Thoughts on Life, Love, Politics, Hypocrisy and Coming Out in Mid-Life
Saturday, January 30, 2021
Ex-KGB Spy: Russia Cultivated Trump as Asset for 40 Years
A piece in The Guardian looks at a new book, American Kompromat, that purports that Donald Trump was cultivated as a Russian asset beginning 40 years ago. The story, if true, when added to all of Trump's financial bailouts with Russian money and his money laundering for Russians buying units at his properties certainly goes a long way towards explaining Trump's constant deference to Vladimir Putin and his hostility to NATO and America's other longstanding alliances that Putin sought to undermine. The Russians recognized that Trump's narcissism, intellectual laziness, and susceptibility to flattery - and, of course sources of money once U.S. banks refused to loan him money - made him an easy target. My Republican "friends" will no doubt try to ignore the allegations, but they would explain a lot. Here are highlights from the Guardian piece:
Donald Trump was cultivated as a Russian asset over 40 years and proved so willing to parrot anti-western propaganda that there were celebrations in Moscow, a former KGB spy has told the Guardian.
Yuri Shvets, posted to Washington by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, compares the former US president to “the Cambridge five”, the British spy ring that passed secrets to Moscow during the second world war and early cold war.
Now 67, Shvets is a key source for American Kompromat, a new book by journalist Craig Unger, whose previous works include House of Trump, House of Putin. The book also explores the former president’s relationship with the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.
“This is an example where people were recruited when they were just students and then they rose to important positions; something like that was happening with Trump,” Shvets said by phone on Monday from his home in Virginia.
Shvets, a KGB major, had a cover job as a correspondent in Washington for the Russian news agency Tass during the 1980s. He moved to the US permanently in 1993 and gained American citizenship. He works as a corporate security investigator and was a partner of Alexander Litvinenko, who was assassinated in London in 2006.
Unger describes how Trump first appeared on the Russians’ radar in 1977 when he married his first wife, Ivana Zelnickova, a Czech model. Trump became the target of a spying operation overseen by Czechoslovakia’s intelligence service in cooperation with the KGB.
Three years later Trump opened his first big property development, the Grand Hyatt New York hotel near Grand Central station. Trump bought 200 television sets for the hotel from Semyon Kislin, a Soviet émigré who co-owned Joy-Lud electronics on Fifth Avenue.
According to Shvets, Joy-Lud was controlled by the KGB and Kislin worked as a so-called “spotter agent” who identified Trump, a young businessman on the rise, as a potential asset. Kislin denies that he had a relationship with the KGB.
Then, in 1987, Trump and Ivana visited Moscow and St Petersburg for the first time. Shvets said he was fed KGB talking points and flattered by KGB operatives who floated the idea that he should go into politics.
The ex-major recalled: “For the KGB, it was a charm offensive. They had collected a lot of information on his personality so they knew who he was personally. The feeling was that he was extremely vulnerable intellectually, and psychologically, and he was prone to flattery.
“This is what they exploited. They played the game as if they were immensely impressed by his personality and believed this is the guy who should be the president of the United States one day: it is people like him who could change the world. They fed him these so-called active measures soundbites and it happened.
Soon after he returned to the US, Trump began exploring a run for the Republican nomination for president and even held a campaign rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. On 1 September, he took out a full-page advert in the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe headlined: “There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure.”
The ad offered some highly unorthodox opinions in Ronald Reagan’s cold war America, accusing ally Japan of exploiting the US and expressing scepticism about US participation in Nato. It took the form of an open letter to the American people “on why America should stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves”.
The bizarre intervention was cause for astonishment and jubilation in Russia. A few days later Shvets, who had returned home by now, was at the headquarters of the KGB’s first chief directorate in Yasenevo when he received a cable celebrating the ad as a successful “active measure” executed by a new KGB asset.
Trump’s election win in 2016 was again welcomed by Moscow. Special counsel Robert Mueller did not establish a conspiracy between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. But the Moscow Project, an initiative of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, found the Trump campaign and transition team had at least 272 known contacts and at least 38 known meetings with Russia-linked operatives.
Shvets, who has carried out his own investigation, said: “For me, the Mueller report was a big disappointment because people expected that it will be a thorough investigation of all ties between Trump and Moscow, when in fact what we got was an investigation of just crime-related issues. There were no counterintelligence aspects of the relationship between Trump and Moscow.”
He added: “This is what basically we decided to correct. So I did my investigation and then got together with Craig. So we believe that his book will pick up where Mueller left off.”
Unger, the author of seven books and a former contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine, said of Trump: “He was an asset. It was not this grand, ingenious plan that we’re going to develop this guy and 40 years later he’ll be president. At the time it started, which was around 1980, the Russians were trying to recruit like crazy and going after dozens and dozens of people.”
“Trump was the perfect target in a lot of ways: his vanity, narcissism made him a natural target to recruit. He was cultivated over a 40-year period, right up through his election.”
Hopefully, We Are Witnessing the Death Throes of the GOP
With the electoral eviction of Donald Trump from the Oval Office, Republicans had a shot at redemption and resurrection.
They missed and failed — and deserve to spend the next several years in political purgatory. The chaos now enveloping what’s left of the Grand Old Party after four years of catering to an unstable president is theirs to own. Where conservatism once served as a moderating force — gently braking liberalism’s boundless enthusiasm — the former home of ordered liberty has become a halfway house for ruffians, insurrectionists and renegade warriors.
What does Trump have on these people, one wonders? The continuing loyalty of so many to a man so demonstrably dangerous can’t be explained by “the base,” a word never more aptly applied. What secrets were shared by Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who, after blaming Trump for the Jan. 6 mob attack, visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago this week to make amends? It seems that The Don, yet another appropriate nickname, need only purse his button lips and whistle to summon his lap dogs to Palm Beach, there to conspire for the next Big Lie.
The party’s end was inevitable, foreshadowed in 2008 when little-boy Republican males, dazzled by the pretty, born-again, pro-life Alaska governor, thought Sarah Palin should be a heartbeat away from the presidency. The dumbing down of conservatism, in other words, began its terminal-velocity plunge, with a wink and a pair of shiny red shoes. Palin cast a spell as potent as the poppy fields of Oz, but turned the United States into her own moose-poppin,’ gum-smackin’ reality show.
Forget Kansas. We’re not in America anymore.
Eight years of Barack Obama added insult to injury and paved the way for Trump — a gaudier, cinematic version of the “thrillah from Wasilla.” Seizing upon our every worst instinct, he turned Palin’s lipsticked pig into a herd of seething, primitive barbarians. Now, the Department of Homeland Security is warning of yet more violence by domestic extremists, presumably from the ranks of the mob and QAnon conspiracists who stormed the Capitol with blood on their minds.
For Donald Trump, you went down this road? Either Trump has a stockpile of incriminating videos — his people have people, you know — or today’s Republicans are the weakest, wimpiest, most pathetic crop of needy nincompoops in U.S. history.
Suddenly, the “good ones” are worried about their newest member, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a QAnon-promoting female version of Trump — only without the charm. You begin to see how this monster mutates like a certain virus into ever-more-dangerous versions of itself. Among other things, Greene embraces the conspiracy theory that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and the slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., were staged. One struggles for words, . . . .
Recently unearthed video shows Greene chasing David Hogg, the Parkland student who rose to public prominence as a gun-control activist after the February 2018 shooting . . . the notion that he was somehow complicit in a manufactured act of mass murder is beyond the pale even for the farthest right.
Going forward, not only will House Republicans be associated with a colleague who “liked” a Twitter post calling for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s murder. They’ll be attached to QAnon, which promotes the extraordinary fiction that Trump was leading a war against Satan-worshiping pedophiles and cannibals, whose leadership includes Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and, oh, by the way, yours truly, as well as U2’s Bono.
To those Republicans who can read: You own all of this. The party isn’t doomed; it’s dead. The chance to move away from Trumpism, toward a more respectful, civilized approach to governance that acknowledges the realities of a diverse nation and that doesn’t surrender to the clenched fist, has slipped away. What comes next is anybody’s guess. But anyone who doesn’t speak out against the myths and lies of fringe groups, domestic terrorists and demagogues such as Trump deserves only defeat — and a lengthy exile in infamy. Good riddance.
Friday, January 29, 2021
More Friday Male Beauty
In Today's GOP Standing for the Truth is Called "Betraying Your Church and Party"
The letter writer’s message was clear: Representative Adam Kinzinger is doing the devil’s work, and he is possessed by demons. It’s not hard to guess why Kinzinger would receive such a note. He was one of 10 Republican members of Congress who defied their party and voted to impeach
PresidentDonald Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Kinzinger knew most Republicans in his solidly conservative district would not agree with him. But the choice was easy: As someone who identifies as a born-again Christian, he believes he has to tell the truth. What has been painful, though, is seeing how many people who share his faith have chosen to support Trump at all costs, fervently declaring that the election was stolen. The person who sent that letter—by registered mail, to be extra sure he got it—was a member of Kinzinger’s family. “The devil’s ultimate trick for Christianity … is embarrassing the church,” he told me and a small group of other reporters this week. “And I feel it’s been successful.”
Kinzinger is not a pastor or a theologian. He knows his job as a representative is not to preach the gospel but to represent his constituents and vote on legislation. When he’s dead, however, it won’t matter how many elections he won, or how low America’s tax rates are. The Lord has been speaking to him about his role as a Christian in politics, he said, and how he can reach people who are thinking about their eternal life. He has concluded that his faith and his party have been poisoned by the same conspiracy theories and lies, culminating in the falsehood that the election was stolen. When you look at “the reputation of Christianity today versus five years ago, I feel very comfortable saying it’s a lot worse,” he said. “Boy, I think we have lost a lot of moral authority.”
But people like Kinzinger have not been the ones shaping the reputation of Christianity in America over the past four years. Trump’s supporters have. Even after everything that’s happened—Trump’s attempt to overturn the election, his cheerleading for the attack on the Capitol—some influential evangelical leaders are still defending the president: “Shame, shame,” Franklin Graham, the evangelist and son of the famous pastor Billy Graham, wrote about the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment. “It makes you wonder what the 30 pieces of silver were that Speaker Pelosi promised for this betrayal.”
Looking to political personalities rather than Jesus for salvation is the worst kind of mistake a Christian can make, Kinzinger said. “There are many people that have made America their god, that have made the economy their god, that have made Donald Trump their god, and that have made their political identity their god.” The problems that led to the January 6 insurrection are not just political. They’re cultural. Roughly half of Protestant pastors said they regularly hear people promote conspiracy theories in their churches, a recent survey by the Southern Baptist firm LifeWay Research found. “I believe there is a huge burden now on Christian leaders, especially those who entertained the conspiracies, to lead the flock back into the truth,” Kinzinger tweeted on January 12.
Kinzinger believed that Republican ideas were superior to Democratic ones—he first got elected to the county board in McLean County, Illinois, as a 20-year-old local-government advocate. But it bothered him that many Republicans viewed their political opponents as evil enemies, rather than people who might even share their faith. “We get wrapped up in thinking that every little political victory that we do [that] has an impact on an election is actually fighting for God and the truth,” he said.
Kinzinger first got elected to Congress under Barack Obama, and over the past decade, he has watched his party transform. “No longer does policy actually matter. It’s all about: Do you support Donald Trump, or don’t you? Do you want to own the left, or don’t you?” he said.
Unlike some Republicans, he has not spent the past four years on the front lines of the Never Trump resistance; he generally supported Trump’s agenda in Congress, voting in line with the president’s goals roughly 90 percent of the time. But unlike other members of the GOP, Kinzinger was unwilling to keep fighting for Trump after it was clear that he had lost the election. “I’m embarrassed by some of my Republican colleagues on the floor. They have defaulted to political points for fame and have failed to rise to this moment,” he tweeted on January 6. He later joined Democrats to encourage Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment and remove Trump from office.
Dissent is costly for Republicans and Christians alike. Kinzinger said he’s been getting nonstop hate mail since his impeachment vote, calling him a traitor and a RINO, or Republican In Name Only. He’ll likely face a primary fight in 2022. But in the long run, quietly going along with the claim that the 2020 election was stolen could be costly too.
Only a third of Millennial voters identify as or lean Republican. Among this age group, more people are nonreligious than part of any single faith group, including evangelical Christianity. It bothers Kinzinger that his party doesn’t seem to care that America’s 20- and 30-somethings are widely disillusioned with the GOP. And it bothers him that some evangelicals’ obsession with Trump may make it harder for young people to find Christ.
On January 6, as an armed mob invaded the House of Representatives, Kinzinger said he could feel a darkness descend over the Capitol. One of his friends in Congress, the Oklahoma Republican Markwayne Mullin, heard the same thing from members of the Capitol Police. Kinzinger doesn’t doubt that the devil is at work in American politics. He just suspects that the enemy might be lurking in his own house.
I applaud Kinzinger for standing for the truth and ultimately decency. In the years that I have written this blog, the only death threats I have received have been from "godly Christians" who market hate, bigotry and cannot tolerate anyone or anything that challenges their fairy tale beliefs and recognizes the reality that ALL of us are children of the Creator,
The Sacking of the Capitol Was a Christian Nationalist Insurrection
It’s impossible to understand the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol without addressing the movement that has come to be known as Christian nationalism.
Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, professors of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the University of Oklahoma, describe Christian Nationalism in their book “Taking America Back for God”:
It includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious. Understood in this light, Christian nationalism contends that America has been and should always be distinctively ‘Christian’ from top to bottom — in its self-identity, interpretations of its own history, sacred symbols, cherished values and public policies — and it aims to keep it this way.
In her recent book, “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism,” Katherine Stewart, a frequent contributor to these pages, does not mince words:
It is a political movement, and its ultimate goal is power. It does not seek to add another voice to America’s pluralistic democracy, but to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity, answering to what some adherents call a ‘biblical worldview’ that also happens to serve the interests of its plutocratic funders and allied political leaders.
This, Stewart writes, “is not a ‘culture war.’ It is a political war over the future of democracy.”
While much of the focus of coverage of the attack on the halls of the House and Senate was on the violence, the religious dimension went largely unnoted
I asked Perry about the role of the religious right, and he replied by email: “The Capitol insurrection was as Christian nationalist as it gets.”
Obviously the best evidence would be the use of sacred symbols during the insurrection such as the cross, Christian flag, Jesus saves sign, etc. But also the language of the prayers offered by the insurrectionists both outside and within the Capitol indicates the views of white Americans who obviously thought Jesus not only wanted them to violently storm the Capitol in order to take it back from the socialists, globalists, etc., but also believed God empowered their efforts, giving them victory.
Together, Perry continued, the evidence reflects a mind-set that clearly merges national power and divine authority, believing God demands American leadership be wrested from godless usurpers and entrusted to true patriots who must be willing to shed blood (their own and others’) for God and country.
The conservative evangelical pastor Greg Locke, the founder of the Global Vision Bible Church in Mount Juliet, Tenn., epitomizes the mind-set Perry describes. . . . On Jan. 5, Locke tweeted:
May the fire of the Holy Spirit fall upon Washington DC today and tomorrow. May the Lamb of God be exalted. Let God arise and His enemies be brought low.
Along similar lines, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a leading figure among conservative evangelicals, was asked in a 2018 Politico interview, “What happened to turning the other cheek?”
“You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins replied. “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”
Robert Jones, the founder and C.E.O. of P.R.R.I., a nonprofit organization that conducts research on religion and politics, argues in his book “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” that Christianity in America has a long history of serving as a cloak for a racist political agenda.
On Jan. 7, the mainstream Baptist News published comments from 21 Baptist leaders, including Steve Harmon, professor of theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity:
Minister friends, we must confront directly the baseless conspiracy theories and allegations that our own church members are embracing and passing along. They are not just wrongheaded ideas; they have consequences, and to tie these falsehoods to the salvation of Jesus is nothing less than blasphemy.
In an email, Gerardo Marti, a professor of sociology at Davidson College, described a fundamental strategic shift among many on the religious right toward a more embattled, militantly conservative approach: . . . Their goal is no longer to persuade the public of their religious and moral convictions; rather, their goal has become to authoritatively enforce behavioral guidelines through elected and nonelected officials who will shape policies and interpret laws such that they cannot be so easily altered or dismissed through the vagaries of popular elections. It is not piety but policy that matters most. The real triumph is when evangelical convictions become encoded into law.
I asked Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale and the author of the book “American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion From the Puritans to the Present,” if supporters of Christian nationalism were a dominant force in the Jan. 6 assault on Congress. He replied:
Many observers commented on the jarring mixture of Christian, nationalist and racist symbolism amongst the insurrectionists: there were Christian crosses and Jesus Saves banners, Trump flags and American flags, fascist insignia and a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ hoodie. Some saw apples and oranges. But it was really a fruit cocktail: White Christian Nationalism.
The narrative is propagated through a network of channels, Gorski wrote:
The history curricula used by many Christian home-schoolers are organized around a Christian nationalist perspective. Christian Nationalist activists also seek to influence the history curricula used in public schools.
In addition, Gorski said,
Some evangelical pastors have made national reputations by preaching Christian Nationalism. Robert Jeffress of Dallas’ First Baptist Church is a well-known example. In recent years, some Christian Nationalist pastors have formed a network of so-called “Patriot Churches” as well.
Gorski drew a sharp distinction between Christian nationalism and traditional religion doctrine:
Christian nationalists use a language of blood and apocalypse. They talk about blood conquest, blood sacrifice, and blood belonging, and also about cosmic battles between good and evil. The blood talk comes from the Old Testament; the apocalyptic talk from the Book of Revelation.
Paul D. Miller, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, reasons along parallel lines:
Christian nationalism is the pursuit of tribal power, not the common good; it is identity politics for right-wing (mostly white) Christians; it is the attempt to ‘own and operate the American brand,’ as someone else wrote; it is an attitude of entitlement among Christians that we have a presumptive right to define what America is. I oppose identity politics of all kinds, including the identity politics of my tribe.
Christian nationalism reveals what Benjamin Lynerd, a professor of Political Science at Christopher Newport University and the author of “Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals,” calls “the tragedy of evangelical politics, a tragedy that the unrestrained loyalty to President Trump lays bare, but which stretches well beyond this moment in American history,” when “political theology serves merely as cover for the more pragmatic agenda of social empowerment.”
Many of those I contacted for this column described Whitehead and Perry’s book, “Taking America Back For God,” as the most authoritative study of Christian Nationalism.
The two authors calculate that roughly 20 percent of adult Americans qualify, in Perry’s words, as “true believers in Christian nationalism.” They estimate that 36 percent of Republican voters qualify as Christian nationalists. In 2016, the turnout rate among these voters was an exceptionally high 87 percent.
There is evidence, Robert Jones argues, that even though both Christian nationalists and, more broadly, white evangelicals, are in decline as a share of the electorate, the two constituencies may become more, not less, assertive. Jones noted that his data suggests that the more a group believes it is under siege from the larger culture, the more activated it becomes.
Some of the clearest evidence of this phenomenon lies in the continually rising level of Election Day turnout among white evangelicals, even as they decline as a share of the electorate.
[A]s members of the Christian right have become angrier and more adversarial, some to the point of violence, their decline from dominant to marginal status has bred a provocative resentment that is serving to spur the very secularization processes that so infuriates them. If the evidence of the Capitol attack and its aftermath is any guide, this vicious circle does not bode well for the future.
Thursday, January 28, 2021
Marjorie Taylor Greene: The Face of the GOP's Degradation
Republican leaders were shocked, shocked to learn about revelations that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) once approved of calls for the execution of Democrats. They are so troubled by this that they plan to sit her down and give her a slap on the wrist with a little plastic ruler.
In so doing, they will be reminding us of a story about the GOP and conservative movement that goes back at least a half century: Their failure to adequately police the extremists in their midst.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is set to have a talk with Greene about her vile new antics. CNN reports that Greene “liked” a social media post that suggested “a bullet to the head” for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and seemed to approve of a suggestion that other prominent Democrats should be hanged.
[R]ight now, we’re seeing Republican leaders backpedaling from taking on their party’s destructive crackpottery on multiple fronts.
The GOP’s Greene problem is metastasizing with particular force. As Aaron Blake reports, Greene has supported QAnon conspiracy theories about a global pedophilia cabal, approved of suggestions that mass shootings were staged and made a variety of racist comments.
Greene’s apparent approval of the killing of Democrats should take this to another level with GOP leaders, if only because it comes after the storming of the Capitol, which may have almost resulted in lawmakers’ executions.
But at this point, many Republicans still refuse to unambiguously renounce the lie that inspired the assault — that the election was illegitimate — and many still won’t declare forthrightly that Joe Biden fairly won the election, in effect still refusing to fully recognize the legitimacy of his presidency.
For her part, Greene has also lied that the election was “stolen” in Georgia, and she called for Biden’s impeachment even before he took office. But the dispiriting truth of the matter is that this doesn’t make her much of an outlier in today’s GOP.
So it remains to be seen whether Greene will face serious disciplinary action from GOP leaders. But the mere fact that this is an open question itself points back to a decades-long story.
[T]he GOP and conservative movement have allowed the boundary between fringe and mainstream to remain “porous” going back through Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist crusades in the 1950s.
That lapse, according to this thesis, is grounded in a fundamental feature of the post-war right wing, its constant addiction to a “politics of conflict” that lacks any “sense of limits, whether tactical or substantive.”
The result: The GOP and conservative movement have failed at “policing boundaries against extremism,” which defined a “half century of Republican politics.”
Examples include conservative movement leaders flirting with the John Birch Society; allies of 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater refusing to disavow a Ku Klux Klan endorsement; Newt Gingrich’s conversion of GOP politics into nationalized scorched earth warfare; and, of course, the rise of Trump.
The unpopularity of the GOP agenda to the U.S. mainstream has made it necessary to fire up increasingly far-flung reaches of the base with what Kabaservice calls “entertainment” and “jihadist ecstasy.”
And so GOP leaders continue humoring tales that the election was stolen from Trump, because such “jihadist ecstasy” energizes the base. Recall that GOP officials declined to recognize Biden’s victory for weeks precisely in order to keep the GOP base fired up for the Georgia runoffs.
Meanwhile, the explosion of extreme right-wing news sources has “opened up a path to power and popularity for people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who reject governing altogether,” Kabaservice continued. Policing people like her [Greene] risks alienating the voters she has energized.
McConnell’s calculations are trapped between the recognition that if the party sticks with Trump, it will keep alienating “women and suburban voters,” and the understanding that Trump brings “new voters into the Republican fold.”
For now, the latter calculation is winning out for McConnell: With huge swaths of GOP voters still backing Trump as the party’s leader, moving away from him is too risky.
Meanwhile, Trip Gabriel reports this remarkable tidbit about the thinking of Republicans in Pennsylvania:
G.O.P. leaders recognize the extent to which the former president unleashed waves of support for their party. In Pennsylvania, just as in some Midwestern states, a surge of new Republican voters with grievances about a changing America was triggered by Mr. Trump, and only Mr. Trump.
As Kabaservice summed it up to me: “They’ve lost any sense of why conservatives would need to police” the GOP’s “boundaries against kooks and extremists.”
Socialism for the Rich, Capitalism for the Rest of Us
Donald Trump ran up budget deficits in his first three years to levels seen in our history only during major wars and financial crises — thanks to tax cuts, military spending and little fiscal discipline. And he did so prepandemic, when the economy was already expanding and unemployment was low. But now that Joe Biden wants to spend more on pandemic relief and prevent the economy from tanking further, many Republicans — on cue — are rediscovering their deficit hawk wings. What frauds.
We need to do whatever it takes to help the most vulnerable Americans who have lost jobs, homes or businesses to Covid-19 — and to buttress cities overwhelmed by the virus. So, put me down for a double dose of generosity.
But, but, but … when this virus clears, we ALL need to have a talk.
There has been so much focus in recent years on the downsides of rapid globalization and “neoliberal free-market groupthink” — influencing both Democrats and Republicans — that we’ve ignored another, more powerful consensus that has taken hold on both parties: That we are in a new era of permanently low interest rates, so deficits don’t matter as long as you can service them, and so the role of government in developed countries can keep expanding — which it has with steadily larger bailouts, persistent deficit spending, mounting government debts and increasingly easy money out of Central Banks to finance it all.
“Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest” — a variation on a theme popularized in the 1960s — happens, Sharma explained in a phone interview, when government intervention does more to stimulate the financial markets than the real economy. So, America’s richest 10 percent, who own more than 80 percent of U.S. stocks, have seen their wealth more than triple in 30 years, while the bottom 50 percent, relying on their day jobs in real markets to survive, had zero gains. Meanwhile, mediocre productivity in the real economy has limited opportunity, choice and income gains for the poor and middle class alike.
The best evidence is the last year: We’re in the middle of a pandemic that has crushed jobs and small businesses — but the stock market is soaring. That’s not right. That’s elephants flying.
And even if we raise taxes on the rich and direct more relief to the poor, which I favor, when you keep relying on this much stimulus, argues Sharma, you’re going to get lots of unintended consequences. And we are.
For instance, Sharma wrote in July in a Wall Street Journal essay titled “The Rescues Ruining Capitalism,” that easy money and increasingly generous bailouts fuel the rise of monopolies and keep “alive heavily indebted ‘zombie’ firms, at the expense of start-ups, which drive innovation.”
As such, no one should be surprised “that millennials and Gen Z are growing disillusioned with this distorted form of capitalism and say that they prefer socialism.”
In the 1980s, “only 2 percent of publicly traded companies in the U.S. were considered ‘zombies,’ a term used by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) for companies that, over the previous three years, had not earned enough profit to make even the interest payments on their debt,” Sharma wrote. “The zombie minority started to grow rapidly in the early 2000s, and by the eve of the pandemic, accounted for 19 percent of U.S.-listed companies.” It’s happening in Europe, China and Japan, too.
The past few years should have been an era of huge creative destruction. With so many new cheap digital tools of innovation, so much access to cheap high-powered computing and so much easy money, start-ups should have been exploding. They were not.
“Before the pandemic, the U.S. was generating start-ups — and shutting down established companies — at the slowest rates since at least the 1970s,” wrote Sharma.
Alas, though, big companies are becoming huge and more monopolistic in this easy money, low interest rate era. It is not only because the internet created global winner-take-all markets, which have enabled companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple to amass cash piles bigger than the reserves of many nation-states. It’s also because they can so easily use their inflated stock prices or cash hordes to buy up budding competitors and suck up all the talent and resources “crowding out the little guys,” Sharma said.
Meanwhile, he added, as governments keep stepping in to eliminate recessions, downturns no longer play their role of purging the economy of inefficient companies, and recoveries have grown weaker and weaker, with lower productivity growth. So it takes more and more stimulus each time to prop up growth.
This is all actually making our system more fragile.
Now that so many countries, led by the U.S., have massively increased their debt loads, if we got even a small burst of inflation that drove interest on the 10-year Treasury to 3 percent from 1 percent, the amount of money the U.S. would have to devote to debt servicing would be so enormous that little money might be left for discretionary spending on research, infrastructure or education — or another rainy day.
So, yes, yes, yes — we must, right now, help our fellow citizens, who are hurting, through this pandemic. But instead of more cash handouts, maybe we should do it the way the Koreans, Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Chinese and other East Asians have been doing it — cash assistance to only the most vulnerable and more investments in infrastructure that improve productivity and create good jobs. The East Asians also focus on making their governments smarter, particularly around delivering things like health care, rather than bigger — one reason they have gotten through this pandemic with less pain.
Biden plans a big infrastructure package soon. He totally gets it. I just hope that Congress, and the markets, don’t have debt fatigue by the time we get to the most productive medicine: infrastructure.
Going forward, how about more inclusive capitalism for everyone and less knee-jerk socialism for rich people. Economies grow from more people inventing and starting stuff. “Without entrepreneurial risk and creative destruction, capitalism doesn’t work,” wrote Sharma. “Disruption and regeneration, the heart of the system, grind to a halt. The deadwood never falls from the tree. The green shoots are nipped in the bud.”
Wednesday, January 27, 2021
Joe Biden, Ascendant Liberal Christianity and Divisions Within Catholicism
There are myriad changes with the incoming Biden administration. One of the most significant: a president who has spent a lifetime steeped in Christian rituals and practices.
Mr. Biden, perhaps the most religiously observant commander in chief in half a century, regularly attends Mass and speaks of how his Catholic faith grounds his life and his policies.
And with Mr. Biden, a different, more liberal Christianity is ascendant: less focused on sexual politics and more on combating poverty, climate change and racial inequality.
His arrival comes after four years in which conservative Christianity has reigned in America’s highest halls of power, embodied in white evangelicals laser-focused on ending abortion and guarding against what they saw as encroachments on their freedoms. Their devotion to former President Donald J. Trump was so fervent that many showed up in Washington on Jan. 6 to protest the election results.
Mr. Biden’s leadership is a repudiation of the claim by many conservative leaders that Democrats are inherently anti-Christian.
Yet the current influence of liberal Christianity in the Democratic Party goes beyond Mr. Biden. Senator Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, won election with a campaign rooted in Black liberation theology. The Sunday after his election, Mr. Warnock preached about John the Baptist, the “truth-telling troublemaker,” he said, who was beheaded by King Herod for his prophetic witness.
Representative Cori Bush, a pastor who led Kingdom Embassy International in St. Louis, has started her tenure in Congress advocating universal basic income. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez connects her Catholic faith with her push for reforming health care and environmental policy.
In his inaugural address, Mr. Biden rooted himself and the country in a Christian moral vision that makes room for a pluralistic society, unlike his predecessor who promised to make America a certain kind of Christian nation. . . . . For Mr. Biden, “it was a subtle and explicit effort to show a different vision of a way in which a Christian could imagine themselves as part of a diverse America, one that is defined by these common objects of love, rather than by hate and fear or exclusion,” he said.
Mr. Biden’s priorities reflect values that progressive faith leaders have pushed for, and that motivated many to speak out for him during the campaign, said Derrick Harkins, who led interfaith outreach for the Democratic National Committee this past cycle. There is a sense of moral synergy on the left, among not only progressive Christians but also humanists, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and the spectrum of faith traditions, he said.
The work now “has a chance of really having traction,” he said. “I’m very optimistic about what can unfold.” The grassroots progressive Christian movement is center stage in Mr. Biden’s Washington.
As noted above and in the Post piece, the far right of the Catholic Church - which includes many bishops - clings to the Church's 12th century dogma on human sexuality and finds Biden's support for abortion, LGBT rights and acceptance, and the embrace of non-Christians anathema. Ironically, Biden finds a powerful ally on his side on a number of issues: Pope Francis. Here are highlights from the Post column:
In another time, the election of only the second Roman Catholic president in U.S. history, a loyal church-goer who publicly embraces his faith, would have brought satisfaction and even joy to the nation’s large Catholic minority.
Instead, President Biden’s rise has underscored deep divisions within the U.S. church: the emergence of an increasingly hard right within the U.S. hierarchy now being met by a more vocal progressive Catholicism represented by Pope Francis and the cardinals and bishops he has appointed.
The day of Biden’s inauguration brought a dramatic confrontation between the two forces.
Just hours after Biden had attended Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement that began by praising Biden’s “piety” and “his moving witness to how his faith has brought him solace in times of darkness and tragedy,” but then moved to an unprecedented first-day rebuke.
The statement infuriated the Francis wing of the church leadership, which had not been consulted. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago took to Twitter that afternoon to deplore the statement as “ill-considered” and the product of “internal institutional failures” since it “came as a surprise to many bishops, who received it just hours before it was released.” Other Francis allies, including Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, issued statements distancing themselves from Gomez’s view.
And the Vatican itself was plainly unhappy. The Jesuit magazine America quoted a Vatican official calling the statement “most unfortunate,” and Francis set an upbeat tone. He said he was praying that Biden would be “guided by a concern for building a society marked by authentic justice and freedom” with a particular concern for “the poor, the vulnerable and those who have no voice.”
Biden embodies the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, a period when the American Catholic imagination was shaped by the “two Johns,” in the writer Garry Wills’s evocative phrase, Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy.
But a more conservative leadership appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI coincided with a Reagan-era push by intellectuals and activists on the church’s right to ally with the White evangelical political movement in opposition to abortion and advances in LGBTQ rights. The effect was to play down the church’s social justice teachings and to create what Cathleen Kaveny, a Boston College theologian, called “an American fusion of Catholicism with certain conservative and nationalist forms of evangelical Protestantism.”
Now the tables have turned again with Francis. . . . And this is why Gomez’s admonishment was a blunder. Not only did he galvanize the pro-Francis forces in the church willing to work with Biden on many issues. He also sent a message to the Biden administration that its formal dealings with the Catholic hierarchy should go not simply through the bishops conference, the traditional route, but also through the American cardinals, three of whom were named by Francis.
Biden did not run for president to transform the politics of the Catholic Church. But the devout kid from Scranton, Pa., is already having that effect.
Feds Zeroing In On Proud Boys Leadership
Canada’s House of Commons voted unanimously on Monday January 25, 2021, to classify the extremist far-right group Proud Boys as a white supremacist terrorist organization. While it's a safe bet that Congressional Republicans would try to block any similar designation here in America - frighteningly, the GOP has become the party of white supremacy and Proud Boys are a part of the base of today's GOP - federal law enforcement agencies are working overtime to zero in on the hate group's leadership as well as that of Oath Keepers, another right wing extremist group. One can only hope that if the groups preplanned the sacking of the U.S. Capitol and that Trump issued their call to arms evidence will be discovered to factor in Trump's impeachment trial. The New York Times looks at the ongoing federal investigation:
The leadership of the Proud Boys has come under increased scrutiny as agents and prosecutors across the country try to determine how closely members of the far-right nationalist group communicated during the riot at the Capitol this month and to what extent they might have planned the assault in advance, according to federal law enforcement officials.
At least six members of the organization have been charged in connection with the riot, including one of its top-ranking leaders, Joseph Biggs. Mr. Biggs, a U.S. Army veteran, led about 100 men on an angry march from the site of President Donald J. Trump’s speech toward — and then into — the Capitol building.
The Proud Boys, who have a history of scuffling with left-wing antifascist activists, have long been some of Mr. Trump’s most vocal, and violent, supporters, and he has returned the favor, telling them during one of the presidential debates to “stand back and stand by.” Along with the right-wing militia the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys was one of the extremist groups with a large presence at the Capitol incursion, investigators said.
One of the organizers, Ethan Nordean, of Auburn, Wash., appeared with Mr. Biggs in a YouTube video on the day of Mr. Trump’s rally and can be seen shouting orders to a group of Proud Boys through a bullhorn. Mr. Nordean — also known as Rufio Panman, investigators said — is named in Mr. Biggs’s criminal complaint but has not been charged himself.
The second Proud Boy organizer, Eddie Block, of Madera, Calif., took video of Mr. Biggs and Mr. Nordean during the event in Washington, according to a photograph included in Mr. Biggs’s charging documents.
The F.B.I. has acknowledged it is conducting a similarly serious inquiry into the Oath Keepers, a group largely composed of law enforcement and military personnel, and the Three Percenters, which emerged from the extremist wing of the gun rights movement. Several members of both organizations have already been charged in connection with the Capitol attack, including three defendants who stand accused of the most severe conspiracy allegations leveled so far.
Investigators involved in the Capitol attack have also focused their attention on the chairman of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio. Mr. Tarrio, who lives in Miami, was scheduled to attend the march in Washington but was thrown out of the city by a judge the day before it happened. When he was arrested on Jan. 4 in connection with the burning of a Black Lives Matter banner that had been torn from a historic Black church during a different round of violent protests last month, police officers found he was carrying two high-capacity rifle magazines emblazoned with the Proud Boys’ chicken logo.
Prosecutors have noted in documents attached to Mr. Biggs’s case that Mr. Tarrio first began encouraging the Proud Boys to go to Washington for the “Stop the Steal” march in late December, when he posted a message on the social media app Parler announcing that members of the group would “turn out in record numbers.”
In the run-up to the rally, Mr. Tarrio also used Parler to urge his members to avoid wearing their traditional black-and-yellow polo shirts but instead to go “incognito” and move about the city in “smaller teams,” prosecutors say.
Investigators are continuing to sift through online posts and messages by Mr. Tarrio and Mr. Biggs in an effort to determine if they showed any attempt at coordination or planning, the federal law enforcement official said.
On the day of the attack, Mr. Tarrio took to Parler, calling members of the Proud Boys who took part in it “revolutionaries” and urging them not to leave. “For now, I’m enjoying the show,” he wrote, adding, “Do what must be done.”
While investigators are increasingly focused on people who may have preplanned the attack, any evidence that the assault was organized in advance could be a factor in Mr. Trump’s second impeachment trial, scheduled for next month. . . . evidence could end up showing that any pre-planned attack was inspired by weeks of the president’s insistence that the election was rigged.
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
How Biden Is Erasing Trump’s White Supremacist Legacy
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden moved to both erase the white supremacist legacy of the previous White House and address injustices that existed long before Donald Trump came to power.
“A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer,” Biden said in his inaugural speech. Racial justice is one of the administration’s top priorities, alongside the pandemic and the economy, he said.
Later in the day, Biden issued an executive order on “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government” to put his pledge into action. The order received scant attention amid a wave of actions from the White House, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. It has the potential to advance the cause of racial justice on several key fronts.
On top of the executive order, the White House’s push to raise the minimum wage would have outsize effects on African Americans, helping to narrow the black-white income gap.
And there’s symbolic change, too: a diverse administration that includes the country’s first Black and Indian American vice president. Biden’s Cabinet is the most racially diverse in history.
Even the currency may get an update: On Monday, the White House announced it’s taking steps to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill ― an Obama-era initiative killed by Trump.
What Biden’s doing feels like the delayed policy response to the protests that swept the country last summer after the police killing of George Floyd.
The executive order on racial justice erased two of the Trump administration’s most blatantly racist policies. Biden reversed Trump’s move last fall to ban all federal agencies and contractors from conducting any kind of diversity training or programs that dealt with concepts like systemic racism or white privilege. Broad in scope and confusing, the order was widely criticized in the fall. The bottom line was that it arguably prohibited federal workers and contractors from even talking about racism or injustice.
Federal agencies canceled talks, like one on resilience in the LGBTQ community at the Environmental Protection Agency. And some universities also halted certain programs.
Now, with the order rescinded by Biden, such training and seminars can resume. On Friday, the State Department announced it would restart its employee training programs on diversity.
The order also got rid of Trump’s “1776 Commission,” an attempt to whitewash American history by playing down, even excusing, the role of slavery. To turn the screw more, the White House released its report on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
In addition to rolling back Trump’s executive order on race, Biden also reversed Trump’s Muslim ban and his ban on transgender people serving in the military; two more blows against religious and sex discrimination.
But along with reversing Trump’s white supremacist policies, the executive order on racial justice directs federal agencies to audit their policies and practices to root out systemic inequities. In other words, is housing policy reinforcing segregation? How are educational policies affecting children of color? Is the State Department hiring a truly diverse workforce? Are there ways to track COVID-19 vaccination data to ensure all Americans are receiving equitable treatment?
The federal government has the power to massively impact systemic inequities. Federal policies created during the New Deal era, like federally backed mortgages African Americans couldn’t access, embedded systemic racism into the fabric of the country.
The Biden executive order directs the Office of Management and Budget to work with federal agencies to study how they create or exacerbate barriers to equal representation for traditionally underserved groups ― the order lists Black Americans, LGBTQ people, Indigenous communities and the underserved poor among those whose needs should be considered.
There’s much work to be done. Quereshi tossed off a few examples: The Department of Homeland Security could study whether terrorism investigations are disproportionately focused on certain groups. Or the Department of Health and Human Services could look more closely at issues around health disparities: Who is getting vaccinated? Agencies could simply look at who they’re hiring, and how their hiring practices do or don’t take diversity into account.
The agencies have 200 days to come up with plans.
Biden’s economic policy proposals, if passed into law, could be a longer-lasting avenue to reduce inequities. These include measures that seem neutral on their face but would have an outsize impact on Black and brown people.
Simply addressing the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black and brown communities, would be a start. Ensuring essential workers ― a majority of whom are people of color ― can have access to paid sick and family leave would be another.
And raising the minimum wage could be a game changer. Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour would give 38% of Black workers a raise compared with 23% of white workers, according to research cited by economists writing for Equitable Growth.