On Sex Work, Morality, and Truth

Pete Buttigieg is among those on the left who, in deriding Donald Trump as a “porn star president,” takes a jab at an industry in sex work that has been disproportionately stigmatized and which sees its professionals face certain risks and a lack of concern for their rights and trustworthiness. (Photo Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

At a recent CNN town hall, Democratic hopeful Pete Buttigieg took specific issue with Vice President Mike Pence’s support of Donald Trump. Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pence’s home state) and openly gay (ahem, not Pence’s favorite distinction), criticized Pence for his support for Trump in an apparent abandonment of his principles as a Christian. As Buttigieg put it, “How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn star presidency? Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?”

As far as the post-event dissection and sound bite accumulation went, this was Buttigieg’s quote of the night. For what it’s worth, the pointed criticism of Pence and the religious right is well taken. Prior to the rise of Trump, white evangelicals were most likely to insist on a candidate’s morality as an important quality. Now, however, they downplay Trump’s moral and other deficiencies of character, in this respect acting more white than evangelical. For some, it may be unconscious, but either way, religious conservatives see an ally in a president who appears to exemplify the so-called “prosperity gospel” and who would uphold their brand of “religious freedom.”

Mayor Buttigieg, though, is not a member of the religious right. He is a Democrat and Episcopalian whose mere sexual orientation would make him a target of conservative Christians’ scorn. His attack of Trump’s “porn star presidency” is a double-edged sword that strikes not only at Mike Pence’s hypocrisy and that of his ilk but also at adult entertainers and their choice of vocation. Within his comments are an implicit criticism of porn stars—or at least a failure to defend them. Trump is a bad person. He consorts with porn stars. By association, if you associate with him or them, you are a bad person.

The unnamed allusion to Trump’s extramarital liaison with Stephanie Clifford a.k.a. Stormy Daniels is not the first knock on the woman who alleges she slept with Trump and was paid off in advance of the 2016 presidential election for her silence. Rudy Giuliani—or the crazy person masquerading as Rudy Giuliani for the purposes of defending Donald Trump—expressed to a national audience the belief that Daniels has no credibility because she is a porn star. Translation: Stormy Daniels is a lying whore who can’t be trusted because all porn stars are lying whores. Michael Avenatti’s detractors on the right have leveled similar criticisms of Daniels’s then-lawyer on guilt-by-association principles. He represents porn stars, ipso facto, he is a lying scumbag.

Irrespective of what you think of their personalities—Avenatti, in particular, strikes me as an obnoxious attention-seeker—their choice of vocation or client shouldn’t have a bearing on their believability. As is oft said, love the sinner; hate the sin. In this instance, however, even on the left, there are those who condemn the sinner and sin. Trump is a “porn star president.” Lost in the discussion of his and Pence’s and Daniels’s and Avenatti’s morality is the more relevant issue of whether Donald Trump specifically directed a payoff to Stormy Daniels and whether that constituted a breach of campaign finance law. It shouldn’t matter whether Daniels is a porn star or prostitute or any other similar type of professional. It’s Trump’s conduct with which we should be primarily concerned.

Unfortunately, this bilateral takedown of adult entertainers and other sex workers is emblematic of our larger discomfort with sex work as a function of our discomfort with, well, sex. Sex is enjoyable. It’s the reason most of us are here, barring in vitro fertilization or the like. Talking about it, though, for many of us can be an, er, icky prospect, necessitating the use of double entendre or other euphemistic language. And showing our appreciation of its splendor? Oh, no. Especially for women, that’s not very “lady-like.” Too much sex and you risk getting branded as a “slut.” Worse yet if you’re a prostitute. Then you’re a criminal and deserve to be admonished. So much for the world’s oldest profession.

I watch porn. (Mom, if you’re reading this, apologies.) I’m not without my reservations. There are the usual complaints. The costumes tend to be tacky. Lo, the cut-rate nurse uniforms. The dialogue is often stilted. The acting is frequently subpar. And is there nothing that doesn’t get a porn parody? Who asks for a Rugrats porn parody anyway? Who finds that sexy?

Even when these things are improved upon—and I do think the production value of today’s adult entertainment is largely superior to the XXX offerings of yesteryear—there are troubling aspects of the presentation and of the industry as a whole. The plots—which often barely qualify as such and for some reason usually revolve around sex with stepfamily—can be steeped in misogyny, involving coercion or trickery of the female participant(s) as pivotal “plot” points.

Even when the content is geared to be more “female friendly,” the on-screen enjoyment is often reserved for wealthy characters who enjoy lavish accommodations on the count of being highly-paid hard-working individuals. It’s luxury porn on top of being actual porn. There are also concerns off camera about suicides of numerous high-profile stars and the ever-present worry about transmission of sexually-transmitted infections in a world where condom use is infrequent. And we haven’t yet gotten to the problem of monetization for production companies and actors/actresses alike.

So yeah, the adult entertainment industry has its issues—and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Still, I’m not sure why there seems to be such a disdain or disregard for the people involved, the type which prompts left-leaning comedians like Chelsea Handler to equate porn stars with abusers, child molesters, and Russian hackers. I get that its objectors may see porn as exploitative and the performers as lacking talent. But why the hate? Because they love sex and like getting paid for it? Even within the context of the on-film productions, there seems to be an inherent condemnation of the young women in these situations modeled on real life. These whores will do anything for money! They can’t control themselves when they see what he’s packing down there! We condemn them for their vices while absconding to our bedrooms, gratifying our pleasures. To the extent that these scenes are a reflection of us and our society is disconcerting.

Morality also appears to cloud our collective judgment when it comes to our demonization of escorts, prostitutes, et cetera and advocacy for their rights. A presumption in this regard is that the sex worker has agency over her or his circumstances—and that may be a big presumption to make. There are arguments by some feminists and others that sex work is an oppressive form of labor, especially as it relates to exploitation by “pimps.” Speaking of exploitation, there are serious concerns about human and sex trafficking that would subvert that necessary agency and constitute a serious crime. In many cases, there are quantifiable risks to the sex worker, including drug use, poverty, rape, sexually-transmitted infections, and violence.

These issues notwithstanding, the stigma of sex work lingers. As with adult entertainers, prostitutes who get involved with this line of work for the money or sex are demeaned as unskilled opportunists, and as for the risks they face, the consensus response seems to be an effective shrug of the shoulders. They chose this lifestyle. If they don’t like it, they should get an education and a real job. This comes to a head when discussing sex workers’ desire for safety and protection against burdensome regulations as well as freedom of movement, available health services, and other rights that mere status as a human being should confer. In practice, this is not always the reality.

Meera Senthilingam, a CNN Health and Wellness editor, penned an article which appeared on CNN in February concerning “what sex workers really want.” In the opinion of one sex worker interviewed for the piece, seeing as they pay the same taxes, sex workers should be afforded the same rights as other service professionals who are allowed to work from home. There is also the problem for some prostitutes when law enforcement gets involved. In places where the legality of the practice is null or vague and dependent on who solicits who, the presence of police may actually be a deterrent to would-be customers.

This assumes, by the by, that the police aren’t the ones abusing, exploiting, or harassing sex workers, and as with the agency of sex workers mentioned earlier, this is quite an assumption to make. As with any profession, there are bad actors, and for a population in sex workers already susceptible to violence and other health and safety concerns, it puts practitioners in a bind, to put it mildly. It begs the question: who will watch the watchers when it comes to safeguarding their liberties as citizens?

The above deliberations are worth talking about. Whether it’s because of a deprecating attitude regarding sex work, a discomfort in approaching such matters, or both, however, even those on the left who usually are keen on standing up for individuals’ agency over their bodies and protecting their inalienable rights appear loath to mention sex workers specifically. Chalk it up to social mores or personal morality, but in 2019, America and the world at large is evidently lagging on this topic.


You might ask why we are worried about the feelings and opinions and rights of someone like Stormy Daniels. The woman didn’t even vote, for crying out loud! What do she and her contemporaries have to contribute to the larger discussion about Donald Trump and American politics? To be honest, I’m not totally sure, but if we dismiss her as an opportunist and a slut from the jump, what chance do we have to listen and know with an open mind?

In front of an audience of 500 women or so at The Wing, a work and community space designed for women in Washington, D.C., Daniels recently said she believes Michael Cohen to be true in his testimony to lawmakers. Cohen, like Daniels, has had his credibility attacked reflexively by Republican supporters of the president, and while she may not possess a great deal of affection for the man—she referred to Cohen as “dumber than herpes”—she thinks he is honest and that, like her, he came forward because he’s tired of “being bullied” and “being called a liar and a rat.”

Sure, this is just one person’s opinion, but it comes from someone who alleges to know Trump intimately—in more than one sense of the word. In this respect, her thoughts have at least much value as a shameless defender of Trump like Sean Hannity. Instead, though, she’s a porn star to be derided alongside the president, Mike Pence, and even child molesters and wife beaters. Thanks for the insight, but we’d rather scoff at you from atop our high horses. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.

Whether it’s within the context of #MeToo or of simply acknowledging the dignity of sex workers as human beings, the left has a problematic relationship with those storytellers it considers to be problematic or unsavory. Daniels has stressed she is a not a victim with regard to #MeToo. Cohen, set to spend three years in federal prison, is sure as heck not a victim.

Through all the deals they’ve struck and monies they’ve received, this doesn’t mean they’re utterly irredeemable. And their past actions and vocations have no bearing on the veracity of what they say about Trump. To allow our social and moral misgivings to stand in the way of our better judgment is to fall prey to the same kind of prejudices that have characterized conservatism of late. You know, when its practitioners actually heed their conscience or the teachings of scripture.

Moderate Dems Should Reconsider Their Votes on Motions to Recommit

When Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are agreeing on matters of procedural voting, you get the idea it’s significant. (Photo Credit: Julio Obscura/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

I don’t always agree with Nancy Pelosi. Neither does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But I think all three of us are in accord on the point that moderate Democrats should be wary of Republican attempts to use motions to recommit to divide the party, and this to me speaks volumes.

First, a little backdrop: what the heck is a motion to recommit? According to an archived page on the official House of Representatives website under the banner of the late Democratic representative Louise Slaughter:

The motion to recommit provides one final opportunity for the House to debate and amend a measure, typically after the engrossment and third reading of the bill, before the Speaker orders the vote on final passage. The motion is the prerogative of the Minority party and in many cases constitutes the Minority’s one opportunity to obtain a vote on an alternative or a proposal to improve the measure. In the case of a bill or a joint resolution, the Rules of the House prohibit the Rules Committee from reporting a special rule that denies a motion to recommit with instructions.

As this synopsis goes on to explain, there are two types of motions to recommit: those with and without instructions. In the case of the former, when the motion is adopted, the measure is reported back to the House with the instructed amendment, the House votes on the amendment, and if it is adopted, then the measure goes through engrossment (preparation of an official printed copy of a measure as it has been modified), an additional reading, and final passage. In the case of the latter, the motion, when adopted, sends a piece of legislation back to committee without a final vote. Scintillating stuff, I know.

Frequently, motions to recommit have been simple matters of procedure. The minority party seeks to modify a bill, party-line votes occur, end of story. Increasingly of late, however, motions to recommit are being weaponized by the minority party—in this case, the Republican Party—to sway centrist Democrats on “wedge” issues, notably those from what are considered “swing” districts.

This brings us up to speed and to the events of the past two weeks or so. Ed Kilgore, writing for New York Magazine, penned an article about a recent flare-up of tensions within the Democratic Party over one of these last-minute motions that actually got added to a bill as an amendment. The crux of the legislation was devoted to closing the gun show loophole. Seems fair, sensible. The problem arose when 26 Democrats voted in favor of a motion to recommit that added language instructing law enforcement officials to notify ICE if an “illegal immigrant” tries to purchase a gun.

For someone like Ocasio-Cortez, who made “abolish ICE” part of her campaign platform and who represents a district very sensitive to the Trump administration’s more hostile tone toward immigrant populations (the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant,” in it of itself, is a sticking point), having to vote on a measure that essentially makes her choose between gun safety and immigrant rights is understandably awkward. For Speaker Pelosi, an establishment Democrat charged with keeping the peace in her house, the breaking of ranks is, if nothing else, a bad look for the party. The whole episode feeds into a media narrative desperate to sow the seeds of conflict between and within the major political parties (and sell subscriptions).

For the moderate Democrats who voted “yea” on the motion to recommit, however, they present their own grievances, buoyed by the objections of someone like AOC. Ocasio-Cortez, for one, represents a non-competitive district. Xochitl Torres Small, conversely, represents New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, which went for Donald Trump in the 2016 election by more than 10 points, and she is cited within Kilgore’s article as bristling at AOC’s criticisms. As these centrists would aver, it’s easy to preach party unity when you’re sitting in deep blue territory but it’s a horse of a different color when you hail from a locale in which border security is a more contentious and relevant topic.

Making matters worse is the insinuation that critics of Democrats who voted with Republicans on motions to recommit could face primary changes if they continue to step across the aisle in bad faith. Kilgore references a Washington Post article on this same set of events, in which one of Ocasio-Cortez’s spokespeople, Corbin Trent, is quoted as saying Democrats who side with Republicans “are putting themselves on a list.” That remark, in its vagueness, has been interpreted as a warning to these moderates that progressives will support primary challengers looking to unseat them in upcoming elections. As you would expect, this news was not particularly well-received.

Josh Gottheimer, co-chair of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus, called this purported list “Nixonian” in its applications while maintaining that the Democratic Party needs a “big tent” to remain in control of the House. Ocasio-Cortez later clarified that she isn’t threatening to primary Gottheimer or anyone else and that she simply was frustrated at being compelled to vote for a pro-ICE provision within the gun show loophole bill in light of the last-minute changes and the short timetable for a vote. Her “list” comment, if anything, was a heads-up to Gottheimer and other Problem Solvers that they ran the risk of being added to a list of potential primary challenges or siding with Republicans—not that she would be the one leading the charge.

I have become familiar with Josh Gottheimer through my participation in political activism groups based in and around New Jersey’s district, and speaking as a direct observer, I find his whole involvement with the motion to recommit and his subsequent comments to be disingenuous and made in poor taste. It’s true that Josh’s district is a more competitive one. For him to lobby criticisms while serving as co-chair of a Problem Solvers Caucus that, of late, has seemingly caused more problems than it has solved—and which refuses to provide a list of its members even when directly asked—frames his own pleas for party unity in an odd context.

This is especially so when he has spent the better part of this past week serving as the pro-Israel lobby’s attack dog/shameless defender. With all the time and energy spent admonishing Ilhan Omar after she wished to advance a legitimate conversation about the influence of lobbyist money in American politics, he could be, you know, actually holding a real town hall to interact with and field the concerns of his constituents or, say, taking a meaningful stance on immigration and Pres. Trump’s hateful rhetoric. But yours is a swing district. I forgot that means you can’t be held accountable, Rep. Gottheimer.


Ed Kilgore has these parting words for Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the House Democrats regarding the strife brought out about by party members breaking ranks:

These tensions create some serious problems for Nancy Pelosi, who must cater to every faction in her caucus. One option for her is simply to impose party discipline and insist moderates bite the bullet on cleverly designed Republican poison-pill amendments. As she and others pointed out in the caucus meeting, Republicans managed to vote down similar Democratic gambits routinely when they controlled the House, adopting a “just say no” party line on all procedural motions from the other side of the aisle.

Alternatively, Pelosi may have to rethink how much value there really is for her caucus and party in “messaging” bills like the gun measure, which is about as likely to be considered in the Republican-controlled Senate as a bill to double Planned Parenthood’s funding. A symbolic gesture toward an important if presently unachievable goal like better gun regulation is a lot more effective if Democrats can agree in advance not to let themselves get distracted by Republican hijinks. The last thing they need is a public “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” with media hounds eagerly feeding on every morsel of conflict.

In a sense, I agree with Josh Gottheimer that the Democratic Party needs to be able to accommodate differences of opinion and nuanced arguments across issues. While a large degree of consensus is to be expected keeping the party’s ideals in mind, positions evolve and debates can be had. In some cases, deviations from the party line can be cheered rather than bemoaned. They reveal a capacity for independent thought and a willingness to stand apart in a substantive way. It’s something I wish more congressional Republicans would do instead of trading in their backbones for MAGA hats.

These sentiments presume, of course, that these motions to recommit and other “debates” are made in good faith. More and more, however, the evidence suggests this is not the case or that matters which have no meaningful point of compromise are approached with a spirit of capitulation. Kilgore is correct that the gun show loophole bill is the kind that is all but dead on arrival in the Senate. The best the GOP could hope for was to get ICE language added to the bill and to cause a ruckus among the Dems. If the back-and-forth between Gottheimer and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi’s public call to order are any indication, Republicans succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The Democrats, in this instance, looked weak—over a procedural vote, no less. House Democrats should be smarter than that.

Additionally, on ICE specifically, the Democratic Party needs to understand that defections under the guise of working within “political realities” undermine the value of the party’s messaging as a whole in its appeal to diversity. How does one reconcile putting women and children in cages and having people die while in federal custody with respect for communities of color as a function of humanity as a whole? Why is this even treated like a debate? It’s cruel and immoral, and Democrats should not be afraid to condemn these crimes.

Besides, it’s not as if concerns about border security require such barbarism. Even if these fears are overblown, there are ways to address the immigration issue without inhumane conditions or a costly wall and while holding relevant federal agencies accountable. Staying silent or treading lightly in the name of political expediency only invites further attempts by the Republican Party to chip away at the Democrats’ unified front.

Even with “messaging” bills, votes matter, especially in a day and age when information is so visible and so rapidly spread. Moderate Democrats should reconsider their votes on motions to recommit made in bad faith—and reflect on their commitment to their party’s ideals in doing so.

You Don’t Have to Be a Democrat—but Who Are You Supporting?

Candace Owens is right that blacks don’t have to support the Democrats. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all she’s right about. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

Treating the analogy of the closing bar as a metaphor for political affiliation, “going home” is presumably supporting the Democratic Party, at least for people who have been party supporters or are members of subsets of the electorate that traditionally have formed the party’s base. It may not be the most satisfying way to end the night but it’s safe, familiar.

The “staying here” non-option-option, by association, is supporting the Republican Party. In terms of the bar analogy, this means if you don’t leave willingly, the cops show up and you likely go to jail. In politics, it means likely supporting a party in the GOP that stokes racist prejudice and makes upholding the status quo a priority—whether that’s good for the population as a whole or not.

In either case, the “staying here” option seems like a questionable decision to make. Who would rather go to jail than leave of his or her own volition? Why would you support a party that seems predicated on hatred of people like yourself?

And yet, there are obviously exceptions to the rule. For example, in the 2016 election, an estimated 8% of black voters opted for Donald Trump. As Michael D. Shear, John Eligon, and Maggie Haberman profile in a piece for The New York Times, there are those blacks who stand by the president even at the risk of damage to their credibility and despite his negative messaging.

The article focuses on but isn’t limited to people that have a following on social media and YouTube, namely Candace Owens and the sisterly duo of Diamond and Silk. These figures had prominent roles at this year’s CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) as well, loudly arguing against liberalism, socialism, and reparations, among other things. As Owens would insist, President Trump is not a racist and black people who hear him speak up close “love him.” As Trump’s fervent backers would insist, this support from black voters as well as his relationships with black celebrities is evidence that the mogul-turned-Commander-in-Chief is not a racist.

Only Donald J. Trump knows what’s in Donald J. Trump’s heart for sure. From what we’ve seen so far, meanwhile, the evidence pointing to him not being a racist is, well, not good. The firm of Eligon, Haberman, and Shear isolate just a handful of instances where Trump and his rhetoric speak to an anti-black bias, namely accusations of housing discrimination for him and his father, Fred Trump, calls for violence against Black Lives Matter activists, his unrepentant advocacy for the death penalty or other punishment for the Central Park Five even after their exoneration, and that whole “shithole countries” comment in reference to Africa and immigration. In other words, if Trump isn’t a racist, he’s got a lot of explaining to do. And this is all before we get to his treatment of other people of color, especially Hispanics/Latinx residents and individuals from countries subject to his administration’s “travel ban” (or “Muslim ban,” as its critics would less diplomatically label it).

Also not a good sign: the lack of black representation in Trump’s Cabinet and his administration as a whole. Ben Carson is the only African-American in the Cabinet, serving in a capacity for which he was questionably qualified in the first place as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Omarosa Manigault Newman was the only black member of his senior staff and has since written a tell-all book that would seek to confirm the allegations of racism at which Trump’s public conduct hints.

Expanding the conversation to the Republican Party at large, the article’s authors key in on a recent episode during the Cohen hearing in which Rep. Mark Meadows defended the president from Michael Cohen’s allegations of racism by pointing to his employ of Lynne Patton, an official within Carson’s HUD department. For detractors, this was Meadows using Patton as a “prop” and an example of a bigger pattern of GOP leaders relying on “token” members as proof of their commitment to minority groups. I can’t be a racist. I have family that are people of color. If it seems like weak sauce to a white person like myself, you can just imagine how it might sound to actual people of color.

This is what makes Trump backers like Candace Owens and Diamond and Silk so confounding and profiles like the recent New York Times piece so compelling. Short of a gun to my head or literal brain damage, I can’t think of any reason why I would cast a vote for Trump in 2020—to be clear, I didn’t vote for him in 2016—and being a straight white cisgender male, I am the least likely to feel the brunt of the administration’s more destructive policies toward communities of color. For blacks and other members of minority groups, the reasons for standing by President Trump seem less clear.

The division within the ranks of black Republicans as told by Shear, Eligon, and Haberman may shed some light. Even within this sphere, conflict and uneasiness abound. Some unequivocally believe in Trump. Some support him despite his rhetoric or what they see as black administration officials reinforcing negative stereotypes. And some, like their white GOP counterparts, have distanced themselves from the president entirely.

Accordingly, if we non-Republicans are perplexed, we are not alone. For the Candace Owenses of the world, “staying here” and sticking with the Republican Party has been an option and, what’s more, it has boosted their national profile. It’s a path and a profile not without risk to their long-term relevance, though, and not without consequences for other women and people of color. Not to mention all bets may be off when, as with the closing bar, the cops show up. Unless you believe all the African-Americans who have died at the hands of police had it coming to them. In that case, don’t let me dissuade you.


For those not totally enamored with Donald Trump’s approach and/or who represent a potentially vulnerable segment of the electorate, they may see their identity as a Republican or Trump supporter as a virtue, even as others might deem it a liability.

Returning to the Eligon, Haberman, and Shear piece, black political strategist Raynard Jackson, who found himself aghast at the spectacle of Mark Meadows and Lynne Patton, is cited within as a Trump backer despite certain misgivings. While he criticizes the president for “surrounding himself with black people who told him what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to hear,” Jackson still stands by him because of his economic policies and because he feels he (Jackson) can make a bigger difference from the inside of the conservative movement. If nothing else, he feels he has a seat at the table. Love or hate Trump, that’s more than a lot of us can say.

The portion of African-Americans who support Trump/other Republicans is perhaps an extreme example owing to how small it is. I also recognize the idea that I am perhaps not the best or most qualified person to be talking about Trump’s approval as it intersects with race. Either way, let’s open the conversation to a larger discussion of his supporters and why they voted for our country’s leader.

Back in 2015, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic asked 30 Trump supporters why they backed the orange-faced one. The answers were fairly wide-ranging, though understandably, some common themes emerged. He’s a moderate at heart. He wants America to win. He has a drive for perfection. He’s living the American dream. He’s an alpha male. He has led large organizations before. He has BUILT REAL THINGS. He’s not politically correct. He’s not politically correct. He’s not politically correct. He’s not rehearsed. He’s a deal-maker. He won’t take no for an answer. He’s not Barack Obama. He’s not Hillary Clinton. He stands up for working Americans. He’ll protect America and put it first. He has put illegal immigration front and center. We’ll be able to burn it down and build it up faster with him in charge. The two-party system is broken. The presidency is a joke. At least it will all be entertaining.

As Friedersdorf found, the responses tended to fall into one of two broad categories: 1) those who believed Trump was the best choice to lead the country, and 2) chaotic as his presidency would be, it would be a sight to behold. Reading through the responses myself, what struck me—beyond the ideas that some people are really fed up with political correctness and that some people simply want to watch the world burn—is that Americans wanted someone who made them feel proud to be Americans. Obama, in his intellectual, reserved manner, did not always communicate that sense of bravado and confidence that people have come to associate with our proud republic. On the other hand, Trump, the consummate showman, articulates these sentiments better than anyone. For a self-professed Ivy league-educated billionaire, he’s somehow relatable.

Minuscule as the segment of pro-Trump black voters may be, it nonetheless may be instructive not to dismiss what the president means to them. Trump, for many, represents winning and patriotic pride. For all their fidelity to the Democratic Party, black Americans may not find their lives dramatically better because of it. As it bears stressing, politics and your support should be fundamentally about what you believe is right; it shouldn’t necessarily be characterized by what you expect to get out of the deal. But could I understand blacks expressing their dissatisfaction with a party they feel has taken them for granted? Sure. As a progressive, I feel it sometimes myself. Perhaps not in the same way, mind you, but feel it I have.

You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here. Nothing says you have to vote Democrat. You can vote independent. You can vote third-party. You can not vote at all, which I would discourage, but it’s your choice. The likes of Candace Owens and Kanye West have helped promote this notion. At the end of the day, however, voting Republican in the era of Trump, despite what it means for one’s sense of autonomy or desire to succeed or national pride or even morbid curiosity, nonetheless strikes me as a counterproductive exercise. It’s one thing to walk away from the Democratic Party. It’s another to walk away and into the jaws of a party that uses you as a prop or actively campaigns on the idea you are something lesser.

Bernie’s Not a “True Democrat.” So What?

Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. But he’s done as much to advance the Democratic Party’s true ideals than anyone in recent history and is among the least likely in the Senate to vote with President Donald Trump’s agenda. Shouldn’t that count for something? (Photo Credit: American Federation of Government Employees/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Since Bernie Sanders made official what has long been suspected in that he would run again for president in the 2020 election, for his detractors, the reasons abound why they don’t “feel the Bern.” He’s too old. He’s too socialist. He’s another white male. His policy goals are untenable. He’s too full of himself. He cost Hillary Clinton the last election. He has done irreparable harm to the Democratic Party. He hasn’t done enough to rein in the sexism of his campaign or his supporters. He’s out of touch. His time has passed. He needs to step aside.

As a confessed Sanders supporter from 2016—and thus someone making no claims to objectivity—I bristle at a number of these concerns. Especially the ones about Bernie costing Hillary the election or doing major damage to the Democrats. Some people seem conveniently to forget that Bernie campaigned for “Hill-dawg” after ending his own bid. As for the party’s integrity, if one person is capable of causing such profound destruction to the Dems’ infrastructure, to me, that says worse about the party itself than the one supposedly wreaking havoc. Just saying.

The objection heretofore unnamed which particularly galls me, however, is the notion Sanders isn’t a “true Democrat.” True, Bernie isn’t a Democrat; he’s an independent. He caucuses with the Democrats, but he identifies primarily as an independent.

Admittedly, as fact-checker Linda Qiu, working then for PolitiFact and now for the New York Times, explored back in 2016, Bernie has had a problematic association with calling himself an independent vs. identifying as a Democrat, particularly as it pertains to his candidacy for president. On his Senate website, he listed himself as an independent. On his campaign website, he identified as a “Democratic candidate.” He has frequently criticized the Democratic Party and has rejected the label of Democrat in the past, but he has campaigned for Democrats.

As I saw one Internet commentator put it, Bernie’s like the guy who goes to bed with you and doesn’t call you back the day after. As he caucuses with the Democrats, serves on Senate committees with them, and frequently co-sponsors bills with them, I think this criticism is a bit overblown. At the very least, Sanders’s ambiguity is confusing to the prospective voter. From the party’s perspective, too, they might not feel too jazzed up about a candidate receiving the apparent benefits of associating herself or himself with the Democrats without willing to link herself or himself definitively with the party. Fix your heart or die! Wave that blue banner! What’s so bad about the Democratic Party that you don’t want to join?! (Wait, that was rhetorical—don’t actually tell us!)

For the individual voter, however, despite the confusion and whatever self-serving advantages an uneasy alliance with one of the two major parties might hold, the litmus test of whether someone is a “true Democrat” makes less sense to me. Of course, if you’re a diehard Democratic Party supporter, I get it: you probably feel a sense of umbrage about Sanders’s awkward dance with the Dems. What, Bernie, you’re good to be a member? If you don’t want to call yourself a Democrat, we don’t want you! And take your “Bernie Bros” with you!

Such a response to Sanders’s candidacy is understandable, if impractical. Much in the way we might insist on ideological purity tests for political candidates or even people/organizations that we admire and materially support, some of us who have long backed the Democratic Party regard upholding the party’s ideals as important. It’s not just a matter of intellectual attachment. It’s a matter of the heart or even the soul. As imperfect as her actions have been and her reasoning may yet be, Donna Brazile’s complaint about reducing the influence of superdelegates because of the blood, sweat, and tears she shed for the Democrats speaks to the seriousness with which she treats these affairs. Simply put, it’s personal.

With all this acknowledged, there are two big reasons why Bernie running as a Democrat in 2020 seems desirable: one more general in relation to our political system, the other specific to present circumstances. The first reason is that independent candidates face an uphill electoral battle and their very candidacy risks swaying the election. At heart, I tend to dismiss the third-party/independent-candidate-as-spoiler diatribes that periodically manifest after close races. Given the current dominance of the two major parties, a Democrat’s or Republican’s loss in a contested race should be seen mainly through the lens of that candidate’s and that party’s failure to seal the deal. Besides, it’s your right to vote however you want.

Independent as he may be, though, and as disagreeable as you may find some of his positions on issues, Bernie’s no dope. He doesn’t want to split the electorate any more than you would plead with him not to. Along the same lines, he has rejected overtures from third parties—both existing and theoretical—because of the time, effort, and organization it would take to bolster and sustain the ranks of such a progressive faction.

Then again, he could always not run. In fact, some of his 2016 supporters might share these sentiments. For all the criticism and mudslinging a presidential campaign brings with it, not to mention the strain of going from city to city doing debates, interviews, speeches, and the like, there’s a lot for one person to endure and the risk of damage to one’s political career for all the scrutiny. See also “Howard Dean Scream.”

The other major reason why Democratic Party supporters should encourage the strongest possible pool of candidates is the man who currently resides in the White House—you know, when he’s not at one of his resorts. The Dems and their supporters are deservedly riding high after their party took back control of the House subsequent to the midterms. Still, nothing is guaranteed for 2020, and especially after Donald Trump’s upset win in 2016, the Democrats would be loath to take anything for granted. Trump, for all his malapropisms and missteps, maintains a base of fanatical backers. And this is before we even get to disinformation campaigns about individual candidates that surely are underway—foreign or domestic.

To reiterate, I voted for Bernie in the Democratic primaries in 2016 and still admire him, so I’m not unbiased in expressing my opinions. Just the same, I’d like to think that if he were 100 and purple, I’d support him nonetheless. For me, it’s a matter of his stated ideals. This is not to say that other candidates don’t share similar views or possess their own strengths. It’s a crowded field and a deeper one this time around, at that. For the pragmatists among us, however, his bid for the presidency as a Democrat shouldn’t be an issue, assuming the proverbial cream will rise to the top and that the primary process is a fair one. Bernie diehards, you don’t have to say it; I can already see you wagging your finger at the DNC.


What is truly problematic about the argument Bernie Sanders isn’t a “true Democrat” is that this distinction, much like Sanders’s identification with the Democratic Party, appears to be nebulous. How does someone get classified as a true Democrat? Is it based on time served in office under the party banner? Dues paid or donations raised? Commitment to the party ideals? Some combination of the above? Does the definition change over time? And who decides such things?

Briahna Joy Gray, senior politics editor for The Intercept, for one, celebrated in 2017 that Bernie is not a Democrat because that apparently leaves him free to advance the party’s ideals while the actual Democrats lament political “realities” and revert to the same faulty electoral strategies. Gray closes her piece with these thoughts about the charge levied by Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer, and their establishment ilk that Sanders is “not even a Democrat”:

The implication that non-Democrats would fail to live up to Democratic values, when those values are precisely the ones the Sanders movement aims to push forward, is partially why the “not even a Democrat” smear is so grating to progressives. That the party is moving leftward should provoke warm-hearted optimism and encouragement from Democrats; after all, those are ostensibly their values, too. Instead, the petty and territorial response from some Democrats reminds one of the line from Mean Girls: Bernie Sanders “doesn’t even go here!”

Political parties aren’t sports teams. Politics are about principles and results, not tribalism.  As Marc Munroe Dion, quoted in Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal, put it when describing the despair that had settled on a dying manufacturing town, those still invested in party affiliation itself are performing “political rituals that haven’t made sense since the 1980s, feathered tribesmen dancing around a god carved out of a tree trunk.” Affiliation is not a birthright or an immutable characteristic, but an expression of personal ideals. If Bernie Sanders, the most popular politician in America, is not a Democrat, it is the Democrats, not Bernie, who need to consider redefining themselves.

From where Gray is standing, Sanders’s candidacy and lingering popularity should only be threatening for Democrats if his core values and theirs fail to align. That their ideals aren’t that dissimilar and yet a tension between the two sides exists suggests it’s the Democrats who have trouble articulating or defining their ideals, notably because they’re, in part, compromised by their fidelity to “banking interests and the technocracy” as opposed to the interests of labor that at least once formed the backbone of the party’s support. It’s hard for us to be “with her” or “stronger together” when it’s difficult to know whose designs are being considered alongside our own expressions of what we need.

As of February 23 and as calculated by FiveThirtyEight, in the U.S. Senate during the era of President Donald Trump, only Kirsten Gillibrand (12.2%), Jeff Merkley (13.3%), and Elizabeth Warren (13.3%) have voted in line with Trump less often than Bernie Sanders (14.6%). That puts Sanders in line with other contenders like Cory Booker (15.6%) and Kamala Harris (17.8%), significantly better than declared or rumored candidates like Sherrod Brown (29.2%) or Amy Klobuchar (31.3%), and miles ahead of someone like Joe Manchin, who has voted in line with Trump’s position 60% of the time. West Virginia’s identity as a “red” state notwithstanding, and noting that a party is only as good as its weakest link, how silly does it look to cast aspersions on Bernie when he fares better on the ideological purity test than the majority of his Democratic colleagues and when someone like Manchin seems like the living embodiment of a DINO (Democrat in Name Only)? This is not a good look for the Dems.

True, Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. But so what? He’s done as much as anyone in recent memory to help save the Democratic Party from itself, and while it can’t be assumed that he would’ve won the 2016 election had he won the nomination, he may just be the Democrats’ best option in 2020.

Ilhan Omar’s Sin: Crossing the Pro-Israel Lobby

Ilhan Omar invoked the name AIPAC and discussed the role of money in politics in reference to the U.S.-Israel alliance. That doesn’t make her an anti-Semite. (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull)

“It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”

When Rep. Ilhan Omar intimated that the United States’ alliance with Israel is motivated primarily by money and later responded to a tweet asking who she thinks is paying politicians to be pro-Israel with the one-word reply, “AIPAC!”, the first-term senator could’ve chosen her words better. After all, it’s not truly all about the Benjamins. There are legitimate cultural, ethnic, geopolitical and religious concerns to be had with mapping out the two countries’ strategic partnership.

All the same, Omar’s comments clearly struck a nerve, and not just because of her purported anti-Semitism. That she was so swiftly rebuked by members of both parties suggests that, despite her indelicacy, she was more right than many of her colleagues would like you to know. In addition, the backlash Rep. Omar has received provides yet another lesson about the substantive role money plays in American politics and the degree to which it holds sway over the two major parties.

As always, context helps. This past Sunday, an article appeared on Haaretz.com regarding House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s vow to take action against fellow representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar for their criticism of Israel. In McCarthy’s mind, these women’s views are on par with or worse than that of Steve King, whose defense of white supremacy has prompted bilateral calls for his removal from key House committees, and in some cases, his outright resignation.

Even the authors of the Haaretz article noted it was unclear to what comments McCarthy was referring and, thus, to what extent anti-Semitism played a part. Speaking less diplomatically, though, come the f**k on.

In Tlaib’s and Omar’s case, their most notable “offenses” have been their support for the BDS movement, which advocates for boycotts of, divestment from, and sanctions of Israel for creating what supporters of the movement liken to an apartheid state. It’s a controversial movement in that its criticisms of Israel are met with their own countercriticisms that A) Israel is not an apartheid state, B) BDS is anti-Semitic, and C) these criticisms of Israel would seek to delegitimize it.

In King’s case, meanwhile, it’s repeated defense of white supremacist talking points. The man has also repeatedly re-tweeted and met with far-right nationalist leaders across continents. At the very least, McCarthy is engaging in a bit of disingenuous whataboutism. Either way, it’s an implausible false equivalency. Besides, Tlaib and Omar are new to the D.C. scene and don’t possess nearly the stature and platform King does given his veteran experience in Congress. Rep. King has been dining on nativist bigotry while holding a federal public office seat for over a decade now.

With all this in mind, journalist Glenn Greenwald reacted to the cited piece with a tweet broadly condemning U.S. political leaders for their defense of a foreign nation at the expense of Americans’ free speech rights. To which Omar retweeted Greenwald with the titular line from the seminal Puff Daddy hit, setting off a political firestorm.

In the minds of many, it wasn’t just that Omar was inaccurate with her invocation of AIPAC and the Israel lobby, but that she appeared to do so by trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes. For Omar’s detractors, here were the tropes about “Jewish greed” and “Jews control the world with their money” all over again. The reference to AIPAC also ruffled feathers by suggesting that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is not an actual political action committee or PAC, gives donations directly to members of Congress. AIPAC merely encourages people to be generous with their contributions to pro-Israel members of the House and Senate. And it spends its money on lobbying, not on individual candidate campaigns.

But lo, how it spends on lobbying. As Matthew Yglesias of Vox fame explains, in 2018, AIPAC spent $3.5 million on lobbying, far and away the most when it comes to foreign policy influence (second on the list is UNICEF, which managed less than $1 million). This doesn’t include what Yglesias describes as “lavish” accommodations and airfare for trips to Israel for members of Congress and their families.

Accordingly, for all the furor over Rep. Omar’s tweets, precipitated by a largely unfounded attack on her and another female Muslim congresswoman, there was a teachable moment about how money in politics impacts stated policy positions and influences policy directives. In the ensuing outrage, however, that got lost.

Instead, people tweeted their dismay, pro-Israel members of Congress expressed their indignation, and even Chelsea Clinton somewhat bizarrely weighed in to advise Omar against reliance on anti-Semitic tropes “as an American” and, evidently, as a self-appointed arbiter of responsible language toward Jews and Israel. By the time Nancy Pelosi was condemning Omar’s remarks, the track to the Minnesota representative’s apology was well-oiled. Within a day of her initial retweet of Glenn Greenwald, Ilhan Omar issued a public mea culpa, taking absolutely the right tone. She professed that she never meant to offend her constituents, Jews, and the combination therein and indicated a willingness to accept criticism and learn from episodes like this.

As mentioned earlier, the magnitude of the outcry against Omar and the rapidity with which it occurred were striking, and the fallout from the fracas is still being felt. President Donald Trump himself, a man who is no stranger to controversy, rejected Omar’s apology as “lame” and made his preference known that she be removed from committees or asked to resign much in the way Steve King has been. Indeed, even for some of those who appreciate the nuance of what Omar was saying and the point she was trying to make about the corrosive nature of lobbyist money, they lament how she has given cannon fodder to the Republican Party and risked driving a wedge between her own party. So much for the power of social media.

And so much for that teachable moment. What could have been a meaningful dialog on the role of money has since degraded into a reflexive conversation about what constitutes anti-Semitism. This is not to say, of course, that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist or that it isn’t on the rise. Heck, a man ran unopposed as a Republican for Congress in the state of Illinois as a Holocaust denier just last November and got 25% of the vote. Still, if there was a lesson learned, it was not ours, but rather Omar’s. The lesson was to watch what you say about the pro-Israel lobby, and while instructive, it’s not all that gratifying for her or the rest of us.


Ilhan Omar’s apology was intriguing in that it was “unequivocal,” yet still strove to reaffirm the problematic nature of lobbying as it concerns AIPAC, the fossil fuel industry, and the NRA, to name a few. For the townsfolk holding torches and pitchforks, this was only salt in the proverbial wound and a hollow apology. From my standpoint, I believe Omar was sincere in what she said and that her allusions to Jewish stereotypes concerning money were unintentional. Granted, she could’ve chosen her words better, but there was more substance in her words than reporting on this to-do would lead the casual news consumer to believe. If her apology seemed forced, it’s likely because it was made to appease the members of Congress who disagree with her stance—both those who would weaponize it for political gain or discourage it because of fear of that very phenomenon.

In referring to the disingenuousness of Kevin McCarthy’s part in all of this that started this controversy off and running, his participation is not without a sense of irony. McCarthy made an appeal prior to the MAGA base in October warning voters to choose Republican in the 2018 election so as not to “allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election.” If Omar’s tweets can be branded as anti-Semitic, McCarthy’s (now-deleted) tweet sure can.

He’s not the only one. For all of the kosher meat Donald Trump has been throwing to the Zionist cause since being elected, prior to that, he was using anti-Semitic tropes and depictions of cash next to pictures of Hillary Clinton, dog-whistling from his platform as presumptive Republican Party nominee. Just because these men aren’t Muslims or don’t support the BDS movement doesn’t mean the allegations against them are any less valid.

As much as AIPAC’s mention has been papered over by the mainstream media, moreover, there are those who would defend Rep. Omar for her attention to a group that routinely deflects criticism from its membership and from the Israeli government, branding dissent as anti-Semitic and intimidating those who advocate for anything other than the status quo. Glenn Greenwald, for one, sees Omar’s censure as a segment of a pattern, pointing to attempts by Haim Saban, the Democratic National Committee’s top donor and outspokenly pro-Israel, to label Democrat Keith Ellison, also a Muslim, as an anti-Semite because of his public condemnation of Israeli expansion of settlements into contested lands.

It’s not like AIPAC has exactly been flying under the radar lately, either. As Ryan Grim of The Intercept recently reported, leaders of the pro-Israel lobby were caught on camera discussing the extent and nature of their influence, detailing how the Committee and its donors organize events in such a way so as not to be tied to the funds they generate. Plus, there’s the whole business of AIPAC using Ilhan Omar’s controversy in it of itself as a cause for a fundraiser. Nothing demonstrates your indignation and your support of Israel like a hefty donation. Please—be generous.

Despite calls for her head, so to speak, Omar has handled this whole situation with aplomb and has not backed down from her critics—at least not the Republican ones. She notably fired back at Pres. Trump pointing out to his track record of spewing hateful rhetoric following his aforementioned rejection of her apology.

Thus, as unfortunately as some would insist this all played out, the strength and—dare I say—chutzpah she and Rashida Tlaib have shown when dealing with negative attention suggests the Democratic Party’s diversity truly is a strength. It’s up to the Democrats to decide whether or not they’ll stand behind strong progressives like them or let moneyed interests dictate who they support and when.

“A Tale of Two Countries,” Or, the 2019 State of the Union Address

Donald Trump preached unity in the 2019 State of the Union and shared an agenda based on a vision of America. Unfortunately, it’s a vision for an America which doesn’t exist coming from a man who actively divides his constituents. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

President Donald Trump finally got to deliver his State of the Union address with the recent partial government shutdown in the rear-view mirror (although we could totally have another one in the near future if we don’t figure out how to decouple the subject of a border wall from funding federal agencies, so yay?). The good news is the president stopped short of calling for a state of emergency to advance construction of a border wall. The bad news is Trump had a national platform by which to spew his rhetoric at the American people.

Before we get to the veracity of what Trump said or lack thereof, let’s first address what the man spoke about. Trump’s agenda, at least in principle, was devoted to the areas where members of both parties can find consensus. These major topics included promoting fair trade and other policies which help American jobs/workers, rebuilding our infrastructure, reducing the price of health care (including prescription drugs), creating a more modern and secure immigration system, and advancing foreign policy goals that align with American interests.

On the economy, it was jobs, jobs, jobs! Wages are rising! Unemployment is declining! Regulations are going away! Companies are coming back! And it’s all because of me! So let’s stop all these needless investigations into my affairs. You don’t want THE AMERICAN PEOPLE to suffer on account of me, do you? Trump also addressed tariffs and the USMCA, but rather than calling out countries like China for abuse of workers’ rights or currency manipulation or anything like that, he expressed respect for Xi Jinping and instead laid blame at the feet of past leaders and lawmakers. As always, thanks, Obama.

On immigration, well, you probably know the story by now. Immigrants enrich our society in many ways—except when they don’t, taking away jobs, lowering wages, bringing drugs and violent crime, encouraging the trafficking of human beings, and taxing our public services. ICE is a bunch of heroes, gosh darn it! And we need that wall!

On infrastructure, Trump indicated we need both parties to work together and that he is “eager” to work with Congress on new, cutting-edge investments that the country requires to keep pace in a rapidly developing world. That’s it. Not a lot of what these infrastructural improvements would look like or how we’d go about funding them. But, huzzah, infrastructure!

On lowering drug prices/health care, Congress, wouldja put something together already? Sheesh? Also, HIV and AIDS—why are they still a thing? Let’s cut that out. Cancer? You’re next. Really, we need to recognize that all life is precious. Looking at you, Democrats, and your whole insistence on women’s right to choose. #NotMyAbortions

Lastly, on foreign policy, Trump extolled the virtues of our Armed Forces and thus explained why we need to shower them with money on an annual basis. Also, NATO was being very mean to us but now its members are going to spend more on defense. Also also, Russia is being a doo-doo head and that’s why we pulled out of the INF Treaty. Also also also, Kim Jong-un and I are BFFs and we’re going to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. Also also also also, Guaidó > Maduro and socialism never works. Also 5x, Israel is super cool, the Holocaust was bad, ISIS is defeated, and did I mention we love our troops?

In conclusion, America is awesome and greatness awaits us. So ladies and gents, let’s not screw the pooch on this one and work together. Because if we fail, it will because you all couldn’t figure out how to rise above our differences. #NotMyFault


Depending on your political views, it may not surprise you to know that several of President Trump’s remarks were characterized as either “false” or “misleading” by fact-checkers. Among Trump’s misrepresentations, according to The New York Times:

  • Our economy isn’t growing twice as fast today as when Trump took office, and in fact, American economic growth in 2018 fell short of that of even Greece. Greece!
  • Trump claimed his administration has cut more regulations than any other administration in U.S. history, but according to experts, these rollbacks aren’t at the level of the Carter and Reagan administrations.
  • Job creation during Trump’s tenure isn’t some miraculous, near-impossible feat. It’s roughly on par with the state of affairs during the Obama administration and down from job creation in the 1990s. Also, more people are working in the United States than ever before because more people live here. Unless he wants to take credit for helping populate America too.
  • On immigration, phew, where do we start? El Paso was never one of America’s most dangerous cities. San Diego’s border fencing “did not have a discernible impact” on lower border apprehension rates, according to the Congressional Research Service. In addition, the idea that “large, organized caravans” of migrants are on their way to the U.S. is exaggerated.
  • Not only has the USMCA not been approved by Congress yet, but it might not bring as many manufacturing jobs back to America—or for that matter, the North American continent—as anticipated.
  • On Nicolás Maduro and Venezuela, it’s not so much that Maduro is a socialist as much as he’s a dictator whose rule has been marked by corruption, deficiency in the rule of law, and the circumvention of democracy. But keep parroting conservative talking points.
  • Trump claimed we’d be at war with North Korea if he hadn’t been elected. Bullshit. Especially in the incipient stages of his presidency, Trump notably egged on Kim Jong-un, referring to him as “Little Rocket Man.” Back the trolley up there, Mr. President.
  • On abortion, more misleading remarks. Trump suggested New York’s Reproductive Health Act allows abortions until shortly before birth, but rather, the law permits abortions after 24 weeks in cases where the fetus is not viable or the mother’s health would be imperiled.
  • Trump also invoked Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s comments about discussing abortion with physicians up until birth and end-of-life care in instances where a child wouldn’t live, though Trump treated them as tantamount to advocating for babies’ execution after birth. Sadly, Northam’s ongoing controversy involving whether or not he appeared dressed in blackface or a Ku Klux Klan costume in a college yearbook photo was not part of Trump’s deceptive commentary. That’s on you, Ralph, and I wish you would resign already.

The State of the Union address, especially under Pres. Donald Trump, is a bizarre bit of theater. Here is a function outlined in the Constitution and adapted by means of tradition that makes for much pomp and circumstance amid the formal procedures and recognitions which occur within, presided over by a president who consistently flouts convention and other semblances of decorum. The Trump presidency has been one marked by chaos and one which encourages division within the electorate. The very date of the address was postponed by a shutdown characterized by partisan gridlock—which went curiously unmentioned during Trump’s speech—and was a bone of contention between the president and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. To have members of Congress from both parties smiling and clapping for him seems rather jarring.

It’s particularly jarring to witness this spectacle and the parade of “Lenny Skutniks” that presidents trot out in the name of bolstering their credibility (Trump called upon World War II veterans, a minister who had her non-violent drug offense commuted by Trump, another former inmate who sold drugs and has since reformed, the family of victims of a undocumented immigrant’s violence, an immigrant-turned-ICE special agent, a cancer survivor, the father of someone lost in the attack on the USS Cole, a SWAT officer on the scene at last year’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, and a Holocaust survivor) when the Democrats offered an official rebuttal, as is custom.

Stacey Abrams, who came within two percentage points of winning the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election and might’ve won if not for then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s shenanigans, delivered the Dems’ response. She assailed the Republican Party for crafting an immigration plan that tears families apart and puts children in cages, for working to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, for failing to take action on climate change, for rigging elections and judiciaries, and for repeatedly attacking the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, among other things. Abrams closed her speech with these thoughts:

Even as I am very disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems—I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America.

Our progress has always found refuge in the basic instinct of the American experiment—to do right by our people. And with a renewed commitment to social and economic justice, we will create a stronger America, together. Because America wins by fighting for our shared values against all enemies: foreign and domestic. That is who we are—and when we do so, never wavering—the state of our union will always be strong.

Abrams’s sentiments may seem a bit schmaltzy at points, but alongside Trump’s rhetoric since he began his presidential campaign, she is much better equipped to talk about the state of the union and bipartisan solutions than our Commander-in-Chief. And while this message serves an obvious partisan purpose, criticism of Trump’s divisiveness is deserved, notably in light of his numerous falsehoods and distortions.

That’s what makes this all so disorienting. Donald Trump speaks to solving problems which may or may not exist, leaving existing problems unaddressed and creating phantoms where bogeymen are needed. As senator Richard Blumenthal wrote on Twitter, Trump’s State of the Union speech was a “tale of two countries.”

To entertain the absurdities of his presidency with any degree of normalcy, applauding him and dignifying his comments with formality and a primetime audience, is therefore to acknowledge two different speeches: the one that the president gave and the one that Americans actually deserved. It creates a sort of cognitive dissonance that requires some degree of mental gymnastics to try to sort out. Is Trump the uniter and Democrats the dividers? Was it all a farce, his plea for unity and his presidential tone an exercise in cynicism? Or was it just an unofficial rally for his base and potential voters heading into 2020? Does anything he say truly matter? Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? The questions abound, as do the anxiety, probable headaches, and possible additional Queen references.

I’m not sure what the answer is here, if there is only one. I chose not to watch the live broadcast and to read a transcript, view photos, and watch video clips after the fact. I would’ve liked to see more lawmakers do the same, though I suppose Nancy Pelosi did get in some epic eye-rolls. Maybe we should do away with the whole spectacle altogether.

At least as far as Trump is concerned, he’s already made his true feelings known via social media countless times over. Why bother with the charade when we can just read a written report or his tweets instead? If nothing else, it would save time.

Why Do Billionaires Like Howard Schultz Want to Run for President? Because They Can

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is considering an independent presidential run, but there seems to be little to no need or desire for him to run, not to mention his lack of political experience. (Photo Credit: Flickr/Department of Defense/U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann/CC BY 2.0)

Reportedly, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is “seriously considering” a presidential run—as an independent no less.

Why not run as a Democrat and join an ever-deepening 2020 field? As Schultz has suggested in interviews, he opposes running as a Democrat because of what he views as “extremism on both sides.” He also believes that if a progressive won the Democratic Party nomination, it would be a surefire way to get Donald Trump re-elected.

There’s a bit to unpack here even with so little quoted, so let’s get down to it. On the notion that there are extremists or bad actors “on both sides,” while this may be true, it would seem a bit of a false equivalency. On the progressive left, you have people arguing for a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, etc. On the far right, you have Nazis and other white supremacists. For someone who professes to loathe Trump, Schultz’s discourse sounds a lot like his. Even if he’s talking primarily about the national debt, to speak in general terms about the left and right is as reckless as the deficit spending about which he speaks.

As for the idea that having a progressive as the Democratic Party nominee in 2020 means handing over the presidency to Trump, this is a line that’s been parroted over and over since the 2016 election and even before that. But it underestimates the enthusiasm that exists across ideologies for progressive ideals and policy initiatives, and fails to account for the struggles more moderate candidates have encountered in recent elections. Hillary Clinton, for all of her education and experience, and despite sexism and shenanigans prior to Election Day, had serious flaws as a candidate right down to how she ran her campaign. If centrism is the virtue we’ve made it out to be, shouldn’t Clinton have finished 20 points ahead, as she (in)famously quipped? The results don’t appear to bear this out.

This is all before we even get to the obvious assertion: that running as an independent would steal votes from the Democratic nominee. Such a prediction may or may not be true; it’s hard to assess what independents and other unaffiliated voters may be thinking as they step into voting booths absent exit polls, and then, of course, it’s too late. There’s also the matter that voters should be free to choose whomever they want in an election. It’s their vote and their right. That said, I don’t know that I’m encouraging independent presidential runs—especially not from billionaire businessmen given we have one in the White House.

Initial responses to Schultz’s visions of 2020 candidacy, er, haven’t been great. At a recent stop on his book tour—it’s called From the Ground Up and you can be sure it speaks to his credentials as a job creator and someone interested in civic engagement!—Schultz was interrupted during his interview with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin by a heckler who told him, “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole” and later added, “Go back to getting ratioed on Twitter.” As the kids would say, shots fired.

Schultz brushed off the criticism—”I’m not running a primary race on Twitter”—but it is interesting witnessing a lukewarm (at best) reception for Schultz’s hint at a presidential bid. Sure, the bulk of it may relate to the contention that Donald Trump is no ordinary president, a racist fraud and pathological liar intent on taking the country backwards who needs as an undivided an opposition as possible to get removed from office and get us back on track.

A component of this animus might additionally stem from Starbucks’s uneven track record of late in avoiding controversy, notably concerning race relations. While still executive chairman of Starbucks, there was the whole to-do at the Philadelphia store that saw two black men arrested for trespassing while waiting for a friend. Let’s also not forget the Race Together campaign, an initiative devoted to racial equality and one promoting a dialog on race which was panned as misguided and tone-deaf. Turns out people don’t like when white billionaires lead a discussion on race relations. Go figure.

What’s also perhaps striking about Schultz’s non-announcement announcement is, despite the poor reception it has received from hecklers and trolls, how much press it has received in such a short time. Sure, a book tour helps, though there seems to be no shortage of books on the market from political figures or those with similar aspirations.

As noted, however, interviewers and other members of the media have been lining up to greet the former Starbucks chief executive and absorb his supposed political insights. He and his wife Sheri got some face time on 60 Minutes this past weekend. CBS This Morning. The New York Times. NPR. Laudatory opinion pieces by David Frum. You may not necessarily hold these sources in high esteem, but they certainly do expose Schultz and his views to a fairly wide audience.

To be fair, not all of this has been positive or even neutral press. In a series of tweets about Schultz, Paul Krugman painted him as a conservative and anti-Democrat masquerading as a centrist. Other detractors have raised objections similar to the ones outlined above. We don’t need another egotistical billionaire in the White House. No one asked or wants you to run. I asked for a caramel macchiato, not a caramel latte. OK, that last one is a joke, but suffice it to say there is plenty of negativity to go around.

Still, Schultz must figure he has an audience, right? And, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as negative press? If Donald Trump can build a following despite the attempts of the mainstream media to laugh off his presidential campaign, it’s conceivable that the networks and pundits who prop him up might be enough to make an eventual candidacy seem meritorious. If Schultz is as self-centered as he’s made out to be, he might be swayed by Trump’s attempts to egg him on, too. Left or right, there’s no shortage of individuals who would undoubtedly relish the chance to try to take the president down a peg. It’s a trap, but in an era of performative outrage, any blowback could have its purpose. Hey, at least I stood up to the man! At least I stood for fiscal responsibility!

This very column devoted to Schultz’s testing the waters could be seen as unnecessary attention. In other words, if we ignore him, he’ll go away. Especially after Trump’s electoral success, though, it may be a few cycles before the billionaire executive candidate goes out of fashion. Either way, there’s a larger conversation about how money and privilege afford power. Long before the Trump era, Ross Perot had a reasonably successful run as an independent. As long as someone’s personal finances can get him or her a ticket to “the show” and as long as he or she has a path to voters’ attention, focusing on candidates like Howard Schultz as a subset of the discussion of the role of money in politics remains relevant.


The devil’s advocate argument, if you will, for Schultz’s possible candidacy would seem to exist with respect to the notion that he built his company, as the title of his book alludes to, “from the ground up.” If he earned his money through his hard work and his vision, why not spend it how he wants? There would also be historical precedent if Schultz wins. Schultz would be the first Jewish president of the United States, though like Bernie Sanders, he tends to downplay his faith. As he said in his 60 Minutes interview, “I am not running as a Jew if I decide to run for president. I’m running as an American who happens to be Jewish.” Let that be the only comparison between Schultz and Sanders, at least in this space.

Even if Howard Schultz can run for president, however, should he? In spite of recent controversies involving the Starbucks brand, the man hasn’t engendered much antipathy from the American people. Should he decide to run for office, particularly as an independent, that could dissipate fast. Why risk the damage to one’s reputation as well as a possible Starbucks boycott? Any way you slice it, that’s bad for business.

Schultz, a lifelong Democrat, claims to appeal to the voter who is sick and tired of bickering and ineffectiveness between the two major parties. He wants “to see the American people win.” But a number of his positions seem out of step with what Americans want, and certainly with what progressives would like to see. His deliberation on the national debt evokes the “pay-go” debate as it applies to the Democratic Party agenda, a shift that Nancy Pelosi and others have embraced along the lines of economic “pragmatism” but one that could stunt progressive initiatives.

His insistence that universal health care is as illusory as Donald Trump’s visions of a border wall, meanwhile, belies the idea that it is practiced around the world, suggesting that if we really wanted to, we could follow the lead of Australia, Canada, China, Europe, most of South America, Russia, and scores of other areas/countries. That Schultz so readily and straightforwardly dismisses something which is fast becoming part of the mainstream political conversation makes one tend to wonder whether he fails to understand this much or understands all too well and chooses to ignore it. To this effect, I’m not sure which is worse.

So, yes, Howard Schultz can run for president. It’s a free country. It just seems, though, like there’s not a huge need or desire for him to throw his proverbial hat into the ring, and having people dip into their personal finances and vie for public office when campaign finance is already so enmeshed with the designs of corporate and wealthy donors seems problematic.

Money should not suffice or be a prerequisite for political participation. Let’s not encourage another out-of-touch billionaire who lacks experience to go beyond hocking his autobiography.