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Occam’s Razor…

We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it.  However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals.  It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam’s razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.”

                                                           – Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

– – – – –

Let’s apply Hawking to the phenomenon of Trump and “cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.”

The heart of Trump’s appeal to the ebbing and flowing 30-some percent of Republican voters who have kept him on top of the polls is – there is no nice way to say this – racist. Trump’s campaign, not unlike the manifestos of European right-wing nationalist parties in Great Britain, France, Sweden and elsewhere, is based on controlling immigration. The European versions are frequently described as “nationalist” or even “neo-fascist,” but we’re too polite to label our home-grown political hatred with such loaded terms, even if they apply.

Trump at one of his rallies in Texas

Trump at one of his rallies in Texas

From the announcement of his candidacy to his latest rally in Texas, bashing Mexican immigrants is the raison d’etre of Trump’s campaign. In his sweeping indictment of immigration back in June, Trump said Mexico is “sending people that have lots of problems” to America including rapists, drug runners, and other criminals. He promised to build his wall to stop this, round up every illegal immigrant in the country and deport them and end the Constitutional requirement that any child born in the U.S., regardless of the status of his parents, is a citizen. So long “anchor babies.”

Not surprisingly, as the latest CNN poll suggests, “Among Trump’s backers, 87% support building a fence between the U.S. and Mexico, and 82% think children born to parents in the U.S. illegally should not be granted citizenship. Republicans who do not support Trump tend to agree with these views, but there’s greater dissent than among Trump’s backers: 65% support a fence between the U.S. and Mexico, 67% ending birthright citizenship.”

When Trump bellows that “Mexico is a threat to the United States” his supporters hear the dog whistle of race. Again the CNN poll: “Among Republicans…56% say they think Mexico is a threat, just 23% of Democrats and 37% of independents agree. Trump supporters are particularly apt to see Mexico as a threat, 64% say so compared with 48% of Republicans who do not back Trump.”

Trump, ignorant about so much of the American experience, may think he is on to something new with his anti-immigrant rants, but in fact he is a late, late comer to the cause of hate for those “different” than the rest of us.

washerHistorian Kenneth H. Davis has written that you “scratch the surface of the current immigration debate and beneath the posturing lies a dirty secret. Anti-immigrant sentiment is older than America itself. Born before the nation, this abiding fear of the ‘huddled masses’ emerged in the early republic and gathered steam into the 19th and 20th centuries, when nativist political parties, exclusionary laws and the Ku Klux Klan swept the land.”

Earlier in our history various politicians – this was before reality TV jokers ran for office – scored political points by despising Catholics and, as Davis says, “a wave of ‘wild Irish’ refugees was thought to harbor dangerous radicals. Harsh ‘anti-coolie’ laws later singled out the Chinese. And, of course, the millions of ‘involuntary’ immigrants from Africa and their offspring were regarded merely as persons ‘held to service.’”

Trump’s xenophobia is as old, in other words, as the man’s huckstering manner. His appeal to a third of the GOP electorate masquerades under the cloak of an independent outsider, a non-politician, the guy who “tells it like it is,” but Trump is really just peddling the kind of hate that sadly has always coursed through the political DNA of a certain number of American voters.

Never forget that The Donald’s rise as a political figure was originally built almost exclusively on his demands that Barack Obama produce proof that he wasn’t born a foreigner. Recent opinion polls continue to confirm that significant numbers of Republican primary voters, despite all evidence, continue to believe this nonsense. Trump’s “birther” credentials really imploded long ago, mostly thanks to Obama’s masterful put down of the clown at a famous White House Correspondents dinner in 2011, but his resentment still boils.

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik recently recounted Trump’s reaction – you can watch Obama peal the hide off the bloviator-in-chief here – as he observed from a few tables away at that 2011 dinner.

“Trump’s humiliation was as absolute, and as visible, as any I have ever seen,” Gopnik writes, “his head set in place, like a man in a pillory, he barely moved or altered his expression as wave after wave of laughter struck him. There was not a trace of feigning good humor about him, not an ounce of the normal politician’s, or American regular guy’s ‘Hey, good one on me!’ attitude—that thick-skinned cheerfulness that almost all American public people learn, however painfully, to cultivate. No head bobbing or hand-clapping or chin-shaking or sheepish grinning—he sat perfectly still, chin tight, in locked, unmovable rage. If he had not just embarked on so ugly an exercise in pure racism, one might almost have felt sorry for him.”

Gopnik speculates, not unreasonably, that Trump’s decision to run for president was cemented the night that the upstart “foreign” Obama made him look like the fool he has long been.

Just for the record: Barack Obama is not a Kenyan, children born in America are citizens and have been since the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1868, Mexico is not a threat to the United States, we are not the “dumping ground for the world,” China isn’t killing us and the United States really is a nation of immigrants.

Election poster of the UK Independence Party

Election poster of the UK Independence Party

Occam’s razor advises us to adopt the simplest theory when attempting to explain a phenomenon or, as the great physicist says, cut out all the features that cannot be observed and believe what you can see and hear.

Seeing and hearing Trump leaves us with a contemporary, touched up, blow dried version of an anti-Irish, or anti-Catholic, or anti-Black, or anti-Chinese hater that has always found a place and some following in our politics.

The overwhelmingly white, older, angry Americans who find Donald Trump appealing shouldn’t be immediately cast off as misguided or hateful, but they are of a piece with their earlier American cousins. They have warmed to a man whose rise has depended on a message of hate against a certain class of people, which in turn has stoked fear among another certain class of people. It’s an old and despicable tactic updated to the age of Twitter and YouTube.

The fact that the race baiting engaged in by Trump and others on the GOP debate stage will make it next to impossible for Republicans to compete in a national election is well known to most of the party’s dwindling caucus of reasonableness, but the party remains a victim of its often xenophobia base, which has come to dislike moderate talk of immigration reform almost as much as it dislikes the Kenyan Muslim in the White House.

What Trump has done is neither new, nor even particularly inventive in a nation that is on the cusp of having a majority of residents who are people of color and fewer of those angry white folks like Trump. The one thing that is very American about Trump is that he has tapped into the racial resentment, indeed the hatred that has been part of American politics since the beginning.


Not the Party of Lincoln

130205_abraham_lincoln_ap_605_605Abraham Lincoln is the one American president everyone claims, well almost everyone. Lincoln is the model of principled leader, the shrewd strategist navigating through the most severe crisis the nation has ever faced. His writing skills astound. His humor, much of it self deprecating, was a marvel. I can make the case that Lincoln invented the role of commander-in-chief and despite his lack of education in military matters he became a better strategist than any of his generals, including Grant.

Lincoln’s Social and Economic Policy

In one year of his presidency, 1862, Lincoln signed four nation changing acts. One was the Homestead Act, a massive transfer of wealth to thousands of Americans who, without the chance to own and live off the their own land, had little hope of improving their economic status. One of the beneficiaries of was my grandfather, a poor Missouri boy who staked out his homestead in the sand hill country of western Nebraska just after the turn of the 20th Century. He proved up his place and got married to a woman whose husband had abandoned her leaving my grandmother with two young sons to raise on her own. Their marriage produced my dad who would admire to the end of his days the grit and determination of his own father in carving a life out of the land. My grandfather later owned a successful business, became the mayor of his adopted home town and gave his own sons, including my dad, a big leg up on life. It all started with Mr. Lincoln signing that Homestead Act in 1862.

That same year, 1862, the president also put his A. Lincoln on the Morrill Act creating the great system of public higher education – Land_grant_college_stampthe land grant colleges – that helped further transform the country and cemented the idea that everyone had a chance to attain an education and acquire a profession. I graduated from a land grant college, so too members of my family.

In 1862 Lincoln also authorized the transcontinental railroad, a massive windfall for a handful of already very wealthy railroad barons, but also a massive public works project that created wealth from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Many of those who benefited from the homesteads and the education and the railroads were immigrants, Irish and German, Swede and Finn. All came to America looking for opportunity and many finding it thanks to enlightened Republican-inspired public policy created, hard to believe, in the middle of a great civil war. All told the social and economic policy made during that one year of Lincoln’s presidency transformed America.

The fourth great accomplishment of 1862 was, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation, an audacious expansion of presidential power that Lincoln’s many critics condemned as executive overreach. One wonders if that executive order will stand the test of time?

In an engaging and provocative new book – To Make Men Free – Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson tells the story of the creation of the Republican Party – Lincoln’s party – as an activist, results oriented movement that was determined to support “a la-la-ca-0919-heather-cox-richardson-087-jpg-20140924strong and growing middle class, whose members had fought to defend the government during the war and now used government money and owned government bonds, paid government taxes and attended government-funded colleges, and gave their wholehearted allegiance to the nation.” Oh, yes, Lincoln’s Republican Party also championed immigration.

It is a curious twist of history that the Republican Party of Lincoln, a party that began as a champion of the middle class and freed the slaves, now so closely identifies with the most privileged among us, while catering to older, white voters, many in the south. Democrats have undergone their own evolution, as well, transforming a white, southern-dominated party that once stood mostly for state’s rights and private privilege into a party that embraced civil rights and now commands the allegiance of America’s growing minority population.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in it’s review of To Make Men Free, “Richardson traces the [Republican] transformation from an egalitarian and broad-minded coalition into a narrow and disappearing one, increasingly trapped in a demographic isolation booth of its own making.” Richardson argues the Republican transformation from Lincoln’s party to the Tea Party has hardly been a straight line progression. Theodore Roosevelt with his efforts to cut monopoly down to size and Dwight Eisenhower with tax policy and the interstate highway system were other Republican presidents who tried to return the party to its founding principles. Those efforts did not last and now the GOP has fully embraced a philosophy that is almost entirely based on opposition to the current man in the White House and tax cuts mostly designed to benefit the Koch Brothers class. One doubts whether Republican icons like T.R. and Ike could get out of an Iowa caucus these days. They simply stood for too much that is foreign to today’s Republican Party.

And…Then There Was Immigration

Now that Barack Obama has finally pulled the pin on the immigration grenade and rolled it across the table to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the country’s poisonous partisanship instantly became even more toxic. As is usually the case with this president he did a masterfully inept job of setting up the showdown.

Six months ago Obama might have given his GOP adversaries a public deadline for legislative action and framed the debate in simple, stark terms. Congressional Republicans have a chance to prove, Obama might have said, that they are not completely captured by the xenophobia of their most radical elements. He could have added the hope that Republicans would chose carefully their approach and then stumped the country for a specific proposal. Of course I know the Senate long ago passed a bipartisan immigration bill, but that recent history is lost on all but the most inside players. Obama’s approach to both teeing up and framing the issue and the predictable Republican reaction just doubles down on do nothing. The political environment grows more heavily seasoned with rancor that breeds hatred.

While Obama remains a maddeningly aloof personality who displays a persistent unwillingness to engage in the grubby details of politics, it is also true that the modern Republican Party has been captured, as Heather Cox Richardson says, by its no-to-everything base and can “no longer engage with the reality of actual governance.”

Obama, one suspects, will ultimately win the immigration fight. Facts, logic and demographics are on his side, not to mention an American tradition of fairness and justice. But in the meantime the senseless and petty partisanship rolls on. Congressman Raul Labrador suggests a government shutdown “lite” that would stop confirmation of any Obama appointees and slash some budgets. Others whisper impeachment and House Republicans have sued the president.

The incoming Senate Majority Leader says the new Republican Congress will consider a range of alternatives to deal with the president’s unprecedented power grab, which is not, of course, unprecedented at all. Here’s an idea for Senator McConnell who promises “forceful action” – how about you all pass a bill to fix the immigration mess. What a novel idea. Lawmakers legislating. Almost Lincolnesque.

The Hat is Back…

Adjustment Bureau for Headware

I used to think it old fashioned that my dad always wore a hat. He had a gray one, a brown one, I think, and I vaguely remember a dapper looking summertime straw hat. I never remember seeing him in a cap, but hardly ever remember him not wearing a hat.

Dad would be happy to know that hats are reportedly back in style and I find I’m now just as old fashioned with my hats as I once thought him to be with his.

The new movie, The Adjustment Bureau, some say, is popular culture proof that the hat is back. Maybe. I think Matt Damon looks pretty good in a hat, but have been told his hat is better than the movie.

You can Google men’s hats and find a thousand places to buy them on the Internet. My favorite store is John Helmer in Portland. Great hats. I once bought a hat – a brown Steton “Gun Club” model – at a hat shop in Milwaukee called Jac Donges Hats and Gloves. I still have the hat, but sadly Jac’s place is now a Subway shop.

Bogart wore hats and still got the girl except when he let her go. Al Capone deserved a black one, but his were often white – the gangster fedora.

Don Draper, the mysterious ad man on Mad Men, favors the narrow brim job that sits high on his head. Johnny Depp wears a hat once in a while and looks good, even to guys.

I have a picture hanging in my office of Teddy Roosevelt’s visit to Sandpoint, Idaho. Every man in the photo, and there are a lot of them, has a hat, Teddy included. Franklin Roosevelt wore hats and Harry Truman, too.

John Kennedy reportedly didn’t like hats, almost refused to wear one and when you see JFK with a hat he’s often holding it not wearing it. Date the demise of the snap brim to Camelot. Hats made a brief return under Lyndon Johnson, but folks often made fun of his Stetson “Open Road” model. I liked it. May get one of those one day.

So, back to my hat wearing father. I cherish a picture of him taken in about 1940, I guess. He’s wearing a hat, Bogart-like, big smile on his face (hats do that) and standing in front a very shiny Model A Ford. I like to think he was about to get in that Ford, pick up mom and take her dancing. If I had a Model A Ford, I’d wear one of my hats while driving it. Like father, like son.

Maybe hats are back. But, then again, maybe they never really go out of style. Neil Steinberg wrote a book about all this. He dealt with the Kennedy hat issue and argued that hats went out in the 1960’s when younger guys decided not to conform with the styles of the older generation. What goes around comes around, they say, and today wearing a hat has become a mark of non-conformance.

Maybe you just need to be a little old fashioned, an individualist, to wear one these days. You should try it. Just take it off in a elevator, especially if a lady comes on board. Touch the brim to acknowledge a friend or someone you would like to be a friend and, like Bogart, maybe a Lauren Bacall look-alike will find you charming, witty and worthy of wearing a hat so you can doff it to her.

It couldn’t hurt.

Immigration Politics

immigrationA Short-term Bounce, Bad Long-term Politics

No matter your feelings regarding the merits of a single state – Arizona – taking action on immigration, there can be no doubt that what the state legislature and governor have done in the land of the Grand Canyon has set off another raging national debate. Boycotts are threatened. Lawsuits are planned.

Makes you wonder, as Linda Greenhouse wrote, what the ol’ libertarian Barry Goldwater would have thought about a bill that requires police to ask a person they only suspect of immigration violations for their papers.

The Arizona law has also, I suspect, firmly cemented the partisanship of immigration politics to the long-term detriment of the GOP.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the controversial legislation, had hardly gotten her pen back in her pocket before some of the more strategic thinkers in the Republican Party – Jeb Bush a Floridian and Karl Rove a Texan – declared Arizona’s sweeping immigration legislation a big political mistake. The GOP’s U.S. Senate hope in Florida almost immediately put distant between the Arizona action and his candidacy. With a name like Marco Rubio that may not really be a big surprise, but it does signal a Republican problem.

Here’s why these Republican luminaries are worried. The demographics of America continue to change – and rapidly. According to the Pew Center’s profile of the nation’s Hispanic population, Hispanics now comprise at least 10% of the population in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Utah. In Nevada, Hispanics make up 26% of the population. In Arizona, the number is 30% and in California its 37%. No wonder Meg Whitman, the California GOP gubernatorial candidate, immediately said there are better ways to address the issue than the Arizona approach.

The median age of the Hispanic population in Idaho is 22 and other states are slightly above or below that number. The median age of native born Hispanics in Idaho is 15. Ninety percent of young Hispanics in Arizona are U.S. citizens. Do the political math. The Hispanic population is growing. These are young families and in a decade or so they will be voting in much larger numbers than today.

The immigration legislation in Arizona may crystallize what is potentially a very tight race between Brewer and state Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat. Depending upon the poll and the day, the lead in race is in constant flux. The debate in the great Southwest could also sharpen the partisan divide nationally as Democrats generally oppose the Arizona effort. By contrast, the GOP is all over the map.

For a long time the conventional political wisdom about this issue has held that the only real risk for a candidate was being too soft on immigration and that may hold for a while, but it is hard to argue with the numbers and the trends. If Democrats want a comeback strategy in a place like ruby red Idaho, they best start with understanding the demographics and aspirations of the growing Hispanic population. These Americans – and a generation of new voters – are up for grabs and Republicans, in Arizona at least, have sent a message – they’re not interested.

Democrats best get out the clip boards and start walking the neighborhood. Arizona just handed them an opportunity to organize, organize and organize. They don’t need to be in favor of anything except fairness and equal opportunity, old American values that will appeal to the fastest growing group of Americans.

The courts will eventually decide whether Arizona’s law is, as Rove suggested, fraught with Constitutional problems. The court of Hispanic public opinion may already be set to render a verdict that is fraught with real long-term political problems for Republicans.