Burn It All Down!

Alan Zendell, June 3, 2023

The fake soap opera over the debt ceiling is finally over. It might be wishful thinking, but the resounding final vote in the House of Representatives that passed the bill formed from the bipartisan compromise may have been an indication that things are going to change. Ever since Donald Trump entered politics, eight years ago, they have been dominated by extremists. First, it was the far right, egged on and enabled by Trump himself; then, it was the inevitable reactions by far-left groups.

The result has not been good for America. It further weakened our already gridlocked, dysfunctional Congress and had our country on a self-destructive path. Our allies were steadily losing confidence in America as a reliable partner, much less as a world leader. And our adversaries, seeing the disarray that extremists caused here at home, took full advantage of it. China is aggressively staking its claim for dominance in Asia and the South Pacific, building its navy at a dizzying pace, and attempting to redefine international spheres of influence. And with the damage done to NATO’s confidence in America’s support and leadership by the Trump administration, Vladimir Putin mistakenly thought he could invade and defeat Ukraine without triggering a military response from the West.

If our loss of status internationally wasn’t enough, we are approaching an election season in which the Republicans seem to be basing their entire primary campaign fighting an internal culture war instead of dealing with the country’s real problems. Its two leading contenders, Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, seem more intent on capturing the votes of racist and religious extremists and compromising our democratic principles in favor of a government that looks more like Fascism every day than addressing the needs of the majority of Americans.

Until the phony debt ceiling crisis that occupied the media’s attention throughout the Spring it appeared that, following the model that swept Trump into office in 2016, a small group of right-wing radicals had taken their entire party hostage, preventing reasonable dialogue and the kind of bipartisan cooperation that we have always taken for granted. It takes a while for major change to percolate in an open society of a third of a billion people, but maybe…just maybe…we now see the first signs that responsible people who take their oaths to support the Constitution seriously have had enough. I’m even hearing talk that the same bipartisan majority that raised the debt ceiling may now act to abolish it permanently.

Trump and his followers created the illusion that American politics no longer had a viable center. If we believed the broadcast and social media, all the centrists were gone, leaving those at the extremes who were willing to burn everything down to get their way in charge. I was taught that only corrupt, third-world nations behaved that way, yet here we were, clawing back individual rights over which Americans had become dangerously complacent, and attempting to redefine who has the right to vote.

America thrives on compromise and the assumption that the majority of us want what is best for the nation as a whole. The existence of a small, powerful group of extremist lawmakers willing to risk destroying everything to achieve their goal is anathema to our American dreams and ideals. Fortunately, that small group isn’t as powerful as some feared. Arrogant clowns like Matt Gaetz, angry, wealthy extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Trumpers like Chip Roy and Paul Gosar were allowed to vent their anger, but in the end, as most of us anticipated, cooler, saner heads in the Republican Caucus prevailed. The same was true for Progressives, but it wasn’t the followers of AOC who instigated this crisis.

The majority of Americans do not support extremist views, whether they address abortion, same-sex marriage, non-binary gender choices, education, or programs aimed at allowing lower income family to survive. Thus, the recent media furor over a minority dictating policy to the majority, which might have led to the end of our democracy. Just as we refuse to negotiate with terrorists, we must have limited tolerance for people with extreme views who are willing to bring the entire system down rather than lose. We should be grateful that our Congress seems to have reached that conclusion.

If you don’t find the threat of people willing to burn everything down to get what they want credible, I direct your attention to writer Hugh Howey’s 2012-13 Silo trilogy which was brilliantly adapted for television by Apple TV+. Without being a spoiler, I will simply say that these stories illustrate, clearly and credibly, what can happen when a small, maniacal minority has the tools and power to make decisions for the rest of us.

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The Debt Ceiling Farce

Alan Zendell, May 28, 2023

People have been asking for months whether the Republicans in the House would force the nation to default on its debts. I consistently said, “Of course not.” The weeks of posturing that have dominated the media don’t even qualify as a drama. The right-wing extremists’ demands were so outrageous from the start, it was clear that they would never prevail. Why? Because their wealthy donors’ only real priority is maintaining and increasing their wealth. Default could cost them trillions of dollars, collectively.

The debt ceiling charade was never about the debt ceiling. It has been a lesson in how far a handful of extreme Trumpers are willing to go to remain in the spotlight. More importantly, it has been a lesson in what happens when the political ambition of one man to become House Speaker trumps everything else – except the influence on the Republican Party of Trump himself. Kevin McCarthy sold what was left of his duplicitous soul to become Speaker, and now the entire country is paying the price for his inability to lead his own caucus.

We are reminded by historians that lust for wealth and power has always been a primary determining force in our politics. The difference, today, is that the curtain has been pulled back on the way our political process really works. Too many of our media outlets get rich hyping fears of financial catastrophe. Too many have abandoned any pretense of ethical journalism. The lack of respect for truth that has been the hallmark of Donald Trump’s career has taken hold like a new strain of kudzu strangling a forest.

When the internet was in its infancy, some futurists and writers quickly recognized its potential for disrupting the beliefs and values we live by. They began describing a future in which the term “news” had completely lost its meaning. Instead of reputable sources reporting facts, everyone with a computer, even people like me, could represent themselves as experts and invent whatever narrative suited them. These writers predicted that the internet would create outlets for so many diverse opinions on every subject, every fringe group would have a voice, and the average person would have no ability to distinguish truth from fiction.

The flow of real information would be replaced by advocacy groups of every kind flooding the ether with spam and nonsense and become a tool for anyone unscrupulous enough to use it. When I first encountered this kind of extrapolative fiction, thirty years ago, it scared me. Not only were the predictions credible, they seemed inevitable. How could a worldwide system of information in which everyone has a voice that is responsible to no higher authority ever work?

We see, now that the future has arrived, that it doesn’t work very well. The die was cast when Roger Ailes convinced Ruppert Murdoch that the idea of integrity in journalism could easily be sidestepped and replaced with a massive propaganda machine. Futurists don’t always get it right, but these visionaries nailed it. Everyone, from domestic terrorists to people selling their own brand of truth skewed to increase their own wealth and power has a voice. If we’ve learned anything in last decade, it’s that those voices, no matter how vile and destructive, always find an audience.

Thus, we have twisted people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz wielding far more power than they should, combined with a leader in so far over his head, I’m shocked he hasn’t drowned yet. We’ve seen this before. In the 1950s, another McCarthy, a Republican Senator from Wisconsin was able to maintain a reign of terror for years, riding the propaganda-induced fear that we were being taken over by Communists. But Joseph McCarthy was eventually discredited and censured because politics aside, there was still an underlying basis of integrity in our Congress.

Joseph McCarthy was so dangerous, the term “McCarthyism” is now synonymous with demagoguery. The ability of a handful of extremists, today, to bring Congress to its knees makes me wonder how far the former Senator from Wisconsin would have been able to go with unregulated media giants like Fox News, Facebook, and Twitter amplifying his voice.

After all the furor of the past few months, the deal reached between Kevin McCarthy and the White House demonstrates what a farce the debt ceiling crisis has always been. The Democrats gave up nothing of real substance, while McCarthy has struggled to save face within his caucus. The next few days will be when the real drama unfolds, as our putative leaders try to sell the deal to their members.

Right-wing extremists who have driven the crisis are not about to suddenly go silent. The issue will be whether there are still enough Republicans in the House of Representatives who understand the meaning of the oath they swore when they took office. Of less interest is whether Kevin McCarthy’s speakership survives.

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Political Re-alignment

Alan Zendell, May 19, 2023

Historians and observers of political science often tell us that the political landscape hasn’t always been as it is today, unless the subject is volatility and change. As the culture war that began with the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus movements heated up in recent years, we were frequently reminded that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and that his incarnation of the party stood for equal rights and the abolition of slavery. We’re also reminded that our Civil War was actually a conflict of economic philosophies. In the mid-19th century, slavery was as much an economic issue concerning the right of major corporate interests to conduct business as they saw fit, as a social and moral one.

Back then, it was the Democrats who championed the rights of southern agricultural business owners to own and use slaves to assure that their plantations thrived. Nearly a hundred years later, southern Democrats were still fighting to preserve segregation and limit the rights of people descended from slaves to vote and take advantage of the “American Dream” of opportunity. Frustrated by the segregationists in his own party, President Harry Truman began appealing for African American votes while hard core southern Democrats continued to draw support from white voters, beginning the shift to Republican control of the southern states.

The progressive legislation passed by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations further redefined American politics. Republicans now championed the pro-segregationist policies of the south while Democrats supported labor and social change. But as corporations grew in wealth and power, they crossed international boundaries, causing many observers to fear that they were more powerful than national governments, including our own. “International cartels” were seen to be the enemy by many, led by the oil industry, with pharmaceutical companies not far behind on the list of hated entities.

In the 1980s, Republican ideology changed completely to support large corporations and wealthy conservatives, focusing on the needs of white male voters at the expense of women and non-white minorities, incidentally strengthening those fearsome cartels. But as the culture wars, whose serious beginnings can be traced to Newt Gingrich heated up, corporate leaders recognized that their interests no longer completely aligned with the burgeoning right-wing branch of the Republican party. Many of our corporate giants which had originally been run by right-wing extremists of an earlier generation – Ford, McDonalds, and Disney to list a few – had shifted their business philosophies to the needs of their customers while new corporate giants, notably tech companies, were rooted in progressive social change.

All of which brings us to the startling events of today. The two leading Republican candidates for the 2024 presidential nomination are battling for the votes of right-wing extremists who support white supremacy and consider women second-class citizens, and pandering to religious groups who believe abortion is murder but refuse to take a stand against assault weapons. Unless Tim Scott, Asa Hutchinson, or Nikki Haley gain traction, the Republican nomination will be won either by someone who has shown he has no respect for laws, rules, or our Constitution, or by someone who doesn’t believe his opponent goes far enough in restricting the rights of people he doesn’t like.

Neither Donald Trump nor Ron DeSantis polls well nationally in an electorate that spans the entire political spectrum, and neither has shown a tendency to moderate his views once he’s in power. Trump’s previous actions are likely to lead to multiple serious felony indictments, and DeSantis seems to lack the filters he needs to avoid offending millions of diverse voters. His latest debacle is an all-out war with the Disney Corporation, for which most of the country has warm, fuzzy feelings. And the basis for this war? Disney had the audacity to speak out against DeSantis’s autocratic, bigoted attempts to restrict the rights of the LBGTQ world and anyone whom he can label a supporter of the BLM or Woke movements. (Can anyone actually define Woke for me?)

Taking on a major corporation that is loved by Americans over an ideological issue that is as close to Fascist as we ever get in public seems at best to be a serious miscalculation that rivals some of Trump’s views of how the world works. We have the spectacle of the two leading candidates of the party that until recently stood for business, law and order, and the Constitution fighting it out over who gets the votes of racists, misogynists, and people who support violent insurrection.

As the fight between these two gets nastier and more over the top – and you can bet that it will – how do they expect us, the voters, to react? If a candidate who focuses all of his resources on winning the votes of the worst of us were to actually become president, I would seriously fear for our future.

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Objective Journalism

Alan Zendell, May 16, 2023

One of the myths post-WW2 American children were taught in school was that journalism was about reporting the truth and scrupulously distinguishing facts not only from lies, but from opinions as well. I bought into that wholeheartedly, because I also believed all the other stuff we were taught: America saved the world from Fascism; America is where the good guys live; America is the greatest, fairest, most democratic country on Earth where everyone has the same opportunity to succeed. I was naively, unabashedly patriotic, and why not?

Europe and Asia were a mess, and we had not only just “won” the worst war in the history of the world, but the next bunch of bad guys was already gearing up to destroy democracy and everything else that was good. Communism, we were taught, was the polar opposite of Fascism. Yet, as a child, I could see little difference between the Fascist regimes of the 1930s and the Communist dictatorships of the 1950s.

I didn’t realize until much later that my education had been strongly influenced by government propaganda and an unwritten pact between the government and the major news outlets. We believed unreservedly in the First Amendment to the Constitution – as long as no one challenged the basic truths I noted above. I lived in New York City until I was twenty-four, long enough to see the New York Post begin to degenerate into the Murdoch gossip rag it is today. In the following years, the Washington Post was my hometown newspaper. I was such a true believer, I complained that the Vietnam/Watergate era Post, despite its heroic coverage of the war and the Nixon administration, was often guilty of representing opinion as fact, something they corrected as their journalistic stature grew.

Then, we entered the age of cable news. CNN showed us live coverage of the first Gulf War, uncensored by anyone. What may have been the last completely unedited coverage of a major news event, on December 9, 1992, was reported by the Washington Post as “the first amphibious [U. S. Marine] landing televised live. With scores of reporters and camera operators lining the beach in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, the pre-dawn landing unfolded as an almost farcical event, with bright camera lights illuminating what was supposed to have been a stealthy military operation in potentially hostile territory.”

Journalism had reached a fork in the road. On one hand, the government began to control what news media were allowed to cover, embedding journalists in military operations under the supervision of the commanders. On another, cable news outlets of every political stripe began popping up, unveiling a new kind of journalism which made no bones about graying the line between fact and fiction. The stars of this new way to disseminate information were Fox News and Facebook, the former designing itself around a commitment to bring down liberal politics, and the latter employing a business model that put profit ahead of national security and truth.

As news media began advocating political ideologies, I thought CNN strove for balance, although as one of Donald Trump’s favorite targets, his followers routinely attacked it as biased. While being grouped with entities like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal might be viewed as a positive thing, it hurt CNN’s ratings; whatever else it may be, cable news is about money and sponsors. So CNN decided to attract a broader audience, i. e., they began shifting their image to the right. What more logical thing could they do, then, than offer Donald Trump a free hour to dispense his lies? They called it a Town Hall, but many people viewed it as a thinly veiled Trump political rally, an impression supported by the fact that the live audience was dominated by Trump supporters.

Jay Rosen, who has taught journalism at New York University for thirty-six years, addressed that in an interview aired by MSNBC on May 12. He criticized the way the media cover politics in America, correctly noting that they feed a kind of horserace mentality – Americans are obsessed with polls and predictions, so that’s what the media give them. Rosen pointed out, however, that that plays into the hands of political spin experts and people who purchase airtime on news networks.

Rosen believes the proper way for journalists to approach the 2024 election is to focus on the likely consequences for the country and for average Americans if Trump, Biden, or anyone else should win. How will our lives be impacted? How will America’s place in the world fare? If journalists take on those tasks responsibly, perhaps Americans will start taking the future of our country seriously instead of waving the flag for whomever panders most effectively. Can you imagine that?

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Trump Will Never Change

Alan Zendell, May 12, 2023

When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, those of us who believed he would be a disaster as leader of the Free World were assured by his supporters that once in office, the blustering, lying candidate, who demonstrated every day that he would pander to the most craven of us to gain their votes, would change. Like many presidents before him, he would move toward the center, moderate his language, and improve his image, perhaps even demonstrate compassion. It never happened throughout his presidency, it hasn’t happened since, and his seventy-minute Town Hall on CNN Wednesday evening made it clear that it never will.

CNN has been criticized for giving Trump all that free air time, but the network is trying to move its own image toward the center, and in any case, it’s hard to fault them for being more open minded. On its face, offering Trump an international stage on which he could respond to all the attacks he’s facing was a reasonable thing to do. If CNN was attempting to defuse some of the hyper-polarization in our country, however, they failed, although Trump’s performance made it clear that was an impossible task.

If they expected the forum to reveal anything we didn’t already know about Trump, they failed at that, too. Rather, Wednesday night’s Town Hall confirmed our worst fears and expectations. Trump’s entire campaign will simply be a repetition of his lies, an attempt to re-invent history, and Act Three of his shameless narcissism. He treated the Town Hall not as an attempt to demonstrate why he should again be elected president, but as a television show. It reminded me of the final scenes of the film, Quiz Show, in which RCA Chairman David Sarnoff addresses the federal investigator who proved that NBC’s (RCA owned NBC at the time) quiz show 24 was rigged. Expecting Sarnoff to be chastened, the investigator is shocked when he says, “we never claimed the show was honest. It was entertainment.”

That seems to be exactly the way Trump viewed Wednesday’s Town Hall. He was comedian, huckster, clown, and shameless liar. He played to the small audience of supporters who packed the hall and some of them (not all) laughed and applauded his jokes, delusions, and insults. The pundits keep telling us Trump has a total lock on the Republican nomination for 2024, and if you judged by the rabid enthusiasm of some of the audience at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, you might be inclined to agree. But look a bit further.

I wonder why CNN didn’t do more to assure that the audience, specifically the questioners, were representative of New Hampshire Republicans. In a small auditorium a loud minority can sound a lot bigger than it is. And unlike 2016 and 2020, many Republicans were not shy in blasting Trump afterwards. If you believe the press leaks, Democrats were ecstatic at Trump’s performance. In seventy minutes, he provided them with dozens of campaign ads straight from his undisciplined mouth.

After many years of working with sampling and statistical forecasting, I am confident that the polls that guarantee Trump’s nomination are misleading. How long will legitimate Conservatives and independents remain silent when Trump is personally indicted on serious felony charges in Georgia and by the Department of Justice? When it’s clear to everyone that no one but Trump’s sycophants believe his reckless claims? There will surely come a point at which it all sounds as old, tired, and pathetic as the man uttering them. If Trump were as good a showman as he thinks he is, he’d realize that he needs some new material.

Calling moderator Caitlin Collins “a nasty person” when she continually held his feet to the fire over obvious lies came off lame and trite – haven’t we heard all this before? I thought CNN made a brilliant choice having Ms. Collins on stage alone with Trump. She’s a skilled journalist, a talented interviewer, and an attractive woman who nearly matches Trump in height if not girth. The way he talked over her, attempting to dominate every interaction, particularly when the issue was his treatment of women, cannot have been lost on the millions of women who watched and listened. And the way she stood up to him, going toe-to-toe with a former president of the United States, had to be empowering for every woman who ever suffered at the hands of a male bully.

I was talking with a purple group of friends, yesterday, in which Republicans outnumbered Democrats, but all the Republicans harkened back to the days when most Republicans respected traditional Conservative values. We all agreed on the perfect scenario for November, 2024. Biden should select Liz Cheney as his running mate. I’d stay up late to watch those debates.

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The Carroll Verdict as an Inflection Point for Trump’s Future

Alan Zendell, May 9, 2023

Today, a jury of six men and three women in a New York Federal Court found Donald Trump liable for sexual battery and defamation against the plaintiff, writer E. Jean Carroll. Considering how difficult it is to prosecute sexual abuse and rape trials and the fact the event in question occurred more than thirty years ago, the evidence must have been damn convincing for the jury to unanimously agree after deliberating for only half a day that Trump must pay Ms. Carroll almost five million dollars to compensate her for the harm she suffered.

Media pundits were quick to address how the verdict may affect voters, explaining the obvious, that they can be divided into three groups, as Republicans at the recent CPAC conference did: those who would never vote for Trump under any circumstances, those who would vote for him even if he committed a murder on live television, and those whose minds can be changed, especially if they voted for Trump in the past and now feel disillusioned. I believe the latter group, the only one that really matters in a close election, represents between ten and fifteen percent of the electorate.

It’s an important reminder that even in a strong democracy, a relatively small minority can determine the outcome of elections. That’s why red states are passing voter suppression laws that have already been shown to effectively reduce voter participation by black, Hispanic, and young voters. Finding ways to enable an angry, loud minority to hold sway over the majority has been the dominant strategy of far-right Republicans since the 1980s.

Leaders as diverse as Napoleon Bonaparte and Winston Churchill told us history is written by the victors, and that notion is what drives the current attacks on democracy by right-wing extremists. This isn’t the first time a committed minority has achieved a beachhead of power and control. From here, things can go two ways. Either the lazy, ill-informed masses wake up and fight to preserve our democracy or the slide toward autocracy continues unabated until billionaires, racists, misogynists, and xenophobes redefine our Constitution in line with the values of Donald Trump.

Trump has been clear about his values. As early as his famous ride down the escalator eight years ago, he told us all non-white immigrants and refugees looking to America for succor are drug dealers, murderers, and rapists, a lie that appealed to a shocking number of Americans. A few months later the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape surfaced, in which Trump bragged that as a celebrity he could sexually molest women whenever it suited him, confident that he would get away with it, after which thirteen women, most of whom had never met each other went public accusing him of rape or sexual assault.

I and millions of other Americans were confounded by the way Trump supporters, particularly Evangelicals, wrote off Trump’s immorality and sexual conduct in 2016. Trump and evangelists have an important thing in common: when the prize is power, they’re both willing to treat women as secondary citizens whose rights should be defined by men.

Each incident that would have destroyed most politicians, taken by itself in a festering political environment, was somehow ignored. Trump and his allies at Fox News understood that anti-Semitism, bigotry, and resentment of people with bigger homes and cars would stir up far more intense emotions among Trump’s base than concern about women’s rights. I couldn’t understand that until I realized most of Trump’s constituencies were male-dominated sects in which women were already conditioned to be subservient and accept their role as baby makers and sex toys.

An organism as large as the United States has enormous inertia. It’s harder to change the direction of American politics than to make U-turn in a battleship. But once momentum starts to swing in a new direction it can be inexorable. Historians look back to identify events that were pivots for change, or as our president would say, inflection points. They’re real, although they’re far easier to identify in hindsight than in real time.

The Carroll verdict may be the inflection point that marks the decline and eventual destruction of Donald Trump as a political force in America, and Trump will undoubtedly makes things worse by not being able to control his hate-laced outbursts. This was not some kangaroo court verdict by a politicized state court. Federal courts are an essential line of defense in preserving our rights and our Constitution, and this one just spoke loud and clear.

The snail’s pace at which our legal system operates and the startling lack of confidence Americans feel in their Supreme Court conspired to help doubters believe Trump would never be brought to justice. I never believed that. The worm is turning, and by the time we vote in the 2024 primaries, Trump will be drowning in his own personal cesspool.

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The Evolution of Reagonomics to Trumpism

Alan Zendell, May 4, 2023

Ronald Reagan was inaugurated during the Iran Hostage Crisis, which damaged our national pride and exacerbated an economic crisis that had interest rates approaching twenty percent. As a movie star, Reagan’s signature image was of an urbane, refined gentleman, even when he was sitting atop a horse. With mortgage rates at nearly seventeen percent, when Reagan adopted Grover Norquist’s supply side economic theory as his own, his temperament and skill as an actor made it sound almost reasonable.

As Wikipedia describes it, “The pillars of Reagan’s economic policy included increasing defense spending, balancing the federal budget and slowing the growth of government spending, reducing the federal income tax and capital gains tax, reducing government regulation, and tightening the money supply in order to reduce inflation.” What we didn’t know in the 1980s was that those relatively benign words would become a rallying cry for a reprise of the economic divide that led to the Civil War. Rich against poor, power vs disenfranchisement, equality vs privilege, order vs chaos.

The ensuing struggle ultimately brought us Donald Trump and a breed of politicians for whom winning, power, and greed are everything. They don’t care about the cost in basic values and decency, or their effect on the rights of women, minorities, the poverty-stricken, and those who depend on the government through no fault of their own. Reagan was a decent man who must be turning over in his grave at the spectacle of how his policies have evolved.

The opponents of supply side economics, the theory that says increasing the wealth of billionaires and mega-corporations will ultimately benefit everyone, noted that our national debt tripled during the eight years Reagan was in office because of huge deficits resulting from lowered tax rates and an unprecedented increase in spending on social welfare programs. Yet, somehow, Reagan remains the Republican symbol of modern conservatism. That sounds like a contradiction, a repudiation of what Reaganism was about, but his likability and skill as a salesman made it work.

Reagan also embraced humility, civility, and fallibility. He didn’t resort to name-calling and cheap shots, and he understood that when you make a serious error, even as president, the best course is to admit your error, apologize, and move on, lessons both Clintons could have benefitted from. Caught in lies promulgated by his subordinates, Reagan invoked the Truman doctrine that the buck stops in the White House, taking full responsibility for their actions. We may have disagreed with him, but most Americans viewed the president who coined the term “credible deniability” as an honest man.

How then, did we get here? Over the following decades, it became clear that Reagonomics was better described as his vice president and successor George H. W. Bush referred to it: voodoo economics. The Clinton administration balanced the federal budget but was never able to overcome the huge debt it inherited. And the policies of Bush 43, in large part an extension of Reagan’s, continued to spiral the national debt. Despite all that, during the Obama years, as our population turned browner and the national mood seemed to marginalize right wing extremism, instead of mitigating our divisions, Republican strategists let greed and lust for power dominate their actions, bringing us Trumpism.

I can’t think of a leader who is more of a polar opposite to Reagan than Trump. Reagan would have been horrified at Trump’s open disdain for truth and his willingness to fight every battle in the sewers. He would have been outraged at Trump’s willingness to undermine our Constitution and his apparent adoration of autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un. Most important, he would never have entertained the notion of overturning a presidential election so the forces of greed and corruption could retain control of government. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan rallying thousands of armed insurgents to storm the Capital and take the House Speaker and Vice President prisoner?

We now face the spectacle of defaulting on our nation’s debts which were authorized by both Congress and the White House. Despite warnings by Treasury officials and economists that default would crash America’s, and likely the world’s economy, we find our government held hostage by a ragtag group of extremists and a House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, who lacks both the will and the skill to govern with integrity. The miscreants who are willing to use their sudden power to take us to the brink of disaster would have been shouted down by the Conservatives of the 1980s. The situation is so surreal, it’s almost as if they’re enemy agents, a dirty dozen of Manchurian candidates programmed to bring down our government.

As Reagan asked when he was running for re-election in 1984, are we better off than we were before he was in charge? Ask that same question about Trump and the movement that supports him.

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If You’re Not Worried About AI…

Alan Zendell, May 3, 2023

If you’re not worried about Artificial Intelligence (AI) you probably haven’t thought about it enough. It’s been around for decades, but only lately has its potential for negative outcomes been publicized.

Half a century ago, we thought of AI’s as self-learning knowledge bases. The theory was that if we collected huge amounts of data about a subject, we could write programs that would enable computer systems to become experts on it. The data would include starting conditions, context, and lists of possible actions. By statistically analyzing real outcomes in real situations, developers hoped computers would be able to infer the likelihood of every possible outcome for every future decision it might make.

I encountered AI twice in my early career as a scientist/engineer. During the three dark years I spent in the Pentagon in the heart of the Vietnam conflict, there was a lot of talk about the Defense Department building AI systems to help fight the war. Security requirements being what they are, most of us could only be certain something was true if we’d worked on it directly, and even then, we were continually threatened with all the ways we could wind up in prison if we shared anything with unauthorized persons. But since that occurred more than fifty years ago, what might have once been classified Top Secret is now just interesting folk lore.

Rumor had it – I don’t know how much of what I heard back then was true – that computers were making decisions about where to send soldiers and what to attack. Rumor also had it that military AI’s didn’t learn fast or well enough, and their decisions often resulted in tragic loss of life and equipment, but the generals were told that was to be expected, and the AI’s would learn from their mistakes. That kind of application for an AI system was premature at best, equivalent to seeking a cure for a deadly disease by randomly injecting people with hundreds of drugs to see if one worked, rather than spending the time to do responsible research…

…which seques into my next encounter with AI. In the 1980s, I worked with a brilliant physician/epidemiologist named Henry Krakauer, one of the pioneers of medical AI diagnostic systems. This was one of the first and most beneficial uses of self-learning systems. They learned by being fed gigabytes of real patient data, including symptoms, diagnoses, comorbidities, treatments, and outcomes, stripped of personal identifying data. The result is that today, when you visit your doctor, they’re probably carrying around a laptop computer. The doctor enters your personal data and symptoms, and the computer instantly informs them of all the possible diagnoses and their likelihoods, including possible treatment options and probable outcomes. That is a very good thing. Sometimes AI is our friend.

But like all powerful tools, it can be misused, and you can be sure that smart people who are ethically challenged will always find a way. Thus, Facebook recently acknowledged that as many as twenty percent of their accounts might be faked; that is, the people identified as their owners were really AI’s or bots, as they’re referred to in the vernacular. Like a rapidly expanding mushroom cloud, bots keep showing up where they shouldn’t. A well-programmed bot can masquerade as almost anything – a teacher, a subject expert, a politician, a lawyer, an advocate – and most of us cannot distinguish them from the real things.

AI’s have been blamed for manipulating investment markets, causing financial crises, spreading false information, undermining governments, and fomenting insurrections. We don’t know how much they contributed to the wave of election deniers that sprung up in the wake of Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump in 2020, but we’ve heard testimony from computer experts and government officials asserting that they have proof that thousands of such bots are active throughout our social media, and predictions that they will pose a much larger threat in 2024.

We were raised on stories of Frankenstein monsters turning on their creators and automated systems evolving into indestructible Terminators. Should we be concerned? Consider all the ways our privacy has been compromised in recent decades, from nearly universal surveillance to identity theft. The popular television series NYPD Blue which ran for twelve seasons from 1993 to 2005, featured good old fashioned detective work, nary a video camera or DNA molecule in sight. Compare that to any modern police drama today, when it’s virtually impossible for a criminal to hide off the grid.

We should be concerned, because only a small fraction of the power of Artificial Intelligence has been realized or even imagined. If there’s a way to use it for evil, you can be sure someone will. The potential for chaos and destruction is limitless.

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Far Right Overreach

Alan Zendell, April 27, 2023

Whenever right-wing extremists gain a foothold of power in the United States they overreach, and it always backfires. But as investment managers like to remind us, past trends are not guaranteed to continue in the future, and the next few months will put that idea to a critical test. We’ll hear cliches flying, about slippery slopes, creeping fascism, the virtues of negotiation and compromise, but none of it will mean anything if responsible people don’t step up and do the right thing.

The responsible people I’m referring to are all Republicans in the House of Representatives. In a world in which Tucker Carlson’s departure from Fox News has received more airtime than Biden’s re-election announcement, Donald Trump’s civil rape trial, and Ron DeSantis’ sudden interest in meeting world leaders, it’s easy to forget that there are fewer than a dozen among the 220 House Republicans who would destroy our Constitution to achieve a political victory. No matter how strongly they may disagree with the president’s agenda, the rest of the Republican caucus understand that the consequences of allowing the country to default on its debts are incalculable. If they let it happen, they will be facilitating the end of America’s influence as a super power.

Of course, they won’t, not because they intend to cave in to the left, but because of their Conservative views. Conservatives believe, first and foremost, in the rule of law and economic stability. Default would raise the curtain on an era of chaos and unpredictability, the anathema of any successful governing philosophy. And even if they manage to lose sight of their principles, their self-interest will force them to step up when it’s time to vote. Default would trigger an immediate financial crisis that could be worse than the 1929 crash that threw the world into a decade-long depression that terminated in the second world war. The billionaires who support those Conservatives would lose trillions of dollars in real wealth overnight according to Moody’s.

So – don’t worry about default. It won’t happen, because if it did, those who enabled it would be severely punished by their wealthy donors. The most likely outcome of the game of chicken the extremists are playing is that they’ll lose, and the biggest loser will be Kevin McCarthy, who richly deserves it – a man with an ego almost as large as Trump’s, but without Trump’s street-fighting ability, wiliness, or shameless lack of decency.

McCarthy is not as dangerous as Trump overall, but his antics can do serious damage to the country if no one in his conference breaks ranks. If we’ve learned anything throughout our history, whether it’s a playground or the Capitol, once you start submitting to bullies, you might as well give up the whole game. The example of Matt Gaetz says it all. Gaetz makes outrageous demand after demand, and McCarthy caves every time because he can only afford to lose four votes from his caucus. Yet Gaetz votes against him anyway and then does a mockery dance in front of the press. At a time when almost everything can be streamed on television anywhere in the world, it’s an appalling display of how dysfunctional our Congress has become.

While Biden and his European counterparts work behind the scenes to find an off ramp that will enable Vladimir Putin to end his war in Ukraine, the right-wing terrorists in McCarthy’s caucus continue to put on a show for the world that can only undermine those efforts. Putin knows more about the workings of our Congress than most Americans. Why, seeing the spectacle of an incompetent House Speaker who is constantly humiliated by our media, would Putin imagine that America will have the fortitude to continue its defense of Ukraine? It was McCarthy who told the world he would oppose giving the Biden administration a “blank check” to fight the war, while Ron DeSantis, who obviously has his eye on the White House, told the press that Russia’s dispute with Ukraine was a regional matter that we should stay out of.

While we’re on the subject of how the world views us, imagine the rest of the world watching Trump’s civil battery and defamation trial for a rape he is accused of committing thirty years ago. If media reports are correct, the accuser, E. Jean Carroll will have two other women who claim to have been raped by Trump testifying on her behalf in open court. Add that to the election deniers and the hundreds of people convicted of taking part in the January 6th insurrection, and I shudder when I think of how the way the rest of the world sees us has changed.

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Why Joe Biden?

Alan Zendell, April 25, 2023

It’s painfully early to talk about the 2024 presidential election, but I’ve never been one to bury my head in the sand. I’ve always thought ostriches were weird, creepy birds.

Let’s recap where things stand. Today, President Biden announced that he will run for re-election, and no other Democrat has indicated an intention to challenge him for the nomination, despite polls that suggest Democratic voters wish Biden wouldn’t run again.

On the Republican side, Ron DeSantis’ belligerent, bull-like, extremist approach to every issue costs him supporters on a daily basis. The two South Carolina entries, Senator Tim Scott and former Governor and U. N. Ambassador Nicki Haley have thus far gathered negligible support. Donald Trump’s most rabid supporters reacted to his New York indictments and the likelihood that Georgia and the U.S. Department of Justice will soon follow with indictments for far more serious felonies as if he were a persecuted martyr. And former Vice President Mike Pence, who is contemplating a run, just spent five hours testifying about his conversations with Trump prior to January 6th. Watch for fireworks.

Political pundits, most of whom have been consistently wrong since 2015, predict Biden will face off against Trump next year. It’s a sign of our dysfunctional  politics that not a single pollster thinks Trump can be re-elected, and Biden’s approval rating hovers in the low forties. 2024 could mark the third presidential election in a row in which neither major candidate was the first choice of voters. After much thought, I can’t figure out why.

Could the polls be wrong? There are a lot of competent pollsters – Gallup, Harris, Rasmussen, 538 – they’re professionals at the top of their game. But in a nation whose communications are dominated by social media, cell phones, electronic messengers, and scammers, finding representative polling samples is much more difficult that it was even twenty years ago. Most of us treat snail mail solicitations as spam, and those of us who have land line phones don’t answer them if we don’t recognize the caller. So how do pollsters come up with random sample populations that truly represent the American electorate?

I had an opportunity to talk to Professor Harris about that late in 2005, after George W. Bush was re-elected. Most pollsters were using phone listings to identify their sampling universe, but cell phone users already outnumbered land line users, and their was no national directory for cells. Didn’t that bias sampling toward older, more conservative users? Yet, the polls were quite good predictors of the 2004 election. When I asked Professor Harris how they pulled that off, he said he really didn’t know – maybe they were just lucky.

That’s a chilling thought, and I haven’t trusted polls since. I’m so concerned about polls turning elections into self-fulfilling prophecies, I and many others I know lie to pollsters. Polls don’t reach deep enough to understand why voters think the way they do or why pandering is so effective for politicians like Trump. If we knew what voters believed, how many on the right would be found to be primarily motivated by racism, xenophobia, religious extremism, or greed? How many on the left by socialist leanings or a desire to live off the system and avoid responsibility? I believe the result would be disturbing.

When we take those factors out of the equation, we’re left with the objective reality that Biden has been our most effective president since Franklin Roosevelt, but that gets lost in the noise of far-right grievances. Biden took a strong stand against right-wing economic philosophies that have been proved ineffective for four decades. COVID made the world face harsh realities, the most important of which was that the old economic models were no longer reliable. Models only work when the real world doesn’t diverge appreciably from the baseline data they were built on. Total lockdowns, disrupted manufacturing and agriculture, and broken supply chains aren’t reflected in the modeling data because they represent a situation we haven’t seen before.

I wish I knew how to get the attention of voters who are so caught up in their personal grievances, they can’t see that divisiveness and polarization are destroying our country. Biden saved our economy from disaster. He saved our traditional alliances from catastrophe and may well have prevented a full-scale war in Europe that could lead to a nuclear holocaust by being the driving force that re-united NATO as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine loomed.

I’m as concerned as anyone about Biden’s age. I’m six months younger than he is, and you couldn’t pay me enough to take his job. But his long years of experience and his history of being generally evenhanded and willing to compromise – even some embarrassing mistakes he’s learned from – make him unique among those who want it. We can deal with his age by electing a vice president who will work hand-in-hand with him and be ready to step in on a moment’s notice if need be – someone like Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.

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