Fate's Blueprint: The New Populism

For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. – T.S. Eliot

They will call it “the new Populism”, comparing Sanders in the early 2000s to Nebraska’s own William Jennings Bryan a century earlier. Bryan was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1896, with his surprise nomination bringing many of his “Populist Party” supporters flooding into the ranks of the Democratic party. Bryan’s nomination was in fact a populist repudiation of incumbent Grover Cleveland and his “Bourbon Democrats” (i.e., the business-allied Democratic establishment). 

Of course, Bryan lost to Republican William McKinley in 1896, but he had become well-known nationally as a fiery public orator, galvanizing his followers with his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, and pretty much inventing the extended cross-country stumping tour (which Teddy Roosevelt copied, Truman also exploited to great effect with his “whistle stop” tour, and which right-wing populist Donald Trump has effectively adopted as his “permanent campaign” approach to the presidency). 

The Democrats put Bryan up against McKinley again in 1900, believing their anti-imperialism stance would galvanize his populist following. And Bryan lost again. 

But by 1904, progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt had been in office a few years (after McKinley’s 1901 assassination), and with his support for anti-trust activism and widespread reforms he beat the Democrats’ new “Hail Mary” conservative nominee (Alton Parker) handily, thus rehabilitating Bryan’s stature among Democrats. Because by this time, the national popular  opinion had swung toward Bryan’s/Roosevelt’s ideas, such that after the 1904 election both parties were embracing the progressive reforms that had been championed by Bryan and his populist zealots for years. (In fact Bryan was once again the Democratic presidential candidate in 1908.) 

As usual, I think history has a lesson for us here – and it’s echoed in the words of T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, in a line I recently heard quoted by a brilliant man and poet at the University of Nebraska commencement. “For us,” Eliot wrote, “there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” With this quote, the speaker was telling the new graduates that unlike in our favorite movie endings, the good will not always be ultimately ascendant or triumphant. But that is not our shame, nor is it even our defeat. As individuals we are not responsible for the broad shapes that form the contours of the tides of history; we are not responsible for the victories of the undeserving. Rather, it is our sole responsibility to TRY on behalf of the greater good—here and now. 

Because sometimes, false prophets and immoral agendas will command the world’s stage despite the efforts of good people to contain them. Power is their only goal, so these people will then do whatever it takes, regardless of law or morality, to consolidate and cement their gains. They will then try to convince us morally inclined nobodies that there’s no use resisting their power, that we are impotent and alone in the dark, that we have lost and they have won. But there is no victory more fleeting than political victory. Immoral times produce their inevitable disastrous outcomes, yes, and then it is left to us morally inclined nobodies to pick up the pieces. But whatever the outcome this time, we will know that we, as individuals of conscience, did what we could to try to make the world a better place for all. That is our only responsibility. 

Our lives and our worth are not defined by the era we live in, they are defined by how we live in our era. Like a batter at the plate or a pitcher on the mound, or a poet with his pen: whether we are successful or not, the job is always the same. To try. 

L'État N'est Pas Nous

Here’s the thing about political power in America in 2020, from a pragmatist/realist viewpoint: 

When you hold as much power as the Republican Party currently does, you hold the actual levers of power in this country – Congressional, Executive, and Judicial power. Rather than a representative government, where a Congressman or Senator works on behalf of constituents, the government begins to revolve around this party’s central power base, to which these so-called representatives must show fealty. The party becomes the power. And when the interests of this small power base clash with the interests of the people, the politicians of this party who side with the people become  apostates, they are banished from the halls of power. As we’ve seen, no current member of the party in power has the wherewithal to defy the power base. And therefore the people hold no power.

As we are witnessing this week, it becomes difficult-to-impossible for a small majority in one half of one branch of government to hold the other party to account when that party, basking in its power,  decides it is not subject to the Constitution’s accountability measures—its so-called “checks and balances”.  

That is our American irony. No one is interested in checking or balancing their own power.

In this situation, the pejorative “above the law” can cease to be a pejorative from the perspective of the few who wield the vast power undergirding law and its enforcement. “Létat,” the French king said, “c’est moi.” The law becomes what they say the law is. It exists to serve them, not to restrain them. In the common tongue, the question being posed by a party whose primary long-term goal is to retain and consolidate that power into permanence is, “Who’s gonna stop us?” We are witnessing the answer to that question this week. That is, we are watching a proceeding called a “trial”, the outcome of which — acquittal — we already know. It is assured. Because a power advantage, not facts or law, will determine that outcome.

“We have the vote”, we say, but who are “we”? One party is steadily gathering to itself the power over who votes, and how, and where, and in what gerrymandered district. I submit that a newly emboldened narcissist madman, with fresh confirmation that he can do “whatever he wants as president”, will have his people get right to work on expanding that advantage (with welcome help from his friends in the East). They will choose which voters they want to vote, and if your profile matches those on the other side, or even those on the fence–they won’t choose you. 

They vote in Russia. They vote in Iran. Those bastions of democracy. But only the approved candidate wins. Remember the last “election” for Saddam Hussein? Iraqi officials declared Saddam had been re-elected by a 100% unanimous vote of all 11,445,638 eligible Iraqi citizens.

I’m just figuring this out for myself, not preaching. I am over the shock of this realization. I’m neither Democrat nor Republican, I feel no hatred or need for vengeance, though I do feel some pity and disgust at unchanging human nature. At this moment I feel, maybe for the first time, that Martin Luther King’s optimism for the future of America was misplaced. It appears that the arc he spoke of does not, in the end, bend towards justice. It bends toward greed and malice. And that seems to be the way the minority of this society, clinging to power by whatever means necessary, wants it.

I’ve always been an observer first, and I have no illusions regarding the extent of my own political power, which is negligible (like any American who is not very wealthy or in office).  I am aware that even my presidential vote (thanks to the antiquated Electoral College) is powerless. I am aware that power in this country, rather than resting with the people as the old document says, rests with those ravenous and ruthless enough to crave it beyond the pale of all moral or legal restraint. And that is not me.

And so the question hangs unanswered in the air – who’s gonna stop them? 

What Gun? What Smoke? What Democracy?

The foulest stench in this age of open-air corruption is emanating from the barrel of the smoking gun now lying on the hearing room floor—lying there smoking. Whether the president* used the gun to “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” or to strong-arm a foreign government to do his political bidding, it will continue to lie there smoking. And his corrupt lieutenants in the White House, in Congress, on Fox “News”, and elsewhere will continue to refuse to see the gun, the smoke, the body, or anything at all except Democrats with “Trump derangement syndrome” trying to “undo an election”.

As I wrote in my letter to the Omaha World-Herald the other day, we can no longer pretend that what’s happening in Washington has anything to do with government of, for, or by the people. It is not about the law, about wrong or right, or about the Constitution or its provisions. It is a power struggle for control of a bloated federal government as cash machine and grantor of immunity from oversight. It is a contest of strength, of will, and of solidarity among a corrupt minority who has – by dint of a quirky and outmoded college of so-called electors (read: not voters) – captured the federal government under the borrowed auspices of a formerly legitimate political party (auspices now unnecessary and abandoned). The Republican Party is now a bizarre coalition, a party of alliance between the white Christian fool and the calculating oligarch. It is the Southern/Midwestern bulk of fake grievance-touting nationalists nostalgic for “white America” wielded as a deaf and dumb electoral cudgel—expertly wielded by an amoral billionaire minority in pursuit of their narrow corporate-friendly agenda of wealth redistribution and regulatory impunity. It is this coalition versus the Constitution, its laws, and the paltry few who are left to defend them.

Who are these paltry few? They are a slight majority of Democrats in the House – a little better than one half of one branch of the government’s three imposing loci of undeserved and unearned power. The other half of the House and the entire Senate is controlled by the smirking Cosa Nostra occupying the White House, such that most of Congress now consists of nothing more than amoral sycophants, lying hypocrites who desperately want to not see the smoking gun that right now—this morning—lies smoking on the floor of the hearing room.

They refuse to see the dying body politic as its life blood oozes out onto the chamber floor. They will surreptitiously wipe the blood from their shoes, blank the image out from their visual field, replace it with a jury-rigged fantasy of liberal overreach and disaffection, of a party out of power trying to “steal” an election (which they actually won, but never mind). They must claim these lies as sacred truth, as they stand over the lifeless body of America, lest they find themselves the focus of what one commentator recently described as the “unblinking eye of Mordor,” the short-spanned but witheringly focused attention of the insane narcissist Twitter bot, the aspiring despot at the helm of a so-called Republic, a man [sic] whose one unimpeachable talent is to harangue and intimidate any milquetoast “leaders” of the Republican party into utter pants-peeing submission and supplication should they dare to step even slightly out of line.

The other two power centers, the executive and the Supreme [sic] Court, are now dominated by white nationalist ideologues (in the case of the former) and corporate toadies (the black-robed latter). The executive is a would-be mobster and autocrat (and the people who voted for him have always known this and have always approved). Enough said. The Supreme [sic] Court is neither supreme nor an actual court, as its politicized “gang of 5” merely shape their “decisions” (ha ha) to the current needs of the executive and the corporate/Wall Street titans who put him in office and them in their big chairs. They are not a court at all but an imposing, marble-walled, high-talking rubber stamp. The Justices are, as the president and his minions have always dreamed, finally and unequivocally irrelevant. This was supposedly the historical “worst fear” of the Justices—to be roped into the wolverine den of bare-knuckle politics and, thus, to be subjugated to its carnivorous appetites. But it’s what happened. I guess they’re not as independent—and certainly not as clever–as they thought they were. (This doesn’t count Justices “I like beer” Kavanaugh or “Merrick Garland who now?” Gorsuch. They were Trumpers anyway, they have no reason to be proud, so they knew the score—and their place—coming in. Call them “the future” of the debased court.)

I would say (as I have said since 2016) “This is what you’re up against, America”. But America is no longer up against anything. America is dead, shot dead by an amoral idiot whose cultist followers and fearful boot-lickers love (or fear) his amoral idiocy. Out of phony patriotism or very real terror, they will defend him against all comers (looking at you, rule of law). America’s ‘leaders’ are now analogous to Caesar’s assassins, who for their own reasons have decided that they will, all together now, insert their blades into the panicked flesh of America, let out its blood, and be finally rid of their formerly towering but now vulnerable nemesis: the people’s democracy and America’s laws and democratic institutions.  

Clinton Derangement Syndrome

Time for a thought experiment, Trump fans.

It’s 2019, and president Hillary Clinton is gearing up for a re-election run. Clinton defeated Jeb Bush in 2016 with the aid of, say, the Iranian government’s coordinated disinformation campaign and criminal activity such as the theft of internal Republican National Committee e-mails, which were then dumped on the Internet by a shady third party with a Bush score to settle. Bush won the popular vote, but Clinton eked out an Electoral College victory.

In July 2019,  another popular Republican is running, and polling makes it look like he’ll lock up the nomination. Meanwhile, a newly independent democratic Yemeni government that continues to be at risk from Saudi aggression has elected a new president. Because of continued bad behavior from the Saudis, Congress has cooled relations with them and authorized arms aid to the Yemenis.

But the Clinton administration puts a hold on the aid, citing “due diligence”, and just then Hillary gives the new Yemeni president a call. She wants a favor – she knows the Yemeni president really wants that new secure American communications system, not to mention defensive missiles. But she wants Yemeni prosecutors to look into some business dealings that the GOP front-runner’s son had in Yemen, asking the Yemeni president to work with her personal lawyer and her attorney general to dig up whatever they can. At this point there is no evidence of wrong-doing by the candidate’s son.

Clinton’s lawyer, as well as administration diplomats, continue to pressure the Yemenis to play ball throughout the summer, while the arms aid remains in limbo until bipartisan Congressional efforts get it released in September.

Clinton’s  White House attorneys, for some reason, decide to secure the transcript from the call on a server normally reserved for top secret intelligence data. Other administration officials are aware of this unusual behavior, but they keep quiet.

Then a whistle blower brings news of all of this to the intelligence community via the Inspector General, and despite Department of Justice attempts to keep the report under wraps, it leaks to the press. Clinton releases the transcript of the call under pressure.

Is it safe to say that this is the point where Republicans in Congress and Fox News pundits go on the defensive for president Clinton? Do Congressional Republicans insist it was a “nothing” call, a normal conversation between world leaders? Is this when they say Clinton’s accusers have “Clinton Derangement Syndrome”, and beg the country to quit obsessing over the president and get back to doing the people’s business?

Gaming the Throne

Like me, other Americans who have yet to drink the Trump team Kool-Aid may be wondering why an otherwise widely respected and successful private attorney like William Barr would want to insinuate himself into the orbit of a “man” [sic] like Donald Trump. (As we have seen with Mr. Cohen, Mr. Stone, Mr. Manafort, Mr. Flynn, Mr. Papadopoulos, Mr. McGahn and so many others, those who seek membership on the president’s much-investigated team often become the target of investigation themselves. Not to mention the indictments and convictions.)

So why would Barr submit an Attorney General “job application,” back in 2017, in the form of an unsolicited memo opining that the Mueller investigation was improper and that the president is, for all practical purposes, immune to prosecution? He had to know this would ingratiate him in the mind of a president who, at the time, had only Twitter derision on offer for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And as we know, Mr. Sessions was not long in the job thereafter.

Was it so that once he attained the job of running the Department of Justice he could effectively quash the special counsel’s report? It would seem so, given his highly controversial “interpretation” of the report as “exonerating” the president from any possible charges of obstruction of justice (controversial because we now see, even in the highly redacted version provided by Barr, that it does no such thing). Not content to “sweeten the well” with his nearly fact-free “summary” of the report (which contains not so much as one complete sentence from the report), he also made the highly unusual gesture of holding a press conference on the day of its release. This was apparently to explain away the president’s attempts at obstruction using the novel (and bizarre) “Kavanaugh” doctrine. That is, the president’s “emotionally driven” attempts to get others to end or undermine Mueller’s efforts–then in some cases firing them if they refused — were understandable given the highly partisan pressure he was under since day one of this presidency. In other words, who wouldn’t attempt to subvert the Constitution, who wouldn’t try to slow the progress of justice, when it was this same  justice that had been bearing down on one so relentlessly for so long? Who indeed.

But why would Barr do that?  Why would he venture beyond mere flattery and submissive/sycophantic rhetoric to willingly putting himself on the list of those actors who, in the end, may be found to have aided a presidential law-breaker? Surely Barr knows that although Nixon walked away from his crimes, Dean and Haldeman and  the rest did some time.

As always, there is an answer, and the answer is that Barr himself has a personal interest in permanently shelving the results of the special counsel’s inquiry. According to an April 15 article by Cristina Maza in Newsweek: “This much is known: On Barr’s public financial disclosure report, he admits to working for a law firm that represented Russia’s Alfa Bank and for a company whose co-founders allegedly have long-standing business ties to Russia. What’s more, he received dividends from Vector Group, a holding company with deep financial ties to Russia.”

Remember Alfa Bank? The Russian Oligarch-controlled entity that was found to somehow be in regular, secret communication with the Trump campaign’s server located in Trump Tower back in 2016? Barr worked for the firm that represents Alfa right up to his confirmation. And as for the Vector Group, according to Maza, “The company’s president, Howard Lorber, brought Trump to Moscow in the 1990s to seek investment projects there. The trip is widely seen as the first of many attempts to establish a Trump Tower in Moscow.” And Don Jr. is said to have been communicating with Lorber as recently as during the 2016 campaign (when, we recently learned, contrary to their earlier claims the Trump’s organization was still talking to Russian interests about the proposed Moscow project).

As with so many other Trump “associates” we’ve known, in the end it doesn’t take much digging to connect the dots that connect William Barr to the same Russian financial and government interests that were so famously represented at the Trump Tower meeting attended by Don Jr., Jared, Manafort and, of course, Russian operatives waaaay back in the olden days of 2016. What is difficult to understand is how none of this came up during Barr’s “lightning round” Senate confirmation.

Then again, it’s not as if rife incompetence,  disdain for democratic norms, not to mention fear, naked self-interest and shameless self-promotion only pervade the one half of Congress. There’s more than enough of that disease infecting both parties’ representatives on Capitol Hill, not just in the White House these days. This is not to mention the newly politicized, Garland-free Supreme Court. We seem to have drifted completely away from the idea of actual accountability and this quaint old notion called rule of law, toward an endless parade of grandstanding, toward tiresome identity politics mixed with careful political maneuvering, toward basic acquisition of power for one’s own tribe, for one’s own selfish purposes and one’s own exclusive ideology.

Trump likes to trade in “Game of Thrones” memes, because he sees American society and American government in the stark transactional terms he learned in the bare-knuckle world his family inhabits–one of conquest, dominance and submission of the type that pervade that HBO fantasy. It is a strongman’s world where one’s reputation is forged not by one’s character or actions but by one’s ability to control or successfully manipulate  the actions and words of others toward one’s own advantage. “Rules” and “law”—”ethics”—those are for the powerless, for weak ineffective nobodies to worry about. But while TV shows come and go, the question for the rest of us—as Trump collects his campaign fortune, builds his base and secures his independence from a weak and feckless Congress, as he secures the courts—is whether we citizens want our elected representatives to play their roles as if they are starring in a winner-take-all TV game. Because they are playing their game in our real world, and it appears playing for keeps. It seems to me the question is being answered for us, by people who’ve forgotten how to represent us, people who’ve abandoned the idea of governing and now settle for the chance to win their portion of the tawdry spoils of our pointless internecine war.

Rather than effectively represent the interests of those who put them in office, or even simply uphold the rule of law on which this society was founded, our so-called leaders and “arbiters of justice” appear content to act as low-level players in a greedy simpleton’s lawless, zero-sum game.

Another Day on the Edge

Mobsters are comfortable under pressure. By definition, they are used to high-risk scenarios where they could either win big or go down in flames. Just another day for them. In fact, because of their personalities and backgrounds, they tend to enjoy the pressure, because they know that for them it’s like a star athlete’s muscle memory, not a debilitating factor but an advantage – the pressure only rattles amateurs.

But for the rest of us, the average folks, having the fate of the world dangling by a thread every other week is not fun, it’s not exciting, it’s just kind of nauseating. Because unlike them we don’t have anything to gain, really, but we still have everything to lose. We lose if the mob wins, because we know that no matter what it may look like on the outside, it’s the chaos of amoral greed  on the inside. It’s a slow-motion heist. It’s a grand con.

It can’t last, they know it, and as learned mobsters they will simply grab all they can before the alarms go off. If they’re lucky, they’ll manage to muffle the alarms and just get gone with the goods, leaving the rest of us holding the bag. That bag will have been emptied. As we speak, they’re grabbing the last few bundles of c-notes out of the bottom and stuffing them into their jacket pockets. The car is at the curb, running, the driver white-knuckling the gear shift knob. I think I hear sirens in the distance.

 

 

End the Charade

It’s time for journalists to stop pretending the president doesn’t know what he’s doing – that his egregious policies are somehow “blunders” or based on a faulty understanding of how the world works.

That’s a cop-out. I don’t believe that. I think the president knows exactly what he’s doing: he’s weakening this nation economically (stupid tariffs) and in the eyes of its allies (stupid NATO belligerence), and undermining the rule of law (attacks on the Justice Dept.) all while cozying up to dictators (Kim, Putin, Xi)  with whom he identifies and shares values like strength and dominance over enemies (so many enemies). The president is not “ignorant” about democratic traditions and principles (like telling the truth or not enriching oneself via federal office, for example). No, he is simply antagonistic towards them. Whether this is based on learning, persuasion or his famous “instincts” does not matter. He is the anti-American president and he’s not shy about that. His supporters rejoice when he pardons criminals like Joe Arpaio and the insurrectionist ranchers. They don’t like the government, and neither does he.

Instead of “explaining” to the president how his policies threaten the very core of this society, journalists should start asking WHY the president and his allies in Congress are taking positions and implementing policies that threaten this society. The question they must answer: Why are you hurting your own society?

  • We have a trade war with zero stated goals or expected outcomes. Why? Why have a trade war and not say what you want? Vague accusations of “unfairness” are not something the Chinese can work with, especially when the stick (tariffs) is wielded before even attempting the carrot (negotiations). For that matter, there are no established lines of communication or designated teams on either the US or Chinese  side dedicated to negotiations from here on – all we have is the war. For what reason do you start a trade war – one that is sure to damage your own economy – when you have no stated demands which, if met by China, would end the war? One answer: the president is simply doing what he can, with the tools he has, to cripple the American economy.
  • We have repeated accusations that NATO countries aren’t “paying their fair share” – likening the countries of Europe to Trump’s deadbeat apartment tenants in Queens. Over and over, the president repeats the lie that NATO countries are “delinquent” when they are no such thing. The 2% GDP defense spending goal was just that – a goal. Not a commitment, not enforceable by any means, and most certainly not an amount “owed” to the president or anyone else. The 2% goal was a shared policy goal among sovereign democracies, not a “promise” to the United States. Why do we allow the president to keep pretending he does not know this?  It’s a simple thing to learn, and for my part I don’t believe he does NOT know this. He is simply using this lie as an excuse to do the dirty work of tearing down a post-WW2 alliance that has kept Europe (and America) protected from Russian expansionist policies for decades. He is actively weakening the alliance for no reason that could possibly help America or Western societies in general. Why? And who DOES it help when NATO is weakened?
  • As for the Justice Department – is America ready to concede that our own Justice Department is a secret society of Hillary worshipers and Deep State luminaries who “really” run the department for the sole purpose of continuing Obama-era policies and de-legitimizing the icky Republican president for purely partisan reasons? After firing FBI director James Comey for the stated reason that he was “thinking about the Russia investigation” (this is obstruction of justice, for those interested), the president has proceeded on a “witch hunt” of his own, transforming an obedient, feckless Congress into his own personal Spanish Inquisition bent on prosecuting a “corrupt” Justice Department. Yes, as the Mueller investigation racks up confessions, indictments and guilty pleas from the president’s campaign staff, the Justice Department overseeing that investigation is all of a sudden a quagmire of corruption and lies requiring Congress to intervene and “fix” it. That’s right. The president and his crew, under multiple investigations which have turned up multiple instances of criminal wrongdoing threatening the very existence of this nation –they are the ones being persecuted. It is the Justice Department and the FBI that are now criminal, because of course in this scenario, where they are piling up the evidence against you – they have to be. This is what’s known in lawyer circles as “putting the police on trial.” When your client is obviously guilty, you find a way of making the police look even more guilty by virtue of the methods they used to uncover and prosecute your wrongdoing. And abuse of power, you know, is much more serious an offense than – what – having a conversation or two with some Russian friends who just want to help both nations break through this silly Crimea annexation sanctions business and start making deals? And when you have a devoted throng of willfully ignorant followers in Congress and at your endless “love me” rallies (who hate your new enemies as much as you do, they just need you to point them out), it’s even easier to make the prosecution of your illegal behavior look like a partisan smear job. But again, it is incumbent on us to ask: Why destroy the American public’s faith in its institutions devoted to the rule of law just to provide cover to a president whose campaign for office was a hotbed of criminal traitorous activity, a man who lies to the American public every single day and will continue doing so? How is that a trade-off that ‘s good for the nation? Or if it’s not good for this nation, who IS it good for?