Live and Cooking at the Bop Shop

It’s 5:30p.m at the onramp to evening. A muddy, ice-rimmed park-n-ride lot adjacent to the Red Carpet Inn just off the Thruway near Geneva—New York not Switzerland—seems an unlikely place from which to launch a joint road trip to Rochester (The Flower City!) for what will turn out to be the best jazz concert on the planet last night.

Freud would have called the motel’s use of Red Carpet overdetermined. It’s an image crushed under the weight of too many possible references.  Red is the color of the Republican Party and of the electoral map of this state beyond the blue bastion of Manhattan Island and its satellites, among them the fallen industrial city of Rochester. Back where we started from, Geneva is as red as it gets. Red is also the color of the commies—still and always a threat, from Beijing to Moscow to Park Slope. Then there’s the bright American blood shed for freedom, and the Red Carpet rolled out for film stars and haughtily trodden open bythese self-aggrandizing liberal Hollywood elites. But President Trump treads on one too on the way to state balls and visits.

Subsequent googling of the Red Carpet Inn revealed that Luxury Trip Advisor allocates it a meager 1.5 stars. One respondent is blunt—“not worth the price.” Another lofts a deft allusion to a line from William Butler Yeats: “Motorist pass this one by.” With these small, unhoped-for blessings faith in humanity is momentarily restored.

My travelling companion for the evening’s jazz odyssey is a boyhood friend from Bainbridge Island, Washington, like me, marooned Upstate in the Empire State. After graduating from high school thirty-four years ago, we had driven across the country together in a Datsun B-210 on the way from the Northwest corner of the contiguous forty-eight to our respective Eastern seaboard colleges. On our approach from the west to Buffalo in late August of 1983 we had argued over whether to swing slightly north to take in the splendor of Niagara Falls. He vetoed the detour. We did not visit the mighty falls, nor stop at Geneva’s Red Carpet Inn, if it even existed back then.

Here we are, now in Trump Time, perched alongside that same stretch of road. As my old friend emerges from his vintage Subaru wagon still clad in its Washington plates a hulking Ford F-250 pick-up pulls up and the driver surveys us unapologetically.  You can practically catch his lips repeating the mantra of Homeland Security: “If you see something, say something.”

My friend has a giant white bandage on his right hand yet has just climbed out of the driver’s seat of his car. He wears stylish white-soled urbanite sneakers and shoulders a suspiciously chic and bulging backpack.  As he gets into my Honda, the menacing truck roars off emitting clouds of exhaust along with the message of its bumper stickers barely visible through a coating of road salt: “Make America Great Again” and “I’m Pro-Sasquatch and I Vote!” That explains the drive-by surveillance: to even the most casual observer, it looks like my friend has had a dust-up with the Man Ape of the Empire State.

This evening’s route from the Red Carpet Inn parallels the western reach of the Erie Canal towards its terminus in Rochester. God willing—and many are the houses of worship in these Christian counties—we’ll end up at Bop Shop Records in Rochester to hear another of our Bantabridgian pals and classmates, that most musical of modern drummers, Michael Sarin. Earlier in the day he, too, has driven all the way up from the Big Apple to propel a high-energy, razor sharp quintet led by his long-time collaborator, trombonist Joe Fiedler. Of his own journey to Rochester (one much-longer then that of his Upstate cronies), the famed drummer remarks that somewhere along the way he saw a “Lock Her Up!” billboard still gloating over Hillary’s political demise. It’ll probably still be there come 2020.

Still two hours before show-time, we head west on the Thruway before bending north towards Rochester on I-490. The rain turns to wet snow as we exit onto Monroe Avenue by a handsome neo-classical branch of the city library perched over the freeway, one of the many that between them have strangled and leeched the lifeblood from wilted Flower City, now necklaced by malls and gutted by the near-total evacuation by Kodak: in 1973 the company employed 120,000 workers; just over 6,000 are left.

An inveterate self-challenger, my friend chooses a Vietnamese noodle place and gamely makes his way through a large bowl of soup with his off-hand, his bandaged right one propped up on the table in a posture that these days could be taken as a Heil, Trump salute.

Duly fortified with Pho and Laotian beer, we head out Monroe Avenue in search of the Bop Shop (“Hand-Selected Vinyl Since 1982″).  On the first pass we nearly sail right by it in the last of the twilight, not suspecting the place might be set in a petit mid-century strip mall between a hair salon and a chophouse, the names of the businesses printed in white letters on the green awning. But now we see its rows of alluring and expertly-curated LPs beckoning beneath intense fluorescent lighting that bathes the holdings in a clinical glare allowing for close inspection of the cover art in all its detail and diversity: while a book should not be judged iby ts cover, an LP definitely should be. On removing the discs from their sleeves the operating-table brightness makes possible a careful examination of the condition of the vinyl grooves.

The walls of the Bop Shop are rich with vintage posters and other objects of fascination. The store is as much interactive Kunstkammer as place of commerce—gift shop as museum, where the treasures themselves are for sale.

I peruse the Dexter Gordon bin, congratulating myself for owning all the LPs I see there. That is another service of such a tremendous shop: both to confirm and to query ones own tastes and collecting instincts. Nearby, I’m tempted by a Hank Jones record with him on electric harpsichord. But in the end I decide against a purchase that might dislodge this virtuosic, subtle player from his vaunted suavity with the jabs and jolts of such an alarming instrument.

A few minutes after eight the lights are mercifully turned down and Fiedler’s quintet takes to the elegant bandstand near the back of the long rectangular space—the musicians set up on a Turkish rug in front of a big Bop Shop banner and are flanked to one side by a bookshelf of biographies from Bach and Brecht to Mahler and Mozart, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. The last of these figures memorably sat in the front row at Birdland on 52nd Street in 1950 and heard Charlie Parker quote from the opening of the Firebird Suite in his own bebop burner Koko much to the Russian composer’s delight.

Here’s guessing that Old Igor nods approvingly inside his biography’s binding at evening’s end when the quintet launches into a super-humanly up-tempo rendition of Fiedler’s E. T. — a tribute to Swedish trombonist Eje Thelin.  Even after a terrifically demanding 100-minute set of original contrapuntal tangos, bodacious bugaloos, and polymorphous Latin-infused fare of insouciant brilliance—Fiedler dances nimbly high in his range, then lets sheets of sound pour down past the controlled frenzy of his rhythm section: the exuberant, fiercely creative Sarin on drums; the colossal technician, hugely entertaining stylistic compendium of the guitar, Pete McCann; the rhythmically and melodically fantastical, yet unerringly reliable Rob Jost on bass. Tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer, responds to Fiedler’s final solo with a blistering display of his own as unfazed by the pace as Parker himself might have been had his ghost been summoned to the aptly name Bop Shop.

The fleetest of the night’s offerings speeds us back to the park-n-ride, the quintet’s recent CD, Like, Strange ready to light up the Upstate night.

Trump, the Enigma

Oddly, with Trump having come out against non-Anglo Saxons, Muslims, immigrants, people on welfare, foreign aid, government support of the Arts, environmentalists, ACA, media, civil rights groups, anti-nuke protesters, Meryl Streep, the progressive income tax, and Thomas Friedman, the neoliberals’ performing flea, he hasn’t attacked one of the Republicans’ favorite and time-worn whipping boys:  organized labor.

Unless I missed it (while campaigning for Jill Stein), other than a couple of backhanded swipes at the AFL-CIO, an almost pitifully inviting punching bag, Trump has refrained from showering his crude invectives on America’s unions. And given Trump’s proclivity for indulging in the “blame game,” that’s surprising, as organized labor has always made such an easy target.

Of course, one could argue that there’s no need for an all-out assault.  There’s no need to attack the so-called “labor movement” because it’s already lying dead in the weeds, awaiting something resembling a prehistoric bird to come swooping down and remove its carcass.

In short, why waste your energy attacking something that no longer represents a genuine threat?  It would be analogous to closing ranks and marshaling all of one’s resources in order to take on the grassroots drive to have the U.S. adopt the metric system.  A laughable waste of time.

On the other hand, Trump’s early history is tantalizingly ambiguous. First of all, he’s from New York, the state with the highest union density in the country.  No state has a greater percentage of union workers than New York.  The top five:  New York, Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, California. [Fun fact: South Carolina has the lowest percentage.]

This high density means that, at the very least, labor unions aren’t alien to him.  Young Donald (whom “Spy” magazine was to later christen “a short-fingered vulgarian”) grew up in a union environment, surrounded by union members of every stripe.  Cops, firemen, transit workers, trash collectors, builders, civil servants.  While this in no way makes him “pro-union,” it does make him “union fluent.”

Second, according to people who knew Donald Trump back when he was an aggressive, duplicitous and wildly insecure real estate mogul, he “admired” the swagger, dictatorial panache, and tough guy image of New York’s most (dare we say?) “corrupt” unions.

Without painting everyone with the same brush, we’re referring to those union locals affiliated mainly with construction trades and waste management.  If these locals have subsequently cleaned up their act—if they have shed their Mob ties and embraced democratic leadership—we sincerely apologize.

Question:  So why did the privileged and high-born Donald harbor a deep-seated respect and admiration for these tough-guy union bosses who ran roughshod over their little fiefdoms?  Answer:  Because he’s always seen himself as a tough guy.  Not as an intellectual, not as a conciliator, not as a numbers-cruncher, not as a smooth Ivy Leaguer—but as a tough, shrewd guy with balls and ambition, whose first impulse is to come in hard and intimidate people.

Of course, it goes without saying that this “affection” for labor is extremely fragile.  Indeed, if Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO (or the mealy-mouthed, uber-political Doug McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters), were to suddenly begin hurling public insults at the White House, organized labor would instantly find itself in the president’s crosshairs.

Trump would scurry to his Twitter account and begin transmitting semi-coherent Tweets referring to the AFL-CIO as an “overrated” labor federation, and its record as “sad.”  Par for the course.  On the bright side, none of these invectives will be capable of hurting organized labor. That’s because it has already been laid low.  Arguably, it can’t sink any further.

Westminster Attack: Courage, Cowardice and Double Standards

The attack outside and inside London’s Westminster Parliament just before 4 pm local time on Wednesday 22nd March resulted in five deaths, including the assailant and forty injured. The confirmed British-born attacker, Adrian Elms – but with a number of alias’ including the much quoted Khalid Masood – drove a grey Hyundai SUV over Westminster Bridge, which spans the River Thames as it flows past Parliament, mounting the pavement and mowing down pedestrians crossing the great span, with it’s panoramic city views.

Some forty people were injured, twenty nine treated in hospital, with seven initially in a critical condition. Speaking in Parliament the next morning Prime Minister Theresa May listed the injured including twelve Britons, three of whom were police officers returning from an Award ceremony, three French children, two Romanians, four South Koreans, one Pole, one Irish, one Chinese, one Italian, an American and two Greeks.

Killed was American Kurt Cochran who ran a recording studio from his home in Utah who, with his wife, Melissa, had been touring Germany, Scotland and Ireland before arriving in London to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.  It was the last day of their visit. Melissa was seriously injured. Also killed was Aysha Frade, originally from the municipality of Betanzos, Spain, an administrator and Spanish teacher at a nearby College, on her way to collect her daughters, aged eight and eleven, from school. Seventy five year old Londoner, Leslie Rhodes also died from his injuries the following night.

The car turned left at the end of the bridge, driving outside the Parliament building, crashing in to the wrought iron railings. The driver then ran through gates in to the New Palace Yard entrance, just below Big Ben, reportedly armed with two knives, fatally wounding unarmed Parliamentary Protection Officer and former soldier, PC Keith Palmer who attempted to stop him.

An act of courage and compassion came from MP Tobias Ellwood, Minister for Middle East and Africa, who gave CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to PC Palmer, in spite of the chaos breaking out after the attacker was shot, ignoring possible threat to his own safety. Ellwood’s attempts failed and his bent body as he looked down at Keith Palmer, his mouth and face smeared with Palmer’s blood as the cuffs of his formerly immaculate shirt and suit are both a haunting image of grief and a tribute to one who gave no thought but to trying to save a familiar face. There was courage from countless police, paramedics, doctors and nurses who rushed unhesitatingly towards potential danger with emergency equipment from the nearby hospital to help the injured.

Ellwood himself is no stranger to violent tragedy having lost his brother Jonathan in the 2002 Bali bombing. He wrote a searing account of dealing with the seemingly endless official bureaucratic “red tape” involved in both countries in trying to bring his brother’s body home whilst stricken with grief. “I actually ended up nailing the lid of the coffin down myself,” he said. “That can’t be right.”

Not everyone showed the courage of Mr. Ellwood and others. As Parliament went in to total lockdown with MPs and all staff trapped inside for hours, The Guardian reported:

Theresa May, the Prime Minister, was rushed into a car 40 yards from the gates outside Parliament where shots were fired minutes after the incident occurred, according to footage filmed by a member of staff.

She was ushered by at least eight armed undercover police, some with their firearms drawn, into a waiting black vehicle in Speaker’s Court, the footage seen by The Guardian shows. Loud bangs can be heard in the background as she is ushered into the car, but it is unclear whether the bangs were gunshots.

Safely back in her official residence, behind Downing Street’s fortified walls and soaring iron gates, guarded by colleagues of PC Palmer, she paid tribute to the emergency services: “ … these exceptional men and women ran towards the danger even as they encouraged others to move the other way.”

She talked of terrorists targeting Parliament because they hated the “values our Parliament represents – democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law” and the “spirit of (it’s engendered) freedom that echoes in some of the furthest corners of the globe.”

It has to be wondered whether those still under bombardment from the UK or its ally the US, in Afghanistan after sixteen years, Iraq after fourteen years, in Libya, Syria, Yemen; Palestinians remembering the decimation the Balfour Declaration has wrought on them for generations – when May had declared that in this, its centenary year, it is to be remembered in special UK “celebrations” – share quite such a starry eyed view of the “values”, “human rights” and “freedoms” etc., emanating from ”the Mother of Parliaments.”

She concluded:

Any attempt to defeat those values through violence and terror is doomed to failure.

Tomorrow morning, Parliament will meet as normal. We will come together as normal.

And Londoners – and others from around the world who have come here to visit this great City – will get up and go about their day as normal.

They will board their trains, they will leave their hotels, they will walk these streets, they will live their lives.

And we will all move forward together. Never giving in to terror.

Breathtaking stuff from the woman who gave in instantly, running away, protected by eight armed guards, in a bullet proof limo, rather than remaining in solidarity with her colleagues and the extensive staff who were in lockdown, not knowing whether further unhinged potential assassins were prowling Parliament.

No doubt if challenged she would say that such an emergency demanded she convened the COBRA group – another silly acronym which refers to the crisis response committee that meets in instances of national or regional crisis. However, there are plenty of telephones in Parliament and an on line conference is not exactly rocket science.

The following morning she told MPs:

Yesterday an act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy, but today we meet as normal, as generations have done before us and as future generations will continue to do, to deliver a simple message: ‘We are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism’.

Her “resolve” it seems not so much “never wavered”. It collapsed in a pile of dust.

What a contrast to President Bashar al Assad and his wife, who with their children, have never fled in terrorist attacks on their country ongoing since March 2011, terrorist attacks which include entirely illegal, massive bombings by UK and US air power. See, for example, for just one month’s UK decimation from the UK government’s very own horse’s mouth.

A week before the Westminster attack a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Syrian capitol, Damascus, Palace of Justice killing reportedly thirty nine people. President al-Assad and his wife stayed put in their residence in the city. Their “resolve” has absolutely “never wavered in the face of terrorism”, indeed “never giving in to terror”, plotted from inside the US Embassy in Damascus in 2006 and in Washington well before.  He has been called by the US, UK and their allies a tyrant, a despot and a war criminal.

The Western backed “moderate” head choppers are now a mere several kilometres distance from Damascus, still the first family remain.

“I was born in Syria and I will die in Syria”, the President has stated. Given that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi also refused to abandon their people in the face of Western onslaughts and remembering their terrible fates, whatever observers varying views, it is undeniable Assad shows a particular kind of towering courage seemingly rare in the West. George W. Bush, of course, on 9/11, although already over 1,000 miles away in Florida, was rushed to a top-secret military bunker in Louisiana.

Not alone the standards but the language differs in the West. Attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, London, are undoubtedly “terrorism.” In Syria attacks of enormity are declared “a rebel offensive” usually quotes provided by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which is allegedly funded by the EU and another government, thought to be the UK. The founder, Rami Abdulrahman, with a couple of other aliases “… has direct access to former (UK) Foreign Minister William Hague, who he has been documented meeting in person on multiple occasions at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and shares (Abdulrahman’s) enthusiasm for removing Assad from power.”

The reaction to an attack in the West also differs. The UK Prime Minister’s office received condolences from Heads of State across the globe. The lights of the Eiffel Tower were shut off at midnight, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate was lit, in marks of sympathy. President Putin also conveyed his condolences, in spite of the street level insults he has received from the British parliamentary establishment.

The UN Security Council observed a minute’s silence in respect of a tragic, horrific incident, but nevertheless one which would be an unusually quiet day in any of the countries the UK is enjoining in occupying, bombing or has invaded.

A friend also commented succinctly: ‘If “terrorists will not succeed” in the UK and other Western countries, why should the West expect the Syrian government and its allies to allow the Western, GCC, Israeli-backed terrorists, to succeed in Syria and seize control of the country after six years of global terror?’ Terrorists from up to ninety countries gaining access via the borders left open by the occupiers of Iraq from the time of the 2003 invasion and via NATO ally Turkey’s borders and blind eyes.

Coincidentally, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said on the morning of the Westminster attack, after a series of verbal spats with European countries, that: “If Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets. Europe will be damaged by this.” A few hours later he stated that: “Turkey feels and shares deeply in the United Kingdom’s pain” and that it stood in “solidarity” with Britain “in the fight against terrorism.”

If “a week is a long time in politics”, so, clearly, is six hours.

In Iraq in just two “catastrophic” “liberation” assaults on Mosul’s ancient, beautiful city, US “coalition” bombings killed up to three hundred and fifty souls, wiping out entire families in the week before London’s one man attack: “Journalists saw children and a pregnant woman among at least 50 bodies recovered from the rubble, with limbs and shoes protruding from destroyed houses.” No condolences from world leaders, no Eiffel Tower or Brandenburg Gate markings for them.

A spokesman for the US led Mosul slaughter:

Operation Inherent Resolve”, responded with: “The coalition respects human life, which is why we are assisting our Iraqi partner forces in their effort to liberate their lands from ISIS brutality.

He has clearly forgotten what the US has demonstrated in Iraq – with a brief break – fourteen years of their “respect for human life” – and the comment from a bewildered senior US military man to Major General Antonio Taguba during his investigation into the horrors, torture and death inflicted by US forces at Abu Ghraib: “But they were only Iraqis.”

Another friend provided me unwittingly with the conclusion for this inadequate piece on towering double standards. Thank you:

Do we not all bleed the same?

8/3 Kabul, Afghanistan – 49 dead. Silence

9/3 Tikrit, Iraq – 30 dead. Silence

11/3 Damascus, Syria – 74 dead. Silence

15/3 Damascus, Syria – 40 dead. Silence

16/3 Al-Jineh, Syria – 46 dead. Silence

21/3 Raqqa, Syria – 33 dead. Silence

21/3 Westminster, London – 5 dead.

22/3 Mosul, Iraq – 240 dead. Silence

They say we are all born equal.

But only the (Western deemed) “worthy” die as humans.

The others are simply forgotten.

UK residents have responded with generosity to funds for Westminster’s injured and grieving families with large sums being raised including £500,000 for the family of PC Palmer. Muddassar Ahmed set up the Muslims United for London page after witnessing the attack from Parliament’s Portcullis House: “I happened to be trapped inside the building yesterday, and saw the carnage …” His appeal raised £3,000 in the first hour.

Last weekend hundreds of Muslim women joined hands along Westminster Bridge in memory and solidarity – as the UK continues to bomb or threaten many of their countries. Their gesture should both humble and shame.

And since the perpetrator of the London attack is dead, it will likely never be known whether it was a coincidence that the attack was on the first anniversary of three suicide bombers killing thirty-two people and injuring three hundred and sixteen in Brussels on 22nd March 2016.

In another coincidence, on 19th March, armed anti-terror police carried out “a terrifyingly realistic” boat drill a little further down the Thames:

A sightseeing vessel became the scene of a fierce mock-gun battle between armed officers and police volunteers posing as terrorists shortly after 11am on Sunday …

At least one “body”, played by a police volunteer, was cast overboard, and officers were deployed in an effort to assess the effectiveness of rescue operation tactics in life-like conditions.’

The multi-agency operation was carried out between the Met, the Port of London Authority, London Coastguard, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), London Ambulance Service and London Fire Brigade.

Police stressed that there was no specific threat but with London on high alert for two years: “I do hope there is a deterrent effect in this when they see how effective our people are.”

After last Wednesday’s attack Romanian architect Andreea Cristea was pulled from the Thames, alive but badly injured. It is uncertain whether she jumped to escape the car or fell off in the chaos.

On the day of the 7th July 2005 London tube and bus bombings, Visor Security were running a live exercise outside every tube station affected. Managing Director Peter Power told the BBC:

At half past nine this morning we were actually running an exercise for a company of over a thousand people in London based on simultaneous bombs going off precisely at the railway stations where it happened this morning, so I still have the hairs on the back of my neck standing up right now.

Tragic fact really can truly be stranger than fiction.

What Must be Done in the Time of Trump

Here I will suggest what seem to me to be the major categories of challenges men who care about the country face, but before I do, let me frankly state my position:  I think the Democratic Party leaders had it coming to them.  Obama’s rhetoric raised hopes but then he did far too little to meet the expectations.  Those of us who had lived in the same environment in Chicago foresaw his passivity in the White House; it was already evident in community meetings.  He was never a determined advocate. From his first foray into politics, he concentrated on image rather than action.   However, I voted for him both because the other choice was unattractive and because by simply being elected he was pushing the agenda of American freedom. Thereafter, I think almost everyone was disappointed.  Several of your respondents have detailed the record so I will skip it here.  Then came Hillary.  Even those of us who favor equality for women found it hard to stomach her activities.  The only thing many found compelling about supporting her was that she was not Trump.  Had the Democrats put forward an attractive candidate we would not today have Trump.

A “Trump” is always on offer in every political system.  As James Madison telling wrote in his essay, Federalist X, “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”  American history records a number of them.  Just take two: In recent times, Richard Nixon sought to prolong the Vietnam war in order to win the presidency, Ronald Reagan or his team sought to delay the release of hostages in Iran similarly in order to win his election.  The threat of war is nearly always a sure winner in elections.  The film Wag the Dog is closer to being a documentary than we would like.

So here we are.  What is important now, I think, is to develop a clear strategy to employ in the coming four years.  But, I find that most of us are thinking with our hearts instead of our heads and/or confusing our annoyance at what Trump is doing with what we need to do to right the Ship of State.  Annoyance is satisfying but ultimately insufficient.

So what needs to be done?  Here I suggest are some of the categories for action in the coming four years.  We must not just pout.  We must think with our heads and get together and reform not Trump, who is probably not capable of being reformed, but ourselves and reassert our institutions and our fundamental credo.

First, it seems to me that what the ACLU, some judges and some of the states are doing is a necessary first step.  Where actions exceed the law, they must be stopped.  We cannot allow a slide into actions or positions that will be difficult, once set up, to dismantle or reverse.  But, however necessary, such moves are insufficient.  They must be carried on vigorously but they must not make us relax in the belief that judges or other citizens will do the job for us.  As Harry Truman famously said of his role, “the buck stops here.” It stops with us.  Or as John Donne more poetically put it, “…send not to know, For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for  thee” It tolls for us.  Nor are restraints sufficient; we need to take affirmative action on our institutional arrangements.  Having been taught again, as the Founding Fathers tried to teach us,  their weaknesses, we must protect them.

Second, we must find ways to reemploy neglected or atrophied institutions and engage new centers of influence.  Like many people who have studied other political cultures, I have been repeatedly struck by the inherent flexibility and resilience that our complexity has given to American society.   It begins with our ruling institutions.  Deeply influenced by Montesquieu’s De l‘Espirit des Lois, the Founding Fathers sought to divide governmental power into three parts.  As Montesquieu  had warned (Book One, Part 6) “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty…”  That was the prime consideration of the men who wrote the Constitution.  They realized that it might not work; what they were putting together some called “an experiment.”  They expected that it would come under attack by ambitious and immoral men.

Today, President Trump appears, at least temporarily, to have gained control over two organs of government and perhaps will reconfigure the Supreme Court to abide by his decisions. If this amalgamation of power is allowed to continue,  there appears reason to believe that, as Montesquieu continued, “the life and liberty of the subject [citizen] would be exposed to arbitrary control.”

This is the structural challenge we face today, but there is a deeper sense of agreement  in which we can draw hope for a return to the divisions built into our Constitution.  Over the generations since the Founding Fathers analyzed the American society and prescribed a formula under which we could live together, we have multiplied the separate activities and groups that form our society.

Individually, these groups and activities are often small, marginal or weak, but in the aggregate they weave social fabric of great strength.  Even more to the point, one or other, sometimes several,  of the various groups – churches, synagogues, mosques, labor unions, discussion clubs, professional societies and others –touch us all.  We need to help them identify common causes.  This is partly an external task – education, advocacy and example – but it is also in part a semi-automatic process that arises from perception of self-interest.

Let me give what might become a typical but so far unengaged example:  the professional society of scholars of the Middle East, MESA.  As a group, the 3,000 or so members are not very influential, and have never been politically active,  but they are scattered across America and many take part in local committees on public and foreign affairs.  They hold a yearly meeting in which younger scholars can demonstrate their work and seek job opportunities.  This year, they find that current policies make it difficult to meet.  If they meet in America, as they always have, some of the members may not be able to attend; if they meet abroad, some members may not be able to return.  In protest, they considered postponing or canceling their meeting.    Had they done so, it would have been a small gesture, but it might have been replicated by dozens of professional groups throughout the country and some of which have active public outreaches.

They decided to take more direct action:  they joined with other disturbed groups to bring action in court to ask the Federal Court in Maryland to block the executive order banning entry for residents of seven Middle Eastern countries.  This sort of action may be replicated by other groups in the coming months as each begins to see its interests imperiled by president decree.

Third, we need to review the structure of the electorate.  The Trump revolution was made possible not only in the more visible (and vocal) pronouncements and edicts on which the media was (and still is) concentrating but. structurally at the state and local level.  Gerrymandering of districts, to which the Democratic Party stalwarts seem to have been oblivious, virtually destroyed proportional representation in much of the country.  The latest, as I write, come in Georgia where state authorities are so recasting election districts as to diminish representation of blacks. Dismantling the current layout will be a hard struggle, but unless districting is at least partly returned to the status quo ante there is little chance for better representation.  The Democratic Party been treated to, and acquiesced in, what amounts to assisted suicide.

Fourth,  the flow of money into politics.  Institutionally, America has become a political market.  We put the country up for rent every two years.  Our paid employees, our representatives, spend a large part of their time, many spend almost all their time, importuning, soliciting or prostituting themselves. Some vote according to belief or conscience, but it is hard to escape the impression that the Congress as a whole is literally a whorehouse.  Almost everyone’s vote – his “service” — can be bought. Lobbyists for special interest groups have a clear-eyed view:  they know the price of each member.

As long as this system is unchallenged it will result in such egregious legislation as that forcing agencies of  the Executive to purchase goods and services at inflated prices or to buy more than they believe they need.

Much worse is the political effect. The members by and large do not represent those who sent them to Washington but those who hire them when they arrive. Those who benefit from the largess of special interests will have little incentive to reform, unless or until the public is mobilized to demand that the public weal be put into play.

Bringing about that transformation is partly a matter of education of the public.  Some of the issues that must be ventilated are or should be simple to explain:  would anyone knowingly hire a person who helps steal his money? Put that way, in simple terms, people might slowly come to understand that it is their money, their houses, their health, their jobs and their liberty that is being taken.  It is notable that while Mr. Trump keeps emphasizing that he is making America great the budget he has laid out diminishes the well-being of the vast majority of Americans.  Income of the lower and middle income groups has fallen and will fall further if his program is implemented while benefits to the upper 1% are increased.  When the public, including his supporters, grasp that single fact, they might be, should be, motivated to demand a change of course. Achieving that understanding will require education in civic virtue as the Founding Fathers knew.  So we had better get at it.

But, no matter how skillfully or how energetically we push for public interest criteria in public policy, we have seen that the public often closes its collective eyes.  The public can be misled, manipulated or itself bought by special interests and propaganda.  Astonishingly, there has been no effective demand that the “robber barons,” as our grandfathers called them, be punished for illegal and disastrous actions that caused many people to lose their houses and their jobs.  The justice system rightly puts into jail a man who robs a store but none of those who virtually stole the country in financial scandals was even indicted.

As a young man, I thought this was only a sign of the degeneracy of our times.  I thought that our elders and betters cared more for the country.  I was set strait one night when I sat at dinner next to the oldest attorney then practicing before the Supreme Court .  He was 90 and I was 40.  I put my observation on current malfeasance before him.  He laughed and said, “young man, when I was your age, no one would even have noticed.”  The Robber Barons didn’t even bother to hide.  From this and other evidence, I conclude that private greed and even private necessity is built into the system.

The system we have evolved is built on money.  Even an honest, dedicated, civic minded legislator on the state or Federal level must, or believes he must, get the great amounts of money required to hire time on the media.  If he does not, he believes that he is sure to lose the election to one who raises more.

Generally but not always the candidate is right.  There is a high correlation of money spent and electoral victory. Are there limits?   One aspect of the last election that may give a glimmer of hope is that, apparently, the public reacted against the Clinton campaign’s blatant commercialization.  Perhaps that glimmer can be focused.

Indeed, others have focused it. Realizing the political trap the need for money sets, some countries, notably Canada, restrict the amount that can be spent on a campaign and others, notably England and France, limit the campaign span.  Attempts have been made in America to address this issue, but they are small scale and have been thwarted by the Supreme Court.

A different approach was suggested in the discussion on the allotment of the airwaves which our fathers in the 1930s regarded as public property.  Over the years, these grants have been staked out as private property.  And the terms on which the grants were made have often lapsed or be denigrated.  The networks that sell “our” air waves profit by selling what was originally understood to be a national trust.   That may be reprehensible, but what is really important is that this usurpation has distorted the political process.   Attempts to provide alternatives like NPR were never adequately funded and now are marked for extinction.  This must be resisted.  We need access to diverse opinion and sufficient information to be able to carry out our civic responsibilities.   Probably little will be accomplished unless or until it becomes evident to the public that the current system is a dagger thrust into the body politic.

We now have a sort of shield in the web but at least so far emails cannot compete with television. However, the existence of this alternate source of communication  gives us alternative sources of real-time information.  More important, it could give an opportunity to stake out measures of reform of the major media.  If we are to use that opportunity, we must begin to prepare for it by education. Doing so will be hard and difficult but there are useful precedents like the “Hutchins Commission on a Free and Responsible Press” that was created just after the Second World War.  Still extant are beacons of light in this field like the Neiman Foundation, the Columbia School of Journalism and various associations of newsmen.  They have small voices and will need help so again we must find them, listen to them and support them.

Fifth, business:  President Dwight Eisenhower warned us against the Military-Industrial Complex – and we have added its call girl, Congress, to its ranks – but its ranks are not a phalanx.  Even in Eisenhower’s tenure, the massive forces of the arms industry were hurled against one another.  That was true because there was a limited amount of money to be divided.  Each behemoth wanted it all.  So as Eric Schlosser has pointed out in his study of the war business, Command and Control, “General Dynamics Corporation lobbied aggressively [for its product the missile] Atlas; the Martin Company, for Titan; Boeing for Minuteman; Douglas Aircraft for Thor; Chrysler, for Jupiter; and Lockheed, for Polaris…”  As the Founding Fathers thought, in division lies safety.  But then Eisenhower, growing weary, simply “agreed to fund all six.”  That has already been announced to be the policy of the Trump administration. Increased expenditure for all arms including an extra $1 trillion to upgrade and make more “usable” nuclear weapons.  Our best, perhaps our only, hope lies in fiscal restraint.

A policy of fiscal restraint on “defense” will be extremely difficult to effect.  It may even be impossible.  The Department of Defense itself does not even know where the money goes. Duplication, over-charging, non-performance and waste are on such a scale and so prevalent that they are hardly even noticed.  No satisfactory audit has been performed for the last generation!

The arms industry, Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex,  hardly needed to worry: it has not only bought the Congress directly  but has also shrewdly anchored itself in each Congressional district.  Companies working on government contracts have divided much of their procurement among communities so virtually every Congressional district is producing some piece of hardware.  Congressmen reasonably heed the demand of local businessmen who want to make a profit and local workmen who want “quality” and long-lasting jobs.

In lush times, no one cares.  And even when an administration robs Peter (public works and beneficial social programs) to pay Paul (“defense”) few voices are heard.   Although bridges, dams, roads, schools and other public buildings are allowed to deteriorate, there is little public outcry.   Indeed, the aim of the current administration is to stop what little was being done in the last administration.  A few economists, some thinkers on public policy and even a large number of senior military officers have warned that this policy actually weakens America militarily and could lead to a  severe social and economic crisis, but, to no avail.  The Trump administration does not credit its critics and advisers and the public seems oblivious.   The fact that America already spends more on “defense” than the next eight of the big spenders to no apparent avail is greeted by demands to spend even more.  Sixteen years of war in Afghanistan, to take only one example, have killed a lot of people (both ours and “theirs”) but have brought neither peace nor security.  The old saying hits only a part of the current policy failure – “throwing good money after bad.”  Worse is evident:  hatred of America has spread far from Afghanistan, more people are being killed in more places, and sense of hostility among Americans has grown with a perceptible decline in the belief in and functioning of American democracy. All signs point to a further accentuation of this trend.

Will anyone care?  The stock market is booming.  Unemployment has at least stabilized.  Some economists predict a “correction.”  But periodic down-turns affect mainly those who cannot defend themselves or who lack the means to recover rapidly.  Even major set-backs like the 2008 financial crisis in which many people lost their houses and/or their jobs have not been effective wake-up calls.  Few institutional or legal adjustments were made and the plight of the victims was soon forgotten, even, apparently to judge from the last election, by them.  It may take a truly devastating set-back like the Great Depression to wake us up.  Some warn that such an event may come, but probably not in the near-term.  Meanwhile, the public slumbers.

Easier will be the task, I think, of convincing business leaders that the Trump “America First” policy is against their interests.  It is a truism that we live in an interconnected world, at least economically.  American business has long profited from cheap overseas labor.  As I read on my cell phone, my computer, even my underwear, the phrase “made in…” rarely ends with the word “America.”

Although in my youth, “made in England” or wherever was a recommendation, some now see “made in China” as indicating the product should be set aside for a good American product.   But how could we sell our goods if we did not buy from others.   For many years, we operated on a principle of free trade.  Thus if, as Mr. Trump proposes, we batten down the hatches of trade and buy “only American,” we will quickly lose markets and in doing so will lose job opportunities at home.  Perhaps then both major corporations and skilled workers will begin to be willing to consider their real interests.

Sixth, underneath all these feelings about foreigners is a deeper dilemma: we are all immigrants but are divided by tenure.  Some of us are very new; others descend from ancestors who “come over on the Mayflower.”  That division is very important in American society.  Crediting it has accentuated a very old and ugly aspect of the American experience.  We all talk about e pluribus unum but while we asserted it on the “macro” level of institutions, or at least symbolically in parades, we never really practiced it ourselves on the social level.  We have never been good at enjoyment of difference or even of tolerance among ourselves.

In the early days in America, New England towns were so distrustful of one another that a family would have to get permission to invite even relatives living in other towns to visit; when people were thrown together, as in traveling, they clung to those with whom they shared beliefs, language, origin and class.  As one traveler described them at their most convivial, in taverns, little groups formed “parliaments” – groups that ‘spoke together,’ which is the original meaning of the word – apart from those who differed in any respect.  It would never have occurred to Protestants to speak or sit with Catholics or Jews. Italians and Irish might be allowed into the tavern,  but  Blacks and Indians would have been shot at the door.  Tolerance was not a familiar concept.

Throughout much of American history, we have generally at least until lately followed our colonial custom.  We got rid of as many Indians as we could, we enslaved the blacks, segregated the Irish, Italians, Greeks and, of course such different looking and different dressing aliens as the Chinese.  When in doubt, during World War II, we packed the Nisi off to camps.  And we told everyone what my ancestors, the WASPs, thought of them by what we called them, Niggers, Wops, Greezers, Messakins, Chinks and Japs.

The odd thing was that not only did we push them away but that they pushed themselves away.  But not only from us; they pushed away from their own cultural roots.  Let me bear witness.

When I was a boy in Texas, I spent a year in a grammar school in the Mexican district of Fort Worth.   I was practically the only gringo, but I do not recall having ever heard a word of Spanish spoken.  Everyone in the school was ashamed of being Mexican.   Much later, in college, I volunteered to teach young Italian-Americans in a Boston settlement house.  When I read Pinocchio to them they could not believe that an Italian could write a book and when I took them to the Boston museum they were astonished to see Italian names under the great paintings.  To them, Italian was the old grandmother with her hairy lip, ugly, backward, un-American.  Even blacks tried desperately to “pass.”  Millions did.  The melting pot boiled away differences.  And those who could rushed to jump in.   It some ways, no doubt, this made for harmony, and it perhaps formed the basis for our belief in American exceptionalism, but it did not promote brotherly love.

Far from brotherly love, we failed, notably I believe, to develop a sense of shared interests.  Individualism has remained a theme some of our ancestors brought with them from their homelands and others developed on the ever-expanding frontier or borrowed from those who homesteaded toward the west.  Little groups it is true helped one another raise the roof beams and joined to chase away or kill the Indians, but when it came to national interests, General George Washington found that even in the midst of battle, the militia troops had a habit of running away, occasionally without even firing their weapons.  Washington regarded them as cannon fodder.  And, despite our pride in the Spirit of ’76, it is more evident in retrospect than it was then.  As the chief engineer of the Continental Army, the French volunteer Louis Duportail, lamented, ”There is a hundred times more enthusiasm in any Paris cafe [for the American Revolution] than in all the colonies together.”  Many kept focused on their private aims, sold food and equipment to the British and starved Washington at Valley Forge; others found it more profitable (and safer) to kill Indians than to fight the British.

This is not surprising:  we see it today among the formerly colonial peoples of Africa and Asia.  The growth of a national esprit de corps is a very slow process and as it develops it experiences many set-backs.  We see them glaringly in shaky regimes and “failed states.”   Often the newly liberated people come to feel nostalgia for the former regime.  The former colonial auxiliaries become oppressive armies and the former freedom fighters often become corrupt tyrants.  Post-revolutionary America hovered on the brink of anarchy and even today,  if we are honest,  we often see private greed often overwhelming national interest.

Perhaps even more striking is our ambivalence about who we are and how we regard those who would join us.  Many of those who strongly support the current push to expel foreign workers also employ them.  They have good reason to do so because they often perform tasks that others do not do and/or work for wages that American citizens regard as exploitive.  This is an old pattern in the American economy. The push to “send them back where they came from” would be damaging to the rest of us.  As the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found in a study published on September 21, 2016,

Immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth. The inflow of labor supply has helped the United States avoid the problems facing other economies [particularly Japan] that have stagnated as a result of unfavorable demographics, particularly the effects of an aging workforce and reduced consumption by older residents. In addition, the infusion of human capital by high-skilled immigrants has boosted the nation’s capacity for innovation, entrepreneurship, and technological change. Research suggests, for example, that immigrants raise patenting per capita, which ultimately contributes to productivity growth. The prospects for long-run economic growth in the United States would be considerably dimmed without the contributions of high-skilled immigrants.


More than 40 million people living in the United States were born in other countries and almost an equal number have at least one foreign-born parent.  Together, immigrants and their children comprise almost one in four Americans.

They are believed to have added about $2 trillion to the America’s economy during 2016.

Moreover, they are not a flood tide of illegals breaking down the barriers.  Roughly, 1 million legal immigrants have arrived each year since 2001.  And, rather than pouring in by hordes, the illegal immigrants have been balanced by emigrants each year since 2009.   We have had in place for about half a century treaties and laws to extradite those who break our laws.

In short, the public discussion on foreign workers is inaccurate and the thrust behind the policy proposed by President Trump would damage the American economy.  We are, after all, a nation of immigrants.  Our only real difference is the timing of our arrival.  We need to come to grips with the immigration issue both as a matter of economic well-being and, more important, as a matter of our civic health.

Seventh, that greatest of our conservatives, the very symbol of Republicanism and the ultimate realist, Alexander Hamilton, set out his analysis of the danger to our system and his prescription of what to do about it.  On Monday, June 18, 1787 he addressed the delegates who were writing our Constitution.  As his associate but opposite number, that great liberal James Madison, recorded Hamilton’s thoughts (in  Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787),  Hamilton began by asserting that the aim of government was “the happiness of our Country.”

Essential to achieving the stability and vigor of government that would contribute to happiness or at least well-being, Hamilton asserted, was “an active & constant interest in supporting” Government.  By that, he meant  that there must be “An habitual attachment of the people” to what aims to promote the public good.  As reported by Madison, he did not go into detail, but he clearly aimed at putting aside parochial or immediate satisfaction.  He was aware that the public will fracture on this issue:  A concern with the whole body politic is always in danger because the legislature will “represent all the local prejudices” of their constituencies. Not much could be expected from its members.

But driving all the problems is human nature:   “Men love power.”  In the quest for power, they are likely to act not only against the national interest but even, out of ignorance of the covert aims and under the leadership of demagogues, against their own real interests.

Hamilton did not count on an enlightened or engaged public.  He took what Plato thought of as an aristocratic view of the political process.   His objective and probably that of all of the members of the Constitutional convention to create a government made up not of the people but of the people the recently emerged colonials regarded as their aristocracy. Many, probably most, Americans today regard the Founding Fathers’ emphasis on white, wealthy, native-born, Anglo-Saxon Protestants as reprehensible. Today while we at least proclaim our dedication to democracy — made up of  the demos or common people as the Greeks defined democracy – the Founding Fathers opted for a different form of government.  Generally, Americans now find the lack of representation or even of concern for “people of color,” native Americans, ethnic minorities and the poor in the Constitutional convention wrong.  Fortunately, the drafters of that great document made it flexible and even vague so that it could be adapted to fit our evolving ideas.

Of course, Hamilton could not have predicted our evolving ideas and probably would not have agreed with most of them.  His concern was rather different.  In the context of America in 1787, America was a failed state.  To save it was Hamilton’s aim.   That led him to emphasize structure.  He believed in strong government as the best protection of society.  His studies – and one of the striking features of the discussion at the Convention was the appreciation of other governmental systems — convinced him that the British had found the best balance of “public strength with individual security.”  That observation in itself showed the openness of his mind: after all, he should be credited with having saved Washington’s army from the British when it was on the point of being crushed and he remained Washington’s strong right arm.  Clearly, he was a man of strong convictions but also of an open mind.    Few statesmen in my lifetime would have dared make a similar acknowledgment of the virtues of an enemy.

He coolly continued that “in every community where industry is encouraged, there will be a division of it into the few & the many.  Hence separate interest will arise.  There will be debtors & creditors &c. Give all the power to the many, they will oppress the few.  Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many.  Both therefore ought to have [sufficient] power, that each may defend itself agst  the other.”  This, he contended, must be built into the system and, to survive, the system could not depend on an unstable public mood.

What Hamilton and the other delegates to that remarkable convention feared was precisely the rule of the incompetent (as they defined them) in the cause of the people.  They aimed, as I perceive it, for a government made up of the elite acting, as Lincoln later put it, “for the people.”  But, as I read their minds from afar, they could not so clearly say that.  Just as “populism” is today “in the air,” so then was “democracy.”   France was nearing the great and bloody revolution; the American union had fallen apart; the “people” had seen that their sacrifices had not brought the millennium.  Everyone was distressed.  There was even a mood to go back into the British empire.  As the yellow press would later use the phrase, “he public was “seething.”  They had to act quickly and to preserve what they saw as the essentials but to do so in a way that was palatable to the public. So they hit on a subterfuge:  elections for the House of representatives would be direct; elections for the Senate would be indirect through state legislatures and elections for the presidency would be the preserve of men who, they at least hoped, would speak for the national interest, a “college of electors.”

That was not quite what Hamilton preferred, but he was sufficiently agreeable to it that he joined in the campaign to get the Constitution approved.

Eighth,  Hamilton and Madison went from the Philadelphia Convention to organize the public mood to ratify the proposed Constitution.  No one then had conceived of political parties as we think of them today.  Rather there was a sense of colony or state interest and more generally of a division between the southern and northern populations.  A somewhat overlapping division was recognized between those who wanted a strong federal regime and those who feared it and wanted to preserve a decentralized system.  The one group, inspired by Alexander Hamilton, called themselves Federalists and, a few years later, their opponents, inspired by Thomas Jefferson, called themselves Democratic-Republicans.

But these terms were in part misleading.  The collections of active men around Hamilton and later around Jefferson very little resembled what we think of as political parties today.  This is not surprising because the writers of the Constitution, and particularly Hamilton and Madison, were hostile to “faction.”  As Madison wrote in Federalist X, “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction…Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens…that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties.”  This was the message that President George Washington sounded in his Farewell Address.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion…

Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally…

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

But, as Washington expected, parties grew.   They were perhaps built into the system the Constitutional assembly had created as they were evolving in contemporary Britain.  But they were very far from what we today think of as the great corporations of the Democratic and Republican Parties, controlling the process of candidate selection at all levels and mustering vast amounts of money to sway and mobilize voters.  To my mind a sort of scale can be started when a member of my family, James K. Polk, surprisingly to the leadership, won the nomination, was elected and made his way to Washington:  he had to pay his own way and upon arrival had to make his own hotel reservation at his own expense.

Those days are long past.  Now we have political parties that are virtual governments, waxing and waning with the times, but unlike the English parties never really totally out of office because of the divisions of our system into the myriad offices of towns, counties and states.  If one party loses control of the Senate or the Executive, it may still dominate the House of Representatives, governorships and legislatures of a number of states.

Just as significant:  both the Democratic and Republican parties are essentially corporations, each with its own system of management and its own controlling figures.  Each is, in effect, a fourth division in the triad that the Founding Fathers imagined.  And each has pulled far from the concept they set out of our public life.   It seems to me that one way or another, during the coming four years, both Parties must be redefined and their corporate tendencies must be reined in.

 Ninth,  I suggest is the need for an ombudsman.

The built-in constraints to run-away and parallel government that existed at the end of the eighteenth century no longer exist.  Truth be told, they were factors of weaknesses of American society, technology and geography that no longer exist.  The comfortable division of power among the executive, legislature and judiciary has been breached.  Something is needed to get us back to the system that made American politics work, at least generally, as Hamilton wanted for “the happiness of our country.”

Hamilton apparently thought that the College of Electors might perform this task.  Many believe that it has not.  But the core of the idea behind it remains.  This is only an idea, but it seems to me that something adaptation of it to the tasks of a sort of Council of Elders, is worth examining.  After all, such an idea and institution that has been recognized in human societies, long before we have any records.

What might it entail.  Most employment of it has restricted it to Men and women beyond the age of ambition and who are assumed to have imbibed the spirit of their social and political system.  In small societies, as far as I have observed, they could count mainly on prestige to enforce their decisions if such decisions were seen as “right.”  In our very complex, diffuse and vast society, this would not work. Thus, such a group would have to have the power to indict acts of malfeasance.  This power was given to the Congress in the Constitution but has proven insufficient.  In our system as it has evolved, it falls in the Department of Justice but, although partially protected by allocation of powers to civil servants, it is a creature of the Executive which can be employed or silenced or rendered impotent.  The ombudsman should be able to circumvent or override the political use of the justice system.

This is different from the court system Montesquieu and those of our Founding Fathers whom he influenced envisaged.  The courts have the power to undo what has already been done but cannot play the proactive task of heading off acts that could do great harm but have not yet come into play.   Nor can the occasional Special Prosecutors (as in Watergate); indeed, in various other dangerous undercutting of our system that occurred in recent years over actions in Vietnam  (delaying negotiation to influence the election of Nixon), Iran (delaying of the release of hostages to influence the election of Reagan), the winning administration was able to quash inquiry.

Such an authority must, of course, have complete access to all necessary information and so be able to learn about false intelligence and malpractice. Thus it requires power of subpoena.  But, above all, it must have the public trust.  On the positive side, this means that it must have “voice” to speak directly to the public; on the negative side, it must be restricted to Constitutional issues to avoid being used to stifle differing opinions or to promote political factions.

As I say, this is only an undeveloped idea and one which may be useful only in demonstrating the area of danger to our system, but it seems to me that discussion of it might be of value.

Tenth,  the unstable public mood is most dangerous on the issue of war. My reading of American history convinces me that we are a warring people.  A fundamental feature of our national culture is fascination with war.  War is what enabled us to compensate for or, time after time to overcome, our differences.  The First World War integrated the German part of our society and the Second World War began the revolution that led Obama to the White House.

Attitudes toward war have played crucial roles in our evolution.  They have energized our people, swept us across the Continent, gave us a taste of empire, enabled us to overcome powerful enemies.  But, they have also led to great wrongs and even greater dangers.  I suggest that we might think of war as being like a pistol.   Firing it is sometimes forced upon us, but, even kept in the holster, it can be used by ambitious leaders to shape or control our way of life.  Brought into play, it can threaten or destroy our civic culture.

War is not a new challenge to our system nor is it uniquely American, but it is, I believe, so urgent an issue today that we must understand all of its ramifications and effects as fully as possible.

More urgently, I suggest that it is basic to the what, consciously or unconsciously, will become the strategy of the Trump administration for at least the coming four years.  It is likely to come into play very soon – “saber-rattling” already sounds ominously.  Four years is a long time and the saber has been grasped by the administration and apparently is taken to be a solution to complex or intractable issues.  We can expect crises to follow one another with little pause.  However, interim events play out, I predict that war will be nearly certain when, as is likely,  Trump prepares for reëlection.  So at some length, let me consider war from two widely separated positions:  first, the way past tyrants have used it and, second,  the way our Founding Fathers feared it.

Hermann Göring, a great practitioner in the art of destroying governments  and states, famously told his jailers after he could no longer play a lead role in the game of nations, how rulers can use war:

“…of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war: neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or fascist dictatorship, or a parliament or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peace makers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

War, as Göring saw it, is the trump card in the game of power politics.

I turn back the clock to the Constitutional convention and listen again to Hamilton.

Stability being Hamilton’s aim and a means to prevent ill-considered and unnecessary destructive action, Hamilton wanted both the Senate and the President to be elected “for life  or at least during good behaviour.”   He feared that if the President were periodically elected, he would use his power “to prolong [Madison’s emphasis] his powers [and] in case of  war, he would avail himself of the emergency, to evade or refuse a degradation from his place.”  In short, war could destroy the Republic and render inoperative the system the Founding Fathers were striving to put in place.

Madison warned that “Constant apprehension of war has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body.  A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.  The means of defense agst foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.  Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended.  Throughout all Europe, the armies kept under the pretext of defending have enslaved the people.”

How does one fall into war?   As Hamilton saw the process it depended on the positioning of a strong man in an unstable place.  Since even an enlightened people could be rushed into disastrous actions, the system must be formed in a way to obviate or lessen that danger. Hamilton read out to the Founding Fathers a list of his recommendations of which the sixth was that “The Senate [– not the fickle house or the ambitious president –] to have the sole power of declaring war.”

There has been much discussion since that time over the words “declaring war.” That power, written into the Constitution as Article One, Section Eight, Paragraph 11 is separated from the actual control of combat in Article Two, Section Two, Paragraph 1 which designates that “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States…” The question is where the two powers separate.  Can the Commander in Chief commit what amount to acts of war without war being “declared?”  This question remains with us today.  Listen to what those wise men thought:

Pierce Butler of South Carolina wanted the President to have the power to declare as well as to carry out war since he “will have all the requisite qualities, and will not make war but when the Nation will support it.”  But, James Madison and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts quickly “moved to insert ‘declare,’ striking out ‘make’ war; leaving to the Executive the power [only] to repel sudden attacks.”   They distrusted the Executive who, they apparently feared would thus gain powers that he could use for his own purposes rather than those of the nation.  Roger Sherman of Connecticut “thought it [the agreed wording, declare rather than make ] stood very well.  The Executive shd   be able to repel and not to commence war. ‘Make’ better than ‘declare’ the latter narrowing the power too much.”  Oliver Ellsworth remarked that “there is a material difference between the cases of making war and making peace.  It shd  be more easy to get out of war, than into it.”

Constitutional lawyers disagree among themselves, but a reading of the sentiments of the Founding Fathers, at least as their memoirs, Madison’s account of the Constitutional Convention and the Federalist Papers suggest, there was a general fear that a standing or professional army would endanger and could destroy the civil government. Elbridge Gerry “thought an army dangerous in time of peace” and must be strictly limited .  The question then arose as to how the military could be limited.

The delegate from Virginia, George Mason, argued that “limiting the appropriation of revenue [was] the best guard” against the aggregation of power by the military. James Madison commented that “…armies in time of peace are allowed on all hands to be an evil.”  The delegate of South Carolina, while arguing for the necessity of a standing army, urged that “The military shall always be subordinate to the Civil power, and no grants of money shall be made by the Legislature for supporting military Land forces, for more than one year at a time.”

What has happened since those worthy citizens gathered justified Hamilton’s fears of presidential use of threat to build his own power and the widely-held sentiment that a professional army posed a danger to the civic system.  Most presidents since their time have sought to expand the role given them in the Constitution and many saw the military as the means to do so; the professional military establishment, naturally as the Founding Fathers predicted, wanted also to expand its role in governing the republic.

None of the Founding Fathers could have foreseen the growth of what President Eisenhower called the military industrial complex although Alexander Hamilton, as I quoted him, foresaw the change that would come about when a society was industrialized.  He did not go so far, but it seems to me that what was implicit is that the leaders of industry would themselves become an extra-Constitutional power, as it were, a fourth branch of government.  Neither that transformation nor the enormous power given by control of the media and virtual corruption of what the Constitution treated as the first branch of the American government, the Legislature, could have been foreseen in 1787.

Nor could anyone at that meeting in Philadelphia have foreseen, although Hamilton presciently warned of the quest for power by the Executive, of a situation like we face today where the separate branches of government have been effectively amalgamated and where what Hamilton would have seen as non- or even anti-systemic power could play such a powerful role.

Nowhere is this role more powerful than in the ability of the president to initiate nuclear war.  For over half a century, we have lived with the danger that a chief executive could, without any restraint or advice, order a first strike on any target or targets throughout the world.  We have had instances when presidents were incapacitated (Wilson and Reagan) and even short of such extreme cases, all of us as individuals must be aware that there are days and nights when our judgment is impaired, headache, stomach upset, bout of flu, overindulgence, or other.  And some of us are given to bouts of anger or depression from time to time.

I am certain that our Founding Fathers would have thought our total reliance on the continuous and never faltering good sense and morality of one man for, literally, the life of the Earth, is madness.  Somehow, despite all the complexity of the issue, some way must be found to bring this power into systematic control or, the odds are, that we will eventually suffer a catastrophic event.

Getting our ship of state back under control is clearly a complex, even an all-consuming, challenge to the American people.  It comes at a time when all the massed forces of money, perception of danger, ambition, greed and ignorance are against the accomplishment of the task.  And, even beyond those is what the Founding Fathers realized was the greatest danger of all, the effect of war.

Had they faced what we face today, I think they would have said that above all we must avoid war.  It could be the final blow in the struggle over American politics, civic culture and freedom.  And as that great English conservative Edmund Burke commented, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Whether or not we value our heritage, we cannot escape our own best interests. The “buck stops with us.”

We had better use these next years to protect ourselves and the future of our society.  Let’s get at it.

Enough of Russia! There’s an Epidemic of Despair in the US

If the left is waiting for Donald Trump to be impeached by the Republican Congress, then we need to take a collective deep breath and be ready to wait until hell freezes over. Trump-Russia ties are all the rage on nightly news programs and in the print media. The pontificating is almost without end. And it’s the liberal commentators who seem to be giving the issue the most emphasis on their nightly programs.

James S. Henry gets to the heart of the matter on The Reality News Network in “Why Further Revelations on Trump’s Russian Connection Might Fail to Bring Him Down” (March 24, 2017). Henry, an economist, attorney, and investigative journalist put it this way:

I think there’s a risk that the U.S. center-left is basically obsessed with this story and is looking for kind of a magic bullet solution to the Trump administration. That’s going to distract us from going back to work doing the kind of organizing at the grassroots level that’s necessary for the 2018 elections. We need to fight and get ready for all of the issues that are on the table… with respect to climate change, Obamacare, the social programs that are being stripped, the outrageous increases in the defense budget.

James S. Henry got it right! This obsession over Trump’s and Trump’s advisers’ connections both before and after the 2016 election to Vladimir Putin and Putin’s lapdog oligarchs is keeping those on the left focused on issues that won’t add up to a hill of beans save some nonexistent photo or video of Donald Trump literally in bed with someone. And even that wouldn’t do all that much damage given the words and audacious actions by Trump that are already known. People were beaten up at Trump campaign rallies and that didn’t do much to sway his base and, it may even have garnered him more support. He refers to women with the degrading word  “pussy,” and he gets a lion’s share of a segment of the vote of white women. He talks about an O.K. Corral scenario on Fifth Avenue and he still gets elected! He gets pummeled on healthcare and his base conducts extremely small but sometimes violent rallies around the country.

If readers really want to see some compromising information about interference in elections around the world, then a brief journey into U.S. direct interference in democratic elections would fill volumes, in fact it’s an alphabet soup of interventions of both electoral and military kinds (“The long history of the U.S. interfering with elections elsewhere,” The Washington Post, October 2016). Interventions in Chile, Iran, Iraq, and Vietnam come to mind with disastrous and lethal human consequences.

This is not 1974 and there aren’t tapes from the Oval Office that pointed a damning finger at Richard Nixon for his part in covering up the break-in at Watergate office complex. And there isn’t a Congress that has just recently come out of an unpopular war with hundreds of thousands of people who have taken big risks in heroically fighting the power of the government over several years.

Back on the ground and grounded in reality, The Washington Post reports in “New research identifies a ‘sea of despair’ among white, working-class Americans” (March 23, 2017), that suicide rates among both white working-class men and women have skyrocketed since the late 1990s and dwarfs the suicide rate among people from other industrialized countries. The two Princeton University researchers who conducted the study point to “family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity, and other pathologies,” for the worsening suicide epidemic in the U.S. And this is the electoral cohort who gave Trump his Electoral College victory and propelled him in a losing alliance with the extreme right in Congress in their failed attempt to take healthcare benefits away from this voter base. Besides the terror of despair that can cause people to turn to suicide, it seems that this base of disaffected people are crying out for social, political, and economic remedies that will bring them back to health and well-being in the wealthiest society on Earth. Digging up dirt, both real and imagined, on Vladimir Putin isn’t going to accomplish anything and will serve to keep us occupied while the far right tries and succeeds in getting away with murder of one type or another.

Oligarchy in America

Photo by Joe Schueller | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Joe Schueller | CC BY 2.0

Naming the System

In democracies, the demos, the people, rule; not social or economic elites.  This was the understanding of philosophers in Athens twenty-five centuries ago, and it remained the consensus view well into the modern era.

The received wisdom was that, like anarchy, democracy is a theoretical possibility that can be instructive to reflect upon, but not an ideal that anyone of sound mind would actually endorse.

With the emergence of capitalist economic relations, however, and, along with it, the rise of the nation state, the traditionally marginalized demos became a factor in the politics of societies on the way to modernity.

In that context, democracy took on more positive connotations.  The transformation was well underway by the time of the French and American Revolutions.

Enlightenment thought played a role in fashioning those world historical events and in promoting understandings of their significance.  It was thanks to Enlightened thinkers that the idea took hold that nation states are comprised of citizens.  The idea is that, in principle, basic rights and liberties should be distributed equally; that, within the political sphere, equality reigns.

Because it demanded the rule of only a part of the citizenry, the demotic part, the old understanding of democracy eventually gave way.  In effect, the concept was scrubbed of its class content.

Needless to say, equal citizenship does not make social and economic inequalities go away.  It does, however, establish a kind of political equality – at least in theory.   In practice, self-described democracies have sometimes accommodated egregious political inequalities.   This was what the civil rights movement in the United States was mainly about; and it has been, and still is, a major concern of feminists in the United States and around the world.

The standard understanding of political equality is formal, not substantive.  Eligible citizens get one and only one vote, and are therefore formally or procedurally equal with respect to collective decision-making.  That some citizens may have more influence in determining outcomes than others – not because they are more persuasive in deliberations, but thanks to their economic and social power – is not thought to offend the idea of citizenship as such.

Thus the rule of the demos became the rule of an undifferentiated citizenry; and we nowadays deem states democratic if they institutionalize free, fair, and competitive elections.  Sometimes other practices associated with more traditional understandings of democratic theory are required as well — especially those that assure that the public is informed and that political choices are debated without fear or intimidation.  However, these protections have more to do with liberal restrictions on what states can rightfully do than with democracy as such.

Because, in the real world, facts on the ground make the idea of rule by an undifferentiated citizenry seem ludicrously hollow, and because contemporary and traditional understandings of democracy diverge so profoundly, it can be, and often is, misleading to use the word “democracy,” as we customarily do, to denote both classical and contemporary understandings.

But because the tables have turned, because the word “democracy” nowadays has positive connotations, defenders of the status quo are reluctant to give it up.

There have been theorists, however, who, being more concerned with getting concepts straight than with using them to justify the status quo, prefer not to contest the concept, but would rather reserve it for instances in which it plainly applies.

In practice, this means using “democracy” almost exclusively in normative contexts, and in discussing the work of the great democratic theorists of the past.   It means acknowledging the fact that, for descriptive political science, the concept is as useless as the ancients believed.

Thus the late Robert Dahl suggested that instead of calling regimes like the one in the United States “democracies,” we ought to use the term polyarchy instead.

Etymologically, that word connotes the rule of the many.  The “many” Dahl had in mind were overlapping elites.  They need not all be based on wealth.  In actually existing polyarchies – or “Western democracies,” as they are more familiarly known – organized labor and civil society groups of all sorts can and do figure in the political power structure too.

From the time of the Bolshevik Revolution to this day (in sectarian circles), hard Left political parties and unaffiliated leftwing intellectuals would distinguish themselves from one another by advancing competing views of the political economy and class nature of the former Soviet Union.

Maoists and some Trotskyists called the Soviet system “state capitalist.”  There were many, not always compatible, views of what that notion implies.  For Communists, the Soviet Union was a workers’ state.  Orthodox Trotskyists agreed – but with the caveat that it was “bureaucratically deformed” to such a degree that Soviet Communism betrayed the ideals of the Revolution that gave it birth.

Building on the foundations Dahl laid, it is tempting to describe the political regime in the United States in a similar fashion.    In that spirit, and at the risk of seeming facetious, I would venture that the United States is a polyarchy with plutocratic deformations.

In plutocracies, the rich rule.  America’s plutocratic deformations are “exceptional,” compared to those of most other polyarchies, but they are not qualitatively different.  In capitalist societies, capitalists are rich, and states in capitalist societies serve their interests.  If only in this sense, the rich rule.  In nearly all cases, however, they rule in more direct ways as well.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) insisted that a condition for the possibility of democratic governance is “that none should be so rich as to be able to buy another or so poor as to be forced to sell himself.”  Nearly everyone agrees; the incompatibility of democracy with grossly unequal distributions of income and wealth is a tenet of both classical and modern democratic theory.

Polyarchies are democratic enough to be undone by gross inequalities too.  All Western democracies are more polyarchic than democratic, and they all suffer, to some extent, from deformations brought on by income and wealth inequality.  Neoliberal economic policies have made the problem worse everywhere.

However, the American polyarchy has suffered more than most; in the United States, plutocracy is out of control.

Of the many reasons why, perhaps the most important is the inability of the American state to limit political spending.  The Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens’ United ruling nowadays gets all the attention, and it deserves all the blame it gets.   It should be remembered, however, that this is only the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions, going back at least to Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, that effectively identify political spending – and therefore political corruption – with Constitutionally protected speech.

Democracy Tamed

Until well into the nineteenth century, the political class in the United States, and its counterparts in Great Britain and elsewhere, restricted the franchise to white male property owners.

For determining how many representatives in Congress states would be allotted, slaves counted for three-fifths of a citizen.  But they were not able to vote, of course; they were the property of their owners.  Freed blacks fared no better.

Native Americans couldn’t vote either; neither could many of the (mixed race) inhabitants of the lands the United States took from Mexico in the first half of the nineteenth century.

And although dissenting voices were raised from the earliest days of the republic, white women were denied the franchise too.   The consensus view among men, and among many women as well, was that the rightness of that arrangement was too obvious to require justification.

The exclusion of propertyless white males was more problematic.  There were plenty of extant justifications to draw upon, however.  Property holders in Great Britain and their Western European counterparts had been dealing with the issue for some time, and the arguments were well worked out.

The general strategy was to take on board and then adapt the old arguments against the rule of the demos – especially the idea that for collective deliberation and decision-making to work properly, decision-makers must be educated and informed, and must have ample time to devote to deliberative processes.  Propertyless white males, having neither the time nor the resources to develop the requisite capacities, fall short on this account.

This ostensibly high-minded rationale aside, the underlying reason why the franchise was restricted to persons of property was that the last thing property holders wanted was an electorate full of poor and desperate persons.  They feared that the propertyless would use the power of the state to seize and redistribute their wealth.

Their fears were reasonable.  In the aftermath of the French Revolution, wealth and income egalitarians did call for extending the franchise in order to advance their cause.  The Chartists in Britain were the most important example, but they were not alone.

However, as the nineteenth century wore on, it became increasingly clear that the well off had little to fear.  The rise of political parties that mediated between individuals and the state was an important part of the reason why.  The party system that emerged enabled elites to channel popular aspirations in ways that left private property secure.

With its potentially counter-systemic implications neutered, democracy could finally serve as an ideal that everyone could, at least in theory, endorse.

Thus property qualifications proved less robust than racial, nativist and patriarchal restrictions of voting rights.

Under military protection, blacks could and did vote and hold office in defeated Southern states during Reconstruction.  In short order, though, they were effectively disenfranchised for the next hundred years; and, to this day, in practice, if not in theory, their right to vote remains precarious.

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, women did win the right to vote in a few Western territories and states, but it was not until 1920, after decades of struggle, that the women’s suffrage movement finally succeeded in forcing Congress and the states to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

These victories notwithstanding, white supremacy and patriarchy survived extensions of the franchise in much the way that private property had decades earlier.  It takes more than voting to dislodge entrenched power.

There is no doubt, however, that while progress has been uneven, the virulence of white supremacy and patriarchal domination has diminished over the past several decades.  The gains seem irreversible too; not even the malign forces behind Donald Trump can turn back the clock on this.  No doubt, voting is part of the reason why, though it is unclear how large a role it has played.

Ironically, though, over the same period, income and wealth inequality and other problems associated with plutocracy have gotten worse; voting hasn’t helped with that at all.   Indeed, many less well off voters nowadays vote for candidates and policies that make the problems associated with plutocratic rule worse.  So much for expropriating the expropriators through the ballot box!

There are many reasons why this has happened: false consciousness comes immediately to mind; it is surely part of the explanation.  For evangelicals and others with retrograde social views in the United States, so is “values voting.”

But the most important part of the explanation, in the American case, is the lack of a real opposition party that the system in place does not thoroughly marginalize.  The Democratic Party is useless for that.  To be sure, even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been known to mouth off about the evils of inequality.  But you don’t need a bullshit detector to see that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The Trump phenomenon is both a symptom and a cause of this sorry state of affairs.  It seems anomalous, because Trump’s persona is so outrageous, and because it is plain that no one with his temperament should be anywhere near the seat of power, much less anyone as clueless as he.   It doesn’t help either that his cabinet is full of nincompoops and that his advisors are even worse; or that, for the time being, he is pursuing reactionary social and economic policies at home, and a reckless and basically incoherent agenda in foreign affairs.

But the fact is that were he now to disappear from the scene – say, by getting himself impeached or by quitting, as he has done before in his capacity as a casino tycoon and real estate mogul — it will seem, in retrospect, that while, during his tenure in office, he raised the profile of the polyarchy’s plutocratic deformations to new heights, he did not fundamentally alter the nature of the regime.

If, however, Trump somehow stays on – because his vanity demands it and because Democrats permit it – it may look instead, in retrospect, that, at this moment, we are indeed on the brink of a radical transformation; that our flawed polyarchy is about to become something America has never quite seen before, even in the robber baron days — a full-fledged oligarchy.

Oligarchy Trump Style

Oligarchy, the rule of the few, is the problem we are facing – not fascism.  Trump is no fascist, not even a “friendly fascist,” as Ronald Reagan was sometimes said to be.

For one thing, he has no coherent political vision, fascist or otherwise; for another, he lacks the stature of a true fascist leader.  Calling the Donald a fascist actually demeans fascism.  This might seem like a good thing to do.  But the description is anachronistic, and things are what they are.  It would be foolish to trade off clarity for a dubious rhetorical advantage.

It is true, though, that Trump is a magnet for the kinds of people who, in the right circumstances, become fascists; social psychologists call them “authoritarian personalities.”

The description applies, however, only to a subset of Trump voters.  Most of them were not so much voting for Trump as against Clinton and, insofar as they understood what she represented, against Clintonism – against the neoliberal turn, against liberal (“humanitarian”) imperialism, and against America’s perpetual war regime.

The great German Social Democrat August Bebel called anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools.”  In that spirit, we might say that “Trumpism is the anti-Clintonism of fools”; or rather that it would be, if saying that didn’t require dignifying Trump’s politics by putting an “ism” after his name.

Trump has unleashed the furies, the forces of darkness.  Plenty of people – Muslims, Hispanics, persons of color, women, and white workers too – are suffering on this account, and if he isn’t stopped, it will get much worse.  Even so, he will not leave America a fascist state.  The danger he poses to the political realm is of a different nature.

If he is able to ditch the largely beneficial rules and regulations he and his minions inveigh against, and if he can get Congress to enact the spending programs and tax cuts he says he favors, some very rich malefactors will do very well under his reign.  Plutocracy will flourish.

But even allowing that, as “dialecticians” would say, quality arises out of quantity, this will not change the fundamental nature of the regime.  America will still be a polyarchy — with large and growing plutocratic deformations.

It would be a regime changer, though, if Trump were to turn the rule of the many into the rule of the few.  This is what he seems to be doing, right before our eyes.

He is not just forming a “kitchen cabinet” and relying upon it inordinately.  He is relying upon people he thinks won’t betray him, and turning the reins of government over to them.

However, his is no ordinary oligarchy.  His oligarchs didn’t find him; he found them.  And, with one major exception, they aren’t even plutocrats who have grown too big – or too rich – for their britches.

“Oligarchy” has had unusually bad press in the United States of late– thanks mainly to the resurgent Russophobia that Americans of a certain age imbibed with their mother’s milk, and thanks to the fact that Democrats and their media flunkies are doing all they can to stir it up – not just to delegitimize Trump but also to deflect blame for the thrashing they took in the last election away from themselves and onto an enemy Republicans hate as much as they do.

Delegitimizing the Trump presidency is a worthwhile project, but there are less reckless ways of going about it than antagonizing a nuclear power.  Inasmuch as Trump is his own best delegitimizer, there are countless ways.

Were left-leaning pundits to go after Trump for moving the country in an oligarchic direction, they would actually be doing some good.  However, they prefer to go after him by linking him not to the homegrown oligarchs he is actually empowering, but to the oligarchs of Russia and the former Soviet republics, the evil “other.”  That way they can get Trump and get Russia too.

Russian oligarchs and their counterparts in other former Soviet republics are, for the most part, well-connected cronies of leading politicians – especially Vladimir Putin, the man Democrats and Republicans of the John McCain variety love to demonize.  The official line is that they reek of corruption; that our plutocrats are angels in comparison.

It is true that the Russian system is corrupt.  The corruption started when, with Western – especially American – help, Russia’s regression to capitalism got underway.  At first, the beneficiaries of that debacle were kleptocrats, connected to the old nomenklatura and, in some cases, to organized crime.

They made off like the bandits they are, setting the tone for what would follow as the system matured.  The corruption has never gone away.

We in the United States have our share of corruption too.  Trump fooled a lot of people campaigning against it; on the principle that it takes one to know one, he got them to think that, being on their side, he had the will and ability to “drain the swamp.” Where is Sarah Palin now that we need her to ask how that “swampy drainy thing” is going?

The way that it’s going is that he is bringing the swamp into the White House itself.  He is doing it by putting together a kind of ma and pa oligarchy that does nothing to diminish the level of corruption and that is manifestly less competent than anything Russophobic liberal pundits can find to complain about in Russia today.

Reduced to its core, the Trump oligarchy is comprised of a Trump, a Kushner, Steven Bannon and, scariest of all, Robert Mercer.

The Trump is, of course, daughter Ivanka, purveyor of baubles and fashion.  The line on her is that she is an intelligent and savvy businesswoman.  In fact, she owes her success in business to the Trump name, and she knows as much about politics as the average thirty something who was born into the gilded world of the nouveau riche.

The Donald trusts her because she is family and because, as he would be the first to say, she is hot.  Also, he needs her to be his acting First Lady.

I have high hopes, by the way, for the actual First Lady.  Circumstantial evidence and common sense – supported by serious gossip – all suggest that she increasingly regrets the Faustian bargain she made with the Donald.

If she would do the right thing, Melania Trump could do more good for her (adopted) country than any woman with access to presidential genitals since Eleanor Roosevelt — more even than Monica Lewinsky or Nancy Reagan.

But for his dalliance with the former, Bill Clinton would have had a shot at ending Social Security “as we know it,” just as surely as he and Hillary ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children; and but for the latter’s faith in astrology and her and therefore her astrologer’s influence over the villainous old Gipper, all kinds of mischief would surely have resulted.

The Kushner is Jared, Ivanka’s husband.  It was a match made in capitalist heaven.  They both have sleaze ball dads who know how to work the system.  They both grew up with more money than God.

A difference is that the Kushners couldn’t capitalize on their name, even if they wanted to, whereas the Trumps are past masters at it.   Also Jared’s father, unlike Ivanka’s, has done time.

Another difference is that Ivanka’s dad could care less about religion, except when his marks are evangelical Christians, while Jared’s is an Orthodox Jew.  So is Jared, and therefore now Ivanka as well.  The Kushners are also rabid Zionists, ethnic cleansers whose “philanthropy” aids the settler movement in Occupied Palestine.

Two mediocrities; two chips off the old block.  With oligarchs like these, how could Trump not “make America great again?”

Having identified a vacuum there to fill, Bannon, an apostle of the formerly fringe, now mainstream, far Right has managed to make himself Trump’s guru.

He is the one largely responsible for bringing serviceable cartoon characters like Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller into the Trump fold.  Without them and others of their ilk, Trump would now be little more than a barely remembered figure from a nightmare, and he would be even less able to govern than he currently is.  Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer are just not enough.

Bannon can also be credited with bringing a semblance of ideological coherence to the Trump campaign by drawing on the thinking of pre-World War II clerical fascists and their intellectual descendants in Europe today.  Their ideas give a nationalistic and Islamophobic coloration to the retrograde social and economic policies that Republicans traditionally champion.

How odd for a guru coaching a billionaire pretending to be an American “populist” to draw on sources rooted on the wrong side of the Dreyfus Affair, and for God-fearing, down home American Protestants not to mind the foreign and Catholic inflections.  But there it is!

It was pointed out during the campaign that the adjective “loathsome” attached to Ted Cruz’s name in much the way that “fleet footed” attached to Achilles’.  Bannon picks up on the Cruz vibe too – especially when he echoes the old Reagan nonsense about how government is not the solution, but the problem.

To make his point, Bannon appropriated, and forever sullied, the word “deconstruction,” depriving obscurantist literary theorists of one of their most cherished concepts.  Bannon and therefore Trump say that they want to deconstruct the government by which they mean reduce it down to a vanishing point – all, that is, except those parts of it that advance the class interests of the Trump and Kushner families and their class brothers and sisters.

This would include its means of domestic repression and world domination.  They want to expand all that – indeed, to throw money at it — even at the cost of offending the deficit hawks in the House and Senate, and in the larger Republican fold.

To soften the blow, Bannon and the others saw to it that those government agencies which actually serve the public would be led and staffed as much as possible by nincompoops opposed viscerally to the agencies they lead.

Even if Trump goes, this will be an enduring part of his “legacy.”  With the Donald out of the picture, we would have Mike Pence, a bona fide reactionary, in charge.  How pathetic that this is something to look forward to!

Then there is Mercer.  If Jane Mayer’s scrupulously careful investigative reporting (“fake news” in the Trump lexicon) is even remotely on track, Mercer money has effectively bought the White House – not because the Donald is on the take, he doesn’t need to be, but because he is in way over his head and Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, are, under Bannon’s direction, helping him muddle through.

In his pre-Dick Cheney days, when he too would get in over his head, the man who is now only the second worst President in modern times would rely on Bush family fixers to get him through.  Mercer is currently doing much the same for the man who knocked George W. out of first place.

Mercer, it seems, is weird as they come; daughter Rebekah, not so much.  She reportedly relishes her power and influence as the First Lady of the alt-Right.

Her father, however, hardly ever speaks.  In recent years, limitless riches seem to have brought out the inner Gatsby in the man.  He has taken to indulging a taste for Long Island estates, luxurious yachts, and lavish parties.  But even now, in comparison, Clarence Thomas, in his capacity as a Supreme Court Justice, is positively loquacious.

Mercer is an extreme libertarian and also a devote not just of the usual conspiracy theories, but also of the idea that, for example, global warming is good for the planet and that nuclear accidents and even nuclear wars really aren’t that bad.

How could such a man become so rich and therefore powerful?  The answer seems to be that, for writing computer codes useful to the financial firms he runs, he is something of an idiot savant.

Idiots savants who, for example, multiply and divide very large numbers in their heads end up in freak shows.   What Mercer is uncannily good at is as socially useless.  But it also happens to be ridiculously lucrative in our twenty-first century capitalist world.

And so Mercer and his daughter find themselves in a position to turn their fantasies into state policies that, thanks to their zeal and Trump’s fecklessness, could do irreparable harm to the human race and the planet itself.

All oligarchies are bad.  The one that Trump is laying on us could make the others, even the Russian one that Democrats and their pundits rail constantly against, look good in comparison.

Crash of Trumpcare Opens Door to Full Medicare for All

You can thank House Speaker Ryan and President Trump for pushing their cruel health insurance boondoggle. This debacle has created a  big opening to put Single Payer or full Medicare for all prominently front and center. Single Payer means everybody in, nobody out, with free choice of physician and hospital.

The Single Payer system that has been in place in Canada for Decades comes in at half the cost per capita, compared to what the U.S. spends now. All Canadians are covered at a cost of about $4500 per capita while in the U.S. the cost is over $9000 per capita, with nearly 30 million people without coverage and many millions more underinsured.

Seventy-three members of the House of Representatives have co-signed Congressman Conyers’s bill, HR 676, which is similar to the Canadian system. These lawmakers like HR 676 because it has no copays, nasty deductibles or massive inscrutable computerized billing fraud, while giving people free choice and far lower administrative costs.

Often Canadians never even see a bill for major operations or procedures. Dr. Stephanie Wohlander, who has taught at Harvard Medical School, estimated recently that a Single Payer system in the U.S. would potentially save as much as $500 billion, just in administrative costs, out of the nearly $3.5 trillion in health care expenditures this year.

Already federal, state and local governments pay for about half of this gigantic sum through Medicare, Medicaid, the Pentagon, VA, and insuring their public employees. But the system is complexly corrupted by the greed, oft-documented waste, and over-selling of the immensely-profitable, bureaucratic insurance and drug industry.

To those self-described conservatives out there, consider that major conservative philosophers such as Friedrich Hayek, a leader of the Austrian School of Economics, so revered by Ron Paul, supported “a comprehensive system of social insurance” to protect the people from “the common hazards of life,” including illness. He wanted a publically funded system for everyone, not just Medicare and Medicaid patients, with a private delivery of medical/health services. That is what HR 676 would establish (ask your member of Congress for a copy or find the full text here. (Conservatives may wish to read for greater elaboration of this conservative basis, my book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.)

Maybe some of this conservative tradition is beginning to seep into the minds of the corporatist editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal. Seeing the writing on the wall, so to speak, a recent editorial, before the Ryan/Trump crash, concluded with these remarkable words:

“The Healthcare Market is at a crossroads. Either it heads in a more market-based direction step by step or it moves toward single payer step by step. If Republicans blow this chance and default to Democrats, they might as well endorse single-payer because that is where the politics will end up.”


Maybe such commentary, repeated by another of the Journal’s columnists, will prod more Democrats to come out of the closet and openly push for a Single Payer system. At a recent lively town meeting in San Francisco, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blurted at her younger protesters: “I’ve been for single-payer before you were born.”

Presumably retired President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will do the same, since they too were for “Full Medicare for All” before they became politically subservient to corporate politics.

Even without any media, and any major party calling for it, a Pew poll had 59% of the public for Full Medicare for All, including 30% of Republicans, 60% of independents and 80% of Democrats. Ever since President Harry S. Truman proposed to Congress universal health insurance legislation in the nineteen forties, public opinion, left and right, has been supportive.

We’ve compiled twenty-one ways in which life is better in Canada than in the U.S. because of the Single Payer health insurance system. Canadians, for example, don’t have to worry about pay or die prices, don’t take or decline jobs based on health insurance considerations, nor are they driven into bankruptcy or deep debt, they experience no anxiety over being denied payment or struck with reams of confusing, trap-door computerized bills and fine print.

People in Canada do not die (estimated at 35,000 fatalities a year in the U.S.) because they cannot go for diagnoses  or treatment in time.

Canadians can choose their doctors and hospitals without being trapped, like many in the U.S., into small, narrow service networks.

In Canada the administration of the system is simple. You get a health care card when you are born. You swipe it when you visit a physician or hospital.

All universal health insurance systems in all western countries have their problems; but Americans are extraordinarily jammed with worry, anxiety and fear over how or if their care is going to be covered or paid, not to mention all the perverse incentives for waste, gouging and profiteering.

Time to call your Senators and Representatives. There are only 535 of them and you count in the tens of millions!

For the full 21 Ways, see the article here.

For more information on health care in the U.S., what’s being done to combat vicious commercial assaults on our country’s most vulnerable people, and to find out how you can help fight back, visit

Gorsuch and the Power of the Executive: Behind the Congressional Stage, a Legal Drama Unfolds

While Republicans have failed in their efforts to weaken the Affordable Care Act through congressional action, Donald Trump could weaken it through administrative action—although his nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil M. Gorsuch, might have second thoughts about that.

As UC Berkeley Law Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon wrote in the New York Times March 14, Gorsuch is one of the “most prominent critics” of a legal doctrine that has led courts to defer to federal agencies’ interpretations of laws.

The keystone decision establishing agency deference was the 1984 Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that where Congress has not spelled out implementation of the law, an executive agency can make its own rules and decide how to apply them. Solomon explains: “One rationale for this doctrine is that an agency, with its expertise, is better positioned than a judge to know a statute’s meaning.”

Subsequent rulings have fine-tuned agencies’ power to interpret and apply the laws they are administering.  That places considerable clout in the hands of the executive branch, which employs about 1.4 million civilians.

“This big bureaucracy is not necessarily a bad thing,” Solomon observes. “The economy is much bigger and more complex than it was 200 years ago. A large and diverse economy needs regulation. And while the Trump administration has promised to reduce the bureaucracy as many presidents have before, it is hard to see the modern economy running without some degree of regulation, whether it concerns the security of banks or the safety of food and drugs.”

But conservatives worry about the power of the administrative state. Thus, conservatives would like to rein in judicial deference doctrine that empowers it.

Some of the rest of us have a more nuanced view: we know that executive power can sometimes protect us and sometimes not, as, for instance, when a judge, citing deference doctrine precedents, recently sided with the Department of Energy against environmentalists.

Federal regulatory power does not automatically protect citizens or protect them equally. It all depends on how the agency in question uses that power, That, in turn, depends on who’s steering the ship.

For instance, the Obama administration used Chevron deference to justify the rules putting the Affordable Care Act into effect. Now that Trump is sitting in Obama’s seat, Trump could head off in the opposite direction, using agency power to undermine the ACA.

He would not necessarily get away with it: despite the accumulated clout of deference precedents, courts do not always defer to agency judgment.

There is, for example an ACA case still in judicial limbo: the House of Representatives’ suit (House v. Burwell) to stop the Obama administration’s cost-sharing payments to insurance companies. After a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the House, the Obama administration filed an appeal, but Obama left office before a judgment was rendered.

House leaders and Trump’s Department of Justice then asked the Court for a delay in appeal proceedings pending legislative action—which we have seen bite the dust.

The question now: will Trump abandon the appeal initiated by the Obama White House and let the earlier ruling against the Obama administration stand? If he does, the consequent disruption of the insurance marketplace could, according to  US News & World Report,  “jeopardize coverage for millions of people,”

This is not quite a cliffhanger to match the drama over the failed house bill on health care, but it reminds us that the wheels of law keep the ship of state moving.

The chief navigator of that ship is the Supreme Court—which brings us back to Neil Gorsuch, who, as it turns out, has an intimate connection with the Chevron decision establishing deference to agencies: it was rendered in a case involving his mother, Anne M. Gorsuch.

Anne Gorsuch was Reagan’s EPA director when the EPA reversed a Carter administration rule governing power plant remissions under the Clean Air Act. The National Resources Defense Council sued to reinstate the stricter Carter-era rule and won in a lower court. Chevron, which had a dog in the fight, appealed, and the Supreme Court reinstated the Reagan-era rule, establishing what is now known as “Chevron deference.”

In the words of Justice John Paul Stevens:

“First, always, is the question whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. If, however, the court determines Congress has not directly addressed the precise question at issue, the court does not simply impose its own construction on the statute . . . Rather, if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute.”

Comes now Neil Gorsuch, son of Anne, stating, in a recent opinion:

“Whatever the agency may be doing under Chevron, the problem remains that courts are not fulfilling their duty to interpret the law and declare invalid agency actions inconsistent with those interpretations in the cases and controversies that come before them.”

With Gorsuch’s thumb on the judicial scales, more than one commentator has predicted that the ground under agency deference doctrine may shift, undermining the power of the executive branch to work its will. And that, in the age of Trump, could to be a very good thing.