The Hobson’s Choice that Confronts the GOP Donor Class

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the GOP high-rollers — the billionaires and multi-multi-millionaires who bankroll the party — are not themselves white nationalist bigots. (Yes, I realize that in some cases that’s likely counterfactual.)

What these Knights of St. Ayn want from the GOP is the enactment into law of their neoliberalism, an ideological apotheosis of “the market” that dovetails nicely with their quest for additional riches.

Neoliberalism requires that any use of government for anything be subjected to extreme vetting, because any use of the tax system by government to redistribute assets supplants the market as a distributor of those assets.

But here’s the thing. The American people as a whole don’t buy neoliberalism. The American people as a whole recognize that a mixed economy has worked well in the US for a century or so — an economy that includes a robust market and at the same time an allocation to government of responsibilities that the market can’t be trusted to handle appropriately.

A thorough-going neoliberal regime in the US would not include Social Security as we know it or Medicare or Medicaid. The level of pollution of the air, water, and earth would be left largely to the market. Federal lands, including the vast areas preserved for posterity from unrestricted development, would be sold off to the highest bidder. Wall Street would be free to do much as it pleased with other people’s money.

If the Republican Party stood only for the enactment into law of neoliberalism, it would win very few elections. That’s why the GOP donor class has welcomed over the past half-century the migration to the party of the voters who think of themselves as members of a white culture, refugees from a Democratic Party that embraced civil rights in the 1960s. It’s the coalition of moneyed pooh-bahs and this insular culture of white identity that has produced GOP electoral success.

Trump’s ascendance threatens this coalition. On the one hand, his supporters among the members of the white identity culture have not been thrilled with the reality of the neoliberal agenda. These voters rely on government assistance of one sort or another, and they value it. The neoliberal attack on Medicaid has not gone down well with them. On the other hand, the obvious bigotry of the GOP’s supporters in the white identity culture, amplified by Trump, leaves the neoliberals in the very awkward position of having to take sides. They would prefer to remain silent, continuing to have the electoral support of the bigots. But how can they, in the face of Charlottesville and the rest?

The key question now is whether the GOP leadership can find a way out of this state of affairs as the 2018 elections near. If not, and if the Democrats can get their act together, expect large and deserved GOP losses and therefore a postponement of the neoliberal utopia that seemed almost close enough to touch a few months ago.

A Monument That Actually Invites Historical Reflection

I made this image in May on the Pest side of the Danube in Budapest. The iron shoes represent the 20,000 or so human beings who were lined up along the river by the Hungarian fascists allied with Hitler, then made to remove their shoes —which were in short supply in Hungary in 1944 — and turn to face their killers. They then were shot, their bodies falling into the freezing water. Most, of course, were Jews, but far more Hungarian Jews were simply herded to the Austrian border where they were sent to the extermination camps.

I submit, with whatever respect is due, that the monuments to Confederate “heroes” in the United States are very unlike “Shoes on the Danube” in one important way: They were erected to cover the truth rather than to lay it bare. They were erected to venerate a culture that ought to be condemned utterly so we can move on as a nation.

As a friend of mine wrote on Facebook recently, there are plenty of wonderful things to venerate and celebrate about the South. There are treasures that have been contributed by all of the people of the South of all ethnicities, religions, genders, and the rest. These things should not be conflated with the slave culture about which the Civil War was fought.

Most of the Confederate monuments were erected not immediately after the Civil War, but during the ascendance of Jim Crow. They were erected to send a message. They were erected to send a message that white rule was still the order of the day. Whatever they teach can be taught in other ways. Move them to museums. They don’t belong on courthouse lawns or in town centers.

No Particular Joy

Steve Bannon left the employ of the White House today. This was a consummation devoutly to be wished. Bannon’s corrupt vision of a new populist nationalism to reverse the coming together of the world’s peoples and to serve as a foundation for a modern crusade against Islam operated as an ideological justification for Trump’s ugliness, offering that ugliness as something bigger — something of generational importance.

Having been one voice among a multitude demanding this dismissal for a very long time in Trump years, I might have greeted this news with a fair measure of joy. I feel no particular joy, and little relief. Bannon no doubt encouraged Trump to indulge his worst instincts as a way of bringing about the chaos Bannon thought required to move the country and the world toward his imagined better place of white Christian nationalism. So I’m pleased that Bannon is no longer drawing a federal salary for this.

But Bannon’s departure from the White House hardly means his departure from American and world politics. The assumption is that he’ll return to his old post at the head of the inflammatory propaganda website Breitbart, backed by the largesse of the Mercer family, and that he might partner with the Mercers on new projects to promote the purgative chaos he craves.

One editor at Breitbart suggested in tweets today that Breitbart would turn against Trump now, declaring war on the Administration for dumping Bannon. Maybe. But I don’t see the logic in that. Bannon and Trump still share a worldview, so they have plenty of reason to build a new working relationship. Trump has a phone. He needs the alt-right base that reads Breitbart and worships Bannon. What else does Trump have at this point, unless he tries to pivot radically either to wholesale acceptance of GOP neoliberalism or to some zone outside either party — a dealmaker for bipartisanship.

Bannon is gone from the White House, and I hope the poser Seb Gorka will be next, but I have no real confidence that the trajectory of the Republic will change, at least in the short run. We await the report of Mr. Mueller.

The Price of Impatient Partisanship

Is Mitch McConnell a political wizard? Call me crazy, but I don’t think so. True, he was able lead the Hill GOP through eight years of making sure nothing good would happen while Barack Obama was President. There’s that. And he should be given credit for the theft of a Supreme Court seat. That, too.

But how should we score his strategy of letting Trump be Trump, saying next to nothing about the serial grotesqueries over at the White House in order to preserve Trump’s signing hand for the GOP wishlist of neoliberal “reforms,” including throwing people off of Medicaid to secure tax cuts for the Koch brothers and the Mercers and reforming the tax code to be easier on corporations and the well-to-do?

Hey, maybe everything’s going to work out for him. His pitch, presumably, after the break will continue to be that the only way forward is to focus on the legislative agenda and to keep the GOP’s promises to its donor class and its voters. Forget the little man with the orange hair behind the curtain.

But there’s a large risk, I think, that McConnell will end up neither with any big legislative wins nor with a healthy Republican Party heading into the 2018 elections. Reforming the tax code, for example, is enormously complicated work, both technically and politically.

It’s unclear to me that McConnell will be able to keep everybody harnessed and pulling toward a legislative win if there’s absolutely no competent leadership from the White House. And every day that goes by with Trump in culture-wars mode, joined at the ideological hip with the truly wretched Steve Bannon, deepens the stain on the GOP going into next year’s elections.

Nationalism vs Cosmopolitanism

Trump’s apologists in the “conservative” intelligentsia portray him as a champion of good old-fashioned nationalism. And they identify as his proper nemesis a cosmopolitanism exemplified by Barack Obama. Trump is for America. Obama is for the world, and Obama therefore is somehow “less American.”

It’s a false and ludicrous dichotomy. No one has to choose between appreciating the distinctive greatness of one’s country and appreciating the opportunities afforded by reaching out to understand and learn from other cultures around the world.

In fact, I’d argue that America needs its cosmopolitans more than ever in this new century. If we wall ourselves off, we’ll be left behind. There’s nothing we have that the world can’t get elsewhere. Our future lies with our fellow humans in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.

To reiterate the mantra, we should be building bridges, not walls.

Reading Between the Tweets

Let’s review. Over the past few days, Trump has launched multiple missives on Twitter obviously designed to force Jeff Sessions to step down as Attorney-General, presumably to open a path leading to the firing of Bob Mueller.

Yesterday morning, Trump tweeted — out-of-the-blue — a ban on transgender people serving in the military. Also yesterday, the Trump/Sessions DOJ filed an amicus brief in a federal court taking the position that Title VII includes no protection against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. And the Administration announced yesterday that Sam Brownback, the Kansas governor known for his worship of neoliberalism and the right-wing Jesus, would be rescued from the mess he made of Kansas finances to become an Ambassador at Large for religious freedom.

Are all of these developments linked? I’d say yes, to a degree. Consider the situation from Trump’s point of view. First, Bob Mueller’s hounds must be closing in. Trump clearly believes the Mueller investigation poses a threat somehow, and my bet is that it’s all about money — specifically, deals Trump and his family have done over many years with Russian oligarchs. Trump must suspect, or maybe he knows, that Mueller already has access to those infamous Trump tax returns and has been perusing them. What to do? What to do?

The tempting answer is to have Mueller fired. Sessions won’t do that. Hence the tweets trying to force a Sessions resignation. A new Attorney-General, pliable but not involved in the campaign or the early months of the Trump Presidency, could fire Mueller. No need for a recusal.

Of course, there are multiple stumbling blocks here. The likelihood that Trump could have Mueller fired without provoking impeachment proceedings is not through the roof. Senator Lindsey Graham said today that firing Mueller could bring about the end of the Trump Presidency.

And then there’s the problem of getting a new AG confirmed by a Senate very protective of former Club member Sessions. Trump, we know, has been turning over the idea of a recess appointment, which would bypass Senate confirmation, but a recess appointment requires a Senate adjournment, and it’s pretty much a slam dunk that the Democrats and even many Republicans would see to it that no adjournment occurred in the next few months.

In all of this, Trump has only the refuge now of his truly hardcore base. The establishment GOP abhors him and values him only for his bill-signing hand. He’s alienated many, many independents, I’d guess, and at least a substantial fraction of his lunch-bucket GOP support in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania, now that his grand talk of a new golden era of US manufacturing jobs has been revealed for the con that it always was. What’s left? The Religious Right.

Trump consistently has withheld his venom with respect to Putin and the Religious Right. And the Religious Right will be with him until the end. And they vote. They have outsized influence in the Republican primaries because they vote in high percentages. However all this plays out, Trump is counting on his congregation, amen, to be there to shield him, at least in part, from the winds that will blow. His tweet on transgender people in the military; his appointment of Brownback as an Ambassador at Large for religious freedom; and the DOJ brief on Title VII all work to endear him further to the Religious Right.

Six Months of Trump: What Now?

l have no inside information about the “real” thinking of the Hill GOP as we near the end of the first six months of the Trump Administration. l read what you read about private misgivings or contempt. But l don’t know what to make of these reports. And private misgivings or contempt mean nothing, anyway, unless the concerns lead to concrete action.

The Hill GOP has shown no stomach for concrete action. On the contrary, the members have taken the Sgt. Schultz approach. They see nothing. They know nothing. They hide from the media.

Why no concrete action, assuming the concerns exist?

The two most plausible and often-repeated explanations are first, that the overriding objective of the GOP is to pass its legislative agenda — an objective that requires a President willing to sign the bills that come to him — and second, that Trump’s base would savage in next year’s mid-Term elections any Republicans who participated in a move against their Dear Leader.

There is, of course, no need to choose one of these explanations over the other. The conventional political wisdom, I’d say, is that there’s truth in both of them.

Neither consideration, however, necessarily insulates Trump from picking up real GOP opposition on the Hill in the months between now and November of next year.

Republicans in districts or states that are not deep red might suss out from poll results that the manifold enormities of word and action flung continually by Trump and his associates must be addressed to avoid electoral disaster, even if — and it’s a big if — we haven’t heard by year’s end or by next spring from Mueller and his team.

Some fraction of Trump’s base undoubtedly will be with him come hell or high water. And those folks are especially likely to get out and vote to exact revenge on any members of Congress they come to regard as disloyal to the Dear Leader.

But how many of these folks are there now, push comes to shove? My guess is that there are enough sufficiently committed anti-Trump voters, putting together progressives and center-left and center and center-right folks from both parties and the ranks of independents, to draw into serious question whether the hardest of the hardcore foot soldiers of the Trump Nation can dictate their terms to the GOP as a whole.

Nor is it clear that the GOP ambition of completing its legislative objectives is a sufficient condition for Republicans to remain mute. The record thus far suggests that the GOP members are divided among themselves on the details of many if not all of the objectives from healthcare to tax reform. The day might come when the better part of valor might be to shelve, at least for the near term, some of the objectives. And then, of course, Trump’s signature would lose some substantial measure of its practical value.

Bottom line: Who knows? Predictability is not a hallmark of our present political situation.

Civic Virtue and the GOP

Every new revelation brings us farther beyond some red line or other that ought to have triggered serious consideration of impeachment. Yet Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and nearly all the rest of the Hill GOP feign obliviousness. They are Sgt. Schultz. They see nothing. They know nothing. They hide to avoid having to answer questions.

As a partisan political strategy, their silence might have the advantage of avoiding a confrontation with Trump that could turn him against their legislative agenda, elements of which he ought to be opposing right now as contrary to the interests of his base. The “healthcare” bill, despite its evolution during marathon secret GOP negotiations, remains a cynical exercise in shrinking Medicaid “handouts” to make way for tax cuts for the well-off. And Medicaid is a crucial program for a substantial fraction of the Trump Nation.

Whether or not the Sgt. Schultz routine is politically savvy, it is ethically deplorable. It reflects a contempt for civic virtue. There are times in the history of a political community when partisan maneuvering must take a back seat to stewardship. This is one of those times.

The White House is occupied by a dangerously uninformed, completely incompetent, indecent, classless bully whose words and actions amount to the political equivalent of criminal negligence at the least and who now has lost all credibility on the question of whether his campaign organization worked with Russian intelligence to throw the election in his favor.

For Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and most of the rest of the Hill GOP to whistle as they pass this set of enormities is a deep stain on our politics and should be answered in November 2018 in the only language these trustees of our republic apparently understand.

A Poison Brewed in Secret

They’ve brewed their “healthcare” concoction largely in secret, but now have had to bring it out with the full ingredients list for the rest of us to swallow. It’s poison, of course, for a substantial fraction of the country, and undoubtedly will lead to unnecessary deaths, with some of the most vulnerable being the very people who put Trump in the White House.

It’s the creation of a minority party. The GOP controls Congress, but its policies obviously lack majority support. And this initiative in particular, with its stated intent of shrinking Medicaid in order to give tax breaks to the well-off, is not playing well beyond the Koch brothers, the Mercers, and the rest of the neoliberal crowd of Ayn Rand acolytes.

The GOP for eight years has been able to market itself as the champion of the working class. It isn’t. It’s the champion of a neoliberal elite with deep pockets and a mission to dismantle as much government as possible with the exception of the military.

And the working class actually benefits enormously from government initiatives, and it could benefit more from more government initiatives. “Working class resentment,” which might more properly be described as white male working class resentment, extends only to the government programs or parts of programs that benefit those Others.

If the GOP’s healthcare poison actually becomes law, the question will be put to the country squarely in the fall of 2018: Who’s side is the GOP really on?

Is Congress a Fossil?

Maybe not. May Congress itself, as an institution, is capable of addressing what a legislative body in one of the world’s great market economies in a century of quickly accelerating change ought to be addressing. Maybe the only real problem is that too many members of Congress are fossils or are fossilizing, stuck in various strata of thought and belief that have lost or quickly are losing their relevance as the very notions of what living and working entail morph dizzyingly with globalization and innovation.

We have mounting evidence, for example, that the pace of automation is quickening substantially, with robots of one sort of another taking over more and more jobs once done by humans. How many members of Congress regard displacement of jobs through automation as a pressing issue? Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see much talk about it, and I see no evidence of a critical mass of Congressional interest in addressing it through mechanisms that ease automation’s effects for those workers caught in the Schumpeterian transition.

Here’s an idea. Let’s give everybody a check every month. Sound crazy? Socialist, even? Actually, it’s an idea that’s been embraced across the ideological spectrum and has been kicking around among economists for a very long time now. It’s called various things, but Universal Basic Income (UBI) works well enough as a name. Why do it? For one thing, it’s an answer to the problem of folks being left behind when their old jobs no longer exist in the new economy, having been off-shored or assigned to robots. A UBI gives these victims of Schumpeterian collateral damage an income bridge as they figure out what’s next for them. I can’t name any member of Congress in either party who is calling for serious discussion of the UBI, much less championing it.