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Refilling the swamp

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Trump promised to “drain the swamp,” by which he meant to purge all the smart, forward-thinking and capable public servants in Washington and replace them with religious fanatics and white nationalist rightwingers who would pledge undying loyalty to him. Well, Trump did a good job “draining the swamp,” and America has paid a devastating price.

So it’s good to see “the swamp” being filled in again by Joe Biden. By that, I mean that if refilling the swamp means bringing expertise, common sense and the rule of law back to government, I’m all for it! I’ll tell you what’s really being drained, now that Trump is a loser: the clerical-fascist cult that has been carrying out a slow-motion coup d’etat for the past 4 years, under the fuehrership of the most divisive, ignorant, crooked and sociopathic president in American history.

Here, for your delectation, is some of the sludge that’s being flushed out along with Trump: Mike Pompeo. Mike Pence. Kayleigh McEnany. Kellyanne Conway. Stephen Miller. Steven Mnuchin. William Barr. Eugene Scalia. Alex Azar. Elaine Chao. Betsy DeVos. Chad Wolf. Kelly Craft. Gina Haspel. Emily Murphy. Rudy Giuliani. Oh, and let’s not forget the evangelical thugs whom Trump carries around with him like suckerfish, like Trump’s “spiritual advisor,” the psychopath who “speaks in tongues,” Paula White, and the reprobate grifter, Franklin Graham. And, of course, the Trump family: those greedy spawn of his, and the conniving, maniacal Melania.

Soon, they’ll be gone, gone, gone, losers driven out in embarrassment and scandal, hopefully never again to hold positions of power. Hopefully, too, they will be the victims of never-ending lawsuits, indictments and public scorn. Do I sound vengeful? Very well, then I am vengeful. A little schadenfreude is not uncalled for.

The Trump years are beginning to seem like a dream, aren’t they? A bad dream. Do you remember what it’s like to be very sick—say, with the flu—you’re debilitated for days on end, on your knees, miserable. And then there’s that first day when you realize you feel normal again. You want to celebrate! Your energy is back. The pain and exhaustion are gone. The feeling that you want to curl up into a little ball and die isn’t there anymore. Instead, health! Well-being! Vitality! Life feels beautiful again, you can breathe, you can run, you can enjoy a good meal with good wine, you can make love again, you’re back! That’s what it feels like now. This is why Biden says “America’s back.”

We’re not the sick man of the world anymore the way we’ve been for the last four years. We’ll rejoin the family of nations, the prodigal son welcomed back to the bosom of humankind. Once again, we can work with friends around the world to combat climate change, participate in the World Health Organization, befriend Muslim nations, restore the rights of legitimate immigrants at our borders, revitalize our European alliances, and in general let the world know that sanity and decency have been restored to American governance.

And what of Trump’s supporters? It’s conventional wisdom to suppose that they’re not going anywhere, that they’re more resentful than ever, that they’re going to constitute a Third Column of revolutionaries and fantasts, kept in a perpetual state of rage by the continued Twitter rantings of their Dear Leader. Well, I have a slightly different perspective. I think it’s just as likely that Trump will fade away. He said, in October before the election, that if he lost, he might have to move to another country. That’s still a possibility; Moscow? It’s also possible that, when the night sweat of Trump fever breaks, millions of his followers might decide that, in retrospect, he really was a horrible and disgusting person. Such things have historic precedent. When Hitler was gone, many Germans denounced him. It’s possible, of course, that they were lying, or fooling themselves, or just trying to avoid condemnation or arrest, but it’s equally plausible that they meant it: After witnessing the destruction Der Fuehrer wrought upon Germany and Europe, they came to their senses. It wouldn’t take the majority of Trumpers changing their minds to fundamentally eliminate trumpism as a factor in American life. As his support begins to erode, it builds on itself. Prodded by a teenaged child, a mom who voted for him comes to understand what a mistake she made. She works on her husband, who eventually and grudgingly comes to the same conclusion. One by one, Trump supporters recover. This may not make them “liberal,” or have sympathy for Democrats. But it will at least wean them from trumpism. Like recovered alcoholics, they can lead productive, peaceful lives without the addiction that previously made them so sick. In this way, Trumpers dwindle over time, like those dead-end Japanese soldiers, still fighting World War Two on Pacific atolls decades after Japan surrendered.

Am I being optimistic that we can isolate Trumpers and contain them? At this point, we can afford to be optimistic. We danced in the streets when we realized Biden had won. We’ll dance in the streets on Inauguration Day, when Joe Biden becomes #46 and Kamala Harris makes us proud as Vice President. There will be troubles aplenty in the future, things we can’t foresee, but meanwhile, we can at least take comfort in the fact that We Did It: The Resistance has triumphed, and Trump and trumpism are headed for the ash heap of History.


On the split between moderate and progressive Democrats

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There’s clearly a split within the Democratic Party—a split that was largely papered over during the terrible Trump years, when Democrats all along the political spectrum united to rid America of its greatest menace in modern history. The split is often referred to as “moderates” versus “progressives.” As a lifelong Democrat, reared in a household infused with the values of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, I hadn’t really thought much about this divide until recently. It always seemed to me that some things on the so-called “progressive side,” such as universal healthcare and higher taxes on the rich, were good, while some things on the moderate side, such as a more nuanced approach to race and policing issues, were also good.

But the 2020 election has revealed how profound the Democratic split is. Yes, we elected Joe Biden, a triumph of electoral political organizing. But Democrats did far worse than expected in the House and the Senate, a fact that has struck alarm bells among professional Democrats already looking down the road to the 2022 off-year elections.

The fact is, a lot of white people didn’t vote for Joe Biden, or for any other Democrat. And Democrats saw a hemorrhage of Black and Brown voters to Republicans. That in itself should freak Democrats out. Why didn’t we take the Senate? Why didn’t we gain another 10 or 15 seats in the House?

Elissa Slotkin thinks she knows why. A Democratic Congresswoman from Michigan, she just won re-election to a second term—but by a hair, far less than she or her advisors expected. In a series of interviews she gave Politico, she explained her view that Democrats need to radically re-adjust the way they talk to working-class Americans; she indicts “New York and California” Democrats as talking down to voters in flyover country and thus alienating millions of people who think of Democrats as elitist snobs.

As one of those California Democrats, I’ll start with myself. Mea culpa: I tend to look at red states as yahoo country. populated by Bible-thumpers, superstitious evangelicals, anti-science ignoramuses who believe whatever their pastors tell them. They’re homophobes, obviously, and they’re certainly Islamophobes. Some are racists, pure and simple. And they’re politically stupid: they routinely vote for Republicans who really have no interest in working class Americans, but who go to Washington to lower taxes on the rich and feather their own nests.

That, anyway, has been my opinion of red state Republicans for all of my adult life. And let’s be clear, many of these indictments are true. There are some very nasty ingredients in the Republican stew, some very bad people—Hillary’s deplorables. At the same time, I’m interested in advancing Democratic interests going forward, and I realize there’s a very real possibility of Republican victories in 2022, including a loss of the House. This forces me, and it should force all thoughtful Democrats, to look at ourselves and our party, and try to figure out where we’re going wrong.

This is where Slotkin’s view is so important. Her position is pretty simple: she calls herself “a Midwestern Democrat” who has empathy for “a certain voter out there who identifies with [Trump] and appreciates him.” These are the struggling workers, not just in the rust- and corn belt but throughout the country. They not only feel the Democratic Party has abandoned them, their “stances on social controversies put them out of touch with the Democratic Party.”

What “social controversies”? Chief among these are the cries from the far left to “defund the police.” Anybody who reads my blog knows that I’m completely against this insane notion. But the perception among a huge chunk of the public is that Democrats as a party want police departments to be defunded. That’s not true, but Democratic leaders have not done nearly enough to convince the public otherwise. When Trump freaked suburban voters out by telling them that Corey Booker was going to come to their neighborhoods and build slums and invite Antifa to live there, Democratic leaders did not step up. You didn’t see Democratic leaders stating clearly that they value and cherish the police. But the American people do—and when their beloved cops came under attack from Black Lives Matter and no Democrats stood up to defend the thin blue line, Americans—including Black and Brown ones–took notice.

Another “social controversy” Slotkin calls out is the far left’s passion for “democratic socialism.” She doesn’t mention Bernie Sanders, although she could have, but she does single out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Slotkin warns Democrats that “We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of it.” Slotkin identifies a number of her Democratic colleagues in the House who lost their jobs—were fired—in the 2020 election cycle, because voters considered them too radical, too out of step with moderate values. That doesn’t mean Democrats can’t talk about raising taxes on the rich, or eliminating fossil fuels eventually, or strengthening Social Security and Medicare, including covering all Americans, or other things generally identified with the left. But it does mean that Americans don’t like or trust the word “socialism.”

Slotkin is a pragmatist. If progressives are willing to march off the cliff because they can’t get everything they want, she warns us, they will destroy the Democratic Party, leaving Republicans (and evangelicals) in charge. She’s right. Democrats can’t demand that everybody be in lockstep with them on the most progressive issues. Rather, Democrats have to “keep the door open for people” who aren’t as progressive, and that means Democrats “have to heal their own party first.” What this means is, in effect, that the party’s far left wing either needs to accommodate itself to the center or, if it refuses, it has to be outflanked.

I’m entirely ready for the Democratic Party to be more accommodating with Republicans. I have no problem with that. I said earlier I never gave much thought to the split between moderates and progressives until recently. Now, I finally realize that I am a moderate Democrat. I’m a lot more law-and-order oriented than many if not most progressive Democrats. I don’t want to defund the police, I want to increase their budgets in crime-plagued cities like my own, Oakland. I do not like the Black Lives Matter anarchists who have destroyed large tracts of my city (and so many others). I believe they have nothing constructive to add to the conversation. And while I have enormous sympathy with a “Green New Deal,” I recognize that tens of millions of American workers are scared to death by it; many are working in mines, or in fracking or oil refining, and they can’t afford to lose their jobs. Their concerns must be considered. And while I’m hardly an expert in international trade, I understand that lots of workers feel that Democrats have thrown their jobs away in their obsession with free trade. I’m also sympathetic to calls from Republicans to re-open the American economy despite COVID-19.

Fortunately, Joe Biden seems to be my kind of Democrat: a centrist-moderate. I can only hope that the far left will back down on their insatiable and often unrealistic demands and work with the Biden administration to craft pragmatic bills that can pass Congress. At the same time, based on their historic performance, I’m afraid the progressives won’t play ball. Instead, they’ll dive off that cliff with their flags flying–and drag down the Democratic Party with them.


Biden must investigate Trump!

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I’m not happy that President-elect Biden seems to be ruling out federal investigations of Trump, the Trump family, and members of the Trump regime.

NBC News reported that “Biden has raised concerns that investigations would further divide a country he is trying to unite and risk making every day of his presidency about Trump.” More specifically, NBC reported that Biden “has specifically told advisers that he is wary of federal tax investigations of Trump or of challenging any orders Trump may issue granting immunity to members of his staff before he leaves office. One adviser said Biden has made it clear that he ‘just wants to move on.’” Vanity Fair adds this detail: Biden will “not interfere with the Justice Department’s judgment of whether or not they think they should pursue a prosecution.”

What are we to make of this? It brings to mind Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon back in 1974. Like Biden, Ford said he was pardoning Nixon in order to move on. “Someone must write the end to [the ongoing Watergate brouhaha],” Ford announced, adding, “I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.” Ford’s pardon was extremely unpopular with the American people and was a likely factor in Ford’s subsequent failure to be re-elected in 1976.

It’s not clear to me that Biden is entirely telling the truth about why he won’t actively investigate Trump’s obvious crimes, which include colluding with Russia to win the 2016 election, obstructing justice on multiple fronts, violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution, dodging taxes and other financial irregularities and, most recently, blocking an orderly transition to the Biden administration. The American people, having decided that Trump is a serial lawbreaker with no regard for the Constitution, are seriously interested in learning everything there is to know about Trump’s secret behaviors. They’re also justifiably interested in seeing any criminal behavior prosecuted and punished. Never in my lifetime (and this includes Watergate) have I seen the public so desirous of having a political figure brought before the bar of justice and put on trial.

Biden surely knows this; if he doesn’t, Kamala Harris can tell him. We’ve been told, over and over, what a fine, decent, upstanding man Joe Biden is. His character has been described as fair-minded and absent of resentment or anger. These things may well be true, but when Biden is President, starting at noon on Jan. 20, 2021, he’ll have responsibilities that range far beyond his natural inclinations to be Mr. Nice Guy. Democrats in particular have never been so outraged as they’ve been for the last four years, when Trump has insulted and demeaned the party, lied about it, stirred up hatred of Democrats among his evangelical and neo-fascist allies, blocked every bit of legislation Democrats have proposed, been nakedly partisan in the appointment of judges; and now, of course, Trump’s outrageous stunts to nullify the election. President Biden may be the de facto leader of the Democratic Party, but that doesn’t mean that everything he does must be signed off on by the 77 million Democratic voters who have made him President.

Will Biden’s Department of Justice pursue investigations of Trump, his family and Trump’s allies? I suppose we have to take Biden’s word for it that he “won’t interfere” with the Justice Department if they do decide to launch inquiries, but that’s a pretty lackadaisical approach. We don’t know who Biden’s Attorney-General will be, but he or she isn’t likely to do something as potentially historic and controversial as criminally investigating a former President without explicit clearance from the current President. Biden’s non-interference pledge, in other words, is empty rhetoric—designed by some phrasemaker to appease Democrats by holding out the possibility of investigations, even as everybody knows there won’t be any.

If Biden expects rank-and-file Democrats to simply accept this and “move on,” I think he’s sadly mistaken. The clamor for investigations, not just by the Justice Department but by the Congress, is only going to grow louder. Biden should renege on his vow, not only because it will be politically advantageous to him, but because it’s the right thing to do. However bad Nixon’s crimes may have been, they really amounted to a hill of beans in the longterm scheme of things. Trump’s crimes, by contrast, are massive, hugely destructive, and ongoing. To let him get off scot-free is a slap in the face to the Democrats who resisted Trump and Trumpism from Day One, who organized themselves despite the odds to get Biden elected, and who now expect something in return for their loyalty and support. What Biden has to give them—give us—is Trump in the courtroom dock.


Trump’s up to something. We don’t know what it is…

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Trump is plotting something. We don’t know what. But we can start from this premise: he has no intention of going peacefully. So, while we don’t know the details of his nefarious plot, it’s looking more and more that it might constitute a coup d’état.

What is a coup d’état? In French it means a “blow of [or to] the state.” In other words, an illegal overthrow of an existing government, in most cases by violent means. The United States has never had a coup d’état, although they seem to be the norm in African countries, and sometimes in South American and Middle Eastern countries—what we sometimes call “banana republics.” In the case of Trump, perhaps coup d’état is not the most precise term, because Trump currently runs the American government; he can’t overthrow himself. But what he can overthrow are institutions that have protected our democracy for more than 200 years, including such things as the results of presidential elections.

I saw a journalist on T.V. yesterday who said that if he were to say to Trump, “You can have a second term, but only if this is the last presidential election we ever have in America,” Trump would say “Okay.” Look what Trump did this week in Detroit, where his Republican henchmen tried, and thankfully failed under public pressure, to decertify the largely-Black Democratic vote. Look what he did in firing Chris Krebs, the country’s top election security official, for stating accurately the the 2020 Presidential election was the most secure in history. Look at what he did in firing the top ranks at the Defense Department. Look at his tweets, where he hysterically screams that he won the election, despite Biden’s landslide victory. Look at his ridiculous stooge, Giuliani, running around the country filing baseless lawsuits and lying outrageously about rigged elections. Look at everything this would-be fascist tyrant has said and done over the years to satisfy his followers blood-lust and get them in a mood for violence. There can be little doubt that Trump is putting the pieces into place to remain in power by whatever means necessary, despite having been fired by the voters.

I realize that I’m catastrophizing, something I’m prone to do anyway, a tendency exacerbated by the pandemic and, of course, by the situation with Gus, which is really wearing me down. Most probably, Trump is just getting in a few last-minute tantrums, and will go away, however unwillingly, on Jan. 20, 2021. Most probably the Trump cultists in the Congress will gradually recognize the incoming Biden administration, although for the diehards, it will be like going cold turkey after a serious smack addiction. Most likely there will be few if any acts of violence on the part of rightwing psychopaths like the proud boys. Most likely, by next Spring we’ll all be looking back at this era as an unnatural eruption of a smoldering disease that almost killed America—a bullet we narrowly dodged. Most likely…

But if we’ve learned anything from the Trump years, it’s that only fools make predictions. Right now, I’d say the odds are about even that Trump is planning some spectacular stunt to remain in power. He’s a clever man—he has the reptilian intelligence of a lizard, and he often, in his layered, Gemini mind, is working on more than one level. If he can’t remain in power, his plan includes a poisoning of the well for the incoming Biden administration: worsening the economy, worsening COVID cases and deaths, worsening the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, so that Biden will face an immense struggle from day one—a struggle he would not otherwise have were Trump to do the normal thing and cooperate in the transition. It’s likely that Trump wants to hobble the Biden administration not only because of personal pique, but because Trump—or one of his spawn, most likely Junior—already are eyeing 2024. Would Trump deliberately harm America in order to boost his and his family’s political and financial interests? Duh.

Whatever Trump’s up to, there are two things potentially standing in his way: the U.S. military, and the Republican Party leadership. It was encouraging the other day to hear Gen. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, make his startling and historic announcement that the military swears allegiance not to a man, but to the Constitution. (Whether or not the rank and file of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard agree is another question.) As for the Republican Party, only they can talk down angry white nationalist yahoos itching for a fight. Will a Republican Senator like Ted Cruz (to use one of the worst of the breed) tell the open-carry militiamen of Texas that Biden really did win the election and that they really shouldn’t be doing anything to cause civil unrest? I don’t know, but I do know that the outrage of Blue states and the opinionators of the New York Times and MSNBC don’t have the slightest influence on the right wing, which listens to no one but their now-overthrown fuehrer.

Stay tuned. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.


Thoughts on the sommelier scandal

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I’ve been closely following this brouhaha about sexist sommeliers and the raging debate it’s inspired about topics ranging from wine snobbery and elitism to employment opportunities for women in the wine business.

Given my long involvement in the wine business, which included exceptionally close contact with sommeliers, and given that I’m a gay man in an industry that traditionally has sidelined gay people, I feel entitled to speak my mind when it comes to questions of equity and abuse. The first thing I want to say is that this is a good debate. The wine industry—on the growing side, the production side, and the hospitality/service side—has been heavily dominated by men—specifically, straight white men–for too long. On the marketing-public relations side, that’s less true; women traditionally have been very powerful in P.R. But for that very reason, P.R. has been viewed (mostly by men) as the less important side of the wine industry, the province of “the weaker sex.”

I’m not big on quotas; no industry should be compelled to hire in the exact percentages of the U.S. population by gender, ethnicity, race, sexual preference, or anything else. Still, when a group has historically been excluded from participating in an industry, it should surprise no one when representatives of that group complain. It also should not surprise anyone that, where there is exclusion, there exists the possibility of abuse: some groups perceive themselves (and are perceived by others) as being more “worthy” and “talented,” and those groups—usually white men–believe they should support the existing power structure which, of course, benefits them.

I look back over my decades of involvement in wine and restaurants here in California and elsewhere, and I’m surprised that I didn’t realize sooner that the wine industry had serious equity problems. Back in the 1980s, when I was getting started, men ran everything. They made the wine at the wineries. They worked at the restaurants, both as chefs and as sommeliers. They ran the tasting groups, and they dominated the media, in books, newspapers and newsletters. Women were relegated to the sidelines. I remember Merry Edwards telling me the story of when she applied for a winemaking job at Schramsberg, in the 1970s. Her resume read “Meredith Edwards,” so the owner, one of the Davies, assumed the job applicant was male. When he met Merry for the interview, he was clearly taken aback. Merry asked him, “Would you have brought me in for an interview if you’d known I was a woman?” The answer was no.

I heard similar stories from a wide variety of women: Genevieve Janssens, at Robert Mondavi, described how she feared she’d be fated to work in the lab, not as a winemaker. The story on the restaurant floor was similar. Were there any female sommeliers or wine service people at top San Francisco restaurants in the 1980s and 1990s? If there were, I don’t remember any, but I remember male somms at Square One, Lulu, Rubicon, Farallon, Fleur de Lys, Postrio, Aqua, Boulevard, Hawthorne Lane and others. How come I didn’t find this overwhelming dominance by men weird or discomfiting? Because, I suppose, I wasn’t sensitive to the issue. Sometimes we have to forcefully be sensitized to these things; otherwise, we accept them blindly and blithely.

I was, on the other hand, acutely aware of the void of gay people in the wine industry in the 1980s and 1990s. Or, to put it more accurately, I knew people who were gay—or were said to be gay—and in some cases they were quite famous. But there was a silent agreement to not say anything. You couldn’t really come out of the closet; despite the wine industry’s supposedly liberal orientation, the actual towns of wine country were (and are) socially conservative. You couldn’t ask anyone if he or she were gay; that would have been unprofessional. And, as a writer, I knew for certain I couldn’t say in an article that someone was gay (not that it made a difference to the wine). Gay people (including Lesbians) were therefore hidden away, like the mad aunt in the attic. I’m not sure that, even now, things have changed that much.

The male sommeliers I’ve known and worked with have been in general a friendly, kindly bunch. But, again in retrospect, when I look back, I can see how thoroughly they dominated their local scenes. They were highly respected, especially if they were Master Sommeliers. They were looked upon by us lesser mortals as almost divine in their authority and knowledge—indeed, this is how they saw themselves. We all deferred to them, and they took advantage of it and acted in very royalist capacities. When I quit Wine Enthusiast to work at Jackson Family Wines—which, in my time (2012-2016), employed more Master Sommeliers than any other company in America—my feeling about them was that they were quite happy to be the resident muckety-mucks. They were a separate priesthood within a large, diverse employee community. This isn’t to say that I ever knew any sommeliers, Master or not, to engage in inappropriate sexual activities. I did not. But then, I wasn’t a woman, working alongside and for a somm. Nobody was making “moves” on me. And men in power were inappropriately compromising women in many industries, not just wine. So it would be unfair to single out the wine industry for sexism. The wine industry, like nearly every other industry grouping in America, was simply doing what America itself was doing.

The good thing about our modern society is that situations of such rampant inequity can’t exist for long. They’re exposed in the media; people naturally take umbrage at such outrages. Demands are made for reform, and industries must accede to these demands, or suffer the consequences. I think there are probably excesses: not every male who’s accused by every female of inappropriate behavior is guilty. There are two sides to every story. But overall, this scandal that erupted in the Court of Master Sommeliers is good news. It will make the wine industry fairer and more responsible. It might even make it less elitist. I’ve said for decades that there is way too much snobbery in the wine industry. I “get” it; I know why that is, and I confess to having done my part to aid and abet it, albeit unconsciously. But I always thought that, when it came to “Master” Somms and “Masters” of Wine, things had gotten a little out of hand. I think, although I can’t prove it, that women somms are less authoritarian, less given to power tripping than male sommeliers, and certainly less prone to sexual harassment. So if the field of wine service is more open to women, that will benefit the dining public. Women may be able to demystify wine (a rallying cry for the last 80 years) in a way that men could not—or did not want to.


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