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

March 31, 2020

Welcome to the Fourth World

By David K. Shipler

                Americans have a better chance of keeping themselves and others safe by ignoring what President Trump says. He has already contributed to the death of an Arizona man who, along with his wife, took chloroquine (used to clean fish tanks!) the day after Trump misinformed the country about its anti-viral effectiveness. Medical experts criticized the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization for its use, because too much can kill you. In fact, its use against malaria is not necessarily applicable to COVID-19 without careful clinical trials to establish proper dosing. In the wife’s case, it sent her into critical condition. Even doctors who listened to Trump are writing prescriptions to hoard the drug for themselves, depleting supplies for those who really need it for lupus and other ailments.
                This is what the United States has come to. You can’t believe your president, the one who is getting a 55 percent approval rating for the way he is mishandling the pandemic. You shouldn’t have accepted his cavalier assessment that the supposed severity of the virus was just the Democrats’ “new hoax” that would soon disappear. You can’t trust his absurd assurances that sufficient tests and medical equipment are available, or that they’re not really needed in bulk.
You certainly shouldn’t act on his push to fill the churches on Easter and to go back to work—advice he’s now recanted by extending preventive guidelines until April 30. His cavalier, contradictory, self-absorbed briefings have encouraged millions to take the disease less seriously than warranted, which could lead to the collapse of law enforcement, health care, fire departments, infrastructure maintenance, and food supplies as those essential workers drop into sickness.
                Trump is a national security risk. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t been paying attention. He refuses to talk to governors who don’t fawn over him. He claims to have inherited “a broken system.” Yet he has been in office for more than three very long years, during which he has watched TV compulsively, tweeted his grievances and insults, played lots of golf, come to work late in the morning, and governed the way Boris Yeltsin did in Russia as it descended: by simply firing people, as if the federal government were his TV show, The Apprentice.
                The cost is now apparent. An excellent analysis by Jennifer Steinhauer and Zolan Kanno-Youngs in The New York Times documents the handicaps created by the widespread vacancies in key federal positions, the massive departures of top scientists and specialists in emergency management, and the colossal inexperience of political lackeys Trump has appointed. It’s a reminder of the Soviet Union in its final years, as political orthodoxy mattered more than expertise.
                There is a reminder of another kind. Anyone who has been in a Third World country, whether in deep poverty or in wartime, knows the familiarity of harrowing accounts we are now receiving from American hospitals. In Cambodia, too, patients waited for hours or days in hallways. There, too, doctors and nurses were overwhelmed and often helpless in the face of insufficient methods of treatment. People died when decent medical care could have saved them.
                We are now in a Fourth World, “a new category of nations: those once mighty and noble that are falling into frailty and disrepute.” Those words are from a piece I wrote the day before Trump was inaugurated. It was entitled, “America Enters a Fourth World.” My apologies for quoting myself, which puts me off when writers do it. But I’ll continue shamelessly, and you can read the whole essay here to see how obvious Trump’s defects were even before he took office as “the most childish, reckless, and truthless president in modern American history.”
                The Fourth World “is a place of undoing. It is a place where moral values of the common good are picked apart, strand by strand, until only the shreds of caring and justice remain. It is where progress is dismantled: progress—albeit fitful and incomplete—in mobilizing the society through government to protect the impoverished from utter ruin, the innocent from false imprisonment, minorities from tyranny, children from hunger, families from dangerous foods and medicines and polluted air and water, and the earth from the end-stage of catastrophic global warming.
                “There is nothing divinely ordained about America’s greatness. Once Trump and the radicals who will populate most of his cabinet finish their efforts to destroy what has been painstakingly constructed over decades, it will take a generation to recover. That is the actual time when it will be appropriate to plead, ‘Make America Great Again!’”
                The term “Third World,” coined in 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, a French demographer, evolved into the optimistic label “developing countries.” But in the meantime it spawned the category “First World” to mean the industrialized capitalist countries, and the “Second World,” the industrialized communist countries. Only “Third World” survived for a while as common shorthand.
                Welcome now to the Fourth World. “In Trump’s vicinity, truth dies,” I wrote the day before his inauguration. “He facilitates the erosion of shared reality in a polarized society more infatuated with opinion than fact—or, rather, that believes opinion is fact.”
                Three years and two months later, he is still fooling millions of Americans. His misleading, self-serving opinions interact with a credulous public to produce a toxin. “Don’t believe anything that the president says,” advised the Arizona woman whose husband died. In other words, we need to observe social distancing—from the President and his babbling.

             Previously published by the Washington Monthly.

March 23, 2020

Suffering Spring

By David K. Shipler

                Daffodils came early this year, deceived by a premature spate of warmth, then slapped with reality by a cold snap. But now the most exquisite season in and around the nation’s capital has begun to take hold. The plum tree in front has blossomed along with the magnolias across the street. The cherry trees are at their peak, their feathery white petals blowing off and descending like snow flurries. The azaleas will not be far behind.
                It is a cruel spring of dissonance. It is like that crystal autumn day, September 11, 2001, whose beauty should not have allowed the terror and the death. It is like wartime Vietnam, whose stunning landscapes should not have made room for combat. This should be a soothing time of annual rebirth, with no place for the discords of illness and fear.
                Like a family in crisis, America and every other nation will learn good and hard lessons about itself. This will weld us or break us. We will find common purpose or deepened fissures. If we summon wisdom, we will discover what matters and what does not, who are heroes and who are not, who are leaders and who are not—regardless of their titles, positions, or pretenses.
                 Human beings rarely resign themselves to powerlessness. To flee from war, crime, or hunger, refugees uproot themselves and journey into risky unknowns. Against suicide bombings, citizens search for a semblance of control. They reach for tricks and tactics that seem rational, hoping to reduce the unwanted probabilities. In Israel when buses were being blown up, drivers tried to avoid stopping near buses at red lights. In Lebanon and Vietnam, canny locals stayed off country roads that felt too quiet. Smart cops in every tough city in the world learn to watch and listen all around them, to read body language, if possible to put an engine block between them and a suspect who might be armed.
                 The habit of staking a claim to some small territory of control is surely embedded in our animal survival instinct. Sometimes our methods are futile, often so against random violence. Sometimes they are illusory, giving us a sense of power more imagined than real. Sometimes they are practical, and therefore comforting, as we wash our hands while singing Happy Birthday twice, stop touching our faces, use gloves or paper towels to handle the gas pump, sterilize our doorknobs and kitchen counters, and look to the health professionals’ steady and factual advice. Thank heavens for Dr. Anthony Fauci!
                But there are limits to human powers, of course.

March 11, 2020

Trump's Incompetence Goes Viral

By David K. Shipler 
               Two days after his inauguration in January 2017, President Trump imposed a hiring freeze on the federal government. Within four months, the Centers for Disease Control had 700 vacancies that handicapped infectious disease prevention and control, and impeded aid to localities for emergency readiness. High-level positions in science and policy went unfilled.
                Since then, every Trump budget has sought to slash the CDC’s budget: by 17 percent for fiscal year 2018, by 20 percent for fiscal year 2019, 20 percent for fiscal 2020, and even now—amid the coronavirus—by 15% for fiscal 2021. This after Trump in 2018 dissolved the National Security Council’s global health security team, which existed to manage precisely the kind of outbreak we are now experiencing.
                This might seem odd for a germaphobe like Trump. But it fits neatly into the destructive agenda of the extreme right-wing radicals who have taken over the Republican Party, who aim for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” in the words of Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
                More aggressively than any other Republican administration, Trump’s has emasculated regulatory departments, moved to shred decades of environmental and worker-safety regulations, shredded enforcement of consumer protection and anti-discrimination laws, and tried to tear bigger holes in the social safety net.
     In addition, Trump, Vice President Pence, and other officials have made sure to plant legions of unqualified political appointees in the upper ranks of multiple agencies, producing a perfect storm of  neglect and incompetence. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy by discrediting government as less significant and less effective, which feeds a spiral of discontent and alienation about “Washington” and government in general. The conservative agenda of shrinking the public sector thereby gains public support.

March 4, 2020

The Art of the Phony Deal

Judging by polls and interviews, a large minority of Americans have been gullible enough to believe President Trump when he has boasted of big breakthroughs in resolving the trade war with China, the hot war with the Taliban, the twilight war between Israel and the Palestinians, the risk of nuclear war with North Korea, and the disadvantageous trade relations with Mexico and Canada. In reality, the “deals” he has touted are either non-existent (North Korea), one-sided and fanciful (Israel), wishful thinking (the Taliban), or marginal adjustments (China, Mexico, and Canada).
                Let’s take them one by one, beginning with the latest.
                The War in Afghanistan. To his credit, Trump has consistently sought to withdraw US troops from the endless war, a politically popular position. And he has tried to do it with dignity. His negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, is a savvy American diplomat of Afghan origin who displayed painstaking persistence in gradually bringing the Taliban along. The heart of the bilateral deal is a U.S. troop withdrawal over 14 months in exchange for a prohibition on the Taliban giving sanctuary to jihadists, as it did to al-Qaeda before 9/11.
But the administration also failed to include the Afghan government in the talks. That would have complicated negotiations, probably pushing them past the American elections. The resulting agreement was fragile and began to shred days after being signed. The Afghan government refused to abide by the provision to release five thousand Taliban prisoners. The Taliban responded by refusing to begin peace talks before the release. The Taliban then attacked an Afghan army checkpoint, and the U.S responded with an air strike on Taliban forces. Far from bringing a settlement to the country, the agreement looks like a fig leaf to cover a U.S. withdrawal for Trump’s political benefit.
Israel and the Palestinians. Here, too, a key player in the conflict was excluded from discussion or consideration, which seems to be a pattern in Trump’s methodology.

February 21, 2020

Could Bloomberg Really Beat Trump?

By David K. Shipler

                Michael Bloomberg’s tone-deaf paralysis in the Las Vegas debate puts a boldface question mark behind the growing assumption among many Democrats that only he can defeat President Trump in November. One debate fiasco might matter little in the end, given that many more people are seeing the flood of Bloomberg TV and internet ads. And maybe he’ll do better next time. Still, 19.7 million viewers watched his first. But if he gets the nomination, voters will see him extensively, out from behind his screen of commercials. He could use a serious makeover.
                His advantage is his money: his generous philanthropy on the liberal side of such issues as gun control and climate change, his decisive contributions to Democratic candidates, the networks of loyalty that he has purchased in cities throughout the country, and his extensive campaign organization. He knows how to direct his dollars effectively, and his ex-Republican centrism will surely appeal to moderate Republicans who are disaffected with Trump.
                Yet voter turnout is crucial, and that depends largely on a candidate’s appealing demeanor, vision, and forward-looking agenda. Trump has built a wall of zealotry. To break through it, a Democratic opponent needs a surge of young and minority citizens moved by passion and belief, plus a middle-spectrum of voters in swing states. Right now, Bloomberg looks like nothing more than the candidate of last resort. That’s not enough to drive enough people to the polls.
There is a sharp hunger in the land for decency. There is a thirst for honesty, candor, authenticity—all traits that Trump supporters mistakenly attribute to the president. Depending on which citizens you ask, the country is impatient for reform and afraid of it, welcoming and resentful of demographic diversity, idealistic and cynical about politics in America.

February 13, 2020

The Soviet Republicans

By David K. Shipler

                The most stirring statement of any witness in the House impeachment hearings last fall came from Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman of the National Security Council, who opened his testimony with thanks and reassurance to his father, who had brought his family to the United States for “refuge from authoritarian oppression” in the Soviet Union.
                “My simple act of appearing here today,” Vindman declared, “would not be tolerated in many places around the world. In Russia, my act of expressing concern through the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions, and offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.
                “I am grateful for my father’s bold act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant where I can live free of fear for my and my family’s safety. Dad, [that] I’m sitting here today in the US Capitol talking to our elected professionals is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”
                Did Colonel Vindman misread his adopted country?
After honoring a subpoena and testifying under oath on President Trump’s “inappropriate” phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Vindman got death threats so alarming that the Army and local police had to provide security. The Army considered moving his family to safety on a military base. And this week, after acquittal in his impeachment trial, an unleashed Trump had Vindman escorted out of the White House and then threatened him (by tweet) with unspecified military punishment. This was part of a widening pattern of retaliation by the Trump apparatus against impeachment witnesses and other independent thinkers in government.
The United States is not the Soviet Union, of course, and it’s a good bet that Vindman would never think it was. Furthermore, invidious analogies between Trump and various forms of authoritarianism—fascism, Nazism, third-world dictatorships—are so common that they have lost their bite. So it’s important to recognize that while the American constitutional system is under immense strain by Republicans impatient with its messy checks on their power, the restraints have not yet broken.
Nevertheless, to one who lived in Moscow from 1975 to 1979, there is a queasy taste of familiarity in the impulses of Trump and his Republican followers. There is a certain kind of political actor, whether Soviet or American, who cannot stand dissent and debate, who derides facts and truth, who sees all behavior through a lens of personal or ideological loyalty, and whose values extend no farther than immediate victory and the expansion of authority. In this mindset, truth-tellers are “enemies of the people,” to quote Stalin and Trump. Policy differences constitute warfare in which argument and rebuttal are not enough: Opponents must be destroyed through smears, propaganda, and retribution.

December 18, 2019

The FBI and the Trouble With Secret Warrants

By David K. Shipler

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.
--The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution
 The FBI, yet again, lied to the court, whose chief judge didn’t do her job properly and then excoriated the FBI. Republicans, who enacted and defended the secret system that permits such abuse, are suddenly in high dudgeon since the victim is one of their own. That’s the brief summary of the controversy over surveillance done on Carter Page, a campaign aide to Donald Trump. Whether something good comes out of the episode is an open question.
  There are basically two legal ways for the government to listen to your phone calls, read your emails, search your house, and invade other areas of your private life. One is with a traditional search warrant, signed by a judge after law enforcement swears that probable cause exists to believe that certain evidence of a specific crime will be found at a particular place and time. The other is with a secret court order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires something quite different: probable cause that you are an agent of a foreign power, meaning either a government or a terrorist organization. No crime need be involved, and the standard of particularity is largely waived.
                Other differences are notable. In a criminal case, the warrant is eventually disclosed and might be presented to the target at his door if he’s home as police arrive to do the search. He ultimately learns details of the searches. Theoretically, he should be able to see the affidavit on probable cause that the police submitted to the judge, so his lawyer can challenge the warrant’s basis and move in court to suppress the resulting evidence. However, in the experience of Richard Foxall, a defense attorney in California, judges rarely allow the defense to inspect the affidavits. (See Foxall's comment below.) That check on law enforcement doesn’t prevent all official wrongdoing, but it helps.
                No such transparency exists in FISA warrants. Not only are they issued in secret by judges in a secret court, they are executed without notice to the target and are never disclosed unless the government chooses to use the resulting evidence in a criminal trial, and even then the affidavits themselves are usually considered classified. Occasionally the FISA material is used as a basis for an ordinary criminal warrant, but defense lawyers are usually blocked from seeing the original application.

December 7, 2019

The Pitfalls of Political Trash Talk

By David K. Shipler

                Nobody in American politics can beat Donald Trump at the game of coarse insults, name-calling, and personal ridicule. And nobody should try, especially Joe Biden, who needs to keep his poise of dignity and decency if he has a chance of rescuing discourse from its quagmire. Little temper tantrums and macho posturing, provoked Thursday by an Iowa voter’s unfriendly question, are not going to please citizens looking for a return to decorum.
Besides, Biden’s not very good at it. An early attempt occurred back in October 2016, when Biden was campaigning for Hillary Clinton. He managed to deflect public attention from his powerful condemnation of Trump’s boast that he could grab any woman’s pussy. Biden called it “a textbook definition of sexual assault” and went on: “He said, ‘Because I’m famous, because I’m a star, because I’m, a billionaire, I can do things other people can’t.’ What a disgusting assertion for anyone to make!”
The burning anger in Biden’s face said it all. Then he stepped on his own message by adding: “The press always asks me don’t I wish I were debating him. No, I wish we were in high school so I could take him behind the gym, that’s what I wish.” The partisan crowd cheered, but the more important point was swallowed by the Biden bravado, which became the focus of the news.
Biden must have thought he’d scored, because he embellished in March 2018 at the University Miami: “If we were in high school I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him. . . . I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms my whole life. I’m a pretty damn good athlete. Any guy who talked that way was usually the fattest, ugliest S.O.B. in the room.”

November 25, 2019

Impeachment and the Mythology of American Virtue

By David K. Shipler

                After days of impeachment hearings in the House Intelligence Committee, the United States has emerged as a country riven by a clash between cynicism and perfectionism. Americans have grown so inured to wrongdoing that nefarious behavior won’t provoke outrage unless it violates some mythical norm of purity. And so Democrats and their witnesses have been forced to construct a backdrop of national righteousness against which President Trump can be cast in damning contrast.
                That shouldn’t be necessary. Trump’s actions should be enough for impeachment and conviction. If the society had a proper ethical reflex, it would be sufficient that he tried to get a “favor” for his reelection campaign from a foreign government, Ukraine, which desperately needs American support against Russia. End of discussion.
                 The United States shouldn’t have to be pictured as an unyielding advocate of global democracy and the rule of law, when we have a sordid history of doing the opposite where dictators suit us. Ukraine shouldn’t have to be given the exaggerated label “ally” when it has no such standing in any treaty. The rhetoric on foreign policy shouldn’t have to sound like a throwback to the Cold War, with Washington’s nobility poised against Moscow’s “aggression,” and a pretense that the U.S. bears no responsibility for the rising conflict with Russia.
Witnesses shouldn’t have to tout their and their families’ military service to be credible, and the military shouldn’t have to be burnished as flawlessly heroic. Those testifying shouldn’t have to chronicle their devotion to public service. Those born abroad shouldn’t need to sing moving hymns of praise to America as a haven of freedom to speak and to prosper, when prosperity and even freedom, as we are seeing, do not come to all who step onto American soil.
But national myths are often useful, because they set high standards to which the country should aspire. The gap between the myth and the reality is one that begs to be closed.

October 11, 2019

Punishing the Poor for Being Hungry

By David K. Shipler
The latest in a series: Making America Cruel Again

                The United States might be the only country in the world where poverty is considered a moral failing—on the part of the victims, not the society. When conservatives are in charge of government, this judgment infiltrates policy. Republicans move repeatedly to twist regulations around an assumption that the poor don’t want to work and don’t make sound decisions. And when this bias affects children’s nutrition, it can cause lifelong impairment.
                In the last year alone, the Trump administration has taken multiple shots at food stamps, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program), which helped feed about 40 million people last year. The latest change, one week ago, would cut benefits by $4.5 billion over five years. Even in a booming economy, one in seven children are in families considered “food insecure,” according to the Department of Agriculture’s 2018 survey, meaning that they weren’t sure of having enough food for everyone.
                Research in the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience has documented the severe biological assaults caused by inadequate nutrition during sensitive phases of brain development. Numerous studies, compiled in a lengthy National Academy of Sciences report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, portray a devastating landscape of cognitive deficiency resulting from nutritional deprivation. The insufficiency of healthy food during a pregnant woman’s second trimester can reduce the creation of neurons, the brain’s impulse-conducting cells. Malnutrition in the third trimester restricts their maturation and retards the production of branched cells called glia.
Iron is essential to promote the growth of the brain in size and the creation of the nerve-transmitting myelin sheath around the brain’s nerve fibers. The impact of iron deficiency in a baby, therefore, never disappears, even once the deficiency is eliminated. One longitudinal study that followed children from infancy through adolescence found that they scored lower “in arithmetic achievement and written expression, motor functioning, and some specific cognitive processes such as spatial memory and selective recall.”
Teachers reported that such children displayed “more anxiety or depression, social problems, and attention problems.” It is no great leap of logic to see learning disabilities as one result of malnutrition, and a child who can’t do decently in school, who can’t follow half of what a teacher is saying, is more inclined to drop out.
For those Republicans who are moved more by self-interest than empathy, it’s worth noting that high school dropouts earn less that those with degrees, pay less in taxes, have more serious medical problems, and are at higher risk of ending up in jail.
Yet Trump’s people have sought to saddle the $68 billion-a-year SNAP program with restrictions and cuts to the monthly benefits, which now come on debit cards with declining balances, and typically last a family only two or three weeks. Certain regulations that the Trump administration has either enacted or has openly considered would treat needy Americans with suspicion and distrust. For instance:

·         Officials have considered imposing a drug-testing regime on recipients (although not on farmers who receive huge federal subsidies as part of the same legislation).
·         The Agriculture Department, which administers the program, published a rule in July to eliminate states’ option to raise eligibility limits above the federal ceiling, which is 130 percent of the poverty line. Previously, states could get waivers to enroll families earning more if their housing and child-care expenses soaked up a big percentage of their income. More generous housing subsidies would help, because in many parts of the country, where rent can consume 50 percent or more of a family’s budget, the money for food gets squeezed. The comment period on the rule change ended in September; once adopted, it will cut off about 3 million recipients.
·         In last week’s action, the administration effectively took away $75 in benefits from one out of every five families by recalculating how housing and utilities costs are figured.
·         The Trump administration tried to tighten work requirements in this year’s budget, Congress refused, and officials have gone ahead anyway to partially evade the legislative intent. Since 1996, single able-bodied adults with no dependents, up to age 49, could get SNAP benefits for only three months in a three-year period unless they worked or were in job training at least 80 hours a month. States could waive the rule in areas with acute joblessness. Trump wanted to expand the requirement to age 59 and, more damaging, apply it to those with children over six years old. That was rejected by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. So last December the Agriculture Department did what it could administratively by making it much harder for states to get waivers.
·         In his 2019 budget, Trump proposed replacing half of a family’s cash grants with a food package of cereal, pasta, peanut butter, canned fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry, and other items deemed good for them. Sending such packages to 40 million people would have been so costly and impractical that the idea collapsed of its own weight. But the notion seems borne of a patronizing attitude toward the poor, who suffer from a disparaging stereotype that they do not act responsibly.
Clinics treating childhood malnutrition see a broad array of causes. Lack of money is the centerpiece, but lack of knowledge about healthy eating can also contribute to some cases. Health providers find that some parents don’t know how to cook with relatively inexpensive ingredients. New immigrants unfamiliar with American food can be fooled by ads into thinking that Coke and Cheetos are healthy. So can Americans themselves. Lots of junk food is cheap and filling, hence the nation’s epidemic of obesity, which can be a sign of malnutrition.
Supermarkets with fresh, healthy food are scarce in many low-income neighborhoods. A child’s food allergies can be baffling without the funds and information required to have a large assortment of choices on hand. Single parents doing shift work can’t keep track of what their kids are being fed by multiple caregivers. Nor do they usually have the orderly life that allows them to sit children down calmly to feed them, or have a regular family meal.
 In other words, childhood malnutrition is created at the confluence of problems and disabilities that magnify and reinforce one another. They must all be addressed. The cognitive impairment that results cannot be attacked by a country that keeps electing officials who entangle the safety net in a set of punitive impulses.
First published by the Washington Monthly.