Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Autoimmune Response

“ ‘Washington Post’ Reporter Frustrated Every Space In Parking Garage Taken Up By Anonymous Source”
 —Headline from The Onion, May 30
The improbable rise and election of Donald Trump has flummoxed people so badly that they struggle to find some comparable historical figure to help make sense of him. Quite a few of the more excitable ones quickly reached for the almost-always-inadvisable Hitler comparison, as well as fascists like Benito Mussolini. Some went for Argentina’s populist crook Juan PerĂ³n. Others likened President Trump to his putative bromance partner Vladimir Putin. I myself wrote in this blog of a potential similarity to Italy’s buffoonish media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

Lately another comparison has occurred to me, and I am confident few others have thought of it—Chile’s Salvador Allende. Sounds nuts, right? Politically, two men could not be further apart. If you have any admiration at all for one of them, you will certainly have no time at all for the other.

The late Chilean president has been on my mind because my novel authoring efforts have again transported me back to South America in the early 1970s. (Yes, I have indeed seized upon a topic that allows me to plug my available-real-soon-now third book.) Events of that era in Chile figured into the plot of my first novel, Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. They figure even more prominently in the sequel, which follows the further adventures of twentysomething Californian Dallas Green, who insists he is not interested in politics but keeps getting drawn into political situations anyway.

Indulge me with this Trump/Allende thing. First, let’s note the stark differences between them. Allende was a veteran politician and the head of a well-established political party, which was the Socialist Party. Trump is a businessman whose political views over time have been all over the map. His first ever elective office was president of the United States. He was elected on a platform that was pro-business and nationalistic. Allende, as a self-avowed Marxist, was very much into state control of the economy and spoke the language of international solidarity. The two are clearly poles apart ideologically—and that assumes Trump even has a real ideology.

So why do I see a correlation between the two? For one thing, both were presidents elected legally but by electoral minorities. Allende received just 36.6 percent of the popular vote, a slight purality ahead of Jorge Alessandri, the conservative independent candidate, who received 35.3 percent. The Chilean Congress functioned as an effective Electoral College, and the centrist Christian Democrats threw their votes to Allende. They came to regret that strategy. Nearly three years later they joined the rest of the political opposition to declare Allende’s presidency illegal. As for Trump, he of course won the Electoral College despite receiving only 46.1 percent of the popular vote.

In another parallel, both Allende and Trump caused alarm by perceived ties to foreign leaders. In Allende’s case, he was well known to be a personal friend of Fidel Castro. He was photographed several times holding an AK-47 Castro had given him as a gift. When the military came to oust him, he used that weapon to take his own life. (For years his supporters insisted he had been murdered, but eventually his family conceded that he had died by his own hand.) In Trump’s case, many observers were puzzled—if not outright unnerved—by the fact he was given to praising Vladimir Putin’s leadership and did not subject the Russian leader to the same outbursts he directed at most other world leaders. This hysteria continued to the point where Trump’s former campaign is being examined with an eye to possible collusion with the Russians and Trump himself has been reported to be a target for his possible interference.

The fundamental similarity between Trump and Allende is that each, in his own way, represented a threat to his society’s establishment. In Chile’s case, the conservative establishment—with support from the U.S. government—resisted him at every turn. Things reached a crisis when Congress condemned Allende for disregarding judicial rulings, ruling by decree, unlawfully confiscating land, and allowing his supporters to arm themselves while others were not so allowed. Three weeks later the military removed him and took control of the country.

In the current American case, it is the modern liberal establishment that cannot abide Trump. Talk of impeachment began before he was even inaugurated. From the outset, his administration has been undermined by a tide of leaks, not only from his own staff but from intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The leaking campaign extended as high as then-FBI director James Comey, who acknowledged in testimoney before Congress that he had leaked his version of a conversation with Trump with the (successful) intention of triggering a special counsel investigation. That investigation is headed by Comey’s personal friend and longtime colleague Robert Mueller. He has a sterling reputation, not unlike Comey’s, although Comey’s has suffered some since his recent testimony, where he came off more as an insider schemer than the boy scout had seemed before. As for Mueller, some are now looking askance at the fact that his hires for the probe are tending heavily toward those on record for having donated generously to Democratic candidates and political action committees. Moreover, the investigation is unusual in that, as far as I can remember anyway, it is the first one which is trying to establish whether a crime was actually committed as opposed to investigating a crime that has already been established as having been committed.

If there is one overriding similarity between Allende and Trump, it is that their presidencies both evoke the image of a foreign organism pushing its way into the body politic like a pathogen, causing a furious reaction from antibodies trying to ward off the infection. In Allende’s case, it was conservative society, businesses and the military that reacted. In Trump’s case, it is the Democratic party, the corporate media and, most of all, the legions of entrenched career government employees to whom some refer as the “deep state.”

What seems to be forgotten in the heated political environment is that, in a democracy, the political leader you revile was put there by millions of people. Allende may have been a threat to Chilean democracy, but he was supported by a large segment of the population. Many of his supporters wound up being imprisoned, tortured, killed or forced into exile.

What has gotten precious little acknowledgement since the U.S. election is the fact that nearly 63 million people voted for Donald Trump. Those voters had not seen their most serious concerns, fears and problems recognized and treated seriously by politicians of either major party. Rightly or wrongly, they tried to send a message by electing a president opposed by the establishments of both parties. If they turn on the news or pick up a newspaper—and who knows how many of them even bother anymore—what do they see?

Maybe some number of them read the president’s tweets and/or blogs sympathetic to him and still urge him on. Those who do not, on the other hand, must see little sign that their message in November was received or taken to heart by anyone in Washington or the corporate media.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Pot, Meet Kettle

“We published several … emails which show Podesta responding to a phishing email. Podesta gave out that his password was the word ‘password.’ His own staff said this email that you’ve received, this is totally legitimate. So, this is something … a 14-year-old kid could have hacked Podesta that way.”
—Wilileaks founder Julian Assange, in a Fox News Channel interview on January 3
Remember when conservatives and foreign policy hawks were the ones who lost their heads over covert Russian influence and infiltration in American society?

Now it is seemingly every politician, pundit and blogger to the left of center suggesting President Trump is a some sort of Manchurian candidate. Is he?

The term is a reference to Richard Condon’s 1959 novel and its 1962 film adaptation by John Frankenheimer. The book was adapted again thirteen years ago by the late Jonathan Demme. A paranoid thriller, the story is about a young scion of a prominent political family who, while serving his country in the Korean War, is captured by Soviets and brainwashed to act on their behalf of the Communists when he goes on to a political career.

I do not think anyone seriously believes the president was ever brainwashed in the manner of Laurence Harvey in the 1962 movie (Liev Schreiber in the 2004 one). I think what some people suspect (or perhaps hope) is that it may turn out that the president has a concrete reason not to go against Vladimir Putin’s international interests for personal financial reasons. Maybe the president would hope to benefit from business interests in Russia, according to one line of speculation. Another is that the Russians may even have funneled money to his political campaign. After all it has been pretty well documented that the Russians have done a lot of meddling in electoral campaigns in western countries. They were clearly involved in the hacking and leaking of the Democratic National Committee’s computers.

Will we find out the truth about the president’s collusion or non-collusion with the Russkies? The good news is that the appointment of former Robert Mueller director Robert Mueller as special counsel will be our best shot at finding out in a way that will satisfy most reasonable people—if there are any left. The problem is that we could be waiting years for the answer.

Donald Trump has had a more raucous beginning to his presidency than any of his recent predecessors, but administrations being under investigation is actually pretty run-of-the-mill. Ronald Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton had Whitewater, which somehow veered into his affair with Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. George W. Bush had the Valerie Plame affair, which resulted in no prosecution for the official who actually outed her but did for someone who gave the wrong answers in the course of the investigation. President Obama did not have to deal with a special counsel, but his Secretary of State was investigated by the FBI after she left office.

Unfortunately for Democrats in hindsight, they nominated her as their presidential candidate anyway. That fact betrays a huge amount of hypocrisy among Democratic politicians and their media supporters. Their cries of indignation about the current president letting slip classified info to the Russian diplomats in the Oval Office ring a bit hollow when they insisted for months it was no big deal when much larger amounts of such sensitive information sat for years on an unsecured computer server in Secretary Clinton’s home.

Their new concern about Russian meddling and ambitions also comes off as more than a little opportunistic. Even if the Trump campaign is found to have, say, gotten money from the Russians, it is hard to imagine they could have find the current administration any more compliant than the Obama administration. No one has ever accused Barack Obama of being on the take with the Russians, but his administration was observedly less than aggressive with Moscow on the international front. Whether it was the Crimea invasion or threatening then backtracking on Syria or unilaterally withdrawing defensive missiles from Eastern Europe in exchange for no concessions, he gave Putin a good deal more than once. There was nothing nefarious about it, though. The fact was he needed Putin’s cooperation in order to secure his cherished nuclear deal with Iran. All other foreign policy considerations seemed subservient to that goal.

So what if the Trump people are found to have taken Russian money? After all, it could conceivably happen. This sort of thing is not unprecedented. In 1997 the Justice Department investigated the funneling of Chinese money into the Clinton/Gore campaign, Bill Clinton’s legal defense fund, and some Democratic congressional campaigns. In the end the Justice Department, which of course reported to Bill Clinton, dropped the investigation. Calls for an independent counsel were ignored. Congressional investigations eventually fell apart under the weight of partisan squabbling. Years later Bill Clinton collected multi-million-dollar fees from the Chinese for a series of speeches while his wife was Secretary of State.

If any of the considerable smoke in the Trump presidency results in legitimate fire, one hopes that justice will take its proper course. When it comes to passing judgment, however, it is hard to imagine a more imperfect messenger than the Democratic Party.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Spun Out

“And right now we have about half the population who is—who have been conditioned, conditioned, one might even say brainwashed by close to 50 years of right-wing media, which has characterized, demonized mainstream media and characterized it as unpatriotic and un-American and has talked about grossly misogynistic way and in grossly racist terms, in Islamophobic and xenophobic terms and has allowed about half of our population to bathe in a sort of humiliation. And I use that term advisedly, because some of us are nervously paying attention to the parallels with Weimar Germany.”
 —Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR’s On the Media, hyperventilating on MSNBC in the wake of Donald Trump’s election last November
As I listen to the coverage of Bill O’Reilly’s sudden and thorough fall, I cannot help but wonder what my mother would have thought of it all.

My mother was something of a fan of The O’Reilly Factor, and she clearly was not alone. It was long the single dominant show in the cable news landscape. There is a bit of irony in Mom’s attraction to the so-called No-spin Zone, as she was not a particularly political person. It was my father who followed the news closely, had a definite political philosophy and loved a good back-and-forth about issues of the day. Mom had human reactions to people in the news but generally was not inclined to get into policy.

For the last decade or so of her life, though, she did have a weekday ritual. At five in the evening—the time that The O’Reilly Factor aired on the West Coast—she would switch the TV to Fox News and watch Bill for five minutes or so, that is, as long as it took for him to deliver his Talking Points Memo. Then she would switch to another channel to join in progress a syndicated rerun of one of her favorite sitcoms, usually The Golden Girls. Five minutes a day of O’Reilly was enough for her, but she did like to see him for those five minutes.

In hindsight, I find her idiosyncratic viewing habit impressively efficient. In absorbing Bill’s bullet points, she quickly got the gist of his thinking on current events, and by changing the channel she avoided all the longer monologues, features, debates with guests and commercials that filled up the rest of the hour. As with most programs on so-called news channels, the format yielded much more heat than light.

When Ted Turner’s Cable News Network debuted—and I finally got around to owning a TV and subscribing to cable—back in the 1980s, I thought it was a great idea. The evening newscast of the traditional broadcast networks had always been frustratingly brief and superficial. The idea of getting news 24 hours per day seemed like a news junkie’s godsend. It did not take long to realize, however, that as tantalizing as that promise was, the result was disappointment. CNN simply spent much of its time repeating the same major news stories over and over. Otherwise, the hours were filled with “discussion,” as exemplified by the program Crossfire which debuted in 1982 with Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan. The program and its inevitable imitators soon devolved into a formula of liberal and conservative sniping back and forth at each other, making politics a spectator sport where viewers could cheer on their own side.

What many of us found about CNN was that watching it did not make one more informed. It simply offered the opportunity to spend more time absorbing the same information. In terms of world view, the editors of CNN were not much different from those of the news divisions at ABC, CBS or NBC. In the end, CNN’s main advantage was that it did not have to cut back to regular entertainment programming during major news events like the Challenger shuttle disaster and the first Gulf War.

The real game changer in cable news was when Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes perceived that the reigning world view at the major broadcast and cable news outfits was not only fairly uniform but that it reflected an educated urban population that was not reflective of a large portion of the country. These are the many people for whom a quote like the one above from Bob Garfield sounds like pure and utter gibberish.

Despite its name, Fox News Channel has never been a channel that broadcasts mostly news. It has relied on the “political talk” staple that CNN—and later MSNBC—have relied on. The difference was that the hosts and guests reflected a more rightward bent. In a way, FNC’s format long reminded me, more than anything, of National Public Radio’s. One got five minutes of headlines at the top of the hour followed by programs featuring discussion or interviews, and in the evening there was an hour of two of block news coverage.

The idea behind Fox News was clearly a winner business-wise. The channel has long been the top cable news channel, luring in—for at least five minutes a day anyway—a one-time Roosevelt Democrat like my mother. And, I’m guessing, probably quite a few others. Personally, I had little patience for news chat shows like O’Reilly’s, but I was always amused that he drew such ire from modern liberals. He was, in fact, what would pass for a moderate voice on FNC. Despite his deliberately abrasive style, his opinions were by no means lock-step conservative. His main shtick was bloviating against political correctness which, as it happens, was how Bill Maher started out his TV talk career years ago on ABC.

Fox News is successful enough—and will probably continue to be successful—that it does not need me to defend it. I do, however, think it gets a bad rap on a couple of counts. For one, people who only know about it through attacks by the left will not appreciate how much diversity of opinion is showcased in its programming. I am not talking about the presence of token liberal commentators. As last year’s Republican presidential primaries and the recent Georgia primary demonstrated, while Democrats have no trouble flocking to a single candidate, there are numerous factions with Republican politics vying against one another and ranging from libertarianism to traditional paleo-conservatism to disturbing excesses of the so-called alt-right. Left-of-center-oriented news organizations, having learned nothing from their own clueless coverage of the Trump phenomenon and the large-scale collapse of the Democrats, still seem to see everything right of center as a monolith instead of the vibrant and exciting and scary free-for-all that it is.

The other bad rap that Fox News gets is that, despite its regular depiction as a Republican party organ, its actual news organization—as opposed to all its talk-talk programming—is really quite good. Unfortunately, hard news only accounts for about an hour a day of its programming, but people looking to be informed could do worse than watching Bret Baier’s weekday evening newscast or Chris Wallace’s Sunday show. Their shows cover the same issues and events as the major networks but devote more time to them and without the soft features that often eat up a large part of the ABC/CBS/NBC blob’s scant 22 minutes of nightly airtime. In addition to the same stories everyone else is covering, Baier and Wallace also give you stories the others do not have time for, which may be the real reason Democrats hate Fox News.

FNC news consumers got way more coverage of stories like Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s email server than people watching other channels. Does that mean that Fox was part of some anti-Democratic conspiracy? I’m not much of a conspiracist, but maybe if more Democrats had been watching Fox they would not have been so blindsided when those issues helped to derail their candidate.