Rothman At-Large

Rachel Maddow's ‘Blowout’ Book Plumbs the Toxicity of the Oil and Gas Industry

November 3, 2019

In Blowout, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow plumbs the toxic influence of the oil and gasoline industries on the economies and governments of Russia, the United States and other countries.


Energy companies free of constraints can be harmful to your homeland’s economic and civic health, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia just might be Exhibit Number One.


Here’s a country of 145 million people with an economy smaller than that of Italy (around 60 million). Untainted national elections don’t exist. Putin flunkies boss major newspapers and broadcasters. All the better for oil and gas companies.


Under Putin-style dictators, it’s clearer whom to bribe; and uppity civic activists who value their lives are less likely to speak out against filthy air and water. What’s more, who cares if average citizens don’t share the wealth in a major way? Or if the authoritarians focus on extractive industries at the expense of more sustainable economic development benefiting all—or the fight against climate change? Those are among the major points that emerged as I read Maddow’s book and related writings from others.


Clearly, although the extents of the outrages vary, this isn’t just a Russian phenomenon. Take Equatorial Guinea, where most people live in poverty while, thousands of miles away, the dictator’s son could splurge $700,000 on a boat rental to impress a rap-star date. Then there’s Oklahoma; the local fracking moguls bullied the state seismologist and tried to cover up the connection between their industry and the spike in the number of earthquakes. Also, it goes without saying that oil and gas interests here in the United States have been among the foes of campaign finance reform and solar and wind power.


Maddow’s Blowout book impresses me as more of a follow-up on earlier exposes than as original reporting on Big Oil and Gas, and she could have explored the campaign-donation issue and some other topics more thoroughly, but it’s still a good, compelling read—full of Maddow’s entertaining snark to help you get through the scary subject matter. For the most part, Blowout masterfully connects the dots. It’s the oil, stupid! And the gas, too.


Oil and gas gushers inspired Blowout’s title. Maddow’s metaphor especially sums up Russia’s many energy-related woes. Washington talked of free-market capitalism in the former Soviet Union. Instead, free of adequate regulations and enforcement, a kleptocracy seized control of state-owned and formerly state-owned companies. Putin and his sidekick Igor Sechin turbocharged the process in the energy industries and elsewhere. More gushing of cash for the favored! “For my friends, everything,” was Putin’s motto in effect. “For my enemies, the law.” Phony tax evasion and embezzlement charges were among the specialties of the Putin crowd.


When accomplished Russian business people managed energy companies well, Putin’s thieves stole the fruits of their labor. The result was less efficiency, less productivity, less innovation. None other than Morgan Stanley promoted investment in Rosneft, the Putin-controlled energy corporation, after it miraculously swallowed a larger competitor. ExxonMobile executives had earlier cozied up with the other Russian company but ended up focusing instead on Putin and friends.


Alas, a little complication transpired: Russia ripped off a chunk of Ukraine. International economic sanctions ensued against the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, thwarting the Putin-ExxonMobile dream of American know-how and investment revving up Russian energy output.


Needless to say, the sanctions enraged Putin, who saw Rosneft and other energy companies not just as a way to enrich his circle and retain power, but also to help restore Russia to the glory of the old Soviet Union. Europe and even the United States would thirst for Russian oil, no? Anxious to see the sanctions killed off, Putin used social media, Wikileaks and other means to try to manipulate our 2016 elections. Hatred of Hillary Clinton, the likely winner, was far from the only reason.


An obvious question, broached by an Amazon reviewer of the Maddow book, arises. How could sociopaths fare so well in government offices and corporate suites in energy companies and elsewhere? It’s one thing to tell how Putin and others pulled the levers to get their way. It’s another to unravel the root reasons of why they succeeded.


Surely, Ms. Maddow, more than a few nonsociopaths had to go along. My own theory is that sociopaths rise and remain in power because, while lacking empathy, they somehow can win over corporate boards or read the mass mind at election time. Plenty of sociopaths stay out of prison, and even the worst can come with their own positives. The masses often go for glamor and showmanship. Putin obliges, complete with images of him bare-chested on horses. Trump, the orange-skinned reality show alum, is our carnival-barker-in-chief. Both conjure up memories of their respective nations at the peak of their power.


The energy business itself has been the territory of colorful crooks and conmen almost from the start, despite protestations to the contrary; and nostalgia can be powerful snake oil. Even if bribed and blackmailed by the Russians, Trump is drawn to Putin as a kindred spirit, a fellow liar, sociopath and control-freak who likewise sees democracy as an inconvenience to the extractive industries.


Here’s something else that the two men share, as I myself see it—alliances with religious fundamentalists. The Trump Foundation has donated to the Rev. Franklin Graham, for example, and eagerly courted the right-to-life faithful with the appointments of right-wing judges, while Putin, of all people, has aligned himself with the “family”-minded Russian Orthodox church. Isn’t it a paradox—to be in favor of “life” and families while encouraging the growth of fossil fuels: the cause of so many pollution-related deaths, not to mention the damage from climate change? Oil and gas, of course, do have their biblical side. Has not the Almighty favored both countries with their presence? Far be it for the faithful to question this divine design.


While I wish Maddow had deeply delved into the fundamentalist angle in an energy-industry context and more thoroughly explored the campaign-finance horrors from Big Oil and Big Gas, let me emphasize my overall enthusiasm for Blowout. If you wonder whether Maddow’s story-telling gifts on MSNBC have found their way to print, too, the answer is a decided “yes.”  She deftly weaves back and forth between Oklahoma, Moscow and the other crime scenes and teases you with intriguing minor facts that pave the way for her to make her major points.


This is Maddow’s second book, by the way, the first being Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, telling how the executive branch nudged us into wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I haven’t read it, but, given the energy industry’s importance in American foreign policy over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the same characters show up at the expense of openness and democracy.

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, And The Richest, Most Destructive Industry On Earth. Hardcover, audiobook and ebook formals. 406 pages. Published by the Crown imprint of Penguin Random House. Available locally or through online stores.

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The Wealth Gap and Two Other Anti-Trump Themes: How Dems Can Woo Young Voters in Critical States

September 26, 2019

Oh, the fickleness of Trump-era news cycles! I was going to write about how the Democrats could defeat Donald Trump in part by wooing young voters in critical Electoral College states. And then along comes the Ukrainian bombshell raising serious questions about whether Trump will even be around to run against.


But let’s suppose Trump’s political and PR fixers can deflect the accusations well enough for Republican senators to disregard the probable impeachment findings in the House. What’s more, even if Mike Pence or someone else is the GOP Presidential candidate instead, the young could still matter. So how can the Democrats win over enough young Americans, especially in places where their votes will most count?


Polls say far more young people will vote in the 2020 elections than in previous years. But the popular vote by itself will mean squat—it’s the Electoral College, of course, that matters. Democrats should woo young voters everywhere but lavish special loving care on those in Electoral College swing states that put Trump over the top in 2016. Just 107,000 more votes out of the 14 million in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—and 120 million in the U.S.—could have sent Hillary Clinton to the White House. The trick is to remember that issues appealing to young voters in Michigan may not always be the same as the ones of greatest importance in Louisiana. Or they may require special geographical twists for optimal results.


Ahead, in no particular order, because the political landscape is ever shifting, are three anti-Trump themes to use with young voters in mind in the upper Midwest and Pennsylvania. I’m simplifying. Swing states exist outside the region. But this is the part of the country where geographical sensitivity might make a major difference in winning over the young.




The percentage of young people living with parents is the highest in 75 years. Half of Americans born in the 1980s earn more in inflation-adjusted dollars than their parents–compared to 92 percent of those born the year before Pearl Harbor. Donald Trump now owns the economy or at least has claimed to. Haunt him with the old Reaganism: “’Are you better off than you were four years ago?”


So what might this mean in campaign commercials aimed at the sons and daughters of factory workers in places like Ohio and Michigan?

  1. Whether it’s bringing broadband to the rural Midwest or growing jobs for young people in new fields like solar energy and electric cars, Democrats need to talk up concrete proposals. Depict Trump by contrast as a trog of a claimed billionaire caring only about his fat-cat donors from the oil and coal industries. Mix hopeful economic and environmental messages. But geographical sensitivity, please! A Brookings Institution study tells how median household income in Democratic congressional districts zoomed between 2008 and 2018, while income in Republican districts—so many of them in the American heartland—declined. A headline over a Washington Post column gets it right: “Our deepening economic divide is fertile ground for Trump’s demagoguery.”
  2. Remember, the upper industrialized Midwest has traditionally been union territory. Accurately portray the current crop of Republicans as union-busters and call for the inclusion of union representatives on the boards of the very largest corporations. Vow to reverse the anti-organizing measures that have blighted American companies. A Nation article gives hope that unions may actually be starting to come back among the young. In ads and commercials, sell the idea of unions. It is no small coincidence that the decline of the Democratic Party overlaps with the rise of government-tolerated union-busting. Time to update the Labor Management and Reporting Act of 1959 (also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act), tilted in favor of corporations. Refresh young people in union history, and remind them of all the risks taken and sacrifices made toward a middle-class lifestyle. Time to reclaim it!
  3. Go after the student loan issue and related ones. Remind young people that many factory workers could once afford to send their children to four-year colleges without sacrificing retirement security or taking out onerous loans. But today? Outstanding student loans now total a whopping $1.6 trillion and may help bring on the next recession. The Trump administration is complicating matters by, for example, making it harder for young people to enjoy loan forgiveness for public service work. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, is a callous plutocrat from Michigan–the very face of the problem.
  4. Don’t forget the tariff wars. Trump is the villain. It could take years for certain agricultural and manufacturing markets to recover from the damage Trump has done–everywhere in the U.S. but especially in Midwestern agricultural and blue-collar areas. Imagine all the family farms in peril. Granted, farmers are a smaller percentage of the population than in the past. But they have friends and relatives.

Democrats can make all those points for young people while still attacking the Republicans on general economic issues that are not geographically related. Consider the Robin-Hood-in-reverse tax cuts that enriched the super-wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. Donald Trump’s attack on Obamacare, which allows young people to be covered on parents’ health insurance policies up to their 26th birthdays, is yet another assault on young Americans everywhere.




As a hyper-loathsome villain, Trump is at his most cartoonish on climate change and other environmental issues even though his cruelty toward migrants comes close.


The Democrats should go all out on the Green Deal vision and push for clean-up deadlines much earlier than what Joe Biden has in mind. Al Gore and like-minded people for years have gotten it right. The clean-up effort is a chance for economic growth in solar and other areas. Don’t wimp out! Tell how Trump’s policies, by contrast, would increase the number of pollution-related deaths in the upper Midwest and elsewhere.


What’s more, damage from climate change won’t just threaten New York, L.A. or Miami–a point that campaign ads and commercials could make. Two scientists at the University of Michigan write: “Rapid changes in weather and water supply conditions across the Great Lakes and upper Midwest are already challenging water management policy, engineering infrastructure and human behavior.” As reported in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, high water levels in Lake Michigan “almost completely submerged two of the sandy beaches that line the city’s lakefront. Condo buildings and other properties that abut the water are shelling out for reinforcements of their own.” Of course, events could unfold in the other direction, with the Great Lakes at least temporarily receding. But either way, weather extremes caused by climate change could inflict many billions in damage.


Among Democratic voters inside and outside the Midwest, climate change may be as big an issue as healthcare. With the number and severity of storms and other unpleasant surprises multiplying, even nonDemocrats may feel the same. Certain young Republicans are begging Trump to reverse course on environmental and climate change issues.


“Recent surveys,” reports the activist publication Grist, “suggest that Generation Z and Millennial Republicans care about the climate much more than their elders–and, get this, maybe as much as younger Democrats do.” In a mere five years, the number of 18-34 Republican voters concerned about human-created climate change increased by 18 percent. Today 67 percent worry. Do Americans of any age—Republicans or Democrats—really want their grandchildren to hate them?




With Trump in the White House, are you sleeping better at night? That’s the question Democratic campaigns need to ask young people and parents–at full volume, in social media, on TV, in newspapers, magazines, everywhere. The environmental and economic threats stand out, but other reasons also exist, particularly those pertaining to his fitness or lack of it for the Presidency. What to say about a commander-in-chief who leaned on the Ukrainians to investigate Joe Biden if they wanted military aid?


Young people will be wondering about the gap between the ugly reality of Trump and the presidency as depicted in school. Politicians in the Midwest are hardly angelic (just look at the horrid governors that super-rich GOP donors helped install in Wisconsin and Michigan before the voters caught on and revolted). But traditionally Wisconsin has been a reform citadel rather than a center of divisive politics. Trump is a scary letdown for many young people there and elsewhere. That’s especially true of nonwhites in places like Detroit who know he is a genuine bigot-in-chief, enamored of police brutality. Target ads and commercials accordingly!


In a coincidentally related vein, John Della Volpe, director of Polling for the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, mentions the sheer stress of politics in Trumpian times. He says that “for the first time, we now have evidence that the state of our politics is contributing to the mental health challenges millions of young Americans already face. To empower young voters, to persuade them to vote requires candidates willing to share and align their values with this emerging generation—and understanding the stress inherent in our politics today is a critical first step.”


While the stress can come from confrontation between generations, classes and regions, not just the craziness of an orange-haired wack job, let’s consider the Trumpist and GOP policies and practices which have aggravated this and which could be the target of youth-oriented campaign ads and commercials in the Midwest and elsewhere:


—Gun violence. In 2019 so far, at least 1,219 people have been injured and at least 335 have died in mass shootings–a total of 1,554 victims. “Do we really want a president in the pocket of the National Rifle Association?”


—The Supreme Court and federal judges. “Should elderly bigots deny you the right to abortion when you can’t afford to have a child? Trump is shamelessly kowtowing to the anti-abortion crowd in his judicial appointments.”


—Increased chances of nuclear war. “How safe are we with a narcissistic nut in the White House?”


—Anti-LGTBQ bigotry, especially in judicial appointments. This on top of the contempt for nonwhites!




Of course, the most wisely chosen issues in the world won’t help if the Democrats stint on voter registration or pick the wrong candidates

The Democratic presidential favorite, as I write this, is still Joe Biden, 76. Significantly, the Harvard researchers have found that 18-29-year-olds overwhelmingly distrust the baby boomer generation of politicians–saying they just “don’t care about people like me.” Biden is even older than the boomers.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders might be exceptions to many young people’s age-related fears. Biden isn’t, and he’ll have to keep that in mind in coming up with stands on various issues. In an earlier Georgetown Dish column, I mentioned the possibility of Kamala Harris as a running mate for Biden to create some racial and gender diversity. At 54 she may still not be young enough for optimal results, and I wish she were far more progressive. Still, as a pragmatic way to complement Biden, she is probably a better possibility than alternatives.

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How a Biden-Harris Ticket Could Wallop Trump -- If 'Middle-Class Joe' Truly Lives Up to his Name

August 11, 2019

Donald Trump, the traitor-crook-racist in the White House, is already running as if we’re in the thick of the 2020 general election.


Trump’s henchmen have revved up their fundraising machine to give him a head start. And even if the Democrats nominate a reincarnated George Wallace, Trump campaigners will still try to smear the Dems as socialists. So it’s been said, and I agree.


A brilliant thinker like Elizabeth Warren would be copacetic if electability weren’t Criterion #1, but the best anti-Trump defense would be, yes, exactly what some have already called for: a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket.


How might this and other actions unify the Democrats before it’s too late? What follows is in the realm of “could and should” rather than “will.” But an old Biden friend just may be reading this column—I won’t go into the details—and I fervently hope she passes it on to him.


I’d remind them both that the “Never-Biden” movement is alive and well among certain young and progressive Democrats. Even arguments about Trump and global warming—Biden isn’t perfect but is much less of a threat to Planet Earth than the coalhead in the Oval Office—aren’t working. Wounds from the explosive Democratic National Committee memos still fester. That’s what the Russians wanted in leaking the memos via WikiLeaks, and that’s what they got. In matters such as hiring, financial arrangements and strategy, the Clinton’s people controlled or at least unduly influenced the DNC even before the primary results were in.


Countless Sanders boosters now think that the Clintonites, not Trump and the Russians, were the real villains who stole the last presidential election. And they’ve transferred their hostility to Biden, an establishmentarian like Clinton.


I myself voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and emphatically believe that the DNC stacked the deck against him, as the just-given links shows. But I still cast my ballot for Clinton in the general election. And I’ll do the same for Biden next year, if he’s the Democratic presidential nominee, despite my preference for a more progressive candidate and my worries over a gerontocracy. Polling results could change overnight, but for now, one survey shows Biden would beat Trump 54 percent vs. 41 percent among registered voters—leaving the other Democratic candidates in the dust. I don’t think name recognition explains it all. Pragmatism, please!


Without Biden or an equivalent, if one exists, Democratic prospects may suffer outside liberal bastions like California, New York and Massachusetts. The “socialist” smear, alas, might work in, say, Georgia and even Virginia, where too many rural voters won’t distinguish between Sanders-style Democratic Socialists and the Stalinist or Venezuelan variety. “Biden” is a comforting enough name to banish or at least substantially mitigate such fears.


Here, then, are seven friendly suggestions for the ex-VP—at least right now the most likely Trump-slayer.


Number One: Get Harris as a running mate ASAP, months before the convention, because you two complement each other so well. You’re a white male born one year after Pearl Harbor. She’s a 54-year-old woman of color and a generation younger. Given your history with Barack Obama, you’re more likely to pick up nonwhite votes than most Democratic candidates. But there’s no such thing as too many. In a close election—where you can sway only so many of Trump’s Kool-Aid drinkers—you must increase friendly voter turnout to the max.


Kamala Harris also will help you among younger voters and others who’ve taken such a bad economic shafting, in part because traditional Democrats didn’t push back hard enough against the Republicans’ billionaire-optimized policies in areas such as trade and student loans.

Will Harris go along with being your running mate? For now, I doubt it. But keep chipping away. Just like the Sanders people, she needs to consider the possibility of an even crazier and crueler Trump in his second term; imagine America under a real dictator, not just an aspiring one. Biden and Harris—stronger together! Among your big strengths is your appeal to working people. Harris isn’t so warm and fuzzy but is a street fighter who could help you tear Trump apart.


Number Two: Practice, practice, practice for the debates with Trump in the general election—even some of your friends said recently that you aren’t as quick on the draw as when you were younger. Set aside enough time in your schedule to duel with a Trump surrogate.

Number Three: Don’t overdo, but be more of a showman—you’re running against a reality-TV veteran, after all. Is it true you can do a bunch of push-ups? Then, yes, actually follow up on your challenge for the obese Trump to compete with you in public. Hey, Donald, can’t you beat “Sleepy Joe”? If Trump keeps turning you down, use his video clip or tweet in campaign commercials. Ridicule him—your taunts will ring true. His followers may or may not care. But you’ll energize the people on your side. Please—something visual for the cameras! Worry less about dignity and more about results. You’ve already made it clear in other ways that you’re far more “Presidential” than Trump. While you’re at it, get serious and tell how Trump’s malevolent school lunch agenda threatens the physical fitness of K-12 children.


Number Four: Bring your environmental policies closer to the Green New Deal vision so beloved to progressive Democrats—the same for policies in other areas, such as racial and criminal justice. You needn’t go all the way, but you can keep an open mind in exploring the feasibility of the individual items on the progressives’ agenda. If you don’t compromise more, then too many progressives and other skeptics—including those in crucial states in the Electoral College—will dismiss you as just another “corporatist.”


Guess who in effect helped put Trump over the top in 2015? Nonvoters, simply by not voting. Many just couldn’t understand the difference between the two major parties or otherwise didn’t care about the election. Democrats need to tack left in appropriate ways and take stronger stands to clarify the distinction even if the old GOP is now the wacky Trump Party. The venerable word “Republican,” alas, still carries enough brand appeal to conceal the party’s true nature and the authoritarian mindset of its current leader.


You can be green and otherwise progressive without the “socialist” smear sticking to the extent it would with your Democratic rivals. This is like Nixon and China. He was freer in 1972 to warm up relations because he was familiar to voters as a prominent Cold Warrior. You’re not a Nixon, blessedly; but you are a traditional Democrat with more friends in the business community than someone like Harris or Warren. So you’ll better cope with Trump’s “socialist” bilge.


Number Five: At the same time, while considering more drastic health care reforms in other respects, stick to your guns and avoid calling for the immediate abolition of private insurance. Too many union members and other voters are benefiting from gold-plated insurance plans.


Number Six: Don’t abandon your union friends in other ways. Fight for the right to organize, rolling back efforts in the other direction. Unions are or should be among the biggest poverty-reducers in existence. If more money went to workers through a better distribution of rewards, that would help the S&P in the long run. Employees could better afford new automobiles and washing machines. In a related vein, pick up Elizabeth Warren’s idea of imitating Germany and even having union members sit on the boards of large corporations.

Number Seven: Act like a genuine “Middle-Class Joe.” The millions in book royalties I can understand. What I can’t is allowing your relatives to try to peddle influence using the B word. You yourself may be clean. But the “optics” will still get in the way, as shown by the past Ukrainian activities of your younger son, as reported by the New York Times. Politico also made quite a fuss over the influence-peddling issue.


Hire Richard Painter, the former White House ethics lawyer from the George W. days, to scandal-proof your family. Imagine what Trump will do if you aren’t sufficiently proactive.

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