Trump Nation

In one of my most overwrought posts (and there are a lot of overwrought posts on this blog) I despaired, somewhat histrionically, that in order to survive the horrors of the Age of Trump, I had to try to block it out and look inward. What was happening was simply too terrible, too alarming to deal with. I concluded, rather hopelessly,

On the eve of World War I, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey famously remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Will we see them lit again in America? For now, all we can do is stand and wait. And maybe pray. I do not mean in any way to be an alarmist, but I do believe Trump is going to be worse than any of us imagine. I fear we are going to be in nightmare mode for years to come, if not for generations (thanks to a Trump-selected Supreme Court). A tragedy, in every way. A complete and total tragedy.

The bad news is that I am now just as pessimistic about my country’s future. Maybe even more so. We seem to exist from one Trump atrocity to the next. Weeks seem like months, months like years, as each day brings another outrage, so many so quickly that we can’t keep up. This past week he injected nasty political swipes during an address to the Boy Scouts. Just a couple of days later he told police not to be “too nice” when arresting suspected gang members, a particularly ugly example of Trump’s brutality, actually encouraging police to rough up people they arrest, throwing to the winds the concept of innocent until proven guilty. The day before that we witnessed his new communications director referring to the sitting chief of staff as a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic.” Today he ranted against China, as though Xi Jinping could erase the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program with a wave of his hand.

It all started on June 16, 2015, the day Trump announced his candidacy. I watched it live, transfixed. Here was a candidate for the presidency of the United States slandering Hispanics with glee. We all remember his chilling words that day.

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

How on earth could he hope to win the nomination while preaching hatred and racism? He would have to burn out in a matter of weeks, right? Americans would obviously see how menacing and unhinged he was, right?

For months I watched him closely, and I began to become calloused – little Trump said could surprise me. He shocked me, but he did not surprise me. I watched in astonishment when he said John McCain was only a war hero because he got captured. My jaw dropped when he made fun of a journalist with a neurological disease. And perhaps I was most stunned when I heard him utter these words in December, 2015:

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

This was deranged on several levels. Imagine President Obama announcing a ban on Jews seeking to come to America. Never before had we seen a “serious” politician slander an entire religion. Trump barely concealed his racism as he preached his message of “law and order,” which is code for keeping blacks and Hispanics in check. It was a message of fear. Fear of immigrants, fear of blacks, fear of Muslims, fear of Hispanics. Then he lashed out at Elizabeth Warren, dubbing her “Pocahontas,” another racist slur (imagine calling President Obama “Sambo”). When would it stop? When would he implode?

I admit, I was hypnotized. Like so many others, I watched the Trump rallies and speeches slavishly, in a state of bemused wonder. Bemused because he would, of course, never actually win. The networks became all Trump all the time. He was spectacular for their ratings; everyone wanted to enjoy the spectacle of this madman’s rants and insults. He had no fear of offending vast swaths of Americans (like the “elites”). The cheers of his adoring crowds gave him electrifying energy. He never backed down, never apologized, never showed any signs of conscience. He encouraged his fans to rough up protesters at his rallies, offering to help pay their legal bills. Ugliest of all, perhaps, was his constant smearing of Hillary Clinton as a criminal – a charge that stuck to her, and that he still rants about, calling for his attorney general to pursue criminal charges against her for using a private server, an issue that then-FBI director Jim Comey put to rest months earlier, saying she was careless but in no way criminal.

Then we watched him win one primary after another. Jeb Bush, we were told, was going to be the front runner, and maybe Marco Rubio would be his most serious opponent. Trump was a bad joke. He had to flame out. But we all know what happened next.

The fascination with all things Trump continues. Cable news cannot serve up enough of Trump, countless panels never tire of dissecting his every word, every tweet. Noxious Trump surrogates on CNN lie through their teeth defending him, and for some reason the network keeps them on despite their obvious prevarications. And I contribute to this circus, obsessively watching all the cable shows, and then tuning in later at night to watch Steven Colbert and Seth Meyers, both of whom have made mocking Trump a cottage industry.

We are now more than six months into this nightmare and things keep going from bad to worse. All the hope that he would “grow into the job,” that “sane” voices like Ivanka Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s, would keep him in check, and that experienced advisors like Generals Maddis and MacMaster would rein him in — none of it happened. And the Democrats can’t seem to come up with a credible alternative; where is the leader we can rally around and look to for leadership in 2020? And what is the Democrats’ message? This was a serious flaw in the Clinton campaign: she never successfully articulated a message that would bring people together. Trump’s Make America Great again and Bernie Sanders’ promise of a Better Tomorrow and a new deal for the working and middle classes, were effective, whatever we may think of Trump and Sanders. And let me be clear that I thought Clinton was a qualified, intelligent, experienced statesman who would have made an excellent president. But I was frustrated at her inability to articulate a vision, other than her promise to keep building on the foundations Obama had laid down. This proved to be tone deaf: Americans wanted a sea change; what we had wasn’t working for them. They wanted a leader who would “drain the swamp” and listen to the working people. Trump exploited their fears and prejudices masterfully. You have to give him credit. He tapped into a vein of anger, despair and frustration. Never mind that his promises were empty and that his words would ring hollow. He was a shrewd politician and I hope the Democrats can learn from him. The message is everything. What is the Democrats’ message?

At the moment, the only ray of hope I can see is the inability of Trump to get anything done. His narcissistic arrogance is equaled only by his incompetence and tendency to thrive on chaos. But don’t forget, he will almost certainly name at least one more Supreme Court justice, and the fate of Roe v. Wade (and plenty of other decisions) will be in danger. The Court will shape what America is for years, maybe decades, to come. And that is too scary to contemplate.

Thanks for indulging me as I rant against Trump for the second time in six months. I just had to get it out of my system. Meanwhile, I will keep doing all I can to support the resistance, but for now I remain half-paralyzed. I fear we still haven’t seen the worst of Trump’s presidency. It’s going to be a long three and a half years.

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Welcome to the Age of Trump


Since Trump’s victory, my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant in Phoenix, Middle Eastern Bakery and Deli, has had its windows smashed — twice. I know the owner and his wife and it is kind of ironic that they are Christians (from Lebanon). Huge crowds lined up at lunchtime today to show their support, and I plan to go tomorrow. It is encouraging that the central Phoenix community has set up a GoFundMe page to help the restaurant owner and it has garnered nearly $11,000 in the past 24 hours.

They say it’s too early to call this a hate crime, but I strongly suspect it is. And I expect we will see lots more incidents like this as racists and haters feel emboldened by Trump’s election, by a man who called for the ban on all Muslims entering the US, by a man beloved by white supremacists and ultra-nationalists. Welcome to the Age of Trump, where the new national security advisor has said “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL” (his caps), and where Trump’s strategic advisor has strong ties to the alt right. Since Trump’s election, incidents of harassment and intimidation have soared. It’s going to be a long and painful four years.

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Donald Trump Rears His Head

Three weeks later, and the shock and worry won’t wear off. For months I had devoured every bit of news about the election. I donated three times to the Democratic campaign. I watched the three cable news giants obsessively. I had it all figured out, thanks to the media and the ubiquitous polls thrown at us every day: Trump had only the narrowest of windows for winning the race and he had a 90 percent chance of losing. Women and Hispanics were mobilizing and would vote in record numbers for Clinton. Millennials were coming off the pain they felt at Bernie Sanders’ defeat in the primaries and were now going to vote for Clinton. Obama was going to galvanize black voters and send them to the polls. For all her baggage, Clinton was the odds-on favorite up to the very last day. And then, as I sat transfixed watching my television screen on election day, the unthinkable happened, and now I can’t stop thinking about it. I keep trying to wrap my head around what a world led by a lying, bullying, hateful reality TV star would look like, and I still can’t quite visualize it. We know some terrible disaster is right around the corner, thanks to Trump’s ignorance of foreign policy, underscored by his chat with Taiwan’s president and his heaping praise on the president of Pakistan.

Even three weeks later I feel numb, helpless and betrayed. After all, Clinton won the popular vote handily. And if it hadn’t been for James Comey’s shockingly inappropriate letter to Congressional committee chairs announcing that yet more Clinton emails had been discovered, I am convinced we would have seen a happier outcome. We would have seen a more progressive Supreme Court. We would have seen the continuation and improvement of Obamacare. We would have seen protection of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, which the GOP can’t wait to privatize. We would have seen a calm, cool-headed leader who knows how to skillfully interact with heads of state and who understands how to walk the tightrope of international relations (like how to deal with Taiwan). Instead we get a misogynistic, narcissistic, race-baiting carnival barker. Our lives are in the hands of a madman. All we can do is hope he can be restrained by those he surrounds himself with, but I’m not sure anyone can restrain Donald Trump. His chief strategist, Steven Bannon, is closely aligned with the alt right, and will be whispering in Trump’s ear every day. God help us.

We are all beyond saturation with the coverage. My Facebook feed fills up every few minutes with more stories about Trump’s improbable victory and what it means. Key words and phrases that keep running in my head include uncharted territory, fear, dread, despair, unprecedented, terrifying, no one knows, unimaginable, white supremacists, surreal…. And I admit that despite the saturation, I still keep reading the articles and watching the news shows, hoping that maybe I can finally understand and accept what happened. (So far I have been glaringly unsuccessful.)

I suppose we have two alternatives: to burrow ourselves into a hole and try to block it all out, or to actively work to change things for the better and to get ready for the next election fight in 2018. The closing stanza of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach keeps replaying in my head:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

There we have it: the most I can do at the moment is turn inward and try to keep the angst at a minimum, to forget about the “ignorant armies” that clash by night and just get on the best I can. Maybe in a few months I’ll get active in politics again, but for now I am simply trying to keep from being overwhelmed in a tsunami of terrible news that seems to get worse every day. The steady onslaught, the latest telling of Trump’s horrifying behavior or appointment or tweet, is numbing, stultifying. Hope is supposed to spring eternal, but at this moment I can’t see anything to feel hopeful about.

On the eve of World War I, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey famously remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Will we see them lit again in America? For now, all we can do is stand and wait. And maybe pray. I do not mean in any way to be an alarmist, but I do believe Trump is going to be worse than any of us imagine. I fear we are going to be in nightmare mode for years to come, if not for generations (thanks to a Trump-selected Supreme Court). A tragedy, in every way. A complete and total tragedy.

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Twenty-five years later

I never before saw all the raw video footage of “Tank Man’s” defiance against a column of army tanks until today. It is remarkable, how one nameless man entered all of our living rooms for just a moment and is remembered so vividly a quarter of a century later. And for good reason.

Let’s keep the hundreds of murdered innocents in our thoughts today, and keep alive the fight to let the Chinese people know all who died during the crackdown. Let’s remember the Tiananmen Mothers, and let’s even hope for the day when the CCP admits the demonstrations were not an act of “counterrevolutionary” treachery inspired by foreign subversives, but an expression of the Chinese people’s yearning for a say in their government, for their voices to be counted, for officials to be held accountable. The demonstrators were patriots, not traitors. Sometimes foolish, sometimes caught up in their own infighting and bickering, but patriots nonetheless. Watch the Tank Man footage. Remember how and why he became an icon for standing up to brute force. (The driver of the tank should be remembered as well for his humanity. He could easily have killed Tank Man in an instant.) Every year I say Never Forget. Now, 25 years later, I say it with even more urgency. The Party, in its efforts to keep the TSM a taboo topic, reveals its own vulnerability and weakness. They must not be let off the hook. At some point the truth has to be told.

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Return of Liu Di, the “Stainless Steel Mouse”

Those of you who have been reading this blog for ten years or more (if any such reader exists) might remember an array of posts I wrote in 2004 regarding a “cyberdissident” Liu Di, who posted pro-democracy essays on the Internet under the moniker Stainless Steel Mouse. Posts like this or this, and several more. She also participated in study groups that discussed freedom and government reform, and saw herself and her colleagues arrested. I remember how angry I felt when another cyberdissident who lobbied for her release was himself arrested. Still, she has never been silenced. Even as recently as last month she was taken into custody for participating in a seminar about June 4th.

A reader brought to my attention the availability of three of Liu Di’s not-seen-before essays translated into English, one from 2014, another from 2013 and the last from 2010. These essays, one on remembering June 4, another on how the CCP operates and who they really serve, and one on why it is so important to hold out hope for incremental reform of the Chinese government, are poignant and beautifully written (thanks to Ragged Banner for the excellent translation). I hope you can take a moment and read all three.

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Two cats on a mat

I posted this on Facebook a few days ago and want to immortalize it on my blog. I had washed a small rug and put it on my front porch to dry and my two gorgeous cats immediately colonized it. (Click to enlarge.) What is life without cats?

Update: Today one of the cats climbed up on the roof and made his way to the front porch awning, where he held court all day, 12 feet from the ground.

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Xu Zhiyong gets 4 years for being a great civil servant

A week ago, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker wrote an excellent profile of a man who should be considered a national hero, Xu Zhiyong, who fought for greater government transparency to rein in corruption. I recommend everyone read it to see how this was no ordinary activist, but a courageous reformer whose crime was founding a grass-roots movement to promote citizens’ rights and rule of law.

[In 2009] Xu was known for his work as a legal activist, one who had made the rare choice to push for reform not from outside the system but from deep within it—he ran for, and won, a seat on a local district assembly in Beijing. In his work as a lawyer, he had been honored by the government for investigating contaminated baby formula and helping people who had been locked up by local governments in unofficial jails. In 2002, state television named him one of the “Top Ten Figures in the Rule of Law.” Xu projected a nearly evangelical sense of civic consciousness. In 2007, Susan Jakes, then a reporter for Time , wrote of him, “Xu is probably the person most committed to public service that I’ve met in China, and possibly in my whole life.” It was the kind of story that the Chinese press likes to promote now and then as evidence of the country’s capacity for pluralism within the wider confines of Party rule. “I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation,” The Economic Observer, a Beijing-based weekly, quoted him as saying.

As you probably know by now, today Xu, lauded a mere four years ago as a hero, was sentenced to four years in prison for organizing a crowd to disrupt public order. The news just broke, and I can’t find any articles in English yet, but according to several posts on Twitter, Xu said at the trial “this destroys the last remaining dignity of the Chinese legal system.” The sentence, the finale of a mock trial, will send out shock waves to all Chinese reformers. It was inevitable — you don’t get put on trial in China without being found guilty — but it is still a shock. Not a surprise, but a shock, a frightening reminder of just how, for all the new freedoms and rights and openness, there are still fat red lines that must not be crossed, like demanding a crackdown on government corruption. This is meant to cause shock waves, it’s a wake-up call to all activists: kick the hornet’s nest and we will come for you, no matter who you are.

As Osnos writes in his story, the great irony here is that Xi Jinping says one of his top priorities is rooting out government corruption and putting corrupt officials on trial. He is crusading even more zealously, however, for complete control over the flow of information in China, tightening the controls of censorship, especially on the Internet. As Osnos notes, “To tame the unruly power of the Web, the Supreme People’s Court declared that “false defamatory” comments, viewed five thousand times or forwarded five hundred times, could result in a prison sentence of up to three years.”

This story, like that of Liu Xiaobo, will create some international outrage and will reinforce stereotypes of China remaining a prickly authoritarian state that remains terrified of public scrutiny. It won’t matter a bit. This story is for China’s domestic consumption, and sends a clear and powerful message. It’s a tragedy.

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America’s epic fail

There are times when I almost wish the US was being led by an authoritarian government like China’s so it could get things done with no nonsense or political bravado. I say I “almost” wish that because, of course, there is enough bad that comes with authoritarianism to make democracy, for all its wretched faults, the best way to govern. But still, at the moment the notion of having the CCP run things is tempting.

We are now in the middle of the most shocking game of chicken we’ve ever seen in this country’s history. It is utterly unprecedented and frightening. The very idea that the US might default on its debts should scare everyone shitless. The fact that the Republicans needlessly forced the government to shut down ten days ago tells us this is no ordinary inter-party feud. The far right of the Republican party poses an existential threat to our democracy itself.

Andrew Sullivan, who should be a daily read, puts it succinctly:

How does one party that has lost two presidential elections and a Supreme Court case – as well as two Senate elections – think it has the right to shut down the entire government and destroy the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury to get its way on universal healthcare now? I see no quid pro quo even. Just pure blackmail, resting on understandable and predictable public concern whenever a major reform is enacted. But what has to be resisted is any idea that this is government or politics as usual. It is an attack on the governance and the constitutional order of the United States.

When ideologies become as calcified, as cocooned and as extremist as those galvanizing the GOP, the American system of government cannot work. But I fear this nullification of the last two elections is a deliberate attempt to ensure that the American system of government as we have known it cannot work. It cannot, must not work, in the mindset of these radicals, because they simply do not accept the legitimacy of a President and Congress of the opposing party. The GOP does not regard the president as merely wrong – but as illegitimate. Not misguided – illegitimate.

Underneath it all run the venomous tendrils of racism. I saw on the news just yesterday an interview with one of the most radical GOP congressmen and he said we still didn’t know if Obama is American or Kenyan. From day one the far right has challenged Obama’s legitimacy in a shameful spectacle of outrageous accusations. He is different; he is not like you and me. He is not a real American. Everything he does must be challenged and overturned at any cost. Any cost. Right now, I’m embarrassed to be an American. I wish we could bring in the CCP for a few days to crack down on the radicals, then send them on their way once the debt ceiling is raised and the country has no fear of default.

I’ve never worried about the future of the US like I’m worrying now. I think ultimately there will be a bargain, and the Republicans will back down about defunding the Affordable Care Act, a totally lost cause, a stupid cause. But that they dare take the country right to the brink of default, threatening the stability of the entire world, tells us just how dangerous these people are. And we’re stuck with them. Thanks to gerrymandering, the far-right loons are almost guaranteed reelection, and we may go through this nightmare again and again. This isn’t democracy, it’s a perversion of democracy, a shameless attempt to delegitimize the elected president and impose the agenda of the right, one that the American public rejected in the last election. The Tea Party is the greatest blight on the history of America since the end of Jim Crow. Let’s hope they sicken enough Americans for them to lose control of the House in 2014. It’s a long shot, but it’s the best, maybe the only hope America has.

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New blog

I know, I just wrote that I’m culling my blogroll, but now I want to take a second to introduce a new blog I’ve been enjoying, My China Kanfa. Please check it out. It’s intelligent, perceptive, and it updates frequently.

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Living in China: the Hammer Drill

I am almost certain that everyone who has lived in China has experienced the machine-gun staccato of the hammer drill being used to renovate an apartment in your building. It starts at the crack of dawn and makes sleep literally impossible. The walls shake, the roar of the machine breaks the sound barrier. I think I can say that for everyone it is one of their most unpleasant memories.

My friend and commenter Shanghai Slim recently sent me and other friends a brief description of life in the age of the hammer drill, along with an MP3 in which you can actually hear for yourself what this experience is like. Below is Slim’s letter followed by the MP3. Whatever you do, you MUST listen to the recording.

———————————–
Every place has things to love and things to … not love. In China, one of the latter is the pervasive racket of the place. The endless construction work, incessant horn honking, stores blasting distorted music through outside speakers, supermarket workers bellowing through portable amplifiers … sometimes it can drive you batty. An mp3 player becomes survival gear. At least during the summer, the clattering chorus of the cicadas drowns out some of it.

I think anyone living in a Chinese city – local or foreigner – will agree that one of the most annoying sounds in China is the hammer drill.

When you buy a new home in China (most urban Chinese live in what Americans would call “condo” apartments), you get a bare concrete shell. The only thing installed is the windows. Here and there PVC pokes out of the wall with some wiring or a temporary spigot, places where future electrical and water systems will be connected. The buyer spends several months and a big chunk of change “decorating” the new apartment, which includes installing all lighting, plumbing, electrical, flooring, closets, cabinets, counters and a/c units before painting, appliances and furniture. This work is often managed by decorating agencies.

When someone buys a used apartment, they typically rip everything out and start over with bare concrete. In the process it’s not unusual to make some changes to the floor plan by altering interior walls (hopefully not – but sometimes! – load-bearing walls). Chinese highrise apartments are typically built with solid steel-reinforced concrete walls, with concrete-covered brick used for non-load bearing interior walls.

A key tool used in decorating is the hammer drill, a heavy duty electric drill with a special feature, the drill shaft rapidly vibrates in-and-out as the bit spins. This allows the bit to pulverize as it whirls, which makes drilling into hard substances like concrete or masonry faster and easier.

When Chinese “decoration” workers make holes in walls, cut out sections of walls, or install anything attached to a wall, they typically use hammer drills. Major cuts are made by drilling “dotted lines” and then sledge hammering out the section to be removed. As you can imagine, cutting that way requires making a lot of holes. So do things like attaching flooring or wall paneling.

If you are in the same room as someone using a hammer drill, it does not sound much different from a standard electric drill – a whizzing, whining sound. However, the sound is amplified as it reverberates through solid concrete walls. The pounding and grinding action of the bit makes a distinctive staccato roaring that is just unbelievably loud and unbelievably annoying. If hammer drilling is taking place anywhere within several floors of you, you’re going to know about it.

I don’t know how to adequately describe this sound, even terms like “skull-cracking” somehow fall short. So it seemed a better idea to simply record a short example and let you hear for yourself (mp3 file attached). Sorry for the sound quality, this was recorded using my mp3 player, the general impression is accurate. Warning – please start the recording at low volume.

The drilling in the recording is happening in the apartment above mine, directly over my head, so it’s a little louder than most episodes. On the other hand, this is just a single hammer drill, it’s not uncommon for a crew to use more than one. In new buildings, multiple crews may be working at the same time.

The recording was made on the third day of drilling, fortunately that was the last day of intense work. Over the three weeks since, it has tapered off to sporadic bursts.

I don’t know how this kind of work is handled in American apartment buildings, I never lived in a concrete building there. If any of you know, please fill me in!

Hope you enjoy a quiet peaceful day!

Sounds of China – The Hammer Drill

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