Wednesday, July 4, 2018

An Independence Day post: The state of America in 2018

Remember what I wrote yesterday?  It was... incomplete.  Yes, the economy is doing quite well.  Then again, China has experienced rapid economic growth over the last couple of decades.  Are you moving there?  I thought not.  Milton Friedman used to argue that political and economic freedom were inextricably intertwined.  In China, not so much.  Neither Marx nor Mao would in any way approve of the current economic system in China, but political rights are severely curtailed.  Yes, a country can experience economic growth in a wretched political system.  And China isn't alone, particularly if we dig back through history.

Then again, realistically, how many political liberties have been curtailed over the last 1.5 years?  I didn't ask what liberties you think are going to be curtailed in the near future.  The "swing" vote on the Supreme Court is about to be John Roberts.  That changes things.  But, what could you do a year and a half ago that you can't do now?

Read the news without some sort of screaming/crying fit.  That's the big one for me, but I don't think that counts.  Want a break to laugh?  Here.  Enjoy.  On the basic facts, though, the economy is doing well, and my basic liberties are not appreciably curtailed.

Yes, Congress passed and Trump signed a massively stupid tax law, but that isn't fundamentally a challenge to liberty.  That's just stupid legislation.  Yes, there are bad things happening, like the child separations, but I'm a numbers guy.  At the end of the day, the total number of people hurt by this is lower than the total number of people hurt by stupid economic policy, as I discussed in my Pratchett post.  Don't worry, though.  I'll come back to this.

And yet, I don't think America is doing very well.  I pretty much think we're fucked.  Why the contrast?  I pose two questions.  What, if anything, is unthinkable in American politics today, and is there a way back?

As we think about those two questions, let's remember that not all is right.  This is important for understanding what is thinkable.  During the 2016 election, the Russian government hacked the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee in order to embarrass the Democratic candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, because the psychopathically evil Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin, knew that Donald Trump would be more pliant to his will, and he wanted Trump to win.  During the election, Trump even asked Putin to do more hacking, when he wasn't asking his followers to violently assault protesters and promising to pay their legal bills should they do so.  Trump looked like he would probably lose after a tape came out of him bragging about his ability to get away with sexual assault, but less than two weeks before the election, the Director of the FBI, James Comey, decided to violate DoJ policy by making a public statement that the FBI was "re-opening" an investigation into Clinton on what was obviously bullshit-- a newly discovered computer, even though that computer couldn't possibly have any information that would change the FBI's decision not to seek criminal charges.  Comey's decision changed the polls enough to give the White House to Putin's choice-- Trump, who still denies that Russia did the hacking or intended to help him, even though the intelligence agencies of every country on the planet acknowledge that Putin was trying to elect Trump.  Shortly thereafter, a report surfaced that Putin may have blackmail material on Trump personally, and Russian spies made repeated attempts to gain inroads into many members of the Trump campaign, including Trump's own son (keeping in mind that by the admission of Trump's own family, a disproportionate amount of Trump's investors are Russians because no American is stupid enough to give a con man like Trump their money).  Soon after, Trump fires Flynn, who was clearly compromised by Russia, even though he had been warned of that before he hired Flynn as NSA, and then he fires Comey for continuing to investigate Russia-related matters, including Flynn.  First, Trump lies and says that it is because Comey was too hard on Clinton based on the Rosenstein letter, even though Trump's campaign slogan was "lock her up," and then he gives up the game to Lester Holt.  This leads to the appointment of Robert Mueller and a series of indictments including Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was deep in bed with the Russians, and I'm only scratching the surface here of a still-ongoing investigation without even mentioning Trump's hush money payments to a porn star, his lawyer's goon threatening her child, or any of that because the bigger story is that the entire Republican Party has decided that all investigations into Trump need to be obstructed, lies must be told to defend him, and the most corrupt president in history must be held above the law to prevent negative electoral spillover for the GOP in 2018 or 2020.

This is a party-wide destruction of the concept of checks and balances or any notion of legal constraints on a president when that president is a Republican.

And that brings me to the following question:  what is unthinkable?  Keep in mind everything I just told you.

Why are we in a trade war?  The obvious answer is that Donald Trump is a mercantilist idiot.  I've been ranting about this for a while, but it bears repeating.  Donald Trump is stupid.  That's not what I mean, though.  In formal, legal terms, how is he getting away with this shit?  Congress has the power to tax, right?  There's a loophole.  National security and tariffs.  How is Canada a threat to our national security?  They're not.  Donald Trump is just completely full of fucking shit.

So, why isn't Congress stopping him?  In particular, why aren't congressional Republicans stopping him?  I've written about this before.  Republicans are supposed to hate taxes and love trade.  Trump is committing Republican apostasy, and doing so in a legally... shady way.  It wouldn't be hard to stop him, if Republicans had even the tinniest shred of will.  They just... don't.  We have no checks or balances anymore.  That's scary.  When congressional Republicans would rather let a president raise taxes and start a fucking trade war than check their own guy...

Be afraid.  Be afraid because that means there ain't much that's off the table.  It means the system that is supposed to stop stupid shit from happening isn't in place anymore.

Now, a trade war is mathematically stupid.  I know it's stupid because I can, you know, read.  And think.  And do math.  However, one can understand uneducated people not getting the intrinsic stupidity of trade wars.  So, what else is there to make us worry?  That brings me back to child separations.  A trade war hurts more people, once you go through the math.  However, ripping children away from their parents because the parents commit the horrible atrocity of seeking asylum...  It isn't that the number of people hurt by that stands out in the grand scheme of historical vileness.  It's just that there's no hiding the vileness.  As I wrote in my Pratchett post, Moist deluded himself about what he was because he couldn't see the victims of his schemes.  Ripping screaming children from their parents is nakedly evil.  On a small scale, but it is the nakedness of that evil that caused a reaction in the country.

One can look at the reaction and decide that there is some limit to what people will tolerate.

Or, one can look at the fact that it happened and the fact that the policy has a bunch of fucking racist shitbags supporting it and recognize that the policy is thinkable in America today and recognize the problem.

Why is Donald Trump President?  James Comey.  That's the short answer for the general election.  Add in the fact that the Democrats had won the two previous elections, and a bunch of other stuff, but why did he win the Republican nomination?  Here's the basic truth.  Donald Trump is a racist.  Why did he rise through the ranks of Republican politics?

Birtherism.  A bunch of racist idiots couldn't handle a black guy as president.  So, they told themselves some insane lies.  Those lies were quickly debunked, but (and we'll deal with this more), you can't really debunk a lie, particularly for these people.  So, the lie festered and festered and festered.  And eventually, Donald Trump took up the banner of that disgusting, racist fucking lie.  And it made the base of the Republican Party love him like they have never loved anything before.

He rode that wave of racist bullshit to the hearts of the Republican base.  Then, he started spouting more racist bullshit about Mexican rapists, and I'll skip over most of it, but you get the point.  Donald Trump is a racist.  And that's why his base loves him.

That's why David Duke loves him.

That's why the child separations are now thinkable.

What, then, is unthinkable?  A Republican Congress will never check Donald Trump, he is about to get a solidly conservative Supreme Court, and that leaves only public opinion, but there is a core of people who were even OK with the child separations.  What is thinkable, then, depends on circumstances.

What can happen here?  Note my phrasing.  Whatever fascist nightmare you have is generally listed by someone as something that can't happen here.  But, suppose the economy turns south?  The economy is doing well, as I wrote yesterday, but that has nothing to do with Trump, and exogenous shocks happen.  Apparently, trade wars also happen.  What happens if the economy turns south under Trump?

If politics happen normally, and we get a recession timed for the 2020 election, then Trump loses and things move on, with whatever degradation Trump has done to the system.  Is that really all that happens, though?  Is anything else thinkable?

Here's a thinkable scenario.  The economy turns south, and Trump lies his lying fucking ass off about how the economy is doing.  Among the many vile traits that Trump has, one of the most distinctive is his propensity to lie about everything.  Plausible?  Obviously!  What happens?  I... don't know.  Fox News would probably say that the economy is the greatest in the history of the world, even if we were experiencing a 2008-level crash because they're Fox.  It's state media now.  They didn't do that for Dubya, but as bad as they were then, they have gotten worse, and Dubya didn't pretend everything was awesome.  Trump might.  What about BLS?  What about the government reporting agencies?  They are supposed to be independent of the president.  Does Trump try to shut them up?  There are supposed to be policies in place, but I wouldn't put it past him.  I wouldn't put anything past him.

But wait, you say!  The economy would be tanking!  Wouldn't people notice?  Who'd tell them?  A 10% unemployment rate means 90% employment.  The GOP base will believe anything if Trump and Fox tell it to them, independent voters are morons, and if Trump purges government reporting agencies, what happens?  I don't know.

Next scenario.  Trump decides that the answer is to escalate the trade war.  Santayana, anyone?  It would be massively stupid, counterproductive, and... not incompatible with Scenario 1.  The question for whether or not Trump hangs onto power would be a blame shifting one.  Could he successfully say, "it's all their fault?!"  I don't know.  It would be bad, though.

Now, and here's where things get really scary.  Scenario 3.  Scapegoat a minority within the US.  There's precedent around the world.  And Donald Trump is really, really, really racist.  Fox would spout whatever racist shit he tells them to spout.  His party might cringe, but not one of them would actually stand up to him.  They care more about winning elections, and if they think racial demagoguery will help, they'll be fully on-board.  Besides, if they are intent on refusing to investigate his potential treason with Russia, they'd be on-board with turning economic turmoil into direct attacks on minorities.  This goes to some very ugly places.

The problem, then, is not what is happening now, but the fact that there is nothing, as I see it, that is off the table.  The President is a racist demagogue, a batshit crazy idiot, and possibly a traitor.  His party will do nothing to check his worst impulses, even if that means helping to cover up treason.  If the economy tanks, as trade wars can make them do, we could really see things get ugly.

And even if they don't, we live in a fact-free political world, which leads to my second question.  What is the way back?  I don't see one.  Most of the "it ain't that bad" pieces I see floating around boil down to something like the intro here.  What rights have been curtailed, and how does that compare to, for example, slavery or Jim Crow?  What is happening now, objectively, isn't a frontal assault on our rights, and the country made progress.  However, making progress required acknowledging the facts that slavery existed, and Jim Crow existed.  You can't make progress without facts.

Remember how Donald Trump came to power:  by lying about where Obama was born, and then setting new land-speed records in the competitive sport of political lying.  However, Trump is the natural conclusion of the direction the Republican Party had been heading for years.  Trump didn't start the birther movement.  He just picked up the torch.  Remember death panels?  I'm not going to go through a history of insane lies but once you remember that birtherism predated Trump, and that Palin got the entire GOP on-board with that "death panel" bullshit, you remember that the GOP was committed to lying as a central political strategy before Trump came along, and no, it's not symmetric.  Yes, all politicians lie, but Republicans do it far more.  It isn't close.  Birtherism.  Death panels.  I'm not going to do a full accounting here, but it isn't close.

And lies have power.  At the electoral level, the issue is cognitive dissonance.  That is the uncomfortable feeling of trying to hold two inconsistent ideas in your head at the same time.  The GOP committed to a strategy of all-lies-all-the-time before Trump ever came along, and a consequence of that has been a minimization of cognitive dissonance for the GOP base.  Everything is uniformly horrible when Democrats have a smidge of power, and everything is perfect when the Republicans have power.  No shades of grey.  No complexity.  Hence, they must sacrifice their firstborn children to the living god that is Donald Trump.

Once people are accustomed to living in a fact-free universe in which they never have to experience cognitive dissonance, how do you convince them to come back to the real world?  How do you reach them?  That's the difference between segregation and now.  During the civil rights movement, there was agreement that segregation existed.  The argument was a moral one.  Today?  Not only is there a moral argument-- Trumpkins live in a fact-free universe.  And they like it that way because if they ever had to grapple with the fact that Trump's campaign manager was in debt to Russian oligarchs and offering to use his position with Trump to "get whole" with them (as an example), it would make them uncomfortable.  A cognitive dissonance-free life is an easy life.  The easiest way to get it is to live in a fact-free world, believing every Trump lie and tuning out every real information source.

And if you live that way, year after year, how do we convince you that, no really, you need to come back to the fact-based universe, and everything you think you know is false?  How do we reach these people?  Brendan Nyhan has shown that debunking myths, or rather, attempting to debunk myths just makes these dipshits more deeply committed to their crazy beliefs.

Lies have been allowed to proliferate for so long that I don't see a way back.  That really is different from the era of slavery or Jim Crow.  It's not that we are in as bad a situation now.  It's that things can get very bad from here, and I just don't see a way back.  Not without facts, and this country tolerates lies.  Or rather, one party embraces lies, and the press has let them get away with it under the premise that everything must be declared symmetric even when that, too, is a lie.

In The Federalist Papers, Madison argued that competing factions could check each others' worst impulses.  That doesn't work.  When one party decides it will tolerate any evil within itself for the sake of power, the entire constitutional system breaks down.  The Republican Party has decided that it will not check a Republican president, no matter what he does.  That is the core issue I had been addressing in the "On power and corruption" series, which sort of petered out.

What's left?  The country may very well get through Trump.  He hasn't started a new war.  The economy is fine, but the more he escalates his stupid, fucking trade war, the more problems it will face.  The problem is the damage done to the political system by the Republican Party as they attempt to ride out a Trump Presidency-- the complete elimination of all checks and balances and an enthusiastic embrace of insane lies, which had been a prominent part of their pre-Trump arsenal anyway.  I just don't see how we get truth or checks and balances back.  And that leaves a lot on the table that wasn't on the table before.

So, yes, be scared.  Happy 4th.

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