Discover more from Letters from an American
September 28, 2022
More than 1.5 million Florida residents are without power as Hurricane Ian is pounding the southwestern coast and moving inland. The hurricane was close to a Category 5 storm when it made landfall about 3 this afternoon, with the predicted 12-foot storm surge materializing near Fort Myers. It has been slowing since it hit land, but the damage, including to this year’s orange crop, is already considerable.
This destructive storm highlights the distance between reality and the ideology that calls for getting rid of the federal government.
As a newly elected congress member in 2013, now-governor of Florida Ron DeSantis was one of the 67 House Republicans who voted against a $9.7 billion federal flood insurance assistance package for the victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. Now, with Florida on the ropes, DeSantis asked President Joe Biden for an emergency declaration to free up federal money and federal help even before the storm hit, and said Tuesday, “We all need to work together, regardless of party lines.”
Since the 1980s, the argument for dismantling the government has been that federal regulations hamper the operation of the free market, thus slowing economic growth, while the taxes required to maintain a bureaucratic system take money away from those who otherwise would invest in businesses. The avowed theory is that a freely operating market will free up money on the “supply side” of the economy. Flush with cash, investors will theoretically pump that money into new enterprises that will hire workers, and everyone will prosper together.
Yesterday the Congressional Budget Office released a study of trends in the distribution of family wealth between 1989—immediately after President Ronald Reagan began the antiregulation and antitax push—and 2019. In those thirty years, total real wealth held by families tripled from $38 trillion to $115 trillion. But the distribution of that growth was not even.
Money moved toward the families in the top 10%, and especially in the top 1%, shifting from families with less income and education toward those with more wealth and education. In the 30 years examined, the share of wealth belonging to families in the top 10% increased from 63% in 1989 to 72% in 2019, from $24.3 trillion to $82.4 trillion (an increase of 240%). The share of total wealth held by families in the top 1% increased from 27% to 34% in the same period. In 2019, families in the bottom half of the economy held only 2% of the national wealth, and those in the bottom quarter owed about $11,000 more than they owned.
The relative invisibility of these statistics after forty years under Republican ideology has enabled today’s Republicans to insist the Democrats are “socialists” who are trying to redistribute wealth downward even as our laws are clearly redistributing it upward.
Last night, California governor Gavin Newsom, who is running for reelection, insisted on MSNBC’s Alex Wagner Tonight that Democrats must push back against the Republican domination of culture wars. Newsom pointed out that 8 of the 10 states with the highest murder rates are Republican states and that the gun death rate in Texas is 67% higher than that in California. Newsom expressed dismay that Democrats aren’t better at advocating their policies.
That omission is likely a result of the fact that after World War II, it never occurred to most Americans that anyone here would need to defend democracy. And yet we are now facing the rise of “illiberal democracy” or “Christian democracy,” which argues that democracy’s protection of equal rights weakens societies by destroying their moral core and by splitting the people internally. Its adherents call for limiting the vote; privileging white, heterosexual Christian citizens; and standing behind an authoritarian leader who will stamp out opposition—that is, a system that is not a democracy at all.
There is a direct correlation between growing economic inequality and the growing popularity of authoritarianism. Scholars of authoritarian systems note that a population that feels economically, religiously, or culturally dispossessed is an easy target for an authoritarian who promises to bring back a mythological world in which its members were powerful.
But, having lifted strongmen into power, they learn that they were only tools to put in place someone whose decisions are absolute and who is no longer bound by the law.
Today the New York Times published a series of telephone calls from Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. The men were poorly equipped, badly commanded, completely disillusioned, and utterly disgusted with Russian president Vladimir Putin, while their people back home complained that the economy was collapsing and the gains of the past 30 years were being swept away.
Meanwhile, Russia has had to strip its troops away from its borders to replace the soldiers lost in Ukraine, and the situation does not appear to be improving. The calls published in the New York Times were captured before Russia’s current mobilization, which has prompted a mass exodus out of the country. Since last week, 53,000 Russians have fled to Georgia; more than 98,000 have fled to Kazakhstan.
In the U.S. today, Zachary Cohen, Holmes Lybrand, and Jackson Grigsby of CNN reported on footage taken by a Danish film crew that followed Trump loyalist Roger Stone for about three years for a documentary. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol has seen the footage and permitted the release of certain clips from around the time of the 2020 election and the January 6 attack.
In July 2020, Stone was already saying that Trump’s team would not accept the results of the election, clearly expecting that Trump would lose. The day before the election, he said: “F*ck the voting, let’s get right to the violence.” Like Steve Bannon, Stone also said that Trump should simply declare victory, saying: “Possession is nine tenths of the law." The filmmakers later recorded him asking for a pardon for his participation in the insurrection, noting that since Trump had already pardoned him once, after his conviction for lying to lawmakers about his actions and his relationship to Russia in the 2016 campaign, no one would care if Trump pardoned him again.
Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who presided over Roger Stone’s trial for lying to lawmakers about his ties to Russia during the 2016 election, called out “high-ranking members of Congress and state officials” for being “so afraid of losing their power” that they won’t contradict Trump when he lies that he won the 2020 election. She warned that the courts must hold the line against the lies and the violence Republican lawmakers are encouraging.
Meanwhile, Trump’s demand for a special master to review the materials FBI agents took from Mar-a-Lago on August 8 has put him on the spot. The demand for the review seemed designed to slow the examination of the documents with classification markings, but those have now been exempted by an appeals court, and special master Judge Raymond Dearie is puncturing Trump’s wild claims that he declassified documents or that the FBI planted them at Mar-a-Lago by asking Trump’s lawyers to put those claims in writing for the court.
Dearie has asked them to identify which of the 200,000 pages of documents not marked classified Trump wants to claim are covered by attorney-client privilege or executive privilege. If he wants to claim executive privilege, he also must explain why the executive branch, currently run by President Biden, has no right to see those documents.
Dearie has also asked them to verify by Friday the inventory written by the FBI agents of what they recovered or to note what items on it were allegedly planted. So, the lawyers must either admit that Trump held classified documents or claim that he declassified them (there is no evidence that he did), assert that the FBI planted those documents, or lie. Instead, they are trying to avoid verifying the inventory.
That review will cost Trump a lot. He has to pay a vendor to digitize the roughly 200,000 pages, then pay $500 an hour for the review, plus the cost of his own lawyers.
While those machinations are taking place, today, for the first time since 1969, the White House held a conference on hunger, nutrition, and health. Biden is bringing together the private sector and government to try to end hunger in America by 2030. The 1969 conference under President Richard Nixon led to a big expansion in food assistance programs. Now, a variety of companies and foundations have pledged $8 billion to address food insecurity, while Democrats in Congress are calling for more free meals in schools and extending school food programs through the summer. Biden has also called for making the expanded child tax credit permanent.