Saturday, September 21, 2019

Trump's real analog

The political figure from American history whom Donald Trump most resembles, it seems to me, is Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who for a little more than four years--from February 1950 until the middle of 1954--terrorized Washington and much of the country with accusations of Communist conspiracies in the State Department, in other parts of the Truman Administration, and inside the Democratic Party.  The chief counsel of McCarthy's Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, Roy Cohn, later became associated with Trump in the 1970s and 1980s, and Trump credits him with a good deal of influence upon him.  I thought of all this as I read the stories about Trump's apparent conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and read the transcript of Rudi Giuliani's interview with Chris Cuomo.   Trump  employs essentially the same tactics as McCarthy, and seems to me to be, in important ways, the same kind of person.  That he has risen much further, alas, shows how much American political life has deteriorated over the last 70 years or so.

McCarthy burst upon the scene in February 1950, at a Lincoln Day Republican dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, when he claimed to have evidence that more than 200 card carrying Communists were working at the State Department.  He had been elected four years earlier during a Republican sweep, thanks in part to complicated maneuverings within Massachusetts politics that even led to his receiving the support of the small Communist party.  The state was then very liberal and he needed an issue for his impending re-election. Communism became it.

Trump. of course, burst onto the national political scene in the summer of 2015 with his sensational claims about illegal immigrants, but his real similarity to McCarthy emerged when he had to respond to allegations that his campaign had worked with Russian intelligence during 2016.  Having "discovered" more than 200 non-existent Communists in the State Department, McCarthy treated all the opposition to him as evidence of how vast the Communist conspiracy was.  When he was challenged--for instance, by Senator Milward Tydings of Maryland, whose Foreign Relations subcommittee found his charges baseless later in 1950--he argued that his challengers were working for the Communists themselves--and he managed to secure Tydings's defeat, in his bid for a fifth Senate term, in November 1950, when Republicans made big gains again.  After that the Republican Party adopted McCarthy in much the same way that it has now adopted Trump.  With very rare exceptions, such as Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Republicans decided that he was too big an asset to discard, and too much of a threat to oppose.   In 1952, when General Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican nomination, Ike planned during a campaign swing through Wisconsin to refer favorably to his old boss, General George Marshall, whom McCarthy had accused of treasonously handing China over to the Communists on the floor of the Senate.  His political handlers talked him into deleting it.  Richard Nixon, who had begun beating the Communist treachery drum well before McCarthy, regarded him as an important ally.

The election of Eisenhower deprived McCarthy of a Democratic target at the White House, and the Republican assumption of the control of the Senate gave him a powerful committee chairmanship.  Pushed by Cohn, McCarthy continued looking for Communists within the government even though it was now in his own party's hands.  Looking for Communists within the U.S. Army, he stumbled upon an Army dentist named Irving Peress, who had been discharged after he refused to answer routine questions about membership in organizations deemed subversive.  While this action against him was pending, however, he had been routinely promoted from captain to major, and "Who promoted Peress?" became McCarthy's rallying cry.  In the meantime, another committee staffer, David Schine--who had gone on investigative trips with the gay Roy Cohn--was drafted into the US Army.  McCarthy's office, it turned out, had tried to intercede with his commanders on numerous occasions to get him special treatment.  That led to another set of Senate hearings that eventually led to McCarthy's downfall.

Trump's response to the whistle blower's accusations about his phone conversation with President Zelensky last month, in which he apparently demanded that Zelensky pursue an investigation of Joe Biden's son Hunter, who had worked with a Ukrainian bank, comes right from McCarthy's playbook.  Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Trump had withheld military aid from Ukraine for several months this summer to pressure Zelensky to go after Hunter Biden.  Before the content of the phone call leaked, however, Rudy Giuliani, playing the role of Roy Cohn, went on television to accuse Biden, essentially, of doing what Trump had done: of threatening to withhold aid from Ukraine if a previous president did not fire a particular prosecutor who, Giuliani claims without evidence, was investigating his son.  This was (and still is) of course the Trump team's tactic towards the Russia investigation as well: to insist that it was Hillary Clinton, not Trump and his minions, who colluded with the Russians to win the election. Both Trump and McCarthy seem to believe that attack is not simply the best defense, it's the only defense.

Going a layer deeper, I would suggest that the things McCarthy and Trump have done suggest another similarity: a total lack of commitment to, or respect for, anything but their own narcissistic self-image as superheroes fighting a hostile world.  McCarthy didn't care about the enormous damage he did to the State Department, the Army, and America's image abroad, provided that it got him more ink.   Trump in the same way has no respect for fundamental laws and principles of American government as he wages his endless struggle against his enemies.  That is why he was willing to try to conspire with a foreign government to try to destroy a political opponent, validating the charge that he had to fight with respect to Russia for two years.  Since Zelensky might help him, it was Zelensky's duty to do so.  Turning to him parallels what Trump did in the 1990s, when he turned to Deutsche Bank, a foreign entity, for credit, because American banks, burned by his successive bankruptcies, wouldn't lend to him any longer.  He sees himself, not simply as an American, but as Donald Trump, international superstar, the equal of men like Putin, Zi, and Kim Jong Un.  They can give him the stature that the reality based community here in the US denies him.

Sadly, Trump disposes of considerably more resources than McCarthy did in his own struggle for survival.  McCarthy had allies in the press and on the radio, but they did not compare in their reach to Fox News, Trump's own private ministry of propaganda.  While McCarthy had considerable influence within the Republican Party, he could not compete with a Republican President who had returned the GOP to power in a landslide, and who had more to offer his fellow Senators than he did.  Trump has essentially no Republican opposition.  Many Senate Republicans cut McCarthy loose and destroyed him in a censure vote in 1954 because they found it politically wise to do so.  It seems inconceivable to me that that will happen to Trump before the 2020 election.

Only the American voter, it seems, can drive Trump out of office.  Here the McCarthy parallel offers some hope.  Even at his peak, he was never nearly as popular in Wisconsin as many assumed.  When he stood for re-election in 1952 he defeated an almost unknown opponent by a plurality of 113,000 votes, while Eisenhower carried the state over Stevenson by 358,000 votes.  This week, every general election trial heat poll--including Fox News's--shows Trump trailing all three of the leading Democratic candidates.  Trump's election in 2016, however close it may have been, proved that the American political system had ceased to function for the public good.  The signs are that the public will be willing to take a first step in restoring it, by voting  him out of office.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Government and Private Interests, 1962 and 2019



Last Saturday’s New York Times reported that the Justice Department has warned four leading car companies—Ford, Volkswagen of America, Honda and BMW--that it may pursue an antitrust case against them for sticking to a deal with the of California that would commit them to meeting mileage targets for their cars—and corresponding targets for carbon emissions—that are much stricter than the loose ones that the Trump Administration has just announced.  I immediately remembered another case, more than 57 years ago, in which the Justice Department threatened leading firms in a major American industry with antitrust action and helped change its behavior to meet a policy goal of the Kennedy Administration.  The comparison is a terrifying illustration of what has gone wrong in American life and American government since the early 1960s.

Some background is in order.  The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s saw remarkable economic growth in the United States, dominated by major industries such as automobiles, energy, and steel.  Meanwhile, they also saw a remarkable growth in the reach and power of the American labor movement, which had successfully organized coal miners, autoworkers, steelworkers, and just about every other major industry.  The unions made pretty steady wage gains for their workers, and their employers passed some of those gains on to consumers.  Inflation had become an intermittent problem during the 1950s, reaching about 3% annually in the middle of the decade, but falling in 1958-9 because of a recession.  Another recession struck in 1960-1, and the new Kennedy Administration, which included a number of prominent economists, wanted to encourage recovery without triggering a new round of price increases.  To do so, the administration, led by its Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg—himself a labor lawyer—tried to intervene in major contract negotiations.

The American steel industry in 1962 was easily the world’s largest, and changes in its wages and prices always had immediate effects throughout the economy.  Its union contract was expiring in the spring of 1962.  In meetings that included both union leaders and Roger Blough of US Steel, Goldberg and the President made clear that they wanted a new contract that would not lead to a steel price increase.  Blough said nothing in response.  Then, when the parties had reached a settlement, Blough immediately announced that US Steel was raising its prices—a signal to the rest of the industry to do the same.   The President reacted immediately, opening a press conference by declaring that the price increase constituted “a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest.” When the nation was asking the military, union members, and all its citizens for sacrifice, he said, “ the American people will find it hard, as I do, to accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans.” (Readers who follow this link and read Kennedy’s entire statement will find a rather extraordinary contrast with a day or two of our current President’s tweets.)  The President led a government-wide effort to force Blough to back down, including the opening of an FBI investigation into price fixing in violation of the antitrust laws, and a shift of Defense Department steel purchases to companies that did not go along with the increase.  Within a few days, Blough rescinded the increase.  Kennedy had scored a remarkable victory for his Presidency—followed within the next six months by the successful attempt to secure the admission of the first black American to the University of Mississippi, and then, his remarkable resolution of the Cuban missile crisis.  During 1963 he followed those up with the introduction of the great civil rights bill that would end discrimination in public accommodations and the negotiation of the Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union.  No subsequent president has shown such a consistent ability to deploy the power of his office for the public good.

The Trump Administration’s decision to threaten the auto manufacturers with anti-trust action if they continue to observe their agreement with the state of California has an opposite purpose.  Kennedy successfully forced the steel companies to subordinate their private interests to the public interest.  Trump and Attorney General Barr want to help private interests—specifically, energy companies—at the expense of the public interest and the very future of human life on our planet.  Because of its vulnerability to pollution, the state of California has the right to set its own emissions standards, and because of the size of the market it represents, the car companies have an interest in observing those standards.  13 other states also follow California’s rules. Reducing the fuel consumption of our automobiles—now the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States—is of course critical to any attempt to halt climate change.  The Trump Administration, however, remains in denial about climate change, and does not seem to want to lessen reliance on fossil fuels.  Its Justice Department is now accusing the auto manufacturers of conspiring to build more expensive cars, in an attempt to force them to abandon the California standards.  No one but Koch industries and other fossil fuel producers will benefit if the administration succeeds.

From the 1930s through the early 1960s, a sense of the public interest dominated the political life of the United States.  That enabled us to fight the Depression, prepare for and win the Second World War, and rebuild Europe. We expanded the nation’s housing stock and its school systems, undertook the interstate highway system, and mounted the civil rights movement.  Now nearly every politically active element in our society makes its demands on behalf of a particular economic interest or demographic group, not for the good of the nation of the whole.  That may be the biggest single reason for the catastrophic state of our political life.



Monday, September 02, 2019

Labor Day articles

A friend of mine recently described our local newspaper, the Boston Globe, as a shadow of its former self, and he wasn't kidding.  After the New York Times lost a great deal of money buying it some years ago, they sold it to hedge fund manager John Henry, who happens to be the owner of the Boston Red Sox. I remember it in the 1970s when it had a very robust Washington bureau and covered local politics very thoroughly.  Now it has an even more PC orientation than the Times, I think, typified by an article this morning that black entrepreneurs are being shut out of the booming new legal marijuana movement, despite the black population's role as consumers.  Something happened over the weekend, though, and I was astonished by the three guest op-eds I discovered in it today--all the more so because it happens to be Labor Day, and the staff might have found some one to discuss the plight of the contemporary American worker,  so many of whom are at work as usual today in retail and food service industries, among man others.

Reading from left to right, the first of these pieces is about college debt.  This problem, it argues, has been vastly exaggerated.  66% of Millennials (the generation is not defined by the author) have no college debt, it states, either because they never went to college in the first place or because they managed without loans, or have paid them off.  The article claims that of those who have borrowed, the average debt is $28,000--but another source that I found says that's the average for all Millennial college graduates, period.  (That source put Millennial birth years from 1981 to 1999 which I think is very close to correct).  The author, one Beth Akers, thinks they can pay that off relatively easily.  She also argues that  most of those who owe a lot more--say $100,000--will also be able to pay them off because they invested in well-paying graduate degrees.  She also mentions (but does not describe in any detail) programs already in place to make it easier to pay. She thinks our student debt system is too complicated and should be simplified, but on the whole, she sees no crisis at work.  Ms. Akers, the piece also informs us, is associated with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that can be counted on to advocate free-market solutions to almost everything, and she does not stop to compare today's America to that of 50 years ago, when pratically no young people graduated from college with significant student debt, and tuition and fees were less than 1/3, adjusted for inflation, of what they are now--and paid for a much better education.

The second piece, by one Jennifer Braceras, asks what will happen to the billions of dollars that Johnson and Johnson agreed to pay the state of Oklahoma for its part in creating the disastrous opioid epidemic, which killed more than 217,000 Americans from 1999 through 2017 thanks to overdoses of perscription drugs.  Ms. Braceras talks a lot about what happened to the billions paid by the tobacco industry in response to similar settlements, complaining bitterly that relatively little of it went to help prevent smoking.  Instead, states spent the money on education, infrastructure, and making broadband accessible to rural areas, as well as simply for general purposes.  To those like myself who believe that some tobacco and drug company executives should be  headed for prison as punishment for feeding their fellow Americans poison, it seems quite logical to at least confiscate some of the wealth they earned by doing so and using it, in various ways, for the public good.  Ms. Braceras is also upset that Johnson and Johnson was found guilty at all, since its opioids were approved by the FDA.  When a corporation has enough political influence to get a fatal product approved, she seems to think, it shouldn't have to bear the consequences.  Ms. Braceras directs the Center for Law and Liberty a tthe Independent Women's Forum, a conservative organization that denies that climate change is man-made, takes conservative positions on women's issues, and has financial and other links to the Koch brothers. 

The third Labor Day op-ed, by Michael Rosenblatt, also deals with drugs--in this case, with how they are developed.  It's a full-blown defense of our private drug industries, who need the freedom to profit from ideas that may originally have been developed by government agencies if they are going to do the long, hard work of turning them into effective treatments.  The author says nothing about the well-documented preference of  major drug companies for drugs that treat chronic conditions for many years, as opposed to drugs that might actually cure diseases--much less about the corruption of the FDA which has led not only to the opioid catastrophe, but to the approval of numerous profitable drugs whose impact on disease is actually relatively marginal.   He, it turns out, is now an executive in a venture capital firm, having previously served as the chief medical officer of Merck.

What does all this mean?  While the mainstream media obsesses over President Trump's tweets, the difficulties of female presidential candidates, and a wide variety of sex scandals, corporate America is continuing its decades-long campaign to shape public discussion of economic issues in ways that will make the rich richer.  That's the job of the Manhattan Institute and the Independent Women's Forum, both of whom successfully stormed the Globe's editorial page today.  Trump will leave office in one-plus or five-plus years, but their campaign will still be continuing and still be having an effect.  Meanwhile, the number of workers in unions--and the number of workers who got Labor Day off--continues to shrink.  The Boston Globe remains a liberal newspaper, but its brand of liberalism isn't doing the average American much good.