Home » Page 2

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

How to Beat Donald Trump…

 

      “The poll suggests that Trump has more vulnerabilities than Clinton, but that opposition to the former secretary of state can lead some voters with a mixed to unfavorable view of Trump to support him nonetheless.”

Detail from the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll

——–

One key lesson from two of the most recent presidential campaigns holds the key to how a very weak general election candidate, Hillary Clinton, can defeat an unscrupulous, position shifting showman like Donald Trump. Clinton, as is frequently pointed out, has no compelling message, is running a 1990’s campaign based only on a resume. Additionally, she is packing around a heavy load of old, old political baggage.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

If Clinton is to win in November she will need, in the language of scorched earth politics, to “disqualify” Trump. With Trump’s negative poll ratings starting to improve as he consolidates the Republican vote, time is a wasting for Clinton.

As Clinton’s strategists consider their totally unorthodox opponent, the raft of potentially disqualifying material Trump has placed on the public record surely must appear to be an embarrassment of riches. But there is folly in attempting to throw all that Trump garbage back at the voters. It’s just too much.

Clinton Needs a Strategy…

Clinton will make a strategic error – potentially fatal – if she over plays the fact that should she win she will become the first woman elected president of the United States. It’s a natural for her and her supporters to suggest this as a compelling message, but even Trump’s toxic standing with many women doesn’t necessarily mean the so called “women’s card” will be a winner. Clinton’s own negatives may well trump – pardon the pun – any advantage that goes with the potential of being first.

Clinton's challenge: Destroy the myth

Clinton’s challenge: Destroy the myth

So far the Clinton campaign’s line of attack against the insults, lies and wholesale flips of Trump has been to label the faux billionaire “dangerous” or “unfit to be president.” He is demonstrably both, but given Clinton’s dismal approval ratings and her own struggles with the question of whether she is fit for high office make her attacks limp and largely ineffective.

Clinton must focus her Trump message and simplify for voters as to precisely why the bragging, blustering con man is unfit. She must also carry the fight to Trump. She needs to land blows because Trump has already proven he’s a much better counterpuncher that Clinton will ever be.

Let’s just admit the obvious: this is going to be a disgustingly nasty contest. Both candidates are widely disliked. This will be an election about tearing down, not building up. Who does the best job of defining the other person will win.

Trump has already accused Bill Clinton of rape and repeatedly labeled the former secretary of state “crooked.” Coming from a guy who accused the father of his chief Republican rival of being involved in John Kennedy’s assassination, rape and crookedness represent merely the mere tip of Trump’s sleazy general election iceberg of political slime. Brace yourselves.

Attacking a Con Man Where He’s Most Vulnerable…

Clinton needs to move quickly – certainly no later than the Republican convention and perhaps much earlier – to systematically define Trump around what appears to be his strongest advantage: his business success, his money, the very notion that his high rolling ways somehow qualify him to move into the White House. By focusing on Trump’s “character” as a real estate developer and an allegedly successful businessman, Clinton truly has a target rich environment that voters can grasp.

One of many, many failures

One of many, many failures

Trump’s business failures – a smelly pile of “Trump steaks” and “Trump Vodka” and “Trump Airlines” – his several bankruptcies, the failure of “Trump University,” the recent claim that his tax returns “are none of your business,” his multitude of shady deals with questionable characters and his extraordinary litigiousness add up to a credibility bomb waiting to go off. The most devoted Trump followers will shrug off this cavalcade of business sleaze, but many voters, particularly independent leaning voters, will discover that at the soul of this con man is a con job.

In the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that shows the two candidates virtually tied is this nugget: “Six in 10 independents believe Trump should release his taxes, and almost all of them say they feel strongly about it. Even 44 percent of Republicans want the billionaire businessman to release his returns before the November election, though they are less passionate.”

Trump signing the tax return he refuses to release

Trump signing the tax return he refuses to release

Trump, of course, probably cannot release his tax returns because it’s almost certain he rarely, if ever, pays any tax. The one year his returns were a matter of public record, thanks to a requirement of the New Jersey gaming commission, Trump paid zero tax. Offshore accounts? He must have some. In what state does he claim residence? New York or Florida? If he’s been audited as often as he says, what did those audits show? Has he paid penalties?

Raise the questions. Taunt the tax dodger. As Lyndon Johnson might have said, make the SOB deny that he doesn’t play by the same rules the rest of us follow.

Trump’s recent release of a personal financial disclosure (PFD) statement, a statement as bogus as his claim that he will build a “beautiful wall” along the Mexican border, is ripe for the pulling apart. Trump brags of “great cash flow” and huge “revenue increases” at his properties, but that is, at best, misleading since we know nothing about his expenses and he offers (as usual) no proof for his claims. As Forbes magazine noted in an article on Trump’s PFD the statement raises more questions that it answers, “Since Trump freely interchanges the terms revenue and income as if they mean the same thing.” This guy may have graduated from the Wharton School, but he can’t read his own balance sheet.

And, as Forbes also noted, “the Office of Government Ethics reviews the disclosures for technical compliance (for example, assets have to be properly categorized), but does not audit for accuracy, nor are candidates required to provide supporting documents to prove their numbers.” In short, the Trump statement of his net worth is as confused and phony as his hairdo.

Trump University: Subject of an ongoing lawsuit

Trump University: Subject of an ongoing lawsuit

Bloomberg had a great piece recently headlined “How Trump’s Self Worth Became His Net Worth,” focusing on the fact that most of Trump’s much hyped wealth is based upon his own perceived value of his name.

Bloomberg’s Steven Mihm observed, “In Trump’s case, the value of his name is a complicated notion, resting on both the “right to publicity” as well as the more conventional foundations of trademark law (Trump has filed more 200 trademark applications, including Donald J. Trump, The Fragrance).” That fragrance smells to high heaven.

Timothy L. O’Brien has been following Trump’s business boasts for years and he writes, also in Bloomberg: “Trump, who flirted with personal bankruptcy in the early ’90s, has never publicly offered an independently vetted assessment of all his debts. Indeed, much of the financial information he discloses is self-reported. Until that changes, there’s a good chance that a strong dose of grade inflation runs through all of the net worth figures.”

Let’s put a finer point on it: Donald Trump is a fraud, which sounds like a good tagline for a television ad campaign.

The Model Already Exists…

Screen shot of 2004 "Swift Boat Veterans" ad against John Kerry

Screen shot of 2004 “Swift Boat Veterans” ad against John Kerry

The models for a Clinton strategy of taking apart The Donald are – I hesitate to say – the shameful “Swift Boating” of then-Senator John Kerry in 2004 and the often unfair characterizations in 2012 of Mitt Romney’s private equity career at Bain Capital. In both those cases, the opponents of Kerry and Romney – George W. Bush and Barack Obama – made strategic decisions to attack at a point of the opponent’s apparent greatest strength.

Kerry was a legitimate and highly decorated Vietnam War veteran and Romney was a demonstrably successful businessman. But the relentless attacks shredded the fundamental strengths of Kerry and Romney to the very great benefit of the ultimately winning candidates.

In fairness, many of the most effective attacks against Kerry and Romney were carried out by so called “independent” campaigns legally separate from the presidential candidates. But, unless you were born last night it’s impossible to believe that the 2004 and 2012 attacks were not conceived as part of the overall strategy of the Bush and Obama campaigns.

Kerry didn’t deserve the “swift boating” and much of the story line about Romney was based on inherent skepticism about his success in an industry that often cut jobs as a business strategy. Trump, on the other hand, is in an entirely different world. He deserves all the scrutiny he should be getting.

The Wizard Unmasked

The Wizard Unmasked

Political generals, like military generals, often mistakenly fight the last war, but in 2016 the lessons from presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2012 hold the most valuable lessons for the Democratic campaign.

Attacking the phony billionaire where he is perceived to be the strongest is a winning approach. Millions of Americans are upset with their presidential choices and many are fed up with a political system that has come perilously close to imploding, but they will understand a self-proclaimed billionaire that doesn’t pay taxes and they will be able to analyze the evidence about a guy whose entire rationale for his candidacy is built around a level of business success that simply doesn’t exist.

Donald Trump’s business acumen is a little like the “all powerful” Wizard of Oz in the famous movie. Once you pull back the curtain you’ll find a little, insecure man who has spent a lifetime bragging about his accomplishments, a man living an illusion, a man who has gotten away with a con job it for a very long time.

Exposing Trump’s business record will also have the added benefit for Clinton of diverting the egomaniac from his own attacks on her. Can you imagine Trump’s response to a sustained assault on his most valuable asset – his self-image as a successful tycoon? It would be a fine thing to watch.

It’s time to get on with pulling back the curtain.

 

The Last Tango of John McCain

 

      “If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life.”

           Senator John McCain who says he will support the GOP nominee.

——–

Let’s call it the Trump Tango, the awkward, unprincipled, downright disgusting dance of various Republican politicians desperate to get right with their “presumptive nominee.” The stumble to the dance floor with Trump comes, of course, after the same crowd spent months believing their new best friend to be, as John Boehner might say, “the devil incarnate.”

Still, unlike the sexy Latin dance, this political tango has no grace, no style, no elegance. The Trump Tango is only about ending up in the same place locked in an uncomfortable partisan embrace when the music finally stops.

Senator Kelly Ayotte

Senator Kelly Ayotte

New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, a vulnerable GOP incumbent in this weird, wild year, is a prime example of one of the delicate dancers. Ayotte says she will vote for the bumptious billionaire, but quickly adds that we shouldn’t consider that an endorsement. You might call that dancing on eggshells.

Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican in the country, began his own graceless tango toward Trump a few days ago. Emerging from a closed-door meeting with the man who has repeatedly dissed his policy proposals, including Medicare and Social Security reform, the Speaker indicated he is warming to Trump’s dance music of racism, Muslim bans, narcissism and misogyny.

A Warm and Genuine Person…

“I was very encouraged with what I heard from Donald Trump today,” Ryan said, “I do believe that we are now planting the seeds to get ourselves unified, to bridge the gaps and differences.” Right.

House Speaker Paul Ryan AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

House Speaker Paul Ryan AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Proving that he can dance backward while wearing high heels, Ryan is clearly pirouetting in the direction of turning the last remnants of the Republican Party over to the charlatan from Queens. “He’s a very warm and genuine person,” Ryan concluded about the man who regularly calls people who challenge him “losers” or “dopes” or “clowns.” Such calm and measured language from the presumptive nominee obviously passes for “warm and genuine” in the new Trump-led GOP. Can the full Paul Ryan embrace followed by the deep swoon be far away?

At least Ryan hesitated before his inevitable jump into Donald Trump’s arms, signaling at least a momentary brush with genuine political principle. By contrast the one-time captain of the “Plain Talk Express” toppled like an old, tired, withered Sonoran saguaro.

John McCain is, of course, running for re-election in Arizona. He has two Tea Party challengers in the August primary and, assuming he survives, McCain will face a very creditable Democrat, Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, in November. McCain is already forecasting the most difficult election he had ever had. Given his shameless embrace of Trumpism he deserves everything he’s going to get.

With Trump at the head of the ticket the one-time “maverick” had to make a choice: he could resist embracing a man that puts the lie to most everything McCain once stood for or he could set aside all principle in the interest of political self-preservation and dance with the devil. McCain has made his choice and The Last Tango of the Maverick has indeed become a sorry spectacle.

Not Oscar and Felix, but certainly an odd couple.

Not Oscar and Felix, but certainly an odd couple.

McCain, perhaps as much as any incumbent Republican in the country, is caught in the ethical and political dilemma that the party has created for itself.

McCain once earned considerable bi-partisan support for pushing back against the tax and spend policies of George W. Bush’s Administration. He worked across the aisle to try and ensure that the Senate actually confirmed qualified judicial nominees. He forged alliances with Democrats to try and limit the corruption of big money in our politics. He once advocated immigration reform. McCain even once shut down a woman at one of his rallies who launched a tirade about Barack Obama being “an Arab.”

Now, afraid to confront the Tea Party, McCain caters to the original birther and supports a guy who disparages his own military record.

I Like People Who Weren’t Captured…

Admittedly it can be difficult to keep all the Trump insults straight, so as a reminder it was way back in July of last year when McCain became one of Trump’s first high profile insult targets. McCain had criticized Trump’s racist rants about Hispanics and worried that such incendiary rhetoric would, as he said, “bring out the crazies” in Arizona. Trump, of course, did what he does – he attacked.

Trump, having never served a day in the military, dissed McCain’s six years of torture and imprisonment in a North Vietnamese POW camp as the story of a loser.

McCain and Sarah Palin

McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008

“(McCain’s) a war hero because he got captured,” General Trump thundered. “I like people who weren’t captured.” Asked later to elaborate, Trump said he wasn’t impressed with McCain’s Senate service since he wasn’t doing enough for veterans. More recently Trump again refused to back off his sleazy comments about McCain saying, in essence, he never apologizes.

On another occasion Trump called the Arizona Republican “another all talk, no action politician who spends too much time on television and not enough time doing his job.” As if spending time on television constituted a political crime in Trumpworld.

But John McCain, the “maverick” straight talker, can’t bring himself to reject the hate monger who has appropriated his party. As E.J. Montini, the political columnist for the Arizona Republic notes, McCain is really concerned only about getting re-elected.

“Instead of being direct and plain-spoken,” Montini wrote recently, McCain is “being cautious and political, calculated.

“He’s teeter-tottering on a tightrope between appeasing the Trump voters he wants and the Latino voters he needs, trying not to topple in either direction.

“As for the ‘Straight Talk Express’ – call a tow truck, it’s out of gas.”

If any Republican had both a reason and the gumption to tell Donald Trump to kiss him where he sits it ought to be John McCain. Surely McCain privately agonizes over a presidential candidate who praises Putin, advocates a return to torture, talks loosely about encouraging nuclear proliferation and will, should he be elected, demand about as much respect from the American military as Jane Fonda.

Still, McCain says he will support the nominee of his party. There is apparently nothing that would disqualify this charlatan. Republicans, and even John McCain, are proving to be partisans first, last and always. When it comes to the presumptive nominee, like his party, McCain has abandoned the last shred of principle in order to rally behind a man – it’s not even a close call – most Republicans know is a dangerous fraud.

McCain might have made his last go round an example of class and courage. He might have danced to a different drummer. He might have called Trump what he is. But he did none of those things. And, who knows, the abandonment of principle may work. McCain may well win re-election by hitching his wagon to Trump’s phony politics, but if he goes down in flames with the crass, conniving businessman it would amount to a certain type of poetic justice. Giving in to a clown only makes one look like a clown.

McCain has long courted Arizona’s large and expanding Hispanic population. He needs a certain degree of support from Arizona’a Hispanic community to win a general election and he might have calculated that telling the truth about Trump would position him well with Hispanics, but he didn’t. McCain instead embraced the very “crazies” he once predicted would come out of the woodwork to support a fundamentally race-baiting candidate. The maverick has become the enabler.

Win or lose this is undoubtedly McCain’s last campaign. The old John McCain might have gone out being remembered for something better than creating Sarah Palin, a decision, which come to think of it, helped create Donald Trump. Yet, McCain’s last tango has turned into a stumbling lurch. As Trump might say – Sad.

 

The GOP’s Joe McCarthy Moment


     

     “Donald Trump delivered a very good foreign policy speech in which he laid out his vision for American engagement in the world.”

Statement by Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker.

——–

The nation’s Republican “elites” have entered the final stage of grief – acceptance.

After wringing their hands for months over the prospect that the most demonstrably unprepared person to every get near a presidential nomination would hijack their party and drive it over a cliff, the GOP “elites” now face the almost certain reality that a race-baiting, woman-hating, foreign policy clueless narcissist will be their presidential candidate.

The denial, distress, disbelief and all the “stop Trump” efforts have now arrived at what conservative columnist David Brooks calls “a Joe McCarthy moment.” Every Republican officeholder, every consultant and lobbyist, every American conservative who wakes up, looks in the mirror and sees an engaged, thoughtful citizen will forever be measured by where they stood on the defining political issue of our time: Do you support Trump?

Republicans once had the guts to say “No” to a man bent on destroying their party and the country. Will enough of them do it again?

The GOP’s McCarthy Moment…

Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders

Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders

In the 1950’s, Republican members of the United States Senate, not Joe McCarthy’s Democratic opponents, finally brought the red-baiting, fear-promoting GOP demagogue of that generation to heel. Vermont Republican Ralph Flanders stood on the Senate floor on March 9, 1954 and spoke directly to McCarthy. It was the beginning of the end of the McCarthy Era. Read the speech today in the Era of Trump, 62 years after Flanders spoke, and its insights ring true, eerily so.

“Mr. President,” Flanders said, “the junior senator from Wisconsin interests us all – there can be no doubt about that – but also he puzzles some of us. To which party does he belong? Is he a hidden satellite of the Democratic Party, to which he is furnishing so much material for quiet mirth? It does not seem that his Republican label can be stuck on very tightly, when, by intention or through ignorance, he is doing his best to shatter the party whose label he wears. He no longer claims or wants any support from the Communist fringe. What is his party affiliation?”

Flanders conclusion about Joe McCarthy then could well be applied to Donald Trump today. “One must conclude that his is a one-man party, and that its name is ‘McCarthyism,” a title which he has proudly accepted.”

McCarthy, driven by ego and political opportunism, was missing the point, Flanders argued. America had enemies to confront and issues to address, just not the ones McCarthy pursued blindly and ruthlessly. Trump is the second coming of the authentic Republican demagogue.

Not all of Flanders’ constituents approved of his speech, but many did and  the bookish Vermonter – he authored or co-authored eight books – had his McCarthy moment, which still stands as an enduring example of great political courage and genuine intellectual honesty. Flanders later introduced the resolution that ultimately led to McCarthy’s censure by the Senate.

Even then Senate Republicans split evenly over condemning an odious and dangerous man. Twenty-one Republicans joined Ralph Flanders in rejecting McCarthy and his tactics. Twenty-two others have had to answer to history for failing to condemn a fomenter of discord and discontent.

Trump and Christie. Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Trump and Christie. Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The shameless and self-promotional among the GOP have, of course, already made their decision about Trump. Chris Christie, once a semi-serious political figure who might have re-defined his own diminished brand by shunning Donald J. Trump, did just the opposite. Christie blew past his McCarthy moment and voted demagogue.

Newt Gingrich, the disgraced former House Speaker who is just as desperate to remain “relevant” as Christie, allows as how he would be available to serve as Trump’s running mate should the great man pick up a gold plated cellphone and bring Gingrich back to political life.

The Shameless and Self-Promotional…

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions endorsed Trump early, as did Trump’s female political doppelgänger Sarah Palin. And Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who has already endorsed two other Republican candidates, now says, “It looks to me like he’s going to win, and if he does, I’m going to do everything in my power to help him.” Even the formerly sane Jon Huntsman says Trump’s his guy.

Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, often an example of the levelheaded conservative, sent shivers down the spine recently when he actually praised Trump’s completely incoherent “major foreign policy speech.” It was the precise moment, with all Trump’s ignorance and bluster on display, for the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to declare the blowhard-in-chief unfit for the awesome responsibilities he seeks. Corker punted. Count on more doing the same. Count on them living to regret it.

In addition to their McCarthy moment, the Republican Party, at least the “elites,” face an existential question: Do they embrace this awful man, the very essence of division and lack of seriousness? Or do they broadly reject the modern equivalent of Joe McCarthy and risk, as a Ralph Flanders did in the 1950’s, the wrath of those drawn to his message of division and hatred? Either way they risk blowing up their party for an election cycle or maybe a generation or maybe forever.

Trump’s new political wise guy, Paul Manafort, a fellow who made his political fortune representing repressive thugs from places like Ukraine and Angola, is confident the “elites” will come around to his new boss. “As he becomes the Republican nominee, there will be a consolidation behind him,” Manafort told the Washington Post’s Dan Balz. “Once he is the nominee, some of that is going to come down naturally. . . . It’s a big deal when you’re the presumptive nominee as opposed to being the nominee.”

Joe McCarthy and his counsel, Roy Cohn, who tutored Donald Trump in the arts of politics

Joe McCarthy and his counsel, Roy Cohn, who late in his life tutored Donald Trump in the art of nasty politics

The media will also get even more on board as the general election nears. The political press, particularly television, which loves the thought of the looming contest between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton and has done so much to enable Trump’s rise, will soon began to offer up more of what we might call the “coverage of false equivalency.”

Trump’s utter lack of political experience will continue to be portrayed as an advantage as opposed to the grievous risk it represents. His shady business dealings and stunning lack of historical perspective on foreign policy will receive short shrift when he turns full-time to trashing “Crooked Hillary.” And trivialities like Trump’s endorsement by the reprehensible character that once coached the Indiana University basketball team is treated as if it mattered to the future of the republic. It doesn’t, by the way.

Do They Really Hate Hillary So Much…

The company Trump’s keeps, from Bobby Knight – Trump misspelled the name of his “dear friend” – who was given to throwing chairs and assaulting his players, to convicted sex offender Mike Tyson, is treated as though it is all just part of a rollicking reality television show passing as a presidential campaign. It should be reported for what it is, a window into what passes for the man’s soul. Get over waiting for the media, especially television, to bring down Trump. That’s like waiting for Godot. Not going to happen.

Clinton’s flat-footed, unimaginative, uninspiring candidacy is apparently all that now stands in Trump’s way and (I can’t believe I’m writing this) it may not be enough. Trump has controlled the political narrative every single day since he slid down his own escalator and into position as Republican frontrunner. There is no reason to believe he won’t continue to dominate, unless that is those with standing in the party he plans to takeover decide to really push back.

This is their Joe McCarthy moment. Do they really hate Hillary so much they would risk turning the country, not to mention their party, over to this dangerous buffoon?

Senate GOP Leadership: Waiting for Trump

Senate GOP Leadership: Waiting for Trump

In a remarkable and utterly sobering article in the most recent New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan summed up our national dilemma: “An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: ‘We Respectables’ deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.”

Enter Trumpism.

Republicans, of course, brought much of this on themselves, but pointing that out now is about as useful as engaging in the false equivalency that says the candidacy of a hateful, arrogant, uninformed demagogue is really just the same as that of an experienced candidate. Even with her all too obvious “trust” issues, Clinton has served as first lady, a U.S. senator and secretary of state. She is competent and informed. The almost certain Democratic nominee isn’t my first or even eighth choice for president of the United States, but good lord she is no Donald Trump.

Andrew Sullivan puts it directly to those Republicans who waffle and waver about whether to push in their chips with Trump, as well as those who will just pretend to ignore him. “They should resist any temptation to loyally back the nominee or to sit this election out,” he writes. “They must take the fight to Trump at every opportunity, unite with Democrats and Independents against him, and be prepared to sacrifice one election in order to save their party and their country.

“For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.”

A handful of Republican consultants, a few conservative journalists and columnists and one GOP senator, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, have drawn a line they will not cross to support a political pretender. It’s not enough.

This really is a Joe McCarthy moment for the Republican Party and the nation. Republicans should be asking where are the Ralph Flanders?

 

Renewing America…

   

      “Are immigrants good for the economy?

      “In the debate over immigration reform, we come back to this argument again and again. The answer is still, ‘Yes.’”

 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

——-

She had the appearance of a middle school student, but the poise of a seasoned diplomat. When she stepped behind a big podium in an imposing, high ceilinged federal courtroom in Tucson, Arizona last week she nearly disappeared, but when she spoke her voice was strong and eloquent. When she finished her brief speech we smiled and dabbed the tears.

New American citizens celebrate

New American citizens celebrate

The young girl told the crowd in the courtroom that she wanted her mother, a newly naturalized American citizen, to know how very proud she was of her. What a moment – a young American proud that her mother had joined her as a citizen. The young girl’s name? America. No kidding.

During a time that has featured far too many unAmerican moments, it was the most American moment imaginable.

Hundreds of thousands of new Americans along with their families and friends, will experience this year what I experienced last week in that Tucson courtroom – a renewal of the promise and strength of the United States of America.

Forty-nine new American citizens raised their right hand last Friday morning and reinvigorated the American experiment. They were from twenty countries, including Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Canada, China, Mexico, Somalia, Eretria, the Philippines, Germany, Sierra Leone, India and the United Kingdom. I came away thinking the new Americans had a better grasp on what it means to be a citizen, including what really participating in our democracy and our communities means, than many of us who were born here and tend to take all we have for granted.

When Federal Magistrate Jacqueline Rateau completed the formal oath she invited those new citizens who wanted the opportunity to say something to their friends and families to approach the podium . Several accepted, including a young fellow born in Somalia, a nation on the horn of Africa, crippled by anarchy and plagued by sectarian strife, where the male life expectancy in 50. This new American citizen promised to continue to be involved in his community in order to make a difference. You believed him.

A scholarly looking native of China, possessed of a PhD in physics, said simply that he wanted to live in the United States because of “freedom, equality and justice.” How American.

I found myself longing to hear all their stories, what they risked to be here, what they left behind, their aspirations, dreams and fears. Despite what some of the “know nothings” running for the highest job in the land are saying these days, we do not make it easy to embrace the dream of America. It takes time to become a citizen, requires dogged persistence and often the help of a network of friends, family, churches and employers. Your background is checked and you must master details of the American system, while also promising to defend the country “against all enemies foreign and domestic.” You become a citizen by wanting to become a citizen.

Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean that it’s not true: the United States, more than any other place on the planet, is a nation of immigrants, upwards of 42 million immigrants in the country according to the last census. Other than the only real Americans – Native Americans – we all came from somewhere else and that is both the strength and the promise of each new generation, a gift that constantly renews and builds a better country.

——-

    “The interaction of disparate cultures, the vehemence of the ideals that led the immigrants here, the opportunity offered by a new life, all gave America a flavor and a character that make it as unmistakable and as remarkable to people today as it was to Alexis de Tocqueville in the early part of the nineteenth century.”
― John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants

——-

Do we need another loving, united American family that once called Mexico home? Are we better off when a Somali-born man commits himself to a new and better life in Arizona? Will that PhD born in China add to the economy and the world’s knowledge? In our hearts and in our heads we know the answer. We know what’s good for America and ourselves. Unfortunately, that knowledge is not always reflected in our politics.

If you ever doubt the wisdom of an America that embraces the strength that comes with diversity and inclusion, and if you ever wonder about the benefits of American citizenship, attend a naturalization ceremony in your community. The 49 new Americans I met last week add strength and character to a nation that needs all the strength and character it can possibly attract.

Each of those 49 people from twenty different countries longed to be, dreamed to be, an American citizen. We should thank our lucky stars that they want to join the rest of us. My own friend – warm, intelligent, worldly and kind – celebrated with a group of her fellow citizens, happy to be an American and happy to acknowledge it was worth the effort to become one. If anything, we were even happier – for her and for us.

 

Year of the Smackdown

 

          “Highly negative views of 2016’s leading candidates may reflect the hyperpartisan climate that has been building in recent years, also evident in previously unseen levels of ideological polarization among primary voters this year. There’s also the level of in-party factionalism this year, especially on the Republican side.”

Recent ABC News poll showing high levels of Trump/Clinton unpopularity

———-

We all know that this political year is an outlier, a set of conditions and candidates so far from the norm that it has confounded pundits, politicians and most of the public. We haven’t seen this combination of nastiness, nativism and nonsense for many a year. Unusual it is, but also perhaps a bitter taste of all that is to come.

Maybe, just maybe, the interminable, dispiriting process of selecting a new president, and the choices the process has produced, merely offers a sour sample of the new face of American democracy. It’s not even close to morning in America, more like nightfall. Cloudy with a chance of chaos.

Disliked and not trusted

Disliked and not trusted

A gnawing realization is settling in. The current campaign may represent nothing less than what the nation will look like far into the future – profoundly divided, deeply cynical, irrationally angry and distressingly unable to confront, let alone solve, big and pressing problems.

Call it the death of aspiration. Label it democracy in decline. This new normal is accelerating the country toward an ominous political cliff. Where once we aspired to the optimistic, sunny uplands of a Kennedy or a Reagan we now settle for so much less. It’s not like we haven’t seen this coming. Now its here.

If things continue as they have over the last six months both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will limp across the finish line, struggling and fussing all the way, to capture the nomination of their parties. Yet, each will also have been broadly rejected by significant numbers of voters in their own parties.

One party, angry, disillusioned and ready for a fight, at least with itself, seems prepared to embrace a man who wants nothing so much as to be taken seriously, but who is also the most seriously unprepared candidate for national office since, well, since Sarah Palin. The other party will likely nominate a candidate whose overriding rationale for running is that she’ll be the first, but who is unable to excite a younger generation of women (or men) who view her as both yesterday’s recycled news and as profoundly untrustworthy.

People who will not win nominations this year are vastly more respected than those who will. Republican voters like John Kasich much better than their likely candidate. Ditto for Democrats and Bernie Sanders. If it is Clinton v. Trump in November we will see a contest between two of the most unpopular, least trusted and most severely flawed candidates in modern times. It will be like Andrew Johnson running against Warren Harding.

From a historical standpoint the election of 2016 may be remembered as the moment that defined new political boundaries, or more likely limitations. Ironically, both of the leading candidates have defied political tradition by basing their campaigns on the past: Clinton finds herself both invoking and rejecting the presidency of her husband – an administration now a quarter century distant – with all of its messy and tawdry contradictions, while Trump promises to “Make America Great Again” without ever suggesting what era of American greatness he has in mind. In both cases the candidates present a yearning for something lost and not a realistic vision for a renewed America.

The Age of Trumpism and Clintonism…

Still, the two frontrunners, as Michael Lind wrote recently in the New York Times, define, distressingly so, the future of American politics. “No matter who wins the New York primaries on Tuesday or which candidates end up as the presidential nominees of the two major parties, one thing is already clear: Trumpism represents the future of the Republicans and Clintonism the future of the Democrats.

“Those who see the nationalist populism of Mr. Trump as an aberration in a party that will soon return to free-market, limited government orthodoxy are mistaken,” Lind writes. “So are those who believe that the appeal of Senator Bernie Sanders to the young represents a repudiation of the center-left synthesis shared by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In one form or another, Trumpism and Clintonism will define conservatism and progressivism in America.”

Or, put another way, the holy war for the future shape of the American political experiment will play out as it has for most of the last quarter century with likely even more anger and division and with less middle ground and common sense. Both candidates promise something new, but Trumpism and Clintonism are more correctly a doubling down on the politics of dysfunction that have given us repeated fights over issues like the debt ceiling and repeal of Obamacare.

Does anyone really think a Hillary Clinton nominee to the Supreme Court will offer anything but a further politicization of the court or that a Republican Party that Trump has led into the fevered swamps of anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim hatred will suddenly come to its senses on the immigration and refugee crisis?

Clinton has never met a war she didn’t like and Trump can’t spell NATO, but would do away with it nonetheless. Don’t expect either candidate – or president – to fundamentally rethink, as it so obviously necessary, America’s frequently disastrous commitments in the Middle East.

Goldman Sachs’ favorite Democrat isn’t any more likely to address the fundamentals of national and global income inequality than is a flaky billionaire given to gold plated bathroom fixtures.

You would think that the anger and disaffection coursing through the American body politic would prompt some serious reflection from serious people about how to accomplish a course correction, but Trump’s idea of reflection is to admire himself in a mirror, while Clinton seems to believe admitting an error, or even an uncertainty, is a sign of weakness. As Maureen Dowd writes Clinton “has shown an unwillingness to be introspective and learn from her mistakes. From health care to Iraq to the email server, she only apologizes at the pointing of a gun. And even then, she leaves the impression that she is merely sorry to be facing criticism, not that she miscalculated in the first place.”

To quote Trump, it’s just “sad.” Months and months of debates, town halls, the Sabbath gasbags, millions – if not billions – in vacuous ads gets us what: A nation horribly divided, unable to generate broad national agreement on any serious priority and led by people most of us don’t trust. This is the new normal. If you liked the last eight years, you’ll love the next four – or forty.

History tells us it is virtually impossible to identify a political crisis until it smacks us in the head, but more and more this feels like the year we get smacked.

 

Life is Sentimental…

     

      “Life is sentimental. Why should I be cold and hard about it? That’s the main content. The biggest thing in people’s lives is their loves and dreams and visions, you know.”

Jim Harrison, 1937-2016

——–

I can’t say I really knew him, the great novelist/poet/gourmand/fisherman/hunter who died last Saturday in the high desert south of Tucson, but I did have my fifteen minutes with Jim Harrison and hearing of his death this weekend burned a hole in my heart.

Jim Harrison in a typical pose

Jim Harrison in a typical pose

What a talent. What a huge talent. And what a life, what a quotable life.

Harrison, the Michigan-born writer of all manner of stories; violent, sweet, sexy, make you cry in the dark stories came to Idaho some years ago and it was both my pleasant and completely intimidating duty to interview him in front of an audience. Interviewing Jim Harrison was a little like reading Faulkner – a lot was going on there.

He didn’t know me from a bale and had no reason to care. No doubt he’d been through the “famous author answers questions from some rube in the sticks” routine ten thousand times. But he was kind, generous and did a reasonable approximation of Jim Harrison being interviewed; interviewed by someone – me – who wanted to sound “literary,” but mostly had to fake it. He might have embarrassed me. He didn’t.

      “The simple act of opening a bottle of wine has brought more happiness to the human race than all the collective governments in the history of earth.”

We still laugh about that interview in the auditorium of the high school in Hailey, Idaho. After the author of “Legends of the Fall” and “Dalva” and a dozen other shining, wonderful books answered the last question he need a cigarette break. Returning from the smoking interlude outside he positioned himself at a small table in the auditorium in order to sign his name in the books fans clutched as they waited in line for a moment of his time. My very much better half, hoping to be helpful, inquired if he might need anything, thinking glass of water, cup of coffee, etc.

“A glass of red wine would be nice,” was the reply. You got the impression that might have been an appropriate response to almost any conceivable question asked of Jim Harrison.

Of all the books and all the poems, I like “Dalva” the best, perhaps because the story is set in the rough and starkly beautiful country of northwestern Nebraska where I have my own roots. The book centers on a rough, starkly beautiful 40-something half-Sioux woman who is on the quest we all are on – to find ourselves.

The Guardian noted in a 2012 story about Harrison that the book is an “overlooked classic,” but not in France where Harrison has long enjoyed a major following. He has said that it was not uncommon for him to encounter French women named “Dalva.” If you haven’t read it – read it.

      “What’s the meaning of it all? “Seems to me nobody’s got a clue. Quote Jim Harrison on that: Nobody’s got a clue.”

Jim Fergus, interviewing Harrison for The Paris Review in 1986, said: “Harrison is a man of prodigious memory and free-wheeling brilliance and erudition, as well as great spirit and generosity, lightness and humor; so the reader should imagine wild giggles and laughter throughout, and supply them even when they seem inappropriate—especially when they seem inappropriate.”

His close friend Tom McGuane, another very fine writer, said much the same when he wrote a short “postscript” about Harrison in The New Yorker: “Few American writers of recent times have had his erudition and phenomenal memory. To the end, Jim was a country boy who’d been touched.”

He touched his readers, too.

Lights and Wires in a Box…

   

    “One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and, at times, demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles.”

                                                                                 – Edward R. Murrow in 1958

——–

The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination is many things – a narcissist, a psychopath, misogynist, authoritarian, Islamophobic, racist, but also the most accomplished manipulator of mass communication maybe in the history of American politics.

A typical Trump cable TV "hit"

A typical Trump cable TV “hit”

Donald Trump has completely figured out the relentless ebb and flow of modern political communication. He understands in detail the need to “feed the beast” and that the feedstock for television has little to do with substance. The modern news cycle is about always being available, responding immediately and constantly raising the bar of outrageousness. Trump’s unhinged personality and incessant need to be the center of attention is a perfect match for the tools of social media and 24-hour cable news.

Near as I can tell Trump never turns down an interview request unless it’s from Megyn Kelly on Fox, a level of accommodation for cable television’s conflict driven programming that has been irresistible as CNN’s president confirmed recently. Trump “has been much more available than many of the others who have been or are still in the race,” Jeff Zucker said. “Just because he says ‘yes’ and has subjected himself to those interviews, and [other candidates] don’t, I’m not going to penalize him for saying ‘yes.’”

Indeed. why penalize Trump when it is so lucrative to ratings and cash flow to constantly provide a forum? CNN has been charging 40 times it’s normal price for a commercial during the “Republican Debates Starring Donald J. Trump.” Co-dependency is obviously lucrative.

Trump has re-written the rules for the Sunday morning shows featuring what the great Calvin Trillin correctly terms “the Sabbath Gasbags.” Twenty-nine different times since the beginning of the campaign Trump has “phoned it in” to one of the Sunday programs and almost daily he does the same with television’s morning shows.

The telephone “interview” gives the small-fingered vulgarian a home field advantage. He tends to easily dominate these exchanges by filibustering and refusing to be interrupted. By conducting his media outreach by phone, Trump doesn’t have to put himself out by actually showing up in a studio and facing a questioner. As a result he rarely gets asked a follow up question, although he almost never provides a real answer in the first place. The “journalists” know, of course, that they are being played, but until recently everyone played along. Only when Trump’s tactics finally became the focus of print media coverage did Chuck Todd on NBC, for example, call a halt to the phone-a-phon.

CBS Chairman Moonves:

CBS Chairman Moonves: “The money’s rolling in.”

Trump completely understands the weirdly perverse symbiotic relationship that links a no-nothing big-mouthed candidate with the venality that has come to characterize modern television news. The vicious and almost always vacuous cycle of personality and enabler goes something like this: TV needs ratings in order to sell commercial time. Outrage and spectacle drive ratings. Trump delivers outrage and spectacle. TV gives time to Trump. Ratings sore and cash registers ring. Voila!

“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” That is a quote from CBS Chairman Les Moonves who spoke last month to a media conference in San Francisco. It was a rare moment of illuminating candor from the top guy at the network that was once home to Cronkite and Murrow. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Moonves continued, “and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

“There is always a mutually beneficial relationship between candidates and news organizations during presidential years,” writes the New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg. “But in my lifetime it’s never seemed so singularly focused on a single candidacy. And the financial stakes have never been so intertwined with the journalistic and political stakes.” Just ask Les Moonves.

Vulgarity Meets the Broadcaster’s Bottom Line…

By one measure Trump has received nearly two billion dollars in free media coverage since his announcement of candidacy was, of course, carried live on cable television last summer. At one level the Trump phenomenon is easily explained: free advertising works. At least it works with 35-40 percent of the Republican electorate.

The “old media” – read “print” – scrutiny of Trump, by contrast, has been unrelenting and often excellent, with the New York Times and Washington Post producing detailed and often fascinating (as well as disturbing) accounts of the billionaire (is he really?) blowhard’s often unsuccessful business practices. The Post’s recent story on the lawyer Trump tried to conflict out of a lawsuit is both a great piece of reporting and one suspects a genuine glimpse into Trump’s sleazy approach to business and everything else.

Columnists like the Times’ Tim Egan and Frank Bruni have laid bare Trump’s complete disregard of facts and his fourth grade grasp of policy. Conservatives like David Brooks and Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, have taken on Trump from the right with Gerson particularly challenging Trump enablers like Chris Christie and Ben Carson. Politico’s Roger Simon has a wonderful ability to burst the media bubble around El Trumpo and get to the essence of why he is so unprepared for the job and so dangerous in even seeking the job.

Even the sanctimonious George Will, a Sabbath Gasbag if ever there was one, has consistently hammered Trump, although Will’s groping for the principled high ground is increasingly hard to take since he has been among the chief conservative enablers to the “establishment” Republican Party that has done so much to create a genuine American demagogue.

Still every candidate for alderman knows that in politics you want to get your mug on tube. Trump rails against the “dishonest media,” but really could care less when a well-informed columnist calls him what he is. Trump is all about the airtime.

While media moguls like Moonves and Zucker count their millions it is worth remembering a simpler time when another powerful demagogue ranged across the land. Ed Murrow, the North Carolina-born broadcaster who came of age in the Pacific Northwest, was accused at the time of being late to the dissection of the demagogue from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy. Still, watching Murrow’s riveting thirty-minute takedown of “the junior senator from Wisconsin” in 1954 is a reminder of what television can do to puncture the bloated ego of a dangerous authoritarian.

When Murrow Took on McCarthy…

Senator McCarthy responds to Edward R. Murrow in 1954

Senator McCarthy responds to Edward R. Murrow in 1954

Murrow (and his producer Fred Friendly) used McCarthy’s own words to do him in during their famous See it Now broadcast. In his concluding essay Murrow, the Washington State University grad, reminded his generation that every citizen has a responsibility to speak out when evil lurks in the body politic.

Substitute “Trump” for “McCarthy” and you may experience an eerie sense of déjà vu when reading Murrow’s words from 1954.

“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ Good night, and good luck.”

McCarthy responded the following week, of course, by labeling Murrow a communist dupe. A few months late the Senate censured McCarthy and his influence rapidly cascaded into history.

In his engaging 1970 study of McCarthy and the United States Senate, which for too long abetted his undemocratic tactics, historian Robert Griffith used words that might have been written by a contemporary observer of our politics.

Murrow on the cover of Newsweek in 1954

Murrow on the cover of Newsweek in 1954

“To a considerable degree ‘Joe McCarthy’ was the creation of our communications system,” Griffith wrote in “The Politics of Fear,” his scholarly study of McCarthy, his methods and the Senate. “Like most instruments through which the past is mediated the press was an active and not a passive agent. They very questions asked determined the answers it reported. And these answers in turn shaped the total political context. Nor were these actions always conscious, consistent, or premeditated. The nation’s prestige press was overwhelmingly opposed to McCarthy, yet by the very intensity of its coverage it helped to assure his permanence as a symbol of Republican partisanship.”

Once upon a time executives at CBS, no doubt reluctantly and even frightened by what might happen, had the guts to allow Ed Murrow to unmask Joe McCarthy’s methods. The moment stands as one of the greatest in the history of a medium that has few enough great moments.

In his most famous speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association in 1958, Murrow offered what is still a remarkably trenchant observation about television. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”

But does anyone in a position of authority at the big television conglomerates have the guts and the integrity to make it useful? The network run by the guy who says “Bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” doesn’t seem too likely to turn ’60 Minutes loose, even on a dangerous demagogue.