More from Houston: Bullshit Runs Deep in Texas

Abbott and Trump: look at their hands.

Heidi Schneider, our Houston correspondent, unwraps some indecent political behavior in Texas. Quick to blame others, these folks have no competence and no shame. On a related note, I highly recommend to you Ezra Klein’s recent podcast, “The Texas Crisis Could Become Everyone’s Crisis.” Three smart people talk not only about the Texas debacle but how climate change will change all of us.

We tried-and-true Texans are taught to “Remember the Alamo” and the flag slogan “Come and Take It” from our earliest fight for independence. But since the 1990s the Texas GOP has fractured our exemplary and fabled image with sanctimonious messaging and agendas. Fast forward to the present day and it’s clear that Texas’s image as a sovereign utopia needs a dramatic facelift.

Just last week the Texas Attorney General, Republican Ken Paxton—who has been under a federal indictment since 2015—took a page from Senator Ted Cruz’s playbook and snuck off to Utah with his Texas state senator wife Angela, paying no regard to the non-legislative Texans left behind during a statewide weather catastrophe. Just two days after the historic freeze arrived, he left town, claiming his absence was due to important official meetings.

More important than millions of frozen constituents? Do you remember that in late 2020 Paxton’s department joined the Stop the Steal con by drafting a lawsuit against four other states? Dispatched to the Supreme Court, the case was quickly dismissed, as the justices instructed Texas conservatives to play in their own sandbox. Upstanding folkloric judicial leader, or total self-serving schmuck? You decide.

Just days ago, the Lone Star state’s conservative Lt. Governor Dan Patrick went on record insisting on a thorough investigation into the state’s energy failure. He claimed this would not be a finger-pointing expedition, then immediately placed blame for the magnitude of frozen failure on ERCOT, the Energy Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the power grid. Should we tell him a similar investigation was done in 2011 after an extreme cold snap? Moreover, the recommended updates were never pursued by the legislature. Crawl back under your rock, Dan. Your expertise is in gender-neutral bathroom policing, not power grids.

In the past several years, changing weather systems have brought horrific flooding and damaging winds to my home state. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey became the second-costliest tropical storm on record, costing 127 billion dollars in damage. I remember newscasts where Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner pleaded with Governor Abbott to release his Ebenezer Scrooge grip on the state’s rainy-day fund to help flood victims. That fund, currently around 10 billion dollars, was originally created after the oil and gas bust way back in the 1980s. Instead, Abbott used his executive power, as he has done for last week’s storm, and declared a state disaster, so Texas could qualify for federal assistance. So much for national overreach and state sovereignty.

The legislature just began another biennial session in January. After a dysfunctional year of pandemic quarantines, disturbances from 2020 election deniers, and a frozen national disaster, voters should expect them to address our most pressing statewide issues. There is nothing exceptional about literally polarizing segments of our state and victimizing the most vulnerable. Meaningful infrastructure and inclusive policies are what will move our state forward, not gaslighting from our majority surrogates in Austin.

As my no-nonsense husband George puts it, “If you are a partisan asshole, own it, and stop talking out of both sides of your mouth.” For me, I sum it up simply as: bullshit runs deep in Texas.

Frozen in Texas: A Report from Houston

With all the horror stories coming out of Texas, I asked my friend Heidi Schneider for her thoughts on what has happened and is still happening there. She and her husband George are lifelong Houston residents and seasoned observers of the political scene. Here is her account.

Over the last several years, many Republican legislators in Texas have become chameleons of a sort. They change the colors of their opinions to support the national administration’s mantra of “fake news” and everything is a “hoax” sound bites as their only tangible agenda.

Well, saddle up, chameleon cowboys, because there has been no partisan politics in play when it comes to the millions of Texans devastated by the recent polar blast. This left the entire state without the basic infrastructure to keep multitudes of citizens from freezing to death.

In desperation to keep warm, some households across the state have resorted to burning their belongings or exposing themselves to carbon monoxide poisoning. People were left without water and electricity at random, and traffic blocking lines started to form at some fast-food establishments, as folks sat in their cars just to absorb the warmth and obtain a hot meal.

Gas pumps have been bombarded by motorists who navigated the dangerous, icy streets just to secure fuel before it disappeared. Grocery stores, with limited supplies, have hundreds of shoppers standing in the freezing elements, only to select from already depleted shelves. In Houston, a handful of warming shelters opened, with Texas’s largest city housing over 800 homeless and vulnerable Houstonians, and their pets, at the city’s convention center. Who would have thought the pandemic could be upstaged in my state?

During the height of our utility outages, I watched Governor Greg Abbott focus more on planting the seed of ultimate blame than addressing the palpable desperation happening in his state. During cable news appearances his conversation strayed by stretching the blame to Texas’s frozen wind turbines. We heard his views that oil and gas remain king, that progressive ideas of alternative sources are the root of energy evil, all the while overlooking the fact that winterizing the state’s energy resources has been neglected for decades.

Former Republican Governor Rick Perry felt he was speaking for all citizens by verbalizing that Texans are happy to do without creature comforts in order to maintain our state’s energy independence and freedom from federal oversight. He spoke while warm and comfy during an internet-style interview.

To add insult to injury, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has offices in Houston—you know him, he aided in the insurrection of our nation’s capital a few weeks back—decided to sneak off to Cancun for some sun and fun, since his children were out of school due to inclement weather. You cannot make this stuff up.

As a native Texan, I am tired of my intelligence being insulted by my state’s Republican leaders telling me not to believe what I see and hear for myself. From my view today, I see Texans helping Texans, just as we always do during crises, and I hear that federal assistance is on the way.

One Queasy Spectacle after Another

The Stupor Bowl

Witnesses Could Prevent a Foregone Conclusion in Second Impeachment Trial

Guy Debord, Donald Trump, and the Politics of the Spectacle

Americans are infatuated with spectacle, most obviously with the Super Bowl, the yearly nod to institutionalized violence and kitsch. I do like football, notwithstanding. I watched the game this year, appalled by how badly the Chiefs performed and how effective the android Tom Brady was. The laying on of schmaltz that is the halftime show was the topper, as usual.

How is it possible to enjoy football in the face of all the evidence of its “blatant brutality” and ubiquitous presence in the culture? Bill Harrison writes a strong indictment in Medium, calling it the Stupor Bowl, a term I’ve also used for years. The reality is that we’re all sucked into the business of football and become eager customers.

We are also eager customers for political spectacle, one reason for Trump’s popularity. The proper audience for the impeachment trial beginning today is not Republicans in the Senate chamber but the American public. One hopes the Democrats managing the trial recognize this. Let them call a few witnesses and make it a show trial; it’s clear they aren’t going to get a conviction anyway. The jury has already declared its intentions.

It will be interesting to see what the impeachment managers decide about calling witnesses—and how far they are prepared to indict not just Trump but the GOP for its anti-democratic tactics. The Post’s Greg Sargent put it this way:

If anything, Democrats need to make it as politically uncomfortable for Republicans as possible to acquit—and to extract a political price for it among the suburban moderates whom the GOP continues to alienate with its ongoing QAnon-ification.

It’s clear that all kinds of arresting spectacles inform much of the breaking news of our time—from floods and coups to terrorist attacks. Presidents from Reagan to Obama have made political spectacle both respected and expected. Yet Trump has turned a political party into a cult of such displays. Douglas Kellner documents his mastery of political and media spectacle.

The events of Jan. 6 are rendered still more horrifying by the Republicans who have chucked out any notion of Trump’s responsibility. One may hope that his (and the GOP’s) impeachment will offer the public a chance to wake to the reality behind this debased spectacle. He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.

The Lemmings

The GOP’s answer to its post-Trump blues: More Trump

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s vile new antics highlight a 50-year GOP story

In the most recent Republican playbook, the lemmings continue to follow the Great Psychopath over the cliff until, as in the last moment of a Looney Tunes cartoon, he steps aside and they don’t. Reminds you a little of the Jonestown massacre, though Trump, unlike Jim Jones, is in no way going down with his ship. And we don’t finally know whether the gutless Republicans will continue drinking the Kool-Aid.

How could this mad devotion come to pass? No one can really explain it. Hard to believe so many would make this Faustian bargain for political power. The mass extinction of the GOP looms, one hopes. The only person who could begin to get inside the phenomenon is Hunter Thompson, and he is dead.

“The party risks tying its future to a one-term president whose deeply polarizing style cost the party both the House and the Senate during his four years in office.” So says David Siders in Politico. It’s worse than that, David. Some 80 percent of Republicans now approve of his record; and 56 percent of Republican voters believe that Trump should either probably or definitely run for president again in 2024. A new poll from YouGov and The Economist found that 72 percent of Republican voters—almost three in four—believed Biden’s win was illegitimate.

All but five of fifty GOP Senators now support Trump and his reelection fantasy. So the second impeachment is quickly moving toward irrelevancy. And “the Trumpster Visigoth wing of the Republican party” (thanks, Thomas Mallon) is in full ascendance. Someone should write a novel about all this. Characters like Giuliani, Bannon, Cruz and others in Trump’s Mafia are hard to come by in fiction. Then if you threw QAnon fancier Marjorie Taylor Greene into the story, it would test all credibility:

CNN reports that Greene “liked” a social media post that suggested “a bullet to the head” for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and seemed to approve of a suggestion that other prominent Democrats should be hanged.

She mocks the Parkland school shooting in which 17 died. Very few Republicans have chosen to comment on her crackpot assertions. In fact, there’s no fiction that could do justice to this woman’s sordid reality. For some of us, the Republican party has lost all reason for existence. The state-level actors in places like Pennsylvania are also losing all reason for existence.

GOP state legislative leaders called on Republican congressional members to object to the Electoral College results or “delay” their certification. Every House Republican in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, save one, obliged, voting to invalidate their state’s Electoral College votes.

As in other things, Hunter Thompson may have said it best: “I believe the Republicans have never thought that democracy was anything but a tribal myth.”

Oh Yes, the Climate

After Alarmism: The war on climate denial has been won. And that’s not the only good news

Biden Signs Sweeping Orders to Tackle Climate Change and Rollback Trump’s Anti-Environment Legacy

Some have noticed that I have not recently been attentive to climate issues. Well, “Goodman Speaks on Climate” was probably designed to fail in one respect, since everyone who speaks publicly on that subject takes on something contentious and to a degree unfathomable. Climate writers become soothsayers, reading the entrails of sacrificial animals.

I can’t and won’t critique the findings of climate scientists. So I’m left to report on what they think and propose. How I evaluate their judgments is strictly a matter of my judgment and experience, and that’s a thin reed to rely on. And with climate change it’s not enough to merely report; one has to take sides and persuade.

Those who do write such reports also turn out to be evaluators or critics of scientific arguments. That’s an uncomfortable position, at least for me, and so I’ve recently been avoiding climate, punking out on the most significant issue of our time. Well, sometimes you have to be uncomfortable, so I’ll try getting back to climate and overcoming my scruples.

David Wallace-Wells is a journalist who has written extensively about climate change. He recently dumped almost 7,000 words into New York Magazine on how the war on climate denial has been (mostly) won. Part of the reason he feels that way is the advent of Joe Biden’s presidency.

But if the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House feels like something of a fresh start, well, to a degree it is. The world’s most conspicuous climate villain has been deposed, and though Biden was hardly the first choice of environmentalists, his victory signals an effective end to the age of denial and the probable beginning of a new era of climate realism, with fights for progress shaped as much by choices as by first principles.

His argument proceeds with examples and judgments on: what needs to be done (emissions targets), what is being done (decarbonization), political and economic commitments, global action and, finally, adaptation and responses to the new reality. Wallace-Wells is judgmental, yes, and very much worth your reading. He’s smart, sometimes overly geeky, and wide-ranging. Articles like his will get you thinking or perhaps angry (see reader comments on the piece).

Biden’s climate proposals are, to use the old cliché, a breath of fresh air. A good summary by Inside Climate News of what they contain is here, as “the new president moved immediately to review more than 100 Trump administration actions and restore the protection of federal lands and the regulation of greenhouse gases.”

You’ve heard that one of his first actions was to revoke the Keystone XL pipeline permit. The president also

moved to rejoin the Paris agreement and signaled a review of vehicle emissions standards. His order also directed federal agencies to review more than 100 rules that the Trump administration made on the environment, with an eye to potentially overturning many of them.

The ICN article outlines the comprehensive scope of the Biden proposals and the ways they will affect several government agencies as well as private industry. It’s a good primer on what’s ahead—though some of its proposals could take years to achieve.

Writing the Insurrectionist Story

What TV Can Tell Us About How the Trump Show Ends

 Trump Is on the Verge of Losing Everything

 Among the Insurrectionists

Stories teach us and transform us. They have the power to make us connect and understand the disordered fragments of our experience.

To get through the next few weeks and months, the U.S. is in desperate need of an authentically real story—a Maileresque chronicle that would account for the events of January 6, explain the power that Trump still holds over the masses, and set us right for what may come.

You can’t exorcise the past, but you can explain it. Masha Gessen writes that for politics to function, we need stories to give us a “common sense of past and future, a broad agreement on organizational principles, trust that your neighbors near and distant share a general understanding of reality and current events.”

Which is just what we don’t have. A coherent story might be the only way to convince the outliers and secessionists that the truth is not what they think it is. Joanna Weiss proposes that the Trump era is like something out of Mad Men or The Sopranos. Perhaps it’s the story of a television antihero, sucked into a life of atrocity and paying (or avoiding paying) the price for it:

once Trump leaves office for good, the prizes that have fed his appetite and driven his presidency—adulation, importance, obsessive attention—will be gone. History will cement him as a one-term president who entered the political world in a dramatic escalator ride, and exited clinging to the tablecloth as the chinaware went crashing to the floor.

Or maybe the story goes like this, as Jonathan Chait tells it: Trump “is impeached again, but his trial is delayed until after his departure date. It feels as if we have spent four years watching the wheels come off, yet the vehicle somehow still keeps rolling forward.” But now the beast may be fatally wounded, “undergoing a cascading sequence of political, financial, and legal setbacks that cumulatively spell utter ruin. Trump is not only losing his job but quite possibly everything else.”

It’s a common trope—the villain gets his just desserts—but very likely the just desserts in this case never arrive. The fish is never landed, the thug escapes capture. There are many uncertainties as to how this story will end.

None of these circumstances should keep writers from using the powers of narrative to tell us what really happened. The unity that Biden looks for will depend on it. Writing that story may not convince the deniers, but it can unify the rest of us and breathe some life into our desperate history.

I think that trying to understand America is like reading Finnegans Wake.

Who Cares?

The old Gershwin song goes this way:

Let it rain and thunder,
Let a million firms go under.
I am not concerned with
Stocks and bonds that I’ve been burned with!

I love you and you love me
And that’s how it will always be
And nothing else can ever mean a thing

Who cares what the public chatters
Love’s the only thing that matters

Who cares if the sky cares to fall in the sea
Who cares what banks fail in Yonkers
Long as you’ve got a kiss that conquers?

Why should I care?
Life is one long jubilee,
So long as I care for you
And you care for me!

A couple of things to note. “Who Cares?” was written in 1931 at the height of the Depression for a show, Of Thee I Sing. George and Ira Gershwin wrote the music and lyrics. The book was written by George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. It was inspired by “the timeless battle of political idealism with corruption and incompetency, creating the first American musical with a consistently satiric tone. . . . Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Presidency, and the democratic process itself were all targets of this satire.”

For some goofy reason I woke up this morning humming the song.

Anarchy or the 25th?

The 25th Amendment: The quickest way Trump could be stripped of power, explained

Aides weigh resignations, removal options as Trump rages against perceived betrayals

Every Trump Loyalist Is Complicit in the President’s Incitement of Sedition

Thirteen days are left after the Capitol onslaught to determine how we get rid of the Frankenstein monster the Republicans have created. Impeachment is too complicated and will take too long. We tried that once. The 25th Amendment would permit Mike Pence to become acting president for the rest of Trump’s term. It requires a majority (8 of 15 people, the Cabinet secretaries) to sign off on his malfeasance and strip him of all presidential powers. And it requires Pence to initiate it.

There has now been a lot of talk about invoking this power. How feasible it might be to get Cabinet secretaries, all Trump appointees, to sign off on this drastic measure is an open question. My thinking is that if they don’t sign off, we’ll have 13 more days of anarchy with continual threats and prevarications thereafter.

A lead story in the Post reports:

A deep, simmering unease coursed through the administration over the president’s refusal to accept his election loss and his role in inciting a mob to storm the Capitol, disrupting the peaceful transfer of power to President-elect Joe Biden. One administration official described Trump’s behavior Wednesday as that of “a total monster,” while another said the situation was “insane” and “beyond the pale.”

Fearful that Trump could take actions resulting in further violence and death if he remains in office even for a few days, senior administration officials were discussing Wednesday night whether the Cabinet might invoke the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to force him out, said a person involved in the conversations.

Preliminary talks seem to be underway, and let us hope they bear fruit. Chuck Schumer, many Democrats and a few Republicans seem to be behind these efforts. If they fail, it will be up to senior Republicans to be responsible for restraining Trump and restoring what we used to call democracy. Putting any faith in these people, however, has never brought less than an impasse or more than a rejection.

The Vile Eight—those loyalist toadies in the Senate who have endorsed Trump’s lies even after the attack on the Capitol—and the 147 Defectors from Democracy in the House all deserve to be voted out of office. But we are not holding our collective breaths, are we?

The results have been predictable.

By declining to brand Trump a liar, Republicans ensured that their voters would give credence to his claims. This morning [Jan. 6], Ted Cruz anchored his demand to delay the election’s certification by citing a poll that 39 percent of the country believed the election had been rigged. First they spread his lies, then argued that the lies must be respected because they had spread.

Will Mike Pence now have the balls to upend this situation, which verges on anarchy? Can he find it in himself to exercise the authority the Constitution grants him? After four years of desperate fawning his reward is to become Trump’s mortal enemy. The test is at hand.

Disbelief and Ignorance, Blindness and Monomania

The inside story of how Trump’s denial, mismanagement and magical thinking led to the pandemic’s dark winter

After this I am really going to stop with the Trump posts. But the Washington Post did us all a great service by running the above piece documenting Trump’s most stunning breakdown. It’s long, so I summarize and comment here on the salient points. Also, I’m going to take a few days off from this blog, back after the New Year. We’ll hope for a much happier one this time, of course.

Trump’s incredible mishandling of the Covid pandemic in all likelihood cost him the election. The recent Post article documents not only his failure but his administration’s. However history comes to record the pandemic, it will be seen as a gigantic breakdown in presidential responsibility.

The catastrophe began with Trump’s initial refusal to take seriously the threat of a once-in-a-century pandemic. But, as officials detailed, it has been compounded over time by a host of damaging presidential traits — his skepticism of science, impatience with health restrictions, prioritization of personal politics over public safety, undisciplined communications, chaotic management style, indulgence of conspiracies, proclivity toward magical thinking, allowance of turf wars and flagrant disregard for the well-being of those around him.

Contradicting his task force
As he refused to accept the reality of the pandemic, it became clear to Trump’s advisers that, despite frequent attempts, they could not penetrate the president’s delusions. They would contradict him at their peril. The Fauci-Birx taskforce made no real impact and was frustrated from the beginning.

Trump’s repeated downplaying of the virus, coupled with his equivocations about masks, created an opening for reckless behavior that contributed to a significant increase in infections and deaths, experts said.

Communications failures
From the beginning, the team had no strategy and no consistent messaging. They were attempting to put out fires with untrained people and ill-advised tactics. Jared Kushner got some ventilators dispatched but his volunteers played whack-a-mole with other problems. They faked models for disease propagation, punted on the involved question of testing, and ultimately turned their backs on properly dealing with the states.

They did not communicate in any effective way with the public or with the private sector that tried to help. The Post tells us about a failed plan to enlist the country’s underwear makers, like Hanes, to make and distribute masks nationwide. This was at the beginning of what could be called the mask debacle, which Trump and his blind administration continued to foster.

Paul Offit, a member of the FDA vaccine advisor council called Trump “a salesman, but this is something he can’t sell. So he just gave up. He gave up on trying to sell people something that was unsellable. . . . What the Trump administration has managed to do is they accomplished — remarkably — a very high-tech solution, which is developing a vaccine, but they completely failed at the low-tech solution, which is masking and social distancing, and they put people at risk.”

When Trump stepped in to replace Pence at the task force briefings, it was a signal of defeat, as the president proposed bleach and other nonsensical remedies. He looked at Covid as some kind of bothersome issue you could defuse with a TV advertising approach. He was like the Ron Popeil of Covid. “What he’s saying there is, ‘I’m going to will the economy to success through mass psychology. We’re going to tell the country things are going great and it’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy,’ ” Offit said of Trump.

The Accomplices
Mark Meadows lied to the press, confused every issue he discussed, and still couldn’t please Trump. Birx and Fauci hung in there on the periphery but basically gave up, though Fauci continued to broadcast his sentiments. Scott Atlas, the phony doctor, preached a line that pleased Trump because it let him off the hook. That is, promote herd immunity, forget testing, keep up the anti-mask façade, advance the economy over basic CDC safety, etc. Then there were the rallies and the continuing White House super-spreader parties, all basically mocking the potency of the disease.

Yet it is impossible to mock the 324,000 deaths that have occurred to date. Theatrics are basic to Trump’s reality and, unfortunately for us all, there’s no business like show business—until the curtain comes down.

Four Dreadful Years, and a Merry Christmas

What Trump Showed Us About America

For many, the past four years were like purgatory as they revealed some appalling realities in American life. A lot of long-term assumptions went out the window. A lot of happy presumptions held by the elites had to be flushed down the toilet. And naturally, we’re still in the grip of some of these illusions.

Politico ran a good piece last month with quotes from 35 “political and cultural observers” [read “elites”] on what they learned about America over the past four years. I found their responses both predictable and surprising.

Many were alarmed to discover that our political institutions and norms are more fragile than they thought. Others pointed out the blind spots that members of the political and cultural elite have for the deep sense of dislocation and injustice that their fellow citizens feel. . . .

Others questioned whether the disruptions of the past four years have really shaken us out of old patterns, and whether the political establishment has really been diminished. “The house always wins,” one wrote. And then there was this conclusion from another contributor: “At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”

Yeah, well, who does? When the four-year curtain rings down, the actors take their bows for an empty performance.

In the Politico piece, Nicholas Carr, who writes on technology, economics and culture, targeted the most obvious fruit of these years—that lies now trump truths. In the digital world, “False news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” and “social media has allowed propaganda to be crowdsourced; it has democratized George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.”

Mark Bauerlein, an English professor emeritus, shouted out the legacy of the elites.

Ordinary Americans looked at the elite zones of academia, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington itself, and saw a bunch of self-serving, not very competent individuals sitting pretty, who had enriched themselves and let the rest of America slide. . . . It wasn’t Trump’s politics that disgusted the college presidents, celebrity actors, Google VPs, D.C. operatives and the rest. It was because he pinpointed them as the problem—the reason factories and small stores had closed, unemployment was bad, and PC culture had cast them as human debris. And millions cheered. This was unforgivable to the elites.

John Austin, an economist, told us that

unless we address the root economic causes of many American voters’ anger and social alienation, we will remain a divided nation, with many remaining susceptible to the message of demagogues like Donald Trump. In much of left-behind rural America, and still struggling communities that dot the industrial Midwest around my home, anxieties about the economic future interact with a perceived loss of identity, status and control in a changing society. These dynamics generate a toxic brew of resentments of “others,” whether coastal elites or immigrants, and cravings for a return to a simpler and ordered time.

For me, the starkest element the four years have exposed is the blatant ignorance of so much of the populace. We would like to think that this stems from Trump, a man of limited intelligence and unlimited bile. In fact, it’s the susceptibility of 70 million people, sneering at truth, sneering at the virus. The Flat Earth Society persists despite all evidence that it should not.