Distinguishing Good From Evil

Alan Zendell, October 5, 2022

It’s often said that, like sausage making, the more you scrutinize politics and diplomacy, the worse they look and smell. A main reason I object to mixing religious and secular education is that religion plants the false notion in children’s minds that good and evil exist as distinct and easily identifiable characteristics in each of us. Before the internet, it was easy for propaganda-savvy governments and politicians to idealize good and evil so they were portrayed as good.

During World War 2 and Korea, Americans believed we were the good guys. Despite having committed genocide against the native Americans who preceded us and enslaving millions of kidnapped Africans, then continuing to deny non-white Americans’ constitutional rights, we grew up believing America was the greatest country in the world, the greatest that ever existed. That might be true if you define a virtuous person as the least evil one.

About politics and diplomacy, it’s also said that the only thing worse than either would be if neither existed, as they are the only alternatives humans have found to constant conflict and chaos. In a desperately divided nation, each faction believes it has good and righteousness on its side. In a desperately divided world each alliance feels the same way.

If our divisive politics in recent decades wasn’t bad enough, there’s a civil war within the Republican Party. Last week, Donald Trump viciously attacked Mitch McConnell and threw a racial slur at his “China-loving” wife, Elaine Chao. Many saw Trump’s remarks as an invitation to his more virulent supporters to do violence to the Kentucky Senator, and the china-loving remark was typical Trump slander. Chao may be corrupt, but her wealth comes from her family businesses in Taiwan – she’s no fan of China. And as 2024 approaches, after supporting Ron DeSantis’ run for Governor of Florida, and receiving constant support from DeSantis since he entered politics, Trump is now poised to direct his hate and vitriol against the Florida Governor because early preference polls for president show DeSantis leading Trump in the primaries.

The Democrats waged a civil war of their own which resulted in sixteen months of legislative stalemate after the 2021 COVID stimulus bill passed. That they resolved their differences sufficiently to have an unusually productive Congressional term doesn’t suggest that their internal differences are any less severe than the Republicans’. Their success in this Congress stems from the non-self-aggrandizing leadership of President Joe Biden, who believes it’s better to unite a party than for one faction to beat another into submission.

Diplomatically, America has been on the wrong side far too often. Vietnam was a disaster, not only because we lost, but because it’s not clear we were on the right side. We inherited the mess left by the French, not because they were the good guys, but because they were allies, and the decades since we surrendered showed that Ho Chi Minh was not the evil enemy he was portrayed to be. Were we on the right side in the Iran-Iraq conflict? Were we right to spend twenty years fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of confronting the Saudis for their role in the nine-eleven attack?

We’re more involved every day in the war in Ukraine. I’m all in supporting Ukraine, no matter what it takes. But does that mean good resides in Ukraine while only evil drives Russia? Ukraine has our sympathy and support because almost all of the 45 million Ukrainian people are innocent victims in this war.

NATO loves calling Russia’s invasion “unprovoked,” but is that true? When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, Russia depended on its agriculture and its ports in Crimea and the Odessa region. Ever since the USSR’s demise, Russia has been clear that it fears incursions by NATO on its western borders. We may hate Vladimir Putin and condemn the actions he takes, but most of America felt that way about Trump during his administration. We’re not supporting Ukraine because they’re the good guys, but because it is in the strategic interest of the entire planet to stop aggression by a nuclear power before it leads to total destruction.

Ukraine, as a nation has hardly been a model of democracy and good government. I watched all fifty-plus episodes of Servant of the People, the prophetic Netflix parody starring Volodymyr Zelensky when he was Ukraine’s most popular comedic actor. Made after Russia annexed Crimea, it shows us a Ukrainian-eyed view of the country in 2015-2017. Zelensky, playing the role of president, constantly fights greedy oligarchs and a government owned, lock, stock, and barrel by wealthy supporters. It’s difficult to distinguish that view of Ukraine from our image of Russia, they’re so similar. And today the New York Times is reporting that the car bomb in Moscow that killed the daughter of a Russian oligarch was the result of a Ukrainian plot.

No one’s hands are clean, whether it’s politics or diplomacy. We support Ukraine because supporting them is a better idea than allowing Putin to run rampant throughout Europe. When you look at the people supporting your candidates in the coming elections, you’ll see similar dynamics at work. They all have huge egos and a lust for power, but some are a lot more evil than others.

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The Challenges We Face

Alan Zendell, September 30, 2022

The phrase, “When it rains, it pours,” is usually a reference to problems piling on top of each other. Not to strain the metaphor too much, depending on what those problems are, they can lead to a perfect storm of loss and devastation. The United States and the rest of the world appear to be facing that possibility now. Wherever you look – world affairs, the changing climate, the global economy, or politics – the signs are potentially ominous.

The most immediate concern is Vladimir Putin’s escalation of his war in Ukraine. It’s the perfect subject for all those highly paid talking heads. If it turns out Putin was bluffing, they’ll all note that somewhere in their scholarly analyses of possibilities was a warning that he might be. And if he isn’t, we may all be too irradiated to care. One of the primary rules of game theory is that when the consequences of a negative outcome are catastrophic, the likelihood of that outcome is virtually irrelevant – it must be avoided at all costs.

The worst-case outcome from climate change is less severe than a nuclear war, but it’s likelihood is higher. An objective observer might conclude that with a longer planning horizon and the tools to mitigate the worst outcomes at our disposal, governments at all levels, everywhere should be mobilizing to protect our future, but like many rational conclusions, that one has been a victim of partisan politics and greedy self-interests until now. There’s an impressive body of evidence that storms like Hurricane Ian, that caused billions of dollars and cost lives all over Florida, and the unprecedented heat waves of last summer can be laid directly at the feet of climate change. Will that change anyone’s mind?

We see the same counterproductive forces at work when we examine local, domestic, and world economies. Every economy was dealt a severe blow by the COVID pandemic, which also showed us the folly of moving most of our manufacturing off shore to countries where labor and materials are cheaper. The energy crunch caused by Putin’s extortion of Russia’s oil and natural gas customers, combined with supply chain problems and climate-induced crop failures spiked inflation and have most economists seriously worried about the future. Less than a month into its new government’s tenure, the UK’s economy is teetering on the edge. These problems are visible and solvable if we set our minds to them without distractions.

Finally, we must deal with our political crises, which in some ways are the polar opposite of our more immediate crises. Political challenges are a little like icebergs. We only see them from the angles the spin doctors want us to, with their most dangerous implications hidden beneath the surface. Given all the other problems we face, political leaders have a choice. They can either work together for the common good to avoid disaster, or they can take advantage of desperate circumstances to work their own priorities.

While extremists among the Democrats managed to negotiate their differences and eke out a few legislative victories that will benefit millions of Americans, the civil war within the Republican Party rages on with no end in sight. Thus, we have the spectacle of Mitch McConnell looking like a reasonable establishment conservative while the Trumpers would rather tear everything down than not get their way. The latest example of this is the upcoming annual fight over raising the federal debt ceiling.

Hate him or love him, McConnell at least understands that shutting down the government over providing funding to implement laws that have already been passed and signed would be tantamount to a ship captain tossing his crew overboard in stormy seas without life preservers. McConnell made sure the debt ceiling deadlline was delayed until after the midterm elections, but the Trumpers couldn’t care less as long as they are able to scuttle everything the Biden administration has accomplished.

The past thirty-two months have been difficult. Millions lost their lives or their health and vitality. Many millions more lost jobs or family members. People are understandably weary, but that’s no excuse to disengage from reality. If we don’t remain involved, we will lose control of our future. We could wake up one day and realize that all the freedoms we thought we had are gone. We could find ourselves slipping into a serious economic decline which might also be the tipping point for failing to solve our other problems.

When money gets tight, who’s going to be willing to keep spending billions helping Ukraine or building wind farms that can assure our future energy independence without destroying our planet? Who will have the time and resources to protect us from those who would undermine our Constitution for their own profit? When the perfect storm materializes, all our separate problems coalesce into a single massive threat with tentacles that can reach into every part of our lives.

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Autocrats, Real and Imagined

Alan Zendell, September 22, 2022

The two immediate crises faced by everyone on Earth stem from the same source – the trend toward autocrats and the cults that support them. Our future may hinge on the actions of two men, one a vicious dictator, the other a worshipful wannabe, both of whom relentlessly pursue their agendas with no regard for the rest of us.

Vladimir Putin dreams of restoring the empire that was the Soviet Union. Like centuries of Russian leaders before him, he is driven by the paranoid view that the rest of the world wants to destroy his country. Donald Trump is a narcissistic sociopath who would spend his last breath attempting to achieve the kind of power he imagines Putin has. Neither man possesses a shred of morality or humanity. Empathy and benevolence do not exist in their belief systems except as tools for manipulating people.

As a result, the world finds itself at the mercy of two men who would stop at nothing to realize their ambitions, and each is supported by a cult of true believers. Each clings to power by spreading lies and ruthlessly attacking his enemies, whom he defines as everyone who fails to bend a need in fealty. Each possesses the mentality of a thug and surrounds himself with yes people who support his delusionary view of the world. And they’re each desperate to either remain in or retake control of the world’s largest storehouses of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Putin wants the world to believe he would freeze Europe during the coming winter and resort to nuclear weapons in his quest to control and annex Ukraine. Donald Trump has demonstrated that he would undermine the principles on which our nation was founded and destroy democracy to achieve his ends. The United States and Russia, and by extension, the rest of the civilized world, are being driven to the brink of catastrophe.

That Putin explicitly said, “This is not a bluff,” yesterday, shows how desperate he is. That Trump took the Fifth over 400 times in his court appearances leading up to the $250 million lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General against him, his family, and his businesses sends the same message. Trump and Putin are on the ropes, with their backs against the wall, and they’re as dangerous as cornered rats, except that these rats might have the resources to take the rest of us down with them.

There are a couple of simple truths that we ignore at our peril. Leaders like Putin and Trump, unprincipled bullies with the mentalities of gangsters, can only be stopped by strength. Our grandparents lived through the nightmare of what happens when we attempt to compromise or reason with these thugs, and at least until now, we and our European allies have realized that standing united against aggression is more important than our individual needs and differences.

The other truth is that a republic like ours, imperfect as it is, has been the most benevolent form of government the world has ever known, but it’s still an experiment. No democratic society has ever survived longer than a couple of centuries, and if we expect ours to, we must defend it against those who would bring it down with the same unrelenting determination that we resist Russia’s attempt to rebuild its empire by force.

To get through this, we must have our eyes open to reality. Our communications media are all dominated by wealthy, powerful people out for their own interests, not ours. We cannot let the extremists who control them dominate our thoughts and opinions. It’s on us to get this right, because there are no superheroes waiting to come to our rescue.

The biggest problem may be that history is not on our side. Power and wealth invariably corrupt people, and human nature includes a nasty perversity that too often leads to death and destruction. Yet, I remained optimistic about the future regardless of having lived through the Cold War, Vietnam, nine-eleven, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I’ve looked at Iran, North Korea, Russia, and the threats they represent and always assumed things would work out in the end.

Why? Because I bought into the American dream and the propaganda that sustained it. I grew up believing in the fantasy of our destiny, that we’re the good guys and the good guys always win, except that they don’t. When my resolve weakens, I pull out my copy of Walter M. Miller’s classic 1959 novel, A Canticle For Leibowitz, which I first read just before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its brilliantly delivered message is that human beings, whenever they achieve the ability for self-destruction will inevitably tear down everything they have built because we cannot control our baser urges.

Miller makes his point convincingly enough to restore my resolve. When the forces of evil and dissolution rise up, we have no choice but to stand up to them with everything we possess. Joe Biden understands that. If we survive the next few years, history will recognize him as the right leader at the right time, one who put basic humanity and decency ahead of greed and power.

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Wind Farms

Alan Zendell, September 15, 2022

Of all the issues critical to our future that have been taken hostage by political extremists, climate change may be the most serious, depending on whether you believe the long-term health of our planet or the survival of American democracy is more important. Considering the world our grandchildren will inherit, I’d call it a tie. That makes today’s announcement monumental.

Talk about hypocrisy! Have you ever met a nuclear power advocate who wanted a reactor in his neighborhood, or a law-and-order hard-liner who supported a high-security prison in his town? In 2007, a far-thinking project known as Cape Wind was nearing the end of a six-year battle to build America’s first wind turbine farm off the southern coast of Cape Cod. Engineering studies estimated that it would supply 79% of all the power consumed on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. It had been approved by state regulators and awaited only federal approval.

Except that a powerful Senator, Edward Kennedy, happened to live in Hyannisport, from which the 440-foot tall turbines would have been visible. Kennedy, who claimed strong support for environmental causes, thought they were an eye sore, and killed the project, effectively saying, “Not in My Backyard.” Consequently, while offshore wind farms have been sprouting up along coastlines around the world, fifteen years later, the United States has only one small facility near Block Island, Rhode Island.

Projects are currently on the books for larger wind farms off the coasts of Connecticut, New York, (Long Island,) New Jersey, and Maryland, but none have received the necessary approvals to begin construction. That makes the Biden administration’s announcement that it is committing itself to wind turbine farms off the coast of California absolutely epic. It’s not only the right thing to do for our future, but it’s perfectly timed for the midterm election campaigns.

A majority of Americans, and a super-majority of environmental scientists believe reducing carbon emissions, to zero if possible, is the only way to avoid a catastrophe for future generations. Wind turbines produce the greenest energy possible, with virtually no carbon footprint. You might hear idiotic arguments like interrupting the natural flow of wind might confuse migratory birds, but there is no rational opposition to Biden’s plan. Anyone who speaks out against it is undoubtedly motivated by greed or politics.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm says the California projects and those planned for the Oregon and Maine coastlines are capable of generating twice as much electricity as the entire country presently consumes. That’s a huge statement, coming on the heels of the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which included $369 billion to mitigate the effects of climate change, and it keeps one of President Biden’s most important campaign promises. Imagine that! Achieving a political objective while improving the future for billions of people.

This won’t happen overnight, but consider what the future might hold. Meeting America’s electricity needs with wind and hydropower accomplishes many other things as well. Combined with new initiatives to produce electric and hydrogen powered motor vehicles, we will finally achieve energy independence without the need to burn coal, and with far less consumption of oil. We can now envision a future in which oil-rich nations can no longer hold oil production hostage when it suits their needs. Moreover, energy dependence is one of the most serious threats to national security and the stability of the world order.

Vladimir Putin could not have risked invading Ukraine if Europe weren’t dependent on Russian oil and natural gas. Russian natural gas was the single greatest obstacle Biden had to overcome in getting NATO and the EU solidly aligned in the defense of Ukraine. What if, the next time a misguided Russian president sets his sights on his western neighbors, the entire North Sea has been turned into a giant wind farm, imitating Denmark’s example? What if the English Channel was one long line of wind turbines, and it became fashionable to have a wind farm in your backyard along the Spanish, French, and Italian Riviera coastlines?

No one would be able extort diplomatic or military concessions from countries that now import oil and natural gas. We will reduce the amount of gases that trap heat in our atmosphere, the global average temperature will begin to drop, and our remaining ice caps will be secure for the future. Air pollution and acid rain will cease to be threats to our nation’s health, and we’ll be able to see the stars again.

I’m not exaggerating. The Biden wind farm initiative has the potential to change everything about the future.

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Positive Signs

Alan Zendell, September 13, 2022

As 2022 began, everything seemed to be trending in the wrong direction. Congress was hopelessly deadlocked. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had re-aligned himself with Donald Trump, tying his future to the former president’s. Democrats were unable to captialize on their razor-thin Senate majority which was stymied by two Senators who would not go along with our current president’s agenda, and Biden appeared mired in quicksand, with a dismal approval rating and a storm of criticism from both the right and left. Pundits predicted a midterm tsunami, a red wave led by Trump-dominated Republicans, while investigations of Trump’s involvement in the January 6th insurrection were being stonewalled by former White House officials and lawyers.

Russia massed troops along its border with Ukraine, and Biden faced his greatest challenge: restoring American leadership of NATO and re-uniting Europe against the threat of Russian aggression. Russia and OPEC had found common interest in limiting oil production to drive up prices. Predictions of recession were rampant, and the Omicron variant of COVID reminded us that the pandemic wasn’t over, it had simply evolved to a new phase. COVID didn’t dominate the news, but so many hospital beds were occupied by COVID patients, there was little room for anyone else.

When it seemed things couldn’t look gloomier, Russia invaded Ukraine, inflation exploded, the Supreme Court reversed Roe v Wade, warning that other rights we consider settled by decades of precedent were in jeopardy, and red states began passing laws threatening the objectivity of our elections that the courts seemed inclined to let stand. Perhaps worst of all, efforts to offset the effects of climate change seemed dead.

In March, however, two miracles unfolded. Joe Biden’s understated leadership and the relationships he had established with our allies as Senator and Vice President paid huge dividends. Even his supporters were startled at his success in creating solidarity among NATO and EU leaders, though we are routinely warned that it might collapse any time. The Ukrainian people showed the same mettle against a massive Russian military that they had eighty years earlier, when Hitler invaded. The success of Ukraine’s armed forces, the massive influx of arms and other essential equipment from NATO countries, and Ukrainian leaders’ ability to work smoothly with U. S. and European intelligence shocked almost everyone, not least, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Teachers, historians, economists, and politicians tell us the forces that influence our lives are mostly cyclical. It’s easy to lose faith waiting for the pendulum to swing back, but it always does, and it’s doing so now. Gas prices are down thirty percent from their June highs and are lower than when Russia invaded Ukraine, proving that we were victimized more by the oil cartels’ greed than Putin’s blackmail. Special elections, especially in red states, show that voters are inclined to reject the extremism of the Trump-dominated courts, and Trump’s success in forcing his candidates through the primaries may backfire in November, as many of those he supported are clearly not ready for prime time.

In June, the incompetent, dysfunctional Democrats got their act together and managed to do so under the radar, averting a flood of counter-propaganda from the right and enabling Congress to pass landmark legislation. We are repaying veterans (and their families) who suffered grave illness and death due to our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re enabling our government to negotiate drug prices for seniors, taking a chunk out of the monopoly control pharmaceutical companies have enjoyed for a century. We’re returning manufacturing of essential goods and components like computer chips and electric vehicles to the United States, ending our dependence on not-always-friendly governments and weakened supply chains.

We are finally taking significant action to offset the effects of climate change, reduce carbon emissions, and bring the dream of energy self-sufficiency to fruition. And most remarkably, thanks to the leadership of President Biden and his Department Chiefs at State and Defense, the flow of weapons, humanitarian aid, and overwhelming diplomatic support has helped Ukraine achieve remarkable success hardly anyone thought possible in pushing Russian forces out of occupied territory. And we’re learning, today, that our unified action has energized Russian opposition to Vladimir Putin.

As the House Committee investigating January 6th, the Department of Justice, and law enforcement officials in Georgia and New York continue to uncover shameful and likely criminal actions by Donald Trump, Americans are waking up to the reality that Trump was intent on destroying our democracy and President Biden is the leader many of us hoped he would be. His approval ratings have risen from the high thirties to the mid-forties, and the trend in forecasts for the midterm elections no longer portends domination by Trump’s extremism.

Everything could go south again, but the forces of decency and reason in America are in the ascendancy. Our job is to maintain that momentum. Our future depends on it.

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Tough Choices

Alan Zendell, September 9, 2022

The next couple of months are not a time when Americans who care about our future can afford to take our eyes off the ball. We’re under a lot of stress, from inflated prices, women’s (and their partners’) concerns about reproductive health, people feeling ostracized because of the gender of their life partners, to teachers facing unprecendented censorship of what they can teach. That’s enough to exhaust most people by the end of the day, and it’s exactly what the forces of darkness count on.

As Trumpism was growing and showing itself for what it really is, (greed, bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny,) The Washington Post adopted the creed: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” It’s a clear statement with two equally important meanings. The Post declared that it would fight to protect the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment with its dying breath, if need be, and warned America to demand light and transparency whenever its leaders speak.

I’m particularly struck by the way the death of Queen Elizabeth II has swept everything else out of our public view. I’ve never understood Americans’ obsession with the British monarchy from which we spent six years of bloody war freeing ourselves, though I appreciate the deep feeling many in the UK and the Commonwealth have for it. Maybe mourning for a queen who devoted her entire life to her people is a good thing for us; no one would ever confuse the moral and ethical leadership or the self-sacrifice of Elizabeth with the self-serving narcissism and megalomania displayed by Trump.

After a week of mourning, Brits will go back to dealing with harsh realities: terrible inflation, a new Prime Minister striving to win the confidence of her people after a bungled Brexit, and with winter coming, the crushing cost of energy and determining how much sacrifice it will take to help Ukraine push back Russian aggression. We face similar choices.

Our midterm elections, eight weeks from now, may be the critical nexus in the future of our democracy, as states controlled by Trumpers, will use gerrymandering and new voter restriction laws, and pull out all the stops to assure that opposition voters are silenced and their own partisans are given the power to decide all electoral disputes. This is our generation’s unspoken Declaration of Independence from tyranny. Will we show the same commitment the Continental Army did two-hundred-fifty years ago?

As the fight for the midterms builds up steam, we will be dealing with the national crisis over what to do about a former president who likely committed serious felonies, any one of which would see the rest of us imprisoned for life. I’ve stated my position: investigators and prosecutors must follow the evidence wherever it leads and not be intimidated by threats of violence. If the evidence warrants indictment and prosecution, those must proceed until a fair verdict is reached that demonstrates no one is above our law.

At that point I’m in the camp that favors a presidential pardon, not out of mercy or compassion for a man who clearly doesn’t deserve it, but for the sake of peace and tranquility in the country. There are many knowledgeable people who disagree with me on that last point, who argue that equal punishment under the law for crimes committed by a former president is a necessary deterrent against future presidents behaving the same way. We’ve heard the same argument rage for decades over the death penalty and mandatory sentencing guidelines, but I’ve seen no convincing evidence that the deterrence effect is worth ignoring the practical reality that millions of heavily armed people in this country might resort to violence, when a pardon might silence cries of partisanship and revenge.

We also face a debate over federal spending, which like its predecessors, will come down to the last second as it runs into a legal requirement to shut down the government when funding runs out. Neither side in our tragically divided politics wants that, but the issues in the spending bill proposed by Democrats are the same ones that have been in the headlines throughout 2022. How far can the administration go to support women’s rights in the face of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v Wade? How deep is our commitment to standing firm against Russian aggression after months of price increases, food shortages, and broken supply chains? Do we still need to pump massive amounts of funding into COVID prevention and treatment?

It’s been an agonizing year, but we can’t quit just because we’re tired. Any cleric will tell you the Devil never rests or misses an opportunity to seize on his adversaries’ weaknesses. I don’t believe in the Devil, per se, but the image is a useful metaphor for standing up against entities who would drag us back to the days of tyranny and intolerance.

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Crime and Punishment

Alan Zendell, September 5, 2022

Some people think Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel delving into the psyche of a criminal isn’t relevant today, but I’m not one of them. When I read it sixty years ago, it had a profound effect on me, perhaps tapping into something in my DNA that remembers the angst of my Russian forebears. It stuck with me more than any other work of literature because of its insights into guilt and human nature.

Punishment has many forms, both external and psychological. Dostoyevsky believed knowledge of our own guilt can punish us far more than any court of law. His protagonist, Raskolnikov, plans his crime, feeling righteous and justified – the murder of a sleazy pawnbroker will benefit the world and the money he steals from her will be put to good use. But having committed the crime, his psyche judges him and finds him guilty. From the reader’s perspective, the punishment it exacts is worse than any court could impose.

This has come up frequently as people are fond of asking me if I think Donald Trump will ever be punished for his crimes (no one says alleged anymore.) I answer that to leave Trump unaccountable for the things he’s done is unthinkable. He has already weakened our standing among civilized nations. If we allow him to walk free and continue to raise hundreds of millions of dollars whining his grievances, our adversaries will rightly think of us as weak and in disarray, while our allies will realize the American dream was just a myth.

A majority of people agree with those general statements, but when we get down to the issue of punishment, it changes. Were Donald Trump to be tried before a jury, we’d face the most glaring weaknesses in our legal system. How would a court define a jury of Donald Trump’s peers? How could a judge be confident that regardless of what prospective jurors said, they were capable of objectively evaluating evidence and putting their emotions aside? Is anyone within reach of a television or the internet objective about Donald Trump?

I believe the Justice Department and the State of Georgia, have no choice but to indict him for a list of felonies worthy of an organized crime boss, only far more serious. He must either be tried and convicted or agree to a plea agreement that acknowledges his guilt for the entire world to see. But what then? People want to see him punished. The most common response I hear is that he should rot in prison, but I disagree. Much as my right brain would love that, my left brain says, “No.” The instant Trump’s guilt is clear to the world, President Biden must and will pardon him.

Lindsey Graham warned of blood in the streets if Trump is incarcerated, notwithstanding the “Lock her up” chants Trump led against Hillary Clinton at his rallies. Graham is stoking the radical Trump base, though he’s a smart enough lawyer to deny that’s his intention. The problem is, he’s right. No matter how desperately Trump needs punishment, our nation needs peace and stability more, which leads me to think about Dostoyevsky.

Were Trump to admit his guilt or be convicted in a federal court, the consequences to him would be devastating. He could never run for office again, and in most business circles, he and his family would be pariahs. Without political and public pressure to patronize his hotels and golf resorts, with banks unwilling to fund his ventures, and with all but his most rabid supporters having abandoned him, my guess is he’d suffer as much as he would in a country-club federal prison.

Raskolnivkov spends most of Crime and Punishment on a painful descent into Hell. His guilt destroys him, as it would most of us with normal values and consciences. Would that happen to Donald Trump? Has anyone ever heard him offer a whisper of remorse over anything he did? There’s been far too much testimony during the last fifty years over his amoral character, sociopathic values, and clinically diagnosable narcissistic disorder. Yet, we keep seeing and hearing reports that as law enforcement tightens the noose around his activities, despite his bluster, the pressure is getting to him.

At some level, Trump will suffer the same fate as Raskolnikov even if he never spends a day behind bars. He’s only human, and likely, when he finally breaks, it will be a total separation from reality. And if not? The only situation we have lived through that is remotely similar was Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon for crimes committed with respect to Watergate. The country was badly polarized then, though probably less so than today. Ford’s first priority was ending “our national nightmare.” He pardoned Nixon pre-emptively before the legal system could act, because any other course would have only widened the divisions in the country.

Ford’s decision may have cost him the 1976 election, but he was right. The fact that Trump’s crimes are more serious than Nixon’s doesn’t change that. Indictment, conviction, and humiliation will punish Trump as much as any prison cell, and I’ll help the process along by sending him my copy of Dostoyevsky’s brilliant work.

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Adrenaline

Alan Zendell, September 2, 2022

Last night, President Joe Biden set the tone for the Democrats’ approach to the midterm elections. There was nothing subtle about his message. Democrats are betting that when faced with a choice between the anti-democratic Fascist-like ideology of the MAGA wing of the Republican Party and the core principles laid out by our founders, they’ll realize what is at stake. If anyone listening had any doubt about what that is, they don’t any longer.

What stood out most during the speech wasn’t just its message. We knew ahead of time it would be about saving the soul of America, which Biden defines as the ideas embodied in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He laid it out clearly: we’re all created equal with an equal chance to succeed and live a productive, happy life – except, that’s not actually what our founders said, and that’s part of the problem Biden addressed.

In 1779, “we’re all” meant all of us white, male landowners, and the MAGA movement believes that’s still what it means. If you’re female, poor, or not white enough, (we might as well throw in not straight enough,) you don’t have inalienable rights. It was those whose rights MAGA politicians and jurists have been attacking that Biden was speaking to. In 2016, an occasional voice asked why any woman, black, brown, or yellow person, or immigrant would support Trump. But the MAGA folks screamed loud enough about Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s emails and imagined crimes, that everything else was drowned out.

Democrats, with Biden leading the way, realize the truth about MAGA ideology must be shouted loud and long from every rooftop, and those words must come from on high. That the entire, disparate party got the message is a testimony to Biden’s leadership. It’s been a long time since Democrats pulled together against their common enemy, and I don’t mean Republicans. Biden made that clear, separating MAGA adherents from traditional conservative Republicans.

The Right’s version of Us-Against-Them is MAGA against everyone who hasn’t bent a knee to Trump. Biden stated it the same way, thoughtfully addressing the majority of Republicans as colleagues and fellow Americans he serves as President, and describing the MAGA crowd as their enemy as much as everyone else’s. Savvy politicians like Biden don’t need pollsters and talking heads to tell them trends are swinging away from MAGA extremism back toward basic American values. He can smell the sea change and read the results of the recent special elections that show MAGA ideology losing ground.

There’s much work to be done before MAGA is silenced, its adherents returned to their caves. But Biden, who will turn 80 just after the November election, will give his last ounce of energy if need be to save the soul of our nation, which brings me to what I most noticed about last night’s speech. His enemies love to seize on the remnants of Biden’s lifelong battle against stuttering and claim he’s becoming senile and demented. It can be painful to hear him struggle, at times, but anyone who knows him will tell you he’s as sound as he can be when it comes to tackling problems and putting in long hours.

Last night, we saw and heard a president who passionately believed what he was saying. We know because there was no sign of his lingering stutter. He was smooth and articulate, riding an adrenaline high that comes from knowing you’re on a righteous mission that only you can lead. His face was wrinkled, but his eyes shone, and his voice was loud, strong, and compassionate. Not a self-aggrandizing word, no personal insults, and no need for self-serving lies because he was laying out truths that are plain to see if people wake up and look at what’s happening around them.

When Trump told a national television audience that he loved to “grab women’s pussies” and he was so far above the law he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue with impunity, his devoted army of losers thought it was wonderful. But when Biden appropriately compares MAGA ideology to Fascism he’s accused of being obscene and offensive. As many of us have frequently written, comparing the rise and methodology of Hitler’s Nazi Party in the 1930s to the rise of Trump and MAGA yields a shocking result. They are almost identical.

I’m thankful we have a president who’s as thick-skinned as Harry Truman and visionary as Franklin Roosevelt, and equally unafraid to call things as they are – unlike his predecessor, who reacts like a spoiled five-year-old when he doesn’t get his way. The next ten weeks will be tough, but with Biden leading the way at his best, our democracy has a chance.

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The Trends, They Are A-Changing

Alan Zendell, August 30, 2022

For a year-and-a-half, many Democrats criticized President Biden for being too passive in the face of unrelenting attacks from the right and the extremes within his own party. They asked, “Why doesn’t he fight back?” “Why isn’t he out there loudly trumpeting his accomplishments?” “Why can’t he control his own party?”

Fair questions, but our news-bite attention spans and reliance on social media, combined with people who can’t or won’t bother to check facts wasn’t well equipped to answer them. We’re good at collecting data, if not always assuring its accuracy; we’re good at building websites and generating reports, if cavalier about vetting sources; and we’re good at drawing conclusions, though not, as a nation, at applying reason and rational thought to assure that they’re correct.

We have also lost the art of subtlety, of ignoring the noise and seeking less visible and audible underlying changes. In other words, most of us have lost the ability to exercise patience, which is the best answer to those questions. Biden may not be as spry or mentally sharp as he was thirty years ago, but more than fifty years as a politician and high-ranking elected official have honed his governance skills. He ranks with the best, those, like Mitch McConnell, who understand that everything in politics is constantly in flux and what was true yesterday may look entirely different from what’s true tomorrow.

Biden doesn’t brag or bluster. He isn’t derailed by bumps in the road, and his ego isn’t bruised by every setback. Unlike his narcissistic predecessor, he knows when he’s behind and instead of changing the narrative with lies and conspiracies, he waves off the cameras and gets to work.

Dealing with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin must have been among the most frustrating experiences of his long career, but Biden respects Manchin. He knows Manchin has a responsibility to his poverty-stricken constituency which is still mired in the old fossil fuel economy. He had faith that in the end, Manchin would do his best for his party and the interests of the country, and he was right. He understood, too, that delegating the negotiation with Manchin to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could achieve months of apparently leak-proof progress and work better than appearing to strongarm his holdout Senator or resort to bullying and name calling.

As Democrats appeared to lose battle after battle, Biden understood that allowing right wing extremists a few easy victories that were clearly not the will of the majority of Americans would eventually haunt them, if not break their necks with a nasty whiplash. That’s what age, experience, and patience do for you. Biden let McConnell have his victory over gun control activists. He let critics scream that runaway inflation was his fault. He looked at a seriously divided European Union and it’s military counterpart, NATO, and ignored critics who said he could never undo the damage Trump did to our alliances. He knew Vladimir Putin saw a closing window of opportunity to reconstruct the Soviet Union, and that our unified response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would define our standing in the world for the next generation.

He didn’t threaten anyone. He didn’t launch ICBMs or stage military parades, and he didn’t warn that he would obliterate our enemies. He quietly went to work rebuilding our alliances. He regained the confidence of European leaders and convinced them that anything less than unanimity in assisting Ukraine was unacceptable. Today, against all odds, Ukrainian forces have stopped Russian advances. Russia is bogged down and unable to move and supply its troops, while Ukraine, using NATO intelligence, has made optimum use of the weapons we gave them, making Russia’s aggression far more costly than Putin imagined.

Inflation has peaked, energy prices are declining as fast as they rose, the job market is strong, and the equities markets are holding up despite claims that our economy is in recession. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in fifty years, we’re tackling corrupt drug prices, and finally taking serious strides to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming. And as Trump’s Supreme Court justices appeared to hand MAGA victory after victory, Biden knew patience would win the day, that a small minority can gerrymander voting districts and temporarily force its will on the majority, but when sixty to eighty percent of Americans believe their will has been stifled, they remember what America is all about.

Ten weeks before the midterm elections, Biden’s approval rating is steadily rising, the generic national ballot has swung to a plurality of voters preferring Democrats over Republicans, and master politician, Mitch McConnell is preparing his minions for the likely bad news that the Democrats will strengthen their Senate majority in November. And while Nancy Pelosi continues to impressively hold her caucus together, her Republican counterpart, Kevin McCarthy is in trouble. Unwilling to identify as either a Trumper or a traditional conservative Republican, he is rapidly losing favor in both camps.

Pay attention – the trends are shifting from red to purple to blue with seventy days to go.

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Fighting Dirty

Alan Zendell, August 26, 2022

Michelle Obama liked to say about politics, “When they go low, we go high.” It was a lovely sentiment that endeared her to millions of Americans, because it resonated with what we’d been taught to believe – nonsense cliches like “the good guys always win” and “you make more friends with honey than vinegar.” History proved time and again that good guys don’t always win, and winners care far less about how many friends they make than how well they’ve secured their power base.

When the good guys win, it’s because their backs are against the wall, and they’ve woken up to the reality that they’re fighting for their very existence. For those of us who grew up in the wake of the second world war, that was hammered home in schools, media, by Hollywood and nonstop government propaganda. It’s easy to portray conflicts as good versus evil when our adversaries are racist fascists who murder millions of innocent civilians and preach ideas like master races and genocide.

Major conflicts are not about values or morality. They’re about wealth and power. Greed, selfishness, and the lust to control other people’s beliefs and actions are what drive ideologues and far too many politicians. I love Michelle Obama’s sentiments, but she’s wrong. You can’t fight sewer rats without getting filthy, and you can’t beat adversaries with no moral compass whose only goals are wealth and power by being reasonable and nice.

Democrats and Republicans alike have been painfully slow in waking up to the reality that there was a growing movement in the United States based on fear, envy, ignorance, and belief in charismatic but entirely false ideas of right and wrong. When President Biden called the MAGA movement semi-Fascist, yesterday, he was right on.

MAGAism could have been created by Friedrich Nietzsche or George Orwell. It is based on the notion that repeating lies and deception that tap into peoples insecurities and pain will evventually take root at a visceral level. It manipulates  language, literally changing and reversing the meanings of words, and professes alternate facts (lies) that match the narrative people seeking power try to sell.

Decades of pretending that our democracy was sound and indefatigable have revealed that it is neither. The Republican Party of ten years ago no longer exists, and the Democrats suffer from a long history of lack of unity, perceived weakness, and incompetence. Joe Biden was elected president because there is a majority of Americans who believe we need a decent, moral leader who is committed to meeting the needs of average Americans, who can be trusted to defend the Constitution. He’s not perfect, but cast against the evils of MAGAism – white supremacy, xenophobia, gender inequality, autocracy, undermining elections, greed, denying basic science – he seemed to many of us to be a beacon of hope.

Amid the MAGA noise, it has gone largely unnoticed that against all odds, Biden united his splintered party and passed an impressive legacy of landmark legislation. In an era of normal politics, that would represent the natural swing of governing philosophy, that overreaching actions by either the extreme left or right invariably result in a pendulum swing in the opposite direction – the sociopolitical equivalent of seeking equilibrium. But we no longer live in an era of normal politics. Democracy is up against a movement that will stop at nothing to gain its objectives. They fight dirty, and they will use every weapon at their disposal. They lie and misrepresent, they have no regard for inconvenient laws and precedent, and only disdain for average Americans.

Biden was able to unite Democrats because they recognized that the MAGA movement was intent on destroying democracy and undermining the Constitution. They saw the result of their indecision and inaction, and a lack of willingness to fight as dirty as their opponents. MAGA states, not satisfied with extreme gerrymandering now seek partisan control of our elections, and years of quiet, insidious packing our courts with extremist, right-wing judges has resulted in a Supreme Court that ignores both precedent and the will of a clear majority of Americans. Democrats finally realize that they are fighting not only for their own power and self-interest, but for the future of American democracy.

We are at a watershed moment in our history. Biden and his newly united army will fight back with no holds barred because they must. They began by calling out the hypocrisy of MAGA members of Congress who railed against partially forgiving student loans for people trapped in an economic system whose principal goal is allowing wealthy Americans to prosper at the expense of everyone else. Each member who claimed outrage at taxpayers subsidizing the debts of low-income students had personally profited, sometimes in millions of dollars, by having COVID PPP debts completely forgiven.

Democrats are engaged in an existential end game. They will spend every day until the midterm elections bringing MAGA leaders who violated our laws to justice, calling out lies, and demonstrating to women, minorities, and hard working Americans that MAGA is not about making America great, but about undermining everything we have accomplished as a nation while seeking greatness. It’s going to be an ugly, dirty fight, but that’s what happens when the sewer rats start taking charge.

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