Monday, March 1, 2021

Where Should We Get Our News?

Is this important? An emphatic yes! America is so polarized that it not only has two parties but sometimes totally different views of reality. News is what informs us on the reality around us. If there are different views of reality, it follows that some sources of news conform to reality more than others. Those with critical thinking skills naturally will want to seek the path to reality wherever it may take them. But for others, reality is what they want it to be or whatever they are told it is. Unfortunately, there are some who offer "news" that takes advantage of this latter mindset. Even if what they offer might not be true, they can be very persuasive. And when others around them confirm what they receive in their alternative views to be the truth, it can and does easily replace reality until different versions of reality become entrenched. In this case, I am not referring to different versions of reality as opinion which is perfectly OK. I'm talking about those who have their own set of facts. Of course this only leads us down the rabbit hole. For us to have a functioning democracy, we have to at least agree on a common set of facts to be able to settle our differences. But there are some "news" sources who thrive on this chaos. And that presents a serious threat to our democracy.

This is hardly hyperbole. Democracies go down that slippery slope when propaganda snuffs the life out of truthful discourse. This happened in the fictional novel 1984.  But it has also happened in a number of countries around the world that we used to think of as free, but no longer. This hasn't happened to America because we still have a predominance of news sources we can rely on. But for how long?

Much of what is predominating the airwaves is opinion/entertainment that some will consume as news. AM radio is dominated by right-wing talk shows with the late Rush Limbaugh (and many imitators) being the most prominent examples. Cable news has been dominated for some time by Fox News. Their news content is in my opinion OK. For example, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier are respected journalists. Interestingly enough, the Fox News political poll is widely respected throughout the industry. But their opinion/entertainment shows, such as Hannity, Tucker Carlson Tonight, The Ingraham Angle along with Fox & Friends are OK if you are of a conservative persuasion. But a steady diet of this without at least some straight news to achieve some balance may cause you to acquire their views as your own perhaps false version of reality. That is not at all healthy. Disclosure: As a flaming liberal, I prefer the opinion programming of MSNBC. But only so much. I need to spend enough time reading online newspapers like The New York Times and my local paper to get enough straight news and then make my ultimate escape to cooking shows before depression takes over. 

So where are the best places for us to get our news? This is subjective not just only based on preferences but based on how much appetite for news each person has. 

So here is my subjective list:

Newspapers (either online or an actual newspaper) are best based on breadth and depth of the stories they cover. They suit someone with enough appetite for news along with the willingness to pay a subscription to get through the paywalls many newspapers now have. But you get what you pay for!

Cable news channels can't cover as much as a newspaper. But they are better than the sources listed below. But cable news can be subject to more bias which the viewer has to critically evaluate.

Commercial TV network news is a favored source for many people. But these are 30 minute broadcasts that are loaded with commercials and fluff pieces since they need to entertain their audiences to get those all-important ratings. It's better than nothing but a superior choice is the non-commercial PBS News Hour. No fluff and lots of depth because it's an hour long newscast with no commercials and no need to entertain for the sake of ratings.

Commercial radio news can be good if the format is long enough to include a broad enough presentation of stories. Non-commercial National Public Radio (NPR) is an excellent alternative.

Local TV news is perhaps adequate but only if supplemented by other news sources. These broadcasts are a major source of revenue for local TV stations. So it's about grabbing your attention with the emphasis on flashy stories rather than substance for again, those all-important ratings. And there is now some insidious right-wing bias creeping into local TV with Sinclair Broadcasting Group now owning 193 stations across the country. This video that went viral shows how these stations can be programmed to parrot the views of their corporate parent.

Finally there is news from social media which is becoming more popular but it is in my opinion the worst of the lot. I would argue that social media news is not really news at all. Let me explain.

News as we all know, is a gathering of new information from the world around us. Since there are almost infinite reports of what's going on in the world, we need an editor with adequate journalistic standards to select what is most relevant with the stories normally presented in descending order of importance. Some may have more bias or skills but each presents a single broadcast to all of its consumers. But with social media news, each member of the audience picks the news stories they want. And because social media is about getting as many clicks on stories as possible to generate advertising revenue, the stories are offered based on what was read before. So someone who likes say, liberal stories will be offered lots more liberal stories. It's the same for conservatives, conspiracy theorists and others. So instead of news, it becomes an echo chamber that reinforces what is already believed - otherwise known as confirmation bias. For a fascinating look at this phenomenon in more detail, the reader is invited to check out The Social Dilemma now available on Netflix. What makes this so dangerous is that the information presented can be based on reality or something that was made up. This is perhaps the best explanation on why so many Americans have political beliefs that are not based on fact. 

Pew Research Center is a respected non-partisan polling organization offering this interesting article Americans Who Mainly Get Their News on Social Media Are Less Engaged, Less Knowledgeable. Here are a couple of charts from the article.

There are a huge number of lies being propagated by social media including the incredible conspirator theories of QAnon which was preceded by the ludicrous Pizzagate where it was spread that members of the Democratic Party were behind a pedophilia ring at a Washington D.C. pizza shop. It's hard to believe anybody took this seriously but a man showed up firing his AR-15 rifle to as he said "self-investigate" the theory.

But the most serious lie to threaten our democracy was Donald Trump's claim that he won the 2020 presidential election instead of now President Biden because of what Trump called massive voter fraud. Polls still show that a majority of Republicans still believe that Trump is the legitimate president and not Biden. This can create some serious destabilization in a democratically elected government. 

Trump's claims of voter fraud can be dismissed by simple logic.

Let's start with a basic fact we all can agree with. The larger something is, the more difficult it is to hide. Allow me an extreme example to illustrate this.

I am asserting that there is an elephant in the room with me. We can determine the truth of this conclusively. If you see the elephant, the statement is true. If you can't, the statement is false. You can't say that it's there but it's hiding behind the couch or TV. On the other hand, if I claim there's a mouse in the room and you don't see it, it's always possible that it could be hiding somewhere.

Now, back to Trump. He is claiming fraud on levels never seen before. There is fraud in many of the states that Biden won (but none in the states that Trump won, of course).  More significantly, he's not just saying that he won but that he won in a landslide. In addition, none of his some 60 protests in court has yielded any evidence of fraud. And on top of that, his own sycophant Attorney General Barr announced that there was no widespread fraud to make any difference in the results of the election.

Trump's claim of election fraud is the same as the elephant in the room I was claiming. How can something so massive that allegedly involved so many people stay hidden all this time?  It can't because it doesn't exist.

This is another example of what is called a conspiracy theory. Instead of a plain explanation of something that happened, there are dark, mysterious actors behind the scene manipulating everything out of our sight. There are an almost unlimited number of these conspiracy theories. 9/11 was an inside job. The murders of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook were all staged. Etc. It's all garbage but there are enough people mostly from social media brainwashing who believe some of this stuff.

How is a Big Lie like this perpetuated? Trump's non-stop Twitter feed was a good start. When others online join in, more material supporting this is circulated on social media to those who rely on it for news. This is something beyond plain delusion. When enough people believe this through constant feedback through sources like Facebook, they get fired up to the point of being militant and perhaps advocating violence.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.  - Voltaire

There have been countless examples of this happening throughout history. But it will suffice to say that the most recent tragic example is the rioting invasion of the US Capitol on January 6.

Social media, most prominently Facebook and Twitter have been under fire from both sides of the political spectrum for some of the outlandish departures from truth that have spread everywhere. How do they get away with it?

Conventional media is required to adhere to some basic journalistic standards. For example, if they distribute something that is libelous, the target of that libel can sue the media outlet. Dominion and Smartmatic are suing Fox and others for false claims of tampering in the 2020 election. But social media gets an exemption from this due to the controversial Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act.

The regulation states, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." 

What that means in practice is that internet companies — everything from social media platforms to online retailers to news sites — are generally not liable if a user posts something illegal. Backers of Section 230 credit in part for the success of companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which depend on vast amounts of user-generated content.

There is a good practical reason for this. Social media providers can have millions of posts that they help to forward. If they were responsible for policing all of this, there might not be any of these companies in existence because of the potential legal exposure. But some of what has been spread over social media is beyond the pale. Facebook is now doing more aggressive screening of posts. Twitter has banned Donald Trump for using his tweets to instigate violence. It should be pointed out that the First Amendment only protects from government censorship. Private platforms can boot anybody off as they see fit. Many feel that these social media outlets need to do more to protect against abuses. But how much they can and should do is both very controversial, not to mention very complicated.

So what can I recommend to the reader to find a suitable news source? First and foremost, don't rely on social media for your news, especially if it's your only source of news. Secondly, try to determine what kind of bias your chosen sources have. Here is a handy chart provided by on the major media players.

In addition, AllSides offers this site which evaluates over 800 media sources. Closer to the center is more desirable to get news with the least amount of bias. Those further away from the center may have an agenda to persuade you to a certain view so one has to be careful here.

But more important than the source you choose whether it is left or right, it is necessary to apply critical thinking to what you see or hear. Do they provide evidence to back up what they are saying? Maybe it's necessary to cross-check with other sources to determine the truth. Indeed, critical thinking is vital to keep us from being sucked into the land of make believe!

Thursday, November 19, 2020

American Democracy Dodges a Bullet by not Reelecting Trump

I was hoping to write this 4 years ago. Wanted to say what a relief it was that America had dodged a bullet by not electing Donald Trump as president after all of his disgusting behavior during the 2016 campaign. But it didn't turn out that way.

Like many Americans, I was in shock and in grief. I wondered what terrible things would happen to America with him in charge. But we had to accept reality. I tried to console myself with the belief that all of the outrageous behavior was just shtick and once the immense responsibility of being the leader of the free world was placed on his shoulders, he would start to take the job seriously and begin to govern like any normal president. But that didn't happen either.

As I expressed in my previous posting, Trump was not really interested in becoming the president when he ran. Instead he was using the campaign as a way to promote his brands. And indeed, according to a number of observers, he did not expect to win the election. But that did happen.

Normally, one runs for public office with the intent of serving your fellow citizens. But being such a narcissist, Trump was only interested in how holding office could financially benefit him and his family. He certainly didn't work hard at his job. He poked fun at President Obama for what he believed was the excessive amount of golf he played while in office. He said that he would be so busy with his new job that he wouldn't have time to play golf. But that again, didn't happen either. His time was occupied by prodigious amounts of golf, along with TV watching, rallies in front of his adoring fans - and all of those tweets.

Incumbent presidents don't lose very often. They have built in advantages of their incumbency including non-stop exposure of everything they utter or in this case everything he tweets. After all, the media reasons that if it comes from the president, it's news. Speaking of media, it doesn't hurt to have such a widely followed outlet like Fox News to dependably offer its reliably supporting views. Indeed it has been speculated that if Richard Nixon had Fox News back then, he might well have survived the rest of his term instead of having to resign.

Indeed, just doing even a mediocre job probably would have been good enough to ensure reelection. With the economy and the stock market (not necessarily the same thing) doing well, Trump believed this would be his ticket to reelection. But that didn't happen. The pandemic turned our world (and his) upside down. After getting intelligence in January about a possible pandemic coming to our shores, he downplayed it for 2 months until March before finally sounding a public alarm over it. He tried to say that he didn't know how serious it was at the time. But his interview with Bob Woodward on tape verified in no uncertain terms that he was well aware of how deadly this virus was. His feeble excuse was that he purposely downplayed the threat because he didn't want us to panic over it. But that did happen.

It could be said that the pandemic robbed Trump of the opportunity to win reelection. But the other way of looking at it was that the pandemic was an opportunity to show what he could do to save us from much of the suffering and death. If he indeed had made a good faith effort to fight the pandemic and kept its worst effects from harming us, a grateful nation would have surely rewarded him with a second term. But that didn't happen. 

Trump's opponent in this year's election, Joe Biden correctly surmised that Trump's mishandling of the coronavirus would be the number one deal breaker that would sway voters his way. So he relentlessly kept the conversation on the coronavirus and the over 200,000 resulting American deaths. Keeping Trump on defense turned out to be perhaps his most effective strategy that led to his victory.

For those like me (among many) who had a strong dislike of Trump, there was a hope of repudiation, a crushing victory that would embarrass Trump and his Republican enablers. It looked like a record voter turnout was in the works. And the conventional wisdom is that large turnouts benefit Democrats. But indeed, many of Trump's supporters also turned out. While Biden's supporters can brag that with over 79 million votes, he got more votes than any presidential candidate in American history, Trump got over 73 million votes (more than in 2016) to claim the second highest number of votes in American history. (vote totals from Wikipedia)

Democratic partisans like me believed flipping the Senate to Democratic control was just as important as winning the presidency. And the polls said that this was likely. But the pollsters had an embarrassing night. Biden did win Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania as predicted but the polls had Biden as a prohibitive favorite in Wisconsin and Michigan which turned out to be nail biters. Instead of grabbing at least 4 Republican Senate seats as expected, the Democrats could only win 2. But because the 2 Senate seats up for grabs in Georgia weren't captured with a majority vote, Georgia's election laws mandated that these will be contested as runoff elections on January 5, each race with the top two finishers. Democrats will have to win both races to capture control of the Senate while Republicans only need 1 in a traditionally Republican state (Biden's slim victory in Georgia notwithstanding). At least it's one more bite of the apple which is better than no chance at all.

For the party losing the presidency, the story will be that Republicans need to control at least the Senate to keep all of those crazies on the left from taking over and our country going to hell. But the first 2 years of the Trump Administration enjoyed control of both the Senate and the House. If people elected Joe Biden based on what he promised, it would be nice if he had a similar advantage that Trump had in his first two years. But this will be decided by the voters of Georgia.

If as expected, Republicans maintain control of the Senate, Biden's prospects of a productive presidency will be under the control of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Even if some moderate Republicans can be persuaded to support some of Biden's measures, McConnell has absolute control over what goes to the floor for a vote. At its worst, Biden can have not only his legislation blocked but also his judges and even cabinet picks!

McConnell was famous for his vow to make Barack Obama a one term president by blocking as much as he could. Obama did win a second term but McConnell successfully blocked his Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland. The only reason for hope is that Biden and McConnell are longtime friends from Biden's Senate days. Maybe Biden can reason with him. But so far, it's not off to a good start with McConnell still denying Biden's victory to please Trump.

But there are a lot of good things that Biden can accomplish in spite of McConnell.  Many of Trump's reversals of Obama policies were done by executive order instead of legislation. The downside to this is that Biden can reverse all of those in short order. Replacing Trump cronies with competent people would be a major step in the right direction. Getting rid of Attorney General Barr along with seeing Jared and Ivanka go (among many others) will bring a smile to my face. And when it comes to foreign policy, the President has a much freer hand. What will Putin along with all of those other dictators do without a buddy in the White House?

It wasn't surprising that Trump didn't concede the presidency to Biden. Before the election, Trump said there were only 2 possibilities for the election - either he wins or the election was stolen. And back in 2016 when it appeared that Hillary Clinton was going to win, Trump was making similar noises about not accepting the result - unless he won, of course.

Normally, the losing candidate not conceding isn't too big of a deal. Concession or not, Biden will occupy the White House on January 20. And after noon that day, Trump becomes a trespasser which means that in the unlikely event he insists on staying, the Secret Service now working for Joe Biden will escort him off the premises.

But these are far from normal times. With the pandemic now spreading widely and new vaccines coming over the horizon, Biden's team needs to get involved in how Trump's team is managing the pandemic, even in their limited amount. More important, the logistics of distributing the vaccine will be enormous. Although the preliminary distribution of the vaccine will likely occur in the last month of the Trump Administration, the overwhelming number of vaccines will be distributed by the incoming Biden Administration. As Biden said in recent remarks, if he can't hit the ground running after taking over, there may well be a significant delay in many getting the vaccine which means "more people may die".

Hopefully, this delay won't last too much longer. It appears that more and more of the Republican enablers surrounding Trump are starting to acknowledge the reality of the Biden victory. Now Trump is starting to acknowledge reality now saying in effect that "He won because of a rigged election". The various states will be certifying their results later this month with the Electoral College making things official next month. When this happens, the argument that there is some way to overturn the state results becomes little more than fantasy - even for most of Trump's enablers. But the unfortunate result is that there will be a significant number of Trump's followers who will continue to believe that Biden is not the legitimate president. I'm sure there are some hard core Trump supporters who still believe that Obama wasn't a legitimate president because of their belief that he wasn't born in America.

Perhaps the best indication of Trump coming around to reality are reports that he has privately talked about running again in 2024. There are also reports of his interest in starting another right-wing network perhaps to compete with Fox News who has been a loyal supporter of his through the years. But as we all know, loyalty with Trump only goes one way.

The smart money says that Trump will be spending a lot of time and money trying to stay out of prison once he becomes a private citizen no longer enjoying immunity from prosecution.

One of the more significant potential legal threats Trump could face is from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who opened an investigation more than a year ago into Trump’s personal and business finances.

The case started over payments to women who had alleged affairs with Trump, that he later denied through a White House spokesperson.

New York Attorney General Letitia James separately announced in August that she was investigating whether Trump and the Trump Organization improperly manipulated the value of certain assets to secure loans and obtain tax benefits to which they otherwise would not have been entitled.

Two things are worth noting here. First, Trump's former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen testified about these alleged crimes to Congress before Cohen himself had to serve prison time for his role in these offenses. He may well be used as a witness for the prosecution. Second, although it may be politically unpalatable for the federal government to prosecute Trump, these charges originate from the state of New York and are not subject to any federal pardons that Trump may have in mind. 

So while America did not dodge the bullet of Trump's election back in 2016, it dodged a more destructive bullet in not reelecting Trump in 2020. Over the last 4 years, Trump has gained tremendous control of the government starting with making Attorney General Barr his personal attorney to his wholesale replacing of government positions often with incompetents whose only qualifications were loyalty to Trump. All of this with the blessing of mostly all Republicans in Congress meant that our democracy continuing under Trump's iron grip of control was starting to become unrecognizable. Democracy has slipped away from other countries around the world. Hopefully, we will never take our democracy for granted ever again!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Did Donald Trump Really Want to Be President?

At first blush, this seems to be an inane question. After all, the guy ran for president. But when you see the large number of longshot candidates who run for president (about 2 dozen for the Democratic nomination), it's hard to believe that most of these people had any realistic hope of winning.

So why do they run? Sometimes it's a vanity campaign run by a billionaire who thinks he can buy his way into an election. Sometimes it's a promotion of their own brand to sell products or perhaps do a book tour. Some use the campaign as a dry run for a future election when they are older and more seasoned. And then there is that opportunity to pad their resumes. Somebody who can be introduced as a 'Former Presidential Candidate' will command a lot more respect in addition to higher speaking fees if that person is not presently in office.

So why did Donald Trump run? If Trump is known for anything, it is the relentless promotion of the Trump brand to make as much money as possible. He had talked many times about running for president, but it seemed like little more than attracting attention to himself.

Then there was the White House Correspondents' Dinner of 2011. President Obama was one of the speakers and Donald Trump was one of the guests in the audience. There was certainly friction between the two since Trump made his transition from reality TV star to political figure by circulating his 'birther' conspiracy theories, claiming among other things that Obama was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii which as the narrative goes would make him an illegitimate president.

But at this dinner, President Obama along with MC Seth Meyers got to take aim at Trump. And did they let him have it as preserved in this video! It should be pointed out that making fun of people is what these dinners are all about. Almost always, the target of the humor is laughing just as hard as anyone else.

But not Trump. All through the routine, there were face shots of Trump looking really pissed. When you consider that he is such a vain man so totally lacking in humor, it's not hard to conclude he was not enjoying the moment (although he claimed later that he did). If one could read Trump's mind at the time, maybe he was thinking of revenge. "OK you son of a bitch. If I ever become the president I'll blow up everything you accomplish during your term!"

While the thought is speculation, Trump throughout his term has had an obsession with burying Obama's legacy as president whether it came to the environment, or immigration, or more that anything else, the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare. To show this extreme level of obsession, while countless millions have lost their jobs along with their health insurance during this pandemic, Trump is still pursuing a case pending before the Supreme Court to invalidate Obamacare destroying it once and for all. Even other Republicans who are in favor of getting rid of Obamacare think the timing of this is political suicide since Joe Biden will undoubtedly use this issue to hammer Trump throughout the campaign.

So Trump did finally decide to run for president. But nobody took him seriously especially after all of the inflammatory remarks about Mexican rapists and the like that would normally put most campaigns out of commission. But something unexpected happened. The more crazy stuff he said during the campaign, the more he attracted an adoring crowd to attend his rallies. It was these rallies that more than anything else spurred him on towards the presidency.

Nobody expected Trump to win. Indeed it had been asserted that he didn't even have a victory speech ready. Many feel that he was satisfied that he could promote his brand and maybe even establish another conservative cable outlet once the election was over. But on election night, he pulled what some had called an inside straight - winning Florida by about 1%, and then proceeding to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by a total of 70,000 votes. Whether he wanted it or was ready for it, Donald Trump was now the President Elect!

So the reader may ask why this question of whether Trump wanted to be president is relevant. If it is true that Trump didn't really want to be president, a belief that I share, it would explain a lot of his behavior over these last 4 years. Instead of embracing a job where he could serve America and make life better for its people, he treated the job with indifference - as just something that interfered with what seemed to be the most important things in his life which is playing golf and making money through his businesses and properties.

Soon after being elected, he went back to doing his rallies. In a way this could be constructive if he agreed to meet with voters who didn't vote for him in a show of unity. But the sites were carefully chosen in areas that already solidly supported him. It was all about trying to satisfy his never ending craving for adulation from his supporters. Meanwhile, the job of assembling a new team and inheriting guidance from the outgoing Obama administration went largely neglected.

Trump is certainly not known for his work ethic. Workday schedules that were leaked to the media show about 60% of his day devoted to 'Executive Time' which is said to include a lot of his mornings watching TV. He has been notorious for paying little attention to the Presidential Daily Brief otherwise known as the PDB. This was a summary of the most vital issues that should have demanded the president's attention. It first informed him of what could be a looming pandemic emanating from China. He treated this news as just a possible nuisance that might affect the booming economy and stock market that he planned to use as his ticket to reelection. So he denied its importance for at least two months until the pandemic attained a choke hold on America. To this day, he has never assumed a national role of leadership on limiting the number of people affected or even developing adequate testing. This was all delegated to the individual states. 

In addition, he ignored intelligence briefings that Putin and Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. Later, he ignored (and is still ignoring) a PDB on his Russian friend Putin paying bounties to the Taliban to kill US troops.

Eventually, the stock market along with the economy tanked when affected areas of the country first had to be shut down. Incredibly, there was the cynical observation (apparently true) that since New York and New Jersey voted against him and were not his people, he cared even less about it all.

But then his campaign advisers told Trump that with the economy in the sorry state it was in, his reelection chances would be shot. So in an act of self-preservation (the only ones he knows apparently), it was a dramatic reversal of course in opening the economy up as quickly as possible in the hope of reviving it in time for the November elections.

Most of us knew then and still know now that getting control of the pandemic OR opening the economy as quickly as possible was a false choice. Without getting control of the pandemic, there was no way to permanently sustain the economy. The result today was predictable in that we have the worst of both worlds - an economy that is in free fall along with a pandemic which is still out of control in much of the country. At this posting, America has suffered through over 150,000 deaths with no end in sight.

So to get the economy opened as fast as he could, Trump and his supporters engaged in a campaign of denial. We would all gather together for Easter church services, he predicted. Then his chief lackey, VP Mike Pence promised that the pandemic would be behind us by Memorial Day. Then his son-in-law Jared Kushner, perhaps the most astounding combination of incompetence and nepotism, expressed hopes that the US would be "really rocking again" by July.

Of course, none of this happened. But it hasn't stopped Trump from his latest misguided attempt to quickly reopen the economy - one that will again surely fail. To enable Mom and Dad to go back to work and rescue his economy, Trump wants all schools to fully reopen. After all, it's just children who he says are immune to the virus. But he conveniently doesn't mention the adult teachers and administrators who must share the same spaces with the schoolchildren. 

This leads us to the final question here. If Trump didn't really want the job of being the president, why is he running for reelection? That's an easy one. There are a number of indictments he could be facing that he has been protected from as a sitting president. Most notably, New York prosecutor Cyrus Vance will finally be able to obtain Trump's long-hidden tax returns which will most likely yield a sizable amount for a Grand Jury to chew on.

The polls are unequivocal. Here is one example. Trump will most likely lose in November and take a number of Republican Senators up for reelection with him. As much as he wants to deny reality, surely he must realize this. As we get closer to November, Trump will get more desperate. There was the forceable removal of peaceful protesters outside the White House to get a photo-op holding a Bible in front of a church. And there was the unwanted dispatching of uniformed troops to Portland and perhaps other cities to stir up trouble and provide video for his campaign ads.

He has long railed against voting by mail knowing that this will increase voter turnout and further doom his reelection chances. If the pandemic comes back in another wave this November, voting by mail may be the only safe choice for many. Because he says the Postal Service along with election officials won't be able to handle the extra load, he actually made the unprecedented suggestion that the election might need to be delayed. This was universally renounced even by his most partisan Republican supporters. But instead of providing help to the Postal Service, there is a fear that the appointing of a major Trump donor as Postmaster General may be a way to sabotage the Postal Service's ability to properly function. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies!  

But no matter - the 20th Amendment requires the president to leave the White House by January 20 if he loses the election - whether he wants to or not! While we may worry about what shenanigans he will try between now and the election, more worrisome is what he might do if he loses the election and becomes a lame duck between then and January when he is no longer accountable to the voters. We were worried about a more totalitarian Donald Trump if he was to win a second term. A vindictive Trump after losing may be scarier yet!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

They All Have Blood on Their Hands

As I post this, America is about to endure one of the worst months in its history as we approach the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. According to those within the President's circle along with other epidemiologists, we may suffer as many as 100,000 or more deaths in the next month or so.

While we ponder this grim prediction, it's only natural to wonder if at least some of this loss of life was avoidable. Of course, the President didn't cause the coronavirus, but he did spend a couple of months downplaying and denying it before suddenly pivoting to calling it a pandemic.

This roughly two month delay before acknowledging the pandemic is clearly shown in this video, Trump's Coronavirus Calendar.

The Boston Globe recently wrote this scathing editorial on the President's performance thus far, A president unfit for a pandemic which I urge the reader to look through. But for now, these excerpts:
Timing is everything in pandemic response: It can make the difference between a contained local outbreak that endures a few weeks and an uncontrollable contagion that afflicts millions. The Trump administration has made critical errors over the past two months, choosing early on to develop its own diagnostic test, which failed, instead of adopting the World Health Organization’s test — a move that kneecapped the US coronavirus response and, by most public health experts’ estimation, will cost thousands if not hundreds of thousands of American lives. Rather than making the expected federal effort to mobilize rapidly to distribute needed gowns, masks, and ventilators to ill-equipped hospitals and to the doctors and nurses around the country who are left unprotected treating a burgeoning number of patients, the administration has instead been caught outbidding individual states...trying to purchase medical supplies. 
The months the administration wasted with prevarication about the threat and its subsequent missteps will amount to exponentially more COVID-19 cases than were necessary. In other words, the president has blood on his hands.
But other than this two month delay, we need to dig further.

To hearken back to Nixon and the Watergate years, there was the question: What did the president know? And when did he know it? When the "smoking gun" tape emerged, Nixon was busted and soon had to resign.

More recently, there was Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US, an intelligence briefing delivered to President George W. Bush 36 days before the September 11 attacks. So Bush did know about the threat ahead of time? Could he have stopped the attacks if he had pursued this further? This is unknowable. After all, there wasn't a time or place given for the threatened attacks. What's important is that he didn't even try. Ironically, in a 2016 presidential debate, candidate Donald Trump attacked Jeb Bush blaming his brother George W. Bush for 9/11 saying "George Bush had the chance [to prevent 9/11] and he didn't listen to the advice of his C.I.A."

U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen, according to U.S. officials familiar with spy agency reporting. 
Taken together, the reports and warnings painted an early picture of a virus that showed the characteristics of a globe-encircling pandemic that could require governments to take swift actions to contain it. But despite that constant flow of reporting, Trump continued publicly and privately to play down the threat the virus posed to Americans.

So Trump knew about the impending coronavirus pandemic from intelligence briefings going back to January. To put a bow on this, we return to the Trump's Coronavirus Calendar shown above and refer to his remarks on March 17. Trump didn't want us to believe that he was clueless about the impending pandemic, so he included this remark: "This is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic. All you had to do is look at other countries."

Blood on his hands? I know how I feel but I will leave it to the reader to decide if this is hyperbole.

But there are a host of other suspects that appear to also have blood on their hands.

Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler

Facing particularly stark questions Friday morning are two GOP senators, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia. New disclosures show both of them dumped between hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars worth of stock early in the coronavirus outbreak.

They did so even as they were offering public assurances about the government’s ability to deal with the situation — and even as one of them, Burr, was offering some much more dire comments privately. Burr, as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also reportedly received daily briefings about the threat.

They could have been heroes and sounded the alarm. Instead, they cashed in.

Alarm, Denial, Blame: The Pro-Trump Media’s Coronavirus Distortion
Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh et al. Did Trump's deceptions feed off of right-wing media or was it the other way around? Both is a safe guess But hey, this is America and they are protected by the First Amendment. But free speech is not absolute. There is the oft used example that you can't yell fire in a crowded theater. Your free speech should not be able to inflict direct harm of others. But they enabled Trump in his denial of the dangers of the impending pandemic which has and will most certainly result in many avoidable deaths. Furthermore, there is the endless skepticism about the virtues of the social distancing (even today) that even Trump's personnel are pleading for to keep the fatalities to a minimum. Instead they are more in favor of keeping businesses open. I think it would be safe to say that a great majority of those Americans who don't favor the social distancing orders follow Rush Limbaugh and/or Fox News. But having said all of this, I do not favor that they be censored. But they do deserve wide condemnation for their actions. Which leads us to...
All of the Republican governors who have been holdouts in calling for shelter in place orders. Florida Governor DeSantis is a notable offender holding out for a long time in a populous state with a large elderly population. When he finally gave in and announced state shelter in place orders, he inexplicably granted an exemption for church goers to assemble. I guess it's part of Republican ideology not to interfere in people's lives. But the longer they take to issue shelter in place orders, the more likely needless deaths will occur. It's easy to feel bulletproof if you live in rural America where cows outnumber people. But the virus has been reported in every state. If their luck runs out, these areas which often have many uninsured and few hospitals or doctors for that matter may be hit especially hard.
In his own category for what might be called batshit crazy with blood on his hands is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who has called the virus a “little flu,” is the sole major world leader continuing to question the merits of lockdown measures to fight the pandemic. Trumpian behavior on steroids if you ask me.

So finally, the question some may ask is why are we dealing with what happened in the past when we have this huge challenge in front of us with none other than Trump to lead us through it? A fair question. 

When we are hopefully past this and into the election season, there will be time to discuss where we are and how we got there. But with the passage of time, memories can fade and a flurry of revisionist history will try to make everything that happened seem to be OK. But it wasn't. And we can't forget that. I will conclude with the closing line of the Boston Globe editorial.
...come November, there must be a reckoning for the lives lost, and for the vast, avoidable suffering about to ensue under the president’s watch.

Post Script 

Dear Readers,

At about the time I completed this blog posting, this blockbuster investigative article was published by the Washington Post.
Like a few other articles now coming out, journalists are trying to determine what happened during those 70 days between when the coronavirus was first discovered in China and the beginning of when Trump decided to take up the fight against the pandemic in earnest.
For those who want to have a deeper understanding of those first two months after the virus was first spotted in China, please take the time to read this article. But it is a lengthy read so as a service to the reader, I will offer this simplified synopsis.  

There are several threads to this story. One was that China was not cooperative with sharing information on the viral outbreak, including the refusal to share viral samples that would enable researchers to try and develop drugs to attack the virus. Secondly, it was a fatal mistake to exclusively rely on the CDC to be responsible for producing all of the mass testing that would be required if the pandemic arrived here.. It was a job that they were not really designed to do and they ultimately failed which lost us a lot of time.
But the main thread was about a good guy who tried to help unlike the list of bad guys in the blog posting above. HHS Secretary Alex Azar saw very quickly the virus outbreak in China could pose a catastrophic threat to America  So he did everything he could to meet this threat head on. Spoiler alert: He failed. It wasn’t for lack of effort. There’s only so much that a Cabinet level official can do on his own, especially, when massive amounts of money are needed. But worst of all, he had a frustrating time getting his boss to pay attention to him when he was trying to sound the alarm. The article describes a President who was more preoccupied with impeachment, campaign rallies and golf.
Eventually, things got bad enough so Trump could not ignore the situation anymore. But then Azar received the final insult.

...Azar, who once ran the response, has since been sidelined, with his agency disempowered in decision-making and his performance pilloried by a range of White House officials, including [Jared] Kushner.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Can We Talk About Bernie and Joe?

During the weekend of the South Carolina primary, the landscape of the Democratic race for the party's nomination took a transformational turn. Although Joe Biden after embarrassing performances in Iowa and New Hampshire did win South Carolina to keep him in the race, Bernie Sanders was still favored to win the nomination at that time.

In addition to Sanders having a sizable polling lead in California with its rich delegate haul on Super Tuesday only three days after South Carolina, Biden's campaign was just about broke and therefore had no presence in any of the Super Tuesday states. Biden neither campaigned there nor had any significant number of ads on the air. Along with the other moderates he had to compete against in Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, there was also Mike Bloomberg who belatedly entered the race when it looked like Biden's hopes were slipping away.

The Democratic establishment did not want to see their nomination go to Sanders who is not even a member of the Democratic Party. So they did an intervention. Magically, the day before Super Tuesday, both Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the race to endorse Biden. The path had been cleared of moderates except for Mike Bloomberg who understandably stayed in the race to see what the results of his hundreds of millions worth of ads would achieve. In addition, Sanders' progressive competitor, Elizabeth Warren stayed in the race so he did not receive the same benefit of the thinning out of his competition.

Biden, spurred on by his victory in South Carolina and the dropping out of most of his moderate competitors caught fire and won 8 state primary races. Sanders did win California but Biden most unexpectedly emerged with a lead in delegates and that all important momentum. Bloomberg and then Warren dropped out after Super Tuesday setting up a one on one battle between Sanders and Biden for the nomination.

So let's talk about Bernie.

Bernie is a candidate who is addressing the grievances of those who think that the top economic 1% along with corporations, the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, etc. are screwing us. He is calling for a revolution to enable the common voter to regain control of government instead of those other guys. Biden by comparison, just wants to return to the days before Trump came along.

Although, I am a progressive who admires Sanders, there are two long term strategic decisions that he got very wrong if he was ever to have ambitions for the presidency.

One, he should have joined the Democratic Party long ago. Although he prides himself as having that Independent label, his ideology has always fit within the Democratic Party albeit in its very liberal wing. He truly passes the duck test in that he figuratively looks, swims, and quacks like a Democrat. Why not just call himself a Democrat and be done with it?

Although the Democratic Party allowed him to compete for their nomination, a great number of party regulars do not accept him as one of their own. If it's a choice between established party regulars supporting Sanders or one of their own, Sanders is going to lose every time! This has proven to be a sizable impediment to his chances of gaining the Democratic Party nomination in both 2016 and this year, 2020.

Second, he needed to lose the 'democratic socialist' label long ago. As I argued in a previous posting, Invasion of the Socialists!, Sanders is NOT a socialist but is instead, an FDR Democrat or alternatively, a social democrat who admires the extensive safety net programs of Scandinavia and other European countries. If you listen to his standard stump speech, he is clearly channeling FDR and not advocating for government takeover of all private industry - with the exception of Medicare for All which would replace private health insurance with public insurance. But all of the Democratic candidates were in favor of greatly expanding Medicare in one form or another.

Every time somebody calls Sanders a socialist, I try to correct that person to say he is NOT a socialist but a social democrat. "But that's what he calls himself!" is the reply. How do you argue with that? Not only do the Republicans shove the pejorative socialist label down his throat, but also many of his Democratic opponents. Interestingly, I don't recall Elizabeth Warren who had similar progressive policies being constantly labeled a socialist.

Speaking of Elizabeth Warren, how did she go from being the leading candidate to going down in flames? I think she made a fatal mistake in trying to give a detailed answer to how Medicare for All would be paid for. The professor in her thought that coming out with detailed estimates would satisfy her critics. But then her figures were criticized. Interestingly, nobody else was really pressed to come out with figures. The correct response to those who argued that Medicare for All was not affordable would have been to point out that Canada along with every other industrialized country can afford universal health coverage for its people. If they can all afford it, certainly America with all of its wealth also can. Case closed!

In addition, every female candidate has to deal with sexism on some level. It is most notable that many male personality characteristics exhibited by females in a presidential race would be frowned upon. For example, even those who love Bernie will acknowledge that he has a gruff and grumpy demeanor about him. But ask yourself, how far would a gruff and grumpy female get in a political campaign? 

However, there is a more prosaic argument that with Bernie and Elizabeth occupying the same progressive lane, one of them had to lose. As a progressive, I backed Bernie in 2016 when he was 74 but was hoping he would bow out to Elizabeth in 2020 at age 70 instead of running again at age 78. But that didn't happen. When both of these good friends were doing well early on, there was the nagging question of how they would eventually settle the score between them. It can be argued that Bernie won because he kept a lot of his supporters from the 2016 election.

When it comes to Joe, it's first and foremost about electability.

This was put forth most bluntly by Joe's wife, Jill Biden.
So yes, you know, your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, healthcare than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election, and maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, 'Okay, I personally like so and so better,' but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump," Biden said.
Indeed, there are many voters who have said they would favor someone most likely to beat Trump over someone who best aligns with their views. But the message is in my view, weak. It says in effect, don't vote for whom you like best but who you think most others will vote for!

As for electability, yes Biden had a strong performance in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday. But do we now get amnesia over his weak performances in the previous weeks? Alexandra Petri has this humorous take in her Washington Post op-ed I just remembered Joe Biden is fine.
This is a little awkward, but better late than never! I suddenly remembered that Joe Biden is a dynamite candidate, something I had forgotten over the past few months of watching Joe Biden campaign. Joe Biden is the best hope of the party and its logical standard-bearer! I am embarrassed that I forgot this for so long. I am here with Joe Biden now!
A much more serious treatment is Michelle Cottle's New York Times op-ed The Resurrection of Joe Biden.
No matter how super Mr. Biden’s Super Tuesday, it did not magically erase all the factors that kept his campaign becalmed for so long. Joe is still Joe, with all his charms and foibles. And even as his team prepares for external threats, they also recognize that a key part of their job going forward is to protect the candidate from himself.
But most cringeworthy is this video showing a comparison of Biden back in 2012 on top of his game taking it to Paul Ryan in their VP debate and his more recent stumbling and bumbling on the campaign trail. Calling it cognitive decline may be going a bit too far. But he will definitely have to raise his game to keep from falling behind again!

At the time of this posting, Biden has a number of things going for him. He is ahead in delegates and as mentioned before, has that all important momentum. His poll numbers in Florida with one of the larger delegate counts ahead in the race show him with a massive lead there. He is undeniably the favorite to win the nomination at this time.

But Bernie is above all, a fighter! With the two men going at it one on one, it's going to get rough. And there is nowhere to hide, especially on the debate stage where more at length responses will be required instead of the quick timed responses because of what was a crowded stage. To take the fight analogy further, Joe is ahead on points and wants to nurse his lead until the final bell at convention time. As we get later on in the fight, Bernie may only have one way to win. So you know that Bernie will be swinging for a knockout!