In Search of Roots – Back Down the Gravel Road

Do you ever wonder how and why you developed as the person you are?  Have you ever traveled back to your birthplace – physically or mentally – to see what you could discover about how your roots shaped your life?  Well, this is a brief story about my journey.

The two-story frame house where I spent the first eight years of my life still looks out on Marion Street and across a small grassy field to the greenhouse where my father worked for many years growing roses.  The Des Moines to Fort Dodge trolley tracks that ran by the greenhouse and fifty yards south of our acreage are still there too.  We called it the Interurban.  Now the only traffic on these tracks is an old steam engine pulling two well-used passenger cars full of tourists down into the Des Moines River valley and back.  Smooth blacktop paving covers Marion Street these days, but in my memory, it will always be a dusty, gravel road. 

Up that road and across the tracks on the left was Henry Shell’s pig farm and dairy where we bought our milk.  A pungent pig odor always floated in the breeze on warm summer evenings.  Henry’s farmhouse and barns are gone now, replaced by a nice bungalow. 

Our old house is green instead of the white I remember and it’s almost obscured by trees and bushes on one side.  Things do grow a lot in over 70 years.  The old wooden barn behind the house has been replaced by a modern metal structure.  The big front porch where I rode my tricycle is gone too, as are the outhouse and the chicken coops.  I struggle to remember these structures, but I will never forget the woodpile where I spent so many hours playing as a child.  

This accumulation of poles, logs and planks – 4 feet high, 6 feet wide and 10 feet long – was near the small cornfield that covered the southern section of our acreage.  A vertical pole at each corner held everything in place.  Out in the country, there weren’t many neighbors close by and my brothers were much older than me.  So, I spent a lot of time with my imaginary playmates on that old pile of wood. 

It was my stage when I sang to the cornstalk crowd.  They were very attentive.  It was my airplane as I sat in a makeshift cockpit and soared through the sky.  It was a pirate ship, which I attacked with my lath sword in hand, vanquishing patched eye demons by the dozen.  And yes, it was even a space ship after Mom bought me a Buck Rogers ray gun that made sparks when I pulled the trigger. 

A quarter mile from our house was the two-room, country schoolhouse where I learned to read and write – actually, the same building where my Dad had started school in 1915.  At the back of the property – now just a vacant lot – were two outhouses.  On the right side was the well where we pumped our drinking water, along with the swings and teeter totters.

Nearby was a neighborhood where people led a hardscrabble life.  There was a two-story shack that I passed on my way to school every day.  The outside walls were covered with tarpaper held down by oddly angled laths.  I seem to remember a goat looking out an upstairs window one time, but maybe that was just a story my brothers told me.  The occupants of this house used a two-horse drawn wagon for transportation and farmed with horse drawn implements when Dad hired them to tend our few acres of corn.  They were like characters out of a Snuffy Smith comic strip, with tattered, hillbilly-looking old hats and scraggly beards.

My schoolmate Larry was from another poor family.  He was quite bright, but rather sickly looking and small for his age.  His mother invited me for lunch one day and we kids were served some creamed corn, a dab of potatoes and a piece of bread with bacon grease on it.  It wasn’t my typical meal and the siblings of the house squabbled over what was left on my plate when I had finished.  Later Larry was at my house for lunch.  Mother served us a glass of milk, a banana and a large meat sandwich.   Larry was overjoyed.  I have often wondered what became of him. 

By comparison, our family was relatively well off on our rented, five-acre plot, with a cow, chickens, a big garden, an automobile and a working Dad who made $18 a week.  Yet, even though we were on the high side of the local economic scale, our house had only one cold water faucet and no in-door bathroom.  In the summer, we used the outhouse.  During cold weather we used a chemical toilet, into which my brothers frequently threw my small stuffed panda bear.  That little guy got washed a lot.

Much later in life I viewed a video talk by a University of Colorado Professor, Morris E. Massey, entitled, “What You Are Is Where You Were When.”  Well, this rural Iowa setting was where I was when.

Occasionally my mind wanders back down the gravel road, seeking answers to the questions we all have, searching for character shaping events and asking, “Why?”  What prepared me for the life I’ve enjoyed and the things I’ve been able to do?  But the gravel road doesn’t talk to me anymore; it has long since been covered over and gone silent.  Still – I can’t be sure – but perhaps it told me all I needed to know as I played on my woodpile stage and watched its dust settle on my cornstalk audience.

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Can U.S. Democracy Be Taken for Granted?

Nicholas Kamm/AFP-Getty Images

Most Americans are exhausted by President Trump’s lies and demagoguery.  They don’t want to see his face on TV or read about all the damage he is doing to this nation.  But they must not ignore the fact that this president believes he’s above the law and that U.S. Attorney General William Barr wants to keep him there.  Yes, instead of protecting the Constitution, the nation’s chief legal officer has become an active enabler of Trump’s unconstitutional behavior.

With all the focus on Trump, however, I don’t believe Americans have been paying nearly enough attention to the dangerous Mr. Barr.  Just who is this man?  What does he believe?  And how is he weakening our democracy?

Barr is a 70-year-old lawyer who received his law degree with highest honors from George Washington University Law School in 1977.  He is a devout, conservative Catholic who was President George H. W. Bush’s U.S. Attorney General from 1991 until 1993.  After working in the private sector for many years, he was confirmed as Trump’s attorney general in February 2019.  By most accounts, Barr was a well-respected conservative lawyer.  Although few Democrats voted to confirm him, many hoped he would curb Trump’s legal excesses.  They were dead wrong.

What does Barr believe?  Well, he has long argued that executive power is expansive. He supports a “unitary executive,” where the president has total power to control executive branch agencies, including the supposedly independent Department of Justice.  For example, on Jan. 8, 1991, as deputy attorney general, Barr reportedly told then-President George H. W. Bush that he had unlimited authority to a launch a major war [in Iraq] without congressional permission – or even if Congress voted against it.  Keep in mind, the Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to declare war.

What Barr has been doing to weaken our democracy would literally fill a book, but let’s start with his opposition to special counsel Robert Muller’s Russia investigation.  On June 8, 2018, private citizen Barr wrote a 19-page memo to Mueller’s boss, Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, which opined that Mueller lacked the legal grounds to investigate the president for obstruction of justice.  Some called it an application to be Trump’s attorney general.  It evidently didn’t succeed in stopping Mueller from thoroughly conducting such an inquiry, however, Barr did get the job he was seeking.

Democrats feared that as attorney general, Barr would simply fire Mueller – but he did the next best thing.  More than three weeks before releasing Mueller’s heavily redacted 448-page report to the public, Barr issued a four-page letter to the Senate and House judiciary committees on March 24, 2019.  This missive basically cleared Trump of colluding with the Russians during the 2016 election and opined that Mueller didn’t produce sufficient evidence that the president had obstructed justice.

In a letter to Barr dated March 27, 2019, the usually reticent Mueller expressed his concern that Barr’s March 24 letter, “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.”  In May, hundreds of former federal prosecutors from all around the nation published a bipartisan letter online that states “Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.”

Barr was unfazed and has continued to refuse granting Congress access to the unredacted Mueller report.

Suppression of the full Mueller report, however, was merely one of Barr’s democracy damaging decisions.   Here, in summary, are just two of his numerous acts to undermine the rule of law:

During February 2020, the highest levels of the DOJ (a.k.a., Barr) pressured prosecutors to seek a lighter sentence than the federal guidelines suggest in the case against Trump’s friend, Roger Stone.  The Department subsequently issued an unprecedented overriding sentencing memorandum, which caused prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky to resign from both the Stone case and his temporary appointment in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C.  In time, the president commuted Stone’s sentence.

The DOJ filed a motion on May 7 to immediately drop its prosecution of Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, even though he had twice plead guilty for lying to the FBI.  A week later, almost 2,000 former DOJ officials signed a letter calling for Barr to resign over what they called his improper intervention in Flynn’s criminal case.  The letter assailed Barr’s “repeated actions to use the Department as a tool to further President Trump’s personal and political interests.”

Eighty percent of George Washington University’s law faculty – Barr’s alma mater – signed a six-page letter on June 23 that endorsed calls for Barr to resign, citing his misconduct in the aforementioned matters.  The letter stated that Barr has “failed to fulfill his oath of office to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  It goes on, “Sadly, in his current (second) term as Attorney General, Mr. Barr has demonstrated repeated disregard of the principles [rule of law] for which our institution stands.”

No democracy can long endure without the rule of law.  When a huge, unprecedented group of bipartisan legal professionals accuse Attorney General Barr of flaunting this critical tenet and violating his oath to defend the Constitution, they know our democracy is seriously threatened.   

Obviously, they don’t believe U.S. democracy can be taken for granted – and neither should we.

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Right-wing Conspiracy Theories Target Democrats

Rick Loomis/Getty Images

What is the absolute worst thing you can call a person, I mean something that immediately elicits strong emotions of disgust, revulsion and hatred toward that individual?  Is it murderer?  Is it Trumpist? (Just kidding.)  No, it’s pedophile or worse yet, cannibal pedophile.  So, it’s no surprise that these terms are used by right-wing Internet trolls to demonize liberals and the “left.”  They want Americans to despise Democrats.

Remember Pizzagate?  This ridiculous 2016 Internet conspiracy theory claimed that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats were running a satanic, pedophile ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor.  Some believe it was hatched by an ultra-right, white nationalist group but maybe the Russians did it.  Regardless, it was totally false.

The following year, a Pizzagate offshoot began creeping around on the fringes of the Internet in October.  An anonymous operator who self-identified as “Q” began posting mysterious image board messages to support President Trump.  He (or perhaps she) gave the impression that he was an intelligence or military officer with a very high Q security clearance. 

This individual warns about a small, secretive group of powerful Democratic elites that are manipulating world affairs, in concert with the mainstream media, Hillary Clinton – of course – and the “deep state.”  He claims that these Satan worshippers – who some Q followers believe are also cannibals – have organized mass pedophilia rings that they hide from the public.  Further, Q assures his readers that Trump is the only one who can thwart these evil-doers and is waging a secret campaign against them.

Q followers worldwide likely number in the low millions.  They have formed a religion-like Internet community called “QAnon,” which has no known physical location.  Yet, it reportedly has an infrastructure, literature and a growing number of believers.  Q leaves clues on the Internet and patriots – as followers call themselves – search to decipher their meaning and reveal his prophecies.  Their antics are reminiscent of the Pokémon Go game.

My interest piqued in 2018 when QAnon members appeared at Trump rallies holding up large Q signs.  Research revealed that they have cryptic sayings, like “The Storm is coming (mass arrests),” which they believe will lead to the “Great Awakening,” a period when Trump will destroy the evils of the deep state.  They also have a pledge, “Where we go one, we go all,” frequently abbreviated as “WWG1WGA.”  The beliefs of these people are so bizarre and disconnected from reality that they’re difficult to describe in a way that makes any sense.

The FBI has designated QAnon a potential domestic terrorist threat that could drive “extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”  Yet, a July 4 video shows Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn – who the White House has discussed rehiring – taking an oath that included a QAnon reference, WWG1WGA.  And Trump helped elevate these radicals into the mainstream recently by seeming to welcome its members into his base.  Fox News’ frequent whitewashing of QAnon’s activities can be found here.

Dozens of QAnon supporters are now running for elective office, including Marjorie Taylor Greene who recently won the Republican primary in a deep red district in Northeast Georgia.  She will almost certainly be elected to the U.S. House in November.  Greene has written numerous articles for a conspiracy theory web site, according to NBC News, and has been highly criticized for making anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim videos.  Although she formerly embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory and called Q a patriot, she backtracked during a recent Fox News interview and claimed that she’s not a QAnon candidate.

On August 12 Trump tweeted: “Congratulations to future Republican Star Marjorie Taylor Greene on a big Congressional primary win in Georgia against a very tough and smart opponent. Marjorie is strong on everything and never gives up – a real WINNER!”

In a recent blog, I outlined how former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich and other Republicans have viciously vilified Democrats for decades.  The QAnon group, however, has taken that agenda to a dangerous extreme by falsely accusing Hillary Clinton and other democrats of being pedophiles who drink the blood of children. 

According to an article in the Atlantic magazine, one of Q’s posts stated: “These people need to ALL be ELIMINATED.”  And reportedly, many QAnon supporters believe top Democrats should either be imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay or rounded up and executed.

Although the speakers at last week’s GOP convention didn’t go quite that far, their lies and race-tinged fear mongering was directed at casting Democrats as radical socialists who will destroy America and control Americans.  I believe that the blatant promoting of right-wing conspiracies during the campaign and this event shows that Trump is desperate to win.  And there’s a good reason why.

When Michael Cohen – Trump’s lawyer and fixer – testified before Congress he parted one of the many veils that obscures the Trump organization’s fraudulent activities.  If Trump loses the election, the entire body of their criminality – money laundering, bank fraud, etc. – will be exposed and family Trump could be in a world of hurt.  So, I believe he will contest an election loss and hold out until he can cut a deal whereby he and his family can avoid both federal and state prosecution. 

Folks, it’s imperative that we carefully vote early and work hard for a landslide turnout to elect Joe Biden.  That’s our only defense against this autocrat and his conspiracy theory goons.

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The Right to Vote Is the Foundation of Democracy

The right to free and fair elections is the most precious one we possess as citizens of the United States.  Without that blessing we wouldn’t be able to elect officials that will protect the other rights we have under the Constitution.  Republicans, particularly President Trump, however, are attempting to deprive us of an election where all of our votes will be handled properly and accurately counted.  Why?  Voter suppression is their favored way to win.

That’s nothing new for Republicans, of course, it has been going on for years, aided by a 2013 decision by conservatives on the Supreme Court that gutted Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.  Since then, some GOP-controlled states – like Ohio – gerrymandered congressional districts to virtually guarantee Republican candidates would win the majority of U.S. House seats and many enacted strict voter ID laws.  According an appeals court, North Carolina’s 2013 voter law, “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.”  Republican secretaries of state have implemented radical purges of voter rolls to remove minority citizens – a.k.a. likely Democratic voters – and in general have attempted to make voting more time consuming and difficult, particularly in minority precincts. 

Is there a reason why conservatives go to such lengths to bend the rules in their favor?  Well, I don’t think even the best of them can successfully sell their policies to the American people. 

The current crowd leading the GOP, however, is certainly not “the best of them.”  First, Trump was impeached for attempting to coerce the Ukrainian president into investigating his likely presidential opponent, Joe Biden.  Then Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton alleged in his book that the president tried to get election help from Chinese President Xi.  More recent allegations suggest Trump’s ambassador to Brazil sought similar support for Trump’s reelection from Brazilian officials.

Now, less than 90 days before the election, Republican-controlled Senate committees under Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Charles Grassley (R-Ia.) are using subpoenas and oversight hearings in an attempt to brand the intelligence community under President Obama as corrupt and dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.  They want to succeed in smearing Biden where Trump failed.  Johnson even admitted his efforts would help Trump get reelected.

Meanwhile, Trump was taking voter suppression to a much higher level.  When it became clear that millions would seek to vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic Trump – without evidence – attacked that system as being conducive to widespread voter fraud.   Never mind that he and many on his staff have voted with mailed absentee ballots numerous times. 

In March, Trump was on Fox News discussing provisions the Democrats wanted in the CARES Act to ramp up funding for voting by mail during the pandemic.  He said it would create higher levels of voting that “if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”  Well, you’re right Mr. President; more people voting typically means fewer Republicans win.

Oh, but it wasn’t enough for Trump to just bad-mouth voting by mail; he had to do something to disrupt the process.  Enter Louis DeJoy, a Trump supporter and mega-donor who was appointed as postmaster general in June.  He went right to work.

Trump loyalists typically get rid of or reassign the knowledgeable top officials in any agency they head – and that’s exactly what DeJoy did.  He also implemented “reforms,” banning overtime and reportedly removing or decommissioning up to 20 percent of the high-volume mail sorting machines.  Just a few days ago Postal Service contractors began removing the ubiquitous blue neighborhood mailboxes in Montana and other states.  Bipartisan protests from Montana’s congressional delegation finally stalled that process.

Trump’s quotes are usually semi-coherent so I’ll just paraphrase a few:  At the end of July, he claimed the election must be postponed because it would be fraudulent with mail in ballots and, “a great embarrassment to the U.S.A.”  Speaking to Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo on August 13 Trump admitted that he was against extra funding Democrats wanted for the postal service because “that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting.”  A few days ago, after lauding “beautiful absentee ballots,” Trump told a group of supporters “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”

Okay, did Trump do anything to make sure the upcoming election will be accurate and fair?  Of course not.  In fact, last week a reporter asked him three times, “What are you doing as president to make sure there is a free and fair election?”  Instead of an answer, all the reporter got was a blizzard of baseless complaints and lies.

Although public pressure caused DeJoy to pause his “reforms” until after the election, he hasn’t committed to correct the damage already done.  His decisions with the Postal Service, however, were a perfect example of the way Trump and his cronies don’t even try to hide their corrupt intent or actions anymore.  No doubt, they are confident in their ability to dupe Republican voters and stymie Democratic efforts to stop them. 

Still, think how much worse their corruption would have been if the 2018 election hadn’t given Democrats control of the U.S. House.  Yes, elections have consequences.  And they will be dire – particularly for our democracy – if this November’s election gives Trump another four years.

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Trump’s Executive Actions Are a Grand Illusion

My last blog tried to explain the differences between the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act passed by the Democratic-controlled U.S. House in May and the $1 trillion HEALS Act passed by the Republican-controlled Senate in late July.  I had hoped to provide readers with a guide to evaluate the ongoing negotiations between House and Senate Democratic leaders and the White House, represented by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. 

Those talks ended last Friday and on Saturday, President Trump issued one executive order and three memoranda (which carry less weight).  He said these actions, “will take care of pretty much this entire [coronavirus relief] situation.”  Clearly, Trump either doesn’t understand the problems or he lied.

I obtained copies of these documents and will attempt to explain the four major areas where they claim to provide relief.  But first it might be best to highlight some of the challenges after certain provisions of the CARES Act that was passed in March expired.

  • Thirty million Americans were collecting an extra $600 per week federal unemployment insurance supplement at the end of July when this payment expired.  These dollars added to a state benefit, which, according to Goldman Sachs, averages $370. 
  • A survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found that 24 million Americans claim they won’t be able to pay their next month’s rent without the supplemental federal benefits.
  • The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, estimated that 110 million Americans are renting and around 23 million – or 20% – are at risk of being evicted by Sept. 30.
  • Although the economy supposedly added 1.8 million jobs in July and the unemployment rate dipped to 10.2%, these jobs numbers were down sharply from May (2.5M) and June (4.8M).
  • The U.S. now has more than 5 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 160,000 deaths.  States that opened their economy early have delayed further opening, and in some cases have pulled back.  This virus is definitely not under control.

To address these problems the president is attempting to do the following, although some aspects of his plan may not be legal.

Payroll tax deferral – This memorandum directs that payroll taxes for workers making less than $104,000 per year be deferred through December 6, which would add almost $250 per month to the paycheck of someone making $48,000 per year.  The extra received, however, would have to be repaid in December.  Oh, but Trump promised, “If I’m victorious on November 3rd, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax.”  

This deferral does nothing for the unemployed and could seriously weaken an already stressed Social Security trust fund, which could run out of surplus as early as 2033 if a bad recession continues.  Permanently cutting this tax would decimate the Social Security and Medicare systems, so I expect Trump’s comments will be walked back.

Lost wages assistance – This memorandum provides that the $600 per week unemployment insurance supplement that expired at the end of July will be replaced starting August 1 with a $400 payment, $100 of which must be paid by the states.  Trump is taking $44 billion from the $70 billion FEMA Disaster Relief Fund for the federal share, just as hurricane season is starting.  States are directed to use the $80 billion remaining in the CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund to meet their obligation. 

But here’s the problem.  At current unemployment levels, the $44 billion of federal funds will be exhausted before October according to the Washington Post’s Heather Long and the states will be on the hook for the remaining obligation of $400 per week for their unemployed until December 27.  They are already begging for more assistance from the federal government as their tax revenues have cratered.  States need something like the $900+ billion assistance that was in the Democrats HEROES bill, not another burden on their already strapped budgets.

Renters and homeowner’s assistance – This executive order is illusory.  It merely directs several cabinet members, including the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to determine if “any measures temporarily halting residential evictions” are necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and to identify any federal funds which are available to provide temporary assistance to renters and homeowners.  No doubt, evictions are already underway after the CARES Act moratorium expired last month and it appears that foreclosures can begin in September.

Student loan payment relief – This memorandum continues both suspending loan payments and temporarily setting interest rates to zero percent on student loans, which under the CARES Act are due to expire September 30.  This applies to loans held by the Department of Education and lasts until December 31, 2020.

Under careful analysis, the president’s grand scheme to circumvent Congress and subvert the separation of powers is woefully inadequate to address the massive economic problems caused by the coronavirus and is subject to strong legal challenges.  Yet, that’s exactly what those who concocted it are hoping will happen.  Republicans for the most part don’t want to provide any additional relief to struggling Americans.  So, what better than to create an illegal illusion of relief with executive actions and then blame the Democrats for blocking them when they go to the courts to preserve the separation of powers.

Former President Harry Truman said it best, “How many times do you have to get hit over the head until you figure out who’s hitting you.”  Of course, he was talking about Republicans.

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Huge Deficits Are Bad – the Alternative Is Worse

President Trump signed the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March.  Not one Democrat was invited for the signing, although they had more input on this bill than Republicans.  This legislation provided an extra $600 in unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who were out of a job and included a moratorium on evictions.  There were numerous other provisions in this bill but these two were designed to expire at the end of July. 

The U.S. House passed the $3.4 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act on May 15.  Democrats anticipated that the unemployed would need more financial help and so would those in danger of being forced out of their homes.  Conservatives railed against this bill as a liberal wish list and the Republican-controlled Senate ignored it for over two months.  Perhaps they believed the ridiculous – actually stupid – statement by Vice President Mike Pence that the virus would be gone after Memorial Day and the economy would come bouncing back.

Finally, Senate Republicans presented their $1+ trillion Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act in the last week of July, just days before the extra $600 unemployment benefits were due to expire.   Still, they appeared to be in total disarray.  In fact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell advised that 15 to 20 GOP Senators wouldn’t vote for any additional coronavirus relief legislation, whatsoever.

Democrats acted early and comprehensively to anticipate the pandemic effects that health professionals were predicting.  Republicans failed to act, perhaps based on Trump’s happy talk or an expectation that the virus would subside and a V-shaped recovery was in the offing. 

Now, July 2020 is behind us but it recorded more virus cases than any one of the previous five months and the pandemic is still staring us in the face with no end in sight.  All of this drama made me eager to compare the House and Senate bills; here’s what I discovered.

HEROES Act (Dems) v. HEALS (GOP):

1. One-time stimulus payment – Both bills provide $1,200 per adult but the Dem’s bill is much more generous for children, proposing $436 billion (b) v. $300b for the GOP.

2. Hazard pay for essential workers, including health care – Dems $190b v. GOP $0.

3. Extra federal unemployment benefit – Dems, $600 weekly, costing $437b v. GOP, $200 weekly through September and 70 percent of a worker’s former earnings after that, costing $110b.

4. Assistance for home owners and renters – Dems, $202b v. GOP, $3b.

5. Health care funding – Dems, $382b v. GOP, $111b.

6. State and local government aid – Dems, $1.1 trillion, including $81b for Medicaid and $90b for education v. GOP, $105b for education only. 

7. Additional small business aid – Dems, $0 v. GOP $200b.

8. Business tax cuts – Dems, $36b v. GOP, $203b.

9. Higher education funding – Dems, $169b v. GOP, $0.

10. Increase child tax credit benefits – Dems, $119b v. GOP, $0.

The GOP bill would shield businesses, universities, schools and hospitals from being sued over coronavirus-related damages for five years.  It also includes $1.75b to demolish and replace the FBI building in Washington instead of moving the headquarters to the suburbs.  Trump wants this money because he fears a flashy hotel would be built on the vacated property and compete with his hotel, which is across the street.   Democrats strongly object to these provisions. 

Dems want a two-year elimination of the 2017 tax law’s cap on state and local tax deductions, which would cost $137b and favor blue state tax payers.  This probably won’t fly with Republicans.

These two bills dramatically highlight the differences between Democratic and GOP philosophy.  Democrats are trying to help people remain in their homes or apartments, put food on their tables and pay their bills.  They are also trying to prevent massive additional layoffs in the public sector by giving significant aid to state and local governments whose tax revenues have cratered.  

Congressional Republicans are attempting to do the bare minimum for people and state and local governments, while favoring relief to businesses.  A significant number of them don’t even want to do that.

Virus cases are spiking all across the nation and our economy is reeling from the worse quarterly decline in the past 70 years, down 9.5 percent.  Economists are fearing a descending spiral where more workers lose jobs, leading to greatly lowered consumer spending, leading to more business closures, leading to….  Well, you get picture; they are worried about an out of control economic downturn that damages the economy for years to come.

Many economists advise going BIG on virus relief and even some right-leaning ones are not so worried about more debt now.  Still, a substantial number of Republicans in Congress will tenaciously cling to their deficit hawk ideology even if Americans lose their homes, people go hungry and the country goes to hell.

Sure, I’m concern about adding $6+ trillion to the deficit this year – but if it saves this nation from sliding into a bad depression, it will be well worth it.

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A Divided Nation Threatens Our Democracy

This nation is confronted by massive problems that aren’t being solved.  Affordable health care, racial injustice, inequality, and crumbling infrastructure are a few that demand urgent attention but climate change and the ballooning federal deficit are also looming.  Unfortunately, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have no viable plans to address any of them.

Today, the nation is divided like at no other time in my memory.  Even this horrific coronavirus pandemic – which menaces every citizen – has failed to bring us together.  The president deserves much of the blame for this situation but the current political polarization began long before the 2016 election.  Trump is just the culmination of the Republican Party’s dramatic shift to the right.

The roots of the GOP’s evolution to ultra-conservatism, however, are difficult to pinpoint.  But I believe the seeds were planted during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, nurtured by some fertile soil left over from President Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and the 1971 formation of the Libertarian Party.

Nixon was a skilled politician but according to conversations recorded in the Oval Office, he was also a racist.  So, it’s not surprising that he would formulate a devious plan to lure white southern Democrats into the Republican camp by appealing to their racial biases.  It apparently worked, because by 1995 the formerly solid Democratic South was mostly represented by Republicans.

Along with Nixon came the Libertarian ideology of very limited government and minimal federal taxes.  Reagan was a champion of both.  Grover Norquist formed Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 – allegedly at Reagan’s request – and in the early 1990s devised a written pledge to never raise taxes on anything – ever.  Most congressional Republicans have signed Norquist’s promise. Their objective is to shrink the federal government by starving it of operating funds.  Republican’s absolute refusal to raise taxes makes federal budget compromises to reduce deficits nearly impossible.

Reagan’s tenure also emboldened various right-wing, government-hating militia organizations, which are now Trumpian Republicans.  Today, dozens of these well-armed, paramilitary groups are scattered across the nation, driven by antigovernment conspiracy theories and in some cases, white nationalist ideology.  I fear they will appear at the polls to intimidate voters in November, particularly in heavily minority areas.

Congress has been mostly gridlocked for over a decade, which left many pressing problems unsolved.  How did it get this way?  Well, Democrats aren’t completely blameless, of course, but I believe the cause goes back to 1995 when the GOP began evolving into a hard-right, uncompromising organization under then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).  This movement was supported by right-wing radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News channel after it was launched in 1996.

Gingrich initiated scurrilous attacks on Democrats during his tenure in Congress (1979-1999), bashed the “liberal” media and scoffed at democratic norms.  He referred to his opponents as “radical,” “sick” and “corrupt” and he encouraged other conservative Republicans in Congress to “speak like Newt.”  I believe Gingrich’s influence and rhetoric caused many members of the GOP to begin viewing Democrats as the enemy, instead of colleagues who have a different political philosophy.

Newt’s attitude carried over to the Tea Party Republicans elected in 2010. When they took control of the House in 2011, they eschewed governing and recklessly obstructed President Obama.  Then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did the same in the Senate, using the filibuster as a weapon.  As Senate majority leader in 2016, his refusal to even hold hearings on Merrick Garland – Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court – was stunning in its audacity.

Back then, McConnell claimed that the Senate should not confirm a Supreme Court justice during an election year until a new president is elected.  Yet, when asked what his position would be on filling a Supreme Court vacancy in 2020, he said with a wry smile, “Oh, we’d fill it.”  McConnell’s affronts to Senate norms and shocking hypocrisy crippled bipartisanship in Congress and further divided the American electorate.

Gingrich-like hatred toward Democrats continues to this day.  Tea Party Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) accosted liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on the steps of the Capitol last week, calling her “crazy,” “disgusting,” “dangerous” and out of her “freaking mind.”  Why?  She had suggested during a virtual town hall meeting that an increase in crime in New York City during the pandemic was the result of poverty and unemployment.  Later, a reporter overheard Yoho – an avowed Christian – call Ocasio-Cortez a “f—— bitch.”

Jenna Ellis, one of Trump’s personal lawyers and a senior Trump campaign legal adviser, recently bashed Democrats who criticized Trump for sending federal police to Portland, Oregon with a tweet: “No Democrat should EVER AGAIN be elected in the United States in any capacity…..They are willing to sacrifice America and our freedom and liberty. NO!!!”  She appears frequently on Fox News.

Trump’s divisive rhetoric and Republicans’ blind support of him as he savages our democratic institutions and thumbs his nose at the rule of law has exacerbated political polarization and weakened the very foundation of our democratic republic.

Defeating Trump in November, however, will not totally solve the nation’s critical problems. They will continue to fester until McConnell and the radical Republicans in Congress are no longer able to sow division and block responsible legislation.

There are dozens of reasons for voting Trump and radical Republicans out of office; number one is to help unite the nation and save our democracy.

 

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They Extol Freedom but Legislate Servitude

The Republican Party plans to repurpose its 2016 platform for 2020 without changes.  Perhaps they’ve forgotten how severely they criticized President Obama’s “current administration.”  Now that it’s President Trump’s administration, their vitriol is a bit awkward.  Here are a few examples: The current administration has – hugely increased the national debt and placed a significant burden on future generations – exceeded its constitutional authority – brazenly and flagrantly violated the separation of powers – sought to divide America into groups and turn citizen against citizen – unconstitutionally expanded into areas beyond those specifically enumerated, including bullying of state and local governments– and abandoned America’s friends and rewarded its enemies.  Hey, now it’s the truth.

But the real key to GOP orthodoxy is the 42 times this document uses the word “freedom.”  It claims that Obamacare, labor laws and executive branch regulations take freedom away.  On the other hand, religious freedom, which typically means the right to discriminate against the LGBTQ community, is lauded.  So is the freedom of association for religious, private and youth organizations so they can set membership standards that discriminate.  And it wants people – which now includes corporations – to have the freedom to fill the political system with unlimited amounts of cash, even anonymous foreign money.

Obviously, the GOP wants freedom for its base but I believe its policies deprive workers of the resources to be free.  In fact, I have begun thinking of Republican ideology less as benefactor of the rich – which it certainly is – and more as a suppressor of the middleclass and poor.  If you want to belong to a union; they enact right to work laws.  If you need an increase in the minimum wage to survive; Republicans will surely vote no.  If you hope to get Obamacare for your family; they’ve asked the Supreme Court to eliminate it.  Actually, I struggle to think of one policy conservatives champion that would economically lift up working-class Americans.  Instead, they cater to the rich.

The 2019 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report tells the shocking story of wealth accumulation and inequality in the United States:

  • Among the 20 wealthiest countries, the U.S. has an estimated 80,510 members in ultra-high net wealth categories – those with over $50 million – which is 48 percent of the world’s total.  China was a distant second with 18,130 or around 11 percent.
  • The U.S. had 40 percent of world’s U.S. dollar millionaires in 2019 and comprised more than half of the 1.1 million added since the 2018 report.  The number of millionaires in the U.S. grew by 250 percent from 2010 to 2019, while wages for most Americans were stagnating.
  • The top 1 percent of wealth holders in the U.S. controlled around 35 percent of this nation’s wealth in 2019 – a lower percent than the 1 percent in Brazil, India and Russia – but their share has now grown to 42.5 percent according to Inequality.org.
  • Among a group of 16 prominent nations, including the UK, China, India and Brazil, inequality in the U.S. was higher than all the others in 2019 except Russia.  Fifty-eight percent of Americans are estimated to have a net worth less than $100,000, which includes home equity, with 27 percent having less than $10,000.

All of these numbers provide proof that the richest Americans are accumulating an ever-larger percentage of the wealth, while the U.S. middleclass and poor are struggling.

Unquestionably, Republican policies favor corporations, many of which hold enormous power over their workers, particularly those in the service and fast food industries.  As I have written before, several years ago a conservative friend revealed the Republican mind set when he told me that McDonald’s would install machines to make burgers before they’d pay employees $10 per hour.  It’s an inhumane attitude that completely ignores the needs of working Americans.

The Federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009, unadjusted by inflation.  A family of four can probably qualify for food stamps and Medicaid on this wage, even with both parents working fulltime.  The many folks who must work two jobs to make ends meet are not much better off than slaves.  Still, most Republican legislators not only refuse to raise the minimum wage, they want to cut the social safety net benefits that many low-income workers are force to seek in order to survive.

To make matters worse, Republicans want to separate major health care programs from the federal government.  They favor transitioning Medicare to a voucher system where insurance companies control retiree’s health care and providing block grants for states to totally manage Medicaid.  They’re also trying to completely overturn Obamacare without having a viable plan to replace it.

It’s a fact, all Americans do better – including the wealthy – when middleclass and poorer Americans are thriving.  Seventy percent of the U.S. economy is consumer spending, mainly driven by the middle and lower-income individuals who spend most of what they make.  Republicans, however, reject statistics and common sense; they’re totally committed to their trickle-down ideology that claims tax cuts grow the economy, government is the problem and freedom is more important than health care.  Well, I believe GOP policies will eventually create an economy like the early 1900s when a small percentage of the ultra-rich controlled the government and the vast majority of workers were in virtual servitude to their wealthy masters.

There’s no damned freedom for most Americans in that space.

 

 

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What Did We Celebrate This Independence Day?

Are we tired of winning yet, as candidate Donald Trump promised in 2016?  Are we proud of how great the nation has become under President Trump’s MAGA leadership?  Is the United States respected around the world like never before as Trump now claims?  Is there a petition circulating to demand that the president’s leering, orange face be carved on Mt. Rushmore?  Hell no!

According to polling last month by the Pew Research Center, 87 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States.  Only 17 percent of Americans say the state of the country makes them feel proud.  A majority of 53 percent do not feel hopeful about the state of the country.  Yet, Trump’s approval rating still hovers around 39 percent.

Life expectancy in the U.S. started declining in 2014, as much as one year in some areas of the U.S.  Researchers found that the causes are drug overdoses, suicides, alcohol-related illnesses and obesity, problems they believe have been increasing since the 1980s.  I don’t believe it is mere coincidence that these phenomena coincide with the growing inequality in this nation that had its genesis around the same time.

Since the days when President Ronald Reagan promoted supply-side economics, corporations and the wealthy have gained in power at the expense of workers and their families.  Mr. and Mrs. American now have less control over their lives, while suffering with a smaller share of the nation’s wealth.  According to an article in the Washington Post, union membership – which typically brings higher wages – has cratered from 35 percent in the 1950s to around 10 percent today.  There’s even lower union membership among private sector workers, 6.2 percent.

Diminished bargaining power of the labor force resulted in lower wages for workers, higher profits for corporations and burgeoning CEO pay.  I believe if all Americans had health insurance and a much higher federal minimum wage indexed to inflation, union membership would be less relevant.  But Republicans consistently oppose unions, minimum wage increases and health care insurance reform, while medical care for Americans costs twice as much on average as it does for citizens of other wealthy countries.

The richest 10 percent of U.S. households held 70 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2018 and the top 1 percent controlled 32 percent.  If anything, they’ve gotten even wealthier in 2020.  These people invest in stocks so they reaped the benefits when the market’s second quarter this year was the best since 1998.  Incredulously, this occurred while the coronavirus was killing 130,000+ Americans and the 11+ percent unemployment rate was predicted to trend higher as states stall reopening phases.

Unless the federal government provides hundreds of billions of dollars in relief for states and municipalities – perhaps $500 billion – lower tax revenues will force them to slash budgets.  This will mean millions of public service workers will join the ranks of the unemployed, including thousands of teachers.  Children’s education – already diminished from the coronavirus pandemic – will suffer even more.  Police forces will be automatically “defunded” to lower levels and important community services will be cut.  Senate Republicans, however, are balking at providing additional financial relief for states.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4.8 million jobs had been added for the month ending in the middle of June.  This good news resulted in a lot of Trump/Republican happy talk.  Trump proclaimed: “Today’s [jobs] announcement proves that our economy is roaring back.”  Yet, over 31 million Americans were seeking unemployment benefits during the same week that this rosy job survey was completed, hardly cause for celebration.

This nation’s challenges, however, aren’t just domestic.  America’s stature on the world stage has shrunk several sizes since Trump took office.  It’s hard to accept that the United States is now being called “pitiful” due to the Trump administration’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic and “racist” due to the police killing of George Floyd and its aftermath.  Countries around the globe are fearful of being caught between an erratic United States, which is no longer viewed by many as a trusted ally, and the hegemony of totalitarian China.

It appears that the Chinese government is much less concerned about Western criticism and sanctions.  An official in China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, recently told reporters: “The era when the Chinese cared what others thought and looked up to others is in the past, never to return.”  This is an ominous warning about China’s future intentions.

Russia’s aggression against the U.S. and Europe and China’s heavy-handed dominance over Hong Kong are likely the result of Trump’s foreign policy incompetence.  And Taiwan’s independence from China could be threatened as U.S. attention is consumed by an election, a health catastrophe and nation-wide social unrest.

With the nation craving for unity, why did Trump choose Independence Day to further divide Americans with a veiled attack on Black Lives Matter protesters and praise of Confederate monuments?   Well, if he’s trying to provoke more protests and violent rioting to enrage his base and enhance his chances for victory in November, that’s totally sick!

After eight years of Republican policy failures in 2008, America’s reputation was in the toilet and Americans were facing a bad recession.  Trump managed to achieve even worse results in less than four years.

When will voters ever learn that electing Republicans brings a “Bad Deal” for both them and the nation?

 

 

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Finding Some Good News in All the Bad News

These last few months have left me reluctant to continuously write about President Trump’s shocking assault on our democracy and his incompetent administration.  It’s deeply depressing.  Lately, however, I’m finding some bright spots in this gloom.

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened” is a great example.  During 17 months of being up close and personal with the president, Bolton acquired inside knowledge of what was going on in the Oval Office and the meeting rooms in foreign capitals.  I can’t imagine a more damning critique of a president of the United States.  Actually though, it’s merely icing on a well baked cake.

Diehard Trump supporters will either claim – like the president – that the book is full of lies and false stories or they will simply dismiss Bolton’s revelations as the rantings of a disgruntled official who was fired.  Some Democrats and independents who voted for Trump in 2016, however, may not be so kind and approving if they believe even half of Bolton’s story.  His appearance on Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier was no doubt watched by millions of conservatives and he was quite convincing.

Ultra-conservative Bolton is frequently criticized for his blunt, uncompromising positions and rhetoric; but he’s not known as a liar.  His attack from the right confirms a pattern of Trump behavior and incompetence documented in numerous books by  liberal writers and never-Trump Republicans.  That makes it harder for the president’s supporters to refute.

Now, Republican Senators will have to explain why they were so quick to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial after refusing to allow witnesses, like Bolton.  They may claim that this testimony wouldn’t have changed the verdict but that doesn’t wipe the stain of bias off their decision.  I believe most Americans wanted to hear what various witnesses had to say, regardless.

One of Bolton’s most audacious claims is that obstruction of justice is a way of life for the president.  And Attorney General William Barr has added great credibility to that allegation.  He intervened in the sentencing of Roger Stone in February, seeking a lighter sentence for this Trump associate.   In May, Barr had the Justice Department drop the case against Trump’s former National Security, Advisor Michael Flynn, a man who had twice pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians.

Barr’s topper, however, was the June 19th massacre, when he attempted to fire the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) Geoffrey Berman and install his handpicked replacement, current SEC Chair Jay Clayton.  New York City is the center of Trump’s business empire and subject to this office’s jurisdiction.  Trump’s favorite lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is reportedly under SDNY’s scrutiny.  Clayton is a neophyte prosecutor and a Trump golfing buddy.  How convenient.

But Berman refused to resign and a nasty legal battle seemed likely.  He was not confirmed by the Senate but appointed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for a 120-day interim period in 2017.  Thereafter, he was appointed by federal judges for the SDNY to “serve until the vacancy is filled.”  When Berman claimed that Barr lacked authority to fire him, Trump, who has the authority, was forced to do his own dirty work.

Republican Berman then stepped down after ensuring that his equally competent deputy, Audrey Strauss – a registered Democrat – would take over.   Barr’s inept attempt to control this highly effective, fiercely independent district and its investigations of Trump associates was foiled.  And SDNY investigations will continue as before.

Conventional wisdom cautions a politician to avoid creating a negative issue like this during an election year.  It’s on par with another pithy warning; never try to use a box cutter when you’re well into cocktail hour.  But Trump doesn’t have wisdom, conventional or otherwise.  So, the Berman firing fiasco, as ominous as it appears for the rule of law, reinforces Bolton’s claim that Trump continuously attempts to obstruct justice.  This is great material for political attack ads.

The Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee, which has begun an investigation of Barr, will likely call on Berman to testify.   The Republican National Committee and 22 Republican Senators up for reelection this year are no doubt dreading the news coverage that will occur as these hearings progress.  Their Democratic opponents will happily make the best of it.

There is absolutely no good news, however, in the fact that over 126,000 Americans have died from Covit-19.  We all wish the president would have taken the early lead in organizing the effort to stop its spread, protect our health care workers and keep our older citizens safe.  He didn’t.  Instead, he politicized this crisis and divided the public, as he does with almost every other issue.  Polls indicate that a majority of voters don’t like what they are seeing and hearing from the president as the cases multiply unabated.  Yet, Trump continues his rallies, while downplaying the virus’ threats, hyping conspiracy theories and refusing to wear a mask.

These past several months have dramatically shown that Trump is the president in name only.  Actually, he’s just a reality show host, still catering to an audience of right-wing bigots like he did in 2016 and trying to improve his ratings.

Fortunately, an increasing number of voters believe it’s time for this program to be cancelled.

 

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