The Decline of Two Would-Be Autocrats

Alan Zendell, June 15, 2021

They’re not exactly two peas in a pod, but there are far more similarities than differences between recently deposed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and recently defeated American President Donald Trump. Their most regrettable similarity is that they pose grave dangers to both their own nations and the world order. That’s remarkable in itself, since one was supposed to be the leader of the Free World – if that term still applies with democracy under attack almost everywhere – while the other was the leader of a tiny, embattled nation surrounded by sworn enemies for its entire existence.

Israel has only existed as an independent nation since 1948. Its creation by the fledgling United Nations was partly a way to offer Jewish people a homeland of their own after the Nazi attempt at genocide reduced their worldwide population by 36 percent, from 16.6 million to 10.6 million. It was also a misguided attempt to create political stability in the Middle East. It’s difficult to see how creating a nearly defenseless nation on land that had been fought over for more than a thousand years surrounded by enemies that outnumbered it by more than 100 to 1 and swore to annihilate it on the first day of its existence was supposed to accomplish that.

Israel survived through toughness and sacrifice. Wealthy Israelis accepted a 50% tax on their income to pay for military aid, largely from the United States and later from France and the UK. Despite significant anti-Semitic sentiment in the United States after the war, hatred of Jews was easily overmatched by fear of Communism, which guaranteed that America would never abandon Israel. The tiny nation became the lynchpin for the western nations’ attempts to contain Soviet expansion.

Our support of Israel wasn’t a one-way street. America’s massive infusion of aid was in our strategic interest as it stymied the Soviet Union’s efforts to attain a beachhead in the Middle East. Israeli engineers improved the warplanes we sent them and shared the upgrades with our military. Moreover, Israeli Intelligence and operatives on the ground became our Middle East front line in the Cold War. But two generations of living under siege caused the next generation of Israelis to long for a negotiated peace with their neighbors. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a majority of young Israelis voted against their right-wing government, only to have the tables turned when the Soviet Union collapsed, and more than three million Jews who had lived under Soviet domination emigrated to Israel. They swung the pendulum away from negotiation toward aggressive expansionism and created the power base of Bibi Netanyahu.

Netanyahu never supported a negotiated peace with his Arab neighbors because he equated compromise with the loss of Israeli power. He used his office to sabotage those efforts, repeatedly violating international law by building settlements on the Palestinian West Bank. His autocratic, my-way-or-no-way approach to government made him a Trump favorite, his disdain for neighboring countries matchng Trump’s, though to be fair, Netanyahu’s had some justification. Mexico, Canada, and Central America never vowed to destroy the United States.

Another thing Trump admired about Netanyahu was his response to being continually hounded by his nation’s justice system. Repeatedly declaring innocence of any wrong-doing despite years of mounting evidence of criminal corruption was something that was right in Trump’s wheelhouse. What really got Trump’s attention was the way Netanyahu clung to power even after being indicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust (accepting bribes for political favors.) Trump has been under investigation for racketeering and tax fraud for decades, and he knew that if he failed to be re-elected, he would likely be indicted without his pet Justice Department to protect him.

Trump and Netanyahu both displayed a willingness to retain power by any means necessary, counting on a rabid base of support to keep them in office. But here and in Israel those bases eventually waned, until this week, anger over Netanyahu’s policies and governing style resulted in a coalition of parties so diverse, no one imagined they could ever unite. The one thing that held them together was the need to depose Netanyahu. In like manner, nothing but fear and dislike of Trump could have united Democrats and Independents, enabling them to defeat him in 2020, and prosecutors in New York hint that Trump may soon suffer Netanyahu’s fate.

Both men loudly protested that their defeats were fraudulent, but let’s not take the comparison too far. Netanyahu may be corrupt and wrongheaded about negotiating with his neighbors, but right-wing supporters won’t be marching on Jerusalem in armed insurrection any time soon.

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Centrist Compromise May Be Our Last Hope

Alan Zendell, June 11, 2021

Although it’s been looking grim lately, all hope is not yet lost that the partisan impasse in Congress can be broken. That’s not to say that salvation from congressional gridlock is at hand, but why not bask in a ray of hope while we can?

I have believed for years that only way our democratic system can survive in the long term is if a strong centrist element forced those at the extremes to compromise, and with the war for control of the Republican presently underway between true Conservatives and Trumpers, that task is both more critical and difficult. Take the Senate, for example. What if a block of ten centrist leaning Senators refused to be bullied by tea partiers, Trumpers, progressives, or Ilhan Omar? What if they demanded to be heard and held out until one or both extremes realized that getting part of what they want is better than nothing? What if the loudest, angriest, wealthiest voices weren’t the only ones we heard?

Yesterday, a group of ten Senators, five Democrats and five Republicans announced that they had agreed on a $1.2 trillion compromise infrastructure bill that focused entirely on physical infrastructure. It would leave things like universal internet access for all Americans still just an aspiration, but let’s focus on the positive. If their bill were to pass as is, fewer freeway bridges would collapse and plunge unsuspecting motorists into canyons and rivers, fewer potholes and less crumbling pavement would prevent countless accidents, and several million good jobs would be created throughout the country. Those jobs would be in every region, urban, suburban, and rural, and through the magic of political accounting, the fight over tax rates would be averted or at least kicked down the road.

That would be nice, but it would be only a first step toward fixing what’s wrong in America. It would be an essential first step that demonstrates party leaders’ control over their caucuses is not absolute, something that needs to be true if our system is to be workable again. It might also poke a giant hole in the myth that the phrase “two-party system” is synonymous with American democracy.

There was a time when we mocked nations with parliamentary governments in which as many as ten political parties constantly vied for power. In the turbulent years of the Cold War, countries like Italy couldn’t form governments that were lasted more than a year or two. In those days Americans were smugly confident that our way was superior, that democracy meant getting rid of kings, autocrats, and parliaments, and having a stable two-party system. But we know from experience that you can only sit on a two-legged stool if it’s perfectly balanced in equilibrium. You’re much less likely to break your neck on one with three legs or four.

One result of the pandemic has been that when streaming services ran out of American and British programming content, we experienced television dramas produced in other countries. In several of them we got an up-close look at how multi-party governments actually function. Two excellent ones that come to mind are Borgen, a realistic, look at how parliament works in Denmark, and Occupied, which takes a close look at how Norway’s government might react to simultaneous crises involving Russia and the rest of the EU. Both left me with an enlightened view of multi-party systems, and convinced me that a viable Centrist party in America could be our only salvation. If you need a real-life example, consider what Israel has been going through as its voters tired of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s extremist policies and corruption, and struggled to form a new coalition government. The process has been ugly, but it’s hard to see how the Israeli government could avoid collapse any other way.

Let us hope that the Centrists (they prefer the term Moderates) in the Senate can establish a beachhead in the fight to reset Congress on the road to bipartisanism. Who are they? The usual suspects, the ones we’ve watched with hopeful eyes for years — Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). It’s by no means certain that Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer will release the reins of control and allow their caucuses to vote their consciences, but as I suggested at the top, let’s bask in this ray of hope while we can.

If this effort fails, the likelihood of getting a fair voting rights bill, a gun rights reform bill, and a tax structure that’s not rigged to favor the wealthy will drop to about zero.

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The Death of Integrity in Politics

Alan Zendell, June 8, 2021

Political leaders have long struggled to balance integrity with self-interest. That’s not new, but what is, is that political integrity now seems to be on its deathbed. There have always been intense disagreements among politicians, on slavery, labor unions, civil rights, immigration, and the often gray line between capitalism and the welfare state. But in the past, when faced with serious threats to the nation, politicians overcame their differences, found grounds for compromise, and had the nerve to act on them. That’s how our system was intended to work. When it ceases to work that way, its days will be numbered.

We’ve always had greedy politicians, crooked politicians, and some who simply lacked the courage to stand up for what they knew was right. They were usually in the minority, but something is radically different today. That third group is growing like a metastasized cancer. Not only do fear and self-interest almost completely dominate the actions of much of Congress, we no longer have a consensus of what “the right thing to do” is.

For this sad change in our politics, we can thank Donald Trump. Like other charismatic leaders who have led their countries down the path to self-destruction, Trump wielded a shocking degree of control over his party because his greatest talents are rooted in contempt for truth, sociopathic disregard for everyone but himself, and a visceral ability to sense weakness and vulnerability in others.

Trump has been remarkably successful in redefining truth for about a third of Americans. He brought his winner-take-all, no-holds-barred approach to business to our government, which, combined with his uncanny ability to identify and isolate the weakest member of every herd and pounce like a lion in the savanna, has shaken our already teetering political system’s foundations. While Trump’s popularity with voters has continued to wane post-January 6th, his hold on Republican legislators at all levels hasn’t. Like all self-indulgent fools who sign a pact the Devil, they forgot that the Devil always gets his due. Only this time, it’s not only they who are screwed. There’s an enormous risk that they will take the rest of us down with them.

The latest example of Congress’ current upside-down value system is Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). I don’t claim to understand the inner workings of his mind, but as a Democrat re-elected in a deeply Republican state, he’s clearly in an unenviable position. It’s impossible to know what’s really in his heart, but his actions and statements in this 50-50 Senate have been demonstrably disingenuous. He’s been accused of reveling in his position as political fulcrum and loving the power serendipity thrust upon him more than party, truth, or country.

Recognizing that most Americans hate the polarization of our politics and the partisanship in Congress, Manchin postured himself as the lone voice of bipartisanship. When Republican leaders Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell vowed to obstruct every attempt to pass legislation, that left Democrats in a position to either force through legislation without Republican support or throw in the towel. Knowing that he is the lynchpin on which this choice depends, Manchin has repeatedly stated that he believes in bipartisanship, that the alternative will eventually destroy our democracy, sentiments most of us support unequivocally.

But there was an unspoken implication in Manchin’s words that his attempts at bipartisanship had a time limit. If after expending every resource at his disposal, it was clear that critical legislation supported by two-thirds of Americans in both parties would die if he didn’t support it, he would accept that he couldn’t achieve Republican support and finally get in line with his party. His op-ed in Sunday’s Charleston Gazette-Mail put the lie to that hope.

Manchin stated without reservation that he would not support either the For The People Voting Rights bill or any attempt to weaken the filibuster. His argument that continuing to act in a partisan manner would only make things worse, resulting in more bipartisan retaliation by Republicans is at best foolish and at worst a bald-faced lie to appeal to his West Virginia voting base. I wonder if British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain used those same words to argue against resisting the Nazis’ occupation of Czechoslovakia.

We all get the point. No one likes tit-for-tat politics. But even worse is rolling over in the face of tyranny. Someone has to break the deadlock if our system is to become functional again.

A cynic I knew once said turning the other cheek is only likely to get that cheek smacked too. Since there’s no evidence that Congress has any use for Christian values, pacifism and generosity on the part of Democrats will result only in failure to produce meaningful results on things voters clearly need and want, leaving the field open for the most unscrupulous to work their will.

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A Deadly Game of Brinksmanship

Alan Zendell, June 4, 2021

Brinksmanship is like poker. You may be holding a winning hand. You may be bluffing. More than one player may believe he has a winning hand, and some players may behave irrationally. If that happens you have is an unpredictable outcome. In poker, unpredictability is what makes the game fun – the worst thing that might happen is losing a hand.

In brinksmanship the worst case is completely open-ended. All players could lose everything. We survived half a century of cold war, in which brinksmanship was thought to be the best way to maintain the peace. The idea was that the possibility that everyone could be devastated, known as mutually assured destruction, would in a rational world assure that no one took any action that set off an uncontrollable chain reaction of events. We survived the terror of nuclear holocaust for two generations. Were we right or just lucky?

Why would world leaders play such a deadly game? Because they believed had no other option. The problem is human nature. The only way to avoid brinksmanship is for everyone to submit to a higher authority, an objective arbiter of disputes. The League of Nations and the United Nations were idealized attempts to create such an authority. But when superpowers cannot agree, the result is either stalemate or war. It’s a truly terrifying situation that depends on world leaders all being basically sane. What might have happened if Nikita Khrushchev hadn’t backed down during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Khrushchev was the ultimate poker player who knew how far he could bluff before he (and we) lost everything.

The Trump faction of today’s Republican Party is presently involved in an equally risky game of brinksmanship. As with world leaders, it’s an act of desperation – they believe they have no other option. If they played by the rules while insisting that their policies and goals for the nation were non-negotiable, the evolving demographics of the country would almost certainly destroy their viability as a party. They could have modified their policies and messaging, but they chose to bluff it out in a power play.

Trump has always preferred intimidation to negotiation. That’s always been the centerpiece of his business philosophy. His narcissistic personality makes him incapable of accepting anything but a victory that completely vanquishes the enemy, and the enemy is everyone who hasn’t sworn fealty to him. Whether he wins or loses this fight, American democracy will be the ultimate loser.

This is not about traditional politics; words like liberal, progressive, and conservative have no meaning here. It’s completely about whether our constitutional guarantees of the rights and privileges of citizenship will survive. As we have repeatedly seen for the last six years, Trumpism is about whites dominating non-whites, regardless of who’s in the majority. It’s about whether the wealthy have a limitless right to protect their fortunes through any means and about the limits on personal freedoms like gun ownership that are required to protect society.

Those three issues are not a political philosophy. They are simply a collection of ideas calculated to win the loyalty of enough people to retain power, with no regard for the well-being of the nation. Thus, Trump is about to engage in a potentially deadly game of brinksmanship that will place everything at risk, a high-stakes, winner-take-all poker game in which winning is the only thing that matters. In doing so he will create a scenario in which the single thing that prevented nuclear war in the brinksmanship of the Cold War is removed from the game. Gone is the assurance that both sides with behave rationally. Trump believes in the Madman approach to diplomacy – intimidate the other side by making it believe that he’s crazy enough to destroy everything if he doesn’t get what he wants.

Why would that change now? He has demonstrated that he’s willing to build a movement on lies and fantasies. He has violated all the constitutional norms of fair elections and peaceful transfer of power. He has gleefully sparked an insurrection that could have had disastrous consequences beyond the lives lost and the hundreds of injuries to law enforcement personnel. And he’s moved on from Fox News to the entirely right-wing conspiracy-driven America One network for his ideas and support.

The faction of the Republican Party and its voting base that supports Trumps from this point forward care nothing about the future of America and everything about accumulating as much power as they can. They are single-minded and will stop at nothing, even if they blow it all up. An irrational leader who respects no authority but his own is the most dangerous threat this country will ever face.

Only Republicans driven by principle and conscience can fix this, and now may be their last chance.

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Democracy Under Attack

Alan Zendell, June 2, 2021

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the country was more divided than at any time in its history. Racist philosophies and policies were considered politically correct by millions of Americans, many of whom served in Congress and publicly argued that Negroes were and always would be inferior to whites and could thus not be entrusted with the sacred responsibility of voting. Alas, that responsibility seems to be losing its sanctity in the minds of Trump-dominated Republicans.

The Thirteenth Amendment declared slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude illegal except in certain cases as punishment for criminal acts. But those were just words as long as White Supremacists had as loud a voice as those who believed in the principle of equality. Could a nation as terribly divided over race as it was in 1866 fix that when arguments that would shock us today even in light of Charlottesville and the Capitol Insurrection were commonplace? Looking back, it seems remarkable that there were enough people of good faith among our leaders to pass the Fourteenth Amendment, which explicitly granted citizenship to anyone born in the United States. It further declared that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens.”

You don’t need a law degree or even a high school diploma to understand what those words mean. They are unequivocal and absolute. There is no doubt that they were intended to include the right to vote, free of any other qualifying tests. Yet, almost every state dominated by a Republican legislature is presently trying to restrict that right under the most transparently hypocritical guise of protecting against fraud. Among the ironies of a Trump-dominated Republican Party is accusing President Biden of being an anti-democratic socialist while in a very real sense placing him in the extremely Conservative position of defending the Constitution against those who would trash our democracy.

Signaling that the gloves are about to come off, Biden went to Tulsa yesterday to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre and elucidate his administration’s position on race and voting rights. The massacre was a White Supremacist terrorist attack against a prosperous part of the city known as the Black Wall Street. As the New York Times reported, “The [result was] a staggering portrait of loss: 35 blocks burned to the ground; as many as 300 dead; hundreds injured; 8,000 to 10,000 left homeless; more than 1,470 homes burned or looted; and eventually, 6,000 detained in internment camps.” If you have a child studying American history in school, pick up his or her textbook and look up what happened exactly one hundred years ago. Does it make any mention of the Tulsa Massacre?

President Biden understands that changing the minds of committed racists and people who put political opportunism above the Constitution is an uphill battle he probably can’t win, especially if we permit history to be erased or re-written when it’s convenient. But ever the optimist, Biden believes he doesn’t have to. Instead, he is convinced that the voices of hate and divisiveness do not represent the majority, even in deeply red states. He intends to reach out to that majority, who he believes are decent and fair-minded, shining a light on what his opponents would rather keep in the shadows.

In Tulsa, Biden drew a clear line between attempts to whitewash history and the Trump-led efforts to suppress voting rights. Governors like Brian Kemp (R-GA) and Greg Abbott (R-TX) couldn’t be more transparent about their attempts to restrict minority voting in their states, and Biden wants to assure that everyone understands what is at stake. He fervently believes that legislators who act to preserve their political hold on power rather than to defend democracy as defined in the Fourteenth Amendment do not represent the will of the majority of their citizens. I hope he’s right, because as we draw closer to the 2022 and 2024 elections, it appears that only a groundswell of support from that previously silent majority can preserve our democracy.

If Republicans in the Senate are allowed to scuttle passage of HR-1, The Voting Rights Act, and new state laws restricting voting go unchallenged in the courts, we may not recognize our own country ten years from now. I believe these laws are clear violations of the Fourteenth Amendment, but I’ll leave that argument to the lawyers. Democracy only works when the majority, tempered by constitutional limits on its ability to tyrannize minorities, are allowed to be heard. When we forget that, we might as well throw in the towel.

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In Memoriam

Alan Zendell, Memorial Day, May 31, 2021

I watched the PBS Memorial Day Concert last night. It was a lot like previous concerts, filled with patriotic tributes to Americans lost defending their country in war, with two noticeable differences. One was that because of COVID, last night’s presentation was a technically adept mix of live and virtual presentations and performances. Another was an emphasis on diversity, including a somewhat whitewashed view of the history of our racially segregated armed forces. But this was a celebration of lost heroes, so the producers can be forgiven for looking only at the positive contributions of African American battalions and ignoring the ugly truths that went along with them.

I understand that Memorial Day was intended to remember and honor our military war dead. Yet, it was impossible to ignore the elephant in the room in 2021. Throughout 2020, we were told we were involved in a deadly war. It wasn’t a military conflict, but most responsible leaders and public health experts described the fight to save lives during the pandemic as war nonetheless. Not a war declared by Congress against other nations, but a very real conflict on two major fronts.

One was medical, the urgent struggle to identify the virus and find a way to combat it, first with treatments for those who were infected, and ultimately for a vaccine. Our pharmaceutical researchers developed vaccines in record time, earning our eternal gratitude. Our frontline health workers and first responders were as heroic as any battlefield soldiers in all our wars, putting their own lives on the line to save others. It may not have been a military action, but it was as deadly a war as any armed conflict we ever fought, in fact as deadly as all the military conflicts in the last century combined.

War……….American Casualties
WW1……………………………..116,516
WW2……………………………..405,399
Korea……………………………….36,516
Vietnam…………………………..58,209
Iraq/Afghanistan……………….7,036
Total………………………….623,676

COVID………………………..591,265

As awful as our wars have been, as much as those who lost their lives defending the rest of us deserved to be honored and revered, it felt odd to me watching tribute after tribute, that no one mentioned the obvious – that invisible elephant – that we lost almost as many innocent Americans to COVID in a single year as soldiers in combat since 1917. Is it fair to talk about all of them in the same context? Perhaps not, but I feel compelled to nevertheless, because those COVID deaths are still very relevant today, and their number is still increasing.

We can argue about whether this or that war was justified or even legal, but the men and women who fought them were only concerned with doing their duty. For me, the most touching moments in last night’s concert were hearing people returning from risking their lives in Vietnam, only to be accosted as if they were criminals by antiwar demonstrators who were unable to distinguish alleged crimes by our political leaders from actions taken in combat by those who were sworn to defend us. That’s also what makes the comparison with the COVID war meaningful.

Had we conducted military operations the way we battled COVID, both our political and military leaders would have left in disgrace. The ugly truth about COVID is that many of our so-called leaders turned their backs on their responsibility to defend innocent American civilians against a scourge from which they couldn’t protect themselves. Politicizing our most recent wars (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq/Afghanistan) divided the country, and in many ways got in the way of achieving our military objectives. But politicizing the war against COVID was an entirely different matter.

Most of the nearly 600,000 Americans who died from COVID didn’t have to. They were condemned to death, and their families to struggle on without them simply because too many of our leaders, starting with Donald Trump and extending down through the ranks at all levels of government had the wrong priorities. Whether it was greed or simple power lust, those who turned common sense public safety measures in to a political football are as guilty as any war criminals of causing civilian deaths.

While it’s understandable that including COVID in our Memorial Day remembrances might have been seen as politically incorrect and in bad taste, excluding those deaths was as disrespectful as ignoring those who died in war. Many people are trying to re-write the history of our war on COVID to suit their own interests, the same ones who are now trying to suppress voting of minority populations. If we ignore the former, we strengthen all the forces trying to undermine our democracy. If that is allowed to continue, we may be mourning the loss of everything we hold dear on some future Memorial Day.

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What Happened to Republican Leadership?

Alan Zendell, May 28, 2021

We could capture all the political problems our country faces today with a single question – where have all the conservative leaders of the past two decades gone? I’m thinking of a select few: George W. Bush, John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Jeff Flake. They all have a couple of things in common. When in office, they were viewed as nice guy conservatives with whom the other party could negotiate. Since having left office, they have all been absent from the public scene when the country most needs them.

Boehner is happily hawking marijuana and writing books. When he appears in the media these days, those are the things he talks about. When he’s asked about the split in the Republican Party, he makes jokes about Donald Trump but has no interest in fighting to restore the party to its pre-Trump values.

Paul Ryan, who reluctantly accepted the role of House Speaker when Boehner quit, was a very popular conservative who could have capitalized on his status when Trump began changing the party into a racist, divisive cheering section. But he never had the stomach for the kind of confrontation that required. He knew that with Mitch McConnell’s help, he could achieve his decades-long goal of massive tax cuts for big business and the wealthiest Americans because it was in Trump’s wheel house. Like the others, when his personal objective was met he quit, leaving the rest of us to survive Trump. Unfortunately, almost 600,000 of us didn’t.

Flake is the heir of Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative movement. In the first two years of Trump’s presidency, he showed some backbone in defense of his values, publishing a scathing book about Trump’s dishonesty and immorality. But in doing so he became an inadvertent role model for other conservatives who saw Trump react by assuring that Flake would lose Arizona’s Republican primary in 2018. Flake could have fought back, but instead he folded his cards and went home to the Barry Goldwater Institute, where he still impotently sits watching Trump destroy his party. After Flake’s principled stand against whitewashing the confirmation of Bret Kavanaugh as Supreme Court Justice, CNN must have thought they had a bonanza when they signed him as a contributor, but his toothless attacks on Trump never got traction.

Given his family heritage, Bush 43 could have played a significant leadership role in his party after leaving office. It was understandable that after ending his term with the worst popularity rating of any modern era president, with anger over his Iraq and Afghanistan misadventures still tangible, he would want to lay low and avoid the spotlight. But six years later, when Trump came on the political scene with his hateful rhetoric and complete disregard for conservative values, even the vicious attacks leveled against the entire Bush family weren’t enough to wake him from his stupor. The sound of silence as these four former leaders sat quietly on the sidelines living their lives and enjoying their wealth was not what Paul Simon had in mind when he wrote about it.

Although he still serves as U. S. Senator, it’s only fair to include Mitt Romney in the group of leaders who might have made a difference if they’d been willing to. Romney has his own base of support in Utah independent of Trump’s, and more money than he can ever spend. Yet, his mild-mannered opposition to Trump’s behavior hasn’t impressed anyone. Instead of working to form a coalition of Republicans willing to fight for their party, he has allowed himself to become a pariah to the other forty-nine Republican Senators.

After hiding out during the worst of Trump’s crimes as president, Ryan could have struck a meaningful blow against Trumpism to kick off the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation’s effort to take back the Republican Party. But his criticisms of Trump, to whom he was not willing refer by name, were diminished by his attacks on President Biden’s political agenda, hardly a way to convince fellow Republicans that their current enemy is Trump. And Trump’s typical response, calling Ryan a curse to the party and a weak, ineffective leader blunted whatever Ryan was attempting to do.

Was Ryan’s speech a one-off or will he finally take on the fight in earnest? Will the Bushes or Boehner or Flake? Or will the enormous vacuum created by their exit continue to be filled by the likes of Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene? I wonder what other world leaders think as they watch the former party of principled statesmen succumb to the vile rhetoric of Trump’s sycophants.

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Returning to Normal

Alan Zendell, May 26, 2021

If you think like I do, you looked at the title and thought – what does that even mean? People remark that we’re returning to normal every day and I want to ask each one: “How do you know?” I don’t because they can’t.

Are we back to normal with respect to generations of families re-uniting? Most people seem to be, but it’s not the same as before. If people have to travel long distances, despite airlines claiming flights are full again, many aren’t ready to get on a plane or a train yet. Many others are behaving as though the pandemic is gone, and too many never changed their behavior even during the lockdowns. We continue to meet via video conferencing, and I doubt that will ever change.

What about vacations? Are you going to be willing to board a cruise ship any time soon? I’m not, but then, I always thought cruise ships were floating petri dishes waiting to explode into a deadly epidemic. Ocean cruising will never return to what it was; river cruising might, as river boats are smaller, almost entirely open air, and if you’re on, say, the Danube, you can’t be quarantined at sea. You can jump off the boat and wade to shore in most places.

And road trips? I took one recently that covered 2,000 miles. It felt comfortable and normal, compared to a year earlier when driving 1,000 miles to get home felt like tiptoeing through a series of minefields. Big chain hotels and restaurants had done a great job of adapting, and fuel costs were still low because of reduced demand earlier in the pandemic. Speaking of which, here’s another sign of returning to normal, albeit an unpleasant one. After the Suez Canal blockage in March, gas prices soared to levels not seen in years due to uncertain supply lines. Two months later, there’s no longer any uncertainty, yet prices are still at their peaks. The oil companies and their distribution networks are as corrupt as ever, reaping every penny of windfall profits they can until someone stops them.

Discussing returning to work again, we must realize that people define normal according to their own circumstances. If your job no longer exists, you run the risk of falling through the cracks as the government begins to report that the economy is roaring again. Unemployment rates and hundreds of thousands of new jobs created each month don’t mean much if you have no prospect of getting one. As the 2022 elections approach, neither major party will want to focus on the millions of Americans left behind.

Assuming you still have a job or found a new one, is work like it was before the pandemic? Employers learned that working from home and substituting video conferencing for in-person interaction can save a ton of administrative costs, though some have concerns about monitoring productivity. For many people, like single parents juggling job, school, and day care, working from home is a huge benefit – no hours wasted commuting, minimal wardrobe concerns, and more quality time with kids are hard to give up. People who used to spend weeks and months in business travel have realized how useless most of that travel is. Now that they see how productive they can be sitting in front of a computer screen, most won’t want to pack their suitcases again.

Most school systems concluded that returning to normal means all students attending in-person classes, and the majority will not be offering virtual learning in the fall. But teachers know that while most children need to be in school to learn, there are many who do better in virtual settings. Let’s hope alternative learning platforms don’t completely disappear.

I left government for last because it’s so profoundly depressing. In previous pandemics, our government put partisanship aside for the public good. But this time, the government was dominated by a craven president who cared about television ratings and stock market indexes more than human lives. Four months into Joe Biden’s presidency, Republican lawmakers’ preoccupation with currying favor from Trump, regaining control of the Congress, and suppressing the votes of minorities, are allowing partisanship to continue unabated. The destructive politics of Trumpism continues to eat away at our national soul.

Racist, divisive voices like Marjorie Taylor Greene’s have always been a fact of life in American politics. But with Trump continuing to dominate his party and threatening ruin to all who oppose him, our government is running on fumes and hypocrisy. Trump didn’t create spineless leaders like Kevin McCarthy, but he knew an ambitious politician who would sell his soul to be House Speaker when he saw one, and he was only too happy to draft a bill of sale.

Despite President Biden’s effort to achieve a measure of bipartisan cooperation, it’s not going to happen. The single exception may be the police reform bill thanks to South Carolina’s Tim Scott. Scott has a conscience, and even if he didn’t, he knows his political future depends on African American voters believing he cares about racial justice more than receiving an endorsement from Donald Trump.

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An Insurrection Fable

Alan Zendell, May 21, 2021

The following is fiction. Any similarity between what is written below and actual events is entirely intentional. No names have been changed to protect the innocent because every one of these miscreants is as guilty as sin.

The producers think long and hard about the leading role. They need someone who’s tough as nails and virtually emotionless, a stone-faced actor who never smiles, who speaks in a monotone, like Jack Webb as Sergeant Friday – someone like Keanu Reeves. But it isn’t that easy. Keanu is known for taking his roles seriously.

After his first reading of the script he calls the Executive Producer: “Now I know why Damon and Krasinski turned this down. You thought I wouldn’t find out? This is crap. The audience will never buy it.” The EP reminds Keanu that truth is often stranger than fiction, to which Keanu replies, recalling his role as the alien Klaaatu, sent to Earth to decide if it deserves to be destroyed, “These characters are depraved degenerates, a textbook case of natural selection failing to improve the species. I can only accept this role if I get to blow them all up at the end.”

Alas, after not being able to work during the pandemic, his feelings are assuaged by the addition of another few pieces of silver. The movie begins with thousands of ignorant, racist losers armed with everything from fireplace pokers to AR-47s demonstrating outside the White House. The scene evokes cliches about tinderboxes and smoking volcanos. The audience can actually feel the Earth tremble and Keanu is in his element, feeling like he is embarking on another Excellent Adventure. Surely, some of the thirty plus police agencies in Washington are about to swoop in to protect the president, whom the Secret Service must have locked down in the nuclear-proof bunker beneath the White House by now.

But no, here comes the president, approaching a podium with a microphone, accompanied by his personal lawyer, a once prominent mayor and prosecutor who has sadly lost his mind. They’re flanked by a few people from the House and Senate who are egging the mob on to violence. Then, with the entire country and much of the world watching, the president ratchets the volume even higher, suggesting that the mob march to the Capitol and lynch the Vice President.

I know what you’re thinking – no wonder Keanu wanted to toss the script in the trash, but the scene has actually energized him. As people in Congress and the Cabinet demand a bipartisan investigation into the ransacking of the Capitol, the deaths of five police officers, the injuries to hundreds more, and the obvious connections between certain members of Congress and the insurrectionists, the role of hard-nosed, no-compromise chief investigator has him psyched. The majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate are all furious with the president, the first time they’ve acted in unison since John McCain was laid to rest – well, almost, as the president took that opportunity to remind Americans that Prisoners of War aren’t heroes.

Truth be told, Keanu had never finished reading the script. He’d stopped when it became obvious that he was going to have a great time beating the heads of White Supremacists and disaffected survivalists. His crowning moment would be testifying in Federal Court about the actions of everyone in the government who was complicit in the insurrection, as a grateful nation tearfully watched. It was time to read the final act.

At first he’s confused. He must have picked up the wrong script. What had been a unanimous commitment to get to the bottom of what happened on January sixth has become another partisan football. Suddenly, the two minority leaders, who had been only too happy to throw off the yoke of a narcissistic madman realize that they and their colleagues lack the courage and integrity to stand up to the former president. They have all resumed the roles of sycophants, despite the transparency of their changes of heart. Did not the entire world see and hear them on January seventh and eighth?

It is at this point that Keanu finally says No. “I’m sorry guys, but no one will ever believe that the Congress of the United States of America could be that craven and impotent. Maybe in Paraguay or Myanmar, but not here. I won’t destroy my reputation by being a part of this.”

So there you have it. Thanks to Keanu Reeves, who isn’t even an American, being willing to tear up his paycheck to do the right thing, the country and the world will never have to bear witness to the world’s best hope for democracy degenerating into a pathetic parody of a nation.

Thanks, Keanu. (And please accept my sincere apology.)

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Life After COVID

Alan Zendell, May 18, 2021

When we consider what life will look like after COVID, the biggest unknown is how many of us will have been vaccinated. The anti-vax movement has been around for two hundred years, even when small pox ravaged the country in the early 1800s. The basic reasons for mistrust of vaccines have remained the same in all that time, but there’s a different twist this time. People cite religious convictions, dislike of science, fear of government control, and suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry. Those generalities haven’t changed, but the details have.

A number of religious sects consider vaccinations an affront to God. We may disagree with that point of view, but the courts have consistently excepted religious orthodoxy from complying with social and health regulations that violated their dogma. Religious objection to the COVID vaccines is a lot more complicated, however.

Particularly in red states, many churches have been caught up in local politics. Ministers who cannot cite religious objections, and who are not remotely qualified to assess the safety and efficacy of vaccines have been politicized by the populist movement of Donald Trump. Trump’s entirely disingenuous opposition to a woman’s right to control her own body, his constant disrespect for science, and his nonstop war with the CDC and the public health experts on his COVID task force made it easy for politically corrupt churches to sow mistrust of the vaccine.

Another aspect of the Trump movement was spreading distrust of the government. There has always been a segment of the population that hated the authority of the federal government, but Trump cultivated it as an art form. Trump’s characterization of the “government swamp,” echoed and amplified by thousands of sycophants, fed that hatred and exacerbated it. The fact that the Trump administration corrupted values and had no respect for truth or facts didn’t prevent it from widening and capitalizing on anti-government sentiment, no matter that Trump’s version of government trampled all over democracy.

The last administration and the Republican Party in the deeply red states made it crystal clear in 2020 that protecting the lives of Americans from COVID ranked far behind craven self-interest, lust for power, and pressure from financial interests that stood to profit from preventing a locked down economy. That has continued into the Biden administration, as the Republican establishment would rather frustrate President Biden’s efforts to save lives than eradicate the pandemic.

With respect to the COVID vaccines, the unfortunate truth is that there are a lot of unscrupulous politicians who lack the courage to take on the Trumpers and dispel their lies. Even worse is the enormous number of Americans who are either too ignorant, too stupid, or simply too lazy to take the trouble to understand. And that raises some critical questions about how we will proceed when the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

It’s important to keep in mind that if a vaccine is 95% effective, even in a crowd of vaccinated people one in twenty are likely to be infected if they are exposed to the virus, and that number could be higher with the more deadly strains. If a sizable number of people eschew the vaccines and refuse to wear masks, those individuals will remain a threat to everyone else.

Let’s talk about mass transportation – buses, planes, and all variety of rail travel, from crowded commuter lines to overnight long-distance trains. Should people who have refused to be vaccinated be allowed to jeopardize the health of millions of others, or should we require proof of vaccination before they can purchase tickets? Should employers have the right to refuse to allow workers back into cleansed facilities without proof of vaccination? And what about indoor sports venues and high-density retailers like box stores and super markets? Should people who frequent dating websites have to reveal their vaccination status?

Consider one example. A quarter of a million passengers, mostly seniors, ride the auto train between Virginia and Florida every year. The trip averages 18-20 hours each way, and AMTRAK currently requires passengers to wear masks for the entire trip including an additional several hours prior to departure and waiting for their cars to be debarked when they arrive. Call it twenty-two hours in a mask, which most people would consider intolerable. If a fourth of the population refused to be vaccinated, AMTRAK would only have two options: continue the mask requirement indefinitely, or restrict ticket sales only to people who can prove they received one.

We shouldn’t be arguing about vaccines. And we shouldn’t allow a bunch of irresponsible morons to dictate how the rest of us live in the future. If it were up to me, proof of vaccination would be required to register to vote. I bet the Trumpers would love that.

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