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Romanov Redux

Russia’s ill-fated Romanov Family, c. 1913.

Shortly after Donald Trump was sworn into office as the 45th President of the United States, I referred to various photographs of the Trump family in their multi-million-dollar New York penthouse residence.  “The Donald” is, of course, featured prominently front and center, with his (third) glamorous, trophy wife perched nearby; along with their son, Baron, and the real estate magnate’s adult children.  Almost as prominent are the slew of plush, gilded furnishings spread throughout the abode.  I kept thinking I’d seen similar photographs before; various pictures from newspapers and magazine, as well as recollections of a TV show that truly embodied 1980s-era chic and gluttony: “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”  (Trump was featured in the very first episode and made recurring appearances.)

At one point, though, I turned to my massive collection of books and spotted one that displayed an even more accurate depiction of the Trump family; another clan who lived long ago in similar plush surroundings, perched high above the lowly masses.  Lindsey Hughes’ “The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613 – 1917” describes the life and times of Russia’s last monarchal family.  For more than 300 years, the Romanovs directly impacted world politics with their wealth and power; creating a massive empire that – even in today’s watered-down version – stretches across two continents.  From Tsar Michael to Tsar Nicholas II, the Romanovs maintained a steady grip on the region; impressing their subjects and striking fear in their enemies.

But, by the time the dynasty marked its tercentenary in 1913, that grip had begun to weaken.  Like the rest of Europe’s royal families, the Romanovs remained encapsulated in their heavily-fortified palatial environs; far removed from the sundry plights tormenting their own people and oblivious to the real world lurking outside those jewel-encrusted walls.  Nicholas II was the first of the European monarchs to be ousted from power, as World War I intruded into Russian territory, and a growing internal revolution stalked the Romanov family.

While the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia, essentially marked the start of World War I, the death of the Romanovs signified the end – not just to the war, but also to the long-held concept that power and wealth are best held in the hands and pockets of a blessed few and that those few are part of the same bloodline that is never to be disturbed or questioned.  It was shocking enough to international onlookers that a single gunman was able to kill Franz and Sophia with a few shots from a pistol; even as many outside of Europe initially wondered where was this place called Austria-Hungary.  But, as news of the Romanovs’ demise trickled out, the anger and frustration of an oppressed people became brutally apparent.  Nicholas and his immediate family, along with a handful of servants, were peppered with bullets in a basement far removed from their stately home; their bodies burned beyond recognition and dumped in neighboring woods.

The Trump family in their New York penthouse abode.

World War I was actually the culmination of the growing anarchist movement, which had its genesis in the heated anger of economic and social inequality among Europe’s working classes, before spreading westward across the Atlantic to plant itself in the U.S. and Canada.  Even México had succumbed to the wrath of the peasant masses; with outlaws Francisco “Pancho” Diaz and Emiliano Zapata joining forces to lead a revolt against a semi-monarchal dynasty of wealthy landowners and bankers.

This was the dawn of the 20th century; where ordinary people – the one who really keep a nation moving – finally stood up and collectively announced, “Enough!”  The rampages continued, as Europe began losing their colonial holdings in Africa and elsewhere, and Latin American nations saw military dictatorships crumble in the face of concerted human rights’ campaigns.  One of the 20th century’s last acts of peasant anarchy came with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In Romania, the chaos became lethal when leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were dragged before a court trial staged by their otherwise lowly subjects, found guilty and lynched in public.  That something so horrific could happen in 1989 shocked the world.  But, for the oppressed peoples of staunchly communist Romania, it was perhaps the best Christmas present they’d ever had.

To some extent, anarchism actually sprouted roots with the American Revolution, where a mass of English immigrant descendants decided they simply did not want to be slaves to the British Crown.  Shortly afterwards, French commoners took a queue from their American counterparts and launched their own revolution; one where they didn’t just extract their regal hoodlums from gigantic estates, but relished in the sight of royal heads literally rolling across wooden platforms.  Throughout the 19th century, Spain and Portugal stood virtually helpless as their colonial holdings in the Americas wrenched themselves from the clutches of royal decree – only to stumble through the difficulties of independence and struggles with democracy; quagmires that exist to this day.

In 1900, China’s Boxer Rebellion was a desperate attempt by commoners to boot out European interlopers, which included assaults on Christian missionaries and converts.  Some 100,000 people lost their lives in the various battles that summer.  But a growing dissatisfaction towards the Qing Dynasty and the family of Emperor Puyi (sometimes spelled P’u-i) compelled the working classes to descend upon the sacred and mysterious “Forbidden City.”  Puyi was only 3 years old when he ascended to the throne in 1908; less than four years later he was forced to abdicate and lived out the rest of his life as an undistinguished commoner.  At the start of the 20th century, it seemed that China was poised to endure the same experience as the African continent: be carved up by European colonialists.  But, if the Chinese people no longer wanted single family rule, did anyone believe they’d let bands of foreigners from the other side of the globe do the same?  By the 1930s, China had evicted the Europeans.

World War II fractured Europe.  A few royal families managed to survive; most notably in Great Britain.  But they were all financially and morally exhausted.  This culminated in the U.K. losing their colonial hold on India and Pakistan in 1947.  Next came the vast continent of Africa, where European decolonialization occurred over the ensuing four decades; a massive undertaking that involved millions of people on a scale the world had never experienced before.

The 20th century’s anarchist fangs reached across the globe, toppling the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier in the 1980s.  One of its high points was the release of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the dismantling of that country’s brutal apartheid regime within a decade.  South Africa had been the last of Europe’s many colonial assets to gain independence.

Imprisoned by the British in 1953 following the Mau Mau uprising and exiled in 1959, Jomo Kenyatta later emerged as one of the best-known African leaders. He served as Kenya’s first president from 1967 – 1978 and founded various pan-African nationalist movements.

A low point, though, was Argentina’s futile attempt to wrest control of the Falkland Islands from Great Britain in 1982; a brief conflict that resulted in more than 900 military deaths.  Why the U.K. insists on retaining control of this tiny cluster of isolated rocks 7500 miles from the homeland remains less of a mystery than a prime example of colonialist arrogance.  (Some Britons still refer to the U.S. as “the colonies.”)  While Argentina was in no political or financial position to engage in such a daring military feat at the time, they have since matured and solidified their infrastructure.  In 2012, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner blocked two British cruise ships that had visited the Falklands from docking on the mainland.  Argentina has vowed to enforce further similar bans in the future, which could damage the Falklands’ vital tourist industry.

In the Middle East, anarchism produced schizophrenic results.  Anti-royal sentiments led to the 1973 deposition of the Barakzai, Afghanistan’s royal family.  That may have set the stage for the Soviet Union’s bloody but futile attempt to annex that country in 1979.  However, the U.S. became unexpectedly mired in the antagonism of the Iranian populace towards their own royal family, the Pahlavis.  Shah Reza Pahlavi had crowned himself emperor in 1967 and led a brutal regime where dissidence was punished with unprecedented violence and oppression – tools common among wicked oligarchs.  Pahlavi’s 1978 ouster led to the notorious Iran Hostage Crisis, which caught both the U.S. and the world completely off-guard.  Concerned more with the Soviet threat and the oddly-christened “Cold War,” the U.S. government unwittingly experienced its first battle with Islamic extremism.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, royal families held on in Jordan and Syria.  The discovery of oil on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1930s allowed the region’s ruling families and their subjects to be pulled up from the doldrums of a tribal / fiefdom-style existence and dropped into the vats of unimaginable wealth.  No one seemed to care that women couldn’t drive cars, much less vote.

Average Mexican citizens rose up in 1910 to depose President Porfirio Diaz who ruled over them off and on for nearly four decades.

While anarchist anger dominated the 20th century, does the same hold true now?  Studying the Trump clan, I can’t help but conjure up images of the Romanovs.  Economic inequality is just as great now as it was a hundred years ago.  We’ve returned to that “Gilded Age” period where the bulk of the world’s wealth and power sit in the grubby hands of a privileged few.  The recent “Great Recession” was the worst economic downturn the U.S. had experienced since the “Great Depression.”  Both debacles were the result of greed and political incompetence; the former mess instigated by the verbally-challenged scion of another monarchal-type dynasty: the Bush family.  Aside from producing two of the worst presidencies within a generation, the Bush clan’s close ties to the Saudi royal family essentially allowed planning for and execution of the 9/11 events to go unnoticed; thus culminating in one misguided war and another illegitimate one, as the economy glided atop a housing bubble that didn’t just pop – it exploded.  If regulations and measures a liberal president had established some eight decades ago hadn’t been in place, both the U.S. economy and the U.S. populace would have sunk into chaotic and murderous oblivion.

Power and wealth usually go together; conjoined twins that sometimes have no mercy for the commoners squirming beneath them.  The leftist “Occupy Wall Street” movement didn’t gain as much traction as the right-wing “Tea Party,” which claimed passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 as the seeds of their founding; when, in fact, it was the election of the nation’s first biracial president that pissed them off.  If they were so upset about undue taxation, they would have put blame for the economic downturn where it belonged: on the backs of their own Washington leaders who keep propagating the myth of “trickle-down economics.”

But the rise of a foul-mouthed, thrice-married bombastic businessman to the highest office in the land has lit another fire beneath millions of ordinary Americans frustrated with a “jobless recovery”; no one going to jail for causing the recent banking / home loan debacle; and endless conflicts in the Middle East.  The illegitimacy of Donald Trump’s placement in the White House makes a mockery of the American democratic experience.  Our 18th century predecessors carefully designed a unique concept of governing and valiantly fought against the very people who brought them here.  The United States was an outlandish experiment that could have gone seriously wrong if so many people hadn’t realized its true value and potential over the ensuing centuries.  As a nation, we didn’t want a group of self-righteous elitists – families riddled with colorblindness, hemophilia and unbridled arrogance – to rule over us and not be questioned.  Our American forbears understood that humanity must work as a unit to achieve the best possible society.  The various civil rights actions of the past 200 years – from abolitionism to gay/lesbian rights – have helped to refine this strange idea known as democracy.

Looking again at the Trump clan, I still can’t help but think of the Romanovs and realize how much they all have in common.  However, I don’t wish the same fate upon the Trumps.  As brutal as we often seem to the international community, that’s not what Americans do or who we are.

Either way, we didn’t want or need a royal family 240 years ago to impose its fickle will upon our lives – and we don’t want or need one now.

 

Film footage of Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation in May 1896.  It’s one of the earliest known (and one of the fewest surviving) motion pictures and the first known example of the new medium utilized to capture a major news event.

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Slammed

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It’s been one month since the midterm elections, and a lot of people are still smarting from the results. But several folks saw this coming. As expected, the Republican Party has retained control of the House of Representatives and taken the Senate. But, few anticipated the GOP would garner such high numbers. Moreover, Republicans have attained most of the state governorships. Here in Texas, the GOP has won every major state-level office for the fifth consecutive election cycle. A Democrat hasn’t won a state-wide office since 1994, when Garry Mauro won reelection as State Treasurer. By the time the current crop of officeholders finish their respective terms, Democrats will have been shut out of state-level offices for two decades.

Texas Democrats had hoped this year would be theirs; that they would recapture at least one office, preferably the governorship, but at least maybe attorney general or state treasurer. But they didn’t. They lost – in the worst way. As usual, most voting-eligible Texans failed to turn up at the voting booths this year. In fact, Texas had the lowest rate of voter turnout than any state in the union – roughly 4.75 million people, or 28.5% of the vote-eligible population. In the Dallas – Fort Worth metropolitan area, some local officials blamed the damp, cold weather for the dismal response. Really? I recall an election in India several years ago where some people were being carried in on their deathbeds – literally! – to cast a ballot. Overall this year’s midterm produced the worst voter turnout since 1942. That particular year was understandable: the U.S. had just entered World War II, when many young men had already joined the fight overseas. Men were much more likely to vote than women back then, plus there were a slew of voter restriction laws – especially in the Southeast – to keep poor and non-White voters from casting ballots. But that was then; things have changed considerably in 70 years. I don’t just find the low voter response appalling. I find it disgusting. What happened?

After the 2007 – 2008 financial downturn – a period in which the U.S. came as close to a completed and total economic collapse – people felt their elected officials simply weren’t responding to their needs. President Obama and the Democrats inexplicably focused their energy on passing a healthcare bill and reforming the immigration system. The latter was labeled an attempt to appeal to Hispanics; once again, assuming Hispanics only care about immigration in the same way women only care about abortion and gays and lesbians only care about same-sex marriage. Sweeping assumptions like that are an insult and always dangerous. It’s bad enough, though, the Republican Party was determined from the moment Obama won the 2008 presidential elections to obstruct his agenda. Every conservative lout from Dick Cheney to Mitch McConnell stated publicly and emphatically they wanted to make Obama a “one-term president.” Fortunately, they failed. But they and the Democrats have failed miserably over just about everything, mainly the economy.

My gripe with Obama is his overt willingness to compromise. His first major capitulation to the Republicans came in December 2010, as the Bush-era tax cuts were due to expire. The GOP literally threatened to withhold votes on extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, if tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens and largest corporations weren’t kept in place. Obama bowed to them; declaring openly that he didn’t want “the hostages” to be harmed. In December 2010, the Democrats still held majorities in both houses of Congress, and the President could have very well issued an executive order extending the benefits in question. But he backed down. And that’s when I began to lose respect for him – in the same way I’d long lost respect for most elected officials.

In 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized just how bad the Great Depression really was, he made the bold – and shocking – decision to raise taxes on the wealthiest citizens and largest corporations (the same ones who benefited from hefty Republican-spawned tax breaks the previous decade) to stimulate the economy. He convinced these people that such hikes would benefit them, too, in that more Americans would be able to enter the workforce and pay their own taxes, plus have money left over to buy goods produced by a variety of industries. It made sense. The policy worked to some extent, but the 1929 collapse had been so bad, the positive effects weren’t immediate. Thus, economists and the politicians who think they know so much have been debating the logic of this move ever since.

The Democrats failed on another front regarding the economy. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder never indicted anyone in connection with the recent financial calamity. Anyone with at least half a brain knows it didn’t happen by chance. It wasn’t the inevitable result of market ups and downs. Major banking entities such as Citigroup and Fannie Mae were key players in the debacle. Both helped to create the massive housing bubble at the turn of the century, replete with outrageous features such as zero-down purchases and mortgage-backed securities. As the crisis worsened towards the end of 2008, Citigroup managed to convince the federal government to give it a life-saving multi-billion-dollar loan. But it also began laying off people at its various offices across the globe. Fannie Mae, along with Freddie Mac, also received a multi-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded bailout; this one in 2009. Yet that investment didn’t become profitable for taxpayers until this year. The average American worker hasn’t seen a lot of positive returns on their “investments” to save the “too-big-to-fail” banks. Those lounging in the economic ivory tower certainly have. For example, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, received a $16.2 million compensation package for 2011, despite a serious drop in corporate profits. The following year Blankfein urged Americans to consider a later retirement age.

“You can look at history of these things,” he told CBS News, “and Social Security wasn’t devised to be a system that supported you for a 30-year retirement after a 25-year career. … So there will be things that, you know, the retirement age has to be changed, maybe some of the benefits have to be affected, maybe some of the inflation adjustments have to be revised. But in general, entitlements have to be slowed down and contained.”

How thoughtful. In February of 2009, two months after I earned my college degree, the engineering company where I worked held their annuals employee reviews. Due to budget crunches, my then-manager told me, they couldn’t afford significant salary increases. So, while my living expenses continued to rise, my salary essentially remained flat. I was laid off the following year.

People like Blankfein are part of the current problem of wealth inequality in America. That the Obama Administration neglected to prosecute the scoundrels responsible for all those business closings and job losses – again, this didn’t happen by accident – is reprehensible. If I rob a convenience store of a hundred bucks and get caught, I’d be sure to serve some serious prison time. Hedge-fund managers who manipulated the stock market seem immune to the most egregious of financial indiscretions.

Still, the economy has rebounded since Obama first took office. The unemployment rate, which reached a high of 9.9% in April 2010, now stands at 5.8%. GDP growth stood at negative 5.4% in the first quarter of 2009 and is now at 3.9%. The national deficit was $1.4 trillion in 2009 and now is $564 billion. That all brings up yet another complaint. Why didn’t the Democrats highlight those facts? In his 2012 reelection bid, Obama proclaimed, “Bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive.”

It was simple, yet effective. For many of us, though, the economy really hasn’t recovered. Wages remain stagnant, and jobs are tenuous. We’ve become a contract society.

Moreover, I don’t really blame many people for not voting. I understand the frustration with the hollow words and obstinacy of some candidates. Wendy Davis, for example, began her campaign for Texas governor by attacking her opponent, Greg Abbott, instead of highlighting her own accomplishments. I think it was about 6 months into the campaign before she ran a more positive ad; one telling her life story. Voters really get put off by such animosity from the start. Criticizing the opposition is a dubious tactic. It’s almost as if the individual is hiding something nefarious about their own past. That’s essentially how George W. Bush won his two presidential terms: he had no redeeming qualities, so his campaign team attacked the other guys. And some voters fell for it.

I don’t know what the immediate future holds for this country. With Republicans now in control of the U.S. Congress, I foresee further adolescent bickering between people who are otherwise educated business professionals. I don’t envision economic improvements or tax relief for us regular folks. It’s depressing. That Mars One venture is looking more and more attractive.

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Inequality

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