2016 Election, FDR, Trump

America’s Battles with Demagogues

 

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

Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott.

——–

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

Roosevelt: Battling his own demagogues
Roosevelt: Battling his own demagogues

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

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

Father Charles Coughlin at the height of his powers
Father Charles Coughlin at the height of his powers

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

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

FDR Had It Easy…

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

Huey Long. The media loved him
Huey Long. The media loved him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Man Who Would be President
The Man Who Would be President

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

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

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

All That’s Left is Refusing to Support Him…

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

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

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

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

 

2016 Election, Civil Rights, Trump

It’s the Racism, Stupid…

 

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

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

——–

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

Hostage photo of latest Trump endorser
Hostage photo of latest Trump endorser

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

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

The Founding Document
The Founding Document

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Channeling his inner Benito
Channeling his inner Benito

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

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

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

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

William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan

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

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

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

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

 

2016 Election, Trump

The Day the Party Died

      “To the best of my knowledge, not too many Evangelicals come out of Cuba, okay? Just remember that.”

– Donald Trump questioning Ted Cruz’s Christian beliefs.

——-

If you are one who remembers important dates in history you might etch February 18, 2016 into your memory – as good a day as any to mourn the demise of the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan.

On February 18 two things happened – seemingly unrelated, but really not – that could well define an otherwise indefinable political season: Donald Trump got into it with the Pope and was shown (again) to be lying. Each event should have been enough to halt the arc of the demagogue, but it didn’t happen and it won’t unless serious Republicans start taking this guy seriously.

The Nope and the Pope
The Nope and the Pope

Did any of us ever in our wildest, craziest political dreams expect the leading Republican candidate for president of the United States to shout down the Pope? Or put another way could we have imagined a political candidate behaving so outrageously that the Pope, who presumably has better things to do, felt compelled to condemn them?

Never. Not going to happen. But it did on February 18.

Pope Francis made a demonstratively accurate observation when asked about Trump. People who only advocate building walls and demonizing immigrants (or refugees) are not behaving in a Christian manner. Trump, a man utterly devoid of Christian principles and even more lacking in self-reflection or awareness, made the Pope’s critique not about the substance of what constitutes appropriate behavior, but about Trump being disrespected by the leader of the world’s Catholics. Amazing. Utterly amazing.

Trump, of course, then proceeded to win the evangelically dominated South Carolina Republican primary last Saturday, at least in part I suspect, because he got into a fight with the decent, inclusive, compassionate, highly educated Jesuit who just happens to be the Bishop of Rome. You can almost hear Trump channeling another famous authoritarian with an ego problem and asking, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” The Pope is a low energy loser, as we all know, compared to a guy who arrived at his own announcement riding an escalator.

Hours later during a made-for-cable TV event – I forget whether it was a town hall or a merely an excuse to sell commercials – Trump was confronted with incontrovertible evidence that he has been lying about having opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002. The real estate developer cum reality television star has been saying for months that his brilliance about all things allowed him to see clearly and oppose the U.S. invasion. Trump doubled down on his Iraq critique in a recent debate – or was it an excuse to sell commercials – suggesting that George W. Bush “lied” about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the interest of launching an invasion. The debate audience booed. His poll numbers solidified.

Turns out that Trump gave a radio interview in 2002 where he said, contrary to all the bluster about his prescience, that the war wasn’t really such a bad idea. In fact, he said he wished the United States had done things right and overthrown Saddam Hussein during the first Iraq war. Asked to explain the lie, Trump didn’t. “I really don’t even know what I mean, because that was a long time ago, and who knows what was in my head,” Trump told NBC.

Indeed, what is in that head now or a long time ago?

February 18, the day the grand old party died…

Trump owns the only part of the Republican Party that anyone (other than John Kasich) is appealing to – the angry, grievance wing. The real estate developer has used the political equivalent of eminent domain to appropriate the older, whiter, less educated, “working-class” voters who, near as I can tell, hate everything except the billionaire who stars in their own reality show. And, of course, Trump is a master at stoking and exploiting this group’s fears and hatred. In the 19th Century these voters were called the “no nothings” – anti-immigrant, anti-establishment and anti-Catholic, which may help explain Trump and Pope Francis come to think of it. But, above all they were angry. Their great, great grandchildren still are.

There are two broad approaches to politics: hope and fear. Trump has nailed down the fear factor.

The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein described Trump’s approach leading up to last week’s primary: “All week in South Carolina, Trump courted those working-class white voters by sharply raising the volume on his criticism of free trade and his warnings about the threat from Islamic terrorism. Both of those issues somewhat overshadowed his usual promises to both build a massive wall at the Mexican border and to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.”

There is so much to loath about the current state of American political discourse and the process seems increasingly absurd: Trump, Ted Cruz’s sleazy campaign tactics, Marco Rubio’s robotic performance, Hillary’s entitlement and problems with the truth. Even the most authentic guy in the race, Bernie Sanders, has so far displayed little ability to grow as a candidate. Sanders is good at repeating the same economic talking points, but hardly makes a pass at explaining how he might actually accomplish his vision, let alone pay for it. Neither party can find the will to really undertake the kind of serious, rational campaign America needs and most Americans want.

But set aside loathsome and deal with something more fundamental – basic common sense and honesty. Trump has no idea about how to govern and really makes no effort to display that he does. His appeal is entirely emotional. His policy is all bans, bluster and bravado. He would violate decades of international law by embracing torture – waterboarding and “much worse.” Even Dick Cheney was nuanced enough to claim what he sanctioned was “enhanced interrogation,” not torture. No nuance with Trump. The waterboarding riff is now the biggest applause line at his rallies.

Yet, remarkably, the most dangerous man to run for president in the modern era stands poised to skate to the nomination with the support of essentially the 35 percent of the Republican electorate who find his outsized ego and complete disregard for seriousness a tonic for their anger and their aversion to “political correctness.”

Jeb pulls the plug
Jeb pulls the plug

The three-way race is now Trump’s to blow and who will stop him? One absolutely bizarre feature of this absolutely bizarre campaign has been the unwillingness of virtually anyone, well save for the hapless Jeb Bush, to take on the bloviating billionaire.

As GOP strategist Stuart Stevens said recently, “It’s crazy that’s nobody else is trying to win except Trump. Rubio is not going after the person who is winning. I’ve never seen a campaign that seems as satisfied to not go after the leader.”

And there is this: a new analysis of campaign spending by super PAC’s shows only a tiny amount has been spent attacking Trump. As the New York Times reports, “In a presidential campaign during which ‘super PACs’ spent $215 million, just $9.2 million, or around 4 percent, was dedicated to attacking Mr. Trump, even as he dominated the polls for months.”

If Jeb’s candidacy illustrates nothing more, and his candidacy was extraordinarily vacuous, it shows that letting a bully push you around without responding doesn’t work any better on the playground than on the Republican debate stage. Only after Trump had, in the words of GOP wise man Steve Schmidt, “emasculated” Bush did the former Florida governor begin, sort of, to hit back. But there has been none of the frankly legitimate and necessary attack on Trump that goes after his often disgraceful business practices, his sexual boasts, his four bankruptcies, or a hundred other excesses. Everyone knows a bully is basically insecure, scared. Who has guts enough to scare our national bully?

Were is the call from any responsible Republican that Trump show us where the money went from his alleged fundraiser for veterans prior to the Iowa caucus? Remember he skipped a debate, said he raised millions and poof – nothing. And what about his tax returns? Mitt Romney was savaged for not releasing his four years ago, yet Trump’s vaunted success as a businessman, the details of which might be illuminated by a look at how he arranges his financial affairs, has received virtually no scrutiny.

The failure to truly confront this dangerous man is nothing short of political malpractice.

Rubio and Cruz, the last men standing able to confront the great dissembler, are deeply flawed candidates who have reduced their campaigns to a hard right-wing spat over who has been the purest in refusing to deal with the obvious need to reform immigration policy. Meanwhile, untroubled by cable television interviewers or even the more serious Sunday shows who routinely let him “phone in” his clap trap, Trump insults, lies and Tweets his way to the Republican nomination.

Mitch McConnell: No to any Court nominee, but not a word on Trump
Mitch McConnell: No to any Court nominee, but not a word on Trump

Mitch McConnell vows to stop any nominee Barack Obama appoints to the Supreme Court, not knowing who the president might appoint, but does he say anything about Trump not being a suitable nominee for his party? Of course not.

“Establishment” Republicans whistle by the graveyard of good taste and common sense when it comes to Trump. Stopping him has quietly morphed into quiet acknowledgment that Trump may just be the guy and, if so, why tick off “the base.”

The country has real problems – wage stagnation, vast income inequality, our incredible lingering legacy of racism, high costs of higher education, a disjointed foreign policy that promises more continuing war – but we’re obsessed with a guy who can’t remember what he said about the Iraq war and wants to punch a protester “in the face.

If I weren’t so depressed, I’d be distressed, or something. Like Trump, I guess I don’t really know what I mean. Maybe I just really worry for the country.

But, remember February 18, 2016. The day the party died.

 

2016 Election, Clinton, Politics, Sanders, Trump

Don’t Tread On Me, New Hampshire

     “What would it take to break this cheap little spell and make us wake up and inquire what on earth we are doing when we make the Clinton family drama—yet again—a central part of our own politics?” 

― the late Christopher Hitchens in 2008

——–

Both Republican and Democratic “elites” woke today with a headache. Perhaps they imbibed a bit too much last night, or perhaps they feel woozy because they sat on their duffs, passively watching during the last eight months as their parties were hijacked by “outsiders.”

Peas in a pod.
Peas in a pod.

Despite the big names in the Republican presidential field – governors, senators, a brain surgeon, another Bush – the GOP now confronts the political reality of the grand old party nominating a candidate, Donald Trump, who more closely resembles former Italian prime minister (and convicted procurer of sex with under age prostitutes) Silvio Berlusconi  than any Republican candidate since the party nominated John C. Fremont in 1856.

At least both “successful businessmen” – the Italian stallion and the King of Queens –  have very interesting hair and lots of former girlfriends.

Trump, a misogynist, a sociopath, a certifiable sufferer of narcissistic personality disorder – look it up – is the guy that the Parliament of our historically closest ally, Great Britain, recently considered banning from that sensible country. The venerable House of Commons really didn’t have the power to “ban Trump,” as nice as the ring of that sounds, but not a single member defended the necktie hocking, Muslim bashing, completely policy devoid real estate speculator.

I can almost hear the ghost of Churchill, the father of the “special relationship” talking to the ghost of FDR on that secret wartime telephone link from London to D.C. “Mr. President,” Winston asks, “what has happened to American politics?” The line goes dead.

Waiting for the revolution
Waiting for the revolution

The Republican frontrunner is a salesman who gives used car salesmen a bad name. Trump doesn’t really believe the garbage he spews (or maybe he is really an idiot and does), but he is really the guy who pulls up his sleeve, exposing the fake Rolodex watches, and sells what sells, at least to 30 percent of the Republican electorate.

The $64,000 question out of New Hampshire for Republicans is simply this: why did none of these smart guys, OK and Carly Fiorina, not go after the real estate developer when they might have stopped him? Hardly anyone took him seriously in July, me included, but that was not the case last October. All the signs were there – months ago – that Trump was hijacking a grand old party and no one, not Jeb, who he “emasculated,” or Cruz or Rubio or Christie who he insulted and dismissed called him out. No one, no one, has really taken on his checkered business record, his bankruptcies, his flip-flops, or his obvious mental and policy deficiencies.

I’m an aging political hack, but I think I could write the TV spot – something about four bankruptcies, three wives and two positions on every issue.

As Jennifer Rubin wrote of Trump in today’s Washington Post: “While his ceiling may be about 30 percent, the more traditional candidates will need to fight Trump not with conservative bromides but with bare-knuckle fighting and empathy for the working-class voters Trump attracts.”

But, enough of that. Let’s talk about Hillary. The Clinton Corps has been spinning a 20-point loss in New Hampshire, which Hillary won in 2008, as just an example of home field advantage by Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. It’s not.

Hill and Bill retool. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Hill and Bill retool. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The reports this week that Bill and Hillary Clinton were contemplating a shake up in her campaign in the wake of what really amounts to two straight losses – Hillary won Iowa, but not really – is all the proof needed that the Clinton machine hasn’t received any meaningful re-tooling in eight years. When you’ve been involved in two presidential campaigns, well four counting Bill’s, and you think the campaign’s problems are just a staff issue, then Houston – or Brooklyn – you have a problem.

The problem is an awkward, uneasy candidate with no compelling message.

Clinton may still hang on and win the nomination in ugly fashion, but she will forever be dogged by her inability to answer a really simple question in the recent Democratic debate. Why did Goldman Sachs, the poster child of Wall Street excess, pay her, after her tenure as Secretary of State, more than $600,000 for three speeches? Her answer for the ages was: “It’s what they offered.”

I suspect, as some in her Goldman Sachs audiences have said, that she gave those investment bankers just what they wanted to hear, but the real question is why? Why take the risk, why make the calculation that the money is more important than the message, particularly if you want to run for the highest office in the land? To paraphrase James Carville, “it’s the judgment, stupid.”

Bill and Hillary raked in more than $150 million in speaking fees over the last several years, so what’s a measly $600,000?

Clinton comes out of New Hampshire a limping candidate, her inevitability – haven’t we heard this before – not looking quite so inevitable. Deconstruct the New Hampshire vote and you’ll find Clinton lost in places where she cleaned Barack Obama’s clock in 2008. Bernie Sanders beat the inevitable by double digits in a state she won eight years ago. Could it be the magic is gone? Maybe she is, as Obama famously, said just likable enough.

This crazy season of American politics has produced as frontrunners a dangerous nationalistic buffoon and a 74-year old democratic socialist. This looks more like France than New Hampshire. The outsiders are now inside because the Republican “establishment” has produced a robotic Marco Rubio and a collection of current and former governors who act like they couldn’t win a county coroner’s race, while Democrats have recycled a deeply flawed, ethically challenged, self-entitled frontrunner who has no message beyond “I’m ready to be president.” Is Joe Biden doing deep knee bends, getting ready?

The ultimate irony of the presidential race, so far at least, is that the buffoon and the socialist have run the best campaigns. The so called political “experts” in the race can’t explain their speaking fees, their memorized speeches or their Super PAC’s. And the outsiders have a reality that a scripted Hillary or a calculating Ted Cruz will never match.

Trump isn’t really authentic, of course, but he fakes it better than any other Republican, while Sanders really is authentic and his only opponent isn’t.

Whether we like it or not, Trump and Sanders have articulated ideas about the America they see in the future. We may not like their aspirations, but they have them. The rest of the field is playing a tactical game that is all about winning a news cycle rather than winning the White House. Clinton will now look increasingly desperate as she goes after Bernie and someone in the Republican field will have to find the gumption to confront Trump on his own artificial turf. More than ever in this crazy race anything is possible.

The always sane, sensible, sober South Carolina primary beckons. Hang on.

2016 Election, Clinton, Politics, Sanders, Trump

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.

 

2016 Election, Arizona, Federal Budget, Film, Journalism, Trump

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.

2016 Election, Politics, Polling, Sanders, Trump

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.

2016 Election, Trump

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?

 

2016 Election, American Presidents, Baseball, Guns, Nobel Prizes, Obama, Oregon, Politics, Stevens, Supreme Court, Trump, Uncategorized

Guns and Myths…

     “I can make the case that if there were guns in that room other than his, fewer people would’ve died, fewer people would’ve been so horribly injured.”

                                        Donald Trump on Meet the Press, October 4, 2015              commenting on the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.

– – – – –

One of the challenges in assessing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is that you run out of words that begin to describe his idiocy and cluelessness. I haven’t used despicable for a while, so let’s use that to characterize Trump’s reaction in the wake of the horrific – and most recent – mass shooting last week in Roseburg, Oregon.

Trump: More Myths About Guns
Trump: More Myths About Guns

And, of course, the GOP front runner had to make the unthinkable tragedy of students and their teacher murdered in a writing class all about him. “I have a license to carry in New York. Can you believe that? Somebody attacks me, they’re gonna be shocked,” Trump blustered in front of a cheering crowd at a campaign rally in Tennessee.

The Republican clown then completed the trifecta of gun mythology, which includes the old canard that even more guns are the answer to mass shootings and that we should all be armed to make the country safer, when he dismissed the epidemic of mass gun murder in the United States as (and he should know) a mental health issue.

But it is about the guns…

“It’s not the guns,” Trump said. “It’s the people, these sick people.” But in fact, as everyone really knows but few willingly admit, it is about the guns, particularly when there are essentially as many guns in the society as there are men, women and children in the country, vastly more guns by population than any other country on the planet.

It’s also not about the myth of mental illness, although that certainly plays a part. Dr. Paul Applebaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who specializes in attacks like the recent one in Oregon, told New York Magazine last week that it is a fool’s errand to attempt to deal with mass murder by attempting to predict who is capable of mass murder.

“When I heard the news of the Oregon shootings, I thought, I’m done talking to reporters about the causes of violence.” Applebaum told the magazine. Rather, he said, he had developed a one-size-fits-all statement for the media that concluded, “If you tell me that there’s nothing we can do about guns, I’d say then we’re done. We’ve conceded that we are willing to tolerate periodic slaughters of the innocent. There’s nothing more to say.’”

Over the next couple of days the horror that unfolded last Thursday at Umpqua Community College will quickly fade away as it always does after the most recent gun outrage in America, while the short national attention span will move on to something else. President Obama is certainly correct when he says mass gun murder has become so routine in America that we have trouble maintaining for more than about two news cycles the outrage that might move us to action. We aren’t just lacking in urgency about gun mayhem we just don’t care.

Police search students at Umpqua Community College last week
Police search students at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon last week

The families in Roseburg will be left to attempt to cope with their grief and loss. But we should all grapple with the haunting words in one family’s statement that the loss of their 18-year old child has left their lives “shattered beyond repair.”

Meanwhile, the political class carries on with nary a skipped beat, repeating the old, tired and lame myths about guns. The Oregon victims deserve better – much better – than the perpetuation of myth making about guns from Trump and all the other apologists for mass murder who refuse to face facts about the society’s perverse embrace of the culture of the gun.

Debunking the self defense myth (using real facts), David Atkins wrote in the Washington Monthly that the right wing gun lobby and its slavish adherents have “gone so far off the rails that reality is no longer a relevant boundary on discussion. As with supply-side economics, the benefits of gun culture are taken not on evidence but on almost cultic faith by the right wing and its adherents.”

This mind set, apparently, prompts a state legislator in Idaho to post on his Facebook page that he is “very disappointed in President Obama. Again he is using the tragic shooting in Oregon to advance his unconstitutional gun control agenda.” What a crock, but also what a widely believed crock. When it comes to guns we know what we believe even when it’s not true. Discussions – or arguments – about guns exist like so much of the rest of American political discourse – in a fact free environment. Myths about guns morph into “facts” about guns.

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

The entirety of the mythology begins, of course, with the Second Amendment and the decades that the National Rifle Association has devoted to myth making about the twenty-six words of the amendment.

Former Justice John Paul Stevens
Former Justice John Paul Stevens

As former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has brilliantly related in his little book – Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution:

“For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment,” Stevens has written, “federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated Militia.’”

…A Well Regulated Militia…

Stevens says during the tenure of the conservative Republican Chief Justice Warren Berger, from 1969 to 1986, “no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.”

In his retirement Chief Justice Burger bluntly said in an interview that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

Only fairly recently, in fact in the last decade as Stevens points out, has the Second Amendment been broadly reinterpreted by the Court – the Heller decision in 2008 and the McDonald case in 2010, both decided by 5-to-4 votes  – to sharply expand its meaning. Of course, powerful political forces, including most importantly conservative politicians and the NRA, helped to propel these changes made by the most conservative Court since the 1930’s. The gun myths grew in direct proportion to the political agenda of the mostly rightwing politicians who benefitted most significantly from the NRA’s pressure and cash.

Nonetheless, “It is important to note,” Stevens writes, “that nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacle to the adoption of such preventive measures” – expanded background checks and bans on assault weapons for instance – that were widely suggested in the wake of the Newtown tragedy that claimed the lives of 20 children in 2012.

Justice Stevens would go farther, as would I, in returning the Second Amendment to its original intent by inserting just five additional words. A revised amendment would read: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

But such a change seems unthinkable when federal lawmakers won’t risk NRA ire by even discussing the kinds of change that the existing Second Amendment clearly permits.

Rather than advancing an “unconstitutional agenda” as gun mythology would have you believe, Obama has suggested – he did again last week and will no doubt do again and again – that “responsible” gun owners should finally support common sense efforts that might begin to roll back the rate of slaughter. You have to wonder if there actually are “responsible” gun owners out there who are as shocked as some of us are about mass murder at a community college, or at a church in Charleston, or at a theatre, a shopping center, at Army and Navy bases, or in a Connecticut elementary school.

Has the NRA so poisoned the political well of reality that no red state Republican can dare say “enough is enough” and something must change? Is there no group of “responsible” gun owners willing to call the bluff of the makers of the gun myths? Does every NRA member buy the group’s more guns, no regulation logic, while blithely sending off their dues to enrich a collection of political hacks in Washington, D.C. whose real agenda is to – wait for it – maintain their influence and, of course, sell more guns?

So, while Roseburg mourns, the gun world turns away and Trump and others get away again with repeating the well-worn myths about guns. What we can be sure is not a myth is that we will be here again soon enough repeating the call for prayers for the victims and the first responders and we will, for a few televised moment at least, be stunned, while we consider the ever mounting death toll.

And so it goes. The cycle repeats. Nothing changes. A society’s inability to deal with its most obvious affliction hides in plan sight. We also quietly hope that the odds are in our favor and unlike the grief torn families in Oregon we’ll not be the next ones shattered beyond repair.

 

2016 Election, American Presidents, House of Representatives, Obama, Stimpson, Trump, World Cup

Calling out the False Prophets…

    “The Bible says beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done…We have got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know, they know are never going to happen.”

                                                                           John Boehner on Face the Nation.

– – – – –

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for John Boehner who served notice last week that he’ll step down in a few weeks from what used to be the second most powerful job in Washington.

John Boeher on Face the Nation. CBS photo
John Boeher on Face the Nation. CBS photo

Boehner always seemed ill cast in the role of shrill partisan. By most accounts Boehner actually thought, unlike the 40 or 50 ultra-right wingers in his caucus that members of Congress are sent to Washington legislate.

You remember legislating? Stuff like passing an annual budget – the fundamental business of the legislative branch – to actually fund the government. Rather Boehner’s House has lurched from one “continuing resolution” to another, from one government shutdown over the latest nutty cause or the latest spiteful desire to put the president in his place.

Boehner’s House, with the largest Republican majority since Herbert Hoover was in the White House, can’t pass a budget, but did vote, unsuccessfully of course, to repeal Obamacare more than 50 times. You get the feeling that Boehner’s tenure as Speaker of the House has been akin to the frisky dog that chased the car and caught it. Once Boehner grabbed the gavel from Nancy Pelosi he was mostly focused on trying to keep it by placating the reactionaries in his own party. But placating is not leading and Boehner will ultimately be remembered, I suspect, as a political non-entity from Ohio who somehow became an ineffective, indeed disastrous non-leader.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein has it right that Boehner and other Republicans who might actually like to engaging in using their majority to govern have been caught between the angry forces of the grassroots and political reality.

“It was inevitable that these two forces—radicals flexing their muscles, demanding war against Obama from their congressional foxholes, and leaders realizing that a hard line was a fool’s errand—would collide violently,” Ornstein writes in The Atlantic.

“The party outside Congress, including at the grass roots, has itself become more radical, and angrier at the party establishment for breaking promises and betraying its ideals. When polls consistently show that two-thirds of Republicans favor outsiders for their presidential nomination, it is not surprising that Ted Cruz would call his own Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor. Even insiders like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have been eager to treat McConnell and Boehner like piñatas.”

Senator Ted Cruz
Senator Ted Cruz

In other words, Boehner’s demise has been building steadily since the day he first gripped the big gavel and, while a certain sympathy for the soon-to-be former Speaker is in order, it’s also worth nothing that he – and other Republicans who know better – generally went along with the increasingly strident agenda of their most angry brethren.

The silliness of Donald Trump completely nonsensical agenda – read the transcript of his recent ’60 Minutes’ interview or try to make sense of his crazy tax plan – didn’t spring, Zeus-like, from his orange head.

Like Trump, Ted Cruz, who Boehner now calls “a jackass,” is a product of the anger and irrationality that many Republican “leaders” allowed to fester among the grassroots, the modern descendants of the “Movement Conservatives,” the Goldwaterites and John Birchers who 50 years ago steered the Grand Old Party off a grand old cliff.

The process that led to John Boehner’s decision to quit was actually set in motion on the evening of January 20, 2009 – Barack Obama’s first day in office – when a core group of radical Republicans met in the back room of a D.C. steakhouse and decided that their guiding principle would be implacable opposition to everything that the new president proposed.

“The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who organized the event, told the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE.

Among those in attendance at this pivotal meeting: Senate power brokers and Tea Party darlings Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn, and conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan.

Even Frank Underwood would pass on this one
Even Frank Underwood would pass on this one

McCarthy, of course, is the odds on favorite to replace Boehner as speaker and Ryan, the only other member of that group still in Congress, perhaps very wisely decided not to seek the top job in the House. The liberal writer David Corn quips that even Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s fictional, nasty and scheming congressman in the series “House of Cards,” would take a pass on the job of succeeding John Boehner.

The slash and burn strategy hatched by the Republican anti-Obama caucus in January 2009 worked like a charm to create Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, but at what cost? Well, for starters it cost Boehner his job and helped fuel the anger that has given the Republican Party a clownish real estate developer as its front runner and –  I can’t believe I’m writing this – quite possibly its presidential candidate.

One wonders how the fortunes of the country and the GOP might be different had Speaker Boehner back in January 2009 asserted himself against the “no on everything all the time” caucus in his own party. What if Boehner, the golfer who likes to make a deal, had sought a politics of substance and collaboration with the new president? What might have been different if Boehner, the insider who had once worked with Ted Kennedy to pass “No Child Left Behind” had called out the “false prophets” in his own party from day one?

We’ll never know how things might have been different had Congressional Republicans decided to legislate around substance rather than agitate the grassroots through anger. What might have happened if Boehner had reached for a middle ground on health care, the stimulus and so much else rather than buying into the Tea Party mantra that the only way to deal with Obama was to consider him an unworthy pretender?

This much is certain: despite the hard right’s best efforts Obama’s agenda has mostly survived and Boehner and other “responsible” Republicans are tossing and turning at night thinking about a substance free demagogue like Trump or Cruz, both products of the GOP base that loathes Boehner and his Senate counterpart McConnell nearly as much as it hates Obama, leading their party into the next presidential election.

Leadership requires, after all, setting real expectations and occasionally calling a halt to the politics of constantly whipping up a fact free frenzy.

In the end John Boehner will take his permanent tan, his cigarettes, his Merlot and his golf clubs off to a K Street lobby shop and Kevin McCarthy or some other poor soul will be left to try and clean up the mess he has left behind. In order to get the job now, of course, McCarthy must promise to give the radicals in his caucus even more deference. Ironically, Boehner’s finest moment of leadership may have been his decision to quit and at least temporarily end the threat of yet another government shutdown.

But every sixth grader knows you can’t endlessly appease unreasonable bullies. You have to beat them. The political reality of John Boehner is that he couldn’t figure out how to win – and ultimately how to govern. His only answer, and even then short term, was to quit.

As Norm Ornstein say, “In the new tribal world of radical politics, the first constitutional office has lost its luster” and that, unfortunately, will be Speaker Boehner’s legacy.

It is said that without leadership the people perish. John Boehner has now given that old notion a new twist: Without leadership the leaders perish, too.