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Sunday, June 24, 2018
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Andy Schmookler


The Strange Political Culture of Today’s GOP

This is another of those columns that I've written with the mostly conservative readers of my area, in whose newspapers it is appearing, in mind.

It now seems clear that the Iran deal will stand. So when Speaker of the House John  Boehner declares, "Our fight to stop this bad deal, frankly, is just beginning," we confront again the strange nature of the political culture that now drives the Republican Party.

It is strange in two related ways.

First, it seems to reject the fundamental principle of a democracy that sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose but - so long as the political battle is conducted according to the rules governing the system -- you respect the outcome.

Back when Jimmy Carter was president, we had a hard-fought battle over the Panama Canal Treaty, which surrendered American control over that important piece of real estate. Then, as now, the hawks fought hard against the treaty. Then, as now, they lost. But unlike now, when the battle was over, the losers accepted the outcome and moved on.

In the political game of our democracy, as in baseball, one always hope to win, and some losses are bitter, but one respects the game and understands that it's about something bigger than anyone's always coming out on top.

But today's Republicans seem to reject that basic ethic.

Hardly has there been a harder fought political battle than that over the reform of America's exorbitant and patchy health-care system. Eventually, after nearly two years of struggle, President Obama and the Democrats prevailed. It was close, but they won it fair and square.

A Sad Love Story: The Conservatives in My Area and Me

This piece is appearing in newspapers in my area.

As far as I know, I'm the only liberal-leaning columnist who regularly writes with mostly conservative readers in mind. There's a story behind why that is -- a story about love, and one that makes me sad.

The love arose for me during the first decade (starting in 1992) of my doing talk radio conversation with a mostly conservative audience in the Shenandoah Valley.  Over the years, my conservative listeners/callers and I developed a rapport that meant a lot to me.

As for the sad part, here's an illustration: A lot of conservative readers of this newspaper, I expect, have come to think of a "liberal" as the enemy, and won't even read a column if they see my name at the top.

An enemy is not what I want to be. I have not forgotten happier days.

When I first started doing radio on Harrisonburg's prominent AM station, WSVA, I had come to believe that both liberals and conservatives had important truths to offer, and that we should work to bring the partial truths of the two sides together into a higher wisdom.

That was my goal for my radio conversations, and I introduced my shows by saying that we should speak with each other "as if we might actually learn from each other."

The conservatives I spoke with on the radio were important to me. Their voices and ideas stayed with me even when I was not on the air. And the fruit of all that inner dialogue was a book - seeking that "higher wisdom" -- that was published in 1999 and to which I gave the subtitle, "A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide."

Bridging that divide was important, I thought, to undo the damage being done to our nation by, for example, the polarizing "Godzilla of Talk Radio," Rush Limbaugh. Polarization takes people away from wisdom, and it disables a citizenry from being able to work together to achieve their common purposes.

For a decade, in the community we created on the airwaves of the Shenandoah Valley, we made progress in building such bridges. And I felt a love for that mostly conservative community. Really, "love" was the right word.

But then came a change-change at the national level, but visible also here locally. It was not a healthy change.  

If I Were Bernie Sanders I’d Challenge Trump to a Duel

Well, not a duel exactly, but a one-on-one debate. I think it would be good for Bernie Sanders, it would be good for the Democratic Party, and it would be good for the political health of the American democracy.

Here's why.

1) Bernie Sanders is now seen as at the far end of the political spectrum. He's climbing in the polls by inspiring the progressives in the Democratic Party (who are less than enthralled with the centrist history of Hillary Clinton). The fact that he has described himself as a "democratic socialist" - using a word that's been used in this country for a century as a term of political abuse -- compounds Sander's vulnerability to being dismissed as the candidate of "the left."

A debate with Trump would offer Sanders an opportunity to show that his populist message can appeal to independents and to disaffected people on the right.

2) Trump and Sanders have widely been tied together in the media, represented as the two insurgent campaigns disrupting the expectations of the two parties. This media narrative signals that the media would be predisposed to take an interest in the idea of such a contest between the "insurgents."

Trump: This Joker is a Real Wild Card

The main truth about America over the past generation has this at its center: A destructive force has taken over the Republican Party. I've been trying to understand this force full-time since 2004.

At first I saw it as being rooted in the triumvirate of the Bush II presidency - Bush, Cheney, Rove - but when they left town and the scandalous, destructive behavior continued unabated - now centered in the congressional Republican opposition -- I realized that this force had pervaded the political right.  

The conduct of the Republicans in Congress, combined with the rise of the Koch-brothers kind of plutocracy and the ongoing whipping up of the base into various forms of fear-and-rage fueled fantasies without any real connection with reality, have clarified the continuing movement of the Republican Party into darkness.

Now comes Donald Trump, and the question arises: what is Trump's relationship with this dark force on the right?

The answer, I believe, is surprisingly ambiguous. Trump is both feeding the brokenness this force has engendered among the Republican electorate and acting like a wrecking ball on the political party this force has been using as its political instrument.

On the one hand, Trump is completely willing to exploit the craziness that has been cultivated on the right. And more than that, he has no compunction about feeding it.

The bullying and the racism and the belligerence that are perhaps his main poses all encourage the dark passions that this destructive force has been cultivating - since the rise of the likes of Gingrich and Limbaugh -- in its followers.

On the other hand, Trump is playing on these feelings in a way that - by exposing them so nakedly, and riding the response to gain his status as the Republican front-runner - is doing serious damage to the Republican Party.

His blatant hostility to Hispanics - and the way so many of the other Republican candidates are clumsily trying to out-Trump Trump on the immigration issue- looks likely to sabotage any hope the Republicans may have had (after the 2012 election) to improve their standing with the substantial Hispanic part of the American electorate. And this, it is widely said, could block any path for a Republican to gain the White House for years to come.

Why Voters Think Trump’s Act is Honest

This piece will be appearing in newspapers in my part of Virginia.

According to a recent CBS poll
, voters see Donald Trump as different from his opponents in the presidential race because he is candid. He says what he thinks, and he means what he says.

But in two obvious ways, Trump is anything but candid.

First, much of what he's saying now is the opposite of what he was saying not long ago.

Trump has taken a very hard-line position on immigration
. Yet only two years ago, he was telling advocates for immigrants, "You've convinced me." He has reversed himself similarly on Hillary Clinton's performance as Secretary of State. She has gone from doing a "good job"  to being the "worst Secretary of State in the history of the United States." Likewise, he's switched his position on issues like guns and abortion.

This is opportunism, not candor. This is saying whatever serves his immediate purposes.

The second reason for doubting Trump's candor is that he often says things that he must know are false, or that anyone qualified to be president would know are false.

Trump: An American Caesar

Like everyone else who pays attention to American politics, I have been thinking a lot about the astonishing rise to political prominence of Donald Trump. What a sad thing it is that our country is in this condition where such a man, saying such things, and acting in such a way, can inspire so many people to rally to his support.

What does it mean?

Recently, George Will -- for whom I do not anymore have the respect that I once had - put his training in the classics to good use in making an apt observation: he equated "Trumpism" with "Caesarism." (Wikipedia defines Caesarism as "a form of political rule that emulates the rule of Roman dictator Julius Caesar over the Roman Republic, in that it is led by a charismatic strongman whose rule is based upon a cult of personality...")

That resonated with me, as it connected with an image that, for weeks, had been arising in my mind in relation to Trump. It's an image of Mussolini standing on the balcony with his hands crossed in front of his chest and his head thrown back in the most arrogant and full-of-himself way. Mussolini was explicitly trying to be the new Caesar in a regime that harkened back to the days of Roman dominance over the world.

(And of course this would-be Caesar willingly made himself part of history's greatest nightmare.)

"Make Rome great again" was a theme of that twentieth century Italian Caesar. And now in America our own embodiment of the ugly force of "Caesarism" is running to be president of the United States under the slogan "Make America great again."

It would be one thing if Trump had a genuine understanding of what American greatness is supposed to be about, and if he presented a picture of what we as a nation need to do to restore that greatness by repairing the damage lately done to our nation.

But Trump's notion of greatness is all about our getting more "victories." It's all about winning. It's all based on a Caesarian lust for power.

Following Donald Trump on the path that he is pointing us down would be not a restoration of what has been really great about America. It would represent, rather, an empowering of the very force that has degraded our once-great nation.

How to Steal a Democracy

Imagine that you are a group of rich and powerful people eager to be still richer and more powerful. But you live in a democratic society that gives each citizen an equal vote and thus sets sets limit on how much power you can amass. So you decide to steal the people's democracy.

How can this be done?

For starters, you would work to prevent the people from working together. As long as they can unite for common purposes, they can prevent you from gaining power over them.

Sowing hatred among them will work well to stop them from coming together. You don't have to reach all the people--half will do. If one half hates and distrusts the other half deeply enough, that will suffice to ensure that the people will be unable to cooperate to achieve goals they have in common.

To sow this enmity, you will need a media system. Through that system, you continually tell the people who listen to you how terrible the others are. They are not your fellow citizens with a somewhat different point of view, you tell them. They are the enemy. They don't love the nation; they have betrayed it. They want to steal your liberties and set up a tyranny over you.

Making one large group of basically decent citizens hate another large group of basically decent citizens requires getting people to believe many false ideas and "facts." That's not difficult in a totalitarian society where the ruling powers can block competing sources of information. But it's a huge challenge in a democratic society where freedoms of speech and press give everyone access to information that can expose your lies.

This challenge can be met, however, by training the audience to listen to no one but you.  

The Civil War Was Lost. It’s Time We Finally Won It

In the wake of the Charleston church massacre, many complained that the national conversation got side-tracked into a debate over a mere historical artifact -- the Confederate Flag -- when it should have focused on the scourge of gun violence in America.

There's no denying that the proliferation of guns is an enduring problem in America or that, in this time of unreason, the politics around "gun rights" are as unreasonable as any.

But it would be a mistake to regard the argument over the Confederate (Battle) Flag as a distraction from America's real problems. Indeed, that argument provides one apt avenue into the heart of the national crisis that holds the United States in its grip. For the Confederate Flag represents a "spirit" (or force) that has endured in the American political culture, and has returned in our times to inflict still more damage.

The history of its uses shows that flag stands for the Confederacy formed by the secession of the slave states of the Deep South. It also stands for the emergence and defense of the Jim Crow power structure that got established in the South for the century after the Civil War. And finally, that flag has reappeared as a symbol in American politics, just as that same spirit has taken over today's Republican Party with its base in the South.

Yes, it is the same spirit. And there's more to it than the obvious-the revival of the notion that the states can "nullify" the authority of federal law, the recurrence of talk of secession, and the contempt with which America's first black president is treated.

In an earlier piece -- "The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back"   - I laid out some striking parallels between the eras. Among these parallels:

Strike While the Donald is Hot

Today's Republican Party is a disgrace like nothing ever seen before at center stage of American politics.  From 2001 to 2009, it gave us the most lawless presidency in the history of the nation, and then from 2009 till now, it has given us the most obstructionist opposition party the nation has seen. Unprecedented, for a major American political party, in how consistently it is damaging the nation.

For well over a decade, this should have been the main topic of our national conversation.

No, let me correct that: Had the Democrats made it the main topic of our national conversation earlier, the dark force that has taken over the Republican Party would not still need to be brought to the attention of the American people. Calling it out forcefully enough would have either driven out this dark force from the one-time "Grand Old Party," or have driven that Party into oblivion.

But the Democrats have been weak, and have never pressed the battle. And the combination of Republican destructiveness and Democratic weakness has been a disaster for America.

Today's rise of Donald Trump gives the Democrats, and Liberal America generally, an unusually good opportunity to launch the long-needed attack on the Republican Party for the morally degraded force that it has become.

That opportunity arises from two factors.

First, Trump has thrown the Republican Party into disarray. Most of the time - largely because of the weakness and passivity of the Democratic Party - the Republicans have been able to control their narrative. But, with Trump lobbing his attention-getting rhetorical bombs and dominating virtually every news cycle, the Republicans are caught up in a story beyond their control. This leaves them weakened, distracted, disjointed -- generally less able to fight back in a cohesive way.

So strike while the Donald is hot.

What’s Taking Over America

[This is running as an op/ed in newspapers in my part of Virginia.]

We, the people of the United States, are losing control of our destiny to an untrustworthy power.

It stands to reason that if money can buy political power, whoever has the most money will rule. The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision took us a long way down that path.  A recent study confirms that what the people want has almost no effect on political outcomes while moneyed interests have considerable influence.

If America is to be ruled by whoever commands the most money, it will be the corporate system, far more than individual billionaires, that calls the shots. This corporate system does not operate the same as a human being, and it is more than the sum of individual corporations, or even of whole industries.

Each powerful corporation and industry seeks to get government to serve its special interests - as in the subsidies given to oil and coal companies. But the corporate world has substantial common interests. Those who operate the system recognize those common interests and act to serve them.

It is in their interest to have a citizenry that distrusts the one power that might rival the power of the corporate world - the government. And the corporate system has worked to foment such distrust.

The history of how the United States came to have five justices on the Supreme Court hand down a decision like Citizens United - opening the floodgates for the rule of money - shows how the system can work over time to make our government its tool. It takes some doing to get five men onto the Supreme Court willing to say , with a straight face, "We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."

Likewise, it shows the power of the corporate system that today's Democratic president and Republican-controlled Congress are moving toward passing a trade bill that Nobel-laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz calls "a secret corporate takeover." That bill would take powers from our elected government and our legal system and hand them to a corporate-controlled panel. Regulation of economic activity could become so costly to governments at every level that the corporate system would be freed of some basic restraints.

Not just stealing the people's power over our democracy but also stealing power away from the democratic system itself.

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