Archive for ‘August, 2017’

Pablo is in the USA and having technical problems, so I am posting this on his behalf. -L

Donald Trump’s last two weeks could well be the turning point in his presidency. Given that I have been wrong about him before I am reluctant to call it terminal for him, but there are now unmistakable signs that his tenure in office is under threat. Allow me to explain why.

Think of the Trump presidency as a wheel with five spokes. The wheel is his administration. The spokes are his bases of support: corporate America, the congressional Republican caucus, the military-security complex, the Right-wing media and the alt-Right/Tea Party electoral support base. With his actions since the clashes in Charlottesville between Klansmen and neo-Nazis versus counter-protesters, he has broken or weakened the spokes that hold his administration together.

When he failed to denounce the Klansmen and neo-Nazis in unequivocal terms and instead drew false moral equivalence between them (“there was violence on both sides,” “there are fine people on both sides”), corporate America took leave of him. Members of his business advisory council began to quit, and when the number of them became too significant to dismiss, he abolished the council entirely. In doing so he also took Twitter pot-shots at the sole black member of the council who resigned while saying nothing about the whites who did likewise.

Corporate America supported Trump because of two things. He promised tax reform and de-regulation, particularly of the financial and energy markets. But his behaviour has become so erratic, his bluster and threats so disconnected from reality (such as saying that he would rather shut down the government if Congress does not approve his billion dollars plus taxpayer funded Mexican Wall project, a project that he repeatedly promised that Mexico would pay for), corporate leaders fear that not only will he not deliver on his promises but his actions will plunge the US back into recession. So quietly but steadily they are abandoning public support for him in favour of political hedging strategies focused on Congress and his likely successor. Mike Pence, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush are all being courted as more rational and responsible pro-market conservatives with presidential qualifications, to the point that all three have had to do the usual disclaimers about not being interested in the job. When that happens, you know that they are. And that means that the corporate spoke supporting the Trump presidential wheel has fractured.

Corporate America’s distancing from Trump is paralleled by that of his second support spoke: Republicans in Congress. Republicans control both houses of Congress but have been unable to pass any significant legislation because of internal divisions within their ranks and Trump’s brutish interventions in their affairs. The latter includes personally attacking both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in extraordinarily personal terms, to say nothing of the torrent of vitriol he spews at those like Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake who have defied his orders to do as he commands on contentious policy issues. His attacks on Democrats are equally ferocious but are water off a duck’s back as far as the latter are concerned. After all, the Democrats are focused on winning back one or both congressional chambers in 2018 thanks to hatred for Trump and the paralysis of congressional Republicans when it comes to confronting him on even the most obvious of his mistakes. Since they only need a shift of three seats in the Senate and 35 in the House to reclaim control of Congress, Democrats wear his insults and threats as a badge of honour and in fact are using his nasty soundbites and tweets as part of their political advertising campaigns.

For Republicans, however, his slings and arrows do sting. That is because campaigning for the November 2018 midterms begins in November 2017, and they must choose whether to fish or cut bait on their support for Trump in order to save their own political careers as well as the future of the Republican Party. Trump’s attacks on the Republican congressional leadership have deepened the fractures within the party itself, to the point that some wonder if what he is doing is trying to promote an internal coup against the GOP leadership.

The Republican calculus is stark. Do they continue to ride Trump’s coattails on the way to the midterm elections or do they campaign against, or at least disavow support for him once campaign season begins? If he is doing well in the polls (which translates into a national approval average of 35 percent or more), then they will remain loyal to him. If his polling numbers continue to dip as they have been for the last few months, then they will cut bait.

The practical effect is to accentuate the alienation of the Republican congressional leadership from Trump. Although many never liked him and most understand that he is not a dye-in-the-wool conservative, the situation after his election was not supposed to be like this. Instead of a united front passing conservative legislation and rolling back Obama’s policy agenda, the Republican Party is in disarray and taking heat from its constituents. Something must give, and what has given is the support spoke that congressional Republicans provided Trump at the beginning of his reign.

Trump’s equivocating on racism and his continuing support for symbols of the Confederacy have produced a remarkable response from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense (and former Marine General) Jim Mattis. Without mentioning Trump by name, these senior military leaders have repudiated his remarks on the events in Charlottesville and instead stressed that the US military operates on principles of equality and non-discrimination (to include transgender people, who Trump and Pence have targeted). This is an extraordinary moment in US civil-military relations, where public questioning, much less criticism of the president by the uniformed corps is anathema. When we add into the mix the strained relations between Trump and the US intelligence community—who he continues to blame for leaks and who he ignores when it comes to its assessment of Russia—what results is a serious strain in the support spoke of the Trump presidency that is the US security community.

Evidence of his concern with maintaining their contingent support (since allegiance is given to the Constitution, not him) is seen in Trump’s agreeing to the military request for a troop increase in Afghanistan after he campaigned on withdrawing the US from that country and repeatedly claimed that he “knew more” than the generals when it comes to warfare (which is a bit rich for a draft-dodging playboy, but there you go). He may have had to choke on his ego to do so, but he and his advisors know that fracturing the support spoke provided by the security community could well be his political Waterloo. Hence the acquiescence on the Afghan troop surge. As a result, the security spoke may be strained to the point of cracking, but it is not yet fractured.

All of this has been watched with interest by the Right-wing media. Most of this media has been supportive of Trump, but here too cracks have appeared because of the racism row and his firing of Steve Bannon, the nationalist-populist strategist and former Brietbart publisher who commanded his ear for the first six months of his presidency. It was Bannon who urged the president to embrace the Alt-Right, and who crafted the anti-trade, anti-Muslim, anti-Chinese and false moral equivalence memes that found their way onto Trump’s twitter feed. But when Bannon’s pretence exceeded his grasp of political realities, the new presidential Chief of Staff, Jim Kelley (another retired Marine general and former Secretary of Homeland Security), gave Trump a “he or me” ultimatum. And like that, Bannon was gone from the West Wing.

But he did not go far. Instead, he resumed his leadership of Brietbart and immediately began attacking Trump for caving in to the Washington establishment on Afghanistan and other issues. The Alt-Right responded accordingly, and now Trump cannot be assured that he has its undivided support. Meanwhile, other Right media figures criticized, however reluctantly, Trump’s comments on Charlottesville and the historical record regarding the civil war, thereby driving a wedge into what until recently was monolithic Right-wing media support spoke for him. With Right-wing media now splintered between those who attack him for not fulfilling his campaign promises and those criticizing his more egregious rhetorical and practical excesses, his media support spoke is becoming increasingly wobbly.

Which leaves his base. Those that flock to his campaign rallies remain unwavering in their support for him (and yes, he is still holding rallies six months into his presidency and three years before his run for re-election, using insignificant “official” appearances as an excuse to use taxpayer funded transportation and lodging for what otherwise should be private campaign expenses). But however solid their support, their numbers are dwindling. Rallies that used to bring in tens of thousands now barely reach 10,000. His national poll numbers are hovering below 35 percent, and most importantly, in some die-hard Red states that he won overwhelmingly, his approval ratings are starting to slide below the 75 percent incumbent party support threshold common for presidents this early in their first term. Thus, while the base support spoke remains solid it is also smaller than it used to be, thereby increasing the rickety strength of the presidential wheel.

The sum effect is an exercise in political unsustainability. The presidential wheel cannot continue to sustain its increasingly wobbly roll unless drastic repairs are made to its support infrastructure. That does not appear likely to happen.

All of this occurs against the backdrop of a collective fever breaking. From the moment Trump came on the political scene, the response of the political class has been akin to a feverish dream. First, they believed that he could not win the Republican primaries. Then they believed that he could not win the general election. Then they believed that he would “grow” into the presidential role. Then they hoped that he would be forced to wear the institutional straight jacket of the presidency whether he wanted to or not. Then they expected that he would moderate his language and behaviour once he saw the effect they had on markets and diplomatic relations. Then they believed that his staff or family would reign him in and save him from his own impulses. Then they looked to Congress and the Judiciary to restrain him, and that is when the fever broke.

The US political class now realizes that there is no changing Trump and that he is a danger to the nation. His recklessness is now openly acknowledged and his mental stability repeatedly questioned by politicians, businesspeople and media commentators alike. Courts have challenged his executive orders and Congress has by veto-proof majorities imposed over his objections sanctions on Russia and prevented him from making recess appointments or dismissals. He may not want like it, but now that the feverish delusion that he would somehow exhibit the restraint, reason, decorum and willingness to compromise that are considered essential traits of presidential leadership has been once and for all dispelled, the institutional straight jacket is being forced onto him. And with the spokes coming off his presidential wheel, he may not be wearing it for very long.

Or so we can hope.

There is some overlap between yesterday’s post and today’s radio interview, but there is also a a fair bit of other material as well: http://www.radiolive.co.nz/home/video/2017/08/trump–charlottesville-and-north-korea—the-latest-from-the-us.html

Letters from America, take three: a scab got picked.

datePosted on 08:39, August 16th, 2017 by Pablo

Donald Trump picked a scab during his campaign for the presidency and now the pus is draining out. It will be a while before the wound is cleansed. The pus is racism, xenophobia and bigotry.

When I left the US to settle in NZ race relations were arguably the best they had ever been. The economy was thriving, incomes were rising as unemployment dropped, and a black middle class was re-emerging in numbers and across regions as had never been seen before (the previous rise of the historical black middle class was limited to selected East and South urban centers). By 1997, the year I emigrated to NZ, black culture had been embraced and internalized in mainstream US society (i.e., outside of sports and music) and most importantly, there was at least the appearance of racial tolerance and harmony. It turns out that if that was not an illusion then, it certainly is now.

Trump spent his election campaign dog whistling to his alt-Right base. This base is not conservative in the traditional sense of the term. Instead, it is a collection of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, KKK supporters, anti-Semites, violent misogynists, gun freaks and assorted other sociopaths, many of whom claim to be Christians and some of whom are in fact part of the evangelical and Tea Party movements. What is most disturbing is that, like in his treatment of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Trump was and is open in his embrace of this base. He may be forced from time to time to distance himself from both Russians and neo-Nazis, but when he does so he does so reluctantly, under duress.

Think about it: for the first time ever a sitting US president openly touts as his core constituency a collection of violent retrograde extremists–truly deplorable in every sense of the term–while he simultaneously embraces the virtues of the authoritarian leader of what the US security community has identified as the US’s greatest adversary, one that has worked to usurp US foreign policy goals, repeatedly intruded in US cyber networks and even interfered in its political processes (and yes, the irony of the US complaining about foreign interference in its elections is not lost on me). He has ordered the defunding of programs oriented at combating racist groups while his Department of Justice undertakes a rollback of affirmative action legislation designed to redress historical injustices and discrimination against minorities. His Secretary of State orders the elimination of departments focused on fighting genocide and upholding human rights. All in the name of making America Great again.

In the last ten years, especially after Barak Obama’s election, these groups found an echo chamber in the rightwing media, both in its corporate expression (Fox News, various commercial radio outlets) and in its on-line presence (Brietbart is very much in the news but if you really want to see how these people think, check out the Storm Front web site that I will not link to). The synergy between extremists and their media enablers seeped into the political discourse of the Republican Party, and in the 2016 campiagn it grew into a torrent of vitriol and hatred directed at Hillary Clinton and everything that she ostensibly represented when it came to the cultural divisions rendering the country. Now, with Trump as president, it has institutional support in, if not outright ratification by, the Oval Office.

Trump’s ascendance has empowered and emboldened what used to be a fringe element on the US Right, who have now openly taken to the streets to reassert their supremacy over all others. This move out of the sewer coincided with efforts by Southern state governments to remove symbols of the Confederacy from public spaces, leading to the unhappy convergence of racists focusing on defending these artifacts (flags, statues, street names and plaques) on historical, cultural or transparently racist grounds. Charlottesville was a perfect storm of this convergence.

Even so-called “quiet” or “polite” racists feel comfortable publicly stating the view that things have “gone too far” or that “people need to know their place” in a fashion I had not seen in a very long time during my regular  sojourns in the South (where I still am at the moment). Bigotry is again acceptable in certain quarters of polite society.

I must confess that I have been surprised by the re-emergence of this openly racist discourse and the human vermin that champions it. When I left the US they seemed to be reduced to a small and disparate assortment of disgruntled losers with low IQs going nowhere fast. But it seems that, for whatever combination of factors–and I should note that the areas in which these people appear to be most strongly evident are the decaying white working class regions that make up the epicenter of Trump’s red state support and the opioid epidemic–racism just went underground. There it stewed in a vexatious brew of internet conspiracies, resentment against so-called PC culture and “liberal” media, post 9/11 xenophobic fear of foreign aggression, hatred of supposedly job stealing immigrants, gun fetishism and the fear of gun confiscation by a Zionist and UN-controlled federal government run by treasonous Democrats (and even a foreign-born Muslim president for eight years!) aided and abetted by smug, effete coastal academic and economic elites with disdain for “real” Americans.

Now these frotherers have scuttled into the sunlight, armed and dangerous. They have killed one and injured many others in the six months since Trump was inaugurated. Charlottesville was not the only staging ground for a racist gathering in the US this past weekend, and more confrontations are planned.

The good news is that, like the draining of a septic wound after a scab is lifted, Trump’s reluctance to repudiate his base of deplorables has ripped the veneer of deference and  respect (or at least what was left of it) from his office. The military, many corporations, numerous politicians (including those from the GOP), celebrities of all stripes, most of the media and hundreds of thousands of regular people have denounced the events in Charlottesville and the president for his cowardice in the face of them. Confederate symbols have been toppled by flash mobs, industry titans have resigned from presidential advisory boards, peaceful vigils and marches have materialized spontaneously thanks to social media dissemination, and the  general mood, at least as I can gather down here in SE Florida, is one of incredulity and dismay that this clown is POTUS.

More and more, I hear word that the endless cycle of scandal and crisis in the White House, some of which appears to be part of a strategy to replace one outrage with another in order to normalise the tumult, make people forget past offenses and divert public attention from the ongoing investigation of Trump’s Russia ties, is taking its toll on congressional republicans looking at the 2018 midterm elections. After all, they have themselves and their party to think of next year, and if the pace of scandal and crisis does not relent–and it shows no sign of doing so–then it is simply not sustainable for them to continue to support Trump without dragging themselves and the GOP down into defeat next year. As it is, even with control of both legislative chambers they have not passed a single piece of significant legislation and, to the contrary, have instead passed with overwhelming majorities presidential veto-proof sanctions on Russia and prohibitions on presidential recess appointments. So Trump is being increasingly and openly defied, when not politically emasculated, by the people in his own party that he most desperately needs to enact his agenda. With his dog whistling of racists now turned into an open field call, the chances of him doing so are slim to none.

In a few weeks or months, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will bring the hammer down on him with regards to the Russia investigation. With a reputation for being relentless and methodical, assisted by a crack team of prosecutors specialised in wire fraud, organized crime and counter-espionage (three of whom speak and read Russian), Mueller has already panelled three grand juries and ordered a dawn raid on Trump’s first campaign director’s house. He has been deposing dozens of Trump aides and campaign staffers, including his son-in-law and first national security advisor. Rumors of plea bargains in exchange for damaging information about Trump are openly circulating. Mueller is also looking into Trump’s dealings with the Russians prior to announcing his candidacy, and the relationship between the Trump organization and Russian organized crime.  As a friend of mine from DC noted, Mueller is the last person you want chasing you, and he is chasing Truimp hard.

Trump can, of course, order that Mueller be fired. Mueller knows that and we can be sure that he has prepared contingency plans so that the investigations continue in his absence. But should Trump order his Attorney General minion, Jeff Sessions (also someone with a checkered past on issues of race), to fire Mueller, than not only will it likely cause a revolt within the Department of Justice and FBI. It will force Congress’ hand when it comes to filing articles of impeachment against him (the “high crime and misdemeanor” required for impeachment being obstruction of justice). Again, with an election looming next year, any such move by Trump will see large swathes of the GOP abandon him.

So the news is mixed. Trump picked the scab of racism and the pus is in the streets. But it also has energised antiseptic forces throughout the country and made congressional Republicans reassess their positions vis-a-vis him in light of his reluctance to thoroughly drain his camp of the putrid emulators of bygone ideologies. Because, as it turns out, as of January 20  the swamp that needs most urgent draining is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue rather than in DC as a whole.

I have agreed to provide a weekly commentary to Mitch Harris on his Night Talk show on Radiolive. In the first instalment we roamed over a series of subjects,  but the focus was on the ongoing trainwreck that is US presidential politics.

Letters from America: Opioids and Venezuelans.

datePosted on 08:22, August 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

I am on an extended stay in the US that will see me in several states and regions before my return to NZ in December. I decided that this is a good opportunity to write an occasional “Letters from America” series gathering together random thoughts on various aspects of US politics, society and culture. First stop is the East Coast of South Florida.

Late summer in South Florida is hot (over 30C daytime temps), humid (over 80 percent until the PM thunderstorms break the steam bath), and languidly quiet. Tourists are few and far between and the locals alternate hiding from the heat indoors with forays to the beach or pool.

The two items on my mind today are opioids and Venezuela. Since the latter might not seem to be an US relevant subject, let me start with it.

Venezuela is in the middle of a slow burning civil war sparked by deteriorating economic and social conditions caused by the incompetence, corruption and myopic power lust of the Maduro government that succeeded the father of the Boliviarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, upon his death. Unlike many non-Venezuelan leftist commentators I have no time for Maduro and the petty authoritarian kleptocrats that surround him just because he opposes the US and the US opposes him.  He is just another prop in the endless right-wing arguments about how the Left cannot govern either competently or in a democratic way. As much as I loathe the Venezuelan oligarchy that has always been a disloyal opposition to the Boliviarians, I despair for the Venezuelan poor, working and middle classes who saw hope in the Revolution and have now had their aspirations terminally dashed under a barrage of water cannon, tear gas, sniper fire, rocks and molotovs. The root causes and official responses to the crisis are not just the work of external interference and internal agitators (sound familiar?).

Blame lies everywhere in Venezuela today, but no one will take responsibility and the regime has simply met its end with the last resort of dictators–repression. What comes after may be no better, or worse.

The reason that Venezuela is a social issue in South Florida as well as a political issue in the US is simple: there are over 100,000 Venezuelans living in South Florida, many recent arrivals as “refugees” from the Boliviarian regime. Many moved their capital and as much of their fixed assets to the US as they could (capital flight being a key indicator of political instability), bought property in a climate that is similar to that of their homeland, and struck up political alliances with the long-standing Cuban exile community. Like minds think alike, and the type of Cubans and Venezuelans who inhabit South Florida come from the reactionary-to-troglydite end of the political spectrum.

The union of Cuban and Venezuelan reactionaries, coupled with the money they bring into local, state and national politics, has been instrumental in turning the Trump administration’s approach to both countries in a backwards direction. The Cuban-Venezuelan lobbying bloc is staunchly pro-Trump. Not surprisingly, the restored relations with Cuba begun by the Obama administration have been partially rolled back, and the US has just announced asset freezes and other punitive sanctions against Maduro and members of his personal entourage wherever US jurisdiction applies. The White House has been at pains to note that Maduro joins Mugabe, Kim Jung-Un and Assad as the only heads of state sanctioned in this way, and the way in which the farcical and rigged constitutional referendum was held in Venezuela this past weekend was likened to assorted atrocities committed under Stalinism, Pol Pot etc. No mention of the US glad-handing the Saudis, Erdogan in Turkey or Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi even as they engage in more egregious human rights violations than Maduro on a systematic basis. But hey, as a general rule politics in the US is about hypocrisy loudly masquerading as righteousness or indignation, so in that regard the White House sqwaking about Maduro (who again, is not a fit or suitable ruler for his country) needs to be taken with a grain of comparative salt.

There is a more sinister element in this “Venezuelafication” of South Florida. Although one of my pleasures in returning to SoFl is to have access to many Spanish-speaking radio and TV channels (including the legendary “Escandalo (Scandal) TV”), what pours out of the talk shows is an increasingly violent insurrectionary call to eliminate “traitors,” “dupes” and assorted others who are seen to enable or support the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes both at home as well as in the US. This has meshed with the alt-Right narrative about “libtards” and other usurpers of the White Christian social order because many of the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles are also virulent racists and classists who view the poor brown masses in their homelands as human vermin equivalent to those reviled by the US Right. And because the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, whatever their faults,have  empowered brown people in their countries and removed some of the deep-seated social and institutional barriers to their success, the White Cubans and Venezuelans see red in more than one way.

What that has done is to compliment and expand the rhetoric of violence surrounding political debate in SoFl. And whereas it may have been true in the past that “an armed crowd is a polite crowd,” that presumed that the crowd in question had some basic shared notion of civility and proper comportment to fall back on when things got heated. Under Trump that is no longer the case and in fact the opposite is now openly encouraged: give no quarter to political opponents, hear, much less heed no argument from them, confront and attack them at all times using all means necessary to silence them.

Then add some Cuban and Venezuelan mouth frothing ranters with money and influence into the mix. The bottom line is that local and state democracy suffers when expat revanchists take center stage in it.

Were it that I was inclined to seek escape in prescription drugs because it would inure me to the dangers inherent in that trend. But others are not as averse as I.  Over 2 million Americans are addicted to prescription opioids (mostly Oxycontin, Vicodin and Methadone). Over 1000 people a day are hospitalised with opioid overdoses, and 100 people a day are dying of them. In 2015, the last year for full records, over 15,000 people died of opioid overdoses, with 183,000 having died between 1999 and 2015. In 2016 the estimated number of opioid overdose deaths jumped to over 59,000 people, the largest increase ever. Even so, the sale of prescription drugs has quadrupled, along with overdose deaths, during the 1999-2015 time frame. Why is this so?

The first cause is the proliferation of shady “pain clinics” in which unethical doctors hand out prescriptions for opioids like lollies. The process if simple: you walk into the clinic complaining of chronic pain of one type or another, you get a script in less than 10 minutes for a $30-40 fee, and the cycle continues after you leave the clinic and enter the pharmacy conveniently located either next door or a few storefronts down from the clinic (usually located in strip malls).  SoFl is awash with these places, and it is not a stretch say that it is easier to get one’s hands on opioids than it is cocaine, cannabis or other illegal drugs.

The second cause is the discounting of opioid prices in states and regions that have an opioid addiction problem. You read that right: pharmaceutical companies sell their drugs at cheaper prices in those regions where addiction rates are highest. What might these regions be? Well, pretty much all of those Red States that voted strongly for Trump, Florida included. Think Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, the Dakotas, West Virgina–if the state went strong for Trump, it is likely that the price of a Vicodin is less than that in a Blue State.

Who are the victims of opioid addiction? Again, the connection with Trump’s voter base is strong: predominantly white working class or unemployed/partially employed males aged 25-54 years (most of the figures used here are from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention–CDC).

In the face of these epidemic-sized addiction figures, the attorney generals of several states in which the problem is concentrated have filed class action suits against the pharmaceutical companies for their price discounting and targeted marketing of vulnerable populations. But resistance has already been met at the federal level, with GOP congress people rebuking those who would seek to interfere with market imperatives and the freedom of choice people have when it comes to self-medication.

The problem does not end there. The rise in addiction has in turn given rise to a thriving “rehab” industry in which addicts enter into so-called “sober homes” in order to detox. Trouble is, these sober homes are often no more than temporary way stations for addicts trying to kick the habit and pain clinics and pushers have been drawn to them like flies to poop. In many cases “sober homes” are nothing more than glorified shooting galleries, with the attendant rise in criminality associated with the phenomenon. Cities throughout the US but especially in SoFl, including the one I am in, have had to redraft zoning and occupancy laws in order to discourage these type of addiction parasites from continuing to profit from human misery.

So there you have it: a country whose internal political polarization is abetted by that imported from abroad, filtering into a society that in many places is awash in guns and prescription drugs unscrupulously  supplied by industries profiting from them. These same places provide the core demographic–the hard 35 percent–of Trump’s support base who are the ones who support his every move, including demands for regime change in Cuba and Venezuela and a turn against the notions of civility and democratic disocurse that previously served as the ideological myth that once bound the nation together.

The trouble for this “Deplorables” core, as well as the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles longing for a return to the pre-revolutionary past, is that Trump’s promises are nothing more than the prescription drug version of a pipe dream.