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Insanity in Politics

“The left has ceased to exist, because it doesn’t represent anything,” said Gérard Grunberg, a professor at the Sciences Po political science institute. “There is not one left now, there are a number of lefts,” said Mr. Grunberg. “The party of Mitterrand,” he said, referring to François Mitterrand, the nimble politician who led the Socialists back into power in 1981 after years in the wilderness, “no longer exists.”

The immediate result was “the madness of yesterday,” as Mr. Grunberg put it — Socialists on the party’s far left attempting to eject a Socialist prime minister. “That was something unbelievable,” Mr. Grunberg said. “We’ve never seen that before. They were voting to overthrow their own government.”
- Adam Nossitermay, France’s Socialist Government Survives a Vote, but Remains Fractured, NYT, May 12, 2016


In France, in America, and in Brazil, less privileged people are upset, so they want a change. But they seem to pay little attention to the details of the change they're supporting. The current governments are led by socialists or democrats, so replacing them as the protesters want would likely involve a shift to the right, playing into the hands of the wealthy and corrupt, rather than serving the interests of the unhappy masses. In France, students protest changes to the rules that, in the name of protecting people with jobs, discourage employers from hiring new employees. In America, underemployed white men support a billionaire who wants to give big tax breaks to the wealthy. In Brazil, a president who is less corrupt is being impeached by corrupt politicians who are supported, by people who dislike the president due to their unhappiness with the economy, in their effort to dispose of a challenge to ongoing corruption.

Some folks want to be told that we could feasibly and logistically deport millions of people and ban more than a billion, build more walls and drop more bombs, have ever-falling tax rates and ever-surging prosperity. They want to be told that the only thing standing between where we are and where we are told we could be is a facility at crafting deals and a penchant for cracking down.

This streamlined message appeals to that bit of the population that is frustrated by the problems we face and quickly tires of higher-level cerebral function. For this group of folks, Trump needn’t be detailed, just different. ...

This part of America isn’t being artfully deceived, it is being willfully blind. ...

Trump’s triumph as the presumptive Republican Party nominee is not necessarily a sign of his strategic genius as much as it’s a sign of some people’s mental, psychological and spiritual deficiencies.

It’s hard to use the truth as an instrument of enlightenment on people who prefer to luxuriate in a lie.
- Charles M. Blow, Trump’s Asymmetric Warfare, NYT, May 16, 2016



Jochen Bittner points out the similarity of today's politics to what happened in the Weimar Republic:

... there were four trends that led the country [Germany] to reject its post-World War I constitutional, parliamentary democracy, known as the Weimar Republic: economic depression, loss of trust in institutions, social humiliation and political blunder. To a certain degree, these trends can be found across the West today. ...
Mr. Trump is no Hitler, but that’s not the point. Today, as in the 1930s, we are seeing the failure of the liberal mainstream to respond to serious challenges, even those that threaten its very existence.
- Jochen Bittner, Is This the West’s Weimar Moment?, NYT, May 31, 2016




An indication of the gap between voters’ understanding and what would be needed to have confidence in the sustainability of democracy is provided by evidence of their ignorance, when the country voted to leave the European Union, of what it was they were choosing to leave. The day after the vote, Google Trends reported that following the electorate’s decision to leave the E.U. the second most popular question in Britain related to the European Union was “What is the EU?” Competent voters would have learned the answer to such a basic question before voting on whether to remain in the organization. The top question related to the E.U. was equally fundamental: “What does it mean to leave the EU?
- Top Questions on the European Union in the UK since Brexit result officially announced (as of Friday, June 24, 2016, timestamped 4:25 AM - 24 Jun 2016, viewed shortly after noon PST); see also Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura, Britons Ask Google: What Did We Just Do?, NYT, June 24, 2016


Donald Trump won the Electoral College (though not the popular vote) on the strength of overwhelming support from working-class whites, who feel left behind by a changing economy and society. And they’re about to get their reward — the same reward that, throughout Mr. Trump’s career, has come to everyone who trusted his good intentions. Think Trump University.

Yes, the white working class is about to be betrayed.

The evidence of that coming betrayal is obvious in the choice of an array of pro-corporate, anti-labor figures for key positions. In particular, the most important story of the week... the selection of Tom Price, an ardent opponent of Obamacare and advocate of Medicare privatization, as secretary of health and human services. This choice probably means that the Affordable Care Act is doomed — and Mr. Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters will be among the biggest losers. ...
What the choice of Mr. Price suggests is that the Trump administration is, in fact, ready to see millions lose insurance. ...
So we’re probably looking at more than five million Trump supporters, many of whom have chronic health problems and recently got health insurance for the first time, who just voted to make their lives nastier, more brutish, and shorter.
Why did they do it? They may not have realized that their coverage was at stake — over the course of the campaign, the news media barely covered policy at all. ...
Will there be a political backlash, a surge of buyer’s remorse? Maybe. ... But we do need to consider the tactics that he will use to obscure the scope of his betrayal.
One tactic, which we’ve already seen with this week’s ostentatious announcement of a deal to keep some Carrier jobs in America, will be to distract the nation with bright, shiny, trivial objects. True, this tactic will work only if news coverage is both gullible and innumerate. ...
But judging from the coverage of the deal so far, assuming that the news media will be gullible and innumerate seems like a good bet.
And if and when the reality that workers are losing ground starts to sink in, I worry that the Trumpists will do what authoritarian governments often do to change the subject away from poor performance: go find an enemy. ...
The point is to keep your eye on what’s important.
- Paul Krugman, Seduced and Betrayed by Donald Trump, NYT, Dec. 2, 2016




Here are some of Winston Churchill's thoughts prior to the start of World War II about Hitler, Germany, and Europe's failure to respond in a sane way to the threat they posed:

Hitler's success, and, indeed, his survival as a political force, would not have been possible but for the lethargy and folly of the French and British Governments since the War [WW I], and especially in the last three years. [1932-35] ...
Year after year, without the slightest regard to the realities of the world, the Disarmament Commission explore innumerable schemes for reducing the armaments of the Allies.... ...England cut her defences by land and sea far below the safety level, and appeared quite unconscious of the new peril which was developing in the air.
Meanwhile the Germans... began their great plans to regain their armed power. ... These preparations, although assiduously concealed, were nevertheless known to the intelligence departments both of France and Great Britain. But nowhere in either of these governments was there the commanding power either to call Germany to a halt or to endeavor to revise the treaties, or better still both. The first course would have been quite safe and easy, at any rate until the end of 1931, but at that time Mr MacDonald and his colleagues were still contenting themselves with uttering high-sounding platitudes upon the blessings of peace and gaining the applause of well-meaning but ill-informed majorities throughout our island.
- Winston Churchill, Hitler and His Choice, in Churchill's Great Contemporaries, pp. 166-167. This is a revised version of The Truth About Hitler, published in The Strand Magazine, Nov. 1935.


Here's an excerpt from the concluding passage in the original "The Truth About Hitler" that was omitted from "Hitler and His Choice":

In the annals of the new triumphant Germany there is a lurid anniversary. It is the 30th of June [the Night of the Long Knives]. On that night last year many hundreds of men and some women were put to death in Germany without law, without accusation, without trial. These persons represented many varieties of life and thought of Germany. ... But all had one thing in common, namely, that they were deemed to be obnoxious or obstructive to the Hitler regime. Therefore, they were blotted out. ...
But the astounding thing is that the great German people... have not only not resented this horrible blood-bath, but have endorsed it and acclaimed its author with the honours not only of a sovereign but almost of a God. Here is the frightful fact before which what is left of European civilization must bow its head in shame, and what is to more practical purpose, in fear.
- Winston Churchill, The Truth About Hitler, The Strand Magazine, Nov. 1935. For commentary and comparison of the earlier and later articles, see Did Churchill Ever Admire Hitler?, Finest Hour: The Journal of Winston Churchill, Autumn 2012, No. 156, pp. 33-38.



We as a country have just done something incredibly reckless. ...
It is excusable to raise questions about climate change. But it is inexcusable not to sit down with our own government experts at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a briefing before you appoint flagrant climate deniers with no scientific background to every senior environmental position.
- Thomas L. Friedman, Trump’s Approach: A Fresh Start or Crazy Reckless?, NYT, Dec. 14, 2016


“I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed.
Shocked, I asked him what he meant.
“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
- Ronald Radosh, Steve Bannon, Trump's Top Guy, Told Me He Was 'A Leninist' Who Wants To ‘Destroy the State’, The Daily Beast, 08.21.16



Trump makes his entrance onto the international stage:

Trump became president on Jan. 20th. The confirmation of Rex Tillerson secretary of state on Feb. 1st was a sufficiently newsworthy occasion to occasion the publication in the New York Times of a review of the new administration's handling of international affairs so far.

Mollifying allies infuriated by Mr. Trump’s orders could be a full-time job. A ban on refugee arrivals and entries from seven Muslim countries, for instance, has enraged Iraqi officials whose cooperation is vital in the fight against the Islamic State — a top administration priority. It has also infuriated many European leaders crucial to efforts not only in Syria, but Afghanistan and Libya as well, and it has tarnished what had been viewed as a successful trip by Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, who on Monday said she opposed the ban.

Relations with Mexico have plunged to their lowest level in decades after Mr. Trump insisted he would build a border wall regardless of Mexican opposition.

The relationship with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany threatened to become toxic after Peter Navarro, the director of Mr. Trump’s new National Trade Council, denounced the relatively low value of the euro as an unfair currency advantage for Germany.

“Tillerson faces the most difficult task of any secretary of state in the postwar era in trying to reconcile President Trump’s intention to make a stark break from decades of bipartisan consensus U.S. foreign policy leadership with the reality that, if he succeeds, such a break could lead to global chaos,” said Ryan C. Crocker, who served as the United States ambassador to five Muslim countries.

Mr. Tillerson may also face difficult internal hurdles. Much of his department’s top leadership has departed.... But the Trump transition team has been so short-handed and the pickings among Republican foreign policy veterans who had not criticized Mr. Trump so slim that dozens of positions are likely to remain empty for some time.

More worrisome, morale among the department’s rank-and-file career officers has plunged....
- GARDINER HARRIS, Rex Tillerson Is Confirmed as Secretary of State Amid Record Opposition, NYT, FEB. 1, 2017


''Mr. Trump also went off topic in his address to the National Prayer Breakfast. He told the audience not to worry about reports that he had held tempestuous phone calls with the leaders of allies Australia and Mexico, saying a tough approach was long overdue.
“When you hear about the tough phone calls, don’t worry,” he said. “We’re being taken advantage of by countries around the world. It’s time for us to be a little tough. It’s not going to happen anymore.”
- Mark Landler, Trump Vows to ‘Destroy’ Law Banning Political Activity by Churches, NYT, Feb. 2, 2017
Landler has given us an edited version of Trump's statement. What Trump actually said is:
"Believe me, when you hear about the tough phone calls I'm having, don't worry about it. Just don't worry about it. They're tough. We have to be tough. It's time we're gonna be a little tough, folks. We're taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually. It's not gonna happen anymore."
- Trump defends 'tough phone calls' at prayer breakfast – video, The Guardian, Feb. 2, 2017


Lindred Greer, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, describes Trump's failure to consult with relevant cabinet officers before issuing his order restricting entry to the U.S. as insane:

There is an enormous amount of literature and data exploring what constitutes effective management of complicated organizations. “The core principles have served many leaders really well,” said Jeffrey T. Polzer, professor of human resource management at Harvard Business School. “It’s really common sense: You want to surround yourself with talented people who have the most expertise, who bring different perspectives to the issue at hand. Then you foster debate and invite different points of view in order to reach a high-quality solution.” ...

Mr. Trump has already violated several of these core principles. The secretary of Homeland Security, John F. Kelly, was still discussing a proposed executive order restricting immigration when Mr. Trump went ahead and signed it. Nor was Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, consulted; he saw the final order only hours before it went into effect.

Not to consult thoroughly with top cabinet officers before deciding on the order “is insane,” since they “have the expertise and should be on top of the data,” Ms. Greer said. “Ignoring them leads to bad decisions and is also incredibly demoralizing.” ...
Far from encouraging and weighing differing views as part of the decision-making process, Mr. Trump appears to view dissension as disloyalty. ...
“Debate and dissent are essential to reaching any thoughtful outcome,” Ms. Greer said. Comments like Mr. Spicer’s “will discourage anyone from speaking up. You end up with group think, an echo chamber where people only say what they think the president wants to hear.”

- JAMES B. STEWART, Case Study in Chaos: How Management Experts Grade a Trump White House, NYT, FEB. 2, 2017



Here's a glimpse of how America's flakey government examined, in March 2017, the qualifications of Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch:

Yet it was Mr. Flake’s earlier curiosity — sparked by his teenage son, he said, and a long-running internet meme — that attracted more attention: Would Judge Gorsuch rather fight “100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?”

Judge Gorsuch took no position on Horse v. Duck....

But he did not hesitate during another exchange, with Mr. Cruz, who seemed to revel in inside jokes and winking asides during his allotted 30 minutes of questioning.

“What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?” Mr. Cruz asked at the top of his allotted time.

“Forty-two,” Judge Gorsuch said. (The pair explained at some length that this was a reference from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”)
- MATT FLEGENHEIMER, Of Horse v. Duck, Mutton Busting and Other Confirmation Diversions, NYT, MARCH 22, 2017




The A.M.T. is a parallel system for calculating tax liability intended to ensure that high-income taxpayers pay a substantial amount in federal tax even if they have large deductions or other items to offset income.

The A.M.T. is much reviled by tax experts across the political spectrum for its unintended consequences and fiendish complexity. “It’s received wisdom among tax people that having two tax systems makes no sense,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist who served as director of the Congressional Budget Office and is now president of the American Action Forum, a pro-growth advocacy group. “It’s a shadow tax system. Personally, I believe you should have one tax system you believe in and then live with it.” (I routinely pay the A.M.T., as do many residents of high-tax states like New York and California.)

- JAMES B. STEWART, Pages From Trump’s Tax Returns Raise a Decade’s Worth of Questions, NYT, MARCH 23, 2017



The repeal Obamacare fiasco is a good example of how dysfunctional America's government has become.

“I don’t have the ability to adequately express my outrage,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts. “The Republican bill would return us to the day when insurers sold woefully inadequate policies with few protections. This back-room deal will kill the requirement for insurance companies to offer essential health benefits such as emergency services, maternity care, mental health care, substance addiction treatment, pediatric services, prescription drugs and many other basic essential services.”
- ROBERT PEAR, JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and JENNIFER STEINHAUER, Paul Ryan Rushes to White House to Tell Trump Votes Are Lacking to Repeal Obamacare, NYT, MARCH 24, 2017


Republican Congressman from Alabama, Mo Brooks:
Mo Brooks ✔ @RepMoBrooks
I've never faced a worse bill than the #AHCA & will vote “NO” today on a bad bill that will hurt so many Americans. https://brooks.house.gov/media-center/news-releases/brooks-vote-against-flawed-american-health-care-act
8:32 AM - 24 Mar 2017
- from ROBERT PEAR, JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and JENNIFER STEINHAUER, Paul Ryan Rushes to White House to Tell Trump Votes Are Lacking to Repeal Obamacare, NYT, MARCH 24, 2017


Asked at a confirmation hearing two weeks ago if he was working with President Trump on a secret plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, Representative Tom Price, Mr. Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, smiled broadly and answered: “It’s true that he said that, yes.”

The committee room, filled with health care lobbyists, consumer advocates and others with a vital stake in the future of the health care law, erupted with knowing laughter at Mr. Price’s careful formulation. For those following the issue closely, it has been an open secret that the fledgling Trump administration is a long way from fulfilling one of Mr. Trump’s most repeated campaign promises.
- MICHAEL D. SHEAR and ROBERT PEAR, From ‘Repeal’ to ‘Repair’: Campaign Talk on Health Law Meets Reality, NYT, FEB. 6, 2017


At a White House meeting with members of the hard-line Freedom Caucus earlier on Thursday, Mr. Trump had agreed to the conservatives’ demands to strip federal health insurance requirements for basic benefits such as maternity care, emergency services, mental health and wellness visits from the bill. But that was not enough to placate the faction, part of the reason that Thursday’s vote was placed on hold. ...
“We have a great bill, and I think we have a good chance, but it’s only politics,” Mr. Trump said earlier Thursday, as it was becoming clear that his negotiating efforts had failed to persuade enough members of his party to back the plan — which was years in the making — to repeal and replace the health law.

Privately, White House officials conceded that competing Republican factions were each demanding changes that could doom the effort, placing the measure in peril and Mr. Trump’s chances of succeeding at a high-stakes legislative deal in jeopardy. With some of its demands in place, the Freedom Caucus ratcheted up its requests, insisting on a repeal of all regulatory mandates in the Affordable Care Act, including the prohibition on excluding coverage for pre-existing medical conditions and lifetime coverage caps. ...
A Quinnipiac University national poll found that voters disapproved of the Republican plan by lopsided margins, with 56 percent opposed, 17 percent supportive and 26 percent undecided. The measure did not even draw support among a majority of Republicans; 41 percent approved, while 24 percent were opposed. ...

President Trump appealed to supporters to weigh in, assuring them in a video on Twitter, “Go with our plan. It’s going to be terrific.” ...
Mr. Spicer defended the removal of the “essential health benefits” regulations, saying that it would accomplish Mr. Trump’s stated goal of reducing health care costs. “Part of the reason that premiums have spiked out of control is because under Obamacare there were these mandated services that had to be included,” Mr. Spicer said.

- JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, ROBERT PEAR and THOMAS KAPLAN, Trump Tells G.O.P. It’s Now or Never, Demanding House Vote on Health Bill, NYT, MARCH 23, 2017



Repealing the Affordable Care Act was meant to be the first demonstration of the power and effectiveness of a unified Republican government. It has turned out to be a display of incompetence and cruelty. ...
Friday’s outcome is good for the country, but humiliating for the Republican leadership.
- THE EDITORIAL BOARD, The TrumpRyanCare Debacle, NYT, MARCH 24, 2017



The premise of Dr. Nassir Ghaemi’s book about leadership and mental illness is simple. It need not be reiterated as frequently as Dr. Ghaemi repeats it. But he begins “A First-Rate Madness” by writing, “This book argues that in at least one vitally important circumstance insanity produces good results and sanity is a problem.” To put it only a shade differently: “When our world is in tumult, mentally ill leaders function best.” Or: “In the storm of crisis, complete sanity can steer us astray, while some insanity brings us to port.”'
-JANET MASLIN, What Befits a Leader in Hard Times? An Intimate Knowledge of Insanity, NYT, AUG. 10, 2011



Foreign-policy theorists sometimes compare Mr. Trump’s erratic approach to that of President Richard M. Nixon, who pursued what he called the “madman theory” of statecraft. By behaving vaguely unhinged — obsessed with Communism, his finger poised unsteadily on the nuclear button — Nixon hoped to force North Vietnam into negotiations to end the Vietnam War.
- GLENN THRUSH and MARK LANDLER, Bold, Unpredictable Foreign Policy Lifts Trump, but Has Risks, NYT, APRIL 20, 2017


Terrifying as it is to contemplate the catastrophes of the 20th century, it would be even more frightening to imagine that humanity had stumbled unthinkingly into its darkest moments.

But a careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.
- Masha Gessen, Trump’s Incompetence Won’t Save Our Democracy, NYT, JUNE 2, 2017


But when the field is nationwide... then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre....
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. ... On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
- H. L. Mencken, On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, p. 21 (This book is a reprint of A Carnial of Buncombe, published by the Johns Hopkins Press, 1956. The essay containing this quote was originally published in The Evening Sun (Baltimore Evening Sun), July 26, 1920, in a column titled Bayard vs. Lionheart, Page 8, Column 5 - reference from http://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/01/14/desire/.)


From a Quinnipiac University national poll released May 10, 2017:

What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump? (Numbers are not percentages. Figures show the number of times each response was given. This table reports only words that were mentioned at least five times.)
idiot                 39
incompetent    31
liar                  30

- Quinnipiac University Poll, U.S. Voters Send Trump Approval To Near Record Low; Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; No Winner In Media War, But Voters Trust Media More, May 10, 2017 (See also commentary on idiocy in Eric Anthamatten, Trump and the True Meaning of ‘Idiot’, NYT, JUNE 12, 2017


As a teacher, I struggle every day with the "stupid is cool" attitude that possesses too many of my students. Learning anything, thinking critically, expressing oneself with eloquence, and (God forbid!) READING are dismissed as the abode of geeks, nerds, and other losers. Willful ignorance is seen as the mark of a "real" person. In Donald Trump, those students have found their avatar--a man who wears his ignorance proudly and defiantly, a man who dismisses knowledge as "fake news," a man who openly admits he has not read a book in 20 YEARS.
- Jack Connolly, Shamokin, PA, Comment on Eric Anthamatten's Trump and the True Meaning of ‘Idiot’, NYT, JUNE 12, 2017


The military historian... Thomas E. Ricks has a new book on the hardcover nonfiction list: “Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom”.... Critics have been generally shy about linking Ricks’s subject to today’s political climate — Mary Ann Gwinn’s conclusion in The Los Angeles Times was typically circumspect: “Readers of this book will realize, if they needed reminding, that the struggle to preserve and tell the truth is a very long game.” Ricks himself, however, has been more direct. “Orwell would have despised Trump as a kind of fat, dumb, uneducated oligarch,” he said last month in a podcast produced by the magazine Foreign Policy. “Churchill would see America as somewhat childish. We occasionally stumble and elect a childish president, and that’s what we’ve done here.”
- GREGORY COWLES, Satires of the Ultrarich, From One of Their Own, NYT, JUNE 2, 2017


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