Sunday, April 30, 2017

When Blue Is Not Enough

With liberal principles in peril, with a call to racism having galvanized an opposition, with antipathy between parties boiling over from emotional cauldrons, we have in this country reached a place where we have been before, but more so,  in the past.

We cannot compare our current state to that of 1860, when racism and sectional hatred, when conflict between rural America and the industrialized urban centers found a coalescing and animating cause: Slavery.  Slavery and its defense encapsulated all the inchoate animosities between rural/ urban,  north/south, educated/uneducated, a social order of landed aristocracy versus an urban order of commercial meritocracy. 
Glamorous and Ineffective 

Though we have not reached the same level of conflict by several orders of magnitude in the early part of the 21st century, we have come to the point where mid 20th century arrangements and attitudes have ceased to function. Bill Bradley in today's New York Times describes how he worked across the aisle with Republicans to pass the 1986 tax reform law which lowered the top tax bracket to 38% by closing loop holes for a whole variety of special interests.  He describes laws being passed in the Senate by a vote of 97-3, something which is today unimaginable. 

The fact is in today's environment, there is no virtue in accommodation, no reason to extol comity. 

When Democrats look to our leaders in Congress and the Senate, we have to ask ourselves: Do we have in these people the leaders we need?

The right color, not the Right Stuff

In 1860, many leaders were called to the colors.  Ambrose Burnside, Benjamin Butler, George McClellan put themselves forward to lead Union forces into the field. But they were dreadfully inadequate leaders and the Union cause nearly collapsed under their leadership, or lack of it.
General Benjamin Butler, Right Colors. Wrong Stuff.

Meanwhile, the South fielded generals of great daring and pugnacity--Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and they nearly won the day. Wearing the blue was not enough. What was important was that the men who wore the blue could win. 

The Union generals who showed promise were each flawed in his own way:  Sherman was depressive, self doubting and thought to be prone to nervous breakdown. Grant was said to be a drunk, often drunk on duty. 

Drank the right whiskey

But Lincoln said, "Tell me what whiskey Grant drinks. I want to send a bottle to every one of my generals. He fights."
Facing the Southern armies standing between the Union forces and Richmond, Grant's generals kept coming to him with warnings about what would happen if they moved in one direction or thrust in  another against Lee, how Lee would counter, how he would outflank them. 
"Don't come to me with your fears about what Lee might do to you," Grant told them. "Go back to camp and think about what you are going to do to Lee." 
More fight in the dog

The Union generals, Grant and Sheridan were small men, but they proved it was not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.  
And, eventually, Sherman proved to have plenty of fight in him. He had spent much of his life in the South, in Louisiana, but when he determined the way to end the war was to bring the war to the people who supported it, he fastened on that strategy with resolve.
"I will make the people of Georgia howl," he said. 

Fierce when aroused

When asked about his troops burning down homes, scorching fields, destroying railroads, he said, famously, "War is not popularity seeking. War is all hell."
And he brought that hell to those who sustained the South and its army.

I'm not yet convinced Carol Shea Porter or Maggie Hassan have that kind of toughness, or that fire in the belly. 

Bernie Sanders does.

We need leaders with that quality now. 

Loathe Your Fellow Man: From Hillbilly to Koch

Flipping back and forth between "Hillbilly Elegy" (J.D. Vance)  and "Dark Money" (Jane Mayer), I've had the sensation of flipping between two sides of the same coin.
Andrew Mellon

Admittedly, I'm only 3/4 of the way through Elegy but it's hard to understand why this has got such notice--its depiction of the personalities and values of backwoods Kentucky people has been done so often and better it cannot be any fresh insight, but coming out, as it did, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, there must have been a swell of interest among readers and the educated about what could those ignorant, toothless people have been thinking when they voted for Trump. So Vance benefited from timing.
J.D. Vance

Elegy does detail with some clear eyed clarity the nature of these People of Walmart who have never held a job in their lives, or if they have only briefly when they did not show up for work, on time, at all or went off on hour long "breaks" when they were supposed to be working and then went on welfare, and spit venom at all the welfare cheats who were living off taxes on the wages of hard working people like themselves.
I certainly could see that at my office, as two women sat out front, reveling in Mr. Trump's victory, talking about how all the free loaders were going to get theirs now, as they let the phones go unanswered, wandered off to the kitchen for 40 minute "coffee breaks" and never bestirred themselves to solve a single problem for any patient but simply told the patient whatever the patient wanted it wasn't their job to provide an answer.  "Call back later," or "Call back Monday," was their favorite phrase, these hard working ladies who were so incensed at the welfare queens.
Hillbilly voters

What Vance documents in excruciating detail is how thoroughly incapable of productivity people from his hillbilly culture are. They are incapable of, not just work, but of creating functional families. His first real experience of learning basic values of discipline, persistence, effort came when he joined the Marines, where he acquired in 13 weeks of boot camp what should have been provided over the 18 years his family got drunk, pregnant, fought and crashed their cars. 

It doesn't seem to occur to him or to anyone in his sect the Marines are supported by the American taxpayer.

On the other side of the coin, the portrait of the venomous Koch brothers, who hold not just Hillbilly's in contempt but all mankind in contempt. This is one of those "You have no idea" experiences. The John Birch Society hardly compares to the Kochs' foundations.  They hate Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the EPA, the FDA, Congress, the IRS--even the FBI and the CIA, those institutions which protect their own wealth.
Richard Mellon Scaite

When Donald Trump's minions, Mnuchin and Cohn stepped out in front of the cameras to announce the new tax "plan" they blandly reported the only two deductions which the new tax code would retain were "charitable" deductions and interest on home mortgages.   
The home mortgage thing was pretty obvious--if you are trying to please the four home set, you don't want to gore that ox, and a lot industries will get behind that one, not just banking, but home builders, furniture manufacturers, the trades which electrify and add plumbing to the homes.  
Charles Koch

But the charitable deduction--oh, that's the way the 1% shields his wealth from the IRS--they can put the money into charitable trusts, still control it, and advertise their beneficence to the people. You can hardly walk past a public building in New York and not see David Koch's name engraved--from the Lincoln Center on down.
David Koch

On the few occasions I've been invited to mix with the ultra wealthy, I was struck by how fundamentally unhappy they looked.  Talking to the great grand daughter of one of the wealthiest men to have ever lived, an heiress who was cooking up the fish we had caught in a stream on her estate which was, in square miles, just a little smaller than the county I live in in New Hampshire, I could not miss the melancholy. 
This is America, not England

That twenty minutes we spent chatting by the water, as she put the fish on a grill, and I asked her about her childhood, we were just two people talking. She must have been forty something and I was 24, and she told me about learning to shoot and to fish and to cook fish.  She actually brightened, remembering all that.
She never asked me any questions about me.  
I thought at the time, she must have been conditioned to not ask about other people because that would open up the door to them asking questions about herself and her family. But, actually, later she seemed willing enough to talk about some aspects of her family and later she actually showed us a large parchment of her enormous family tree.
Eventually, I decided, she may simply not have had much interest in other people. She had two daughters and she was engaged with them, much as any mother. 
But she had that weekend four 20 something medical students her husband had invited up to the estate, and she seemed only passingly interested in any of them, as if they were passing loons, landing on her water, splashing about, amusing but not really worth much thought.

That may be the real sadness of Koch level wealth--the self absorption.
One of the greatest gifts medical school gave me was permission to ask people about themselves and that was never a natural thing for me. It actually requires a certain nerve, and some people are better at it than others. But if you ask people persistently enough, and unwind the onion layers delicately enough, you can experience one of the most satisfying rewards of human existence--you can actually see something, someone, new. 
Discovery is the ultimate joy.

But the sadness and the alienation of the Koch, upper one percent of the upper one per cent  personality is their own personal burden--the downstream results of their malevolence, not merely indifference, but real antipathy, the ultimate alienation toward their fellow man becomes a concern for us all.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

That Dastardly, Dreaded, Darth Vader Death Tax!

Mr. Cohn and Mr. Mnuchin stood before the press corps this morning and sung their happy song about President Trump's grand opulent plan (GOP) for "massive" tax cuts for the rich, uh, no wait, for everybody.

Just don't ask me about details. It's all good. Believe me.

Taxes are a lot about math, and big numbers, so I'm not sure, but if I've got this right: Taxes are how the government gets money into it's bank account, the inflow, the income.  And then spending is about how the money goes out of that account. Did I get that right?

If I'm right about that, then they are talking about cutting down on the government in-come.

But, wait: It's all good, because even though we are not going to have as much income from taxes, we actually will have more income from taxes because everyone in the nation will be making so much more money when we unleash the energies of the economic horses with the tax cuts, so the government will actually make more money. 
So, the tax cuts will mean people actually pay more taxes, but they won't mind.
Got that?
Well, they'll pay more taxes because they'll make more money they'll be in higher tax brackets, but that won't bother anyone because there will only be three brackets which is so much simpler than five tax brackets and we all want simplicity.

Actually, wouldn't one tax bracket be even simpler?
So why do we have brackets at all?
Oh, I remember now, it's about making the people who benefit the most from the economy pay more than those who do not.
Brought the highest bracket down to 65% Is that what you want now?

So Mr. Mnuchin said the government would make more money with lower taxes and he said John F. Kennedy, a DEMOCRAT, showed how well this works.
Of course, Professor Google informs me what JFK did was to bring a post World War II tax system from a 90% top bracket down to 65%, as he noted that the idea of that system was to restrain economic growth and consumer demand  during a time of war when there were rations on consumer goods and high  levels of government expenditures. So the historical citation and analogy from the Republicans is, to say the least, a bit problematic.
So everyone wants to know how this will affect his own taxes and someone asked, well what income would be in the lowest 12% bracket and how much do I have to make before I go to the 22% bracket? Those are details. Minutiae, Mr. Mnuchin said. Don't bother Mnuchin with minutiae. We'll let you know. You'll be happy. I promise.

But both Mr. Cohn and Mr. Mnuchin wanted to say the best thing about this new tax plan--well, not really a plan but an outline of wish list items--is it would eliminate the dreaded DEATH TAX. 
When asked whether the Death Tax would be phased out or cut outright, Mr. Cohn said it would be immediately phased out, which is to say it would be suddenly slowly eliminated. Wow, these Republicans have a way with words!
Would you buy a used car from this man?

Mr. Mnuchin added that the death tax is double taxation, that you pay taxes on the money you earn during life and once again at death. And that it wrecks the lives of small farmers who are trying to pass their farms and estates on to their families.

This all seemed very nasty, so I consulted Professor Google who referred me to Chye-Ching Huang from the "Center on Budget and Policy Priorities" who says what Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn are promulgating here is a batch of standard myths (also known as untruths, or lies) about the "death tax" :

1. The "death tax" is not really a death tax since everybody dies but only 2 of 1,000 estates pay any estate tax at all. So if only death and taxes are certain in life, well the tax at death is one tax which is not a certainty, as it  is true for only 0.2% of the population.

2. The double taxation thing is not true because large estates mostly consist of "unrealized" capital gains that have never been taxed and this is the only time and the only way the government has of taxing these gains. "Unrealized gains." Don't you love tax language? Anyway even those estates over $11 million which are taxed are not taxed at the full 50% much of the time.

3. Another myth: The death tax really doesn't add that much to the government's income. It's just a nuisance for the rich folks who have to pay it.

Actually, truth: the number is in the billions. And as a Republican Senator (Everett Dirkson) once noted, a billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

4. Another myth: The estate/death tax unfairly punishes success:
Actually, it affects only those most able to pay as any "progressive" tax system does. The rich (most successful) are asked to pay more, from those to whom the most is given. Or, as some would say, those who have taken (seized) the most from the system are asked to pay back some of that.

5. Yet another myth: The small family farms are destroyed, liquidated as families scramble to pay a 50% tax.
 Actually, only a handful of small family-owned farms and businesses owe any estate tax at all, and virtually none have been liquidated to pay the tax.

So, there you have it. The song and dance, and the stubborn truth.
Aw, but the song and dance were so much more fun.

The very best thing about this new fantasy of making taxes painless and fair and only something someone else pays is that the announcement in front of a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt and the bison head and deer buck (the one with antlers)  head on the walls behind the President. 
I thought the stuff heads looked more magisterial and trustworthy than the two  human stiffs standing behind the President.

I liked the Bison head the most. The Bugaboo Steak House used to have a bison head like that on the wall, and periodically, it would turn toward the diners and ask how they liked their meals. 
I took five wrestlers to Bugaboo after a wrestling match and one of these kids was from deep in the inner city, Anacostia in Washington, DC and he was the only Black in the entire place and he was looking pretty uneasy and he had never been to a steakhouse before and when the bison turned to him and asked how he was liking his meal he jumped out of his chair. 
He gathered himself up and sat down and looked around the table at his four team mates who were mercifully understanding about this being a new experience and one of them said, "Feel like you're the Brother from Another Planet, don't you?"
"If that thing says another word to me," the kid said, "You can send my plate out to the car, 'cause that's where I'll be."
Everyone laughed and I guess you can say we all had a bonding moment.
Which is more than I can say about that press conference.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Charles Kesler: Alive and Well and Living in Fantasyland

If all we had to do was wish to make our fondest dreams come true...we might discover we are professors at some university.

"Yet President Trump cannot simply ignore the modern conservative movement. For one thing, its two great successes, victory in the Cold War and reigniting economic growth (through Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, spending policies and regulatory reforms), have made plausible his own visions of post-Cold War foreign policy and a resurgent economy."

--Charles Kesler

He also believes in Unicorns, Trickle Down and zombies

Charles Kesler, a Harvard man, who now teaches at the Claremont College System in California, writing about where Donald Trump fits into the history of thought in American society lets loose a fond delusion embraced and fondled by American conservatives--that America "beat" the Soviet Union in the cold war, that Americans caused the collapse of the Soviet Union and that American conservatives deserve all the credit for that amazing victory.
If you believe in it, it is true

Ye gads.

In this dreamscape, Ronald Reagan spent so much on the arms race the Soviets simply could not keep up, and they bankrupted themselves and exploded trying to keep up with us.

Another fond memory of the land that never was is that Reagan's tax cuts triggered a huge surge in the economy and we lived happily ever after with low taxes and unleashed private sector investments until the Democrats somehow ruined it all.  Nowhere mentioned in this scenario is tax cuts did not result in an economic boom which resulted in more income to the federal government, but instead the national debt and deficits tripled, and the trickle down, voodoo economics were a complete failure. (Sam Brownback, having forgotten all about this, tried to reprise Reaganomics in Kansas and bankrupted his state almost instantly, having forgotten real history was doomed to repeat it.) Oh, no, just say it is so and it is so:  Reagan cut taxes and we've never had it so good. As Lloyd Benson once pointed out: "Give me a check book and let me write all the checks I want and I'll give you the illusion of prosperity."

It's all right there in a passing sentence in Professor Kesler's New York Times piece about Donald Trump.

Mr. Kesler is said to be something of a Lincoln scholar.  I guess history is all one long argument, and you can imagine Lincoln or any other historical figure is whatever you'd like to believe, and somewhere you can find somebody who's written something to support that belief.
Claremont Colleges Campus

But the fact is political scientists, professors like Kesler, actually are not like engineers or doctors or air plane pilots. Engineers, doctors and air plane pilots deal in hard truths, the sort of facts and truths that mean if you don't get it right the bridge collapses, the patient dies or the air plane crashes.
With men like Kesler they can get it all wrong and nobody can prove they were wrong. There is no reckoning, no box score or death or destruction.  They can simply profess, collect their pay checks and go off for a conference in the Rockies or at Davos and the dream lives on.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Elizabeth Warren and that Pocahontas Thing

One thing Donald Trump proved adroit at doing was to capture in a single word or phrase the most damaging image of an opponent. It's a playground bully tactic, but in American politics it proved effective. 

“Pocahontas is not happy, she’s not happy. She’s the worst. You know, Pocahontas  I’m doing such a disservice to Pocahontas, it’s so unfair to Pocahontas  but this Elizabeth Warren, I call her ‘goofy,’ Elizabeth Warren, she’s one of the worst senators in the entire United States Senate.”
--Donald Trump

So Jeb Bush was not thoughtful; he was "low energy Bush."
Marco Rubio was not an energetic young man coming on, he was "little Marco."
And so on.
More than 1/32 Black

He seized on Elizabeth Warren's claim to have Cherokee Indian heritage--she may be 1/32 Cherokee--and he pounded her with it, making her look ridiculous, if not dishonest.  Scott Brown first raised the issue running against her for Senate, saying she had used the Native American card to gain admission to Harvard Law. He had "checked off the box" saying she was American Indian to get an advantage in gaining admission.  This played to several Republican narratives:  1. It is unfair to white Americans that Blacks and Native Americans can get in line for Harvard before them. This is an advantage liberals gave away, damaging Whites in the process. 2. It was a lie. Just look at her blue eyes and blonde hair: How could she be Indian?  
Of course, Elizabeth Warren never checked off that box, and she was admitted to Harvard for being brilliant, not for being Cherokee. And whatever the reasons she got in, she sure made the most of it once she got there. You don't get appointed to the Harvard faculty because you are 1/32 Cherokee.
Not Pocahontas

The fact is, Warren opened herself up to this by ever saying anything about her heritage.  But now that she has, what can she do about it?
Those aren't contact lenses

The first thing she must do is to think about why this has had such traction and durability.  
To look at her, to listen to her, you see a woman who is a professor of law at Harvard, and you think, she has all the advantages--for her to talk about her life on the hard side, the daughter of a struggling single mother, her life story as a disadvantaged girl may be the truth, but it flies in the face of what we see when we look at her. 
Lot of the massah's genes in the offspring

Examples of people trying to claim a harder life than they led are sadly common.  Brian Williams, the news anchor claimed to have come under fire covering the war in the Middle East, when in fact he had not. The fact is, just being in Iraq should have been enough.  Hillary Clinton once claimed her airplane had come under fire, when in fact, it had not. The fact is she flew all over the world to some of the worst hot spots--she didn't need to gild the lily.  Senator Richard Blumenthal claimed he had served "in Vietnam" when in fact, he never left the United States during that war.  For some reason, public figures want to be heroes and if their own stories aren't heroic, they are tempted to embellish, which is to say, lie.
Politician looking ridiculous

Trump, who used his father's connections to get an exemption from the draft--claiming he had disabling heel spurs--has never fallen into this trap. He is a fat, pampered White rich kid, and he never tries to claim to be anything other than that.  He does claim he has done a lot of good for people who grew up in tough circumstances by providing jobs in his various enterprises.  He wears dark suits and really spiffy ties, and does not try to dress down by wearing plaid shirts and blue jeans. He does not try to be one of the hillbilly set. He tacitly says: I'm very rich. I make no apologies for who I am or where I came from.
That comes across as honest.
And this from a man who has no concern for the truth.
Hybrid Beauty

So what can Elizabeth Warren say?
Well, first she has to address the issue.
I would hope she'd laugh it off and shrug it off, but address it.
"Well, I may be only 1/32nd part Cherokee, but I'd rather be part Pocahontas than part segregationist.  President Trump forbid Blacks from living in his buildings; He's New York's answer to the Ku Klux Klan. I'd call him the Grand Dragon. The Grand Dragon with heel spurs."

Or something like that. 

She might also add: "You know one thing about Pocahantas: She may have saved John Smith's life, but she wasn't fool enough to marry him.  She did marry another Englishman. A rich guy who dressed her up and promised her the world, and once he had her "civilized" he brought her back to England, took her away from her American home. She never made it back alive. There may be a lesson for today's women in that.  When men start promising you the world, you better look at the risks. Promises are easy. It's real life that will bring you down, if you're too gullible."

PS:  There is a special connection between New Hampshire and John Smith, and through that to Pocahontas. (Perhaps we need a Pocahontas Society.) After being rescued by Pocahontas, John Smith explored New England, giving it that name on the maps he published--he named the Charles River and Cape Ann.  He likely got as far north as the Isles of Shoals. A monument to Smith was built on Star Island (the Isles of Shoals) a granite pillar which weathered badly and was partly rebuilt by the New Hampshire Historical Society. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bombs Not Bridges

Do you know how much that big bomb President Trump dropped on Afghanistan cost? According to the New York Times, $16 million.

Around 8 p.m. Afghan time, the United States had dropped a 21,600-pound, $16 million bomb on Asadkhel, a tiny village nestled between two forested hills, to attack a decades-old tunnel system that was being used by fighters claiming allegiance to the Iraq- and Syria-based Islamic State.
--New York Times

What kind of bridge could you build for $16 million?
by Martin Provensen

My wife recently returned from a trip to Viet Nam, where she toured some of the 25 miles of tunnels near Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).  Her first words, when she got off the plane were, "There was no way we could have won that war."  Some of those tunnel systems were several stories deep, housing hospitals and everything but a spa. Even if we had a big bertha bomb, we could never have destroyed the tunnel system the Viet Cong had built because, well, they lived there and we did not.

They just kept building new tunnels.
Martin Provensen

Afghanistan has been at war for 40 years, at least, or I should said, "lately."
Does President Trump really think we can "bomb the shit out of ISIS" and that would change anything?

Pink Lake, Obadiah Youngblood

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Sanitary Pads in India: The World Americans Do Not Know

PBS News Hour ran a story about a man in India who discovered why women use rags instead of sanitary pads for their menstrual flow in India: Pads were simply too expensive. So he engineered an inexpensive way to produce inexpensive sanitary pads and now there are over 4000 factories producing this. He intentionally did not patent his process, hoping others would improve on it and help solve the problem of menstrual flow in India, where 75% of genitourinary tract infections are related to unsanitary rags stuffed up vaginas during menses.

I have heard from returning Americans about the bodies they saw floating in the Ganges, behind women washing laundry there, but it was only when I consulted Professor Google about this and came upon a "filthy India" site, apparently set up by some horrified Chinese that I grasped the full dimension of the problem. 

India is not just poor: It is home to a set of cultures which foster unsanitary conditions, from allowing cows to wander about defecating on public thoroughfares to dumping dead bodies into the Holy River so they can float out to sea, to stuffing vaginas with old rags.

When Indians come to live in the United States, apparently, they have no trouble adapting to our sense of sanitation.

The same may not be true of men from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, who find themselves in a public square in Cologne, Germany, side by side with attractive blonde women, out to celebrate Christmas eve.  Where they come from, groping women under these circumstances is de rigueur , but German women were not amused.

Do we have a war of cultures with the Muslim world?
Yes, of course we do.
But we have always had conflict when we first came into contact with people who have different beliefs and values.
In the nineteenth century this was called colonialism, and before that, the slave trade was part of this.   In those cases, high tech cultures imposed misery on people of low tech cultures. But it is also possible for high tech cultures to relieve suffering and improve the lives of people from low tech cultures.
Slavers rationalized kidnapping slaves in a variety of ways, but one rationalization was that they were bringing civilization to the slaves. When the slaves arrived, religious people slapped some Christianity on them. So they were saved. Enslaved, but saved.
In fact, I was struck by Black American friends who returned from a trip to Africa, to discover their roots, and they returned horrified by the poverty, the lack of sanitation and the misery.  Were they thanking the slave traders for getting them out of Africa? No. But they could see that the misfortune of their ancestors did eventually result in a benefit to them and their own children.

Economic globalization has surged way beyond cultural globalization. We have a radiologist sitting in Delhi, reading a CT scan for a patient in Silver Spring, Maryland, and outside his window a corpse is floating down the Ganges as women wash their family's laundry in that river.
What a wonder the modern world is.

Monday, April 17, 2017

How Do Leaders Emerge?

Never took a history course in college.  That is a blind spot in my own education I've tried to fill by reading, but I have the distinct sense I am missing something, still blind, because I have never heard a real historian talk about, say, Lincoln, beyond the gabbing of a Doris Kearns Goodwin, being interviewed on TV or someone on Public Television talking about their new book about Teddy Roosevelt or whoever.
And most importantly, I have never had the opportunity to grill an historian about how she knows what she knows.

All the historians I see on TV, Michael Bechloss, the whole pantheon of academics they typically trot out on The News Hour, seem to be nothing much more than well groomed gossips.

In her preface to White Trash, Nancy Isenberg says that history is not a bedtime story; it is trudging around in musty archives, squinting at hand written letters and trying to connect a lot of dots.
This means to me, history is ultimately an exercise in imagination. Trying to imagine what people were actually like, based on their letters or what other people were saying about them in their letters, I imagine how historians would try to reconstruct my life from sources like that and I am sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, they would not come within a country mile of the real me.

So it must be so for  Lincoln, Lenin, Roosevelt, Hitler, Churchill.

When you ask, "How did Hitler come to power?" or "What was it about Lenin which made him so important?" you are in the realm of scholarship cum fantasy.

What made Obama the right man for his time?  What catapulted Trump into the Presidency?

We can interrogate all the pundits; we can read all about it, but we cannot really know. 
Yes, people from the top to bottom of the economic and intellectual scale could see George W. Bush was too stupid to be an effective President. And yet they elected and re elected him. 
And when President Obama ran against an inarticulate, dumbed down President as an articulate, scaled up intellect, you could see he was the anti-W. He was not running against McCain; he was running against W.

And Trump was the anti-Obama, simplistic where Obama saw paralyzing complexity, Trump saw easy solutions:  chanting phrases--Build the Wall! or Lock her Up--where Obama dealt in umms and ahs.

But I have to believe it was important for Lenin and Hitler and Churchill and Roosevelt, for all of them, to have groups of people thinking about politics and economics and philosophy, talking about it, arguing the positions before the seeds of any one of these flowers called Trump or Lenin could bloom.

Today, in the United States, there are innumerable gardens where thinkers are tilling the rich loam of thought in which the next candidate will be planted, from talk radio, Limbaugh, Hannity, to The Federalist Society and The American Enterprise Institute to the John Birch Society.
But where are the thinkers on the left?