Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tumbling down the rabbit hole.

So Se Pyong, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said it all the other day: There is no meaning, no sincerity to a word that Donald Trump says. Yet, somehow, this essential point that has penetrated the anti-reality shield that protects North Korea from the rest of the world seems to be lost on many Republicans, who have been flocking to support the New York billionaire.

I get it, Donald Trump is not Hillary Clinton, and that might be enough. After all, to a large share of the electorate, she is a liar and a shapeshifter and a believer in the nanny state. She is pro-tax and anti-growth, pro-choice and anti-gun, and stands against everything that Republicans stand for--except perhaps military interventionism--and that might be enough. Driven by the hatred of the other that has become the central psychosis of our politics, there has been an urgency to find their champion in the man who is the presumptive nominee of their party, but if they believe that Donald Trump stands for anything they believe in, they are deluding themselves.

Things were easier early on, when his support hovered around 20% of the GOP primary electorate and his campaign was built around a nativist appeal to beleaguered white folks who heard in his rantings about Mexicans and Muslims and building walls a man who offered an antidote to all that ails them. It was an ugly message, and one that even then was built around a lie: he never had any intention of doing what he said he would do. As So Se Pyong noted, there was no meaning to it, his rants were just words. Just words that he knew would stir the crowd.

In an ugly, anti-Washington year, Donald Trump has been the man for the moment. There is nothing quite so easy as penning a right wing rant--just probe for the soft spot of your audience and keep pounding away on it--and Trump is a demagogue of the purest sort. He bathes in the emotions of the crowd, his rhetoric ramps up as the fervor in the crowd grows, with no regard either for consistency or fundamental decency--much less how much if any of it he would ever actually do. The sky is the limit as long as his audiences never stop and pause to ask themselves who is this guy, really? 

As his support in the Republican Party has grown--built as much as anything around the oldest of all political maxims, the enemy of my enemy is my friend--Donald Trump has become a human rorschach test. People who want to support him--whomever they might be--can find support for their views somewhere in his words. He has not, he is not, for anything or against anything. He is the consummate Zen politician, always in the moment. He has been for cutting taxes and for raising taxes. He has been for raising the minimum wage and eliminating the minimum wage. He has been in favor of guns in schools and opposed to guns in schools. He was against political contributions, and now he is in favor of them. He has been on both sides of most any issue, often on the same day, sometimes within the same sentence. A stance. A beat. A moment of reflection. A new stance.

Remarkable. And like conspiracy buffs who can find evidence somewhere on the Interweb that will support whatever their pet theory might be, any group of Republicans can find somewhere in Trump's words just enough data points that will allow them to embrace him as their own. But just as the alien landing at Roswell, New Mexico never actually took place, and just as the World Trade Center was not brought down by a government plot, and just as the moon landing was not a hoax staged by NASA, whatever any of those Republicans might want to attribute to Donald Trump is not real. They cannot know what Donald Trump would do as President for the simple reason that Donald Trump does not know what Donald Trump would do as President. It is all just words in the moment, nothing more.

This week, Donald Trump dipped into the well of conspiracy theories past and conjured up the suicide of Clinton aid Vincent Foster. When Fox personality Bill O'Reilly suggested that this might be a bit over the top, even for Trump, and undermine the oft-stated commitment of the presumptive Republican nominee to pivot to a more presidential bearing, Trump retorted "I have no choice. When she hits me on things, I have no choice." 

Trump's response was the perfect corollary the comments of So Se Pyong. Trump's campaign staff has tried and failed to tamp down on their candidate's use of Twitter, because Twitter is who Donald Trump is. He is the 144 character candidate. There is no deeper meaning to what he says. There is nothing of substance his words. He has no commitments. There is no sincerity to his stance on any issue. When it is time to say something, he says it. When he is hit, he hits back. All with little thought to what might transpire tomorrow, or even what he might say in the next sentence.

Republicans who have searched for, and think they have found, their own reasons to support him should have no illusions. There was no alien landing at Roswell, notwithstanding whatever they might read on the Interweb. And Donald Trump is not who they might want to think he is, regardless of what he might have said at one point or another, or some assurances he might have offered them. He is, instead, what Ted Cruz said he is: a pathological liar who doesn't know the difference between truth and lies. He is a narcissist at a level the country has never seen. And in the words of Jeb Bush, he has neither the temperament nor the strength of character to serve as president.

So struggle with your hatred of Hillary as you must, but Donald Trump cannot be your answer.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The party of Donald Trump.

It's like that horror film sequel. Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) slowly awakens from a deep slumber. Something is wrong. Then, with a rising sense of terror she looks down at her abdomen, something is moving inside. The fear grows. She knows what it is. Something terrible from her past; an alien life form has taken up residence inside her. This time, the alien life form she has struggled against has won. It has invaded and destroyed the host from the inside. The climactic moment comes as the alien bursts forth, its terrifying face telling her that her worst fears have been realized, just as she wakes up to realize that it was all a dream.

But this is not a dream. Donald Trump actually is going to be the Republican Party nominee. After all the hateful rhetoric, the childish taunts, the abject self-aggrandizement, the New York billionaire won the nomination far earlier than anyone expected, and the Republican establishment was powerless to stop him.

It has been a long week for the Party of Lincoln. It was just last Tuesday that Trump trounced Ted Cruz in the Indiana primary and accepted the mantle of presumptive GOP nominee for the presidency. And it was just a week ago that Ted Cruz ended his campaign with a parting shot that summed up what many have come to believe about Trump.

"This man is a pathological liar. He doesn't know the difference between truth and lies... The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist. A narcissist at a level I don't think this country has ever seen... Everything in Donald's world is about Donald. And he combines being a pathological liar, and I say pathological because I actually think Donald, if you hooked him up to a lie detector test, he could say one thing in the morning, one thing at noon and one thing in the evening, all contradictory and he'd pass the lie detector test each time. Whatever lie he's telling, at that minute he believes it."

This is the Donald Trump that leaders across the GOP leaders have come to know. In the first few days, the pushback against the reality that Trump would stand at the top of their ticket was fierce. Who will follow Trump off the cliff? asked George Will. (A major loser, responded Trump). I Will Not Vote For Donald Trump. Ever. Wrote Erick Erickson, the influential managing editor of the conservative Redstate blog, going so far as to demand that Republicans owe an apology for impeaching Bill Clinton.

“Republicans owe Bill Clinton an apology for impeaching him over lies and affairs while now embracing a pathological liar and womanizer. That apology will not be forthcoming. In fact, for years Republicans have accused the Democrats of gutter politics and shamelessness. Now the Republicans themselves have lost their sense of shame.”

The first family of the Republican Party were unanimous in their shunning of Donald Trump, as George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush each announced that they would neither support Trump nor attend the Republican National Convention in July. For his part, Jeb Bush excoriated the man whom he had pledged to support during the primary debates as lacking the temperament or strength of character to serve as president.

The days that followed were a negotiation of sorts, as one conservative after another raised questions about whether Trump was one of them, and whether they could support a man whose conduct has been so far beneath what they purported to expect of their nominee. House Speaker Paul Ryan led the charge not of those who rejected him outright, but those who believed that they could bring him to heel. Ryan pointed out the range of policy matters on which they disagreed, suggesting that he needed to see Trump meet him part way on issues like Medicare and Social Security, which Trump has pledged to protect, and other conservative issues.

Whether Ryan and others recognized it or not, they were in a negotiation. Trump knows that he won, and has proven to be loath to capitulate on the issues that Ryan cares about, particularly entitlements, and the more odious matters like the Muslim immigration ban and the Mexican wall. He knows that the base of the party that brought him this far would turn on him if he backed down in the face of the GOP elders. He alternately threatened that he neither needed nor wanted Paul Ryan's support and then suggested that he wanted to work with the Speaker and the GOP leadership. He gave them a ray of hope, and then he hunkered down.

Then came the trump card, so to speak. Early this week, a new Quinnipiac University poll suggested that the presidential races between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the three most crucial states, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, are too close to call. The same day that the Q-poll was released, an analysis of tracking poll data released by Gallup suggested that Republicans and voters leaning Republican support Donald Trump by a 64-31 margin.

In the wake of the release of this new data, you could feel the wind going out of the anti-Trump forces in the GOP. The House GOP caucus pushed back against their leader, undermining whatever leverage the Speaker thought he might have in future negotiations with the man who will be his party's candidate.

The great Republican crackup predicted by the influential evangelical and former George W. speechwriter Michael Gerson is looking less and less likely. What changed is the sudden realization across the Republican Party that all is not lost. Two weeks ago, the prospect of Donald Trump winning the nomination was cause for glee among Democrats. One week ago, the chasm that Trump appeared to face in the fall seemed unbridgeable, and Republican leaders turned their sight on efforts to salvage the Senate, if they could, and protect their stronghold in the House of Representatives.

Then this week, the skies parted and new polling data emerged suggesting that Donald Trump has a chance to win in the fall. Indeed, the Gallop data paints a very similar picture between the two parties. Trump's 2-to-1 favorable-to-unfavorable ratio among their target Republican and Republican leaning voters is comparable to Hillary Clinton's 70% favorable to 26% unfavorable support among Democrats and Democrat leaners. Gallup tracking data painted a similar picture in other areas, with polling results indicating that 71% Republicans say that they are likely to vote for Trump, compared with 21% who say they will not, while 73% of Democrats say that they are likely to vote for Hillary, as compared with 21% who say they will not.

Last week's revolt of older party leaders--the Bushes, Mitt Romney, Lindsay Graham--who said they would never endorse Trump was all about demeanor and temperament. He is a pathological liar and narcissist, as Ted Cruz put it. Then there were those for whom it was the lack of fealty to conservative principles. Together, they looked at the alien creature that had taken over their private club with revulsion. They thought that, perhaps, if they shunned him, he might just go away. They thought it was their party, that somehow he might be shamed into line.

But it was not to be. Just like he crushed sixteen contestant getting to Indiana last week, Donald Trump has won his showdown with the GOP establishment this week, and the party has capitulated. It is Donald Trump's party now, and he can do with it what he will, on his terms. The electorate, it seems, is way ahead of the leadership. They have moved beyond temperament and principles. And probably for good reason. Our political culture has thrown temperament to the wind for several decades now. It is a nasty business, and to suggest that calling people names is grounds for disqualification to serve seems to have been rendered quaint in light of the unrelenting nastiness that we have come to expect.

As for principles, well, the most important principle that the Republican electorate has focused on for years now is defeating Democrats, defeating Barack Obama in whatever he stands for, and now, above all, in defeating Hillary Clinton. That is the core principle on which the GOP stands today, and all else is beside the point.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Democracy bites.

In last week's Sunday New York Times, a top story above the fold, In New Age of Privilege, Not all Are in Same Boattrumpeted the new Gilded Age. "That segment of the population," says the former CEO of Norwegian Cruise Lines of their ├╝ber elite passengers, "wants to be surrounded by people with similar characteristics." He was referring to The Haven, the exclusive section of the company's newest ship Norwegian Escape, where NCL's wealthiest passengers travel in a world of their own and have little, if any, contact with the rest of the ship. Further on, the article tells us, Delta Airlines picks up its highest end customers in a Porsche to ferry them to their connecting flights in Atlanta and New York.

In the Silicon Valley, Tech visionary and billionaire Peter Thiel is part of a libertarian crowd that harbors similar escapist fantasies. Thiel imagines building floating cities in the ocean, just for the elite of the tech world. It sounds eerily like The Haven, a place where he and his friends--and their billions and billions of dollars--could escape from the oppression and drudgery of life in America. "An opt-in society,Thiel has suggested, "ultimately outside the US, run by technology." 

Juxtaposed against those images of the new era of American wealth is the rise of Donald Trump. Trump's success in trampling sixteen challengers to the Republican nomination on a platform of economic nationalism has turned the GOP on its head. Four years ago, with his makers vs. takers rhetoric and his disdain for the less affluent, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney ran unabashedly as the candidate of the billionaire class. This time around, determined to control the election outcome in the wake of Romney's loss four years earlier, a cohort of billionaire major donors committed over a billion dollars to make sure that they put a President into the White House that would support their interests.

But from the moment Donald Trump descended down the escalator at Trump Tower to face the media and announce his candidacy, it was apparent that this year was not going to go according to plan. It was one thing to see young voters in the Democratic Party flock to the siren call of a democratic socialist--after all, that is what young voters have done for generations--but it was something else again to see middle-aged, white Republicans, suburban and rural alike, flocking to the banner of Trumpian economic resentments.

From the perspective of an increasing number of Americans of both political parties, the economic system is rigged. Globalization has pitted American workers in a wage competition death match with lower paid workers across the world, suppressing domestic wages while boosting corporate profits to historically high levels. New technologies that offered the prospect of increasing labor productivity and wages have instead proven to exacerbate the problem as traditional industries have been disrupted and jobs lost. Instead of increasing wages, in a globally competitive labor environment where capital is mobile and abundant, the application of new technologies has facilitated the out-migration of jobs and enhanced the return on capital, further exacerbating the concentration of income and wealth.

The titans of the Silicon Valley are ecstatic about their vision of the tech-enabled world that lies just beyond the horizon. Advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printers and biotechnology offer a future that will accelerate the disruption of service and manufacturing industries alike. It is a future, in their minds, that reduces the need for mundane work and increases the opportunities for unconstrained creativity. Yet looming behind this utopian vision lies the inevitability of the continued elimination of existing jobs and pressure on real wages for the average American worker, accelerating the stratification of incomes and wealth. According to the Federal Reserve Bank, 47% of Americans could not come up with $400, in cash or from credit cards, in an emergency. For that half of America, no glowing vision of the future could make up for the prospect of losing the source of livelihood they now have.

Pressed to respond to the neo-Luddite fears of a future that will only worsen the economic pressures that have been steadily encroaching on American middle class incomes, tech guru Marc Andreessen argues the oppositeTechnology will solve any environmental crisis created by economic growth, and the steady economic growth in countries from Asia to South America, and increasingly to Africa, attests to the absolute good created by the combination of exploding technological innovation and economic globalization. He offers neither sympathy nor a solution for the adverse economic impacts of the combination of technology and globalization on those employed in sectors of the economy that have been or inevitably will be disrupted and destroyed, but rather sees the benefits that those forces have provided to society as a whole.

Arguments against fears about the continued adverse impacts of technology and globalization tend to focus on positive aggregate data and trends, as Andreessen suggests, while the people who show up at Trump rallies are individuals whose own lives and families have been adversely affected by economic pressures and job losses. Trends don't vote while individuals do, and there lies the rub for those who envision a future of greater freedom and creativity--but fewer jobs. For the nerds in the Silicon Valley, the future glows like a shining city on a hill. “We have this theory of nerd nation," Andreessen commented, "of forty or fifty million people all over the world who believe that other nerds have more in common with them than the people in their own country."

The problem for the billionaires of the Silicon Valley--as for their brethren on Wall Street--is that they are dependent on a legal infrastructure that extends protections to intellectual property, supports the aggregation of consumer data for little or no compensation by private companies and provides a supportive regulatory regime--to say nothing of the backbone of the Internet itself, a publicly build, publicly funded asset that upon which private fortunes have been built. Then there is the reality that many, if not most, Silicon Valley fortunes represent the present value of future advertising revenues selling stuff to the rest of us. That is to say that, like the rise of China, the prospects of dot-com, data mining and other tech enterprises depend upon a continued robust American consumer market.

In other words, while the leaders of the tech world--like those vacationing in the rarified quarters aboard The Haven--might long for some far away place free of politics and other intrusions into their world, their fortunes have been built with the support of and they remain dependent upon the government and people they disdain, and the rise of Trump is a further indication that the democratic society that has offered them unbounded opportunities and in which they have prospered is filled with people who right now believe that they and their families are not part of that bright future and will never live in that shining city on the hill.

This year's election looms to be different from prior years. There are no easy solutions to the problem that we now face that a large share of the American electorate believes the economy is rigged against them, and certainly Donald Trump has not offered any. But by securing the Republican nomination, Trump has assured that the economic resentments that used to be largely confined to parts of the Democratic Party are going to be central to the message of the Republican candidate as well. The argument that American support for free trade and globalization, augmented by the technology revolution, has produced the greatest good for the greatest number--and only incidentally for the wealthiest Americans--is increasingly falling on deaf ears. The resentments expressed by voters who support Donald Trump, as well as Bernie Sanders, may be misplaced--as Marc Andreessen suggests--but the practical reality is that in a democracy a disaffected majority has every right to upend the status quo, even if they don't actually have a better solution in mind.