How to Beat Donald Trump…

 

      “The poll suggests that Trump has more vulnerabilities than Clinton, but that opposition to the former secretary of state can lead some voters with a mixed to unfavorable view of Trump to support him nonetheless.”

Detail from the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll

——–

One key lesson from two of the most recent presidential campaigns holds the key to how a very weak general election candidate, Hillary Clinton, can defeat an unscrupulous, position shifting showman like Donald Trump. Clinton, as is frequently pointed out, has no compelling message, is running a 1990’s campaign based only on a resume. Additionally, she is packing around a heavy load of old, old political baggage.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

If Clinton is to win in November she will need, in the language of scorched earth politics, to “disqualify” Trump. With Trump’s negative poll ratings starting to improve as he consolidates the Republican vote, time is a wasting for Clinton.

As Clinton’s strategists consider their totally unorthodox opponent, the raft of potentially disqualifying material Trump has placed on the public record surely must appear to be an embarrassment of riches. But there is folly in attempting to throw all that Trump garbage back at the voters. It’s just too much.

Clinton Needs a Strategy…

Clinton will make a strategic error – potentially fatal – if she over plays the fact that should she win she will become the first woman elected president of the United States. It’s a natural for her and her supporters to suggest this as a compelling message, but even Trump’s toxic standing with many women doesn’t necessarily mean the so called “women’s card” will be a winner. Clinton’s own negatives may well trump – pardon the pun – any advantage that goes with the potential of being first.

Clinton's challenge: Destroy the myth

Clinton’s challenge: Destroy the myth

So far the Clinton campaign’s line of attack against the insults, lies and wholesale flips of Trump has been to label the faux billionaire “dangerous” or “unfit to be president.” He is demonstrably both, but given Clinton’s dismal approval ratings and her own struggles with the question of whether she is fit for high office make her attacks limp and largely ineffective.

Clinton must focus her Trump message and simplify for voters as to precisely why the bragging, blustering con man is unfit. She must also carry the fight to Trump. She needs to land blows because Trump has already proven he’s a much better counterpuncher that Clinton will ever be.

Let’s just admit the obvious: this is going to be a disgustingly nasty contest. Both candidates are widely disliked. This will be an election about tearing down, not building up. Who does the best job of defining the other person will win.

Trump has already accused Bill Clinton of rape and repeatedly labeled the former secretary of state “crooked.” Coming from a guy who accused the father of his chief Republican rival of being involved in John Kennedy’s assassination, rape and crookedness represent merely the mere tip of Trump’s sleazy general election iceberg of political slime. Brace yourselves.

Attacking a Con Man Where He’s Most Vulnerable…

Clinton needs to move quickly – certainly no later than the Republican convention and perhaps much earlier – to systematically define Trump around what appears to be his strongest advantage: his business success, his money, the very notion that his high rolling ways somehow qualify him to move into the White House. By focusing on Trump’s “character” as a real estate developer and an allegedly successful businessman, Clinton truly has a target rich environment that voters can grasp.

One of many, many failures

One of many, many failures

Trump’s business failures – a smelly pile of “Trump steaks” and “Trump Vodka” and “Trump Airlines” – his several bankruptcies, the failure of “Trump University,” the recent claim that his tax returns “are none of your business,” his multitude of shady deals with questionable characters and his extraordinary litigiousness add up to a credibility bomb waiting to go off. The most devoted Trump followers will shrug off this cavalcade of business sleaze, but many voters, particularly independent leaning voters, will discover that at the soul of this con man is a con job.

In the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that shows the two candidates virtually tied is this nugget: “Six in 10 independents believe Trump should release his taxes, and almost all of them say they feel strongly about it. Even 44 percent of Republicans want the billionaire businessman to release his returns before the November election, though they are less passionate.”

Trump signing the tax return he refuses to release

Trump signing the tax return he refuses to release

Trump, of course, probably cannot release his tax returns because it’s almost certain he rarely, if ever, pays any tax. The one year his returns were a matter of public record, thanks to a requirement of the New Jersey gaming commission, Trump paid zero tax. Offshore accounts? He must have some. In what state does he claim residence? New York or Florida? If he’s been audited as often as he says, what did those audits show? Has he paid penalties?

Raise the questions. Taunt the tax dodger. As Lyndon Johnson might have said, make the SOB deny that he doesn’t play by the same rules the rest of us follow.

Trump’s recent release of a personal financial disclosure (PFD) statement, a statement as bogus as his claim that he will build a “beautiful wall” along the Mexican border, is ripe for the pulling apart. Trump brags of “great cash flow” and huge “revenue increases” at his properties, but that is, at best, misleading since we know nothing about his expenses and he offers (as usual) no proof for his claims. As Forbes magazine noted in an article on Trump’s PFD the statement raises more questions that it answers, “Since Trump freely interchanges the terms revenue and income as if they mean the same thing.” This guy may have graduated from the Wharton School, but he can’t read his own balance sheet.

And, as Forbes also noted, “the Office of Government Ethics reviews the disclosures for technical compliance (for example, assets have to be properly categorized), but does not audit for accuracy, nor are candidates required to provide supporting documents to prove their numbers.” In short, the Trump statement of his net worth is as confused and phony as his hairdo.

Trump University: Subject of an ongoing lawsuit

Trump University: Subject of an ongoing lawsuit

Bloomberg had a great piece recently headlined “How Trump’s Self Worth Became His Net Worth,” focusing on the fact that most of Trump’s much hyped wealth is based upon his own perceived value of his name.

Bloomberg’s Steven Mihm observed, “In Trump’s case, the value of his name is a complicated notion, resting on both the “right to publicity” as well as the more conventional foundations of trademark law (Trump has filed more 200 trademark applications, including Donald J. Trump, The Fragrance).” That fragrance smells to high heaven.

Timothy L. O’Brien has been following Trump’s business boasts for years and he writes, also in Bloomberg: “Trump, who flirted with personal bankruptcy in the early ’90s, has never publicly offered an independently vetted assessment of all his debts. Indeed, much of the financial information he discloses is self-reported. Until that changes, there’s a good chance that a strong dose of grade inflation runs through all of the net worth figures.”

Let’s put a finer point on it: Donald Trump is a fraud, which sounds like a good tagline for a television ad campaign.

The Model Already Exists…

Screen shot of 2004 "Swift Boat Veterans" ad against John Kerry

Screen shot of 2004 “Swift Boat Veterans” ad against John Kerry

The models for a Clinton strategy of taking apart The Donald are – I hesitate to say – the shameful “Swift Boating” of then-Senator John Kerry in 2004 and the often unfair characterizations in 2012 of Mitt Romney’s private equity career at Bain Capital. In both those cases, the opponents of Kerry and Romney – George W. Bush and Barack Obama – made strategic decisions to attack at a point of the opponent’s apparent greatest strength.

Kerry was a legitimate and highly decorated Vietnam War veteran and Romney was a demonstrably successful businessman. But the relentless attacks shredded the fundamental strengths of Kerry and Romney to the very great benefit of the ultimately winning candidates.

In fairness, many of the most effective attacks against Kerry and Romney were carried out by so called “independent” campaigns legally separate from the presidential candidates. But, unless you were born last night it’s impossible to believe that the 2004 and 2012 attacks were not conceived as part of the overall strategy of the Bush and Obama campaigns.

Kerry didn’t deserve the “swift boating” and much of the story line about Romney was based on inherent skepticism about his success in an industry that often cut jobs as a business strategy. Trump, on the other hand, is in an entirely different world. He deserves all the scrutiny he should be getting.

The Wizard Unmasked

The Wizard Unmasked

Political generals, like military generals, often mistakenly fight the last war, but in 2016 the lessons from presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2012 hold the most valuable lessons for the Democratic campaign.

Attacking the phony billionaire where he is perceived to be the strongest is a winning approach. Millions of Americans are upset with their presidential choices and many are fed up with a political system that has come perilously close to imploding, but they will understand a self-proclaimed billionaire that doesn’t pay taxes and they will be able to analyze the evidence about a guy whose entire rationale for his candidacy is built around a level of business success that simply doesn’t exist.

Donald Trump’s business acumen is a little like the “all powerful” Wizard of Oz in the famous movie. Once you pull back the curtain you’ll find a little, insecure man who has spent a lifetime bragging about his accomplishments, a man living an illusion, a man who has gotten away with a con job it for a very long time.

Exposing Trump’s business record will also have the added benefit for Clinton of diverting the egomaniac from his own attacks on her. Can you imagine Trump’s response to a sustained assault on his most valuable asset – his self-image as a successful tycoon? It would be a fine thing to watch.

It’s time to get on with pulling back the curtain.

 

The Last Tango of John McCain

 

      “If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life.”

           Senator John McCain who says he will support the GOP nominee.

——–

Let’s call it the Trump Tango, the awkward, unprincipled, downright disgusting dance of various Republican politicians desperate to get right with their “presumptive nominee.” The stumble to the dance floor with Trump comes, of course, after the same crowd spent months believing their new best friend to be, as John Boehner might say, “the devil incarnate.”

Still, unlike the sexy Latin dance, this political tango has no grace, no style, no elegance. The Trump Tango is only about ending up in the same place locked in an uncomfortable partisan embrace when the music finally stops.

Senator Kelly Ayotte

Senator Kelly Ayotte

New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, a vulnerable GOP incumbent in this weird, wild year, is a prime example of one of the delicate dancers. Ayotte says she will vote for the bumptious billionaire, but quickly adds that we shouldn’t consider that an endorsement. You might call that dancing on eggshells.

Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican in the country, began his own graceless tango toward Trump a few days ago. Emerging from a closed-door meeting with the man who has repeatedly dissed his policy proposals, including Medicare and Social Security reform, the Speaker indicated he is warming to Trump’s dance music of racism, Muslim bans, narcissism and misogyny.

A Warm and Genuine Person…

“I was very encouraged with what I heard from Donald Trump today,” Ryan said, “I do believe that we are now planting the seeds to get ourselves unified, to bridge the gaps and differences.” Right.

House Speaker Paul Ryan AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

House Speaker Paul Ryan AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Proving that he can dance backward while wearing high heels, Ryan is clearly pirouetting in the direction of turning the last remnants of the Republican Party over to the charlatan from Queens. “He’s a very warm and genuine person,” Ryan concluded about the man who regularly calls people who challenge him “losers” or “dopes” or “clowns.” Such calm and measured language from the presumptive nominee obviously passes for “warm and genuine” in the new Trump-led GOP. Can the full Paul Ryan embrace followed by the deep swoon be far away?

At least Ryan hesitated before his inevitable jump into Donald Trump’s arms, signaling at least a momentary brush with genuine political principle. By contrast the one-time captain of the “Plain Talk Express” toppled like an old, tired, withered Sonoran saguaro.

John McCain is, of course, running for re-election in Arizona. He has two Tea Party challengers in the August primary and, assuming he survives, McCain will face a very creditable Democrat, Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, in November. McCain is already forecasting the most difficult election he had ever had. Given his shameless embrace of Trumpism he deserves everything he’s going to get.

With Trump at the head of the ticket the one-time “maverick” had to make a choice: he could resist embracing a man that puts the lie to most everything McCain once stood for or he could set aside all principle in the interest of political self-preservation and dance with the devil. McCain has made his choice and The Last Tango of the Maverick has indeed become a sorry spectacle.

Not Oscar and Felix, but certainly an odd couple.

Not Oscar and Felix, but certainly an odd couple.

McCain, perhaps as much as any incumbent Republican in the country, is caught in the ethical and political dilemma that the party has created for itself.

McCain once earned considerable bi-partisan support for pushing back against the tax and spend policies of George W. Bush’s Administration. He worked across the aisle to try and ensure that the Senate actually confirmed qualified judicial nominees. He forged alliances with Democrats to try and limit the corruption of big money in our politics. He once advocated immigration reform. McCain even once shut down a woman at one of his rallies who launched a tirade about Barack Obama being “an Arab.”

Now, afraid to confront the Tea Party, McCain caters to the original birther and supports a guy who disparages his own military record.

I Like People Who Weren’t Captured…

Admittedly it can be difficult to keep all the Trump insults straight, so as a reminder it was way back in July of last year when McCain became one of Trump’s first high profile insult targets. McCain had criticized Trump’s racist rants about Hispanics and worried that such incendiary rhetoric would, as he said, “bring out the crazies” in Arizona. Trump, of course, did what he does – he attacked.

Trump, having never served a day in the military, dissed McCain’s six years of torture and imprisonment in a North Vietnamese POW camp as the story of a loser.

McCain and Sarah Palin

McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008

“(McCain’s) a war hero because he got captured,” General Trump thundered. “I like people who weren’t captured.” Asked later to elaborate, Trump said he wasn’t impressed with McCain’s Senate service since he wasn’t doing enough for veterans. More recently Trump again refused to back off his sleazy comments about McCain saying, in essence, he never apologizes.

On another occasion Trump called the Arizona Republican “another all talk, no action politician who spends too much time on television and not enough time doing his job.” As if spending time on television constituted a political crime in Trumpworld.

But John McCain, the “maverick” straight talker, can’t bring himself to reject the hate monger who has appropriated his party. As E.J. Montini, the political columnist for the Arizona Republic notes, McCain is really concerned only about getting re-elected.

“Instead of being direct and plain-spoken,” Montini wrote recently, McCain is “being cautious and political, calculated.

“He’s teeter-tottering on a tightrope between appeasing the Trump voters he wants and the Latino voters he needs, trying not to topple in either direction.

“As for the ‘Straight Talk Express’ – call a tow truck, it’s out of gas.”

If any Republican had both a reason and the gumption to tell Donald Trump to kiss him where he sits it ought to be John McCain. Surely McCain privately agonizes over a presidential candidate who praises Putin, advocates a return to torture, talks loosely about encouraging nuclear proliferation and will, should he be elected, demand about as much respect from the American military as Jane Fonda.

Still, McCain says he will support the nominee of his party. There is apparently nothing that would disqualify this charlatan. Republicans, and even John McCain, are proving to be partisans first, last and always. When it comes to the presumptive nominee, like his party, McCain has abandoned the last shred of principle in order to rally behind a man – it’s not even a close call – most Republicans know is a dangerous fraud.

McCain might have made his last go round an example of class and courage. He might have danced to a different drummer. He might have called Trump what he is. But he did none of those things. And, who knows, the abandonment of principle may work. McCain may well win re-election by hitching his wagon to Trump’s phony politics, but if he goes down in flames with the crass, conniving businessman it would amount to a certain type of poetic justice. Giving in to a clown only makes one look like a clown.

McCain has long courted Arizona’s large and expanding Hispanic population. He needs a certain degree of support from Arizona’a Hispanic community to win a general election and he might have calculated that telling the truth about Trump would position him well with Hispanics, but he didn’t. McCain instead embraced the very “crazies” he once predicted would come out of the woodwork to support a fundamentally race-baiting candidate. The maverick has become the enabler.

Win or lose this is undoubtedly McCain’s last campaign. The old John McCain might have gone out being remembered for something better than creating Sarah Palin, a decision, which come to think of it, helped create Donald Trump. Yet, McCain’s last tango has turned into a stumbling lurch. As Trump might say – Sad.

 

The GOP’s Joe McCarthy Moment


     

     “Donald Trump delivered a very good foreign policy speech in which he laid out his vision for American engagement in the world.”

Statement by Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker.

——–

The nation’s Republican “elites” have entered the final stage of grief – acceptance.

After wringing their hands for months over the prospect that the most demonstrably unprepared person to every get near a presidential nomination would hijack their party and drive it over a cliff, the GOP “elites” now face the almost certain reality that a race-baiting, woman-hating, foreign policy clueless narcissist will be their presidential candidate.

The denial, distress, disbelief and all the “stop Trump” efforts have now arrived at what conservative columnist David Brooks calls “a Joe McCarthy moment.” Every Republican officeholder, every consultant and lobbyist, every American conservative who wakes up, looks in the mirror and sees an engaged, thoughtful citizen will forever be measured by where they stood on the defining political issue of our time: Do you support Trump?

Republicans once had the guts to say “No” to a man bent on destroying their party and the country. Will enough of them do it again?

The GOP’s McCarthy Moment…

Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders

Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders

In the 1950’s, Republican members of the United States Senate, not Joe McCarthy’s Democratic opponents, finally brought the red-baiting, fear-promoting GOP demagogue of that generation to heel. Vermont Republican Ralph Flanders stood on the Senate floor on March 9, 1954 and spoke directly to McCarthy. It was the beginning of the end of the McCarthy Era. Read the speech today in the Era of Trump, 62 years after Flanders spoke, and its insights ring true, eerily so.

“Mr. President,” Flanders said, “the junior senator from Wisconsin interests us all – there can be no doubt about that – but also he puzzles some of us. To which party does he belong? Is he a hidden satellite of the Democratic Party, to which he is furnishing so much material for quiet mirth? It does not seem that his Republican label can be stuck on very tightly, when, by intention or through ignorance, he is doing his best to shatter the party whose label he wears. He no longer claims or wants any support from the Communist fringe. What is his party affiliation?”

Flanders conclusion about Joe McCarthy then could well be applied to Donald Trump today. “One must conclude that his is a one-man party, and that its name is ‘McCarthyism,” a title which he has proudly accepted.”

McCarthy, driven by ego and political opportunism, was missing the point, Flanders argued. America had enemies to confront and issues to address, just not the ones McCarthy pursued blindly and ruthlessly. Trump is the second coming of the authentic Republican demagogue.

Not all of Flanders’ constituents approved of his speech, but many did and  the bookish Vermonter – he authored or co-authored eight books – had his McCarthy moment, which still stands as an enduring example of great political courage and genuine intellectual honesty. Flanders later introduced the resolution that ultimately led to McCarthy’s censure by the Senate.

Even then Senate Republicans split evenly over condemning an odious and dangerous man. Twenty-one Republicans joined Ralph Flanders in rejecting McCarthy and his tactics. Twenty-two others have had to answer to history for failing to condemn a fomenter of discord and discontent.

Trump and Christie. Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Trump and Christie. Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The shameless and self-promotional among the GOP have, of course, already made their decision about Trump. Chris Christie, once a semi-serious political figure who might have re-defined his own diminished brand by shunning Donald J. Trump, did just the opposite. Christie blew past his McCarthy moment and voted demagogue.

Newt Gingrich, the disgraced former House Speaker who is just as desperate to remain “relevant” as Christie, allows as how he would be available to serve as Trump’s running mate should the great man pick up a gold plated cellphone and bring Gingrich back to political life.

The Shameless and Self-Promotional…

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions endorsed Trump early, as did Trump’s female political doppelgänger Sarah Palin. And Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who has already endorsed two other Republican candidates, now says, “It looks to me like he’s going to win, and if he does, I’m going to do everything in my power to help him.” Even the formerly sane Jon Huntsman says Trump’s his guy.

Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, often an example of the levelheaded conservative, sent shivers down the spine recently when he actually praised Trump’s completely incoherent “major foreign policy speech.” It was the precise moment, with all Trump’s ignorance and bluster on display, for the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to declare the blowhard-in-chief unfit for the awesome responsibilities he seeks. Corker punted. Count on more doing the same. Count on them living to regret it.

In addition to their McCarthy moment, the Republican Party, at least the “elites,” face an existential question: Do they embrace this awful man, the very essence of division and lack of seriousness? Or do they broadly reject the modern equivalent of Joe McCarthy and risk, as a Ralph Flanders did in the 1950’s, the wrath of those drawn to his message of division and hatred? Either way they risk blowing up their party for an election cycle or maybe a generation or maybe forever.

Trump’s new political wise guy, Paul Manafort, a fellow who made his political fortune representing repressive thugs from places like Ukraine and Angola, is confident the “elites” will come around to his new boss. “As he becomes the Republican nominee, there will be a consolidation behind him,” Manafort told the Washington Post’s Dan Balz. “Once he is the nominee, some of that is going to come down naturally. . . . It’s a big deal when you’re the presumptive nominee as opposed to being the nominee.”

Joe McCarthy and his counsel, Roy Cohn, who tutored Donald Trump in the arts of politics

Joe McCarthy and his counsel, Roy Cohn, who late in his life tutored Donald Trump in the art of nasty politics

The media will also get even more on board as the general election nears. The political press, particularly television, which loves the thought of the looming contest between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton and has done so much to enable Trump’s rise, will soon began to offer up more of what we might call the “coverage of false equivalency.”

Trump’s utter lack of political experience will continue to be portrayed as an advantage as opposed to the grievous risk it represents. His shady business dealings and stunning lack of historical perspective on foreign policy will receive short shrift when he turns full-time to trashing “Crooked Hillary.” And trivialities like Trump’s endorsement by the reprehensible character that once coached the Indiana University basketball team is treated as if it mattered to the future of the republic. It doesn’t, by the way.

Do They Really Hate Hillary So Much…

The company Trump’s keeps, from Bobby Knight – Trump misspelled the name of his “dear friend” – who was given to throwing chairs and assaulting his players, to convicted sex offender Mike Tyson, is treated as though it is all just part of a rollicking reality television show passing as a presidential campaign. It should be reported for what it is, a window into what passes for the man’s soul. Get over waiting for the media, especially television, to bring down Trump. That’s like waiting for Godot. Not going to happen.

Clinton’s flat-footed, unimaginative, uninspiring candidacy is apparently all that now stands in Trump’s way and (I can’t believe I’m writing this) it may not be enough. Trump has controlled the political narrative every single day since he slid down his own escalator and into position as Republican frontrunner. There is no reason to believe he won’t continue to dominate, unless that is those with standing in the party he plans to takeover decide to really push back.

This is their Joe McCarthy moment. Do they really hate Hillary so much they would risk turning the country, not to mention their party, over to this dangerous buffoon?

Senate GOP Leadership: Waiting for Trump

Senate GOP Leadership: Waiting for Trump

In a remarkable and utterly sobering article in the most recent New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan summed up our national dilemma: “An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: ‘We Respectables’ deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.”

Enter Trumpism.

Republicans, of course, brought much of this on themselves, but pointing that out now is about as useful as engaging in the false equivalency that says the candidacy of a hateful, arrogant, uninformed demagogue is really just the same as that of an experienced candidate. Even with her all too obvious “trust” issues, Clinton has served as first lady, a U.S. senator and secretary of state. She is competent and informed. The almost certain Democratic nominee isn’t my first or even eighth choice for president of the United States, but good lord she is no Donald Trump.

Andrew Sullivan puts it directly to those Republicans who waffle and waver about whether to push in their chips with Trump, as well as those who will just pretend to ignore him. “They should resist any temptation to loyally back the nominee or to sit this election out,” he writes. “They must take the fight to Trump at every opportunity, unite with Democrats and Independents against him, and be prepared to sacrifice one election in order to save their party and their country.

“For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.”

A handful of Republican consultants, a few conservative journalists and columnists and one GOP senator, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, have drawn a line they will not cross to support a political pretender. It’s not enough.

This really is a Joe McCarthy moment for the Republican Party and the nation. Republicans should be asking where are the Ralph Flanders?

 

Renewing America…

   

      “Are immigrants good for the economy?

      “In the debate over immigration reform, we come back to this argument again and again. The answer is still, ‘Yes.’”

 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

——-

She had the appearance of a middle school student, but the poise of a seasoned diplomat. When she stepped behind a big podium in an imposing, high ceilinged federal courtroom in Tucson, Arizona last week she nearly disappeared, but when she spoke her voice was strong and eloquent. When she finished her brief speech we smiled and dabbed the tears.

New American citizens celebrate

New American citizens celebrate

The young girl told the crowd in the courtroom that she wanted her mother, a newly naturalized American citizen, to know how very proud she was of her. What a moment – a young American proud that her mother had joined her as a citizen. The young girl’s name? America. No kidding.

During a time that has featured far too many unAmerican moments, it was the most American moment imaginable.

Hundreds of thousands of new Americans along with their families and friends, will experience this year what I experienced last week in that Tucson courtroom – a renewal of the promise and strength of the United States of America.

Forty-nine new American citizens raised their right hand last Friday morning and reinvigorated the American experiment. They were from twenty countries, including Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Canada, China, Mexico, Somalia, Eretria, the Philippines, Germany, Sierra Leone, India and the United Kingdom. I came away thinking the new Americans had a better grasp on what it means to be a citizen, including what really participating in our democracy and our communities means, than many of us who were born here and tend to take all we have for granted.

When Federal Magistrate Jacqueline Rateau completed the formal oath she invited those new citizens who wanted the opportunity to say something to their friends and families to approach the podium . Several accepted, including a young fellow born in Somalia, a nation on the horn of Africa, crippled by anarchy and plagued by sectarian strife, where the male life expectancy in 50. This new American citizen promised to continue to be involved in his community in order to make a difference. You believed him.

A scholarly looking native of China, possessed of a PhD in physics, said simply that he wanted to live in the United States because of “freedom, equality and justice.” How American.

I found myself longing to hear all their stories, what they risked to be here, what they left behind, their aspirations, dreams and fears. Despite what some of the “know nothings” running for the highest job in the land are saying these days, we do not make it easy to embrace the dream of America. It takes time to become a citizen, requires dogged persistence and often the help of a network of friends, family, churches and employers. Your background is checked and you must master details of the American system, while also promising to defend the country “against all enemies foreign and domestic.” You become a citizen by wanting to become a citizen.

Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean that it’s not true: the United States, more than any other place on the planet, is a nation of immigrants, upwards of 42 million immigrants in the country according to the last census. Other than the only real Americans – Native Americans – we all came from somewhere else and that is both the strength and the promise of each new generation, a gift that constantly renews and builds a better country.

——-

    “The interaction of disparate cultures, the vehemence of the ideals that led the immigrants here, the opportunity offered by a new life, all gave America a flavor and a character that make it as unmistakable and as remarkable to people today as it was to Alexis de Tocqueville in the early part of the nineteenth century.”
― John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants

——-

Do we need another loving, united American family that once called Mexico home? Are we better off when a Somali-born man commits himself to a new and better life in Arizona? Will that PhD born in China add to the economy and the world’s knowledge? In our hearts and in our heads we know the answer. We know what’s good for America and ourselves. Unfortunately, that knowledge is not always reflected in our politics.

If you ever doubt the wisdom of an America that embraces the strength that comes with diversity and inclusion, and if you ever wonder about the benefits of American citizenship, attend a naturalization ceremony in your community. The 49 new Americans I met last week add strength and character to a nation that needs all the strength and character it can possibly attract.

Each of those 49 people from twenty different countries longed to be, dreamed to be, an American citizen. We should thank our lucky stars that they want to join the rest of us. My own friend – warm, intelligent, worldly and kind – celebrated with a group of her fellow citizens, happy to be an American and happy to acknowledge it was worth the effort to become one. If anything, we were even happier – for her and for us.

 

Year of the Smackdown

 

          “Highly negative views of 2016’s leading candidates may reflect the hyperpartisan climate that has been building in recent years, also evident in previously unseen levels of ideological polarization among primary voters this year. There’s also the level of in-party factionalism this year, especially on the Republican side.”

Recent ABC News poll showing high levels of Trump/Clinton unpopularity

———-

We all know that this political year is an outlier, a set of conditions and candidates so far from the norm that it has confounded pundits, politicians and most of the public. We haven’t seen this combination of nastiness, nativism and nonsense for many a year. Unusual it is, but also perhaps a bitter taste of all that is to come.

Maybe, just maybe, the interminable, dispiriting process of selecting a new president, and the choices the process has produced, merely offers a sour sample of the new face of American democracy. It’s not even close to morning in America, more like nightfall. Cloudy with a chance of chaos.

Disliked and not trusted

Disliked and not trusted

A gnawing realization is settling in. The current campaign may represent nothing less than what the nation will look like far into the future – profoundly divided, deeply cynical, irrationally angry and distressingly unable to confront, let alone solve, big and pressing problems.

Call it the death of aspiration. Label it democracy in decline. This new normal is accelerating the country toward an ominous political cliff. Where once we aspired to the optimistic, sunny uplands of a Kennedy or a Reagan we now settle for so much less. It’s not like we haven’t seen this coming. Now its here.

If things continue as they have over the last six months both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will limp across the finish line, struggling and fussing all the way, to capture the nomination of their parties. Yet, each will also have been broadly rejected by significant numbers of voters in their own parties.

One party, angry, disillusioned and ready for a fight, at least with itself, seems prepared to embrace a man who wants nothing so much as to be taken seriously, but who is also the most seriously unprepared candidate for national office since, well, since Sarah Palin. The other party will likely nominate a candidate whose overriding rationale for running is that she’ll be the first, but who is unable to excite a younger generation of women (or men) who view her as both yesterday’s recycled news and as profoundly untrustworthy.

People who will not win nominations this year are vastly more respected than those who will. Republican voters like John Kasich much better than their likely candidate. Ditto for Democrats and Bernie Sanders. If it is Clinton v. Trump in November we will see a contest between two of the most unpopular, least trusted and most severely flawed candidates in modern times. It will be like Andrew Johnson running against Warren Harding.

From a historical standpoint the election of 2016 may be remembered as the moment that defined new political boundaries, or more likely limitations. Ironically, both of the leading candidates have defied political tradition by basing their campaigns on the past: Clinton finds herself both invoking and rejecting the presidency of her husband – an administration now a quarter century distant – with all of its messy and tawdry contradictions, while Trump promises to “Make America Great Again” without ever suggesting what era of American greatness he has in mind. In both cases the candidates present a yearning for something lost and not a realistic vision for a renewed America.

The Age of Trumpism and Clintonism…

Still, the two frontrunners, as Michael Lind wrote recently in the New York Times, define, distressingly so, the future of American politics. “No matter who wins the New York primaries on Tuesday or which candidates end up as the presidential nominees of the two major parties, one thing is already clear: Trumpism represents the future of the Republicans and Clintonism the future of the Democrats.

“Those who see the nationalist populism of Mr. Trump as an aberration in a party that will soon return to free-market, limited government orthodoxy are mistaken,” Lind writes. “So are those who believe that the appeal of Senator Bernie Sanders to the young represents a repudiation of the center-left synthesis shared by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In one form or another, Trumpism and Clintonism will define conservatism and progressivism in America.”

Or, put another way, the holy war for the future shape of the American political experiment will play out as it has for most of the last quarter century with likely even more anger and division and with less middle ground and common sense. Both candidates promise something new, but Trumpism and Clintonism are more correctly a doubling down on the politics of dysfunction that have given us repeated fights over issues like the debt ceiling and repeal of Obamacare.

Does anyone really think a Hillary Clinton nominee to the Supreme Court will offer anything but a further politicization of the court or that a Republican Party that Trump has led into the fevered swamps of anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim hatred will suddenly come to its senses on the immigration and refugee crisis?

Clinton has never met a war she didn’t like and Trump can’t spell NATO, but would do away with it nonetheless. Don’t expect either candidate – or president – to fundamentally rethink, as it so obviously necessary, America’s frequently disastrous commitments in the Middle East.

Goldman Sachs’ favorite Democrat isn’t any more likely to address the fundamentals of national and global income inequality than is a flaky billionaire given to gold plated bathroom fixtures.

You would think that the anger and disaffection coursing through the American body politic would prompt some serious reflection from serious people about how to accomplish a course correction, but Trump’s idea of reflection is to admire himself in a mirror, while Clinton seems to believe admitting an error, or even an uncertainty, is a sign of weakness. As Maureen Dowd writes Clinton “has shown an unwillingness to be introspective and learn from her mistakes. From health care to Iraq to the email server, she only apologizes at the pointing of a gun. And even then, she leaves the impression that she is merely sorry to be facing criticism, not that she miscalculated in the first place.”

To quote Trump, it’s just “sad.” Months and months of debates, town halls, the Sabbath gasbags, millions – if not billions – in vacuous ads gets us what: A nation horribly divided, unable to generate broad national agreement on any serious priority and led by people most of us don’t trust. This is the new normal. If you liked the last eight years, you’ll love the next four – or forty.

History tells us it is virtually impossible to identify a political crisis until it smacks us in the head, but more and more this feels like the year we get smacked.

 

Life is Sentimental…

     

      “Life is sentimental. Why should I be cold and hard about it? That’s the main content. The biggest thing in people’s lives is their loves and dreams and visions, you know.”

Jim Harrison, 1937-2016

——–

I can’t say I really knew him, the great novelist/poet/gourmand/fisherman/hunter who died last Saturday in the high desert south of Tucson, but I did have my fifteen minutes with Jim Harrison and hearing of his death this weekend burned a hole in my heart.

Jim Harrison in a typical pose

Jim Harrison in a typical pose

What a talent. What a huge talent. And what a life, what a quotable life.

Harrison, the Michigan-born writer of all manner of stories; violent, sweet, sexy, make you cry in the dark stories came to Idaho some years ago and it was both my pleasant and completely intimidating duty to interview him in front of an audience. Interviewing Jim Harrison was a little like reading Faulkner – a lot was going on there.

He didn’t know me from a bale and had no reason to care. No doubt he’d been through the “famous author answers questions from some rube in the sticks” routine ten thousand times. But he was kind, generous and did a reasonable approximation of Jim Harrison being interviewed; interviewed by someone – me – who wanted to sound “literary,” but mostly had to fake it. He might have embarrassed me. He didn’t.

      “The simple act of opening a bottle of wine has brought more happiness to the human race than all the collective governments in the history of earth.”

We still laugh about that interview in the auditorium of the high school in Hailey, Idaho. After the author of “Legends of the Fall” and “Dalva” and a dozen other shining, wonderful books answered the last question he need a cigarette break. Returning from the smoking interlude outside he positioned himself at a small table in the auditorium in order to sign his name in the books fans clutched as they waited in line for a moment of his time. My very much better half, hoping to be helpful, inquired if he might need anything, thinking glass of water, cup of coffee, etc.

“A glass of red wine would be nice,” was the reply. You got the impression that might have been an appropriate response to almost any conceivable question asked of Jim Harrison.

Of all the books and all the poems, I like “Dalva” the best, perhaps because the story is set in the rough and starkly beautiful country of northwestern Nebraska where I have my own roots. The book centers on a rough, starkly beautiful 40-something half-Sioux woman who is on the quest we all are on – to find ourselves.

The Guardian noted in a 2012 story about Harrison that the book is an “overlooked classic,” but not in France where Harrison has long enjoyed a major following. He has said that it was not uncommon for him to encounter French women named “Dalva.” If you haven’t read it – read it.

      “What’s the meaning of it all? “Seems to me nobody’s got a clue. Quote Jim Harrison on that: Nobody’s got a clue.”

Jim Fergus, interviewing Harrison for The Paris Review in 1986, said: “Harrison is a man of prodigious memory and free-wheeling brilliance and erudition, as well as great spirit and generosity, lightness and humor; so the reader should imagine wild giggles and laughter throughout, and supply them even when they seem inappropriate—especially when they seem inappropriate.”

His close friend Tom McGuane, another very fine writer, said much the same when he wrote a short “postscript” about Harrison in The New Yorker: “Few American writers of recent times have had his erudition and phenomenal memory. To the end, Jim was a country boy who’d been touched.”

He touched his readers, too.

Lights and Wires in a Box…

   

    “One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and, at times, demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles.”

                                                                                 – Edward R. Murrow in 1958

——–

The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination is many things – a narcissist, a psychopath, misogynist, authoritarian, Islamophobic, racist, but also the most accomplished manipulator of mass communication maybe in the history of American politics.

A typical Trump cable TV "hit"

A typical Trump cable TV “hit”

Donald Trump has completely figured out the relentless ebb and flow of modern political communication. He understands in detail the need to “feed the beast” and that the feedstock for television has little to do with substance. The modern news cycle is about always being available, responding immediately and constantly raising the bar of outrageousness. Trump’s unhinged personality and incessant need to be the center of attention is a perfect match for the tools of social media and 24-hour cable news.

Near as I can tell Trump never turns down an interview request unless it’s from Megyn Kelly on Fox, a level of accommodation for cable television’s conflict driven programming that has been irresistible as CNN’s president confirmed recently. Trump “has been much more available than many of the others who have been or are still in the race,” Jeff Zucker said. “Just because he says ‘yes’ and has subjected himself to those interviews, and [other candidates] don’t, I’m not going to penalize him for saying ‘yes.’”

Indeed. why penalize Trump when it is so lucrative to ratings and cash flow to constantly provide a forum? CNN has been charging 40 times it’s normal price for a commercial during the “Republican Debates Starring Donald J. Trump.” Co-dependency is obviously lucrative.

Trump has re-written the rules for the Sunday morning shows featuring what the great Calvin Trillin correctly terms “the Sabbath Gasbags.” Twenty-nine different times since the beginning of the campaign Trump has “phoned it in” to one of the Sunday programs and almost daily he does the same with television’s morning shows.

The telephone “interview” gives the small-fingered vulgarian a home field advantage. He tends to easily dominate these exchanges by filibustering and refusing to be interrupted. By conducting his media outreach by phone, Trump doesn’t have to put himself out by actually showing up in a studio and facing a questioner. As a result he rarely gets asked a follow up question, although he almost never provides a real answer in the first place. The “journalists” know, of course, that they are being played, but until recently everyone played along. Only when Trump’s tactics finally became the focus of print media coverage did Chuck Todd on NBC, for example, call a halt to the phone-a-phon.

CBS Chairman Moonves:

CBS Chairman Moonves: “The money’s rolling in.”

Trump completely understands the weirdly perverse symbiotic relationship that links a no-nothing big-mouthed candidate with the venality that has come to characterize modern television news. The vicious and almost always vacuous cycle of personality and enabler goes something like this: TV needs ratings in order to sell commercial time. Outrage and spectacle drive ratings. Trump delivers outrage and spectacle. TV gives time to Trump. Ratings sore and cash registers ring. Voila!

“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” That is a quote from CBS Chairman Les Moonves who spoke last month to a media conference in San Francisco. It was a rare moment of illuminating candor from the top guy at the network that was once home to Cronkite and Murrow. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Moonves continued, “and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

“There is always a mutually beneficial relationship between candidates and news organizations during presidential years,” writes the New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg. “But in my lifetime it’s never seemed so singularly focused on a single candidacy. And the financial stakes have never been so intertwined with the journalistic and political stakes.” Just ask Les Moonves.

Vulgarity Meets the Broadcaster’s Bottom Line…

By one measure Trump has received nearly two billion dollars in free media coverage since his announcement of candidacy was, of course, carried live on cable television last summer. At one level the Trump phenomenon is easily explained: free advertising works. At least it works with 35-40 percent of the Republican electorate.

The “old media” – read “print” – scrutiny of Trump, by contrast, has been unrelenting and often excellent, with the New York Times and Washington Post producing detailed and often fascinating (as well as disturbing) accounts of the billionaire (is he really?) blowhard’s often unsuccessful business practices. The Post’s recent story on the lawyer Trump tried to conflict out of a lawsuit is both a great piece of reporting and one suspects a genuine glimpse into Trump’s sleazy approach to business and everything else.

Columnists like the Times’ Tim Egan and Frank Bruni have laid bare Trump’s complete disregard of facts and his fourth grade grasp of policy. Conservatives like David Brooks and Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, have taken on Trump from the right with Gerson particularly challenging Trump enablers like Chris Christie and Ben Carson. Politico’s Roger Simon has a wonderful ability to burst the media bubble around El Trumpo and get to the essence of why he is so unprepared for the job and so dangerous in even seeking the job.

Even the sanctimonious George Will, a Sabbath Gasbag if ever there was one, has consistently hammered Trump, although Will’s groping for the principled high ground is increasingly hard to take since he has been among the chief conservative enablers to the “establishment” Republican Party that has done so much to create a genuine American demagogue.

Still every candidate for alderman knows that in politics you want to get your mug on tube. Trump rails against the “dishonest media,” but really could care less when a well-informed columnist calls him what he is. Trump is all about the airtime.

While media moguls like Moonves and Zucker count their millions it is worth remembering a simpler time when another powerful demagogue ranged across the land. Ed Murrow, the North Carolina-born broadcaster who came of age in the Pacific Northwest, was accused at the time of being late to the dissection of the demagogue from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy. Still, watching Murrow’s riveting thirty-minute takedown of “the junior senator from Wisconsin” in 1954 is a reminder of what television can do to puncture the bloated ego of a dangerous authoritarian.

When Murrow Took on McCarthy…

Senator McCarthy responds to Edward R. Murrow in 1954

Senator McCarthy responds to Edward R. Murrow in 1954

Murrow (and his producer Fred Friendly) used McCarthy’s own words to do him in during their famous See it Now broadcast. In his concluding essay Murrow, the Washington State University grad, reminded his generation that every citizen has a responsibility to speak out when evil lurks in the body politic.

Substitute “Trump” for “McCarthy” and you may experience an eerie sense of déjà vu when reading Murrow’s words from 1954.

“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ Good night, and good luck.”

McCarthy responded the following week, of course, by labeling Murrow a communist dupe. A few months late the Senate censured McCarthy and his influence rapidly cascaded into history.

In his engaging 1970 study of McCarthy and the United States Senate, which for too long abetted his undemocratic tactics, historian Robert Griffith used words that might have been written by a contemporary observer of our politics.

Murrow on the cover of Newsweek in 1954

Murrow on the cover of Newsweek in 1954

“To a considerable degree ‘Joe McCarthy’ was the creation of our communications system,” Griffith wrote in “The Politics of Fear,” his scholarly study of McCarthy, his methods and the Senate. “Like most instruments through which the past is mediated the press was an active and not a passive agent. They very questions asked determined the answers it reported. And these answers in turn shaped the total political context. Nor were these actions always conscious, consistent, or premeditated. The nation’s prestige press was overwhelmingly opposed to McCarthy, yet by the very intensity of its coverage it helped to assure his permanence as a symbol of Republican partisanship.”

Once upon a time executives at CBS, no doubt reluctantly and even frightened by what might happen, had the guts to allow Ed Murrow to unmask Joe McCarthy’s methods. The moment stands as one of the greatest in the history of a medium that has few enough great moments.

In his most famous speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association in 1958, Murrow offered what is still a remarkably trenchant observation about television. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”

But does anyone in a position of authority at the big television conglomerates have the guts and the integrity to make it useful? The network run by the guy who says “Bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” doesn’t seem too likely to turn ’60 Minutes loose, even on a dangerous demagogue.

 

Waiting for President Trump

 

    “I believe the overwhelming view of the Republican Conference in the Senate is that this nomination should not be filled, this vacancy should not be filled by this lame duck president.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

———

Barack Obama has confounded his political foes by nominating a moderate, consensus-focused, precedent-deferential federal judge to the United States Supreme Court as a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Judge Garland and President Obama

Judge Garland and President Obama

Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland is, in short, just the kind of justice we should want on the Supreme Court. With the Court increasingly becoming just another venue to practice a judicial version of our toxic partisan politics, the Garland nomination should be an antidote that begins to correct the broad impression that judges are just politicians in robes. But Mitch McConnell and Company have ruled that out on the completely specious grounds that Obama’s term ended last year and any nomination to the Court is just politics, nothing more or less.

Not that most politicians would waste a split second thinking about what rank partisanship does to public confidence in the judiciary, it is worth nothing that confidence in the Court has been steadily eroding for thirty years according to data from the Pew Center. Those declines correlate nicely – or depressingly – with the partisan battles over the Court that stretch at least back to Robert Bork.

Even Chief Justice John Roberts thinks the confirmation “process is not functioning very well.” Call that a judicial understatement.

All the players have the judicial blood of petty partisanship on their hands. Politicizing the Court is one thing Republicans and Democrats agree upon, even as McConnell and his not-so-merry band lead us into a wholly new judicial confirmation cul-de-sac. Both sides have mined the depths of confirmation history to try and find any weak precedent on which to hang the current partisan fight, but the Republican logic – that the “people” need to be heard and no nominee can be considered until after the election – is particularly devoid of intellectual honesty. In his newfound role as a Republican truth-teller, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham admitted as much.

“We’re setting a precedent here today, the Republicans are, that in the last year — at least of a lame-duck, eight-year term, I would say it’s going to be a four-year term — that you’re not going to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, based on what we’re doing here today,” Graham said. “That’s going to be the new rule.”

Even if the late Justice Scalia often ignored precedent that didn’t correspond with his personal views of the Constitution, don’t count on the U.S. Senate to ignore in the future the path they have now set for themselves in 2016. The Court becomes one more partisan pawn. It wasn’t always so, or at least it wasn’t always as bad as it is now.

Searching for Precedent…

Republicans have correctly pointed out that it was one hundred years ago when a president of one party had a justice confirmed by a Senate controlled by the other party. The president was Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who actually made two appointments in 1916 – an election year – and both were confirmed. One of those appointments, Louis Brandeis, was controversial. Brandeis was not only the first Jewish member of the Court, but a renowned progressive who had made his career opposing monopoly and the abuses of unregulated capitalism. Still, Brandeis was confirmed by a Republican controlled Senate and went on to become, by most every measure, one of the greatest justices in the history of the Court.

Charles Evans Hughes

Charles Evans Hughes

But consider for a moment the other vacancy Wilson filled in 1916, the seat vacated by the resignation of Associate Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes, the former Republican governor of New York, resigned his Supreme Court seat in order to run for president against Wilson, arguably one of the most partisan acts by any member of the Court in our history.

Hughes narrowly lost that election and then slipped easily back into Republican politics. He served as Secretary of State under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, represented Wall Street and big business interests as an attorney – Hughes argued more than 50 cases before the Supreme Court – and might have been a presidential candidate again in 1928 had he not declined citing his age.

As more proof that the current Senate politics of rejection by inaction is truly unprecedented, consider Hughes’ return to the Supreme Court in 1930, as the nominee to become chief justice, appointed by the beleaguered President Herbert Hoover. With the catastrophic impacts of the Great Depression settling over the nation, Hoover appeared more and more like a one-term president, even two years before another election and his appointment of a partisan Republican, not to mention a big-time corporate lawyer like Hughes, was too much for a bipartisan group of Senate progressives. They determined to oppose Hughes, perhaps the most broadly qualified person ever appointed to the Court.

Still, there was no talk or apparently even any thought to not bringing Hughes’ nomination to a vote and certainly no hint that senators who opposed his appointment would filibuster. Instead the Senate did what the Constitution calls for – it offers advice and consent (or if it doesn’t like the nominee for whatever reason it withholds its consent).

Idaho Republican William E. Borah led the Senate opposition to Hughes. While admitting that Hughes was “a man of high standing” and a person “of wide reputation and acknowledge ability,” Borah said he was also an unreconstructed big business Republican whose views should not be made “a permanent part of our legal and economic system.”

Hughes: An Example of the Sweet Irony of Politics 

Hughes was confirmed and served with great distinction until 1941. When Franklin Roosevelt attempted to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1937, Hughes quietly and effectively made common cause with Borah and others who had once objected to his confirmation. Hughes’ role in those pivotal events, as well as his often progressive record on the Court is a prime example of the sweet irony or unintended consequences that can occasionally grace the grubby business of politics, and judicial appointments.

Benjamin Cardozo

Benjamin Cardozo

Herbert Hoover made another Court appointment in 1932, a decision made much closer to the election of 1932, which he subsequently lost to Roosevelt. That appointment, suggested by Borah – talk about advice as well as consent – was of Benjamin Cardozo, a brilliant legal mind who Hoover initially thought was too liberal to be considered. Borah convinced the president of Cardozo’s merits and he also turned out to be a great justice.

Politics can never – and perhaps should never – be completely removed from any president’s decision about any Supreme Court appointment, but for the process to work as the Founders envisioned everyone has to play their role, and play it responsibly. Obama has made a superlative choice in an awful time of political upheaval – a judge of proven ability, upmost integrity, not a political choice, but rather a nominee who would normally be seen as a moderate, consensus-demanding choice. In other words, just the kind of person we need on the Court, The Senate should rush to confirm him.

The political commentator Ezra Klein puts it more starkly. By edging ever closer to the nomination of Donald Trump and playing blatant partisan politics with the Supreme Court, the GOP has adopted a position “that they will refuse to confirm any nominee, no matter how qualified or appealing, until the next president is inaugurated. In practice, what this means is they are hoping to hold the Supreme Court vacancy so it can be filled by … President Donald Trump.”

Klein quotes the prescient observations of Congressional scholars Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann. “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics,” as they wrote in an important 2012 book. “It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

“When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.”

Those who follow Mitch McConnell blindly into this dark partisan political thicket are playing with fire and one suspects many of them know that. They will live to rue the day they refused even to consider a demonstrably qualified and moderate appointment. They may think it can’t get worse. They would be wrong.

The November election will determine the shape of the Supreme Court for a generation or more. Mitch McConnell is betting the country on Donald Trump. Would you bet even a Starbucks latte that Trump has any clue about what a Supreme Court appointee ought to look like?

 

America’s Battles with Demagogues

 

     “With his victories yesterday, I believe it is now time for Republicans to accept and respect the will of the voters and coalesce behind Donald Trump.”

Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott.

——–

Two years into his first term and with the rosy bloom of the New Deal’s earliest days fading, Franklin Roosevelt faced attacks from the left and the right. Unemployment was still off the charts. Farmers continued to struggle. The elderly demanded economic security. Populists insisted on more from the president, including specifically more punitive action against Wall Street and the wealthy, while west coast longshoremen, motivated in part by radical leftists, closed down ports prompting an often-vicious police and military response.

Roosevelt: Battling his own demagogues

Roosevelt: Battling his own demagogues

A Louisiana showman named Huey Long was making noises about a direct challenge to Roosevelt – from the left. The great journalistic observer A.J. Leibling described Long as “a chubby man, he had ginger hair and tight skin that was the color of a sunburn coming on. It was an uneasy combination, like an orange tie on a pink shirt.”

Long’s other uneasy combination was a gift for moving audiences and devising clever and simple rhetoric, the kind of entertaining, divisive talk that attracts those looking for simple answers that are wrong. Reporters loved him even while acknowledging his excesses.

Father Charles Coughlin at the height of his powers

Father Charles Coughlin at the height of his powers

A Michigan Catholic priest’s rich Irish brogue mesmerized his millions of radio listeners every week with tales of how the economy and American society must be reformed in the interest of “social justice.” Father Charles Coughlin wanted to make America Great Again and eventually turned on Roosevelt and began calling the president’s program “the Jew Deal.”

A well-intentioned if misguided physician in California hatched a crackpot old age pension plan – The Townsend Plan – that virtually overnight attracted the support of millions of desperate elderly Americans. There was no Social Security, most states had no welfare programs, and the daily life for many, many Americans was beyond bleak. Dr. Francis Townsend’s pension plan was simple, understandable, economically crazy and had it been implemented might well have bankrupt the country. It was also widely popular. It took guts to oppose it and not many did, at least directly.

FDR Had It Easy…

For his part Roosevelt lamented that his presidency had been reduced to “fighting Communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, Townsendism…to save the capitalist system” from “crackpot ideas.”

Huey Long. The media loved him

Huey Long. The media loved him

In retrospect the great 32nd president had it easy. Within a few months of Roosevelt’s comment about what he was fighting against, Long was dead at the hand of an assassin and Coughlin was brought down by his own outrageous language, with his own bishop eventually ordering him off the radio. Townsend, always in over his head, continued to try and rally his followers, but FDR’s own Social Security program, approved by Congress in 1935, took any remaining breeze from his sails.

Through the looking glass of our time its tempting to view the 1930’s – the Great Depression, vast economic dislocation, the rise of totalitarian movements in Europe and elsewhere – as a fading anomaly, a one-off set of circumstances that America survived.

Yet, waking from yet another post-primary hangover to realize once again that a qualification deficient, serially lying, race baiting demagogue has taken another long step toward the nomination of a major political party and might – just might – con his way into the White House should remind us that our democracy is a fragile thing. We are only one chubby, ginger-haired, short-fingered vulgarian away from a much different and much more dangerous country. We have been there before and escaped the trap. Will we be so lucky again?

George Wallace on the campaign trail in 1968 --- Image by Bettmann/CORBIS

George Wallace on the campaign trail in 1968 — Image by Bettmann/CORBIS

Pundits struggle to find parallels to what confronts America. Is Donald Trump a latter day Barry Goldwater, a right wing, anti-civil rights libertarian who threatened to use nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia? Or is he a new George Wallace, a race baiting segregationist who actually won four southern states as an independent in 1968? All states, by the way, that Trump has won in primaries.

But the comparisons don’t do justice to Trump. Goldwater and Wallace had actually held office and they advocated real programs however misguided. Trump combines the worst of the earlier dangerous men, his rhetoric and indeed his demeanor are more toxic, his mastery of the tools of the authoritarian more absolute. He is truly in a special class.

I’ll return one day to analysis of why Donald J. Trump has risen so high based on so little in the way of intellect, preparation, temperament and judgment, but today the only question that remains is whether “real” Republicans; those not swept up by Trump’s grandiose, substance-free promises to build walls, deport millions and torture our enemies into submission, will disavow this truly dangerous demagogue? Trump, always able to climb one more rug higher on the ladder of outrage, now predicts – and in the process encourages – riots if he is denied the Republican nomination. That alone should be enough to scare frightened Republicans into action against him.

The Political Courage to Say “No” To a Charlatan…

Again, a historical parallel might be instructive. As Huey Long – even at his most outrageous, never as offensive or dangerous as Trump – rose in popularity in the early 1930’s, fellow southern Democrats were among his most outspoken critics. Powerful senators from Arkansas and Mississippi hated Long and did everything in their power to thwart his ambition. They took him on in Senate debate, worked with Roosevelt to limit his appeal and never would have supported him for the White House.

Contrast that with Senator John McCain in Arizona who faces a Tea Party challenge this year from his political right. McCain, the war hero kept captive in North Vietnam for five and a half years, was one of Trump’s first targets. The draft-deferred Trump – he reportedly had bone spurs in his heels, but has never fully explained his defermentdissed McCain as a loser for having his plane shot down and for being tortured in captivity. McCain finally roused himself to lamely lament Trump’s divisiveness, but would not reject the con man as his party’s nominee. Same with Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and near as can be known every other member of the Senate save Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, who has had the political courage to disown Trump.

The Man Who Would be President

The Man Who Would be President

McCain surely knows the principled and correct thing to do is to completely disavow the man who will soon head his party, but he’s unwilling to risk a backlash from the hard right who want to take him down at home. Undoubtedly, it’s a tough political position. Yet, why work so hard to go back to the Senate if you can’t muster the courage to stand and be counted by really opposing a dangerous charlatan like Trump? What’s the point of being a United States senator if you’re willing to accept the unacceptable?

It’s worth noting that when Trump was asked about McCain’s mild criticism the real estate developer told CBS News correspondent Major Garrett that McCain, “has to be very careful.” When pressed as to why, Trump threatened: “He’ll find out.” Sounds like the basis of a good, solid working relationship doesn’t it?

There will be a special place in political hell for the likes of Chris Christie and Ben Carson, the co-chairs of the Trump Opportunism Caucus. One suspects they endorsed the bloviator-in-chief after removing all the mirrors from their homes. After all, how could they possible face themselves while shaving?

All That’s Left is Refusing to Support Him…

Still, it is the collective political impotence of the Republican “elites” which will be one of the great artifacts of the 2016 election. They originally celebrated the depth of their dream team of candidates, raised vast sums for many of them and completely missed the rise of the vulgarian until they were powerless to deny him ownership by eminent domain of their party. The only thing they have left is the power of refusal, the power of one-by-one to say “I’ll not support him.” When all is said and done, when all the primary ballots are cast, who will stand up with Mitt Romney – so far he’s in lonesome company – and call his man a sham?

When Trump is standing before the Republican convention in Cleveland in a few months who will crowd into the picture with him? It will be the photo of the year,  maybe the image of the young century. Who other than Christie and Carson will share the stage with the genuine American demagogue and who will have the political courage and personal integrity to disavow the most dangerous man to get this close to real political power in anyone’s lifetime? Who among the Republican “elite” will have the courage to denounce, distance, disavow and in the end not vote for Trump?

It once was said in American politics that political power wasn’t worth holding unless you were prepared to lose it over a matter of high principle and conscience. One day our kids and grandkids may well ask, “What did you do to stop him?” That might just become a defining question of our time.

For Republicans, so long guilty of denying, abetting and even encouraging him, stopping Trump has come down to saying you cannot and will not vote for him.

 

It’s the Racism, Stupid…

 

       “Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know.” 

Donald J. Trump pretending not to know “anything” about KKK leader David Duke

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The election results from Super Tuesday show conclusively that a serially lying egomaniac’s hostile takeover – or is it a leveraged lie-out – of the Republican Party is nearly complete. With an overtly racist appeal, Donald Trump has locked up the real base of the GOP – the “birther,” nativist element that, almost eight years on, completely and comfortably repudiates the nation’s first African-American president.

Hostage photo of latest Trump endorser

Hostage photo of latest Trump endorser

Amid all the bombast it is easy to forget how Trump kept himself in the national limelight before riding down his Trump Tower escalator into the heart of the Republican Party. Trump isn’t the original “birther,” but he made questions about Barack Obama’s birth certificate as much a part of his brand as the Trump-labeled suits that are made in Mexico. For months and months he was regularly featured on cable television, demanding that the president of the United States produce the proof that he wasn’t born in Kenya. Trump demanded it often enough that the idea became imbedded in the temporal lobe of a significant number of Americans.

Some of us might have concluded the whole thing was odd, or silly, or just Trump trolling for attention. What Trump was doing, however, is building the foundation for what his campaign has become – a race-based authoritarian hate parade that will likely take him to the nomination of a once great party.

The Founding Document

The Founding Document

Not all Republicans, and apparently not even a majority, buy the Trump-peddled nonsense about Barack Obama’s birth, or that the only Mexican interested in the United States is a rapist, or that the country ought to blacklist a billion or so of the world’s Muslims, but many of the Republican primary voters who are voting for the blowhard branding machine certainly do.

Not since the 1960’s, when Democrats largely repudiated their racist past and embraced civil rights, and the national Republican Party began to make calculated appeals to the sons and daughters of a segregated south, has there been a greater effort to divide the country by race than Trump’s campaign. Racial politics are as American as apple pie and as old as the Constitution and, while the guy who hesitated to disavow the Ku Klux Klan may be clueless about many things, he wields the racial wedge issue as skillfully as he handles his blow dryer. The evidence is both obvious and completely distressing.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the respected group that tracks the movement of the motley (and growing) collection of white supremacy hate groups, reports that those groups increased their activities dramatically in 2015. SPLC has a stunning graphic on its website detailing the prevalence of hate groups around the country. There is likely one near you.

KKK leader David Duke, the only man in the country Trump doesn't have an opinion about

KKK leader David Duke, the only man in the country Trump doesn’t have an opinion about

“After seeing the bloodshed that defined 2015, our politicians should have worked to defuse this anger and bring us together as a nation,” wrote Mark Potok, senior fellow at the SPLC and editor of the organization’s Intelligence Report. “Unfortunately, the carnage did little to dissuade some political figures from spouting incendiary rhetoric about minorities. In fact, they frequently exploited the anger and polarization across the country for political gain.” Let’s be clear; Mr. Potek wasn’t talking about Bernie Sanders or John Kasich.

It is also no accident that Trump’s biggest crowds are in the states of the Old Confederacy or that the first United States senator to endorse him represents Alabama. That senator, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, was once denied confirmation as a federal judge, at least in part, because former Justice Department colleagues testified that he frequently made racist comments and generally thought the Klan just wasn’t all that bad.

Failing to immediately disavow the support of David Duke, the white supremacy guru from Louisiana, should have been just another reason for a Trump disqualification, but, of course, it wasn’t. Beneath all the analysis that Trump’s appeal is really about rejecting political correctness or embracing an outsider is a cold and bitter reality. Trump could make his outsider case without resorting to demonizing by race, but that would not make his case complete. Make no mistake, stoking hatred based on race and fear is the heart and soul of Trump’s appeal and it’s working.

White supremacist groups made robocalls for Trump in Iowa and another group has a daily podcast devoted to Trump, while an admiring writer calls the candidate “our glorious leader.” Trump’s namesake, Donald Junior, is in the news today for granting an interview to a white supremacist radio show host in Memphis. When that decision was questioned, Trumpworld, of course, brushes off any suggestion of impropriety.

Channeling his inner Benito

Channeling his inner Benito

Trump, the first real Twitter candidate, uses social media to identify with a quote by Mussolini and disseminate bogus data about African-American murder rates. None of this can be an accident for a man obsessed with building his brand.

The Trump Republican Party is not just enamored by a gold-plated con man from Queens, but is committed to his politics of intolerance. Recent polling finds that significant numbers of Trump voters want to not just ban Muslims, but also gay and lesbians citizens. They believe white Americans are superior to everyone else and want to keep the Confederate flag flying. They aren’t sure – really this is true – that Lincoln was right in freeing slaves. The Trump Republican Party is truly the dark underside of America that has existed, unfortunately, since our Founders – the guys the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia celebrated as the font of all wisdom – decreed that black Americans were really just 3/5 of a person. (Look it up – it is in the “original” text of the Constitution.)

Some Republicans, perhaps for understandable reasons of self-preservation, want to stop this crazy SOB before he completely destroys their party, but others are willing to embrace the devil because, well, that’s what party loyalists do. But, actually, it’s not was loyal Americans do. Give a hat tip to Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a very conservative Republican and a very new senator, who says to Trump – no thanks. Trump assaulted the very conservative Republican governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who has had the gall to point out his obvious shortcomings. Haley also happens to be of Indian-American ancestry, so one wonders why Trump has dissed her?

Donald Trump is a habitual liar and a delusional self-promoter who has seized a fragile moment in the American experiment and tried to make it his own. He’s a nut job about most everything that matters, but he’s brilliant at exploiting fear and hate. He’s appealed to the sizable minority of Americans who have never accepted the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and salted in a few more fellow citizens who might never admit it in polite company, but happily rant anti-immigrant, anti-minority and fundamentally authoritarian sentiments (with Fox News playing in the background, of course) while taking out the trash.

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

It has become a parlor game in the political media to try and identify the historical figure from the past that most closely parallels Trump’s rise. The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson strangely suggests William Jennings Bryan, the prairie populist from the early 20th Century. But Bryan had a serious policy portfolio, was a serious fundamentalist Christian and actually got elected to Congress. Nor is Trump a new George Wallace, a southern white supremacist who never came close to winning nomination by a national political party. And Trump is no Barry Goldwater, a small government conservative who was wrong about civil rights in the 1960’s, but also no hater.

No, Trump is in a class all to himself. Never before in American history has a man so devoid of real experience, so lacking in temperament and policy, been so close to leveraging his own intolerance into a presidential nomination. Never before has a candidate gotten so far riding a platform purposely designed to divide the country.

It’s time – past time – to repudiate the fear and hate and racism, and most of all past time for more Republicans to do so. To paraphrase Madeleine Albright there is a special place in hell for the Chris Christies and the Jeff Sessions.

It’s one thing to lose an election. It’s quite another to lose the country.