Archive for July, 2024

Examining the conversion of J.D. Vance from Trump critic to Trump disciple

Thursday, July 18th, 2024

Eight years ago this month, when Donald Trump was campaigning for the presidency and flying around America on his private jet, the one with “Trump” written in huge, blue letters on its fuselage to make sure everyone knew just who was in it, J.D. Vance, a San Franciscan venture capitalist at the time, wrote a blistering critique for The Atlantic about the man who would ultimately win the 2016 election.

In his Atlantic article, Vance compared Trump and his populist message to the heroin that was killing many in “the small Ohio town where I grew up.”

To every complex problem, he promises a simple solution. He can bring jobs back simply by punishing offshoring companies into submission. As he told a New Hampshire crowd—folks all too familiar with the opioid scourge—he can cure the addiction epidemic by building a Mexican wall and keeping the cartels out. He will spare the United States from humiliation and military defeat with indiscriminate bombing. It doesn’t matter that no credible military leader has endorsed his plan. He never offers details for how these plans will work, because he can’t. Trump’s promises are the needle in America’s collective vein.

Trump is cultural heroin. He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it.

Publicly, he called the Republican presidential candidate an “idiot” and said he was “reprehensible.” Privately, he wrote an associate on Facebook in 2016, “I go back and forth between thinking Trump is a cynical asshole like Nixon who wouldn’t be that bad (and might even prove useful) or that he’s America’s Hitler.”

Back then, Vance believed (or, so he said) people would eventually realize what a charlatan-like con artist Trump really was. He didn’t know when that realization would come, but “[W]hen it does, I hope Americans cast their gaze to those with the most power to address so many of these problems: each other. And then, perhaps the nation will trade the quick high of “Make America Great Again” for real medicine.”

That James David Vance of 2016 left the stage in 2021 to be replaced by the new and improved J.D. Vance, Donald Trump’s Sycophant-in-Chief, his hand-picked vice-presidential nominee, foremost acolyte, and heir apparent. The new J.D. Vance hates the idea of America supporting Ukraine as it tries to save its country from Trump’s buddy, Vladimir Putin. The new J.D. Vance is even farther to the right than Trump himself, advocating for a total abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest (but once Donald Trump said he supported continuing to allow access to the abortion pill mifepristone, that became Vance’s position, too). The new J.D. Vance downplays, even excuses, the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump’s supporters. The new J.D. Vance turned from harsh critic to puppy-loving apostle. The new J.D. Vance is the polar opposite of the old J. D. Vance.

Vance says his turnaround to Trumpism wasn’t a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment, but rather a process by which he came to see he was confusing Trump’s “style” for “substance.” “I allowed myself to focus so much on the stylistic element of Trump that I completely ignored the way in which he substantively was offering something very different on foreign policy, on trade, on immigration,” Vance told the New York Times in June.

His explanation seems a bit thin when one considers the 39-year-old Vance’s history. Born in 1984, he grew up in an impoverished home in southern Ohio. He joined the Marines and was deployed to Iraq as a combat correspondent for six months in late 2005. Then he became a Marine Public Affairs specialist. Following his military service, and with help from the GI Bill, he got a BA from Ohio State University — in two years — after which he earned his law degree from Yale where he also won a citation-checking job on the Yale Law Journal. After a short stint working at a law firm, he founded a small venture capital firm in San Francisco and, on the side in 2016, wrote the mega-sales Hillbilly Elegy, which was made into a 2020 Netflix movie (25% on Rotten Tomatoes). In 2021, five years after condemning Donald Trump, he had his style versus substance moment, ran for the U.S. Senate, and, with Donald Trump’s endorsement, began representing the citizens of Ohio. Eighteen months later, fully joined to Trump’s hip, he’s the potential heartbeat away guy.

Does this sound like someone who would confuse style for substance?

I used to think the transformation of Elise Stefanik (R-NY) from moderate, level-headed, New York Representative to MAGA chanting, knee bending, ring kissing, Donald Trump devotee had won the gold medal in the Trump conversion Olympiad. Her prize was becoming third in the line for Republican leadership in the House, Liz Cheney’s old position before the MAGA Members threw her out for having the temerity the blame Trump for the January 6th Insurrection.

But not any more. J.D. Vance’s conversion from never-Trumper to ever-Trumper has eclipsed Stefanik’s metamorphosis by a long shot. If Trump wins in November, a national catastrophe looking more and more likely, the heartbeat away guy could become the most powerful person in the world.

And that, friends, is how politics works in 2024 America.



Project 2025: The wormhole to fascism

Thursday, July 11th, 2024

Led by the right-wing think tank The Heritage Foundation, Project 2025, the Presidential Transition Project has given the nation A Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise, a massive, 922-page governmental, bureaucratic map laying out in stark, matter-of-fact terms how far-right conservatives plan to steer the next Republican administration. Known simply as Project 2025, the tome brings together 54 conservative organizations who all contributed to the mammoth undertaking, which has taken three years to write, and cost $22 million to produce.

Project 2025 is basically a collection of policy transition proposals from those 54 conservative organizations that outline how, should Trump win the November election, he can vastly remake the federal government to most effectively carry out an extremist agenda.

“It is not enough for conservatives to win elections,” the project’s website states. “If we are going to rescue the country from the grip of the radical Left, we need both a governing agenda and the right people in place, ready to carry this agenda out on day one of the next conservative administration. This is the goal of the 2025 Presidential Transition Project.”

Were Project 2025 to be implemented, we would see the beginnings of fascism in America. I know that sounds alarmist in the extreme, but it may actually be understating the threat.

There are five sections to Project 2025:

  • Taking back the reins of government;
  • The common defense;
  • The general welfare;
  • The economy; and,
  • Independent regulatory agencies.

Throughout these sections, the authors attack and, in many cases, eviscerate, every department of the federal government.

Although organized superbly and well-written throughout, Project 2025 is inaccurate in many areas, completely false in others, and downright scary from beginning to end.

For example, take the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA, a Department with a budget of $325 billion and an employee force of about 484 thousand full time staff, is the largest integrated health care system in America. It boasts 1,321 health care facilities, including 172 Hospital Medical Centers and 1,138 outpatient facilities of varying complexity, providing care to 9.1 million of the country’s 18 million Veterans.

As a veteran, I am interested in the VA, its mission, performance, and in how veterans feel about the care they receive. According to the VA Trust Report for 2023, nearly 90% of Veterans the VA treats trust the VA for their care (based on 560,000 surveys). Additionally, more than 79% of Veterans trust the VA overall, reflecting a 24% increase since 2016, the year before Donald Trump first occupied the White House. And, with the Pact Act of 2022, VA benefits have been expanded for Veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances.

However, you’d never know about the VA’s success in treating all those veterans from reading Project 2025. Its author, Brooks D. Tucker, addresses what he perceives as the VA’s shortcomings at the end of Section 3, beginning on Page 641. Tucker, a retired lieutenant colonel and infantry officer in the Marine Corps, served as VA Acting Chief of Staff during most of the Trump Administration. With a degree in English from the University of Maryland, Tucker is also a graduate of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College.

This Trump Administration alumnus is now Project 2025’s VA point man. In Project 2025, despite the VA Trust Report’s findings, Tucker maintains, without citing any evidence, that Veterans’ trust of the VA is woeful, care is sporadic and unreliable, and veterans do not trust the Department to deliver the high-quality care they need and deserve.

Tucker writes that the Trump Administration handed the Biden Administration an outstanding medical machine, which has mostly floundered since 2021. He writes:

There also is growing concern in Congress and the veteran community that the VA is poorly managing and in some cases disregarding provisions of the VA MISSION [Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks] Act of 2018 that codify broad access for veterans to non-VA health care providers. Efforts to expand disability benefits to large populations without adequate planning have caused an erosion of veterans’ trust in the VA enterprise.

The Mission Act of 2018 is the legislation that allows veterans to receive care in what’s called “community care” settings. That is, outside of the VA system. After its passage, the VA began setting up Community Care Networks (CCNs) of providers. There are now more than 300,000 of them. The Mission Act is popular among veterans, especially those living in areas where VA treatment is hard to access. It is so popular that a 2022 analysis by the National Institutes of Health found “wait times increased sharply at VA facilities that did and did not implement CCNs, regardless of rural/urban or Primary Care HPSA status, suggesting community care demand likely overwhelmed VA resources…”

The Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute fears the Mission Act is the first step on the road to privatizing the VA.

Brooks Tucker, the Heritage Foundation, and Project 2025 offer recommendations to improve what they consider the VA’s abysmal performance. At least two these two are concerning:

  • Rescind all delegations of authority promulgated by the VA under the prior
  • Transfer all career SES (Senior Executive Service) out of PA/PAS-designated positions (advisors to the President) on the first day and ensure political control of the VA.

These two recommendations run hand in glove with Project 2025’s goal of politicizing upper level governmental SES positions by placing them directly under the authority of the President. This is the infamous Schedule F, which could have terminated about 50,000 experienced governmental employees by removing their civil service protections, essentially turning them into at-will employees, thereby allowing the President to to quickly staff the positions with true loyalists. It was developed in the final weeks of the Trump Administration and rescinded in the first week of the Biden Administration. Project 2025 buries its massive reboot on page 80. Note the final two sentences:

Frustrated with these activities by top career executives, the Trump Administration issued Executive Order 1395724 to make career professionals in positions that are not normally subject to change as a result of a presidential transition but who discharge significant duties and exercise significant discretion in formulating and implementing executive branch policy and programs an exception to the competitive hiring rules and examinations for career positions under a new Schedule F. It ordered the Director of OPM and agency heads to set procedures to prepare lists of such confidential, policy-determining, policymaking, or policy-advocating positions and prepare procedures to create exceptions from civil service rules when careerists hold such positions, from which they can relocate back to the regular civil service after such service. The order was subsequently reversed by President Biden at the demand of the civil service associations and unions. It should be reinstated, but SES responsibility should come first.

I have only lightly touched the surface of Project 2025 in this letter. With 922 pages, it’s hard to do much more. In subsequent Letters I will dig deeper, beginning with Project 2025’s call for the abolition of the Department of Education.

Before closing, two final points are in order. First, Project 2025 is the work of 54 authors, most of whom had senior positions in the Trump Administration, many in the White House itself, such as Russ Vought, former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Stephen Miller, Senior Advisor for Policy and Trump’s Director of Speechwriting. Second, fearing his former minions might have gone too far, last week Trump wrote on social media, “I know nothing about Project 2025. I have no idea who is behind it. I disagree with some of the things they’re saying and some of the things they’re saying are absolutely ridiculous and abysmal.”

Without knowing anything about Project 2025, he seems to know what’s in it. And, even though he and Stephen Miller were joined at the hip in their anti-immigrant war, he now seems to not know him.

Which leads me to offer this observation: Donald Trump is congenitally incapable of telling the truth. Even when faced with no reason to lie, he will lie anyway. That, coupled with his existential need for sycophantic loyalists, mirrors the Germany of the 1930s. History rhymes again.

It was Vladimir Lenin who said, “When one demands nothing but obedience, one will get nothing but obedient fools.”

A momentous day as we once again battle for the soul of our nation

Thursday, July 4th, 2024

The year was 1763. Britain had just defeated France in the Seven Years War, what we in America call the French and Indian War. During the war, the British national debt had nearly doubled, going from £72 million to more than £130 million. Its budget had risen tenfold from £14.5 million to £145 million.

The 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the war and gave Britain triumph over France ceded to Britain all of Canada and the great trans-Allegheny plains in the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi, which were populated by indigenous native tribes and more than 8,000 French-Canadian Catholics. Not  completely expelled from the continent, the French still held Louisiana and the mouth of the Mississippi, from which the British feared they might stage a comeback.

To defend this territory the British thought they would need a force of about 10,000 soldiers. How to pay for this expense became the question of the day.

The logical answer was to raise revenue from the colonies, revenue that would contribute to their defense. How to raise the needed revenue? Taxation, of course.

Since 1732, when Sir Robert Walpole was Prime Minister, Britain had tried, often in vain, to tax the Americans as a means of providing revenue to the Crown. This came to a head in 1760 when Parliament Passed the Writs of Assistance, which were search warrants allowing tax collectors to enter any home, business or sailing ship to look for contraband. Because the British Navigation Act forbade the colonists from  manufacturing anything, “even a horseshoe nail,” they had taken to smuggling forbidden items out of the country to Caribbean and European ports, which diminished British tax revenue in the Americas to the paltry sum of £1,800 pounds in the late 1750s.

The Writs of Assistance were the first of many British attempts to suck money out of her American colonies. James Otis, a lawyer whom John Adams considered America’s finest orator, challenged the Writs in 1761. The trial was held at the Old Boston Statehouse. His argument lasted five hours, and during it he uttered the phrase which was to become the American slogan leading up to the Revolution: “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”

Otis lost his case, but the Writs were ineffective. In subsequent years, Britain tried the Cider Tax, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and more, all of which led to greater and greater resentment throughout the colonies.

I bring this up to make two points.

First, and this may surprise you, from the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 until the firing of “the shot heard round the world” in Lexington, Massachusetts, the British never sent a single Minister to America to investigate the profound discontent of the colonists. During that entire 12-year period, British leaders consumed themselves in factionalism and internal, petty squabbles, while America slipped away. The colonists had non-voting, non-speaking representatives in Parliament, but they were ignored, and the Crown had appointed governors in each of the colonies, but they had little power back in Britain.  No one of any serious standing ever crossed the sea to analyze anything. This pattern continued throughout the entirety of the Revolution. Britain sent generals, but never a statesman. And as a result, King George lost his colonies.

This was a vivid example of a great power, arguably the greatest in the world at the time, acting resolutely against its best interests.

Second, today, the 4th of July, we celebrate the day on which American colonists — British subjects all — told King George, his Parliament, and the rest of the world that they had had enough. They threw the gauntlet down, and, against tremendous odds, went to war to gain their freedom, to gain our freedom. And when it was all over, they created the world’s first lasting democracy, copied since then over and over again. It’s true that Grecian democracy in Athens and the Roman Republic attempted versions of democracy, but each was short-lived and each failed. Ours has not, at least, not yet.

This is not the natural way governments have operated over time. Since the Kings of Sumeria walked the earth millennia ago, autocracy has been the norm — until us. Since that fateful July 4th, 248 years ago today, we have repeatedly succeeded in turning back the autocratic aims of would-be demagogues and wanna-be fascists. We the people have never failed to reject their hate-filled lies, eventually sending all of them to sit on history’s trash heap. The battles have been hard, but Americans have always — eventually — chosen truth over lies, right over wrong.

We are now engaged in another battle for the soul of the nation. Our political leaders are in disarray and confused about the future, much as their forebears were when they gathered in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress, out of which — eventually — came unity and the Declaration of Independence.

Regardless of how you feel about the America of today, I hope you’re able to celebrate the tremendous achievement of our nation’s founders when they struck out on a new, democratic course by pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to create a new nation, dedicated to freedom and equality.

For my part, tonight, as we always do on this momentous day, my family and I will sit down to watch the magnificent musical, 1776, with lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, which avoids myth to get at the truth. It is always inspiring.

Happy 4th of July!

Debate fallout: Does frailty and truth beat demagoguery and lies?

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2024

Robert Anderson’s 1968 play I Never Sang For My Father tells the story of a widowed college professor who feels dominated by his aging father, yet still has regrets about his plan to leave him behind when he remarries and moves to California. He and his father have a tortured relationship.

When I was a young man in my 30s, a highly-respected community theatre company, in a moment of insanity, cast me to play the father, someone about 40 years older than I was at the time. For inspiration, I could have watched the movie starring Melvyn Douglas as the father (for which he won the 1971 Academy Award for best actor), but, instead, I watched my grandfather, who was the right age. I noticed his steps were slow and rather short. His arms swung little as he walked. He talked in a wispy sort of voice, not at all resonant. But, at the same time, he had all his wits and, a retired Chief of Police for a good sized city, he was also chairman of the local draft board where every Monday night he and a group of other older men would meet to determine the fate of younger men. It was the Vietnam era.

Last Thursday, as I watched Joe Biden take the stage in his debate with Donald Trump, I thought of my grandfather. Same short, slow-step  walk, same small arm swing, same wispy voice. But there was a difference — President Joe Biden seemed inarticulate, and even incoherent at times. He got better as the debate went on, but the first 45 minutes were catastrophic. Even painful.

About 15 feet away from him stood 78-year-old Donald Trump, a picture of brutal, domineering  vigor. The contrast was astonishing. After the debate, Biden’s team, the surrogates whose job it had been to polish the presidential apple after he had laid waste to I’ll-be-dictator-for-a-day Trump, left after 40 minutes. Trump’s team would still be there if CNN, the host of the debate, had let them.

It only took minutes after the debate for the world’s punditry to lower the boom. Nick Kristof scooped them all when his column went up four-and-a-half minutes after the two combatants left the stage. He resolutely urged Biden to drop out of the race — now. That started the avalanche. Two of Biden’s “friends,” Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman, waxing eloquent about what a good and decent man Joe Biden is, and what a great president he’s been, called in no uncertain terms for him to fold his tent and leave the battle. That must have hurt. Then came the editorial boards of both the Washington Post and the New York Times. In fact, by early the next morning, it was impossible to find anyone in Pundit world who hadn’t written about what a disaster the night had been and hadn’t strongly urged Biden to quit the field.

Biden had such a rough night, his opponent, the “I will be your retribution” Maga Man in Chief, got off Scott free. This, despite his Gatling gun torrent of lies. With CNN and its moderators having decided their job was to ask questions, not challenge those lies, it took a full day before any fact checking actually happened, just long enough for nobody to notice.

But just for the record, Trump lied about the economy during his presidency, claiming he created “the best economy in history,” when in fact he created 1.2 million fewer new jobs in his first three years than Barack Obama did in his final three years. He lied about veterans care, saying he passed the Veterans Choice act — when that measure passed under Obama in 2014. Trump claimed crime is skyrocketing, murder in particular, when, in fact, crime peaked in Trump’s final year in the White House and has been declining ever since.  The homicide rate is at one of its lowest points in decades, and immigrants, the people Trump loves to demean as “vermin and rapists,” overall, are less prone to commit crimes than native-born U.S. citizens. And this is true all over America, especially in the big, blue cities Trump constantly excoriates. Trump insisted he had done nothing wrong in his handling of the violent Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. He even repeated his same old abortion lies, saying, “Everybody, without exception ― Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives ― everybody wanted” to overturn Roe v. Wade, and he invented an outrageous claim about Democrats pushing abortion “in the ninth month and even after birth.”  You would think something that outrageous would have gotten some kind of pushback from moderators Jake Tapper or Dana Bash. It did not.

If you read the transcript, and I realize few will, you see all of Biden’s problems, but, more important, you see his strengths and Trump’s craziness. The transcript provides a very different picture of Biden. Substantively, he ably and forcefully made the case that Trump should not be allowed back in the Oval Office.

If we examine the transcript, we see that Biden, despite his vocal problems and his occasional stammering, landed solid blows. The trouble is that his successes came in the second half of the debate when many had tuned out. But let’s look at it anyway.

On his age: “I spent half my career being criticized being the youngest person in politics. I was the second-youngest person ever elected to the United States Senate. And now I’m the oldest. This guy’s three years younger and a lot less competent. I think that just look at the record. Look what I’ve done. Look how I’ve turned around the horrible situation he left me.”

On Trump’s character: “He is legally and morally compromised. He is a convicted felon, and had sex with an adult movie actress while his wife was pregnant. He accosted E. Jean Carroll in a department store dressing room. It is no answer that Hunter Biden is also a convicted felon. Hunter Biden is not running for president.”

On Trump’s place in history: “Historians rate Trump the worst president in our 230-year history.”

On NATO: “He wants to get out of NATO. You’re going to stay in NATO or you’re going to pull out of NATO? Our strength lies in our alliances.”

On the Big Lie: “You’re a whiner. When you lost the first time, you continued to appeal and appeal to courts all across the country. Not one single court in America said any of your claims had any merit, state or local, none … if you lose again, you can’t stand the loss. Something snapped in you when you lost the last time.”

There is so much more the transcript reveals that television never could, because we were so distracted by Biden’s apparent frailty.

If you do read the transcript, don’t stop there. Read, if you can stand it, the 900+ page Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation’s Presidential Transition Project, which lays out in stark relief what a second Trump presidency would be like. But if you like a bit of humor with your authoritarian dogma, watch John Oliver summarize the whole thing, and every word is true.

So far, Joe Biden has steadfastly refused to leave the race. He, his family, and his advisors have circled the wagons and seem determined to remain, fighting all the way to November. However, although polls have yet to show Biden’s debate debacle has affected voters’ views, he is still behind. And, lest we forget, there is another debate scheduled for Tuesday, 10 September. If Biden is still in the race, faltering there would probably guarantee a Trump win. The debate will be hosted by ABC. It would be nice if the moderators and ABC decided to hold the participants to a higher standard of truthfulness.

But that might be too much to ask.