Archive for March, 2018

Authoritarianism and Christian Nationalism

Monday, March 26th, 2018

via GIPHY

One of the lingering questions after this year’s election is why are White Evangelicals continuing to support a guy whose personal life is the exact opposite of everything that they preach?

On the surface, it seems hypocritical.

A recent paper by three sociologists suggests some deeper understanding of what is going on. The paper is based on data gathered by the highly regarded Baylor Religion Survey. The most recent version of this survey was taken shortly after the 2016 election.

Here’s what the authors found.

Voters’ religious tenets aren’t actually what’s behind Trump support. While values voters are still concerned about personal morality, their real priority is Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is the view that the United States should be a Christian nation. If the United States ever to become a Christian nation in the way that white Evangelicals understand that term, the United States would become a theocracy like Iran where many of the things that Trump has done in his personal life would be illegal.  Abortion would be illegal.  Gay marriage would be illegal.  Heterosexuality would be the only sanctioned relationship and even that would have to be chaste until marriage.  Those who support Christian nationalism believe that this is the only way that this country can be “saved”.  That is consistent with the Evangelical view that Christianity is the only way anyone can be “saved”.

The results of this belief is a whole cottage industry of revisionist historians who have made a lot of money claiming that the founders of this country intended it to be a Christian nation.  In their telling liberal politicians perverted that vision and high jacked the constitution in the process.  If you are interested in more detail on that, please reference some earlier posts – Zombie Politics, Crazy Train, and Dear Mr. Lincoln.

In the words of the authors:

Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.

What are some of the tenants of this ideology?

Here’s a list taken from the questions that were used to identify this group

  • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation”
  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values”
  • “The federal government should not enforce strict separation of church and state”
  • “The federal government should allow the display of (Christian) religious symbols in public spaces”
  • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan”
  • “The federal government should allow (Christian) prayer in public schools”

These goals suggest a deep authoritarian strain. Here’s why.

Christian Nation
The issue here isn’t that the US isn’t a Christian nation. It is overwhelmingly Christian. The issue is that the demographics of the nation are changing. White Evangelical Christians feel as though their way of life is under attack because of these changes. It is also because in Evangelical terms, “Christian” is a much narrower definition than someone who believes the Jesus was the Christ – the Son of God.

It is the whole basket of catch phrases that we have heard from Republican Party for decades – family values, high moral standards, respect, discipline, self-reliance, personal responsibility, putting God back into government, traditional families, religious freedom, law and order, etc.

Finally, and most importantly, the constitution prohibits the government from giving preference to any religion. What they seek is a strong leader who is willing to ignore the limits of the constitution and enforce laws protecting and supporting “Christian Values”. Christian Nationalists see Donald Trump as that leader because of his appeal to both authoritarianism and white Christian Nationalism.

Conservatism, Race, Islamophobia, and Christian Nationalism
The authors were careful to gin out all other factors regarding Christian nationalism and support for Trump. Here’s what they found when looking at voting data.

Overall the strongest predictors of Trump voting were the usual suspects of political identity and race, followed closely by Islamophobia and Christian nationalism.

and

Ironically, Christian nationalism is focused on preserving a perceived Christian identity for America irrespective of the means by which such a project would be achieved.

This last observation is the most telling and explains why White Evangelicals continue to be Trump’s biggest supporters. It’s because when it comes down to a choice between personal values and a politician who supports Christian nationalism, they choose Christian nationalism overwhelmingly.

This end justifying the means is what moves us in the dangerous direction of authoritarianism. Steve Bannon understood this when he joined the Trump campaign. Trump has used a formula of dark, hyper-nationalism, racialized identitarian ideology dressed in the language of Christianity, contempt for the US Constitution, and the promise to use force if necessary; to take over the GOP. What he criticized as political correctness was really a whole set of norms that we have built up in our democracy to outline common ground.  Instead he declared war on the whole concept of common ground.  He placed himself on the side of Christian nationalism and declared that all those opposed to him were also opposed to Christian nationalism.  That included not only Democrats, but the whole Republican establishment.  That was also Bannon’s pitch at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit.

Christian Nationalism and White Supremacists are uniting in their support of Trump as a strong leader to make substantive changes to the country. It doesn’t matter that those changes are unconstitutional. It doesn’t matter that those changes may disenfranchise non-Christians, people of color, and women. All that matters is that the end is achieved. Christian Nationalists want laws that reflect their religion and distrust democracy to achieve that goal. White Supremacists want a nation where the color of your skin determines whether or not you are welcome. They also distrust democracy’s ability to deliver on their goal.  They both agree that people of color (particularly Muslims) are frightening.  They both agree that if dismantling our democracy can achieve their goals, they will support whomever is willing to do that work regardless of what other agenda that person might have.

This is how democracies die.

How Democracies Die

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

This video from VOX is good background on authoritarianism. As the video points out, Trump didn’t create authoritarian voters. Voters with authoritarian views have been part of the fabric of our politics for quite a while. Trump was the first national candidate of a mainstream party to appeal directly to these voters for their support.

Democracies don’t die in a conflict.

They die from rot. They die because people stop defending them. They die out of fear. They die because people are more concerned about their own personal gain rather than what is best for the country. They die because the unwritten norms of behavior that serve as guardrails against self-serving behavior are destroyed by those who claim winning and ideology are more important than the common good.

I just finished reading a book on the subject (How Democracies Die) by two Harvard political science professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. They make a very convincing case for serious concern.

The big risk to democracies is authoritarianism. It’s what most worried our founding fathers. How do you give everyone the vote and protect the country from the majority voting democracy out of existence? Many claim that the original sin of our democracy was slavery, but that’s not exactly right. The original sin of our democracy was restricting the right to vote to white male property owners because a majority of those framing the constitution didn’t trust anyone else.

Democracies don’t explicitly exclude authoritarians from the electoral process. As a result, once authoritarians get into office, they can use the considerable power we invest in the executive branch to dismantle the democracy that just elected them. This blueprint has been followed in other parts of the world with remarkable effectiveness.

Once this process starts, it is very difficult to stop for two reasons. The first is the popular support that elected the authoritarian to begin with. The second is that the authoritarian leader uses their popular support to systematically eliminate all opposition.

Putin’s Russia is a perfect example.

Russians have made a devil’s bargain. They know who Putin is. They have accepted authoritarian rule in exchange for economic progress and a return to superpower status. In the process they have sacrificed whatever rights and freedoms they may have had in earlier more democratic governments.

Here’s the authoritarian check list.

1. Rejecting or showing weak commitment to democratic rules.
2. Denying the legitimacy of political opponents.
3. Encouraging or tolerating violence.
4. A readiness to stifle or limit civil liberties of opponents, including media.

Putin definitely qualifies.

So does Trump.

Rejecting or showing weak commitment to democratic rules
Trump claimed that the 2016 election was rigged against him. The only outcome he would accept is his victory. Even after he won, he claimed that massive election fraud prevented him from winning the popular vote. Republicans never challenged him on this claim even after the election commission he created failed to find any evidence of the massive voter fraud he claimed occurred.

There was a similar outcome to his claim that the previous administration had bugged his office and spied on his campaign without cause. Subsequent investigations could find no evidence that his office was bugged. Some in his campaign got caught up in FISA investigations into Russian interference in the election, but there has been no evidence that there was any directive from the Obama administration to gather information on Trump campaign in order to help elect Hillary Clinton. In fact, the evidence was just the opposite. The Obama administration was reluctant to act on all that it knew about Russian involvement BECAUSE they did not want to effect the outcome of the election. The Obama administration was demonstrating a commitment to the rules controlling our democracy (don’t use executive power to interfere in elections) at the same time as Trump was ignoring them.

Denying the legitimacy of political opponents
On the campaign trail, he said Hillary Clinton was a criminal and promised to lock her and President Obama up if he was elected. He called Democrats who refused to stand and applaud his State of the Union address traitors.

Encouraging or tolerating violence
Many of his rallies were violent. He encouraged his followers to beat up those who protested, offering to pay their legal bills. He refused to condemn Nazi and white supremacist violence.

A readiness to stifle or limit civil liberties of opponents, including media
He called the media that printed stories that he didn’t like, “enemies of the people”. He threated to weaken the libel laws protecting the media. He perverted the term “fake news” to reflect news stories that he disagrees with. Under oath, his communications director admitted that she lied to the press and the public in support of the Trump administration.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. There are many more examples in each category. The purpose is NOT to outline a list of Trump’s failures. The purpose is to point out that NO OTHER PRESIDENT IN HISTORY has satisfied all four criteria. Even Nixon bowed to court orders to turn over his tapes. He had hopes that he could survive an impeachment vote in the Senate. When Goldwater told him that he didn’t have the votes, he resigned.

In 1972, Nixon won with 60% of the popular vote and 97% of the electoral vote. He won on the promise to bring law and order back to the country. McGovern only won Massachusetts. Two years later Nixon resigned. On the day of his resignation he still had the support of 24% of voters.

In the past, the two major parties served as an effective defense against authoritarian candidates getting the nomination. Republicans failed in their role and then failed again when leaders in that party failed to take a stand opposing Trump after he won the nomination.

Some think that constitutional checks and balances will prevent a demagogue like Trump from solidifying his power. Those checks and balances, however, depend on a set of strong democratic norms which govern the behavior of both parties.

The two norms the professors mention are mutual toleration and forbearance.

Mutual Toleration
Both parties agree that the other party not only has a right to exist but that the party out of power will likely gain it back at some point in the future. By exercising restraint, the party in power hopes to benefit from restraint when they fall out of power.

Forbearance
Both parties refrain from demonizing the other party because at some point they know that they will be in the position to be demonized.

The most recent example of failure to respect these norms was the Republicans holding an open supreme court seat hostage for the first time in history and then also for the first time in history changing senate rules to allow their candidate to win senate approval with a simple majority vote.

The Bork nomination was an example of Democrats abusing their power in a similar circumstance.

Now we are witness to a President in open warfare with the FBI, trying to stop the investigation of an independent counsel, and continuing to lie on daily basis about virtually everything.

Under Trump, governing has become a zero sum game where there are only winners and losers. There is no longer interest in the common good. The only interest is in what Trump feels makes him look good. As a result, the country lurches from scandal to scandal, conflict to conflict, without any direction or any clear overarching principle to guide us.

What happens when Trump fires Mueller?

Are there REALLY enough Republicans willing to oppose that move? Some have said they would oppose that move, but legislation intended to protect Mueller has not made any significant progress in Congress.

What if the Mueller investigation uncovers information that implicates Trump in some criminal or treasonous way?

Are there REALLY enough Republicans willing to do their constitutional duty and hold Trump accountable? According to a recent Pew poll, 50% of Republicans are not confident that the Mueller investigation is fair. Only 23% of Democrats share that view.

If Trump isn’t held accountable, how will he respond to all those who attempted to bring him down? He believes that this conflict is good for him. I don’t doubt that he would fire whomever he feels he needs to fire to preserve his power.

If the Mueller is able to build a case against Trump, he will likely bring charges using the unindicted co-conspirator language that is reserved for the President. That because there are constitutional questions about whether a Grand Jury can indict a sitting President. The Courts have generally deferred to the constitutional process of impeachment rather than take up the case against a sitting President themselves. If Congress fails to impeach Trump based on those charges, I don’t doubt that Trump will retaliate with both the FBI and the IRS in the same ways that Nixon did with those on his enemies list.

What happens then?

You want to know how democracies die.

This is how.

Guns

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

via GIPHY

The Supreme Court has upheld the right of an individual to own a gun. They have also upheld the right of communities to place reasonable limits on gun ownership.

I am grateful to all those who make our highways safer by controlling the deer population. I have no problem with target shooters either.

My dad for a short while owned a German Luger. I’m not sure why he owned it other than that fact that at the time he was a small business owner in Omaha. Maybe he felt he needed protection at his shop. The reason I know he owned it was because when I was about 8, my younger siblings and I found the gun one afternoon in his dresser drawer. We took it out and started to play with it. I don’t know whether or not it was loaded. Nothing terrible happened, except that my mom found us playing with it and I never saw another gun in the house.

All of my friends and I owned BB guns growing up. None of us put an eye out. We all belonged to a gun club at the local community center. During the winter we all practiced target shooting there. During the summer, we would shoot at the pigeons roosting on the back of the local drive-in movie screen. They were far enough away that even if we managed to hit one, the BB would likely have just bounced off.

The father of one of my best friends in grade school killed himself with a gun at their home when I was maybe 14. We spent a lot of time at each others homes. His family didn’t seem any different from mine. But after his dad died, my friend changed and we drifted apart. I can’t imagine what he must have gone through. I wish I could have helped him more than I did.

I understand the fascination that some people have with guns. I also understand how dangerous they are. I appreciate how fortunate I was to escape with just a scolding when I found my father’s gun. I have also seen first hand how a gun can change someone’s life forever.

There are certainly stories about good people successfully using guns to defend themselves from bad people with guns seeking to harm them. Those instances, unfortunately are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, guns either kill the owner, someone in their family, or some other innocent person by accident or mistaken identity. Your odds of winning the Powerball are 15x higher (.000003) than your risk being killed by a home invader (0.0000002).

According to numerous reliable studies, 60% of gun deaths are suicides. 79% of the victims are white men, like my friend’s dad. Gun suicides have touched everyone. Having a gun in your home triples your risk of suicide.

Keeping guns in your house, regardless of how they are stored, not only increases the odds of suicide, but also domestic abuse and accidents. Owning a gun triples the risk of homicide in your home. Gun mishaps are the third leading cause of death among children in this country. Kids aren’t supposed to die. In most other civilized countries some kids get sick and die. Some kids die in auto accidents or drown. It’s only in this country where our kids get killed because they came across a loaded gun.

Statistics prove that more guns make communities more dangerous. Guns are most dangerous to those who own them. A combined analysis of 15 different studies in 2015 found that those who had access to a firearm in their home were 15x more likely to be murdered as those who didn’t. The majority of those murders were committed by a family member or a close personal acquaintance.

As our population ages, crimes of all sorts are down. That’s because the vast majority of crimes are committed by males between 15-29. The best way to make communities safer is not to give everyone a gun. It is to give everyone a job. The safest communities are those with the lowest populations of young unemployed men and the fewest guns.

Let’s make every community one of those safe ones. Our businesses need workers. Let’s make it easy for everyone to find a good job. Getting everyone a good job will make every community more prosperous and safe. It will also reduce the need some feel to own a gun for protection. Reducing the number of guns in our community will save lives.

Waffle House Economy

Tuesday, March 6th, 2018

The difference between fantasy and reality is that in the real world real stuff actually happens to real people.  If you live in a fantasy world, you have lost touch with reality.  You have not, however, escaped reality.  Reality will, sooner or later, assert itself.  At that point, you will suffer a rude awakening.

Our country is poised to experience several rude awakenings as we discover that our President and those supporting him have lost touch with reality.

Russians
We now know that the Russians have been and are continuing an effort to disrupt our democracy.  We know the who, the why, and even the where.  Some of those who worked on disrupting the 2016 election, have since come forward to provide detailed accounts of what they did and how they did it.  Facebook and twitter have identified the accounts that they used.  Mueller has the evidence and indicted some of the perpetrators.  Our intelligence community has documented the hacking that occurred to voter records and electronic voting machines.  Our intelligence community continues to sound the alarm that these attacks are expanding and becoming more sophisticated.

Our President and the party that supports him live in the fantasy world that the whole Russian effort is a partisan witch hunt intended to discredit Trump’s election.  They attempt to deflect blame to Clinton, the Democrats, or the media.  The REALITY is that concerted efforts by the President and his supporters to discredit the media left us vulnerable to Russian spreading REAL fake news.  Conservatives were eager to spread whatever stories they read that confirmed their fantasies about Clinton and the Democrats even though they were fantasies.

The reality is that we have been attacked in no less a real way than we were attacked on 9/11.  Why hasn’t our President and our government responded?

According to Tom Friedman, there can only be two answers.  Either Trump is simply delusional or the Russians DO have something on him that he does not want others to know.  Neither choice bodes well for the country.

Tax Cuts and Government Spending and Economic Growth
We have never provided this large a stimulus to an economy that was this robust.  We are in completely new territory as far as what is going to happen.  The tax cut and the associated budget bill killed off the “Trump” stock market rally because of concerns about the Fed raising interest rates to combat inflation.  More concerning is this massive reduction in government revenues is happening at the same time as costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are rising because of the baby boomer retirement.  The fantasy is that the tax cuts will pay for themselves, but even the Trump budget shows they don’t believe it.  The claim is that we will see 3% growth as far as the eye can see.  The reality is that there aren’t enough workers to support that sort of growth.  The worker situation grows worse each day that we actively discourage immigrants from coming here to work.  The second fantasy is that corporations will invest the tax cut in higher wages.  Wages are going up, but it’s because unemployment is so low.  Corporations have spent $6B in bonuses and wage increases.  They have spent $170B in stock buy backs.  That’s reality.

Tariffs
This is a terrible idea.  It based in Trump’s fantasy that trade is some sort of mano-a-mano wrestling match.  It’s not.  Even if other countries don’t retaliate, which the very likely will.  It will be a net looser for the economy.  Just like the tax cuts, nobody has tried to impose tariffs at time of very low unemployment.  That’s because the whole design of the tariff is to use price to replace imported products and services with domestic products and services.  The problem is that we do not have the employees to ramp up domestic production of much of anything.  How are steel producers and aluminum producers going to expand, if they can’t find skilled workers?  The result instead will be more pressure on wages AND more pressure on prices.  What’s that spell? INFLATION.  What happens when inflation goes up?  The dollar goes up.  What happens when the dollar goes up? Exports go down.  That’s why tariffs went out with the cold war.  The news suggests that Trump’s about face on tariffs was driven more by his frustration with his administration than a careful analysis of the subject.

So where does this leave us?

SNL said it best.  We hired a businessman to run the economy, and he’s running it like a Waffle House at 2AM.