Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Wait For The Miniseries

Things are getting a little rough over at the Trump transition team.

President-elect Donald Trump, who clashed with leading Republicans throughout his campaign, faced growing tumult in his national security transition team on Monday as key members of his own party appeared to question his views and personnel choices.

Former congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a respected voice on national security thought to be a leading candidate to run the CIA, was among those pushed out of the team over the past two days, two individuals with direct knowledge said, in a series of moves that have added to the anxiety across the upper ranks of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The changes came as Trump met Tuesday with incoming Vice President Mike Pence to discuss Cabinet and top White House personnel choices. Pence last week replaced New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) as head of Trump’s overall transition efforts, and Christie’s associates — who had been Trump’s link to the GOP mainstream for months — now find themselves losing influence.


A former U.S. official with ties to the Trump team described the ousters of Rogers and others as a “bloodletting of anybody that associated in any way on the transition with Christie,” and said that the departures were engineered by two Trump loyalists who have taken control of who will get national security posts in the administration: retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Rogers had no prior significant ties to Christie but had been recruited to join the Trump team as an adviser by the New Jersey governor. At least three other Christie associates were also pushed aside, former officials said, apparently in retaliation for Christie’s role as a U.S. prosecutor in sending Kushner’s father to prison.

The difference between the Trumps and the Medicis is that the Medicis had great taste in art.  Oh, and they actually knew how to run a government.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Patterns of Behavior

You may have heard that there’s a new biography out on Adolf Hitler by historian Volker Ullrich.  Volume 1 — “Adolf Hitler Ascent 1889-1939” is reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.

How did Adolf Hitler — described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a “half-insane rascal,” a “pathetic dunderhead,” a “nowhere fool,” a “big mouth” — rise to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this “most unlikely pretender to high state office” achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?

A host of earlier biographers (most notably Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest and Ian Kershaw) have advanced theories about Hitler’s rise, and the dynamic between the man and his times. Some have focused on the social and political conditions in post-World War I Germany, which Hitler expertly exploited — bitterness over the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and a yearning for a return to German greatness; unemployment and economic distress amid the worldwide Depression of the early 1930s; and longstanding ethnic prejudices and fears of “foreignization.”

Other writers — including the dictator’s latest biographer, the historian Volker Ullrich — have focused on Hitler as a politician who rose to power through demagoguery, showmanship and nativist appeals to the masses. In “Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939,” Mr. Ullrich sets out to strip away the mythology that Hitler created around himself in “Mein Kampf,” and he also tries to look at this “mysterious, calamitous figure” not as a monster or madman, but as a human being with “undeniable talents and obviously deep-seated psychological complexes.”

“In a sense,” he says in an introduction, “Hitler will be ‘normalized’ — although this will not make him seem more ‘normal.’ If anything, he will emerge as even more horrific.”


Mr. Ullrich, like other biographers, provides vivid insight into some factors that helped turn a “Munich rabble-rouser” — regarded by many as a self-obsessed “clown” with a strangely “scattershot, impulsive style” — into “the lord and master of the German Reich.”

• Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity. But Mr. Ullrich underscores Hitler’s shrewdness as a politician — with a “keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of other people” and an ability to “instantaneously analyze and exploit situations.”

• Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a “bottomless mendacity” that would later be magnified by a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology (radio, gramophone records, film) to spread his message. A former finance minister wrote that Hitler “was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth” and editors of one edition of “Mein Kampf” described it as a “swamp of lies, distortions, innuendoes, half-truths and real facts.”

• Hitler was an effective orator and actor, Mr. Ullrich reminds readers, adept at assuming various masks and feeding off the energy of his audiences. Although he concealed his anti-Semitism beneath a “mask of moderation” when trying to win the support of the socially liberal middle classes, he specialized in big, theatrical rallies staged with spectacular elements borrowed from the circus. Here, “Hitler adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle-class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic listeners,” Mr. Ullrich writes. He peppered his speeches with coarse phrases and put-downs of hecklers. Even as he fomented chaos by playing to crowds’ fears and resentments, he offered himself as the visionary leader who could restore law and order.

Sound familiar?

It is always dangerous to compare contemporary politicians to Hitler as the ultimate argument reduced to the absurd, and a lot of people — myself included — think that using the Third Reich as a point of comparison for someone trolling on the internet trivializes what happened in Europe in the 1930’s and the Holocaust.  That said, we can’t just let the obvious parallels that have been seen in the rise of dictatorships to situations in our own country and blithely say “Well, it can’t happen here” and ignore the patterns of behavior that set the stage for the rise of a demagogue and manipulator.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Kneel Before Trump

Frontline on PBS will air a segment on September 27 that looks at the reason Donald Trump decided to run for president and when he decided to do it.

Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who ever disagreed, who ever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.

It comes down to seeking revenge for being humiliated in public by a black man.

Let’s make sure that it happens again; this time by a woman.

Monday, July 25, 2016


Josh Marshall at TPM has an in-depth look at the cozy connection, both business and philosophical, between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Over the last year there has been a recurrent refrain about the seeming bromance between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. More seriously, but relatedly, many believe Trump is an admirer and would-be emulator of Putin’s increasingly autocratic and illiberal rule. But there’s quite a bit more to the story. At a minimum, Trump appears to have a deep financial dependence on Russian money from persons close to Putin. And this is matched to a conspicuous solicitousness to Russian foreign policy interests where they come into conflict with US policies which go back decades through administrations of both parties. There is also something between a non-trivial and a substantial amount of evidence suggesting Putin-backed financial support for Trump or a non-tacit alliance between the two men.


I’ll list off some facts.

1. All the other discussions of Trump’s finances aside, his debt load has grown dramatically over the last year, from $350 million to $630 million. This is in just one year while his liquid assets have also decreased. Trump has been blackballed by all major US banks.

2. Post-bankruptcy Trump has been highly reliant on money from Russia, most of which has over the years become increasingly concentrated among oligarchs and sub-garchs close to Vladimir Putin. Here’s a good overview from The Washington Post, with one morsel for illustration …
Since the 1980s, Trump and his family members have made numerous trips to Moscow in search of business opportunities, and they have relied on Russian investors to buy their properties around the world.

“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008, according to an account posted on the website of eTurboNews, a trade publication. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

3. One example of this is the Trump Soho development in Manhattan, one of Trump’s largest recent endeavors. The project was the hit with a series of lawsuits in response to some typically Trumpian efforts to defraud investors by making fraudulent claims about the financial health of the project. Emerging out of that litigation however was news about secret financing for the project from Russia and Kazakhstan. Most attention about the project has focused on the presence of a twice imprisoned Russian immigrant with extensive ties to the Russian criminal underworld. But that’s not the most salient part of the story. As the Times put it,”Mr. Lauria brokered a $50 million investment in Trump SoHo and three other Bayrock projects by an Icelandic firm preferred by wealthy Russians “in favor with” President Vladimir V. Putin, according to a lawsuit against Bayrock by one of its former executives. The Icelandic company, FL Group, was identified in a Bayrock investor presentation as a “strategic partner,” along with Alexander Mashkevich, a billionaire once charged in a corruption case involving fees paid by a Belgian company seeking business in Kazakhstan; that case was settled with no admission of guilt.”

Another suit alleged the project “occasionally received unexplained infusions of cash from accounts in Kazakhstan and Russia.”

Sounds completely legit.


To put this all into perspective, if Vladimir Putin were simply the CEO of a major American corporation and there was this much money flowing in Trump’s direction, combined with this much solicitousness of Putin’s policy agenda, it would set off alarm bells galore. That is not hyperbole or exaggeration. And yet Putin is not the CEO of an American corporation. He’s the autocrat who rules a foreign state, with an increasingly hostile posture towards the United States and a substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons. The stakes involved in finding out ‘what’s going on’ as Trump might put it are quite a bit higher.

There is something between a non-trivial and a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence for a financial relationship between Trump and Putin or a non-tacit alliance between the two men. Even if you draw no adverse conclusions, Trump’s financial empire is heavily leveraged and has a deep reliance on capital infusions from oligarchs and other sources of wealth aligned with Putin. That’s simply not something that can be waved off or ignored.

I’m old enough to remember when even a whisper of a connection between a political candidate and a foreign power — to say nothing of the country that makes up what’s left of the former Soviet Union — would be instant political death.  Not only does that not impact Mr. Trump, he even brags about his admiration for Mr. Putin’s tactics and wistfully wishes he would be able to exercise the same style of “leadership” that the former KGB chief has mastered.

Here’s my question, though: will this gain any traction in the American media, or will Mr. Trump be hailed as a dealer who can work with our adversaries?  Will the core Trump voter think, “Commie sympathizer!” or “Hey, sure, Putin’s a Russki, but he gets things done”?

I think I know the answer.

Friday, July 22, 2016

A Speech Only A Dictator Would Deliver

If you stayed up to watch Donald Trump deliver his nearly 90-minute harangue, I admire you for your courage and your ability to control your gag reflex.  All I did was read the transcript and catch a couple of clips and I’ve had enough.

What it all came down to is that Donald Trump told America and the world that we are in a hell of a mess and he is the only one who can fix it.

That has been the message of every dictator — from the left or the right — for time out of mind. Every one of them has cited facts they claim to be true yet are easily refuted.  Every one of them has found a scapegoat to blame for the problems their citizens faced and accused them of treachery or worse.  Every one of them has claimed to be the voice of the people, and every one of them, whether they’re standing on the stage at Nuremberg, the balcony in Rome, the wall of the Kremlin, the plaza in Havana, or the gates of the Forbidden City, has risen to power or seized it with that messianic claim, and every one of them has done it at the expense of lives, fortunes, and freedom.  Fortunately no one has ever stood on the steps of the Capitol in Washington and delivered a speech like that, and if we are to live and grow and survive as a country, we never will hear it.

Mr. Trump’s speech was all about him, how “I” will do this, “I” will stop that, “I” will make some other thing happen.  It was rarely “we,” and when it was, it was about what his administration — his government — will do to others.

But this is a nation of “We.”  “We hold these truths to be self-evident,”  “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union,”  “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  The echos of Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt were lost in the bombast and narcissism of this belligerent bully who knows nothing of true compassion for anyone other than himself or what would feed his ego.

The one thing every dictator knows is how to feed fear and divisiveness.  They know that it is far more easier to exploit our weaknesses than call upon us to work together; to accuse rather than encourage, to divide rather than multiply, and deliver on “What’s in it for me?” rather than “Ask not what your country can do for you.”

It’s hard to resist the siren call of a dictator: Let me be the one to solve all your problems, real or imagined, even if what I promise will cost you that which you hold most precious; not just your freedom but your sense of honor and dignity of living in a nation that has placed unity and service and the freedom to be who you are without inciting hatred or fear of the unknown.  But what you saw or read from the stage last night in Cleveland was not a call to the nation that holds those values.  It was a call to give them over to someone who cannot even convince himself that being a leader in America is not about him and his glorification and the trappings of power but the dedication to the finding the best in every one of us.  That is the one thing you did not hear from that stage in Cleveland last night.

Trump Stage 07-22-16

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Dictating A Message

Even a cursory stroll through history will show you how dictators come to power.  They find something scary — usually an abstract like Communism or “those people” — and make you either afraid of them or threaten you with them.  They invariably lie about the threat, blowing it way out of proportion, or just make shit up; whatever it takes to scare you.  Then they tell you that they are the only person who can save you and the world from them.  That’s human nature; in small doses, that’s how advertising works.  And you buy into it.  That’s how you win elections.

That’s also how Donald Trump won the Republican primary and how he’s campaigning for president.

Josh Marshall:

Trump claimed that people – “some people” – called for a moment of silence for mass killer Micah Johnson, the now deceased mass shooter who killed five police officers in Dallas on Thursday night. There is no evidence this ever happened. Searches of the web and social media showed no evidence. Even Trump’s campaign co-chair said today that he can’t come up with any evidence that it happened. As in the case of the celebrations over the fall of the twin towers, even to say there’s ‘no evidence’ understates the matter. This didn’t happen. Trump made it up.

The language is important: “When somebody called for a moment of silence to this maniac that shot the five police, you just see what’s going on. It’s a very, very sad situation.”

Then later at the Indiana rally: “The other night you had 11 cities potentially in a blow-up stage. Marches all over the United States—and tough marches. Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac! And some people ask for a moment of silence for him. For the killer!”

A would-be strong man, an authoritarian personality, isn’t just against disorder and violence. They need disorder and violence. That is their raison d’etre, it is the problem that they are purportedly there to solve. The point bears repeating: authoritarian figures require violence and disorder. Look at the language. “11 cities potentially in a blow up stage” .. “Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac!” … “And some people ask for a moment of silence for him. For the killer.”

At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, if you translate the German, the febrile and agitated language of ‘hatred’, ‘anger’, ‘maniac’ … this is the kind of florid and incendiary language Adolf Hitler used in many of his speeches. Note too the actual progression of what Trump said: “Marches all over the United States – and tough marches. Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac!” (emphasis added).

The clear import of this fusillade of words is that the country is awash in militant protests that were inspired by Micah Johnson. “Started by …”

We’re used to so much nonsense and so many combustible tirades from Trump that we become partly inured to them. We also don’t slow down and look at precisely what he’s saying. What he’s saying here is that millions of African-Americans are on the streets inspired by and protesting on behalf of a mass murderer of white cops.

This is not simply false. It is the kind of wild racist incitement that puts whole societies in danger. And this man wants to be president.

Donald Trump is certainly not the first presidential candidate to use this tactic, even in my own lifetime.  Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and Barry Goldwater all tried to scare the electorate by pointing at Others and warning of their nefarious schemes, but only Gov. Wallace emanated the whiff of fascism and hatred.  Nixon was tortured by his own self-doubt and paranoid demons to embrace the ego-centrism that being a dictator requires, and Barry Goldwater couldn’t keep up the act.  Ronald Reagan, even in his most cynical, couldn’t pull off the scary-face agitator, and I imagine that if he were around today he’d be horrified by the pessimism and America-bashing that Mr. Trump indulges in in order to get people to see him as their Savior.

He’s already proved that there’s no lie too big, no threat too small, no insult too outrageous to hurl to win the election.  And he doesn’t even have the formal nomination yet.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sunday Reading

A Long Line — Bill Moyers and Michael Winship on the history of American demagogues.

There’s a virus infecting our politics and right now it’s flourishing with a scarlet heat. It feeds on fear, paranoia and bigotry. All that was required for it to spread was a timely opportunity — and an opportunist with no scruples.

There have been stretches of history when this virus lay dormant. Sometimes it would flare up here and there, then fade away after a brief but fierce burst of fever. At other moments, it has spread with the speed of a firestorm, a pandemic consuming everything in its path, sucking away the oxygen of democracy and freedom.

Today its carrier is Donald Trump, but others came before him: narcissistic demagogues who lie and distort in pursuit of power and self-promotion. Bullies all, swaggering across the landscape with fistfuls of false promises, smears, innuendo and hatred for others, spite and spittle for anyone of a different race, faith, gender or nationality.

In America, the virus has taken many forms: “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, the South Carolina governor and senator who led vigilante terror attacks with a gang called the Red Shirts and praised the efficiency of lynch mobs; radio’s charismatic Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist Catholic priest who reached an audience of up to 30 million with his attacks on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal; Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who vilified ethnic minorities and deplored the “mongrelization” of the white race; Louisiana’s corrupt and dictatorial Huey Long, who promised to make “Every Man a King.” And of course, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama and four-time presidential candidate who vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Note that many of these men leavened their gospel of hate and their lust for power with populism — giving the people hospitals, schools and highways. Father Coughlin spoke up for organized labor. Both he and Huey Long campaigned for the redistribution of wealth. Tillman even sponsored the first national campaign-finance reform law, the Tillman Act, in 1907, banning corporate contributions to federal candidates.

But their populism was tinged with poison — a pernicious nativism that called for building walls to keep out people and ideas they didn’t like.

Which brings us back to Trump and the hotheaded, ego-swollen provocateur he most resembles: Joseph McCarthy, US senator from Wisconsin — until now perhaps our most destructive demagogue. In the 1950s, this madman terrorized and divided the nation with false or grossly exaggerated tales of treason and subversion — stirring the witches’ brew of anti-Communist hysteria with lies and manufactured accusations that ruined innocent people and their families. “I have here in my hand a list,” he would claim — a list of supposed Reds in the State Department or the military. No one knew whose names were there, nor would he say, but it was enough to shatter lives and careers.

In the end, McCarthy was brought down. A brave journalist called him out on the same television airwaves that helped the senator become a powerful, national sensation. It was Edward R. Murrow, and at the end of an episode exposing McCarthy on his CBS series See It NowMurrow said:

“It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”

There also was the brave and moral lawyer Joseph Welch, acting as chief counsel to the US Army after it was targeted for one of McCarthy’s inquisitions. When McCarthy smeared one of his young associates, Welch responded in full view of the TV and newsreel cameras during hearings in the Senate. “You’ve done enough,” Welch said. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?… If there is a God in heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further.”

It was a devastating moment. Finally, McCarthy’s fellow senators — including a handful of brave Republicans — turned on him, putting an end to the reign of terror. It was 1954. A motion to censure McCarthy passed 67-22, and the junior senator from Wisconsin was finished. He soon disappeared from the front pages, and three years later was dead.

Here’s something McCarthy said that could have come straight out of the Trump playbook: “McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled.” Sounds just like The Donald, right? Interestingly, you can draw a direct line from McCarthy to Trump — two degrees of separation. In a Venn diagram of this pair, the place where the two circles overlap, the person they share in common is a fellow named Roy Cohn.

Cohn was chief counsel to McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the same one Welch went up against. Cohn was McCarthy’s henchman, a master of dark deeds and dirty tricks. When McCarthy fell, Cohn bounced back to his hometown of New York and became a prominent Manhattan wheeler-dealer, a fixer representing real estate moguls and mob bosses — anyone with the bankroll to afford him. He worked for Trump’s father, Fred, beating back federal prosecution of the property developer, and several years later would do the same for Donald. “If you need someone to get vicious toward an opponent,” Trump told a magazine reporter in 1979, “you get Roy.” To another writer he said, “Roy was brutal but he was a very loyal guy.”

Cohn introduced Trump to his McCarthy-like methods of strong-arm manipulation and to the political sleazemeister Roger Stone, another dirty trickster and unofficial adviser to Trump who just this week suggested that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin was a disloyal American who may be a spy for Saudi Arabia, a “terrorist agent.”

Cohn also introduced Trump to the man who is now his campaign chair, Paul Manafort, the political consultant and lobbyist who without a moral qualm in the world has made a fortune representing dictators — even when their interests flew in the face of human rights or official US policy.

So the ghost of Joseph McCarthy lives on in Donald Trump as he accuses President Obama of treason, slanders women, mocks people with disabilities and impugns every politician or journalist who dares call him out for the liar and bamboozler he is. The ghosts of all the past American demagogues live on in him as well, although none of them have ever been so dangerous — none have come as close to the grand prize of the White House.

Because even a pathological liar occasionally speaks the truth, Trump has given voice to many who feel they’ve gotten a raw deal from establishment politics, who see both parties as corporate pawns, who believe they have been cheated by a system that produces enormous profits from the labor of working men and women that are gobbled up by the 1 percent at the top. But again, Trump’s brand of populism comes with venomous race-baiting that spews forth the red-hot lies of a forked and wicked tongue.

We can hope for journalists with the courage and integrity of an Edward R. Murrow to challenge this would-be tyrant, to put the truth to every lie and publicly shame the devil for his outrages. We can hope for the likes of Joseph Welch, who demanded to know whether McCarthy had any sense of decency. Think of Gonzalo Curiel, the jurist Trump accused of persecuting him because of the judge’s Mexican heritage. Curiel has revealed the soulless little man behind the curtain of Trump’s alleged empire, the avaricious money-grubber who conned hard-working Americans out of their hard-won cash to attend his so-called “university.”

And we can hope there still remain in the Republican Party at least a few brave politicians who will stand up to Trump, as some did McCarthy. This might be a little harder. For every Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham who have announced their opposition to Trump, there is a weaselly Paul Ryan, a cynical Mitch McConnell and a passel of fellow travelers up and down the ballot who claim not to like Trump and who may not wholeheartedly endorse him but will vote for him in the name of party unity.

As this headline in The Huffington Post aptly put it, “Republicans Are Twisting Themselves Into Pretzels To Defend Donald Trump.” Ten GOP senators were interviewed about Trump and his attack on Judge Curiel’s Mexican heritage. Most hemmed and hawed about their presumptive nominee. As Trump “gets to reality on things he’ll change his point of view and be, you know, more responsible.” That was Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. Trump’s comments were “racially toxic” but “don’t give me any pause.” That was Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Republican African-American in the Senate. And Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas? He said Trump’s words were “unfortunate.” Asked if he was offended, Jennifer Bendery writes, the senator “put his fingers to his lips, gestured that he was buttoning them shut, and shuffled away.”

No profiles in courage there.  But why should we expect otherwise? Their acquiescence, their years of kowtowing to extremism in the appeasement of their base, have allowed Trump and his nightmarish sideshow to steal into the tent and take over the circus. Alexander Pope once said that party spirit is at best the madness of the many for the gain of a few. A kind of infection, if you will — a virus that spreads through the body politic, contaminating all. Trump and his ilk would sweep the promise of America into the dustbin of history unless they are exposed now to the disinfectant of sunlight, the cleansing torch of truth. Nothing else can save us from the dark age of unreason that would arrive with the triumph of Donald Trump.

Buy Out  — Alexia Fernandez Campbell in The Atlantic on those of us who refuse to retire.

The term “gray-haired professor” may seem like a cliché, but there’s some truth to it. Academia has long had a disproportionate number of employees older than 65, and the average American professor is getting even older.The share of people older than 65 teaching full time at American colleges and universities nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010. College professors are now among the oldest Americans in the workforce. Job satisfaction, job protection due to tenure, and concern about their retirement nest eggs are all reasons they cite for sticking around longer. And while their experience is valuable in its own way, the cost of paying senior professors in an era of rising expenses and shrinking endowments has led universities to borrow a budget-cutting strategy from the corporate world: buyouts.A growing number of private and public universities are resorting to offering large sums of money to faculty and staff in exchange for early retirement (or, if they prefer, heading back to the job market). In the past year alone, Oberlin College here in Oberlin, Ohio; the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; and the University of North Dakota, all offered some sort of voluntary separation-incentive deal to faculty members.

John Barnshaw, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Professors, says the financial crises of 2008 dealt a big blow to universities, which had invested much of their endowments in stocks and other financial products. “They started paying very close attention to their portfolios in a way they never have done,” says Barnshaw. “One of the ways they saw to save money was to offer retirement packages.”Oberlin College, an exclusive liberal arts college about 45 minutes from Cleveland, is testing out this cost-cutting strategy. I recently spoke to the president, Marvin Krislov, about the unexpected, end-of-semester buyout, which was offered to about a third of the faculty. Krislov says the college needs to offset expensive health-care costs and employee salaries. Additionally, he says that Oberlin’s commitment to offering grants and financial help to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds is a source of financial stress. Nearly half of Oberlin’s students receive some sort of financial aid. Tuition and fees, without aid, is about $50,000 a year.This is the first time the college has offered early retirement packages, says Krislov. Since about 90 percent of faculty is tenured, many end up working way past the traditional retirement age of 65. “[The buyouts] allow us to have more predictability in knowing who is going to be working and until when,” he says.

To take the buyout, employees must be at least 52 years old and must have worked at Oberlin for at least 10 years. The college will then pay their salaries for a year after they leave and waive health insurance premiums during that time.

One reason academia has seen so much aging has to do with federal law. In 1986, Congress barred employers from enforcing mandatory retirement ages, but colleges and universities were exempt for a while. They were able to impose a retirement age of 70 until the exemption expired in 1993. A recent survey of college professors now shows that 60 percent plan to work past the age of 70.

The buyout programs seem like a direct path to reducing the numbers of most highly paid employees. But it also poses a risk: When those professors leave, their tenure-track positions may be replaced with non-tenure-track ones, meaning that over time, the number of tenured positions on campus could plummet. Though tenure has its detractors, it also serves a valuable purpose: Tenured faculty can’t be fired without just cause, which is meant to foster academic freedom and innovation. The rise of tenured positions in the United States was a response to McCarthyism, when university professors were fired for real or imagined ties to the Communist Party.Over the years, the share of tenured teaching positions has been shrinking, while the percentage of part-time positions has increased. A report from the American Association of University Professors shows that, in the past 40 years, the percentage of professors in full-time, tenured positions dropped by 26 percent and tenure-track positions dropped by 50 percent. Meanwhile, academia has seen a 62 percent jump in full-time, non-tenure-track positions and a 70 percent jump in part-time teaching positions. Today, the majority of academic positions are part-time jobs.“Our concern is that those tenure-track jobs are not being replaced. That they are just hiring a bunch of part-time professors,” says Barnshaw.

At Oberlin, Krislov says he will not replace full-time, tenured positions with part-time jobs. But he might move positions to departments with more in-demand fields, though he wouldn’t say which ones.

One tenured professor taking the buyout at Oberlin is Roger Copeland, who has been teaching dance and theater there for 41 years. The 66-year-old professor (whose former students include Girls creator Lena Dunham) said he was surprised to get the offer as the semester came to an end.

“I was completely dumbfounded,” said Copeland, a few hours before signing the separation agreement. “I don’t think anybody suspected that the [financial] situation could be so bad.”

Copeland hadn’t plan to retire for at least another four years, but said he couldn’t pass up the deal. He says he understands why the college is doing it, and thinks it will inject the faculty with fresh blood and new ideas. “For what they pay me, they can get two people out of grad school,” he says.

About 85 people so far have accepted the buyout (16 are professors and all are tenured; the rest are administrative and professional staff), representing about 25 percent of all eligible employees, Krislov says. He expects this to save the college about $3 million per year, depending on how many positions are replaced. According to him, the goal isn’t to replace tenured professors with non-tenure-track faculty. “Our commitment to tenure and tenured professors is iron clad,” he says.

Your Prairie Home Companion — Cara Buckley on the retiring Garrison Keillor.

ST. PAUL, MINN. — Garrison Keillor was riding shotgun in a rented Chevy, motoring east through the steamy Midwestern heat.

His linen suit was appropriately rumpled — everything about this public radio legend suggests disregard for crisp lines — and his gangly legs were jacked up against the glove box, as he resisted suggestions to slide his seat back. Hitching a ride with a reporter from Minneapolis to his home here, he filled the yawning silences with a weird little singsong, “bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp.”

He had just spent hours rehearsing for the following night, May 21, when he hosted “A Prairie Home Companion,” at the State Theater in Minneapolis, before a packed, adoring crowd for the last time.

After more than four decades of hosting this homespun Americana musical variety program, which he created and which, in turn, created him, Mr. Keillor is retiring. He has done this before, in 1987, though that retirement ended up being a sabbatical. In 2011, there were rumors — baseless, Mr. Keillor’s people said — that he was thinking of abandoning ship then, too.

But this time, Mr. Keillor, 73, said he means it. He has named a successor and lined up meaty post-“Prairie” projects, among them columns for The Washington Post, a screenplay and a book. While he has a solo tour planned through the year, along with a “Prairie”-esque Labor Day weekend show at the Minnesota State Fair, he will host his final official “Prairie Home Companion” on July 1 at, of all places, the Hollywood Bowl.

“It’s very much real, and it’s simply a matter of wanting to rearrange one’s life,” Mr. Keillor said after we had arrived at his large, handsome Georgian house, and he had eased his stooping 6-foot-4 frame into a porch chair. “In order to do these things, I’ve got to clear out the big buffalo in the room, which is the show.”

At his home, Mr. Keillor looms, a melancholy presence, and doesn’t make much eye contact, keeping his bespectacled eyes averted under scraggly eyebrows. Rather than savor the conversation, he seems to cordially endure it. His mellifluous voice, likened to a down comforter or “a slow drip of Midwestern molasses,” feels warmly familiar to any public radio listener who has heard him sing “Tishomingo Blues,” which opens his show each Saturday evening.

Yet as familiar and cherished as “Prairie” has become to millions, it was always about Mr. Keillor’s fascinations, rather than the inner tickings of its host.

“It was never about self expression, never,” Mr. Keillor said.

Everything about “Prairie Home” — the Guy Noir and Lives of the Cowboys sketches, the spots for Powdermilk Biscuits and the Ketchup Advisory Board, the monologues about the fictional Lake Wobegon — sprang from Mr. Keillor’s imagination. But the man spinning the plates at the center of it all managed to stay a mystery, even to people who know him well.

“Garrison in person is quite different,” said his longtime friend, the writer Mark Singer. “Garrison does not express emotion in interpersonal conversations the way the rest of us do.”

Performers often cultivate alternate personas, but with Mr. Keillor the difference is startling. That night, onstage in Minneapolis, he was garrulous and affable, and afterward ventured out onto the sidewalk to meet his hundreds-strong admirers, many of whom feel they know him intimately.

As fans flocked around him, Mr. Keillor graciously deflected questions, directing queries back to the scrum. This helps him gather story ideas but also serves as a bridge from his onstage personality to his default setting, the introverted, removed man who seems miles away, even when you’re sitting two feet from him on his porch, eating the jelly beans he has set out.

“His gaze is often floating and takes you in from a strange distance,” said the writer and editor Roger Angell, who in 1970 edited Mr. Keillor’s first piece for The New Yorker. “He is certainly the strangest person I know.”

There is debate about whether Mr. Keillor should have exited a while ago. His weekly radio audience peaked 10 years ago, at 4.1 million, and has since dropped to 3.2 million. While that does not include listeners on Sirius XM, or the show’s three million monthly digital requests, many stations have dropped their Sunday repeat broadcast of his show.

“Prairie Home” captured a time, before tweets and Facebook posts, when people talked more over fence posts and pots of coffee but nowadays feels increasingly removed from many listeners’ lives.

“A lot of the conversation has been: ‘Did Garrison wait too long? Should Garrison have done this years ago?’” said Eric Nuzum, former vice president for programming at NPR. “The problem of ‘Prairie Home Companion’ is it’s part of public radio’s past, not their future,” Mr. Nuzum said. (American Public Media distributes “Prairie Home”; NPR member stations air programs from APM as well as from other distributors.)

Still, Mr. Keillor played an outsize role in shaping what public radio has become.

He was a pioneering force and taught public radio valuable lessons, Mr. Nuzum said. The live performances and touring built audiences and kept them connected and deeply loyal. That proved lucrative, as did sales of “Prairie Home Companion” recordings, books, clothes and tchotchkes. Mr. Keillor also became one of public radio’s earliest celebrities, appearing on the cover of Time in 1985.

“‘Prairie Home Companion’ came on the scene just as public radio was trying to figure out what its identity was,” said Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life.” “The fact that here was such a visibly weird, funny, idiosyncratic show opened up the space of other weird, idiosyncratic shows, like ‘Car Talk,’ and our show.”

Adored as he has been by millions, Mr. Keillor drove a few critics around the bend.

Detractors view “Prairie Home” as excruciatingly hokey, syrupy and dull. In a 1993 episode of “The Simpsons,” Homer bangs on the television — the Disney Channel broadcast the show in the late ’80s — hollering, “Be more funny!” In a withering review of Robert Altman’s 2006 film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” Rex Reed called Mr. Keillor “a myopic doughboy” and his program “a lumbering, affected and pointless audio curiosity.”

Yet Mr. Glass believes that many people mistake “Prairie Home” for quaint, homespun nostalgia, even though the tales from Lake Wobegon are, as often as not, richly emotional, contemporary and quite dark.

In recent monologues, Mr. Keillor has lambasted the gun lobby, told of people’s relatives being buried alive and mentioned a would-be suicidal woman left bald after she accidentally set her hair on fire in her gas oven, a presumably fictitious anecdote that is trademark Keillor: equal parts alarming, heartbreaking and funny.

“Like Howard Stern, Garrison Keillor created a packaging that nonlisteners took as real,” Mr. Glass said. “And the actual show is so much more complex, and human and complicated than nonlisteners think it is.”

Mr. Keillor has had health concerns, suffering a stroke in 2009, and, less than a week after the Minneapolis show, a seizure. But he insists it’s his other projects that compelled him to step away. After July, he will continue to have a small radio foothold, hosting “The Writer’s Almanac,” a stand-alone five-minute radio program he started in the early ’90s. And “Prairie Home” reruns will continue to air. Jon McTaggart, chief executive of American Public Media Group, the parent of American Public Media, said that as much as “Prairie Home” contributed financially, he has faith in the allure of the new version of the show and that “this transition has been planned for a while.”

Still, the future of “Prairie Home Companion,” and public radio, without Mr. Keillor remains somewhat of an open question.

Mr. Keillor’s handpicked successor, the folk musician Chris Thile, 35, who first performed on the show as a teenager, cheerfully admitted in an interview that it could all go down the drain if audiences reject him after he begins hosting on Oct. 15. Details are still being hammered out, but Mr. Thile plans to do musical numbers and comedy bits. There will be no Lake Wobegon.

 Doonesbury — Nobody knows more.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Yes, It Can Happen Here — Part II

Back in December I wrote:

In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel titled It Can’t Happen Here about  Senator Buzz Windrip who rose to popularity and became President of the United States by running on a ticket of social and economic reforms and a return to patriotism and traditional values.  After he’s elected he imposes a plutocratic/fascist regime with the help of a paramilitary force called the Minute Men, much like Hitler’s SS.  The title of the book comes from the idea that such an event can’t really happen in America.

Yes, it can.  We’ve gotten close on several occasions, most recently in the mid-1930’s when, out of the depths of the Depression and in the fear of Bolshevism in Europe, Huey Long — on whom Lewis based Windrip — came very close to running for president in 1936 only to be stopped by an assassin in 1935.  And now Donald Trump is doing it again, and if yesterday’s declaration of banning the admission of “every” Muslim, including American citizens coming back from a trip to Toronto, is any indication, he’s just getting warmed up.  He’s already demonized blacks, veterans, the disabled, women, and anyone who raises an objection to his rhetoric, so of course picking on the religion that is being portrayed as the enemy — another pickup from you-know-who — is the next step.

Robert Kagan at the Washington Post continues the thought.

…To understand how such movements take over a democracy, one only has to watch the Republican Party today. These movements play on all the fears, vanities, ambitions and insecurities that make up the human psyche. In democracies, at least for politicians, the only thing that matters is what the voters say they want — vox populi vox Dei. A mass political movement is thus a powerful and, to those who would oppose it, frightening weapon. When controlled and directed by a single leader, it can be aimed at whomever the leader chooses. If someone criticizes or opposes the leader, it doesn’t matter how popular or admired that person has been. He might be a famous war hero, but if the leader derides and ridicules his heroism, the followers laugh and jeer. He might be the highest-ranking elected guardian of the party’s most cherished principles. But if he hesitates to support the leader, he faces political death.

In such an environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories — and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.


This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.

Don’t say we haven’t been warned, and based on the response by some Trump supporters, it needs to be taken seriously.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Know Your Dictators

Josh Marshall looks back to which dictator Donald Trump is emulating.

As long as we’re on to the subject of fascist dictators and Donald Trump being compared to Adolf Hitler in major urban newspapers, I thought I should speak up on behalf of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as the true proto-Trump.

trump-mussoliniMussolini wasn’t just a fascist dictator. He was the fascist dictator. Indeed, he’s the only fascist dictator. As I noted a few days ago, “fascism” – for mainly decent reasons – became a catch-all phrase used to refer to various rightist authoritarian movements and regimes, in some cases explicitly drawing inspiration from each other, of the first half of the 20th century. Later the term evolved into an ever vaguer phrase which highly agitated people on the far left and far right use to yell at people about. But fascism was a specifically Italian political movement. And Mussolini was its creator and leader.

Mussolini never really held a candle to Adolf Hitler in terms of barbarity and killing. Indeed, after consolidating power through a mix of constitutional revisions, extra-legal violence and secret police, Mussolini made some effort to rebrand himself as a respectable world statesman in the late 20s and early 30s, ditching the paramilitary uniforms for suits. (Later, for a mix of reasons including the economic challenges of the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler, he swerved back in the other direction.) But what really makes the Trump comparison in my mind is the mix of personal manner, cynicism and narcissism.


Mussolini’s speeches have a mix of melodramatic chest-puffing, hands at the waist swagger, hints of humor, hands to the crowd to calm themselves no matter how excited they are. Frankly, they’re almost operatic in nature. The mix of violent rhetoric with folksy hypotheticals and humorous jabs unites the two men quite nicely.

The problem of course is that Trump has trended in an increasingly racist and xenophobic direction as his campaign has gone on. But that was never really Mussolini’s thing. The Nazi fetishization of race was basically foreign to fascist ideology. And Italian fascism was not anti-Semitic … except after 1938. That’s when Mussolini moved into full alliance with Nazi Germany, a movement he had once seen as a protege and then as a rival, and remade much of his movement (which had by then been in power for fifteen years) on the Nazi model, importing its own version of Nazi anti-Semitic laws and various new racialist policies. Mussolini’s regime was explicitly anti-Semitic from 1938 to its fall in 1943, though there’s a fair of amount of historical debate about how actively it pursued those policies. When he nominally ruled a Nazi puppet state in Northern Italy after the collapse of the fascist regime, the Final Solution was given full rein.

In other words, Mussolini’s embrace of racism and anti-Semitism appears to have been cynical and opportunistic. But this works as an analog to Trump since I continue to believe that Trump’s embrace of racism, anti-Mexican immigrant bigotry and Islamophobia is largely opportunistic. My only hesitation in calling it cynical is that I think Trump may be the type who, once he finds something convenient to say, then starts to believe it. Once Trump says something it carries the Trump brand. And to Trump everything with the Trump brand is right and amazing. So possibly his mix of arrogance and narcissism, by an alchemical process, make it genuine rather than cynical. I’m out of my depth in analyzing that particular question. But however that may be, let’s look to Mussolini as our Trump progenitor of choice.

This goes beyond name-calling and “separated at birth?” photo-shopping.  It has to do with exploitation, manipulation, and opportunism.  People who feel threatened, be it real or imagined, will gravitate to someone who promises to protect them and make it all better.  We see that in children who clutch to their imprinted adult figure; as adolescents it’s the herd or the social group, and as nominal adults it’s the like-minded; those who share our same fears.  It works well when there is genuinely something to fear, such as economic collapse or imminent physical danger, but it works even better in the abstract; what Franklin Roosevelt saw as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  It’s a lot easier to get people on your side when you can talk about “radical Islam” as if it was lurking under their bed and you’re the one who will chase it away rather than recognize that it is was our own folly and arrogance that created the climate for it to grow.

Like all dictators, Mr. Trump turns a problem such as the immigration of refugees or the rise of a religious dictatorship out of the rubble of war we created and turns it into a threat.  That’s because without a threat he would have nothing to run on.  He does not offer solutions for the root cause of the problem and a way forward; he speaks in vague generalities and promises “wonderful” results without saying how he’d get there.

Mr. Trump is not the least bit interested in actually solving the problem.  He’s only interested in pointing it out and making us afraid of it.  (HT Aaron Sorkin.)  That’s how dictators grow and swagger.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

It Is What It Is

David Niewart traces the history of America’s flirtation with fascism and Donald Trump’s cuddling up to it.

…Fascistic elements and tendencies have always been part of America’s DNA. Indeed, it can be said that some of the worst traits of fascism in Europe were borrowed from their American exemplars – particularly the eliminationist tendencies, manifested first in the form of racial and ethnic segregation, and ultimately in genocidal violence.

Hitler acknowledged at various times his admiration for the American genocide against Native Americans, as well as the segregationist policies of the Jim Crow regime in the South (on which the Nuremberg Race Lawswere modeled) and the threat of the lynch mob embodied in the Ku Klux Klan. According to Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler was “passionately interested in the Ku Klux Klan. … He seemed to think it was a political movement similar to his own.” And indeed it was.

Despite the long-running presence of these elements, though, America has never yet given way to fascism. No doubt some of this, in the past half-century at least, was primarily fueled by the natural human recoil that occurred when we got to witness the end result of these tendencies when given the chance to rule by someone like Hitler – namely, the Holocaust. We learned to be appalled by racial and ethnic hatred, by segregation and eliminationism, because we saw the pile of corpses that they produced, and fled in terror.

Those of us who study fascism not just as a historical phenomenon, but as a living and breathing phenomenon that has always previously maintained a kind of half-life on the fringes of the American right, have come to understand that it is both a complex and a simple phenomenon: in one sense, it resembles a dynamic human psychological pathology in that it’s comprised of a complex constellation of traits that are interconnected and whose presence and importance rise and fall according to the stages of development it goes through; and in another, it can in many ways be boiled down to the raw, almost feral imposition of the organized violent will of an angry and fear-ridden human id upon the rest of humankind.

That’s where Donald Trump comes in.

In many ways, Trump’s fascistic-seeming presidential campaign fills in many of the components of that complex constellation of traits that comprises real fascism. Perhaps the most significant of these is the one component that has been utterly missing previously in American forms of fascism: the charismatic leader around whom the fascist troops can rally, the one who voices their frustrations and garners followers like flies.

Scholars of fascist politics have remarked previously that America has been fortunate for most of its history not to have had such a figure rise out of the ranks of their fascist movements. And in the case of Donald Trump, that remains true – he has no background or history as a white supremacist or proto-fascist, nor does he actually express their ideologies.

Rather, what he is doing is mustering the latent fascist tendencies in American politics – some of it overtly white supremacist, while the majority of it is the structural racism and white privilege that springs from the nation’s extensive white-supremacist historical foundations – on his own behalf. He is merrily leading us down the path towards a fascist state even without being himself an overt fascist.

The reality that Trump is not a bona fide fascist himself does not make him any less dangerous. In some ways, it makes him more so, because it disguises the swastika looming in the shadow of the flamboyant orange hair. It camouflages the throng of ravening wolves he’s riding in upon.

Read the whole article.  Then stop telling yourself that even if Mr. Trump doesn’t get the Republican nomination that he or his beliefs and tactics will go away.  They are a part of us and always will be.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Explain This

Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS) basically destroyed the Kansas economy with his supply-side trickle-down dead-Reagan policies.  The result was that he became very unpopular with a broad spectrum of the population of the state and it looked like he would be given the bum’s rush when he was up for re-election in 2014.  Yet he survived and continued on with his slash-and-burn and now has an 18% approval rating.  Barack Obama is more popular in the Sunflower State.

So notes Josh Marshall, who adds “it tells you a lot about the polarization, governmental dysfunction and the breakdown of much of the political process in this country.”

It happened in Florida.  Rick Scott was re-elected despite a dismal performance and wilting support even among Republicans, but he had the good fortune to run against Charlie Crist, who was running as a former Republican turned independent turned Democrat and perpetual opportunist.  But in other states as well such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Maine where, despite garbage policies that damaged the state, the incumbent Republican was re-elected.  Naturally they assumed that what they had wrought was both good and had the approval of the electorate.  Carry on!

In most cases, however, it’s not that simple.  They won re-election not because they had blanket approval for what they had done, but for what they held out as both a promise and a threat.  It went something like this: “Yes, we’ve been through some tough times, but we’re not done yet; we’re this close to being done.  If you stop me now, it will never get finished.”  Anyone who’s had a kitchen make-over has heard that line from the slow-moving contractor who six weeks into the job has torn everything down to the foundation and you’re still eating Lean Cuisine out of the microwave on the back porch.  So you sigh, write another check, and eat another helping of frozen ravioli.

The threat comes from the never-failing fear of the abstract unknown.  Sure, they may have ruined the public schools by cutting taxes to nothing, but what about those gays getting married?  Which is worse, shorter school years or Adam and Steve?  This is Thomas Frank’s theory in What’s the Matter with Kansas? being proved not just in Kansas but everywhere else.

We are seeing it played out now in the candidacy of Donald Trump.  His appeal to the base is visceral and founded on the natural human instinct that all dictators tap into: the fear of the unknown bolstered by undeserving exceptionalism.  We’re a great country, you’re great people, but there are boogeymen and elites who are out to destroy you; and I’m here to save you.  Trust me, I know all the answers, and even if I can’t articulate them, I still know how to scare the crap out of you.  It rarely fails.  History is littered with dictators who won election by overwhelming margins.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Caught Napping

Talk about a tough boss

North Korea has executed its defence chief on treason charges, Seoul’s National Intelligence Service was quoted as telling lawmakers, in the latest of a series of high-level purges since Kim Jong Un took power after his father’s death in 2011.

Hyon Yong Chol, who heads the isolated country’s military, was purged and then executed by firing squad with an antiaircraft gun, watched by hundreds of people, South Korean media reported on Wednesday, citing the NIS’s comments to a parliamentary panel.

Hyon, who spoke at a security conference in Moscow in April, was said to have shown disrespect to Kim by dozing off at a military event, media said, citing the agency briefing.

A firing squad with an antiaircraft gun?  I guess they didn’t want to bury him, either.

Monday, August 25, 2014

“Have Fun Slaughtering Your People”

What do you do when you’re a former prime minister and need a few quid to keep the polish on the Bentley?  Why, if you’re Tony Blair you sell your advice and what’s left of any decency to the highest bidder and help them get out of a rough PR patch.

Tony Blair gave Kazakhstan’s autocratic president advice on how to manage his image after the slaughter of unarmed civilians protesting against his regime.

In a letter to Nursultan Nazarbayev, obtained by The Telegraph, Mr Blair told the Kazakh president that the deaths of 14 protesters “tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress” his country had made.

Mr Blair, who is paid millions of pounds a year to give advice to Mr Nazarbayev, goes on to suggest key passages to insert into a speech the president was giving at the University of Cambridge, to defend the action.

Mr Blair is paid through his private consultancy, Tony Blair Associates (TBA), which he set up after leaving Downing Street in 2007. TBA is understood to deploy a number of consultants in key ministries in Kazakhstan.

Human rights activists accuse Mr Blair of acting “disgracefully” in bolstering Mr Nazarbayev’s credibility on the world stage in return for millions of pounds.

The letter was sent in July 2012, ahead of a speech being given later that month by Mr Nazarbayev at the University of Cambridge.

A few months earlier, on December 16 and 17 2011, at least 14 protesters were shot and killed and another 64 wounded by Kazakhstan’s security services in the oil town of Zhanaozen. Other protesters, mainly striking oil workers, were rounded up and allegedly tortured.

Mr Blair had begun working for Mr Nazarbayev in November 2011, just a few weeks before the massacre.

In the letter, sent on note-paper headed Office of Tony Blair, Mr Blair wrote: “Dear Mr President, here is a suggestion for a paragraph to include in the Cambridge speech. I think it best to meet head on the Zhanaozen issue. The fact is you have made changes following it; but in any event these events, tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made. Dealing with it [the massacre] in the way I suggest, is the best way for the western media. It will also serve as a quote that can be used in the future setting out the basic case for Kazakhstan.”

In his own handwriting, Mr Blair added at the bottom of the letter: “With very best wishes. I look forward to seeing you in London! Yours ever Tony Blair.”

It’s all one big episode of “Mad Men” for these people.

HT to FC.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Birds of a Feather

North Korea congratulates Syria on their election results.

“Supreme leader Kim Jong Un Thursday sent a congratulatory message to Bashar Al-Assad upon his re-election as president of Syria,” KCNA, the communist country’s state media outlet, said in a short article released on Thursday. “The message extended warm congratulations to him upon his re-election as president of Syria thanks to the support and trust of the Syrian people.”

Venezuela, that other paragon of democracy, also sent a bouquet.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Good, The Vlad, and The Ugly

Conservatives have accused Barack Obama of being a ruthless dictator, stomping all over their rights and planning merciless attacks on freedom and freedom-lovers.  That’s when they’re not calling him a weak and feckless pansy afraid to ride a bike without a helmet.  But apparently not all ruthless dictators are bad.  In fact, when asked, some conservatives would rather have Vladimir Putin as president.

It’s an absurd question, of course. But it’s one the conservative website The Daily Caller kind of asked when it put out an “URGENT NEWS POLL” asking: “Who would make a better president? Obama or Putin?”

Rather than wait for the answers, The Huffington Post decided to do the field work. We spoke to a dozen attendees out in the hall, showing them the Daily Caller’s webpage and asking them for a reaction. One person said she would take Obama over Putin. The majority was ambivalent, while a few talked themselves into the potential benefits of a Putin administration. Here are some of their answers.

Ed Porter: “I feel so uncomfortable answering. My instinct on that is: I don’t know. I would think Putin would be just as lawless, but he would have actual leadership and gravitas. It pains me to say it. But I’d go with him.”

John Rhodes: “Neither one. I would stay home. Putin has a long-term strategy. There is nothing we can do over Crimea and even then it is not worth it … It would be the first election I didn’t vote in.”

Emily Hillstrom: “I think Obama will still make a better president. Putin discriminates against people. He puts them in jail. I just don’t think he is a good leader. He also invaded Ukraine.”

Sarah Kelley: “I don’t know. Putin is a lot more forward with the way he does things.”

Conor (declined to give his last name): “Putin.”
Huffington Post: “But he puts people in jail.”
Conor: “So does Obama.”
Huffington Post: “But he just invaded a neighboring country.”
Conor: “So would Obama.”
Huffington Post: “But then why Putin, if they’re both bad?”
Conor: “Because, hope and change.”

Brent (asked for his last name not to be used): “Putin. He has done a stronger job of playing international politics.”

Conservatives have always admired dictators for their efficiency and strength as long as they agree with them.  After all, democracy is such a messy business with elections and separation of powers and all those checks and balances.  That’s no way to run a country.  Because freedom.

Bonus: Jon Stewart.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Monday, January 20, 2014

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Back/Looking Forward

Okay, campers, it’s time for my annual re-cap and prognostication for the past year and the year coming up.  Let’s see how I did a year ago.

– President Obama moves into his second term with pretty much the same situation in Washington and Congress as he has had for the last two years, so nothing will really get done.  The budget matters, including the fake drama of the Fiscal Cliff, will still be around in some form because it’s a lot easier to kick it down the road than actually do something, especially when you have a Republican Party that absolutely refuses to work with the president on anything at all.  It has nothing to do with policy, deficits or debt, taxes or revenue.  The reason is pretty simple: they don’t like him, and so like a kid in grade school who refuses to do his math homework because he hates the teacher, they refuse to budge.  You can pick your excuses, ranging from his Spock-like demeanor to his refusal to suck up to the Villagers, but most of it comes down to the unspoken reason that dare not speak its name: he’s black.  No one dares say that out loud, but get three beers in any Republican, and I’ll bet they’ll admit it by saying “He’s not one of us.”  How many dog whistles do you need?  A big tell was that in the last-minute budget negotiations, Mitch McConnell went to Vice President Joe Biden as the go-between the Congress and the president.  Why?  Because Mr. Biden was in the Senate and knows how to talk to them, and also because he’s the white guy.  So we will have another year of gridlock, and the new Congress will make the one just concluded look good.

That one was pretty easy, and I’m sorry I got it right.

– The Supreme Court will rule the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Prop 8 are unconstitutional.  It will be a very close vote, probably 5-4 on both cases, and they will narrowly rule on both cases, doing their best not to fling open the doors to marriage equality with a blanket ruling and leave the rest of it up to the states.  But they will both go down.  On the other hand, they will rule against Affirmative Action.  I also think there will be some changes to the make-up of the Court with at least one retirement, either voluntary or by the hand of fate.

Right on gay rights and marriage equality and a punt of Affirmative Action.  I had no idea about the decimation of the Voting Rights Act, but then who did?  And the court roster remains intact.

– Even if we went over the fiscal cliff or curb or speed-bump, the economy will continue to improve, with the unemployment rate going below 7% by Labor Day.  I know this only because I know that our economy, like the water level in the Great Lakes, goes in cycles no matter what the hand of Wall Street or Washington does… unless they completely screw it up like the last time and make it even worse.

A little too optimistic on the unemployment rate, but the economy really is getting better.

– After the extreme weather we saw in 2012, at long last we will move to do something about climate change or global warming or whatever it is fashionably called.  It won’t be done by Congress, however; it will be because the people who make a living off the climate, such as agriculture and coastal enterprises such as fishing and tourism, will make it happen through their own efforts.  (Yeah, I’m being extremely optimistic on this one.  A year from now I will happily concede I blew it.)

Blew it.

– The extremism from the right that entertained us in 2012 will continue, albeit muted because 2013 isn’t an election year except in New Jersey, where Chris Christie will be re-elected and start his Howard Dean-like campaign for the presidency in 2016.  The GOP will refuse to acknowledge they have a problem, but as 2014 looms and the wingers that were elected in 2010 face re-election, they will find themselves scrambling hard for candidates that can survive primary battles where the nutsery reigns and then win the general election.  The only reason Governors Rick Scott of Florida, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and John Kasich of Ohio will be re-elected in 2014 is if the Democrats don’t move in for the kill.

Not muted, and did not see Ted Cruz coming.  That’s not because he’s a formidable force to be reckoned with, but I thought that even the Republicans have their limits.  I guess not.

– I’ve given up predicting the Tigers’ future this year.  Surprise me, boys.

They did pretty well, and it was fun to see them live at Marlins Park.  But I was happy to see the Red Sox come from the cellar to the dome to win.

– We will lose the requisite number of celebrities and friends as life goes on. As I always say, it’s important to cherish them while they are with us.

Losing Nelson Mandela, Peter O’Toole and James Gandolfini in the same year was a shock, but we all lost friends and loved ones who did not get a spread in The New York Times.  I hold them in the Light.

– Personally, this year looks good on a couple of fronts.  The Pontiac is due back from the body shop this week, and I have formally entered it in its first national Antique Automobile of America car show to take place in Lakeland, Florida, in February.  Things are looking better at work with the Miami-Dade County Public Schools getting a number of important grants, including a $32 million program from Race To The Top for math preparation, and the District won the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education this past fall.  One of my short plays has been selected for production in May 2013 at the Lake Worth Playhouse’s Short Cuts series, and hope springs eternal for a full-scale production again of Can’t Live Without You here in Florida.  This time I have a good director who would love to do it if we can get a theatre.  I’ll be off to the William Inge Festival in May to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Inge’s birth, and plans are in the works for our annual trip to Stratford, Ontario, next summer.  My family continues to enjoy good health and good spirits.  The blessings continue.  (PS: No, I still don’t have a Twitter account.)

The Pontiac earned its first Driver Participation badge last February and goes for its second in February 2014.  Work continues to go on and the District is doing well: no F schools this year, a marked improvement over the last five years.  My short play, Ask Me Anything, has now been produced more times than any of my other full-length works (two on-stage and one directing project), and my writing continues.  It looks like our trip to Stratford in August was our last trip, simply because of relocation and logistics, but who knows?  My family continues to enjoy good health and good spirits.  And I finally have a Twitter account: @BobbyBBWW.

Now the predictions:

– Despite the terrible roll-out and start-up of Obamacare and the opportunity it handed the Republican campaign strategists, the healthcare law will not be as big an issue in the 2014 mid-terms that all the Villagers say it will be.  By the time the campaign hits the final stretch, the law will be so entrenched that even the people who claim they hate it — even though they support what it does — will have a hard time trying to run candidates who promise to repeal it.  Still, the GOP noise machine and Tea Party hard-core is locked in on re-electing their safe base and the morning after the 2014 mid-terms will show a House still in the hands of the GOP and the Senate closer to 50-50.

– Immigration reform and gun control will go nowhere because it’s the same Congress we had in 2013 and they didn’t do jack-shit.

– By December 31, 2014 it will be a foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton will be running for president.  Joe Biden will play coy with the Villagers about running, but in the end he’ll demur to Ms. Clinton.  The Benghazi! non-scandal will be long gone except for the nutsery who still think Barack Obama was born in Kenya.  The GOP will be lining up its merry band that includes Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, and just for laughs, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee.  President Obama’s approval numbers will be back up in the 50% range.

– Florida Gov. Rick Scott will lose his re-election bid to Charlie Crist, the newly minted Democrat, and Marco Rubio’s star will be as faded in GOP national politics as Pauly Shore’s is among Oscar voters.  He’ll pick up a primary challenge from the far right, but he’ll be safe in 2016 because the Democrats have nobody to run against him.

– Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan, and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania will all face tough re-election campaigns, but Mr. Kasich and Mr. Snyder will probably squeak by.  Mr. Corbett is out, and just for laughs, the people of Maine will toss their gaffe-prone Tea Party guv Paul LePage.

– The national economy will continue to expand and the drive for the living wage movement will take hold.  The unemployment numbers will finally get below 7.0% and stay there.

– Marriage equality will spread to more states as more cases based on the ruling by the Supreme Court in 2013 are heard.  Indiana will vote on a ban on same-sex marriage in November 2014, and it will lose narrowly. But same-sex won’t be the law of the land yet, and I predict that unless the Supreme Court issues a sweeping ruling, Texas will be the last hold-out.

– The Supreme Court will rule 5-4 that Hobby Lobby or any for-profit non-religious corporation does not have the right “to deny its employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation’s owners.”

– This will be a rebuilding year for the Detroit Tigers now that Jim Leyland has retired.  They’ll do respectably well and may even win the division again, but it’s time for a breather.

– Fidel Castro will finally hop the twig, and the slow thaw between the U.S. and Cuba will begin as the generation that is as old as Castro continues to fade away.

– We will lose the requisite number of celebrities and friends as life goes on. As I always say, it’s important to cherish them while they are with us.

– Personally, life will continue at its gentle pace in good health and good spirits.  In September I will turn 62 and begin the first steps towards eventual retirement, but that won’t be for a long time yet.  I’ve already started on my paper for the William Inge Theatre Festival in March, and I continue to write and produce blog posts.  My parents are happily settled into their “life enrichment community,” and I hope to visit them this summer.  I might even get a smartphone this year, but don’t bet on it.

– The Ford Mustang will turn 50 years old in April 2014.  That’s not the longest continuous run of an American car model — the Corvette started in 1953 — but it’s an impressive run for a car that re-defined the auto industry.  My prediction is that it will last another fifty.

– And of course, the usual prediction: One year from now I’ll write a post just like this one, look back at this one, and think, “Gee, that was dumb.” Or not.

Okay, readers, it’s your turn.  What do you predict will befall us in 2014?

Friday, December 13, 2013