1. The big news this week may have gotten lost in the reports of continuing attacks by Trump on Democrats. But a story that will continue to affect us all for years to come is the news that earth has but a few years to be rescued from climate disaster. This from a report released Oct. 9 by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC). It will of course be ignored by the current administration in Washington, but even the Paris Accord goals will have to be vigorously pursued if disaster is to be averted. The report made headline news all around the world, from Paris’s Le Monde to Melbourne’s The Ageto Sidney’s Morning Herald to Hamburger Morgenpostto Toronto’s Globe and Mail.
As The Guardian headlined on Monday, “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN: Urgent changes needed to cut risk of extreme heat, drought, floods and poverty, says IPCC.” This UK paper has had the best coverage in major English-language newspapers.
“The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. [emphasis added] The authors of the landmark report by the IPCC released on Monday say urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target, which they say is affordable and feasible although it lies at the most ambitious end of the Paris agreement pledge to keep temperatures between 1.5C and 2C.”
The world is currently at 1°C above pre-industrial levels. Even the half-degree rise would mean major environmental effects. But “at 2C extremely hot days, such as those experienced in the northern hemisphere this summer, would become more severe and common, increasing heat-related deaths and causing more forest fires.
“But the greatest difference would be to nature. Insects, which are vital for pollination of crops, and plants are almost twice as likely to lose half their habitat at 2C compared with 1.5C. Corals would be 99% lost at the higher of the two temperatures, but more than 10% have a chance of surviving if the lower target is reached. Time and carbon budgets are running out. By mid-century, a shift to the lower goal would require a supercharged roll-back of emissions sources that have built up over the past 250 years….
“James Hansen, the former Nasa scientist who helped raised the alarm about climate change, said both 1.5C and 2C would take humanity into uncharted and dangerous territory because they were both well above the Holocene-era range in which human civilisation developed [i.e. the current era in which we now live, which began about 11,600 years ago]. But he said there was a huge difference between the two: ‘1.5C gives young people and the next generation a fighting chance of getting back to the Holocene or close to it. That is probably necessary if we want to keep shorelines where they are and preserve our coastal cities.’” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report
A New York Times editorial emphasized the political apathy in Trump’s Washington. “Unfortunately, no alarm seems loud enough to penetrate the walls of the White House or the cranium of its principal occupant. [emphasis added] President Trump had nothing substantive to say about the report, preferring, his staff said, to focus on celebrating the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Having already announced that he would withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, having also rolled back a suite of Obama-era efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Mr. Trump thus reaffirmed his sorry role as an outlier in the global struggle against climate change — a struggle few believe can be won without the enthusiastic participation of the United States….
“The bottom line: We’ve got a decade or so to get climate change under control, and there is no such thing as a gentle glide path. [emphasis added] We have to take a firm grip on the emissions curve and wrench it downward. This will take enormous public and private investment and technological progress, even a breakthrough or two. Electric cars would become the order of the day. The public would become more actively engaged, instead of tossing the problem to the next generation and those that follow.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/09/opinion/climate-change-ipcc-report.html
2. We hate to be bearers of bad news. Even we were reluctant to follow a story about the end of civilization as we know it with one about Nazis and parallels with modern America. Perhaps you will want to skip this one. No, don’t.
Historian Christopher Browning has written a major essay comparing 1933 to 2018. Browning is Frank Porter Graham Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We are sure you are curious what an academic historian of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany would say to answer a question, as he puts it, “about the degree to which the current situation in the United States resembles the interwar period and the rise of fascism in Europe. I would note several troubling similarities and one important but equally troubling difference.”
In this important article, published in this week’s New York Review of Books, and freely available to the non-subscriber, Browning sees the following similarities:
a. “In the 1920s, the US pursued isolationism in foreign policy and rejected participation in international organizations like the League of Nations [emphasis added] …. The country witnessed an increase in income disparity and a concentration of wealth at the top, and both Congress and the courts eschewed regulations to protect against the self-inflicted calamities of free enterprise run amok. The government also adopted a highly restrictionist immigration policy aimed at preserving the hegemony of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants against an influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants….” Parallels with the current situation are clear enough.
b. “A second aspect of the interwar period with all too many similarities to our current situation is the waning of the Weimar Republic. [emphasis added] Paul von Hindenburg, elected president of Germany in 1925, was endowed by the Weimar Constitution with various emergency powers to defend German democracy should it be in dire peril. Instead of defending it, Hindenburg became its gravedigger, using these powers first to destroy democratic norms and then to ally with the Nazis to replace parliamentary government with authoritarian rule.” [emphasis added] As Browning points out, Hindenburg and the conservatives needed Hitler to consolidate their power, since popular support for them was waning. But they thought they could control Hitler, whom they despised but saw as useful.
“If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. [emphasis added] He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments….
“Whatever secret reservations McConnell and other traditional Republican leaders have about Trump’s character, governing style, and possible criminality, they openly rejoice in the payoff they have received from their alliance with him and his base: huge tax cuts for the wealthy, financial and environmental deregulation, the nominations of two conservative Supreme Court justices (so far) and a host of other conservative judicial appointments, and a significant reduction in government-sponsored health care (though not yet the total abolition of Obamacare they hope for). Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump.”
c. “The potential impact of the Mueller report does suggest yet another eerie similarity to the interwar period—how the toxic divisions in domestic politics led to the complete inversion of previous political orientations. Both Mussolini and Hitler came to power in no small part because the fascist-conservative alliances on the right faced division and disarray on the left…. In France the prospect of a Popular Front victory and a new government headed by—horror of horrors—a Socialist and Jew, Léon Blum, led many on the right to proclaim, ‘Better Hitler than Blum.’ Better the victory of Frenchmen emulating the Nazi dictator and traditional national enemy across the Rhine than preserving French democracy at home and French independence abroad under a Jewish Socialist….
“I suspect that if the Mueller report finds that the Trump campaign’s ‘collusion’ with Russians does indeed meet the legal definition of ‘criminal conspiracy’ and that the enormous extent of Russian meddling makes the claim that it had no effect totally implausible, many Republicans will retreat, either implicitly or explicitly, to the third line of defense: ‘Better Putin than Hillary.’ There seems to be nothing for which the demonization of Hillary Clinton does not serve as sufficient justification, and the notion that a Trump presidency indebted to Putin is far preferable to the nightmare of a Clinton victory will signal the final Republican reorientation to illiberalism at home and subservience to an authoritarian abroad.”
d. But there are significant differences. “The fascist movements of that time prided themselves on being overtly antidemocratic, and those that came to power in Italy and Germany boasted that their regimes were totalitarian. The most original revelation of the current wave of authoritarians is that the construction of overtly antidemocratic dictatorships aspiring to totalitarianism is unnecessary for holding power. [emphasis added] Perhaps the most apt designation of this new authoritarianism is the insidious term ‘illiberal democracy.’ Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have all discovered that opposition parties can be left in existence and elections can be held in order to provide a fig leaf of democratic legitimacy, while in reality elections pose scant challenge to their power. Truly dangerous opposition leaders are neutralized or eliminated one way or another.”
Now, says Browning, “Total control of the press and other media is likewise unnecessary, since a flood of managed and fake news so pollutes the flow of information that facts and truth become irrelevant as shapers of public opinion. Once-independent judiciaries are gradually dismantled through selective purging and the appointment of politically reliable loyalists. Crony capitalism opens the way to a symbiosis of corruption and self-enrichment between political and business leaders. Xenophobic nationalism (and in many cases explicitly anti-immigrant white nationalism) as well as the prioritization of ‘law and order’ over individual rights are also crucial to these regimes in mobilizing the popular support of their bases and stigmatizing their enemies.” The functions of Hitler’s Ministry of Propaganda, under Goebbels, is now taken by Fox News and Hannity, he says.
Thus, “The highly critical free media not only provide no effective check on Trump’s ability to be a serial liar without political penalty; on the contrary, they provide yet another enemy around which to mobilize the grievances and resentments of his base. A free press does not have to be repressed when it can be rendered irrelevant and even exploited for political gain.”
Browning concludes, “The domestic agenda of Trump’s illiberal democracy falls considerably short of totalitarian dictatorship as exemplified by Mussolini and Hitler. But that is small comfort for those who hope and believe that the arc of history inevitably bends toward greater emancipation, equality, and freedom. [emphasis added] Likewise, it is small comfort that in foreign policy Trump does not emulate the Hitlerian goals of wars of conquest and genocide, because the prospects for peace and stability are nevertheless seriously threatened. Escalating trade wars could easily tip the world economy into decline, and the Trump administration has set thresholds for peaceful settlements with Iran and North Korea that seem well beyond reach.”
Trump may just be using bluster to achieve moderate settlements. But also possible is increased conflict at home and abroad, and “such confrontations and escalations have often escaped the control of leaders far more talented than Trump.” [We add two more differences, not mentioned by Browning. First, the Weimar Republic was pressured by the extreme economic disruptions of the Depression, though arguably today technological shifts and unregulated capital have made many even in relatively prosperous countries feel insecure. And second, Adolph Hitler, at the time of his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 was 35. Our leader is 72.–Ed.]
We have quoted liberally here not to indulge in fashionable fascist horror talk; nor are we just trying to frighten for the sake of sensationalism (or in tune with the Halloween drear). We believe readers will be interested in how a noted professional historian thinks through current claims of encroaching fascism and explicates the 1933-2018 parallels that have so many on the left fearful. This is not an essay that eases all fears. On the contrary. But by careful analysis we can clarify the threat and measure the direction and degree of dangers and calculate a response. Fear is always greater in the darkness of ignorance and helplessness. Read Christopher Browning’s “The Suffocation of Democracy” here, in the October 25 New York Review of Books: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/10/25/suffocation-of-democracy/. *Highly recommended reading
3. Along these lines, there is more bad news (we hate to report) on the international front. The above analysis, however depressing, is not out of line with the thinking of liberal intellectuals and social and political scientists. The October issue of The Atlantic is devoted to the question, “Is Democracy Dying.” Its premiere essay is from Anne Appelbaum, an American journalist with dual citizenship, married to a former Polish foreign minister. She writes a long essay about the gradual takeover of the Polish state by “illiberal” forces which she defines as: moving politically toward a one-party state where civil servants’ loyalty to the party replaces competence; where news media are attacked and rumor conspiracy theories, and scapegoating spread; where the government is hyper-nationalistic and xenophobic; where the institutions of government are increasingly seen as arms of the party and not formed to check abuses or to be responsive to democratic competitive election.
Her article focuses on Poland and developments in Eastern Europe. And for those interested in current affairs there, this essay will be of great interest. But she also sees clear and disturbing parallels to our own democracy and its current crisis. The piece is, in fact, titled, “A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come: Polarization. Conspiracy theories. Attacks on the free press. An obsession with loyalty. Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.”
We offer her interesting conclusion about why democracies fail over time. She believes that even an intellectual class may feel that the best people (them) are not succeeding in a competitive democratic polity (the word “aristocracy,” by the way, means rule by “aristos,” the best). But she would agree with Browning that the modern means of undermining democracy are not like old fascism; they are more subtle: “By contrast, the polarizing political movements of 21st-century Europe demand much less of their adherents. They don’t require belief in a full-blown ideology, and thus they don’t require violence or terror police. They don’t force people to believe that black is white, war is peace, and state farms have achieved 1,000 percent of their planned production. Most of them don’t deploy propaganda that conflicts with everyday reality.
And yet all of them depend, if not on a Big Lie, then on what the historian Timothy Snyder once told me should be called the Medium-Size Lie, or perhaps a clutch of Medium-Size Lies. To put it differently, all of them encourage their followers to engage, at least part of the time, with an alternative reality. Sometimes that alternative reality has developed organically; more often, it’s been carefully formulated, with the help of modern marketing techniques, audience segmentation, and social-media campaigns. Americans are of course familiar with the ways a lie can increase polarization and inflame xenophobia….”
Applebaum points to a major flaw in the democratic state, that it does not support a strong sense of national or moral identity, that the most deserving patriots will win and rule. “The principles of competition, even when they encourage talent and create upward mobility, don’t necessarily answer deeper questions about national identity, or satisfy the human desire to belong to a moral community. The authoritarian state, or even the semi-authoritarian state—the one-party state, the illiberal state—offers that promise: that the nation will be ruled by the best people, the deserving people, the members of the party, the believers in the Medium-Size Lie. It may be that democracy has to be bent or business corrupted or court systems wrecked in order to achieve that state. But if you believe that you are one of those deserving people, you will do it.” [emphasis added] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/poland-polarization/568324/ Again, a sharp and intelligent essay of special interest to those concerned with developments in Eastern Europe, but also of more general interest about the roots of increasing distrust globally in the promises of liberal democracy. *Highly recommended reading
“It is a wonder that a state like Florida, which will get pummeled by Michael, could vote for someone that denies climate change. [emphasis added] Think of how backwards the situation is – the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has reportedly been banned from using the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’. This policy reportedly went into effect when Florida elected a science denier, Rick Scott, to governor….
B. Though not much covered in the US press, again, The Guardian reported that “Hurricane Michael brings new threat to Florida’s victims: toxic red tide.” Uh, oh. It seems that “In the days leading up to the monster storm’s landfall on Wednesday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) found cells of the Karenia brevis organism that causes red tide at two water sampling points close to Panama City and Mexico Beach where the storm swept ashore. The storm surge of up to 14ft then sent Gulf of Mexico waters crashing over the coastal communities of the Florida Panhandle and far inland. Now, marine biologists fear it carried with it red tide toxins that can cause respiratory distress, flu-like symptoms including coughing and eye, nose and throat irritation.”
7. OK. We now have spoken about the threats to democracy, the rise of fascism, the potential collapse of the post-war world order, and apocalyptic storms. Shall we move on to the 1400-point two-day fall of the stock market, in part over worries about disruption of global trade, especially as deepening trade war with China looms? Or Trump’s crazy and ignorant lashing-out at the independent Federal Reserve? Nah.
8. How about the good news that Trump is making it up with a major African-American rapper, Kanye West, who gave us all hope by saying, “Trump is on his hero’s journey right now”? Why don’t we skip that one too?
9. Here is some good news: the supreme court of the state of Washington has outlawed the death penalty. According to The Seattle Times, “Washington’s Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional on Thursday, taking eight people off death row and drawing praise from widespread opposition to the practice in the state. The death penalty, as it’s currently applied in Washington, violates the state constitution, according to the unanimous decision by the court’s nine justices. It’s the third time the state’s highest court has so ruled. [The state had reacted to the earlier rulings by changing the statutes.]
We now return to our regularly scheduled scary and depressing news. OR: readers may skip right to the cute squirrel story at #13
10. The resignation of Nikki Haley last week took Washington by surprise. The press stories reflected a sense of apprehension. The Washington Post headlined “With Bolton ascendant, Haley’s departure sparks fears.” The fear is that Trump is now increasingly under the influence of the extreme hawk, John Bolton. The paper says, “There were moments when Haley, who often represented an alternative power center in the administration, seemed out of step with the White House and more in line with the sort of traditional Republican foreign policy that Trump spurned. ‘She would make speeches that bore little or no relation to Trump’s position,’ said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. The differences were most notable in her advocacy on behalf of human rights and in Russia policy, areas where Haley touted a hard line that conflicted with the White House’s nebulous and contradictory policy.”
Haley did support most of Trump’s foreign policy positions: “Haley cheered the U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council and UNESCO, which limited the Trump administration’s ability to influence two institutions it viewed as hopelessly flawed. Trump also slashed funding for Palestinian aid while recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without winning any concessions from Israel — a move formally criticized in a 128-to-9 U.N. vote.”
Haley had, however, avoided harsh and confrontational rhetoric. “Haley differed from other senior Trump administration officials, and the president she served, in the way she advocated for Trumpism,” said The Post.
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin summarizes her opinion this way: “If Trump’s grip on the GOP remains — and his attacks on the rule of law, facts, women and decency continue — she would be an entirely credible member either at the top of or in the No. 2 slot on a center-right independent ticket, especially if the Democrats choose a far-left candidate with limited appeal. Haley-Murkowski? Kasich-Haley, or Haley-Kasich? Haley-Heitkamp? There are oodles of options.” This could prospect should keep Democrats awake at night. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/10/09/why-nikki-haleys-resignation-is-no-surprise/
11. Paul Waldman reported on Wednesday that “It isn’t often you get to watch an election being stolen in real time, but that might be what is happening right now in Georgia. [emphasis added]
“When it comes to the nationwide, comprehensive, carefully planned Republican effort to suppress the votes of people who are likely to vote Democratic, particularly racial minorities, there is a menu of techniques Republicans employ — voter ID laws, voter purges, limiting early voting, closing polling places in heavily minority neighborhoods, and racial and partisan gerrymandering.
“But what Brian Kemp is doing right now is truly unique. Kemp, the Republican nominee for governor, is locked in an extremely tight race with Democrat Stacey Abrams. He also happens to be the secretary of state, the official in charge of all elections in Georgia. You might expect him to step down or recuse himself from overseeing his own election in the interest of fairness and public confidence that the fix is not in, but that’s not how Republicans do things. Kemp isn’t just overseeing the process, he’s apparently also doing everything he can to keep as many Democrats as possible from the polls in November.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2018/10/11/republicans-may-be-about-to-steal-an-election-in-georgia/
Waldman is referring to a report by The Washington Post’s Ben Nadler on Oct. 9 that “through a process that Kemp calls voter roll maintenance and his opponents call voter roll purges, Kemp’s office has cancelled over 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012. Nearly 670,000 registrations were cancelled in 2017 alone.
“In a recent television appearance on Comedy Central’s ‘The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,’ [Democratic candidate for governor Stacy] Abrams called Kemp ‘a remarkable architect of voter suppression.’ That’s become a rallying cry for Democrats in the governor’s race, which recent public polling shows in a statistical dead heat.”
12. What about all those voters who are just too darn lazy to vote? Well, people being people, yes, many people put off registering or do not get their IDs in shape before election day. Some of them may well be just lazy. But what do the facts tell us about obstacles to voting and how they affect voters in red and blue states?
In an Oct. 5 op-ed in The New York Times, Sarah Jackel and Stuart A. Thompson examine the facts behind “The Myth of the Lazy Nonvoter.” They write, “If history is any indicator, only around 40 percent of eligible voters will vote in the midterm elections. Most people assume that voter turnout remains this low because Americans are apathetic and simply don’t want to vote. But it’s more likely that most Americans do want to vote, and one of the root causes of low turnout is this country’s framework of restrictive voting laws….
“To explore the hurdles that voters face this election, we created five voter profiles: the voter with no ID, the procrastinator, the student, the working parent and the convicted felon. There is one figure for each state. In states with a Republican majority in the state House of Representatives, the figure is red. In states with a Democratic-majority House, the figure is blue.”
What they found will not surprise our readers. Red states make it harder for voters who would have trouble getting an ID or getting to the polls on election day or having access to mail-in ballots. Some people may indeed just not care enough to jump over the hurdles, true. But some hurdles are higher than others.
For example, take the working parent. “Two out of every five people who most likely won’t vote next month are already registered and have the proper ID. Many of them face considerable obstacles in getting to the polls because they are parents with full-time jobs who cannot afford to take unpaid time off work to vote. Less than half of the states require employers to pay employees for time off to vote on Election Day…. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 35 percent of those who registered but did not vote in the 2014 midterms said that scheduling conflicts with work or school kept them from getting to the polls. [emphasis added] For many working parents, the ability to vote by mail or through early in-person voting on weekends is critical. However, a number of states, including Alabama, Michigan and Pennsylvania, give residents neither the option to vote early in person nor the option to vote by mail (without satisfying certain requirements). In such states, without guaranteed paid time off to vote on Election Day, working parents often can’t make it to the polls.”
Then, of course, there are the many states that deny the vote to convicted felons. And, as The Brennan Center for Social Justice says, “since 2010, at least 23 states have enacted laws restricting the ability to vote in some manner, including many states with competitive midterm races. These new laws limit early voting, make registration more difficult and introduce stricter photo-ID requirements, factors that particularly affect African-American, Hispanic, low-income and young voters. The outcomes in those states this November could hinge on which Americans — eager as ever to participate — are actually able to cast a ballot.”
Often the affected populations do not know that they need paperwork to vote. Certainly many people are blameworthy for not surmounting obstacles to voting. But confusing and restrictive laws, especially in red states, are certainly effective in holding down the vote. However you read these numbers, read this article and judge for yourself how far voter suppression works against the young, the working parent, the minority voter. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/05/opinion/midterm-election-voter-turnout-photo-id.html
13. OK, time for us to adopt our stupid end-of-the-news grin and offer up… THE CUTE LITTLE SQUIRREL STORY! We know you love squirrel stories, and we did not have to hunt far for this one. It rather dropped in our laps, since a number of major news outlets covered it.
Here it is, from The Washington Post on Wednesday: “Woman with ‘emotional support squirrel’ removed from plane.” “Police at a Florida airport removed a passenger who refused to get off a Cleveland-bound flight after she was found carrying an ‘emotional support squirrel.’
“Passengers had already boarded Frontier Airlines Flight 1612 at Orlando International Airport on Tuesday night when they were told there was a ‘situation’ and everyone needed to get off the plane, according to passenger Brandon Nixon…. Rodents, including squirrels, are not one of the emotional support animals allowed on Frontier flights, according to its website.
14. Good news for the Sean Casten campaign. As The Chicago Sun-Times reported on Oct. 8, “A poll commissioned by Democrat Sean Casten’s congressional campaign finds the political newcomer ahead of U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., with just four weeks to go before the November election.