Our Uneducated Secretary of Education

Alan Zendell, July 12, 2020

We learned two things about Secretary of Education Betsy Devos today, when she was interviewed at length by Dana Bash of CNN. One is the reason she and Ben Carson, who knows as little about public housing as Devos does about education, are the only two major Department Secretaries who have been in the president’s cabinet for his entire administration. Both are perfect sycophants, marching in lockstep to every tune he plays.  

We also learned why we hardly ever see Devos interviewed on live television – that is, interviews with real questions instead of the softballs thrown by some commentators. Devos is a disaster in such situations, as ineffective as a lead-footed tennis player trying to return a serve. She had apparently memorized a script that couldn’t have been more than two or three sentences, none of which addressed the reality of Trump’s self-serving demands to open public schools everywhere regardless of the consequences. But don’t just believe me, see for yourself. (The interview, which speaks for itself, is long but well worth watching.)

Ms. Bash was tenacious. She pressed Devos on three specific questions:

  • Does the government have a plan to implement schools opening around the country?
  • How should we interpret the president’s threat to withhold money from school systems that don’t comply with his direction, a threat which he lacks legal authority to enforce?
  • Why did Devos attack the Fairfax County, VA school system’s re-opening plan, which offered parents choices of virtual (online) and in-class instruction with staggered schedules?

No matter how many ways Bash reworded her questions, however, Devos would only say every child needed to be in school, and school systems had to comply with CDC guidelines, which the president ridiculed last week. The administration wants to force a one size fits all approach to in-classroom teaching. Devos, when asked what a school system that found it impossible to comply should do, said they’d have to find a way to adapt. The president insists that brick and mortar schools open for face-to-face instruction. But most large systems in areas with high coronavirus infection rates offered opening plans similar to Fairfax County’s – some combination of virtual instruction with limited use of classrooms for students who attend in person. Bash told Devos she couldn’t have it both ways. Devos simply repeated her mantra.

So, which is it, Betsy? Fairfax County superintendent Scott Braband, who is responsible for the education of 188,000 public school students, says the physical infrastructure of Fairfax schools is not capable of satisfying CDC guidelines. To do so would require construction of the equivalent of five Pentagons, more than 32 million square feet of floor space. (The Pentagon, the largest office building in the world, comprises 6.5 million square feet.)

Ignoring the fact that it would be impossible to add that much classroom space in the six weeks remaining before school is scheduled to begin, that leaves the question of how financially strapped systems would pay for it. Both the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have made it clear that they will resist providing additional federal funding to help local jurisdictions, while still repeating the toothless threat to cut funds for systems that refuse to open in a manner that satisfies the president. Not surprisingly, in today’s highly partisan environment, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said $345 billion in additional funding would be required.

Devos seemed helpless under the barrage of facts and common sense thrown at her by Bash. Rather than offer anything resembling a government plan, she tried to change the subject. Never a fan of public education, she suggested that parents should have the option of finding other schools that could comply if their local public school system cannot. Seriously, Betsy? Is this about your career-long quest to undermine publicly funded education?

When confronted with data suggesting that a fourth of all public school teachers feel immune-compromised in some way and fear they would risk severe illness or death if they are forced to return to overcrowded (by CDC standards) schools, Devos said she feels for them but they would simply have to find a way. It’s comically embarrassing to trot someone as incompetent and uninformed as Devos out in front of the national media to defend the indefensible. If the situation weren’t so despicable, I’d feel sorry for her.

But let’s not forget the real villain in this piece. To salvage his re-election campaign, Donald Trump is willing to risk the health and lives of tens of millions of people. It’s immoral and cynical, clear evidence of his lack of fitness to lead the country.

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Placing a Value on Life

Alan Zendell, July 8, 2020

Long ago and far away, as a young aerospace engineer, I was fortunate to have an older, wiser mentor. In 1966, June was incredibly hot on Long Island. Our nearly windowless building was stifling, the air so lacking in ventilation that some people slumped over their desks, unable to stay awake, and that was before the air conditioning failed. Three days later, with the outside temperature north of 95 and the A/C still nonfunctional, my mentor heard me muttering about why the company hadn’t fixed it. He led me outside into the hot smog, which was more breathable than the air in the building, and said, “You really don’t know?”

He explained that it was a game, part of the business model that allowed a modern mega-corporation to stay solvent. Back then, the U. S. Government contracted large projects like ours (the Apollo Moon missions) by awarding several billion dollars to a prime contractor that subcontracted most of the work. The drawback of that model was that to win the prime contract a company had to have a couple thousand “warm bodies” sitting around, available to hit the ground running. That caused enormous headaches for overhead conscious companies; the cost could bankrupt them.

My company, Grumman Aerospace (now part of Northrup Grumman) had a proud tradition of never having had a major layoff, even during the depths of the Depression. They preferred to manage the size of their workforce by giving employees “incentives.” Thus, the failure to repair the A/C in the midst of a blistering heat spell. If employees became uncomfortable enough, they’d quit on their own, until their numbers reached a supportable level. Grumman considered that less cynical than wholesale layoffs of thousands of professional engineers and tradespeople, but the principle was the same. Management believed the survival of the company was paramount, and everyone would benefit over the long run, even if the cost was a degree of human misery.

Over the ensuing fifty-four years, I’ve grasped the universality of that idea. Every large organization, be it a business or government entity functions that way. Fast forward to today and the ongoing struggle between people who believe we have to re-open our economy before it is irreparably harmed and those whose highest priority is minimizing deaths and long-term complications for people who contract COVID-19.

On its face, the debate is legitimate. Neither side is completely right or wrong. Even if our principal concern was reducing misery and death, we don’t know enough about the virus to know which approach will work best over time. Even if our nation’s leadership were pure of heart, selflessly motivated to find the optimum balance between normal commerce and protecting people from the virus, balancing short-term suffering and prosperity against the security of our country would be a daunting challenge. We would have to marshal all our scientific, economic, and health care resources and insulate our decision-making from politics and special interests.

We don’t know if we will ever have an effective vaccine or if contracting and recovering from the virus will make us immune. We don’t even know, either, if herd immunity, the holy grail of infectious disease specialists, can ever be achieved. If COVID-19 becomes a fact of life indefinitely, we will have to permanently adapt the way we live to survive. It’s called Natural Selection. Have you seen any dinosaurs lately?

Our biggest problem is that our president is not interested in finding an optimal solution – the greatest good for the greatest number. He keeps a heavy finger on the scale, tilting it toward business as usual. Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead. I wonder if Trump realizes that motto came from a naval encounter that seriously weakened the Confederacy he so loves.

Don’t be fooled. Trump, ignorant as he may be about science and epidemiology, understands full well what he is doing. Holding massive rallies, refusing to acknowledge the need for masks and distancing, and playing down the value of testing are all part of a cynical calculation. Opening the country completely, even if that resulted in millions of deaths and ultimately crashed our economy is a risk he is willing to take because he knows it’s his only hope to be re-elected. If you don’t believe that, there’s an oft-sold bridge in Brooklyn you might want to bid on.

Trump is a gambler. Like any habitual risk-taker, he understands that with unlimited resources, a gambler could repeatedly double down on his bets, and eventually, he’d roll a seven. Since one aspect of Trump’s mental illness is an exaggerated view of his own wealth and power, he ignores the mathematical certainty that in the real world, the one the rest of us inhabit, he’s more likely to crash and burn. Like all the other times he suffered that fate in business, when it happens, he’ll just walk away and let everyone else pick up the pieces.

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Celebrating Our Independence

Alan Zendell, July 5, 2020

The Fourth of July is usually a time when we allow ourselves to beat our breasts and reassert how wonderful it is to be an American. I’ve always done that, for one day, at least, ignoring problems and challenges, enjoying the sights and sounds of shooting things up into the sky and exploding them with marching bands playing patriotic music in the background.

When I was a kid in the years after World War 2, I was more struck by the similarity between the massive fireworks and the aerial bombardments that killed millions in the previous decade. Fortunately, I eventually succumbed to the American fantasy that all was well, so my own breast could swell with pride and I could enjoy the spectacle. Usually, our leaders helped feed that one-day delusion with inspirational speeches promising unity and better times to come.

Not this year. When Donald Trump formally launched his Culture War at Mount Rushmore, he shattered that temporary bubble before it even had a chance to glow. Instead, he fired the first clear, unvarnished salvo in the battle for White Supremacy. His tactics were those of the Fascists after whom he models himself, but his message fell flat on most Americans.

By selecting Mount Rushmore as his Fort Sumter, Trump pulled the scab off the long-festering wound of genocide, the near-extermination of the culture and civilization of our indigenous peoples. Specifically, he reminded us that Mount Rushmore was a holy place of the Lakota Nation that was stolen from them by our government, and that the massive sculpting project was more of a marketing ploy to prop up the ailing pre-Depression economy of South Dakota than a monument honoring four of our most revered presidents.

And in attempting to characterize the Black Lives Matter movement as a gang of violent anarchist, Marxist mobs, he simply reminded most of us of our other original sin – slavery. And perhaps worse, how a century-and-a-half after that issue tore our country apart in the Civil War, the remnants of that confederate mentality still don’t believe our founding phrase, “All Men are Created Equal” does not mean only white men, and in fact, does not even mean only men. It means all human beings regardless of gender, race, color, religious belief, or sexual orientation.

In stoking delusional fears of Marxist-inspired insurrections, our president also reminded us of a third dark stain on our national identity, the McCarthyism of the 1950’s. And in throwing around words like treason and indoctrination of our children, he again raised the specter of the Nazi Storm Troopers and the Hitler Youth. All of this struck me as I watched the Fourth of July celebration in Washington last night (on television.) Superimposed on the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic from which our president is desperately trying to distract our attention, it suddenly it all seemed hollow. What in Hell were we celebrating?

Trump’s Culture War is a cynically contrived re-election strategy, designed to re-energize the base that elected him in 2016. It’s a classic Hail Mary pass with the clock running out. The frightening thing is that Hail Marys are sometimes successful. That’s what Trump is counting on, but not this time, Donald. You were elected by a once-in-a-lifetime coalition of angry people and Hillary-haters who drank your populist Kool Aid, but that coalition no longer exists.

The Trump base can now be seen to consist of two very different groups. There’s the hard core cult of Alt-Righters, gun extremists, pro-life activists, and people who simply hate government. Then there’s the other group who were angered by the arrogance and incompetence of the former Democratic Party establishment and influenced by nearly thirty years of relentless right-wing hate radio. That second group is now expressing buyer’s remorse. All Trump has left is his loyal cult, which may be as large as one third of the electorate.

Trump hopes his message of hate and divisiveness will resonate yet again, and that fear lurks in the minds of all of us. But there is a new Monmouth University poll which captured a snapshot of the sentiments of likely voters after Trump’s rallies in Tulsa and Phoenix – you remember, the ones at which he thumbed his nose at his own government’s policies combating COVID-19. The same ones that drew far fewer people than Trump hoped for.

The Monmouth poll shows Biden ahead of Trump nationally by 53-41%, exactly the same margin shown by previous polls throughout the month of June. Tulsa and Phoenix didn’t move the needle at all. Memo to the president: except your core group of cultists, no one’s listening.

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The Lone Warrior Versus the Virus

Alan Zendell, July 1, 2020

When Donald Trump named himself “The Lone Warrior” on Twitter last night, he revealed more than he intended. He told us that his mental illness may be entering a critical stage in which he feels abandoned by all those he trusted, and in which he, the only one who understands the threats we face and the only true savant, is justified in any actions he deems necessary. Americans should be terrified. 

Trump’s illness is a narcissistic personality disorder, an easily diagnosed psychopathy which the Mayo Clinic describes as “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.” The Clinic goes on to list twelve specific symptoms, the most troubling of which in a U. S. President is a preoccupation with fantasies of his own success, power, and brilliance. 

Trump’s disorder is easily diagnosed but not easily treated without the willing compliance of the patient. We all make mistakes. It’s part of being human. Normal, secure adults can handle them, acknowledge them, take responsibility, and move on. When their mistakes cause damage or harm, responsible leaders focus on remedies and cures, while leaders with fragile egos are consumed by the need to deflect blame and distract attention from the casualties they caused. When allies and supporters begin to desert them, they lash out in desperation. People who disagree are called stupid or treasonous.  

The more serious the disorder, the harder the sufferer will fight to deny it. Their go-to behavior in the face of criticism or disagreement is doubling down and becoming so entrenched in a point of view that it becomes impossible to either back away or compromise. A sufferer who regresses to the “lone warrior” mentality, is extremely dangerous. Combined with a belief that only he understands what is truly happening and a sense of heightened self-righteousness, an extreme narcissist like Trump converts any self-serving delusion into his own alternate reality in which he is incapable of seeing anything that does not serve his own interest. He cannot be reasoned with and rids himself of all sources of dissent, surrounding himself with yes-people and enablers. 

We see this manifesting every day as it becomes obvious that Trump’s policies have failed, and his leadership is nonexistent. Faced with a pandemic that has already cost 130,000 American lives, amid clear evidence that the lack of strong federal management has allowed the virus to spread, possibly beyond our ability to control it, the president ignores the advice and warnings of virtually every responsible health professional. The actions necessary to protect Americans from the illness, economic devastation, and death caused by COVID-19 are not convenient to his re-election chances, so he reneges on his responsibilities.  

Dr. Anthony Fauci warned yesterday that previous models of the spread of the virus and its resulting death counts assumed that the federal government would promulgate and enforce policies to limit the spread. But, he explained, models are only as good as the assumptions they are based on, and none of them considered events like shoulder-to-shoulder political rallies, the politicization of mask wearing, or a president in total denial. As a result, Fauci would not even venture a guess as to how many more people might die from the virus. 

Fauci knows the answer, but there are limits to what he can say publicly, so it’s left to us to speak for him. It’s clear from the success of Europe and east Asia that at least 100,000 of the 130,000 deaths that have already occurred were preventable if Trump had acted promptly instead of worrying about financial markets and re-election. Now, imagine the first wave of the pandemic strengthening, growing exponentially even faster than in March and April. Imagine too, that with Trump setting exactly the wrong examples, millions of people continue to defy local restrictions and common sense.  

Imagine exhausted health care workers continuing to fall ill and supplies of necessary medical equipment not being replenished because the federal government has been lax in maintaining a national repository.  As caseloads and hospitalizations rise at record rates, how many people have to die before enablers stand up to Trump and invoke the Nancy Reagan response – JUST SAY NO? 200,000? 500,000? Two million? 

Fauci told us time is running out. He doesn’t believe we’re past the point of no return yet, but we soon will be if we don’t get this under control. Our president’s mental illness is doing serious damage to our country. If it goes on much longer, the damage will be permanent. 

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Trump’s Flagging Base of Support

Alan Zendell, June 26, 2020

Yesterday, President Trump told Sean Hannity, his primary cheerleader on Fox News that Joe Biden will be elected president in November because, “People don’t love me enough.” There’s a lot to parse in that brief statement.  

Almost since he announced his candidacy in 2015, despite receiving more free media coverage of his campaign than all the other candidates combined, Trump has complained that he has been treated unfairly. First it was the “liberal” press, then it was nearly all the mainstream television news organizations (NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, AP, Reuters.) After he was inaugurated, when he embarked on a vendetta against everything associated with his predecessor, Barrack Obama, he attacked the courts for declaring his Executive Orders unconstitutional. Clearly, all of the above, in league with all Democrats, were engaged in a Deep State conspiracy to undermine his presidency. 

His whining culminated a couple of weeks ago when he claimed that he had the worst press coverage since Abraham Lincoln, suggesting that maybe Lincoln wasn’t as great as people think, and he may have deserved it. That sort of narcissistic carping has been one of Trump’s hallmarks, but his remark to Hannity was different. It wasn’t about institutional opposition or a deep state conspiracy. It was about Donald Trump’s desperate need for adulation. Until now he has continued to claim that he represents all Americans, and except for the fake news and the rigged polls, it would be obvious that he is one of our greatest and most beloved presidents. 

But something has changed. Even Fox News’s latest poll showed him trailing Joe Biden nationally, by 52-40 percent. That means 30 percent more people preferred Biden than Trump in their sample. Despite Trump’s propensity for lying and misrepresenting anything he doesn’t like, even in the delusional alternate universe he inhabits, there was only one possible conclusion. His base was shrinking. Either Fox News had joined the Deep State anarchists, or people just didn’t love him anymore. 

A Siena College poll from June 24 was even worse news for Trump, pegging Biden’s advantage at 50-36 percent. That’s the lowest level of support Trump has seen, and it has now been followed up by polls in the Electoral College battleground states. Biden now leads Trump by between six and eleven points in key states Trump won in 2016: Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, which would give Biden a 330-205 Electoral College majority if the other states voted the way they did last time. And it might be a lot worse, as Trump also trails in Texas and Ohio, whose combined 56 electoral votes could make Biden’s margin of victory 386-149

Trump could reach no conclusion except that people don’t love him enough, which sounded like a rare moment of transparency for a man who has never displayed the slightest trace of humility. Even so, he could have phrased his response to Hannity many different ways, but typically, what he said was all about Trump himself, rather than the reasons so many people are shifting to Biden or his own failures in leadership.  

Trump cannot separate his need to be loved and adored from his role as president. Everything for him is personal. His need for loyalty and worshipful applause are completely disconnected from his actions, and that may be more prophetic than polls with more than four months to go before Election Day. Barring massive help from Russia and China, his only hope to win in November lies in turning things around in the battleground states. But first, he must understand why only slightly over a third of the country still loves him.  

In order to do that he has to do two things: begin listening to his advisors and honestly look inside himself. But that would require him to understand that he is not always the smartest person in the room, that his vaunted gut feelings are no match for professionalism and wisdom gained from experience. It would also oblige him to see his divisiveness and hateful rhetoric for what they are. 

I do not believe he is capable of either. The latest evidence was his last ditch attempt to kill Obamacare in an appeal to the Supreme Court. If successful, he would deprive more than twenty million Americans and their families of health insurance in the midst of a pandemic. Could anything be more cynical and lacking in compassion? And why? So Trump can brag that he unraveled Obama’s signature achievement, one that is still favored by American voters by about the same margin that they currently prefer Biden over Trump.  

When Trump loses in November, perhaps he will finally understand. 

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The Slow Death of Democracy – Part Four

Alan Zendell, June 20, 2020

Every gambler knows that if you keep betting against house odds, you’ll eventually lose. In business, Donald Trump was a high stakes gambler, but he knew his lawyers would limit the damage when he lost, and he was adept at finding others to absorb the cost.   

Trump has governed the same way, staking out risky positions and daring everyone to stop him. He tried to lock up children at the border, shut down immigration, kill Obamacare, deprive the LGBT community of basic rights, and intimidate North Korea. He initiated trade wars and withdrew from treaties and alliances. That’s a hell of a list, especially since each bet he placed was a loss. 

Then, COVID-19 struck. Trailing Joe Biden in national polls, Trump believed a strong economy was his only path to re-election. He gambled again, denying the seriousness of the pandemic and forcing states to re-open prematurely. Health experts predict the result will be more outbreaks, new shutdowns, and greater damage to our economy. 120,000 Americans have already died from COVID-19, and based on results from countries that behaved more responsibly, at least 100,000 of those deaths were the price of Trump’s failed gamble.  

Public health officials fear that his decision to resume mass campaign rallies will infect countless more Americans and cause another exponential increase in deaths. Trump knows it too, and he is requiring all attendees to sign a waiver of liability in the event they contract the virus. Such cynical disregard for the health of supporters who follow him like lemmings speaks volumes about his lack of concern for the rest of us. 

The icing on Trump’s risk/reward cake is the Black Lives Matter movement. Trump didn’t pull the trigger when unarmed black men were killed by police, but given another opportunity to lead with compassion, rather than comfort the families of the victims or address the problem of police misconduct, he attacked the demonstrators, casting them as thugs and anarchists. Using a prison riot squad to disperse unarmed, peaceful protesters and his failed attempt to deploy the military were stark reminders of the Fascist tactics of the 1930’s.  

With Trump denying that the virus remains deadly and encouraging people to resume normal activity, epidemiologists and modelers now forecast up to 250,000 pandemic deaths. Trump’s disapproval numbers are at an unprecedented high, and even Fox News now has him trailing Biden by double digits. Desperate to remain in power, Trump repeatedly claims the election is being rigged against him, signaling that if he appears to be heading for defeat, he will provoke a national crisis rather than concede.  

That was always a possibility, but the pandemic and the BLM movement raised the stakes. Nations are most vulnerable when they are in distress and turmoil. With the president willing to endanger the lives of his own followers and risk turning an economic downturn into a Depression, are there any limits to what he will do to win? 

One oft-expressed concern is that he might provoke an armed confrontation with Iran or North Korea. That’s a terrifying thought, but our military leaders recently demonstrated that they understand our Constitution and will not blindly follow wherever he leads. Joint Chiefs Chairman, General Mark Milley refused to deploy active duty soldiers in response to Trump’s attempts to portray BLM protests as an insurrection by the largely fantastical Antifa. At the same time former Defense Secretary James Mattis told The Atlantic the president was unfit. He specifically contrasted the Nazi Slogan, “Divide and Conquer” with “In Union There is Strength,” claiming Trump prefers the former and doesn’t even pretend to care about uniting us. 

America took a step back from the brink that day, but Trump might still attempt to exacerbate and use our ongoing dual crises to his advantage. Remember that Hitler playbook? Trump’s endgame might be to declare a State of Emergency and demand special powers, among which are postponing or canceling the November election. Could he count on the loyalty his two Supreme Court appointments, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and his lapdog Attorney General, William Barr, all of whom are advocates of a strong Executive Branch operating relatively unchecked? 

Trump has been confident that the presently constituted Court would have his back, but…not so fast, Donald. Conservative Chief Justice Roberts prevented him from completely dismantling Obamacare, and in November 2018, took the unprecedented step of rebuking Trump for attacking the independence of the Judiciary. And this week he sided against Trump’s attempts to deny basic human rights to transgender individuals and to terminate the DACA program by Executive Order.  

I believe Roberts is sending Trump a message. The November election is widely seen as the most important one since the Great Depression. The surest way to kill our democracy is to interfere with and corrupt the electoral process. The Court is telling the president that if he expects them to support any attempt to do so, he’d best think again.  

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The Slow Death of Democracy – Part Three

Alan Zendell, June 15, 2020

The 2018 Congressional election sent a message to the Trump administration that two components of his base – well-educated independents and suburban white women – had had enough of his race-baiting and divisiveness. As 2020 approached, the nation focused on the upcoming election. Trump had already signaled that his only priority in governing was winning in November, warning that if he lost it would mean the Deep State had rigged the election.  

Although he believed the economy would sustain him, he felt the need to reverse the negative blowback from the trade wars he instigated. Early in November, 2019, he initiated negotiations for a new trade deal with China that was going to be “wonderful.” But by then our intelligence sources were warning him of a dangerous new virus that appeared to be spreading uncontrollably in the Chinese city of Wuhan. They feared the disease could not be contained to China unless immediate quarantining action was taken. No one was certain, but the fear was that a pandemic could infect millions of Americans. 

Trump faced a serious quandary. It was already known that the highly contagious virus had a long incubation period during which infected, but as yet asymptomatic people were likely spreading the disease throughout the city of eleven million. With the high volume of air travel between Wuhan, the United States, and Europe, it might already be too late to prevent it from entering our country. But if Trump declared a National Emergency and tried to isolate America from China, it would derail his trade negotiations, and worse, it would cause panic in the financial markets, which he equated with the economy at large.  

That was Trump’s worst nightmare. He had to choose between his self-interest and the health and welfare of the nation. Forecasts of possible pandemic-related deaths in America ranged from 100,000 to over two million if immediate action was not taken. China withheld critical information from the rest of the world, but its highly visible actions, shutting down an entire province of forty million people, made clear that the virus was out of control. Still, Trump denied the threat calling it a hoax and yet another ploy by Democrats to undermine him.  

Trump’s calculus was that even if his failure to act blew up in his face and needlessly killed countless numbers of Americans, he could blame China and The World Health Organization. Assuring that he had credible scapegoats was more important than assuring the safety of Americans, because all that mattered was staying in power. But Trump and his advisors had failed to anticipate that when the pandemic materialized it would cripple the nation’s economy, elevating Trump’s worst nightmare by an order of magnitude.  

Poor Trump. Try as he might, he would never achieve the autocratic control of events that his Fascist role models did. Whether it was a miscalculation or a failure brought on by his narcissistic personality disorder, his gambled failed. Millions of Americans would likely be infected, tens of thousands were already dying, businesses were failing, and nearly a fifth of all adults had no source of income. Rather than accept reality and allow health care and infectious disease experts to dictate policy, Trump impeded their actions, doubling down on his quest for re-election by insisting on re-opening the economy no matter what the risks were. 

He also ignored the ancillary concern that non-white minorities were being disproportionately hurt by the pandemic, becoming sick and dying in far greater numbers than whites, and losing their jobs at a much higher rate. Again, Trump brought out the Nazi playbook, encouraging right wing militia groups to use their guns to threaten governors who refused to ignore health risks and re-open. By then he had so taken over and intimidated the Republican Party, that only a handful raised an objection. 

It’s a cliché that what goes around comes around.  The question was, as Trump crawled further out on the limb he’d tried to escape on, would it break? Would the politics of divisiveness and us-against-them eventually come back to haunt him? Perhaps it was serendipity, or maybe just the inevitable consequence of his tactic of pitting people against each other, but the decades-long problem of turning a blind eye to misconduct by a small minority of police officers around the country turned Trump’s nightmare into a perfect storm. 

He still had every opportunity to save the situation, but instead he called out his storm troopers, forgetting, again, that he governed 2020 America, not 1933 Germany. A Pew survey yesterday reported that 85% of Americans disapprove of his handling of the Black Lives Matter Protests. His re-election campaign is now in full crisis mode.  

More on this and November’s election in Part Four. 

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The Slow Death of Democracy – Part Two

Alan Zendell, June 12, 2020

No analogy is perfect. Brokerage firms warn us that past performance is not a guarantee of future success. Similarly, while the rise to power of Adolf Hitler has much in common with Donald Trump’s, America in 2020 bears little superficial resemblance to Germany in the 1930’s, and there is no reason to assume that Trump’s specific ambitions are identical to Hitler’s – not identical, but ignoring the similarities would be repeating the behaviors that enabled Nazism to flourish.

Let’s examine them. Hitler was appointed Chancellor (the nominal head of government) on January 30, 1933, five weeks before Franklin Roosevelt began his first term as President of the United States. Both leaders assumed office with their nations facing serious financial and social crises, and both proposed sweeping revolutionary changes to combat them. But while Roosevelt, like Trump, faced a fiercely divided, but strong Congress, Hitler’s Reichstag (Parliament) was fragmented and disorganized.

Using divide and conquer tactics and military-style intimidation to grow his base, Hitler’s Nazi Party demonized and destroyed the German Communist Party, and co-opted the other two major parties into passing the aptly named Enabling Act, which granted him emergency powers to dissolve and re-form the Reichstag and enact laws by executive edict that bypassed the Reichstag and in many cases, the German Constitution itself. It took Hitler only two months to gain virtually dictatorial control of the legislature.

Within two more months he had abolished Germany’s labor unions and outlawed opposition political parties. And adapting the concept of The Big Lie, Hitler labeled the thousands of newspapers that were the 1930’s equivalent of today’s media Lugenpresse, the lying press. Within a few years, he completely silenced them. And in an interesting side note, Hitler insisted that the traditional loyalty oath to the Republic sworn by the German military be changed to personal loyalty to him. He trusted no one and felt threatened by virtually everyone.

Does any of that sound familiar? Trump has repeatedly asserted that Article 2 of the U. S. Constitution gives him the right to do anything he wishes. He calls all sources of information that he disagrees with “fake news,” and he demands absolute personal loyalty from cabinet officers, political appointees, and the military. He accuses Democrats and the media of treason whenever they fail to march in lockstep with him. He claims there is a “deep state” comprised of millions of diverse individuals, including the Courts, the FBI, and God only knows who else, secretly working to undermine his presidency. He treats the Congress as an enemy and throws vulgar insults at any judge who isn’t a reactionary white male.

Trump has the same lust for absolute power that Hitler had. He has the same lack of respect for the Constitution and the rule of law. Whether or not he is actually a racist (I think not) he is a classic panderer more than willing to use race baiting to hold on to his core base of support. And of perhaps equal importance, like Hitler, he is completely tone deaf to the pain and suffering of anyone outside his loyal cadre of supporters.

Those are the similarities. The list makes me thankful that the social and political fabric of American life is not as susceptible to being taken over by Fascist-like elements as Germany was before World War 2. But that doesn’t mean we can afford to be complacent. Trump is absolutely tireless and relentless at grabbing power wherever and whenever he can. So far, most of his overreaches have been stymied by the courts, but his chief henchman, Mitch McConnell has been quietly approving every right wing judge Trump’s people nominate, the intent being to create a legal environment in which presidential power can grow unchecked and minority rights can be ignored.

Trump will never succeed at rendering our judicial system impotent, but he has already been able to place two people on the Supreme Court who are long time advocates of a strong presidency. The lower courts have been able to defend the Constitution against the president’s incursions because so much of what he attempts is so clearly unconstitutional, the issues don’t reach the Supreme Court.

But Trump’s people sense a sea change coming in November. They fear, with good reason, that their window of opportunity to change America into the white male dominated nation they believe it should be is closing. With 143 days until the 2020 election expect ever more desperate acts on their part to hold onto power.

Next time I will address how COVID-19 affects all this and Trump’s view of law enforcement and the military. This stuff is really depressing. I can only deal with it in small doses.

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The Slow Death of Democracy – Part One

Alan Zendell, June 10, 2020

There are many ways to know a thing. We start with facts to gain a cognitive understanding. We research context and solicit other people’s views to make sense of it. When possible, we observe it directly because just knowing a thing is very different from seeing and hearing it. And sometimes, whether willfully or not, we become immersed in it. Only then do we fully comprehend and feel it. 

That applies equally to the COVID-19 virus and the problem of reforming policing protocols and accountability. As critical as those challenges are, I’m more interested, today, in a subtler, more insidious danger – the diminution of our Constitution and the erosion of the principles and institutions that support our basic freedoms. 

Despite our problems as a nation, Americans tend to suffer from a smug complacency. We’re the greatest nation that ever existed, right? But many of us must be repeatedly reminded that the freedoms we take for granted do not come without a price. It’s a basic principle of nature that the universe tends continually toward disorder. If we don’t expend the energy required to defend our way of life, we will surely lose it. 

Many people have warned since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign that his populist, nativist appeal was an ominous warning sign. We’ve seen this play out many times in history, most often when people felt oppressed. We made epic films about slave uprisings in the Roman Empire. We wrote books and musicals and created more epic films about the French Revolution. And we studied the rise of Fascism in the 1930’s that resulted in the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China, and ultimately, the second world war. 

When I was in school in the 1950s, I asked my teachers and parents how their generation let it happen. In retrospect, we see the horrors wrought by the rise of nationalism and Fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan as an inevitable consequence of the failure of rest of the world to acknowledge what was happening and confront it. Those of us who were awake in history class saw how Mussolini and Hitler dismantled their republics and created police states. We watched incredulously as the diplomacy of appeasement fed the appetites of the oppressors. And those questions we asked our parents and teachers? The answers were simple in the clarity of hindsight – the Fascists succeeded because no one was willing to oppose them until they were fighting for their lives. 

In the 1930s, America and Europe were still recovering from the devastation of the First World War, and the world was reeling from the Great Depression. Does that apply to us? We’ve had financial crises in the late ‘80s and the years following the banking system crash of 2007, but nothing like the what happened in the ’30s. We’ve been bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly twenty years, but that hardly compares with the world wars. And yet, here we are facing a similar threat; it may look different, but its basic elements are the same. 

Its principle element is the attack on truth. Adolf Hitler coined the phrase “The Big Lie” in Mein Kampfwherein he proposed that revolution could be achieved by means of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”. Hitler’s Big Lie was that all of Germany’s problems were the result of Jewish sabotage, and that Jews controlled the media, the banking system, and the courts. Hitler understood that all he had to do to solidify power was give millions of suffering Germans a convenient scapegoat.  

When you hear people accuse Donald Trump of using the Hitler Playbook, that’s what they mean. Trump’s scapegoat is a moving target. First it was illegal immigrants, then it was legal immigrants. He quickly expanded that to the “liberal media,” activist progressive judges, welfare cheats, and all Democrats. The founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes, convinced Trump that there were millions of people in America who were angry, who felt disenfranchised by progressive political agendas, and specifically, by the presidency of Barrack Obama. All Trump needed to do was convince them that he knew who was causing all their problems. 

Trump modified the big lie theory by simply lying all the time and claiming that everyone who opposed him was part of the deep state/fake news conspiracy dedicated to destroying his presidency. And like the impotent opposition in Germany in the 1930s, Congressional Republicans, the only people who have the real power to stop him, lack the will.  

This will be continued over the next few days. Until then, remember – faced with the reality of Donald Trump, the Washington Post changed its motto to, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” 

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Facebook’s Hypocrisy

Alan Zendell, June 3, 2020

I try to base my opinions on facts, but to be honest, I have a long-standing bias against Facebook which is entirely visceral, like the way I always cringe when I encounter a snake. It’s just a perception that there’s something ominous and dangerous there, but it’s being borne out by events. 

My anti-Facebook feelings are in part influenced by several works of futuristic fiction in which the concept of formalized news reporting and fact-checking is subsumed by crowd-sourcing and unregulated publishing of opinions. Science fiction doesn’t always accurately predict the future in specific detail, but well thought out projections of social trends often hit the mark. Many of the futuristic models of how we will receive information in the not-too-distant future suggest the we will be sampling unvetted sources and opinions based on which notions are trending or most popular. That amounts to truth by democracy, deciding which facts to believe based on which point of view gets the most votes.  

Part of the problem is that the era when today’s news was the first draft of history, an idea often attributed to long-time Washington Post publisher Phil Graham, are long gone. It’s bad enough that every news outlet seems unable to report without adding its own spin, but the Trump administration has waged a war on facts since the day the president announced his candidacy five years ago. Watch the coverage of important events on each of the popular news channels and it’s sometimes difficult to tell that they’re reporting on the same occurrences.  

Many major news outlets do some form of verification or fact checking, though in a time when virtually everything can be convincingly faked by technology and the reverence once paid to truth has faded considerably, it’s often hard to discern what’s real. Compound that with a completely unregulated public forum hosting a billion users, and truth is replaced by chaos.  

In creating such a forum, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated that he is a genius in information technology and marketing, if not personal or public relations. His brilliance earned him his billionaire status and made him one of the most powerful media executives in the world. But in no way does that qualify him to decide what represents truth on behalf of his subscribers. Yet, he maintains virtually dictatorial control of how Facebook’s rules are enforced. 

If every Facebook user took the time to research the truth of every post, and if conscientious fact-checking always yielded an unambiguous conclusion, Zuckerberg’s determination to allow unedited posts for everything short of overt calls to overthrow the government might not be so dangerous. But the truth is that most users are either uninterested or unable to fact-check like a professional researcher. The evidence of manipulation by Russian intelligence operatives during the 2016 election should have forced changes in the way Facebook does business, but Zuckerberg’s intransigence and the enabling political self-interest of Trump and his allies have allowed Facebook to continue with business as usual. 

No one believes treading the fine line between First Amendment protected free speech and the greater public interest is easy, but it’s safe to say that leaving such decisions in the hands of a small number of people with clear conflicts of interest is not the answer. It is precisely because vetting specific posts is so difficult, if not impossible, that Facebook and similar platforms pose an existential threat to our country.  

This week, Zuckerberg faced criticism and outrage by many of Facebook’s employees. He has always touted the company’s transparency, but the strained logic of his decision to leave Trump post about shooting demonstrators and the revelation that he discussed the matter directly with the president had his own people in an uproar.  

If you use Facebook regularly, the best way to convey your concern to Zuckerberg is to stop using it. If you trust news stories on Facebook, you do so at your own peril, and you endanger all of us. If you use Facebook to post pictures of your family, keep in mind that there are many internet platforms that allow you to do the same thing safely and securely, without exposing you to a tsunami of false and misleading information. 

I believe Facebook is too big and too powerful to manage the impact it has on society, and the people who have taken on the responsibility of self-policing within the company have utterly failed. In the final analysis, no matter how Facebook does its job, it is ultimately the responsibility of each of us to evaluate what we read. If we allow ourselves to be led by the nose by unscrupulous or uncaring forces, we won’t like where they take us. 

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