Political Animal

The Troll Presidency Takes Another Pointlessly Cruel Action

There is so much news happening in the last 24 hours that it feels like drinking from a fire hose. Others like our own Martin Longman can analyze the situation around Lev Parnas better than I can—and it’s a very busy weekend for me, so apologies in advance. But I would be remiss not to highlight one of the more minor stories of the day that might otherwise escape attention, if only because it puts in sharp focus the pointless, petty cruelty of this administration.

The Trump Administration decided to roll back the amount of fruits and vegetables given to school children. This is obviously terrible, so why do it? Well, because it was a Michelle Obama initiative, that’s why. Why do it now? It was Michelle Obama’s birthday.

No, seriously.

The Trump administration moved on Friday to roll back school nutrition standards championed by Michelle Obama, an effort long sought by food manufacturers and some school districts that have chafed at the cost of Mrs. Obama’s prescriptions for fresh fruit and vegetables…

Combating childhood obesity was Mrs. Obama’s signature issue, a rallying cry for her supporters and a lightning rod for conservative critics who saw it as epitomizing the liberal “nanny state” of the Obama era.

The administration says, of course, that it was just a coincidence and not intentional:

A spokeswoman for the department said that it had not intended to roll out the proposed rule on Mrs. Obama’s birthday, although some Democratic aides on Capitol Hill had their doubts. Food companies applauded the proposal, while nutritionists condemned it, predicting that starchy foods like potatoes would replace green vegetables and that fattening foods like hamburgers would be served daily as “snacks.”

Sure. The folks at Red State are certainly celebrating it as an act of aggressive trolling. So even in the unlikely event it wasn’t intentional, Trump’s base is reveling in the meanness of it nonetheless. Which is further astonishing since…don’t some of these people also have kids who go to public schools? Certainly they must. Do they not care about their own children’s health? Apparently not as much as scoring a point against their hated political opponents.

It’s just another reminder that we don’t actually have a government. We have a cult of grievance orchestrated by a cable news network for bitter, angry bigots with a cruelty streak.

Trump’s Legal Team Is a Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy

From time immemorial, port cities have been “wretched hives of scum and villainy,” so why should spaceports be any different? That was the theory behind Mos Eisley, home of the famous bar scene in the original Star Wars. And why should Trump’s International Hotel in Washington, D.C. be any different? It’s a gathering place for every kind of crook and scoundrel. As Lev Parnas told Rachel Maddow, “It was like a breeding ground at the Trump hotel.”

And why should Trump’s legal defense team not follow suit?

President Donald Trump’s defense team for his Senate impeachment trial will include former independent counsel Ken Starr, who investigated President Bill Clinton, and famed defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, sources familiar with the president’s legal strategy told NBC News Friday.

Also joining the team is Robert Ray, who succeeded Starr as Clinton special counsel, and Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general who joined the White House in November to help manage the messaging around impeachment, the sources said.

Villainy may be in the eye of the beholder, but the stench of scum is hard to ignore.

Kenneth Starr is a completely disgraced man, after bringing Baylor University into total disrepute:

Starr was ousted as president of Baylor University and then resigned as chancellor in 2016 amid an investigation into claims he and school officials mishandled allegations of sexual assault by football players.

An independent investigation found that under Starr’s leadership the school actively discouraged “some complainants from reporting or participating in student conduct processes and in one instance constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault.”

Dershowitz has been credibly accused of taking advantage of the services of Jeffrey Epstein’s underage sex slavery empire.

“I kept my underwear on during the massage… I don’t like massages particularly.”

— Alan Dershowitz, via Skype, trying to explain why he was in an alleged sex trafficker’s house but was only massaged by an “old, old Russian woman” and had no clue what was going on in the rest of the house. Dershowitz also said: “Were there young women in another part of the house giving massages when I wasn’t around? I have no idea of that.”

Bondi is a poster girl for public corruption. Further, the worst of the accusations against her actually involves the person she’s supposed to defend in the impeachment trial.

Bondi was serving as Florida’s attorney general when allegations began to arise that Trump University was a fraud. On the one hand, she publicly said she’d look into it. On the other, she privately asked Trump to fund her reelection campaign. Trump obliged, illegally using his charitable organization to do it. Bondi promptly dropped the investigation into Trump University, and both parties defended the whole arrangement. Then they denied it had been an arrangement at all, with Trump claiming that he had actually donated the money to another organization with a similar name. But that organization never received any money, and Trump was fined by the IRS and his charitable organization was shut down.

More recently, Bondi has used her access to the president to rake in money from Qatar as a lobbyist. She also appears to disturbingly tight with the Scientologists.

Then there is Robert Ray. He’s another piece of work.

The former federal prosecutor who succeeded Kenneth W. Starr as independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation has been charged with stalking his ex-girlfriend, police said.

Robert W. Ray surrendered to police Thursday. He was ordered to appear in court at a later date and released, police said.

A complaint filed by Ray’s ex-girlfriend says he e-mailed, called and visited her against her wishes after their relationship ended.

There are many possible ways to respond to Trump’s choice of defenders.

As far as I know, Bondi has never been closely associated with sexual misconduct or assault, but I think she’d fit in at the Star Wars cantina just fine. As it is, her lobbying firm regularly sends its clients to Trump’s D.C. hotel.

Maybe these are the only people who are morally compromised enough to see some advantage in arguing for the president’s innocence, but I hope the House Managers remember to bring their lightsabers to the proceedings.

Speaking of which, maybe Ponda Baba was an innocent victim and Obi-Wan Kenobi was wrong to cut off his hand. I’m sure Alan Dershowitz would be willing to make that argument.

Two White Candidates Discuss the Roots of Racism

During an interview with the New York Times, Bernie Sanders discussed his view that the roots of racism are a “blame game” employed by demagogues.

There are some ways that Sanders is right. As Tim Wise documented, white supremacy was invented by the elites in this country as a way to create a divide between poor white and black people.

Some of us lived through the creation of the Southern Strategy by Republicans as a way to divide poor white and black people in the South. So Sanders has a point when he says that demagogues have utilized racism and white privilege as a tool to maintain power.

But Joe Biden adds something important to the mix.

The former vice president notes that the struggle between our American ideals and racism has been going on since this country’s founding. There have been times when—particularly for white people—that struggle seems to disappear. But as Biden said, “hate never goes away, it just hides.” He further notes that it comes roaring back when leaders like Donald Trump give it oxygen.

The oxygen Trump has given hate is fueling these developments in Virginia.

Alarming calls online for a race war. The arrest of three suspected neo-Nazis. Memories of the explosive clashes in Charlottesville, Va., three years ago.

A sense of crisis enveloped the capital of Virginia on Thursday, with the police on heightened alert and Richmond bracing for possible violence ahead of a gun rally next week that is expected to draw white supremacists and other anti-government extremists.

Members of numerous armed militias and white power proponents vowed to converge on the city despite the state of emergency declared by Gov. Ralph Northam, who temporarily banned weapons from the grounds of the State Capitol. The potential for an armed confrontation prompted fears of a rerun of the 2017 far-right rally that left one person dead and some two dozen injured in Charlottesville, about an hour’s drive from Monday’s rally.

These kinds of groups have always existed in the United States. But their hatred has been empowered by the man who currently occupies the Oval Office.

Keep in mind that Donald Trump launched himself onto the national political scene with his racist attempt to reignite the birtherism lie about the first African American president. In his book, The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen explained what led to Trump being able to tap into that kind of hate.

From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement…

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

When Jensen talks about hatred becoming masked by tradition, economics, and religion, he is referring to the ways that racism has become systemic in our culture and institutions. While that form of racism appears hidden to white people, its effects are felt almost daily by people of color.

It was during the Obama administration that the hatred began to explode. Here is how white supremacist Richard Spencer described what Trump tapped into.

“Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have – that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon.”

So Sanders is right that, historically, demagogues have used racism to divide us and maintain their power. But until we understand that the hatred exists, even when it appears hidden to most white people, it will be available for those demagogues to exploit.

The Clinton Impeachment Was a Lot Different

Before Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath and obstructing an investigation into his personal infidelity, he was pursued for six years on more serious matters. The Whitewater investigation accused him of corruption during his time as the governor of Arkansas. Troopergate accused him of using state police officers to help him arrange secret sexual liaisons. The Travelgate and Filegate investigations pertained to actions his administration took soon after he was inaugurated in 1993. Most ominously, the suicide of Vince Foster was treated as a possible homicide, with Bill and Hillary Clinton as likely suspects.

It’s important to note that none of these accusations were ever proven. It’s also important that they preceded the crimes he actually did commit. The result in the public mind was that the Republicans were perceived as promising a whale and producing a minnow. Were we really going to remove the president of the United States from office for a ticky-tack foul?

The Republicans have attempted to create a similar impression in defense of Donald Trump. Certainly, there are some Democrats who called for his impeachment before he was even sworn in. And, given the Russian assistance he requested and received during his campaign, many expected the Mueller investigation to result in articles of impeachment. Now that the president has been impeached over “a phone call,” we’re supposed to see this as small potatoes compared to the original charges.

The reason this approach doesn’t work in the current context is that Trump was impeached for doing in office what he was originally accused of doing only as a candidate. Imagine if the Clinton impeachment had been about Bill and Hillary using the power of the presidential office to pressure a bank into giving an improper loan. That would have been a kind of confirmation of the original charge against them prior to the presidency, but now even more serious. Instead, the Lewinsky matter reinforced a completely different suspicion about Bill Clinton. His fatal flaw wasn’t personal corruption, but questionable sexual conduct.

Donald Trump has engaged in a lot of questionable sexual conduct and he’s committed crimes to cover it up, but he was impeached for the most serious allegation against him: that he sought foreign political assistance and bent American policy to get it.

During the Clinton impeachment, the Democrats readily conceded that the president had perjured himself. They mainly acknowledged that he had obstructed justice. In the present case, it’s hard to get the Republicans to acknowledge the same type of obvious fact. They won’t come out and admit that President Trump committed an extortion campaign against a foreign ally—using his office and federal dollars as weapons—in order to get that foreign power to help him politically.

In 1999, the Senate debated whether or not Clinton should be removed from office for lying under oath and obstructing an investigation. In 2020, the Senate is going to debate whether they should even hear evidence.

In the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the Senate had to decide what the appropriate punishment should be for a president who seeks to hide that he’s cheated on his wife and commits crimes in the process. In the impeachment of Donald Trump, we can’t even get the Republicans to voice the crimes that were committed.

The explanation for this difference should be pretty obvious to everyone. It was easy to say that the president shouldn’t be convicted over a blow job. It’s a lot harder to say that the president shouldn’t be convicted for using military aid as a political weapon against Joe Biden.