Archive for September, 2017

(Via Salon)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below] [8th update below]

Or, rather, how it went from being a big-tent party of the American right—with centrists (liberal Republicans), moderate conservatives, conservatives tout court, and hard-rightists/reactionaries—to one composed overwhelmingly of the very last of these, with the first having vanished altogether and the second all but. The GOP has become America’s Front National, a party driven by populism and white ethno-nationalism. Lots of people have been trying to understand how this happened, most lately E.J. Dionne Jr., Norm Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann, who have come out with a new book on the subject and with an excerpt in The Atlantic, in which they explain how “[t]he Republican Party laid the groundwork for dysfunction long before Donald Trump was elected president.”

Also trying to figure it out is my friend Claire, who situates herself on the center-right and has been as distraught by Trump as everyone to her left. Last weekend Claire posted on social media a Newsweek commentary by the Milwaukee-based former right-wing shock jock-turned-never-Trumper Charles Sykes, “How the right lost its mind and embraced Donald Trump,” which provoked a lively exchange among her social media followers—some conservatives critical of Trump and not over the edge, others deplorable and way out there—with me the one lefty weighing in. Claire liked a piece I posted on the thread by The New Republic’s Jeet Heer, “The post-literate American presidency,” which she saw as comforting her view that Republicans were largely sane until the current period but “that some sort of rapid process of de-civilization is at work” that has made Americans collectively stupid, thus paving the way for Trump. I replied that Trump is the logical culmination of a process that has been underway in the Republican Party for five decades, during which its hard right/reactionary wing—which was always there—went from being a loud minority prior to the 1980s to achieving its present-day hegemony. In the face of her skepticism, I told her I would explain the stages in this process. So as not to be long-winded—for which I am sometimes reproached—here it is in bullet points (and with key personalities in the five-decades descente aux enfers highlighted in italics):

  • The process, as all are likely aware, began with Goldwater winning the Deep South in 1964 and which paved the way for Nixon’s Southern Strategy. White Southerners hostile to the civil rights movement defected to the Republicans, who embraced them and played the race card accordingly, via coded and, now with Trump, not-so-coded language. The segregationist, onetime Southern Democrat Jesse Helms—remember him?—became the leading personality on the GOP hard right from the 1970s on and with the gravity of the GOP moving to the white South, which is reactionary not only on race but on just about everything—and confirmed for the umpteenth time in last Tuesday’s primary victory of the theocratic lunatic, certified extremist, and bigot who will likely be the new Republican senator from Alabama, and fully embraced by his party.
  • The politicization of Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists, via the emergence of Jerry Falwell in the mid 1970s and founding of the Moral Majority, driven by the evolution in sexual mores and gender hierarchies (and that went well beyond Roe v. Wade). Thus the GOP’s intransigence on abortion and wild-and-crazy positions on issues having to do with sex (e.g. abstinence-only sex education), that one finds in no other conservative party in the Western world. And, it should be said, race was also a motivating issue for the (heavily Southern) Christian right.
  • The right-wing backlash against the challenges (legal, political, and cultural) to gender hierarchies and the emergence of second-wave feminism (“women’s lib”), which was spearheaded by the movement conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and her successful 1970s campaign to scuttle the Equal Rights Amendment. This, along with the founding of the Moral Majority, was an important factor in the polarization of social issues along partisan lines—of moving the Republican Party sharply to the right on questions de société—and to a heretofore unseen extent. Similar left-right divisions existed elsewhere at the time, e.g. in France over the Loi Veil, but attenuated with time. In the United States, it was the opposite, with the culture wars becoming a salient partisan cleavage.
  • The National Rifle Association and the 1977 “Revolt at Cincinnati,” which transformed the NRA from a non-political association of sportsmen to a lavishly funded far right-wing lobby with an extreme interpretation of the Second Amendment that had heretofore never had currency among jurists or judges—but which gained currency as a consequence of Republican administrations from Reagan on packing the federal courts and SCOTUS with conservative ideologues (and with the 2008 SCOTUS Heller ruling the outcome). As the GOP lost its urban voters and became a party of rural/small-town America and the South, near unlimited gun rights—including that of private individuals to constitute arsenals of assault weapons—became a marker of its identity. An American exception in the Western world.
  • Arthur Laffer, a member of President Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board, whose Laffer Curve made tax-cutting supply-side economics—dubbed “voodoo economics” by certain moderate Republicans in the early 1980s—dogma in the Republican Party, thereby laying the groundwork for Grover Norquist and his 1986 Taxpayer Protection Pledge, an imperative mandate signed on to by the near-totality of Republicans in Congress—and to a private citizen (Norquist) no less—which has been instrumental in pushing the Republican Party toward an Ayn Randian hostility to the very principle of social insurance, redistribution, and state-organized social solidarity. Out of this one gets the prevalent Ayn Randian discourse on the American right of the “moocher class,” Mitt Romney’s 47%, Arthur C. Brooks’ “30% coalition,” Ayn Rand-adept Paul Ryan as the top Republican in Congress, among others. Again, this is without equivalent in other conservative parties in the Western world.
  • The Reagan Administration’s 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which paved the way for AM talk radio—pioneered by Rush Limbaugh from 1988—and the founding of Fox News by Rupert Murdoch in 1996. The existence of high-profile, hyper-partisan broadcast media on the right, and that has become the sole source of information via the airwaves for many Republican voters—there is no such equivalent for Democratic Party voters (as such media would never catch on with them)—once again makes America an outlier (along with Italy, to an extent) in the Western world.
  • Newt Gingrich and the Republican victory in 1994. Gingrich inaugurated a heretofore unprecedented hyper-partisanship in the House of Representatives, nationalized Congressional elections, imposed a Leninist-like discipline on the House Republican conference, and around a hard-right wing platform. And he set about to undermine the political norms that had prevailed in the Congress and American politics in general—which is explicated in detail in the Dionne-Ornstein-Mann article—and with his œuvre carried on by his successors and others (Tom DeLay, Dennis Hastert and the “Hastert rule,” Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan et al).
  • The 2000 SCOTUS Bush v. Gore ruling, which sent Bush 43 and his Rasputin political adviser Karl Rove to the White House, the latter with his single-minded focus on the GOP “base” and view of America as a 53-47 country—of Republicans and Democrats, respectively—and whose strategy was to lock in the Republicans’ hold on power, feed the “base,” and entirely ignore the Democratic-voting 47%. At this point the GOP ceased to have any pretense that, when in power, it represented all Americans or would seek to transcend the partisan divide. The Republicans govern for their base voters only. Obama’s sincere (and naïve) efforts to reach across the aisle would find no response on the other side.
  • By the end of Bush’s presidency, liberal Republicans were extinct and moderate conservatives, a.k.a. RINOs, a dying species. They are, in fact, pretty much dead. One of the more or less “moderates” did win the GOP nomination in 2008, despite being hated by the party base. To energize the latter, he put Sarah Palin on the ticket, who became the GOP star, outshone him and everyone else in the party during ’08 campaign, and, after the election, give rise to the reactionary, populist Tea Party and a host of Palin-like GOP congressional candidates in the 2010 midterms and after. Palin epitomized the triumph of anti-intellectualism—indeed hostility to knowledge—in the GOP electorate and of a populist ressentiment, against liberals and anyone else not way out on the right. Beginning in 2012, the Republican Party presidential candidate field became a clown bus of Palin-like kooks and whack jobs.
  • The clincher: the 2010 SCOTUS Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates of unlimited money into the political process, giving birth to a donor class of far right-wing billionaires—the Koch brothers, Robert Mercer and his daughter, Sheldon Adelson et al—who underwrite the GOP and dictate its agenda—which can run counter to the interests of party voters themselves (thus the need—via talk radio, Fox, Breitbart, etc—to toss ever more populist, race- and liberal-baiting red meat to the base). The most flagrant case of late of donors inciting GOP legislative action was the failed Graham-Cassidy ACA repeal bill. Henceforth no Republican presidential candidate who is not a billionaire him/herself stands a chance without kissing the rings of the extremist plutocrats.

There, in a nutshell, is the five-decade descent of the Republicans into collective psychosis. There’s obviously more to it than this, e.g. the design flaws in the American political process—and the institutional architecture of American government locked in by the constitution (structure of the Senate and SCOTUS, electoral college, etc)—as spelled out in a smart piece in Vox by political scientist Lee Drutman—and which has yielded a “tyranny of the minority,” as Michelle Goldberg put it in her terrific first column for the NYT. Some of these flaws afflict the Democrats as well (e.g. the generalization of primaries for all elective offices), though not with the same deleterious consequences. As Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann—paragons of a diminishing inside-the-Beltway centrist sensibility—argued well before Trump, the Republican Party is the exclusive problem in American politics.

And at the root of the Republican Party’s problem is the people who vote for it. If one still has any doubt that the Republican Party’s voters are over the cliff, see the latest Quinnipiac University poll, which has 78% of Republican voters approving of the way Trump is handling his job as president—and with 59% strongly approving—78% saying that Trump shares their values, 79% that he’s honest, and a full 84% calling him fit to serve as president… And this nine months after the man took office…

Elaborating on the point above about populist ressentiment, at some point in the last decade, Republican voters had developed such a hatred for Democratic Party voters/liberals—which is unrequited, it must be said; liberals/lefties may be scornful and contemptuous of conservatives but do not obsessively hate them—that they came to support any position opposed by Democrats/liberals and vice-versa, and to celebrate any act deplored by them. E.g. the “rolling coal” phenomenon: with ecology and environmental protection now pegged as liberal/left, right-wingers blow polluting black smoke into the air and support gutting the EPA, even though such will not improve the lives of any GOP voters (who don’t have a lot money invested in polluting industries). Why? Because it pisses off liberals, c’est tout. Michelle Goldberg, writing last month in Slate on Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, had this reflection

One of the uniquely horrifying things about the presidency is that Trump was put there to torment us, and by us, I mean the majority of Americans who voted against him. His strongest supporters revel in his instability, in the terror he evokes and the suffering he causes. He is, to use one of his own epithets, an enemy of the American people. We’ve all lived through presidents that we hate… But this is the first president who hates us even more, and that may be the ultimate source of his power. [Trump supporting former West Virginia columnist Don] Surber concluded his celebration [on his blog] of Arpaio’s freedom: “At any rate, pardon my laughter.”

Given what the Republican Party and its voters have become, one may be sure and certain that it won’t be over when Trump is gone. The GOP’s post-Trump presidential nominee—and I will make a single, symbolic €5 bet on this—will be Kris Kobach, the Kansas Attorney General who is presently spearheading the GOP’s efforts to strip Americans in Democratic Party-leaning demographic cohorts of their voting rights—something that would happen in no other consolidated democracy in the world—as well as leading the campaign to sharply reduce legal immigration. If one missed Ari Berman’s NYT Magazine portrait of Kobach last June, do read it. Kobach is a smart Trump, without the grossness or vulgarity, with a Harvard B.A. (where he studied under Samuel Huntington), Yale J.D., and Oxford D.Phil. He published two academic books before age 30, Political Capital: The Motives, Tactics, and Goals of Politicized Businesses in South Africa (University Press of America, 1989)—probably his Harvard senior thesis—and his doctoral thesis, The Referendum: Direct Democracy in Switzerland (Dartmouth Publishing Co Ltd, 1993). I’ve looked at the latter and read parts of it. It’s a serious work of political science, with most of the citations and references from German-language sources. Monsieur Kobach est peut être un réac mais ce n’est pas un con. He’s no dummy.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

UPDATE: I want to make an additional comment to the first bullet point, about the Southern Strategy. The defection of white Southerners to the GOP occurred in the same era as the expansion of the welfare state via the Great Society programs, some the key ones involving redistribution toward poor people (Medicaid, the “War on Poverty,” Food Stamps, AFDC, etc). Insofar as these were perceived on the right—and among white Southerners in particular—as primarily benefiting racial minorities in northern cities, it reinforced the GOP’s rightward lurch on welfare state-related issues.

2nd UPDATE: In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma hitting Houston, there was much talk (heavily negative) in social media of the evangelical preacher Joel Osteen—whom I had not heard of—and his Lakewood Church in Houston, which is one of the largest megachurches in the country. Osteen is America’s leading preacher of the “prosperity gospel,” which is widespread among American evangelicals and is a peculiarly American interpretation of Christianity—and antithetical to the teachings of the Catholic church and most mainline Protestant denominations—and explains in good part the easy accommodation of the American Christian right to the prevailing Ayn Randian, social Darwinist Weltanschauung of the contemporary Republican Party. One will, needless to say, not find a trace of the “prosperity gospel” in the doctrines of European or Latin American Christian Democratic parties.

Vox has a good explanation of the phenomenon by its religion staff writer Tara Isabella Burton, “The prosperity gospel, explained: Why Joel Osteen believes that prayer can make you rich.” The lede: “The long, strange history of a quintessentially American theology.” Also see the piece in BuzzFeed by Laura Turner, “The Joel Osteen fiasco says a lot about American Christianity.”

3rd UPDATE: If one needs further proof that the Republican Party—avec ou sans Trump—is out on the lunatic fringe, mediate on the case of Mick Mulvaney, former congressman (R-SC) and present director of the Office of Management and Budget. Two articles: one in Politico by Michael Grunwald, “Mick the Knife: Meet Mick Mulvaney, who proudly calls himself a ‘right-wing nutjob’ and is quietly—and radically—trying to dismantle the federal bureaucracy;” the other by Justin Miller in The American Prospect, “The Freedom Caucus’s man on the inside.” The lede: “Mick Mulvaney has his dream job as director of OMB. Given the general chaos in Trump-world, what can he make of it?”

4th UPDATE: A reader on social media has informed me of a relevant book published in 2013, which I hadn’t seen, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, by the moderate Republican Geoffrey Kabaservice, who is research director for Republican Main Street Partnership in Washington. It looks good. For my part, I recommend White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement, by American University political historian Allan J. Lichtman.

5th UPDATE: My friend Claire (see second paragraph above) responded to my post on social media. I have taken the liberty of copying-and-pasting it below. My response follows.

I read it carefully and found it interesting. I assigned much less significance to these events at the time. Jesse Helms seemed a marginal figure; Jerry Falwell seemed a national joke. The evangelical Christians I knew (and know) were decent, thoughtful people who walked the walk. (My personal experiences with evangelicals were extremely positive, especially in developing countries. They were the ones, in Laos, for example, who were building wells, bringing medical care to villages, learning the language, and using the funds given them in ways that made sense to me – whereas the UNDP was an obvious racket that served only to enrich the international consultants.) I saw the Norquist movement as basically healthy – one wants that sentiment to be part of the mix, I thought; and a lively skepticism about certain federal spending programs struck me as warranted. The Fairness Doctrine seemed to me as an unjustifiable intrusion upon freedom of expression. (It *is* an intrusion on freedom of expression; that’s inarguable. So I’ve come to wonder whether my commitment to freedom of expression has been misplaced. Your friend Alexander Price [AWAV: see first comment below] is correct to draw a parallel with Russia’s Communist Party, pre-Gorbachev: It’s utterly shocking to me to be doubting that freedom of expression is an unalloyed good, but I think you’re probably right to trace some part of this to the lifting of censorship.) In any event, the GOP now seems to be growing crazier exponentially, almost by the minute. I understand the argument you’re making, but the key question to my mind is how and why these figures and ideas escaped the party fringes and became the mainstream. What we’re seeing now still doesn’t seem to me a logical and natural evolution.

Claire, point by point. First, Jesse Helms. I’m surprised you saw him as a marginal figure, when it was manifest for anyone who followed American politics from the 1970s on that he was a central personality on the right-wing of the GOP, indeed the most high profile on that wing into the ’90s. For the anecdote, my first memory of seeing him on TV was his speech at the 1976 RNC—supporting Reagan against Ford—which galvanized the delegates in the arena. His Senate reelection campaigns—all of which were hard-fought, close affairs (with the margins of victory in the single digits)—mobilized the Republican Party base and money-raising machine, notably in 1984 against Jim Hunt and in 1990 and ’96 vs Harvey Gantt (and with egregious race-baiting in the latter). And he was a big wheel in the Senate, particularly on foreign policy (spearheading the campaign against the Panama Canal treaty during the Carter administration, trashing the United Nations, etc etc). It wasn’t for nothing that he was the Republican that Democrats/liberals most loved to hate.

Jerry Falwell: I think there’s a generational issue here, of me mid-Baby Boom and you a Gen Xer, who likely didn’t follow politics too closely when Falwell and his Moral Majority burst onto the scene in the 1970s and was an important player in the coalition that brought Reagan to power in 1980. Falwell was no joke back then. His star faded in the course of the ’80s but he was instrumental in the politicization of the evangelicals and fundamentalists, and making the Christian right a central component of the GOP base—and of pulling the GOP to the right on social issues.

On evangelicals being nice people and who do good works: sure, but that’s not the issue. The problem is their action in the partisan political realm. And it’s a very big problem indeed, for those who don’t agree with them politically or share their world-view at least.

And in regard to the action of American evangelicals abroad, it has been far from positive. E.g. the Efraín Ríos Montt dictatorship in Guatemala—which committed numerous atrocities during its counter-insurgency campaign—was supported to the hilt by the evangelicals. They also played an important role in influencing US foreign policy toward Sudan—under both Republican and Democratic administrations—notably in supporting the secession of South Sudan, which finally happened and the consequences of which have been catastrophic (and certainly worse than if the secession hadn’t happened). And then there’s the attitude of the evangelicals toward Israel and the Palestinian issue, which is pernicious, period.

On the UNDP being a racket: I hear you, having worked myself as a consultant for UNESCO in the mid ’90s. At the end of my experience I concluded that the Reagan administration was right to have quit that organization.

Grover Norquist: his (in)famous Pledge is not a mere “sentiment” that is “part of the mix.” It is a rigid position that brooks no compromise and that is doctrine in the Republican Party, and with any Republican politico who defies it being targeted for political death. Insofar as compromise is essential to a democracy, the refusal of this—and particularly on issues regarding the economy and who gets what—necessarily undermines democracy (and certainly its spirit).

The Fairness Doctrine: I find your response odd, as the Doctrine in no way undermined free speech. It simply enjoined news and public affairs programming in the broadcast media—of stations operating under license from the FCC—to provide balance in editorial viewpoints. It in no way prevented particular viewpoints from being expressed, au contraire. With the AM and FM bands finite, but four TV news organizations (cable was in its infancy), and before anyone had heard of the internet, this was eminently reasonable in its time (and I believe it still is). In any case, I wasn’t making an argument for the Fairness Doctrine, just saying what the political consequences were of its abrogation.

I really don’t see what your difficulty is in understanding how the crazies, i.e. movement conservatives, took control of the party. Five decades ago this was the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party. It was a loud minority. Now it’s hegemonic. And Trump is its man. I tried to show the stages by which this came about. If you have another explanation, I’m all ears.

6th UPDATE: Energy and climate change writer David Roberts has a piece in Vox (October 29th) on the “rolling coal” phenomenon: “This one quote shows what angry white guys mean when they talk about government overreach.” N.B. the interview with conservative intellectual Avik Roy linked to in the text.

7th UPDATE: FiveThirtyEight has a must-read article dated July 18th 2016, by Clare Malone, Harry Enten, and David Nield, that I missed at the time, “The end of a Republican Party: Racial and cultural resentment have replaced the party’s small government ethos.”

8th UPDATE: On Kris Kobach, see the hard-hitting editorial, dated August 8th 2018, in The New York Times, “Kris Kobach is the G.O.P. at its worst.” Also see Dylan Matthew’s August 9th 2018 post in Vox, “Racism is a problem of white elites, and Kris Kobach proves it: White nationalism and elite education make a powerful combination.”

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[update below] [2nd update below]

I have not read the book—and am not sure that I will—though have been reading plenty about it. And also listening/watching, e.g. this 51 minute interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, which confirms for the umpteenth time that Hillary Clinton is so smart and thoughtful, knows policy like no one else in the American political system, is excellent on all domestic policy issues I can think of, is a good person, would have made a great president, and that it’s just one huge goddamned tragedy that the unspeakable idiot who presently occupies the White House was elected on that calamitous night last November 8th and not she.

Hillary Clinton also explains ‘What Happened’, in two podcasts, to The New Yorker’s David Remnick here.

Can anyone imagine that idiot in the White House right now giving such an interview?

Slate’s Michelle Goldberg has a review of HRC’s book, in which she rhetorically asks “Why isn’t Hillary Clinton even angrier?”

As for all those people out there—right and left alike—who have been dumping on Mme Clinton since her book came out—and repeating the same crap they have for the past 25+ years—they can go f— themselves.

More later.

UPDATE: The Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg offers a contradictory perspective in a review essay, dated September 21st, in The American Prospect, “How she lost.” The lede: “Malpractice cost Clinton the election, but her ambivalence on big issues was produced by big structural factors that affect all Democrats.”

2nd UPDATE: Thomas B. Edsall’s October 5th column in the NYT has an interesting data-backed account on “How immigration foiled Hillary.” In my view there is little the Democrats can do to win over rural and working class voters suffering from cultural insecurity over demographic change in their midst. There is no policy response to this. Insofar as voters are defecting from the Democrats over the immigration issue—and it’s doubtful the numbers here are significant—the main thing the party needs to do is to redouble its efforts to mobilize its base voters (blacks, Latinos, young people et al).

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The Venerable W.

I am presently riveted newswise to Hurricane Irma, which is heading toward Florida as I write, though am reading about other calamitous events across the globe as well, one being the communal conflict in Burma and campaign of ethnic cleansing there against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the western part of the country. It is a tragedy and a crime against humanity, and which has been in the works for years, indeed decades. On the matter, I saw earlier this summer a bone-chilling documentary that opened theatrically in France, The Venerable W., by the well-known Swiss filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, the subject of which is the fanatical, high-profile (in Burma) Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who unabashedly preaches hatred against Burma’s Muslims in terms that would put Radovan Karadžić and Pamela Geller to shame. His rhetoric is borderline genocidal, expressed openly to Schroeder and without mincing words. And as one sees in the film, his following in Burma is not insignificant. Buddhism, in stereotyped ways of viewing things, is supposed to be about peace and love, whereas Islam is seen as the opposite, but here the clichés are turned on their heads. The uttarasanga-wearing Burmese monks are as fanaticized as any given bunch of Salafists or alt-rightists outre-Atlantique.

For more on the film, see the reviews by Jay Weissberg in Variety, Jordan Mintzer in The Hollywood Reporter, and Lee Marshall in Screen Daily, all of whom saw it at Cannes. One may also read the 2013 Time magazine cover story on “The face of Buddhist terror.” Trailer is here (where one will, entre autres, see Wirathu praising Trump).

The film, as one reads, completes Schroeder’s “Trilogy of Evil,” the first being the 1974 Général Idi Amin Dada: autoportrait—which I saw in the summer of that year at Le Cinéma Saint-André des Arts, with family and friends—and the second the 2007 L’Avocat de la terreur, on the sulfurous Paris lawyer Jacques Vergès. Of the three, Ashin Wirathu may certainly be considered the most dangerous.

Schroeder’s film touches on the troubled role—or non-role—played by Aung San Suu Kyi in the Burmese communal bloodletting. I am not sufficiently well-informed to have a viewpoint on the question but have the sentiment that she’s not a player in the conflict, that the military and radical Buddhist nationalists are in control of the campaign against the Rohingyas. As a longtime admirer of Aung San Suu Kyi, as everyone else has likewise been, I hope this is the case.


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