Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Johnson”

War on the west

johnson

Amid the hourly chaos that is the Trump government it is possible to lose sight of the truly significant, while focusing on the merely crazy or simply incompetent.

So it was with the appointment – without Senate confirmation – of the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the announced intention of the administration to effectively gut the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The two events – a hardly a coincidence – occurred a few days apart.

It turns out the most incompetent administration in anyone’s lifetime is competent in one way: it knows how to trash the environment.

The appointment of William Perry Pendley, a hard rightwing lawyer who has repeatedly voiced support for selling public lands, is in keeping with the administration’s appointments of Ryan Zinke, the ethically challenged former Secretary of the Interior, and current Secretary David Bernhardt, a former coal industry lobbyist.

These guys don’t care about public access to public lands for western hunters and fishermen, backpackers and sightseers; they’re all about lessening protections and being cozy with the west’s extractive industries. You’d be naïve not to think that they will, as one-time Secretary Cecil D. Andrus said, cater to “the rape, ruin and run” crowd.

Pendley has a particularly pernicious reputation. As High Country News noted recently: “The Wyoming native has extreme anti-government views. He despises the Endangered Species Act, once writing the bedrock conservation law seeks ‘to kill or prevent anybody from making a living on federal land.’ He has sued the federal government numerous times in the last three decades, including over ESA listings and national monument designations. He’s called the science of climate change ‘junk science’ and blasted the Obama administration for waging a perceived ‘war on coal.’”

In a January 2016 article in the National Review, Pendley, who styles himself as one of the original “Sagebrush Rebels,” boldly asserted that, “The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold.” In that article Pendley championed Illinois as a model all western states should aspire to. Ninety-eight percent of the land in Illinois is owned privately. Try finding a place to hunt on public land in the Land of Lincoln.

Pendley, a supporter of the anti-government, anti-public lands Bundy crowd, also traffics in the old myth that the 1980s “Sagebrush Rebellion” was a spontaneous reaction to policies advanced by the Carter Administration when Andrus was running the Interior Department. It’s nonsense. Big money interests and corporate exploiters have been lusting over your land for generations. They always wait for an attractive political moment to pounce and they now have a willing accomplice in the White House.

In 1980, the Interior Department did a study of the various efforts to liquidate the west’s vast public acreage and, to no great surprise, found the “Sagebrush Rebellion” was as old as the hills. To quote from that report:

    In 1832 the Public Land Committee of the U.S. Senate claimed that state sovereignty was threatened by federal land ownership. The rest of Congress, however, maintained its discretionary authority to manage such land without limitation and rejected the complaint.

    In 1930 the Hoover Commission proposed to cede much of the public domain to the states. The recommendation was opposed by both the eastern Congressional majority and by the Western states, who having already acquired the most productive land, wanted no responsibility for the “waste lands” remaining.

    In the 1940s Senator Pat McCarran (D., Nevada) conducted a series of investigations into the Grazing Service (one of BLM’s predecessors) and the Forest Service, both of whom were trying to bring livestock grazing under control. In 1946 Senator Edward Robertson of Wyoming sponsored a bill to convey all unreserved and unappropriated lands to their respective states. BLM was formed the same year.

    In 1956 Senator Russell Long (D., Louisiana) proposed similar legislation.

The new “acting” head of the BLM is just the latest in a long line of hucksters who want to limit your ownership of national forests and rangelands. They’re driven by an ultra-conservative mindset that don’t just devalue public land, but considers it valueless.

The decision to gut much of the enforcement mechanism of the ESA was, of course, immediately endorsed by Idaho’s anti-conservation Senate delegation and Rep. Russ Fulcher, and it represents an even more blatant attack on the environment. Fulcher, parroting talking points that could have been produced by the “rape, ruin and run” crowd, congratulated Trump and company for “increasing transparency and continuing to fix this broken law.”

Richard Nixon signed this “broken law.” It has saved bald eagles and grizzly bears and countless other species. Leave it to Trump, a guy whose idea of roughing it is a resort bathroom without gold fixtures, to shred the last bit of credibility Republicans had on the environment.

The legacy of America’s public lands is one sure thing we can hand off to our grandchildren. No other country on earth has as much abundance of the open and accessible public lands, as well as the wildlife diversity that literally defines the American west. The land doesn’t belong to a president, or a blinkered rightwing lawyer or a coal company. It belongs to all of us, and our kids.

I’ll believe Republicans like Jim Risch and Mike Crapo value public lands when I see them insist on putting the acting BLM director through a Senate confirmation vote. I’ll believe Fulcher cares about your kid’s western legacy when he speaks, even once, about the value of the wide-open west without sounding like a lobbyist for an oil company.

The folks who regular devalue the idea of America’s public lands often talk about “balance,” which is vitally important in a region where many people make a living off the land. But they rarely talk about stewardship or how to harmonize the needs of resource industries with the legitimate values of conservation.

“When the West fully learns,” the great writer Wallace Stegner once said, “that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”
 

Have we no decency

johnson

It is difficult to escape the feeling that the United States has reached an inflection point: mass shootings now a regular, sickening occurrence, the FBI identifying “fringe conspiracy theories as a factor in domestic terrorism” and a level of racial unrest unlike anything since George Wallace campaigned in Michigan in 1968.

Uruguay, a country known more for soccer than diplomatic leadership, has warned its citizens traveling to the United States to “take extreme precautions in the face of growing indiscriminate violence, mostly hate crimes, including racism and discrimination, which killed more than 250 people in the first seven months of this year.” New Zealand, Canada, Germany and other allies have said much the same.

And, of course, there is a president unable and unwilling to provide the moral leadership the country so desperately needs; unable because of who he is, unwilling because stoking division is his political strategy.

But, at the most fundamental level we have reached this inflection point not because of the profoundly flawed man occupying the Oval Office, but because of a widespread abdication of principled, pragmatic leadership in response to this man.

It is difficult to tell what is more discouraging, or reprehensible: the wild, constant scrambling to justify and defend the president’s actions and lies from the political enablers around him like White House advisor Kellyanne Conway or the silence and acceptance from people like Idahoans Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, otherwise decent people who are no longer just ignoring the indecency, but clearly accepting it.

Institutions have failed us. Political leadership, mostly Republican, but also Democratic, have retreated from, or in a wholesale fashion abandoned, a sense of fair play, and honest and legitimate compromise. ‘Whataboutism’ dominates every political debate. Ethical transgressions that Republicans would have condemned in a New York minute in a previous administration are ignored, accepted and normalized.

The most serious presidential misconduct in our history, carefully documented in a textbook example of prosecutorial diligence, is intentionally ignored as if facts about malfeasance at the highest level of the Republic are, what, suddenly OK because our side won?

“We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.”

The words in the previous paragraph come from the leadership of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. who published an urgent statement entitled “Have We No Decency? A response to President Trump.”

Most of us understand – if we look deep into our hearts and the American doctrine – what has happening to our politics. Many Americans have become blind, heedless partisans, members of a tribe that subscribes to only one overriding rule: win at all cost. The details don’t matter and facts are inconvenient so it’s acceptable to ignore them.

Democrats, of course, shoulder some level of political blame for this awful place, this inflection point. But this is not an either/or moment. Only one man is in the White House and fundamentally only one party can check his abuse. Few are willing. Very few.

Nebraska Republican state Senator John McCollister is the latest to raise his head and his voice and suffer the consequences. “The Republican Party is enabling white supremacy in our country,” McCollister recently said on Twitter. “As a lifelong Republican, it pains me to say this, but it’s the truth.”

The chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party demanded immediately that McCollister re-register as a Democrat. No discussion of the substance of his comments. No debate about the details or the facts, just a demand that he adhere to the party line or hit the road.

Politico reporter Tim Alberta has written a profoundly unsettling new book – American Carnage: On the Frontlines of the Republican Civil War– that is really a history of the GOP over the last decade. As one reviewer noted, the books abiding theme “is that almost every influential figure in the Party has come to accept or submit to the President.” And this is the unsettling part: not because they admire or even believe much of what he has done, but because they have found it easier politically and personally to just go along.

A central figure in the book is former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who candidly spoke with Alberta about his own willingness to go along with morally outrageous behavior and presidential ignorance. (Former Congressman Raul Labrador is also prominent in the book and comes across as more committed to remaking the GOP into the Tea Party than restraining a morally, ethically and incompetent leader.)

In his surrender to expediency, Ryan, for example, says Trump “didn’t know anything about government” and didn’t try to learn. But Ryan went along. In essence swapping his profound misgivings, even dread, for a corporate tax cut. The former speaker confessed to feeling physically ill when he realized Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination and now that he is out of office and off the hook comes clean about the mess that has been made.

This is the modern GOP. Aware, as I am confident people like Crapo and Simpson must be, that they have surrendered their party to not only an ignorant con man, but given his white nationalist tendencies, by their silence, they continue to embolden him to ever more outrageous and dangerous actions.

At some point, we can continue to hope, good, caring, decent people will put their country and its future above their party. We can hope, because a Mike Crapo and a Mike Simpson have to grapple with the question leaders of the National Cathedral asked us all recently.

“When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.”
 

Plead for the future

johnson

You wouldn’t know it from watching the cable television food fights that masquerade as Democratic presidential debates, but the 2020 presidential election will not be about “socialism” or “Medicare for all,” or “climate change” or even the great Democratic unifier Donald J. Trump.

No, the next presidential election will be about what all presidential elections are about: a choice.

A choice between two people: a racist, polarizing, pugilistic incumbent with the power of Twitter and a reptile brain understanding of how to always put himself at the center of everything, and a Democrat. How that Democrat frames the contest and how Trump has already framed it will determine the outcome.

Democrats better make the frame a simple and forward-looking one. The election is, after all, about what kind of country we want. Trump has made his vision clear. He wants a racially polarized country where fear and resentment constitute policy. Trump is betting, and Republicans on the ballot next year are meekly going along, that he can channel George Wallace one more time and draw an inside straight in the Electoral College and repeat his narrow victories in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If he wins again he will almost certainly do so without again winning the popular vote.

It is a risky strategy, but it’s all he’s got. Pre-Trump, American politics was always about addition. He’s made it about subtraction. He’s done nothing – less than nothing, really – to grow support. His only possible political path is to further divide, while insulting and demeaning his way to a second term on the strength of an angry, resentful, mostly white middle class.

There are clear signs that this approach will fail. The Associated Press recently went to suburbs in Michigan, Colorado and Pennsylvania, three states critical to Trump’s re-election or a Democrats chance to win, and found that many women – often swing voters – have grown weary of Trump and his tactics.

“I did not think it was going to be as bad as it is — definitely narcissism and sexism, but I did not think it was going to be as bad as it is,” said Kathy Barnes while shopping in the Denver suburb of conservative-leaning Lone Tree. “I am just ashamed to be an American right now.”

Ms. Barnes just framed the election for whomever wins the Democratic nomination. What kind of America do you want? What kind of place will this American experiment produce? What the future for your kids and grandkids?

Having sorted through all the post-mortems on the 2016 race between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and believe me that is a lot of sorting, I conclude that Trump won for two fundamental reasons.

First, Trump was – and is – a disrupter, a bull in the political china closet, throwing fits and smashing the place settings. I thought it odd back in 2015 when a friend in his 70s told me he thought Trump was a joke, but would vote for him because “things couldn’t get any worse.” He was willing to burn the house down, throw the dice and elect a con man simply to shake things up.

Second, and because every election is a choice, Trump won because of who his opponent was in 2016. Clinton was – and remains – every bit as polarizing, if better mannered, than Trump. When Barack Obama said during his 2008 contest with Clinton that she was “likeable enough” he understated that factor by half. In a contest with a superbly unlikable guy she came in second.

I haven’t a clue at this point who will emerge from the bloated Democratic field, and since two news cycles in our politics is now a lifetime absolutely anything can happen in the next 15 months. However, I am pretty sure Elizabeth Warren’s plan for everything or Joe Biden’s record on forced busing won’t matter much in the fall of next year.

Plans and proposals and platforms won’t beat a guy who is all about fear and fights and fiction. You don’t beat a demagogue with a five-point plan. You need what George H.W. Bush famously called “the vision thing.”

“I am pleading for the future,” the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow once said. “I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men, when we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.”

That’s a vision.

Another of those suburban women, Yael Telgheder, 36, of Novi, Michigan, told the AP she was a reluctant Hillary voter in 2016, unhappy with her either/or choice. Yet, she can’t imagine a 2020 vote for Trump. “To be honest, there are certain things that — he’s a businessman — so I understand the reasons behind them. But all of the disrespect and lies and stuff like that, it’s just too much for me.”

Maybe Trump wins again. Incumbent presidents usually do, but then again he is no typical politician. To counter a president who has hastened America’s decline, who has embraced a political strategy of division and discord, whose appeal is increasingly only to a white nationalist America you need to offer an optimistic vision of America for Americans.

Trump’s “American carnage” was both a warning and a prediction. Democrats need to plead for the future.
 

Our grandkids are going to hate us

johnson

House and Senate leaders and the president apparently reached a two-year budget agreement this week that increases federal spending by $320 billion, and conveniently for everyone running for re-election next year extends the debt limit until after the 2020 election. The deal also does away with budget caps placed in law in 2010, but regularly ignored since.

The sound you hear is the nation’s fiscal can tumbling down the road, while in the background you can detect the not-so-faint odor of political hypocrisy. A review of the numbers provides some stunning figures that our grandkids are going to hate us for.

Discretionary federal spending is growing at a substantially faster rate than it did under Barack Obama and by the Trump Administration’s own estimates the deficit for the current year will top $1 trillion. It was $799 billion last year and $587 billion in Obama’s last full year in office. The total national debt was about $19 trillion when Obama left office and it went past $22 trillion this month. Our grandkids are going to hate us.

Yet, cynicism in defense of partisan advantage is no vice apparently. White House officials confirmed to the Washington Post recently that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, told the president of the United States in the run-up to the budget and debt deal: “no politician had ever lost office for spending more money.”

It’s not for lack of good reason that McConnell has been called “the gravedigger of American democracy.” According to polls in his home state he seen as the most despised member of the Senate, which if you think about it is quite a distinction. In a statement touting the new budget deal McConnell made no mention of the deficit or debt, but he did applaud spending increases for military establishments in his state.

The U.S. defense budget, meanwhile, seems to be the only place where no increase is too large to warrant bipartisan support. Long gone are the days when members of Congress actually debated whether the Air Force needed a new plane or the Navy a new aircraft carrier. The U.S. now spends more on defense than the next six countries combined. When did you last hear a deficit hawk squawk about that?

Both parties, of course, share blame for the national fiscal mess, but for sheer hypocrisy it’s tough to beat the GOP and guys like McConnell and Idaho’s Mike Crapo. Eight months ago McConnell called the ballooning deficit “very disturbing” and said too much spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security were to blame. Not to blame, according to McConnell, the massive GOP tax cuts that every honest person knows has made the mess worse.

Erick Erickson, the flame throwing conservative pundit, actually said something important about all this. “No leaders in Washington want to restore any fiscal sanity,” Erickson wrote, “Why is it always only a [Democrat] in the White House and [Republicans] in Congress that get us fiscal sanity, i.e. [Bill] Clinton balanced budget & sequestration under Obama?” Or, put another way, for Republicans deficits only matter when a Democrat is in the White House.

Crapo has literally built his political brand on being a deficit hawk. He still has a national debt counter on his official website. That counter has clicked often enough to add several hundred thousand dollars in new debt in the time it takes you to read this column. The clever visual is meant to display Crapo’s deep concern about the nation’s fiscal trajectory, but you have to ask yourself what has Mike Crapo really done to address his signature issue?

He still touts his involvement with the Simpson-Bowles Commission back in the Obama era, but that once promising effort collapsed when Obama realized congressional Republicans would automatically reject anything, even spending cuts married to tax increases, that he endorsed. Crapo did endorse the Simpson-Bowles framework, but when it all fell apart he meekly acquiesced to McConnell’s determination to never give Obama a victory – on anything. The Idaho senator might have used his seniority – he’s 15th in Senate years of service having been there for 20 years – and worked to fashion his own bipartisan solution. That’s what legislators used to do. He didn’t.

Meanwhile, Crapo has never met a deficit increasing tax cut that he didn’t like. When Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton White House chief of staff – the co-chairs of the fiscal commission – predicted that the 2017 tax cut legislation was “reckless” and would worsen the fiscal picture, adding $1.4 trillion in new debt, Crapo dismissed their concern.

The tax cuts we now know went overwhelmingly to the wealthiest Americans and to corporations that have largely used the windfall to buy back stock thereby enriching shareholders and CEO’s. Nevertheless, Crapo predicted the tax cuts “will ignite our economy with levels of growth not seen in generations.” Nope, but they did help grow the deficit.

Crapo recently said the solution to the deficit and debt problems required us “to address the drivers of spending, and frankly those drivers are the mandatory spending programs in the federal government. That’s where we need reform.” OK, where’s the plan? No Republican, including Crapo, has offered a serious plan.

Fast forward to this week where Crapo hasn’t commented on the latest deal, but for those who have been paying attention for any length of time it’s pretty easy to see where he is going.

When the deal comes to the Senate floor Crapo will take the one vote on which he’s willing to buck Donald Trump. He’ll vote against the deal, as will Idaho’s other Senator James Risch. In doing so they will literally have their spending cake and eat it, too.

If Crapo and Risch stay true to form they’ll issue sober statements lamenting the growing debt and deficit and then come back to Idaho and tout some new spending at the Idaho National Laboratory or Mountain Home Air Force Base. As long as you can say you voted against the spending, while also being confident the spending will occur you’re ready for the next election.

It’s the racism, stupid …

johnson

It is hardly news that in the space of less than a week 28 hard right Republican members of the Idaho House of Representatives publicly went after diversity programs at the state’s largest university, while their moral and spiritual leader once again confirmed his racism in all its shameful detail.

This is the modern Republican Party: embracing white supremacy, attacking any notion that diversity in a nation of immigrants is to be celebrated and trotting out once again the age-old chestnut that Americans outside the dominant white culture really aren’t Americans.

Donald Trump doesn’t bother with dog whistles or code words; he’s an open and unapologetic hater. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump said of four Democratic members of Congress, all women of color, all American citizens.

“In many ways, this is the most insidious kind of racial demagoguery,” said Douglas A. Blackmon, whose book on the treatment of African-Americans after the Civil War won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. “The president has moved beyond invoking the obvious racial slanders of 50 years ago — clichés like black neighborhoods ‘on fire’ — and is now invoking the white supremacist mentality of the early 1900s, when anyone who looked ‘not white’ could be labeled as unwelcome in America.”

The wing nut caucus of the Idaho House at least tried to dandy up the language of its racism, even if the intent shines like a beacon. “This drive to create a diversified and inclusive culture [at Boise State University] becomes divisive and exclusionary because it separates and segregates students,” the legislators said in a letter to new BSU president Marlene Tromp.

The Republicans, led by Rep. Barbara Ehardt of Idaho Falls and including many members of the Education Committee (a misnomer if ever there was one) and Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Eagle, have some how concluded that creating a welcoming, inclusive campus is driving tuition increases. Someone needs to tell these experts in higher education that puny state financial support for colleges and universities is what is driving tuition increases.

Boise State’s efforts, it’s worth noting, have the laudable objective of trying to expand the diversity of both students and faculty, a goal that ought to be embraced not condemned. The university remains overwhelmingly white, with Hispanic students making up about 13% of the student body. Every major employer in Idaho, including Micron, Hewlett-Packard, the state’s largest hospitals, the Idaho National Laboratory and on and on will tell you of the vital importance to attracting and retaining a diverse work force. These businesses can’t have that work force unless the state’s universities are working to attract diverse students.

Yet, if your idea of politics and public policy is to always find new ways to divide and incite anger, while scratching the old itch of resentment against “others,” you can willingly ignore the real world, as Trump and his Idaho acolytes do. After all, racial resentment is valuable red meat for “the base.”

Some political analysts have suggested there is a cunning re-election strategy behind Trump’s latest racist comments. By playing on white nationalist themes, fear of immigrants and resentment against women of color, so the theory goes, he stokes the fever swamp of the Republican base, the only possible path Trump has to re-election. It’s a good theory and if it is true that Trump is both a racist and a cynic then what he is doing is even more reprehensible. The arrogant white privilege exhibited by the gang of 28 Idaho Republicans is no better.

Was the letter to the new BSU president really intended for her or was the real audience the alt right fringe that increasingly defines the Idaho Republican Party? It’s hardly a coincidence that the mendacious Idaho Freedom Foundation, a “dark money” funded collection of anti-government cranks with a remarkable record of losing lawsuits, has been peddling the same anti-diversity story. The Freedom Foundation’s president, Wayne Hoffman, wrote recently that he found Marlene Tromp’s commitment to “social justice” alarming. Only in Trump’s America would a commitment to social justice be anything other than normal.

“The agenda of Republicans has always favored white people,” says Kurt Bardella, a former top aide to California Republican Darrell Issa, “and now for the first time in contemporary times they have a leader who is willing to ascribe words to that agenda.”

Trump’s Republican Party, and that of his Idaho followers, is increasingly not really conservative, but reactionary in the same way that Barry Goldwater and his followers in the 1960s wanted to turn back the clock. It’s a new “America, love it or leave it” moment. And for good measure Trump and his reactionary enablers salt in a bit of Joe McCarthy nostalgia, invoking a fear of “socialists” and “communists” and equating dissent with a lack of patriotism.

The casual Idaho Republican embrace of racism and nativism embodied in the BSU affair amounts, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson says, “to collaboration — perhaps ‘collusion’ is a better word — with the president’s assault on diversity and pluralism.” And, of course, the Idaho congressional delegation fully accepts the collusion, a particularly shameful display of gutlessness given the state’s long struggles with neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

“Go back where you came from” is among the oldest and worst racist tropes, a leap beyond questioning a president’s birth certificate or condemning a Mexican-American judge because of his ethnicity. Almost as old is the trick of condemning your opponents as un-American. Dividing Americans by their skin color, their heritage, their religion, and their beliefs is from the playbook of a demagogue. Trump owns that playbook now and Republicans have handed their party to a hateful, petty, racist leader who they follow blindly and meekly.

Trump was asked this week if he was concerned that he was using the language of white supremacy. “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” he said. The president doesn’t say much that is true, but he’s correct about that. Unfortunately a bunch of those people serve in the legislature and represent Idaho in Congress.
 

Championing Trump’s new world order

johnson

Sometimes, what appears to be a minor change in political direction turns out to be a historic turning point.

Did most Americans in 1933 realize that the slew of legislation that flew through Congress in the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency would shape the American political environment for decades? The New Deal was a marketing slogan, but the legislation behind the words continues to define the Democratic Party.

Did most Americans know that an obscure Supreme Court decision in January 1976 involving little understood aspects of campaign finance law — Buckley v. Valeo — would become the triggering event that transformed American politics, leading eventually to “dark money” and vast amounts of unregulated cash perverting democracy?

Political change rarely comes quickly or decisively, but most often plays out over time in fits and starts. The Age of Trump may be an exception to that rule.

Will historians look back on President Donald Trump’s tenure as a blip or a head spinning turning point? In one area — foreign policy — I’d bet on chaotic turning point. And Idahoans have, if they choose to pay attention, a front row seat to this turning point with their junior senator now chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Yet, Jim Risch seems wholly content to get along and go along with the chaos in American foreign policy rather than make even a feeble effort to shape the direction.

As proof that we have arrived at a historic point rather than a one-off deviation from norm, consider the fact that the party of “tear down this wall,” Ronald Reagan’s famous challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, has transformed itself into a party that not only tolerates, but meekly acquiesces to the former KGB operative who seeks to re-establish the Russian empire. And a Republican president willingly helps him.

Beyond the stunning and unequivocal conclusions of the Mueller report regarding Russian election interference, including the widespread distribution of disinformation designed to sow discord and help elect Trump, there is other growing evidence of Vladimir Putin’s “grand strategy” to reassert Russian influence in a host of ways.

A new analysis prepared for the U.S. military reads like something Reagan would have reacted to: “Contrary to conventional analysis, after two decades under Putin, Russia represents an ideological challenge to the West, not just a political and military rivalry. Although NATO continues to possess impressive overmatch against Moscow, that edge is dwindling, and Western vulnerabilities in certain military areas are alarming. Moreover, the unwillingness of Western experts and governments to confront the ideological — as well as political and military — aspects of our rivalry with Putinism means that the threat of significant armed conflict is rising.”

The key phrase there is “the unwillingness . . . to confront.” Trump this week verbally assaulted the British prime minister and the UK’s ambassador to Washington for the handling of Brexit, the still pending UK withdrawal from the European Union, and for a leaked series of British assessments of Trump and his administration. But there has never been even a mild rebuke from the president for Russian actions. Instead, Trump recently joked with Putin about not again interfering in an American election and, of course, Putin favors anything weakening European unity.

As for the Brit ambassador who reported to London that stories of chaos in the Trump White House were mostly true and that Washington has become an unreliable ally, the president Tweeted: “The wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy.”

After Trump repeatedly praised Putin before his election as “a strong leader” and someone he could make great deals with, Trump dismissed all the U.S. intelligence agency’s belief that Russia interfered in his election. “I have President Putin here,” Trump said in that surreal moment in Helsinki in July 2018. “He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be. ... ”

Trump recently questioned the long-standing U.S.-Japan mutual defense agreement and he has repeatedly diminished the NATO alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 75 years. He has shredded relations with France, Canada and even Australia. Yet after North Korea’s murdering dictator called Trump mentally deranged, a dotard, a gangster and a frightened dog, the president chose to coo over the “love letters” between the two, while angling for yet another face-to-face meeting.

In almost all of the post-war period, the Republican Party has claimed the mantle of being strong on national security and the GOP language about protecting American interests often put Democrats on the defensive. Republicans routinely assaulted their opponents for opposing expensive weapons systems. Republican Steve Symms made hay with such issues when he defeated Democrat Frank Church in 1980 in the most celebrated Idaho Senate race ever.

Yet, the challenge presented by Putin and his fellow autocrats must be countered with more than military might, as the new Pentagon report makes profoundly clear. “Political objectives matter to the Kremlin in a zero-sum worldview,” the report asserts. “For Russia to win, the U.S. has to lose.”

Or as the writer Philip Rotner wrote recently: “Trump’s retreat from the values that defined the post-World War II era of American exceptionalism has immediate negative consequences, above and beyond the long-term damage it does to America’s unique place in the world (as if that weren’t enough).

“It’s a gift to the tyrants of the world. It gives them the one thing they most covet: Impunity.”

So where is Idaho’s Risch during this historic transformation of U.S. foreign policy? I’ll remind you, again, that he said recently that “Russia is the most overrated country in the world.” Putin must love to hear a conservative Republican in the foreign policy establishment say such things because the Russian knows where he wants to go even if the senator does not.

Risch has explicitly rejected the kind of activist role in shaping foreign policy that marked Church’s long career, as well as that of Idaho’s William Borah in the interwar period. He has the title of chairman, but he is clearly a figurehead, content to win re-election next year by embracing all things Trumpian.

History will not treat either of them well.
 

A home in the party of Trump

johnson

Idaho Republican elected officials, with a couple of notable exceptions, seem unable to control, let alone influence their party. In political terms, the inmates have taken over, once and apparently forever, the GOP asylum.

The GOP state central committee elected a new party chairman last week and the rank and file chose as their new leader the guy who lost the Republican nomination for governor last year to Brad Little. At the 2018 convention, he refused to explicitly endorse the man who is now governor. “We should unite as a party behind the nominees, but we should never forget that 63 percent of our party voted for change,” Raul Labrador said.

Actually, fewer than 33 percent of GOP primary voters voted for Labrador in 2018, but now he is the change the party has apparently been waiting for, as well as the organizational face of Idaho Republicans just a year after one of the most divisive primary fights in recent Idaho history.

Memorably, former Republican Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said of the GOP primary in 2018: “I’ve been around elections for 45 years, and this is the most negative gubernatorial primary I’ve ever seen.”

Well, Ben, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

And also memorably, Labrador said, as he is wont to do, something nonsensical after his two-vote victory over former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. “It’s amazing how close it was, and it tells us how our party is divided and united,” he said.

Divided and united.

And as Labrador famously said in Lewiston a couple of years ago,“Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care,” either.

Here’s the best evidence of division: Gov. Little was nowhere in sight for the GOP summer confab and had no candidate in the hunt for the chairmanship of the party. It was undoubtedly wise of the governor to avoid all this party business. He had no chance to win and a big chance to lose and lose embarrassingly. Still it’s just short of astounding that a guy elected with nearly 60 percent of the vote seven months ago hardly gets a mention while his party elects his chief rival.

Other prominent non-entities: Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo and the one routinely adult member of the Idaho delegation, Congressman Mike Simpson.

As Boise State Public Radio’s James Dawson noted, Congressman Russ Fulcher, the latest darling of the far out right, received a standing ovation from central committee members, as did the militia-endorsed, white supremacy flirting Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, while five-term Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and House Speaker Scott Bedke did not.

It’s clear the rank and file of the Idaho GOP has consumed the Kool-Aid of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party and no one dares — at least publicly — to take issue with the Emperor and his lack of clothes. In the modern GOP, up is down, objective reality is unreliable, all news is fake and a lie is just an alternative fact.

Labrador campaigned for chairman by showing off a photo of himself with Trump, while Bonneville County Republican Party Chairman Mark Fuller, re-writing history on the fly, claimed that “Raul unapologetically supported President Trump while others were waffling or outright hiding.”

That ignores the by now historic mash-up tape of Labrador trashing Trump during the GOP primaries in 2016 while the then-congressman was supporting first Sen. Rand Paul and then Sen. Ted Cruz. Labrador called Trump “a whiner,” questioned his temperament and wondered “is that the kind of person that we want running the United States of America?”

That tape, you may recall, made its way — perhaps at Little’s behest — to the Trump White House where it seemed to have headed off a Trump primary endorsement for the man who now chairs the Idaho party.

In fairness to the new chairman, he did stick with Trump during the “Access Hollywood” tape expose and ultimately fell in smartly behind the man he once didn’t think was suitable to run the country. It took Labrador a while to get bought, but once there, he stays bought.

Poor Tom Luna. The best he could do in his pre-election pitch to central committee members was to feature a photo of himself with Donald Trump Jr.

The modern Republican movement — it’s no longer correct to call it conservative — is a fact-free personality cult, where if you profess loyalty to all Trumpian values, you can stay square with the GOP base. Not even a tiny bit of deviation is permissible.

You can trace all this, including the embrace of a would-be autocrat who has shredded virtually every long-established Republican value, to the culture that has been created in the party by all the whoppers Republican leaders have been telling their base for a generation or more.

Tax cuts for the wealthy strengthen the economy.

Affordable health care is a socialist plot.

Labor unions are evil.

Paying teachers a decent wage is unaffordable.

Or, this one repeated by Labrador last weekend: The party has to be united to defeat Democrats, or as he said “the real enemy.”

The ultimate question, of course, is what will Chairman Labrador do with his new position atop a united and divided Republican Party? It’s hard to see him as a uniter. He’s more a bomb thrower from the fringe. Will he pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the job or seek the spotlight on hot button issues that play to the Tea Party base of the party? Will he support the conservative pragmatism of Little and Simpson or will he use his new position to prepare another run for governor?

There was a certain crazy symmetry that Idaho Republicans anointed as their leader the loser of a GOP primary who spent his time in Congress trashing the national party leadership, often warring with Simpson and itching to take on a mainstream conservative such as Little. Meanwhile, the president – the only real thing other than a casual dance with white supremacy that unites Idaho Republicans — was off in Asia creating, as Bloomberg noted, a few good days for authoritarian leaders.

A Republican Party able to embrace Raul Labrador, Vladimir Putin, a murderous Saudi prince, a brutal North Korean dictator, crippling tariffs whacking major elements of the Idaho economy and the daily antics of a reality show presidency really isn’t both divided and united, whatever in the world that means.

The word that comes first to mind is delusional.
 

The fault is ours

johnson

Historians, philosophers and ethicists have been debating for nearly 60 years – perhaps longer really – the notion that a person can do evil without being evil. That question is at the heart of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who implemented Hitler’s slaughter of six million Jews during World War II.

Eichmann was abducted from his Argentine hiding place in 1960, taken to Jerusalem, tried for war crimes and executed in 1962. Arendt covered Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker and found the defendant to be a rather ordinary, unassuming little man. Thomas White wrote about what Arendt called “the banality of evil,” and says she found Eichmann “neither perverted nor sadistic”, but “terrifyingly normal” acting “without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy.”

It is an interesting – and still controversial – notion: that “normal people” are capable of abnormal, even horrible things in service to their own ambition, or perhaps due to their inability to assess the moral dimensions of their actions.

Watching the recent viral video of a U.S. Justice Department attorney appearing before a panel of three federal judges and being unwilling to say that migrant children in government custody being denied basic sanitation, soap and a toothbrush, or a decent place to sleep was unacceptable left me thinking again about Hannah Arendt’s theory.

And before you think that I’m equating a government lawyer with a bureaucrat of the Holocaust, I’m not. The question is rather about the human capacity, even the need, to look the other way, to disengage, to accept the unacceptable, to reduce what we all know to be wicked, wrong or malicious to, well, the banal, the commonplace.

A bumper sticker was in wide circulation some years ago: “If you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention.” It should make a comeback.

The fault is in all of us. We too easily become numb to an outrage, a scandal, a violation of norms and traditions, particularly if it all fits comfortably with an otherwise settled and pleasant personal opinion.

Kamala Harris, the Democratic presidential candidate and senator from California, for example, recently said if she happens to become president she wants to see that the Justice Department goes “forward with those obstruction of justice charges” against Donald Trump. Harris was roundly criticized, as she should have been, for saying, as the Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes wrote, “that as president you would supervise that person’s prosecution, as Harris did, is poisonous stuff in a democracy that cares about apolitical law enforcement.”

Trump, of course, has done the same thing by encouraging “lock her up” chants at his rallies and suggesting that his political opponents should be investigated or in jail. That Trump would engage in such poisonous stuff is wrong and that a Democrat would mimic the poison is just as wrong. You cannot accept one and condemn the other unless you have become numb to outrage.

When the president of the United States was once again credibly accused – actually for the 22nd time – of sexual assault, a crime he actually admitted to in the infamous Access Hollywood tape, there was a collective yawn. Many major news organizations barely covered the story, even when Trump dismissed the allegation bizarrely saying: “I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type. Number two, it never happened. It never happened, OK?”

One of the great normalizers of the abnormal in our times, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, simply said: “He’s denied it and that’s all I needed to hear.” Graham, of course, had a much different reaction to Trump’s comments in that infamous videotape in 2016: “Name one sports team, university, publicly-held company, etc. that would accept a person like this as their standard bearer,” he said. That was then. This is now.

“When you know you can lie constantly and effectively not be held accountable,” the commentator John Ziegler wrote recently, “it is like an offensive line in football free to break any rule they want, secure that even if they get called for holding, the penalty will not be enforced.”

We believe what we want to believe and we discount the lies we find at odds with what we want to believe. We casually dismiss a troubling outrage if confronting it requires a reckoning with our own values. In such a situational world the inconvenient is just a temporary nuisance. How else to explain a government official justifying keeping kids in abhorrent conditions as if the government had no power to change those conditions?

Or a Saudi journalist working for an American newspaper is brutally murdered with credible evidence the Saudi crown prince was involved, but those inconvenient facts aren’t allowed to stand in the way of selling billions in military equipment to a profoundly corrupt Saudi government. An Idaho politician is in a key position to make a stink. His silence is deafening.

The chief executive repeatedly demeans the head of the Federal Reserve, undermining more than 100 years of tradition that the country’s central bank is insolated from political interference. An Idahoan chairs the key Senate committee that plays a critical role in ensuring that independence. He has never said a word, let alone used his influence to affect such behavior.

A top Democratic appointee in Idaho state government, a state tax commissioner, mysteriously is placed on “administrative leave” and just as mysteriously returns. No explanation is offered. No accountability is demanded. Democrats are silent. Republicans are mute.

Offer a hundred other examples of the normalization of outrage from the perspective of your own worldview, but also ask why is any of this acceptable? Why has such behavior on so many levels in so many ways become banal?

The fault, as the bard so eloquently wrote, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. If you’re not outraged, you really are not paying attention.
 

Taxes and tariffs

johnson

The two foundational pillars of Republican (read Trump) economic policy – tax cuts and tariffs – have settled in on the country like so much else has for the last two and a half years. They are the product of ignorance, misdirection, wishful thinking and lies.

First, let’s review the bidding on the 2017 Trump tax cut passed with only Republican votes in Congress.

Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, a member of the tax writing Finance Committee said at the time, “The tax relief passed by Congress will reshape our tax policy to the benefit of Idaho’s taxpayers help make the United States more competitive.” Crapo was also sure that tax rates for all Americans would go down, jobs would spike, competitiveness would soar and “despite claims to the contrary, the reforms to our tax system will address our growing debt and deficits.”

In a joint statement with Crapo celebrating the passage of the tax cut, Senator Jim Risch was over the moon in touting the benefits. “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will produce growth not seen in generations, giving Americans access to higher wages, greater job opportunities and a more vibrant economy, all of which will result in greater dynamic revenue generation to reduce the deficit and improve our nation’s fiscal standing.”

But what has actually happened after the happy talk faded away? In as nutshell, and according to an in-depth analysis by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a branch of the Library of Congress, Crapo and Risch’s claims were wildly overstated, indeed were largely wrong.

Consider who benefited from the tax legislation. “From 2017 to 2018,” CRS says, “the estimated average corporate tax rate fell from 23.4% to 12.1% and individual income taxes as a percentage of personal income fell slightly from 9.6% to 9.2%.” That helps explain why you saw tiny, if any, reduction in your personal tax bill, while corporations had their tax bill nearly halved.

The CRS analysis documents that much of the corporate tax cut went not to investment in workers or plants, but for “a record-breaking amount of stock buybacks, with $1 trillion announced by the end of 2018.” In other words, investors, corporate CEO’s and the already well to do enjoyed the benefits.

And how about the notion that cutting government revenue would some how magically contribute to a reduction in government debt? Here’s how Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik describes what happened: “Overall revenue fell in 2018, largely because of a $40-billion decline in corporate tax revenue. Individuals, particularly working- and middle-class individuals haven’t been so fortunate. Although the legislation increased the standard deduction and child credit, whatever tax reductions those would produce for families were ‘largely offset’ by the elimination of personal exemptions, and limitations on itemized deductions such as those for state and local taxes.”

In point of fact the federal deficit – remember when Risch and Crapo used to talk about that all the time – has increased by 40% in the current fiscal year, at a time when the economy continues to grow. This is more than blue smoke and mirrors masquerading as economic policy. It’s really economic malpractice on a huge scale. Congressional Republicans sold you a bill of goods and most of them continue to mouth the platitudes about how good it is for you.

Let’s consider the other “T” in Trumpland economics: tariffs. Despite mounting evidence of the impact on Idaho of the administration’s tariff wars with China, India and a host of other countries, Risch and Crapo stand at attention and march over the economic cliff with the president. Trump, don’t forget, has taken his tariff actions in an unprecedented manner, invoking a provision meant to deal with matters of national security. The Constitution expressly reserves to the Congress the “Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises.” In other words, Congress has acquiesced to this presidential power grab.

Risch recently told a television interviewer that he’s “not a tariff guy,” chuckling that Republicans “are free traders.” Yet when given the chance to even mildly rebuff Trump – the Senate last year approved 88-11 a non-binding objection to a tariff war – Risch declined, as Crapo did, citing “onerous restrictions” on the president’s authority to implement tariffs for national security reasons.

Even if Trump manages to navigate a pathway out of his tariff cul-de-sac some time soon much damage has already been done. Supply chains have been disrupted, long-to-develop trading relationships shattered and uncertainty dominates.

“Our businesses have spent a lot of time and a lot of money building relationships in some of these markets,” the Idaho Department of Agriculture’s Laura Johnson told the Idaho Press recently, “and as customers go somewhere else, it’s really hard to get them back. We may have other opportunities elsewhere, but it’s costly.” Jay Theiler, the Executive Director of Marketing for Agri Beef, a significant Idaho exporter, says, “Right now, politics is in the way of the trade.”

There is ample evidence that the president of the United States doesn’t understand how tariffs – or tax policy for that matter – actually work, that American consumers and businesses pay the duties when imports become more expensive and cutting tax rates increases the deficit. But, ignorance in politics isn’t a new phenomenon. What is unusual is the willful disregard of facts on the part of Idaho’s senators, and others, who have stood idly by while this economic malpractice continues to unfold.

Tax cuts and tariffs have done almost nothing beneficial for most Americans. If fact, GOP economic policy is costing you money. You would be entitled to ask: whose looking out for your interest?