On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

Kuttner
January 8, 2018

When the other memoirs come out—and they will—Michael Wolff’s book will feel tame. Just imagine how serious people around Donald Trump, like General H.R. McMaster, or General John Kelly, or former Goldman chief Gary Cohn, or even Jeff Sessions feel about the idiocy of Trump, and the stories they have to tell?

The great disgrace of the Republican Party is to deny the appalling reality (or unreality) that is Donald Trump, and to indulge his lunatic behavior because he can be used for their ends—the gutting of regulations, the cutting of taxes, the savaging of workers’ wages and social supports. Even worse, the trampling of democracy itself.

By now, Republicans should have concluded that the king is mad, a chronic liar, and an infantile personality; that catastrophic consequences could easily result. That they did not pursue impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment is to their eternal shame.

One would like to believe that some divine or human retribution is the inevitable result—the collapse of the Republican Party or a massive wave of voter revulsion against corporate elites and the governing coalition. But this is not how history works. Democracies fail. Dictators govern for a long time.

Absent a lot of hard work and a good dose of luck, it is just as likely that the U.S. will descend deeper into corruption and oligarchy. Alternatively, voters could rise up against both Trump and Republican corporate Trumpism. Or they could just remain mired in cynicism.

The results of the 2017 elections in Virginia, Alabama, and elsewhere, plus Trump’s continuing pratfalls, give some cause for guarded optimism. But the election of 2020, and the run-up in the congressional midterm election of 2018, will be the most momentous since the fateful election of 1860.

That election, won by Abraham Lincoln, came in the wake of the collapse of the Whig Party, and very nearly sundered the American Union. In 2018 and 2020, either we will begin the long and painful process of healing American democracy, or our liberties could be irrevocably lost.

Kuttner
January 5, 2018

If a liberal strategist or screenwriter had scripted the Bannon-Trump crack-up, it would be hard to improve on events now unfolding. Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, is only a more detailed version of what the world knows all too well. Donald Trump is an undisciplined mess, unfit to govern. His cabinet knows all too well what a total idiot he is, and says so.

As for Bannon’s comments, don’t forget that he made these remarks to Wolff several months ago, since it takes that long for a book to gestate. The comments are totally in character with Bannon’s own narcissism and recklessness. He made the same kind of casually devastating assessment of Trump in his August conversation with me, which turned out to be the last straw that led to his dismissal from the White House.

A few weeks after he was fired, Bannon took my phone call and met with me at the Breitbart townhouse. There, he told me that he and Trump continued to talk regularly. Apparently, even after Bannon was too radioactive to work at the White House, Trump still felt he needed Bannon.

This latest spate of published remarks, however, led to a final breach with Trump and a display of presidential impotent rage. Trump, preposterously, tried to get a court to block publication of the book. Presumably, Trump has never heard of the Pentagon Papers. Courts never back prior restraint of publications, and this issue becomes totally moot in the internet age, when the text could simply be posted and go viral.

Even more pathetic is Trump’s effort to go after Bannon on the premise that Bannon is bound by a non-disclosure agreement more characteristic of the entertainment industry than of politics. Trump has probably never read a political memoir either.

Bannon and his home base, Breitbart, have been uncharacteristically quiet since this latest blow-up. But it will help further fragment the Trump coalition.

Bannon, a hero to the right-wing populist base, is basically telling Trump voters that they have been played for suckers; that Trump is in bed with the billionaires, and not delivering for regular people. In this respect he helps progressives get that message out. The Tea Party diehards will be torn between their support for Trump and their affinity for Bannon.

Meanwhile, the GOP mainstream in Congress will be even more worried that Trump is not only a lunatic, but a flagrant, obvious lunatic. Financial backers of Bannon are already jumping ship.

In a petulant rage, Trump abruptly shut down the Pence-Kobach commission on voter fraud, a Bannon idea. Vice President Pence, despite his fawning loyalty to Trump, was collateral damage.

Support in Republican ranks is likely to grow for getting rid of Trump before the November elections. This will come to a head when Robert Mueller tenders his report. At that point, GOP leaders could well warn Trump that the time has come for him either to resign or to face the risk of a bipartisan impeachment inquiry.

Steve Bannon turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving. People ask what his game is. Based on my experience, his game is the greater glory of Steve Bannon, the ideology of racializing economic grievances, and total war on the establishment press and what’s left of the Republican establishment. If Donald Trump is a useful instrument to Bannon, then Bannon will use him, ridiculing him while professing loyalty. When even Trump sees through the game, Bannon jettisons Trump and moves on.

Both men are crackpots, whom history has thrust into positions of alarming influence. Let us hope they continue to do each other in.

Meyerson
January 4, 2018

Does Donald Trump want his voters to move someplace else? This past summer, when asked about the dearth of jobs in regions like upstate New York, he opined that “Americans are going to have to start moving” to places where the jobs are. That, of course, would decimate his political base, but, as Washington Post reporter Heather Long noted in Wednesday’s paper, a number of policies Trump’s administration and the congressional Republicans are expected to roll out could have that effect nonetheless.

“In many of these struggling towns,” Long writes, “where few, if any, major corporations remain, the tax cut is unlikely to do much to transform them. But the next steps Republicans take could have a deeper reach. Scaling back welfare, especially Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance, and housing subsidies might force people to finally move.”

It’s important to note that this is Long speculating: She’s not quoting an administration source here (indeed, she’s not quoting anyone). Nor is it clear that the evisceration of our semi-demi-welfare state would be any easier for the recipients of its meager benefits in big cities than it is in devastated towns. But it is certainly possible that whatever further immiseration such cuts would bring to the economically abandoned heartland would drive more of its residents to cities—as has been the pattern of American life ever since industrialization began in the decades following the Civil War.

Think of it as a kinder, gentler version of Stalin’s war on the peasantry—forcing them off the land, sometimes through starvation, in the 1930s to produce the workforce for the Soviet Union’s forced-march transformation into an industrial powerhouse. It would be inadvertent Stalinization, of course—where Stalin clearly intended to drive the peasants off the land, that wouldn’t be the Republicans’ intention at all: They need our beleaguered hinterlands to have enough voters to sustain their congressional majority. The refugees from non-metropolitan America would just be the unintended innocent victims of the GOP’s war on social decency—just as its Republican authors would also be its unintended victims, only far from innocent. Indeed, guilty as hell.

Kuttner
January 3, 2018

It sure looks as if an impeachment proceeding is inevitable, and that the issue of impeachment will dominate the 2018 elections, especially in the House. There is already enough on the public record, beginning with Trump’s obstruction of justice in his firing of FBI Director James Comey, to justify impeachment, and you can be sure that Robert Mueller’s report will provide a lot more details.

And the ever-helpful Steve Bannon is quoted in a just-published book calling a meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr. and a group of Russians “treasonous,” and adding, “They’re going to crack Junior like an egg on national TV.” Treasonous of course describes Trump Senior, too.

On December 6, a third of the Democratic Caucus, 58 House Democrats, voted for Representative Al Green’s resolution to open an impeachment proceeding. And on December 20, the Democratic Caucus voted to make Representative Jerry Nadler of New York the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, setting him up to become chairman.

Nadler, a strong progressive, defeated the more moderate Zoe Lofgren. Nadler did not vote for Green’s impeachment resolution, but only because he was keeping his powder dry. He will be a strong leader of an impeachment investigation that seems increasingly inevitable.

But is a fast track to impeachment a good idea? Skeptics led by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi argue that it might deflect focus from the monumental unpopularity of congressional Republicans, just as the Republican effort to impeach Clinton backfired in 1998. Worse, it could mobilize the Trump base, and increase Republican turnout.

On the other hand, given what’s likely to come out on Mueller’s report—not to mention the possibility of Trump’s firing of Mueller (which would be impeachable all by itself)—impeachment one way or another will be a dominant issue in the 2018 elections. If the Democrats do take back the House, which seems increasingly likely, it’s hard to imagine that impeachment will not proceed.

That’s a good thing—it’s the necessary way to get Trump out of office. But in the fall campaign, impeachment should not crowd out all other issues; the Republicans have plenty of other sins to answer for.

Meyerson
January 2, 2018

On the first day of 2018, The New York Times reported on a technological breakthrough. Google Street View’s images of America’s neighborhoods, a Stanford University study concludes, can now be interpreted by artificial intelligence to predict a neighborhood’s—or a street’s or a block’s—politics.

“Image recognition technology, much of it developed by major technology companies, has improved greatly in recent years,” the Times reported, noting that the primary data on which AI drew its conclusions were the cars parked on the street. “The Stanford project gives a glimpse at the potential. By pulling the vehicles’ makes, models, and years from the images, and then linking that information with other data sources, the project was able to predict factors like pollution and voting patterns at the neighborhood level.”

The story didn’t say if a name has been given to this project, but I know what its name was in 1980: Michael Berman. In that year, the most prominent California Democrat in the House of Representatives, and the most brilliant legislative strategist of House liberals, San Francisco’s Phil Burton, was the Democrats’ choice to head up the state’s decennial redistricting. California was growing by leaps and bounds, and Burton used the opportunity not only to give Democrats the edge in most of the state’s newly added districts, but to redistrict several right-wing Republicans—most notably, former John Birch Society Western Regional Director John Rousselot—into districts they could not win. Rousselot and several other Republicans lost their re-election bids in 1982.

Burton was an acknowledged genius at redistricting; he later called his 1980 line-drawing “my contribution to modern art.” (In fairness, I should note that he also steered to passage expansions of welfare, protections for mine workers, and the creation of Redwoods National Park; led the anti-Vietnam War Democrats in the House, engineered the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and ended the practice of assigning committee chairs strictly by seniority, which had the effect of dethroning the party’s remaining old guard Dixiecrats.)

What was Burton’s secret? How did he redistrict so masterfully, in a time when computers couldn’t yet spit out the data routinely used today to draw the lines? The answer is Michael Berman.

A onetime Burton aide who later became one of California’s most successful political consultants, in 1980, Berman got in his car and drove all over the state, assessing a neighborhood’s socioeconomic status by noting which cars were parked on which streets. His methods were essentially those of Google Street Views as interpreted not by artificial intelligence but his own. (As early as Henry Waxman’s first campaign for the California State Assembly, in 1968, Berman was experimenting with an embryonic version of micro-targeting voters, decades before it became common practice.) In 1990 and 2000, Berman was to play a similar role working with his brother Howard, a San Fernando Valley congressman who succeeded Burton (who died in 1983) as California Democrats’ capo de redistricting. But with each succeeding decade, the capacity to redistrict using computerized data grew substantially stronger. And today, in our age of digital marvels and artificial intelligence, tech has finally caught up with Michael Berman c. 1980, tooling down the street, noting all the cars.

Kuttner
December 22, 2017

The latest CNN poll has Democrats up 18 points in the voter choice for members of the House. There is an increasing chance that in a Democratic wave election, gerrymandering could backfire on the Republicans, and lead to a massive Democratic sweep, with a pickup of 75 seats or even more. (It takes only 24 for Dems to take back the House.)

Here’s how that works. Let’s say you are the Republican architects of extreme gerrymandering in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin. You redraw the districts, as Republicans did in 2012, so that a popular statewide vote of 52-48 Republican translates into an allocation of two-to-one Republican House seats.

In order to accomplish that trick, however, you need to spread out likely Republican voters. You assume a normal election, with a modest but not an overwhelming Republican margin in each district.

But in the case of a Democratic wave election, the tactic backfires and the wave turns into a tsunami, because there aren’t enough Republican votes to go around. An 18-point average advantage for Democrats, depending on how the votes are distributed, could turn dozens of gerrymandered Republican seats into Democratic ones. That, plus normal Democratic gains in non-gerrymandered districts, could make 2018 one of the tidal swing years.

It’s true that Republicans will try to steal elections by voter suppression tactics, but that only operates in some states, and can only take you so far. The ordinarily risk-averse Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee now considers fully 91 Republican-held seats worth contesting. The wave that began on Election Day in Virginia, and deepened with the Alabama election of Doug Jones, compounded by voter backlash against the tax bill, will only intensify.

Meyerson
December 21, 2017

One distinctive feature of Republicanism in the Age of Trump is the destruction of government agencies by appointment. Time and again, the president has appointed and the Senate confirmed directors committed to the destruction of the agency they’re directing and the inversion of its values. Think Scott Pruitt at the EPA, or Betsy DeVos at Education, or Ben Carson at HUD—the list, as you know, goes on and on.

Modern Republicanism being arrayed against the government’s protection and advancement of the public interest, GOP senators have happily confirmed each such nominee who’s come before them. Until this week.

On Tuesday, two Republican senators—South Dakota’s Mike Rounds and South Carolina’s Tim Scott—joined all their Democratic colleagues on the Senate Banking Committee to reject, by a 13-to-10 vote, Trump’s pick of Scott Garrett, a former GOP House member from New Jersey, to head the Export-Import Bank. While in the House, Garrett had repeatedly and vociferously called for abolishing the bank, a position that would align him with such agency mission-reversers as DeVos and Pruitt. But this time, some Republicans demurred.

It was a revelatory demurral. The Export-Import Bank is one of those rare institutions whose work draws both intense support and intense opposition from American business. The Bank helps multinational corporations like Boeing (which has a plant in Scott’s South Carolina) and General Electric find customers in distant lands by guaranteeing loans from foreign buyers. Not surprisingly, Boeing and GE lobbied furiously against Garrett’s appointment. (Garrett insisted he’d had a conversion and now favored the Bank’s continued existence, but Bank proponents clearly doubted his assurances.) The non-exporting sectors of American business have never warmed to the Bank, and pure laissez-faire conservatives have viewed it as an affront to the gods of market economics.

Placed alongside the Republicans’ simultaneous enactment of the tax monstrosity, Garrett’s rejection underscores a reliable guide to GOP behavior: When big business is united, Republicans give it what it wants (tax cuts, deregulation). When it’s divided, so’s the GOP.

Kuttner
December 20, 2017

I keep having arguments with friends and colleagues about the importance of electing a Democrat in 2020. Some say, let’s just find a Democrat who can be elected. Others say that it matters what kind of Democrat.

I’m emphatically with the second group. The road to Trumpism was paved by Democrats who really didn’t care about working-class Americans, who thought social issues and demographic shifts would carry the day, even if working people (of all races) got stiffed by Wall Street, who were happy to take gobs of money from Wall Street.

We saw how that worked out. And there is nothing to keep the right from winning on issues of class resentment—unless America elects not just a Democrat but a Democrat who puts pocketbook issues first, and who pays attention to the injuries of class.

This brings me to the year of the woman, and the issue of sexual harassment and abuse, now rightly occupying center stage. This reckoning is long overdue, and at the same time it is not the only issue that matters.

I was one of those who thought Democrats jumped the gun on hounding Al Franken to resign. It would have been just as effective—more effective—to let the ethics committee do its job. It is good to see some Democratic senators, such as Pat Leahy, having wreckers’ remorse on the railroading of Franken.

On that score, I’m no fan of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the leaders of the Senate's anti-Franken mob. Nor am I much of a fan of her tactical repositioning from Wall Street Democrat to sort-of-progressive Democrat.

After the abuse that Hillary Clinton took last year, it would be terrific to have a woman president. It would be even better to have a genuinely progressive woman president.

Maybe some of the good people on the Gillibrand bandwagon can explain why, if we can elect Gillibrand, we can’t elect Elizabeth Warren.

Meyerson
December 19, 2017

With the Republican tax bill poised to pass and propel economic inequality to still greater heights, the newspapers are full of stories charting how increasingly, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “the rich are different from you and me.” While the growing distance between the billionaires and the rest of us is challenging art directors to come up with charts that still will fit on the page, the stories, depressingly, often seem as if they could be written on autopilot. Is there any new way to dramatize the rise of the new mega-rich?

Actually, yes. On Sunday, The New York Times ran a story revealing that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the previously unrevealed purchaser of, at a cool $300 million, the world’s most costly home, the Chateau Louis XIV, just down the road from Versailles. (Bin Salman, it turns out, is also the guy who recently plunked down $450 million for that painting of Jesus, presumably by Da Vinci.)

Its name and neighborhood notwithstanding, the Chateau Louis XIV isn’t an old palace but brand new digs, on which construction was completed just two years ago. “To the naked eye,” the Times reports, “it appears to have been built in the time of Versailles … but the 17th-century design camouflages 21st-century technology.” Set on 57 landscaped acres, complete with a gold-leafed fountain and a guardhouse modeled on Marie Antoinette’s cottage at Versailles, the fountains, sound system, and lights can all be controlled by the Prince’s (or the Grand Vizier’s, or the Master of the Hounds’) iPhone.

The Times also notes that, “the moat includes a transparent underwater chamber with sturgeon and koi swimming overhead.”

The moat. Thank you, Mr. Crown Prince. By bringing back the moat, you have resurrected the most precisely apropos symbol—le moat juste, if you will—for our new age of inequality. There’s thems on the inside, and thems on the outs, and what better way to signal that divide than a moat, which commoners will be able to cross only after extensive vetting and security checks?

How about inserting moats into the Republican tax bill? Maximum marginal personal tax rate of 37 percent for the rich, and, say, just 7 percent for the rich with moats? What better expression could there be of Republican philosophy? 

Kuttner
December 18, 2017

At what point do working people who supported Trump start noticing the chasm between his rhetoric and reality—which is a government of, by, and for billionaires? This is trickier than it seems.

The tax bill, as we’ve all read, is a phony. It delivers most of the benefits to the rich, and screws middle-class homeowners in high-tax states. But it does deliver modest help to about 45 percent of the poor and working class.

How does it do that? Well, if you increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion, there is a lot of tax cutting to spread around, even if most of it goes to the rich. The doubling of the standard deduction will help many working people, and so will the rate cuts.

So even though public opinion polls show that the tax bill is monumentally unpopular, it may not be the best weapon to use against the Republicans in 2018.

But there are plenty of others, and the whole is more toxic than the sum of its parts.

Voters may not grasp all the nuances of how Trump is gutting worker and environmental protections, or failing to deliver on public works, but almost nothing about Trump or his program is popular. Most of all, Trump himself.

The Alabama Senate election gives some important clues to where the Republican vote will seriously crater in 2018 and 2020. Moore suffered big losses among women, relative to Trump’s Alabama’s support in 2016. Moore, of course, had a record of predatory sexual behavior not unlike Trump’s, and Trump’s own outrageous sexual conduct is back in the news.

In Alabama, there was a big falloff in Republican support among the young, the well-educated, and in the suburbs. And there was impressive black organizing and turnout.

Individual Republican candidates may try to distance themselves from Trump in 2018, but it won’t work. The midterm election will be a referendum on the most unpopular president in modern history, and the Republicans in Congress work hand in glove with him.

After Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report comes out, and it’s clear that Trump has committed impeachable offenses, Republicans will be even more unpopular if they try to stonewall an impeachment inquiry.

Yes, the tax bill is an abomination—and a very complex one—but it’s only one arrow in the Democrats’ quiver for 2018.

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