Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Republicans receive their reward--the US pays the price

For the past 34 years, the Republican Party has waged an unending propaganda war upon our political system and the men and women who try to make it work.  Ronald Reagan brought this campaign to the White House in 1981, declaring that government was the problem, not the solution, and Newt Gingrich developed a vocabulary to make the campaign continuous background noise in American life.  An army of talk radio hosts and Fox News correspondents waged the campaign with a relentless ferocity that a Stalinist propagandist might envy.  Meanwhile, thanks to tax cuts, the growth of enormous fortunes, and finally the Citizens' United decision, politicians became slaves to economic power, doomed to four hours of fundraising a day.  The campaign has now reduced the Democratic Party to a Congressional minority and threatens to complete the destruction of the Progressive, New Deal and Great Society reforms of the last century next year, but in the past two months it has taken an unexpected turn.  It has taken its revenge upon the Republican Party itself, elevating Donald Trump to the lead in Republican primary polls.  Thanks to Republican strategy over the last few decades, the United States, which needs real leadership as much as it ever has in its history, is focused upon a fraud and a buffoon who wants to ride the hatreds of his fellow citizens into the White House.

We can understand Trump's success by comparing him to his rivals.   Recent Repubican candidates fall into two types.  The first is dynastic Republicans, such as George H. W., George W., and Jeb Bush, but also Mitt Romney, who had politically successful fathers, substantial wealth, and ready-made networks.  The two Bush brothers both settled in the Sun Belt and jumped into the forefront of the pro-life and anti-government movements.  Romney settled in Massachusetts and morphed into a moderate Republican as Governor, but quickly tacked rightward in his presidential runs.  The second type might be described as "bright young men," such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Thomas Cotten.  Although they come from relatively modest backgrounds, they often have Ivy League undergraduate and legal educations, and began their working life as clerks to conservative federal judges.  Cotten, a veteran, is unusual in that he is trying to make his name mainly as a foreign policy expert. (He is not, of course, a presidential candidate, but I expect he will get some attention as a possible vice president.)  They have generally been adopted by one or more billionaires to whom they are beholden and they have made their names attacking Barack Obama, rather than trying to accomplish anything positive for the nation.

Nativism, or anti-immigrant feeling, as become a tenet of Republican faith in the last thirty years, and it is rather striking that even the bright young men whose parents were immigrants--Cruz and Rubio--take a harsh line towards the 11.5 million immigrants who are now deeply embedded in American life.  Jeb Bush, whose wife became an immigrant when she married him, is a liberal by Republican standards because he wants to give those people some kind of legal status, albeit without allowing them actually to vote in elections.  Meanwhile, none of the Republican candidates, including Bush, seems very interested, much less insightful, about foreign policy.  They all want to undo the Iran agreement and they all cherish the fantasy that by spending more on defense and talking tough (like Ronald Reagan!) they can make our enemies disappear. (Here Rand Paul originally sounded like an exception, but like all Republican candidates confronted by a controversial issue, he is losing his nerve.)

Whether Trump can win the Republican nomination remains an open question.  The number of Republicans who say they will never vote for him exceeds the 28% support he has in the last poll--although the gap has been narrowing.  But it is clear how he has managed to get as far as he has--and it is deeply depressing.

First, of course, Trump is not a politician and he is making no attempt to sound like one.  I know it is unfashionable to compare anyone to Adolf Hitler, even favorably, but Hitler made far more of an attempt to sound respectable while contending for power than Trump has.  Trump is a famous entrepreneur--although one who has, to put it mildly, had his ups and downs in his business career.  He has also been a star of reality television for about a decade.  That gives him a much bigger place on the radar screen of the average Americans than any politician.  That is one consequence of what the Republicans and the media have done to us over the last few decades.  When politicians are constantly trashed, their personal lives scrutinized minutely, and any real attempt to do something for the country ignored, it is rather foolish to expect the bulk of the American people to pay much attention to what they are doing,  But they have paid attention to Trump, partly because he is so outrageous, and partly because he has an image of wealth and success, which also became a focus of network TV dramas during the Reagan years and has continued to captivate Americans, even as the majority of us lose econoic ground.

Secondly, Trump is the first candidate willing to pander to the worst prejudices of the Republican base on the subjects of race and  gender.  George W. Bush, to be sure, pandered shamelessly to homophobia, and some of today's candidate are doing the same, but until Trump came along, only hate-mongers like Anne Coulter referred routinely to Hispanic immigrants as rapids.  Trump has now gone so far as to advocate the ethnic cleansing of 11.5 million residents of the United States, more than 3% of the population.  He has also built on his reputation for misogyny, repeatedly and publicly insulting Megyn Kelly of Fox News.  I have long wondered whether it was a mistake to drive racism and misogyny underground in this country.  It may have been easier to fight them when we knew where everyone stood.  Trump is reaping impressive poll numbers by putting them back into the open.

What is most extraordinary, however, is that the Republican primary season has become  a contest in which the other candidates compete to see who can sound the most like Trump.  The new litmus test in the party isn't abortion, it's whether you're willing to try to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of citizenship to everyone born here.  Jeb Bush, after struggling for days to find a safe way to attack Trump, settled on Tump's political past as a Democrat.

Trump seriously threatens the American political system because he is a high-rolling businessman (who has lost nearly as often as he has won) who has shown no talent for public service and is rousing some of the worst instincts of the American people.  But he would never have gotten so far had not two generations of Republicans convinced millions of Americans that no politician can be trusted.   It's appropriate that those chickens are coming home to roost in the Republican primaries, but it's terrifying that the Republican drive to discredit our political system has been so successful--because we need it to function effectively as a nation.

Friday, August 21, 2015

President Carter -- an appreciation

Former President Jimmy Carter has announced that he is critically ill, with cancer that has spread from his liver to his brain.  Buoyed, as always, by his deep religious faith, he faced the situation frankly and calmly before the public, evidently understanding that he might never speak directly to the American people again.  In return I would like to offer an appreciation of his career--one that has been genuinely unique.  I am doing so now partly in the hope that he might see it.

I shall begin by noting my personal connection, at one remove, to President Carter and his Administration.  In 1977, Carter appointed my father, Philip Kaiser, as Ambassador to Hungary, and two years later he became Ambassador to Austria.  That was the end of a diplomatic career that began under the Truman Administration.  Typically, my father went to work resolving the major outstanding issue between the two countries, the return of the Crown of St. Stephen, the ancient symbol of the Hungarian monarchy, which had come into American hands at the end of the Second World War.  With the support of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and of the President, he succeeded in doing so within just a few months.  That was a portent of bigger things to come during the Carter Administration.

Jimmy Carter had a decidedly mixed record, for me, as President.  In retrospect he was the first "new Democratic" President.  He was narrowly elected in 1976 with the support of his native region, the solid South--the last time that this has happened.  In fairness, no traditional New Deal Democrat would have won that year.  His domestic policies were relatively conservative, leading eventually to his break with Senator Edward Kennedy, who opposed him for the 1980 Democratic nomination. Like Bill Clinton, he did his part to move the deregulation of the American economy along, with fateful consequences, and the de-industrialization of America got into high gear on his watch.   His foreign policy was marked by two great triumphs but marred by events beyond his control.  First, he secured the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty, an issue that had been hanging over various Presidents for decades, at considerable political cost to himself.  Then, in 1979, he orchestrated the Camp David accords that brought peace to Israel and Egypt.  Those most directly involved in the talks, including Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann, gave him and Anwar Sadat the credit for the agreement, and it was very sad that Sadat and Menachem Begin, but not Carter, received a Nobel prize for it in 1980.  According to one account I later read, this happened only because Carter, for some reason, was not properly nominated.

1979 turned out to be perhaps the most pivotal year of the last third of the twentieth century.  First, an Iranian revolution toppled the Shah, leading to the American hostage crisis and the beginning of our long estrangement from Iran.  Then the Soviet Union, in an almost perfect replay of our own Vietnam experience, invaded Afghanistan after its client regime there was overthrown.  At that point, Carter went with the Cold War flow.  He decided to lead a boycott of the 1980 Olympics, a decision to which I was, and remain, very strongly opposed.  He also, as many conservatives later admitted, began what became known as the Reagan defense build-up.  Meanwhile, oil prices shot up, and Carter, as it turned out, had no chance against Ronald Reagan, who defeated him in a landslide and wiped out the liberal Democratic majority in the Senate in 1980.

The most distinguished phase of Carter's career, however, began after his defeat.  While he will never be ranked as a great President, he became one of the two most effective ex-Presidents in the history of the United States.  Only John Quincy Adams, who went into the House of Representatives and began leading the fight against slavery in the 1830s and 1840s after he, too, lost a bid for a second term in a landslide, can be compared to him.  But while Adams focused on what was becoming the critical domestic question of the age, Carter, founding the Carter Center in Atlanta two years after leaving office, turned his attention to alleviating distress and resolving conflicts around the globe.  In the early 1990s he helped broker an agreement with North Korea regarding its nuclear program.  The agreement broke down during the Bush Administration, He has undertaken numerous personal diplomatic initiatives regarding Haiti, conflicts in Africa, regional problems in South America and attempts to improve U.S. relations with Cuba.  Most notably, he continued his intense interest in peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and did not hesitate, as so many have, to assign substantial responsibility for the failure of peace to the Israeli government.  His accusation, embodied in the title of a book, that the Israeli government was creating an apartheid state in the occupied territories aroused intense opposition precisely, of course, because it was true.

Like many great Americans, Carter was filled with contradictions.  A Georgia farmer, he was the son of a bigoted father and a remarkably liberal mother, and he was one of the first white southern politicians bluntly to repudiate racial discrimination.  A devout Southern Baptist, he broke with much of  the hierarchy of his church over the status of women and the increasing involvement of the church in partisan politics.   His became a name to conjure with around the world, and justice was served when he finally did receive a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.  He has had a life of which he and his family can be very proud, and I wish them well in the difficult days ahead.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Demogoguery in Times of Crisis




In the fall of 1971, I entered graduate school in history and began writing my first seminar paper, about the U.S. Congress and foreign policy from late 1944 until early 1947.  The research involved going through virtually the entire Congressional Record for those years, but, it quickly became a labor of love.  What struck me most about the debates was the enormous spread of opinions within the Congress and the violence with which they were expressed.   At 24, I had already been a political junkie for about ten years, and the 1960s were not among the quietest eras of American political history, yet I had literally never heard anything like what I was reading.  The spectrum ran all the way from left-wingers with Communist associations (and in a couple of cases, an actual Communist past) on one side, to avowed racists and anti-Semites like Congressman John Rankin and Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi on the other.  One exchange, between liberal Democrat Burton Wheeler of Montana and Bilbo, has always stuck in my mind.  When Bilbo referred to “the voters of my state,” Wheeler immediately asked him what percentage of the people in his state voted (the answer was about 10%.)  Bilbo replied that all the qualified people voted.   The two men repeated the exact same exchange about three times, whereupon Wheeler took it a step further. “That is why the state of Mississippi has such excellent representatives,” he said.  “That’s right,” Bilbo replied—“we get the cream of the crop in Mississippi.”

Another dramatic exchange occurred on February 22, 1945, when Rankin accused Congressman Frank Hook of Michigan, a left-wing Democrat elected with labor support, of having been “mixed up with” the Communist Party.  “You are a god damned liar, Hook replied, whereupon Rankin, 62 and frail, attacked Hook, a former middleweight boxer in his 50s, with fists flailing.  Other members separated them.  The Chicago Tribune, a right-wing paper that reported the incident in thrilling detail, ran full-length photos of the two men and all their body measurements, just as they would for any boxing match.  Under the rules of the House, Hook was silenced for the rest of the day for his personal attack upon Rankin.

I know now that we now live, once again, in an age like that.  Last Friday evening, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who is trying to win the Republican nomination by taking the most extreme positions among all the candidates, took to the Senate floor to call another Senator a liar.  But in a bizarre twist, his target was not Bernie Sanders, Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, or Kirsten Gillenbrand—four of the tiny minority of Senators whose views are remotely similar to those of a mainstream progressive in 1945.  Instead, Cruz called his own majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, a liar, because McConnell was now going to allow a vote on the continuation of the Export-Import Bank, an agency right wing Republicans are determined to kill, after having told a Republican group of Senators (Cruz claimed) that he would not do so.  And while I am not about to attack McConnell for failing to cross the Senate floor to engage Cruz in fisticuffs, it seems that there was no move to silence Cruz on the floor, and indeed, McConnell declined any comment

The Republican reaction shows that the Republican right feels just as embattled and just as desperate as it did after twelve years of the New Deal.  It is similar to the Republican reaction to another demagogue, Senator Joseph McCarthy (to whom Cruz is often compared, not least because of their noticeable physical resemblance) in 1950-53.  “Tea Party groups, the Heritage Foundation’s political arm, and Charles G. and David H. Koch’s Freedom Partners,” the New York Tines reports, “immediately rushed to Mr. Cruz’s defense.”  Since McConnell is not a former POW and a war hero, it seems unlikely that any of Cruz’s fellow presidential candidates will stand up for him, either.  Like the battle against Joe McCarthy in its second and decisive phase (1953-4), the battle against Cruz, Donald Trump and their ilk will take place primarily within the Republican Party.   Clearly Jeb Bush would prefer to avoid a confrontation with the right wing, but, like President Eisenhower, he may have no choice. Meanwhile, Cruz, the conservative media, and other Republican politicians have reduced American political discourse to levels of demagoguery and hatred that can be compared only to the periods of the Civil War and the New Deal.  I do not know how long it will take to emerge from our new swamp.