting Puerto Rican hospitals go under. This is a bad organization that does bad things. And that’s all they are.

In any event, if you live in Utah, you know all about their ads. I suspect that you’re aware of them wherever you live. Just remember; the ads are fundamentally dishonest. Congress and the President are actually working on a bi-partisan plan to help Puerto Rico out. (Repeat: a bi-partisan plan).

And something needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. Puerto Rico can’t keep the lights on. They’re closing schools and hospitals. Four million American citizens are in serious crisis. We can help. It’s a complicated issue, but this is something government can do, and needs to. And Rob Bishop is that rare Congressman, a guy who is trying to do the right thing for the right reasons. That’s maybe something worth supporting as well.