Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Man Who Would Be Emperor

It has been a week since the presidential election was called for Joe Biden, after Pennsylvania pushed him over the 270 requirement to 279 electoral college votes. Arizona and Georgia have since been called for Biden, bringing his electoral vote count to 306 — coincidentally, the same number Donald Trump won in his 2016 bid for the presidency.

Yet, a week after Joe Biden was declared the president elect and 10 days after the election, President Trump has not conceded nor has he congratulated the president elect.

The president’s Twitter feed is a stream of false claims the election is being stolen from him:

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Yesterday afternoon, the president gave a briefing at the White House, lauding his administration’s efforts to address the coronavirus pandemic. At one point he implied his administration would end, the only hint he’s given:

Ideally, we won’t go to a lockdown. I will not go — this administration will not be going to a lockdown. Hopefully, the — the — whatever happens in the future — who knows which administration it will be? I guess time will tell. But I can tell you, this administration will not go to a lockdown.

He took no questions, retreating back into the White House after delivering his prepared remarks.

Beyond my incredulity and anger, I wonder about the personality and mental health of a man whose sense of self won’t admit loss or failure, a man who promotes a blatantly false reality.

Is this a calculated strategy to keep the more than 70 million who voted for him in his orbit, to hold onto his power over roughly half the country and the Republican party?

I find it as maddening that most of the Republicans in Congress are kowtowing to the president’s falsehoods, choosing fealty to the president and party ideology over loyalty to the Constitution and the norms of our democracy.

The functioning of a democracy requires good will, trust, and norms of civic behavior. While we’ve suffered an erosion of those values since well before Donald Trump was elected, he has amplified them by his intentional disrespect for virtually all of our civic norms.

Except for the grace of God, reflected in the votes of the American people and honest election officials, Donald Trump would be emperor.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

The 2020 Presidential Election

Vice President Joe Biden, 2013

Four days after the 2020 election, with votes still being counted in multiple states, Pennsylvania pushed former Vice President Biden above the 270 electoral votes needed to become president-elect. The major news organizations — even Fox News — quickly reported that Biden won the election.

The news, via text from my daughter, immediately brought relief after the uncertainty of the past four days, then tears as I felt the significance of this outcome following four nightmarish years, where the president’s policies and actions have been so discordant with my values.

President Trump has not conceded the election, his campaign still challenging the vote counting in various courts. The last time the president spoke publicly, he argued his win was slowly being stolen. I don’t expect a gracious concession speech and am concerned about steps he may take between now and the inauguration to further his policies and protect himself, his family, and inner circle from future legal action.

As I write this, the Washington Post website shows Biden received 74,493,496 votes, President Trump 70,342,725, 50.5 percent to 47.7 percent. The expected “blue wave” did not happen. The Democrats did not flip the Senate, although the upcoming Senate runoff in Georgia offers an opportunity. They lost seats in the House. The country is clearly divided. Although he amplified the divide, Donald Trump did not cause it. He gave a voice to nearly half the country who feel unheard, discounted, disrespected. Let us not forget the pain those Americans feel, mirroring my own feelings the past four years.

Had Joe Biden not become the Democratic nominee, had it been a more progressive candidate such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, I suspect President Trump would likely have coasted to a second term. I hope this registers with those who have been pushing for the country to adopt very progressive policies. We do, indeed, need more access to health care; lower cost educational options post high school; action to address climate change; recognition of dominant white, male power and steps to broaden access to power; police reform; and on and on. However, building consensus in a divided government will require the Republicans to be open, the Democrats to be humble.

That Joe Biden will become the 46th president — who emerged from a primary with some 24 candidates and built his campaign around uniting the country and being a president for all Americans — leads me to ponder whether there is a providence governing the course of human events. Of all those candidates, he has the temperament to unite the country and the governing experience to build bridges across the disparate political ideologies.

Largely overshadowed by the presidential protagonists since she was selected, except for the debate with Mike Pence, Kamala Harris makes history with several demographic firsts — first woman, first woman of color — and is likely positioned to repeat those firsts as future president.

I hope, perhaps naively, that the focus of our leaders will now shift from this divisive election to collectively address the many problems before us: the coronavirus, recession, inequality, extreme weather, international instability, and on and on. Who, in God’s name, would want this responsibility?

(Nevada has now been called for Joe Biden, bringing him to 279 electoral votes.)

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Two Countries, Two Very Different Responses to SARS-CoV-2

SARS-CoV-19, the virus causing rampant COVID-19 infections around the globe, is the greatest scourge to the country’s health and economic well being as any threat during my lifetime. As disturbing and puzzling as how the virus attacks the body — its spike protein able to penetrate human cells to replicate — is the country’s psychological response to the pandemic.

Assuming no attempts to mitigate the virus, an infected person is estimated to spread the virus to 5.7 others (R0 = 5.7), which makes it highly contagious, particularly since someone carrying the disease often shows no symptoms 1. While most people do recover, the number of deaths from the virus in the U.S. has reached a staggering 250,000 since January 21, when the first U.S. case was reported.

That dichotomy — most recover yet many die — may help explain why our society is struggling to develop a national strategy and the will to carry it out. The failure to develop and deploy an effective strategy to address the pandemic falls on the president. When confronted by a national challenge, we look to our president to marshal the country’s response and secure citizen commitment, particularly if we are asked as individuals to sacrifice for the good of the nation.

Tragically, President Trump’s response has been confusing and contradictory. The accelerated campaign to develop a vaccine, known as Operation Warp Speed, is his best effort, as a vaccine will have the greatest long-term effect reducing infections and deaths. Unfortunately, as the pandemic arrived in the U.S., the administration was inconsistent and ineffective coordinating the manufacturing and distribution of an adequate supply of PPE, largely leaving the states to compete with each other for scarce supplies. He favored the states with Republican governors and criticized Democratic governors and mayors for their quarantines.

From the bully pulpit, the president downplayed the seriousness of the virus and the best steps to prevent infection, undermining the use of masks through his words and the actions of his administration. The lack of masks and social distancing at the White House ceremony nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court arguably led to the president’s own infection with COVID-19, as well as multiple people who attended the event.

His contradictory and bellicose messages have obfuscated the seriousness of the pandemic and amped a strain of American individualism and distrust of government, a “you’re not the boss of me” attitude. His tweets and campaign speeches calling for the “liberation” of states and cities imposing quarantine measures fuels this dangerous ideology.

The president has consistently claimed success fighting the pandemic. During last week’s presidential debate, he said, “We're rounding the corner, it’s going away.” Yet the data shows the falseness of his words. The ineffectiveness of the president’s hollow claims and his wanton disregard for scientific guidance is quite obvious comparing the COVID-19 infections in China and the U.S.

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Does this data confirm the president’s claim that “it’s going away”? Source: 91-DIVOC and Johns Hopkins.

China was slow to respond to the initial outbreak in Wuhan. When it did, it imposed a severe lockdown across the country, from 23 January until 8 April in Wuhan (ending sooner in other parts of the country). While the accuracy of China’s official numbers is questionable, it’s hard to argue the country’s infections were as high or as prolonged as those in the U.S.

Although its authoritarian quarantine was draconian, China did a far better job containing the virus. The country’s economy has reopened and is recovering. We are still struggling to limit the spread as SARS-CoV-2 propagates across the country. Surely our democracy can do better than we’ve done.

Coda

Today, appearing on CNN’s State of the Union, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said, “We’re not going to control the pandemic. We are gonna control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas.” He said the pandemic can’t be controlled “because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu.” 2

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severe_acute_respiratory_syndrome_coronavirus_2 ↩︎
  2. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/25/white-house-chief-of-staff-controlpandemic-432236 ↩︎

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Promises Made, Promises Kept?

With just a few weeks until the election, The Daily podcast examined the promises made by candidate Donald J. Trump and which of those he has fulfilled during his term as president. Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, provided this scorecard:

Promises Kept

  • Cut taxes, both corporate and individual.
  • Reduced regulations, including environmental and financial.
  • Increased defense funding.
  • Banned travel from five Muslim majority countries.
  • Increased ICE enforcement, including separating families and restricting the ability to request asylum.
  • Building portions of a wall along the border with Mexico.
  • Drove the ISIS caliphate from the land they had captured.
  • Reduced the number of U.S. troops in the Middle East.
  • Criticized foreign alliances (e.g., NATO, World Health Organization), withdrew from international agreements (Iran nuclear deal, Paris climate accord, and the Trans Pacific Partnership), and threatened or implemented tariffs on trade with various countries.
  • Negotiated an updated trade agreement with Mexico and Canada to replace NAFTA.
  • Filled many judicial vacancies, including soon to be three Supreme Court justices.
  • Eliminated the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) individual mandate and joined a lawsuit filed by the states to repeal the entire ACA, to be argued before the Supreme Court right after the election.

Promises Not Kept

  • Restore American manufacturing jobs.
  • Eliminate the U.S. trade deficit with China.
  • Eliminate the national debt, which he promised to do within eight years. Even excluding the pandemic, it increased due to the tax cut and increase in defense spending.
  • Repeal the ACA and replace it with a plan "far less expensive and far better."
  • Complete the wall along the southern border and have Mexico pay for it.
  • “Drain the swamp,” i.e., eliminate Washington corruption and self-dealing.

Failures from Unexpected Events

  • Leading the nation's response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic to minimize both the economic impact and deaths — now approaching 225,000 Americans dead and some 8.5 million infected.

My Scorecard

I found Peter Baker’s summary informative and useful, as it provides a tally of the president's promises, “successes,” and failures. The days since the presidential election and Donald Trump took the oath of office have been so chaotic and dystopian, I have been overwhelmed and don’t have an organized, coherent list of what has happened. So this gives me something to review and critique:

Taxes — The corporate tax cut went too far, and I wonder whether the claim it would lead to a reinvestment in America and more jobs has proven true. The individual tax cuts highly favored the wealthy; I feel they should have had a tax increase.

Regulations — No doubt some federal regulations are burdensome and deserve to be eliminated. Bureaucracies tend to overreach. However, aggressively cutting environmental regulations, as the president has done, impairs our already late and meager response to climate change. Eliminating the financial regulations enacted after the 2008 “great recession” seems like a quid pro quo from lobbying by banks and investment firms, which will likely lead to a similar financial catastrophe in the future.

Immigration — Having seen the contributions by immigrants to this country, I vehemently oppose the president's anti-immigrant, American first orthodoxy. It has led to dehumanizing and inhumane policies, particularly for those in marginalized communities. Building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border, while symbolic, is an ineffective solution to the challenge of managing the flow of people looking for an opportunity to live the American dream.

America First — While globalization causes dislocations in industries and those who work in them, my belief is globalization and “free” trade collectively benefit the globe, including the U.S. and, admittedly, me. Ideally, the world would see itself as a common humanity rather than nationalistic silos competing in a zero-sum game. Governments should help those hurt by economic disruptions with “safety net” policies and programs to assist them learning new skills and making transitions to new roles, perhaps in other regions of the country. Just as common technical standards enable global data communication, fair agreements governing the environment, health, and trade benefit all. As we've seen, the weather and viruses don't stop at borders.

ACA — President Trump's actions to repeal the ACA with no replacement — despite his frequent promises of a wonderful plan coming within just a few weeks — seems motivated purely by Republican pique over the ACA and, particularly, the animus for President Barack Obama. This policy is likely the most hurtful to the American people, reflecting a callous disdain for every person's right to access health care.

COVID-19 — The number of infections and deaths in the U.S. compared to other countries reflects a failure in presidential leadership. No, we could not have avoided the pandemic, but a coherent national response could have coordinated resources, directing them to the hardest hit areas; funded emergency manufacturing of PPE; kept public awareness and protocols aligned with the evolving scientific understanding of the virus; minimized public complacency; and avoided the blue/red divide over masks and “liberating” cities and states from policies intended to reduce the spread — ultimately yielding fewer American deaths. Wearing masks became a political issue largely because President Trump regarded it as unnecessary and a sign of weakness, making it a controversy.

Drain the Swamp — Coupled with the president’s personality and temperament, this is arguably his most egregious violation of the norms and ethics of office. His self-dealing led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives, and his overall philosophy of avarice is reflected in the controversies surrounding his businesses and the many resignations by members of his administration for ethical lapses.

Values — I’ve always expected the President of the United States to be a living symbol of the values America aspires to achieve. During my life, no president has lived up to that ideal; yet, despite their politics, a number have moved our country closer to these values: Lyndon Johnson pushed civil rights legislation, Richard Nixon created the EPA, and Barack Obama effectively bet his administration to giving all Americans access to health care. Tragically, Donald Trump’s boorish persona and actions are antithetical to the values of a government of, by, and for the people. Instead, his values align with the sovereignty of the individual and the pursuit of money, power, and sex.

I couldn’t believe Donald Trump was a serious candidate for president, I was astonished when he became the Republican nominee, then heartbroken when he won the presidency. Since he assumed office, each day has brought a dismaying example of how this country’s principles are being undermined by a kleptocracy and a man who believes he is all powerful.

Given the deep divide in the country, I’m unsure whether those who view Donald Trump as I do will be able to prevail in the election. If we lose, I fear the next four years will seriously wound this country.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Whose Day Is It?

While talking with a colleague Friday, he mentioned our day off today, referring to the federal holiday designated as Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day, wrying adding something about rewriting history.

Although his comment triggered me, I resisted the urge to give him my “fair and balanced” opinion, which would likely come across as a lecture. So I obliquely acknowledged his statement, understanding he feels like he’s walking across a political minefield during these highly contentious times.

So rather than lecturing him, I’ll think aloud here.

A long-used adage says history is written by those in power. Growing up, I internalized Columbus Day as celebrating the “modern” arrival of Europeans on the vast American landscape, which led to the European colonization of the continent, the birth of the United States, and my forebears coming in search of better lives. Arguably, I would not be here had Columbus not sailed west in search of a more direct route to the Indies.

The other side of the story is when Columbus arrived, the land was already occupied by many tribes of people. Over the coming centuries, the European settlers and United States government disenfranchised them of their rights, sought to erase their “primitive” cultures, and forced them to move to restrictive reservations. That meets the definition of genocide: “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.”

Ironically, Columbus Day was first designated a national holiday not to celebrate the arrival of Christopher Columbus, rather as a one-time celebration to placate Italian Americans and ease diplomatic tensions with Italy. The holiday was declared by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, following the murder of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans. At the time, Italian immigrants were seen as outside America’s racist view of itself as white and Protestant. Columbus Day didn’t become an annual federal holiday until 1968, possibly as much a celebration of Italian-American heritage as commemorating the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Returning to my colleague's comment, celebrating Columbus' arrival in the Americas without acknowledging the sins his journey unleashed is truly rewriting history — or hiding those chapters in the basement so we don’t tarnish our view of the perfect American experiment. Our treatment of the indigenous peoples is among the sins we have yet to atone for as a nation.

U.S. states celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day
(Native American Day in South Dakota)

US states celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day

Source: Kaldari
License: Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication, CC0

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Independence Day

I am searching for America, a country divided.

I see one side hearkening to a time when people knew and accepted their place in this land of no castes, striving through independence and hard work to raise a God-fearing family and live a comfortable life, working in the coal mines and factories of American industry, the manufacturing engine that created the consumer society.

The other side wants to add chairs around the table, so all have a seat no matter their skin color, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, belief in God or no god. All at the table have equal dignity and the opportunity to pursue the fabled American dream through freedom and hard work.

Langston Hughes, the Black writer and social activist whose work spanned the first half of the 20th Century, movingly captured this divide in his poem “Let American Be America Again.” He begins,

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Hughes goes on to paint a vision of the country living up to its founding ideals:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Come November, we’ll learn how America sees itself, our values reflected through the peoples’ votes.


Read the entire poem Let America Be America Again.

The Wikipedia biography of Hughes describes his ancestry, tragically too common:

Like many African-Americans, Hughes had a complex ancestry. Both of Hughes' paternal great-grandmothers were enslaved Africans, and both of his paternal great-grandfathers were white slave owners in Kentucky.


Also posted to Medium.