At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

 

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question that Joseph Welsh directed at the mid-20th century demagogue, Senator Joe McCarthy.  Seen by historians as the turning point that finally derailed McCarthy’s communist witch hunts and abuse of power, it reminds us that it takes people of courage and integrity to combat evil.

Before Welsh called out McCarthy and demonstrated for all that beneath the exterior of a bully lurked a coward, the Wisconsin Senator had ruined many careers and lives.  His time in office set a corrosive tone for politics from which it took the country years to recover.  He was able to get away with his destructive behavior for so long because almost no public official was willing to stand up to him.

The 1950s was in many ways a dark time in American politics.  It feels a lot like that today.

We have a president who is careless in his decisions and in his cruelty.  Concerned only about himself, he issues executive orders aimed at satisfying his political supporters rather than furthering any serious national goals.  The antithesis of a role model, Donald Trump demonstrates on a daily basis that he is a bully, a liar and has the attention span of a small child.

As many observers noted during his presidential campaign, Trump openly appeals to people’s worst instincts.  Whether he is actually a racist, he certainly draws some who are, encourages them with inflammatory language as well as “dog whistles”, and does nothing to express  disapproval when they respond with ugly or violent actions.

In his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, Trump has selected as a key advisor someone with a history of encouraging bigotry.  Early actions of the Trump Administration, in which Bannon has played a central role, have provided still more support for these concerns.

Meanwhile, in the Congress they control, Republican Representatives and Senators have, with few exceptions, shown no anxiety or embarrassment about Trump’s outrageous words and actions.  Indeed, they have, in their glee over controlling both houses of Congress, demonstrated their own streak of cruelty and indifference to the needs of many Americans.

Republicans in Congress seem prepared to repeal the Affordable Care Act without any replacement despite seven years of promising a better version.   They want to defund Planned Parenthood despite the fact that millions of people, not only women, rely on it to provide a wide range of health services.  Republicans are busy nullifying environmental regulations, including one preventing coal companies from dumping waste into rivers.

And then, perhaps the height of irresponsibly and hypocrisy, Republicans voted to erase the regulation prohibiting mentally incompetent individuals from purchasing fire arms.  Whenever there is a mass shooting, the gun lobby argues that we don’t need more gun regulations, merely more effective treatment for those with mental illnesses.  What they actually mean, however, is that there should be no limits on who can have firearms and no limits on the profits of gun manufacturers.

All of these actions–Trump’s as well as those of Republicans in Congress–are the epitome of indecency.  They come from a party that claims a monopoly on patriotism, but seems intent on undermining American democracy and helping only the very wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

There are but a handful of exceptions to this indictment.  Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have spoken out forcefully against Trump’s threats to reinstitute torture.  Fortunately, so has Secretary of Defense James Mattis.  In the face of a stunningly unqualified nominee to be Secretary of Education, two other senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, voted no.  It’s hard to find other examples.

If the start is any indicator, Donald Trump is going to do great damage to this country during his presidency.  Republicans in Congress not only seem willing to let him have his way, but are also intent on creating a less healthy, less financially secure and more heavily armed society.

Until and unless the American people rise up and challenge the exercise of power in Washington, our best hope of averting the worst of those prospects is for more Republicans in Congress to speak out for decency.  It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to know that Donald Trump has a serious personality disorder and could destroy our democracy, blunder into a war or leave the country weak and isolated.  It’s time to put country ahead of party and stand up to Trump.

 

Addendum from Cambodia:  Most of this post was drafted before we left on a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam.  From even our limited monitoring of the news, it is clear that Donald Trump’s worst instincts are continuing to dominant his behavior.  The unrelenting attack on the press is the clearest sign of his authoritarian goals.  From the vantage point of Cambodia, which suffered terribly from the inhuman excesses of the Khmer Rouge, the critical need to resist the indecency of his administration is beyond doubt.

 

Note on the photo:  The man sitting next to Senator Joe McCarthy is Roy Cohn, who was his chief aide and in later years became a mentor to Donald Trump.

Gauging Trump’s Base

 

For many Americans, arguably a majority, the early days of the Trump Presidency have provided a torrent of bad news: executive orders that will harm large numbers of people; cabinet appointees hostile to the legislatively mandated missions of the agencies they will be heading; public statements and tweets that reveal a mean-spirited and perhaps unstable president; and actions designed to undo a world order that has maintained peace for decades.

Apparently, however, many citizens don’t share those concerns and are infact delighted with the roll-out of Trump’s administration.  Some articles shortly after the election suggested voter remorse, not unlike that in Britain after the Brexit vote, but there’s really not a lot of evidence to support those assertions. Others predicted an immediate clash between the highly unorthodox president and Republican members of Congress, but, so far, they are largely hanging together. Even the public opinion polls, which showed his initial ratings as historically low, have held steady among his supporters.

Trump’s appeal was constantly underestimated during the Republican primaries and then during the General Election.  He won despite a broad consensus that he was unqualified, erratic and running a campaign that disregarded all the established rules.  Even if the first two observations are actually correct, the third point turned out to be the key to his winning office.  Trump had a better read on the mood of the electorate than almost all political observers realized.

There’s been a lot of speculation among opponents that as the Trump agenda begins to be implemented, some of his supporters will abandon him because they will be harmed personally by his policies.  Certainly there are a number of areas in which the reality of a Trump Presidency will be quite different from the promise of one, but how much that will matter to his supporters remains to be seen.

The early analysis suggested that Trump voters were highly motivated by the slow and shallow economic recovery during the Obama years, that many of them were victims of the new global economy.  Later studies paint a more complex picture.  Trump had lots of backers who weren’t hurting economically.  It is increasingly clear that some of his appeal had nothing to do with economic arguments.

The classic reference for the assertion that voters are not just motivated by economic self-interest is Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”  To greatly simplify his argument, Frank concluded that Republicans had won support from working class residents of Kansas by appealing to them on such critical social issues as abortion, gay rights and gun control.

Two issues which may measure the relevance of that assessment to Trump’s popularity will be tested over the coming months and years.  A central piece of his campaign was the promise to grow the economy and, particularly, to bring back manufacturing jobs and the coal industry in this country.  Most reputable economists doubt that either of those goals can be accomplished, at least not in the way that those sectors existed several decades ago.

The decline of manufacturing jobs in this country is much more due to technological advances than to them being shipped abroad.  The world energy market, particularly with the growth of the shale oil sector, is fundamentally different from when coal was king.

So far, Trump has focused on jawboning individual companies to keep jobs in this country rather than move them to Mexico or some other place.  While those “negotiations” make for dramatic headlines, the results have only a marginal impact on total jobs or the overall economy.

Does there come a point at which voters realize that Trump is not going to be able to deliver on these economic promises?  And if so, will it change their opinion of him and the way they vote in future elections?

The answer may not be as obvious as some would expect.  So far, Trump is making good on other campaign promises which are keeping his base happy.  He has started the process of building a wall along the Mexican border.  He has instituted a ban on Muslims entering the United States.  He has nominated an extremely conservative judge to serve on the Supreme Court.

In addition, Trump has maintained his practice from the campaign of asserting that everything he is doing is a success and of attacking opponents and “political correctness”, or, in other words, of using the same populist demagogic tactics that got him elected.

Another issue on which some analysts believe he may be vulnerable is health care.  Will all those supporters who bought into hating “Obamacare” but were pleased with their coverage under the Affordable Care Act turn on him when they lose their health insurance?  What about the large group of older Americans, many of whom backed Trump, who count on Medicare and Social Security?  How will they feel when Trump accedes to Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize those two programs?

As with jobs, the question will be whether the other things Trump “gives” the base outweigh the tangible losses that they will feel from his specific policies.  At this point, the answer to that question is not self-evident.

For those dismayed by the Trump presidency, wishful thinking about erosion of support among his base is a futile approach.  Strategic political activism is the only way to minimize the negative consequences of his presidency and to eventually reclaim political control.  It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be pretty, but there’s no alternative.

1984 Updated

Sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, “1984”, have been surging recently. If you haven’t read it in a long time or never read it, you will find some remarkably clear echoes of the current political situation in this country.  It’s not that we have a totalitarian regime of the kind that Orwell so chillingly described in 1949.  After all, Orwell, a disillusioned former communist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, was reacting to the excesses of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

Rather, for those who worry that Donald Trump has little regard for the U.S. Constitution or for basic American values, Orwell’s story highlights tactics used to control the population and maintain a system built on a carefully constructed alternate reality.

During the presidential election and continuing since the inauguration, there’s been a lot of commentary about similarities between Trump and some of the fascist leaders of the 20th century.  The new president’s uneasy relationship with the truth is now being reported by the media in a way that the press was reluctant to do through much of 2016.

The problem with that approach is that it tends to present a series–albeit a steady stream–of separate incidents.  Calling Trump a pathological liar may feel good but it doesn’t really help explain his political success.  More importantly, we are left to constantly react to the most recent outrage instead of thinking about and trying to counter his actions in a more systemic way.

I want to focus specifically on two concepts from “1984” that are often blurred together in our current political dialogue but which play distinctly different roles in Orwell’s narrative.  The first is propaganda, a term which has not yet become part of the narrative to Trump’s approach to politics and governing.  Propaganda is different from lying, the second concept, in the sense that it is about trying to create an official set of truths while lying is an effort to discredit reality.

Think about some of Trump’s assertions that are often described as baseless, blatantly failing innumerable fact checks.  One of the most egregious was his claim that he would have won the presidential popular vote but for millions of people illegally casting votes for Hillary Clinton.

While that could be merely an effort to assuage his fragile ego,  it can also be seen as something far more ominous.  If massive voter fraud is  accepted as a “reality”, it’s easy to imagine restrictions on voter access–voter suppression by any other name–as an appropriate, even necessary, response.

Another example of an alternate reality being adopted as justification for official policy is the recently enacted ban on Muslims entering the United States.  From his claim during the campaign that he actually saw Muslims cheering the destruction of the World Trade Center to his hyping of a national security threat to this country from Syrian refugees–despite neither historical examples nor any other evidence to support the concern–Trump laid the basis for a policy that probably violates the Constitution and certainly tramples traditional American values.  Support for the ban among citizens who voted for Trump has been built on the foundation of a fictional world view fed to them.

That is exactly how Trump created support for the wall between Mexico and the United States.  It was no slip of the tongue or spontaneous comment at his campaign kick-off, but rather a deliberate effort to create an issue for potential voters that he could continue to refer to and deliver on as president.

Other examples abound.  Trump’s assertion of rising crime rates in American cities, despite data that shows just the opposite, allows him to demonize areas with large concentrations of Democratic voters and may well set the stage for a federal intervention that Republicans would normally have opposed but may not under Trump.

Think of your own examples and stay alert to others that will inevitably become part of the Trump governing strategy.  At the same time, Trump’s lies need to be seen as a political tactic, not just a character flaw.

One of the most commented-on examples from the campaign was his denial that he had mocked a New York Times reporter who has a disability.  The incident was recorded and readily available for all to see, but Trump has remained steadfast in claiming otherwise.  In this instance, the President is using lying as a tactic to “erase” a potentially damaging incident.  By repeating the lie over and over again, he is telling his base that his definition of reality is the one that they should believe — and many of them apparently do.

His constant refusal to release his tax returns is basically just another lie, actually a multi-layered one, to purge from reality his business and financial dealings.  Trump first asserted that he couldn’t release his returns because he is under IRS audit, despite there being no policy requiring that.  He also has claimed that there was nothing to be concerned about, nothing relevant to his qualifications to be president and nothing that posed conflict of interest issues. Finally, his team has now asserted that the American public doesn’t really care about the tax returns anyhow.

One more concern.  In the Orwellian world, a keys to the government maintaining control was always having an external enemy.  War was a mechanism to help control the population.  Throughout history, there have been lots of examples of that phenomenon.  Trump already gives every appearance of seeking a convenient foe, whether Iran, China or a country yet to be determined.

In Orwell’s story, the government has a Ministry of Truth that is concerned with pumping out propaganda, rewriting past history to conform to whatever the leaders are currently asserting and making sure that no one deviates from the official line.  In Trump’s inner circle, you can readily see Kellyanne Conway, she  of “alternative facts” and the Bowling Green Massacre, and Sean Spicer as agents of the Ministry of Truth.

Trump is a narcissist, a liar and a power-hungry person who doesn’t tolerate other points of view.  Ultimately, what is even more important, however, is that he is very dangerous, a threat to the basic tenets of American democracy.  We need to stop fixating on his personality traits and pay much more attention to the actions that he is taking to undermine our system of government.  “1984” may not provide a complete blueprint for doing that, but it sure does offer a lot of guidance.