2016 Election, Russia, Trump

Our Manchurian Candidate…

         

           “The final and most worrying similarity between Putin and Trump is that so many are unwilling to believe that someone like Trump could ever become the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed to great jubilation, we never would have believed that a former KGB agent would become the president of Russia just nine years later. The moral: Be careful whom you vote for, it could be the last election you ever have.”

Russian dissident Garry Kasparov on the similarities between Putin and Trump.

———-

Hang around politics long enough and you will ultimately come to embrace an ironclad rule. There is no such thing as a coincidence.

None of these (seemingly) unrelated facts/events/developments that I unspool below are matters of chance. Together they do not constitute a wildly improbable “coincidence.” Arrange the bullet-points anyway you want and then conclude the whole thing is amazing…or shocking…or worse.

Praise for Putin – Authoritarians as Stablemates…

The curious bromance - Trump and Putin
The curious bromance – Trump and Putin

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump astounds many Americans with praise – not once but time and again – for autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of the first widely acknowledged incidents of Trump evoking his relationship with the former KBG operative occurred during one of the many Republican primary debates. Of course Trump lied about what happened when he said, “I got to know him [Putin] very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates.” And then referring to the television show’s ratings, Trump said, “We did well that night.”

Trump and Putin had been featured in separate segments on the same night on 60 Minutes, but the rest of Trump’s claim was a fabrication. He – and we – shrugged it off as another whopper from the Orange Haired Wonder.

A couple of months later Trump went even farther when he discounted allegations that Putin has had journalists murdered. “Our country does plenty of killing also,” Trump maintained and then added that at least Putin is “running his country, and at least he’s a leader, you know unlike what we have in this country.”

Putin has returned the compliments. As Trump noted: “A guy calls me a genius, and I’m going to renounce?” I’m not going to renounce him.” Putin didn’t use those exact words, but never mind, this is Trump. The very next day Putin did call Trump a “colorful person” and said he welcomed Trump’s proposal for a “full-scale resumption” of U.S.-Russia ties.

Trump’s bromance with Putin is not a recent phenomenon. In 2013, long before he was considered a serious political candidate, Trumped Tweeted: “I just got back from Russia-learned lots & lots. Moscow is a very interesting and amazing place. U.S. MUST BE VERY SMART AND STRATEGIC.”

Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia until 2014, said Trump’s position toward Russia “makes everyone I talk to around the world nervous — and it makes me nervous.” And David J. Kramer, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state dealing with Russia during the George W. Bush administration, said simply he is “appalled” by Trump’s approach to Putin.

Trump has never – big surprise – backed away from any of his praise for Putin or vice versa.

Remember Brexit, NATO and Support for Nationalist Movements…

Among the relatively few in the world to celebrate the United Kingdom’s recent vote to leave the European Union were Trump and Putin. The French rightwing, nationalist political leader Marine Le Pen was another who praised the UK move. Most close observers believe Brexit serves Putin’s aim to fracture European unity and complicate western economies, while also encouraging nationalism everywhere. It has been well documented that Russian money has propped up rightwing, nationalist movements in Hungry and, of all places, France.

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, another Putin favorite
French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, another Putin favorite

Trump’s recent astounding and completely unprecedented assertion that he would not automatically honor the 70 year old commitment to the NATO alliance is of a piece with his embrace of Brexit and, of course, is precisely the same position held by Vladimir Putin.

Putin, meanwhile, lavishes attention on separatist, anti-globalization movements from Northern Ireland to Texas – really. As NBC reported, “Northern Irish, Scottish, Basque, Catalan and Italian secessionists have been invited to Moscow for a conference, partly funded by Russia, planned for August. They will mingle with Texan, Californian, Puerto-Rican and Hawaiian wannabe-separatists from all over the world, the conference organizer says.”

It is no overstatement to say that never before in American history has one party candidate been so completely in sync with the world views of a Russian leader. In order to align with Putin, Trump has had to dump generations of foreign policy consensus. All by itself that is simply an amazing development in American politics.

Paul Manafort: Political Fixer Here and Abroad…

As Trump’s campaign both powered forward earlier this year winning one Republican primary after another, his campaign organization was widely seen as a mess. Enter long-time Republican operative Paul Manafort who was installed as the campaign chairman. Before long Manafort, a long-time lobbyist and GOP operative,  consolidated his role when Trump’s campaign manager was forced out.

Paul Manafort, Trump's Ukraine connection
Paul Manafort, Trump’s Ukraine connection

One of the great unreported stories of the current political cycle is how and why Manafort came to the Trump orbit. He is reportedly “volunteering” his services.

In 2014, Politico published a profile of Manafort referring to the one-time Reagan and Bush aide as “an invisible man” and “a notorious political fixer.” At the time of the 2014 piece, Manafort was emerging as the top advisor to the pro-Putin Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych. You may recall your recent world history and the fact that Putin has been working hard for years to destabilize Ukraine and prevent NATO membership even to the point of invading and occupying the eastern part of the country.

‘What’s already certain is this,” Politico wrote two and a half years ago, “Even among the many American strategists who test their fortunes abroad, Manafort’s journey from the front lines of the Reagan revolution to the right hand of a Moscow-backed Eastern bloc pol straight out of central casting ranks as one of the more unusual escapades of the Washington consulting class.” Little surprise: lots of money has been involved.

Additionally, a Trump “energy advisor,” Carter Page, has extensive ties to Putin and the Russian energy giant Gazprom and a retired three star general, Michael Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who recently spoke to the Republican National Convention has been cozy with Putin. Flynn sat with Putin at a dinner recently in Moscow celebrating the founding of Russia Today, the ‘news organization’ that is a key element in Putin’s international propaganda apparatus. Flynn has frequently appeared on RT and may be a paid contributor to the network. He refuses to confirm or deny.

If Flynn’s name sounds familiar it is because he had a brief run as a potential Trump vice presidential candidate.

Trump’s Russian Beauty Pageant…

In a fascinating piece of reporting in June, the Washington Post noted this: “The overwhelming consensus among American political and national security leaders has held that Putin is a pariah who disregards human rights and has violated international norms in seeking to regain influence and territory in the former Soviet bloc. In 2012, one year before Trump brought his beauty pageant to Moscow, then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called Russia the United States’ top geopolitical threat — an assessment that has only gained currency since then.”

Trump comparing finger length with a beauty pageant contestant in Moscow in 2013.
Trump comparing finger length with a beauty pageant contestant in Moscow in 2013.

The Post story went on to recount how a Trump-organized beauty pageant in Moscow garnered several million for Trump, that various Trump family members have made numerous trips to Russia seeking financing and development projects and then offered this fascinating quote from Donald Trump, Jr. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Anyone paying attention knows that Trump’s financial empire is as messy as his campaign organization. Most U.S. banks long ago refused to deal with Trump and his ties to Russian banks have covered his mounting debt.

In a brilliant piece on the Trump-Russia connection blogger Josh Marshall, he edits the Talking Points Memo website, said of the Republican candidate, “He has steadied and rebuilt his financial empire with a heavy reliance on capital from Russia. At a minimum the Trump organization is receiving lots of investment capital from people close to Vladimir Putin.” Trump seemed to confirm that suggestion when he bragged to a real estate publication that “Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room,” when he traveled to Russia for his beauty pageant.

The release of Trump’s tax returns – the fact that he refuses is unprecedented in modern American politics – would go a long way to illuminate the extent of his indebtedness to Russian banks and billionaires. That Trump won’t release those documents, which if they contain exculpatory information would be helpful to his cause, speaks volumes.

The Platform Fight That Wasn’t…

You needed to be paying really close attention last week to catch this story. During deliberations over the content of the Republican Party platform, Trump representatives killed a resolution that would have placed the party on record supporting “lethal” military aide to Ukraine. That is a position backed by virtually every Republican with any type of foreign policy experience, Senators John McCain and Bob Corker, for example, but hotly opposed by the Kremlin. So Trump forces killed the resolution, apparently one of the few times Trump or his minions paid any real attention to the party platform.

Coincidence? You have to wonder why it happened.

The Leaked Emails…

Here’s what The Atlantic says: “Close your eyes and imagine that a hacking group backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin broke into the email system of a major U.S. political party. The group stole thousands of sensitive messages and then published them through an obliging third party in a way that was strategically timed to influence the United States presidential election. Now open your eyes, because it looks like that’s what just happened.”

A view of the main stage for the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
A view of the main stage for the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

American security and intelligence officials have confirmed that Russian hackers, likely Russian intelligence agencies, were responsible for the cyber theft of 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee’s servers. The FBI is now investigating. The Russian hackers apparently turned the email trove over to Wikileaks, which dumped the material at precisely the moment it would have maximum impact on the Democratic National Convention that began Monday in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, state sponsored Russian media outlets have played the story big, focusing particularly on the forced resignation of the chairwoman of the DNC, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The email dump, of course, implicates the DNC in a “conspiracy” to thwart the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders and help Hillary Clinton. Not incidentally, the Tweeter-in-Chief, Donald Trump, spent all weekend highlighting the email issue.

At the risk of seeming to sound like Donald Trump who has rarely met a conspiracy theory he didn’t embrace – Ted Cruz’s father helping Lee Harvey Oswald kill John Kennedy or Barack Obama the Kenyan Muslim – I have to conclude the Trump-Russian connection story is one of two things. Either the dots really do connect and Putin and Russia are actively – and effectively – attempting to influence an American presidential election and doing so with the active support of the GOP nominee…or this is all just one huge, remarkable coincidence. Take your pick.

Or consider this.

The Manchurian Candidate, 1962
The Manchurian Candidate, 1962

In 1962 United Artists, a big Hollywood film studio, released a film with a crazy, convoluted and politically explosive plot. In the film a foreign government sends a brainwashed ex-American serviceman to assassinate a U.S. politician. The film was something of a box office flop and many critics concluded that the plot of The Manchurian Candidate was just too farfetched, too implausible.

But Pauline Kael, the great film critic of The New Yorker, saw something else and she called the movie, “A daring, funny, and far-out political thriller about political extremists. … This picture plays some wonderful, crazy games about the Right and the Left; although it’s a thriller, it may be the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood.”

Today John Frankenheimer’s film is considered a classic. Maybe it is just a coincidence that I think about this old film when I think about Putin, Trump, Russian email hackers and the presidential election campaign.

Or maybe it is not a coincidence at all.

 

2016 Election, Foreign Policy, GOP, Obama, Russia, Trump

Trumping the Shark…

 

        “And we’ve got our soldiers sitting there [in South Korea] watching missiles go up. And you say to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ Now we’re protecting Japan because Japan is a natural location for North Korea. So we are protecting them, and you say to yourself, ‘Well, what are we getting out of this?’”

Donald J. Trump in an interview with the New York Times

———-

Republicans, particularly those from the traditional post-war internationalist wing of the Grand Old Party, have devoted most of their waking hours over the past seven and a half years to assailing Barack Obama’s “fickle” foreign policy.

Obama has been bashed for “leading from behind,” for constantly “apologizing” for the United States, for being unwilling to double down on a purely military response to the violence and political turmoil from Egypt to Syria, from Ukraine to Iran.

Neville Chamberlain in 1938
Neville Chamberlain in 1938

In this Republican view Obama is a Kenyan socialist update of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who redefined the word “appeasement” so that it has become the most damning of all foreign policy epithets.

Then the GOP nominated Donald Trump.

I’m going to posit that never before in the history of modern U.S. politics has one party, a party that has for so long held rock solid views on foreign policy and America’s place in the world, so quickly and violently changed direction. The Trumpian “pivot” on foreign policy is now complete and the implications are coming into focus. As usual with Trump there is little doubt or nuance.

The Republican presidential candidate detailed for the New York Times yesterday his belief that as president he would not automatically guarantee 70 years of commitments to European security, would not condemn the massive violations of civil liberties underway in the wake of an attempted coup in Turkey and would remove American military and security commitments from far east allies like Japan and Korea.

And that’s just for openers.

The only thing missing from Trump’s capture of the Republican Party were seconding speeches of his nomination from anti-democratic thugs like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey's Erdogan
Turkey’s Erdogan

Imagine Barack Obama making a statement like Trump made yesterday. Reminded by the Times David E. Sanger that since the attempted coup in Turkey Erdogan “put nearly 50,000 people in jail or suspend them, suspended thousands of teachers, he imprisoned many in the military and the police, he dismissed a lot of the judiciary. Does this worry you? And would you rather deal with a strongman who’s also been a strong ally, or with somebody that’s got a greater appreciation of civil liberties than Mr. Erdogan has? Would you press him to make sure the rule of law applies?”

Trump’s reply: “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country — we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems. When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.”

Forget the messenger, worry about our own rule of law with such a man in the White House. Worry also about the cognitive dissonance on the new GOP ticket. At the very moment Trump’s interview was posted online Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence was saying this: “We cannot have four more years of … abandoning our friends. … Donald Trump will … stand with our allies.” Right. Got it.

The Reagan doctrine of American Exceptionalism has been reduced in the Age of Trump to: “We’re not in a position to be more aggressive. We have to fix our own mess.” Apparently fixing “our own mess” will cause Trump to look for inspiration to the dictators he refuses to condemn.

Loyal readers know that I have often voiced my own profound concerns about an American foreign policy based on the constant expansion of U.S. military power or the belief, held by Hillary Clinton among others, that nearly every foreign policy challenge demands a military response, but Trump has gone where no Republican has gone since at least Robert Taft in 1952.

Goldwater slogan in 1964
Goldwater slogan in 1964

Trump has torn the Republican Party from its post-war moorings, even more so it is now clear than Barry Goldwater did in 1964. His appeal to nativist, know nothingism, his exploitation of fear, his appalling ignorance of our own history and the world’s has gone way beyond anything we have seen since McCarthy in the early 1950’s. This is truly the GOP’s McCarthy Moment and no time, as Edward R. Murrow said of the Republican’s earlier demagogue, for citizens – particularly Republicans – who oppose his nonsense to remain silent.

It is now truly time to contemplate the consequences of turning over the country’s foreign policy – the nuclear codes for crying out loud – to a man who shouldn’t be trusted with the key to the executive washroom. The country has been here before. Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 proclaimed that “In your heart you know he is right,” but American voters saw through Goldwater’s bizarre suggestions that battlefield nuclear weapons might be used in Southeast Asia, that a nuclear warhead was “just another weapon” and that North Vietnam could be reduced to a “mud puddle” if only we had the right leadership.

The last time a radical hijacked the GOP, American voters agreed with Democrats who countered Goldwater’s slogan with their own: “In your guts you know he’s nuts.”

Donald J. Trump is certifiably “nuts.”

2016 Election, Nixon, Trump

The GOP’s “New Nixon…”

 

      “I think what Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first…The ’60s were bad, really bad. And it’s really bad now. Americans feel like it’s chaos again.”

                                                                               Donald J. Trump

——–

There is a remarkable story on the front page of today’s New York Times. For anyone even remotely conversant with American political history, perhaps particularly Americans who identify with the Republican Party, the story is beyond stunning.

Nixon in 1968
Nixon in 1968

The soon-to-be Republican candidate for president of the United States is openly embracing the campaign themes of the only president forced from office while facing the ultimate political judgment – impeachment.

Richard Nixon would surely have been convicted of “high crimes and misdemeanors” by the United States Senate in 1974, and might well have been indicted and convicted in criminal proceedings – many of his henchmen were – had Gerald Ford not pardoned him. Now Donald Trump is publicly embracing the most disgraced president in American history.

In reporting on the strangest political bear hug since, well, since ever. The Times notes: “It was a remarkable embrace — open and unhesitating — of Nixon’s polarizing campaign tactics, and of his overt appeals to Americans frightened by a chaotic stew of war, mass protests and racial unrest.

“And it demonstrated that, wisely or mistakenly, Mr. Trump sees the path to victory this fall as the exploitation of the country’s anxieties about race, its fears of terrorism and its mood of disaffection, especially among white, working-class Americans.”

Trump’s chief political operative Paul Manafort – think of him as an even more sinister and devilish version of Nixon’s chief henchman H.R. Haldeman, one of the Nixon men who went to jail – said Trump’s convention speech this week will channel Nixon in 1968. “If you go back and read,” that speech Manafort said, “that speech is pretty much on line with a lot of the issues that are going on today.”

Meanwhile, Nixon’s dirty trickster Roger Stone – he has a tattoo of Nixon on his back, really – continues to be a key Trump surrogate. Stone made headlines yesterday for attacking Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich, who has refused to endorse Trump.

Nixon’s 1968 campaign exploited division, class and race hate, while promising “law and order.” His presidency then produced the most lawless administration in modern times.

AR-160129785At a fragile moment in the long American experiment, the GOP candidate offers only fear. No plans, nothing even remotely connected to real public policy. No looking forward to a better, more inclusive, fairer America, but a call to retreat to an America that has never existed. “Make America Great Again,” is as much a myth as Trump’s business success. His promise of “law and order” would almost certainly lead to the kinds of abuses that brought down the man his campaign now embraces.

Richard Nixon was a tragically flawed, but profoundly driven man. Seeking the presidency for the second time in 1968, and after losing election as governor of California in 1962, Nixon’s team – Haldeman was P.R. executive – knew they needed to present “the New Nixon;” a more human, genuine Nixon. The repackaging, along with the “law and order” theme, worked, but just barely. Then the old Nixon re-emerged in the Oval Office.

The long awaited “pivot” by Trump that might finally put lipstick on the pig of his personality and temperament may or may not come this week. I would bet not, since while Nixon was a deeply effective conman he was also much more politically sophisticated than Trump. Re-packaging Trump will be tough, but perhaps amid the bluster and showmanship the Republican convention will produce an image of a “new Trump,” but like so much about the man it will be an illusion.

That Trump has openly and proudly adopted Richard Nixon as a model says all we need to know about the man’s sense of history and the trials and tribulations of the American experiment and the Republican Party. Meanwhile, Republicans who have supported Reagan, the Bushes, Bob Dole and John McCain must confront in their candidate a remarkable political throwback. We can now confidently say their new candidate really is the “new” Nixon.

 

2016 Election, Civility, O'Connor, Political Correctness, Trump

Civility and Citizenship…

 

      “And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

Robert F. Kennedy speaking shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination

——-

The man who will soon be the Republican candidate for president of the United States has diagnosed what ails the country in the 21st Century. “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Donald Trump said during one of the shouting matches that passed for debates during the primary season. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”

Robert Kennedy speaks to a crowd in Indianapolis after Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination in 1968.
Robert Kennedy speaks to a crowd in Indianapolis after the King assassination in 1968.

Surveys tell us Trump has hit a nerve. Across the political spectrum Republicans, Democrats, independents agree that “political correctness” is a big problem even if, as I suspect, most Americans would have trouble defining the term. Political correctness is the problem for all seasons, an all purpose explanation for any position that someone else holds that you find disagreeable.

As with most things he says Trump has misdiagnosed “the big problem.” And the misdiagnosis is glaringly apparent in the roiling wake of post-July 4th America. America’s diverse culture – a nation of immigrants – with class, racial, educational and wealth disparities doesn’t really suffer from an over abundance of political correctness, but rather the illness is a deficit of essential civility and engaged citizenship. Our challenge, as the distinguished scholar Danielle Allen says, is reflect on our own history to find how diverse individuals live together in a shared public life.

To put a fine point on it: way too many Americans are ignorant of how their government really works and woefully deficient in understanding the country’s history and how that history informs and effects what is happening today. It is nothing less than a national crisis.

It’s Insane…

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been a voice in the wilderness trying to arouse a new American commitment to civic education. “In over half the states in the union, civics education is not required,” O’Connor told the Washington Post in 2012. “The only reason we have public school education in America is because in the early days of the country, our leaders thought we had to teach our young generation about citizenship … that obligation never ends. If we don’t take every generation of young people and make sure they understand that they are an essential part of government, we won’t survive. We don’t teach our own kids. It’s insane.”

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has made civic education her cause
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has made civic education her cause

It is insane. And if you think about it O’Connor’s point helps explain a lot about the current state of American democracy. When Trump says he is going to “build a wall” and a foreign country will pay for it or when Bernie Sanders promises health care for all, a well-informed, civically-aware American says, “hold on. How you goin’ do that?” The informed voter might well ask: What is the role of Congress in getting that done? Can you bring along the other side? What will it cost? Do you know even what you are talking about?

Politicians have always made grand and unrealistic promises, but voters should be well enough grounded in civic reality to reel in the truth and discount the blarney. Hard to do if you don’t have the basic understanding of how government works.

Trump’s utterly fanciful claim that he can eliminate the national debt in eight years, while slashing taxes is a good illustration of the disconnect between what a candidate says and what politics and reality allow. As Politico reported, “Trump’s budget and policy proposals have resonated with the Republican base, even if elements of his plan run entirely counter to conservative economic orthodoxy. But taken together, they are a series of puzzle pieces that just don’t fit into a coherent whole, according to experts on both sides of the aisle.”

Translation: May sound good, cannot happen. To reach the goal of eliminating the national debt in eight years, Trump would need to slash all federal spending by two-thirds. No serious person believes that could either happen or should happen. The economy would tank and the political and economic dislocation would be enormous.

“I don’t know that he’s really taken the time to understand the complexities of some of these areas of policy,” Lanhee Chen, policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution told Politico. “I am concerned about that.”

Former Bush Administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said it even more bluntly in a recent Washington Post op-ed: “Trump repeatedly, blatantly and knowingly makes up or gravely distorts facts to support his positions or create populist divisions…Simply put, a Trump presidency is unthinkable.”

But to make those judgments requires a working knowledge of government and how budget and fiscal decisions are made. An engaged citizen doesn’t need Hank Paulson’s experience, but they do need to know more than Donald Trump does. Far too many don’t.

Mom would not have tolerated this guy…

The other foundational piece to a better informed and engaged citizenry represents, not surprisingly perhaps, the antithesis of what the GOP nominee has been offering for months. When Trump fumes against “political correctness” what he is really rejecting is what my mother would have called “civility.” Or simply being nice, respectful, courteous. Making an attempt to understand the other person’s perspective.

Donald Trump during a GOP debate
Donald Trump during a GOP debate

Insulting women, repeatedly referring to a United States senator as Pocahontas, constantly referring to your opponents as “liars” or “crooks” or “low energy” is not politically incorrect it is rude, vulgar and beneath the playground taunts of a junior high school bully let alone a presidential candidate. Imagine – I hope you can only imagine – such language at your dinner table or work place. Few would tolerate it simply because its wrong, hateful and mean. Who can really argue that these are the characteristics we should encourage or value in our leaders.

The presidential campaign of 2016 will be remembered for many things not least, I suspect, a further coarsening of our already raw political dialogue. The Donald Trumps of the world must be kept at the political fringes. They are in no way representative of what Lincoln so rightly called “the better angels of our nature.”

An essential responsibility of leadership, whether in the corporate boardroom or the Oval Office is to educate, explain, to empathize and illuminate rather than divide, degrade and preach a politics of despair and hatred.

In a brilliant and also shocking piece of political reporting, the New York Times Nick Confessore honed in on the connections between citizenship and civility and how Trump, in the name of disowning political correctness, has broken something that will be hard to mend.

“In the months since Mr. Trump began his campaign, the percentage of Americans who say race relations are worsening has increased, reaching nearly half in an April poll by CBS News. The sharpest rise was among Republicans: Sixty percent said race relations were getting worse,” Confessore writes. Trace that increase directly to the Republican nominee.

And Confessore continues: “And Mr. Trump’s rise is shifting the country’s racial discourse just as the millennial generation comes fully of age, more and more distant from the horrors of the Holocaust, or the government-sanctioned racism of Jim Crow.” This is the intersection between coarseness and lack of civility and the American citizenship deficit.

The Better Angels of Our Nature…

Former President and Mrs. Bush with President and Mrs. Obama at Dallas memorial for murdered police officers
Former President and Mrs. Bush with President and Mrs. Obama at Dallas memorial for murdered police officers

President Obama tried to remind us this week what America should be about, what it could be about. In a moment of profound national distress the nation’s first non-white president appealed to our better angels. He was, of course, immediately criticized and critics continue to offer the fiction that the president is “anti-police,” still Obama’s words demand our attention, demand that we reflect, not merely react.

“In the end, it’s not about finding policies that work,” Obama said. “It’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism and finding the will to make change.

“Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.

I don’t know. I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt. I’ve been to too many of these things. I’ve seen too many families go through this.

“But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. ‘I will give you a new heart,’ the Lord says, ‘and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’

“That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.”

That open heart begins with genuine civility and new commitment by each of us to real engaged and informed citizenship.

 

2016 Election, Clinton, Trump

So We Beat On…

 

      “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

———

Good Lord it is tough work explaining let alone supporting Hillary Clinton.

She may be the living proof of the old political axiom that the worst wounds are self-inflicted. She is the poster child – at least the Democratic poster child – for secretive, damaging dissembling. A very sophisticated political friend suggests an apt analogy: Clinton is the American version of Dodgy Dave Cameron, the newly deposed British prime minister. Both crave power for power’s sake with few core convictions and even less shame.

Careless, not criminal
Careless, not criminal

Clinton’s email debacle will be recorded as among the worst handled “political scandals” in modern times. An original stupid decision to use a private email set-up rather than a government run system – why she did it can only be explained by the secretive side of Hillary, the side hoping to never have to explain anything during her State Department tenure – was compounded by the cover up. For weeks – months – she ham-handedly strung out the story, never admitting until really forced to do so that the whole thing was a stupid mistake. Now the director of the FBI has pointed out for the world and for Donald Trump all the inconsistencies and incompetence. Clinton was not criminal, just “extremely careless,” said James Comey. Now that is a great campaign slogan: “She may be careless, but at least she is not criminal.”

One holds out the hope that Clinton will be a better president than she has been a would be president. She has a tin political ear, a well-developed capacity to foster mistrust and, considering she will be the first woman nominated as a major party presidential candidate, a remarkable inability to stir enthusiasm. Among the best things you can say about Hillary Clinton is that she is not Donald Trump. Another good bumper sticker.

Clinton is in for a rough few days, but her good news is that the country is just days away from watching what will surely be a bat s@#t crazy spectacle of a Republican convention where the GOP will turn over the party to a pathological liar whose latest contributions to American politics has been to energize white supremacists and Neo-Nazis, while praising Saddam Hussein.

"He was a bad guy — really bad guy," the presumptive Republican nominee told supporters in Raleigh, North Carolina. "But you know what? He did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights. They didn't talk. They were terrorists. Over."
“He was a bad guy — really bad guy,” the presumptive Republican nominee told supporters in Raleigh, North Carolina. “But you know what? He did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. Over.”

Ask yourself what is worse: an ethically challenged careerist with a lust for power who believes, along with her husband, that the rules don’t apply to them…or Donald Trump?

Clinton’s handling of her email scandal combined with the stunning takedown of her “carelessness” by the FBI director would be disqualifying for any other candidate any of us can think of, but this is a two person race and the other person is a racist bully whose impossible boasts and claims and nonsense should be cause for a mental health intervention.

Campaigns come down to a choice between two people, most often two flawed people. This is our choice in 2016 and it is ugly and dispiriting and disappointing. Clinton will be a better president, I hope and suspect, than she has been a candidate. With Trump what you see is what you get. One person will muddle through, while the other may well destroy the country.

There is a danger here – we are already seeing it in press coverage of the two candidates – of false equivalence. Clinton with all her faults is not Trump. The email scandal is serious stuff. Trump’s demeanor, his temperament, his incoherence and ignorance are disqualifying. There is no equivalence between the careless and the utterly dangerous.

Like Scott Fitzgerald’s Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Bill and Hillary Clinton are reckless people with a remarkable sense of entitlement. Not much to admire here. The messes they have made are legion. But the other guy represents a level of evil, intolerance, racism and hate not seen at least since George Wallace in 1968.

So we beat on, boats against the current…and I’m with the careless one.

 

2016 Election, Brexit, Britain, Churchill, Great Britain, Trump

Stop, Think and Ask “What If…”

 

According to the Financial Times, Michael Gove, a champion of Britain’s exit from the European Union and now a candidate for prime minister, refused during the recent Brexit campaign to name any economists who back exit from the European Union, saying that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” 

——–

It can be difficult, when watching politics unfold in real time, to identify and see clearly the larger currents and fault lines that define where we are and where we might be headed. This reality – not always being able to comprehend the present – is why history matters and why, regrettably, so many Americans – and Brits apparently – have forgotten lessons from the past.

Americans face an obesity crisis and a epidemic of gun violence, but perhaps just as seriously we face the plague of historical amnesia. Increasingly we cannot connect the dots of the past with the issues of the moment. That can be a fatal disease in a democracy.

Photo Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos
Photo Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos

The recent decision by voters in the United Kingdom to abandon more than 40 years of increasing interconnection with Europe, and in the process turning their backs on the last century of European history, and the Republican presidential candidacy of Donald Trump illustrate how we forget our history at our peril. Two striking examples make my case.

Europe in 1940…

Imagine the world, and particularly Europe, in the spring of 1940. Nazi armies have overrun Poland and Norway, invaded the Low Countries and are pressing toward Paris. Hitler’s Panzers and Stuka dive-bombers have terrorized Warsaw, Krakow, Brussels and Antwerp. The Wehrmacht – perhaps the greatest offensive army the world had ever seen – was routing the French army, thought at the time to be the best fighting force in the world, and guns booming on the front lines could be heard at the Eiffel Tower. Would France fight on, resist the awful weight of invasion or would defeatists in the French government and military surrender?

A German tank in France in 1940
A German tank in France in 1940

The new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a Francophile who loved Champagne and the ships of the French Navy among other things, was desperate to keep France in the war – and the French Navy out of German hands – and he embraced an audacious plan to buck up the faltering and besieged government in Paris.

At the suggestion of several French diplomats serving in London – among the group was Jean Monnet, considered the founding father of the European Union, and the junior French General Charles De Gaulle – Churchill pitched to the French Premier Paul Reynaud a “declaration of indissoluble union.

The formal proposal declared, “The two governments declare France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one Franco-British Union…every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain and every British subject will become a citizen of France.” Once united the two countries would have a formal association of Parliaments, joint management of defense and finance and a single war cabinet to direct the defense of western Europe. “Its all embracing character,”as one historian has written, “went further than anything before in the history of war-time alliances. Even in the subsequent history of European unity, no Government ever proposed a more radical and far-reaching plan for supernatural integration.”

Astounding.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

Great Britain and France would, symbolically and practically, become one and fight on against Hitler’s armies. We know how the story turned out. Reynaud could not sell the idea to his government, most members of whom had already indicated a willingness to throw in the towel and surrender. The World War I hero Marshall Henri Petain, who went on to collaborate with the Nazis and was later found guilty of treason, rejected Churchill’s proposal out of hand saying it would be better to become “a Nazi colony” than to unite with Britain. Reynaud resigned as prime minister without a formal vote on the British proposal and later said the failure of Churchill’s idea was the greatest disappointment of his political career.

As for becoming a Nazi colony, France certainly did, to the enduring shame of many who advocated capitulation rather than embrace new and radical thinking. The name of Petain is forever stained, while De Gaulle is celebrated as the greatest Frenchman of the 20th Century.

I’ll leave it to you to arrive at your own Brexit takeaway from this little historic tableau from 75 years ago, but one lesson seems clear: when faced with the greatest threat in modern times Winston Churchill was prepared to join his nation’s fate in the most fundamental ways with France, indeed with all of Europe. His imagination was equal to the moment.

Reed Smoot is Smiling…

The presumptive nominee of the Republican for the presidency is, on the other hand, beyond imagination. Donald Trump spent the week, with a few Trumpian deviations, outlining his remarkable views on trade. Reed Smoot must be smiling.

Utah Senator Reed Smoot on the cover of Time
Utah Senator Reed Smoot on the cover of Time

To the extent that Smoot, an austere apostle of the Mormon Church and a Republican senator from Utah, is remembered at all today it is for being the architect of the 1930 tariff legislation that bears his name. The Smoot-Hawley tariff – Hawley was Willis Hawley, an Oregon lawyer and educator who became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee – dramatically increased tariffs, led to a stifling of American exports just as the Great Depression took hold and sparked an international trade war against the United States.

As historian Douglas A. Irwin points out in his history of the tariff legislation, Canada, the largest U.S. trading partner in 1930, immediately retaliated with its own trade sanctions, while other countries formed “preferential trading blocs that discriminated against the United States” shifting world trade away from the U.S.

Saddled with the political, not to mention financial cost of protectionist trade policies after Smoot-Hawley, Republicans generally became “free-traders,” adopting a fundamentally conservative view that goods and services should move freely in the global economy, largely unhindered by artificial controls. Trade wars were to be avoided, exports encouraged and imports not feared. Trump’s approach – a trade war with China and mostly incoherent, but clearly protectionist measures regarding U.S. imports – as much as any policy he proposes, upends long-established Republican orthodoxy and flies in the face of historical experience.

Smoot-Hawley was largely designed to protect American farmers. It didn’t and many voices, including hundreds of economists, warned against its passage. The widely respected columnist Walter Lippmann called the protectionist legislation “a wretched and mischievous product of stupidity and greed.” You wonder if he knew Trump? And one advisor to the Republican president who signed the controversial legislation said, “I almost went down on my knees to beg Herbert Hoover to veto the asinine Hawley-Smoot Tariff. That Act intensified nationalism all over the world.”

America in the Great Depression
America in the Great Depression

Donald Trump’s rhetoric about trade, in addition to doing violence to a deeply held Republican tradition dating to the Great Depression, would almost certainly cost rather than protect American jobs. Other nations would surely retaliate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out this reality in what amounted to a stunning rebuke by American business of the GOP nominee. Even some of those who developed the economic analysis Trump relies upon for his position on trade repudiate his approach. Experts, of course, are so out of fashion, just like facts and history.

Meanwhile, across the pond, after more than 40 years spent embracing European integration the United Kingdom is certain to discover in the days ahead that the cost of isolation from Europe will be great and painful. In both cases – Brexit and Trump – opportunistic politicians, feeding on the fears of worried citizens, peddle fanciful ideas that simply can’t withstand careful evaluation. But, unfortunately our collective historical amnesia leaves us susceptible to the crude charms of charlatans.

Historical analogies are never perfect, of course, but history can help illuminate enduring truths, one being that simple answers to complex problems are almost always wrong.

Another lesson taught by history is simply to stop, think and ask “what if”? What if the French government in 1940 had had more courage and imagination? What if Herbert Hoover would have listened to his advisers? What if?

 

2016 Election, Brexit, Britain, Trump, World War I

Brexit and America

   

       “We have fought against the multinationals, we have fought against the big merchant banks, we have fought against big politics, we have fought against lies, corruption and deceit.”

Nigel Farage, advocate of the UK exit from the European Union

——–

It will be remembered as one of the great unforced errors in modern political history. In the language of soccer – this is Britain after all – soon to be former British Prime Minister David Cameron scored an “own goal,” kicking the ball into his own net. In one crazy act of political suicide Cameron threw a referendum bone to his political opponents. They ate the bone and then consumed him for good measure.

Prime Minister David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron

The Brits may have become the first people in the history of the world to vote for a recession. For sure they have voted for months – maybe years – of financial turmoil, economic and political isolation and very likely an independent Scotland. Brits also voted to validate the ugly kind of nationalism that is seeping across Europe. When the Brexit outcome is applauded by France’s ultra-right Marine Le Pen, the Kremlin and Donald Trump you instinctively know you are on the wrong side of history.

The Self-Inflicted Wound…

Cameron, a nominally successful politician before Brexit, will now be remembered for crashing his Conservative Party and speeding the disunion of Europe at the very moment the region needs even greater unity to deal with everything from trade to terrorism. Comparisons to Neville Chamberlain are inevitable. Meanwhile, the chief opposition party, Labour, is also in disarray and it seems inevitable that the party’s far left leader will have to go.

Why? Why reduce the United Kingdom’s long-term future to a plebiscite? Why risk it all on a one-off election with the highest of high stakes? The answer, of course, is political and here we begin to see the real relevance for the United States in 2016 of what has so dramatically happened in Britain.

Cameron set off these falling dominos of destruction in 2014 when in order to win an outright Conservative majority in the British parliament he attempted to placate radicals in his own party and in the uber-nationalist rightwing UK Independence Party (UKIP) with an up or down, in or out vote on the EU. Rather than fight the 2015 election over staying in Europe, Cameron tried to have it both ways even saying at one point that he might led the effort to leave the EU after he was re-elected. It was rank political opportunism from the guy one British Labour Party member recently dubbed “Dodgy Dave.”

Cameron compounded the dangers of his risky EU gamble by presiding during the recent campaign over a shambling Conservative Party that spoke with many discordant voices. Several of Cameron’s own cabinet ministers campaigned against him and remaining in the EU. Chaos follows chaos.

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson - more in common than a bad hair day
Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – more in common than a bad hair day

The “leave” campaign was led by another artful dodger, albeit one more colorful than Cameron, the former mayor of London Boris Johnson, a New York born gasbag with Churchillian ambitions who now maneuvers to replace Cameron. Leave it to an Irishman, the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, to correctly sum up BoJo, as Johnson is nicknamed: “He has a streak of Churchill’s brilliant opportunism and reckless charm, but he does not have behind him the national consensus that an existential struggle created behind Churchill and he is, in everything but girth, a lightweight.”

The U.S. Plays This Cynical Game Too…

None of this so much compares to Churchill-type politics as to the cynicism and recklessness of Congressional Republicans in the United States like Senator Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (not to mention all of Ryan many predecessors, one of whom just reported to federal prison). This is why the British action looms so very large across the American political landscape.

The vote to leave the EU doubtless has its roots in a variety of toxic soil – anti-immigration, fears of globalization, misunderstandings about free trade, hatred of the “privileged elites,” long simmering class resentments and totally valid concerns about growing income inequality. Johnson and UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage, Britain’s Donald Trump with a better haircut, are ironically both men of wealth and privilege who played on the fears of many Brits, concocted fanciful stories about the benefits of leaving and now inherit a diminished UK more badly divided than ever. Sound familiar?

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage
UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage

Writing in The Guardian Zoe Williams condemned Farage’s hateful rhetoric after the referendum, language that sounds remarkably like Trump’s “knock the crap out of ’em” talk. “But for poor taste and ugly triumph,” Williams wrote, “nothing matched [Farage’s] assertion that [the Leave vote] had happened ‘without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired.’”

A ridiculous comment, of course, since a pro-EU Member of Parliament was murdered days before the voting, the first MP lost to an “act of terror since the darkest days of the IRA and, leaving Ireland aside, the first since 1812. His words seemed to carry a tang of regret – echoing his dark mutterings of some weeks ago, when he predicted violence on the streets and sounded exhilarated by it.”

This is not the political talk or action of a western democracy, but something much more sinister, something to be condemned and defeated. It is the politics of cynicism, hatred and despair, of yesterday not tomorrow.

For most of the last eight years Congressional Republicans have done something similar by promising their mostly white, older base that obstructing political action on everything from immigration reform to climate change was the American way. They have mostly refused to condemn the fevered claims of white supremacists and talk radio that a duly elected president of the United States is somehow not one of us. They set out not merely to merely disagree with Barack Obama, but as McConnell infamously said, to “make him a one term president.”

Refusing to Set Expectations with Your Voters…

Republicans refused to really engage on big issues from health care to Syria, even voting no on a sensible economic stimulus and an essential auto bailout in the wake of The Great Recession knowing all the while that they could gin up the base with Barack bashing and yet one more promise to repeal Obamacare.

Now their presidential candidate tweets regularly about what “Obama has done with the debt,” while never acknowledging – or probably knowing – that no president spends money that has not been authorized and appropriated by the Republican Congress. Trump’s own claims to eliminate the debt are as unrealistic as the claims made by Britain’s anti-Europe crowd and just as widely discredited.

Yet simple lessons in civics and finance eludes not only the candidate, but his followers. Facts be damned. Even if a claim is pure poppycock, shot down by an “expert” who knows something, so what? it still makes a good message in 140 characters.

Failing to deliver for their base on undeliverable promises the GOP leadership now finds itself roughly where Dodgy Dave Cameron sits – on the outs with one-time supporters who feel conned, left trying to explain how a phony billionaire “populist” who traffics in insults and conspiracy theories has hijacked their party.

The Farage-Trump analogy even works to the level of both men’s penchant for the sleazy insult. Farage once told a former Belgian prime minister and top EU official to his face that he had “the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.” At least Farage’s insults are more original than Trump’s.

Chaos leads to chaos
Chaos leads to chaos

This stunning turn of events in both the UK and the U.S. is evidence of an appalling lack of political leadership, leadership willing to acknowledge that moderation in the pursuit of progress is actually a virtue.

It should also be said that the American left hardly has clean hands at this moment of upheaval. Bernie Sanders continues to stoke too many of his supporters into a populist lather with a message that, while more optimistic and forward looking than what is coming from the populist right still often ignores political reality. The hardest thing to do in politics is to say no to your supporters and the second most difficult is to temper their expectations. We are seeing this populist revolt in no small part because of a failure to do either.

Cameron likely could have shutdown the EU debate in 2015 by forcefully making the conservative case for the UK staying in Europe – British conservatives led the country into the EU in the first place in 1973 – but he gambled the country on his own election and now he has lost it all.

Finding the Center Again…

McConnell and Company have embraced a similar level of political opportunism, shunning any obligation to negotiate with Obama and displaying no willingness to instruct their base voters in the finer points of how democracy works. On the immigration issue alone Republicans might have found a sensible middle ground with Obama years ago. Some of them, including Marco Rubio, came close in 2013 to a political solution only to cave to the rampant xenophobia among the Tea Party faithful that now powers Trump’s campaign. The resulting division, exacerbated even more by an evenly split Supreme Court unable to rule in a recent critical case – again McConnell’s doing – has created racial tensions not seen in the country since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair

Writing from his own political exile brought on by his reckless embrace of George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, former British prime minister Tony Blair nevertheless made an essential point in a post-Brexit op-ed in the New York Times. With Britain and the U.S. clearly in mind, Blair wrote, “It was already clear before the Brexit vote that modern populist movements could take control of political parties. What wasn’t clear was whether they could take over a country like Britain. Now we know they can.”

Blair might have noted that Brexit and Trump have completed the transition of the once principled right of center conservative parties in Britain and the United States into collections of angry, aggrieved nationalists whose real currency is neither the pound or the dollar, but rather fear and hatred.

Remembering History, Acting Responsibly…

“The center must regain its political traction,” Tony Blair says, “rediscover its capacity to analyze the problems we all face and find solutions that rise above the populist anger. If we do not succeed in beating back the far left and far right before they take the nations of Europe on this reckless experiment, it will end the way such rash action always does in history: at best, in disillusion; at worst, in rancorous division. The center must hold.”

Battle of the Somme , 1916
Battle of the Somme, 1916

Next Sunday – July 1st – marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, the worst battle on the western front in The Great War. A million Europeans and most of a generation of Britain’s finest perished in one of the worst battles in human history all in order to prevent Europe from descending into a new dark age. The peace following The Great War lasted barely twenty years before an even more destructive war ravaged Europe. From that wreckage, barely seventy years ago, Europe began to come together in a genuine union – some wanted to call it a United States of Europe – with the belief that economic connections and open borders were the keys to security and peace, that cooperation was vastly more productive than national rivalry. All that idealism, all that reality stands torn and tattered now and the future is, at best, uncertain.

Winston Churchill, considered by the EU as one of the movement’s founders, once quoted a French politician as saying, “Without Britain there can be no Europe.” Churchill immediately added, “This is entirely true. But our friends on the Continent need have no misgivings. Britain is an integral part of Europe, and we mean to play our part in the revival of her prosperity and greatness.”

That is what political leadership sounds like.

These are not the times for opportunists and demagogues who peddle simple answers for the problems of a complex, rapidly changing and profoundly interconnected world. Send the populists of all stripes packing. They are the sowers of discord, the merchants of chaos. Britain has sent us a signal. It would be wise to pay attention.

 

2016 Election, Trump

There is Something Going On…

               

                           “…the contest is downright dangerous.”

 Elizabeth Drew on the presidential election

——–

We knew it was coming. Certain things are simply inevitable. When every possible issue is subject to a polarizing political debate in a deeply divided nation it was just a matter of time – a short matter of time. Most of us were left at a loss for words, but not one man.

Vigil outside the White House on Monday
Vigil outside the White House on Monday

In the space of a few hours early Sunday morning 49 Americans died in a wanton massacre in a gay nightclub in Orlando. Police killed the terrorist, a young American Muslim perhaps mentally troubled, leaving the death toll at 50 with at least as many more wounded. Shock and disbelief greeted most of us Sunday morning and on to Monday.

Then the inevitable came. The man who will be the Republican candidate for president of the United States implied that the current president was complicit in the attack, clearly the most outrageous of the vast host of outrageous things Donald J. Trump has said. But he said it.

The American Authoritarian…

During a television interview Monday Trump said, “There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.” According to students of political rhetoric this is a phrase Trump repeats time and again, implying a conspiracy so immense that the president of the United States must be involved.

The presumptive Republican nominee
The presumptive Republican nominee

With Trump there could be no real, let alone decent interval – can you use the term “decent” with this horrible man – to mourn a travesty, no calm and responsible call to come together in the face of home grown terrorism, no respect (not a smidgen) for the law enforcement and intelligence professionals who spend every day keeping us safe, at least as safe as we can be in a nation that makes the purchase of battlefield weapons as easy as buying a can of soda.

Trump, ignorant, intolerant, small minded, simplistic, and wrong, almost immediately went full demagogue – again. He congratulated himself on social media for “being right” about terrorism. The Atlantic called it “a victory lap in blood.” Trump doubled down on his promise to ban Muslims from entering the United States when he becomes president, a promise that prompted the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank to wonder, “How long will it be before American Muslims are forced to wear yellow badges with the star and crescent?”

In essence Trump said the president of the United States is guilty of treason for being complicit in the Orlando assault, a further outrageous perversion of his “birther” conspiracy theories. For good measure Trump also found time to attack Mitt Romney (again), get one of his henchmen to call a top Clinton aide who is Muslim a likely terrorist spy, ban the Washington Post from covering his campaign and, of course, tell bald faced lies about the inadequacy of U.S. immigration policy and much more.

He offered no credible response to the problem of international terrorism, a problem that vexes every western democracy, but rather blustered and thundered. Trump channeled his inner dictator.

I’ve been writing about this dangerous man now for months and like many I initially discounted him as a freak show that surely would bloviate himself to pieces. I counted on the principled conservatives who daily watch their movement perverted by this con man to find a means to stop him not merely for the good of their party, but for the good of the country. While calling Trump a classic demagogue, I resisted, until now, what are becoming increasingly common comparisons to totalitarian, authoritarian figures from the darkest pages of 20th Century history.

Revisiting 20th Century History…

The CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Meg Whitman, a significant Republican figure and one-time candidate for governor of California, made the explicit charge. Trump is behaving like Hitler and Mussolini, Whitman said. A former Republican senator, Larry Pressler of South Dakota, endorsed Hillary Clinton saying Trump’s rhetoric “is starting to sound like the German elections in [the late 1920s]. This is a very dangerous national conversation we’re slipping into.”

The German dictator in 1935
The German dictator in 1935

It’s a wicked charge. The kind of overheated claim that Trump might make, except after Orlando it’s obviously true. John Gunther is an original source.

Gunther, a Chicago-born journalist and author, was likely the most famous foreign correspondent in the world in the 1920s and 1930s. He reported from Europe for more than 15 years, covering all the major capitols and the biggest stories. His 1936 book – Inside Europe – was a publishing sensation selling more than half a million copies. Gunther followed with books providing insightful commentary on Asia, Africa, South America, Russia and the USA. I’ve collected all the books and they still provide a fabulous, nuanced and intelligent take on the world before the 1960s.

John Gunther on Hitler in 1936…

In January 1936, Harper’s published a lengthy Gunther piece from Berlin. The subject was Adolf Hitler who was still consolidating his power in Germany. To read the piece today, as I recently did for the first time, is to shudder at the striking similarities to our homegrown authoritarian.

I’ll quote just a few lines from John Gunther’s article and as you read them just replace the word “Hitler” with the word “Trump.” See if you come away with a cold shiver down your spine.

John Gunther
John Gunther

Gunther’s piece began with these words: “Adolf Hitler, seemingly so irrational and self-contradictory, is a character of great complexity – not an easy nut to crack. To many he is meager and insignificant; yet he holds sixty-five million Germans, a fair share of whom adore him, in a thralldom compounded of love, fear, and nationalist ecstasy. Few men run so completely the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. He is a mountebank, a demagogue, a frustrated hysteric, a lucky misfit. He is also a figure of extreme veneration to millions of honest and not-even-puzzled Germans.”

And there are these observations of the man who took Germany to the brink and beyond and plunged the entire world into darkness:

“He reads almost nothing.”

“He dislikes intellectuals.”

“His lies have been notorious.”

“Foreigners, especially interviewers from British and American newspapers, may find him cordial and even candid but they seldom have opportunity to question him, to participate in a give-and-take discussion. Hitler rants. He is extremely emotional. He never answers questions. He talks to you as if you were a public meeting, and nothing can stop the gush of words.”

“By a man’s friends may ye know him. But Hitler has none.”

Gunther analyzed Hitler’s religious convictions and concluded there were none. His passion was himself and power.

He “bases most decisions on intuition…his vanity is extreme…Hitler is a man of passion, or instinct, not of reason. His ‘intellect’ is that of a chameleon who knows when to change his color, of a crab who knows when to dive into the sand; his ‘logic’ that of a panther who is hungry, and thus seeks food.”

“His brain is small and vulgar, limited, narrow, suspicious, but behind it is the lamp of passion, and this passion has such quality that it is immediately discernible and recognizable, like a diamond in the sand.”

He is a Bad Speaker…

“Then there is the oratory. This is probably the chief external explanation of Hitler’s rise. He talked himself to power. The strange thing is that Hitler is a bad speaker. He screeches; his mannerisms are awkward; his voice breaks at every peroration; he never knows when to stop…yet, Hitler, whose magnetism across the table is almost nil, can arouse an audience, especially a big audience, to frenzy.”

The Trump manifesto
The Trump manifesto

Even Gunther’s references to Hitler’s Mein Kampf presage our demagogue’s repeated praise of his own mostly unreadable book The Art of the Deal.

Mein Kampf, for all its impersonality, reveals over and over again Hitler’s faith in ‘the man.’ After race and the nation, personality is his main preoccupation…’a majority,’ he says, ‘can never be substituted for the Man.’”

Writing recently in the New York Review and before the awful events in Orlando the venerable Elizabeth Drew, a political observer of American presidents and would-be presidents for decades, centered on those – interesting choice of words –  who “collaborate” with Trump.

“The real test is whether there are any circumstances under which Republican leaders in Congress will finally stand up to Trump, renounce him as their party’s standard bearer even if they can’t cancel his nomination. This could mean risking that their party loses the election and their majorities in the House and the Senate. This is a length to which the congressional leaders Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and some others who’ve endorsed Trump or waffled—not opposing but not endorsing—have thus far been unwilling to go. McConnell’s lack of enthusiasm for Trump is apparent; he’s recently been on a book tour and said something negative about Trump in virtually every interview. But like the others who’ve endorsed Trump, he’s still a collaborator, no matter how much he squirms.”

This election, perhaps particularly after Orlando, has become unlike any in our lifetime. A true referendum on just what America intends to be, an election where one candidate – this is no longer hyperbole – has many of the characteristics and inclinations of the most destructive dictators of the 20th Century.

To continue the European analogy, Republican “collaborators” of Donald Trump have become like those in Vichy France after 1940 who found it expedient and often in their own self-interest to collaborate with a hate mongering dictator even at the risk of surrendering the heart and soul of their nation. History regards them as morally bankrupt and fatally wrong.

Trump has gone from novelty, to laugh line to legitimate threat to American democracy. Those who refuse to acknowledge and vigorously resist the dangers of this frightful man embrace a monumental national disaster. History is our guide. In 1936 John Gunther wrote an early draft of the story we are living.

 

2016 Election, Bush, Civil Rights, GOP, Reagan, Trump

Racist-in-Chief…

 

            “The textbook definition of a racist comment.” 

     Speaker Paul Ryan on criticism of Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel 

——–

How did it come to be that the party of Lincoln is about to nominate an openly racist billionaire to be its presidential candidate, a candidate so toxic to the party’s need to broaden its appeal to African-American and Latino voters that those efforts could well be set back by a generation or more?

What happened to this man's party?
What happened to this man’s party?

The answer to that simple question is deeply entwined with the complicated history of the party’s evolution over the last 60 years. The modern Republican Party has made a series of pivotal decisions over those decades – policies, decisions designed to capture short-term political advantage, decisions about candidates, even Supreme Court appointments – that have systematically communicated to its older, white, angrier base voters that racism, or at least racial intolerance, is acceptable.

As America has changed, become more diverse and more tolerant in many ways, one major political party’s base voters cling to attitudes and beliefs that are no more and, in many respects, should never have been. Republican leaders have no one to blame but themselves for catering to a slice of the electorate that warmly embraces a racist as their candidate.

From “Dog Whistles” to Overtly Racist Language…

For decades Republicans leaders from Barry Goldwater to George H.W. Bush have often practiced a dangerous kind of politics where racial “dog whistles” stirred up base voters. Trump has dropped the clever, more “politically correct” symbolism and language of “state’s rights” and Willie Horton ads in favor of what we might call his “candid” form of racism.

The judge handling the Trump University lawsuit is an Indiana-born American of Mexican heritage, but in the simple, straightforward racism of the Republican candidate for president that disqualifies Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel. Donald Trump “is building a wall,” after all, and the judge’s Mexican heritage can’t possible allow him to be fair. As Paul Ryan says it is textbook racism.

Date the modern GOP to 1964
Date the modern GOP to 1964

How did this happen, the Republican Party dancing with racism? How did they – how did all of us – get stuck with a racist heading one of the country’s two great political parties? The answer begins during the time when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and Barry Goldwater wanted to get there.

In 1964, a badly divided Republican Party turned for its presidential candidate to an outspoken conservative and a vocal opponent of the historic Civil Right Act that Congress passed that same year. Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights legislation put him at the fringe of his own party in 1964. Only six Republicans voted against the Civil Rights Act, while Illinois Republican Senator Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader and a very conservative guy on most things, played a pivotal role in pushing the landmark legislation past a Democratic filibuster, a filibuster led by conservative Southern Democrats.

Civil Rights Act of 1964…Crossing a Political Rubicon…

It was a political Rubicon moment. Liberal northern Democrats joined northern Republicans to do what had not been done since the Civil War – pass legislation that finally began to deliver on the reality of full citizenship that African-Americans had been promised in the wake of the Civil War. Goldwater, the GOP candidate for president, stood in opposition and his fierce state’s rights stand hurt him at the polls, as black voters moved in droves to the Democrats.

Lyndon Johnson with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act
Lyndon Johnson with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Still, Democrats were hurt as well, with Lyndon Johnson famously predicting that signing the civil rights bill would hand the South to Republicans for a generation. Goldwater won six states in 1964 – his own Arizona, as well as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Prior to 1964, only two Republicans represented the states of the old Confederacy in the United States Senate. Today no Democrat represents the region.

Anyone who thinks racial politics has played no role in that remarkable transformation doesn’t know American history. Preserving that political advantage, in effect the most dependable Republican region for generations now, is the real aim of the modern GOP.

Goldwater’s loss brought predictions of the end of the Republican Party, which of course did not happen. What did end in 1964 was a growing bipartisan consensus about race in America. After 1964, Democrats increasingly appealed to African-American and other minority voters and Republicans increasingly became the party of older, white, conservatives, particularly in the South.

The GOP “Southern Strategy”…

Richard Nixon, who narrowly lost the White House in 1960 – he got 32% of the black vote against John Kennedy and enjoyed the support of, among others, the baseball legend Jackie Robinson – warned that Goldwater’s brand of conservatism was toxic to the party’s long-term interests. But, Nixon, always the skillful political adapter, parlayed his own brand of racial politics to a narrow win in 1968.

Richard Nixon campaigns in Philadelphia in 1968
Richard Nixon campaigns in Philadelphia in 1968

Nixon both benefited from and refined the racial politics of Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace. Wallace, running as the candidate of the American Party, won five deep South states in 1968. Nixon won the rest of the old Confederacy stressing “law and order” and appealing to a “silent majority” of mostly white voters tired of hippies, anti-war demonstrations and various efforts to end racial segregation. The Republican “southern strategy” was born.

Only southern Democrats Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 broke up the now solid Republican south, but it was Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 who really built on what Goldwater started. Reagan, astutely or cynically or both, opened his 1980 general election campaign in the small Mississippi town where three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in the late spring of 1964. In front of an all-white crowd Reagan pledged his support for state’s rights.

Ronald Reagan in 1980 in Mississippi
Ronald Reagan in Mississippi in 1980

Reagan “was tapping out the code,” New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote in 2007. “It was understood that when politicians started chirping about ‘states’ rights’ to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.”

Because any past Republican presidential candidate now looks positively stellar next to the current GOP standard bearer, the one term of George H.W. Bush is being remembered these days as a time of civility and political progress. But it was Bush’s 1988 campaign that benefited from the barely concealed racial politics of the infamous Willie Horton ad. The television spot – you can still see it on YouTube – was likely less important than the widespread news coverage it generated and, while Bush’s campaign could disclaim any direct involvement with the ad’s dog whistle message of black crime against whites, Bush never hesitated to mention Horton and his opponent Michael Dukakis in the same breath. It was nasty, it was racial and its was effective.

Screen shot of 1988 "Willie Horton" ad
Screen shot of 1988 “Willie Horton” ad

The real legacy of the first Bush may ultimately turn out to be the man who is still the only African-American justice on the Supreme Court. When civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall retired from the court in 1991, Bush elevated the little known Clarence Thomas to the high court. Where the liberal Marshall had been a celebrated lawyer, civil rights advocate, court of appeals judge and solicitor general, Bush replaced him with one of the most conservative lawyers to ever served on the court. Bush called Thomas the “most qualified” person he could find for the court, as marvelously inaccurate a statement then as it remains today.

Justice Thomas and the GOP Judicial Agenda…

Thomas has been, however, a completely reliable vote on key elements of the Republican judicial strategy for 25 years, consistently voting to expand the opportunities for money to corrode our politics, gut the Voting Rights Act – a key accomplishment of Thurgood Marshall’s generation – and most recently being the lone vote in a remarkable case out of Georgia dealing with a prosecutor’s determined efforts to keep black jurors from participating in a murder trial.

Long-time Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse was stunned by Thomas’ lone objection to overturning the murder conviction of a black man in Georgia, not because, as she wrote, Thomas harbors “some kind of heightened obligation to take up the cause of black defendants,” but because he went so far out of his way to rule in the most prosecutor friendly way. With dogged determination, Thomas also denied what seven other justices acknowledged, that new evidence can call into question an old court decision.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, the anti-Clarence Thomas.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, the anti-Clarence Thomas.

“In an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the Supreme Court overturned a 30-year-old murder conviction,” Greenhouse wrote, “ruling that racial discrimination infected the selection of the all-white Georgia jury that found a black man guilty of a white woman’s murder. The vote was 7 to 1. The dissenter was Justice Thomas. His vote, along with the contorted 15-page opinion that explained it, was one of the most bizarre performances I have witnessed in decades spent observing the Supreme Court.”

The remarkable Justice Thomas has become, as Greenhouse says, “the anti-Thurgood Marshall,” perversely championing the dismantling of Voting Rights Act and increasing obstacles for minority voters.

Making It More Difficult to Vote…

Following a concerted campaign by conservative Republicans, 17 states this year will have restrictions on voting that did not exist in 2012. As the Brennan Center at the New York University Law School notes, “This is part of a broader movement to curtail voting rights, which began after the 2010 election, when state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote.”

Eight of the states with new voting restrictions are in the solid Republican south. Add in Arizona, where Hispanic voters could amount to more than a quarter of the voting population, and you see a strong pattern of reliably GOP states trying to limit the franchise to non-white voters. And consider this: had the Supreme Court not effectively gutted key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2012, few if any of the state level voting restrictions could have gone into effect without the blessing of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Arguing that the prudent terms of the nearly 50 year old act, a law repeatedly renewed by Congress, should remain in effect in order to help ensure the voting rights of minorities, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote, “First, continuance would facilitate completion of the impressive gains thus far made; and second, continuance would guard against back­sliding.”

But, of course, “back-sliding” was the political point of gutting the Act and then having Republican legislatures and governors make it harder for minority Americans to vote. Considering the inevitable demographic tide that will continue to change the color of America, fiddling with how we vote is, to be sure, a temporary means to maintain white, conservative, Republican political power. But, rather than acknowledge the demographic change and try to appeal to vast numbers of new voters – precisely what many Republicans argued after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012 – the GOP has doubled down on its old, old strategy that dates back to 1964.

Federal Judge Gonzalo Cureil
Federal Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel

Donald Trump’s improbable presidential campaign – charging Mexicans with “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” banning all Muslims from entering the country, saying that a distinguished federal judge who was once an aggressive prosecutor of drug dealers couldn’t do his job because his parents had been born in Mexico – has finally brought into the harsh sunshine the nastiness and division that has consistently marked the dark side of GOP presidential politics for generations.

Trump is the perfect messenger to illustrate the corrosive power of racial politics. After all his rise to the GOP nomination began with his habitual feeding of the fiction that Barack Obama was foreign born and clearly “not one of us,” a pervasive myth stoked by social media and the ultra-right echo chamber. His attacks on a Latino federal judge, his pledge to “build a wall” and deport millions of immigrants intersect perfectly with an entirely new generation of conservative white voters who once would have flocked to Barry Goldwater.

Trump: The Perfect Messenger…

Some elected Republicans, Speaker Ryan for one, understand the fire that threatens to burn down the GOP future, but they seem powerless to really distance themselves from the toxic new leader of their party. Do they do the principled thing and once and for all disavow their racist standard bearer or do they try to condemn what he is, while not condemning his angry, white followers?

The ethical call is easy, but Republicans like Ryan face a hell of a political dilemma particularly when you consider that 65% of Republicans in one new poll don’t see Trump’s comments about Judge Curiel as racist. But, how could they? They’ve been conditioned by so many of their leaders to think that way at least since Goldwater’s campaign more than 50 years ago.

Goldwater, it should be remembered, was nominated in 1964 after a bruising fight at the Republican convention – the beginning of the end of the “moderate’ Republican – and only after the full convention refused to acknowledge the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act.

The party has been on this course for a long, long time. Trump is the living proof.

 

2016 Election, Journalism, Trump

The Ministry of Truth…

 

      “By the way, newspapers are the first of over 50 companies that I started where my employees tell me how to run my business.”

Sheldon Adleson. Casino billionaire, Trump supporter, newspaper owner

——–

There is a move afoot to bring a National Football League team to the city where things that happen there stay there. The most likely team to relocate to Sin City are, at least by Las Vegas terms, the aptly named Oakland Raiders, owned now by Mark Davis son of one the original NFL bad boys Al Davis.zVFIAIDi

But, as ESPN reported recently, the “sins” of Al Davis, including a penchant for litigation, might not hamper his son’s ambition to embrace the Valhalla of American excessiveness, the Shanghai of Sin.

The NFL and its billionaire owners once took a dim view of gambling, which ruled out locating a team where people bet on games all the time, but the NFL’s oligarchs have now set aside any misgivings about either excess or sin. What happens in Vegas wouldn’t really stay there, but would flow out across the country fattening the wallets of NFL owners. So bring on the Raiders, bring on billionaire Sheldon Adelson and bring on the money, money, money.

In order to host an NFL team, Vegas needs a big ol’ stadium and boy oh boy does Sheldon Adelson think building one is a great idea. His recently acquired Review-Journal newspaper – the Adleson clan originally attempted to keep its purchase of the paper secret – has lavished uncritical front-page coverage on idea of building the stadium, while breathlessly endorsing the convoluted financing that has been proposed. Meanwhile, as he maneuvers to bring the NFL to southern Nevada, Adelson has pledged $100 million to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and has his aides at work creating a Trump Super PAC.

Sheldon Adelson
Sheldon Adelson

Another of Trump’s billionaire friends recently secretly financed a lawsuit aimed at destroying an internet media outlet, a move that, at the least, will have a chilling effect for other outlets reporting on the lives of America’s high roller class.

The richest family in Utah now owns the venerable Salt Lake Tribune and, of course, Rupert Murdoch is in a class all his own. Influence is a growth industry even if real journalism is not.

What a country.

Adelson is frequently referred to as a “supporter” or “financial contributor” to the Las Vegas stadium project and perhaps a part owner on a relocated team, but it is clear, at least when it comes to football, that Adelson is really not that much of a gambling man. Back in January before his minions at the Review-Journal began sanitizing coverage of the stadium proposal the paper actually reported some news about who will pay for the expected $1.2 billion football palace.

“Developers would seek $780 million in public financing, according to a document provided by Las Vegas Sands Corp., which is leading a consortium behind the project,” the R-J reported.

“Private investors would contribute $420 million toward the planned 65,000-seat stadium, with various tourist-driven tax sources — commercial conveyance on taxicabs, rental car taxes or hotel room taxes — providing the bulk of the funding.”

Other accounts have indicated that the Mark Davis owner’s contribution will be conditioned on $200 million “loan” from the NFL, further decreasing the contribution of “private investors” like Adelson. It doesn’t take a PhD in finance to see who is really going to pay for the new stadium. At least two-thirds of the cost will be born by the public.

A former Review-Journal columnist, John L. Smith wrote recently in The Daily Beast: “There’s been a conspicuous lack of skepticism in the local press, which with few exceptions has obsessed on the odds of the Raiders’ arrival instead of the audacity of the stadium’s financing plan. Only political journalist Jon Ralston has consistently questioned the deal’s leaps of faith and lack of transparency.”

Ralston, Nevada’s most respected political journalist, has also reported on the “gag order” that prompted Smith’s departure from the paper. Smith had aggressively covered the big name Vegas casino moguls, including Adelson and Steve Winn, for years, often quite critically and that coverage occasional brought a lawsuit. Now, under the new Adelson regime, Smith was ordered not to write about anyone who had ever sued him. Poof. There goes coverage of the Las Vegas power structure.151222212046-las-vegas-review-journal-sign-780x439

Oh, yes. I forgot to mention that before Sheldon Adelson bought the Review-Journal the paper had been an outspoken critic of the process of financing a Las Vegas stadium project.

Now – are you surprised – the paper calls the stadium a “must do” project.

Adelson denies, of course, that his attempt to secretly buy Nevada’s largest newspaper at a cost substantially over its market value and then use it as a sort of house ad to enrich his Vegas hotel and entertainment empire carries any sinister connotations. If you want to believe that I know where you can buy a bridge.

With the “news business” now as fluid and in flux as it has been in generations, perhaps we should welcome guys with fat wallets bringing new resources to newsrooms, as Adelson claims he is doing in Las Vegas and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos clearly has done at the Washington Post. Still, put me down as a skeptic about the altruism of billionaires. As the New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg says, “billionaires do not become billionaires by being passive about their own interests.”

America has a rich history of rich guys owning newspapers – Hearst, Pulitzer and McCormick, to name just a few – and using their power to advance their interests and punish their foes, but this new trend of billionaires meddling in the media somehow seems more sinister and more dangerous, perhaps because it is happening at a time when so much of the media is financially weakened and vulnerable.

So this is America in the 21st Century. The Republican candidate for president calls for a crack down on a free press and wants to change libel laws, he routinely denies access to media organizations that offer critical (read factual) coverage of his nonsense and labels as “sleaze” reporters who dare ask legitimate questions. Meanwhile some of the pals of the Number One Media Critic in the country – fellow oligarchs all – use their unlimited money to intimidate and influence reporters, editors and news organizations. Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” doesn’t seem all that far fetched in 2016.

The rise of the American demagogue and the companion triumph of the fabulously wealthy has happened for many reasons, not least because there unfortunately exists an ill-informed or misinformed American public. It also doesn’t help that we have a political class that encourages a Sheldon Adelson and his favorite candidate.

It’s a leap of faith to believe that a bunch of self-obsessed billionaires owning their own newspapers is going to improve this dangerous reality. The old journalistic notion that the job of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable has been turned on its head.