Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sunday Reading

The Republican Party Created This Monster — John Nichols in The Nation.

Republicans who for months put up with Donald Trump’s racism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry were finally giving up on their nominee Friday night, after the release of a tape that confirmed Trump’s reputation as a lewd and predatory sexist.

“I’m out,” declared Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee. “I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine.”

Utah Senator Mike Lee, a hero to libertarian-leaning conservatives, went so far as to to tape a video addressed to the nominee, in which Lee said, “Mr. Trump, I respectfully ask you, with all due respect, to step aside. Step down. Allow someone else to carry the banner of these principles.”

Lee was not alone. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman, and Virginia Congresswoman Barbara Comstock—a trio of Republicans who were already facing reelection challenges—all called on Trump to stand down. They were joined by Rob Engstrom, the national political director of the US Chamber of Commerce, who tweeted late Friday: “Trump should step down immediately tonight, yielding to Governor Pence as the GOP nominee.”

But Trump is not going anywhere. On Saturday morning, the candidate told The Wall Street Journal there is “zero chance I’ll quit.” He told The Washington Post, “I’d never withdraw. I’ve never withdrawn in my life. No, I’m not quitting this race. I have tremendous support.”

The out-of-control nominee released a hastily produced video in which he threatened to make things worse for Republicans. “I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people,” Trump ranted in the midnight statement. “Bill Clinton has actually abused women.… We will discuss this more in the coming days.”Trump then urged viewers to tune in to Sunday’s second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton.If Trump tries to slime his way out of the corner into which his own words and deeds have painted him, strategists from across the political spectrum say he is likely to doom not just his own candidacy but that of down-ballot Republicans in tough races. But, of course, Trump has never seen the Republican Party as anything more than a vehicle for his own ambitions. So he does not care. At issue now is the question of whether key Republican leaders—such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senator majority leader Mitch McConnell, and Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus—care enough to finally reject Trump.

Ryan, McConnell and Priebus have been Trump’s chief enablers throughout a 2016 campaign in which the billionaire has turned the “Party of Lincoln” (or, at the least, the “Party of Reagan”) into the “Party of Trump.” Even as they have moaned about the chaotic candidate’s “textbook” racism and whined about “his seeming ambivalence about David Duke and the KKK,” the top leaders of the party have always signaled that they will back their nominee.

The refusal of Ryan, McConnell and Priebus to say they would not support Trump as the GOP’s fall contender helped to “legitimize” the billionaire during the primaries. And promises of support that Ryan, McConnell, and Priebus provided in the late spring and early summer assured that Trump would have smooth sailing at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Now, the political Frankensteins who created a party that was ripe for Trump (by condoning extremism, embracing obstruction, and practicing a win-at-any-cost politics), and then cleared the way for Trump’s nomination, are stuck with their monster. They cannot replace him as the GOP nominee unless Trump chooses to step down, and Trump is not so choosing.

So Ryan, McConnell and Priebus must decide whether they will continue to place rank partisanship ahead of anything akin to principle.

It is not enough to object once more to their nominee’s disgusting words and deeds. It is not enough to fantasize about shaking up the ticket and putting Mike Pence—Trump’s chief defender, and a political careerist who has proven himself to be every bit as cynical as his running mate—in the presidential slot.

It is time for Ryan, McConnell, and Priebus to recognize a crisis of their own creation. They need to say what should have been said months ago: that they cannot support as their nominee a man whose latest indiscretions are described by Ryan as “sickening.”

If they cannot echo Jason Chaffetz’s “I’m out!” announcement, if they cannot put principle ahead of partisanship, then they are every bit as destructive to their trashed party, to their conservative movement, and to their country, as is Donald Trump.

The Prize — Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker on the impact that the Nobel Peace Prize could have on Colombia’s peace talks with FARC.

In the hours after last Sunday’s plebiscite called by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to ratify the peace deal he had struck with his country’s FARC guerrillas—which was rejected by a margin of sixty-three thousand ballots, out of thirteen million cast—memes appeared showing a cartoonish Santos lying prone on the ground, apparently kicked to death by Álvaro Uribe, his arch-adversary and right-wing predecessor. Uribe had launched and led the successful “No” campaign against Santos’s peace deal, opposing it on the grounds that it was too lenient to the FARC, and also exposed government soldiers to possible war-crimes prosecution. In the cartoon, Uribe was depicted as being forcibly led away from the scene by several supporters, with a caption reading, “Enough, leave him, he’s dead.” Another meme riffed on the expectation that Santos’s chances of winning a Nobel Peace Prize—a possibility that had been floating in the atmosphere in recent months—were now doomed.

The surprise No victory threw Colombian society into a tense limbo, and the past week has seen a suddenly weakened Santos government forced to enter into dialogue with Uribe over possible “adjustments” to the peace plan, and an increasingly anxious FARC, which still has an estimated six thousand fighters armed in the field.

Uribe—who evidently did not expect his No campaign to win—has reëmerged as Colombia’s top power broker. In several public pronouncements, the former President has sought to effect a magnanimous mien, apparently aware that if his demands are too high, he could doom any possibility of peace and be responsible for a return to war. But Uribe has also made it clear that he seeks something like surrender terms for the FARC, including prison sentences for its leaders (rather than “restorative sentences,” as called for under the current peace plan) and a ban on their participation in politics. Such terms give the FARC’s battle-hardened guerrillas—who have fought for fifty-two years for a Marxist society—little incentive to come in from the cold. While expressing their commitment to “continue to pursue the path of peace,” the FARC’s leaders, in Havana, have made it clear that they do not regard the current deal—which was formally signed by Santos and their leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (known as Timochenko), in a public event on September 26th—as negotiable.

[Friday’s] announcement by the Nobel Committee seems to have reversed the situation once again, delivering Santos a helpful push from the international community, as well as a morale boost for closing the peace deal. The prize also puts pressure on Uribe to back off a bit. The former President congratulated Santos backhandedly on his award, saying in a tweet (Uribe is a prolific tweeter, with a following of four and a half million), “I congratulate President Santos on the Nobel but I want this to lead him to make the changes to the accord that are damaging to democracy.” Upon hearing the news, Timochenko, the FARC leader, tweeted, “The only award we aspire to is that of peace with social justice, and for a Colombia without paramilitaries, without retaliations or lies.”  It was a dig at Uribe, who is a mortal enemy of the FARC, and who was closely associated with the violent paramilitary campaign that decimated the ranks of the FARC’s civilian followers in the nineties and early two-thousands. (Uribe was recently investigated for his alleged paramilitary ties, but he was not charged.)

Uribe was Colombia’s President from 2002 to 2010, and during his time in office he established an amnesty program for the paramilitaries, but since leaving office and being succeeded by Santos, who served as his defense minister, Uribe has bitterly opposed giving the FARC any concessions in exchange for peace. Uribe’s father was killed in a botched kidnapping attempt by the FARC, and he has never forgiven its guerrillas. He regards Santos’s dialogue with the FARC as a betrayal.

Many Colombians I met over the past week expressed bitterness over what they regard as the country’s stability being subjugated to the Santos-Uribe duel—“a battle between the élites” that is deeply personal, even more than it is ideological, since both are politicians on the political right. A couple of days ago, in Bogotá, I watched as thousands of students gathered to conduct a silent, torchlit “march for peace” through the city’s streets to the iconic Plaza Bolívar, where they chanted slogans and sang songs, including the national anthem. One of the most popular catchphrases was “Los jovenes estamos mamados de la guerra”—“We, the youth, are fed up with war.” With the public demonstrations and today’s Peace Prize, the pendulum has swung back once more toward peace and away from war. Still, half the country’s electorate voted against the peace deal on Sunday. In an effort to help convince those doubters that it is serious about making peace, Pastor Alape, one of the FARC’s veteran leaders, said on a radio program tonight from Havana that, for him and his comrades, there was “no longer any alternative to peace.”

What A Character — Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare’s take on the 2016 election.

In the early 1590s, Shakespeare sat down to write a play that addressed a problem: How could a great country wind up being governed by a sociopath?

The problem was not England’s, where a woman of exceptional intelligence and stamina had been on the throne for more than 30 years, but it had long preoccupied thoughtful people. Why, the Bible brooded, was the kingdom of Judah governed by a succession of disastrous kings? How could the greatest empire in the world, ancient Roman historians asked themselves, have fallen into the hands of a Caligula?

For his theatrical test case, Shakespeare chose an example closer to home: the brief, unhappy reign in 15th-century England of King Richard III. Richard, as Shakespeare conceived him, was inwardly tormented by insecurity and rage, the consequences of a miserable, unloved childhood and a twisted spine that made people recoil at the sight of him. Haunted by self-loathing and a sense of his own ugliness — he is repeatedly likened to a boar or rooting hog — he found refuge in a feeling of entitlement, blustering overconfidence, misogyny and a merciless penchant for bullying.

From this psychopathology, the play suggests, emerged the character’s weird, obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude.

“Richard III,” which proved to be one of Shakespeare’s first great hits, explores how this loathsome, perverse monster actually attained the English throne. As the play conceives it, Richard’s villainy was readily apparent to everyone. There was no secret about his fathomless cynicism, cruelty and treacherousness, no glimpse of anything redeemable in him and no reason to believe that he could govern the country effectively.

First, there are those who trust that everything will continue in a normal way, that promises will be kept, alliances honored and core institutions respected. Richard is so obviously and grotesquely unqualified for the supreme position of power that they dismiss him from their minds. Their focus is always on someone else, until it is too late. They do not realize quickly enough that what seemed impossible is actually happening. They have relied on a structure that proves unexpectedly fragile.

Second, there are those who cannot keep in focus that Richard is as bad as he seems to be. They see perfectly well that he has done this or that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is. They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal.

Third, there are those who feel frightened or impotent in the face of bullying and the menace of violence. “I’ll make a corpse of him that disobeys,” Richard threatens, and the opposition to his outrageous commands somehow shrivels away. It helps that he is an immensely wealthy and privileged man, accustomed to having his way, even when his way is in violation of every moral norm.

Fourth, there are those who persuade themselves that they can take advantage of Richard’s rise to power. They see perfectly well how destructive he is, but they are confident that they will stay safely ahead of the tide of evil or manage to seize some profit from it. These allies and followers help him ascend from step to step, collaborating in his dirty work and watching the casualties mount with cool indifference. They are, as Shakespeare imagines it, among the first to go under, once Richard has used them to obtain his end.

Fifth, and perhaps strangest of all, there are those who take vicarious pleasure in the release of pent-up aggression, in the black humor of it all, in the open speaking of the unspeakable. “Your eyes drop millstones when fools’ eyes fall tears,” Richard says to the murderers whom he has hired to kill his brother. “I like you, lads.” It is not necessary to look around to find people who embody this category of collaborators. They are we, the audience, charmed again and again by the villain’s jaunty outrageousness, by his indifference to the ordinary norms of human decency, by the lies that seem to be effective even though no one believes them, by the seductive power of sheer ugliness. Something in us enjoys every minute of his horrible ascent to power.

Shakespeare brilliantly shows all of these types of enablers working together in the climactic scene of this ascent. The scene — anomalously enough in a society that was a hereditary monarchy but oddly timely for ourselves — is an election. Unlike “Macbeth” (which introduced into the English language the word “assassination”), “Richard III” does not depict a violent seizure of power. Instead there is the soliciting of popular votes, complete with a fraudulent display of religious piety, the slandering of opponents and a grossly exaggerated threat to national security.

WHY an election? Shakespeare evidently wanted to emphasize the element of consent in Richard’s rise. He is not given a robust consent; only a municipal official and a few of the villain’s carefully planted henchmen shout their vote: “God save Richard, England’s royal king!”

But the others assembled in the crowd, whether from indifference or from fear or from the catastrophically mistaken belief that there is no real difference between Richard and the alternatives, are silent, “like dumb statues or breathing stones.” Not speaking out — simply not voting — is enough to bring the monster to power.

Shakespeare’s words have an uncanny ability to reach out beyond their original time and place and to speak directly to us. We have long looked to him, in times of perplexity and risk, for the most fundamental human truths. So it is now. Do not think it cannot happen, and do not stay silent or waste your vote.

 Doonesbury — A great disturbance in the waves.

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