Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 August 2016

The New GOP Disinformation Campaign


[For a new note on Trump’s crossing his extremist Rubicon, click here. For a recent rumination on the Olympics and what makes the US great, click here. For more recent posts on this crucial election, click here or here.]

Today’s GOP operatives may not have the votes, the economists or common sense on their side. But that won’t stop them from being persistent, even creative. Now they’ve got a brand new disinformation campaign.

Remember 2009, when Barack Obama succeeded Dubya as president? About two million people jammed the national Mall for his inauguration, hoping for an end to the national nightmare of Dubya’s misrule. I was one of them.

Dubya had given us two utterly unnecessary wars—full-scale invasions and occupations of sovereign foreign nations. He also had bailed out the bankers who had caused the Crash of 2008. That was his legacy. The voters so reviled him that four years later, in 2012, the GOP didn’t even invite him to their national convention. Dubya had become a “non-person,” the worst national leader in at least a century.

So what did Republicans do? The tried to blame the whole mess Dubya had made on Obama. They said Obama had caused the disaster in Iraq by trying to wind down the two gratuitous wars that Dubya had started. They blamed the whole Crash on government, not the stupid and greedy bankers who had caused it. They railed against Obama as a “socialist,” although in fact our nation has none. Then they stiffed us, the people, on the Keynesian stimulus that every Nobel Laureate in economics cried out for; they approved just enough stimulus to avoid economic collapse. Of course they blamed the resulting (and predicted!) slow recovery on Obama.

After “Obamacare” passed, the GOP predicted higher insurance rates. That was not a bad bet. Have you ever known insurance rates to go down? The GOP claimed that the new law—which has now gotten health insurance for about twenty million people who never had it before—would cause chaos. They tried to repeal it over fifty times, without success. But now that another Democratic president looks inevitable, they’ve quietly abandoned the whole lie, without ever having come up with any credible alternative plan for making health insurance more accessible or affordable.

The GOP might have blamed the weather and climate on Obama, but that might have been too much even for Fox and their overburdened propaganda machine. So instead they blamed Obama for raising the prices of energy by trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to slow the acceleration of global warming.

I named all this disinformation the “chutzpah campaign.” It recalled the old joke about the definition of “chutzpah”—a kid killing both his parents and then seeking the court’s mercy as an orphan.

But this was not a joke. It was a major political party’s twisted version of “reality.” And it left our nation without a loyal opposition and with our two-party system running off the tracks.

So when you hear about a new GOP disinformation campaign, you oughtn’t ask “is it true?” It almost never is. The proper questions are who’s it supposed to dupe and how. When a demagogue like Ted Cruz is the source of the disinformation, there’s no other question worth asking.

In fact, Ted’s latest ploy is pretty transparent. He’s claiming that, because Hillary has sought the support of some Republicans in her bid to crush Trump, she won’t have a “mandate” if she wins.

If you know a little history, that’s funny—really funny. Back in the old days, a president’s “mandate” actually meant something. Members of Congress (or most of them) didn’t have “safe” seats. House members actually had to run against opposition from the other party, as often as once every two years.

So they had to compromise. If they didn’t, they might lose their House seats in an actual inter-party contest. Some of them even wanted to compromise. They figured they might as well get something done while they enjoyed the perks of their “Obamacare”-like government-provided health insurance.

Back then, the idea of a “mandate” was pretty simple. If a president won by a respectable margin, he was presumed to have acquired a popular “mandate” to do what he said he would do during his campaign. If members of Congress resisted his doing that, they risked popular disapproval and diselection.

That was once true, at least a little bit. But if it ever was, it is no longer. There’s no such thing as a “mandate” any more, at least in a presidential election. The reason is the GOP’s generation-long effort to entrench its members of Congress, especially in the House, by gerrymandering, precinct-by-precinct exploitation of “social issues,” and outright vote suppression.

That effort has been so successful that 90% of seats in the House are deemed “safe.” (The Dems went along with the GOP push in some states, mostly out of laziness and fear of losing everything.) So today, many seats may still be secure in what promises to be the biggest Democratic presidential landslide since Lyndon Johnson whipped Barry Goldwater in 1964.

So there’s no such thing as a “mandate” any more, at least not in the House. Nearly all House members have safe seats. That’s why the GOP ones have gotten more and more extreme over the years. The only challenge they can expect is from their far right—from even further extremes. And, with the aid of GOP “establishment” money and expertise, they usually fend the extreme challengers off.

If there were such a thing as a “mandate” today, President Obama would have had one. He’s the first president since Ike to win the presidency twice by clear and unchallengeable majorities, and he did so despite the ever-present handicap of racism. Maybe his “mandate” let him pass “Obamacare” with a bare handful of GOP votes in the Senate. But since then, he hasn’t gotten a GOP vote for anything, just lots of red thumbs in his eye.

When Ted Cruz speaks, don’t expect just a single bit of disinformation. Expect more of him. He’s creative. At least expect the same lie to do double duty.

The second part of Ted’s lie is directed at Democrats. He wants us to believe that Hillary, after leaning in Bernie’s direction for the entire primary campaign, and after allowing the Dems’ platform virtually to copy Bernie’s program, is now leaning rightward again.

The purpose of this bit of disinformation is pretty simple. The more Dems who believe Ted and his ilk, the fewer will show up at the polls in November. The lower will be Hillary’s plurality (no serious person believes Trump can actually win), and the more secure will be those “safe” GOP House seats that entrench the GOP’s extremist rule.

At the same time, Hillary is trying to do something similar. She’s trying to get endorsements (or expressions of non-opposition) from leading GOP “establishment” figures—you know, the ones who aren’t quite as crazy as Ted or The Donald. She’s trying to get Republicans who just can’t stomach a loose cannon like Trump in charge of the nuclear codes to vote for her or stay home.

There’s a reason every sane, professional pol moves toward the center after primary elections. Doing so increases the vote for him or her. But much more important, it decreases both the votes and the enthusiasm for the opposition. In an election like this one, in which every sane person loathes Donald Trump, it increases the chance that GOP voters will stay home and let those “safe” GOP House seats become vulnerable.

Is there a chance that Hillary’s feint toward the center is a matter of conviction? Maybe. Hillary and Bill have been known as centrists for most of their political careers.

But neither of them is stupid. They were centrists out of necessity. The GOP strategy of minority government through “safe” House seats for GOP extremists was already taking hold when Bill first sat in the White House. He had Newt Gingrich to deal with (and as House Speaker yet!).

Now both Hillary and Bill can see what bitter fruits their tree of centrism has borne. The NAFTA trade deal that Bill signed has lost many factories and good jobs to Mexico. The mandatory-minimum sentencing that Congress passed on his watch (and he signed) has turned our nation into an unequal incarceration state, mostly for black and brown people. Don’t think for a moment that Bill and Hillary misunderstand these points. Both must be abashed, at least a bit, at the disasters that their honest attempts at compromise produced.

For the last generation, the GOP was coming into its ascendance. For every compromise by Bill and Hillary, it moved farther to the right and became more extreme. That wasn’t Bill’s or Hillary’s fault: the GOP’s intransigence and extremism ran counter to every tenet of American politics up to that time. It was and still is unprecedented. But the GOP got away with it, with the help of human history’s most noxious and effective propaganda machine: Fox.

Now the chickens of the GOP’s extremism and institutional racism are coming home to roost. The GOP is out of ideas and out of lies. It has no constituency but ill-informed, angry old white men. No one but its own propagandists and shill economists still believes that money to the rich trickles down. Voters are deserting its current mad candidate like rats leaving a sinking ship.

Never in the last two generations has the GOP been more vulnerable at every level. No serious GOP analyst believes that Trump can win the presidency, at least not without a character transplant, which would require some recovery time. So all the GOP wants to do now is maintain its House majority as single reliable lever of minority rule.

All that stands between us Dems and the GOP doing that is faith in Hillary.

Lose faith in her, stay home, or vote Libertarian or Green, and the GOP wins. Trump won’t win, but the GOP will. It will keep its minority stranglehold on Congress, and gridlock will continue. We will continue to have minority rule in the House under the “Hastert Rule"—that legislative abomination named for a former GOP Speaker lately accused of molesting young boys. Whatever “mandate” Hillary achieves won’t matter, any more than Obama’s two clear popular majorities let him make the changes we all hoped for upon his election.

The only things that will break our national gridlock and change this nation are faith in Hillary and a three-branch sweep by the Dems. Her personal margin of victory won’t matter; a win is a win. What will matter is how many GOP voters stay home, in disgust with Trump or mere indifference to Hillary. What matters is how many of those “safe” GOP seats fall to reasonable Dems.

If you want to see real change in this country, you don’t get a free pass. You can’t be a purist and stay home (or vote for a fringe-party candidate) and say you did your part. You have to vote, and you have to vote for Hillary, come what may. Only then can you say you did what you could to break the gridlock caused by the Party of Extremists and awaken our nation to its history and its greatness.

As for Ted Cruz, if he tells you the sun is shining, you’d better grab your umbrella, or you’ll get drenched.

Endnote:

Is faith in Hillary warranted? I’ve never met her personally, but I think so. Just look at her record.

There’s a big smokescreen around Hillary, mostly thrown up by GOP propagandists. There’s a lot of bogus scandals, but no indictment or even censure. She was careless with her e-mails. But despite the most thorough (and expensive!) investigation in American history, no one has shown that any errant e-mail did us any real damage.

Hillary hasn’t done much of note in her long career, because she’s never had real power. Yet everything she has done has been for real people. Her politics may have been self-centered, but what she has done as a political leader has consistently made ordinary people’s lives better.

Her greatest and earliest effort tried to give us “Obamacare,” to get people health insurance who never had it. Her “Hillarycare” failed, but she didn’t stop trying. She later got eight million poor children insured by S-CHIP. After 9-11, Hillary got help for all the injured first-responders and their families, after Rudy Giuliani had told them, in effect, not to wear their respirators. In Benghazi, the only thing Hillary actually is known to have done was to get the President UN authority to use force against the mad dictator Gaddafi. The President used that authority, just in the nick of time, to save the Benghazi rebels from extermination (like “rats,” as Gaddafi had threatened). As a Senator from New York, Hillary was well known for using her office to help constituents who needed help.

No, Hillary has not (yet) moved mountains or changed the world. But she has made it a whole lot better for a whole lot of people. Her record shows every reason to believe that, if we give her more power to do good, she will. The only way to do that now is not just to elect her president, but to make sure that the Senate and House go with her.

A three-branch sweep will give Hillary the power to do good that no president has had since FDR, Truman or Lyndon Johnson. If she gets it, I’m confident she will rise to the occasion. How could she not, after she already has done so much good with so little power and so much mindless opposition? If Fox’ bullies hate her, how can she not be right?

The Extremist Die is Cast (8/18/16)

    “Alea jacta est” (“the die is cast”)—Julius Caesar, January 10, 49 BC, on crossing the Rubicon River in Northern Italy to start the great Roman civil war.
Today the Oligarch’s Daily (aka the New York Times) is all agog with news of Donald Trump’s latest campaign decision. (New York Times, Aug. 18, 2016, at A1 and A14 (two stories)) He has put a man named Stephen K. Bannon, the CEO of the right-wing Internet propaganda site “Breitbart News,” in charge of his campaign for the presidency.

Trump has thus jettisoned moderation and the “move to the center” that most candidates make after their primary victories. Instead, he has cast his campaign die irrevocably toward the extremism and anger of the Tea Party’s Southern bubbas and other angry old white men.

To understand who and what Bannon is, you need know only three things about him. First, he’s a wealthy Goldman Sachs alum who turned against his employer and Wall Street after his telephone-lineman father lost money in the Crash of 2008.

No fiercer enemy exists than a prodigal son turned against his “family.” And so it is with Bannon and Wall Street. Having made piles of money there, Bannon has turned on his fellow bankers and has taken up the pugilistic populism of the white working class. As the Times put it, Bannon’s site is “focused primarily on pushing Republicans away from what it calls a globalist agenda and toward a hard-line and often overtly racial one, railing against what it sees as the threats of free trade, Hispanic migration and Islamist terrorism.”

Second, although from the postwar generation, Bannon personifies the easy, casual racism and ethnic prejudice of a white GI Joe. If you’ve heard or read transcripts of Richard Nixon’s infamous White House tapes, you know what this means. He slams virtually every non-white, non-WASP ethnic group with epithets and casual disrespect, often mixed with casual profanity. As a former Breitbart spokesman who quit reportedly said, Bannon is “prone to profanity-laced tirades at all hours of the night[.]”

Third, Bannon is an evil media genius of the same subspecies as Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes (the former head of Fox’ so-called “news” division recently dismissed under suspicion of massive sexual harassment). And unlike Murdoch, Bannon understands the Internet. Under Bannon’s management, hits on Breitbart’s site are up 40% from last year.

Now both Bannon and Ailes are advising Trump. So he’s betting that media muscle can beat campaign money and “ground troops.” And don’t even think of dividing the subspecies against itself. Bannon’s site has reportedly “emerged as a singular defender of Mr. Ailes.”

Members of this subspecies of so-called “journalists” don’t believe in journalism at all. They believe in using the unique power of modern electronic media as a tool to propagandize the public while making piles of money doing so. They’ve discovered a huge market of Archie Bunkers who can be led to believe that endless, repetitive tirades like those they might make themselves are “news” and “analysis.” And the sponsors of these rants pay handsomely because ordinary people apparently like this sort of “polititainment.”

This discovery, of course, represents an existential threat not only to journalism and democracy, but, in our nuclear age, to the very survival or our species. These so-called “news” outlets are much worse than the real (fictional) Archie Bunker, who appeals to their target demographic.

The fictional Archie had a rough exterior but a warm heart. He loved his much-abused wife Edith, their daughter, and their son-in-law, whom he affectionately called “Meathead.” His reflexive prejudice against blacks and Mexicans often mellowed when confronted with real people, their troubles and their goodness.

Not so Breitbart and Fox. They use racial and ethnic prejudice to divide and conquer the working class, to get its members to vote and even agitate for “trickle down” and against their own economic interests. To do that, they need to come as close as they can to a race war without having to call out the National Guard.

They need to make working people substitute hate for thought. So they have no incentive to dilute the hate. They serve it straight up, as Archie never would have.

Although much less powerful today than Murdoch’s Fox, Bannon’s Breitbart is potentially more dangerous. Why? Because Fox offers general rants and complaints but few solutions. In contrast, Breitbart has discovered a searing truth that Fox has not: our plutocrats have indeed sold our working class down the river. The sale has something to do with free trade, all right, but it’s essence is not free trade. Nothing in “free trade” required our plutocrats to ship our factories and good jobs overseas, let alone to use American technology and capital to do so. They did that all on their own, for their own obscene self-enrichment.

Basically, the 1%, beguiled by seductive theories of “shareholder value” and “globalism,” allowed the 0.1% to enrich themselves obscenely, while the 1% enjoyed a comfortable life pontificating abstractly for things that ultimately produced massive inequality.

But it’s all done now. Manufacturing is reportedly only 10% of our economy. You can’t unscramble the egg and bring all those factories back from China, Mexico and Bangladesh—at least not without upsetting the postwar economic applecart and maybe causing a trade or real war. You can only make sure that the next products of our boundless Yankee innovation, plus modern infrastructure, keep jobs onshore and don’t prematurely enrich the developing world at our lasting expense.

Breitbart gets the first part right—the problem that has caused our skyrocketing economic inequality—but not the second: the limited, difficult solution. Fox doesn’t get either; it just complains, fomenting angst and hate.

In the short run, both will lose, if only because racial and ethnic division is no longer a tenable strategy. It might have been when African-Americans were its butt—a 12% minority. Today, when minorities together are approaching 40% of the population, they are too large collectively to demonize, let alone marginalize.

When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he started a long-running civil war that turned Ancient Rome a from model democracy into an empire. Some of its emperors, such as Nero and Caligula, were similar to but worse than Trump. In a few years, the outcome of that civil war led to Caesar’s assassination on the floor of the Roman Senate. But his death didn’t resurrect Roman democracy, which was gone forever.

Trump’s crossing his Rubicon into extremism and hate is unlikely to put him in charge, even temporarily, for three reasons. First, the minorities he disparages are just too large. Second, one “minority” he disparages—women—is actually a majority, which now has the vote. Finally, unlike the fine points of economics and trade, hate is easy to understand and reject.

Hate is un-American. Not only that: the vast majority of Americans have been objects of hate, at one time or another, because of their race, religion, ethnicity or (today) sexual orientation. So every time a new minority becomes an object of mindless hate, there is a vast upwelling of sympathy and indignation among Americans. That, in essence, is the story of Khizr M. Khan.

Bannon is an Irish name. Before Our Civil War, the Irish were the blacks, Hispanics or Muslims of their day. Signs on restaurants and hotels read “No dogs or Irish Allowed.” Then Bannon would have been ostracized and excluded, solely because of his national origin. The same would have been true of Trump—whose original family name was the German “Drumpf”—during the period between and immediately after the two world wars.

How quickly they forget! Our nation is the strongest and freest in the world because we all stick together. Although we relapse from time to time, we know that hate is not the way—at least it’s not our way. And understanding that is a lot easier than understanding, let alone fixing, the massive export of good jobs overseas.

So now that Trump has crossed the extremist Rubicon, it won’t be hard to keep him from winning the presidency fairly. But it will be harder to prevent him and his evil media geniuses from dividing us along economic lines.

To stop that, Hillary will have to show more passion in support of our working class, and more clarity in solutions to their current pain. She must have plausible solutions that she can express in a few sentences, if not in a bumper sticker. Killing free trade, which has kept the peace for 70 years and brought billions out of poverty, is not such a solution. She must explain why it’s not, and what is. She must tout infrastructure, including energy transformation, and tax and intellectual-property laws that keep the next generation of innovative factories here at home.

Most of all, Hillary must show some real sympathy for aggrieved men, as well as the single mothers they have left behind. If she doesn’t understand why men flipping burgers or selling junk at Wal Mart (for one-third the wages) will never be as content as they once were making cars, aircraft or even refrigerators, she’d better get some men on her staff who do. It’s not just the loss of wages; it’s the loss of work that carries intrinsic worth and self-respect. It’s no longer being able to say, with pride, “I built this.”

Niether Brietbart nor Fox will go away without a struggle. There’s too much money to be made and too much political power to confer through simple demagoguery. These media machines are a threat to our way of life that will last long after we have sent Donald Trump back to real-estate hustling.

Hate is a loser, which Hillary should have little trouble defeating. So-called “populism” is another matter. Working people have legitimate economic grievances which no mere epithet can assuage or wish away. Those grievances demand real solutions, expressed simply enough for ordinary people to understand and appreciate.

If Hillary can do that, she can not only win the presidency. She can push Trump and Bannon back across their extremist Rubicons. She can make the enterprise of confusing and dividing the people unprofitable, both politically and economically. And she can restore our nation’s full greatness and promise. Godspeed.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post suggested that anti-Irish prejudice peaked around the time of our Founding. Actually, it peaked just before our own Civil War. One of the things that stopped it was respect for Irish fighting for our Union, just as Muslims today, like Captain Khan, are fighting our wars against terrorists.

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