Saturday, June 29, 2019

The American Taliban

The Handmaid's Tale has been long on images and short on story ever since completing the first season.  Part of the problem is that the writers ran out of story.  Margaret Atwood only took her distopian vision of America's future so far and now the writers are having to come up with ideas of their own.  Not knowing how many seasons they can milk out of the premise of an American Taliban, they are taking their time, moving at a snail's pace, trying to expand the territory a bit without drifting too far away from the central theme.  So, we get a lot of plot twists to keep us off guard, hoping that suspense will keep viewers tuning into the Hulu series.

At its core, Atwood imagined a state where the religious conservatives staged a coup and toppled the American government.  They installed their own version of a Shining City Upon a Hill, which to this point I thought Boston was the capital.  This is where it all began nearly 400 years ago when Governor Winthrop declared the city the capital of the Massachusetts Bay colony.  But, we find out in episode 6 of season 3 that Washington is still very much the capital -- a veritable 1930s Berlin draped in red banners with the Washington monument made over into an enormous cross.

The Lincoln Memorial still stands but the great president has been destroyed, much like the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan.  The famous inscription has also been destroyed, as it seems the Gilead authorities have chosen not to enshrine his memory forever but rather turn the memorial into a neo-classical backdrop for all their productions.

Most religious conservatives today are fine with Washington and Lincoln, but if Gilead really wanted to make this reclaimed land in the name of its forebearers, Boston was the logical choice.  This is the religious identity Atwood put forward in her novel, and the image the series ran with for two-and-a-half seasons.

It seems the producers now want to project a far more powerful Gilead with ambitions of invading Canada over the fate of little baby Nicole, who was kidnapped and smuggled over the border by one of the handmaids.  We were led to believe that Serena, the religious mother of the child, was in on the plan, but now it seems she and Commander Fred were using the baby as bait to initiate a war with Canada.  Far from being a benevolent guard, Nick, the real father of the baby, is one of Gilead's highest honored Christian warriors.  It's all so muddy that it is hard to say for certain what is going on at this point.

Atwood treated Gilead as a work in progress, and gave it a life span not much longer than the Third Reich.  She didn't go into details, having taken the point of view of the Handmaid Offred, who would have had a very limited idea of what was going on around her.  As a result, it was a very personal tale of repression.

However, the producers of the series have decided to take on a much bigger picture, shifting the point of view to Serena, who has far more access to the broader world of Gilead.  We got hints of this in earlier episodes.  Before the coup, Serena was a well-respected writer among religious conservatives, and her book, A Woman's Place, served as a base text for the new world order that was established after the fall of Washington.

You never know quite what to think of Serena, and the writers are using this uncertainty to keep the viewer off guard.  As such, she has become a far more compelling character than June, aka Offred, aka Ofjoseph, who put all her cards on the table only to find out she had been played.  This also allows the writers to take the story in a new direction, which has been made abundantly clear in the last two episodes.

For her part, Atwood is writing her own sequel to the 1985 novel, which she previously wrote when Reagan was president.  The Gipper used the phrase, "a shining city upon a hill," in his speeches.  Many took this as a coded language to the religious right, which rose as a considerable political force in the early 80s, led by the affable Jerry Falwell, who became one of Reagan's spiritual advisers.  It will be interesting to see where Atwood takes the story in the Age of Trump.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Puppet Master

You ever wonder what Russian hackers got from the Republican National Committee?  We were led to believe they got into old accounts and it wasn't anything damaging in the way of information, which never saw the light of day.  Yet, three years later here are the Republicans pretty much in lockstep with the President on every issue, particularly those that favor Russian interests.  Mitch McConnell was effectively able to lift sanctions on one of Putin's most notorious oligarchs at the beginning of the year, resulting in a cushy investment in Kentucky.  However, it seems there was a lot of pressure on him and other Republicans to lift these sanctions from the outside.

Russia has not only severely compromised the President, but to one degree or another appears to have compromised Republican Congresspersons.  Despite the repeated calls to provide funding to protect the 2018 midterm elections from unwarranted hacking, Republicans deferred and continue to defer on the issue.  It seems the Republicans are content with the hacking as long as only Democratic political leaders are exposed.

It is impossible to say how much damage the Russian hacking did to Hillary's campaign in 2016, but it certainly helped to deflect attention away from Trump's dubious ties to Russia.  No sooner did the White House release an official statement on Russian hacking than wikileaks dumped a second batch of hacked Democratic National Committee e-mails.  Amazingly, the national media fell for the diversion.  The unprecedented joint statement from the WH was relegated to the back pages of the news.  This new round of hacked letters also helped bury the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump readily admitted to his predatory sexual behavior.

No one seemed to question the legitimacy of these leaked documents.  This was every bit as scandalous as Watergate when Nixon had his henchmen break into Democratic National Headquarters and steal information they thought damaging to the McGovern campaign.  Nixon won the election in a landslide thanks to McGovern's numerous gaffes, but eventually the burglary was ratted out and Nixon forced to resign.  

It seems we have become so inured to the idea that nothing is private on the Internet that we accept the hacked e-mails as the price one pays for using the Internet.  No one seemed to bat an eyelash over the DNC being hacked.  It was somehow their fault for not having better cybersecurity.   At least, this is what Donald Trump implied after the second wikileaks dump.  He still wasn't off the hook but Hillary's poll numbers began to erode and by late October he was polling within the margin of error in key states, which he ultimately won.

Another thing I find interesting about the 2016 election is that Trump somehow managed to win every toss-up state, except Nevada, and even two states that were considered firmly in Hillary's camp, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.   He almost won Minnesota too.  This is a pretty amazing stroke of luck, considering that these states voted overwhelming for Obama in 2012, when the economy was much worse.  Four years of steady economic improvement seemed to go for naught.

It has now come to light that Russian hackers breached polling stations in at least 21 states, and attempted to access all 50 state election systems.  Seems the GRU was leaving nothing to chance.  We had been warned before the election how easily polling booths could be tampered with, and election results twisted.  There are numerous other ways to access these machines remotely.  

It's a pretty tall order swinging almost 1 million votes in three key states.  That's the number Obama won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by in 2012.  You have to approach it in multiple ways and Russian interference can be traced throughout the process.  First, you do everything you can to discredit Hillary.  Russians used trolls and bots to target these states in the last month of the election.  They spread an inordinate amount of disinformation largely aimed at convincing "Rustbelt" voters that their economy was in ruin and only Trump could pull them out of this depression.  For his part, Trump hit the same themes on the campaign trail.  It took a lot of convincing as all three economies were relatively healthy at the time.

This method proved remarkably successful in Britain, where Brexiteers, with the help of their Russian friends, managed to convince Britons that they were better off without the EU.  The disinformation campaign was in hyperdrive in 2016, but Remainers were convinced their fellow countrymen wouldn't fall for these blatant lies.  It turned out that they did by a relatively narrow margin.

Still, you want some insurance, so you access state election databases, target key demographics and ultimately target the polling booths themselves.  However, you can't do this without the help of well-placed friends.  All three states were now led by Republican governors and legislatures.  Although no one has yet been able to prove it, the likelihood is great that Russian agents worked with Republican party operatives to swing key voting districts Trump's way.

It's not a big stretch.  Russia was using influence peddling throughout the Republican Party, most notably in the NRA, where they funneled $30 million to help push Trump across the line.  Scores of other revelations show how Russian oligarchs helped bankroll Congressional campaigns, even those of McCain and Graham, perhaps the two most ardent Russophobes on Capitol Hill.

Russia didn't even try to hide its influence peddling.  Maria Butina was pictured with numerous prominent Republicans including the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.  She served as the sexy go-between for Alexander Torshin and the GOP.  Torshin is the deputy chairman of the Russian Central Bank and member of the NRA since 2012. 

Despite Mueller's exhaustive investigation into Russian influence peddling during the election, little could be established to link prominent American politicians to Russian officials.  In fact, Mueller was not tasked to find collusion, but rather the degree to which Russian hackers had infiltrated the election process and which persons close to the Trump campaign were involved.  "No collusion" was never more than a means to distract Americans from the real intent of the investigation.  A very effective Russian tactic. 

In the end, Mueller indicted several prominent persons, including Maria Butina, but these were all periphery figures in the Trump and Republican campaigns.  You might call them "deplorables," which the Republican rank and file took as a term of endearment after Hillary accused Trump of surrounding himself with a "basket of deplorables" on the campaign trail.

Throughout the whole process, Republicans did their best to conceal information, obstruct Congressional investigations and protect Trump.  Trump infamously cast the Mueller investigation as a "witch hunt" and led many conservatives to believe that the FBI is part of a "deep state" actively undermining his administration.  This view has been reinforced by the conservative media at every stage of the Dept. of Justice investigation.

This degree of complicity is unprecedented.  Not even Nixon enjoyed this kind of Republican support on Capitol Hill.  Once the case of obstruction of justice became so compelling, he was urged to resign by his own party.  So far, only one Republican Congressperson, Justin Amash, has come out for impeachment and has been publicly scorned by his party for it.

It doesn't take a special investigator to see the Republican Party has been severely compromised by Russian influence peddling, but even today most of the media focus remains on Trump.  Mueller outlined 10 incidents where Trump potentially obstructed justice, but left it up to Congress to determine his fate.  Mueller is set to testify before Congress on July 17 unless the President bars him.  It is doubtful the former special investigator will add anything more to what he has already written in the report.

This means it is up to the news media to uncover the full extent of Russian intrusion into the 2016 campaign, not just Trump but the entire Republican Party.  If nothing else, this information will hold the GOP accountable at the ballot box next year.  Never has it been more important for the American electorate to speak out against the massive abuses that were committed in 2016 to usurp the democratic process.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Bomb, bomb bomb Iran

Iran is the country many Americans want to bomb.  Back in 2008, Old Mackie was even singing a tune in this regard on the campaign trail.  It's been 40 years since the Islamic Revolution in Iran and yet we still seem to know nothing about what is going on in the country.  This despite a succession of presidents who to one degree or another have tried to reach out to the US to put hard feelings behind.

As much as we would like to think there is no reason to forgive Iran for the hostage crisis that stretched out over 400 days between November 1979 and January 1981, the US never apologized for shooting down an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, during the peak of the Iran-Iraq War.  The US was backing Iraq at the time, and a naval commander mistook the passenger plane for a fighter jet, firing two surface-to-air missiles that killed all 290 passengers on board.  By contrast, all 52 American diplomats and citizens were eventually released unharmed.

There is plenty of bad blood on both sides of this long-running feud, but it seemed we had finally put all this bitterness to rest when Barack Obama signed a historic nuclear deal with Iran and six other countries in 2015 that would finally allow IAEA monitors access to Iran's nuclear facilities and limit uranium enrichment in return for the US freeing up tens of billions of dollars in frozen oil assets.

Conservatives like McCain and Graham were fit too be tied, and Trump seized on the issue before announcing his candidacy.  Republicans felt Obama overstepped his authority.  Trump just thought it was a bad deal.  Conservative media treated the deal like Obama was giving away all this money, when in fact it was never our money to begin with.  These frozen oil assets dated back to the Shah's time, and had accrued a substantial amount of interest.  We had held this money over Iran's head for 35 years hoping to topple the regime, just as we did back in the 1950s at the behest of the British when a newly elected Iranian government threatened to nationalize the oil industry.  These days we seem to be working for Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Trump stepped into a big pile of dog shit on this one and has been unable to get it off his shoe.  Iran never really had any interest in reconciliation.  All they wanted were the return of the frozen assets and the removal of sanctions on the sale of oil.  The nuclear deal offered both.  In response all Iran had to do was allow access to its recently completed nuclear reactor, which had actually been the brainchild of the Shah back in the 1970s.  The ayatollahs never really wanted to develop nuclear energy, but successive presidential administrations convinced them that it was an excellent bargaining chip in negotiations.  Iran finally opened Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in 2013, thanks to the help of Russia, who picked up in 1995 where Germany left off in 1979.

The nuclear deal was largely the product of Iranian and Russian diplomatic efforts.  The US and Europe simply wanted to move past the long-standing animosities and hopefully convince Iran to stop funding Hezbollah and Hamas, the arch-nemeses of Israel.  It also would allow American and European companies to once again do business with Iran.  Boeing was set to sign a $20 billion deal with Iran for a fleet of new passenger planes before Trump's coitus interruptus.

Needless to say, Israel was adamantly opposed to this deal, as was Saudi Arabia.  Both saw Iran as the greatest existential threat in the region, and a deal like this would allow the Islamic Republic to exercise far more influence.  Iran already was exerting influence in Iraq and Syria, and was also supporting Yemen in their ongoing war with Saudi Arabia.

Under normal circumstances this would just be geopolitics as usual, but Trump decided he wanted to make a reality show out of it.  The nuclear deal is set up so that the President has the authority to release frozen assets on a semi-annual basis.  Trump hemmed and hawed each time he had to sign this document until finally in May, 2018, he refused, and chose to reimpose sanctions on oil sales and freeze all assets.  This was a pretty hard blow but Iran weathered it the best they could, choosing to remain in the pact with Russia, China and the EU.

Iran had not broken its part of the deal, and European leaders hoped they could convince Trump to reconsider his decision, but the President stood firm.  Republican Congressmen, Israel and Saudi Arabia all thanked him for it.  Trump felt he scored a diplomatic coup.  However, Iran wasn't going to take this lying down.  They continued to sponsor forces antagonistic to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and terrorist groups that threatened to destabilize the flow of oil in the region.   When several Saudi oil wells were bombed, Iran was blamed.  When two oil tankers were recently attacked in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran was once again blamed.  It didn't matter that Iranian naval forces rescued all 44 persons aboard the two foreign tankers, the WH claimed Iran planted explosive devices on the sides of the hulls.

I suppose it is possible that Iran used a rescue to cover up its misdeeds, but highly unlikely.  More likely these were rogue terrorist attacks.  However, it seems rogue terrorists are all backed by Iran these days. Fact of that matter is that Saudi Arabia sponsors far more terrorist groups around the world than does Iran, yet we have no problem doing business with the House of Saud. In fact, Trump openly defied Congress in selling weapons to the Saudis despite many complaints coming from within his own party. Iran was never really our enemy.  We just made them our enemy in the wake of the hostage crisis.

Many Americans, including Donald Trump, live in a time warp.  They still view Iran as this 1980 revolutionary state run by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who held Americans hostage for 444 days.  They have never let go of this image.  Granted, there is only one letter difference in the current ayatollah, but placing travel sanctions on him is a joke, as he rarely travels out of the country and certainly not to the United States.  It is also silly to place sanctions on Iran's foreign minister, who is responsible for any diplomatic talks between the two countries, which Trump claims he is eager to have.

This is what happens when outdated ideology becomes foreign policy.  No one in the current administration appears to have made the least effort to understand the situation in Iran.  Rex Tillerson apparently did try to work with Iran when he was Secretary of State, but when Mike Pompeo took over all lines of communication were cut.  Now that John Bolton is acting as Trump's war minister any hope of opening talks with Iran appears out of the question.  Bolton seems to be the one who escalated the tensions by blaming Iran for the oil tanker explosions in the Strait of Hormuz.

We were apparently 15 minutes away from a war with Iran until Trump called off an air strike in response to Iran shooting down one of our drones, supposedly because he didn't want to have any blood on his hands.  He opted for more punitive sanctions instead.

The shit is still on his shoe and he can't shake it off.  He has no idea who or what he is dealing with, having never taken the time to read, much less understand the Iran nuclear deal.  He makes idle threats in an effort to appease his base then retreats out of fear he will become responsible for a war he will have no control over.  I suppose in that sense we can breath a sigh of relief.  However, all this vacillation just makes the US look weak, especially in the eyes of our supposed enemies.

Iran will continue to suffer through economic hard times but they stood down the US.  If regime change was what the US was after, this latest step back from the red line will only serve to embolden the leadership in Tehran.  It doesn't hurt that Iran has Russian and Chinese backing, and has been able to weather the sanctions to date.

Trump now has to find a way to make this look like a retreat with dignity, otherwise he will hear it from his base.  They were all ready to start singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" in unison to the tune of the Beach Boys's Barbara Ann.

Monday, June 17, 2019

"Trump trails most major Democratic candidates in head-to-head polls"

This is not just bad news for the president but also for his top rival Joe Biden, who until now had been billed as the only Democratic candidate capable of beating Trump.  Internal polls in the Trump campaign also revealed him trailing Biden in key states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which he won in 2016.  Trump was furious and had the pollsters dismissed.

If there is any consolation, Trump started the 2016 campaign well behind Hillary Clinton, as were all the Republican candidates at the time, yet emerged the victor.  The only problem now is that he has a record and can no longer rhetorically ask, "what have you got to lose?"

As it turns out, a lot, which is why you see so many Democratic candidates running for office this time around, with most of them qualifying for the first round of debates later this month, even latecomers like Bill de Blasio and John Hickenlooper.

They were all made to feel they were running for no. 2 on the ticket, as Biden polled so far ahead of any of them.  However, these latest head-to-head polls vs. Trump have emboldened them, as Biden can no longer project himself as the only Democrat capable of challenging the President.  Biden was recently called out on his previous abortion stance, which he has since reversed, as well as his watered-down versions of the Green New Deal and other progressive measures very popular among Democrats.  His support of the Iraq War, Patriot Act and other unpopular legislation will no doubt be called into question at the first debates.

Joe Biden is a political dinosaur using his charm and so-called centrist views to win over Democrats in early polls.  Mostly, he has strong name recognition.  It is taking time for Americans to learn about the other candidates, but as they do, Biden's support begins to erode.  He also benefits from progressives being torn between several candidates, whereas he overshadows the other centrists seeking the nomination.  No one really knows or cares about John Hickenlooper, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan or John Delaney, to name a few.

By contrast, Bernie has to split the progressive stage with Liz Warren, Mayor Pete, Kamala Harris and Beto O'Rourke, although it appears Beto's star power has gone into supernova.  Liz actually leads Bernie in some polls, and appears to have the early support of AOC, who plays an interesting shadow figure in this campaign.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez not only sides with Liz on a broad range of issues, but also the controversial ending of Game of Thrones.

Liz is not much younger than Bernie and Joe but decidedly more hip and better able to connect with younger voters, largely because she is not afraid to address their issues.  Mayor Pete at 37 would seem like the logical representative for Millennials, but to this point has been rather vague as to where he stands on key issues.  The younger generation wants its voice heard, and so far Liz has been the only Democratic candidate brave enough to do so.  Most notably, she wants to cancel outstanding student loan debts, a huge albatross around most young persons' necks, and would benefit a great number of parents who cover those loans.

It should be a very interesting summer as these candidates jockey for position in the ever-shifting polls.  The first Democratic debates, scheduled for June 26 and 27, will give us the first real test of their viability.  If nothing else, it will give Trump more persons to snipe at on twitter.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Trump Lightyear

To Mars and Beyond

How does one deal with the Artless Dodger?  No sooner did I post a piece on his Memorial Day gaffes than he provides us with 25 startling new quotes from an interview with Laura Ingraham before a ceremony honoring D-Day at Normandy.  Then he offers up the mind-blowing quote that the moon "is part" of Mars, all but quashing the "great deal" he strong-armed Mexico into making on border security, which he apparently doesn't feel goes far enough, leaving "very profitable" new tariffs on the table.  This is all within a two-week news cycle!

Even for the Donald that is more misdirection than usual, leaving everyone dizzy with expectation as to how he outdoes himself now.  The NASA quote takes top prize.  Apparently, he was miffed that Neil Cavuto thought going to the moon was no big deal.  Like didn't we do that decades ago?  Trump can't stand being made to feel small, so he lashed out at NASA for not thinking bigger, like going to Mars.  NASA does eventually plan to go to Mars, but would like to use our moon as a base of operations. Trump appears to have conflated the two separate missions, probably meaning to skip the moon all together and go straight to Mars, like Elon Musk plans on doing by 2024.  Unfortunately, it came out like our moon is one of Mars's moons, making him look like a complete dunderhead. This is what happens when you don't review your tweets before you post them.

Moon missions aside, Trump has a far bigger problem.  Nancy seems to have unintentionally revealed her strategy for dealing with the president over the next year-and-a-half.  She prefers to leave the impeachment cloud hanging over his head, letting the charges accrue by further investigating the allegations in the Mueller Report. While Harry Enten of CNN seems to think Nancy is gauging the public mood, I think she would prefer to keep Dastardly Don on tenterhooks throughout the election and leave it up to the courts to decide his fate after his presumed defeat.  

She knows impeachment will only go as far as the House.  The Senate will not approve it, and Trump will feel as though he has been totally vindicated yet again.  By leaving the charges out there, and knowing the State of New York could bring tax evasion charges against him once he is out of office, this makes the prospect of locking Trump up a real possibility.  At the very least, Trump will spend his retirement battling these charges in court.

Trump was notably upset when Nancy reportedly said she wants to see him in prison.  The irony is rich given that he used "Lock Her Up," in reference to Hillary Clinton, as a constant refrain throughout his 2016 campaign.  Of course, Trump would like us to think he didn't really mean it since he was such good friends with the Clintons before he ran for President, whereas Nancy is a "nasty, vindictive, horrible person."

I think to a large degree Trump doesn't understand all the criticism being heaped on him because for him being president is a reality show.  Whether it is threatening tariffs on Mexico, a military incursion into Venezuela or a war with Iran, these are just means of garnering television ratings.  He doesn't really plan on following through on these actions, especially if he gets what he wants like he did from Mexico.  

These are just political stunts.  His administration had been trying to hammer out a border security deal with Mexico for months.  Trump, or more likely one of his advisers, saw this as an excellent opportunity to make him look tough, helping to bury some of the bad publicity he had been getting recently.  The only problem is that Trump just as quickly deflects attention away from these "victories" with his senseless tweets, largely because he can't stop himself from reacting to what he sees on Fox News.

Trump acts like he is still living in Trump Tower commenting on the Obama administration.  He revealed himself yesterday when a he petulantly tweeted that he wasn't getting enough credit for all the great things he's doing.  If he was Obama, the New York Times would be praising him to no end.

He is far removed from the actual process of his administration.  He spends at least six hours a day watching Fox News, chatting with its political pundits, and following twitter on so-called "executive time."  His minions scurry around trying to secure these great deals, stir up unrest abroad and put a budget together that reflects their draconian view of government.  Trump is simply called in to put his imprimatur to the final executive order, which by most accounts he never bothers to read.

If we are to believe Howard Stern and others close to him, Trump never wanted to be President.  The campaign was a great marketing opportunity for him, nothing more.  Who knew people would actually vote for him?  It's like the guy who runs for Homecoming Queen and wins.  Now, he has to don a dress and pretend to be a queen.

It's obvious Trump has assiduously tried to avoid all responsibility, especially when things go bad. He spends much of his time at one of his resorts playing golf, ringing up a monthly tab that outstrips that which the Obamas spent in a year on vacation.  Remember the conservative outrage over the Obama family trips to Hawaii and Martha's Vineyard?  None of these political pundits bat an eyelash over Trump's enumerable golf trips, even though he explicitly said on the campaign trail he would have no time to play golf.

Trump has literally lied his ass off from day one, yet the conservative media refuses to hold him accountable.  Instead, it laments that no president has been subject to the same scrutiny that their president has by the mainstream media, conveniently forgetting all the criticism conservative pundits heaped on the previous president for eight long years.  Trump and Fox pundits never let the birther campaign go throughout Obama's tenure, refusing to concede how hurtful it was to him and his family.

This is what you get when you elect a clown.  The sad part is that the mainstream media goes along for the ride because of the ratings Trump's follies generate.  We continually look aghast by the absurd things he says and does as if somehow this can't be real.  There most be some other channel where Hillary is President and Britain didn't fall for Brexit and the world is going on as it normally would.  We just can't bring ourselves to break away from the Trump channel because it is so damn entertaining.