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? 

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.

How Do You Like Your Blue Eyed Boy Mr. Death?

(Reposted from icky Facebook)

Regarding Pete Ricketts, our bloodthirsty “Catholic” governor, and his pious [sic] God the Father Joe Ricketts: you both can feel good today about having put to death a helpless prisoner of the state for no reason other than that you desperately wanted to. You did it despite a legislative veto override by usurping the legislature’s constitutional authority to make law. You spent hundreds of thousands of dollars – of your own money and ours – to do it.

You did it despite the courts ordering you to divulge the source of your illegally obtained drugs, an order you never obeyed because it would have legitimized the lawsuits brought against you by the drug companies you stole your death drugs from. You broke the law to do it. You admitted the drugs you are using were improperly (and incompetently) stored at room temperature and may be corrupted – you did it anyway.

You did it despite your faith’s universal condemnation of the death penalty – in all cases – calling this church doctrine “the pope’s opinion,” which you somehow “respect” but ignore, thus demonstrating your defiance of your faith’s commandments when they do not fit your agenda. In fact, you did it despite your membership in a diocese group that pledges fealty to the pope’s teachings (time to resign from that one). You did it despite the last-minute pleadings of your Bishops, your Priests, your Sisters – despite the desperate pleadings of some 600 clergy, in fact, comprising the bulk of the Catholic faith community in Nebraska. You did it despite pleas from tens of thousands of ordinary Nebraskans.

You did it despite the academic community having soundly debunked your garbage theories on “deterrence,” which you know have always been garbage theories.

You have no reasoning to stand on. You are not reasonable.

In the end, you did it for one selfish reason: to demonstrate that you arbitrarily wield the power of life and death over us powerless peasants. And you believe if you can hold that terrible power over us, you hold complete power over us. You can kill the state’s prisoners—or not kill them—for your sport, for now, and that probably feels like the ultimate power, like the power of God. But we all know how history ultimately treats would-be tyrants who ignore their conscience, abuse their powers and defy the law they were elected to uphold. It’s too late for justice – vengeance has owned the day. But I believe that one day, justice will be served.

And you won’t like how that feels.

The Trickster and the Fool

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It’s disheartening to see the U.S. – North Korea kabuki theater performed again and again, always to the advantage of the Kim dynasty and the disadvantage of the West. The dictatorship has one unerring talent: the ability to fool American presidents into playing their zero-sum game. It starts with the rhetoric – bombast hurled at the new U.S. leader in hopes it will be returned (worked like a charm this time around). Then the nuclear brinkmanship (the reason for NK’s program being diplomatic leverage), and the ensuing worldwide panic, followed by the “high level” talks that pull all threatened parties into the mix (China, South Korea, Japan, etc.). The cumulative effect of these actions and their media-grabbing headlines is the only one the Kim dynasty is interested in, namely worldwide recognition of the power, legitimacy and importance of the North Korean regime.

But Kim, like the American president, is playing mostly to a domestic audience. The message? “It would be dangerous to remove me during this (never-ending) crisis.”

Americans should (but probably don’t) remember that this all played out previously, in 1994 under the Clinton administration and later between 2006 – 2007, as the Bush administration announced a “path to normalization” with Pyongyang. For both “agreements” North Korea had agreed to demolish its nuclear development facilities (!) and in the 2007 negotiations provided (doctored) footage to prove it had done so. Clinton and Bush were, of course, hoodwinked as today’s evidence shows. The 1994 Agreed Framework and 2006-2007’s so-called Six-Party Talks were nothing but stall tactics. The result is a nuclear-armed North Korea, now with ballistic missile capabilities. Soon they will have a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile, if they don’t already, capable of striking anywhere in the world.

Today, apparently, the regime released three American prisoners , two of them having been scooped up under the current U.S. administration in order to create the leverage Kim is now strategically ceding. This is of course part of the wider, long-range gambit, which also includes a seeming cool-down between the two Koreas. Now the U.S. president will become overconfident. He will strut into the summit trap Kim has set thinking he has “the advantage.” (It’s The Art of the Deal, you know.)

I predict that at the peak of bilateral negotiations, per the dog-eared script, the Kim regime will find an excuse to introduce delay after delay as they produce false promise after false promise, backed by false evidence, their mission having already been accomplished: widespread media coverage of their power and influence, and a U.S. regime that has completely lost face by walking into their predictable, time-worn diplomatic trap. My question bares repeating: How will he react?

This is why the Obama administration refused to even engage with North Korea – they knew from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s experience that there was nothing in it for them. Unless sponsor state China does something about the Kim regime’s recklessness, there is nothing to be done by any other parties short of starting a world war:  China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran versus an isolated United States.

I hope it comes out differently this time, I hope North Korea is serous about denuclearization. But I’ve never seen the sun rise in the West.

Update: When I’m right, I’m right. Also – that was fast.