Politics in Five Observations

 

“How stupid are the people of Iowa?”

Donald J. Trump

——-

So, it turns out the old, tired rules of politics aren’t so old and tired after all.

Some Iowa caucus takeaways:

Second by a hair...

Second by a hair…

A message is better than a muddle: Bernie Sanders has one, a message, and Hillary Clinton doesn’t. The old rule for candidates is that when you begin to hate the very thought of giving your stump speech one more time you are at the point when the message is finally being heard. Whether one likes it or not, Sanders’ message about income inequality, economic unfairness and a rigged economy has been consistent for, well, thirty years. I follow this stuff pretty closely and I still can’t define why Clinton wants to be president and what she might do with the job if she gets there. Electability and experience isn’t a message.

An organization is better than a rally: Ted Cruz had the old-style ground game to identify voters and get them out to caucus on a cold February night and Donald Trump didn’t. The key metric here is that the allegedly brilliant real estate developer spent more money over the last few months on baseball caps than he did on data collection and analysis of the Republican caucus goer. Sounds like a loser to me.

Iowa-caucusesIdeas are better than ideology: The Republican field comes out of Iowa more muddled and soon to be more vicious than ever and just as devoid of real political ideas as the party has been for the last eight years. The last two GOP candidates for president have made the mistake of thinking they could win an election by not being Barack Obama, now the Republican field seems to think it can win by not having an agenda. Ask yourself a simple question: what do the Republicans want to do? They seem only to want to be against things – immigrants, Obamacare, trade deals, climate change, same sex marriage, you complete the list. Where is the agenda – a conservative agenda – that talks of moving the country forward? Obama ran on hope and change and not being George W. Bush, but he was also about ending wars and doing something to address the uninsured. Republicans seem to want to run on gloom and doom and repealing Obamacare without offering a replacement. Still aren’t convinced? Consider this: a democratic socialist is giving Hillary Clinton a contest, not because of the label, but (so far at least) because of his agenda.

On to New Hampshire

On to New Hampshire

Substance trumps showbiz: This is, admittedly, a variation on the previous point, but (fearless prediction) even reality television shows grow old when they get into re-runs. Over the course of the next few weeks (months) the vetting of the next Commander-in-Chief will get ever more serious. Events in the world or the economy will give us all a taste for the future again and we’ll look to substance and seriousness, at least I hope we will. It’s easy now to see that the turning point in the last real presidential election we had, 2008 – Obama versus McCain, came with McCain’s theatrical suspension of his campaign during the near economic meltdown in the fall of the election year. McCain, with little to say about the economy, opted for the showbiz of suspending his candidacy and threatening to miss a scheduled debate. Obama, cool and collected, looked by contrast “presidential.” Game over.

Iowa is ridiculous: Not the state, but the caucus process. Both parties would be well served to put a stake in the charade that a couple of hundred thousand non-representative voters should have a critical role in beginning the presidential selection process. There has got to be a better way. There is: shorten the campaign (it can be done), rotate the opening primaries to involve a variety of states and regions and begin to act like a modern democracy rather than a what we have now – an almost completely non-representative process that produces endless debates and craziness.

On to New Hampshire. Save us from ourselves.

Oh, I almost forgot, how stupid are the people of Iowa? Not very.

 

 

Blame Rosalynn Carter

 

“I have never understood the Iowa caucus…”

Larry King, famous political analyst

——-

I blame Jimmy Carter, well, actually Rosalynn Carter. For Iowa, I mean.

Fresh out of college in 1975, I landed my first radio reporting job at a 10,000 watt giant of an AM radio station in Oelwein, Iowa – The Hub of Northeastern Iowa. Oelwein, population today about 6,500, is named after a local farm family and was carved out of Iowa corn country right after the Civil War. It was, and is, an exciting place, as Iowa farm communities go.oelwein_ia

Radio station KOEL – 950 on the dial – played country western music and I was the third man on a three man news staff. It is now completely amazing to me that a small market radio station in the middle of Iowa farm country had a three person news department, but in 1975 KOEL did. I had a job, an apartment above the TruValue hardware store and a shift from 10 am until 6 pm – no breaks, just radio.

My job had two major components, one that occupied virtually all my time and one that made me a star, well not really a star, but at least got me a listening audience.

Job One was to sit at a triangle shaped desk in the newsroom – the news director on one side of the triangle, me on another, the third side for the morning news guy – and work the phone. I dialed literally hundreds of calls every day drawn from phone numbers on cards in the largest Rolodex I have ever seen. Numbers for every county clerk in northeastern Iowa, every city hall, the fire and police departments, the schools, the VFW halls, every place that people gathered and news might be committed. I’d dial the numbers and ask the poor schmuck on the other end something clever, like “anything happening with the Decorah city council?” An overwhelming percentage of the time the answer was, “pretty quiet.” But, once in a while some city clerk or secretary to the county commission would say, “Well, last night we voted to upgrade the sewer treatment plant – is that news?” Yes, thank you; that is news.

I’d type up the details and KOEL would tell the world about the sewer upgrade. It wasn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize stuff, but it was news in northeastern Iowa, along with the pickup-tractor collisions, the deaths of prominent farmers, the broken water mains and the occasional armed robbery of a gas station or marijuana bust.

This is northeastern Iowa

This is northeastern Iowa

My fifteen minutes of fame came at 12:15 pm every week day when I settled into the news booth to deliver The Midday Market Report! For fifteen long, long, long minutes, I read the market reports from South Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Omaha, South St. Paul, etc. etc. I still envision those bib overall wearing Iowa farmers sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch and hanging on my every word. I didn’t – and still don’t – know a barrow from a gilt, but those farmers, I knew, were counting on my reporting.

Occasionally, just for color, I’d throw in an item from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or casually mention that Cargill had made news, but mostly it was numbers and vaguely familiar terms: bushels and futures, corn and soybeans, barrows and gilts. It wasn’t Ed Murrow reporting the London Blitz, but I had a microphone and an audience and my soybean futures.

Then, as if by salvation, I was delivered from yet another call to another city hall in another little Iowa town.  Rosalynn Carter came to Oelwein.

I had the bright idea to actually grab a tape recorder and go out of the station, leave my phone of all things, and interview her. Her mostly unknown husband, the former governor of Georgia, was spending a lot of time in Iowa in 1975 acting out a crazy strategy aimed at winning something called the Iowa Presidential Caucus.

Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter

The news director was dubious. It would mean time away from my calls and taped interviews were rare on KOEL, which placed a premium on important stuff like a two car collision, in which no one was injured, just outside of Strawberry Point. It must have been a slow news day because he finally said – OK, go do it.

I went to a senior citizens center or an Elks Club or some such place and asked clever questions of Rosalynn – “So, what brings you to Oelwein, Mrs. Carter?”

What brought her, of course, was Jimmy Carter’s strategy to go from unknown former governor – Jimmy Who? – to presidential contender by focusing, laser-like, on the first contest of the 1976 campaign, while pretty much every other candidate, better known figures like Senator Henry Jackson and Congressman Morris Udall, weren’t paying attention, at least to Iowa.

The Iowa caucus had been around since, like, 1840 but until Carter – George McGovern gets a little credit in 1972 – no one paid much attention. Jimmy Carter changed all that.

Jimmy Carter campaigns in Iowa in 1975

Jimmy Carter campaigns in Iowa in 1975

As Julian Zelizer writes in The Atlantic, “From the start, the key to [Carter’s] strategy revolved around Iowa. Carter believed that if he could influence media coverage of his candidacy through a victory in Iowa, he would be treated as a serious candidate, making it easier for voters in subsequent contests, like New Hampshire, to vote for him. The actual delegate count from Iowa was less important than the kind of media coverage his victory would produce.”

Media coverage is exactly what I provided, well, provided to the candidate’s wife, but this was Oelwein, not Waterloo or Cedar Rapids or Des Moines. I still think it was neat that Rosalynn Carter came to Oelwein, a town you need to want to visit. I remember she was very polite, reserved and generous with her time. A very rookie reporter remembers such things. I imagine another candidate in a different time – you know who I mean – would have thought the young guy with the Sony recorder was a sorry “loser,” but Mrs. Carter patiently answered my not-so-probing questions.

The rest is history. Carter launched his road to the White House in Iowa in 1975. I was in on the ground floor (well sort of).

If you are already tired of hearing about the next presidential election, just blame my first news director. He gave me a few minutes away from the phone to interview the next First Lady of the United States of America. Iowa has never been the same.

 

Fear and Loathing on the Trail

 

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

          William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

——-

Unlike a sizeable number of Americans, I am not all that angry about the direction of the county. But I’m clearly an outlier.

In the America of 2016 it turns out that Franklin Roosevelt was wrong. The only thing we have to fear is everything. Esquire and NBC report that, “half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago. White Americans are the angriest of all.”

The only thing we have to fear is...everything

The only thing we have to fear is…everything

The polls says we aren’t having our expectations met, we think things are unfair – mostly to us, not to them – and we don’t think we’re being treated well enough. We are angry. Really angry. But I still find myself standing with FDR. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Our politics is what fails to deliver on my expectations, my sense of fairness and the idea that we don’t treat each other as we should. The politics and the people running – now there is a problem. And maybe, just maybe, the fault is not all in our stars, but in ourselves.

Our president hasn’t lived up to all my expectations, but I doubt he could have even had his legion of opponents met him even a tenth of the way toward the middle. I don’t think he’s been a disaster. Or that he’s made the country unsafe or that he is somehow un-American. I shake my head when some no-name congressman says Barack Obama been the most racially polarizing president since the Civil War. Really? I don’t personally remember him, but I think Andrew Johnson might get some consideration for that title.

Andrew Johnson, a genuinely racially divisive president.

Andrew Johnson, a genuinely racially divisive president.

I don’t think the country, as one leading candidate says, is in horrible shape. Oh, we have some real problems, but horrible shape? No.

I’m not ready to make America great again, because I’m not sure what that means. Are we longing to go back to the 1950’s, the Cold War, the Vietnam Era, or the country before Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson brought us into a more enlightened, if far from perfect, realization about our legacy of slavery?

Are we pining away for Richard Nixon or maybe Herbert Hoover? Does the Arab oil embargo of the 1970’s make us all warm and nostalgic? I confess that I do not miss Gerald Ford’s campaign to “Whip Inflation Now.” Reagan’s “morning in America” had a nice ring, but I still can’t square the gauzy images of The Gipper’s last campaign in 1984 with his selling arms to Iran or making nice with Saddam Hussein. We were actually buying down the national debt when Bill Clinton was pre-occupied with a blue dress, but I’m not all that keen to go back to Bubba’s presidency.

George W. Bush will live in history for making the greatest foreign policy blunder since Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich, so I’m not eager to revisit that period. W’s father’s presidency looks better and better, but there was that Willie Horton ad.

I’m not carrying a pitchfork in the back seat of the SUV and I’m not angry. What I am is disappointed, deflated and distressed. I want an America again that I, at least kind of, recognize. I’m yearning for an America where contenders for the most exulted position in our politics actually try to lift us up, talk about our aspirations, our shared ambitions and that deal in facts and real proposals. But, I’m afraid I’m whistling past the political graveyard. I want to go back to that kind of great America, but I’m fated to live in 2016.

We endured another political debate this week among the Republican contenders for the White House, each of whom now talks like the people who write anonymous, snarky, nasty comments at the bottom of newspaper websites. They are competing to see who can paint the darkest image of an America in decline, threatened by killer Muslims, Mexican rapists and politically correct lefties. Listening to these guys – and Carly Fiorina – you’d think it was 1933, with 25 percent unemployment and Hitler as chancellor of Germany. They seem to believe the U.S. military is now weaker than the army of Luxembourg. The economy is awful, which you can conveniently say if you don’t look back to the Great Recession of 2008.

Chelsea...really? (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Chelsea…really? (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Across the aisle, the leading Democrat, an epically inept and ethically challenged candidate, actually dispatched her daughter to New Hampshire to launch the harshest attack so far in the Democratic campaign. “Senator Sanders wants to dismantle Obamacare,” the once and maybe future first daughter said, “dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, and dismantle private insurance.” Oh, come on.

Frankly, Chelsea Clinton attacking Bernie Sanders on health care is just embarrassing, not to mention bizarre, but also not all that surprising considering her mother’s stunning inability to grow as a candidate and tap any political vein other than “it’s my turn.”

No, I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed. I’ve been in and around politics for more than 40 years and I don’t remember a time when I’ve felt more disappointed in our politics. Disappointed and embarrassed. The thought of a contest for leader of the free world between the current front runners leaves me embarrassed for my country. The rest of the world is looking at us, much as we should be looking at ourselves, and asking is this really the best we can do?

A campaign that is Felliniesque

A campaign that is Felliniesque

I’m not agitating to making the country great again. I’m longing to make America sane again.

I’m not angry, but I do feel like I’m watching a continual loop of a Fellini film – fantasy dressed up in neorealism. The top stars have orange hair, constantly feature sneering expressions, say and do crazy things. You would never bring one of them home for dinner. Mom would have a fit. Like Fellini at his best this campaign, at its worst, is surreal, indeed Felliniesque.

Fear, loathing and unlikeable characters shouting nonsense, that’s what passes for an audition for the job that Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower once held. The campaign is all emotion, no logic, all venom, no vision. Surreal.

Maybe this is America in 2016. And if it is our America then that is something to be angry about.

 

Junior is in the Hall

“I’ve pretty much done everything you could do in baseball.”

                                                                     Ken Griffey, Jr.

——-

I became a Seattle Mariners fan years ago when the home team played in a dingy, drab, depressing concrete Quonset hut of a stadium known as the King Dome. The King Dome was to baseball stadiums what a trailer park is to Paris, what a kazoo is to the London Philharmonic.

The Dome

The Dome

The Dome was to Fenway what a Burger King is to Le Bernardin. The place had all the class of a certain candidate whose name rhymes with dump. The beer always tasted watered, the artificial turf was washed out and the seats were too small. Did I mention it was a concrete bunker?

I don’t know if Dr. Ben Carson, the presidential candidate, ever saw the King Dome, but if he did he would have declared it was built to store grain. The Dome was a tomb where baseball dreams frequently went to die and Seattle baseball fans often went to cry.

Trudging up one of those interminable concrete ramps to enter Seattle’s concrete Quonset hut of a stadium on a beautiful summer evening, it was possible  to experience wildly divergent thoughts all in the space of a nanosecond.

With the high blue sky, the 72-degree temperature, the light breeze and the first hint of alpenglow on the Olympics you could conclude that there is no more perfect place on earth.

Then, suddenly, you’d remember: I’m going inside a sterile, climate controlled concrete dome to watch a baseball game on crappy artificial turf. A game made to be played on real grass under a real sky was going to take place in a grain storage facility.

Junior

Junior

Then, just as suddenly, another realization hit: A God of Baseball will be camped in centerfield. Junior is in the line-up. The Kid might lace a double off the wall. He might climb that wall and steal a home run from some poor schmuck. Or he might launch a big fly of his own that only a stadium with a roof could hold.

The guy with the sweetest swing since Teddy Ballgame and the best smile since The Babe made even the King Dome a special place. You forgot the venue when #24 dug in. You might have been in Timbuktu. It didn’t matter. George Kenneth “Ken” Griffey, Jr. – Junior, The Kid – was in the bunker. Something marvelous will happen tonight and even if it didn’t – this is baseball, after all – the sheer joy of watching the young man with the wide smile was worth coming in out of the sun.

Junior is now in the Hall. You always knew he would be there. They elected him, those brilliant sportswriters, by the narrow margin of 437 to 3. Griffey’s electoral percentage was 99.3% of the vote, the greatest Hall of Fame total in history. You only win elections with that margin in a Banana Republic or an Alabama congressional district, unless you are Ken Griffey, Jr.

Makes you wonder what got into the three guys who didn’t vote for him. What? He was never seen walking on water? He didn’t change Gatorade into Cote d’ Rhone? I know The Kid only hit 630 home runs and only had 1,836 RBI’s and he quit after just 21 years. Not much of a career. I guess all that is worth three no votes.

99.3% of the vote is, well, a landslide

99.3% of the vote is, well, a landslide

No, actually it’s not.

Those three sportswriters would vote no on whether Saturday is a good idea. Voting against Junior is like voting against your grandmother, especially if your granny only had 2,781 base hits. Maybe nobody but George Washington ever gets every vote, but Kenny came damn close and deserves it. I suspect no one will ever do better.

Arguably the best player of his generation, Barry Bonds, got just over 44% of the votes needed to enter the Hall. Bonds needs about 30% more to get there and one suspects the cheating baggage he carries on those broad shoulders will never let him rise so high. It’s a shame for him, for baseball and for fans. Bonds could have been there with Junior, but he sadly never got the game – or the privilege of playing it – the way Griffey did.

In an age when too many twenty-something baseball millionaires flaunt too much ego, too much hair, too much sullen personality, Junior was the game’s countervailing force. He seemed happy and genuine playing a kid’s game and we recognized that fact when we called him “The Kid.”

All of those 437 votes surely reflect Griffey’s greatness on the field, but they pay homage, as well, to a guy we took real joy in watching play the game with real joy.

Junior is in the Hall. I feel so good about it I almost miss the concrete Quonset hut.

 

A Not So Well Regulated Militia

 

          “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

– Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

——-

As word spread over the weekend about the armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon by a self-styled militia group social media lit up. One posting asked if the protesters represented “that well regulated militia” we hear so much about. The New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz suggested that Oregon erect a 20-foot high wall around the state to keep out angry white men and that any angry white guys currently in the state be deported to, say, Texas. There were debates over whether the occupiers were “protesters” or “terrorists.”

Malheur Lake Duck Northern pintail ducks coming in for a landing in the late fall at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Malheur Lake – pintail ducks coming in for a landing in the late fall at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

In all seriousness this is no laughing matter. There is a crazy saga, long in the making and dangerous in its potential, unfolding in the remote high desert near the rural cowboy and timber town of Burns, Oregon.

This is a reaction against many perceived wrongs, including the American judicial system and the long established notion that all the people of the United States own the public’s land. The forefathers of Oregon’s current takeover gang cut their teeth on the mostly manufactured outrage that drove the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1980’s and the even earlier Posse Comitatus movement. Some of the rugged individuals of the American West have always been in revolt against what they consider an alien government. Some things never change.

It should also probably not be a great surprise, given the current state of American politics and the desire by too many to make the most of the anger that seems to pervade every public issue, that we would eventually have to confront a bunch of gun toting radicals occupying a bird sanctuary as they make some kind of point about how much they disagree with “the feds.”

To say that the “standoff” is dangerous, as in Ruby Ridge or Waco dangerous, is to understate the broader implications. The armed guys in cowboy hats initially showed up in Burns to protest the judicial treatment of two local ranchers, but as the local sheriff said over the weekend, “these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.” The self-styled “militiamen” in Oregon are not a new phenomenon in the West, but perhaps they do represent a more aggressive strain of land use protesters than we have seen in a while.

Schwartz cartoon for the New Yorker

Schwartz cartoon for the New Yorker

The takeover group, apparently all from outside the local community, clearly rejects much of the established system of law and justice in the country and embraces a version of the American Constitution that, despite what they say and obviously believe, has never existed.

Most westerners adhering to such beliefs live out there “off the grid,” desiring to be left alone, not paying their taxes and believing that the Founders sanctioned such nonsense. Once in a while one gets elected to something, but since they don’t really believe in government the tenure of office is usually pretty short.

The yahoos in Oregon, by contrast, seem to have spontaneously decided to occupy a remote wildlife refuge in the dead of winter and vowed to stay, well, forever. But demanding what exactly? That the federal government disappear? That the land Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore in 1803 be privatized?

The Roots of Protest…

This “protest” is as incoherent as the beliefs of the protesters, but we can surely trace the current eastern Oregon standoff to the federal government’s earlier incoherent and ineffective response to southern Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s blatant disregard of federal law back in 2014. Bundy and his followers, armed to the teeth, bullied and threatened federal officials to such a degree that the government backed down and continued to allow Bundy to graze cattle illegally on public lands without paying you and me for the privilege of doing so.

You will remember that Bundy’s case became a several day sensation on Fox News with politicians like Senator Rand Paul shamelessly pandering to deeply engrained anti-public lands sentiment among many hard right conservatives (or libertarians) in the West.

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy

Now, Bundy’s sons have led the armed takeover of the wildlife refuge in Oregon based on the completely specious argument that public land is illegal. Even a public land skeptic like Randal O’Toole of the libertarian Cato Institute says the takeover is crazy.

“The Supreme Court has heard hundreds of cases involving federal land and has never ruled that the Constitution does not allow the federal government to own land in the West,” O’Toole writes. “So any battle against federal ownership would have to fought politically, not in the courts.” Taking that approach, of course, would mean that people who don’t accept settled law on a whole range of things and feels it’s fine to threaten harm to public officials would suddenly have to accept that they can never prevail in a political process in a democratic system.

O’Toole also points out that 90% of westerners live in urban areas where many people actually like wildlife refuges and enjoy national parks. Sympathy for “spotted owls and sandhill cranes” in the urban West is a good deal greater than for sheep and cattle or for cowboys who don’t pay their way. But then again true believers don’t have to believe in rules made for the rest of us.

The federal government has long and often been a target for the legitimate grievances of many people who live in the wide-open spaces of the West. The rules and regulations often seem arbitrary, confusing or misguided, The paperwork is annoying and the economic ups and downs of the resources industries can stimulate anger about a way of rural life that seems fragile, even fleeting to many. And if you don’t subscribe to the law, not to mention the philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number, you conveniently don’t have to worry about clean water, endangered species or paying for our rangeland.

But what is happening in Oregon and happened before in southern Nevada goes beyond legitimate grievance. This is no mere “protest against government,” but instead the Bundys and their followers have walked right up to the line of sedition.

When an earlier day “terrorist” by the name of John Brown, admittedly acting on behalf of a much better cause than the Bundy’s, seized a federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859 in an act of revolt against the federal government he was tried and executed. Most of us would probably be content to see the Bundy Gang indicted for using weapons to seize a federal facility, a felony crime, by the way, that ironically would prevent anyone found guilty of violating from owning a gun.

The federal government’s failure to enforce the law against Cliven Bundy in 2014 sent a signal to his sons in 2016 and they have now acted on that signal in Oregon. The message was sent that the essential social and legal compact we make with each other as Americans can be disregarded if a self-styled militiaman hints at violence and commands enough media and political attention.

Back in 2014, the New York Times quoted Alan O’Neill, a one-time superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in southern Nevada, who had experienced his own earlier run in with Cliven Bundy. “He calls himself a patriot, and says he loves America,” Mr. O’Neill said then. “And yet he says he won’t follow any federal laws. You just can’t let this go by, or everybody is going to be like, ‘If Bundy can break the law, why can’t I?’ ”

Welcome to Oregon 2016…

Turns out the Oregon ranchers who were convicted of arson – they set fire to public grazing lands without Bureau of Land Management approval and were senselessly sentenced under a federal terrorism statute – also have a bit of history. More than 20- years ago rancher Dwight Hammond was accused of “disturbing and harassing” federal officers. High County News reported in 1994 that, “a thick file at refuge headquarters [the same refuge now occupied by the Bundy Gang] reveals just how patient refuge managers have been” in dealing with Hammond, who “allegedly made death threats against previous managers in 1986 and 1988 and against…the current manager, in 1991” and again in 1994.

The newspaper also reported that Hammond had “never given the required 24 hours’ notice before moving his cows across the refuge and that he allowed the cows to linger for as long as three days, trespassing along streams and trampling young willows that refuge workers had planted to repair damage wrought by years of overgrazing.”

It is not difficult to conclude that the entire situation has been poorly handled by the government and by the cowboys. There is a widely held view, for example, that the punishment vastly exceeds the Hammond’s crime and a belief persists among many who have watched this case that a vindictive federal government, at best, is guilty of harassing the ranchers. No one should be so naive as to believe that such things do not happen. The government, too, makes mistakes.

Hard cases, they say, make bad law and this case is hard, unfortunate, troubling and may well demand a further review – including a clemency review – that is untainted by the emotions and history of Harney County.

It must be noted that on Monday the Hammonds turned themselves in, as scheduled, to face punishment and they had earlier taken significant steps to distance themselves from the refuge takeover. Nonetheless, it is important to separate the rancher’s case and the emotions surrounding it from the armed takeover of a federal facility which is a crime that demands a timely legal and law enforcement response.

Pro-Hammond protest in Burns, Oregon. KOIN photo

Pro-Hammond protest in Burns, Oregon. KOIN photo

Unlike the Fox News firestorm that made the southern Nevada Bundy incident a national story, this time most politicians, even Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz, have behaved sensibly.

“Every one of us has a constitutional right to protest, to speak our minds,” Senator Cruz told reporters in Iowa. “But we don’t have a constitutional right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence against others. So it is our hope that the protesters there will stand down peaceably, that there will not be a violent confrontation.”

One has to sympathize with the local sheriff and other officials who seem determined to defuse the situation without someone getting hurt. But they need help. A good step toward defusing the situation and avoiding violence would be for more elected officials, particularly conservatives across the West to state the obvious: the United States is a nation of laws and not individuals and following the law is not an optional exercise.

You can dislike the law, you can peacefully protest, you can petition the government and elected officials to change the law. You can even commit civil disobedience if you are willing to accept the consequences. You cannot, however, ammo up and take the law into your own hands. You cannot pick and chose the laws you will obey and you cannot commit armed sedition.

Disregarding long established law – the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge at the center of the Oregon dispute was created in 1908 when that well-known political despot Teddy Roosevelt was president – only breeds more disregard. In a representative democracy laws matter and upholding the law matters just as much.

 

What I Got Wrong in 2015…

 

“Get ready for the “Bush Rebounds” stories. You heard it hear first.”

One of my less-than-perfect predictions from 2015

———

In the spirit of the late, great Washington Post political reporter and columnist David Broder, who annually devoted a year-end column to the mistakes, blunders and wrong-headed notions he consigned to print during the previous twelve months, I offer atonement. Or, as the old year passes, here is my “I really got that wrong” list.

Who wasn't wrong about Trump? Certainly not me.

Who wasn’t wrong about Trump? Certainly not me.

Trump – There is little year-end consolation in the fact that I was not alone in misreading, not understanding and failing to take seriously the Trump…whatever it is. Thousands of self-styled pundits missed the political rise of the orange haired billionaire. Lots of smart people made the same mistakes I made, the political equivalent of the generals fighting the last war and assuming that the rules of political warfare never change.

So, while I’m in good company, fairness demands that I acknowledge that back in the early summer I went so far as to opine of Trump that, “I still think he drops out before he really has to reveal more details about the web of financial deals and debt that undoubtedly define his business empire…” Boy, was that off the mark. Not only did he not drop out, he’s been leading the polls for months.

I redeemed myself (slightly) in the next part of that sentence by observing “but in the meantime Trump stirs things up and not in a helpful way for the more sane and sober Republican candidates.”

In July I was thinking that Trump would be a short-lived distraction, not unlike a really bad reality television show, and that soon enough the rules of politics would again take over. Now – I can’t believe I’m writing this – I’ve come to believe Trump has a reasonable chance of becoming the Republican candidate for president of the United States of America. Now, that is one prediction that I dearly hope will be WRONG.

Jeb! – I plead guilty to embracing the conventional wisdom that the former Florida governor would finally find his political sea legs and make a strong run for the GOP nomination. Never say never in this crazy political year, but that prediction is looking about as worn as last week’s tattered and torn Christmas wrapping paper.

Paul Ryan's beard surprised me, too

Paul Ryan’s beard surprised me, too.

Congress – I’m second to no one in my willingness to always expect the worst from our hyper-partisan, mostly do nothing Congress and those 535 helpless souls rarely disappoint. But…I didn’t see new House Speaker Paul Ryan stepping in an engineering a year-end budget deal that forecloses government shutdowns, etc. for an entire year. Congress, or at least Ryan, surprised me. Anyone remember John Boehner?

Hollywood – I have often allowed my cynicism about the movie glitz and gore factory get the better of me, but late this year I must admit I’ve been wrong. A slew of amazing and important motion pictures have reached the big screen in the last few weeks that (temporarily) renew my hope that Hollywood can produce real entertainment that is relevant, even profound. Films like Spotlight, The Big Short, Carol, Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies and Trumbo make this Hollywood cynic want to head for the ticket line. Tinsel town ended the year with a flourish.

What else? I didn’t see the Kansas City Royals winning the World Series. I thought the Washington Nationals might win. And I never see the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series – period. I hope I’m wrong on that one.

I didn’t think the Washington Redskins would still sport that controversial name at the end of 2015. I wonder if that team name can really last?

I thought Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a better politician than he is turning out to be. Rahmbo’s tough guy bluster goes only so far when you have to actually try to govern and lead a city torn between the grievances of its minority community and deep-seated problems with its police culture. And what politician takes a holiday trip to Cuba while his town is in turmoil? I’m tempted to predict that Emanuel can’t last, but that may just be wishful thinking.

I didn’t see oil prices going this low. I guess it must be Obama’s fault.

I have long been dubious, cynical and concerned about the state of American journalism, particularly the continuing demise of newspapers, but I did not foresee the wonderful, even spectacular rise of high quality “long form” journalism and non-fiction writing. Some of the material being produced is phenomenal. If one only had all the time in the world to read it all.

And, finally I did not foresee the shocking level of xenophobia (thanks Trump) that seems to have overwhelmed a good segment of the population in 2015.

In a fine piece in The Atlantic Richard Yeleson reminds all of us that change in our system comes slowly – very slowly. Yeleson makes a compelling case that America in 2015, with the widespread disdain for those who seem to be “un-American,” is in many ways not unlike America in the 1920s when anti-immigrant furor spawned violations of civil liberties and hatred for the unwelcome of that era.

“Americans are still accusing each other of not being American,” Yeleson writes, “and are even debating who should have the right to call themselves Americans at all. Both the pluralist left and ethno-nationalist right have urged their adherents to ‘take back our country.’ The left wants to ‘return’ to a country that doesn’t yet exist except in the minds of its artists and activists, and in the rhetoric, but not the actions, of its venerated Founders. The right wants to ‘return’ to a country which is ever receding from its view, and will never quite again exist in the way it wishes that it might. Between that ‘doesn’t yet’ and ‘never quite again’ lies a struggle over which side will get to impose its understanding of what ‘America’ should mean upon America.”

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake lit a candle for hope.

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake lit a candle for hope.

So, while I can believe that the xenophobia is distressing and ultimately works against the nation’s true best interests, I can be surprised – and even wrong – not to see a recent action like that of Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a genuine conservative of the Mormon faith, as hopeful, compassionate, courageous and very American.

While the blowhard leading his party’s race for the White House was calling for a complete ban on Muslims entering the country and threatening to “shut down mosques,” earlier this month Senator Flake took his wife and sons to a prayer service at a mosque in the Phoenix area.

“It’s just the antithesis of all we stand for here in America, and the freedom of religion that we all embrace so much,” Flake said of Trump’s anti-Muslim proposal. “I don’t think that it reflects well on, certainly not on the Republican Party, it doesn’t reflect well on us as a country if this were to go.”

The senator talked softly and humbly about the religious persecution his faith has suffered and, at least for a moment, he renewed one cynic’s faith in the good that exists within all of us. One Muslim participant in the service said,”To have him here today was really just powerful, very powerful, especially someone from the Republican Party joining our congregation was just a phenomenal moment for us.”

I was wrong to not to look for and find the bright candle of hope and tolerance amid all the dark, harsh rhetoric. I am delighted to atone.

Happy New Year.

Grab the Pitchforks

     “The CDO – collateralized debt obligation – was, in effect, a credit laundering service for the residents of Lower Middle Class America. For Wall Street it was a machine that turned lead into gold.”
― Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

—–

If you are able to sit through a screening of Adam McKay’s outstanding new film The Big Short and not feel, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott says, like “going out to the garage to look for a pitchfork” in order to slay the villains, there is a good chance you are: 1) a partner at Goldman Sachs, 2) a Republican U.S. Senator who has been voting to dismantle the weak financial reforms put in place after the Great Recession, or 3) clueless.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, an eccentric fund manager who bet short in The Big Short

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, an eccentric fund manager who bets short in the movie “The Big Short”

The Big Short, a wildly inventive and superbly acted film that is both comedy and tragedy, joins Spotlight, a morality tale, also superbly acted, in exploring the corruption inherent in absolute power.

Both films show us again that Hollywood, the very essence of America’s unceasing appetite for excess, can – at least once in a while – bring about the self-reflection that is distressingly missing among those wrapped in privilege and pampered by power and money.

Recent History…Already Being Forgotten

McKay’s film, based on the bestselling book by Michael Lewis, focuses on the years immediately before the Great Economic Meltdown of 2008 when a handful of investment “outsiders” detected the inevitable bursting of the housing bubble that ultimately brought the U.S. and world economy to its knees. These outsiders, seeing the interconnecting disaster of sub-prime mortgages, mortgaged backed securities, CDO’s, credit default swaps and billions and billions of dollars, decided to beat the rigged “system” where big banks, credit rating agencies and government regulators quietly (and in some cases ignorantly) allowed massive financial fraud to occur.

These outside guys bet “short,” made billions off the fraudulent system and then watched in disbelief as the high rolling Wall Street banking crowd walked away from the wreckage almost entirely unscathed. Others, of course, were not so fortunate. As the film points out a cool $5 trillion dollars was lost when the housing market finally crashed and took with it pension funds, life savings, 401K investments, and the jobs, homes and futures of people who deserved much better.

In the dying days of the George W. Bush Administration the American taxpayer stepped in and bailed out the banks, with the notable exception of Lehman Brothers. The bankers then used vast amounts of the bailout funds to reward themselves with huge bonuses. As the Times reported in 2009, “At Goldman Sachs, for example, bonuses of more than $1 million went to 953 traders and bankers, and Morgan Stanley awarded seven-figure bonuses to 428 employees. Even at weaker banks like Citigroup and Bank of America, million-dollar awards were distributed to hundreds of workers.”

No harm, no foul, but in fact there were both. There has been virtually no prosecution of the clear fraud that occurred – only one relatively low level banker went to jail – while business quickly returned to normal in the canyons of finance in lower Manhattan. Oh, there were financial penalties for many of the guilty firms, but most were sufficiently small to qualify as “a cost of doing business,” even  when the business is built on fraud.

Actor Steve Carrell in "The Big Short"

Actor Steve Carell in “The Big Short”

In one of the most chilling scenes in a movie full of startling scenes we look on as one of the “short sellers,” played perfectly by Steve Carell, is quizzing one of the big bank managers about who he really represents as he packages and repackages the mostly worthless mortgages – he knows they are worthless – that he then peddles to his unsuspecting investors.

“Who do you work for,” Carell’s character demands to know. The bank guy smiles and says, “the investors.” That is, of course, the very definition of fraud.

Given our startling short attention span it is probably not surprising that most of the political and economic elite – Bernie Sanders excepted – have moved on from these events of less than a decade ago. Wall Street is busy devising new, esoteric investment devices, many barely regulated and even more minimally understood. Meanwhile, as though it all never happened, Hillary Clinton – and every Republican who can – goes to Wall Street for campaign cash, while promising to be tough on the same people who write the checks. The recently passed federal budget deal included, thanks to lobbying by the financial industry, a provision blocking the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) “from taking action on a long-discussed rule requiring publicly owned companies to disclose their political giving.”

Surely They Have Committed a Terrible Crime

As stunning as the lack of fraud prosecutions is the easy return to the status quo for Wall Street. One voice in the wilderness has been U.S. Federal Judge Jed Rakoff who has courageously and indigently refused to sanction several settlement agreements struck by the SEC with the bankers who caused the big collapse. Rakoff has written and spoken widely on the tepid regulatory and prosecutorial response to the Great Meltdown and singlehandedly has shamed regulators into insisting that some banks pay higher fines. But, the judge remains dismayed – as viewers of The Big Short certain will – that individuals who clearly committed fraud are still spending their weekends in the Hamptons.

Federal Judge Jed Rakoff

Federal Judge Jed Rakoff

“You have to be careful,” Rakoff told The Nation in 2014. “It’s easy to descend to scapegoating here. But to this very day, it concerns me that too many people in positions of authority do not realize how, even now, there are so many people suffering as a result of this financial crisis. There are millions of people out there who have lost their jobs, have no prospect of getting any good job, have exhausted their resources and are living lives of destitution and hopelessness. If there are people to blame, surely they have committed a terrible crime.”

Indeed. Go see The Big Short and next time you encounter an elected official who could have done more back then and could still do more now ask them if they are ready to explain the next big crash; the economic turmoil that surely will tumble forth again from the greed and corruption that is so deeply embedded in our financial system.

Spotlight on Corruption in the Catholic Church 

The other great Hollywood study in power and corruption this season is the real life journalism drama Spotlight,the story of the Boston Globe’s investigations that exposed the extent of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese. The film is exceptional on several levels. It is the best thing Hollywood has every produced showing how journalism really works, but it resists glorifying the scruffy reporters who miss stories right in front of them, descend into numerous rabbit holes, but still doggedly pursue corruption in high places, in this case all the way to the top – Cardinal Bernard Law.

Poster for "Spotlight"

Poster for “Spotlight”

Tom McCarthy’s movie has generated much Oscar buzz despite or perhaps because, as Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers noted,”there’s not an ounce of Hollywood bullshit in it. Our eyes and ears are the Spotlight team, played by exceptional actors who could not be better or more fully committed.”

At the heart of the church’s ugly and widespread scandal is the sobering fact that so many knew for so long what was happening and still did nothing. Lawyers, priests, bishops, well-heeled Catholics who enjoyed being on a first name basis with the Cardinal simply chose to look away. Few, very few, attempted to confront the power and influence of the Catholic Church, an institution as big in Boston as the Red Sox.

Ultimately, it took a Boston outsider, a Jewish editor in a Irish-Catholic town, Marty Baron, now the executive editor of the Washington Post, to zero in on the obvious issue: where does the real corruption come from? At one point Baron’s reporters are ready to publish a story on abuses by a few priests, but he says no. The story is bigger than just the individuals involved, he thinks. They need to go work some more. Ultimately, this is a story of institutional corruption that goes all the way to the top and the Spotlight team got the story.

A Failure of Accountability

Spotlight also draws into sharp focus the genuine threat to a democratic system from the continuing disappearance of the kind of investigative and accountability reporting that made the Globe’s critical stories possible. Critic David Sims correctly says by not cheerleading the journalist’s efforts, but “by quietly celebrating the work of The Globe’s reporters, McCarthy makes a far more consequential argument for the value of smart reporting and robust local newspapers.”

Still one wonders in the era of “click bait” journalism, shrinking newsrooms and a constant re-definition of news whether in the not-too-distant future big, powerful, corrupt institutions will have little if anything to fear from their local newspaper.

Cardinal Bernard Law

Cardinal Bernard Law

Not unlike the guilty in the financial meltdown featured in The Big Short, Bernard Law mostly walked away from his fraud, the 550 victims of abuse in the Boston archdiocese and the $85 million the church paid to settle abuse claims.

The retired Cardinal was forced to step down in Boston, but now lives comfortably in a modern apartment “in a very nice building,” near the Vatican in Rome. Reporters tried to talk to Law when Spotlight was released, but he was not available to answer questions. He, unlike the victims he failed, seems to have moved on. Law will have to wait for his ultimate accountability, as he must surely know.

Both these stellar films are classic tales of corruption, greed and the corrosive effects of money and power, but perhaps what they most share is the spotlight they turn on our culture’s frequent failure to hold those responsible in such egregious cases truly accountable.

Both these films stop short of preaching and seem instead to suggest that all of us have moral choices to make about the frauds and failures in a society that too often has trouble separating the important from the trivial. If we are content to shrug off the latest outrage then can we ever hope that politicians and church leaders, regulators and bond rating agencies will do a better job exercising their responsibility?

When fraud committing bankers are allowed to walk away from the financial wreckage they created, pockets bulging with seven figure bonuses and when one of the high priests of the Catholic Church seamlessly moves on from what may be the worst failure of accountability in the modern history of the institution one is left to wonder only one thing: how bad will it be next time?

 

Christmas Memories…

      “It’s Christmas Eve! It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be.”

                                                                                        – Bill Murray in Scrooged. 

—–

My Dad loved to tell a Christmas story that a minister friend told him years ago. A group of first graders were lining up to take their places in a Christmas pageant and the minister was asking them what part they hoped to play – shepherd, one of the
wise men, maybe an angel. One little guy piped up and announced that he hoped to be “Round John.”

Round John and the Christmas pageant

Round John and the Christmas pageant

“Round John,” the minister said with a surprised look on his face. “You know,” the little guy said, “like the song – Round John virgin.”

I was once in a Christmas pageant – surprisingly as an angel – and wearing my nifty little costume, a cape-like affair with a row of tinsel-like material glued or sewed to the fabric. While waiting to make my entrance, I was sitting on the floor, back against the wall when my tinsel-like material came in contact with an electric outlet. I’m often still as oblivious as I was at age six. Sparks flew. A smell of burning fabric filled the room. The angel was sparking, but spared. No one died, thankfully. The show went on. My mother was appalled.

—–

Family lore holds that our tradition of opening gifts on Christmas Eve dates to when my brother was discovered under the tree at 3:00 o’clock on Christmas morning ripping into his presents. He had simply decided he had been in bed long enough, damn it, it was time to get on with the main event. Mom and dad, probably still a bit groggy from one too many Tom and Jerry’s, heard the commotion and lit up the living room. Reprimands to brother Rick quickly gave way to smiles and a cup of coffee.  Christmas came early – very early in the morning that year. Mom, needing her beauty sleep, decreed that henceforth Christmas would come even earlier – on Christmas Eve. Good call, Mom.

—–

My mother made fruit cake. Now, before you seize up and start thinking, “I know fruitcake – also known as the brick doorstop” learn about her fruitcake. By the way, there is no truth to the rumor that there are really only about 500 fruitcakes in the entire world that are perpetually re-gifted. That is an urban myth, at least I think it is.

No store bought fruit cake for us...

No store bought fruit cake for us…

I can tell you this: my mother’s fruitcake was precious, good stuff and none of that neon electric colored, store bought fruit for Mrs. Johnson. She used fruit cocktail – from a can. Her fruit cake was dense and moist, soft and substantial. I loved it. She knew I didn’t appreciate the chopped walnuts that her recipe called for, so – love you Mom – she always made me my own loaf of fruit cake sans walnuts. She would drizzle a little powdered sugar frosting on top. Oh, the memory.

I’ve had floating islands in fancy restaurants, clafoutis to die for, cherries jubilee and mousse aux chocolate, but would trade them all for one more slice of Mom’s fruit cake. It probably tastes better in my memory than it did for real, but she did go to the trouble of leaving out the walnuts. Love is a sweet taste.

—–

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading…Now…Come let us adore him… Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
…

PS: The new Bill Murray Christmas special is very sweet, a little weird and full of funny stuff. Have an eggnog and watch while we count our blessings.

 

Trolling the Polls

     “Trump has received about the most disproportionate media coverage ever for a primary candidate. The risk to Trump and candidates like him is that polling built on a foundation of media coverage can be subject to a correction when the news environment changes.” – Data gura Nate Silver on the polls and Trump

——

Never in the course of American politics have so many paid so much attention to so many polls with so little relevance to what is really going on. Polls drive media coverage. Polls determine who gets to debate in prime time. Polls have become the oxygen of American politics. If you are up in the polls you are “surging.” Drop a few points – calling Ben Carson!  – and you are “slumping.”

cartoonEvery day of the week brings a new poll. Left Overshoe Junior College has released a new poll! Trump leads among six white guys who responded online! Post the story!

We are obsessed with polls, or at least political editors, reporters, campaign operatives and politicians are obsessed with polls. OK, let’s admit it, we are all obsessed with polls. I have been drafting survey questions and trying to analyze results for most of my adult life. I love the “cross tabs” and the idea of insight into the population, but we need to admit the business of polling is an art and not a science. Surveying a nation as big and diverse as ours often means channeling Monet and creating an impression rather than proclaiming a survey as scientific fact. Additionally, the rapid attention to all of the polling holds the real potential to skew the democratic process itself.

Time for a Deep Breath…

It’s human nature to want to know, as Donald J. Trump might say, “just what the hell is going on.” But political polls have become a little like really good Belgian chocolate. A little taste of really quality chocolate is satisfying and may even be good for you, but indiscriminately gobble too much and you’ll get a sugar high and put on a few pounds.

As The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore noted in a widely discussed piece last month: “From the late nineteen-nineties to 2012, twelve hundred polling organizations conducted nearly thirty-seven thousand polls by making more than three billion phone calls. Most Americans refused to speak to them. This skewed results. Mitt Romney’s pollsters believed, even on the morning of the election, that Romney would win. A 2013 study—a poll—found that three out of four Americans suspect polls of bias. Presumably, there was far greater distrust among the people who refused to take the survey.”

The Pew Center, which conducts widely respected surveys, estimates that the participation rate for its surveys is now just eight percent. Twenty years ago pollsters considered an 80 percent participation rate acceptable. With lower and lower participation rates, not to mention the challenge of reaching potential voters on a cell phone, some polling outfits have turned to “online” surveys, but the online methodology and sample quality have not kept pace with the frantic nature of polling.

Rutgers University professor Cliff Zukin, a past president of the American Association of Public Opinion Research, wrote a while back in the New York Times that “Internet use correlates inversely with age and voting habits, making this a more severe problem in predicting elections. While all but 3 percent of those ages 18 to 29 use the Internet, they made up just 13 percent of the 2014 electorate, according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research. Some 40 percent of those 65 and older do not use the Internet, but they made up 22 percent of voters.”

With polls and chocolate it is a case of all things in moderation. So, while you nibble on a little pre-Christmas chocolate consider at least two principal things that are wrong with the overriding obsession with polling in our political process.

Two Big Problems with Too Many Polls…

First, too many polls these days are the political equivalent of a sleazy used car salesman who washes and polishes the old clunker in order to peddle it to some unsuspecting rube who doesn’t take time to look under the hood. Methodology matters, as does the professionalism and integrity of the polling organization. When assessing the latest polls its essential to “look under the hood” and understand how the survey was conducted and for whom it was conducted.

The data-crunching guru Nate Silver, he’s the guy who has nailed the prediction in the last two presidential elections, has a nifty analysis of the vast assortment of polls that make their way into the national news machine. Silver has ranked the polls according to their accuracy and methodology over time. It’s become standard practice for me – a certifiable “news junkie” – to check Silver’s ranking against the latest poll that assumes to convey heaven sent wisdom.

Second, it’s an old cliché in the polling business, but its still true: a political survey is a snap shot of a moment in time, specifically the time when the survey was conducted, as well as the slice of the electorate surveyed. At a given moment in time a well-constructed, well-researched survey utilizing a well-conceived sample can provide real insight into broad themes and valuable information about how voters might make specific choices among well-articulated alternatives. What polls are not particularly good at doing, at least at the current stage of the presidential campaign – remember not a single vote has been cast yet – is to serve as a predictor.

A skilled Republican pollster told me recently that one of the hardest things to master in the survey business is the “quality of the sample” – what portion of the electorate is actually going to make the effort to get to the polls and vote. “You need to be very careful,” this pollster said, “to pull a sample that accurately reflects age, party, geography, race and gender. That takes time and again costs more money.”

For example, when many Republicans, including his own campaign strategists, thought Mitt Romney would pull out a win over President Obama in 2012, they had misread the electorate that actually bothered to vote. A good deal of the polling miscalculated, for instance, the level of voting by Hispanic Americans. In his last election George W. Bush captured 40+ percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2012 Romney got only 25 percent. That difference in the makeup of the electorate helps explain Obama’s second term. At the same time, it would be a mistake to automatically assume that any Democrat in the future will always gain that level of the vote by a specific demographic group. Every election is different. Understanding the shape of the electorate is critical to good survey work.

The data-crunching site FiveThirtyEight has teamed with the NPR program On the Media to create a new consumer’s handbook for deconstructing the polls. You might want to copy the dozen points and tape it to your television.Polling Handbook

But What of Trump…

I’ve become convinced that the Donald J. Trump phenomenon is, at least in some significant measure, a function of Trump’s own narcissistic pre-occupation with his standing in the polls. Trump regularly touts his “YUGE!” lead in the latest poll. He Tweets his standing from early in the morning until late at night. In the circular logic that drives news coverage of political campaigns Trump is, in many ways, a creation of the polls he loves to cite.

It is probably not a surprise then that Trump comments almost exclusively on polls that show him doing well. As the website FiveThirtyEightPolitics noted recently: “Trump also likes to tweet or retweet about the same poll a lot. He tweeted 29 poll results that he approved of more than once. He also tweeted one poll (a September CNN national survey) favorably, before turning on it more than once to highlight a better poll result for him from NBC and SurveyMonkey.”

A Trump Tweet Saturday on a post-debate poll

A Trump Tweet Saturday on a post-debate poll

As Trump tweets to his 5.3 million Twitter followers a poll that he likes, perhaps more than once, he is simply building the buzz about how successful his candidacy seems to be. It’s little different, from a marketing standpoint, than what Disney is doing by branding everything it can touch with a Star Wars logo. Marketing works to create impressions, drive coverage and, temporarily at least, move polls. It also help encourage people to buy Star Wars themed merchandize.

Trump may be an idiot about policy, but he understands the psychology of perception and he is constantly using polling data, some of it decidedly specious, to continually reinforce his leadership of the Republican field.

It is also no surprise that Trump dismisses as fatally flawed any poll that shows him slipping. When the very well regarded Des Moines Register poll recently showed Trump trailing Texas Senator Ted Cruz in Iowa, the place where the first voting takes place right after the first of the year, Trump dismissed the poll as the biased work of a newspaper that has been critical of his candidacy. Should I remind him that he touted his lead in the same poll earlier in the year?

The other factor that has driven Trump’s poll numbers (in addition to him constantly talking about his poll numbers) is the unprecedented media coverage his campaign has generated. He has been making wild claims about Syrian refugees, Mexican immigrants, banning Muslims, even his “bromance” with Vladimir Putin, but it has served to give him a hugely disproportionate share of media coverage.

All Trump all the time. Trump being "interviewed" by Jimmy Fallon playing Trump.

All Trump all the time. Trump being “interviewed” by Jimmy Fallon playing Trump.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, based only on his two million individual campaign contributors (not to mention the polls), arguably has a larger following than The Bloviator-in-Chief, but by one measure Trump has received 23 precent more coverage than Sanders.

As Nate Silver says: “Trump probably realizes, the media’s obsession with polls can become a self-perpetuating cycle: Trump’s being in the media spotlight tends to help him in the polls, which in turn keeps him in the spotlight, which in turn helps in the polls, and so forth.”

It’s worth pointing out once again that no one has voted yet and there is considerable historical evidence that voters in early state contests like Iowa and New Hampshire decide very late in the process as to who they will support. Trump’s national polling lead may yet translate into real votes in the Iowa caucus – remember that in the best poll conducted at the state level talking to people who have actually participated in previous caucus voting he is behind – but there is also an argument to be made that his lead is to a large degree a function of prospective (or possible) voters seeing and hearing him constantly. Name ID matters, particularly when voters are still weighing choices.

As Jill Lepore noted in her New Yorker piece: “Donald Trump is a creature of the polls. He is his numbers.” But there could well be a bigger and longer-term problem for our democracy than one self-obsessed, poll-centric billionaire.

Reporting incessantly on polls and allowing this week’s polling results to determine the shape of political coverage, Lepore and others argue, is more than just a sign of the times, it is a signal of the increasing disintegration of American political culture.

“Turning the press into pollsters has made American political culture Trumpian,” Lepore writes, “frantic, volatile, shortsighted, sales-driven, and anti-democratic.”

No political junkie – I’m certainly guilty – would encourage a complete disregard for political polling, but there is a very strong case to be made for backing it off a full turn. Let’s have a little real voting and then we can see who is really winning.

Anatomy of a Demagogue

In his masterful study of the populist demagogues that plagued Franklin Roosevelt near the end of his first term in the 1930’s, Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley made an observation that seems eerily appropriate to the crazy politics of the United States in the early 21st Century.

Governor and Senator Huey P. Long

Governor and Senator Huey P. Long

Brinkley argued that political characters like Louisiana Senator Huey Long and the Roman Catholic hate preacher Father Charles Coughlin, both of whom developed mass followings during the economic and social upheaval of the Great Depression, were part of a long American tradition of populist figures not wholly of the political left or right. Long and Coughlin and others of their ilk were motivated by a few deeply felt beliefs, including fear of concentrated power and resistance to being dominated by either private interests or public institutions.

Leading to the Left…and Right…

“It is an impulse that can, under different circumstances lead either to the left or the right,” Brinkley wrote in his seminal work Voices of Protest. “Or it can – as it did in the case of Huey Long and Father Coughlin – lead to both simultaneously.”

As Roosevelt contemplated a second term in the election of 1936 he also had to confront the enormously popular ideas of an elderly California physician by the name of Francis Townsend. Townsend was advocating an old age pension scheme – The Townsend Plan – that sounded to millions of elderly and often destitute Americans as simply too good to be true. It was and FDR responded by creating Social Security.

Long, a skillful political communicator with a flair for the outrageous, was described by the great reporter A.J. Liebling 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 authored a book that he modestly entitled My First Days in the White House. Sound like anyone you know?

Huey Long was both a serious political threat to Roosevelt and a populist demagogue. FDR’s advisors believed that Long might either split the Democratic Party in 1936 or run an independent presidential campaign that might deny Roosevelt a second term. History changed in ways we will never know when Long died in a hail of bullets in a hallway of the Louisiana State Capitol in September 1935.

Father Charles Coughlin

Father Charles Coughlin

A Coughlin supporter years later said that “when he spoke it was a thrill like Hitler. And the magnetism was uncanny. It was so intoxicating, there’s no use saying what he talked about…”

Roosevelt complained shortly before Long’s death that that he was “fighting Communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, Townsendism…to save the capitalist system” from “crackpot ideas.”

Like the poor, our demagogues have always been with us. And now comes The Age of Trump.

But…Trump Now Dominates One Major Party…

The big difference between the 1930’s and today is that one dangerous and divisive man, a demagogue in the American tradition, has largely taken over one major political party, something that a Long or a Coughlin never accomplished. Ironically, the man Donald J. Trump may have to crush to win the GOP nomination, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, has approached his campaign as a Trump-lite in cowboy boots. Cruz has an uncanny resemblance to a one-time Republican demagogue from Wisconsin and his sweeping assertions and scathing attacks channel another of the last century’s great manipulators, Joe McCarthy.

However it is Donald J. Trump, the stout billionaire with the ginger hair and skin the color of a sunburn coming on, who is the manifestation of the fact-free, racially divisive, often cynical and opportunistic party he now dominates. The 21st Century Republican Party created the environment that allowed the Age of Trump. They own him now and increasingly Trump owns the Republican Party.

The Modern American Demagogue

The Modern American Demagogue

Trump has the GOP over the barrel of his own design. His appeal is to the core Republican voter – overwhelmingly white, middle aged, less educated and angry – angry at Obama, angry about the nation’s changing demographics and increasingly angry at those who once might have channeled their frustrations in a more constructive direction. If Trump does not win the party’s nomination he almost certainly will mount a third-party effort, which could doom GOP chances for not only winning the White House, but controlling Congress.

Opportunity and Circumstance…

A demagogue – some have moved on, not improperly, to label Trump a fascist – is a product of both opportunity and circumstance. You cannot separate the Age of Trump from the circumstances that have been in the political foreground now for nearly a decade: the ultra conservative disdain for a government that actually governs, the complete abandonment of bipartisanship, the abject failure to address immigration from Mexico and Central America, the visceral hatred for the nation’s first black president, the completely partisan response to a health care crisis that condemned millions of Americans to a life without the security that they can see a doctor (and pay for it), lock step opposition to addressing growing income inequality and the new Gilded Age excesses of the nation’s economic elite.

Add on a Supreme Court that by the narrowest of margins wiped out any limits on money in politics creating a system where economic oligarchs secretly lavish outrageous sums of money on favored candidates and causes, and you truly have the toxic opportunity that Trump has so successfully exploited.

Of course, every demagogue needs an unpopular enemy. Huey Long had his villains – “the Rockefellers, the Mellons, the Barachs” – while Coughlin’s target were “the Jews.” Trump began his romp toward the Iowa caucus by demonizing Mexicans as “rapists and murderers,” but like all skillful demagogues he was able to switch his target in the space of a Twitter message when the circumstances presented. Radicalized Islam provided what Trump really needed to exploit the fears of Americans in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino. Trump is far from the brilliant businessman he claims to be, but as a classic narcissist he is a master manipulator. Hot buttons are all that he pushes.

The signature Trump event - the rally

The signature Trump event – the rally

Trump’s approach is not unprecedented in our history, but he has clearly demolished all the old boundaries. Historian David Kennedy of Stanford University told the Washington Post recently that branding an entire religious class of people puts Trump “further out there than almost anyone in the annals of [U.S.] history.”

Once upon a time a candidate for President of the United States had to at least pretend to offer a coherent policy agenda, but a demagogue labors under no such uncomfortable constraints. Trump, with all his bravura on display in carefully choreographed mass rallies with security offered by his own private forces, and yes the comparison to those grainy black and white photos of fascist rallies of the 1930’s is intentional, never offers a specific and credible policy proposal.

Making America Great Again…

Trump will build “a beautiful wall” along the Mexican border and “make Mexico pay for it” without ever grappling with the details or impossibility of such a silly proposal. Trump would bar all Muslims from entering the country, even American citizens, create a register of Muslims and “look closely at the Mosques”, without even a passing nod to the U.S. Constitution. His answer to Islamic State terrorism is to “bomb the hell out of them.”

Predictably Trump has prompted a noticeable increase in white supremacist activity, while Muslim’s face threats and religious facilities are vandalized. Trump has no advisors and relies on no one but his friend in the mirror. His policy positions are as thin as his political and foreign policy experience. Any inconvenient question is an attack. His opponents are losers, unworthy of the moment Trump commands.

At the same time, Trump is both more politically attuned and more manipulative than the rest of the Republican presidential gang who cannot figure out how to deal with him. He avoids the third rail of American politics and unlike most Republicans defends Social Security and Medicare, while promising to tax the most wealthy. His “base,” of course, hates government, but loves those entitlements and hates those elites.

Trump will make “America Great Again” without ever saying what “again” means. When was American great in a way that Trump might endorse? I hesitate to play the Nazi card, but Trump begs the reference. The demagogic Austrian made the same claim and addressed the same perceived grievances in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

In 1990, Trump’s lawyer told Vanity Fair magazine that, “Donald is a believer in the big-lie theory. If you say something again and again, people will believe you.” Trump’s lie that “thousands” of Muslim’s celebrated the attacks on the World Trade Center, was completely debunked by fact checkers and those who were there, has now been repeated so often it has become accepted wisdom among his followers.

Trump, make no mistake, is both a profoundly dangerous and astoundingly devious man; the social media empowered demagogue of our time. He has recognized both the opportunity and the circumstance of America in 2015 and he rides the wave, while the nation reaps his whirlwind.

The Burden of Citizenship is Responsibility…

“There is a burden of responsibility that comes with being a citizen of a constitutional democracy,” University of Virginia historian Michael Signer told NPR in a recent interview where he was asked to analyze the new and uniquely American demagogue – Donald J. Trump. “And if you decide to go with your gut as opposed to caring about those values, then you are hurting this country.”

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Demagogues, Signer says, have “been talked about for millennia as flatterers, so they flatter the people. They play to our need for gratitude. And we’re supposed to better than that. So one of the reasons that demagogues are hemmed in is because people say, I hear you, that feels good, but I’m not going to fall in love with you. This is too indulgent. And politicians, usually, are too ashamed to do what demagogues do. And then, Trump, who’s a creature, comes from the entertainment world, comes from a culture of narcissism, he doesn’t care about any of those rules. So I don’t think it’s OK to say, well, you know, I know about the principle of separation of church and state, and I know about not having violence in our politics, but I’m going to go with Trump anyway because I’m so angry at the system. That’s not OK. It’s definitively not OK in the United States of America, and it needs to be condemned.”

Put me down as condemning. What we have seen in the fact-free, demagogic, big lie tirades of a dangerous man is not the country a Lincoln or an Eisenhower, a Reagan or a Kennedy or a Carter would recognize. We all have a burden of responsibility to say enough. You do not speak for us. This is the United States and we are better than you think we are.

The proper, indeed American response to fear and paranoia is to deal in facts and reason, elements unfortunately as missing from the national dialogue and from Trump’s language as any shared sense of responsibility among citizens in a constitutional democracy.

As we swing wildly at the “un-Americans” of the moment and cheeringly embrace complete nonsense we risk doing real harm to our always fragile democracy and we risk squandering the one sure and most powerful weapon we hold over our real enemies – an open, decent, inclusive albeit often messy political system that rejects demagogues, deals with reality and embraces values that should set us apart.

The modern Republican Party created the environment that has permitted the Age of Trump. Republicans own their demagogue. Now, can they stop him?