Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Donald Trump

Democracy in the Land of the Free Part 2

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on November 19 2020.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/democracy-in-the-land-of-the-free-1

According to Gallup, 61 percent of Americans favor the Electoral College’s abolition. It is unlikely that it will be abolished because Republicans strongly support the status quo. 

Note that four out of ten Republicans believe that Trump won the election. Republicans’ sweeping claims about voter fraud are specifically targeted at delegitimizing Black voters and cancelling their votes. They have focused their baseless claims of voting fraud on majority-Black cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, where support from Black voters helped Biden convincingly win the presidency.

Republican Party Invincible in Decline

A big problem with US democracy is the Republican Party. At one point in the presidential ‘debate’, Trump taunted Biden with the snark, “You were in power for eight years. Why didn’t you do something then?” Biden mumbled that whatever Obama tried to do was blocked by a Republican Congress. When Biden is back in the White House, he is likely to have similar difficulties getting any legislation through a, narrowly, Republican senate.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has already promised to block Biden appointees he does not like. The former national security adviser Susan Rice is tipped to be named Secretary of State.

Not if Mitch can help it. The voting rights activist Stacey Abrams will be blocked from taking a cabinet position. McConnell promised to veto the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. “If I’m still the majority leader of the Senate,” he said, “think of me as the ‘Grim Reaper’. None of that stuff is going to pass – none of it.”

When Republicans faced a sweeping Democratic landslide in the 2008 election, their response was not to work with Obama and congressional Democrats, but to implement a strategy they crafted on the night of the inauguration, January 20, 2009, before Obama had been in office for a day: oppose everything he wants, block whatever you can, delegitimize what you can’t, demonize the president and use every tactic, from the debt ceiling to the filibuster, to destroy any policies that might be favored by the country and result in a positive response for Obama and his legislators.

The Undead

Jonathan V Last wrote in the New Republic: “A political party that includes a significant bloc of voters so deeply estranged from reality cannot be anything other than a source of mischief—and worse.” Last claims that  Republican politics are devoted not to policies and ideologies, but to grievances and combativeness.

By rights, the GOP should have been dead and buried long ago. Were it not for the Electoral College, Democrats would have occupied the White House for the past 20 years. In 2013, the Republican Party, then chaired by Reince Priebus, issued what was widely called an “autopsy” report on itself. 

Republican senator Lindsey Graham stated: “The demographics race we’re losing badly. We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” For years the Republican Party has been in terminal decline but like a malignant zombie the undead monster continues to stifle the polity. The Republican Party is a minority party, or what political scientists call a ‘counter-majoritarian’ party.

Also, in the New Republic, Matt ford wrote: “But the Republican Party is now going beyond the scope of soothing the president’s psychic wounds and toward seeking mass disenfranchisement on a scale unseen in American elections since the end of Jim Crow. Those who supported this effort or merely stood by while it happened should never be forgiven for their role in it. Of them, Lindsey Graham is uniquely beyond absolution.”

Ron Brownstein writes in The Atlantic: “Republicans believe they have a better chance of maintaining power by suppressing the diverse new generations entering the electorate than by courting them.” Democrats “more thoroughly represent the nation’s accelerating diversity”. According to Jay Rosen in the New York Review of Books, the Republican Party has to rely on fictions: “The beliefs and priorities that hold it together are opposed by most Americans, who on a deeper level do not want to be what the GOP increasingly stands for.”

Rigging the System

The Republican Project is to manufacture durable white majorities through the purging of voter rolls and the adoption of strict voter ID laws, restriction of immigration and deportation of immigrants who would probably have voted Democrat.

Voter fraud is very rare in the US but Republicans have made a big issue of it in order to make it more difficult for Democratically-inclined voters to cast a ballot. In the 2016 election there were four documented cases of voter impersonation; a 2017 academic study put the upper limit for incidents of double voting in the election of 2012 at 0.02 per cent. A 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that strict photo ID laws could reduce voter turnout by 2-3 percentage points.

In Atlanta, the number of polling stations has been cut by almost ten per cent even as the voter rolls have grown by almost two million. The cuts to voter access and the growth in voter population have mostly taken place in the same areas, disproportionately affecting the black, brown, young and poor. The metro Atlanta area, for example, has almost half of the state’s active voters but just over a third of the polling places.

Gerrymandering

Elbridge Gerry was the fifth vice president of the USA and died in 1814. Gerrymandering is a practice intended to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries. The original gerrymander was a strange shape that wound around Boston and was portrayed by cartoonists as a salamander.

As race is one of the most accurate predictors of voting habits, when gerrymandering takes place the constituencies are carved up with the express intention of putting as many black voters in one district as possible and leaving them thinly dispersed elsewhere.

In 2012 Republicans received 46 per cent of the popular vote in Wisconsin state elections but received 60 per cent of the seats in the state assembly. Nationwide that year, Democrats got 1.4 million more votes in House races. Republicans won 33 more seats.

David Daley argues in Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, that, at a low point in their political fortunes, the Republicans discovered redmap, the Redistricting Majority Project. redmap was funded by a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee, which included large corporate donors such as Philip Morris and the Koch brothers. The aim of the project was to seize control of vulnerable statehouses in purple states in the 2010 elections and use the redistricting process to the advantage of the Republican Party.

REDMAP

REDMAP targeted state legislative races for the express purpose of controlling redistricting, REDMAP funded negative ads in lower-profile state legislative races. They peddled quite appalling lies to get their candidates elected. This helped to give Republicans control of 10 of the 15 states that would be redrawing their districts in 2010. 

They then used software like Maptitude to devise districts favorable to the Republican party. Democratic voters were clustered into a handful of districts and boundaries of the rest were redrawn to ensure Republican majorities.

A 2018 report by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan found that “Michigan’s maps are beyond the threshold for what is considered gerrymandering.” Ari Berman wrote for the Washington Post on similar trends in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. One district in Pennsylvania was nicknamed “Donald Duck Kicking Goofy”. It spanned five counties and 26 municipalities, and at one of its narrowest points ran through the parking lot of a seafood restaurant in the town of King of Prussia.

Supreme Court

Trump pushed the Republican-held Senate to confirm Amy Coney Barrett as Supreme Court justice, which created a 6-3 conservative majority. Republican senators immediately opposed Obama nominee Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

The system, which is supposed to be about checks and balances, grants an unrepresentative Senate the ability to install justices to lifelong posts. Biden can expect the Supreme Court to limit any ambitious plans he has. There is also an army of right-wing judges at appeals courts and district courts around the country, packed in due to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s success at blocking President Obama from filling seats. Those judges will oppose Biden in areas from environmental protection to human rights and voting rights, while protecting corporations and the gun lobby. 

More next week on the foundation of US democracy

Behind the SOFA

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 24 2019

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/36174

I often try in my columns to comfort Sri Lankans who despair at the condition of their polity. Sri Lankans might wonder in horror what antics their leaders will get up to next but UK citizens contemplate having Boris Johnson as their prime minister sometime soon. Sri Lankans might be uncomfortable at the loss of sovereignty involved in handing over ports to the Chinese and the submission to the US implied by SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) but Britons are horrified at the notion that President Trump decides who is suitable to be UK ambassador to Washington.

SOFA

The Status of Forces Agreement which the US is keen to force on Sri Lanka seems to many Sri Lankans to be a step too far in bending over and being submissive to the US. The main points of SOFA are:

  • All American personnel based in Sri Lanka will have the equivalent of diplomatic immunity. US troops and contractors will be able to enter and leave Sri Lanka without Passports or Visas.
  • US personnel can wear uniforms and carry arms while on duty in Sri Lanka.
  • Sri Lankan laws will not apply to them. The US Government will exercise criminal jurisdiction over US personnel in Sri Lanka.
  • The GOSL will protect US assets in Sri Lanka but the US government will not pay anything.
  • US vessels and vehicles may enter and leave Sri Lanka freely without payment of tolls or taxes, navigation, overflight, terminal or similar charges. Aircraft and vessels of the US Government will not be boarded or inspected.
  • US contractors will not be liable to pay any tax or similar charges and will be exempt from any licence, or other restrictions, customs duties, taxes or any other charges.
  • The US will be allowed to operate its own telecommunication systems.
  • Claims relating to damage or loss shall be resolved by the US Government in accordance with US laws and regulations.

SOFA so Good

President Sirisena has decided he does not like this but he might change his mind. The US defended SOFA saying they had no intention of setting up military bases in Sri Lanka. Wouldn’t dream of it! The US maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries. Sri Lankans must be paranoid if they think the US wants to use Sri Lanka as a base for keeping an eye on China. Of course, the US does not covet Trincomalee harbor! The SOFA with Sri Lanka would give reciprocal rights to Sri Lanka’s Army, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard to use US facilities. However, Sri Lanka’s main concern is internal security. It has no global enemies (apart from the Tamil diaspora) and has no resources to pay for using military facilities in the US.

There are 38 US military facilities on Okinawa. They account for up 30% of the land mass of the island. The US military bases on Okinawa also cover over 40% of the arable soil, once some of the best agricultural land in Japan. Figures up to 1998, show that since 1972, 4,905 crimes were committed against Japanese people by US military personnel, their dependents and US civilian contractors and employees. More than 10% of these were serious crimes – murder, robbery or rape. In most cases, the Japanese authorities were not allowed to arrest or question the alleged perpetrators.

Special Relationship

Britain has long deluded itself that it has a special relationship with the US. When Charles de Gaulle wrote to LBJ in 1966 ordering that all US troops be removed from French soil within 12 months, Britain offered a warm welcome and during the Cold War, the UK became one of the USA’s “unsinkable aircraft carriers”. In the 1990s, the number of US-manned military facilities in Britain reached 100. By 2014, this had fallen to 13, ranging from RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk – one of the largest air bases outside the US – to a joint GCHQ and National Security Agency satellite station at Morwenstow in Cornwall. There were still 24,000 US personnel, civilian staff and family members on British soil.

Lindis Percy, a veteran peace activist who has protested outside US bases since 1979, said: “The thread … through everything to do with these facilities is an almost total lack of accountability. Even now, new by-laws are being introduced to deter people from going near bases already protected by draconian legislation. Assurances made by the US to the UK that ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights had never landed on British territory were later shown to be false when official US records proved that such flights had landed at Diego Garcia repeatedly.

US Right of Veto

The UK ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, was reviled by Donald Trump, when Darroch’s unflattering confidential memos about the president were leaked to the press. When the Foreign Office permanent secretary, Simon McDonald, appeared before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee on July 10, the chair, Tom Tugendhat asked what precedent there was for the head of state of a friendly government to do what Donald Trump did and made it impossible for Britain’s ambassador do his job? McDonald said there was no precedent. “Nothing like this has ever happened before,” McDonald told another MP. “There must be consequences. What they are in detail I can’t tell you this afternoon.”

Boris Johnson, probably the UK’s next prime minister, knowingly refused to express confidence in Darroch during the leadership hustings with Jeremy Hunt. It was Johnson’s action that led directly to Darroch’s inevitable resignation. Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan said that by six times refusing to back the ambassador, Johnson had thrown him under a bus. Tugendhat, a former army officer said: “Leaders stand up for their men. They encourage them to try and defend them when they fail.”

Trump’s actions were a crude assertion of power over a country that wants desperately to be the friend of the US. This is not a special relationship, it is sado-masochist one. The rest of the world, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, will be watching. For Britain, as Martin Kettle put it in The Guardian: “it is a stake through the heart of its entire postwar self-image.”

Sri Lanka’s friend Liam Fox has failed miserably to gain trade deals to replace what will be lost when the UK is out of the EU. The only hope left was the US who threatened to bombard the sceptered isle with chlorinated chickens. It looks as though the special relationship will entail the US bullying the UK.

 

Anger and Forgiveness

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 17 2017

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=27840

Events in Charlottesville (and more low-key events closer to my home affecting me personally) have led me to think about the subject of anger and its consequences.  I was moved to revisit Martha C Nussbaum’s book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice.  Nussbaum looks at the efficacy of forgiveness rather than anger as a response to wrongdoing. She gives many examples of anger and forgiveness ranging over the personal and the political.

Some people live in anger – one might almost say some people love anger, it seems to give them sustenance. As well as looking back in anger they look forward in anger.  I am lucky in that I never really get angry – I have short bursts of sometimes intense irritation but these are not sustained enough to lead to me taking any practical retribution or revenge. Nussbaum calls this Transition Anger and concedes that it “lacks a wish for ill”. She writes: “Though short-term anger is understandable and human, it is rarely helpful, and it certainly should not dictate the course of the future”.

Anger and Self-Respect

Anger is often a result of feeling disrespected. The scenes in Charlottesville happened because a group of people were angry that their standing was not appreciated and their social status was being undermined by “the other”. Trump became president by feeding this anger against elites, minorities, nations that were not the USA. He fomented anger about his country’s alleged loss of influence and power (even though the USA is still the sole superpower). “Make America great again” was his slogan. Respect us or we will be angry and punish you. Anger can be narcissistic. “Sympathy steers anger in the direction of a balanced focus on harm and correction of harm, rather than on personal downranking, with its connection to revenge.”

Nussbaum recognises that most of us are helpless against many of the contingencies of life but we can console ourselves with projects that express our anger. “It feels a lot better if we can form a payback project and get busy executing it (suing the bad doctor, depriving one’s ex of child custody) than to accept loss and the real condition of helplessness in which life has left us. Payback, thus, often has a psychic function.”

 

Retribution

Revenge is a dish best eaten cold, the saying goes.  Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”. Francis Bacon did not think revenge therapeutic: “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.”

Many cultures are corrupted by blood feuds and ‘honour’ killings. The US has a false foundation myth which places it beyond such crudity but American culture spreads a brutal and infantile message to the rest of the world. The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in Hollywood movies. One of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. Movies which show returning harm to those who harmed seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence. Blog-warriors get some satisfaction by keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie.

 

Nussbaum writes, “people in modern American society continue to think anger is good, powerful, and manly. They encourage it in their children (especially boys), and they indulge it in both self and others.” Anger is followed by retribution which derives from “deep-rooted

but misleading ideas of cosmic balance, and from people’s attempt to recover control in situations of helplessness. But the wrongdoer’s suffering does not bring back the person or valued item”. It is psychologically damaging for me to want payback, to return pain to one who has caused me pain. “Obsessive focusing on the future suffering of the perpetrator just implicates me in the perpetrator’s hostile and degrading conduct”.

 

Reconciliation

 

We should not ignore bad acts but the recognition of their wrongness should contribute to good in the future. The formula for reconciliation is for offender, victim, and friends to act as though the wrong act and the perpetrator are separate. Nussbaum writes: “the crime is outrageous, but we can see the offender, with sympathy, as someone who is more and better than the crime, capable of good in future”. Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, South Africa and many other countries, involved a lot of forgetting. It was not easy. “The apparatus of abasement, confession, contrition, and eventual forgiveness, by contrast, often impedes reconciliation by producing humiliation rather than mutual respect, and it frequently acts as a covert form of punishment, discharging a hidden (or, often, not so hidden) resentment.”

 

Forgiveness

Nussbaum gives the name Transactional Forgiveness to a process described by another philosopher, Charles Griswold. Forgiveness, Griswold argues, is a two-person process involving a moderation of anger and a rejection of revenge. Griswold lists six conditions for the forgiveness process:

Acknowledge responsibility for the wrong

Repudiate the wrong deed and acknowledge the wrongness

Express regret to the injured party

Through deeds and words become the sort of person who does not inflict injury

Show an understanding from the injured person’s perspective of the damage done

Offer an account of how the wrong was done

 

My school in Gloucester was close to 25 Cromwell Street where Fred and Rosemary West perpetrated countless grisly murders. Lucy Partington, the cousin of writer Martin Amis, was waiting for a   bus in Cheltenham when Fred and Rose West offered her a lift. She was never seen again. Lucy’s sister, Marian, forgave the Wests and wrote movingly about Rosemary West: “Her story seems to be about the impoverishment of a soul that knew no other way to live than through terrible cruelty. A life deprived of truth, beauty or love. I imagine that the deviant ignorance that fed her sadistic, egotistical crimes was rooted in her ruined, crooked childhood.” I don’t know if I could be forgiving in such circumstances.

I wonder how forgiving I would be if I lost loved ones to terrorists. My friend the Reverend Harold Good witnessed the horrors of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. “I wasn’t isolated in an ivory tower. I know the pain inflicted by terrorists.” In spite of this, he has referred, in a personal e-mail to me, to his “friend Martin McGuinness”.

McGuinness helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and worked with former enemies as part of the devolved government of the six counties. Many found it impossible to forgive the atrocities committed by the IRA when McGuinness was IRA Derry Commandant. Harold worked closely with both Republican and Loyalist prisoners with a view to their resettlement. He was the Director in the 1970s of the Corrymeela community, a centre for reconciliation between the communities. He was chair of NIACRO (Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Prisoners) and part-time prison chaplain at Crumlin Road prison. A key part of the Good Friday agreement was the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners. Harold still comes under criticism as well as praise for his part in the peace process.

 

Some find it hard to cope with the fact that men who committed evil deeds are free and forgiven. In Sri Lanka, some find it disgusting that Karuna and KP are free.

On a visit to Northern Ireland, the Dalai Lama said: “Some differences, some conflicts will always be there. But we should use the differences in a positive way to try to get energy from different views. Try to minimize violence, not by force, but by awareness and respect. Through dialogue, taking others’ interests and sharing one’s own, there is a way to solve the problems”. He put his arms around a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister and tugged their beards.

There is a good deal of research which shows that forgiving is good for the health. When people think about forgiving an offender, it leads to improved functioning in their cardiovascular and nervous systems. The research of Dr Fred Luskin of Stanford University shows that forgiveness can be learned. In Northern Ireland, Luskin found that people who are taught how to forgive, become less angry, more optimistic, self-confident. His studies show a reduction in the experience and physical manifestations of stress, and an increase in vitality.

 

 

 

How Could They Tell?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday March 16 2017

 


How Could They Tell?

 

Last week I wrote about speculation surrounding the death of the 29th president of the United States, Warren Gamaliel Harding. There was also speculation about the death of Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge. Dorothy Parker was reported to have said, on being told by Robert Benchley that Coolidge was dead, “How could they tell?” I heard a different version of that story. Peter Benchley, creator of Jaws and the grandson of the Algonquin wit Robert Benchley, (Robert sent a telegram to his editor at the New Yorker, Harold Ross, upon arriving in Venice for the first time. “Streets full of water. Please advise.”) was speaking on Ned Sherrin’s BBC Radio 4 programme Loose Ends. According to him, Robert Benchley said, “Coolidge is dead”; Parker said, “How can they tell?”; Benchley responded, “He had an erection”.

The renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow dryly summed up Coolidge: “The greatest man who ever came out of Plymouth Corner, Vermont!” Coolidge had a reputation for taciturnity although some of his remarks could be interpreted as quietly witty. In that, he reminds me somewhat of Clement Attlee, although their political philosophies were totally different – Attlee was a founder of the welfare state whereas Coolidge was a small-government conservative.

Weaned on a Pickle

Coolidge was commonly referred to as “Silent Cal”. A woman once said to him, said to him, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” He replied, “You lose.” Coolidge often seemed uncomfortable among fashionable Washington society; when asked why he continued to attend so many of dinner parties, he replied, “Got to eat somewhere.” Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, loathed Coolidge: “When he wished he were elsewhere, he pursed his lips, folded his arms, and said nothing. He looked then precisely as though he had been weaned on a pickle”.

He did have a sense of humour, albeit a somewhat infantile one. He buzzed for his bodyguards and then hid under his desk as they frantically searched for him, presumably fearing him kidnapped.

“His ideal day,” HL Mencken wrote, “is one on which nothing whatever happens.” Walter Lippmann described Coolidge’s philosophy as “Puritanism de luxe, in which it is possible to praise all the classic virtues while continuing to enjoy all the modern conveniences.”

Irving Stone wrote in 1949: “Calvin Coolidge believed the least government was the best government; he aspired to become the least president the country had ever had; he attained that desire”.

Coolidge has generally been regarded as something of a joke but some historians have tried hard to find something positive about this accidental, do-little president who rose without trace to the highest office in the USA. Some have suggested that he created his image deliberately as a campaign tactic. He himself gave some support to this theory telling Ethel Barrymore: “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President and I think I will go along with them.” “The words of a President have an enormous weight,” he would later write, “and ought not to be used indiscriminately”.

Continuity

He was the first vice president to attend cabinet meetings although he kept a low profile in the administration. There has been no suggestion that he was personally corrupt as were many of Harding’s cabinet. Nevertheless, he kept most of them on because he believed that, having attained the presidency because of Harding’s death in office, he was morally obliged to retain his predecessor’s appointees and policies until he won an election in his own right. Many expected that he would not be on the ballot in 1924 but he was and won convincingly.

Coolidge strongly believed that the accused were entitled to a presumption of innocence. He felt that the Senate investigation of allegations relating to the Teapot Dome scandal would suffice although he did personally intervene in demanding the resignation of Attorney General Harry MDaugherty after he refused to cooperate with the congressional investigation. He was methodical in seeking detailed briefing on the wrongdoing with Harry A Slattery reviewing the facts with him, Harlan F Stone analysing the legal aspects for him and Senator William E Borah assessing and presenting the political factors.

Coolidge ensured continuity with most of Harding’s policies, including immigration restrictions. Just before the Republican Convention began, Coolidge signed into law the Revenue Act of 1924, which reduced the top marginal tax rate from 58% to 46%, as well as personal income tax rates across the board. He has often been derided for saying, “The business of America is business”. What he actually said was: “It is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world”.

Laissez Faire

Coolidge is admired by those who share his belief that that America and its business will prosper if the federal government does not interfere. Coolidge spoke in his inaugural address about lynching, child labour and low wages for women but did not attempt to solve these problems. One could not imagine a person less like Donald Trump than Coolidge. However, like Trump, he followed a “foxes in charge of the hen house”” approach to government departments. The Federal Trade Commission was given a new boss, William E Humphrey, who had constantly opposed its work. In 1925 the government received $677 million more than it spent but there were still drastic cuts. The Interior department saw its budget fall from $48 million in 1921 to $32 million in 1928.

 

Great Depression

Some claim that his do-nothing philosophy led to the Great Depression. Historian Robert Sobel points out “As Governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge supported wages and hours legislation, opposed child labour, imposed economic controls during World War I, favoured safety measures in factories, and even worker representation on corporate boards. Did he support these measures while president? No, because in the 1920s, such matters were considered the responsibilities of state and local governments.”

Under Coolidge, the stock market swelled into an enormous bubble, inflated by borrowed money. Coolidge managed to get out of office before the bubble burst but that does not absolve him of blame. “Nero fiddled,” HL Mencken said, “but Coolidge only snored.” Hugh Brogan says of Coolidge: “As president, he thought it was his duty to mind the store while the republicans ran the country as they saw fit. He intervened in the economic process only to veto the proposals of more active men in Congress … He was almost equally supine in foreign affairs.”

Model for Reagan?

Another historian, David Greenberg, argues that Coolidge was a model for Reagan. Like Reagan, he cut taxes, drastically reduced federal programmes and refused to compromise with striking government workers. He avoided entanglement with the World Court and the League of Nations. Coolidge liked to take a nap in the afternoon. Greenberg claims that Coolidge mastered radio in the same way that Reagan mastered television. To compare Silent Cal with the Great Communicator seems a bit of a stretch. A contemporary claimed that Coolidge could be silent in five languages. “If you keep dead still,” he advised Herbert Hoover, his successor, regarding visitors to the White House, “they will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile they will start up all over again.”

Achievements

The best that can be said is that John Calvin Coolidge Jr restored public confidence in the White House after the scandals of Harding’s presidency; he was very popular when he left office after deciding not to run for a second term. He told Chief Justice Harlan Stone, “It’s a pretty good idea to get out when they still want you.” Claud M Feuss wrote in his 1940 biography of Coolidge: “He embodied the spirit and hopes of the middle class, could interpret their longings and express their opinions. That he did represent the genius of the average is the most convincing proof of his strength.”

Coolidge’s retirement was relatively short, as he died at the age of 60 in January 1933, less than two months before his immediate successor, Herbert Hoover, another member of the Harding administration, left office.

 

 

 

Warren G Harding

 

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday March 2 2017.

 

Warren Gamaliel Harding was always considered the worst of all the American presidents. In a 1948 poll of historians conducted by Harvard’s Arthur M Schlesinger, Harding ranked last among the 29 presidents considered. That was before Trump came along. Harding had a great deal less scope to do harm than Trump has – nuclear weapons were not operational in the 1920s (although Ernest Rutherford was at the time fiddling with atoms at my alma mater the University of Manchester). Harding was the 29th President of the United States, serving from March 4, 1921 until his death in 1923.

As with Trump, it was a surprise when Harding achieved the highest office in the land. He started out as a newspaperman but had a great deal more political experience than Trump. One of his backers said that his biggest asset was that he looked like a president. The press considered his wife Florence, known as “The Duchess”, as the power behind him.  She was born Florence Mabel Kling (I am reminded that when James Joyce’s father learnt that his son had taken up with Nora Barnacle, he remarked “she’ll stick to him anyway”). One cartoonist depicted the couple as “the Chief Executive and Mr Harding”.

Not Quite the Helpless Idiot

In his 1968 biography of Harding, The Available Man, Andrew Sinclair wrote: “He started with nothing, and through working, stalling, bluffing, withholding payments, borrowing back wages, boasting, and manipulating, he turned a dying rag into a powerful small-town newspaper. Much of his success had to do with his good looks, affability, enthusiasm, and persistence, but he was also lucky. As Machiavelli once pointed out, cleverness will take a man far, but he cannot do without good fortune.” Harding’s sudden death shocked America and he was deeply mourned. He was called a man of peace in many European newspapers. In his review of Sinclair’s biography, political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote: “Sinclair’s main point is that Harding could not have been quite the helpless idiot we take him for, and I think he argues it with some success.”  It was only after his death that the full extent of the scandals emerged. We know about Trump’s scandals while he still breathes.

Another Accidental President

In 1899, Harding was elected to the Ohio State Senate. He began his senate term as a political unknown; he ended them one of the most popular figures in the Ohio Republican Party. He always appeared calm and displayed humility (unlike Trump), characteristics that endeared him to fellow Republicans even as he passed them in his political rise. After four years, he successfully ran for lieutenant governor. He was defeated in the gubernatorial election in 1910, but was elected to the US Senate in 1914.  As a senator, he was respected by both Republicans and Progressives. Harding ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, but he was considered to have small chance of success. Following deadlock when none of the leading candidates could achieve a majority, party professionals meeting in a “smoke-filled room” in a local hotel engineered the nomination of Harding on the tenth ballot.

For most of the presidential campaign he stayed in Marion, Ohio. Nevertheless, he won a landslide victory and became the first sitting senator to be elected president. For the first time in American history, election results were made available to the public by radio. Following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920, women voted in a federal election for the first time. Unlike Trump, Harding won a convincing majority of the popular vote – 60.3%.

Former Treasury Secretary William G McAdoo described a typical Harding speech as “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and over work.” HL Mencken wrote, “it reminds me of a string of wet sponges, it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a kind of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm … of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is balder and dash.”

Making America Normal

During his campaign, Harding added a new word to the English language – normalcy. Like Trump, he promised to return America to a better time. “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

Unfortunately, that kind of tranquillity is not what the Harding administration is remembered for. He drastically cut immigration and appointed his cronies to cabinet positions. Just as we see Obama’s legacy being dismantled today, Harding brought to an end the reform era of Roosevelt and Wilson. Unlike Trump, Harding seemed aware of his deficiencies. “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here”.

Crony Corruption

Harding appointed a number of friends and acquaintances to federal positions and many of this “Ohio Gang” proved to be corrupt. Teapot Dome was an oil reserve in Wyoming which was one of three set aside for the use of the Navy in the event of a national emergency. The Interior Department announced in July 1921 that Edward Doheny had been awarded a lease to drill along the edges of naval reserve Elk Hills in California. Wyoming Senator John Kendrick had heard from constituents that Teapot Dome had also been leased, but no announcement had been made. The Interior Department refused to provide documentation, so Kendrick secured the passage of a Senate resolution compelling disclosure. The department declared that there had been no competitive bidding because military preparedness was involved and Harry Sinclair’s Mammoth Oil Company was to build oil tanks for the Navy as part of the deal. Some conservationists, pushed for a full investigation into Interior Secretary Albert Fall and his activities. Hearings into Teapot Dome began in October 1923, after Harding’s death. Investigators found that Fall and a relative had received a total of about $400,000 from Doheny and Sinclair. Fall was convicted in 1929 for accepting bribes and, in 1931, the first US cabinet member to be imprisoned for crimes committed while in office.

Harding’s Sex Life

Harding’s first affair, after he had been married to Florence for three years, was with Florence’s best friend from childhood and resulted in the birth of a daughter. He also had an extramarital affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips of Marion, another close friend of Florence, which lasted about fifteen years until 1920. A cache of 106 letters written to her by Harding was discovered in 1964. The president referred to his penis as “Jerry”.  “Wish I could take you to Mount Jerry. Wonderful spot. Not in the geographies but a heavenly place, and I have seen some passing views there and revelled in them. Gee! How I wish you might be along. You could be such a dandy companion”. He referred to her private parts as Mrs Pouterson.

A third mistress was his Senate aide, Grace Cross, who went around Washington talking about a birthmark on the president’s back in an unsuccessful attempt to get blackmail money.

The allegations of another mistress, Nan Britton, who like Harding was from Marion, Ohio, long remained unproved. Britton was a campaign volunteer who started having sex with Harding when he was 51 and she was 22. In 1927, Britton published a book alleging that her child Elizabeth Ann Blaesing had been fathered by Harding.

Britton claimed that she and the president copulated in a White House closet, with Secret Service agents posted to ward off intruders. In 2015, DNA comparisons indicated that Harding was Elizabeth’s father.

There were numerous other women. Rosa Hoyle was said to have conceived his illegitimate son.

Augusta Cole’s pregnancy was terminated. Harding’s crony, Washington Post  owner Ned McClean, procured for him a Post employee known as Miss Allicott and former chorus girls Maize Hollywood and Blossom Jones. There were also many New York women, including one who committed suicide when he would not marry her.

Harding died of a cerebral haemorrhage caused by heart disease in San Francisco while on a western speaking tour – or did he? More about Harding’s mysterious demise next week.

Easy Lies the Head

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday February 3 2017.

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The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

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Sissela Bok

Sissela Bok is a very brainy person who is the child of two Nobel laureates and the wife of a president of Harvard who inspired the hatred of Richard Nixon. When I was the victim of some particularly egregious lies, I was inspired to re-read her wonderful book Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life. The book was published in 1978 and is still in print and available on Kindle. Everyone should read it.

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Bok argues that everyone benefits enormously by living in a world in which a great deal of trust exists – a world in which the practice of truth-telling is the norm. All the important things you want to do in life are made possible by pervasive trust. In a world without trust one would have to waste a lot of time and psychic energy finding out first-hand the truth about the simplest matters.

Lies and Lying Liars

Donald Trump is certainly not the first politician to have told lies. Ronald Reagan said he did not know about the Iran-Contra deal. Bill Clinton said he did not have sex with that woman. Novelist George V Higgins wrote in 1974 about Richard Nixon: “He became a virtuoso of deception, a wizard as a manipulator of reality and facts, and of the nation’s trust.” George W Bush, like Nixon, used smears and lies to become president. The other day, I watched Robert Redford playing the role of CBS anchorman Dan Rather in the movie Truth. Rather was ousted by CBS for allegedly presenting forged evidence on revelations in 2004 about Bush’s National Guard years. Bush, the coward, was running against war hero Senator John Kerry, but the Republicans discredited Kerry’s greatest asset to compensate for Bush’s liability. Witnesses remember Bush drunk and never going near the National Guard while Kerry was being decorated for bravery in Vietnam. CBS wanted Bush to win and branded one of its own as a liar for exposing the truth.

The Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) was created in 2001 to lie overseas for the US, but after an outcry, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quickly announced its closure. However, he was not telling the truth when he said the US government had stopped lying. The OSI’s duties were taken over by the Information Operations Task Force

Euphemisms

There is a long history of politicians using euphemisms for telling porky pies. Churchill used the phrase “terminological inexactitude”. Alan Clark wrote in his diaries about being “economical with the actualité. Simon Hoggart did not find Clark convincing: “There’s quite a bit in the diaries which appears just a tiny bit fantastical – not in the Jeffrey Archer sense of being outright lies, but a sort of tweaking of the facts.” Journalists have been having a good deal of fun with Sean Spicer’s ludicrous attempts to inflate the size of the audience at Trump’s inauguration. Kellyanne Conway tried to explain Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts”. This was reminiscent of Nixon’s press spokesman Ron Zeigler announcing, “All previous statements are inoperative”. Trump himself used the phrase “truthful hyperbole,” a term coined by his ghost-writer.

A blatant lie is a “now-disavowed claim.” Intelligence is “discredited,” “dubious,” “disputed,” “tainted,” “flawed,” “suspect,” “questionable,” and “faulty”. Many people caught in an untruth bleat: “My remarks were taken out of context”. We are told about “misstatements,” “false pretences,” and “an assertion not approved by the CIA.” We read of “deficiencies,” “distortions,” “questions about pre-war intelligence”.

There were many euphemisms for lying during the GW Bush era. Senator Carl Levin stopped short of accusing Bush of lying about Iraq: “The key question is whether administration officials made a conscious and a very troubling decision to create a false impression about the gravity and imminence of the threat that Iraq posed to America.” Senator Chuck Hagel referred to one of Bush’s lies as “another example of a very serious inconsistency.” Senator Jay Rockefeller said that Bush’s statements were “potentially misleading”.  Al Gore spoke of a “a systematic effort to manipulate facts.” Senator John Edwards talked about the “myths perpetrated by the Bush administration.” One of Bush’s aides said that the president “is not a fact checker.”

Saddam Hussein and Scott Ritter were not so mealy-mouthed. Saddam said, “What will the liars Bush and Blair tell their people and mankind, what will the chorus of liars that backed them say, and what will they tell the world after they wove a scenario of lies against Iraq’s people and leadership?” Former UN weapons inspector Ritter said, “The entire case the Bush administration made against Iraq is a lie.”

Trump’s Lies – a Selection

Truth and Trump have long been strangers. A lot has been made of the fact that Trump won the election by appealing to white working class males who felt disempowered while Hillary Clinton ignored them in favour of harpyish rabid feminism. The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each.

Maria Konnikova wrote on Politico: “The sheer frequency, spontaneity and seeming irrelevance of his lies have no precedent. Nixon, Reagan and Clinton were protecting their reputations; Trump seems to lie for the pure joy of it. A whopping 70 percent of Trump’s statements that PolitiFact checked during the campaign were false, while only 4 percent were completely true, and 11 percent mostly true.” KONNIKOVA

He lied about the weather at his own inauguration. He lied about releasing his tax returns. He lied about making Mexico pay for his wall. He lied about losing the popular vote and about the election being rigged. He lied about opposing the invasion of Iraq. The more Trump frets about his legitimacy, the more he lies. The more he lies, the less legitimate he appears. Trump relies on the illusory truth effect -the tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure.

 

There is a method in Trump’s Twitter madness. He posts his tweets to divert attention from the real news. For example, his reaction to the polite protest to the vice president by the cast of Hamilton succeeded in making people forget about the settlement of the Trump University lawsuit.

 

Relativity and Truth

Forgive me for quoting American philosopher Richard Rorty yet again. “Language is just human beings using marks and noises to get what they want.” This seems to be how Trump operates. The doctrine that there can be no absolute truth seems to have sprung from the discovery that scientists can err and that cultural factors inevitably colour our perceptions. Other philosophers such as Mary Midgley combat this post-modernist relativism, maintaining that without a concept of absolute truth, “how, then, could we describe the world?”

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Truth Matters

In his bestselling little book On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt defines lies as statements that are not germane to the enterprise of describing reality, promises unconnected with an intention to fulfil. All jurisdictions punish perjury, because justice cannot be done unless all parties adhere to the truth. The absolute language of the oath has a pragmatic purpose. Professor Bernard Williams writes about the two virtues, accuracy (doing everything we can to make our beliefs sensitive to the truth) and sincerity (expressing what one really believes without deception).

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Williams sees any person lied to as a victim of an abuse of power who has been put in a powerless position that results in resentment and rage. Trump’s lies have dire consequences.

 

Trump Triumphant Part Three

 

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 26 2017.

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What does the Trump presidency portend? We are looking at four years of an administration with a meagre mandate that seems likely to threaten the long-term health of our planet as well as the security, health, and safety of many Americans. Polly Toynbee met Trump in 1988 and was chilled then: “He’s sharp as a gold-plated razor-blade.” “Just wait and see what kind of deregulation, anti-working rights, anti-environmental, anti-product safety and food contamination rules he will impose”. As Keith Gessen put it, the new government looks like: “a small right-wing criminal class within the larger corrupt American political class, a mixture of white supremacists, ‘law and order’ fascists, and shutters-down of the George Washington Bridge.” Cornel West wrote: “We are witnessing the postmodern version of the full-scale gangsterization of the world.”

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What Is To Be Done?

In spite of calls to accept the reality of Trump’s presidency and stop being sore losers, it is legitimate to think about how he can be prevented from negating all the gains that have been made in the past eight years and beyond. His platform was resentment, rage and bigotry so we cannot expect him to bring healing and compromise. A number of writers have considered means whereby Trump’s plans can be challenged.

David Cole teaches constitutional law, national security, and criminal justice at Georgetown University Law Centre and recently became the National Legal Director of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). Cole wrote: “But if we now and for the next four years insist that he honour our most fundamental constitutional values, including equality, human dignity, fair process, privacy, and the rule of law, if we organize and advocate in defence of those principles, he can and will be contained.”

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Cole recalls how the abuse of power by GW Bush and Dick Cheney was countered by Americans who did not sit back and accept that the executive was above the law. In his recent book, Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law, Cole described how people protested, filed lawsuits, wrote human rights reports, lobbied foreign audiences and governments to bring pressure to bear on the US, leaked classified documents, and broadly condemned the administration’s actions as violations of fundamental constitutional and human rights. The academy, the press, and the international community all joined in the condemnation. When Bush left office in 2009, he had released more than five hundred of the detainees from Guantanamo, emptied the CIA’s secret prisons, halted the CIA interrogation programme and extraordinary renditions, and placed the NSA’s surveillance me under judicial supervision.

Nixon claimed that if the president did it it was legal. George Packer in the New Yorker reminds us that, within months of re-electing Nixon by the largest margin in history, Americans “began to gather around the consensus that their President was a crook who had to go”. The press pursued the story and the courts ruled impartially. Congress investigated in a bipartisan manner. Officials fought the infection from inside and the Washington Post’s key source, “Deep Throat” turned out to be the deputy director of the FBI.

Elite Failure

 

Hilary Mantel put it nicely: “For decades, the nice and the good have been talking to each other, chitchat in every forum going, ignoring what stews beneath: envy, anger, lust. On both sides of the ocean, the bien-pensants put their fingers in their ears and smiled and bowed at one another, like nodding dogs or painted puppets.”

 

That does not mean that we deserve him. Mantel wrote: “Mr Trump has promised a world where white men and rich men run the world their way, greed fuelled by undaunted ignorance. He must make good on his promises, for his supporters will soon be hungry. He, the ambulant id, must nurse his own offspring, and feel their teeth.”

 

Obama understands Trump’s appeal to “The middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.” Minorities are not “just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness…when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment our Founders promised.” People are already feeling nostalgic for Obama. He bequeaths to his successor an economy that is growing steadily, with large numbers of jobs being created on a regular basis, and living standards edging up. The size of the budget deficit, the level of consumer confidence, and the leverage ratios in the financial system, are also looking better.

 

Civil Society

 

Civil society needs to fight the plan to destroy the welfare and regulatory state. The battle can be waged on local, regional, and national fronts by civil society. Civil society comprises innumerable local groups, charities and associations that mediate between the individual, the government, and the market, and whose goal is promoting the common good. There are organizations working against Trump’s ugly agenda and protesters can donate their time and money.

 

ACLU executive director, Anthony D Romero, issued a statement on Trump’s election. “One thing is certain: we will be eternally vigilant every single day of your presidency and when you leave the Oval Office, we will do the same with your successor”.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center is a non-profit that combats hate, intolerance and discrimination through educational programs and litigation, and has played a significant role in monitoring the increase in hate crimes across the US following Trump’s election. OneAmerica, is an organization formed after 9/11 to respond to increased reports of hate crimes targeting Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians. Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a civil liberties group that defends and empowers American Muslims. Muslim Advocates works for freedom and justice for Americans of all faiths, helps strengthen Muslim charities, and works to counter hate. The Coalition on Homelessness works to advance solutions and works for legislation to help combat homelessness. The Anti-Defamation League, the Sierra Club are also worth joining and donating to.

 

Democrats

Some Democratic politicians are doing what they can to sustain civilised values in a Trump world. Anthony Rendon, the speaker of the California State Assembly intends to protect undocumented immigrants. “We are telling the next Administration and Congress: if you want to get to them, you have to go through us”.

Jerry Brown, California’s governor, vowed to fight any efforts by the incoming Administration to roll back efforts to tackle climate change. “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight …  If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite.” Other Democrat-dominated states, such as Massachusetts and New York, are taking a lead from Republican-run states, such as Oklahoma and Texas, which have challenged many of President Obama’s initiatives in court, such as his effort to use the Clean Air Act to reduce CO2 emissions.

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Contact Congress

John Cassidy of the New Yorker still thinks it worthwhile for Americans to put pressure on elected politicians. With a Republican House and Senate one might have little faith in the legislature. However, elected officials do listen to their constituents, especially when they get in touch with them personally in large numbers, so Americans should tell their lawmakers to stand up to Trump. It will be up to legislators in both parties not to cut deals that target the weak, encroach upon civil rights, or enrich the Trumps. “The public will need to be vigilant and involved across a broad range of policy areas.”

Impeachment

Professor Allan Lichtman was one of the few professional forecasters to predict a win for Trump. He has also predicted that Trump will be impeached  by a Republican Congress that would prefer Mike Pence – “an absolutely down-the-line, conservative, controllable Republican. And I’m quite certain Trump will give someone grounds for impeachment, either by doing something that endangers national security or because it helps his pocketbook”. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “the guy will probably resign or be impeached within a year. The future is closer than you think”.

Trump Triumphant Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 19 2017.

Colman's Column3

A friend commented on one of my previous articles to the effect that people who were dismayed at Trump’s success in the presidential election should grow up and “accept ballot results like mature adults”. It is not immature to be alarmed at the prospect of the radical changes Trump is likely to make with a very meagre mandate. My friend wrote: “Looking at the swathes of communities in the US destroyed by globalisation, deregulation, and neo-liberal economics generally, there is plenty of evidence to support his view” that the liberal elites have destroyed America. My friend notes the irony that ‘blame’ for Trump’s rise has already fallen on the working class white male. “The US political commentators are middle class and insufferably smug”.

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Substantial numbers of people indeed feel marginalized by flat or falling wages, rapid demographic change, and a liberal culture that mocks their faith and patriotism. One can sympathise with them but their resentments are toxic and Trump is not going to help them. The Morlocks have risen against the Eloi.

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Where’s the Mandate?

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Trump won fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. Trump tweeted that he would have won the popular vote but for millions of illegal ballots cast. Trump is a sore winner. He got about forty-six per cent of the popular vote; he carried several states by less than one per cent, and Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.7 million votes. Just a switch of 40,000 votes in three states would have altered the outcome. His Electoral College margin was relatively modest and he had the lowest approval ratings of any president-elect. Obama entered 2009 with a 68 percent favourable rating. Today, Trump’s favourable rating stands at 43 percent. That rating will go down when he takes office.  68 percent describe the president-elect as “hard to like,” and less than half of Americans are confident in Trump’s ability to handle an international crisis.

 

Sore Losers

I do not believe that I am insufferably smug but I am alarmed at what Trump’s presidency might mean, not just for the US but the world. In a previous article, I quoted what the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in in 1994: “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” It is not elitist to want to retain the gains that were made; it is not PC to mourn the loss of civility that Trump embodies.

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All of his cabinet appointees are climate change sceptics whose claims that the scientific evidence is inconclusive are plainly ludicrous. The world is warming and they know it. We cannot afford to waste another four years debating whether the world is warming. This man with no political experience and no popular majority is appointing people to his cabinet who will make radical changes that will adversely affect the lives of the very people who voted for him in the vain expectation that he would fulfil his promises to improve their lot. Why should people not protest? Trump’s real ruling-class hostility toward the working class was demonstrated by his vile attack on Chuck Jones, a union leader in Indiana who had dared to criticize him. Jones said he began receiving death threats following Trump’s tweetstorm.

Stephen Bannon

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We cannot expect Trump to be able or willing to spend much time on thinking about running the country. That will be too boring for him. He has appointed as “chief strategist” Steve Bannon, former executive of conservative news site Breitbart, who has been called racist, anti-Semitic and a white nationalist. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said of Bannon’s appointment: “There must be no sugar-coating the reality that a white nationalist has been named chief strategist for the Trump administration.”

Michael Flynn

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Nixon was notorious for barking outrageous orders when angry or drunk. His aides knew his moods well enough to ignore those orders and he expected them to be ignored. One might like to console oneself that an incompetent or mentally challenged president might be restrained by the common sense and caution of his team.  Trump has said: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” Donald Trump will have his finger on the nuclear button.  On November 18, 2016, Trump announced that Michael Flynn would serve as National Security Advisor. The national-security adviser is the person the President turns to when he thinks he might want to do some bombing. A retired army lieutenant general, Flynn previously ran the Defense Intelligence Agency but lost his job after two years because of clashes with officials.

Flynn took an active part in Trump’s campaign and revealed himself as hot-headed conspiracy theorist with a crush on Vladimir Putin and a loathing of President Obama. Flynn has regularly appeared on Russian state-owned television station RT, and once attended a gala hosted by the channel, sitting next to Putin.

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It was something of a shock to see a retired three-star general comparing Hillary Clinton to the al-Qaeda militants he faced in Afghanistan and Iraq, and calling for her to be imprisoned. He has called President Obama a “liar,” declared the US justice system “corrupt” and insisted that he was pushed out of his assignment as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency because of his views on radical Islam.

Putin

Trump is the first incoming American president to have declared, in language noted in Moscow and Beijing, that his commitment to Nato and the security pacts with Japan and South Korea is ambiguous.

Trump’s resistance to claims that Russia used hacking to interfere in the presidential election prompted Joe Biden to tell him to grow up. Trump’s confidence in WikiLeaks has angered intelligence analysts, who think Julian Assange is hostile to the US and a tool of Putin. The Russian government used Internet trolls and RT  to amplify negative reports on Clinton and US democracy. “Who actually is the benefactor of someone who is about to become Commander-in-Chief trashing the intelligence community?” Senator Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, demanded. She answered her own question: “Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, and ISIS.”

Veteran investigative economist and journalist Jim Henry has revealed that for three decades, Trump has profited from his connections to Russian oligarchs, whose own fortunes depend on their fealty to Putin.

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When Trump suffered a string of six successive bankruptcies, how did he keep bouncing back? Since the late 1990s, Trump was greatly assisted by access to abundant new sources of global finance and he spent decades cultivating senior relationships of all kinds with Russia and the FSU. He has an extensive network of unsavoury global underground connections. The illicit outflows from Russia and oil-rich FSU members like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan provided Trump with the kind of undiscriminating investors that he needed. These outflows arrived at just the right time to fund several of Trump’s post-2000 high-risk real estate and casino ventures—most of which failed.

Recent evidence provided by John McCain indicates that the Kremlin has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years, with the aim of encouraging splits and divisions in western alliances. One report claims that Trump and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including information on his Democratic and other political rivals.

The former Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid, has lambasted FBI chief James Comey for publicising investigations into Hillary Clinton’s private server, while allegedly sitting on “explosive” material on Trump’s ties to Russia.

 

Next week – what is to be done?

 

Trump Triumphant Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 12 2017.

Colman's Column3

The inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States will take place on Friday, January 20, 2017, in Washington DC. The election result was immediately followed by street protests and legal attempts to challenge the result. A friend commented on one of my previous articles to the effect that these people should “accept ballot results like mature adults”. It is not immature to be alarmed at the prospect of the radical changes Trump is likely to make on the strength of a very meagre mandate.

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Some people have coped with the result by saying Trump will not really make a difference or that he will not do half of the things he promised (threatened). Perhaps he will not follow the Sri Lankan example; perhaps he will not put his defeated opponent in jail. Now that we see who Trump will have in his cabinet, we have a better idea of what the future might be like. Trump’s cabinet choices are mostly recognised enemies of the departments they will be heading – foxes in charge of the henhouse.

 

Health

Tom Price, a Republican congressman from Georgia, is Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, which means he will lead the federal agency overseeing Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. Price has long been a critic of Obamacare and in every Congress since the Act was passed he has put forward his own bills to replace it. The common theme of Price’s plans has been something that does more to benefit the young, healthy and rich to the disadvantage of the sick, old and poor. Price is a doctor and knowledgeable about the system. Doctors have always fought health reform because they usually see it, whatever high-flown reasons they express, as endangering their own financial interests. Remember Nye Bevan “stuffing their mouths with gold” to persuade them to allow the NHS to function. About 5.5 million of the victims of repealing the Affordable Care Act. would be Trump supporters.

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Attorney General

The new Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, was junior Senator from Alabama. Jeff Sessions has a history of turning his personal bigotry into political reality. Senator Edward Kennedy, called him a “throw-back to a shameful era” and a “disgrace”. In 1984, as US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, he supported an investigation of black voter fraud in Alabama. On the basis of only 14 allegedly tampered ballots, Sessions prosecuted three African-American community organizers including Martin Luther King Jr’s former aide Albert Turner. The defendants, known as the Marion Three, were acquitted by a jury.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions to be a judge of the US District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. Sessions became only the second nominee to the federal judiciary in 48 years whose nomination was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee. At Sessions’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, four Department of Justice lawyers testified that he had made racially offensive remarks.

Sessions was elected Attorney General of Alabama in November 1994 and led the state’s defence of a schools funding model found unconstitutional because of disparities between rich, mostly white, and poor, mostly black, schools. As Attorney General of Alabama, Sessions argued that funding should not be provided to student groups that advocated unlawful behaviour, including the breaking of sodomy and sexual misconduct laws. As a Senator, he voted against the Matthew Shepard Act, which added acts of bias-motivated violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate-crimes law.

Sessions voted against strengthening the ban on torture and against criminal-justice reform. He worked to block immigration reform. Sessions is against legalizing marijuana for either recreational or medicinal use – “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Sessions believes “that sanctity of life begins at conception.” Sessions was one of 34 Senators to vote against the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007.

Sessions is sceptical of the scientific consensus on climate change. He has voted in favour of legislation that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. He has voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

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Labour

Andrew Puzder, Donald Trump’s choice as Secretary of Labor was the CEO of CKE Restaurants, parent company of fast-food chains Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. Puzder donated to Trump’s campaign and served as an adviser on job creation. Puzder has complained about regulations and overtime laws and opposed minimum wage increases. Puzder is even critical of the federal relief programs, such as food stamps, that subsidize the poverty wages that he pays his employees. He has talked openly about replacing workers with automated ordering kiosks. Puzder supports repealing the Affordable Care Act and has been critical of paid sick leave policies. He is a determined opponent of trade unions. Unlike the rest of the cabinet, he is in favour of immigration because it provides him with cheap labour.

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Education

Betsy de Vos, who has been named as Education Secretary, is known for her advocacy of school choice, home schooling, voucher programmes, and her ties to the Reformed Christian community. She is the daughter-in-law of Richard De Vos, the founder of Amway (the pyramid -selling organisation that has been accused of fraud and cultism). Her brother, Erik Prince, is the founder of Blackwater Worldwide the private military contractor accused of killing civilians in Iraq.

The person charged with overseeing the education of 50 million American children has, since the early 1990s, been active in supporting the charter school movement. Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press, wrote a searing indictment of the Detroit experiment supported by de Vos. “This deeply dysfunctional education landscape—where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and ‘choice’ means the opposite for tens of thousands of children—is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.”

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Environment

Trump placed Scott Pruitt in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, effectively outsourcing his environmental policy to the oil-and-gas companies who funded Pruitt’s campaigns in Oklahoma. After his election as Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt established a “Federalism Unit” in the Attorney General’s office dedicated to fighting President Barack Obama’s regulatory agenda, suing the administration over its immigration policy, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Pruitt’s office has sued the EPA to block its Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States rule. Pruitt has also sued the EPA on behalf of Oklahoma utilities unwilling to take on the burdens of additional regulation of their coal-fired plants, and criticized the agency in a congressional hearing. All of Pruitt’s anti-EPA suits to date have failed but now he can demolish it from within.

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Secretary of State

The chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, will be Secretary of State. Like the tobacco companies, the oil companies have been adept at hiding the truth about their product. ExxonMobil in particular has a long history of peddling misinformation on climate change. Investigations by the LA Times and Inside Climate News showed that the company had conducted extensive scientific research that proved the reality of climate change but publicly stuck to the official line: “Currently, the scientific evidence is inconclusive”.

Tillerson, like his president, has no experience in politics. However, he has been the head of an organisation that has had its own foreign policy independent of the official government of the USA. Tillerson has favoured doing business in countries that offer political stability, even if this stability was achieved through dictatorships with no regard for human rights.

Like his president, Tillerson has forged a friendly relationship with Vladimir Putin. As Secretary of State, Tillerson would be in a position to benefit ExxonMobil by, for example, easing sanctions against Russia. He has also established close relations with Igor Sechin, the close Putin ally who runs Rosneft, one of Russia’s oil-and-gas giants. In 2011, Tillerson signed a joint-venture agreement with Putin under which ExxonMobil would partner with Rosneft to produce oil from the Arctic.

tillerson

These people are out to destroy our world for their own profit. Should we just accept without complaint?

Nixon Part Five

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 5 2017

Colman's Column3

A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.

nixon-3

Nixon inspired   widespread loathing and derision; I recall a sketch on Monty Python Live at Drury Lane in the early 70s; a group of men are gathered around a bar: “Have you heard the news? Nixon’s had an arsehole transplant. The arsehole rejected him”.  We must balance this with the more positive view presented in Evan Thomas’s biography, Being Nixon: A Man Divided.

Nixon’s Good Points

Chekhov’s criterion for calling a man good was a daughter’s affection and Nixon’s daughters Tricia and Julie certainly seemed to have a genuine deep love for him, which was reciprocated.

tricia-and-julie

Thomas believes that, despite the references to ‘jigaboos’ and ‘jungle bunnies’ on the Watergate tapes, Nixon was not a racist. When Nixon was at Duke University, he made sure that a black student called William Brock was welcomed into his fraternity, at a time when almost all fraternities around the country were segregated.  Nixon spoke out about segregation in Durham, and one of his classmates recalled: “He looked upon the issue as a moral issue”.

 

One of his classmates at Duke, Fred Cady, had been disabled with polio. Every day, Nixon carried him up the steps to class. Those who worked closely with him in later years regarded him as kind and considerate. He was shy and introverted by nature and did not like confrontation. Chuck Colson said that Nixon could be “brutally cold, calculating, a manipulator of power”—but “could never bring himself to point out to a secretary her misspellings”. Nevertheless, he showed great courage facing angry mobs who were spitting and throwing rocks on his foreign tours as vice president.

 

In Thomas’s judgement, Nixon, even as a congressman and a senator, had a long-range vision that most of his congressional peers lacked. He voted for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe because he understood that the Republican Party was doomed to irrelevance if it regressed to pre–World War II isolationism.

 

China

 

There were certainly achievements. In April 1971, Nixon approved a trip to China by the US Ping-Pong team and announced a plan to ease travel and trade restrictions. At the same time, his national security advisor Henry Kissinger was making secret trips to Beijing.

kissinger

Nixon said that one of his long-term aims was the normalization of relations with China. His foreign policy was bogged down by the seemingly intractable Vietnam war and he was trying to find ways of containing the Soviet Union. Nixon saw advantages in improving relations with both China and the Soviet Union; he hoped that détente would put pressure on the North Vietnamese to end the Vietnam War.

Until Nixon’s 1972 visit, China was a pariah country like today’s North Korea and Nixon could claim credit for its isolation. His anti-communist stance when running for Congress against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, his support for Senator Joe McCarthy, his pursuit of Alger Hiss, helped him domestically to get away with approaching China. In 1964, he categorically stated that “it would be disastrous to the cause of freedom” for the US to recognize Red China, but he did it anyway. His record of anti-Communism gave him the credentials for making the bold move of establishing normal relations.

nixon-in-china-poster

In 1972, China had a reasonably educated work force of nearly a billion willing to work for low wages. China was not burdened by environmental and health and safety regulations such as those being introduced in the US by Nixon himself. The Chinese leadership   was ready to take the   opportunity offered by Nixon through opening up of Western markets. His initiative hastened China’s technological advance through western transfers and gave China the means to fend off potential unrest by employing millions in an expanding economy. China’s military progress benefited from the huge forex reserves accumulated from the massive exports of cheap Chinese products and China used those reserves to acquire the latest military technology.

Critics have questioned whether Nixon’s initiative was such a good thing either for the Chinese people or for the US economy. As of October 2016, the US debt to China is $1.115 trillion.  China’s role as America’s largest banker gives it leverage. US presidents who followed Nixon did not try to reverse his China policy. Even Bill Clinton became an enthusiastic supporter of trade with China once he took lessons in foreign policy from Nixon in early 1993. Even before he was inaugurated, Donald Trump was calling China an enemy, an “absolute abuser of the United States.”

Liberal Policies

Defenders of Nixon point out that he could have cancelled LBJ’s Great Society welfare programmes, but instead enlarged them. From 1970 to 1975, spending on human resource services exceeded spending for defence for the first time since World War II. Unemployment benefits were extended; social security benefits went up. The Nixon administration expanded the enforcement of affirmative action and signed legislation which banned sexual discrimination in education. He also supported the Constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18 and abolished the draft.

Even while he was being undermined by Watergate, Nixon was proposing a comprehensive national health insurance scheme which was not significantly different from the one that Barack Obama finally pushed through. In May 1974, such a massive piece of social welfare legislation had no chance of success in Congress.

 

He set up the Environmental Protection Agency. This is an example of Nixon’s pragmatism rather than liberalism. Nixon was not interested in environmental issues and delegated them to his aides, saying at one point: “Just keep me out of trouble on environmental issues.” He called the environmental movement “crap” for “clowns.” Nixon spoke of himself as a conservative who wanted smaller government. With an activist Democratic Congress, he recognised the need for compromise.

Some commentators are cynical about Nixon and de-segregation. Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” was to appeal to racial prejudice in the South and among blue-collar workers in the North and West. Nixon told an aide: “I think if we can keep liberal writers convinced that we are doing what the Court requires, and our conservative friends we are not doing any more than what the Court requires, I think we can walk this tightrope until November, 1972.”

In two landmark decisions with Nixon’s appointees providing 4 of the 5 votes, the Supreme Court effectively held that school systems could be separate and unequal as long as this was accomplished through tax policy and the arbitrary drawing of district boundaries rather than through direct pupil assignment. Nixon instructed government agencies to go only as far as required by court orders and no further.

Project Wizard – Rehabilitation

rehab

Elizabeth Drew referred to the inevitable process whereby historians try to find a new angle by rehabilitating a previously scorned figure. Nixon was himself at the forefront of rehabilitation attempts in what was termed Project Wizard. The plan succeeded to a great extent.

Everyone who was anyone on the New York scene wanted to be invited to the dinners (fine Chinese food served by Chinese staff) Nixon gave in his New York brownstone. He made more trips to China and travelled around the US making speeches about great leaders he had known, and wrote many books and op-eds. By late 1979, Gallup ranked him as one of the ten most-admired people in the world.

However, was deluding himself in thinking that he could return to real influence. After Reagan was re-elected, Nixon really believed that he had earned a high-level position in the administration.  Reagan aides were incredulous. Nixon threatened Bill Clinton that if he were not paid proper respect as a foreign-affairs expert he would write an op-ed in a major newspaper attacking the president’s handling of foreign policy. It never occurred to him that many found him a nuisance.

 

fiveprez

Five presidents attended Nixon’s funeral—he got some respect when he was dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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