The Trump Presidency as Covering Fire

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 11.06.41 AMDecember 1, 2017

Can you picture the bit in most war movies and many westerns where someone says, “cover me while I make a break for it,” or “cover me while I get behind them,” or some such.  Always, “cover me….”  What we see is the person doing the “covering” shooting off dozens or hundreds or thousands of bullets while the person being covered performs some other act.  The covering fire acts as a distraction.  (“In military science, suppressive fire (commonly called covering fire) is “fire that degrades the performance of an enemy force below the level needed to fulfill its mission.”)

It strikes me this morning that Trump is providing covering fire for McConnell and Ryan as they shove through a truly awful (unfair, dangerous) tax bill.  While work on the tax bill continues in secret, in appalling haste, and in violation of regular order, our attention is distracted by the mad antics of the man occupying the Presidency of the United States.  His tweets and lies, his soap opera dramas about who’s in or out of his confidence, his insults to allies and praise for thugs, all turn our attention away from the work on tax policy.

I don’t think this is conscious strategy on Trump’s part.  And I have no idea whether this is deliberate on the part of Ryan or McConnell or other Republicans in the Congress. But there is no question they are using Trump’s unhinged behavior to partisan, short-term advantage.  They are doing nothing to restrain this mad performance.  It is a dangerous maneuver for all of us.

Any responsible member of Congress would be putting on hold the legislature’s policy work and turning instead to protecting the core institutions and principles of the American republic.

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The Corruption of Media Culture

November 29, 2017

In this morning’s NYTimes, Tom Friedman leads off his column with these words

In a recent MSNBC interview I described President Trump as a “brain-eating disease.”

I did so because his indecent behavior, and nonstop outrageous tweets and actions, force you as a commentator into a terrible choice: either ignore it all and risk normalizing Trump’s excesses or write about him constantly and risk not having the time to learn and report about the big trends now reshaping the world — trends that one day will surprise your readers and leave them asking, “Why didn’t I know this?”

True enough, and/but I fund myself increasingly thinking about how I follow the news: what I read and what I don’t; how I pay attention in a thoughtful and constructive manner to the passage of events. 

One of yesterday’s big stories was the Washington Post’s exposure of a brazen effort by Project Veritas to plant (and presumably later expose) a fake sexual misdeed story about Roy Moore.  There is fake news aplenty, and much of it is deliberately sowed to confuse and confound.  There were also several stories about Trump tweets and slurs [no links].  All in a day’s boiling cauldron.

In the midst of this, I came upon this remarkable fictional portrait of a media mogul.  He’s the central character in Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar (Hogarth, 2016) and clearly is meant to remind us of Roger Ailes, late of Fox News.

Like a puppetmaster who pulls the strings but still has to do the the voices for his puppets, Dunbar was partially, if superciliously, merged with his ideal reader: the person who hates chavs and welfare scroungers and perverts and junkies, but also hates toffs and fat cats and tax dodgers and celebrities, in fact the person who hates everybody, except the other people like him, who hate the things that make him feel fear or envy. Dunbar was the man who placed the wafer on their outstretched tongues, transubstantiating the corrosive passivity of fear and envy into the dynamic single-mindedness of hatred. As the high priest of this low practice, he had to admit that in his astonishing new circumstances the view from the altar rail was barely distinguishable from blindness.

In the book, St. Aubyn retells the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear, portraying the king now as Dunbar, the CEO of a media empire. Dunbar has just been pushed aside by the scheming of two of his daughters; these are the “astonishing new circumstances” the passage mentions.

“…[T]ransubstantiating the corrosive passivity of fear and envy into the dynamic single-mindedness of hatred:” that’s the most incisive portrayal of Fox News and its ilk I’ve yet seen.  Truth-telling is no part of the endeavor here. Drawing eyeballs through the manipulation of raw emotion is the core of the effort.  Blindness, indeed, is the consequence.

Strange that it should be in a work of fiction?  Not at all. The best of fiction shows us the truth of the human condition in a deep and different way.

Question: how do we bring truth-telling back into the center of what we watch and read?

[Note: if you’re unfamiliar with the word “chav” here’s a clue.]

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Marilynne Robinson Calls Out Twaddle

November 17, 2017

In this week’s New York Review of Books, Marilynne Robinson makes a public declaration of her disgust with deconstructionism. Robinson is a 2012 recipient of a National Humanities Medal, and teaches at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  I don’t believe there is a novelist or essayist whose clarity and honesty I value more.

She doesn’t just see “deconstructionism” as silly or wrong-headed, she sees it as harmful. She says,

To be painfully candid, I consider a great part of what is offered to students as intellectual discourse, at least in the humanities and social sciences, to be a sort of higher twaddle. This so-called learning, most recently “theory,” seems harmless in so far as it has no meaning outside the classroom, or beyond the journals and conferences that sustain it and establish the hierarchy of its practitioners. But it is deeply harmful in that it wastes time and teaches students to think and write badly, to master as they can the terms and assumptions of twaddle.

And this,

In-group language usually signifies and defends an elite of some sort, and the tendency of this particular jargon is to imply that books, history, experience itself, are not to be understood by the uninitiated. Indeed, there are interpretive dogmas ready to demonstrate that the writer actually meant the opposite of what he thought he meant, or something else altogether, being inevitably implicated in the biases of his period and social class, and an entrenched defender of these interests, whatever his words might say. This notion is elitist in the worst sense, and divisive as well.

Deconstructionism is not honest, analytic thinking, says Robinson, it is ideology, and that is why it is harmful.

The good society depends for its life on insights into present circumstances and into present tendencies in the culture, insights that arise out of honest and open discussion, that is, on intellectually competent citizens, people capable of clarity and attentiveness. Yet we have allowed our thinking to be conformed to the model of ideology, which is the old enemy of ideas, as it is of plain realism. The language of ideology has all its conclusions baked into it. It is wholly unsuited to the life of an open and evolving society. Our higher education has been in part responsible for our decline.

Calling out deconstructionism as “twaddle” matters because in this present crisis of the Republic we need our Humanities at their very best.  We need our Universities at their very best.  We need honesty and clarity, discussion and deliberation.  Deconstructionism gives us none of these.

These are claims Robinson is making, not really arguments against deconstructionism, but I believe they are the right claims to make.  Bravo Marilynne Robinson for writing this, and bravo NYRB for publishing it.

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Why Trump Won: Edsall’s Analysis

November 16, 2017

I’ve read dozens and dozens of articles dissecting why Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016,  Many of them made sense.  Many of them were illuminating.  But none has hit me as hard as Thomas Edsall’s column in today’s New York Times, White on White Voting.

Edsall shows, drawing on research from a number of scholars,  that the biggest swings in the electorate between the two elections of Barack Obama and the election of Donald Trump came in communities that were (a) overwhelmingly white and yet (b) had seen a significant percentage rise in the numbers of Blacks and Hispanics.

Trump’s margin of victory was highest in those municipalities that are close to (but not quite at) 100 percent white.  Says Edsall,

Trump’s anti-immigrant, racially loaded messages resonated most powerfully among voters living in the least diverse, most racially isolated white communities. It is in these locales, which are experiencing the earliest signs of minority growth, that anxiety over approaching diversity is strongest.

Read the whole piece, please.  You’ll come away with a sense of how racial animosity whipped up by a leader and a party determined to take advantage of fear was a key to the election.  Adds Edsall:

When I look back at the 2016 election, what is really striking is how much influence over the course of events was exercised by the relatively small numbers of voters in super-white municipalities and counties and by the politician who ignited them — how the last gasp of a small fraction of the electorate set the nation on such a dangerous and destructive course.

Those of us who live in communities that are overwhelmingly white (as I do) have work to do as we look toward 2018 and 2020.

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James Fallows and Me on ‘Tribal’

November 9, 2017

Back on October 31, James Fallows of The Atlantic published a piece titled The Broken Check and Balance.  The header for it said “It’s up to Congress to police the executive—but so far, its Republican leaders are placing tribal loyalty ahead of their constitutional responsibility.”

He was getting at something important about Republicans in the Congress today, but the word “tribal” rankled some readers.  One wrote, “The use of tribal in the political white sense does not go over very well among Native folks for obvious reasons. It feels like a putdown of one of the last cultural distinctions that exemplifies tribal sovereignty.” Fallows asked fro suggestions from readers.  He got quite a few, and published them on his blog in several tranches:  first, second, third, and fourth.  And then, today, a fifth, in which something I had sent him appeared as the last item.  Here’s what I wrote:

I think you’re trying to do too much with a single word.

You are looking for a word to capture a relentless preference for me and my kind: what’s good for us is what’s right.

One issue in this what to call ‘our kind’ or ‘us.’  “Tribe” may be the right word, but why not race or nation or clique or faction?  Is there some general word we can use for ‘my kind?’  Whatever word we chose, we’re likely to give that word a pejorative cast, and some may take exception because they want to use that same word for “us” in a more positive way – like ‘nation’ or ‘tribe.’

Another issue here is what we make of the claim of rightness in the preference for me and my kind.  This is a question of justice, not terminology, and it’s far the more important issue.


In The Republic, Thrasymachus argues that ‘justice is the interest of the strong.’  There is, he asserts, no deeper or transcendent sense of justice.  This is precisely the proposition that you want to hold us to scorn.  A preference for me and my kind is also an undisguised claim that we (me and my kind) are the strong, and that we will prevail.

Socrates/Plato didn’t think much of Thrasymachus’s understanding of justice, and you and I don’t either.  It’s pernicious, and yet it is a very common weed in human understanding.

You’re looking for a way to capture that growing acceptance in the United States of justice as the interest of the strong – that belief that any talk of justice having a higher moral foundation is just foolishness.

Trump embodies that Thrasymachus-ian understanding of justice.  He didn’t give birth to it in modern American politics; he simply has found a way to gather a following — including a disturbing number of Republican leaders – around that conception.  (It’s all the more remarkable that this ugly conception of justice is often dolled up in Christian evangelical terms.)

I don’t know a single word that captures this.

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What’s Unfair and Fraudulent in the GOP Tax Proposal

November 6, 2017

A few days ago in We Want Fair, Not Fraudulent Tax Reform, I promised some links to pieces showing the GOP Tax proposal to be unfair and fraudulent.  Here they are — and there may be more.  It’s a stinko plan.

Background on U.S. Taxes

WaPo’s Wonkblog on The state of the American tax system, in 8 charts,

Overall on the GOP Tax Plan

Jason Furman analysis (Furman is a Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and also affiliated with the Peterson Institute for International Economics). A few headlines:

  • Not a time for tax cuts,
  • the House Bill is not well-designed,
  • Large increase in the deficit,
  • New pass-through loophole is complicated and distortionary,
  • Cutting the corporate rate to 20 percent is more likely to reduce wages than to increase them,
  • Cutting the corporate tax rate to 20% is likely to reduce GDP, etc.

Paul Krugman (NYT, Nobel Prize Winner in Economics) on the ten lies that Republicans are telling about their tax plan.

Dylan Matthews in Vox on The Republican Tax Bill, Explained.

Effect on the Deficit

Tyler Cowen, conservative, influential blogger at Marginal Revolution, damns with faint praise: The plan as a whole is a reckless expansion of the deficit, but if that is going to happen anyway this is one of the better ways to do it.  

Fortune Magazine on Why Trump’s Tax Reform Won’t Fix America’s Federal Budget Mess.

Bloomberg on Most Economists Agree: Trump Tax Plan Will Widen Budget Deficit.  Kicker: “Tax code simplification is a laudable goal, but it is not clear whether very many tax loopholes will be closed,” said Thomas Fullerton, professor of economics and finance at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Unfortunately, the risk of a widening deficit is pronounced.”

Distributional Effects

Joint Committee on Taxation analysis, the upshot of which Kevin Drum headlines as Surprise! The Republican Tax Bill Mostly Helps the Very, Very Rich.

Tax Policy Center analysis, whose conclusion is this “In 2018, all income groups would see their average taxes fall, but some taxpayers in each group would face tax increases. Those with the very highest incomes would receive the biggest tax cuts.“ Read the NYTimes report on the report here.

WaPo’s Wonkblog on Winners and Losers in the GOP Tax Plan.

Targetting of Harm to Blue States

Kevin Drum’s analysis (Mother Jones). More here.

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We Want Fair, Not Fraudulent, Tax Reform

November 3, 2017

I sat in on a conference call yesterday with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi organized by people for the American Way.  Topic: the Republican tax proposal.  I was grateful for the opportunity, but disappointed in the offering.

The emphasis was on tactics: what can we (Democrats) say in Republican districts to weaken support for and ultimately defeat this tax bill.  Of course that’s one thing that should be on Rep. Pelosi’s mind, but I also want to hear a clear message about what we (Americans, all of us) should want in a tax bill.  I didn’t hear that framing at all. Instead, I heard snippets of this or that bad feature of the Republican proposal, but no broad framing.  What’s the positive, clear framing message?

Here’s my suggestion: We want fair, not fraudulent, tax reform.  

The Republicans will say–and are saying–that their tax bill

  • will lower taxes for all families
  • will be family friendly by expanding child-related tax credits
  • will spur economic growth
  • will encourage ‘Made in America’ business
  • will streamline and simplify the tax code.

There’s a clear framing message there, and we will hear it relentlessly.

The first thing we want to say about this is that it is fraudulent.  This tax bill, if approved, will not do any of these things.  This tax bill is a tax-cut-for-the-wealthy tax bill.  It will not provide meaningful tax relief for middle or lower income families, it will not spur economic growth, and it will not do anything else that Speaker Ryan claims it will.  The claims made on behalf of this bill are false.  [In a subsequent post, I’ll provide links to evidence-based demonstrations of the fraudulent claims behind this tax proposal.]

Notice, too, that the Republican case for their tax bill says nothing about its effect on the federal deficit.  If passed, it would certainly massively increase the deficit.

The other thing we want to say about this bill is that it is unfair, and that what we want (all Americans) is a fairer tax system.

A fairer tax system would put more emphasis on taxing every dollar earned in a similar fashion. A fairer tax system would eliminate loopholes and special provisions that allow the wealthy to pay lower tax rates on some or all of their earnings.

The Republican bill does next to nothing to eliminate current loopholes and adds several others.  For example it would not eliminate the carried interest provision, which allows hedge fund managers to enjoy a reduced tax rate on their earnings (and which Trump said he would eliminate),  The bill would eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, which insures that wealthy pay some taxes even if their use of loopholes and special provisions would otherwise reduce their tax bill to zero.  The bill would allow more business income to be treated as pass-through income taxed at a lower rate. The bill would eliminate estate taxes on very wealthy persons (the current tax system already has no taxes on estates valued at less than $5 million).  These are all steps toward greater unfairness.  

In addition, this tax bill if passed would not promote economic growth. We do not lower taxes to promote economic growth.  We are already in the third longest period of expansion of the American economy in history.  That’s a legacy (unacknowledged by Republicans) of the Obama presidency.  A tax cut for the wealthy now would only serve to worsen the deficit and imperil future economic growth.

What we need is a fairer tax system, one that would would end loopholes and special deals for the wealthy.  

Over the summer, Senate Democrats sent a letter to Republicans emphasizing four points about what they would insist upon in any tax bill:

  • it would work through regular order,
  • it could not raise taxes on the middle class or
  • cut taxes for the one percent and
  • the reforms couldn’t increase the deficit.

That’s essentially the same framing message. Now I want to hear it voiced, clearly and often, to the American people.

One more thing to insist upon: no tax bill of any sort without first seeing Trump’s tax returns.  

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