2020 Election, Foreign Policy, Idaho Politics, Trump

Leadership Failure

The shambolic, incoherent, incompetent, lie-infested and often just plain crazy foreign policy of Donald Trump was on full display in recent days, while what passes for the TOP (Trump Old Party) foreign policy establishment, including Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, was on August vacation.

In the space of a few days: 

Trump threw a hissy fit when the Danish prime minister rebuffed his scheme to “buy” Greenland and Trump responded by cancelling a state visit. 

Trump wanted to buy Greenland, the Danish prime minister said that was “absurd” and he got mad.

The chaos of the president’s Iranian policy was on full view at the G-7 summit in France where Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement to control Iran’s nuclear weapons program, with no realistic alternative in place, has become a signature foreign policy failure.  

Trump claimed, with no evidence that talks with China to end an escalating trade war were back on. They were not. Nor had the U.S. made a trade deal with Japan, as Trump claimed. 

And, of course, Vladimir Putin’s best friend, the president of the United States, was doing PR work for the Russian thug with our G-7 allies, while dishonoring years of bipartisan and international condemnation of the former KGB officer. 

Oh, yes, after three Trump photo ops with Kim Jong Un, events that gave the North Korea dictator precisely the legitimacy he craves, that murderous thug is still firing off missiles in violation of United Nation’s sanctions. 

A president who disses our allies and coddles the world’s dictators

“The First Lady has gotten to know Kim Jong Un, and I think she’d agree with me—he is a man with a country that has tremendous potential,” Trump told reporters at the G-7. 

But as journalist Robin Wright pointed out, “Melania Trump has never met Kim.” The White House later issued a “clarification.” Stephanie Grisham, the latest dissembler in the White House press office, said that Trump “confides in his wife on many issues including the detailed elements of his strong relationship with Chairman Kim—and while the First Lady hasn’t met him, the President feels like she’s gotten to know him too” Right. 

It’s difficult to pick the most serious of Trump’s fables from among his smorgasbord of foreign policy lies, half-truths and bouts of wishful thinking, but the continuing championing of Putin has to be among the most worrisome. 

In arguing to readmit Russia to the group of seven, which include the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, Trump offered a twisted rationale that was head spinning in its nonsense. Remember that Russia was expelled from the group after Putin’s unlawful and forced “annexation” of Crimea in March 2014. That move marked the first time since the end of World War II that national boundaries in Europe were altered by force. It was, and remains, a very big deal. 

Yet, Trump said, “[Crimea] was sort of taken away from President Obama. Not taken away from President Trump, taken away from President Obama … President Obama was not happy that this happened because it was embarrassing to him. Right. It was very embarrassing to him and he wanted Russia to be out of the, what was called the G8, and that was his determination. He was outsmarted by Putin. He was outsmarted. President Putin outsmarted President Obama.” 

No, Putin did not “outsmart” Obama. Putin invaded a territory that was once part of the old Soviet Union because he wants to put the old union back together. It’s why he’s constantly meddling in Ukraine. His action was a blatant, aggressive violation of international law and the world’s major democracies sanctioned him and kicked him out of the G-7. 

“Trump is the one working to undo those punishments,” Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine, “allowing Putin to reap the rewards of the invasion at no cost, and possibly to grab more territory if he desires. It is a completely Orwellian spectacle: the president trying to reward Russia’s attack is blaming the president who punished the attack for the invasion itself.” 

And this from conservative writer Andrew Egger: “The fact that Trump is more comfortable savaging other U.S. politicians than our actual adversaries isn’t exactly surprising by now, yet the brazenness of it is still sufficient to shock.”

Which brings us to Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who recently announced his re-election campaign and promptly received Trump’s full-throated endorsement “Senator Jim Risch of the Great State of Idaho has been an incredible supporter of our Agenda!,” Trump Tweeted. It was pay back for Risch’s blind adherence to a foreign policy, as former Defense Secretary James Mattis said recently that “puts us at increasing risk in the world.”

Jim Risch of Idaho, the completely self-assured and totally ineffectual chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In the state’s history only a handful of Idahoans have been given – or earned – a place of national leadership. I think of Republican Sen. James A. McClure, who led the Senate Energy Committee in the early 1980s with considerable distinction, while also serving in a Senate leadership position. Cecil Andrus’s tenure as Secretary of the Interior ranks among the very best in history. William Borah and Frank Church both chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and distinguished themselves by, among other acts, calling various presidents over foreign policy blunders. 

Risch has now reached the pinnacle of a lifetime in public office – he’s a case study of a career politician – but he’s apparently willing to squander any influence he might have over foreign policy to remain “an incredible supporter” of Trump’s agenda. 

Does that mean Risch endorses Putin’s return to the G-7? Does he really believe the efforts to control Iran or North Korean nuclear weapons are in good hands with this president? Does he think it appropriate that the next G-7 summit should be held at Trump’s struggling Florida golf resort, a multi-million dollar scheme to put money in the president’s own pocket? 

We don’t know the answer to these and a dozen other questions because the senator rarely – if ever – comments on anything having to do with Trump’s foreign policy. No statements. No hearings. No leadership. And there isn’t a scintilla of evidence that Risch’s strategy of whispering in Trump’s ear, as he claims to do on a regular basis, has had any effect on either his behavior or his policy. 

It’s not his job, Risch infamously said, the call out the president’s lies.

Risch has arrived at his moment of power and prestige, but he’s opted for partisan politics – and his own re-election – over the national interest. If there were any justice in politics it should cost him his job. 

2020 Election, Politics, Trump

Have We No Decency…

It is difficult to escape the feeling that the United States has reached an inflection point: mass shootings now a regular, sickening occurrence, the FBI identifying “fringe conspiracy theories as a factor in domestic terrorism” and a level of racial unrest unlike anything since George Wallace campaigned in Michigan in 1968. 

An inflection point. (REUTERS/Joe Penney)

Uruguay, a country known more for soccer than diplomatic leadership, has warned its citizens traveling to the United States to “take extreme precautions in the face of growing indiscriminate violence, mostly hate crimes, including racism and discrimination, which killed more than 250 people in the first seven months of this year.” New Zealand, Canada, Germany and other allies have said much the same. 

And, of course, there is a president unable and unwilling to provide the moral leadership the country so desperately needs; unable because of who he is, unwilling because stoking division is his political strategy. 

But, at the most fundamental level we have reached this inflection point not because of the profoundly flawed man occupying the Oval Office, but because of a widespread abdication of principled, pragmatic leadership in response to this man. 

It is difficult to tell what is more discouraging, or reprehensible: the wild, constant scrambling to justify and defend the president’s actions and lies from the political enablers around him like White House advisor Kellyanne Conway or the silence and acceptance from people like Idahoans Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, otherwise decent people who are no longer just ignoring the indecency, but clearly accepting it. 

Institutions have failed us. Political leadership, mostly Republican, but also Democratic, have retreated from, or in a wholesale fashion abandoned, a sense of fair play, and honest and legitimate compromise. ‘Whataboutism’ dominates every political debate. Ethical transgressions that Republicans would have condemned in a New York minute in a previous administration are ignored, accepted and normalized. 

The most serious presidential misconduct in our history, carefully documented in a textbook example of prosecutorial diligence, is intentionally ignored as if facts about malfeasance at the highest level of the Republic are, what, suddenly OK because our side won? 

A litany of high crimes and misdemeanors

“We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.”

The words in the previous paragraph come from the leadership of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. who published an urgent statement entitled “Have We No Decency? A response to President Trump.”

Most of us understand – if we look deep into our hearts and the American doctrine – what has happening to our politics. Many Americans have become blind, heedless partisans, members of a tribe that subscribes to only one overriding rule: win at all cost. The details don’t matter and facts are inconvenient so it’s acceptable to ignore them.

Democrats, of course, shoulder some level of political blame for this awful place, this inflection point. But this is not an either/or moment. Only one man is in the White House and fundamentally only one party can check his abuse. Few are willing. Very few. 

Nebraska Republican state Senator John McCollister is the latest to raise his head and his voice and suffer the consequences. “The Republican Party is enabling white supremacy in our country,” McCollister recently said on Twitter. “As a lifelong Republican, it pains me to say this, but it’s the truth.”

The chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party demanded immediately that McCollister re-register as a Democrat. No discussion of the substance of his comments. No debate about the details or the facts, just a demand that he adhere to the party line or hit the road. 

Politico reporter Tim Alberta has written a profoundly unsettling new book – American Carnage: On the Frontlines of the Republican Civil War– that is really a history of the GOP over the last decade. As one reviewer noted, the books abiding theme “is that almost every influential figure in the Party has come to accept or submit to the President.” And this is the unsettling part: not because they admire or even believe much of what he has done, but because they have found it easier politically and personally to just go along. 

A history of the GOP over the last decade: internal strife, power politics and willingness to accept Donald Trump

A central figure in the book is former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who candidly spoke with Alberta about his own willingness to go along with morally outrageous behavior and presidential ignorance. (Former Congressman Raul Labrador is also prominent in the book and comes across as more committed to remaking the GOP into the Tea Party than restraining a morally, ethically and incompetent leader.) 

In his surrender to expediency, Ryan, for example, says Trump “didn’t know anything about government” and didn’t try to learn. But Ryan went along. In essence swapping his profound misgivings, even dread, for a corporate tax cut. The former speaker confessed to feeling physically ill when he realized Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination and now that he is out of office and off the hook comes clean about the mess that has been made. 

This is the modern GOP. Aware, as I am confident people like Crapo and Simpson must be, that they have surrendered their party to not only an ignorant con man, but given his white nationalist tendencies, by their silence, they continue to embolden him to ever more outrageous and dangerous actions. 

At some point, we can continue to hope, good, caring, decent people will put their country and its future above their party. We can hope, because a Mike Crapo and a Mike Simpson have to grapple with the question leaders of the National Cathedral asked us all recently

“When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.” 

2020 Election

Plead for the Future…

You wouldn’t know it from watching the cable television food fights that masquerade as Democratic presidential debates, but the 2020 presidential election will not be about “socialism” or “Medicare for all,” or “climate change” or even the great Democratic unifier Donald J. Trump. 

No, the next presidential election will be about what all presidential elections are about: a choice. 

Elections are about a choice

A choice between two people: a racist, polarizing, pugilistic incumbent with the power of Twitter and a reptile brain understanding of how to always put himself at the center of everything, and a Democrat. How that Democrat frames the contest and how Trump has already framed it will determine the outcome. 

Democrats better make the frame a simple and forward-looking one. The election is, after all, about what kind of country we want. Trump has made his vision clear. He wants a racially polarized country where fear and resentment constitute policy. Trump is betting, and Republicans on the ballot next year are meekly going along, that he can channel George Wallace one more time and draw an inside straight in the Electoral College and repeat his narrow victories in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If he wins again he will almost certainly do so without again winning the popular vote. 

It is a risky strategy, but it’s all he’s got. Pre-Trump, American politics was always about addition. He’s made it about subtraction. He’s done nothing – less than nothing, really – to grow support. His only possible political path is to further divide, while insulting and demeaning his way to a second term on the strength of an angry, resentful, mostly white middle class. 

There are clear signs that this approach will fail. The Associated Press recently went to suburbs in Michigan, Colorado and Pennsylvania, three states critical to Trump’s re-election or a Democrats chance to win, and found that many women – often swing voters – have grown weary of Trump and his tactics. 

“I did not think it was going to be as bad as it is — definitely narcissism and sexism, but I did not think it was going to be as bad as it is,” said Kathy Barnes while shopping in the Denver suburb of conservative-leaning Lone Tree. “I am just ashamed to be an American right now.”

Ms. Barnes just framed the election for whomever wins the Democratic nomination. What kind of America do you want? What kind of place will this American experiment produce? What the future for your kids and grandkids? 

Having sorted through all the post-mortems on the 2016 race between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and believe me that is a lot of sorting, I conclude that Trump won for two fundamental reasons. 

Trump v. Clinton: The 2016 choice that left many Americans cold

First, Trump was – and is – a disrupter, a bull in the political china closet, throwing fits and smashing the place settings. I thought it odd back in 2015 when a friend in his 70s told me he thought Trump was a joke, but would vote for him because “things couldn’t get any worse.” He was willing to burn the house down, throw the dice and elect a con man simply to shake things up. 

Second, and because every election is a choice, Trump won because of who his opponent was in 2016. Clinton was – and remains – every bit as polarizing, if better mannered, than Trump. When Barack Obama said during his 2008 contest with Clinton that she was “likeable enough” he understated that factor by half. In a contest with a superbly unlikable guy she came in second. 

I haven’t a clue at this point who will emerge from the bloated Democratic field, and since two news cycles in our politics is now a lifetime absolutely anything can happen in the next 15 months. However, I am pretty sure Elizabeth Warren’s plan for everything or Joe Biden’s record on forced busing won’t matter much in the fall of next year. 

Plans and proposals and platforms won’t beat a guy who is all about fear and fights and fiction. You don’t beat a demagogue with a five-point plan. You need what George H.W. Bush famously called “the vision thing.” 

“I am pleading for the future,” the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow once said. “I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men, when we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.”

That’s a vision. 

Another of those suburban women, Yael Telgheder, 36, of Novi, Michigan, told the AP she was a reluctant Hillary voter in 2016, unhappy with her either/or choice. Yet, she can’t imagine a 2020 vote for Trump. “To be honest, there are certain things that — he’s a businessman — so I understand the reasons behind them. But all of the disrespect and lies and stuff like that, it’s just too much for me.”

Maybe Trump wins again. Incumbent presidents usually do, but then again he is no typical politician. To counter a president who has hastened America’s decline, who has embraced a political strategy of division and discord, whose appeal is increasingly only to a white nationalist America you need to offer an optimistic vision of America for Americans. 

Trump’s “American carnage” was both a warning and a prediction. Democrats need to plead for the future. 

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2020 Election, Higher Education, Idaho Politics, Trump

It’s the Racism, Stupid…

(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune.)

It is hardly news that in the space of less than a week 28 hard right Republican members of the Idaho House of Representatives publicly went after diversity programs at the state’s largest university, while their moral and spiritual leader once again confirmed his racism in all its shameful detail. 

This is the modern Republican Party: embracing white supremacy, attacking any notion that diversity in a nation of immigrants is to be celebrated and trotting out once again the age-old chestnut that Americans outside the dominant white culture really aren’t Americans. 

Chants of “send her back” erupted at the president’s rally in North Carolina where he continued his attacks on four women members of Congress.
(NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump doesn’t bother with dog whistles or code words; he’s an open and unapologetic hater. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump said of four Democratic members of Congress, all women of color, all American citizens.

“In many ways, this is the most insidious kind of racial demagoguery,” said Douglas A. Blackmon, whose book on the treatment of African-Americans after the Civil War won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. “The president has moved beyond invoking the obvious racial slanders of 50 years ago — clichés like black neighborhoods ‘on fire’ — and is now invoking the white supremacist mentality of the early 1900s, when anyone who looked ‘not white’ could be labeled as unwelcome in America.”

The wing nut caucus of the Idaho House at least tried to dandy up the language of its racism, even if the intent shines like a beacon. “This drive to create a diversified and inclusive culture [at Boise State University] becomes divisive and exclusionary because it separates and segregates students,” the legislators said in a letter to new BSU president Marlene Tromp.

The Republicans, led by Rep. Barbara Ehardt of Idaho Falls and including many members of the Education Committee (a misnomer if ever there was one) and Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Eagle, have some how concluded that creating a welcoming, inclusive campus is driving tuition increases. Someone needs to tell these experts in higher education that puny state financial support for colleges and universities is what is driving tuition increases. 

Boise State’s efforts, it’s worth noting, have the laudable objective of trying to expand the diversity of both students and faculty, a goal that ought to be embraced not condemned. The university remains overwhelmingly white, with Hispanic students making up about 13% of the student body. Every major employer in Idaho, including Micron, Hewlett-Packard, the state’s largest hospitals, the Idaho National Laboratory and on and on will tell you of the vital importance to attracting and retaining a diverse work force. These businesses can’t have that work force unless the state’s universities are working to attract diverse students. 

Yet, if your idea of politics and public policy is to always find new ways to divide and incite anger, while scratching the old itch of resentment against “others,” you can willingly ignore the real world, as Trump and his Idaho acolytes do. After all, racial resentment is valuable red meat for “the base.”  

Some political analysts have suggested there is a cunning re-election strategy behind Trump’s latest racist comments. By playing on white nationalist themes, fear of immigrants and resentment against women of color, so the theory goes, he stokes the fever swamp of the Republican base, the only possible path Trump has to re-election. It’s a good theory and if it is true that Trump is both a racist and a cynic then what he is doing is even more reprehensible. The arrogant white privilege exhibited by the gang of 28 Idaho Republicans is no better. 

Diversity and social justice: Not GOP values in Idaho.

Was the letter to the new BSU president really intended for her or was the real audience the alt right fringe that increasingly defines the Idaho Republican Party? It’s hardly a coincidence that the mendacious Idaho Freedom Foundation, a “dark money” funded collection of anti-government cranks with a remarkable record of losing lawsuits, has been peddling the same anti-diversity story. The Freedom Foundation’s president, Wayne Hoffman, wrote recently that he found Marlene Tromp’s commitment to “social justice” alarming. Only in Trump’s America would a commitment to social justice be anything other than normal. 

“The agenda of Republicans has always favored white people,” says Kurt Bardella, a former top aide to California Republican Darrell Issa, “and now for the first time in contemporary times they have a leader who is willing to ascribe words to that agenda.” 

Trump’s Republican Party, and that of his Idaho followers, is increasingly not really conservative, but reactionary in the same way that Barry Goldwater and his followers in the 1960s wanted to turn back the clock. It’s a new “America, love it or leave it” moment. And for good measure Trump and his reactionary enablers salt in a bit of Joe McCarthy nostalgia, invoking a fear of “socialists” and “communists” and equating dissent with a lack of patriotism.

The casual Idaho Republican embrace of racism and nativism embodied in the BSU affair amounts, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson says, “to collaboration — perhaps ‘collusion’ is a better word — with the president’s assault on diversity and pluralism.” And, of course, the Idaho congressional delegation fully accepts the collusion, a particularly shameful display of gutlessness given the state’s long struggles with neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

“Go back where you came from” is among the oldest and worst racist tropes, a leap beyond questioning a president’s birth certificate or condemning a Mexican-American judge because of his ethnicity. Almost as old is the trick of condemning your opponents as un-American. Dividing Americans by their skin color, their heritage, their religion, and their beliefs is from the playbook of a demagogue. Trump owns that playbook now and Republicans have handed their party to a hateful, petty, racist leader who they follow blindly and meekly. 

Trump was asked this week if he was concerned that he was using the language of white supremacy. “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” he said. The president doesn’t say much that is true, but he’s correct about that. Unfortunately a bunch of those people serve in the legislature and represent Idaho in Congress. 

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2020 Election

Order, Order…

“I am not a member of any organized political party,” the cowboy comic Will Rogers famously said. “I am a Democrat.”

Democrats fight among themselves, argue about the future of their party and display a genuine affinity for forming a circular firing squadron whenever an election looms. Joe Biden is being attacked for saying he actually believes in bipartisanship. Bernie Sanders is too old and too socialist, but even he struggles to explain what his brand of socialism really looks like. Kamala Harris was a tough on crime prosecutor and that is somehow a liability. I could go on, but you get the drift. 

Will Rogers

The Twenty-three angry Democrats now running for president is all the proof required that the Democrats are no “organized political party.” 

So, since no one is asking, I offer a Democratic Manifesto for both national and Idaho Democrats to impose some order on the chaos. 

First, the basics: every election is about the future. Donald Trump made the 2016 election a referendum on his version of the future, which ironically – or cynically, or manipulatively – was actually about recreating a vision of the country that never existed. “Make America Great Again” was his slogan. It’s time for Democrats to make him eat those words. 

Ronald Reagan made Jimmy Carter squirm in 1980 by asking a question Democrats should be asking: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Trump partisans will point to a strong economy, but the micro answer to Reagan’s question is clearly: No. 

Karl Rove, the politically smart, but ethically challenged brains behind George W. Bush, always had a formula: attack your opponent at his point of greatest strength. John Kerry was a decorated Vietnam veteran, while Bush arguably dodged the draft, so in Rove World the correct response was to “swift boat” Kerry with attacks on his military record and patriotism. Trump is oh so vulnerable to the same approach and best of all a Democrat need not distort the record as Rove had to in order to pin his ears back. 

Imagine a Democrat with this line of logic: Let’s talk about that Mexican funded wall. Is immigration better than four years ago? Trump will soon have been in office for three years, he had both houses of Congress for half his term – what’s he really done? Well, he tweets a lot. He thinks he’s tough on immigration, but he hasn’t fixed a thing and, if anything, it’s all much worse than when he started. Trump is a failure at the border. 

Trump was going to end our endless wars, but how is that going? He’s incompetent and hasn’t fixed a thing. He hasn’t Made America Great; he’s made the presidency all about himself. 

Biden may be making a major mistake, as he demonstrated this week, in questioning Trump’s intelligence and morals. That cake is baked. Only Trump’s die hard 40% think he’s anything approaching intelligent and as for morals, well just ask Sen. Mike Crapo who said he couldn’t support Trump after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape and then supported him. There is little margin in emphasizing something everyone knows: Trump isn’t all that bright and everyone knows he’s sleazy, and he lies all the time.  

I’m not sure the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg will be or should be the Democratic nominee, but he certainly has demonstrated an understanding that elections are about the future. “We face not just another presidential election, but a transition between one era and another,” Buttigieg said this week in a meaty speech on foreign policy. “I believe that the next three or four years will determine the next 30 or 40 for our country and our world.”

Pete Buttigeig, one of 23 Democratic presidential candidates2020

Second, appeal to reason and understand that politics in a game of addition, not subtraction. There is not a person in the country today that voted for Hillary Clinton who is going to vote for a second Trump term. The president is defying a law of political gravity, a very simple law: expand your base, attract new supporters, and keep what you have. Trump has turned those ideas upside down. He’s hoping to win a second term by purposefully not expanding his base of support. The only way this strategy works is if Democrats fail to reach out to the few independent voters who remain or if Trump succeeds in depressing the large and, I would argue, growing anti-Trump vote. 

One way to appeal to these folks is to respond to Trump with a bumper sticker slogan, some variation on: “Time for an adult in the White House.” Even many of his supporters cringe at Trump’s rants, incoherent insults and non-stop lies. 

Third, understand that the modern Democratic Party is defined by its broad coalition, while what passes for the Republican Party is an older, white ideological movement that at the moment stands only for Trump. The Democratic future in the next election and the next is the demographic reality that younger Americans, people of color and women will increasingly decide American elections. 

This would be the place where I throw down the gauntlet to Idaho Democrats, a beleaguered, largely leaderless group that has been operating without a strategy for more than 20 years. Here’s the bumper sticker: Youth, Women and Hispanic Americans. Idaho Democrats don’t just need a strategy they need a long game strategy, one that strives for real political relevance in ten years. Younger Idahoans, people in high school and college today, should be the core of that strategy. Then organize, organize, organize and aggressively bring many more young people into the political process. It would not only be the right thing to do, but it offers a path out of the wilderness. 

It’s an old fashioned notion, I know, but I still believe most elections come down to a question of fear versus hope. Donald Trump won, as every Republican since Reagan has, by emphasizing division, despair and decline. Against a flat-footed, yesterday candidate like Hillary Clinton it worked. In the moment of reckoning coming soon we’ll see if it works again. 

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