How To Make Bad Situations Worse – A Primer

Alan Zendell, May 29, 2020

Regardless of how you feel about the presidency of Barrack Obama, one thing most of America concluded from it was that we had turned a corner as a nation. For a black man to have been elected president and served two full terms without an assassination attempt seemed like a genuine milestone for a nation barely a century-and-a-half out of slavery. I drank that Kool-aid too, and for eight years, even when I strongly disagreed with Obama’s Mideast policies, I consoled myself with pride in the fact that our national consciousness had evolved. 

One of the toughest body blows of Trump’s election was the recognition that the eight-year euphoria over improved race relations had been only an illusion. The haters had neither gone away nor changed their minds. They’d just melted into the shadows, waiting and watching. Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, knew they were there, and he knew how their anger and frustration could be harnessed politically if he could find an ambitious politician shameless enough to pander to it. To our deep regret, he found Donald Trump. 

Trump stoked the flames of hate and divisiveness at every opportunity, appealing to an unfounded paranoia that everyone but him wanted to take peoples’ guns away and affording racists and neo-Nazis a level of respect that was an affront to every decent American. After accusing his predecessors, Obama and George W. Bush, of failing to protect Americans from gun violence he reacted to the October 2017 Las Vegas massacre, the worst act of domestic terrorism since Timothy McVey blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, by caving in to the National Rifle Association. 

When armed White Supremacists terrorized the University of Virginia and the city of Charlottesville, he called them “fine people.” When desperate refugees from south of our border risked the lives of their families to legally seek asylum in our country, Trump had their children confiscated and incarcerated because they were neither white nor wealthy. When governors of both parties issued Executive Orders to protect their citizens from the COVID-19 virus, Trump undermined them at every turn and encouraged the heavily armed lunatic fringe in those states to open rebellion. 

After five years of Trump stoking the flames of hate and racism since he began his run for president, the city of Minneapolis, long regarded as one of the great melting pot success stories of modern America, erupted in violence because four white police officers were caught on video brutally executing a man who was guilty of being black. I needn’t comment on how awful that crime was. We’ve all seen the evidence with our own eyes. 

In 1968 when I worked at the Institute for Defense Analysis in Arlington, Virginia, I stood at an upper story window watching Washington burn after the assassination of Martin Luther King, as outside agitators and anarchists turned peaceful, mournful demonstrations into a deadly conflagration. In 2015 I was living outside Baltimore when another group of local police caused the death of an unarmed, chained suspect. There too, outside agitators turned angry but peaceful protests into a terrifying riot of mayhem and destruction. 

This week the justified anger of the anti-racist community in Minneapolis and St. Paul erupted into street demonstrations. Most of the demonstrators were there to protest peacefully, until once again, outside agitators and trouble makers turned the protests into a replay of Baltimore. After two nights of chaos and rioting, prosecutors finally ordered the arrest of one of the officers, who had a long record of citizen complaints against him, and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz held an eighty-minute long press conference.  

Walz displayed exactly the right tone of compassion and leadership, promising to get to the root of long simmering racial anger and directly addressing the pain of its victims. He appealed for calm and restraint and several times accepted responsibility for fixing the situation. As we saw with multiple governors’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, Walz accepted the cloak of leadership and wore it with distinction.  

And what did our president do? After hailing the armed protesters who stormed state capitols in Michigan and Kentucky as heroes and patriots, he suggested that unarmed protesters in Minneapolis should be shot. Governor Walz, clearly blown away by Trump’s uninvited involvement, visibly restrained himself and simply called Trump’s words “unhelpful.”

The actions of a small number of rogue police officers and the reactions of aggrieved citizens represent another horrendous stain on the reputations of law enforcement officers everywhere who risk their lives to protect us every day. But our unhinged president’s callous, deliberate disregard for everything but stoking his base in a re-election year is even worse. 

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Inciting Violence

Alan Zendell, May 27, 2020

Brutus said it to Julius Caesar, John Wilkes Booth screamed it at Abraham Lincoln when he shot him, and Virginia adopted it as its state motto after King George’s army surrendered at Yorktown. And on Memorial Day, when a small, angry heavily armed militia group violated the security of the governor’s mansion in Frankfort, Kentucky and hung Governor Andy Beshear in effigy, the dummy with the governor’s face on it bore the same Latin phrase: sic semper tyrannis. The effigy was placed on the front lawn where his nine- and ten-year-old children would have seen it had they been home. Why, you ask? Because they found the Governor’s attempts to save lives inconvenient.  

Beshear reacted to the despicable Memorial Day actions this way. The link is to his May 26 press briefing. It’s long, but the important part is a five-minute segment that begins ten minutes and thirty seconds (10:30) from the start. It’s worth taking the time to watch. 

Andy Beshear is a rising star in the Democratic Party, ironically because his leadership style is totally non-political. He and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have risen to national prominence since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic because they have eschewed political games and displayed the kind of leadership we expect from governors, especially in a life and death crisis.  

Both are sons of governors who were revered for their leadership and integrity, both are Democrats, and both are men of faith and humility. But while Cuomo is in his third term as Governor, Beshear is a newbie. In office less than six months he has risen to the challenge and united a state that voted for Donald Trump by a two-to-one margin in 2016 and whose two U. S. Senators have helped foster the divisiveness of Trumpism for their own political benefit. 

Like Cuomo, whose daily briefings have been must-see TV since the virus exploded in March, Beshear almost never mentions Trump’s name. Simply by being himself, by showing compassion and continuing to stress love over hate, he is rapidly emerging as the quintessential anti-Trump. He is calm and humble and projects strength and leadership without ever raising his voice or resorting to lies, hyperbole or insults. By demonstrating what leadership in a crisis should be, he shines a light on everything our president isn’t. 

It’s significant that Beshear’s approval rating is consistently over 80%, nearly twice that of the president who is his polar opposite, even though his state voted overwhelmingly for Trump. That doesn’t mean Kentucky is about to become the center of progressive politics. But it means that Beshear’s brand of compassionate, honest leadership trumps Trump’s brand when they’re viewed side by side.  

Kentucky is one of the poorest states in the country economically, which made it ripe for the kind of populism Trump runs on. If many Kentuckians were susceptible to Trump’s blame game and the decades-long right-wing media hate campaign against Hillary Clinton, their response to Beshear says they understand the difference between truth and lies, and they prefer compassion to hateful invective. The bipartisan condemnation of the Memorial Day event speaks a lot louder than the actions of the militia group. 

What a concept! Trump rails at perceived enemies and spews sick conspiracy theories, screaming to arouse his base at rallies with his lies and personal slurs, but this year, at least, it’s the calm, reasoned sympathetic leadership of men like Beshear and Cuomo that voters have responded to positively. Most people aren’t saying it out loud, but they can’t help but notice that events like the Memorial Day demonstration in Frankfort have a clear connection to Trump’s rallying cries. He has repeatedly encouraged gun advocates to use their weapons in protest and encouraged them to liberate their states from Democratic governors who he claims abrogate their rights as free citizens.  

Trump’s public statements and tweets would be considered incitement to riot and insurrection if anyone else made them, because that is exactly what they are. In reacting to them as he does, Andy Beshear seems to have modeled himself after leaders like Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King. I’m sure Beshear knows both of them were murdered by their enemies, yet he courageously told his constituents, yesterday, that he would be neither afraid nor intimidated by armed protesters.  

I’m confident that his security personnel will keep him safe. Bullies with big guns are still bullies, and most bullies are craven cowards. But they can still be dangerous. If one of them takes a shot at Beshear, we can thank four years of enabling by Donald Trump for encouraging crazies to vote by bullet instead of ballot. 

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Checks and Balances

Alan Zendell, May 20, 2020

Our republic has survived in reasonably democratic fashion for two-and-a-half centuries, in part because of the checks and balances that were put in place to assure that no individual(s) can accumulate too much unchecked Executive power. The two principal ways that occurs are by Congressional Oversight and internal reviews by Inspectors General.

In the case of the former, we have seen President Trump attempt to nullify Congress’ role every time either the House or Senate questioned an executive action. Trump, more than any president in a century, has been relentless in attempting to undo the constitutionally mandated role of the Congress to oversee the actions of the Executive Branch, and he has been enabled in doing so largely by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But McConnell is only one Senator. His power to decide on behalf of the Senate only exists because most of his Republican caucus believes their self interest lies in supporting the President, right or wrong.

Every Department in the Executive Branch has an internal watchdog function directed by its Inspector General. In the past, most Inspectors General have acted with good faith and integrity, much like the internal affairs bureaus of police departments. In my thirty-seven years working for the federal government, nothing was more intimidating than a notification of a review by the IG’s office. No one ever challenged either their influence or authority – at least until now.

In the Trump Administration, undermining Inspectors General has become an accepted way of doing business. Trump fired four IGs in the past few months, most recently, Steve Linick of the Defense Department. The President has the legal authority to fire anyone in the Executive Branch, but oversight functions are supposed to be nonpolitical. Trump, on the other hand, has weaponized his power to fire and replace to retaliate against anyone who does not sufficiently demonstrate personal loyalty to him.

That’s not the way things are supposed to work in America, but Trump has made it clear from the start that he craves the kind of power wielded by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong- Un. He is driven by a megalomaniacal compulsion for absolute control. He throws tantrums whenever anyone challenges his view that Article 2 of the Constitution gives him the power to do anything he wants. It doesn’t.

The latest example is the firing of Linick. While some have suggested that it was provoked by an investigation of personal improprieties by Defense Secretary Mike Pompeo and his wife, it’s clear that it was really about the $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia which Congress blocked in reaction to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the kingdom’s continuing involvement in the Yemenese civil war. By law, all arms sales to foreign governments must be approved by Congress. But Trump declared a national emergency to bypass Congress and directed Pompeo to proceed with the sale, which included American nuclear technology.

According to Politico, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) said, “[Linick’s] office was investigating — at my request — Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia.” Although that sounds political, it is exactly what is supposed to happen when either branch of Congress suspects inappropriate behavior on the part of the Executive Branch. Pompeo made it political by requesting that Trump fire Linick to defuse his review, though the request was obviously cover for Trump, who needed an excuse to get rid of Linick.

This is especially troubling, not only because it is the latest in a long list of Trump administration power grabs, but because of the troubled history of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Congress felt deceived by the both the Bush Administration and the Saudis in the aftermath of nine-eleven, leading to our nearly twenty-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current distrust of the relationship between the administration and Saudi Arabia isn’t partisan, as a number of Republican Senators supported blocking the arms deal.  

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), (better late than never?) introduced legislation to require Congressional review of actions like Linick’s firing, claiming that Pompeo and Trump are guilty of “circumventing the congressional role in the advise-and-consent of arms sales to foreign nations.” Nice try, Senator. Don’t hold your breath waiting for McConnell to allow Republicans to support it.

The essential point here is that Trump has systematically attempted to dismantle the protections in the Constitution intended to preserve our democracy, and the Republican majority Senate has refused to intervene for three-and-a-half years. Whether they’re willing to take a stand now will tell us a lot about our future as nation. It may also indicate how far out on a limb they’re willing to go to support Trump as the election approaches.

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Leadership or Self-Interest?

Alan Zendell, May 15, 2020

In the 1967 film, A Guide For the Married Man, Robert Morse tells his friend Walter Matthau that if his wife ever catches him in a lie he should, “Deny, deny, deny.” In the following scene, (watch it here,) Joey Bishop and his mistress are caught in bed by his wife (Imogene Coca.) As Coca screams her distress, Bishop and the mistress calmly get out of bed and dress, and the mistress leaves. Coca yells, “Who was that woman?” to which Bishop replies, “What woman?” Coca looks dumbfounded, and says, “What would you like for dinner?”

What made the skit funny was the absurd idea that you could convince someone that something she’d just seen and heard never happened. Donald Trump must have taken that movie to heart. He was twenty-one when it was released, a year before he launched his career of flimflamming. Fifty-three years later he’s still at it. He got away with it for most of that time because of his ruthless nature, his money, and his all or nothing, never compromise approach to life. As his bankruptcies demonstrated, he’d rather be in charge of a failing enterprise than cede control. More than five decades of getting off scot free have convinced him there’s no reason to change. His success in mobilizing his populist base has further emboldened him until it seems he knows no bounds. His antics were never amusing; now they’re frightening.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented Trump with the kind of test that makes legacies. He could have chosen to lead the country, using every resource of science and medical technology to minimize Americans’ suffering and save as many lives as possible. The nation’s infectious disease specialists knew how to accomplish that. So did the autocratic Chinese government, who were willing to sacrifice at least a half year of economic activity to shut down the virus.

Like Imogene Coca, we saw and heard everything. China tried the denial game, but actions speak louder than words, and their decision to precipitously shut down a province of more than forty million people made it clear to every observer that they were terrified of loosing a deadly pandemic on the world. Our intelligence services and military leaders understood this as early as last November. So did the president.

If protecting America were his first priority, he had several months to prepare. He could have started by reinstating the pandemic preparedness portion of the national security apparatus he trashed when he took office. He could have immediately declared a national emergency like South Korea did and activated the Defense Production Act before Christmas. While the Chinese were hardly forthcoming, the whole world saw how quickly the virus overwhelmed that country’s medical resources. Before 2019 ended, epidemiologists knew the fourteen day asymptomatic incubation period made it virtually impossible to contain the virus in China. Trump knew it was already too late to keep it from reaching Europe and North America.

As Dr. Rick Bright testified, yesterday, people who understood the threat recognized that we were woefully unprepared in terms of medical equipment and protective gear for front line workers. We could have begun manufacturing those things by January. Chinese President Xi Jinping had essentially the same choice. No one had any illusions that Xi acted out of compassion for the Chinese masses. Xi knew that if the virus got out of control there it could take decades for China to recover its position in the global economy.

Trump claims he had a choice between saving lives and protecting our economy, but Xi’s actions exploded that myth – they’re one and the same. The difference between Xi’s and Trump’s calculus was that Trump had to run for re-election. Trump equates the economy with the financial markets. His greatest fear was a panic that would cause them to crash.

Donald Trump was simply incapable of acting differently. It’s not that he didn’t understand his options. Our president suffers from a severe mental illness. His narcissistic personality disorder is not the kind of illness that gets people dragged off in straight jackets, but it’s equally serious when he has to choose between his self-interest and anything else.

We see it every day as he attempts to muzzle the doctors and scientists who’ve spent their lives preparing for the kind of pandemic we’re fighting. And with Trump trailing Joe Biden in every poll, it’s going to get worse. We’re going to see power grabs, attempts to suppress voter turnout, and the removal of everyone in power who hasn’t pledged fealty to Trump.

The next six months are going to be a nightmare of lies, misdirection, and signs of a president becoming unhinged.

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Protect Our People or Let Nature Decide?

Alan Zendell, May 7, 2020

When Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said in March that grandparents ought to be willing to sacrifice themselves for their grandchildren’s futures it created an understandable uproar. Then, in April, he said, “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for my children and grandchildren and saving this country for all of us.” My initial reaction was that Patrick was a Trump wannabe pitching the latest game plan to re-open the country to shore up his re-election chances, regardless of the consequences.

But let’s take a step back. As cold and ruthless as that sounds, it’s actually part of a philosophical debate that’s thousands of years old. Many societies have had to address the question of sacrificing today for a better future. I remember a grade school teacher telling my class that Eskimos floated their old away on ice floes when they could no longer produce as much as they consumed. Many Asian cultures (Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese to mention a few) accept that the present generation must sacrifice for those that will follow, and we saw the same thing among the Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants in the last century.

Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, the debate amounts to whether we’re willing to endorse policies that we know will result in more deaths, particularly among our seniors, to assure that the economy our kids will depend on doesn’t collapse. The question is whether a failed economy will destroy more lives than the virus will if it’s allowed to spread unchecked. Fears about maintaining the food supply are a warning to take the possibility seriously.

It’s tempting to make this debate all about Trump’s sociopathy, but it’s much bigger than he is and bigger than our country. Sweden is using Stockholm as a living laboratory. The government is testing the hypothesis that the benefit of avoiding mitigation methods to quickly achieve herd immunity will ultimately be worth the cost in lost lives. No one is accusing Sweden of dehumanizing its people, but we won’t know the outcome for many months.

The truth is that we don’t know enough. Epidemiologists and infectious disease researchers differ widely on the percentage of the population that needs to be infected to achieve herd immunity. Published estimates range between thirty and seventy percent. Applying that to the United States suggests that to achieve herd immunity, between 100 and 230 million people would have to be infected. We still don’t know enough about this disease to estimate the toll that would take, not only on seniors, but on health- and immune-compromised young people.

Despite recent optimism over potential treatment drugs and vaccines, we still cannot say when either will be available or how efficacious they’ll be. Many experienced researchers are now cautioning that a COVID-19 vaccine might elude them completely, citing the failed thirty-year quest for an HIV vaccine. Most people who favor re-opening our economy and eventually dispensing with virus mitigation efforts assume that effective medical treatments and/or vaccines will be available by the summer of 2021, but what if they’re not? The much heralded University of Washington model adopted by the Coronavirus Task Force predicts deaths in excess of two million in that eventuality if we resume business as usual.

We also have no real data on how a greatly reduced economy will affect people’s lives. Those who are intent on re-opening society claim that letting the economy fail will kill or wreck the lives of even more millions, but no one really knows. This debate will not end soon, and it could ultimately be resolved in the wrong places. This isn’t an issue for either courts or street demonstrations, especially when demonstrators are armed to the teeth.

One thing we know is our history. We could cite the Spanish Flu of 1917-1918, which killed millions and devastated some of our major cities. Those who advocate re-opening the country quickly could say, “Look, we survived that one, and within years the country was booming again.”

We can also look back at the Great Depression, which is held out as a worst case nightmare scenario if we remain locked down. But we survived that too. We could have let people die of malnutrition and disease back then, and let natural selection decide who the winners and losers would be. Instead we created a safety net for everyone, and America remained strong enough to become the manufacturing colossus that turned the tide in World War 2.

My own view is that if we allow countless more of our people to sicken and die with no clear way to assess the benefit, if any, to our grandchildren, we will be guilty of a crime greater than either slavery or the genocide we perpetrated on the native Americans who preceded us. 

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Trump’s Bad Press

Alan Zendell, May 5, 2020

Donald Trump may be right that Abraham Lincoln got better press than he did, despite Lincoln taking a principled stand that alienated half the country and resulted in the Civil War. Not that the Civil War was Lincoln’s fault, but tearing the county apart and forcing the southern states to restructure their economies without benefit of slave labor was bound to make enemies, among them an actor named Booth.

We revere Lincoln for his moral courage and basic decency. His enemies hated him for seeking to cleanse us of the stain of slavery left to us by the British, which by omission, we grandfathered into our Constitution when it was not addressed by the Bill of Rights. Lincoln’s bad press was funded by vested interests that were seriously threatened by an economic revolution even greater than what Bernie Sanders’ movement is fighting for.

The divisiveness caused by Lincoln’s policies was a side effect of pursuing the betterment of the American soul. Trump uses divisiveness as a tool for amassing and solidifying power. Trump’s press isn’t worse than Lincoln’s as much as it’s inside out. His negative press stems from his lack of respect for law and the Constitution, his disregard of truth, and his willingness to stoop to depths of immorality in his lust for power rarely seen in our political history. His loudest positive press reflects the racist, misogynist, elitist Tea Party, one-issue (abortion rights) evangelists, the Alt-Right movement, and extremists who believe the Second Amendment gives them the right to defy the government.

Like Lincoln, Trump has a vision for a different America. But while Lincoln’s cleansed the nation of its worst disgrace, Trump’s would dismantle the social safety net that represents the horrifying specter of a level playing field. Trump is an aggressive champion of the fight against the massive transfer of wealth that Republicans have feared since The New Deal of the 1930s. Agree or disagree, but political ideology is not the reason much of the media and a majority of Americans despise our president.

Trump has a desperate need for adulation, yet he behaves in precisely the manner that assures he will never have it. When he panders to the worst elements of human nature, how can decent Americans not oppose him? When he lies or distorts reality whenever it suits him, how can Americans who need to believe they can trust their president not cry out? When he is incapable of facing dissent and opposition without resorting to vulgar insults and slurs, how can decent people respect him?

Trump gambled since he entered the public arena that his ability to distract and create chaos would shield him from the truth. He’s extremely good at it, but every gambler knows winning streaks always end, and every juggler knows there’s a limit to how many balls he can keep in the air. Provoking trade wars, dismantling efforts to protect our environment, and abandoning our allies were problematic, but none of those things was an immediate existential threat to our country. COVID-19 is precisely such a threat, a crisis that requires a president who can see past his self-interest. Donald Trump fails that test daily.

Rather than grow into his responsibility, he uses the pandemic to increase his hold on power. He’s still trying to cripple the oversight role of the Congress, and he continues to retaliate against everyone in the Executive Branch who attempted to bring truth to light.

You want good press, Mr. President? Start by not vilifying honest journalists and labeling anything that doesn’t support your version of events fake news. The First Amendment was passed for a reason. Most journalists do what they do in the pursuit of truth and transparency. The same left-wing media you despise is now pursuing sexual harassment allegations against your probable opponent as vigorously as they look for truth in your administration. And you might notice that Mr. Biden handles the situation with class and dignity.

Stop approaching every issue with personal animus and playing the victim whenever someone disagrees with you, lashing out like a spoiled brat having a temper tantrum. And most of all, learn to express compassion even if you’re incapable of actually feeling any. In short, start behaving like a president.

The Old Testament God demanded constant praise and tribute. Fail to pay proper respect and offer daily sacrifice, and you’d find your towers collapsing around you or washed away by a Great Flood. This may come as a shock to you, Donald, but you’re not God, and you’re not a king, either. You’re not superior to everyone else. In many ways, you’re the worst of us.

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Sexual Harassment

Alan Zendell, May 1, 2020

Sexual assault is a crime. There’s no defense for it. Preying on vulnerable women is despicable. But sexual predators don’t advertise, sell tickets, or perform in front of witnesses, and the victims are often powerless and lack the ability to either defend themselves or bring the perpetrators to justice.

That said, with Trump’s poll numbers falling, and his own people telling him he was headed for defeat, you knew it wouldn’t take long before the circus began. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is under intense scrutiny because of an accusation by Tara Reade, a former female aide, about things she claims occurred twenty-seven years ago. Biden swears it never happened, though Reade has been inconsistent about what “it” actually is. At different times she referred to being touched on the neck and shoulder, and being groped in a sexual manner.

We’ve heard many accusations like this in the past thirty years. They seem to crop up whenever there’s a politically tense issue involving someone whose character is on the line. It’s important that we examine all of them through the same lens. Years after the fact, such allegations are extremely hard to prove, especially under the searing light of politics.

President Trump has been accused of much worse by more than a dozen women, and attempts by both the president and his surrogates at the National Enquirer to suppress or buy off the accusers are well-documented. Trump’s defense is always flat out denial, even while he simultaneously writes checks to buy his accusers’ silence. And despite the sheer weight of numbers, voters seemed not care when they elected him in 2016.

It could be argued that by that standard, the accusation against Biden should simply be ignored. One accuser as opposed to many, vague specifics about the alleged acts as opposed to a long string of aggrieved women with detailed accounts and Trump himself publicly bragging about his treatment of women, a man with a reputation for being moral and respectful as opposed to … well … Trump.

I could make that argument, but I won’t. Biden agreed to release all records of every complaint ever filed against him, if any exist. He even directed reporters to where such records would be stored in the National Archives. He said Reade deserves to be heard, though he denies categorically that the events she referred to ever happened.

Biden also said he wouldn’t question her motives, simply that he didn’t understand why she said what she did. Compare that to Trump who resorts to slurs, slander, and deep state conspiracies whenever anyone accuses him of anything. Thirteen women independently accused him of unrelated acts of sexual misconduct. Trump said they were all liars, and the voters ignored them.

Consider the most celebrated cases of sexually-oriented accusations against political celebrities: Anita Hill against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings in 1991, Monica Lewinsky against President Bill Clinton in 1998, and Doctor Christine Blasey against Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. All three women were credible, but only Lewinsky produced physical evidence, which resulted in Clinton’s impeachment. Hill and Blasey, however, who most observers found believable, were pilloried on national TV for not reporting the misconduct to authorities in a timely manner and having no eyewitnesses willing to testify.

No one knows this better than Biden, who presided over the Thomas hearings as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It wasn’t Biden’s finest moment as, trying to be fair to both sides in a politically sensitive proceeding, he permitted Republican Senator Arlen Spector to prosecute Hill as if she were the accused rather than the alleged victim. Biden has since admitted that he wished he’d done more to protect Hill’s reputation, but the Republicans were out for blood, and sympathetic and believable as she was, Hill had no corroborating evidence.

Where should we, the media and the voters, draw the line with respect to Reade? The Senate treated the Thomas and Kavanaugh hearings like criminal proceedings, using the lack a comparable level of evidence to discredit Hill and Blasey. Based on what has been published to date, Reade’s accusations seem flimsy compared to either Hill’s and Blasey’s. 

Biden said he wouldn’t question Reade’s motivation, but I do. Was it suppressed anger over something she believes happened in 1993 or is the Trump campaign or one of its surrogates involved in some way? We’ll find out, eventually, but given Trump’s performance in virtually everything he does, it’s naïve to think politics isn’t a major factor.

Bottom line? Trump has set the bar so low that unproven, Reade’s charges have no relevance to the election. The only thing Biden and Trump have in common is that their names contain five letters.

Can anyone seriously compare Trump’s character to Biden’s?

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Mitch McConnell, Master of Partisanship

Alan Zendell, April 23, 2020

Oscar Wilde said that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. Judging by our country’s response to the COVID-19 virus, he was wrong. Consider the way Hollywood has treated pandemics. There have been at least twenty big screen treatments of the subject since the 1950s. They basically fall into two categories: those in which most of the human race is turned into zombies, and those that focus on fighting the pandemic before it kills everyone.

The second group consistently focuses on the scientists who are desperately working to find a cure. There is always an element of politics and there are usually a few corrupt or incompetent leaders who don’t get the message, but generally Hollywood makes the reasonable assumption that desperate times will unite us. Whether it’s alien invasions, rogue asteroids, or mysterious illnesses, the movies assure us that our survival depends on a united response led by science.

It’s unfortunate that Trump and his political advisors spend their time watching Fox News instead of those movies. Public health experts and epidemiologists have had to fight every day to keep the country on track to mitigate the effects of the virus. It’s been an ugly spectacle with many wasted weeks that could have saved lives, but so far, the scientists have prevailed.  And we have seen unity where it was most important, among our state governors.

Life struggled to imitate art these last few months, but it is about to encounter it’s most difficult obstacle. Now that the battle over health policy is largely resolved, we face an even more insidious if less deadly enemy. The enemy is unrelenting partisanship. It’s face is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. No other politician has so consistently devoted his career to trashing the opposition, and what’s best for the nation be damned.

He famously announced on Barrack Obama’s first day in office, in 2009, that his job was to assure that Obama would fail as president. His sole mission has been to increase the number and power of red states and diminish the blue ones. Now he has expanded that fight to include federal financial aid in response to the pandemic.

McConnell is betting that he can control how emergency funding flows to the states. He had to cave to Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats to pass the $2.2 trillion aid package under the force of public opinion, but he’s back trying it again.

It’s neither a secret nor a mystery that blue states have more financial challenges than red ones. Financial problems and budget shortfalls are almost synonymous with large urban areas. With the exception of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Atlanta, seventeen of the twenty largest metropolitan areas in the United States are in blue states (12) and purple states (5).

McConnell’s new ploy is to make sure red states come out of the pandemic as whole as possible while impoverishing, and therefore, weakening the blue states. This is unabashed partisanship of the worst kind. It’s pure unfiltered politics, waging the fight the Tea Party began in 2009, not coincidentally, the same year McConnell declared total war against Democrats to the exclusion of everything else.

In life as opposed to art, it happens this way all too often. Pandemics, natural disasters, and economic collapses all have one thing in common. No matter how bad things are for the mass of people, there are always some who profit. For some it’s being in the right place at the right time and possessing skills that are in short supply. For others, it’s the result of predatory planning and scheming, waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

Big cities and populous states have enormous financial and budgetary commitments. The ability to support teachers, police, firefighters, state and local governments, and public health facilities all depend on state budgets, and one of the mostly costly items those states have is pension systems. Those are the things McConnell is attacking out of pure political spite. Yesterday, he said he’d rather see states declare bankruptcy than bail them out. That’s not only evil and selfish, it’s also hypocritical.

 Our major cities are the financial engines that make our country go. The entire nation benefits from their productivity, but it’s largely left to the individual states and cities to fund themselves. Where states are helped by federal aid, the distribution is extremely uneven. New York Governor Cuomo addressed the disparity today. He pointed out that New York contributes $116 billion more to the federal treasury than it receives in federal aid, while McConnell’s deep red Kentucky receives $148 billion more in federal aid than it contributes.

McConnell said there’s no way he’ll support bailing out blue states. Cuomo asked, “Who’s bailing out who?”

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Playing One on TV Doesn’t Make You a Real President

Alan Zendell, April 22, 2020

That’s what Trump biographer Michael d’Antonio implied in his op-ed today. It sounds like an attempt at dark humor, but the more you think about it the more profound it seems.

Look at the evidence. Tune in to Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings and read his tweets, and compare them, for example, with what we see and hear from our governors. Have you heard a single governor, regardless of his or her politics mention TV ratings? Does Trump make you cringe when he shows more emotion about how many people are watching him than discussing tens of thousands of Americans living on ventilators and dying? Do you wonder if it occurs to him to ask how many of the people tuning in to his briefings are infuriated by them? It makes me think about people lying injured after a car crash counting how many rubberneckers slow down to see the carnage.

Every day, every governor I watch provides information (facts) and offers support and compassion to frightened citizens, eschewing politics. Every Trump briefing comes off like a campaign rally. Governors every day take personal responsibility for their decisions and accept dissent and protest with equanimity. Trump uses every briefing to deflect blame,  explicitly refusing to accept personal responsibility for anything, instead claiming credit for the successes of everyone else and continually throwing personal tantrums at anyone who attempts to hold him accountable.

This week, Trump expanded his campaign of creating chaos to distract Americans from his mismanagement of the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On successive days he tweeted that he was suspending immigration into the United States and ordering naval commanders to fire on and destroy Iranian vessels that harass American ships. That sounds like his promises to destroy NBC News, CBS News, and CNN for harassing him with questions about his own lies and contradictions, in other words, for doing their jobs responsibly – except that the potential consequences are far more serious.

The tweets were attempts to recharge his flagging base, obvious signs of desperation as even our delusional president must accept the implications of his falling approval numbers. A master at using his bully pulpit for his own personal benefit, it never occurs to him to use it to promote the welfare of all Americans. And that’s tragic, because the single thing Donald Trump excels at is rallying an audience. Just imagine if he used that talent the way Franklin Roosevelt did.

D’Antonio, who interviewed Trump extensively for his biography tells us that Trump’s idol early in life was quintessential talk show host, Johnny Carson. Trump wanted, more than anything else to be a television star. As president he can be one just by decreeing it. The COVID-19 pandemic gives him access to hundreds of hours of network television time. He loves the briefings, even when reporters’ questions infuriate him. It’s a classic Trump M. O., setting up enemies and straw men to cast him in the role of a beleaguered victim. When he lashes out, devoid of decency and respect for truth, he’s telling his base of angry people in search of scapegoats – See? I’m just like you, always being victimized by liberals and leftists.

What better scapegoats than immigrants and the Shiite Muslim leaders of Iran? Trump has already convinced his base that immigrants want only to steal their jobs and rape their daughters. And Iranian leadership has frequently advocated death to America and Israel. What wonderful foils for Trump’s hate-mongering and divisiveness. But immigration has nothing to do with Trump’s failed response to the pandemic or the harm he does when he undermines his own medical experts. And no one believes Iran is suddenly so great a threat to our national security that it justifies a shoot and destroy order.

Becoming president enabled Donald Trump to achieve his lifelong dream of being a television star, but even in that he’s cheating. Most television personalities have to earn their ratings through either public acclaim or increasing sales for sponsors. As president, all he has to do is step out of the White House into a crowd of reporters. He understands media frenzy, and it makes no difference whether the noise they make is adulation or criticism.

At the end of a long, stressful day of following lockdown rules, when my wife and I turn on our television, the last thing we want to see is another Trump clown show. We’re thankful to the networks who draw a line between presidential news and campaigning. To quote Michael d’Antonio, “Right now, the American people need an actual president. Not someone who just plays one on TV.”

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Inciting Insurrection

Alan Zendell, April 19, 2020

insurrection

In a well-ordered universe, a U. S. President inciting insurrection would be grounds for removal under the twenty-fifth amendment. Anyone else who posted those tweets would be guilty of both federal and state felonies.

The internet has blown up with shock and horror over them, but sometimes understatement speaks loudest. The response I liked best was my son’s: “I’m no virologist, but encouraging civil unrest during a pandemic seems ill-advised.” Unless, of course, you look at it from the point of view of a mentally disturbed narcissist desperate to cling to power.

In obvious knee-jerk responses by Trump’s base, second amendment protests erupted all over the country. They were mostly in states with Democratic governors, but there was one in Annapolis, home of Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. Hogan, who also serves as the Chair of the National Governor’s Association has consistently ignored or refuted the Trump administration’s misguided approach to managing the spread of the virus.

The Second Amendment tweets are a clear signal that Trump has pulled out all the stops in a re-election campaign dealing with approval ratings in the low forties and a clear message sent by two-thirds of the electorate that Americans are unhappy with his response to the pandemic. It’s classic Trump, creating confusion and chaos to divert attention from his leadership failures as president.

But it’s worse than that. Many fear that he might react to losing the next election by calling right-wing extremists to arms and refusing to leave office. Several of his actions as president have been reckless, but now he’s willing to risk elevating the divisiveness he has cultivated into full blown insurrection.

The Louisville Courier Journal reported that soon after Trump’s tweets hit the internet, death threats against Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Andy Beshear by gun rights activists began appearing on Facebook, asserting that: “…the Constitution protects us and gives us the authority to eliminate him by any means necessary via the Second Amendment.” Even in deeply red Kentucky, there was immediate bipartisan condemnation of these threats by state lawmakers, although Mitch McConnell, the leading Republican in the state hasn’t seen fit to comment. There’s no way to spin this. The Facebook posts encourage the assassination of a duly elected governor, with an indisputable connection to the president’s tweets.

As despicable as using the Second Amendment to stir up his base is, it’s not only disruptive to states’ efforts to limit the spread of the pandemic, it’s a dangerous misinterpretation of the Amendment. The notion that the Second Amendment was intended to allow citizens to take up arms against governors and other state officials is absurd. The Second Amendment empowered states to raise militias comprised of armed citizens because the Founders feared attempts by the federal government to exercise power over the states not granted to it by the Constitution. Period.

Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, who authors a very-worth-reading daily newsletter (heathercoxrichardson.substack.com) makes a convincing case that stirring up gun rights advocates is simply part of a joint campaign by Trump and the aforementioned Mitch McConnell to retain power after 2020. She notes, for example that three Fox News hosts (Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Pirro, and Laura Ingraham) all cheered on the protests against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. It’s no coincidence that Trump won Michigan by a whisker in 2016, and he can’t win in 2020 without that state in his column.

Richardson also reported that four of the top five donors to Senator McConnell are Fox News Executives. She sees all of this as part of a decades long attempt by right wing Republicans to suppress liberals, with Fox News as a major collaborator and enabler. Anyone who doubts that should have a look at the Showtime series, The Loudest Voice. It’s chilling to watch Russell Crowe portray Roger Ailes, the prime mover behind both Fox News and Trumpism.

Professor Richardson is too responsible an academic to wonder what else Trump might be willing to do to stay in office, but I’m under no such inhibition. I believe Trump is more than willing to have armed conflict erupt in the battleground states, dangerous as that is. What better scenario than to be able to point to open insurrection for the declaration of martial law?

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose autocratic style has been praised by Trump, may have given us a window into our own future on Friday, when he said his country’s national elections might have to be postponed because of COVID-19. As Fall approaches, if Trump’s numbers continue to slide, don’t be surprised if he tries the same thing. It would trigger a constitutional crisis, but that wouldn’t stop him. The good news is that with John Roberts as Chief Justice, Trump will lose that fight.

 

 

 

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