THE COMING COLLAPSE

By Chris Hedges/ Truthdig/ May 21, 2018

Donald Trump is the result of a long process of political, cultural and social decay. He is a product of our failed democracy. The longer we perpetuate the fiction that we live in a functioning democracy, that Trump and the political mutations around him are somehow an aberrant deviation that can be vanquished in the next election, the more we will hurtle toward tyranny.

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The Trump administration did not rise, prima facie, like Venus on a half shell from the sea. Donald Trump is the result of a long process of political, cultural and social decay. He is a product of our failed democracy. The longer we perpetuate the fiction that we live in a functioning democracy, that Trump and the political mutations around him are somehow an aberrant deviation that can be vanquished in the next election, the more we will hurtle toward tyranny. The problem is not Trump. It is a political system, dominated by corporate power and the mandarins of the two major political parties, in which we don’t count. We will wrest back political control by dismantling the corporate state, and this means massive and sustained civil disobedience, like that demonstrated by teachers around the country this year. If we do not stand up we will enter a new dark age.

The Democratic Party, which helped build our system of inverted totalitarianism, is once again held up by many on the left as the savior. Yet the party steadfastly refuses to address the social inequality that led to the election of Trump and the insurgency by Bernie Sanders. It is deaf, dumb and blind to the very real economic suffering that plagues over half the country. It will not fight to pay workers a living wage. It will not defy the pharmaceutical and insurance industries to provide Medicare for all. It will not curb the voracious appetite of the military that is disemboweling the country and promoting the prosecution of futile and costly foreign wars. It will not restore our lost civil liberties, including the right to privacy, freedom from government surveillance, and due process. It will not get corporate and dark money out of politics. It will not demilitarize our police and reform a prison system that has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners although the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population. It plays to the margins, especially in election seasons, refusing to address substantive political and social problems and instead focusing on narrow cultural issues like gay rights, abortion and gun control in our peculiar species of anti-politics.

This is a doomed tactic, but one that is understandable. The leadership of the party, the Clintons, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Tom Perez, are creations of corporate America. In an open and democratic political process, one not dominated by party elites and corporate money, these people would not hold political power. They know this. They would rather implode the entire system than give up their positions of privilege. And that, I fear, is what will happen. The idea that the Democratic Party is in any way a bulwark against despotism defies the last three decades of its political activity. It is the guarantor of despotism.

Trump has tapped into the hatred that huge segments of the American public have for a political and economic system that has betrayed them. He may be inept, degenerate, dishonest and a narcissist, but he adeptly ridicules the system they despise. His cruel and demeaning taunts directed at government agencies, laws and the established elites resonate with people for whom these agencies, laws and elites have become hostile forces. And for many who see no shift in the political landscape to alleviate their suffering, Trump’s cruelty and invective are at least cathartic.

Trump, like all despots, has no ethical core. He chooses his allies and appointees based on their personal loyalty and fawning obsequiousness to him. He will sell anyone out. He is corrupt, amassing money for himself–he made $40 million from his Washington, D.C., hotel alone last year–and his corporate allies. He is dismantling government institutions that once provided some regulation and oversight. He is an enemy of the open society. This makes him dangerous. His turbocharged assault on the last vestiges of democratic institutions and norms means there will soon be nothing, even in name, to protect us from corporate totalitarianism.

But the warnings from the architects of our failed democracy against creeping fascism, Madeleine Albright among them, are risible. They show how disconnected the elites have become from the zeitgeist. None of these elites have credibility. They built the edifice of lies, deceit and corporate pillage that made Trump possible. And the more Trump demeans these elites, and the more they cry out like Cassandras, the more he salvages his disastrous presidency and enables the kleptocrats pillaging the country as it swiftly disintegrates.

The press is one of the principal pillars of Trump’s despotism. It chatters endlessly like 17th-century courtiers at the court of Versailles about the foibles of the monarch while the peasants lack bread. It drones on and on and on about empty topics such as Russian meddling and a payoff to a porn actress that have nothing to do with the daily hell that, for many, defines life in America. It refuses to critique or investigate the abuses by corporate power, which has destroyed our democracy and economy and orchestrated the largest transfer of wealth upward in American history. The corporate press is a decayed relic that, in exchange for money and access, committed cultural suicide. And when Trump attacks it over “fake news,” he expresses, once again, the deep hatred of all those the press ignores. The press worships the idol of Mammon as slavishly as Trump does. It loves the reality-show presidency. The press, especially the cable news shows, keeps the lights on and the cameras rolling so viewers will be glued to a 21st-century version of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” It is good for ratings. It is good for profits. But it accelerates the decline.

All this will soon be compounded by financial collapse. Wall Street banks have been handed $16 trillion in bailouts and other subsidies by the Federal Reserve and Congress at nearly zero percent interest since the 2008 financial collapse. They have used this money, as well as the money saved through the huge tax cuts imposed last year, to buy back their own stock, raising the compensation and bonuses of their managers and thrusting the society deeper into untenable debt peonage. Sheldon Adelson’s casino operations alone got a $670 million tax break under the 2017 legislation. The ratio of CEO to worker pay now averages 339 to 1, with the highest gap approaching 5,000 to 1. This circular use of money to make and hoard money is what Karl Marx called “fictitious capital.” The steady increase in public debt, corporate debt, credit card debt and student loan debt will ultimately lead, as Nomi Prins writes, to “a tipping point — when money coming in to furnish that debt, or available to borrow, simply won’t cover the interest payments. Then debt bubbles will pop, beginning with higher yielding bonds.”

An economy reliant on debt for its growth causes our interest rate to jump to 28 percent when we are late on a credit card payment. It is why our wages are stagnant or have declined in real terms — if we earned a sustainable income we would not have to borrow money to survive. It is why a university education, houses, medical bills and utilities cost so much. The system is designed so we can never free ourselves from debt.

However, the next financial crash, as Prins points out in her book “Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World,” won’t be like the last one. This is because, as she says, “there is no Plan B.” Interest rates can’t go any lower. There has been no growth in the real economy. The next time, there will be no way out. Once the economy crashes and the rage across the country explodes into a firestorm, the political freaks will appear, ones that will make Trump look sagacious and benign.

And so, to quote Vladimir Lenin, what must be done?

We must invest our energy in building parallel, popular institutions to protect ourselves and to pit power against power. These parallel institutions, including unions, community development organizations, local currencies, alternative political parties and food cooperatives, will have to be constructed town by town. The elites in a time of distress will retreat to their gated compounds and leave us to fend for ourselves. Basic services, from garbage collection to public transportation, food distribution and health care, will collapse. Massive unemployment and underemployment, triggering social unrest, will be dealt with not through government job creation but the brutality of militarized police and a complete suspension of civil liberties. Critics of the system, already pushed to the margins, will be silenced and attacked as enemies of the state.

The last vestiges of labor unions will be targeted for abolition, a process that will soon be accelerated given the expected ruling in a case before the Supreme Court that will cripple the ability of public-sector unions to represent workers. The dollar will stop being the world’s reserve currency, causing a steep devaluation. Banks will close. Global warming will extract heavier and heavier costs, especially on the coastal populations, farming and the infrastructure, costs that the depleted state will be unable to address. The corporate press, like the ruling elites, will go from burlesque to absurdism, its rhetoric so patently fictitious it will, as in all totalitarian states, be unmoored from reality. The media outlets will all sound as fatuous as Trump. And, to quote W.H. Auden, “the little children will die in the streets.”

As a foreign correspondent I covered collapsed societies, including the former Yugoslavia. It is impossible for any doomed population to grasp how fragile the decayed financial, social and political system is on the eve of implosion. All the harbingers of collapse are visible: crumbling infrastructure; chronic underemployment and unemployment; the indiscriminate use of lethal force by police; political paralysis and stagnation; an economy built on the scaffolding of debt; nihilistic mass shootings in schools, universities, workplaces, malls, concert venues and movie theaters; opioid overdoses that kill some 64,000 people a year; an epidemic of suicides; unsustainable military expansion; gambling as a desperate tool of economic development and government revenue; the capture of power by a tiny, corrupt clique; censorship; the physical diminishing of public institutions ranging from schools and libraries to courts and medical facilities; the incessant bombardment by electronic hallucinations to divert us from the depressing sight that has become America and keep us trapped in illusions.

We suffer the usual pathologies of impending death. I would be happy to be wrong. But I have seen this before. I know the warning signs. All I can say is get ready.

decline

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It’s the Guns, Stupid

I’ve covered gun violence for years. The solutions aren’t a big mystery.

America can prevent shootings. But it has to come to grips with the problem.

By German Lopez/ Vox.com/ May 18, 2018

Editor’s Note: Charts do not come out well in this posting. Try the link to the article:https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/2/21/17028930/gun-violence-us-statistics-charts

guns

These mass shootings don’t keep happening because we don’t know what to do.

With another mass shooting in the US — this time, in Santa Fe High School in Texas — many Americans are once again horrified and bewildered by what feels like constantly occurring tragedies. Calls for action are already popping up on social media. But if this plays out like it has before, there’s a very high chance that little to nothing will happen on a national scale.

Since I began covering mass shootings at Vox, I have seen this pattern play out again and again: A shooting happens. There are demands for action. Maybe something gets introduced in Congress. The debate goes back and forth for a bit. Then people move on — usually after a week or two. And so, with little to nothing changed, there’s eventually another mass shooting.

As a reporter, I have become eerily attuned to this horrible American ritual. I do the same thing every single time we get news of a mass shooting: verify reports, contribute to a “what we know” article, and then begin to update our old pieces on guns. I do this almost instinctively at this point — and that terrifies me. No one should get used to this.

As I see it, the core issue is that America as a whole refuses to even admit it has a serious problem with guns and gun violence. And more than that, lawmakers continue acting like the solutions are some sort of mystery, as if there aren’t years of research and experiences in other countries that show restrictions on firearms can save lives.

Consider President Donald Trump’s initial speech in response to the Parkland, Florida, school shooting: His only mention of guns was a vague reference to “gunfire” as he described what happened. He never even brought up gun control or anything related to that debate, instead vaguely promising to work “with state and local leaders to help secure our schools and tackle the difficult issue of mental health.”

This is America’s elected leader — and he essentially, based on his first public response, ignored what the real problem is. And although the White House eventually came around to bipartisan proposals to very slightly improve background checks and ban bump stocks, the compromises amount to fairly small changes to America’s weak gun laws.

In my coverage of these shootings, I’ve always focused on solutions through studies and policy ideas that would tamp down on the number of shootings. The good news is there are real solutions out there.

But America can’t get to those solutions until it admits it has a gun problem and confronts the reality of what it would mean to seriously address it.

1) America has a unique gun violence problem

The US is unique in two key — and related — ways when it comes to guns: It has way more gun deaths than other developed nations, and it has far higher levels of gun ownership than any other country in the world.

The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times that of Sweden, and nearly 16 times that of Germany, according to United Nations data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)

A chart shows America’s disproportionate levels of gun violence.Javier Zarracina/Vox

Mass shootings actually make up a small fraction of America’s gun deaths, constituting less than 2 percent of such deaths in 2013. But America does see a lot of these horrific events: According to CNN, “The US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds 31% of global mass shooters.”

The US also has by far the highest number of privately owned guns in the world. Estimated in 2007, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 88.8 guns per 100 people, meaning there was almost one privately owned gun per American and more than one per American adult. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 54.8 guns per 100 people.

Gun ownership by country.Max Fisher/Washington Post

Another way of looking at that: Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population yet own roughly 42 percent of all the world’s privately held firearms.

These two facts — on gun deaths and firearm ownership — are related. The research, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is pretty clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths. Researchers have found this to be true not just with homicides, but also with suicides (which in recent years were around 60 percent of US gun deaths), domestic violence, and even violence against police.

For example, a 2013 study, led by a Boston University School of Public Health researcher, found that, after controlling for multiple variables, each percentage point increase in gun ownership correlated with a roughly 0.9 percent rise in the firearm homicide rate.

This chart, based on data compiled by researcher Josh Tewksbury, shows the correlation between the number of guns and gun deaths (including homicides and suicides) among wealthier nations:

A chart showing the correlation between the number of guns and gun deaths.

Guns are not the only contributor to violence. (Other factors include, for example, poverty, urbanization, and alcohol consumption.) But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America’s high levels of gun ownership are a major reason the US is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.

2) The problem is guns, not mental illness

Supporters of gun rights look at America’s high levels of gun violence and argue that guns are not the problem. They point to other issues, from violence in video games and movies to the supposed breakdown of the traditional family.

Most recently, they’ve blamed mental health issues for mass shootings. This is the only policy issue that Trump mentioned in his first speech following the Florida shooting.

But as far as homicides go, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence. And Michael Stone, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who maintains a database of mass shooters, wrote in a 2015 analysis that only 52 out of the 235 killers in the database, or about 22 percent, had mental illnesses. “The mentally ill should not bear the burden of being regarded as the ‘chief’ perpetrators of mass murder,” he concluded. Other research has backed this up.

More broadly, America does not have a monopoly on mental illness. That’s not to say more access to mental health care wouldn’t help; it could, for example, be effective for reducing the number of gun suicides. But mental health issues aren’t what make the US stand out in terms of gun violence.

The problem that’s unique to the US, instead, is guns — and America’s abundance of them.

As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, based on data from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:

A chart showing crime rates among wealthy nations.

Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.

”A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”

A chart showing homicides among wealthy nations.

This is in many ways intuitive: People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone will get angry at an argument and be able to pull out a gun and kill someone.

3) The research shows that gun control works

The research also suggests that gun control can work. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to firearms can save lives.

Consider Australia’s example.

In 1996, a 28-year-old man walked into a cafe in Port Arthur, Australia, ate lunch, pulled a semiautomatic rifle out of his bag, and opened fire on the crowd, killing 35 people and wounding 23 more. It was the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history.

Australian lawmakers responded with legislation that, among other provisions, banned certain types of firearms, such as automatic and semiautomatic rifles and shotguns. The Australian government confiscated 650,000 of these guns through a mandatory buyback program, in which it purchased firearms from gun owners. It established a registry of all guns owned in the country and required a permit for all new firearm purchases. (This is much further than bills typically proposed in the US, which almost never make a serious attempt to immediatelyreduce the number of guns in the country.)

Australia’s firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42 percent in the seven years after the law passed, and its firearm suicide rate fell by 57 percent, according to a review of the evidenceby Harvard researchers.

It’s difficult to know for sure how much of the drop in homicides and suicides was caused specifically by the gun buyback program and other legal changes. Australia’s gun deaths, for one, were already declining before the law passed. But researchers David Hemenway and Mary Vriniotis argue that the gun buyback program very likely played a role: “First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates.”

One study of the program, by Australian researchers, found that buying back 3,500 guns per 100,000 people correlated with up to a 50 percent drop in firearm homicides and a 74 percent drop in gun suicides. As Dylan Matthews explained for Vox, the drop in homicides wasn’t statistically significant because Australia already had a pretty low number of murders. But the drop in suicides most definitely was — and the results are striking.

Firearm suicides plummeted after Australia's gun buyback program began.Javier Zarracina/Vox

One other fact, noted by Hemenway and Vriniotis in 2011: “While 13 gun massacres (the killing of 4 or more people at one time) occurred in Australia in the 18 years before the [Australia gun control law], resulting in more than one hundred deaths, in the 14 following years (and up to the present), there were no gun massacres.”

4) State and local actions are not enough

A common counterpoint to the evidence on gun control: If it works so well, why does Chicago have so much gun violence despite having some of the strictest gun policies in the US?

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made this argument after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting: “I think if you look to Chicago, where you had over 4,000 victims of gun-related crimes last year, they have the strictest gun laws in the country. That certainly hasn’t helped there.”

It’s true that Chicago has fairly strict gun laws (although not the strictest). And it’s true that the city has fairly high levels of gun violence (although also not the worst in the US).

This doesn’t, however, expose the failure of gun control altogether, but rather the limits of leaving gun policies to a patchwork of local and state laws. The basic problem: If a city or state passes strict gun control measures, people can simply cross a border to buy guns in a jurisdiction with laxer laws.

Chicago, for example, requires a Firearm Owners Identification card, a background check, a three-day waiting period, and documentation for all firearm sales. But Indiana, across the border, doesn’t require any of this for purchases between two private individuals (including those at gun shows and those who meet through the internet), allowing even someone with a criminal record to buy a firearm without passing a background check or submitting paperwork recording the sale.

So someone from Chicago can drive across the border — to Indiana or to other places with lax gun laws — and buy a gun without any of the big legal hurdles he would face at home. Then that person can resell or give guns to others in Chicago, or keep them, leaving no paper trail behind. (This is illegal trafficking under federal law, but Indiana’s lax laws and enforcement — particularly the lack of a paper trail — make it virtually impossible to catch someone until a gun is used in a crime.)

The result: According to a 2014 report from the Chicago Police Department, nearly 60 percent of the guns in crime scenes that were recovered and traced between 2009 and 2013 came from outside the state. About 19 percent came from Indiana — making it the most common state of origin for guns besides Illinois.

This isn’t exclusive to Chicago. A 2016 report from the New York State Office of the Attorney General found that 74 percent of guns used in crimes in New York between 2010 and 2015 came from states with lax gun laws. (The gun trafficking chain from Southern states with weak gun laws to New York is so well-known it even has a name: “the Iron Pipeline.”) And another 2016 report from the US Government Accountability Office found that most of the guns — as many as 70 percent — used in crimes in Mexico, which has strict gun laws, can be traced back to the US, which has generally weaker gun laws.

That doesn’t mean the stricter gun laws in Chicago, New York, or any other jurisdiction have no effect, but it does limit how far these local and state measures can go, since the root of the problem lies in other places’ laws. The only way the pipeline could be stopped would be if all states individually strengthened their gun laws at once — or, more realistically, if the federal government passed a law that enforces stricter rules across the US.

5) America probably needs to go further than anyone wants to admit

America’s attention to gun control often focuses on a few specific measures: universal background checks, restrictions on people with mental illnesses buying firearms, and an assault weapons ban, for example. It is rare that American politicians, even on the left, go much further than that. Something like Australia’s law — which amounts to a confiscation program — is never seriously considered.

As Matthews previously explained, this is a big issue. The US’s gun problem is so dire that it arguably needs solutions that go way further than what we typically see in mainstream proposals — at least, if the US ever hopes to get down to European levels of gun violence.

If the fundamental problem is that America has far too many guns, then policies need to cut the number of guns in circulation right now to seriously reduce the number of gun deaths. Background checks and other restrictions on who can buy a gun can’t achieve that in the short term. What America likely needs, then, is something more like Australia’s mandatory buyback program — essentially, a gun confiscation scheme — paired with a serious ban on specific firearms (including, potentially, all semiautomatic weapons).

But no one in Congress is seriously proposing something that sweeping. The Manchin-Toomey bill, the only gun legislation in Congress after Sandy Hook that came close to becoming law, didn’t even establish universal background checks. Recent proposals have been even milder, taking small steps like banning bump stocks or slightly improving the existing system for background checks.

Part of the holdup is the Second Amendment. While there is reasonable scholarly debateabout whether the Second Amendment actually protects all Americans’ individual right to bear arms and prohibits stricter forms of gun control, the reality is the Supreme Court and US lawmakers — backed by the powerful gun lobby, particularly the NRA — widely agree that the Second Amendment does put barriers on how far restrictions can go. That would likely rule out anything like the Australian policy response short of a court reinterpretation or a repeal of the Second Amendment, neither of which seems likely.

So the US, for political, cultural, and legal reasons, seems to be unable to take the action that it really needs.

None of that is to say that milder measures are useless. Connecticut’s law requiring handgun purchasers to first pass a background check and obtain a license, for example, was followed by a 40 percent drop in gun homicides and a 15 percent reduction in gun suicides. Similar results — in the reverse — were reported in Missouri when it repealed its own permit-to-purchase law. It’s difficult to separate these changes from long-term trends (especially since gun homicides have generally been on the decline for decades now), but a review of the evidence by RAND linked milder gun control measures, including background checks, to reduced injuries and deaths — and that means these measures likely saved lives.

There are also some evidence-based policies that could help outside the realm of gun control, including more stringent regulations and taxes on alcohol, changes in policing, and behavioral intervention programs.

But if America wants to get to the levels of gun deaths that its European peers report, it will likely need to go much, much further on guns in particular.

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Children’s Book: Life of the Potty

This is a silly children’s book I wrote some years back, and have just published as an ebook Life of the Potty

You are welcome to sample 20% of it for free. Have fun!

Peter Potty ebook

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WAR WITH IRAN–IS IT INEVITABLE?

By Arlen Grossman

(also published in OpEdNews.com)

A major war in the Middle East would be catastrophic, yet that is the direction we are heading. With President Trump withdrawing from the nuclear accord with Iran, we are left with a frightening scenario. Upon ending the deal, Iran might fast-track a nuclear weapons program, which would give the Trump administration what they really want: a reason to attack Iran. That would set in motion a quick war led by the United States and Israel. Iran would lose the war, but untold thousands, if not millions, would die and leave the Middle East a smoldering, unstable mess. Is that what we really want?

 National Security Advisor Michael Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump  have made it clear what they want. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” Bolton said last year. “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself.” It should be noted that Bolton was a staunch advocate of the disastrous American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

 American policy, Bolton wrote in January, “should be ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its fortieth anniversary (next February). Recognizing a new Iranian regime in 2019 would reverse the shame of once seeing our diplomats held hostage for four hundred and forty-four days. The former hostages can cut the ribbon to open the new U.S. Embassy in Tehran.”

 Our new Secretary of State, too, is solidly on record as hostile to Iran. Pompeo served in the military before being elected to Congress in 2011, where he was known as an outspoken hawk and a supporter of pre-emptive war against Iran. In 2016,  Pompeo circulated a letter written by 190 retired generals, admirals and other military officers calling the accord “dangerous” and likely to lead to war. “Congress must act to change Iranian behavior,” he said, “and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.”

 President Trump, of course, has long wanted the deal scrapped. During the election campaign, he declared it “the worst deal ever negotiated.” He told an AIPAC convention in 2016:“I have been in business a long time. I know deal-making. And let me tell you, this deal is catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole of the Middle East.” A year earlier, Trump said, “They [the Iranians] have so out-negotiated our people, because our people are babies.They have no idea what they’re doing. They will find out that if I win, we’re not babies. There’s no more being babies anymore.”

 I’m sure it’s not lost on President Trump that an invasion of Iran would distract from his numerous scandals, and might even bump up his popularity. It’s a recipe for disaster, and there may not be enough cooler heads left to slow down this out-of-control train wreck.

Iran
Posted in Donald Trump, foreign policy, government, Iran, Middle East, military, politics, war | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Lies, Lies, and More Lies

Trump’s medical deceptions should be a scandal

By Paul Waldman/ Washington Post/ May 2, 2018

lies

“Trump disseminated false medical records to fool the public about his health.” That is a headline you have never seen, though you should have.

If you’ve gotten tired of hearing how something President Trump did would have been a major or even career-ending scandal for any other candidate, I sympathize. But that fatigue is exactly the problem, because from the beginning of his run for president, Trump has been treated not just by different rules but by rules that indulge his most dangerous tendencies.

At the same time, we allow him to manipulate us into chasing false charges that he makes against other people. And if we don’t realize how pernicious this is, we’re going to keep making the same mistakes, especially in 2020 when Trump will have a Democratic opponent to slander.

As you may have heard by now, NBC News reported:

In February 2017, a top White House aide who was Trump’s longtime personal bodyguard, along with the top lawyer at the Trump Organization and a third man, showed up at the office of Trump’s New York doctor without notice and took all the president’s medical records.

That “New York doctor” is Trump’s former physician, Harold Bornstein, the source of the account. The “longtime personal bodyguard” is Keith Schiller, at the time a White House staffer.

This appears to be a clear violation of the law. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), they would have had to present Bornstein with a special form in which Trump authorized them to receive copies of his records, which they reportedly didn’t. They certainly wouldn’t be allowed to rifle through a doctor’s records and seize the originals, which is how Bornstein described what happened, calling it a “raid.”

Bornstein himself may have committed a HIPAA violation when he told the New York Times that he had prescribed a hair-growth drug for Trump. That article ran two days before Schiller’s visit to his office, suggesting the article (and Trump’s inevitable rage over it) is what prompted the visit.

The White House insists that this is no big deal. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “It would be standard procedure for the newly elected president’s medical records to be in possession by the White House medical unit, and that was what was taking place — is those records were being transferred over to the White House medical unit as requested.”

But that doesn’t seem true either. They could have just asked for a copy of Trump’s records to be sent over so that he could be properly treated by the White House medical unit. Sending Trump’s bodyguard to New York to seize the originals is an entirely different matter.

In addition, Bornstein now admits that when he wrote a letter in December 2015 attesting to Trump’s good health, he was actually taking dictation from Trump himself.

Now here’s why this is important. At the time, everyone understood that was exactly what happened. The letter was not something any trained physician would write, and it was written in Trump’s distinctive sixth-grade braggadocio. It said “Mr. Trump has had a recent complete medical examination that showed only positive results,” that Trump’s blood work was “astonishingly excellent,” that “his physical strength and stamina are extraordinary,” and finally, that “if elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” It could not have been more obvious that Trump was the actual author of the letter if it had been signed “Donald J. Trump, I mean Harold Bornstein.”

If Hillary Clinton had done that, we would have been apoplectic, and rightfully so. But at the time, everyone treated the whole thing almost as a joke. Trump should certainly be more forthcoming, reporters said, but here’s this wacky-looking doctor with long hair writing this absurd letter — isn’t that hilarious?! Well, yes, it was comical. But a presidential candidate was hiding his medical situation from the public. And not any candidate, but the candidate who would become the oldest president ever elected, and who seems to eat nothing but fast food.

Yet at the very same time, the press not only treated Clinton’s health as a matter of utmost seriousness; it also was quick to accuse her of being overly secretive and dishonest about it.

You may remember that in September 2016, Clinton had a bout of pneumonia. At a Sept. 11 memorial event on a hot day, she got lightheaded as she was headed toward her car, stumbling and being caught by aides. The reaction from the press was to treat it as an absolutely momentous event that not only raised profound questions about her fitness to be president but also showed how sneaky and deceitful she was for not announcing the illness to the press the moment it was diagnosed.

“Hillary Clinton Is Set Back by Decision to Keep Illness Secret” said the front-page headline in the New York Times the next day. On that day, the cable TV networks ran a total of 13½ hours of coverage of Clinton’s health. Fox News went into paroxysms of speculation about the varieties of brain ailments Clinton might be suffering from. Politico published a photo gallery entitled “Hydrated Hillary: 9 times Clinton quenched her thirst,” just to show her bizarre water-drinking behavior that surely must have been concealing something.

All this demonstrates the shifting standards candidates are treated with, which somehow kept working to Trump’s benefit. On one hand, there’s a presumption that politicians tell the truth most of the time, so the things they say should be treated with a basic level of respect. Which means that when someone like Trump comes along telling obvious, constant lies, those lies just get passed on to the public over and over. Any particular lie gets discussed for a while, then set aside with a chuckle and a shake of the head. We sure are living in crazy times!

Yet when he makes false charges about others, as he regularly does, they’re given what is functionally the same respect as any other statement, to be passed on and repeated until concrete evidence emerges to prove they’re false.

Trump understands all this perfectly well. As he once told his then-toady Billy Bush when Bush called him out (privately) for lying about how great the ratings for “The Apprentice” were: “People will just believe you. You just tell them, and they believe you.”

While this is something that should concern us each and every day, we need to be particularly on guard when the 2020 election begins. Trump is going to run a scorched-earth campaign against the Democratic nominee, not just of sneering ridicule but also of innuendo and outright slander. One way we can prepare for it is to stop treating the lies Trump tells — such as putting out false letters about his medical condition — as though they’re anything less than the scandal they ought to be.

 
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CAMPAIGN WITHOUT LIMITS

Who Will Protect Elections From U.S. Oligarchs?

By Paul Street/ Truthdig/ April 18, 2018

I recently heard on cable news that special counsel Robert Mueller wanted to interview some “Russian oligarchs” about their supposed influence on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Liberal talking heads at such organizations as MSNBC and CNN keep warning that nothing has been done yet to protect the integrity of our voting process against “Russian interference” as the 2018 midterm elections loom ever closer on the nation’s horizon.

What about the American oligarchs, I wondered, people like businessman Richard Uihlein, who regularly distort U.S. elections at every level—local, state and federal? Who will protect our “democracy” from the plutocratic “wealth primary” power of the American oligarchy?

If you are like most U.S. citizens, you’ve never heard of Richard Uihlein. An heir to the Milwaukee-based Schlitz beer fortune, Uihlein is the billionaire CEO of Uline Inc., a private, family-owned Wisconsin company that sells shipping and packaging materials to the tune of $2 billion in annual revenue. He lives in a mansion in Lake Forest, a hyper-opulent preserve north of Chicago.

So far, Uihlein is the top political contributor in the 2018 federal U.S. election cycle, at $21 million. In 2016, however, he was just the nation’s ninth biggest political investor. Above him on the plutocratic “wealth primary” scale stood the San Francisco hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer ($91 million, all to Democratic candidates and Democratic Party-affiliated “liberal outside groups”); Las Vegas billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson ($83 million to Republicans and the right); Florida billionaire financier Donald Sussman ($42 million to Democrats and “liberal” groups); Chicago multimillionaire media mogul Fred Eychaner ($38 million to Democrats and “liberal” groups); Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and the “world’s youngest self-made billionaire” ($27 million to Democrats and “liberal” groups); billionaire mathematician and hedge fund manager James Simons ($27 million to Democrats and “liberal” groups); billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer ($26 million to Republicans and right-wing groups); and billionaire right-wing hedge fund manager Robert Mercer ($26 million to Republicans and right-wing groups). Michael Bloomberg rounded out the top 10 list at a cool $23,786,083.

These megadonors are the superrich cream atop a deep plutocratic pitcher. The CRP’s list of the top 100 individual contributors to federal candidates during the 2016 election cycle ends with Karen Wright, CEO of a leading gas-compressor manufacturer. She gave a whopping $2.2 million to Republicans and the right.

How are such ridiculously astronomical political investments—far beyond the capacity of all but a super-opulent minority of U.S. citizens—possible under U.S. law? Aren’t there limits on how much rich people can spend on U.S. elections?

Super PAC Bowl

Not really. Not for rich people whose agents know how get past the nation’s porous regulations. Federal law sets a $2,500 per-person, per-election limit on how much a donor can give to a federal candidate, a $30,800 per-person, per-year limit on donations to national party committees, and a $10,000 total limit on per-person contributions to state, district or local party committees.

But the rules change when it comes to technically “independent” nonparty and “outside” groups called political action committees, known as PACs. A person can give as much as $5,000 to a PAC that contributes directly to candidates. And there are no limits whatsoever on how much a person can give to a PAC that declares it will spend its money totally independently from a candidate’s campaign. These “independent expenditure” groups, which can receive unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations or unions, are commonly called super PACs.

Some nonprofit groups, called “social welfare” organizations or “501(c)(4) groups,” can also accept unlimited contributions. The primary purpose of these groups cannot technically be political, but they can spend substantial amounts on political activities, such as TV commercials.

Adding to the plutocratic muddle, the Supreme Court’s infamous 2010 Citizens United decision overthrew a federal ban on corporations and unions making independent expenditures and financing electioneering communications. It gave corporations and unions the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools calling for the election or defeat of individual candidates.

This has opened the door to astonishing levels of private spending in the nation’s public elections. “During the 2016 election cycle,” CRP staffer Bob Biersack notes, “the top 20 individual donors (whose contributions were disclosed) gave more than $500 million combined to political organizations. The 20 largest organizational donors also gave a total of more than $500 million, and more than $1 billion came from the top 40 donors. … At a time when Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were confirming that large numbers of people donating small amounts could fund successful campaigns, the extraordinary role being played by the very few donors who give the most may be the most important element in this new era.”

Thanks to the problem of “dark money,” moreover, we don’t have a complete record of which rich people give how much to which candidates. While super PACS must disclose their donors, 501(c)(4)s are not required to do so. These nondisclosing organizations engage in numerous political activities: buying ads that advocate for or against a candidate, running phone banks, making contributions to super PACs (!) and more.

It’s reached the point where, as a former Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer last year, “a single billionaire can write an eight-figure check and put not just their thumb but their whole hand on the scale—and we often have no idea who they are. … [A] random billionaire can change politics and public policy—to sweep everything else off the table—even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views.”

Their right to not disclose means that the campaign finance data listed above significantly underestimates total political investments made by the nation’s leading election donors. (CONTINUED-CLICK HERE TO READ ENTIRE ARTICLE)

Super PACs

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Syria Used Chemical Weapons–Are You Sure?

By Arlen Grossman

 (Editor’s Note: What you see here is a revised and expanded version of s previous post. This version was headlined at OpEdNews.com., April 19, 2018, with over 2500 views.)

Think about this:

 

  1. Syrian President Assad had no good reason to use chemical weapons. He surely was aware that such action would be condemned by the world community and result in an American retaliation.

 

  1. By most accounts President Assad is winning the Syrian civil war, and lacks any sensible military reason to use chemical weapons.

 

  1. The U.S. has a record of lying to initiate wars (e.g. WMDs in Iraq, the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam).

Today, there appears to be no evidence released to the public that Syria was responsible for the April 7 chemical attack in Douma that a few days later resulted in a U.S., British, and French military strike.

 

Defense Secretary James Mattis admitted that the U.S. had “no evidence” that the Syrian government used Sarin against its own citizens in 2017 and just a few days after the Douma chemical attack, admitted the U.S. is still “looking for the actual evidence” that Syria used chemical weapons.

 

As usual, politicians and the mass media, without any proof, took the word of the U.S. government that Syria was responsible for using chemical weapons against its citizens.

 

My guess would be that eventually there will be another chemical attack in Syria and it will be blamed on President Bashar Hafez al-Assad and his government. This will open the gate for the United States and its allies to take out President Assad and install a new government, as well as striking a blow against Russia and Iran.

 

Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, flatly told the U.N. Security Council on April 14, “If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded. When our president draws a red line, the president enforces the red line.”

 

Of course, it would make no rational sense for Assad to use chemical weapons in the future and invite the wrath of the world and an assault by the U.S. and its allies–just as it made no sense for him to do it this most recent time. Such a move defies logic and common sense. Assad had little or nothing to gain by using chemical weapons in Douma.

 

There are no heroes in this story, certainly not Assad, Russia or Iran.  Then again, the United States, Britain and France are hardly good guys if it is shown they concocted a plan to falsely blame the Assad government for using chemical weapons.

 

Something smells bad, but it’s not sarin or chlorine.

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What About This Time?

Note: This article refers to the 2017 missile strike against Syria — TBPR Editor

NOW MATTIS ADMITS THERE WAS NO EVIDENCE ASSAD USED POISON GAS ON HIS PEOPLE

By Ian Wilkie/ Newsweek/ February 8, 2018

Lost in the hyper-politicized hullabaloo surrounding the Nunes Memorandum and the Steele Dossier was the striking statement by Secretary of Defense James Mattis that the U.S. has “no evidence” that the Syrian government used the banned nerve agent Sarin against its own people.

This assertion flies in the face of the White House (NSC) Memorandum which was rapidly produced and declassified to justify an American Tomahawk missile strike against the Shayrat airbase in Syria.

Mattis offered no temporal qualifications, which means that both the 2017 event in Khan Sheikhoun and the 2013 tragedy in Ghouta are unsolved cases in the eyes of the Defense Department and Defense Intelligence Agency.

Mattis went on to acknowledge that “aid groups and others” had provided evidence and reports but stopped short of naming President Assad as the culprit.

There were casualties from organophosphate poisoning in both cases; that much is certain. But America has accused Assad of direct responsibility for Sarin attacks and even blamed Russia for culpability in the Khan Sheikhoun tragedy.

Now its own military boss has said on the record that we have no evidence to support this conclusion. In so doing, Mattis tacitly impugned the interventionists who were responsible for pushing the “Assad is guilty” narrative twice without sufficient supporting evidence, at least in the eyes of the Pentagon.

This dissonance between the White House and the Department of Defense is especially troubling when viewed against the chorus of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) experts who have been questioning the (Obama and Trump) White House narratives concerning chemical weapons in Syria since practically the moment these “Assad-ordered events” occurred.

Serious, experienced chemical weapons experts and investigators such as Hans Blix, Scott Ritter, Gareth Porter and Theodore Postol have all cast doubt on “official” American narratives regarding President Assad employing Sarin.

These analysts have all focused on the technical aspects of the two attacks and found them not to be consistent with the use of nation-state quality Sarin munitions.

The 2013 Ghouta event, for example, employed home-made rockets of the type favored by insurgents. The White House Memorandum on Khan Sheikhoun seemed to rely heavily on testimony from the Syrian White Helmets who were filmed at the scene having contact with supposed Sarin-tainted casualties and not suffering any ill effects.

Likewise, these same actors were filmed wearing chemical weapons training suits around the supposed “point of impact” in Khan Sheikhoun, something which makes their testimony (and samples) highly suspect. A training suit offers no protection at all, and these people would all be dead if they had come into contact with real military-grade Sarin.

Chemical weapons are abhorrent and illegal, and no one knows this more than Carla Del Ponte. She, however, was unable to fulfill her U.N. Joint Investigative Mechanism mandate in Syria and withdrew in protest over the United States refusing to fully investigate allegations of chemical weapons use by “rebels” (jihadis) allied with the American effort to oust President Assad (including the use of Sarin by anti-Assad rebels).

The fact that U.N. investigators were in Syria when the chemical weapon event in Khan Sheikhoun occurred in April 2017 makes it highly dubious that Assad would have given the order to use Sarin at that time. Common sense suggests that Assad would have chosen any other time than that to use a banned weapon that he had agreed to destroy and never employ.

Furthermore, he would be placing at risk his patronage from Russia if they turned on him as a war criminal and withdrew their support for him.

Tactically, as a former soldier, it makes no sense to me that anyone would intentionally target civilians and children as the White Helmet reports suggest he did.

There is compelling analysis from Gareth Porter suggesting that phosphine could have been released by an airborne munition striking a chemical depot, since the clouds and casualties (while organophosphate-appearing in some respects) do not appear to be similar to MilSpec Sarin, particularly the high-test Russian bomb-carried Sarin which independent groups like “bellingcat” insist was deployed.

America’s credibility was damaged by Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003 falsely accusing Saddam Hussein of having mobile anthrax laboratories. Fast forward to 2017 and we encounter Nikki Haley in an uncomfortably similar situation at the U.N. Security Council calling for action against yet another non-Western head-of-state based on weak, unsubstantiated evidence.

Now Secretary Mattis has added fuel to the WMD propaganda doubters’ fire by retroactively calling into question the rationale for an American cruise missile strike.

While in no way detracting from the horror of what took place against innocent civilians in Syria, it is time for America to stop shooting first and asking questions later.

Ian Wilkie is an international lawyer, U.S. Army veteran and former intelligence community contractor.

 
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Syria Chemical Attack: A False Flag?

‘Why would Assad use chemical weapons on civilians, knowing that it would draw world-wide condemnation and intervention, when the jihadists are surrounded and on the brink of annihilation?’

–Richard Black, Virginia State Senator

Senator Black may be on to something. He is a Republican who believes in wild conspiracy theories, but still….Why would Assad invite attacks from the U.S. and  its allies? I’m still scratching my head….

Posted in foreign policy, military, politics, scandals, Syria, Terrorism, Uncategorized, war, War on Terror | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Different Brains

A Neuroscientist Explains What Could Be Wrong with Trump Supporters’ Brains

By Bobby Azarian/ Alternet/ April 7, 2018

There’s no doubt that Donald Trump has said many things that would have been political suicide for any other Republican. And almost every time he made one of these shocking statements, political analysts on both the left and the right predicted that he’d lose supporters because of it. But as we have clearly seen over the past year, they were dead wrong every time. Trump appears to be almost totally bulletproof.

The only thing that might be more perplexing than the psychology of Donald Trump is the psychology of his supporters. In their eyes, The Donald can do no wrong. Even Trump himself seems to be astonished by this phenomenon. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.” [3]

Senator John McCain, who has been a regular target for Trump, has a simple explanation for his unwavering support. “What he did was he fired up the crazies.”

While the former Republican presidential nominee may be on to something, he doesn’t exactly provide a very satisfying scientific explanation.  So how exactly are Trump loyalists psychologically or neurologically different from everyone else? What is going on in their brains that makes them so blindly devoted?

  1. The Dunning-Kruger Effect:

Some believe that many of those who support Donald Trump do so because of ignorance — basically they are under-informed or misinformed about the issues at hand. When Trump tells them that crime is skyrocketing in the United States, or that the economy is the worst it’s ever been, they simply take his word for it.

The seemingly obvious solution would be to try to reach those people through political ads, expert opinions, and logical arguments that educate with facts. Except none of those things seem to be swaying any Trump supporters from his side, despite great efforts to deliver this information to them directly.

The Dunning-Kruger effect explains that the problem isn’t just that they are misinformed; it’s that they are completely unaware that they are misinformed. This creates a double burden.

Studies [4] have shown that people who lack expertise in some area of knowledge often have a cognitive bias that prevents them from realizing that they lack expertise. As psychologist David Dunning puts it in an op-ed [5] for Politico, “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.” Essentially, they’re not smart enough to realize they’re dumb.

And if one is under the illusion that they have sufficient or even superior knowledge, then they have no reason to defer to anyone else’s judgment. This helps explain why even nonpartisan experts — like military generals and Independent former Mayor of New York/billionaire CEO Michael Bloomberg — as well as some respected Republican politicians, don’t seem to be able to say anything that can change the minds of loyal Trump followers.

Out of immense frustration, some of us may feel the urge to shake a Trump supporter and say, “Hey! Don’t you realize that he’s an idiot?!” No. They don’t. That may be hard to fathom, but that’s the nature of the Dunning-Kruger effect — one’s ignorance is completely invisible to them.

  1. Hypersensitivity to Threat

Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening. A classic study [6]in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling noises and graphic images compared to liberals. A brain-imaging study [7]published in Current Biology revealed that those who lean right politically tend to have a larger amygdala — a structure that is electrically active during states of fear and anxiety. And a 2014 fMRI study [8] found that it is possible to predict whether someone is a liberal or conservative simply by looking at their brain activity while they view threatening or disgusting images, such as mutilated bodies. Specifically, the brains of self-identified conservatives generated more activity overall in response to the disturbing images.

So how does this help explain the unbridled loyalty of Trump supporters? These brain responses are automatic, and not influenced by logic or reason. As long as Trump continues his fear mongering by constantly portraying Muslims and Mexican immigrants as imminent dangers, many conservative brains will involuntarily light up like light bulbs being controlled by a switch. Fear keeps his followers energized and focused on safety. And when you think you’ve found your protector, you become less concerned with remarks that would normally be seen as highly offensive.

  1. Terror Management Theory

A well-supported theory from social psychology, called Terror Management Theory, explains why Trump’s fear mongering is doubly effective.

The theory is based on the fact that humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. The inevitably of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value.

Terror Management Theory predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identity, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not. Hundreds of studies have confirmed this hypothesis, and some have specifically shown that triggering thoughts of death tends to shift people towards the right.

Not only do death reminders increase nationalism [9], they influence actual voting habits [10]in favor of more conservative presidential candidates. And more disturbingly, in a study with American students, scientists found that making mortality salient increased support for extreme military interventions [11] by American forces that could kill thousands of civilians overseas. Interestingly, the effect was present only in conservatives, which can likely be attributed to their heightened fear response.

By constantly emphasizing existential threat, Trump creates a psychological condition that makes the brain respond positively rather than negatively to bigoted statements and divisive rhetoric. Liberals and Independents who have been puzzled over why Trump hasn’t lost supporters after such highly offensive comments need look no further than Terror Management Theory.

  1. High Attentional Engagement

According to a recent study [12] that monitored brain activity while participants watched 40 minutes of political ads and debate clips from the presidential candidates, Donald Trump is unique in his ability to keep the brain engaged. While Hillary Clinton could only hold attention for so long, Trump kept both attention and emotional arousal high throughout the viewing session. This pattern of activity was seen even when Trump made remarks that individuals didn’t necessarily agree with. His showmanship and simple messages clearly resonate at a visceral level.

Essentially, the loyalty of Trump supporters may in part be explained by America’s addiction with entertainment and reality TV. To some, it doesn’t matter what Trump actually says because he’s so amusing to watch. With Donald, you are always left wondering what outrageous thing he is going to say or do next. He keeps us on the edge of our seat, and for that reason, some Trump supporters will forgive anything he says. They are happy as long as they are kept entertained.

Of course these explanations do not apply to all Trump supporters. In fact, some are likely intelligent people who know better, but are supporting Trump to be rebellious or to introduce chaos into the system. They may have such distaste for the establishment and Hillary Clinton that their vote for Trump was a symbolic middle finger directed at Washington.

So what can we do to potentially change the minds of Trump loyalists before voting in 2020? As a cognitive neuroscientist, it grieves me to say that there may be nothing we can do. The overwhelming majority of these people may be beyond reach, at least in the short term. The best we can do is to motivate everyone else to get out to the booths and check the box that doesn’t belong to a narcissistic nationalist who has the potential to damage the nation beyond repair.

 

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist, a researcher in the Visual Attention and Cognition Lab at George Mason University and a science writer whose work has been widely published.

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