Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Tyranny of the Plurality

Endangered species.

Kansas. Montana. Georgia. South Carolina. Four Congressional vacancies. Four special elections. Four opportunities for Democrats to turn President Trump's historic unpopularity into a warning to Republican leaders on Capitol Hill: if you value your job, start representing the majority of your constituents, rather than pandering to the wealthy few.

But if those elections were referenda on the Presidency, the net result fell far short of those national figures: every one of them went to the Republican candidate.

Democratic responses run the gamut of disappointment to despair to fury at party leaders. As understandable as those feelings may be, I think they're all misguided. Don't get me wrong: I very much wanted every one of those elections to go the other way, to send four strong messages to Congress that the American people are fed up with Republican efforts to kill the ACA and transform its funding into massive tax cuts for the 1%. But in every case, that would have meant flipping a district that has been reliably red for decades, and that's asking a lot of an electorate who are both exhausted from the hyperactive Trump news cycle and too distracted by it to pay attention to what Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are trying to do to health care. On top of that, it is still far too early into this regime for ordinary Republican voters to have felt any profound negative consequences of Trump's mercurial approach to governing. It's too early for the apocalypse to have taken hold: the anti-Christ just barely got into office. Rome wasn't sacked in a day.

So the voters in these districts were not yet angry enough to hand a House seat to the Democrats. Trump and his Capitol Hill cronies have yet to ruin health insurance, and even if they succeed in passing some version of the profoundly cruel AHCA, the most ruthless of its provisions will be timed to kick in years from now, thus minimizing its impact on both the 2018 and 2020 elections. The impact on the economy of America's growing hostility toward immigrants may also take time to filter down to the masses. The emptiness of Trump's promises seems to be lost on the low-information voters who make up a large portion of his base.

And yet, in every one of these elections, the margin was, if not a complete turnover, still far closer than demographic projections would suggest. The fence sitters have made their choice, and it is more Democratic than any election in memory would lead one to expect. Unfortunately, it's still not enough to hand a solidly Republican seat to the Democrats.

So it's really on the Republicans, particularly the grass roots, Given how many exaggerations, distortions, reversals, and outright lies Trump has been caught making, and the bald-faced impunity with which he has been filling the Washington swamp with ethically-conflicted billionaires and their lobbyist toadies, why do these people continue to support Republican candidates in their house districts?

I can sum it up in two words: yellow dog.

I first encountered the term in graduate school at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). The music education department at UIUC was headed up by Charles Leonhard, a curmudgeonly outrageous piece of work who delighted in terrifying the "band boys" (like me) in his courses by making them sing chord progressions in front of the entire 45-member class. (Ask me to do it for you sometime, and you'll see why it was so scary, and why the compliment "Not bad for a band boy" was some of the highest academic praise I ever received.) When he wasn't putting the fear of harmony in the likes of yours truly, pontificating on the philosophy of music education, or transforming instrumental performance technicians into musical artists, Charley Leonhard delighted in sharing folksy euphemisms from his formative years in Anadarko, Oklahoma. It was during one of these tangents that he proudly proclaimed himself a "yellow dog Democrat." Seeing the confusion on the faces of so many of his Yankee students, he elaborated: "I'd rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican."

The year was 1983, and there were still plenty of yellow dog Democrats in the South, though that region was well into its transformation into a reliably red (though in those days, that color was not yet associated with Republicanism, as it was still strongly associated with socialism) electoral region. The Southern Democrats who filled seats in the Senate and House of Representative were often conservative on social issues, and some came to be typified as "blue dog Democrats"--staunchly loyal to the party, a reliable vote for entitlements and regulations, but digging in their heels on matters like abortion and gay rights. In time, this faction of the Democratic party would mostly cease to exist, with some retiring, others being voted out of office, and the rest switching parties.

As the blue dog politicians moved on, so did the yellow dog voters. There were no longer Democratic politicians reflecting their moral conservatism or their borderline racism; in fact, African-Americans were becoming uncomfortably influential in Southern Democratic politics. And so the exodus that had begun with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s accelerated, until, by the early 2000s, the South had completely flipped, and was now the most reliably Republican region in the country.

These voters are the same people who, had they been around in the 1950s, could've been counted on to vote the full Democratic ticket. Of course, in the 1950s, the Democratic ticket meant something very different from what it means today, but that's another story.

The point is that yellow dogs are loyal. It doesn't matter that their master can be cruel, neglectful, callous to their actual needs, exploiting their votes to further an agenda that has little or nothing to offer them: however much that elderly white man may be in the pocket of wealthy donors, if there's a red "R" after his name, he's got their vote. And yes, I know they're not all old white men. Some of them are middle-aged white women, and a few are even persons of color. What matters is the red R.

The point of greatest frustration for me as a West Coast Democrat is that these persons do not constitute anything like a true majority of eligible voters. A lethal blend of gerrymandering and vote suppression has depressed the numbers of Democratic voters who participate in House elections, leading to the election of Republicans by pluralities. This phenomenon is not just present in district results: it's how Donald Trump became President, winning bare pluralities in just enough states to garner the electoral votes he needed to put him over the top.

And that's how this country has gotten itself into this mess: pluralities of reliably faithful yellow dog Republicans are inflicting their priorities on everyone, and their number one priority is electing Republicans rather than Democrats, regardless of how much this may be working against their own self-interest, not to mention the interests of their communities and states.

There are those within the progressive movement who believe we should just step back and let Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan inflict their ruthless agenda on the nation. Once the cuts in health care kick in, this theory goes, people will finally realize how stupid they've been, and will abandon their Republican legislators in droves.

The problem with this approach as that it's not just Trump voters who will be hurt by whatever version of health care "reform" Congress passes. This is the tide that will sink all boats, ours included. Yes, it would be easier to let the GOP sink itself, then go about the business of rebuilding the nation once they've trashed it; but how many Americans, from every part of the political spectrum, would suffer and die in the meantime as they wait for that hypothetical Democratic resurgence to restore Obamacare or, better still, replace it with a single-payer system?

We can't wait for that to happen. Too many will die in the waiting room. Democrats are, above all else, compassionate to a fault. We care about the poor, the unemployed, the refugee, all those who have been abandoned by Republicanism's fixation on the interests of business-owners.

So if we can't just wait for the yellow dogs to finally wake up and realize they've been turned into Trump chumps, taken for a ride on the populist express, sold a bottle of orange snake oil, a parcel of swampland in Florida while the fat cat developers are laughing all the way to the bank--well, then we've got some work ahead of us. Hard work. Local work.

One problem with the special election campaigns is that they've mostly been fought on national lines, trying to connect GOP candidates with Trump. Unfortunately, as unpopular as he may be nationally, he's still got plenty of devoted followers in the areas that have been voting for the not-Democrat. These seats were all vacated, after all, but Trump cabinet appointments, which means they were deemed safe to give up. The yellow dogs could be counted on to be true to their Republican masters. If they're to be won over, it won't do to keep linking GOP candidates to a President who, however horrible he may seem to progressives, is not, after all, a Democrat.

It's going to take some convincing to bring these people over to the blue side of the ticket. It's also going to take working on local elections, promoting the campaigns of Democratic mayors, state legislatures, and governors. I understand that these are not glamorous solutions: I'd much rather be focusing on big-picture progressivism, rolling back Republican exploitation of their moment of single-party control.

The good news? These are still yellow dogs we're talking about. They want to be loyal, even when it's clearly not in their interest to support the same party in every election. But they've been turned before. And if they can be turned back, they'll become just as loyal to the Democratic party as they were back in the days when it meant something very different from what it means now. If we do the work, we may be able to build a coalition that will stay in power long enough to correct all the blunders of Trumpism before it's too late, building a true majority, rather than a plurality.

Or we can just wait for the Republicans to blow the whole place up, and hope enough of the blame gets put on them that we'll be hired to clean up their mess.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Too Much Is Never Enough

Forget the title: this one's about how too much Trump is killing my muse.

I've certainly written plenty about the insatiable maw who is our embarrassment-in-chief. Of all the topics I've covered since 2013, when Midlife Meditation came into being, none has consumed me as thoroughly as the phenomenon of Donald J. Trump. I don't have to go back and analyze any of those many posts to be able to tell you they're all critical of him. Trump is the living, breathing, bloviating embodiment of all that is wrong with America. He is a selfish, greedy, petty, heartless bastard who cares nothing for anyone but himself, and will not rest until his name is on the lips of every other human being. Trump has risen to national prominence not because of his lousy real estate empire, nor because of his golf courses or casinos, but solely on the sale and distribution of his name. Slap a gold "Trump" on a hotel, a steak, a bottle of wretched wine, a training course, a "reality" show, and truth be damned, the money flows uphill to the black hole of his wallet. There's never enough of it, either: last week it emerged that one of his golf courses had charged his own son's charitable foundation more money to hold an event there than was raised. Mar-A-Lago memberships are more expensive since the inauguration to capitalize on the "Pres." that can now be put in front of the Trump name.

And there I go again.

It's not just money that is sucked up by the Trumpian vortex. Would that it were: following the money, and being infuriated by it, has a far simpler dynamic. That would put this scenario in the realm of Enron. Any self-respecting rapacious mogus avoids the spotlight like a vampire stays out of the sun. When the world associates your name with exploitation, the conventional wisdom goes, your profits go in the toilet.

Not so our Shameless Leader. He boasts of how many times his picture has been on the cover of Time, oblivious to how negative the reporting that accompanies those pictures may be. He cannot abide anyone in his circle receiving similar attention, either: Steve Bannon's job in the White House was most at risk after he had a Time cover, and that may explain why son-in-law Jared Kushner has been less visible lately. Well, that and news of Kushner's own inept dealings with Russian spies.

Simply put, Trump has an insatiable appetite for media attention. It may even be that we have the dying ratings of The Apprentice to thank for his campaign: with the public losing interest in the flagship property of his name empire, he could feel himself slipping away from public adulation. What better way to get it back than to run for President--and win?

As narcissistic as Trump is, he does have a sense of how negative most of the reporting has become. Six months into his regime, we can see how that shapes his approach to foreign policy. Burnish his ego, praise his electoral victory, treat him like a potentate, stay in his hotel, and your dictator will be his best friend. Try to talk to him about genuine problems in the world, to appeal to his moral sensibility, and you'll find yourself on the receiving end of a Twitter storm. His attention span is too short for well-reasoned arguments, his mental capacity too limited to understand conclusions arrived at through scientific study of evidence.

And then there's the bellicosity of the man. He has two settings: preening and attack. If you're not a sycophant, you're an enemy. He demands loyalty of any employee he hires, and any sign of doubt is viewed as betrayal. That's why so many jobs in the administration remain unfilled: there just aren't enough technocrats in Washington, or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter, willing to sell their souls for a chance to become Donald Trump's handmaiden. 

Putting such an insatiable vortex in the most powerful office in the world has transformed the White House into a political singularity. It devours media on a 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week schedule. The NPR political podcast has, since sometime in February, started with a date stamp and a disclaimer: "This podcast was recorded at 0:00 on 00/00/00. Things may have changed by the time you hear it." And that's frequently the case: listening to the podcast just hours later, I have frequently found that a new hot topic has already taken center stage, or that the developments being discussed have been superseded by new revelations.

What's an amateur pundit to do? I barely keep up as it is. My wonderful, sanity-keeping full-time teaching job is already so tiring that I rarely have the energy, once I'm home, to pound out an essay that will have any kind of currency. Add to that the sheer bewildering exhaustion of trying to keep up with all the latest developments, and from the maelstrom to pick the shiny object that, once digested and interpreted, will still be at all valuable by the time I've hashed it out and posted it, and it's just too much. I'm exhausted. Trump has sucked all the poli sci out of me.

Which is, of course, exactly how he wants it. Because, as many have pointed out since long before he was even thinking seriously about running for office, Trump is, at heart, a toddler. He wants nothing more than attention, and to a certain extent, he doesn't care whether it's the good kind. He wants to be on all our minds. He's the President, damn it! Watch him go down the slide! Watch him toot the horn of the big truck! Watch him blow up relations with our allies while cozying up to countries we've been avoiding because they have horrible human rights records!

And tragically, the more we wring our hands about it, the more we have nightmares about it, the more we grieve how quickly our country has become a laughingstock, the more it feeds his bottomless craving to have himself always, everywhere, on our minds.

And that, my friends, is why I've arrived at a difficult conclusion: unless I can write something edifying about an actual change in Washington that Trump is really truly involved in, I'm going to do my best to ignore him. Let him stew in his own juices, let him rail against the fake news media, let him lie circles around the smooth talkers of the GOP Congressional leadership; and let them all consume themselves. There are far better things to write about, and far better things to do than write about, that man. Summer is too short to throw any part of it down the chute to the Black Hole of Trumpdom.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a bicycle in need of riding.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

I Couldn't Make This Up

To evil!

(Due to the extraordinary energy demands of the last weeks of the school year, this essay was written in two bursts: Sunday, June 4, and Saturday, June 10. Some details in the first half may have become dated by the time the second begins.)

Part I

I love science fiction movies, superhero movies, spy movies, adventure movies, pretty much any movies that are most typically released during the summer or winter holidays. If they're part of any expanded universe, there will be at least one film that explores the hero's origin (Superman-The Movie, Star Trek (the reboot), Casino Royale/Skyfall, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and so on and so on and so on). There is almost always a supervillain, as well, whose origin may also be explored in parallel with the hero's. There will be at least one false ending, when, right on the verge of victory, the hero is beaten seemingly beyond redemption. This will be followed by a miraculous redemption, concluding with the defeat of the villain. Somewhere along the way, the villain will "monologue" (a term I borrow from Pixar's The Incredibles, one of the best superhero movies I've seen), spilling all the details of the evil plot and either giving the hero the time or the information needed to turn the whole situation around.

I've loved movies like this since childhood, though there weren't nearly as many of them around when I was in my adolescence, the prime hero-movie-loving stage. I loved them enough that I sought them out, even the dreadful ones, the plots so ludicrous and villains so obvious they made my eyes roll. I've become more discriminating in middle age--I'm being especially skeptical of the DC Expanded Universe--but for the most part, if a movie of this sort is deemed by critics to be at all watchable, I'll check it out. My eyes will roll, my credulity will be strained to the point of bruising, I may audibly scoff at what I'm seeing, but by and large, I'll have a good time.

It's become dogma that a heroic action movie, whatever the genre, lives and dies on the quality of the villain. Whether it's Die Hard, Goldfinger, or Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie has to have a villain who is interesting, at least somewhat believable, and woefully in need of a heroic drubbing. That's why movies like Iron Man 2, Spiderman 3, the Star Trek reboot, and Casino Royale have proved ultimately unsatisfying, however detailed the world-building involved: the villains just aren't super enough.

That's always been the case, but in coming years, I'm afraid it's going to be much worse. The reason is simple: the news cycle is rife with stories of super-villains who outdo anything the movie studios have ever imagined.

I am speaking, of course, of our president, his family, his cabinet, and the world leaders he prefers.

Take a look at his qualifications: most supervillains are super-rich. It helps immensely: you can't just build a planet-destroying weapon on a public school teacher's salary. (Breaking Bad is, of course, the exception that proves this rule.) Supervillains have incredible egos, believing they are the absolute best at everything they do. Supervillains are typically quite deluded about their evil schemes: they really think they can make the world a better place by sinking the Eastern seaboard, wrecking the economy, or victimizing millions of innocent people. They surround themselves with minions who eagerly do their bidding, implementing the evil plan no matter what the cost to themselves. They form alliances with other supervillains: evil dictators, dark wizards with glowing orbs, rapacious tycoons eager to turn their billions into trillions. And they monologue: their plans are so brilliant, they can't help but blather on and on about all the details, even if in the process they are sowing the seeds of their own destructions.

Sound familiar? If not, you need to read the news more often.

Fundamentally, however brilliant they may be at concocting their evil schemes, supervillains are actually quite stupid. Perhaps it's the price of pouring all their energy into those schemes: there's no room left in their brains for the filters that will keep them letting the world know about the deadly secret that will soon disrupt the global economy.

In the Trump regime, there are a significant number of cabinet secretaries, advisers, nepotistically appointed family members, and, of course, the blatherer-in-chief, who have gone about their schemes so ineptly, with such ignorance for common sense precautions, that were a fictional movie villain to act in such a way, I'd roll my eyes to a painful degree, scoff so loudly the couple making out in the row behind me would loudly shush me, and eventually walk out of a movie too unbelievable for even me. But it's not fiction: these idiots are really running the country, thanks to an astounding confluence of chaotic fractal events that led to just enough of the right people voting in the right places, and not enough of the smarter people going to the polls. Their plans are transparently evil, their subterfuge leakier than a shipwreck, their damage control efforts more hopeless than the Bush administration's FEMA work after Hurricane Katrina. And they monologue: with his entire staff scrambling to spin his latest stab at being the Most Corrupt President Ever, Trump will simply blurt out the true evil of his plans on national TV, or fire it off in a Tweet to millions of followers.

That's why I think it's time to coin another word to describe these villainous clowns: they are Trumb. Yes, it's a portmanteau of Trump and the word "dumb." 

It's hard not to think of it as a joke, as something dreamed up by a screenwriter and rejected by a producer as too hard to swallow. But it's really happening: wretchedly corrupt stupid people have taken over the levers of government. One of them controls the launch codes for the nuclear arsenal Superman hurled into the sun in Superman 4: The Quest for Peace. (Yes, I saw it. Wish I hadn't.) He's blowing up relationships with our country's most important allies while cozying up to dictators and mass murderers. He's deep-sixing policies and agreements that will diminish the impact of global climate change. His health care policy is to destroy the most complete coverage the nation has ever had, in the interests of padding the wallets of people who already have so much money they couldn't spend it all if they tried. And no, he's not a Bond villain, he's not Lex Luthor, he's not Hitler or Nixon or Ming the Merciless or even that lame Star Trek Romulan Nero: all of those characters, whether historical or fictional, were far more intelligent and competent than he and his court. And the worst part is, all those millions of people who voted to turn the White House into a B-movie supervillain's lair bought his lies, believed he knew what he was talking about, and for the most part, still believe in him.

You've probably figured out by now that this crazy movie plot is missing an essential element: the character that, while usually far less interesting than the villain, still matters the most: the hero. Which brings me to:

Part II

Amazingly enough, in the time between me putting down this essay Sunday afternoon and picking it back up again Saturday morning, the insanely hyperactive news cycle provided me with a hero. I also saw a superhero movie that gave me a great fictional analog for that hero, so I'll start there.

The movie is Wonder Woman, and it's 66% great. For the first two thirds, it serves up all sorts of superhero goodies: an origin story which, like that of Marvel's Thor, is literally (rather than, as with most superhero origin stories, metaphorically) steeped in mythology; a rare female superhero, whose first heroic act is rescuing a rugged male hero who has just ditched his airplane in the sea; a period setting we rarely see, namely the War to End All Wars; and the moral complexity of the impending armistice that will deliver a twenty-year pause to that war. Viewers are not treated like idiots: much of the subtext is left unspoken, as we are shown, rather than told about, the strange new world Diana, who is never given her eponym, explores with Steve Trevor, pilot and spy. Make no mistake, this is still a gorgeously visualized comic book: the baddies chew the scenery with gusto, most of the characters are simply drawn, and until the third act, it's easy to follow. In many ways, it's reminiscent of the first great superhero movie of the modern age: 1978's Superman: the Movie. Gal Gadot's Diana Prince has a lot in common with Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent: she's awkward, sincere, honest to a fault, incapable of setting aside her principles to understand the complexity of modern evil. That's a sharp contrast with the morally tormented heroes of 21st century superheroes, including the most recent screen incarnation of Superman. The final reveal of the biggest baddie at the end crowds all that off the screen, unfortunately, for an all-too typical explosion-drenched climactic battle that desperately needed a firmer editing hand--and a director brave enough to say, "So what if we've still got $50 million to spend? It's better without a twenty minute orgy of explosions."

With my movie review completed, I'll turn back to the reason I inserted it into the middle of an essay comparing the Trump era to a superhero movie: this week, we finally found our hero, and it turns out he's a lot like Diana Prince and Clark Kent. In two words, he's a Boy Scout. The former FBI director is so convinced of the rectitude of his moral code that his actions sometimes open the door for a greater evil to take place. Washington, DC, is a place of great moral complexity. In the Trump Era, the old comparison to a sausage factory has become obsolete: a tour of such a factory would be a big step up from the incredibly sloppy way the Republican party is running things. In Marvel terms, it's as if Hydra took over and turned out to be hopelessly inept, but was still evil to the core.

Last summer, the FBI director stepped into this morass to deliver a non-indictment of a morally complex politician, Hillary Clinton. His agency's investigation of her use of a private email server had gone on for far too long--one of Comey's principles is thoroughness--but it had ultimately revealed nothing criminal, just misguided. If that had been the end of it, we wouldn't be in our current crisis. Unfortunately, there was an October surprise: just two weeks before the election, more evidence surfaced, and Comey felt he had to let Congress know about it. The country should not go to the polls uninformed. In the end, there was nothing to that new evidence, but it very likely skewed just enough votes in the right places to put a monster in the Oval Office.

This is often the case when principled heroes refuse to act subtly: evil pounces on the opportune moment, and all hell breaks loose. That's how Comey wound up without a job, testifying this week about being called into the supervillain's lair to be tempted with violating the principles that made it possible for that villain to be there in the first place. He stood fast, took detailed notes of every encounter, and was fired for holding to his code. Thursday, he used his superpower--his steadfast insistence on presenting just the facts, in detail, couched in his repeated insistence that Americans ought only to be influenced by each other, never by foreign powers whose evil is far more competent than that of the monster they helped elect.

Highly principled superheroes ultimately clash with the complexities of the real world. Captain America's Boy Scout ethos can't live comfortably with Iron Man's flirtation with police statism. Wonder Woman's ultimate defeat of Ares doesn't end war, it just lets it become more banal. Batman's refusal to take lives almost leads to his defeat, until Catwoman comes to the rescue by doing the dirty job instead. They wrestle with them, refuse to compromise with them, sometimes have to turn away and let the fantasy subside so a far worse reality does not come into play. 

It remains to be seen what will become of James Comey and his heroic testimony: will the highly compromised Republican party, most of them minions to the incompetent monster in the White House, be inspired by Comey's example, set aside their selfish motives, and take action? Will it take a 2018 voter rebellion to turn the tide? Will the whole mess dissolve into true American fascism?

Stay tuned.