Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sunday Reading

Fox Evangelism — Amy Sullivan in The New York Times on how evangelical Christians have sold their soul for political expediency.

To hear the Christian right tell it, President Trump should be a candidate for sainthood — that is, if evangelicals believed in saints.

“Never in my lifetime have we had a Potus willing to take such a strong outspoken stand for the Christian faith like Donald Trump,” tweeted Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham. The Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress sees a divine hand at work: “God intervened in our election and put Donald Trump in the Oval Office for a great purpose.”

Testimonials like this confound critics who label conservative evangelical figures like Mr. Graham and Mr. Jeffress hypocrites for embracing a man who is pretty much the human embodiment of the question “What would Jesus not do?”

But what those critics don’t recognize is that the nationalistic, race-baiting, fear-mongering form of politics enthusiastically practiced by Mr. Trump and Roy Moore in Alabama is central to a new strain of American evangelicalism. This emerging religious worldview — let’s call it “Fox evangelicalism” — is preached from the pulpits of conservative media outlets like Fox News. It imbues secular practices like shopping for gifts with religious significance and declares sacred something as worldly and profane as gun culture.

Journalists and scholars have spent decades examining the influence of conservative religion on American politics, but we largely missed the impact conservative politics was having on religion itself. As a progressive evangelical and journalist covering religion, I’m as guilty as any of not noticing what was happening. We kept asking how white conservative evangelicals could support Mr. Trump, who luxuriates in divisive rhetoric and manages only the barest veneer of religiosity. But that was never the issue. Fox evangelicals don’t back Mr. Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.

Consider the so-called War on Christmas, which the president has made a pet crusade. Mr. Trump has been sharing Christmas greetings since October, well before decorations had even shown up in most stores, when the Values Voter Summit crowd gave him a standing ovation for declaring, “We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again!” He has spent November and December taking victory laps, telling crowds at political rallies in Utah and Florida that “Christmas is back, better and bigger than ever before.”

Every one of Mr. Trump’s predecessors declared “Merry Christmas,” too — including Barack Obama, whose message at last year’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony was virtually indistinguishable from Mr. Trump’s. What matters to Fox evangelicals, though, is not that Mr. Trump observes Christmas but that he casts himself as the defender of the Christian holiday.

From the beginning, the War on Christmas was a homegrown Fox News cause, introduced by the so-named 2005 book by John Gibson, a former Fox News host, and promoted annually by Bill O’Reilly. But it was never really a religious argument. Mr. O’Reilly and company weren’t occupied with defending belief in the Virgin Birth or worrying that the celebration of Christ’s birth had become too commercialized.

In an irony appreciated by anyone who remembers the original anti-consumption, anti-Santa meaning of the “Reason for the Season” slogan, Fox and allies like the American Family Association focused on getting more Christmas into stores and shopping malls. For more than a decade, Fox News hosts have kept viewers updated on which stores were “in the Christmas spirit,” and the American Family Association, which operates nearly 200 radio stations in the United States, maintains its very own “naughty and nice” list for retailers.

As a result, the War on Christmas has moved one of the holiest Christian days out of the church and into the secular realm. That may suit conservative activists who promote Christian nationalism and want to see Christianity officially dominate the public sphere. But at a time when a new Pew Research Center study shows that only about half of those Americans who celebrate Christmas plan to do so as a religious holiday, the War on Christmas may be damaging Christian witness by elevating performative secular practices.

These days, even though Mr. O’Reilly declared “victory” last year in the War on Christmas, Fox News still gives the supposed controversy wall-to-wall coverage and has folded it into the network’s us-versus-them, nationalist programming. The regular Fox News viewer, whether or not he is a churchgoer, takes in a steady stream of messages that conflate being white and conservative and evangelical with being American.

The power of that message may explain the astonishing findings of a survey released this month by LifeWay Research, a Christian organization based in Nashville. LifeWay’s researchers developed questions meant to get at both the way Americans self-identify religiously and their theological beliefs. What they discovered was that while one-quarter of Americans consider themselves to be “evangelical,” less than half of that group actually holds traditional evangelical beliefs. For others, “evangelical” effectively functions as a cultural label, unmoored from theological meaning.

But if the conservative media has created a category of Fox evangelical converts, it has also influenced the way a whole generation of churchgoing evangelicals thinks about God and faith. On no issue is this clearer than guns.

In fall 2015, I visited Trinity Bible College, an Assemblies of God-affiliated school in North Dakota, to join the conservative evangelical students there for a screening of “The Armor of Light,” a documentary by the filmmaker Abigail Disney. The film followed the pastor and abortion opponent Rob Schenck on his quest to convince fellow evangelicals — the religious demographic most opposed to gun restrictions — that pro-life values are incompatible with an embrace of unrestricted gun access. I found Mr. Schenck compelling, and my editor had sent me to see if his target audience bought the arguments.

It did not.

As two dozen of us gathered for a post-screening discussion, I was both astonished and troubled, as a fellow evangelical, by the visceral sense of fear that gripped these young adults. As a child in the Baptist church, I had been taught to be vigilant about existential threats to my faith. But these students in a town with a population of some 1,200 saw the idea of a home invasion or an Islamic State attack that would require them to take a human life in order to save others as a certainty they would face, not a hypothetical.

These fears are far removed from the reality of life in North Dakota, a state that saw a total of 21 homicides in 2015. Of those deaths, seven were caused by firearms, and only three were committed by someone unknown to the victim. Yet the students around me agreed unreservedly with Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, who was seen in the film asserting that “in the world around us, there are terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers.”

This worldview is familiar to anyone who has spent time watching Fox News, where every day viewers are confronted with threats to their way of life. It’s also profoundly un-Christian. One of the most consistent messages of the Bible is the exhortation “Do not be afraid!” Before young evangelicals can read, we memorize verses reminding us to “be strong and courageous” and “trust in the Lord.” “Fear,” says Mr. Schenck in the documentary, “should not be a controlling element in the life of a Christian.”

Fear and distrust of outsiders — in conflict with numerous biblical teachings to “welcome the stranger” — also explain Fox evangelicals’ strong support for the Trump administration’s efforts to bar refugees and restrict travel to the United States from several majority-Muslim nations. After Mr. Trump’s initial executive orders during his first week in office, more than 100 evangelical leaders, including the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, published a full-page ad in The Washington Post denouncing the refugee ban and urging the president to reconsider. But those leaders didn’t speak for most white evangelicals, three-quarters of whom told Pew pollsters they supported the refugee and travel bans.

That disconnect underscores the challenge many pastors face in trying to shepherd congregants who are increasingly alienated from traditional Gospel teachings. “A pastor has about 30 to 40 minutes each week to teach about Scripture,” said Jonathan Martin, an Oklahoma pastor and popular evangelical writer. “They’ve been exposed to Fox News potentially three to four hours a day.”

It’s meaningful, Mr. Martin says, that scions of the religious right like Jerry Falwell Jr. are not pastors like their fathers. “There was a lot I didn’t agree with him on, but I’m confident that it was important to Senior” — Jerry Falwell — “that he grounded his beliefs in Scripture,” Mr. Martin said. “Now the Bible’s increasingly irrelevant. It’s just ‘us versus them.’”

The result is a malleable religious identity that can be weaponized not just to complain about department stores that hang “Happy Holidays” banners, but more significantly, in support of politicians like Mr. Trump or Mr. Moore — and of virtually any policy, so long as it is promoted by someone Fox evangelicals consider on their side of the culture war.

“It explains how much evangelicals have moved the goal post,” said Mr. Martin. “If there’s not a moral theology or ethic to it, but it’s about playing for the right team, you can do anything and still be on the right side.”

Three views of the Republican tax bill and the ramifications for America.

The Hairball — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on how the tax bill got through.

Grant the Republican Party leaders one thing: their tactics in passing their hugely unpopular tax bill have been consistent—consistently evasive. A few weeks ago, the Senate version of the bill was passed in the middle of the night. This weekend, the final iteration of the legislation was made public on Friday evening—a traditional dumping ground for bad news. The Republicans intend to hold votes on the bill early next week in both houses of Congress, and it seems certain to pass.

It is hardly surprising that Republicans don’t want to give anyone too much time to look closely at their latest handiwork. The final tax bill is the product of a conference committee that was tasked with reconciling the different bills passed in the House and the Senate. Almost eleven hundred pages long, the final bill is just as regressive and fiscally irresponsible as either of the two earlier bills, and it is arguably more so. At its center is a huge tax cut for corporations and unincorporated business partnerships—such as the ones that Donald Trump owns—while arrayed around the edges are all sorts of carve-outs and giveaways to favored industries and interest groups.

For individual households, the bill contains some tax cuts and expanded family credits. But these provisions are temporary, and they are also partially offset by changes to the rules about deductions. Because the deduction for state and local taxes will be limited to ten thousand dollars a year, for instance, some upper-middle-class households in states like California and New York could end up paying more to the federal government.

Nowhere to be found in the bill are three elements that House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and their colleagues originally promised to deliver when they urged the American public to embrace tax reform: revenue neutrality, simplicity, and fairness. The final bill is a corrupt, budget-busting hairball.

According to its authors, the bill will increase the budget deficit by about $1.5 trillion over ten years. That’s a lot of money, obviously, but it’s an underestimate. If you adjust the numbers for a series of accounting gimmicks, such as expiration provisions that are unlikely to go into effect, the real cost seems likely to come out at more than two trillion dollars.

To insure that the final bill would have enough votes in both chambers, the conference committee larded the bill with various additional handouts. They reduced the top rate of income tax to thirty-seven per cent, compared to 38.5 per cent in the Senate bill. (Currently, the effective top rate is close to forty-one per cent.) And they did a big favor to large businesses by getting rid of the corporate Alternative Minimum Tax, which many of them could have ended up paying because their tax rates under the new system will be so low.

The principle of simplifying the tax code met the same fate as the principle of fiscal responsibility: it was jettisoned. Originally, the White House proposed reducing the number of tax brackets from seven to three. The final bill contains seven brackets: ten per cent, twelve per cent, twenty-two per cent, twenty-four per cent, thirty-two per cent, thirty-five per cent, and thirty-seven per cent. On the business side, the revised treatment of pass-through income is so complicated that most tax experts don’t yet fully understand it. One thing we do know is that it will create big incentives for highly paid employees to turn themselves into independent contractors or L.L.C.s, which qualify for the new low business tax rates.

As for fairness, that principle was junked a long time ago. The final bill reflects the same principle as the previous two G.O.P. bills: Dom Perignon for the plutocrats, cheap swill for the masses. The bill is also cruel. In abolishing the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to purchase health insurance, it will make individual plans even more costly and more difficult to obtain, especially for sick people. This isn’t just a tax bill. It is a backdoor effort to overturn the principle of universal access to health care.

As reporters went through the bill on Friday evening, they discovered various quirks, giveaways, and clawbacks, which appeared to reflect last-minute lobbying and rushed rewriting. Businesses owned by trusts were given a break, and so were architectural and engineering firms. On the personal side, the bill was found to contain a substantial marriage penalty: the maximum deduction of ten thousand dollars for state and local taxes is the same for individual filers and couples. That’s bad news for people who are wed—though the blow will be cushioned for those married couples who own sports franchises. The Wall Street Journalreported on Friday night that the bill “preserves the ability to use tax-exempt bonds for professional sports stadium bonds—a priority for Mr. Trump, a GOP aide said.”

Another provision, which wasn’t in the House or Senate bills, allows real-estate developers who own buildings through L.L.C.s, as Trump does, to deduct twenty per cent of the income that these properties generate. To qualify for the break, the properties have to be newish ones that haven’t been fully depreciated. “This helps people who have held property for a while, like Donald Trump,” David Kamin, a law professor at New York University, told David Sirota and Josh Keefe, of the International Business Times.

Another beneficiary of this provision may well be Senator Bob Corker, of Tennessee, who is also a real-estate investor. Corker had been the only Republican to vote against the Senate version of the tax bill, but on Friday he announced that he’d changed his mind, and that “after great thought and consideration, I believe this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive is one we should not miss.” Corker didn’t mention his personal interests, but Sirota and Keefe did. “Federal records reviewed by IBT show that Corker has millions of dollars of ownership stakes in real-estate-related LLCs that could also benefit” from the final bill, they reported.

Sham and Con — Charles P. Pierce on the tax bill.

And, in the end, they all folded like cheap suits because empty suits are the easiest to fold. Friend of the kids Marco Rubio took a dive, and deficit hawk Bob Corker followed him into the tank. The vastly unpopular—and economically disastrous—tax bill likely will pass the Senate because senators come pretty cheaply these days, and accommodations are easily made when you know the only constituency worth your time is your donors, and when you know all the math in the monstrosity is 90 percent fudge anyway. From The New York Times:

The unexpected support from Mr. Corker, who had opposed the initial Senate legislation over concerns about its impact on the deficit, put the Republicans on the one-yard line in the final seconds of the tax bill debate. Lawmakers plan to vote next week with the aim of getting a bill to President Trump by Christmas. On Friday, as details emerged about the final bill, it became clear that the agreement would provide slightly more generous tax breaks to low- and middle-income Americans by reducing some benefits for higher earners, one of several tweaks intended to solve the budget problems standing between the bill’s passage and President Trump’s desk, according to people briefed on the final plan. With the finish line to their first legislative victory in sight, Republican negotiators agreed to provide a more generous child tax credit in the final bill to shore up support from Mr. Rubio, who said he would not vote for the legislation unless it provided more help to lower-income Americans.

It’s a sham and a con, and it was a sham and a con when Rubio and Corker were pretending to be so very bothered about what a sham and a con it is. There has been some tinkering, because senators come cheaply these days, but it’s still a vaporous collection of unmoored nostrums in search of a magic asterisk. I mean, listen to Corker. A Swiss Army Knife looks less like a tool.

Mr. Corker, a longtime deficit hawk, said he was swayed to support the bill as the result of “many conversations over the past several days with individuals from both sides of the aisle across Tennessee and around the country.” Mr. Corker said the bill “is far from perfect, and left to my own accord, we would have reached bipartisan consensus on legislation that avoided any chance of adding to the deficit and far less would have been done on the individual side with items that do not generate economic growth.”

Shut up. Just shut up. You know that “bipartisan consensus” always was impossible on this dog’s breakfast and you know why, too. Your party and its owners didn’t want any part of it. Go back to Tennessee and explain to your former constituents where their healthcare went.

New details from the text, shared with The New York Times on Friday, reveal that lawmakers offset other last-minute changes to the bill — such as eliminating the corporate alternative minimum tax and lowering the top individual tax rate to 37 percent from 39.6 percent today — through slight adjustments, not sweeping changes. And it was still unclear how they were going to pay for the entire package, which can add no more than $1.5 trillion to the deficit if it is to pass without Democrat support.

Christamighty, they’re not even trying hard any more. Just get a big truck and deliver the cash on pallets to the only people in this country who really matter to you. If you’re lucky, they won’t make you use the servant’s entrance. But get it while you can, fellas. Beggar’s Day is coming, and right soon.

And They’re Screwing Puerto Rico — AJ Vicens in Mother Jones on how the tax bill rips off the hurricane-devastated territory even more.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Friday that Republicans’ decision to leave a pair of provisions in the tax reform legislation that experts say will hammer Puerto Rico’s already struggling economy was “unconscionable.”

“It is devastating and unconscionable that Congress would do this at this juncture,” Rosselló told NBC News after it was clear the provisions remained in the bill.

Republicans released the latest version of their bill Friday evening and plan to vote it out of the House and Senate early next week. The tax bill, as written, would include taxes on payments between US companies and their foreign subsidiaries and profits from intellectual property. At a Friday news conference in San Juan, Rosselló called the tax reform plan “a huge blow for Puerto Rico,” according to Caribbean Business, and, the paper writes, the bill would have an “adverse impact” on 50 percent of the island’s gross domestic product, 30 percent of the government’s revenue, and 250,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Rosselló’s administration estimates that recovery from Hurricanes Irma and María will cost roughly $95 billion. The island was already grappling with more than $72 billion in outstanding debt, $49 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and a 45 percent unemployment rate, the result of a decade-long economic downturn. That crisis had already fueled an exodus of roughly 400,000 people over the last decade, a trend that has only intensified since the hurricanes.

Carlos Mercader, the director of Rosselló’s office in Washington, DC, tells Mother Jones the Republican decision was “shameful” and reflects the island’s lack of status in Washington when big decisions are made. “We’ve had many congressmen coming down to Puerto Rico, visiting the island, being amazed by the incredible devastation,” says Mercader. “They’ve been the most empathetic people in the world. But it’s all words, no actions. When actions need to come, this is what they do.”

In an attempt to make it harder for US companies to avoid US taxes via foreign subsidiaries, the bill would impose a 20 percent excise tax on payments from US companies to their foreign subsidiaries. For tax purposes, the IRS sometimes considers Puerto Rico and the other territories foreign countries. That shift could cause the US pharmaceutical industry, which generates billions of dollars in revenue and employs tens of thousands of workers on the island, to shift production out of Puerto Rico.

According to BloombergPoliticsthe way the current law works allows US companies to buy their own products from Puerto Rican subsidiaries and avoid regular income taxes, and pay just 4 percent in excise tax to the island’s government, as long as the money from that subsidiary is kept offshore. The arrangement has been a “paradise” for US drug makers and, the Food and Drug Administration estimates that drug companies and medical device manufacturers account for nearly 30 percent of the island’s GDP.

Rosselló said Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) “turned a blind eye” on Puerto Rico. “I will be very active and I’m sure my colleagues will be very active, in different Puerto Rican populations or Latino populations and make sure everyone knows we were treated as second-class citizens,” the governor said.

Doonesbury — Creatures of habit.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Brave Sir Marco – Updated

Via the Washington Post:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) threatened Thursday to vote against Republicans’ $1.5 trillion tax overhaul unless it further expands a child tax credit to millions of working families, leaving GOP leaders searching for answers on a final deal that had appeared to be on the verge of sailing through the House and Senate.

Rubio, along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), wants Republican leaders to include the expansion as they reconcile separate tax measures passed by the House and Senate, working to craft a final compromise bill that could pass both chambers and be sent President Trump for his signature.

GOP leaders had said Wednesday they believed that they had reached a broad agreement that both chambers could pass, and they planned to unveil the package Friday morning with hopes of voting on it early next week. But opposition from Rubio and perhaps Lee — who has not yet decided whether to support the bill, a spokesman said Thursday — could delay or derail the tax effort.

Mr. Rubio will hold out just long enough to get the headlines and the attention that he craves before he caves.  The leadership will come up with some token concession — a few million here, a maybe a little cut there — and he’ll be on board.  This is how the game is played, and he knows it.

Marco Rubio used to be the darling — the “Republican Savior,” as Time magazine once profiled him — of the establishment GOP; the next gen of the GOP that would take them out of the Bush era and into the bright sunlight of real 21st century conservatism: anti-choice and pro-gun but hip enough to have gay friends and quote hip-hop.  Then Trump came along and trashed the joint and took with them Mr. Rubio’s Oval Office aspirations along with demeaning him like a schoolyard bully.  He tried to quit the whole thing in a huff, saying he hated being in the Senate anyway and it was all a waste of time.  But then the realization that being the used car manager for Norman Braman in Miami — even if they were pre-owned Rolls Royces — would be too much of an ego deflater, so he promptly switched back to running for re-election.  Because Florida has no visible Democratic Party mechanism, he kept his seat.

Now he needs some way of getting atop the heap again so he can make a plausible run in 2020 against the wreckage of what’s left of Trump, and a commercial intoning, “He stood up against the tide of tax reform that threatened little children” is just what he needs to get another fifteen minutes.

He’s going to vote for the bill pretty much as it is.  He was going to all along.

Update: Told you.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunday Reading

What’s Next — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on what the Republicans are planning to do with Social Security and Medicare.

Much of journalism is dedicated to the proposition that the truth is often hidden. Sometimes, though, it is right there before our noses. Despite the chaos, the insinuations, and the scandals surrounding Donald Trump, he and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill are making progress toward enacting the radical conservative agenda that the G.O.P. has been developing over the past two decades.

In a radio interview on Wednesday, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, talked about the budget-busting, reward-the-rich G.O.P. tax bill—he didn’t describe it that way, of course—and what will happen after Trump signs it into law, assuming the House-Senate conference can agree on a final text. “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said. Programs like Medicare and Medicaid “are the big drivers of debt,” he went on, “so we spend more time on the health-care entitlements, because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”

Even by the standards of today’s Republican Party, Ryan’s comments were pretty brazen. No such worry about deficits came up when the G.O.P. proposed slashing taxes for the wealthy. This about-face wasn’t anything new, however. For the G.O.P., tax reform was always part of a larger agenda: dismantling the welfare state, rolling back the regulatory state, and crippling the Democratic Party. Other prominent Republican politicians have made similar comments to Ryan’s, including Senator Marco Rubio and Trump himself. In a speech last week, the President talked about moving onto “welfare reform”—seemingly oblivious to the fact that Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress dismantled the primary welfare programs back in the late nineteen-nineties. About the only big federal means-tested programs left are Medicaid and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Evidently, these will be on the Republican hit list, even though the primary populations they serve are the sick, the elderly, and children.

But the Republican leaders won’t stop there. For years, privatizing Social Security and Medicare, the great liberal creations of the New Deal and the Great Society, and radically downsizing Medicaid, another Great Society innovation, have been their primary goals. In Ryan’s “Roadmap for America,” the legislative blueprint that he first put forward in 2008, these proposals were the central element, while tax cuts were secondary. During last year’s election campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged to protect these popular programs from cuts—but he still called for the abolition of Obamacare, which would have involved drastic cuts to the Medicaid budget. Now, Trump’s attitude toward Social Security and Medicare appears to be changing, too. Ryan, in his radio interview, said that he had been speaking privately with Trump about the approach they should take to entitlement programs, and he added, “I think the President is understanding choice and competition works everywhere, especially in Medicare.”

Ryan’s remarks illustrate why he and other Republican leaders have refused to break with Trump despite his frequent outrages, which, most recently, have included endorsing a U.S. Senate candidate, Roy Moore, who stands accused of repeatedly molesting teen-age girls. The alliance between Trump and congressional Republicans is sometimes an uneasy one, but it’s based on mutual self-interest. With his approval rating in the mid-thirties and Robert Mueller’s investigators circling, Trump needs to maintain the support of Republican leaders, who could theoretically impeach him. The Republicans, meanwhile, need Trump—and the fervent supporters who follow him—to maintain even the barest populist pretense to their reactionary endeavors. Senior Republicans know full well that they have made a Faustian pact. With passage of a tax bill seemingly within sight, they think it is finally paying off. And from their perspective, they are right.

Earlier this week, the conservative economist and Trump supporter Stephen Moore pointed out that the Republican tax bills don’t just include the Party’s long-standing aims to slash tax rates on corporations, eliminate (or drastically curtail) the estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax, and abolish the individual mandate to purchase health insurance. By getting rid of the personal tax deductions for state and local income taxes, the bills also target high-spending Democratic states and municipalities, such as New York and California. As this provision bites, these Democratic strongholds will come under increasing pressure to cut their budgets. That, in turn, will hurt the public sector unions that are a key pillar of the modern Democratic Party.

In addition to undercutting the base of the Democratic Party, the tax bill would boost key Republican constituencies—and not just the corporate and plutocratic ones. In a last-minute move as it was hashing out its version of the tax bill, the Senate approved an amendment from Ted Cruz that would greatly expand the scope of 529 college-savings plans. If Cruz’s proposal makes it into the final bill, as seems likely, parents will be able to use money from 529 plans to help pay the tuition fees for private K-12 schools. That would give a big lift to charter and religious schools, many of which are staffed by teachers who aren’t union members. Appearing on Sean Hannity’s radio show on Thursday, Cruz said that the G.O.P. tax bill was now the “biggest schools-choice bill ever.”

To sum up, the Republicans are using Trump as a blunt instrument—a term that Steve Bannon once used—to help them enact the legislative and administrative counter-revolution that they have long been plotting with their mega-donors and corporate-funded think tanks. And Trump, despite his efforts to portray himself as a defender of the working people, is eager to go along with this plutocratic agenda, which, of course, benefits him and his family.

It is tempting to think that Trump’s hard-pressed supporters will eventually see through him. But that moment of revelation could be a good while coming. Like many right-wing populists, he uses divisive and diversionary tactics to disguise the true nature of his regime. And when it doesn’t come into conflict with Republican dogma or his own interests, he tries to repay the groups that supported him. (This week’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, widely presented as a big foreign-policy initiative, was also a sop to Evangelical Christians, who for theological reasons have taken up the Zionist cause.)

A new Quinnipiac University poll indicates that just twenty-nine per cent of Americans support the Republican tax plan, and sixty-four per cent (rightly) believe that it will benefit the wealthy most. And yet eighty-two per cent of Republicans still approve of the job that Trump is doing as President. That, of course, is another reason why G.O.P. leaders won’t break with him.

It’s Their Turn — Joan Walsh in The Nation argues that it’s time for the Democrats to hold hearings on Trump.

When sexual-harassment allegations first emerged against Minnesota Senator Al Franken, I wrote in these pages that he shouldn’t resign. Seven new accusations later, I’d come to agree with prominent Democratic senators that Franken has to go. And on Thursday he agreed.

While claiming that “some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently,” Franken nonetheless resigned from the Senate. “I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” he noted.

It pains me to write this. The comedian turned politician has been an excellent senator, this year establishing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about his contacts with Russian officials, which led to Sessions’s recusing himself from the investigation into collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. Franken was also part of an earlier Resistance, against George W. Bush, in the dark days after Bush’s 2004 reelection. He raised progressive spirits and raised money for Democrats in the years leading up to the election of Barack Obama, when Franken was also elected to the Senate (after a protracted recount). I have written about him as the perfect foil for Trump. I’ve said I hoped he’d run for president. He assured me, back in May, that he would not—for one reason, he was extremely happy in the Senate.

But as the stream of allegations went on, it became obvious Franken couldn’t continue to be effective—and on Wednesday night, that apparently became obvious even to Franken.

Still, I would like to see Franken’s departure be not just another #MeToo moment but a long-delayed #TrumpToo moment. Now that Franken has left the building, why can’t the Democratic senators who’ve asked him to resign—an astonishing 35 out of 48 caucus members—now commit to holding hearings on Trump’s many sexual-abuse accusations? A Quinnipiac poll out Wednesday shows that 70 percent of Americans polled say they want Congress to investigate the allegations against Trump; only 25 percent are opposed. Given that Trump’s pathetic approval ratings normally show him with the backing of 35 to 40 percent of those polled, this means a significant number of Trump supporters also want these charges investigated.

I know: Democrats are in the minority, in both houses of Congress. Such hearings would hold limited power. But even in the minority, ranking congressional Democrats can still get congressional hearing rooms and media attention. They won’t have subpoena power, but they don’t need subpoena power to call Trump’s victims to testify.

I would like to see the Democrats get more aggressive with Trump, because they need to be honest with themselves about what Franken’s resignation will not do. It will not force GOP leaders to concede that Democrats have integrity when it comes to these claims, and that Republicans don’t. As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick explains, that’s because “Republicans have built an unlevel playing field of morality.” Remember: Serial prevaricator Sarah Huckabee Sanders has already explained that the difference between Franken and Trump is that Franken admitted something happened, and apologized, while Trump denied all the charges against him.

To GOP hypocrites like Sanders—and so many more—all Franken’s resignation will mean is that the senator is guilty of sexual wrongdoing, while Trump is not. And that standard applies to the brazen child molester Roy Moore, accused of sexual predation by nine women—including one who said he molested her at age 14—and who may still be elected Alabama’s next senator. And on Fox Wednesday night, host Laura Ingraham and guest Newt Gingrich previewed a new way conservatives will use Franken against them, according to CNN’s Brian Stelter: by making them the party of “weird puritanism,” denying Franken “due process” over “minor stuff” and acting like a “lynch mob.” There is no bottom when it comes to the GOP.

Another thing Franken’s resignation won’t do: It will never establish any kind of equivalence between what the Minnesota senator is accused of doing, and the accusations against Trump, Moore, and Texas Representative Blake Farenthold. Even though Franken is the first among them to pay any political price, there is no comparison in terms of what they’ve been charged with. Let’s start with Farenthold, who used 84,000 taxpayer dollars to settle a sexual harassment claim with an employee. That woman told The Washington Post this week that Farenthold ruined her career. She left politics and now babysits and does other odd jobs. None of Franken’s accusers have said anything close to that happened to them as a result of his wayward hands.

Much like Farenthold’s accuser, the woman Moore molested at 14, Leigh Corfman, says Moore’s abuse took a serious toll on her life—on her romantic prospects, her friendships, her sobriety, her career. That’s a sadly common story for victims of child sexual abuse.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, doesn’t have eight accusers, like Franken; he has twice that, 16. Their charges range from his reaching up their skirts to touch their vaginas through their underwear, to multiple counts of unwanted kissing, to all kinds of creepy groping, kissing, and predation. Plus, there are the four young Miss Teen Universe contestants who told Buzzfeed that Trump walked in on them while they were changing.

For both that and the vagina-groping charge, we have Trump’s own voice in confirmation.”When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” he said on the Access Hollywood tape. “Grab ‘em by the pussy.” About his Miss Universe pageants, Trump told Howard Stern: “I’ll tell you the funniest is that I’ll go backstage before a show and everyone’s getting dressed. No men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in, because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it. You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody OK?’ And you see these incredible looking women, and so I sort of get away with things like that.”

I think it would encourage demoralized progressives considerably if Democrats followed Franken’s departure with a strategy to bring Trump to public account for his serial abuse. And to shame House Speaker Paul Ryan for having the audacity to weigh in on now-retired Democratic representative John Conyers, while saying nothing about Farenthold. Democrats are doing the right thing, morally, but they really need to figure out the right thing, politically. This doesn’t end with Franken’s departure. It begins.

Get A Move On — Humor from Andy Borowitz.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—In a new poll conducted on Wednesday, a sweeping majority of Americans said they support moving Donald J. Trump to Jerusalem.

The sixty-three per cent of survey respondents who approved relocating Trump to Jerusalem placed few conditions on such a move, other than that it take place “as soon as possible” and that it be “permanent.”

In other poll results, an overwhelming majority of respondents said that they would support relocating Trump to any number of other foreign destinations, including Russia, the Philippines, and “that station where scientists live at the South Pole.”

Though Americans were strongly enthusiastic about moving Trump to Jerusalem, in a rare consensus both Arabs and Israelis vehemently opposed the move.

 Doonesbury — Unforgettable.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Short Takes

The Mideast is in turmoil over Trump’s plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

Mueller goes after Trump’s Deutsch Banke records.

Mass evacuations in the Ventura County wildfires in California.

Russia banned from 2018 Olympics.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) retires from Congress in wake of accusations of sexual assaults.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Dickens You Say

You can get a great debate going among classic film buffs by asking who gave the best performance as Ebenezer Scrooge in the various film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

There are those who say Reginald Owen nailed it in 1938.  I have a dear friend who claims that Alastair Sim is the quintessential Scrooge in the 1951 edition.  Then there are the modernists who look to Albert Finney in the musical “Scrooge,” or George C. Scott in the 1984 TV movie, or even Patrick Stewart in 1999.  Each one of them had their glorious moments as the money-grubbing heartless and bitter old crank, especially when they turned their wrath on the sick and the young.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons…”
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir…”
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

But wait; we have a new contender for the role in the person of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who thinks that sick children of the poor working class are just a bunch of freeloaders who deserve what they get and shouldn’t be suckling at the teat of the wealthy.

“I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves – won’t lift a finger – and expect the federal government to do everything.”

He’s going after the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) whose funding ended on October 1.  The program, which, in saner times, Mr. Hatch once supported, costs $15 billion.  That sounds like a lot, but since Mr. Hatch was in the process of voting for a tax bill that costs $1.5 trillion, he’s bemoaning a program that costs about 1% of the whole bill because, in his words, “we don’t have the money anymore.”

Jacob Marley, that’s your cue.

Stuck With The Tab

The New York Times on the tax bill:

With barely a vote to spare early Saturday morning, the Senate passed a tax bill confirming that the Republican leaders’ primary goal is to enrich the country’s elite at the expense of everybody else, including future generations who will end up bearing the cost. The approval of this looting of the public purse by corporations and the wealthy makes it a near certainty that President Trump will sign this or a similar bill into law in the coming days.

The bill is expected to add more than $1.4 trillion to the federal deficit over the next decade, a debt that will be paid by the poor and middle class in future tax increases and spending cuts to Medicare, Social Security and other government programs. Its modest tax cuts for the middle class disappear after eight years. And up to 13 million people stand to lose their health insurance because the bill makes a big change to the Affordable Care Act.

Yet Republicans somehow found a way to give a giant and permanent tax cut to corporations like Apple, General Electric and Goldman Sachs, saving those businesses tens of billions of dollars.

Because the Senate was rewriting its bill till the last minute, only the dealmakers themselves knew what the chamber voted on. There will, no doubt, be many unpleasant surprises as both houses work to pass final legislation for President Trump to sign.

The votes for the bill by Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona were particularly disheartening. Ms. Collins, who helped sink an effort to effectively repeal the A.C.A. in September, blithely voted for a tax bill that will leave a gaping hole in that law by repealing its requirement that most people have insurance or pay a penalty. She traded away her vote for an inadequate deduction for property taxes and empty promises from Mr. Trump and the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, that they would help shore up the A.C.A., which they have repeatedly tried to sabotage. Mr. McCain, who previously voted against tax cuts in the Bush era because they were heavily tilted in favor of the rich rather than the middle class, seemed unconcerned that this bill was even worse in that regard. Then there is Mr. Flake, who has spoken powerfully against Mr. Trump and who is not seeking re-election. He folded on the basis of vague assurances about protecting the Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.

I’m not shocked or saddened that Sens. Collins, McCain, and Flake caved in on this.  It would have been an event if they hadn’t.  Why?  Because they’re Republicans and this is the kind of thing they do: talk like reasonable people in the face of madness and then go along with the madness for the sake of… what?  McCain and Flake aren’t running for re-election, and Ms. Collins is more than likely safe in her Maine seat.  They know that when the deficit soars, millions of people are without health insurance, and Social Security and Medicare get slashed because we just can’t afford to pay for them, not with all the money going to the rich, they will blame the Democrats for not being willing to come to the table and work with them on a bill that was being written as the votes were being cast.

That’s also what they’re going to tell the middle class Trump base who just got screwed with their pants on.

The only silver lining is that we can hope that this is the only piece of legislation that gets through Congress before the indictments and articles of impeachment get handed down.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sunday Reading

Inside the Mueller Investigation — Robert Costa, Carol D. Leonnig, and Josh Dawsey in the Washington Post report on what goes on behind the scenes.

A white sedan whisked a man into the loading dock of a glass and concrete building in a drab office district in Southwest Washington. Security guards quickly waved the vehicle inside, then pushed a button that closed the garage door and shielded the guest’s arrival from public view.

With his stealth morning arrival Thursday, White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II became the latest in a string of high-level witnesses to enter the secretive nerve center of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Twenty hours later, Mueller and his team emerged into public view to rattle Washington with the dramatic announcement that former national security adviser Michael Flynn would plead guilty to lying to the FBI.

The ensnaring of Flynn, the second former aide to President Trump to cooperate with the inquiry, serves as the latest indication that Mueller’s operation is rapidly pursuing an expansive mission, drilling deeper into Trump’s inner circle.

In the past two months, Mueller and his deputies have received private debriefs from two dozen current and former Trump advisers, each of whom has made the trek to the special counsel’s secure office suite.

Once inside, most witnesses are seated in a windowless conference room where two- and three-person teams of FBI agents and prosecutors rotate in and out, pressing them for answers.

Among the topics that have been of keen interest to investigators: how foreign government officials and their emissaries contacted Trump officials, as well as the actions and interplay of Flynn and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.

Mueller’s group has also inquired whether Flynn recommended specific foreign meetings to senior aides, including Kushner. Investigators were particularly interested in how certain foreign officials got on Kushner’s calendar and the discussions that Flynn and Kushner had about those encounters, according to people familiar with the questions.

Often listening in is the special counsel himself, a sphinx-like presence who sits quietly along the wall for portions of key interviews.

This picture of Mueller’s operation — drawn from descriptions of witnesses, lawyers and others briefed on the interviews — provides a rare look inside the high-stakes investigation that could implicate Trump’s circle and determine the future of his presidency.

The locked-down nature of the probe has left both the witnesses and the public scrutinizing every move of the special counsel for meaning, without any certainty about the full scope of his investigation.

Trump and his lawyers have expressed confidence that Mueller will swiftly conclude his examination of the White House, perhaps even by the year’s end. Trump’s Democratic opponents hope the investigation will uncover more crimes and ultimately force the president’s removal from office.

Meanwhile, some witnesses who have been interviewed came away with the impression that the probe is unfolding and far from over.

“When they were questioning me, it seemed like they were still trying to get a feel of the basic landscape of the place,” said one witness who was questioned in late October for several hours and, like others, requested anonymity to describe the confidential sessions. “I didn’t get the sense they had anything incriminating on the president. Nor were they anywhere close to done.”

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb said he believes the probe’s focus on Trump’s White House is wrapping up, noting that all White House staffer interviews will be completed by the end of next week.

“At the end of the interviews, it would be reasonable to expect that it would not take long to bring this to conclusion,” Cobb said. “I commend the Office of Special Counsel for their acknowledged hard work on behalf of the country, to undertake this serious responsibility, and to perform it in an expedited but deliberate, thorough way.”

At least two dozen people who traveled in Trump’s orbit in 2016 and 2017 — on the campaign trail, in his transition operation and then in the White House — have been questioned in the past 10 weeks, according to people familiar with the interviews.

The most high profile is Kushner, who met with Mueller’s team in November, as well as former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former press secretary Sean Spicer. Former foreign policy adviser J.D. Gordon has also been interviewed.

White House communications director Hope Hicks was scheduled to sit down with Mueller’s team a few days before Thanksgiving. Mueller’s team has also indicated plans to interview senior associate White House counsel James Burnham and policy adviser Stephen Miller.

McGahn, who was interviewed by Mueller’s prosecutors for a full day Thursday, was scheduled to return Friday to complete his interview. However, the special counsel postponed the session as a courtesy to allow McGahn to help the White House manage the response to Flynn’s plea, a person familiar with the interview said.

Cobb declined to say which White House aides remain to be interviewed.

Several people who worked shoulder to shoulder with Flynn have also been interviewed by Mueller’s operation. That includes retired Gen. Keith Kellogg, the chief of staff to the National Security Council, as well as several people who worked with Flynn Intel Group, a now-shuttered private consulting firm.

During the transition, Kushner and Flynn met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. At the early December meeting, Kushner suggested establishing a secure communications line between Trump officials and the Kremlin at a Russian diplomatic facility, according to U.S. officials who reviewed intelligence reports describing Kislyak’s account.

Kushner has said that Kislyak sought the secure line as a way for Russian generals to communicate to the incoming administration about U.S. policy on Syria.

Trump’s son-in-law has also been identified by people familiar with his role as the “very senior member” of the transition team who directed Flynn in December to reach out to Kislyak and lobby him about a U.N. resolution on Israeli settlements, according to new court filings.

The volume of questions about Kushner in their interviews surprised some witnesses.

“I remember specifically being asked about Jared a number of times,” said one witness.

Another witness said agents and prosecutors repeatedly asked him about Trump’s decision-making during the May weekend he decided to fire FBI Director James B. Comey. Prosecutors inquired whether Kushner had pushed the president to jettison Comey, according to two people familiar with the interview.

Kushner attorney Abbe Lowell declined to comment on what the president’s son-in-law discussed at his November session with Mueller. “Mr. Kushner has voluntarily cooperated with all relevant inquiries and will continue to do so,” he said.

Two administration officials said that it would be natural for investigators to ask a lot of questions about Kushner, whom Trump put in charge of communicating with foreign officials, adding that such inquiries do not indicate he is a target.

The special counsel has continued to make ongoing requests for records from associates of the Trump campaign, according to two people familiar with the requests. The campaign associates aren’t expected to finish producing these documents by the end of the year. Mueller’s team is also newly scrutinizing an Alexandria-based office and advisers who worked there on foreign policy for the campaign.

In the past several weeks, Mueller’s operation has reached out to new witnesses in Trump’s circle, telling them they may be asked to come in for an interview. One person who was recently contacted said it is hard to find a lawyer available for advice on how to interact with the special counsel because so many Trump aides have already hired attorneys.

“It was kind of a pain,” the person said. “It’s hard to find a lawyer who wasn’t already conflicted out.”

People who have gone before Mueller’s team describe polite but detailed and intense grillings that at times have lasted all day and involved more than a dozen investigators. Spicer, for example, was in the office from about 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. for his fall session. Mueller’s team has recommended nearby lunch spots, but many witnesses have food brought in for fear of being spotted if they go outside.

Mueller has attended some interviews, introducing himself to witnesses when he enters and then sitting along the wall. Sometimes he is joined by his deputy, longtime friend and law partner James Quarles, a former Watergate prosecutor who is the main point of contact for the White House.

Investigators bring large binders filled with emails and documents into the interview room. One witness described the barrage of questions that followed each time an agent passed them a copy of an email they had been copied on: “Do you remember this email? How does the White House work? How does the transition work? Who was taking the lead on foreign contacts? How did that work? Who was involved in this decision? Who was there that weekend?”

Some witnesses were introduced to so many federal agents and lawyers that they later lamented that they had largely forgotten many of their names by the time one team left the room and a new team entered.

“They say, ‘Hey, we’re not trying to be rude, but people are going to come in and out a lot,’ ” one witness explained about the teams. “They kind of cycle in and out of the room.”

One contingent of investigators is focused on whether Trump tried to obstruct justice and head off the investigation into Russian meddling by firing Comey in May. Prosecutors Brandon Van Grack and Jeannie Rhee have been involved in matters related to Flynn.

Yet another team is led by the former head of the Justice Department’s fraud prosecutions, Andrew Weissman, and foreign bribery expert Greg Andres. Those investigators queried lobbyists from some of the most powerful lobby shops in town about their interactions with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign adviser Rick Gates.

Mueller’s team charged Manafort and Gates last month with engaging in a conspiracy to hide millions of dollars in foreign accounts and secretly creating an elaborate cover story to conceal their lobbying work for a former Ukrainian president and his pro-Russian political party. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Lawyers familiar with prosecutors’ questions about Manafort said they expect several more charges to come from this portion of the case.

People familiar with the Mueller team said they convey a sense of calm that is unsettling.

“These guys are confident, impressive, pretty friendly — joking a little, even,” one lawyer said. When prosecutors strike that kind of tone, he said, defense lawyers tend to think: “Uh oh, my guy is in a heap of trouble.”

Long Time Coming — Charles P. Pierce on the inevitability of the GOP passing this tax bill.

I confess. I gave up on the whole exercise Friday night around midnight when the Republican majority in the Senate passed an amendment to its Abomination of Desolation tax bill that was proposed by that remarkably friendless character, Tailgunner Ted Cruz. (I like to think that it was Cruz’s essential friendlessness that accounted for the fact that they needed Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie on the Cruz amendment.) The amendment would allow families to use money from 529 savings plans to send their kids to private and/or religious schools, or to homeschool their children themselves. Considering that this was in the context of passing a retrograde bill that would wipe out the deduction for state and local taxes, a move that would hit hardest the American families who send their children to public schools, this was too much even for my strong political stomach. The Republicans had the votes to make war on the very idea of the commons, and they were using them, and, shortly before two in the morning, they won, and the commons lost, and we awoke Saturday morning to a meaner, grubbier country.

It is still possible that the Republican members of the House of Representatives will don their animal skins, sharpen their bone knives, paint their faces blue, and go screaming off to war when this thing goes to conference, befouling Mitch McConnell’s delicate magical math with poo flung from all directions, but, as the Romans learned centuries ago, you shouldn’t try to bargain with barbarians, and I doubt the Republicans will make that mistake again, not after what happened with their attempts to kill the Affordable Care Act.

No, there will be some howling and wailing for show, but the barbarians are not going to save the country. All they’ll do is make a greasy operator like Mitch McConnell look reasonable. (And make vainglorious senators like Susan Collins and John McCain look more useless.) And, besides, with this foul bag of rags they passed on Friday night, the one that eliminates the individual mandate that is the engine behind the Affordable Care Act, they won that battle, too. I think the Senate conferees will agree to some adjustments from their colleagues in the House, all of which will make things worse. However, alas, I don’t think the country can count on the Republicans fumbling on the goal line this time around.

No, they got what they wanted, and they’re going to be quite happy with it. Speaker Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver from the state of Wisconsin, knows he’s a giant step closer to his lifelong goal of demolishing the social safety net. All he has to do is wait for the inevitable explosion of the deficit, at which point he will screw on his sad-basset face and tell us that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are just things we can’t afford anymore. The members of the House will quickly agree that the Senate bill is OK by them and pass it quickly on to a half-mad Republican president who won’t understand a word of what he’s signing but … so much winning!

(By the way, you can feel free to skip any story over the next week that discusses the passage of this sack of cholera in terms of who won and who lost, as though it were a ballgame. It is in measuring the scope of what has been wrought on the country here where elite political journalism will continue to fail utterly.)

In fact, it is important to keep in mind that, all things being equal, this is a bill that would have been proposed and passed even if the Tailgunner, or Marco Rubio, or Chris Christie, or John Kasich had been elected president last November. If the president* had been impeached by the end of business on Inauguration Day, this bill, and the sad carnival of how it was passed, wouldn’t have changed a bit. For such a huge and consequential assault on the political commonwealth, the president*’s fingerprints are remarkably absent from this bill, not because the president* is smart, because he’s not, but because the Senate Republicans didn’t need him.

This was not a Trump bill. This was a Republican bill, a kind of culmination of everything the party has stood for since Ronald Reagan fed it the monkeybrains in 1981 and the prion disease began slowly devouring the party’s higher functions. It is purely supply-side in its economics, purely retrograde in its attitude toward the political commons, and purely heedless in its concern for anyone except the donor class who keep the party alive. This is why the Republican party chose to ally itself 50 years ago with the sad detritus of American apartheid. This is why the Republican party set itself against the expansion of the franchise. This is why the Republican party set itself against any form of campaign-finance reform, and cheered the decision in Citizens United. All of these dynamics were in play long ago, back in the days when Donald Trump was a Democrat. The assault on the idea of a political commonwealth began back then and it rarely has abated. The only way what happened Friday night could have been avoided is if Hillary Rodham Clinton had been elected in November of 2016 and, if the Bernie people have a problem with my saying that, they can go up an alley and holler fish.

This is also why so many longtime conservative fetish objects got stuffed into this big barrel of botulism. Lisa Murkowski’s price was oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. (Murkowski at least struck a hard bargain. Collins got bought off with a promise that there will be no Medicare cuts in the future, which…) There was the comical attempt to slip in an exemption for Christian Hillsdale College, which has rehabilitated its image from the days when its president was accused of having an affair with his son’s wife. This failed because it was too ridiculous even for this bill, but I’m fairly sure it will be back. One amendment failed because it was handwritten and nobody could read it. We all really ducked a bullet there, boy.

The entire process was shot through with a contempt for democracy, and for “regular order,” which suddenly became less important for McCain than it used to be a few months ago. That’s because the bill itself was built on a foundation of contempt for the notion that, in a democracy, we all have a stake in what the government does, and for the notion that we have certain values and principles in common upon which we act. The bill that passed the Senate early Saturday morning has been consistently, wildly unpopular. It passed anyway.

When its full effects descend on the country, there will be a great outcry about how the government is entirely corrupt and about how it has grown so distant from the people it was designed to serve. “Politicians” will be blamed, irrespective of party. “Politics” will be blamed, irrespective of ideology. Alienation and anger will rise and, very likely, another demagogue will appear, more competent than the present one, and he will ride that alienation and anger into power, and the whole thing will happen all over again.

The Republicans will have no problem with that, either. In fact, they’re counting on it.

Faking It — Steve Coll in The New Yorker on how Trump’s attacks on the media has strengthened it.

Last December, Variety and other news outlets reported that Donald Trump planned to serve as an executive producer for “The Celebrity Apprentice” while he was President. Kellyanne Conway, appearing on CNN, defended the President-elect’s prerogatives, but the next day Trump tweeted that the story was “fake news.” Since then, he has tweeted about fake news more than a hundred and fifty times; on a single day in September, he did so eight times, in apparent frustration over coverage of his Administration’s response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico. And, of course, Trump regularly invokes “the fake-news Russian-collusion story,” as he named it last summer. He has attacked coverage of the Russia investigation more than a dozen times on Twitter alone.

“One of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with is ‘fake,’ ” Trump said on Mike Huckabee’s talk show, in October. (In fact, the phrase “fake news” has been around for more than a century.) The President’s strategy has been successful, however, in at least one respect: he has appropriated a term that had often been used to describe the propaganda and the lies masquerading as news, emanating from Russia and elsewhere, which proliferated on Facebook, YouTube, and other social-media platforms during the 2016 election campaign. These manufactured stories—“POPE FRANCIS SHOCKS WORLD, ENDORSES DONALD TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT,” among them—poisoned the news ecosystem and may have contributed to Trump’s victory.

Judging from the President’s tweets, his definition of “fake news” is credible reporting that he doesn’t like. But he complicates the matter by issuing demonstrably false statements of his own, which, inevitably, make news. Trump has brought to the White House bully pulpit a disorienting habit of telling lies, big and small, without evident shame. Since 2015, Politifact has counted three hundred and twenty-nine public statements by Trump that it judges to be mostly or entirely false. (In comparison, its count of such misstatements by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is thirteen.)

The President also publicizes calumnies that vilify minorities. Last Wednesday morning, he outdid himself by retweeting unverified, incendiary anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First, a far-right group. Through a spokesman, Prime Minister Theresa May responded that Trump was “wrong” to promote the agenda of a group that spreads “hateful narratives which peddle lies.” The following day, members of Parliament denounced the President, using such epithets as “fascist” and “stupid.” It was a scene without precedent in the century-old military alliance between the United States and Britain.

Trump’s tactics echo those of previous nativist-populist politicians, but his tweets also draw on the contemporary idioms of the alt-right. This is a loose movement, as the researchers Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis have written, best understood as “an amalgam of conspiracy theorists, techno-libertarians, white nationalists, Men’s Rights advocates, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration activists, and bored young people” who express “a self-referential culture in which anti-Semitism, occult ties, and Nazi imagery can be explained either as entirely sincere or completely tongue-in-cheek.” Trump is no alt-right digital-news geek, yet his Twitter feed is similarly ambiguous. He seems to provoke his opponents for the pleasure of offending them, but when he is called to account he often claims that he was just joking. Sometimes he promotes conspiracy theories to insult personal nemeses, as he did last week when he tweeted baseless speculation about the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough’s connection to the “unsolved mystery” of an intern’s death.

The President’s tweets slamming CNN, the Times, NBC News, and other media organizations can be comical and weird, but they do serious harm. Last week, a Libyan broadcaster cited one of Trump’s tweets about CNN in an attempt to discredit a report by the network on the persistence of slavery in that country. And, when the leader of a nation previously devoted to the promulgation of press freedom worldwide seeks so colorfully to delegitimize journalism, he inevitably gives cover to foreign despots who threaten reporters in order to protect their own power.

At home, the Trump effect is more subtle, but corrosive. The First Amendment does not appear to be in existential danger; on the Supreme Court, Justices appointed by both Republican and Democratic Presidents endorse expansive ideas about free speech, even as they debate interpretations. Yet many of the rights that working journalists enjoy stem from state laws and from the case-by-case decisions of local judges. The climate that Trump has helped create may undermine some of these protections—for example, by prompting state legislatures to overturn shield laws that encode the rights of reporters to protect confidential sources.

Trump’s alignment with right-wing publishers, such as Infowars and Breitbart, some of which see Fox News as the old-school communications arm of an obsolete Republican establishment, reflects a broader fragmentation of the media. Amid the cacophony of the digital era, publishers and advertisers prize readers who are deeply engaged, not just clicking around sites. News organizations as distinct as the Times and Breitbart now think of their audiences as communities in formation, bound by common values. A more openly factional, political journalism need not portend the death of fact-driven, truth-seeking, fair-minded reporting. Yet excellent journalism typically follows a form of the scientific method, prioritizing evidence, transparency, and the replicability of findings; journalism grounded in an ideology can be discredited by the practitioner’s preëmptive assumptions.

Fortunately, in attacking the media Trump has in many ways strengthened it. This year, the Times, the Washington Post, and many other independent, professional enterprises have reminded the country why the Founders enshrined a free press as a defense against abusive power. Among other achievements, the media’s coverage of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has made transparent the seriousness of its findings so far, and constrained the President’s transparent desire to interfere.

Last Friday, Mueller dropped his latest bombshell, a plea agreement with Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, who admitted that, in January, he lied to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s Ambassador to the United States. The court papers filed with Flynn’s plea lay out a story of how senior members of the Trump transition team asked Flynn to communicate with Russian officials on matters of U.S. foreign policy. The papers also contain a reference to a discussion that Flynn had with “a very senior member” of the transition team, a characterization that suggests that the list of names of who that may be is a short one. The chances that history will remember Mueller’s investigation of Trump and his closest advisers as fake news grow slimmer by the day.

Doonesbury — A huge compliment.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Something Rotten

Paul Krugman on the GOP tax bill:

…this whole process involves a level of bad faith we haven’t seen in U.S. politics since the days when defenders of slavery physically assaulted their political foes on the Senate floor.

There are two further things worth pointing out about this moral rot.

First, it is not, at a fundamental level, a story about Donald Trump, bad as he is: The rot pervades the whole Republican Party. Some details of the legislation do look custom-designed to benefit the Trump family, but both the broad outlines and the fraudulence of the sales effort would have been pretty much the same under any Republican president.

Second, the rot is wide as well as deep.

I’m not just talking about Republican politicians, although the tax debate should dispel any remaining illusions about their motives: Just about every G.O.P. member of Congress, including the sainted John McCain, is willing to put partisan loyalty above principle, voting for what they have to know is terrible and irresponsible legislation. The point, however, is that the epidemic of bad faith extends well beyond elected or appointed officials.

It was remarkable, for example, to see a group of Republican-leaning economists with serious professional credentials put out an open letter clearly intended to lend aid and comfort to Mnuchinesque promises of miraculous growth. True, they didn’t explicitly claim that tax cuts would pay for themselves. But they didn’t clearly state that they wouldn’t, either, leaving Mnuchin free to claim — as they have to have known he would — that the letter vindicated his position.

The Republicans are so desperate to pass something — anything — that they will ram this through without knowing what’s in it.  And in its present form, the deficit will hit $1 trillion by 2026.  There’s a last-minute rush to try to prevent that from happening, but dollars to donuts, the bill will remain in roughly its present form and screw over the people who voted these jokers into office.

But what do they care?  By the time the shit hits the fan they will either be dead or lobbying — same thing — and the fundamental damage will be done, all for the sake of having something to brag about on Fox and Friends.

Short Takes

Argentina ends search for missing submarine.

Outrage grows in Britain over Trump’s retweets.

GOP holdouts cave on tax bill.

Bette Midler vs. Geraldo Rivera over his defense of Matt Lauer.

R.I.P. Jim Nabors, 87, portrayed Gomer Pyle on TV.

Hurricane season is officially over, and not a minute too soon.

Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Unpopular Vote

Here’s an interesting bit of news: The tax bill being whooped through Congress is very unpopular with the American people.

Senate Republicans’ effort to pass tax reform is at a crucial juncture. As some senators waffle on whether to support the bill, they may want to spare a glance toward public opinion: Poll after poll shows that more voters than not are opposed to their efforts. In fact, the GOP bill is one of the least popular tax plans since Ronald Reagan’s day.

About a third of voters currently support the Republican tax reform package, according to an average of five surveys released1 this month. In a Quinnipiac University survey, just 25 percent of voters approved of the plan. Surveys from ABC News/Washington Post, CNN, Morning Consult and YouGov put approval of the plan slightly higher, but all are still at 36 percent or lower. Meanwhile, an average of the five polls puts opposition at 46 percent.

Why is support so low? Americans are opposed to the bill because they think it disproportionately benefits the rich. (It likely will.) President Trump’s administration has argued, however, that there were similar complaints about the Reagan tax cut plan of 1981, which preceded an economic boom.

The Reagan plan, though, was far more popular in 1981 than the current Republican plan is now. In a Gallup survey taken in the days after Reagan signed his tax cuts into law on Aug. 13, 1981, 51 percent of Americans were in favor of it. Just 26 percent of Americans were opposed. The other major tax cut of the Reagan administration (signed in 1986) wasn’t nearly as popular, but it was still more popular than the current GOP legislation. A CBS News/New York Times survey conducted in the days after the bill passed Congress found 38 percent in favor and 34 percent opposed.

Indeed, major tax cut plans are usually more popular than unpopular. Heck, even some tax hikes have been more popular than the current GOP bill.2

Yesterday I cynically suggested that the tax cuts would go through and trash what’s left of the recovery and throw 15 million people off health insurance and the vast majority of Americans wouldn’t notice until it lands in their lap, if then.  Well, maybe they’re noticing after all.

 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

They’re Not Paying Attention

The Republicans are about to screw over the middle and lower class with their tax bill.

The Republican tax bill hurtling through Congress is increasingly tilting the United States tax code to benefit wealthy Americans, as party leaders race to shore up wavering lawmakers who are requesting more help for high-earning business owners.

On Monday, as Republican lawmakers returned to Washington determined to quickly pass their tax overhaul, senators were in feverish talks to resolve concerns that could bedevil the bill’s passage. With pressure increasing on Republicans to produce a legislative victory, lawmakers are contemplating changes that would exacerbate the tax bill’s divide between the rich and the middle class.

Those include efforts to further reward certain high-income business owners who are already receiving a tax break in the Senate bill but who are at the center of a concerted push by conservative lawmakers and trade groups to sweeten those benefits.

As Republican leaders pressed for a Senate floor vote this week, there appeared to be little momentum for amendments that would help low-income Americans, which some Republican and many Democratic senators had sought.

The Congressional Budget Office said this week that the Senate bill, as written, would hurt workers earning less than $30,000 a year in short order, while delivering benefits to the highest earners throughout the next decade. Those estimates echo other analyses, like that by the Joint Committee on Taxation, which have found the biggest benefits of the bill increasingly flowing to the rich over time. By 2027, the budget office said, Americans earning $75,000 a year and below would, as a group, see their taxes increase, because individual tax cuts are set to expire at the end of 2025.

And when the deficit soars and the economy stumbles (which it will because like the tide it is cyclical on a macro level and doesn’t pay close attention to the meddling around the edges) and the rich get richer beyond the dreams of Avarice and the only trickling-down will be when Trump and the Kochs and the folks at Sinclair Broadcasting are pissing on them, do you really think that the people who voted them into office will suddenly see the light, rise up and elect Democrats?

I would like to think that would be the scenario; that enough people are disgusted by 15 million people losing health insurance, higher taxes on the middle class, fewer services for the needy, strangling public education which includes Title I and education for the disabled, that they would revolt and sweep them out.  But if recent history is any guide, the GOP base will love it because #MAGA means they get to watch as someone promises them the moon as long as brown people who pick lettuce and clean their toilets get deported and gay people are shamed back into the closet.

They’re not paying attention to the things that matter, they won’t care who’s in Congress, and I have yet to hear a Democrat make a convincing argument that they should care.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Jack In The Pulpit

Part of the Trump/GOP tax plan is the repeal of the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and religious organizations from endorsing political candidates.

This is seen as big wet kiss to the Religious Right, who have been skating around the edge of violating the law since Jerry Falwell and the ironically-named Moral Majority got a boner for Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s.  These “family values” folks have been doing it ever since, fighting against Roe v. Wade, gay rights, women’s rights, language on TV, and just about anything else you can think of that might upset Aunt Pittypat, all with little or no success: abortion rights are under attack but Roe v. Wade is still standing, same-sex marriage is just plain marriage, and you can say “penis” on “The Big Bang Theory.”

So whether or not the Johnson Amendment’s repeal will either make any difference on the Religious Right’s crusade to be America’s busybodies and boost the prospects of anti-abortion candidates who pay for their mistress’s D&C or keep the raging homophobes with a MANHUNT.net account out of elective office is an even bet.

I do think, however, that rubber hose is on to something: be careful what you wish for, Pat Robertson.

If that Amendment were repealed, the biggest change would be that other religious groups–groups that have not been trying to circumvent the Johnson Amendment–would finally be unshackled to oppose the religious right’s agenda. The only reason the religious right is pushing for a repeal is because it thinks this is a Christian majority country (which is true), that they represent most Christians (which, I think, is false), and that there are enough of their kind of Christians to overwhelm other Christians plus members of other religions (which is definitely false).

Not just Christians, either.  There are any number of religious groups in this country who could stand up and be counted: Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and so on would be free to make themselves heard and endorse candidates who oppose the Jesus-shouter agenda.  (Quakers have been doing it for decades; we’ve just kept comparatively quiet about it.)

Put that in your collection plate.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Friday, November 17, 2017

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Here We Go Again With Obamacare Repeal

They keep trying and trying

On Tuesday, after weeks of agitation from President Trump and hard-right lawmakers, Senate GOP leadership signaled for the first time that it is amenable to inserting a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate into their tax overhaul bill.

“We’re optimistic that inserting the individual mandate repeal would be helpful, and that’s obviously the view of the Senate Finance Committee Republicans as well,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters, indicating that the policy could be inserted during the committee markup process as early as this week.

The office of Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of the Senate leadership team, confirmed to TPM that the final Senate tax bill would include the mandate’s repeal.

Yet rank-and-file lawmakers said a final decision has not yet been reached, and cited concerns that mixing health policy into an already controversial tax reform process would lose the votes Republicans need to pass the bill.

Adding to the confusion, minutes after McConnell’s declaration, the Republican chair of the Senate Finance Committee marking up the tax bill refused to acknowledge the news.

“No one needs to be talking about the individual mandate at this point,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said in the hearing, adding that he thought discussion of the policy was a “distraction” and “a waste of time.”

Which means that 13 million people would lose their subsidies for buying health insurance and no longer be able to afford it, but hey, if that means a few billionaires get a tax cut, it’s worth it, right?

Money Talks

Via Buzzfeed:

On Aug. 3 of last year, just as the US presidential election was entering its final, heated phase, the Russian foreign ministry sent nearly $30,000 to its embassy in Washington. The wire transfer, which came from a Kremlin-backed Russian bank, landed in one of the embassy’s Citibank accounts and contained a remarkable memo line: “to finance election campaign of 2016.”

That wire transfer is one of more than 60 now being scrutinized by the FBI and other federal agencies investigating Russian involvement in the US election. The transactions, which moved through Citibank accounts and totaled more than $380,000, each came from the Russian foreign ministry and most contained a memo line referencing the financing of the 2016 election.

The money wound up at Russian embassies in almost 60 countries from Afghanistan to Nigeria between Aug. 3 and Sept. 20, 2016. It is not clear how the funds were used. At least one transaction that came into the US originated with VTB Bank, a financial institution that is majority-owned by the Kremlin.

Russia says that it was for the purpose of helping Russians living abroad vote in parliamentary elections in September 2016.

Yeah, right.  Hey, looking for some really cheap property in Florida?  I know a guy….