Tag Archives: corruption

Fish Rot From The Head

Americans who follow politics know that even critics of party A and Congressman B  are likely to defend their own Congressperson. (Sort of like the critics of public education who defend their own school–it’s always those others that are failing. Back in the day in Indianapolis, Republicans who detested Democrats nevertheless repeatedly voted for Andy Jacobs, Jr.)

In this blog, I tend to focus on national politics. That focus may implicitly suggest that the faults and foibles of the people we send to Washington or empower to govern the state are somehow different- from–and worse than–those of the political folks closer to home.

As the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Here in Indiana, I was recently made aware of a court case in Adams County, in which the Court invalidated an election for Union Township Trustee. The court found that Alice Weil, the Republican who won that election, was ineligible for public office due to the fact that she had previously been adjudicated a habitual offender. The court found that the Democratic candidate had  garnered the most votes awarded to eligible candidates; that person now holds the position.

The case generated little or no media coverage, and I think that’s very unfortunate, because it is yet another illustration of the way corruption at the top inevitably permeates an organization. Fish rot from the head, but the rot travels quickly to the rest of the body, and the wholesale deterioration of the GOP is a current, prime example.

It isn’t as if this candidate had fooled local party elders, ala George Santos.The Third District GOP Chair knew his candidate was ineligible–he was heard telling someone he’d have to “swap her out” if it was discovered.

Had the Third District Democrats not chosen to sue, Union Township would now have a convicted criminal as its Township Trustee. But the lawsuit cost the district Democrats six thousand dollars, which it is scrambling to cover. (The court declined to award costs–if there’s a generous reader out there, throw them some dollars!)

Third District residents (not just Democrats) have really suffered enough–their Congresscritter is Jim Banks, who now wants to be one of Indiana’s Senators.

In Washington, Banks was one of the founders of the (grotesquely misnamed) Freedom Caucus–the legislative caucus that includes such sterling defenders of the rule of law as Matt Gaetz, and deep thinkers like Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boebert. Banks recently told  a radio host that he wants to find a way to stop “young ladies” from hopping in a car” to get abortion care outside Indiana.

Hoosiers outside the Third District who may be unacquainted with Banks’ interesting approach to “freedom” were recently introduced to his Senate campaign through its attack on prior Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who is rumored to be considering a run for that same Senate spot. The attack paints Daniels as “too liberal” for Hoosiers.

Please retrieve your jaw from the floor. Granted, Mitch Daniels was not one of the committed culture warriors so beloved by today’s GOP, but calling him liberal is…well, let’s just say it’s quite a stretch.

Banks is a “conservative” in the mold of Ron DeSantis. Think racist, homophobic and “anti-woke,” anti-immigrant, anti-choice, pro-privatization of education…on and on. (I put conservative in quotes, because calling  the radical, theocratic wing of today’s GOP “conservative” is deeply unfair to genuine conservatives.)

Interestingly, people in the Third District tell me that Banks used to be a “traditional Republican”–that once he was in Congress, he “lost his mind” and became steadily more radical and unreasonable. Assuming the accuracy of that description, it mirrors reports of other Republicans who have succumbed to the temptations of power and self-aggrandizement during the past several years.

When the people at the helm of a political party embrace lies Big and little, when the man to whom they pledge their loyalty is a grifter and a con artist, when the party abandons even the pretense of policy positions in favor of “hate your neighbor” culture war/identity politics–is it any wonder that the obedient “troops” follow suit?

Then there’s the saddest lesson of all: When there is no longer local media capable of rooting out local corruption, it doesn’t take long for the rot to travel downward.

 

 

The First Corruption Is Language

Jeffrey Isaacs, a distinguished professor of political science at IU Bloomington, had a very thought-provoking essay in Common Dreams.It was evidently triggered by the issuance of a Chinese State Council position papers asserting that China is a “democracy that works.” The paper argued that the “Chinese model” is superior to the “Western model,”–that it is more efficient, promotes solidarity, and is not “an ornament to be used for decoration.”

As Isaacs notes

Most readers of the piece will rightly focus on the manifest hypocrisies of the Chinese power elite and its intellectual supporters who justify terrible violations of human rights.

But this rhetorical appeal by authoritarians to the values of “democracy” is nothing new. It has antecedents in the official rhetorics of Italian fascism, German Nazism, and Russian Communism—all of which claimed to represent a “higher form” of “folk democracy” or “proletarian democracy” or “people’s democracy.” In more recent times, Hugo Chavez presented himself as a proponent of an anti-imperialist “protagonistic democracy,” and Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian regime, famously declared in 2014 that Hungary was an “illiberal democracy,” pointing to Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and Russia as his models. And we must not forget, of course, that Vladimir Putin long extolled his regime as a form of “sovereign democracy” that placed national traditions above global commitments and regarded “human rights” as a “Western” abstraction.

As Isaacs goes on to discuss, the Chinese claim to be a democracy is just the most recent iteration of a longtime debate over what the term means.  “Democracy,” as he reminds us,  is a “complex and essentially contested” concept, and arguments  over the connections between liberalism and democracy have been central to modern politics.

But we don’t need to look to mid-20th century totalitarianism, or current-day anti-liberal authoritarians in China or Russia or Hungary, to see versions of this contestation. For it is taking place before our very eyes in the U.S., in the form of a Republican party that is deliberately assaulting core norms and institutions of liberal democracy and doing it in the name of . . . democracy itself.

In the essay, Isaacs highlights a critical and too-often overlooked element of America’s current political impasse: the misuse–the intentional corruption–of language in service of propaganda and power.

He reminds us that GOP “leaders” from Tucker Carlson to Mike Pence have made it their business to commune with Viktor Orban, and that Republican efforts to “Orbanify” U.S. politics don’t just adopt Orban’s authoritarian legal tactics–they also mimic his rhetorical ones.

Isaacs is quite right that when Trump and his MAGA supporters pontificate about “democracy,” they mean something quite different from  American liberal democracy.

They mean the popular sovereignty of “true Americans.” They do not mean by this universal adult suffrage, they mean voting restrictions designed to limit the participation of “undesirable” and “un-American” people. They do not mean by this a system based on robust debate and free and fair party competition. They mean a system that opposes “fake news” and “liberal science,” that privileges their own media and their own academics and their own partisan advantage, and regards any alternatives as “enemies of the people.”

This essay–well worth clicking through and reading in its entirety–reminded me of the following exchange from Alice in Wonderland between Alice and Humpty-Dumpty:

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. ‘ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Communication is difficult even when the participants to a conversation agree on the meanings of the words they are using. Tone, body language, professional and “hip” jargon can change the connotation of otherwise simple exchanges, even when no misdirection is intended. When language is is corrupted–when, in the words of Tallyrand, words are chosen “to conceal true thoughts”–we no longer have the critically-important ability to engage in productive conversation.

Language is what allowed humans to emerge from caves, to collaborate, to investigate, to create. It’s not only essential for intellectual and emotional expression, it’s the primary vehicle through which humans transmit culture, scientific knowledge and  world-views across generations, the way we link the past with the present.

When words no longer have objective content–when we lose the ability to understand what other people are really saying–the resulting chaos empowers the worst of us.

The Crowding-Out Effect

Tomorrow is the most important Election Day in my lifetime. Among other things, the results will tell me whether my longtime faith in the common sense and goodwill of my fellow Americans has been justified or misplaced.

Hopefully, after tomorrow, this blog can return to discussions of rational, albeit debatable, policy proposals, commentary on interesting research results, and occasional forays into legal disputes and political philosophy. Hopefully too, we will have occasion to use a phrase introduced by Gerald Ford: “our long national nightmare is over.”

One aspect of that “long national nightmare,” of course, is the incredible amount of destruction it will leave in its wake–regulations that must be reinstated, laws that must once again be enforced, corrupt people who must be held accountable, and a return to public health directed by medical scientists rather than politicians, among many other things.

The opposite of “nightmare” is a good night’s sleep, and if all goes well, we can once again look forward to days when we haven’t had to think about the President of the United States, followed by nights when we can once again sleep soundly because–whether we agree with administration policies or not– a sane and honorable person is in charge.

If there is one word I have heard over and over during this political season, it is “exhaustion.” Trump’s desperate need for constant attention, his bizarre tweet-storms, insults and various insanities have sucked the oxygen out of our public life. He has been in our faces, on our television screens, Facebook feeds and comedy routines. As several columnists have recently noted, he has crowded out so many activities that we would otherwise enjoy–books of fiction, works of art and music, conversations with friends that didn’t give rise to disappointment when we discovered their willingness to look the other way so long as their 401K stayed healthy…

Last Thursday, at the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wrote about all the things we’ve lost.

After listing the “big” things–the lives lost to COVID, the children whose parents can’t be located, the people whose livelihoods have disappeared, and after acknowledging the greater significance of those losses, she speaks for so many of us:

When I think back, from my obviously privileged position, on the texture of daily life during the past four years, all the attention sucked up by this black hole of a president has been its own sort of loss. Every moment spent thinking about Trump is a moment that could have been spent contemplating, creating or appreciating something else. Trump is a narcissistic philistine, and he bent American culture toward him.

I’ve no doubt that great work was created over the past four years, but I missed much of it, because I was too busy staring in incredulous horror at my phone….

Conservatives love to jeer Democrats for being obsessed with Trump, for letting him live, as many put it, rent-free in our heads. It’s a cruel accusation, like setting someone’s house on fire and then laughing at them for staring at the flames. The outrage Trump sparks leaves less room for many other things — joy, creativity, reflection — but every bit of it is warranted. The problem is the president, not how his victims respond to him.

If the polls are right, if Biden wins convincingly, Americans will nevertheless be on pins and needles until January 20th. We won’t be out of the woods until this blot on our nation and our history is gone–and even then, we will be left with the alt-right haters and know-nothings who have spent the campaign brandishing guns, refusing to wear masks and cheering ugly pronouncements at Trump rallies– voters motivated by fear and grievance who want only to “own the libs.”

Buckle up. We’re about to see how this horror show ends.

 

Distraction

Note: Apologies for the extra and misleading email yesterday. The blog referenced (to which the link would not work) will post on the 16th. (I sometimes work ahead–and in those cases, obviously don’t know what I’m doing…)

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I know that many of you who read this blog also subscribe to Heather Cox Richardson’s  Letters from an American. That almost-daily letter is particularly valuable for those who are trying to just keep up with the daily outrages and indignities coming from the White House, since she tends to focus on updating readers to the fire hose of improprieties that exhaust so many of us.

The other day provided an example: from continued fallout over Trump’s “suckers and losers” insult to America’s soldiers, to documentation of his continuing buildup and corruption of the Military-Industrial Complex, to not-so-surprising revelations in Michael Cohen’s new book, to the absolutely unprecedented, legally-appalling effort of Bill Barr’s version of a Justice Department to assume Trump’s defense against Jean Carroll’s defamation suit, it was just another day in TrumpLand.

On the off-chance that you missed that last offense, here’s a brief background: Carroll is one of the many women who have accused Trump of sexual assault. She alleged that he raped her some 20 years ago, and when he responded in true Trumpian fashion that he’d never even met her (as usual, there are contemporaneous photographs to the contrary) and she “wasn’t his type,” she sued him for defamation.The courts have thus far refused to dismiss or halt that lawsuit.

Now, lawyers with the Department of Justice (presumably with straight faces) are arguing that Trump was acting in his official capacity as president when he denied knowing her and thus should be defended by the DOJ, which is funded by taxpayer dollars. As Richardson reported,

CNN legal analyst Elie Honig called this “a wild stretch by DOJ…. I can’t remotely conceive how DOJ can argue with a straight face that it is somehow within the official duties of the President to deny a claim that he committed sexual assault years before he took office.” He continued: “This is very much consistent with Barr’s well-established pattern of distorting fact and law to protect Trump and his allies.”

(I am at a loss to understand Barr, who–unlike Trump– is not stupid. My operating theories since he began acting like the President’s consiglieri vacillate between mental illness and blackmail, since he clearly knows that history will not be kind…)

All this is, in a fashion, beside the point. 

Much has been made of Trump’s ability to distract—to point to the “shiny object” (squirrel!!), to create a new outrage in order to distract attention and media from his most recent crimes and misdemeanors. It’s true that the media turns its attention to the most recent example of norm-and-rule breaking, but what makes this constant misbehavior a really effective distraction is simply the “fire hose” rate of discoveries of the administration’s corruption and incompetence.

It becomes impossible to keep up–and it exhausts those of us who continue to try.

The sheer volume of the misbehavior prevents the sort of continued, in-depth reporting of  a single incident of unethical or criminal behavior–the sort of ongoing media attention that would be paid to such incidents occurring in past administrations. Think of the amount and duration of reporting on Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, or the Watergate break-in. Substantial research has shown that it takes numerous repetitions of news items before they “sink in” and become common knowledge.

Historians will undoubtedly have a field day with the literally hundreds of examples of this administration’s criminal, unethical and deeply disturbing behaviors, but the rapidity with which these incidents come to our attention and then vanish means that they barely have time to make an impression on the significant number of citizens who do not follow political issues closely.

There’s an analogy here to that old joke to the effect that, if you have run over someone with your car and maimed them, you’d do well to back up and finish them off.  A few corrupt transactions will attract sustained attention, but the daily trashing of laws and norms will simply wear us out. 

Law And Order

No mentally-competent American still believes that Donald Trump is (1) honest (2) intelligent (3) informed or (4) sane. In a way, we are probably fortunate that he is so incredibly incompetent and unable to restrain himself from broadcasting his idiocy–if he was smart and just as corrupt, he could pretend to be other than what he is. Fortunately, he is too stupid to hide what he is.

Give him credit for one thing, though: he knew enough to commute Roger Stone’s sentence rather than pardoning his creepy co-conspirator.

The difference is significant: a pardon erases the conviction of guilt. A President’s decision to commute a sentence, however, doesn’t eliminate a federal conviction or imply that the person was innocent. It doesn’t even remove the ramifications of a criminal conviction, such as losing the right to vote or inability to hold elected office.

So–since even Trump must have recognized that letting Stone off the hook via either mechanism would engender huge blow-back–why not give his old pal a pardon?

Mother Jones asks–and answers–that question.

Why the second-class treatment of a commutation instead of a pardon? Wasn’t Stone important enough for a pardon?

But wait. Someone who gets a pardon can no longer invoke the Fifth Amendment as a justification for refusing to testify in court. If Stone were called in some other case, he’d be required to spill any beans he had. But if I understand the law correctly, a commutation is more limited. The conviction stands, and the possibility of putting yourself in further jeopardy remains. Thus your Fifth Amendment rights stand.

So if you wanted to help out a buddy, but you also wanted to make sure he couldn’t be forced to provide dangerous testimony in the future, commutation sure seems like the best bet, doesn’t it?

Reactions to the commutation have reminded us that Trump has either pardoned or commuted the sentences of a long list of other truly despicable–and unambiguously guilty– men: Joe Arpaio (Contempt of Court) Michael Milken (Fraud)  Scooter Libby (Perjury) Eddie Gallagher (War Crimes) and Rod Blagojevich (Corruption) come to mind.

There is another interesting wrinkle, legally, to Trump’s latest favor to the dark side.

Seth Abramson, an attorney and commentator, has characterized Stone’s commutation as that of a “co-conspirator,” and opined that–because it amounts to a “self-pardon”–it is obstruction of justice and thus unconstitutional. Nancy Pelosi has weighed in by recommending passage of a law forbidding a President from pardoning or commuting a sentence if the conviction was for illegal behavior to protect the President–which Stone’s quite obviously was.

Perhaps the most succinct summary of the situation came from Mitt Romney–who seems to be the only Republican in the Senate with either scruples or a backbone. Romney tweeted

Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.

There is broad recognition that another four years for this grotesque buffoon would be the end of America’s experiment with democratic self-government. Inconceivable as it seems, however, he continues to have the devotion of his base/cult. They won’t desert him and they will turn out for him.

If we want to save America in November, we’d better get massive turnout of people who come prepared to “vote blue no matter who.”