Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

March 29, 2017

The Papier-Mache President

By David K. Shipler

            Now we know, if we had any doubts, what lies behind Donald Trump’s expansive promises and self-promotion as a tough dealmaker: nothing. The health-care debacle makes it clear that when it comes to driving a hard bargain, Trump is a chump, to use a word that has become fashionable in the mainstream press. He can’t even twist arms in his own party.
His assault on measures to stem climate change, and his withdrawal from the trans-Pacific trade agreement, benefit only China, which is moving to fill the vacuum left by the American departure. Thomas L. Friedman calls this policy, Make China Great Again. And Trump’s shameless use of coal miners as props this week for his empty promises to bring back jobs in a declining industry made him look either cynical or ignorant.
The miners were evidently advised to wear casual short-sleeved shirts, not the customary suits and ties, to the ceremony where Trump signed an executive order to begin a long, legally contentious process of replacing the Obama administration’s restrictions on coal-burning power plants. The class-conscious picture—men in suits vs. men carefully dressed down—said as much about the Trump White House as last week’s photo of all white men discussing their bill stripping women’s health services from insurance requirements.
 These images are icons of contempt. Moreover, they add up to a president who is just a life-size cardboard cutout that you can stand next to and have your picture taken. Behind the fa├žade, there is no there there.
“You know what this is?” Trump said to the miners as he held up his executive order. “You know what this says? You’re going back to work.”
But market forces say otherwise. Abandoning the regulations requiring the closing of old coal plants and prohibiting the construction of new ones might slow the descent of the coal market in the near term. But mechanization and competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy—the wind and solar power increasingly mandated by states, embraced by new industry, and favored by the public—mitigate against a resurgence of demand for coal. Doesn’t this vaunted businessman know anything about economic markets?
In a Los Angeles Times political cartoon, a miner at the front of a line of coworkers in hardhats asks Scott Pruitt, the global-warming denier who heads the Environmental Protection Administration, how “gutting the EPA and going backwards on climate change [will] bring back our coal jobs.”
“Oh, gosh, fellas,” Pruitt replies, with a couple of cigar-chomping fat cats behind him, “your jobs are never coming back, but the president thanks you for your gullibility.”
Hillary Clinton was savaged for her comment a year ago about the dim future of coal. The most circulated quote was: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” But the line was taken out of the context of a compassionate and honest discussion of a shifting economy in which blue-collar workers would need help to adjust.
“We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people,” she said. “Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.” It won’t be a surprise to learn that Fox News didn’t report those words.
Trump, by contrast, has never engaged the facts of the coal miners’ predicament, which will require job retraining and other government assistance that Republicans are loath to provide sufficiently.
A similar disregard for his supporters was evident in Trump’s embrace of the Republicans’ failed health care bill. Here was a man who made replacing Obamacare a constant theme of his campaign and a post-election pledge: “We’re going to have insurance for everybody. There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us. [They] can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”
            Then, he enthusiastically endorsed a Republican bill that would have thrown 24 million Americans out of health insurance, allowed the insurance companies to eviscerate coverage—no mental health, maternity, or preventive care—and permitted much higher premiums for those between 60 and the Medicare age of 65. This was the “something terrific” he said would replace Obamacare.
            Unsourced reports leaking out of the meetings he had with Republicans say that he didn’t even understand the bill he was calling great. He didn’t study its provisions and didn’t bother to familiarize himself with the impact it would have on his own supporters, those whose lives he promised to improve. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he had said earlier: too complicated for him to take the trouble to grasp, evidently.
When will his voters begin to see the emptiness behind the cutout? An analysis by BloombergPolitics found that the bill’s tax cuts—the elimination of Obamacare’s 3.8 percent investment tax levied on individuals with incomes over $200,000 and married couples over $250,000—would have benefited counties that went for Hillary Clinton to the tune of $21.9 billion a year, compared with only $6.6 billion in counties won by Trump.
If Trump had been a stand-up guy, he would have told the Freedom Caucus to get lost, forced changes that would have pulled in Democrats, and rolled up his sleeves to do some of that hard bargaining he prides himself in. He would have learned enough to tell the rightwing extremists in his own party that cutting government out of health care, as they’d like to do, was inhumane and unrealistic, and that whatever fixes to existing law were made had to truly benefit the working class he has courted so zealously. Just imagine a populist president who was actually a populist, not an elitist, and who was willing to go against his own party in the interest of ordinary Americans.
Trump has leverage if he’s willing to work with Democrats, and they with him. So far, though, he acts as if he’s still the CEO of a family-owned company who can just order people about and fire them if they don’t jump to his commands. Fortunately for those of us who are mere citizens, government is not a business.   

March 23, 2017

Judge Gorsuch's "Magical Notion"

By David K. Shipler

            Late in the third day of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii summed up the judge’s picture of American jurisprudence with three words: “a magical notion.” She called his portrait of neutral, apolitical judges interpreting the law fairly and without personal bias a Norman Rockwell painting of the courts, as if he himself weren’t being promoted by the dark money of hidden billionaires, as emphasized by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse in a tough interrogation.
            Through incisive questioning by Democratic senators (Republicans lobbed only softballs), Gorsuch stuck resolutely to his line that there were no “Republican judges or Democrat judges.” In this phrasing he repeatedly allowed his mask to slip, since the use of the noun “Democrat” as an adjective instead of “Democratic” is embedded in the lexicon of the right, designed to deny that opposition party the mantle of representing masses of citizens. He also took several opportunities to mention that judges appointed by “Democrat” presidents had joined him in opinions. In other words, the courts transcend politics.
            It would be a grand gift to the republic if it were always so. It often is, especially on lower courts, such as the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals where Gorsuch has served for a decade, and which are bound by precedent. He and the two other judges on his panel relied on a particularly cruel precedent when they denied an autistic child payment for private residential educational services that the local school district could not provide. The earlier case in his circuit found that under the law, such schooling “must merely be ‘more than de minimus,’” Gorsuch wrote, adding the word “merely.”

March 17, 2017

The Gradual Death of Honest Curiosity

By David K. Shipler

            The United States these days seems overrun by the indignantly incurious. They already know everything. They take no pleasure in ambiguity. They bask in certitude, entertain no doubts, and miss the beauty of seeing their preconceptions contradicted by complexity. They populate the political left and the political right, the halls of government, the studios of propaganda outlets masquerading as “news,” and even college campuses. Most seriously, they refuse to listen to those who disagree and even try to silence them.
            Dogmatic absolutists have always found places in American society: Jim Crow segregationists, black-power separatists, white supremacists, true communists, red-baiting conservatives, and ideologues of all stripes who never let facts get in the way of a good screed.
But they have never gained as much national power as today. This feels like something different. Where is the ballast that has righted the country in the past? Has a tipping point been reached?
The problem is not just the “fake news” that permeates the internet. It is the people who believe it. The problem is not just the lying by Donald Trump and his minions--their fabrications about imaginary surveillance, voter fraud, terrorist attacks, and the like. It is the citizens who feed Trump’s frenzy by roaring approval without bothering to reach for truth by checking the facts, which they could do online from home by evaluating sources. It’s not such a daunting task.
Americans are split between those who do just that and those who don’t, between those who are open and those who are closed to the cross-currents of reality. This is a serious fault line running through the United States, this divide between curiosity and complacency, between those willing to accept challenges to their opinions and those who sift out whatever they don’t want to believe.

March 6, 2017

What Should Democrats Do?

By David K. Shipler

            The distraught Democratic Party is at odds with itself about how to counter the unconventional presidency of Donald Trump. On the revolutionary side are the Bernie Sanders supporters and others who want to trash the party’s own establishment, play Tea Party politics, and obstruct everything proposed by the White House and Congressional Republicans. On the pragmatic side are the political pros who want to get elected in states that went for Trump. Both sides recognize the need to win seats in local races and state legislatures, plus the all-important governorships ahead of the 2020 census that will determine redistricting.
            Among the key decisions that must be made is how—or even whether—to approach the white working-class citizenry that voted for Trump. Some argue that the nationwide demographic wave favors Democrats as minorities ride to majority status in the country at large. Identity politics will eventually work as the percentage of whites diminishes, so goes the reasoning, because Republicans have turned their backs on minority interests while Democrats have embraced them.
            But the assumption has flaws. First, minority voters come in many different political flavors and can’t be counted on to vote overwhelmingly for liberal Democratic ideas, even if they’re most helped by them. Socially conservative currents run through certain nonwhite subcultures: the anti-abortion views promoted by some black churches, for example, and an anti-regulatory position among small-business owners. It’s possible that an aversion to female leaders was partly responsible for Hillary Clinton’s poor showing in Florida’s largely Hispanic counties. Exit polls showed that Trump won 28 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, to Clinton’s 66 percent, compared with Obama’s 71 percent in 2012.