Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Attack Of The Orange Man-Baby

So trump is throwing a tantrum again, this time over Jeff Sessions and the Russia investigation. "If I knew he was going to recuse himself, then I never would have appointed him in the first place," is what he is saying. Which raises a couple of interesting points.

1. There was no formal investigation into trump's ties with Russia when Sessions was appointed.
Yes, the FBI was investigating Russian interference in the election, but -- as James Comey testified in his Senate hearing -- the investigation had not yet extended to trump himself. In effect, then, trump is saying that if he had known that Sessions was going to recuse himself from an investigation that wasn't happening, but that very clearly would be happening, he would have picked someone else that would have been more inclined to subvert the investigation that wasn't happening yet, in favor of trump.

In other words, trump is saying that Sessions is not corrupt enough for him. Isn't that special?

2. trump knew Russia would come around to him eventually.
Whether this was because of trump's involvement with Moscow or a result of him simply assuming the worst and that the Democrats were going to use any opportunity to sharpen their axes (and let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say that's what it was), it does raise the question of what his ties to the Kremlin are, exactly, and why it is so important that he have friendly faces in the investigation. Some would take this as an evidence of his collusion with Russia and subsequent attempts to cover it up. This is a possibility, but let's wait until the evidence is in, shall we?

Oh, right. We have meetings between his son, his son-in-law, his campaign manager, a Russian lawyer, and others to discuss "adoptions" -- which is apparently code for "Putin wants you to win, so here's a bunch of illegally obtained documents you can use against your opponent."

3. It is in keeping with this administration's reputation for not being very open.
Between shutting off the cameras in the White House briefing room, the seemingly random, Tourette's-like outbursts on Twitter, and the insane jumble of messaging around ... well, everything ... one gets the impression that, running through the back of trump's mind, is a fundamental lack of understanding that he is not the CEO, he is not the emperor. He can't just issue orders and expect everyone -- Congress, the military, the courts -- to immediately hop to, especially given the often contradictory nature of his rantings.

Of course, this hasn't stopped him from trying, and is no doubt behind much of his evident frustration with how his presidency is going so far.

It all comes down to a very basic concept that trump is not getting, or refusing to get, or willfully ignoring: he is not a king. He has been used to simply telling people what to do and having them do it for so long that, when someone actually says "No, we can't do that" he gets all torqued up and starts sending out tweets ... after first disabling the on-deck circle between his brain and his output. It's pretty much "batter up!" with whatever insane, loony, completely dysfunctional thought that pops into that cantaloupe he calls a head.

Things are going to go a lot smoother once he is out of office. Worst-case scenario is he gets re-elected somehow and servers two full terms, which means we will then be faced with approximately 60 years worth of work to clean up his damage. Best case? He, and his entire team of bottom-dwellers, are unceremoniously booted out of Washington pronto and we get someone in the White House with a functioning cerebral cortex and no Twitter account.

However, given the partisanship exhibited by the likes of Mitch McConnell, and the general rancor surrounding the nation's capital, I'm not really optimistic for that second scenario. I'm thinking that he is going to drag this investigation out for as long as he can, and in 2020 will lose to someone -- anyone -- capable of forming complete sentences. And it's more than a little depressing that this is the standard to which we have descended.

I gotta lie down.

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The Republican (Poor) Health Proposal

Today's rant is a short one, because I'm tired, dammit.

So now donald trump is saying that he wants to "let Obamacare fail." There are a couple of problems with this.

1. The president is a prick. Not that this is news to anyone, but trump and the GOP are so hellbent on proving that the ACA is a failure -- even trying to sabotage it to make a point -- they are losing sight of the fact that, hey, maybe it's kinds working if we stop messing with it. Instead, however, they keep introducing poison pill legislation: amendments to make it work less efficiently; budget resolutions to defund it so that cancer patients end up getting $49.95 and a coupon for a free car wash, or something; and so on.

2. I don't think the GOP understands the meaning of the word "failure." Apparently, in RepublicanLand, a law that provides health care coverage to 20 million people who didn't have it prior; that causes health-care-related bankruptcies to fall for the first time in history; that allows people to get meaningful health care instead of a "catastrophic" insurance plan that only covers you if you are bonked on the head by a falling communications satellite ... well, that constitutes "failure."

I can see how they'd be upset.

3. The racism issue. The big problem, and one that the GOP will deny until the sun goes nova even though they have no room to do so, is that the ACA was put together and shepherded through the process by a black guy. Remember, when Mitt Romney, as governor, implemented this plan (that was put together by the Heritage Foundation) in Massachusetts it was hailed by the GOP as a triumph of free market principles ... but as soon as President Obama attached his name to it, it became socialized medicine.

Now the trumpster fire is saying that he is going to allow it to fail on its own. This is going to be very difficult, because it's been doing okay, even in the face of concerted Republican efforts to cause it to fail. Imagine how well it would be working if the GOP kept their stinking meathooks off it.

I gotta lie down.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What Now?

Yes, the Democrats surely got their butts handed to them in 2016. Not only did they lose the White House to a guy nobody took seriously1, they also failed to regain a majority in the Senate that conventional wisdom had been saying for months was pretty much a lock. There were countless articles, op-eds, and opinion pieces in publications, both online and non, attempting to explain why this happened. It was the fault of the Russians. No, it was the DNC sabotaging Bernie's campaign, because he was the only one who could win. No, wait a second, it was Hillary's fault because she was a "flawed candidate.2" Hang on a minute, it was because Steve Bannon is actually a Sith Lord and used the Dark Side3.

Back in 2012 it was a commonly held opinion that the Republican Party was in a tailspin, that they were eating their own young, and they were on an unsustainable path that would lead them to ruin. They pulled out of that nosedive and managed to take control of the Senate in 2014, then the White House in 2016. It wasn't because they had better candidates (they didn't) or more money (both parties were about equal, give or take a couple of percent, in that regard). They managed to pull themselves out of it through a dogged persistence in messaging and a ruthless candidate vetting process that ensured that all Republicans were on the same page, more or less.

Say what you will about Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Say they are ideological hard-liners. Say they are reactionary thugs. Say they are hopelessly out of touch with the electorate as a whole. Say they are putting power ahead of governance. Say they are using political dirty tricks to win elections because they know damned well that they will never win based on the Republican agenda (which I covered here, here, and here). Say Mitch McConnell is the result of an unholy union between a turtle and a tin-foil hat wearing right-wing conspiracy theorist. Say Paul Ryan is basically the nerdy kid in high school who read "Atlas Shrugged" over a weekend and all of a sudden wanted to tell everyone about it when everyone else was concerned with whether or not there was going to be a totally bitchin' party the next weekend. Say that ... uh, I forgot what my point was going to be ... oh, right.

Say what you will about the GOP, they are very effective at presenting a unified message. Granted, it's a horrible, cruel message, but at least it's unified. The Democrats, not so much. They will get completely lost in the weeds and spend hours, days, weeks bickering over who should go into the prom first and whether holding the door for a woman is sexist or just polite, and be completely oblivious to the Republican walking right past them and being named prom king by stuffing the ballot box.

The question then becomes: what do the Democrats do now? The answer is simple, but not easy.

Put together a unified message.This doesn't mean they need to become mindless drones, endlessly parroting accepted party talking points4. What it does mean, though, is that there needs to be a very limited number of core concepts that need to be a part of every campaign, from the local selectman on up to the President.

It's not enough to simply have these concepts as planks in the platform, however. They have to be publicized. They have to be part of every stump speech, every piece of mail, every TV or radio spot, every interview. It can be anything, so long as every candidate agrees on what they are.

For example, let's say that fighting against man-made climate change is one of these key issues. Currently we have a situation where some candidates will make it part of their campaign, others won't, and it is generally treated as a potentially toxic issue because it may alienate some conservatives. What Democrats need to do is, instead of mumbling their way through it, proudly stand up and announce that they are part of the fight, again, and again, and again, until people are sick of hearing it.

Sure, it may cost some voters, but it will win over others. Some will be attracted by the message, others will come simply because they are seeing a candidate with the stones to actually take a stand on something instead of waffling their way through everything.

Stop worrying so much about being correct, and focus on being right.
In the eyes of the public, Republicans usually win debates. It's not because they are smarter, or have better oratory, or better ideas. It's because they are able to reduce conservative ideas to bullet points -- easy bullet points. Granted, this is often at the expense of annoying things like "facts" and "the truth," but they are really good at it.

Take the climate change argument. A Republican will make a simple, flat statement: "Addressing climate change will cost jobs." This is, on its face, a true statement in that workers in the fossil fuel industry will very likely see job losses. Of course, it completely ignores the fact that new jobs will open up in the alternative energy sector, and that these jobs are far less likely to kill a person than coal mining, but that's not important. The Republican is making the point that addressing climate change will cost jobs, and he's not wrong.

The Democrat, on the other hand, will acknowledge that jobs will be lost, but that they will be made up for in other sectors, and the government will provide assistance with job retraining, and natural gas is an important part of our energy portfolio, and on and on and on in a monotonous drone that puts people to sleep ... after which the Republican wakes everyone up again by saying addressing climate change will cost jobs.

What Democrats need to do is beat them at their own game. Stop worrying about being 100% correct about all the various permutations and nuances. Instead, focus on the important point: addressing climate change will create jobs. They can get into the details later, but the point -- whatever it happens to be -- needs to be hammered home, frequently and vigorously.

Get aggressive.
This doesn't mean that Democratic candidates need to start beating the crap out of their Republican opponents5, or using the same unsavory tactics as the GOP. What it does mean is that Democrats need to stop reacting to everything, and give the Republicans something to which they have to react.

We saw this throughout the 2016 campaign. The Republicans were leveling accusations against the Democrats pretty much every twelve minutes -- some with a tiny grain of truth, but most of them were pure bunk and fabrication -- and the Democrats were forced to respond. Not only did this legitimize the accusations, but it stole valuable time from the Democrats when they could have been making their case instead of responding to GOP nonsense.

Obviously, when an accusation is leveled, it cannot simply be ignored -- this will give it a life of its own, making it a much harder beast to tame later. The thing is, Democrats can turn this around against the GOP. That's not to say something needs to be created out of whole cloth -- there is this whole "being honest about stuff" thing -- but there will be absolutely no problem finding legitimate things to hurl at them.

It then becomes a question of who can yell the loudest. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the Republicans have been training for this a lot longer, so there is serious catching up to do.

Find a standard bearer.
In most Presidential elections there is one candidate who stands head and shoulders above the other in terms of inspiring the electorate. This person may or may not be the smartest person on the dais during a debate, but is the one who is able to reach the voters on a visceral level.

In 1960 it was JFK. In 1968 and 1972, Richard Nixon. In 1976, Jimmy Carter. In 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan. In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton. In 2000, George W. Bush. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama.

Sadly, in 2016, it was donald trump, the stale Cheeto given a microphone.

In some cases neither one was very inspiring. 1988, for example, we were faced with two milquetoast nobodies that were unable to get anyone -- even in their immediate families -- fired up. In 2004 George W. Bush had huge negatives because of the Iraq War, but thanks to the character assassination of John Kerry (see "Get aggressive" earlier) the Democrats spent much of the campaign in damage control mode and had fewer resources to dedicate to presenting a coherent message.

What Democrats need is someone around whom the entire country can rally, someone who is able to bring out the best natures of people. Hillary wasn't it ... while she is arguably the most qualified candidate ever to run for the office, she was not able to stir the passions of the voters, to get them on her side in a way that would allow them to overlook her flaws. Barack Obama was able to get people to overlook his relative inexperience on the strength of his oratory and his intellect. Ronald Reagan was able to make people feel like they were chatting with their dear old Uncle Ronny who, while he might not be the brightest bulb in the light fixture, is decent folk and really cares about them.

Who is this person? It's not for me to say. I can say, however, that it is not a policy wonk who treats a political campaign like a traveling lecture. It is not someone who tries to portray himself as a nice, decent guy while simultaneously trying to be an attack dog (looking at you, Tim Kaine). It's not the grumpy guy down the street who just wants all those damned kids to get the hell out of his yard (Bernie Sanders), and it's not another first-term African-American Senator from a blighted city (Cory Booker) -- been there, done that.

What is needed is someone who can inspire people. Someone who can speak both Democratese and Republicanic. Someone who is able to not only convince Democrats, but can also get even hardcore Republicans to take him or her seriously. Someone youngish (in case you hadn't noticed, the country is currently being run by cranky old fossils, and that's working out really well), but not so young they can be portrayed as still being wet behind the ears.

Above all, they need someone who simultaneously can beat the GOP at their own game and remain above the fray. A tall order indeed, but with nearly 350 million people in the country I'm pretty sure one can be found.

I gotta lie down.

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1Yes, I know that Russia got involved and monkeyed around with stuff, but I'm not covering that this time around. I already did that here.
2And if I have to hear how she was a "deeply flawed candidate" as justification for the loss one more time I am going to gnaw my leg off at the knee and start clubbing people with it. Of course she was a flawed candidate. Every candidate is a flawed candidate. Duh.
3But you probably already knew this.
4That's what Republicans do (rimshot).
5Bet you'd pay good money to see that though. Just sayin'.

Monday, July 17, 2017

An Exercise In Futility

 In previous columns I discussed why the Republican Party is unfit to govern in any capacity. Most of the reasons why are readily apparent to anyone with even a modicum of objectivity (whether or not they agree with those reasons is a different story ... we'll get to that)1. However, this begs the question: if it's so obvious why the GOP is a failure, then why do people continue to support it? Or, to drill down even further, how come trump supporters are so adamant in their support for trump even as the evidence that he colluded with a foreign government to interfere with an election becomes more and more conclusive?

I have a theory on this, and it actually has very little to do with politics, current events, or the orange nightmare.

When the media discusses trump supporters, a common thread is that he managed to speak to their concerns in a way that nobody -- Republican or Democrat -- had previously. And while there is some merit to this argument, I think the real reason behind his support being so unwavering runs a little deeper, a little closer to the core of who we are as great apes of the species homo sapiens.

When asked to describe themselves, people generally do so in terms of membership in a certain group. They tell people that they are an architect, say, or a Rotarian, or a Democrat, or a musician, or Hispanic ... the list goes on. Very rarely will someone describe themselves thusly: "I am a believer that all people are equal, regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I don't eat meat out of preference, but I avoid seafood due to allergies ..." and so on. The reason for this partly because jeez, but that would mean interminably long conversations when you meet people, but mostly because it does not describe this person in relation to their tribe.

Your tribe can be anything. It can something as large as "resident of Earth," or as small as you and your spouse. Each and every person belongs to multiple tribes. Me, for example. I am a member of the following tribes:
  • Database administrators.
  • Political pundits.
  • Italian-Americans.
  • Musicians.
  • Fat guys.
  • Bald guys.
  • Virgos.
  • People who drive a Subaru.
  • Democrats.
  • Liberals.
  • Sound engineers.
  • Fathers.
  • Husbands.
... and so many more, too many to list here in toto.

And membership is a matter of degree, as well. For example, membership in the "Fathers" tribe is a huge part of who I am and plays a large role in my day-to-day decision-making, while membership in the "Virgos" tribe is pretty much on paper only because -- well, astrology is nonsense2. It's the same with everybody ... some tribes to which they belong play a larger role in their lives than others. This is natural, it's part of what makes us who we are as human beings.

In the case of many trump supporters, membership in the "trump" tribe has become a core part of their internal identity. I have heard some trump supporters start a sentence with something like "I used to be a Democrat, but after seeing/hearing trump ..."

The media has tried -- unsuccessfully -- to identify the common theme among his supporters: "They are working class voters." "They tend to be less educated." "trump voters skew older." Actually, no. Trump supporters are fairly representative of the broader cross-section of American society in terms of age, education, and income. About the only thing that can be said is that they are overwhelmingly white -- but that can be said of many candidates on both sides of the aisle -- and that they tend to adopt a libertarian flavor of conservatism.

Once you start to break things down in tribal terms, however, a picture becomes clear. trump supporters are people who, by and large, feel like they have been left out of all the "good" tribes (aka groups in which they would like membership, but are denied for various reasons): the wealthy, the intellectual elite, the political class, the people who get interviewed on TV about whatever the hot topic of the day happens to be. They are average, in almost every way, and America of the past quarter century has been focusing all its attention on those who are decidedly not average: the super-wealthy, or mass murderers, or pop stars, or the homeless. In the political arena, they have been shut out and ignored to a staggering degree. Politicians haven't been that interested in talking to average people unless they are willing to pony up massive campaign donations. Ideology makes for good theater, and as a fund raising tool it is extremely effective, but when it comes down to it they only want your money.

This was the void that was filled by trump. Despite his crassness, his egomania, his fundamental dishonesty, even his ability to form complete sentences without a script, he managed to reach people in a way that very few before him have managed to do3. What is interesting, and what makes trump supporters unique, is the degree to which they identify with him. For many of them, identifying as trump supporters has become their defining characteristic (it's the same with some on the left, to be fair, but the left is not currently occupying the White House). Just as Mike Pence famously said "I'm a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order4," a significant percentage of trump supporters are putting identification with their guy as the largest part of their self-identity ... basically, replace "Christian" in Pence's comment with "trump supporter" and you will have a statement that applies to a sizeable chunk of the population5.

Once this basic fact of tribalism is understood, a lot of the ridiculous arguments we see online begin to make sense. When I get into a discussion with a trump supporter and point out the facts as they are understood today concerning the Russia investigation, to that person I am not giving them an objective run-down of events. What I am saying, in their opinion, is "You are wrong to be who you say you are. Supporting trump makes you less relevant as a person."

This was illustrated very plainly a while back when I penned an article entitled "Is Donald Trump Losing His Mind?" In this article I pointed out that trump is showing signs of cognitive decline, as measured by his use of language in unscripted situations. This is a metric that is recognized, and has been for decades, by psychiatrists, psychologists, neurologists, etc. as a legitimate measure of cognitive function. The question I attempted to answer is simply, is this cognitive decline within the range of what would be considered normal for any 70 year old guy who doesn't take very good care of himself, or does it point to incipient dementia?

Well. The internet blew up (relatively speaking, of course ... I'm still pretty small potatoes) with people accusing me of bashing trump, he's crazy like a fox, it's all an attempt to discredit him, etc. etc. The thing is, I could have used the name "O. J. Simpson" (who is also 70 years old) and not changed a single word elsewhere, and it would have been the same article. The reason people became so agitated is not that I was accusing trump of anything -- I wasn't -- but that, in their minds, at least, I was invalidating their very identities as trump supporters -- and, by extension, as human beings.

Herein lies the heart of the problem with all the well-meaning liberals who want trump supporters to acknowledge the facts of his corruption and incompetence. It will never happen as long as "trump supporter" remains a core part of their self-identities. Something like that is beyond the reach of facts, or logic, of reasoned debate. It is much more visceral, and trying to get someone to change this based on external factors triggers a primitive "fight or flight" response, often without the person even realizing it. You can see this behavior pretty much everywhere: from a toddler who insists that five comes after three and four doesn't exist, to the lengths nations will go to allow adversaries to save face.

This, at a very fundamental level, is what this becomes about: saving face. Telling a trump supporter about trump's lies and corruption is not simply giving them factual data (or not, depending on the source), it is an indictment. An accusation. A concrete statement that "you're wrong." And if there is any characteristic that can be attributed to human beings across the board, regardless of age, political affiliation, religion, nationality -- any metric at all, really -- is that we hate to be accused of being wrong about something so core to who we are.

This is why trying to "convince" trump supporters is nothing more than tilting at windmills. You may as well get into a debate about the merits of Social Security reform with a mailbox for all the good it will do6.

I gotta lie down.

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1If you are interested in re-reading these, Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

2Unless it isn't, at which point I apologize to whatever big shot is about to visit vengeance upon my head.

3Interestingly enough, this election cycle just past gave us two candidates who were able to reach people in this manner: trump, and Bernie Sanders. Even though they were diametrically opposed politically and ideologically, Sanders was able to tap into that same sense of disenfrachisement.

4Not for nothing, but this statement should be setting off alarm bells across the political spectrum. What he is basically saying here is that he is perfectly okay with this country being turned into a theocracy based on his fundamentalist Christian viewpoint. Handmaid's Tale, anyone?

5Whether or not this is a good thing will be left for the reader to decide.

6This may actually be preferable due to the much lower stress level involved, and because the mailbox is slightly less likely to call you a "libtard."

Come At Me, Bro

So the latest stunt from Ron DeSantis and the Floriduh GOP -- and that's all they are is stunts -- is SB 1316, a particularly odious and...