Friday, November 11, 2022

VETERANS DAY


Sergeant Whitie:

I know you didn't want military honors, or the box of medals and commendations they sent us when you passed on, Whitie. I know you didn't want the grave-marker with the little flag they change on Decoration Day. I know you didn't like to remember the war or the three and a half years you spent in combat. It wasn't that you didn't think the sacrifice was warranted. On the contrary, it embarrassed you to be honored for something you considered your inescapable duty.

But as one vet to another and as one who sacrificed little but three fairly quiet years of my life, I can't help but remember you today and the very real sacrifice you made to rid the world of authoritarianism and a racist cult. I know it would sadden you to see all of that alive and well and thriving in the country you loved. Rest assured I'm fighting it the only way I know how, with my passion for freedom and democracy, with experience gained, like you, elsewhere in the world, and with my words, which have always been the most powerful arms I know.

Thanks for all that, Dad, and thanks for imbuing me with the values to know the meaning of liberty and the value of not backing down in the face of tyranny.

 

 

Thursday, November 10, 2022

THE BANNON FACTOR

I was recently going over notes from a ghostwriting project that I worked at for nearly a decade. I was chief researcher and editor and thus responsible for formulating a lot of the political ideas that the client prompted me to consider in his writing. I was struck by how on point we had been as far back as 2013-2014 regarding the wave of authoritarian thought that was taking shape all over the West, but nowhere as much as in the United States, where a man who had never been taken seriously before, an almost ridiculous jet set playboy with a lousy comb-over and a series of insane business projects, many of which were crashing failures became suddenly relevant. He was a guy who was taken in the best of cases as a joke and in the worst as a swindler whom former partners sought to avoid in the future. But suddenly, he was becoming, against all odds, the face of the American ultra-right and, incredibly, a serious contender for US president.

What’s stunning to me now—although I called it on a hunch back then—isn’t so much the nefarious influence that this man, Donald Trump, has had on the entire spectrum of American politics in the last seven or so years. It was easy enough to see that coming if he managed to gain access to the White House. What was chilling, in retrospect, was just how influential his former chief adviser, Steve Bannon, had been in ushering Trump from the play-by-ear politics of his early campaign for the presidency into a truly pernicious political philosophy similar to the classic ideologies of some of the most prominent dictators in history. I couldn’t help thinking that, without Bannon—and to a somewhat lesser extent, Stephen Miller—while Trump surely would have been a capricious, directionless, reactionary and recalcitrant executive, as he always had been in his role as CEO of the Trump Organization where his main “product” was the Trump Brand, he probably wouldn’t have been nearly as focused as he has been on destroying the US representative democratic system as we, born right after World War II, had known it up to the present. He would, I reasoned, simply have bumbled through a four-year term like a bull in a china shop, alienating everyone, probably even including his own base and the GOP, with his aimless brand of populism and duplicity until he was voted out of office and faded from the scene.

But Bannon, a well-studied ideologue with a warrior mentality at the service of anti-establishment chaos, got Trump’s ear early on and convinced him that he was the man called by destiny to burn it all down. It was no coincidence that I referred back then to Bannon as “the American Rasputin”, because he was no less nefariously influential on Trump than Grigori Rasputin had been on Czar Nicholas of Russia. This was obvious from the outset, when what had passed for “policy” in the Trump campaign and early presidency, and that had all of the orientation of a weathervane in a hurricane, suddenly became laser focused on issues that were sure to appeal to the most extreme elements of the Republican far right. And, indeed, even beyond the traditional far right to other political currents too extreme to be embraced even under “the big tent” of Republicanism.

The arrival of Bannon and his “war room” in the West Wing of the White House was, then, clear as day, in its extremist influence that had Trump at war with the world, but a political war imbued with almost military strategy, designed to isolate enemies, incorporate erstwhile rivals where convenient, and destroy those who refused to climb on board. This was all pure Bannon, not because Trump wasn’t interested in conquering absolute power, but because he’d had no idea how to go about it in American politics until Bannon provided him with the tools.

Out of those project notes of mine, the information that jumped out at me regarded Steve Bannon’s stated philosophy in the years prior to the Trump era when the alt-right strategist was still searching for a protégé—courting potential candidates like Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz unsuccessfully before finding a perfect fit in Trump, someone aggressive yet malleable because he had never had a salient intellectual notion of his own. Trump’s brain was, Bannon reasoned, fertile soil for his revolutionary politics, a blank slate on which he could write his manifesto.

The notes in question had to do with an article that writer Ronald Radosh had researched for The Daily Beast in 2013. It was that year when he was invited to a book-signing event and cocktail that Bannon, then CEO of the Breitbart far-right ideological site, was holding at his posh digs in Washington DC. Radosh struck up a conversation with Bannon about a picture in which his daughter, Maureen, a West Point-graduate Army officer, was sitting in Saddam Hussein’s former throne with an assault rifle across her lap. Bannon, the doting father, couldn’t contain his pride for her.

One thing led to another and the chat became an interview. In the course of it, Bannon suddenly said, apropos of nothing, “I’m a Leninist.”

Radosh wasn’t sure he’d heard Bannon right. He knew the political strategist to be a far-right-wing, Christian white supremacist, “populist” and “nationalist”. Or at least, that was the pitch that he was currently hawking.

So Radosh said something like, “A Leninist?” And when Bannon confirmed it, he asked him to explain what he meant by the term. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state,” Radosh quoted Bannon as saying. “And that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Asked to expand on that thought Bannon, according to Radosh, told the writer that he was applying Lenin’s strategy to Tea Party populist goals. Radosh said that Bannon wasn’t shy about telling him that the institutions that he was focusing on were the Republican and Democratic Parties and the traditional conservative press.

Several years later, when Bannon was picked to be Trump’s chief strategist, Radosh contacted him again and told him that he planned to reused parts of that 2013 interview in a new profile he was creating for The Daily Beast and asked if the strategist would like to add anything new. Bannon, knowing that those comments weren’t going to fly in Republican far-right circles, claimed he didn’t recall that conversation and said if Radosh used it, he would deny it ever took place.

In the wake of the Trump era, in which the GOP has been usurped by the extreme right, and its moderates as well as true conservatives have been marginalized, in which the two main parties are faced off in a war in which Congress is shackled and stalled in a climate of non-negotiation, and in which the unthinkable happened for the first time in history when the extreme right tried to overthrow the established order and install an autocratic regime after losing an election, and indeed in a current climate in which an enormous cross-section of American politics no longer believes in the integrity of the democratic election process, it’s not hard to see that Bannon’s nihilist goals found an able enforcer in Donald Trump.

While it may seem positive for democracy that, in this week’s general election process, observers have pointed to Trump and his camp as the big losers in the race, Trump still has a large and fanatical following. And the fact that big-money campaign donors are reportedly ready to write Trump off, fades in importance in view of the fact that he is still capable, among his most loyal supporters, of raising millions of campaign dollars through donations of five to twenty dollars each. It is worthwhile recalling that neither Trump nor his most implacable base—often evangelicals who view him as a messiah sent by God—are simply not bound by long-standing American ideals and traditions. And it is also important to remember that if there is one thing we’ve learned about Donald Trump, it is that he often resurges even when the most sacred of pundits pronounce him finished.

Anyone who has ever had an ounce of true patriotism, anyone who cares at all about the future of American representative democracy, should be bearing that in mind for 2024, when the presidential election process is once again center stage.   


Sunday, October 30, 2022

THE TWEET THAT WASN’T

 

If you didn’t see the tweet by Greg Kelly “wondering” if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t maybe stage the home invasion and beating of her husband as an election publicity stunt, don’t bother looking for it. A despicable coward for putting it up, he doubled down on cowardice by removing it when a gazillion people called him out, but without apologizing for putting it up in the first place.

Did the far-right cable “news” talking head think maybe nobody saw it? I mean, you know, he’s only got like a half-million zealous far-right followers, so if he sneezes, the gesundheit echoes all over the airwaves.

If you don’t know who Kelly is—if you’re not an assiduous consumer of Faux News or NewsMocks you may not—he’s a so-called “conservative” (alt-right) propagandist posing as a newsman on Greg Kelly Reports (sic). He actually was a newsman at one time, but that was way back in 2003, when he was embedded with the US Army’s Third Infantry Division, Second Brigade during the Iraq invasion.  He received a minor shrapnel wound while on that assignment—too late for a purple heart; he was already out of the Marine Corps by then—but went on to become the first TV reporter to broadcast live pictures of American troops reaching the presidential palace in Baghdad.

Credit where credit’s due.

The son of former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Greg was, prior to his reporting days (and as I mentioned before), a Marine Corps Reserve officer, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel. While on active duty as a Harrier Jump Jet pilot from 1991 to 2000, he helped enforce a coalition no-fly zone over Iraq.

The reason I mention this is because I find the tweet—which he threw like a stone at Speaker Pelosi and her seriously injured octogenarian husband before quickly hiding his hand—so much more vile, cowardly and inexcusable than if it had emanated from some ignorant, QAnon-freak, insurrectionist lunatic. This is an educated guy from a New York top-cop’s family and a former senior field grade officer in a premier military institution, in which honor is one of the most sacred of its principles.

What the disappearing tweet in question actually said was: “Just ‘wondering’ if Nancy Pelosi tried to STAGE her own mini January 6th. Complete with leaving the doors and windows OPEN for the ‘insurrectionists’ and that Depepe (sic) fellow. THAT or she can’t secure her home or office.”

Although Kelly rather grandly calls his show Greg Kelly Reports, if this sort of totally baseless speculation has anything to do with “reporting”, I’ll eat my journalist’s hat. This doesn’t even rise to the level of gossip. It’s merely a piece of ugly provocation to bolster rating among the many conspiracy theorists whom his show courts.

This gratuitous Twitter attack on the aging Speaker of the House, who showed extraordinary courage, cool-headedness and leadership during the January 6, 2020 insurrectionist invasion of the US Capitol (which Kelly denies), couldn’t have been released at a more vulnerable time for both the Speaker and for the US, a scant few days before mid-term elections. The fact that it was posted even as Speaker Pelosi’s eighty-two-year-old husband Paul was undergoing surgery for serious head trauma inflicted with a hammer by just the sort of conspiracy theorist, home-invader nut job that Kelly’s inflammatory TV propaganda appeals to, is nothing short of heinous.

Worse still, Kelly later doubled-down, writing: “Wait a second, 82-year-old Paul Pelosi they SAY was attacked by a guy with a HAMMER, yet he’s expected to make a Full Recovery? And why is NANCY requesting ‘privacy at this time’ – NO.”

The fact that Kelly couldn’t stand sitting in the hot seat and took the first tweet down is scant redemption, especially since he made no apology—the honorable thing to do—for putting it up in the first place. And, furthermore, those of us who saw it before he hid it from view can’t unsee it. Neither decent, honorable people from across the political spectrum who were appalled and sickened by it, nor the radical extremist fringe among his followers who were no doubt inspired to ever-increasing states of fevered paranoia and random violence as the American democratic process unfolds during the midterms.

As an authentic journalist, as a veteran, as a politically independent American, I can’t find words to express my most energetic condemnation of Greg Kelly and every other propagandist currently pouring gasoline on the flames of division. Moreover, I find it tragic that it isn’t an isolated incident, but a mere symptom of the ever more divisive climate in which Americans are living today. Sadly, it is no longer the American Dream that we are living. It is the American nightmare that we grew up thinking never could happen in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”   

 

Monday, September 26, 2022

MAGA IS NOT CONSERVATIVE, LIZ IS

 Staunchly democratic Republican Liz Cheney finally said it out loud. If Donald Trump is the 2024 GOP nominee for president, she will abandon the party.

This news has been a long time coming. Unlike some long-time iconic conservatives such as syndicated columnist George Will, who not only abandoned the party when Trump became the candidate in 2016, but also called on his conservative readers to vote for Hillary Clinton because Trump was a danger to democracy, Cheney stuck it out for Trump’s entire term. In fact, she voted for Trump’s policies more than ninety percent of the time. But when Trump began undermining constitutional order, Cheney, then the third highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, who had already been finding Trump’s loose and reluctant adherence to the Constitution and to presidential traditions disturbing, voted, along with nine other House Republicans, to impeach the then-president for inciting a bloody insurrection against the United States Congress.

The tenacious Liz Cheney, authentic conservative

Since then, Cheney has become the leading conservative voice against Donald Trump’s authoritarian designs, pointing out, principally, that Trump’s refusal, for the first time in US history, to accept the will of the people and submit to the peaceful transfer of power after unquestionably losing an election is intolerable, illegal and unacceptable. She believes, with every conservative bone in her body, that her party must either ensure that Trump never again holds office, or it will become the vehicle for American democracy’s suicidal demise.

As such, Liz Cheney, more than any other personality in the conservative world, has become the poster-girl for democracy, and the clear voice of reason in an America gone insane. Her role as vice-chair of the January Sixth Investigative Committee, has graphically demonstrated her level of commitment to trying to save the United States from the now ever more obvious advance of authoritarianism, since the current GOP leadership, in a cold-sweat panic born of the virulence of Trump’s slavish MAGA entourage, has chosen to embrace the Trump cult of personality—akin only to the rise of far-right populist dictatorships witnessed historically in pre-1990s Latin America, or to today’s populist far-left authoritarian regimes in such places as Venezuela, Cuba or Nicaragua—rather than losing their seats in Congress.

Cheney, for her part, has risked everything, placing Nation before party, the common good before personal political ambition and democracy before obedience to the GOP hierarchy, of which she is no longer a part. This last is thanks to her demotion by top House Republican and Trump sycophant Kevin McCarthy, who has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that he will forsake all that is sacred in American democracy and in the “Party of Lincoln” in pursuit of his all-consuming ambition to be the next Speaker of the House.

Of the ten Republicans who dared confront the autocratic nature of the former president and vote with Democrats for his impeachment, the Trump political machine has left only two standing: namely, Washington State’s Fourth District Representative Dan Newhouse, and California’s Twenty-Second District Representative David Valadao.

Valadao was unique in that he was the only one of the ten that Trump and his mob didn’t target. This, despite the fact that he stated his unequivocal view in voting for impeachment that Trump was “without question, a driving force in the catastrophic events” at the Capitol. Perhaps it was a California thing. Despite being The Land of Reagan, California is considered by Trumpster loyalists to be a place of evil bent on imposing its mighty will and sinful liberal ideals on God-fearin’ folk from coast to coast. So maybe they felt there was no point spending good campaign money to primary Valadao in a largely heathen Democrat land where one Republican was as likely (or unlikely) to carry through as another. Who knows?

Newhouse, for his part, managed to survive being primaried by Trump loyalists, largely due to the “top-two style” open primary system by which candidates are picked in Washington State. According to this system, all candidates are listed on the same ballot. The top two vote-getters, regardless of their partisan affiliations, advance to the general election. As a result, in that state the Trump camp’s practice of primarying an incumbent who doesn’t toe the boss’s line is way less effective than elsewhere, because by this method you could even conceivably have two candidates from the same party running against each other in a general election and no candidate at all from the other party. It’s all about who the two top vote-getters are in the primary process, regardless of party affiliation.

Ohio Representative Gonzalez
The first of the GOP’s anti-Trump ten to be undermined was Anthony Gonzalez, who represents my home state of Ohio and my home voting district in Cuyahoga County. Although a young man, Gonzalez is an old-style Republican who actually believes in serving the public, in the tradition of political compromise, and in the nation instead of himself and has proven to be well-viewed across party lines. He was the sort of candidate who appealed to independents and even to some conservative Democrats because of his commonsense, non-reactionary approach to issues. He has, for instance, been a staunch critic of the appointment of millionaire businessman Louis DeJoy to the job of Postmaster General as part of the Trump camp’s attempt to derail mail-in voting in the 2020 General Election. 

After voting for Trump’s impeachment following the January Sixth Capitol Insurrection, Gonzalez was censured by his party for having "betrayed his constituents (and having) relied on emotions rather than the will of his constituents and any credible facts." Trump supported his own former White House aide Max Miller to run in a primary against Gonzalez in 2022, but the Ohio congressman—and much admired former college and pro football player—preempted that decision by announcing that he would not run again. Gonzalez’s unfortunate decision wasn’t based, however, on the primary challenge, but on multiple credible threats against the physical safety of both himself and his family that he has been receiving from anonymous MAGA fanatics who, Gonzalez clearly believes, will stop at nothing to impose Trump on American society, whether he wins in fair elections or not.

A month after Gonzalez announced that he wouldn’t run again, the much more high-profile Congressman Adam Kinzinger did the same, and for the same reasons. The Illinois Sixteenth District representative became the target of a deluge of death threats from MAGA activists and was subject to hostility from his GOP colleagues in Congress. But the former Iraq War Air Force combat pilot hasn’t allowed that decision—or the death threats—to sway him from his criticism of Trump as a would-be tyrant and a danger to democracy. Like Cheney, he has been active and front-and-center on the January Sixth Investigative Committee, as well as becoming a familiar face on television news shows whenever the subject of Trump’s un-democratic actions has been the subject.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger - not going quietly

One of Cheney’s veteran congressional colleagues who, like her, voted to impeach following January Sixth is Michigan Sixth District Representative Fred Upton. Faced with a Trump-backed primary challenge in the midst of constant death threats, Upton decided to end his thirty-year career in Congress and retire.

Fifty-nine-year-old New York Twenty-Fourth District Representative John Katko made a similar decision after the impeachment vote. He had served four terms in the House following a long career as an attorney.

The other four, including Cheney, who broke ranks and voted to impeach, deciding that Trump’s role in the January Sixth Insurrection was inexcusable and impossible to ignore for the sake of American democracy and constitutionality, were all primaried by the Trump camp and have since lost their seats in Congress as of next year. These include Washington State Third District Representative Jaime Lynn Herrera Beutler, Michigan Third District Representative Peter Meijer—who was only narrowly ousted by Trump-endorsed challenger John Gibbs—South Carolina Seventh District Representative Tim Rice, and, finally, Cheney herself who represented Wyoming At Large.

After a career as a State Department official and Republican presidential campaign strategist, Cheney won her congressional bid in 2016 and has been elected to three consecutive terms since. In her blood red state of Wyoming, her very conservative views and her father’s iconic Republican persona made her a veritable shoo-in for Far West voters. But her vote to impeach Trump and, worse still, her major role in the January Sixth investigation were viewed by the vast majority of far-right Wyoming voters as a betrayal of their trust in her conservatism and loyalty to “their president”.

Former VP Dick Cheney - Liz is fearless
In the lead-up to the Wyoming primary, former vice-president and conservative icon Dick Cheney filmed a TV spot in which, wearing his western Stetson, he looked directly into the camera and said, “In our nation’s two hundred-forty-six-year history, there has never been an individual who is a greater threat to our republic than Donald Trump. Liz is fearless,” he went on. “She never backs down from the fight. There is nothing more important she will ever do than lead the effort to make sure Donald Trump is never again near the Oval Office, and she will succeed.”

Despite those moving words from her veteran Republican father, Cheney’s Trump-endorsed challenger, Harriet Hageman, trounced her, walking off with sixty-six percent of the votes. Wyoming was clearly the wrong place for Cheney’s democratic fervor, patriotism and loyalty to the Constitution. Her message, though absolutely right for America, was utterly wrong for winning an election in the most MAGA state in the Union.

All of this is particularly disturbing to me because of my background as an opposition newsman during dictatorial rule in Argentina. Listening to the statements of Republicans who have decided not to run following threats to them and their families strikes home in a very real way with me. As do stories from news professionals in the US who have also enumerated the vicious threats made against them for reporting honestly about the dangers facing US democracy.

These mob tactics being employed by the MAGA crowd particularly bring to mind a time shortly after my boss and mentor, Robert Cox, walked out on a twenty-year career at the Buenos Aires paper where we worked. Until then, 1979, he had stoically borne the heavy burden of his editorial decision to oppose dictatorial tyranny, but when death threats were directed at his wife and five children, the die was cast and he decided to submit to self-exile in the United States—that was decades before the Trump regime would seek to make dictatorships popular and to express actual admiration for them.

Cox, the editor who took on tyranny 

Very soon after his departure from the paper and the country, a colleague who was marrying into one of the wealthy families most connected to the crony system supported by the dictatorship was invited to a cocktail party as her fiancé’s date. While bumping shoulders with some of the strongest supporters of the authoritarian regime, she realized the woman talking to her mother-in-law to be was the wife of the top general in charge of Intelligence and, as such, the man directly responsible for the reign of terror that the dictatorship employed to maintain its power. Drawing near, she overheard the woman say, “See how we finally ran Cox out?” and watched her mother-in-law smile with genuine glee and congratulate the other woman.

You can be sure there is some version of this going on in the Trump-usurped GOP as well, as MAGA leaders gleefully watch the remaining true Republicans in the party give up and walk out on what they see as a lost cause, or at least as an environment too toxic for them to remain in. Indeed, in her comments this past week at The Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, Cheney not only said that she would abandon her party if Trump was the candidate, but also opined that the fact that Trump could incite an insurrection and refuse to permit a peaceful transfer of power after losing an election and still have the GOP leadership’s support for the possibility of his running again in 2024 indicated “just how sick” the party is.

Cheney said she would do “whatever it takes” to try and ensure that Trump is not the GOP nominee in the next presidential election. She repeated her pledge to do “everything in her power” to stop Trump’s presidential bid when festival moderator Evan Smith asked if she herself was considering running for president in 2024.

This, to my mind, brings up an interesting point. It is clear that the nefarious influence of MAGA Republicans in the GOP has made it next to impossible to survive politically in that party for true believers in and defenders of democracy like Cheney, Kinzinger, and the other eight in the House who voted to impeach Trump, as well as for people like Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in the Senate, who are managing to hang on to their seats but amid Trump-camp primary challenges and attempts among their peers in Congress to ostracize them.

So how can these true conservatives buck the autocratic MAGA trend and return their party to the values of such icons as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush, when the MAGA bandwagon is blaring the message that “this isn’t your grandpa’s GOP” and indicating by it that not supporting the authoritarian personality cult surrounding Donald Trump is tantamount to being a traitor to the party and to the country—a message that the new MAGA-Republicanism has in common with every dictatorship that has ever existed worldwide? As I see it, the answer is, they can’t. At least not in this lifetime. The GOP has been hijacked by a neo-fascist crowd that is bent on winning by hook or by crook, that has zero interest in democracy or a two-party system, and that is touting the notion that no idea that comes from anyplace but its own hierarchy is viable or acceptable.

But there is clear evidence that the handful of true supporters of the tenets of American democracy, justice and political tradition that remain active in the party have a following. And Liz Cheney’s courage and true leadership have done much since 2020 to advance that support. I personally know Republicans who are never-Trumpers and were sorrowfully yet patriotically willing to forsake their life-long affiliations to vote against Trump, even if only for a tiny third party candidate with absolutely no chance of winning, while others held their noses and voted for the Democratic candidate simply to make sure that Trump wouldn’t occupy the White House for another four years. These are people who are now discouraged and confused since their conservative democratic ideals are served neither by the current MAGA-Republican leadership nor by the Democrats.

There is also evidence to suggest that Liz Cheney and never-Trump Republican politicians have further garnered potential support among conservative independents and even among some conservative Democrats, as well as among non-MAGA Libertarians. These are all people who are both fed up with the drama of MAGA-Republicanism, with the toxic autocratic image of Donald Trump, and with what they see as ever more liberal trends in the Democratic party.

These people are all hungry for change but see no vehicle for it, when potentially powerful leaders like Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger and Mitt Romney have been definitively sidelined in an off-the-rails GOP. And although they have been systematically whittled down to a handful by the Trump machine in Congress, the roster of valuable current, former and would-be conservative influencers who see Trump as an existential threat to democracy and, indeed, to the Republican Party as such, is actually impressively long and star-studded. You can get an idea of just how impressive from this list:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Republicans_who_opposed_the_Donald_Trump_2020_presidential_campaign

So, what’s missing here? A new vehicle. A new party. A democratic conservative party for true conservatives instead of a party dominated by MAGA autocrats and coup-mongers. Many people are afraid of any modification in America’s traditional—for all intents and purposes but not always in absolute fact—two-party system. But seeing what has happened in the past six years, I have to ask myself if, perhaps, the US two-party system hasn’t effectively run its course, coming dangerously close to a shooting war between two political organizations that are striving more for superiority over each other than for a working democracy, a constructive debate of ideas and policies, the final compromises and balance between which are actually beneficial to the citizens who vote for them.

A strong, authentic and democratic conservative party could go a long way toward bringing party politics back toward serving the people instead of continuing to be a destructively self-serving force by, for and of itself and in detriment to the nation it was meant to serve. Could a new conservative party win the 2024 election? Perhaps—Independent Bernie Sanders’ near-victory in the Democratic Primary in 2016 provides an encouraging example—but probably not. It could, however, make enormous inroads toward isolating and disempowering authoritarian influence in the American right wing. And it could hold out a promise of conservative authenticity that would only strengthen its influence in the future. If the purpose of Liz Cheney and her fellow small-d democratic Republican colleagues and constituents is really to do “everything in their power” to halt the advance of Trump and MAGA-Republicanism, a conservative third party could well head them off at the pass if Trump is a candidate in 2024. And it could continue to be a bright new democratic force to be reckoned with in the future.

The even bigger problem with cults of personality than their own undemocratic origins and selfish goals is that, like all of us, personalities die. They are not larger than life. They are mortal. And personality-isms, therefore, always devolve into some entirely other “ism” once their self-centered leaders succumb to mortality—usually something far worse, even, than their originally undemocratic selves.

The solution to Trump and MAGA’s takeover of the GOP must come from within democratic Republican ranks. A patriotically-founded conservative party could gain force on the strength of its incipient resistance to the advance of authoritarianism and on the strength of its power to split the Republican vote between true conservatives and the MAGA autocracy in the coming election cycles, thus also serving to purge and cleanse the right of its current authoritarian orientation. In short, it could properly and honorably represent genuine conservatism in the United States, while literally saving the life of American democracy.                  

Friday, September 16, 2022

GUTTING THE POST OFFICE

Okay, here's another thing Americans can "thank" the Trump regime for: Destroying the US Postal Service. It's just one more American institution that Americans can no longer trust after the Trumpster onslaught. Trump appointed  Louis DeJoy Postmaster General just a few months before the 2020 election with the obvious secret mission of torpedoing the Postal Service in an attempt to curtail mail-in voting, whether absentee or early ballots.

The idea was that Democrats were the ones most likely to utilize mail-in services, that MAGA Republicans were the type of people who would go to the polls on Election Day and physically vote for their candidate, since they entertained numerous conspiracy theories about mail-ins being altered, fraudulent, or simply thrown out, when it was to the advantage of the Democrats. In other words, in a purposely crippled post office, the votes that wouldn’t make it to their destinations on time would most likely be Democratic votes.

DeJoy immediately set to work ripping out hundreds of public mailboxes, shutting down postal branches and laying off postal workers. In a move that Trump saw as advantageous to his cause—although not advantageous enough, as it turned out, to counteract the seven million-vote margin by which he lost the 2020 election—the USPS ended up being cast into chaos by the enormous volume of extra work that the general election signified while also having to deal with branch closures and personnel layoffs and slashed financing. On top of these other handicaps, DeJoy also ordered the removal of vital mail sorting and handling equipment that might have made the job of managing the increased volume easier.

In early August of 2020, three months before the election, DeJoy described his actions as seeking to fix “a broken business model.” With that announcement came the reassignment or removal of twenty-three senior postal officials including two top executives whose job it had been to oversee day-to-day operations.

Virginia Democrat Gerald Connolly, the representative who chairs the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee, which oversees the USPS, countered DeJoy’s announcements by stating that the so-called “reorganization” spearheaded by the new Postmaster General was actually “deliberate sabotage” of the Postal Service.

As customers began to complain en masse about the sharp deterioration in postal services, DeJoy said that these perceived service failures were “unintended consequences” of his cost-cutting reforms. But it wasn’t until congressional pressure prompted the postal inspector general’s office to announce a review of DeJoy’s policy changes, and until an investigation into whether he was complying with federal ethics rules was initiated that DeJoy announced he was suspending his reforms until after the election.

Postal workers and the postal union, for their part, said in no uncertain terms that DeJoy’s measures were clearly designed to hamstring the postal service and slow delivery dramatically. And in the midst of all this, then-President Donald Trump admitted in an interview that he himself was blocking post office funding as a means of discouraging and curtailing mail-in voting.

Louis DeJoy
The IG’s probe scared DeJoy enough that he eventually reiterated that he would be halting any further cuts in postal services until after the elections. But the damage had been done by then and he made it clear he wouldn’t backtrack on any “reforms” already carried out.

In the end, what was an obvious maneuver by the Trump camp to throw the presidential election didn’t work. Trump was voted out and almost had to be dragged kicking and screaming from the White House while thousands of his supporters tried to overthrow the government and perpetuate him in power. But the horrendous damage that Louis DeJoy has done to the USPS persists—as does he in office—up to the present day. How extensive is that damage? Estimates tend to show that his moves to essentially cripple the postal system—while claiming to be making it more cost-effective—have affected about forty percent of all first class mail services, rendering them slower by a ratio of more than a hundred percent.

So why is DeJoy still heading the PO? From the time he entered office, President Biden has sought to remove him, but the decision regarding whom the Post Master General will be doesn’t lie with the president. That is the province of the USPS eleven-member board of governors. When Biden came to office, the chairman of that board was a Democrat. So one would have thought it should be a slam-dunk that DeJoy would be packing his bags. Not so. The Democrat in charge, Ron Bloom, ended up demonstrating himself to be DeJoy’s biggest ally, saying that he thought the Trump-appointee was “the proper man for the job”. This, despite the fact that DeJoy—a major GOP donor and fundraiser—famously had zero-post office experience and was the founder and CEO of New Breed Logistics, a freight hauling and logistics company that, still today, holds contracts with the USPS and that, potentially, would stand to benefit from the deterioration and privatization of mail delivery services.  

So what was it about DeJoy’s profile that persuaded Bloom that he was the man for the job, despite the president’s profound reservations? Well, the fact—as revealed in his financial disclosure documentation—that DeJoy bought about three hundred thousand dollars-worth of bonds from an asset management firm owned by Bloom might have had something to do with it. This led some Democratic senators to confirm that they would not be supporting Bloom’s re-nomination for chairman when his term was up last December, but it failed to solve Biden’s immediate goal of replacing DeJoy.

When Bloom’s term finally expired, the USPS Board of Governors immediately turned around and elected as its chairman Roman Martinez IV, a staunch Republican, who again declared that “The best team needs a leader, and I believe that Postmaster General DeJoy is that person, to carry out the restructure that is needed.”  And so it has gone, with the current White House agonizingly seeking to inch closer to removing the Trump appointee—who continues to pose a clear and present danger to the postal voting system, which once formed part of the underpinnings of an ever more inclusive democracy—but still to date unable to swing it.

I recently had a chance to discover just how disastrous USPS services have become under DeJoy. Last April, when I was planning a trip back home to the US from my home abroad in Patagonia, I asked my sister, whose address in Cleveland is my stateside residence, to send me some important documentation I would need on my arrival in Miami before I continued my journey to Ohio. A close and trusted friend of mine in Miami agreed to receive the documentation at his home.

My sister sent the package of documentation about ten days before my arrival date. Trusting in the Post Office efficacy that people of our generation had come to expect, she decided to ship it via two-day priority mail from Cleveland to Miami. I told my friend in Miami to expect the package anytime within the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours. This was in mid-April and the priority tag on the package metered in Cleveland said the estimated delivery date would be 04/21/22. I was arriving in Miami on the twenty-sixth. When the package hadn’t arrived by the twenty-third, my friend notified me. I told him not to worry, that it was sure to come while I was in transit.

But when he picked me up at Miami International on the twenty-sixth, he told me that it still hadn’t arrived. He said that he’d been so worried that he had gone to see the postmaster at his local post office. They put out a tracer and it came back saying that the package had arrived in Miami from Cleveland on the twentieth and had been “given to an agent for delivery.” So who was the agent, my friend wanted to know? The manager said we’d need to contact the central post office in Miami for that.

We did, and were told—astonishingly—that there was no way of knowing. That overnight and other priority services were no longer delivered by the post office but by private contractors. Okay, so give us the name of the contractor or agent. We were told that there was no way of knowing. The contractors were “several” and how was this manager supposed to know which one had it?

I was getting more and more incensed. This was priority mail, with a tracking number and strict delivery date. And the USPS had no idea where it was? The guy we talked to said the post office only tracked it until it reached the branch from which it would be turned over for final delivery. After that, it wasn’t their problem. But wasn’t the whole idea for it to be delivered to its final destination? Sure, but that was up to the contractor. And the USPS doesn’t bother having some way of knowing what happens to a piece of priority mail once the contractor walks off with it? The guy was like, hey, I just work here.

My sister and I made further inquiries but got no satisfactory answers. The branch post master in Cleveland from which she’d sent it told my sister that “this sort of thing happens all the time in Miami.” And an official that my friend in Miami spoke to said, not to worry, that it’d probably turn up eventually. “Sometimes these contractors will ship mail to Panama or someplace and back before they ever deliver it. We have no control over their routing schedules.”

Eventually, I had to cut my losses and take emergency measures through my bank and the three main credit unions to ensure no one could use the information in the package to take out loans, pay liabilities or make purchases in my name. I also had to get a whole new set of credit and debit cards, which meant that I had to pay cash for my hotel and all other travel services until I reached Cleveland. And after a month or so, I just tried to put the incident behind me and promised myself never to use the post office again.

Fast forward to yesterday, a full four months after my sister mailed me the “priority” package, and my friend in Miami sends me the pictures illustrating this entry. Pictures of my priority package that, finally, reached his home. In the time it took, a mail carrier could have walked from Cleveland to Miami to deliver it. And when it finally did arrive, it was with the priority mailer package that the Cleveland post office placed it in ripped open.

So I’d like to thank Donald Trump and his hatchet-man Louis DeJoy for curing Americans of yet another fantasy about the sanctity of long-held American traditions and trusted institutions. Trump and MAGA Republicans will make cynics of us all yet!


Saturday, July 30, 2022

I HAVE A CEMETERY QUESTION

 

Ivana rests "in the rough" at Donald's NJ golf property 
Question: With the burial of Donald Trump’s ex-wife at his golf property in New Jersey, has that property technically become a "cemetery"? Here's why I'm asking:

According to NJ law, "cemetery companies" are tax exempt.

Specifically, “Cemetery company” means any individual, corporation, partnership, association, or other public or private entity which owns, operates, controls, or manages land or places used or dedicated for use for burial of human remains or disposition of cremated human remains, including a crematory located on dedicated cemetery property.

Cemetery companies are prohibited from engaging in any of the following activities:

• Manufacture or sale of vaults, private mausoleums, monuments, markers, or bronze memorials

• Conduct of any funeral home or the business or profession of mortuary science

(I don’t see anything there about golfing).

Exemptions:

The Act relieves cemetery companies from the payment of:

• Real Property Taxes on lands dedicated to cemetery purposes;

• Income Taxes;

• Sales and Use Taxes; Rev. 5/17 Publication ANJ–22 About New Jersey Taxes: Cemeteries, Funerals and NJ Taxes

• Business Taxes; and 

• Inheritance Taxes. 

Cemetery property is exempt from sale for collection of judgments. Cemetery trust funds and trust income are exempt from tax and exempt from sale or seizure for collection of judgments against the cemetery company.

Data collected from the NJ State Division of Taxation.

 

Sunday, July 17, 2022

CAPITULATION

 

With what he may have thought was a harmless and indifferent gesture, US President Joe Biden this past week issued a powerful message not only to Saudi Arabia but also to human rights advocates everywhere: When it comes to the choice between defense of human rights, free speech and democracy or cheap fuel for America’s gas-guzzling SUVs, we’ll take cheap gas.

Murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi

There can be little doubt that when Biden had to confront the inevitable photo op with the ruthless Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, it was an embarrassing moment. It looked way too much like what it was—humiliation, desperation, the flailing of a drowning man. 

After all, this was the guy whom Biden had promised in fiery campaign speeches a couple of years ago that he was going to hold to account and shun as “the pariah that he is.”  But with Putin’s war in Ukraine turning the oil market head over heels, and soaring gasoline prices at home fueling nearly double-digit inflation and inversely scuttling the president’s popularity ratings on all fronts, the question Biden probably asked himself was, as the BBC’s veteran worldwide correspondent John Simpson quipped, “Who has a lot of oil? Exactly!”  

While the president would share a warm handshake with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, he made sure that it was clear that MBS only merited a quick fist-bump. One wonders if this was supposed to allay the concerns of the liberals who had voted for him or to have prompted the international community and human rights activists to say, “Ha, see there, fist-bump. I guess Biden showed him!” Because if that was supposed to be the message, it didn’t take. The word that more likely seems to have been the first to come to mind was “capitulation” rather than scorn.

The politically costly fist-bump
In the lead-up to this unfortunate meeting, Biden’s West Wing had indicated he might not meet at all with MBS and would instead only officially meet with the king. But too many foreign affairs experts made it clear that if that was the plan, he might as well stay home, because the cock who currently rules the roost in Saudi Arabia is the crown prince. The king, they pointed out, is a mere figurehead for life, with no real power to decide anything. If you want to talk to the Saudis, you can’t avoid talking to MBS, because Saudi Arabia is a one-man show.

Which is precisely the point about the murder of Saudi Washington Post columnist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi. Nothing of consequence happens in the Saudi regime without the knowledge and complicity of MBS. To believe the official story of the Saudi government that the murder was committed by rogue outliers without the crown prince’s knowledge is to believe in fairytales—especially since the grisly assassination took place within the premises of a Saudi diplomatic mission.

For anyone who might need to refresh their memory regarding this major international incident, here’s a brief summary of the facts. Jamal Khashoggi was a high-profile Saudi dissident, journalist and author, who had long campaigned against the bloody regime, not as a radical, but as a moderate who was willing to advocate gradual democratic improvement without pushing for the overthrow of the Saudi government. Prior to his work as a columnist for the Washington Post’s Middle East Eye section, Khashoggi had served briefly as the editor of Al Watan, a Saudi newspaper that he sought to mold into a platform for progressives seeking respect for human rights and a more democratic opening. He was a particularly strong advocate of equal rights for women in his country. But his trenchant opposition to the regime’s domestic policies caused him to be sacked.

No fist-bump for the Saudi king.

After the Saudi regime banned him from Twitter in 2017 for his criticism of the brutal policies supported by the king and crown prince, Khashoggi had reason to believe that his life was in danger and in September of that year, he left Saudi Arabia for self-imposed exile in the US. While in exile, besides working for the Washington Post, he also became general manager and editor-in-chief at the Al-Arab News Channel, and continued to be a powerful voice for democratic change in his native country.

He was, additionally, a staunch critic of the war on Yemen waged by Saudi Arabia with US backing, which had fostered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Of that war, he once wrote: “The longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen, the more permanent the damage will be. The people of Yemen will be busy fighting poverty, cholera and water scarcity and rebuilding their country. The crown prince must bring an end to the violence…Saudi Arabia's crown prince must restore dignity to his country by ending Yemen's cruel war.”

On October 2, 2018, the fifty-nine-year-old journalist was happily planning his upcoming marriage to then thirty-six-year-old Hatice Cengiz of Turkey. On that date, Khashoggi went to the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul to request some documentation he would need for his marriage. CCTV footage recorded him entering the embassy, but he was never recorded coming out. Later investigation revealed that the journalist had been brutally murdered inside the premises of the diplomatic mission and his body dismembered and removed to another location.

After releasing a series of thin and conflicting stories to try to cover up the heinous crime, the Saudi government eventually admitted that the murder had occurred but has maintained ever since that it was carried out without the crown prince’s involvement or knowledge. This, despite the fact that in 2017, MBS had told another Saudi journalist that Khashoggi's work was tarnishing his image, and that he would go after Khashoggi “with a bullet.”

Less than two months before his murder, Khashoggi wrote, “Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince…is signaling that any open opposition to Saudi domestic policies...is intolerable." As an example of this repressive policy, he pointed to government measures “…as egregious as the punitive arrests of reform-seeking Saudi women.” He wrote that “while MBS is right to free Saudi Arabia from ultra-conservative religious forces, he is wrong to advance a new radicalism that, while seemingly more liberal and appealing to the West, is just as intolerant of dissent.” Khashoggi went on to write: “MBS's rash actions are deepening tensions and undermining the security of the Gulf States and the region as a whole.”

Following careful investigation, the CIA has concluded that there is no doubt that Khashoggi’s assassination was on orders from MBS and that the crown prince had reached across international borders to carry it out, sending a hit squad of more than a dozen agents to murder the journalist in Turkey and make his body disappear. This is consistent with the fact that no few of the regime’s other opponents have simply disappeared without a trace.

Despite President Biden’s initial promises to hold MBS and Saudi Arabia to account for the murder and for the generally ruthless policies of the regime, and in spite of repeated calls from human rights advocates and liberal politicians for the severing of diplomatic ties with the Saudi regime, this past week’s meeting with the crown prince rendered his good intentions moot. Furthermore, that single meeting overshadowed Biden’s entire Middle East tour, eclipsing everything else, which, even without the MBS factor, didn’t go well.

To wit, besides fist-bumping his way into one of the still most burning human rights controversies of today, sparking the outrage of every human rights group at home and abroad that was looking to this administration to restore the basic decency unceremoniously trashed during the Trump presidency, he failed to get anything significant in return. There is no real evidence to suggest that Saudi Arabia has the installed capacity to significantly increase its production, or that, like the rest of the international oil cartel, it would be willing to do anything that might spark a drastic decrease in the price of oil. And the trip rendered no immediate solution to high fuel prices in the rest of the region either.

While Biden managed to give the appearance of inching bitter enemies Saudi Arabia and Israel somewhat closer together, there’s no reason to believe that MBS will risk major conservative opposition at home to appease Washington and Tel Aviv, nor is there any guarantee that the right-wing Netanyahu camp won’t return to power in Israel and undo any progress made. Furthermore, while he did his best to appear tough on Iran, he simultaneously said that his administration still believed that diplomacy was the answer and made clear his commitment to piecing the Iran nuclear accord achieved under the Obama administration back together. While that was sure to please those of us who believe that the way to deal with Iran is by bringing it back into the concert of nations, it is a policy that is unlikely to garner any support whatsoever after the mid-term elections when Democrats may very well lose their tenuous hold on Congress.

To add insult to injury, while he was touring the Middle East, Biden was once again blindsided by West Virginia senator and Democratic outlier Joe Manchin, who again threw the president’s domestic policy plans into utter chaos.

So what could the US president possibly have to gain from capitulating to MBS? The answer is “nothing,” and his advisers should have made him aware of that fact. Because by fist-bumping with a ruthless murderer, the only thing the president has earned is the contempt of the international human rights community and the further erosion of his support among liberal Democrats.