Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Trouble with Sean Spicer

It was great to see someone make Sean Spicer squirm.  He's been out promoting his new book and trying to drum up support for a talk show. He's received a friendly audience for the most part, but not Emily Maitlis.   She let him have it in a BBC interview.

Spicer benefited to some degree from Melissa McCarthy's hilarious portrayal on SNL.  People loved him if nothing more than for this caricature.  He even used it in a cameo appearance on the Emmy Awards show, which Maitlis referenced.  She noted that this led to an acceptance of his toxic mix of fact and fiction that she didn't feel he deserved.

Yet, Sean keeps making the rounds, even when he gets confronted at a book signing in Middleton, Massachusetts.  Book reviews haven't been very good either.

So how did this guy go from being the Easter Bunny during George W. Bush's administration to press secretary under Trump to urban folk anti-hero following his abrupt resignation?  The guy was never more than a joke.  He handled his press conferences as bad as a press secretary could possibly do so.  Even Trump was able to see this, increasingly relying on Sarah Huckabee Sanders to convey his message.  Not that she has had a very easy time of it either.  Yet, there is something so Apprentice-like about him that you can't help getting a kick out of the way he struggles to stay on message without losing his temper.  I guess if nothing else, he can do a remake of Harvey, playing an imaginary rabbit next to Trump.

Despite all the abuse he has taken both from the White House and the media, Spicer still sees Trump as a unicorn.  Either he signed an airtight non-disclosure form or he is hopelessly deluded or both.

Spicer is one of many former White House aides making the rounds, all continuing to extol their former boss.  It makes you wonder if this is part of a plan to spread Trump's message through the mainstream media.  Lewandowski, Scaramucci, Spicer and others frequently pop up on CNN and other mainstream news programs promoting Trump.  Spicer has gone so far as to boldly predict Trump will be re-elected, and has joined a pro-Trump super PAC to ensure that he does.  Pretty amazing given how badly he was treated by Trump.

My question is why the mainstream media allows these Trump surrogates to use their shows as a platform for this re-election campaign?  None of them offers any insightful comments.  Instead, they promote the alternative reality show that is the Trump White House.  In their minds, the Orange King can do no wrong, even when he is doing wrong everyday.

Steve Bannon is busy taking this freak show to Europe, where he hopes to give nationalist parties a jump start by using Soros' Open Society as an inspiration for his toxic alt-right counter movement.  Not surprisingly, it is being well covered by Russia's propaganda arms.

As Emily Maitlis noted, Spicer and his pals are corrupting the world by spreading damaging lies well beyond their short tenures in the White House.  Their promotion of an alternative narrative to the prevailing mainstream narrative plays well among nationalist parties, and is proving very difficult to fight in conventional ways, especially given the outsized influence of social media.  The UK is trying to rein in "fake news" by holding social media more accountable, as is the case throughout the EU, but it will take far more than new rules and regulations. The damage is pervasive and not so easily excised as facebook and twitter are finding out.

We will not be able to operate the same way again.  The same social media that helped fuel Obama's historic victory in 2008 was the driving force in Trump's epic surprise victory in 2016.  Like it or not, this is the main source of "news" for many people: sharing articles, memes and short videos that go a long way toward influencing opinion.  These super PAC's have tapped into the social media big time, supplying the stories that go viral, with the help of bots, virtually at the speed of light.  There is no way to keep up with it short of pulling the plug, which no one wants to do.

What we can do is not give credit to phony peddlers like Sean Spicer by inviting them on mainstream news, even if it is for no other reason than to publicly eviscerate them.  All we do is allow these stooges to garner sympathy.  If they can't make an honest argument, they have no business being on respected news networks like BBC.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Wrecking Ball

From The Economist, June, 2018

Trump is doing his best to channel Miley Cyrus, as he tries to drag down the whole country to his level.  Apparently, Wall Street no longer reacts to him.  How else to explain a nearly 200 point rise in the Dow on the same day he announces a $12 billion bailout to farmers to cover the cost of the retaliation to his tariffs?  Trump just swings back and forth like in Miley's video, singing the same song over and over and over again.

In one of his latest tweets, Trump proudly proclaimed "Tariffs are the Greatest!"  I'm surprised he didn't put it all caps like his love letter to Iran.  He told a Kansas City audience that he would have Europe crawling to him for relief.  It seems he was referring to the planned visit of Jean-Claude Juncker today.  The White House is expecting some kind of trade offer, but the EU Commission said there is no deal on the table.  Most likely the two will trade barbs and Trump's team will spin it to their advantage on the conservative airwaves.

Many American companies are taking a big hit from these tariffs, not just farmers.  Whirlpool took a big hit on the stock market yesterday, but the rise of the IT companies offset the losses of our traditional industries.  Just the same, Trump showcased various American made products on the White House lawn.  No Harleys this time around.  Instead, he boasted about Ford F-150s and speedboats made in Arkansas.  No red caps, as they are made in China.

Yet, this kind of grandstanding appears to work among his base, which elected Brian Kemp as the GOP governor nominee in Georgia,  but can his base lift these truculent candidates to victory in November?  This is no longer a reliably red state.  Cagle, the prospective GOP nominee was enjoying a thin edge over Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams, but now that it is Kemp, this lead may change.

Trump, however, sees all these primary victories as vindication of his policies.  He was even gloating when John Cox did so well in California, not looking down the list in the open primary to see that Democratic candidates garnered more than 60 per cent of the vote.  Cox doesn't stand a snowball's chance in LA of winning that election.

But, we aren't supposed to be listening to the news.  According to Trump, it is all fake.  In his mind, he had a great summit with Putin.  His tariffs are forcing the EU, China, Canada and Mexico to the table.  He forced NATO countries to ante up, and the Queen gave him the highest honor in 70 years.

All the rest of us can do is shrug our shoulders as there is nothing we can say to convince him otherwise, not even Trey Gowdy, who questioned White House aides's purpose if they couldn't convey to the president the obvious.

It has become a major international embarrassment, yet many Americans remain oblivious to the dementia of our president.  He slips deeper and deeper into it each day, dragging his Trumpkins down with him, and in turn the GOP.  Many Republican "moderates" are now openly questioning his sanity.  Maybe it is time to consider the 25th amendment again?

No one has any feeling of confidence in Trump, not even his own staff, who repeatedly have to clean up for him after he goes off the rails.  Trump says one thing, his advisors say another, and never the twain shall meet.  The only person that seems to be on board with Trump is Stephen Miller, who probably wrote the Iran tweet, as it was surprisingly clean grammatically.

Yet, Congress won't act. This may be the most telling story in November, as disgruntled Americans will have no choice but to vote Democratic in an effort to rein in our demented commander-in-chief, lest we find ourselves in a war with Iran before then.  At this point, this is the only option Trump appears to have left to him to try to rally Americans around the flag.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Pirate Looks at 90

While some conservatives pine for the days we had a real president, some progressives lament the missed opportunities under Obama.  Max Boot said Obama's recent speech marking the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela was a real watershed, as it profoundly illustrated what a President should sound like.  George Soros invested a lot of money in Obama's 2008 campaign and didn't get the return call he expected.  He was hoping to be part of the administration, but instead "he closed the door on me."  Soros felt there was a lot he could contribute, especially in regard to Russia and Eastern Europe, which Obama and his inner circle knew very little about.

Soros is probably right in that Obama badly misread Russia's intentions in Eastern Europe, thinking he could restart relations with Medvedev, who briefly served as President, while Putin rewrote the Constitution in the Duma to allow for his comeback.  It seemed Obama put little stock in the Russian annexation of former Georgian territories, its strong influence not only in Serbia but throughout Eastern Europe, using carrots and sticks to try to lure these countries back into its orbit.  Obama's warm gestures toward Medvedev outraged Eastern European leaders.  Lithuania's Dalia GrybauskaitÄ— refused to meet with him when she had the opportunity.  It was only with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that Obama realized he had badly misread Russia, already finding himself bogged down in a civil war in Syria, fueled by Russia, which he had similarly misread.

Obama had made the same mistake with Putin and Medvedev as he had Republican leaders in Congress.  As Soros noted, Obama had a long history of trying to "woo his opponents," dating back to his time as editor of the Harvard Law Review, often taking his supporters for granted. This time he got burnt.

We saw a tougher, smarter Obama emerge from the 2014 standoff with Russia and his Senate electoral defeats in the midterms.  The last two years of his administration were great, as he repeatedly stood up to Congress, finally developed his own foreign policy after operating in the shadows of the Bush Doctrine for six years, ending long standing and senseless animosities with Cuba and Iran, and negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership that would have led to a strong US presence in the Pacific rim.  It's just too bad he didn't start sooner so that these policy decisions might have stuck.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that neither he nor the Democrats were able to groom anyone to take his place.  Instead, we got Hillary, the only widely recognizable Democratic name to emerge in the 2016 elections.  The only one willing to challenge her was Bernie Sanders, a crusty Independent who tried in vain to inform us of the true meaning of social democracy.  The one thing positive about this campaign was that Sanders planted a seed that appears to be germinating these midterms.  It seems Soros takes some solace in this.

I guess we got lulled into thinking Obama had rewritten the American political playbook and we couldn't possibly return to those dark days of the Bush administration.  Many persons are even lamenting the loss of Bush's "compassionate conservatism" that led him to a surprise victory in 2000.  It only seems compassionate in comparison to Trump.

We've been on a wild ride the past 24 years, through three tumultuous two-term presidencies that saw radical shifts in domestic and foreign policies, but nothing that could prepare us for what we have now - a madman in the Oval Office who gives us a running twitter account of his mind-numbing insecurities.  Would he or wouldn't he became the big question this past week, as Trump tried to walk back his capitulating response to whether Russia meddled in the 2016 elections.

No wonder Max Boot wants Obama back.  Our 44th President may have been overly accommodating to Russia, but he didn't sell out the US to Putin the way Trump did in Helsinki.  Our current president wants a do-over in Washington, which is like inviting the fox into the hen house.  Yet, Trump is too insulated to realize the highly damaging situation he created, and neither are his surrogates in Congress.  They can't see beyond their conservative balloon, which threatens to explode this November in the general elections, with or without Russia's help.

Soros can only sit back and wonder what went wrong.  He is now a pariah in his home country of Hungary thanks to the disinformation campaign spread by Russia that led to the election of one of his former proteges, Viktor Orban, who now wants to erase Soros' name from the country.  Not only that but Soros conspiracy theories dominate the American conservative blogosphere in the way he is trying to hijack our government, first through Obama, then through Hillary and now through that damned leftist socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  How did his Open Society become a code word for Communism?

It's a long New York Times article, but well worth reading, as it gives some dimension to the man caricaturized in the conservative media as Boris Badanov.  A man first vilified by Russia through their propaganda network in an effort to turn Eastern European countries against his Open Society, which it saw as a direct confrontation to its brand of authoritarianism, spawning similar groups in Russia.

George Soros is not the bad guy here.  The Soviet/Russian kleptocracy is.  Soros has been trying to tell us that for decades but to no avail.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Spies Like Us

There's something about a sexy red head wielding semi-automatic weapons that just makes conservatives salivate.  That's certainly the case with Maria Butina, the latest Russian spy to have infiltrated the conservative establishment, notably the NRA.  She will no doubt get some kind of sweetheart deal to return to Russia, and if she is made to face charges in America, Trump will most likely pardon her.

You just have to wonder if these organizations and conservative figures do any background checks.  As it turns out you don't even have to be sexy, just full of gun-toting bullshit to get an audience with these guys, as Sacha Baron Cohen discovered.  He managed to get no less than five Congresspersons, active and retired, to take part in his "Kinderguardian" promotional video, where he arms four-year-olds to defend themselves in preschools.

So why are conservatives so gullible?  We see the occasional liberal getting punk'd but nothing like what happens with conservatives on a regular basis.  Even Donald Trump gets punk'd.  Maybe it is their open nature.  When you find what they like to talk about, which isn't difficult, they open up like flowers and become easy pickings for persons like Maria and Sacha.  That's why it isn't much of a stretch to believe Trump and other conservative leaders divulged classified information to Russian agents or comedians who gained access to them.

There appears to be no vetting, as we are finding out with Trump's administrative and judicial appointments.  Ryan Bounds couldn't even get past the Republican-led Senate judicial committee, or rather Tim Scott, who questioned his collegiate writings.  No president has had more turnover in the White House than Trump, largely because no one bothered to question the integrity of these appointments beforehand.  Most got in thanks to party-line voting, with Mike Pence breaking the occasional tie, if they needed confirmation at all.

Butina may very well be just the tip of the iceberg.  No telling how many other Russian agents have infiltrated the porous conservative establishment.  For all we know, Stephen Miller may be a double agent, given how closely his views align with the Russian political orthodoxy.  This guy even has top-level security access, as do many of Trump's advisors.

It wouldn't be the first time Russian agents have infiltrated the upper echelons of a foreign government.  During the Cold War,  Britain was racked by the Cambridge Five.  Kim Philby was even honored with a Soviet stamp.  For the most part, the United States has avoided such high level infiltration.  Today, however, one gets the uneasy feeling the Kremlin knows exactly what is going on inside the White House, either through his subordinates or Trump himself.

This is what led a Reuters reporter to directly ask Putin if Russia had compromising information on the President.  There was an unusually long pause before Putin dismissed the question, choosing to focus on Crimea instead.

Pardon the pun, but Maria Butina strikes me as a red herring.  Putin has a far more sophisticated network of spies at work in the US, who are influencing this administration and the conservative movement in general.  Ideologically, the two are very similar in terms of the social values they represent and their political motivations, making the American conservative movement an easy target.  Just ask Sarah Palin.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

It's the end of the world as we know it

Trump may have been onto something when he played REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It" over and over again at his rallies.  It's an incredible song as it foreshadows a Trump administration, even if Michael Stipe was pissed off he received no royalties from its use.

The chaos and confusion that spills out in the song is a very close approximation to what we see day to day from Trump.  We think it couldn't get any worse, but somehow he finds a way to top himself, or bottom himself as the case may be.  As bad as his NATO summit and meeting with Theresa May went, nothing compares to the Helsinki summit, in which he capitulated to Vladimir Putin in the worst possible way, laying our country prostrate before the Russian leader's feet like a vanquished opponent in a virtual reality Medieval battle.

We have no way of knowing what deals were struck, what level of infiltration occurred, what degree of collusion took place during and after the 2016 election, but it is clear beyond a doubt that Putin has something very big on Trump.  Something so big that Trump is utterly powerless to offer any resistance in Putin's presence.

Stood up for over an hour, all Trump could do was privately huff at Putin's lack of respect for him.  In the end, Putin tossed him a football as if to say "good boy."

Trump looked lost on stage, painfully reading a speech that seemed more like a ransom note written by Putin himself.  You could see this in the way Vlad carefully followed Trump's reading, checking each word to make sure there were no omissions.  When Trump did object, he objected to questions regarding the ongoing FBI investigation, meandering all over the place in his defense of Putin.

When Putin was asked if he had something on Trump, the Russian leader paused for a moment, letting the question sink into the room, before dismissing it as nonsense.

It was an impeccably stage-managed event with Russia clearly in control.  Mind you this is a country in economic turmoil, which probably will go deeper into debt after its lavish World Cup, and whatever influence it has on the world stage is along its borders.  Yet, somehow Putin is able to project himself as a world leader that all of us should defer to.

Maybe it is that video Vlad shared with Donald, showing how easy it would be for him to blow Mar-a-Lago off the face of the planet.  Several times, Trump referred to Russia's massive nuclear arsenal and how the two countries controlled 90 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons.  But, it is more than nukes that is eating at Trump.  Putin's GRU appears to have created a cyber-world par excellence, able to reach anywhere and exfiltrate a foreign leader's deepest, darkest secrets, making him easily compromised.

Donald was willing to give up everything to Putin.  He nodded his head as Vlad suggested that the two countries should join in a cyber-security network without even a touch of irony.  Vlad went so far as to invite Mueller to Moscow to question the 12 GRU officials listed in the indictment, but of course that would mean reciprocal arrangements in which Russian authorities would have access to the material.

A crestfallen Trump was publicly shamed in front of the whole world, and the worst part is that he knew it.  His hangdog expression, the way he slumped in his chair, the indifferent reading of his script, all suggested a man who was well aware he had no say in the matter.  This was a beaten man.

At this point, only Russia feels fine.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Baby Trump

What have we learned about Trump on his latest European trip?  He doesn't like women, at least those who would be consider his peers.  He doesn't like immigrants, especially Pakistanis who become important mayors.  He doesn't understand that you are supposed to come before tea time, leaving the Queen checking her watch on the royal stand.  And, he hates to be mocked, but then we already knew that.

Trump left a lot of persons scratching their heads this time around.  Determined not to be a wallflower again, which he was when he attended the NATO summit last year, he immediately ripped into Germany at breakfast the first day, claiming that it was "captive" to Russia because of the Nordstream pipeline.  This had less to do with Germany's reliance on cheap Russian natural gas than it did his animosity toward Angela Merkel, who had stolen all his thunder at the last NATO summit.  He was determined not to let that happen again.

Then came the infamous Sun interview, which he now discredits as "fake news."  In it, he lambasted Theresa May's Brexit deal, offered Boris Johnson as an alternative PM and lashed out Sadiq Khan for allowing the Baby Trump blimp to fly over London.  If that wasn't enough, he lamented that immigrants were destroying Europe's culture, a rather thinly disguised attack at first generation Pakistani-Briton Khan becoming the mayor of London.

Trump walked back most of what he said in that notorious interview during his press conference at Chequers, but stuck with his harsh stance on immigration, calling it "a very negative thing."  To her credit, Theresa May challenged him on this, saying immigration is what makes Britain great, but Trump was having none of it.

These incendiary comments are a direct reflection of the extreme right-wing populist parties in Europe.  Steve Bannon was also in town stoking this rhetoric among those who would listen to it.  Trump and Bannon are stirring the embers of these national parties, hoping to get similar election results to what happened in Italy recently.

All this feeds into Vladimir Putin's hands, whom he is scheduled to meet with on Monday in Helsinki, despite an ever growing chorus that he should cancel this "summit."  The reason being that Trump's DOJ issued a scathing indictment on 12 Russian GRU agents it held directly responsible for hacking into the DNC and other servers, as well as attempting to influence the 2016 election with fake social media sites.  The Republican response is to condemn Rod Rosenstein.

Trump's response is to put all the blame on Obama for not responding what it was first suspected Russia was tampering with the 2016 election, but as Joe Biden points out, Mitch McConnell was unwilling to be part of a bipartisan statement condemning Russia, so Obama chose to publicly scold Putin instead.  Trump has taken virtually no action against Russia other than expelling some low level diplomats in the wake of the Novichok poisoning in Great Britain, which Russia responded in turn by expelling low level American diplomats.  Trump still regards the ongoing FBI investigation into Russian election meddling as a witch hunt, repeating it in his press conference with Theresa May.

Our President has repeatedly shown his admiration for autocratic leaders over democratic ones.  What's worse, he has particular scorn for democratic women leaders.  Why caught our first glimpse of this the way he treated Hillary Clinton during the campaign, particularly in the town hall debate, where he literally stalked her around the stage.  It seemed so crudely comical at the time, but here he is now stalking Merkel and May.

We all know his scorn for Muslims, so it is not surprising that he would have little regard for Sadiq Khan.  This feud has been ongoing since the 2016 election campaign when Khan spoke out against Trump's proposed Muslim ban.  But, Trump took it to a whole new level by publicly condemning immigration in Europe, claiming it has led to an increase in crime and terrorism in Germany and Britain.  Trump promotes the idea of a White Europe as he does as a White America.  In his mind, Muslims need not apply.  They have irreparably "changed the fabric" of Europe, namely by running for public office.

In his mind, Britain would be much better off with Boris Johnson than it would Theresa May or Sadiq Khan.  He tried to walk this back somewhat in his press conference, but still lavished praise on Johnson at Theresa May's expense.  Johnson is part of the Russian propaganda effort that led to the Brexit vote, having been a frequent contributor to RT, as was his comrade-in-arms Nigel Farage.

And you wonder why so many Britons mock him.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Moscow Mules

We all know of Trump's questionable relationships with Russia, but I don't think anyone was quite ready for a delegation of 7 Republican Senators and one Representative to visit Moscow as a prequel to Trump's Helsinki summit with Putin.  The unannounced visit had apparently been planned months in advance before any knowledge of a summit with Russia's strongman.  So, what exactly is the purpose here other than taking in a bit of Moscow's cultural scene?

Russian oligarchs not only funneled money into Donald's campaign, but also various GOP Congressional campaigns, including that of John McCain, one of the more ardent Russophobes on Capitol Hill.  Albeit, McCain's sugar daddy hailed from Ukraine, so he might have been confused in thinking he was supporting a different cause.  Maybe Mackie planned on going before being sidelined with the recurrence of his cancer that garnered him so much sympathy.  One would like to think their intents were noble, to restart negotiations after years of indifference, but all that money says otherwise.

The other big question is why July 4?  Shouldn't all these senators and lone representative be celebrating our independence at home, not in Russia?  Sens. Kennedy and Thune tried to pretend they were back at home by offering generic congratulatory tweets, but it was pretty hard to cover up such a large American delegation in Moscow.

This all comes after Trump essentially turned his back to the G-7 in Quebec, questioned our membership in the World Trade Organization and is once again harping on NATO members not meeting their military obligations.  All things that play right into Putin's hands, as he tries to drive a wedge, or rather several wedges through traditional Western allies.

He already has succeeded in turning Hungary against the EU, as he foments anxiety among Eastern European countries.  He also scored a big victory in Italy a few weeks ago, when an anti-immigration coalition took control of their parliament.  He chips away at Europe, much like Stalin did back in the 40s, finally getting FDR to give in at Yalta.  Will Helsinki become another Yalta, with Trump conceding Crimea, and essentially giving Putin the green light for other incursions into the West?

Whatever purpose these senators and representative seem to have is to give Moscow the assurance they have support in Congress.  Whatever tactics Russia used in 2016 to help sway American voters toward the GOP will be on full display again, as the Republican Party is taking no chances when it comes to key Congressional races.

It really makes you wonder how we got here?  How the US could turn its back on traditional allies and actively court Russia at a time of so much unrest is a mystery historians will be left to sort out, as the American media hasn't been very good in doing so.  They seem to go whichever way the wind blows, contributing to this country's attention span deficit. 

For many conservatives, Russia is now the "good guy," as it supports a set of values similar to their own.  Marriage equality is not recognized in Russia.  Gay pride rallies are banned, as is the gay pride flag, leading some ingenuous activists to make this quiet protest during the World Cup.  Russia is tough on abortions.  The news media is kept in check, if need be maliciously.  Moscow is a conservative's wet dream, except for the fact that gun laws are much tighter in Russia.

It doesn't seem to matter how much intelligence is provided that shows the extent of Russia's involvement in the 2016 election, these conservative legislators are willing to turn a blind eye as long as they stay in power.  Whatever talk there was about meddling in the election was kept to a minimum so as not to upset their Russian counterparts.

Dana Milibank tried to come up with names for this deceitful lot but couldn't settle on one.  Moscow Mules seems as good as any.  One would think this would hurt them in the midterms, but to no surprise none of them are up for re-election this time around.  It's mostly Democrats, with Republicans looking for any edge they can get to hang onto their +1 advantage in the Senate.  Plus-2 if you count their man Pence.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Jefferson wines

Imagine the surprise to find a bottle of 1787 Lafitte handpicked by Thomas Jefferson.  This is what Bill Koch thought when he purchased four bottles in 1988 at well over $100,000 each.  It would have been a great find if it was real, but as it turned out there were a couple of glaring clues that these bottles were fake.

The first was that the signature Th.J was inaccurate.  According to Monticello's resident historian, Jefferson initialed his name Th:J.  The second and most telling is that Jefferson made no record of these purchases in his diaries, and as we all know he was an extremely dutiful diarist, cataloging his life in exquisite detail, except for his relationship with Sally Hemings.

So, why didn't a billionaire like Bill Koch do his due diligence before making such a hefty purchase?  For one, he trusted their providence since the bottles were originally sold at Christie's, a well-respected auction house; and two the temptation was just too great to pass up.  When would bottles like these next appear on the market?

Vintage wines became a gold mine for speculators in the late 80s and 90s, with prices soaring through the cellar roof.  Bill Koch quickly amassed an enormous collection, having to greatly expand his cellar under his West Palm Beach home to accommodate all these rare vintages.

Yes, he is one of the infamous Koch brothers, so no reason feeling too sorry for him, but as you can imagine he was none too happy when he found he had been cheated.  He did what any tycoon would do, hire an investigative team to track down the source of this fraud.

It turned out to be a man who went by the name Hardy Rodenstock.  This alone should have tipped prospective buyers off, but Hardy not only had an uncanny way of finding extremely rare bottles of wine, but also the ability to convince people they were genuine.  The self-professed German nobleman very quickly amassed a fortune to go along with his faux wines, staging lavish wine-tasting parties with no spitting allowed.  He would only bring out his prized vintages at the end of the night, by which time everyone was pretty well sloshed and he could have given them bottles of cheap Merlot for all they knew.

Nevertheless, these parties became the talk of the wine world, and Hardy grew richer and richer and greedier and greedier, until he came up against the wrong man.  Koch finally cornered Rodenstock in 2007.  By this point, he was also hounding another dubious wine dealer named Rudy Kurniawan, who had sold him some fake Burgundies, and was the subject of the documentary, Sour Grapes, which lifted the lid off this fake wine business.  Unlike Kurniawan, Rodenstock managed to skate clean, as charges were brought against him in the US, and Germany refused to extradite him.  Rodenstock quietly passed away earlier this year, still claiming the Jefferson wines were real.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Dispossessed

While CNN and BBC focus almost exclusively on the 12 Thai boys and their coach being led out of the water-logged caverns of Chiang Rai, little progress is being made in reuniting over 2000 displaced children with their parents. 

The Trump administration has been slow to meet a court order to return all these displaced children by July 26, claiming they don't have enough information.  DNA tests have ensued in an effort to match families, but the problem is that many parents have already been deported and it will be difficult to get these tests done. 

ACLU lawyers say the US government is trying to extort some parents by making them give up their asylum claims in return for their children, adding another pernicious layer to this very ugly drama.  These kids are spread out through the entire country, as US officials didn't have enough space in their detention facilities along the border to house them.  Many of these kids find themselves in Christian foster homes, with additional reports that parents are having to confirm they are Christian before getting their kids back.  It's a lucrative business with the government paying as much as $700 per night to house these children.

With no plan in place before or during this fiasco, the Trump administration is scrambling to reunite these families in an effort to save some kind of face in a crisis it manufactured.  There was no reason to split these families in the first place, but this administration thought it would serve as a deterrent, not foreseeing the legal efforts that would be made on the behalf of the parents to get their kids back.  It's like they saw the immigrants as cattle that could be sorted into lots and no one would care.

Many came peacefully seeking asylum, only to find themselves detained at the border.  A process that would normally be treated with civility.  However, this administration made no distinction between asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, denying them their rights, and subsequently having to face lawsuits filed by the ACLU and other legal organizations on behalf of these detained families.

The administration is now resorting to DNA tests to reunite families, which also serve as a handy way to identify these kids and parents should they ever try to seek entry again.

It really makes you wonder how our country could stoop this low.  The only thing saving the Trump administration at this point is that so much attention is focused on the rescue of the Thai boys that the news media is barely covering the story.  But, after the kids have been evacuated from the caverns, the focus will shift once again onto the US-Mexico border where a far greater drama is being played out.

Heads should roll.  Most notably Kirstjen Nielsen, who has been overseeing this fiasco from her perch as Secretary of Homeland Security.  Jefferson Beauregard Sessions will also find himself under much greater scrutiny as a result of his zero tolerance policy that resulted in this crisis.  ICE may find itself on the chopping block as a result of their extralegal activities.  But, will it do any good when the root of the problem lies at the top in a president who actively condoned these activities until public pressure forced him to rescind his executive order?

It's not just these illegal separations.  The Trump administration is flushing immigrants out of the military, and is even questioning the legality of recently naturalized citizens, and is seeking to denaturalize those it determines lied on their applications.  It is part of a broad crack down on immigration that threatens tens of thousands of persons who have been living legally in the United States for decades, not just those who have been doing so illegally.  The Trump administration has already broken apart families as a result of these harsh policies.

It's understandable the media took a break from this ongoing crisis to cover the trapped Thai young footballers.  It's the kind of story that viewers love to watch unfold, as it has a clear beginning, middle and end.  Not so with the families ripped apart at the US border.  It will take months to reach a conclusion to this crisis, if any conclusion is reached at all.

We hear the horror stories: a 14-month old boy returned to his mother covered in dirt and lice because no one thought to bathe him the 85 days he spent in a detention facility, among many other similar cases filed in a 1000-page report.  The trauma is unimaginable, but such stories help bring the enormity of the crisis home.  The US government finds itself in the same position as the Turpin parents having to defend the indefensible.

The Trump administration will claim that many of these kids came unaccompanied, foisting the blame on their parents, rather than admitting to their own heinous policy.  This is how it is being played in the conservative media, which acts as a propaganda arm of the Trump administration.  Yet, the records speak for themselves, with the Department of Homeland Security admitting to 1995 forced separations.  So, even if we accept the other 500 kids as unaccompanied, that's only 20 per cent of the total number of officially reported detained children in the last several months.

The television media has focused far more extensively on the plight of the 12 Thai kids trapped in a flooded cave, replete with cut-away sections of the cave and other visualizations, than they have the plight of these kids trapped in the American legal system.  Why haven't they similarly tracked down the whereabouts of these 2500 children, as has been the case in the print media?  They could be helping to reunite the families instead of treating the story as an ongoing reality show in a brief hiatus.

Most of the work is being done at the grassroots level with thousands of volunteers scouring the country in search of these kids, and acting as a conduit to their bereaved parents.  It's just appalling the way this administration has handled the crisis, but it is in under-reported rallies throughout the country that we see condemnation of this heinous policy, while CNN brings in talking heads to debate the issue.  Until some of these kids start speaking for themselves, as was the case with the Parkland teenagers in the wake of a school shooting, the television media continues to treat this crisis as faceless.

The Trump administration knows Americans have a more difficult time grasping abstract issues.  As long as these illegal immigrants and asylum seekers are viewed as a mass or swarm, there is no way to identify with them, as we are currently doing with the Thai kids.  It is time to give these detained children and their parents a face!

Sunday, July 8, 2018


Imagine my surprise when Doris Kearns Goodwin appears at the beginning of episode five of American Horror Story's Roanoke House.  She lends credibility to the story of Edward Mott, a late 18th century English dandy who builds a private mansion near to the fabled Roanoke Colony, which forms the mystical backdrop to season 6.  Doris had me there for a moment, but Mott's delicious tale, like much of Roanoke House, is contrived.  She was just having a good time.

The Roanoke Colony is prime fodder for a horror tale, but sadly the writers just turn it into a bunch of pagan nonsense, linked to ancient Druid societies rather than embedding it in Native American folk tales.  The only thing they took from the local culture that flourished before Sir Walter Raleigh arrived was the word "Croatoan," which they turned into some sacred word to ward off evil, when in actual fact it was the name of the tribe that lived on Roanoke Island, or at least the bastardized English interpretation of their name.

No one really knows what happened to this lost colony.  John Smith was told by Chief Powhatan himself that he had killed what was left of the settlers when he took out a rival tribe which had absorbed them.  Smith, however, was well known for putting words in other person's mouths for his own gain, and this led King James to send in reinforcements to subdue the local tribes.

There were actually two colonies at Roanoke set up by Raleigh, as the island served as a strategic point in raiding Spanish galleons coming up from the Caribbean on their way back to Europe.  It was never really intended as a permanent settlement.  Some of the colonists got rides back with Drake two years later, while others fended for themselves further inland, which forms the basis for AHS's tale.

What is a bit hard to swallow is Lady Gaga's role in all this.   She's a mysterious dark figure who the writers decide to ground in some ancient Druid legend rather than in a Native American folk tale.  She apparently came over on an earlier English voyage, but there were none. Raleigh's was the first to America in 1585.  As we found out with Mott, it really doesn't matter.  Gaga's "Scathatch" provides the baseline for the series' witches in Coven, the third season, as most of these characters are part of the show's own mythology linking the seasons together, but they're supposed to be actors in a dramatic re-enactment of events the first half of the season.

Nevertheless, it is quite fun to watch once you get past the exceedingly dull introductory two episodes.  The writers set up their narrative much like The Blair Witch Project, and spend way too much time on this before letting the fireworks begin.  What makes AHS work is its shameless disregard for history and contemporary events, twisting them into their narratives whether they fit or not and just going with the flow.

It helps having great actors like Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett and Frances Conroy to embody the roles.  It seems Jessica Lange had enough by this point.  Evan Peters gets better and better with each season, making the most of his characterization of the flaming Edward Mott.  Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding, Jr. aren't very convincing as the young couple who buy the haunted mansion at auction.

Anyway, you shouldn't expect too much, especially in regard to the ealry Roanoke settlers, but I imagine it has led to increased visitation of Fort Raleigh National Historic Park on Roanoke Island. However, woe be it to anyone who tries to search out the Edward Mott House, as you will only find it among the AHS fandom.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Dirty Laundry

The Freewheeling Donald Trump has been all over the place in recent rallies, bragging about his crowd sizes rivaling that of Elton John, how great his writing skills are, lashing out at Maxine Waters, John McCain and George H.W. Jones, but he seems most obsessed with Elizabeth Warren.  It has reached the level of stalking, and one wonders why so many people play into his insidious tweets and rally calls for Elizabeth to take a DNA test to "prove" her Native American claims.

Our dear Megyn Kelly felt compelled to chime in on the issue, making one wonder why she ever left Fox News.  NBC granted her a legitimacy she doesn't deserve, as she was never more than one of those "bubble-headed bleach blondes" Don Henley alludes to in his song Dirty Laundry.  That's pretty much what all this talk about Elizabeth Warren and Pocahontas is.

Trump picked it up on the campaign trail in 2016 when Warren openly challenged him.  It refers back to a time Warren was listed on the Harvard register as being "Native American."  She grew up in Oklahoma, so all could be she has some Native American blood in her, as this is where so many tribes ended up being resettled in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

It's not like you would be able to "see it," as Scott Brown claimed in the 2012 Senate race, anymore than you can see all the other latent genes inside of us.  This is why DNA kits have become so popular, revealing loads of surprises when it comes to one's ethnic heritage.  Look what happened to these persons when they went on a DNA journey.

Elizabeth Warren doesn't have to "prove" herself, anymore than it seems Donald Trump has to "prove" himself, since he hasn't been forthcoming when it comes to his own heritage.  He boasts of his mother's Scottish heritage, while rarely if ever accepting his father's German heritage, from which his name is derived.  No surprise since his father went out of his way to hide his German heritage at a time anti-German feelings were running high in America.  Fred Trump claimed he was Swedish.

So why does he continue to go after Warren, or anyone else for that matter?  The guy is a walking, talking, harrumphing contradiction of himself!  Yet, he refuses to let the Pocahontas rant go.

I suppose part of it is that Warren is thinking of a 2020 run, but mostly he can't stand being called out by a woman.  Megyn Kelly should know this, having similarly fallen on Donald's bad side when she questioned him on his misogyny in an early Republican debate.  But, here she is feeding into yet another of Trump's misogynistic attacks, intoning something far more than a DNA test in his attack on Warren at the Montana rally yesterday.  Maybe she should have focused on the many wild accusations he made instead of Elizabeth Warren.

NBC must fire Kelly.  She hasn't boosted their ratings, much less given them anything of substantial value in her presence on the network.  She may have gotten under Putin's skin in her first interview, another man who hates to be questioned by women, but she just ended up stoking his ego, which is why he granted her a second interview.   She now does this with Trump by defending his puerile rants.  This isn't news, and in no way should be treated as such!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy Fourth?

If you look close you can see the states and territories on the caps.  One kid represents "Porto Rico,"  The little Eskimo Alaska, and I assume the kid in the grass clothes Hawaii.  All were territories in 1902, and only Puerto Rico remains a territory, yet it is the closest to the mainland of the United States.

More than that, the image shows the cultural diversity of the country at a time such matters weren't openly discussed.  Lady Liberty is telling Uncle Sam, "It's all right!  There's no fighting!  The noise you hear is just my family celebrating."  Words we should take to heart.

Alas, this Fourth of July is a bittersweet one as our president and conservative pundits have turned patriotism into a sledge hammer, appealing to the xenophobes among us who want to see a whiter America.  This was made even more apparent by an order issued by Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to revoke Obama-era guidance in regard to diversity on college campuses, although an ax would be a more appropriate metaphor in this case.

This administration is either oblivious to or is actively trying to recall the segregationist ghosts of the past that led to Jim Crow laws and the disenfranchisement of Americans who weren't white.  It's like Commander Jeff was holding a seance with George Wallace back home in Alabama.

It's not just the manufactured crisis on the border, it's a pernicious attitude that has crept into American society much the same as in the early part of the 20th century, which led Puck to publish that image.  This Nativist attitude rears its head time and again, but since 1964 we had been effectively able to keep it to the fringes of political discourse until the 2016 election.  Now, it is front and center once again, taking on all kinds of ugly manifestations.

Republicans try desperately to disavow the uglier Nativist insticts of their base, but their mantra "America First," is what is spawning cretins like Holocaust-denier Arthur Jones, who won the Republican primary for US Representative of the 3rd Congressional District outside of Chicago.  He doesn't have much chance of winning given it is a heavily Democratic district, but Ted felt impelled to voice his disdain just the same.

The only question is why Ted isn't similarly condemning Corey Stewart, who is running against Tim Kaine for a Virginia Senate seat.  Stewart is every bit as outside the pale as Arthur Jones.  So much so that Virginia Republicans are deeply worried Stewart will drag down the whole party in November.  But, Cruz stays mum, and worst of all Trump actively supports Stewart, essentially condoning the hatred this man engenders among the Republican base.

So many Republicans are running on xenophobic agendas, hoping to stir their base into action this Fall to offset early losses in special elections.  For them, the only good America is a white America, and they are especially proud of their President, who has been championing their cause throughout his 18 months in office.

Granted, there are those Republicans who are deeply worried about the direction Trump is taking their party, but given the poll numbers they are very much in the minority.  Trump currently enjoys a 90 per cent approval rating among GOP voters.  Some moderates in the party have actually switched sides like Steve Schmidt, but other moderates try to create a false equivalence and promote themselves as a "third option."  Mitt Romney remains coy, playing both sides of the Republican divide in his bid for Orin Hatch's Utah Senate Seat this Fall.

A party that once stood for universal suffrage now promotes voter ID laws, draconian immigration policies, the end of affirmative action and just about anything that smacks of cultural diversity.  They once again try to evoke Reagan's "Colorblind Society," twisting the words of the Constitution as Reagan once did Martin Luther King, Jr.

We'll see how it plays out this Fall, but as Corey Stewart has intoned, it is going to be a "vicious, ruthless" campaign, as he and other Republican candidates take demagoguery to an even lower level in these mid-term elections.  This time the noise you hear will give Uncle Sam reasons for concern.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

It's shaping up to be a wild one.  One can still feel the reverberations of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez' victory.  So much so that Alex Jones is warning conservatives of a plan to launch a Civil War on July 4 by the Democrats.  Of course, it's nothing new from InfoWars, but Alexandria's embrace of democratic socialist values has lit up the conservative blogosphere, exclaiming a new socialist revolution is underway!

Meanwhile, the Democratic Den Mother, Nancy Pelosi, downplays Alexandria's surprise victory, noting the broad range of values represented in the party.  Alexandria isn't the first "Berniecrat" to raid the big tent.  That title went to Nanette Barragan two years ago, who rode into the US House of Representatives on pretty much the same message as Ocasio-Cortez, although with a stronger political background.

I think what galls many about Alexandria's victory in the New York primary is that she is a bartender from the Bronx.  People are ignoring the fact she majored in economics and international affairs at the highly respected Boston University, and worked briefly for Ted Kennedy, before returning home and taking on low-end restaurant jobs to make ends meet with her struggling family.  This is the kind of story normally reserved for Tea Party candidates.  It's like a page has been stolen from their playbook and turned upside down.

Conservatives are now desperate to frame the mid-terms as a battle against socialism, fearing a leftist revolution rising up from the grass roots.  They make no distinction between National Socialism, which spawned Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany and Franco's Spain; and Democratic Socialism, which is the prevailing form of government in Europe today.  If they look for contemporary examples, they invariably point to Venezuela, the basket case of South America.

Bernie alluded to the Danish health care system repeatedly on the campaign trail, and Alexandria sounds the same drum, noting the successful universal health care systems in Europe, and also the fact that many European countries have low-cost universities and affordable housing.  This is something we could have in the US if we just put our tax dollars in the right place, rather than plunging so much of it down a military rabbit hole never to be seen again.

Woe be it to anyone to intelligently discuss universal health care, tuition-free college or affordable housing.  This is America, bitch, and we do things the old-fashioned way with everyone pulling themselves up by the boot straps!  It doesn't matter that we already have a rudimentary socialist system in place, many Americans see a "free market" and "socialism" at diametrically opposite ends of the spectrum and refuse to accept any compromises, even if their social security check is a perfect example of socialism.

The only difference between Medicare and universal health care is that you have to wait until your 65 to collect the former, whereas everyone can have the latter from cradle to grave.  Given how much we pay in FICA each year, there is no reason why we can't have universal health care in the US!

If conservatives in Congress have their way, they will gut Social Security to help pay for all the tax cuts they passed in December, 2017, even if it means only pennies back on the dollar to the typical worker.

I'm glad to see we finally have a revolution taking place, albeit a very nascent one, that may eventually force us to rethink how we spend our tax dollars.  The US pours over 5 per cent of its annual GDP into the military, which has essentially become a welfare state for millions of Americans, when it could be providing tuition relief, universal health care, and affordable housing to everyone, not just service men and women and their dependents.

Our bloated defense budget is sucking up a major portion of our tax base, which Republicans continue to chip away at each Congressional session.  There is no way to balance the budget based on current revenues, which is why Paul Ryan wants to pry open the social security reserve to help cover expenses.  As it is, over $5 trillion is covered by Social Security.  It is mismanagement that has led to our debt crisis, not domestic programs.

Sadly, you will have a hard time convincing many Americans of this.  They prefer to think that more cost cutting is the answer, even if it means undermining the programs that help keep them going, i.e. food stamps, which many in the military have come to rely on to make ends meet, because the Pentagon would rather spend its budget on weapons than soldiers.  The image persists of the welfare queen gaming the system so that she can drive around town in a shiny new Cadillac.  Today, the cell phone has become the symbol of this gaming, even if you can buy a refurbished iPhone for a hundred bucks or less.

I'm glad to see that candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are reaching the base in their districts.  I can only hope that other candidates find a way to reach disenfranchised conservatives who have allowed themselves to be played by cynical Republicans.  This is what really roils Alex Jones and his conservative ilk.  They don't want their base to turn on them when they find out there is very little that will trickle down to them in the form of tax cuts.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

O Canada

Today is Canada's National Day and for Americans that's not a good sign.  New tariffs kick in which will have a big impact on American manufacturing and agricultural industry.  The United States and Canada haven't been at odds like this since the early 1970s, when President Nixon declared the "special relationship" between the two countries dead in the wake of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's decision to diversify Canada's economy, so that it was no longer so dependent on trade with the US.

Eventually, the US forgave Canada for its insolence, but a love-hate relationship has remained, especially when liberal leaders come to power like Justin Trudeau.  We tend to prefer conservative leaders, like Stephen Harper, who preceded him.  It was Harper who pushed the Keystone Pipeline to get his ugly crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta down to Houston refineries, which Republicans tried in vain to get through Congress.

Donald Trump wasted no time approving the deal his first 100 days in office.  As deals go, it was a pretty bad one as far as American interests go, as all we did was pay for most of a 2150-mile pipeline and refine Canada's crude for export, making us nothing more than a middle man.  I'm sure the pipeline builders and refineries got a cut, but it did little to boost our economy, something His Trumpness was so intent on improving.

For Trudeau's part, he retained his end of the deal, much to the chagrin of the liberals who elected him, as the project was too far along to turn back without ruffling a lot of feathers.  Instead, the young prime minister focused his attention elsewhere.

This is why it came as quite a shock to see the US placing tariffs on steel and aluminum.  The US imports the bulk of these metals from Canada, as it does its foreign oil.  Trump seemed oblivious of it at first, thinking he was taking punitive actions against Mexico, from which we get 11 per cent or our steel.  Canada is 20 per cent.  Brazil and South Korea also provide more steel than Mexico.  When Trump was made aware of this, he doubled down on the tariffs so as not to appear the fool.

Congressional Republicans were dismayed by his actions, but did little to stop him.  Instead, we got Wilbur "The Talking Campbell's Soup Can" Ross to explain to us how little these tariffs would impact us, noting the small amount of aluminum in the cost of a can of Campbell's Soup.

Yet, auto builders and other manufacturers rely on this cheap steel to keep their costs down, and now that they will pay higher prices, they will either be forced to make cuts to compensate for the tariffs, or pass along the cost to the consumer, which is generally how tariffs work.

Trump thought he was bringing steel back to America, but the US has long scaled back on steel and aluminum production.  You would think we would be recycling these metals, especially aluminum, but much of the aluminum waste is shipped abroad.  Same with plastics.  It's cheaper to have China or India or Brazil recycle these materials and ship the finished products back to us than it is to do it ourselves.  So much for self-sufficiency.

The question remains why should Canada be penalized for our own shortfalls?  If we really wanted to be self-sufficient, we could have been a long time ago, especially with so many "right to work" states.  Instead, we became a global player, given our many interests abroad, not least of all Canada, our third largest trading partner behind the EU and China.  Why sacrifice this "special relationship?"

This is what has Canadians scratching their heads, and many Americans as well.  The border has long been a porous one, but apparently no more.  As this trade war heats up, so will ugly sentiments between the two countries.  Canada has vowed not to back down, and Trump appears determined to carry this trade war to the bitter end, like he would one of his petty fights on The Apprentice.

The sad part is that many of his followers are willing to stand behind him, even go to war with Canada if necessary.  In their mind, Trump can do no wrong.  Whatever facts you lay before them are discarded, as they simply won't heed any information contrary to His Trumpness's tweets.

What Congressional Republicans have to do is find a way in which Trump can retreat with dignity from these tariffs and restore the balance between the two countries.  We've long considered Canada our brother in arms and there is no reason to jeopardize this special relationship over one man's overblown ego.