Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Threats

Author: Gary Hart

A few years ago, I was honored to be appointed chair of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Threat Reduction Advisory Committee.  As the title suggests, there were two dozen of us—former senior military officers, cabinet officers, scientists, and office holders—tasked with identifying and remediating existing and future threats.

The organizing principle was to reduce the threat before it became unmanageable to proportions that could be dealt with expeditiously or prevented from happening altogether.

Needless to say, this survey ranged all the way from local wars to future terrorist attacks.

Among others, I repeatedly urged our scope to be broad enough to include non-military threats, including such things as climate threats and pandemics.

Military threats are traditionally dealt with by military, and sometimes diplomatic, means.  But how does the national security apparatus of the U.S., or any other country for that matter, deal with threats to security from natural occurrences or man’s mistreatment of nature.

Out of that and other studies by two or more successive government administrations, came some significant changes and reforms.  Systems were established internationally for scientists to exchange information on a real time basis, internationally agencies were created, and within our own government officials in the National Security Agency, Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies were designated.

As with so much else in the past three years or more, the Trump administration, largely led by former National Security Advisor whose principal preoccupation since the collapse of the Cold War was to find regional wars to fight to justify weapons procurement, dismantled much if not all of the apparatus meant to identify and organize to defeat threats such as pandemics.

Experts concerned with non-military threats, in his mind, were a distraction from “real” threats requiring ships, planes, and tanks.

Which, of course, brought us to last January and the pandemic waiting to happen.  We not only were not prepared, we were led by people who did not want to think about non-military threats.  As a result, seven times more Americans, already, have died as the result of Covid-19 than died on 9/11 and many more to follow.

This is a steep price to pay for willfully refusing to anticipate and prepare for the threats of tomorrow.  If carbon is not reduced very soon millions around the world, including in the U.S., will die from starvation and disease.  And there is nothing to prevent Covid-22, 23, and 24 from paying us a visit.

I was asked recently what I thought the greatest threat to our security was.  I said “ignorance”.  If America persists in electing and re-electing ignorant leaders, we will get what we deserve.

Footnote: on his way out the door, John Bolton managed to dissolve the Threat Reduction Advisory Committee in 2019.

It is not necessary to be an historian of plagues throughout history to understand that life rarely remains the same following one.  That is true on economic, political, and especially social levels.  A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by a distinguished professor of history, Walter Scheidel , documents the impact of the Black Plague in the 14th century in disrupting the Medieval systems of that era.

It is much too early to see the outcome of the Covid 19 virus on global societies, including in the United States.  But it is not too early to see the beginning of trends and patterns that could linger well beyond the suppression of the plague.

First and foremost is the issue of the role of government.  With one or two diehard exceptions, even small government Republicans are forced to join a consensus around massive federal interference in almost all layers of the economy.  Massive stimulus packages, including sweeping bailout of whole industries, direct payments to millions of unemployed workers, and fall back financing for millions of small businesses are rivaled only by New Deal interventions that created what came to be called a social safety net.

Few believe the economic damage done by this plague will disappear when (and if) the plague is conquered.  The disruption of markets, industries, and supply chains will reverberate for decades to come.  It will be decades before the leisure industries, hotels, restaurants, transportation, and much else come anywhere near the old normal, if ever.

The political administration of this New Era of Reconstruction would be problematic for even an administration of sound leadership and experience.  We do not have that kind of administration right now.  And we may or may not get one next November.

In the meantime, we must prepare for an era of corruption rivaled only once or twice in American history.  Already, lifesaving equipment is being distributed to White House favorites, meaning especially Republican candidates for the Senate and House this fall.  After cancelling an order for hundreds of ventilators by Colorado’s Governor, Trump sent a hundred of them to a Colorado Senator whose campaign is troubled.  This is what that Kushner meant when he said medical equipment “belongs to us” in the administration.

So, we are now in a campaign that is literally about life and death.  Trump better pray that his Party does not lose the Senate, or more directly, that he does not lose.  Either way, there will be corruption investigations regarding his administration of trillions of recovery dollars for decades to come.  Jail cells are waiting.

What a time for Joe Biden to become Franklin Roosevelt II.  Now is the time for a televised speech laying out a blueprint for wholesale recovery of the economy, support for workers and families, federal support for whole communities, revitalization of education, a new health care system with an option for Medicare, housing and relocation assistance, and, finally, the infrastructure rebuilding project repeatedly discussed but stymied by Republicans reluctant to spend the money.  That position has now become a tragic joke.

 

Regardless of Trump’s manipulations, cheer leading, and baseless happy projections, full scale recovery will not take place before the fall elections.  Restructuring of the national economy will take years and that economy will look remarkably different from the pre-plague one.

Whole industries and sector will be reorganized and ownership will change hands.  Given our economic system, absent strict enforcement of existing anti-trust laws ownership will pass from one wealthy elite to another.  If organized labor were stronger, and who’s to say it won’t once again become so, rights of workers, re-employed and new, cannot be guaranteed.  But the golden rule will apply: he who has the most gold, rules.

If Trump should be re-elected, expect his wealthy and powerful friends to come out on top.  A lot of the huge recovery package will have gone their way.

But, in the midst of this chaos, one principle should prevail and Joe Biden must be its protector and champion.  That principle is fairness.  It is imbedded in almost all our hearts.  We know it when we see it, and we know it even more when it is absent.

In the great restructuring that is to come, the single most important principle to restore is fairness…call it the New Fairness Deal.  Wholesale restoration of family owned small businesses is every bit as important as giant corporations.  Small towns across the nation are as important to America’s backbone as sprawling cities.  Thousands of Main Streets are as important as one Wall Street.

The issue is trust.  I trust Joe Biden to restore fairness a whole lot more than I trust the guy who is there now.

Don Quixote Lives

Author: Gary Hart

Though most man-made tragedies are the result of human folly, political movements, greed, hunger for power and territory, and wars of misplaced resentments, nature itself produces tragedies, as we are reminded once again.

Pandemics know no borders and respect no nations, histories, or human aspirations.  They are frightening as much as anything because they convey no meaning, except perhaps that, like fire itself, it is best to be prepared.

In the Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel de Unamuno, Professor of Greek at the University of Salamanca a century ago, looks to Don Quixote for inspiration.  As taught in most schools and universities, Quixote is the emblem of long-lost romanticism and a melancholy, even demented, desire to recapture an age of chivalry, always guided back to sanity by his loyal companion, Sancho Panza, the representative of sanity itself.

But, in Unamuno’s search for meaning in life’s tragic sense, Quixote has a much more cosmic character.  For him, the real Don Quixote did not die.  He “remained among us…this Don Quixote must never die.”  He descended into hell and shut the gates of hell and placed upon them, not Dante’s scroll, but one upon which was written “Long Live Hope.”

Unamuno’s Quixote lives on, and his search to restore the lost ideal of knight-errantry still guides those few among us who find life’s meaning in the restoration of an ideal.

Idealism fades in an age of science, rationalism, and reason.  Particularly so when all is reduced to “politics” and politics is the description of realism, pragmatism, and power.

Now, in my ninth decade on earth and accounting for a life much more fraught yet more rewarding than I could ever have imagined, I see Don Quixote much differently.  The ideal that has guided me and that I have ever tried to keep alive in the lives of others is that of service, public service to be more precise, service to others.

When an idealist comes along in an age of pragmatic materialism it is an instance of what Unamuno called “Quixotism”, “a whole economy of things eternal and things divine, a whole hope in what is rationally absurd.”  Thus, especially in the modern age, quixotic is the word to describe the impossible dream, a dream that, against all odds, human beings can learn to love one another.

What does all this have to do with the current plague?  Very little.  Except this, those of us on earth who escape its ravages will owe it to medical science, and the sacrificial dedication of tens of thousands of medical workers each of whom represents Quixotism and the restoration of the ideal of service, and to Fortune herself.

In the meantime, there will be more political delusion than a mature society should countenance in the 21st century, a delusion meant to escape political responsibility and accountability.  But, as Machiavelli reminds us (and Unamuno repeats): “Whoever wishes to delude will always find someone willing to be deluded.”

We do not know when and how our current tragedy will end.  We have not seen its peak as it continues to ravage much of the United States and the world.

But, it is not too soon to begin to locate an appropriate space for a symbolic monument of gratitude for the heroes sacrificing their own lives every hour of every day to save the rest of us.

It seems appropriate to conclude these brief reflections with the words of Professor Unamuno:

“What then is the new mission of Don Quixote, today, in this world?

To cry aloud, to cry aloud in the wilderness.  But though men hear not,

the Wilderness hears, and one day it will be transformed into a

resounding forest, and this solitary voice that goes scattering over the

wilderness like seed, will fructify into a gigantic cedar, which with

its hundred thousand tongues will sing an eternal hosanna to the Lord

of life and of death.”

Long Live Hope proclaims the tattered banner of Quixotism.  Mankind will not only survive, it will prevail.

Beyond the Plague

Author: Gary Hart

Since many of us find ourselves with time on our hands, sadly, it might be interesting to solicit forecasting from our modest but erudite band.  When all of this is over and the plague has been banished, God willing, what will the world, or at least our part of the world, look like?  Will it be pretty much like the pre-plague world or will we have entered a new set of realities, through the looking glass as it were?

And as a gesture of affection for our international colleagues and friends, Elizabeth and Lorenzo, “our part of the world” must, of course, include our neighbor to the North and our close ally across the pond.

For purposes of discussion, let’s assume historic and traditional governing structures, business structures, economic formulas and institutions, and family lives will remain basically intact.  But, for purposes of speculation and imagination, even these foundations might be forced to adapt.

Let’s arbitrarily picked an end and beginning date of 1 January 2021, last plague death and no new infections.  What will that morning look like?  Will we stay in bed and pull the covers over our respective heads out of sheer exhaustion?  Or will we bound up, throw the curtains open, and greet the dawn out of sheer exhilaration at having survived?

Will badly damaged confidence in governments return, or will stored up anger at mismanagement cause new political parties to sprout?  Will millions of small lost businesses be restored, or will we enter a long period of recession and mass unemployment?  Will small towns and communities have disappeared and cities have become even larger and more unmanageable?

Does the dark cloud of recession and possibly even depression have a silver lining?  Will carbon footprints across the globe have shrunk and carbon emissions be reduced to manageable and sustainable levels?

How do you imagine democratic societies to have changed?  Have social patterns returned to pre-plague conditions?  Will friends greet each other with hugs and kisses as before?

How about a generation of children that has experienced the plague?  As adolescents and eventually young adults, will that generation forever be looking over its collective shoulders and fearing what might happen…again?

This list of question could lengthen, but you get the idea.  Twenty-twenty could be but a hiccup in human history.  Or it might be a turning point in human history, like a world war, the 1918 flu epidemic, the first atomic detonation, or a landing on the moon.

Perhaps not next New Year’s Day, but years from now, our current experience must cause thoughtful people to reassess priorities, think more seriously about life…and death, grieve for lost loved ones, strengthen (or possibly weaken) families.

Some will become philosophical about what society owes us and what we owe society.  Some will seek more wealth for the security it offers and others disdain it for the protections it could not provide.

Some might pop a cork or two and say, “dodged that bullet.”

Some might even think, Life is fragile and I’m wasting a lot of it, so let’s think seriously about service to others.

What does life after the plague mean for you?

 

 

The recovery debate, if it may be called that, has begun.  And, though there are many views, two currently prevail.

The first might be labeled Crash and Burn.  The second might be called Selective Triage.

Crash and Burn is horizontal and ubiquitous.  It is roughly what we, at least in America, are doing now.  Shut it down.  Lock the doors.  Lock up the villages and entire cities.  Lock up California.  Shelter in place.  Hoarding is permitted.  Devil take the hindmost.

Crash and Burn anticipates mass small business failures and high unemployment until we get control of the plague, and that may be twelve to eighteen months from now.

America, and hopefully the world, will survive, but will it look like America before the plague or will it be another country.

After the horizontal shut down of Crash and Burn, a small second-thought backlash is emerging.  Selective Triage says, wait a minute.  We don’t need to burn the place down to save it.  The plague is selective.  Protect the vulnerable old folks (ahem) and those otherwise incapacitated.  But send the strongest and most resilient back to work, with masks and gloves when required, but keep those factories, small businesses, schools, and other institutions open.

Proponents of Selective Triage rely on two data points: recovery rates after infection are high, higher than with previous viruses; and once infected, the victim does not experience a recurrence.  This latter point has yet to be clinically proved it seems, though many believe it.

Those of us who studied philosophy rather than biology find ourselves in a wilderness of mirrors, dependent on whichever virologist or epidemiologist has been interviewed most recently.

There is reason to suspect that prolonged Crash and Burn isolation will have as yet unknown repercussions, certainly financially, but also psychologically.  We were not meant to isolate ourselves with one, two, or three family members however close we may be to them.  It is a prescription for depression among other things.

We may see, at the least, a serious rise in already high levels of divorce.  Privacy and distance are required even for those with long relationships.

Philosophy students also tended not to delve into high economics.  But it does not require a Ph.D. in that subject to imagine a devastated national economy eighteen months from now.  Tens of thousands of small businesses shuttered and employees scattered and on permanent public assistance of some kind.  Entire small business sectors could literally disappear.

The newly minted “War President”, self-commissioned to command despite those pesky bone spurs, and his Party will look out for the Fortune 500 but beyond that you are on your own.  Good old “trickle down” has found a new life.  Cruise lines will get billions, despite choosing a foreign flag to avoid U.S. taxes.  Airlines for sure.  Hotels and resorts also, including one chain near and dear to the president and his family.

The “Swamp” will not be drained for a long while, but it will get swampier.

With close to two trillion on the table, and more where that came from, the Fortune 500 will find back doors to the Treasury Department to use that free money to buy back stock and thus ensure even greater wealth.

How is it that wealth always finds ways to replicate wealth even during the direst of plagues.

Among the specialists in epidemiology it would be interesting to know how many favor the Selective Triage idea, that is care for the elderly (ahem) but let the healthy go back to work and dodge the bullets.  It does not seem a judgement that ignorant people like philosophers should make.

Fasten your seatbelts, but don’t let the “War President” deal the cards.

And all of you, do take care of yourselves.  The elderly need you around.

 

 

A Test of Character

Author: Gary Hart

Like individuals, nations are tested from time to time.  America has had its share of tests, not least our terrible Civil War, but also the Revolutionary War before it, the Great Depression, two World Wars, and the long twilight struggle known as the Cold War.

Today we face a new test, one that cannot be won by military means.  But one that will call upon our national character, nonetheless.  Alas, we do not have a Winston Churchill at the helm of the ship of state.  But we could use someone like him.

Churchill is brought to mind by yet another gift book from my longtime friend Bill Shore.  It is The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson and chronicles the first year of Churchill’s prime ministership as Hitler overran Belgium and the Low Countries and then France.

It would be 18 long months before he could get the United States to enter the struggle to save Western civilization and even then, Pearl Harbor would be required to overcome the pull-up-the drawbridge isolationism popular once again today.

After extricating a third of a million men in the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, all the British had was Churchill’s promise of “blood, sweat, and tears.”

Since the war that followed, World War II, we have faced the Soviets and then al Qaeda and ISIS.  Both required one kind of military and then another.  But now we face a single virus cell that migrates with lightening speed using individual humans, and their planes and ships, to spread across the face of the globe.

The front line of our defense is composed of thousands of health care workers who daily, hourly, put their own lives at risk.  The Italians serenaded them from their balconies and the Spanish gave them loud applauds all together all across their nation.

Though our leadership has not suggested it, we might give consideration to a national demonstration of our gratitude to them.  Each one of us could end up calling on their sacrifices on any day to come.

Health care workers are generally underpaid, and they receive no medals for their sacrificial care.  If you should encounter one at the supermarket, eyes hollow from lack of sleep, you might think about simply saying thank you.

Like looming climate disasters, species loss, plastic ocean islands, burned Amazon forests, childhood hunger, homelessness, and much else, all the costly weapons in the world will not stop or even slow the coronavirus.  And this one will not be the last one.  Over the horizon others are baking and entering the bloodstreams of a wide variety of animals or even plants that will be brought to distant rural and urban markets and thus into the mainstream of human life.

We are not prepared, mostly because we have taken from public health services and laboratories to build even more sophisticated ships, planes, and tanks.  Nature, and particularly its dark side, has a way of making us question our priorities.  The current virus will kill more Americans than died on 9/11, for which we were also unprepared.

America, and for that matter the world, are being tested.  We could use at least one if not several Winston Churchills.  But our political system has not been producing very many of those in recent times.

Consider who among us has the learning, the skills, the insights, the stature, the power of voice and imagination to bring our nation together, to rally our spirits, to call upon our better angels, to shame our partisanship and raise up a mighty nation.

That task becomes even more daunting when there is no Hitler with the Luftwaffe.  But is just a single microscopic cell.

The symbol of our resistance and steadfastness will not be units on parade in uniform with bombers flying overhead.

The symbol of our character may be thanks to a nurse or doctor…and perhaps singing from our porches and balconies.

America’s character is being sorely tested and on the outcome of that test will rest the future of our nation.

To All Our Friends

Author: Gary Hart

Message to Our Friends:

To everyone on this site or within its reach: take very good care of yourselves.  Absent national leadership and authority, the burden of care falls on each of us and our individual communities.  The human spirit is strong, resilient, and will prevail.

Health care experts, largely outside of Washington, are clear on what each of us must do to protect ourselves.  If we are fortunate, this pandemic will peak and pass and we will make our way back to some degree of normalcy.

In the meantime, please look after yourselves and take the precautions we are advised to take.

In terms of age, my wife Lee and I are in the danger zone.  With few exceptions, we have been very fortunate health wise.  We’ve been through a good deal, politically and otherwise.  It is what it is.

Crises, and this one is far from its peak, have a way of telling all of us who we are and what we are made of.  Based on your comments and thoughts over the years, you have all shown strengths, thoughtfulness, and a high degree of community and human kindnesses.  These will carry people like you through even the greatest threats and dangers.

Let’s stay in contact with each other.  Continue to focus on the challenges not only of today but also those on the horizon.

Take care of yourselves.  God bless.

Gary

The Cold Shower of Reality

Author: Gary Hart

Donald Trump exacts a heavy price of unvarnished loyalty from those around him, not least from his Vice President, newly named the leader of an ad hoc task force responsible for controlling a virus until recently dismissed as a spring flu by the maximum leader.

A few hours ago, Mr. Pence held a lengthy press conference meant to show the Trump administration in complete control, pushing virus testing kits out the door as fast as possible and otherwise fighting the invisible virus into a diminishing corner.

Mr. Pence has been a profile of anti-science rectitude, questioning experts on climate science, moving appointees into positions of authority whose main purpose was to scrub regulations and policies of any mention of established expert reference to overwhelming proof of scientific evidence that contradicted out-of-thin-air assertions by the president that black was white and, being a stable genius, he knew better about just about everything than those pointy-headed Ph.Ds.

But there he was at the hastily called press conference to reassure an anxious nation that all was under control and was surrounded by genuine experts, none of whom was known to have claimed stable geniusness.  They were recognized experts in epidemiology, virus control, medicine, mass inoculations, and career officials of the Center for Disease Control.

One waited, hoping against hope, that a bright reporter might have asked, “Mr. Vice President, are the experts up there with you part of the ‘deep state’?”

No such luck, alas.

The only slight bright spot in this dark experience is evidence that even the leaders of this strange administration are, when confronted with genuine and widespread public anxiety, capable of dropping the mask of denial and venturing on tiptoe somewhere near telling the truth.

Up to now, virtually every government responsibility hinging on facts and scientific evidence has been met with a top down question, Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

It has always been the mark of authoritarianism that facts are false, news is fake, science is flawed, evidence is relative, and questioning authority is the quickest way to be banished from the magic kingdom.

But our current authoritarians have not been able to duck and dodge when real people, our neighbors and friends, get sick and die, especially in increasing numbers.  You can only shuck and jive so long.  Then reality catches up.

And a reality like a pandemic throws political claptrap into a very cold shower.

It is a wonder for those of us who didn’t get beyond eighth grade biology that a single cell from a strange animal in an open market in a suburb of a Chinese city can get on an airplane or a cruise ship or even just a bicycle and spread around the world faster than all the science in the world can catch up.

Those of us who respect, perhaps even worship, the wonders of Nature sooner or later understand that it has its dark side.  Like the problem of evil in theology, it must be accounted for and appreciated.

That viral single cell has the power to plunge markets into chaos, destroy billions of dollars in value, wipe out whole companies, rattle entire industries, and scatter panic across societies.  We are not as smart, or as safe, as we like to think we are.

And for the authoritarian masters of the universe who think they know everything and make up what they don’t know, pandemics mock the phoniness of the Wizard with the megaphone behind the curtain.

Reality may slumber, but sooner rather than later it will wake up and sober up the pretend leaders.

 

It is amazing how much the Founders of our nation understood human nature and sought to structure a government to anticipate those seeking excess power, what they called “factions”, or special interest, single issue groups now dominating political parties, careerism, corruption, and a wide variety of human attempts to undermine the republican ideal.

What they could not have anticipated was a president, the leader of the executive branch of government, who did not like or trust his own government.

Had I spent more time on psychology in my extended graduate education search, I might be better at getting inside the Trumpian mind to analyze his narcissism, paranoia, and patent insecurities.  (But any and all who do understand these and other troubling tendencies should weigh in with how they should be understood in a chief executive with a nuclear trigger.)

Much in evidence is the Trumpian demand for personal loyalty.  There are oaths to protect and defend the Constitution required of elected and appointed officials, but none that require absolute loyalty to a democratically elected president.

Even before taking office, Trump issued dire warnings about something he called “the deep state.”  Presumably he got this from his guru Stephen Bannon or some such.  But from whomever, it was meant to say not to expect total obedience from the career civil service.

They were presumed to be “liberal” and therefore antagonistic.  Nevermind that they carried out, for good or for ill, orders for deregulation and downsizing from conservative presidents from Nixon and Reagan through two Bushes.  They did so even when there were Congressionally enacted laws on the books requiring otherwise.

Trump was soon to feel justified in his paranoia by early and consistent leaks from inside his administration, not from career civil servants but from personally appointed White House staff and cabinet officers astounded by what they were commanded to do totally outside the law.

But it was easier for Trump, who has never admitted to a mistake in his life, to blame these leaks on the “deep state” rather than his personal appointees.  We have become so used to chaos in the White House and the administration that it is taken for granted that everyone’s head is on the block every hour.

But “stable geniuses” make no mistakes, so he must blame someone else for the always revolving door.

So here we are, with a president who does not trust the government he was elected to administer.  This is true across the board in economic policy, domestic policy, foreign policy, ad defense.  It is absolutely astounding that he can call the combat bemedaled Joint Chiefs of Staff “babies” and get away with it.  This from the leader of a political party priding itself on national security.

They shrug and say, That’s just Trump being Trump.  Besides, he is doing what we want him to do on judges, guns, abortion, and much else.

The trade off is: We get what we want so long as we go along with his craziness.

The re-election ointment was sailing smoothly until, oops, an unexpected virus emerged.  Well, since re-election was supposed to be a coronation, someone is to blame.  Candidates are: Democrats, of course, the media, of course, and hysteria.  Perhaps a biological weapons factory in China, operating, of course, in connivance with Democrats and the media concocted this virus and let it go…simply to defeat Donald Trump.

Thus, the marriage between paranoia and narcissism.

But family, staff, and advisers are taught to say that viruses come and go, some will live and some will die, but we shouldn’t let Science get in the way of nature.

A clever playwright should do a 90 minute production of the Founders pondering Trump and offering advice on how we should deal with him.  But that would require them to ponder something they had never imagined before.

How This Happened

Author: Gary Hart

In an attempt to determine how Donald Trump polarized the nation along authoritarian lines, some of us have assumed he started it all.  He didn’t.  Like good, evil has roots.

One of the best political observers of recent times, Tom Edsall, set out the history of how this happened [“The Audacity of Hate” NYTimes, Feb.19, 2020].

The re-election campaign for George W. Bush in 2004, replaced get out the moderate vote strategy with one focused on voter anger and fear and activating resentment and hostility.  This was the first attempt to “make this the centerpiece of a mainstream presidential effort.”

This misdirection was compounded by the economic meltdown of 2007-9.  The stock market lost $2 trillion, there was a catastrophic mortgage crisis in which 10 million Americans lost their homes, and millions more lost faith in political and economic systems.

This led to the emergence of the Tea Party in Republican politics which “mobilized racially and financially apprehensive whites who felt abandoned” by traditional mainstream Republican leaders.  On top of this, immigration and school integration struggles compounded the pessimism.

The Tea Party in turn enabled Trump, when he came along, to openly inflame racial and ethnic antagonisms.  Starting with occupation of the ridiculous “birther movement”, he then moved on to Muslims and Latin American immigrants.  He further understood how right-wing Republicans were eager to polarize opposition to liberal elites.

Edsall quotes two scholars: “The GOP has radicalized into an anti-system party that does not accept the legitimacy of its opposition and enables a slide toward autocracy.  Very dangerous times for American democracy.”

Democrats were no longer merely an opposition party; they were objects of hostility.  Dissent from this view inside the Republican party was penalized quickly and brutally.  The very moderate and congenial Republicans of my era were driven out in the 1980’s by more right-wing party candidates.

Edsall and other analysts concur that hyperpolarization has become the new normal and will continue without a major party realignment.

“Trump thrives when the climate is chaotic and disruptive,” concludes Edsall, “and he is the prime example of lost legitimacy in American politics.”  If correct, this conclusion offers little if any hope for a return to relative normalcy any time soon.

And it didn’t begin in 2016 and looks to continue into 2020 and beyond.  Starting with the radical Republican strategic departure in the 2004 national campaign, “American politics were irrevocably transformed, polarization strategies became institutionalized and the stage was set for the explicit racial and anti-immigrant themes dominating Donald Trump’s campaign for election and re-election.” [emphasis added]

This compressed analysis rings true and establishes that at least a dozen years before Trump’s emergence the groundwork was being laid for a figure much like him.

It also shows how ingrained many of these norm-shattering new practices have become and how difficult it will be, absent major political realignments, to return to traditional politics with its insistence on boundaries against polarization on social issues and at least a degree of comity and respect across ideological lines.

This is a pessimistic reading and one hopes not as dire as it seems.  But it does go a long way to explaining how this happened and where it could lead.

One must further hope that, given American principles and ideals, no more than a third of us are prepared to succumb to authoritarianism, particularly in the form of a Trump oligarchy.