How GOP Base and Establishment Differ on Foreign Policy

Donald TrumpJonathan Chait wrote an interesting article at some point last week, Terrorism in the Age of Trump. I want to reflect on something that he mentioned in the article that I’ve found bizarre: the conservative establishment’s belief that the terrorist attacks in Paris would cause Republican base voters to turn away from Trump and toward “reasonable” candidates like Marco Rubio. Who would think such nonsense? Why would the base run from Trump? How is Trump unfit to address ISIS compared to other Republican candidates?

The whole basis of Republican thinking on foreign affairs is that we just have to be “tough” and be willing to do “whatever it takes” and then all will be well. I’ve been amazed by this kind of thinking my whole life. There are still people who think that we would have won the Vietnam War if only we had nuked the North Vietnamese back to the stone age. According to this way of looking at things, the only reason we don’t have clear victories like World War II anymore is because we don’t have the political will to destroy an entire country.

Marco RubioSuch people have not read their Carl von Clausewitz. They seem to think that the idea of war is to “win” — that we aren’t trying to do something else. Given this ridiculous way of thinking, we could beat ISIS by dropping about a thousand nuclear bombs on Iraq and Syria. But what would we have “won”? Would it make terrorist attacks like those on Paris less likely? Hardly. It would make them more likely because the only remaining front would be on the streets of Europe and America.

This is the way that the Republican base thinks about war. In general, they don’t think that any country (other than Israel) has an equal claim to existence to our own. And this is an idea that the Republican establishment has pushed for decades. This is the basis for Europe bashing. Liberals are horrible because they think that America might have something to learn from Europe. This is a sign of weakness. So of course the party base would think that being strong (that is: belligerent) is all that matters in a president.

I go back again and again to the 2004 interviews with James Hackett, where his big compliment was that Bush went to war in Afghanistan and he was certain that Gore would have treated the attacks on 9/11 as a police matter. Well, I always thought that was a stupid claim; Gore would have gone to war. But the point was that what was really important was to look tough. The right thing to do was not what would work best, but what would give Dr Hackett that conservative thrill that America was being “decisive” and “strong.”

But what’s most amazing is that Trump’s ideas on how to fight ISIS are no different than anyone else running for the Republican nomination. What’s more, we do have the example of George W Bush. He did, at best, a mediocre job in Afghanistan. Then he changed focus and went to war with Iraq. How would Trump be worse than that? At least if he took us to war in Iraq and Syria, I don’t see him losing interest and going to war in Argentina because they wouldn’t let him build a hotel or something.

The thinking of the Republican base is all messed up. But it is at least coherent. It is the establishment’s thinking that is incoherent. They want the same kind of foreign policy that the base wants: unthinking belligerence. But they want the slightest difference in rhetoric — or something. It makes no sense.

The Rich Are Spoiled and Lazy — Not the Poor

CocktailsSo much of the time, I despair about politics and economics. These are not areas where people are honest. I might have strong opinions about which are the best translations of Don Quixote. But they aren’t based upon the fact that I have a room full of them that I’m trying to unload. I know, politics has always been a messy business. But democracy was supposed to help in this regard, but I’m afraid that the power elite have become so good at manipulating people that the very idea of democracy in the kind of capitalism that we have may be impossible.

My mind constantly goes back to 2012 and the California Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of GMO foods. Now on this issue, I tend to side with the conservatives. From a consumer standpoint, there is no evidence that there’s anything wrong with GMO foods. That’s not to say that I don’t have problems with them — especially in how they turn farmers into neo-serfs beholden to chemical companies. And I wonder about the environmental impact of GMOs. I don’t especially see labeling doing that much. But I also don’t see why the people have to be stopped from knowing. So I’m fine with labeling.

And in early 2012, the people of California were fine with GMO labeling. Early polling showed the law passing by a landslide. And then after months and millions of dollars of commercials featuring an old couple whose family farm was just going to be destroyed by the new law, Prop 37 went down to defeat by almost 3 percentage points. I was here during that time. This was not a case of the people being educated about the law. It was a case of an emotional campaign based upon gauzy romantic visions of the family farm and hysterical claims about the destruction of the California economy.

It is just that the whole “welfare makes people lazy” claim is a bit of “common sense” manufactured by the laziest people on earth: the rich.

The situation is even more annoying when it comes to economics, which is supposed to be an academic discipline. But it isn’t. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of people doing very good work. But in the public sphere, economics is used to make whatever point someone in power wants to make. This is why a careful think tank like the Tax Policy Center can always been offset with a conservative talking points mill to claim that whatever giveaway to the rich that the Republicans want to do will be fiscally responsible because it bring on 4% or 6% or 149% growth. It doesn’t really matter, because these groups just pull their numbers out of the air.

I was thinking about this the other day when I read an excellent article by Dylan Matthews, Economists Tested 7 Welfare Programs to See if They Made People Lazy. They Didn’t. This doesn’t come as a surprise. There has never been much indication that welfare programs made people lazy. Humans tend to be dissatisfied. If you give them food and a place to sleep, they will look for better food and a nicer place to sleep. And in our society, where making money is considered the only important function of men, it is a question of self-respect.

So why did four economists have to do detailed studies of 7 welfare programs to show that they didn’t make people lazy? In fact, the evidence indicates that helping out struggling people makes them less lazy. But you already know that. It is just that the whole “welfare makes people lazy” claim is a bit of “common sense” manufactured by the laziest people on earth: the rich. Take a man who has no money. He will almost certainly weed your whole back yard for forty bucks. Ask Donald Trump to do it. It isn’t just that he’s busy. He lives in a society that has lied to him — telling him that his time and effort is worth more money.

Anyone will get off the couch and work if you pay them enough money. But we’ve been sold a bill of goods. The poor are lazy, even though they will work for almost nothing. The rich are productive because they must be paid a huge amount of money to get off the bar stool at the Encore Wynn in Las Vegas.

Morning Music: Elvis Costello

Taking Liberties - Elvis CostelloSo I find myself down south staying with my sister for the Thanksgiving holiday, many days of writing ahead. Still, since I will be driving all Sunday, I realized that I hadn’t written Sunday’s posts when I got here. And it’s kind of hard to get work done here. It’s a little better now. But still, I was panicking. So as I think I mentioned, I decided to do a week of Elvis Costello. I don’t just have to get Sunday done; I also have to do Monday, because I’m sure I’m going to be a mess all Sunday night and probably all of Monday as well.

Costello does a great cover of the Rodgers and Hart classic “My Funny Valentine.” But I really don’t remember when I first heard it. I thought it had been on Get Happy!! But it wasn’t. According to the Elvis Costello Wiki, it was actually on, Taking Liberties — which until now I didn’t know was a compilation album. Regardless, the two albums came out at the same time, so I’m not totally insane.

Anyway, here he is performing the song live. It’s a great combination: three of my favorite songwriters working together (although not as writers — both Rodgers and Hart were dead by then anyway). After our week of Thanksgiving music, this should be pleasant.

Anniversary Post: a Century of Billy Strayhorn

[Under normal circumstances, I would write about the Whitman massacre. It provides a good opportunity to discuss violence that I disagree with, but at a distance to allow an honest discussion of the causes. Regardless, I really don’t like the whole missionary business. You know, if it were all about helping the poor and hoping by the example of your good works that you would convince them that your ways were the best, great. But that isn’t the way it works. And that certainly wasn’t the way it worked with the Whitmans. But I don’t have the time, so I’m going to reprint last year’s anniversary post, because it is about a very great man. -FM]

Billy StrayhornOn this day in 1915, the great jazz composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn was born. He is best remembered for his work with Duke Ellington. Of course, he largely isn’t remembered at all. Even people who don’t like jazz at all know who Ellington was. But Strayhorn worked in the shadows, and he seemed to have liked it that way.

He was a phenomenon at an early age. While still in high school, he wrote a musical. He also formed his own trio that played on local radio every day. And he wrote a number of great songs, including “Lush Life.” Here he is in 1964, performing it live:

Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but he had the wrong skin color. His introduction to Art Tatum — a classical composer in his own way — pushed Strayhorn into jazz. And at the age of 23, he met and began collaborating with Duke Ellington. It is hard to say where one starts and the other ends. Ellington said, “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” But being the established great man, Ellington took credit for much of Strayhorn’s work. Generally speaking, if you see a tune composed by Strayhorn and Ellington, it is Strayhorn’s. And Strayhorn is probably even more important as an arranger in creating what we now think of as the Duke Ellington sound.

That’s not to say that Ellington took advantage of the younger man. They had a symbiotic relationship. It is doubtful that Strayhorn would have accomplished so much without the protection and encouragement of Ellington. And Strayhorn got sole writing credit for the most famous song of the Duke Ellington orchestra, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Here he is performing the song on piano with the orchestra. At the end, Ellington lists some of Strayhorn’s other compositions.

Sadly, in 1964 — at the same time he recorded “Lush Life” above, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which seemed to ended his career. He died three years later.

Happy birthday Billy Strayhorn!