Yes, They’re “Concentration Camps”

Detention centers don’t have to be Auschwitz or Dachau to be labeled “concentration camps.” (Photo Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

When asked about her colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps” in reference to detention centers near our southern border, Rep. Ilhan Omar had this to say about the ensuing controversy: “There are camps, and people are being concentrated. This is very simple. I don’t know why this is a controversial thing to say.”

Right-wing media and organizations skewed toward the interests of American Jews quickly lambasted Omar for the perceived insensitivity of her comments as well as lamented her supposed continued use of anti-Semitic imagery. Here’s the problem, though: both she and Ocasio-Cortez are right.

First things first, and sorry to be that guy who cites the dictionary in making a point but here we are, let’s define the phrase. According to Oxford Dictionaries, a “concentration camp” is:

A place where large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution. The term is most strongly associated with the several hundred camps established by the Nazis in Germany and occupied Europe in 1933–45, among the most infamous being Dachau, Belsen, and Auschwitz.

Hmm. “Large numbers of people,” “persecuted minorities,” “deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities.” These qualifiers all seem applicable to the detention centers and other facilities housing families detained at the border and elsewhere in the United States. According to the Department of Homeland Security, close to 45,000 detainees were being held daily on average in the United States as of 2018. What’s more, this figure has risen considerably from the less-than-7,000 detainees daily observed back in 1994 and comes as part of an upward spike concordant with Donald Trump’s political rise. Simply put, these numbers are no accident.

On the persecuted minorities front, um, have you heard the president speak about the Hispanic/Latinx community? As it stands to reason geographically, most of the people in detention in the U.S. are from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Would conditions in facilities holding immigrants/asylum-seekers be nearly as poor (more on this in a moment) if these people were coming from, say, Norway? Of course not. As evidenced by his defensiveness any time he is challenged by a person of color—especially if that person is a woman—Donald Trump projects his hatred toward members of minority groups and immigrants on the beliefs of all Americans.

Granted, he’s not alone in his racism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry; he got elected after all. Still, he’s not speaking for all Americans when he spews his nativist rhetoric buttressed by false or misleading claims and statistics. Like their sheer number as a function of rising trends in immigrant detention, the country of origin of these detainees is highly relevant. Moreover, their demonization obscures the ways in which the U.S. has helped fuel surges in migrants crossing our southern border. In other words, not only do Trump et al.‘s arguments distort the present, but they fail to retrospectively appreciate America’s role in creating the conditions which have led to increases in the number of asylum-seekers from Mexico and Central America. This, too, is no mistake.

And regarding the “relatively small area with inadequate facilities” bit? Yes, this and then some. The story of these detention camps and even for-profit centers and prisons has been one of abject cruelty shown toward detainees. Facilities have been overcrowded well beyond stated capacity. Staffing is frequently insufficient with little guarantee employees are experienced enough or trained well enough to handle their appointed tasks. Adequate health care is often severely lacking if not completely absent, as is supervision of child detainees by adults. Even the availability of blankets, soap, and toothbrushes is of issue. These standards of operation fall below even the auspices afforded to prisoners of war per the Geneva Conventions, and Justice Department immigration attorney Sarah Fabian (among others) should be ashamed of arguing to the contrary.

On these three counts, the detention and separation of families at the border would easily seem to meet the definition spelled out above. Obviously, we’re not to the point of forced labor or awaiting mass execution. This is not Nazi Germany and Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. If these are the main distinctions we’re making, however, pardon me for believing we might be missing the forest for the proverbial trees. We should never forget the horrors of the Holocaust nor should we diminish the danger anti-Semitism represents in today’s world. The experience of Jews here and abroad is a unique one and this merits respect.

At the same time, we can recognize that the use of the term “concentration camp,” historically loaded as it may be, is not one made in a flippant manner. As discussed, the conditions of these detention centers would appear to meet the basic requirements delineated by the dictionary definition. Additionally, there is the matter of how urgent the situation is at our southern border. We are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Quibbling over semantics risks losing sight of the magnitude of the atrocities being inflicted on people whose only “sin” is crossing the border, in so many cases running from a dangerous situation in their country of origin. It also invites people like Liz Cheney to use Jews purely as political capital, leveraging their suffering amid disingenuous partisan attacks on Democrats.

This is why many refer to border security as a “wedge” issue. Allowing division based on bad-faith discourse is falling prey to the designs of Trump apologists and others itching at the chance to divide and conquer Democrats. We should expect attacks against Ocasio-Cortez and Omar from those on the right who frame the first-year members of Congress as a threat and whose fear (but not fearmongering, to be clear) is welcomed because it exposes the ugliness of their prejudiced antipathy. On the other hand, when those of us on the left and the center-left are effectively providing cover for an administration pursuing a white supremacist agenda and employing genocidal tactics to this end, we should really take stock of our priorities.


In elaborating her position on immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed to the opinions of “experts” on the subject. In particular, AOC cited an article for Esquire by Jack Holmes which name-checks journalist Andrea Pitzer, who quite literally wrote the book on concentration camps.

According to Pitzer, the “mass detention of civilians without trial” is good enough for her to satisfy the requirements of a “concentration camp system.” This applies to camps in Nazi Germany, sure, but also Cuba, France, South Africa, the Soviet Union, and in the creation of “internment camps” to hold people of Japanese descent, the United States. Holmes, in speaking to historian Waitman Wade Beorn, whose basis is in Holocaust and genocide studies, also notes how the term is used by historians in a broader sense. According to Beorn, not every concentration camp has to be a death camp. Frequently, the purpose of such a camp is achieved simply by separating one group from another.

At the crux of these camps’ existence are the militarization of the border and the dehumanization of the asylum/immigration enforcement process. For the Trump administration, the large-scale indefinite detention of civilians is the culmination of an intentional effort to depict a spike in border crossings as a “national emergency” and to label asylum-seekers/immigrants as subhuman. It’s an “invasion.” They’re “animals.” Not to beat the dead horse of lore or anything, but this is specific, targeted language. It’s not unintentional, or for that matter, normal.

What’s worse, the longer these facilities operate, the worse the conditions get and the easier it becomes to distance ourselves from the detainees because they are “sick” or because they are “criminals.” This is not purely theoretical, either. Circumstances have worsened. Children and adults alike have died as a result of confinement. And this is exactly what this administration has intended: to make things so bad that families wouldn’t want to come here. As Beorn underscores, it’s not a prison or a holding area or waiting area—it’s a policy. It occurs, no less, at the expense of people who haven’t been, in many cases, charged with a crime. In some instances, even U.S. citizens are being apprehended and detained for days at a time. Those documented occurrences, while perhaps more shocking or unnerving, are rare. For now.

If all this weren’t bad enough, that these facilities are so remote and that they exist in what Beorn describes as a “sort of extralegal, extrajudicial, somewhat-invisible no-man’s land” makes it that much more unlikely these camps will be closed or that visible protests with the ability to meaningfully sway public opinion can be organized on the premises. Holmes points to the prison at Guantanamo Bay as an example in this regard. President Barack Obama repeatedly vowed to close Gitmo, but it “had been ingrained in the various institutions and branches of American constitutional government.”

In the nebulous space where human rights abuses and constitutional protections get overlooked in the name of “national security,” the justifications for these camps staying open can grow more numerous and vague. The names may have changed—George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, meet Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller—and so too have the targets of the repression (though with fears of war with Iran ever present, who knows), but the story is very much the same.

Holmes’s piece ends on this sobering note:

In most cases, these camps are not closed by the executive or the judiciary or even the legislature. It usually requires external intervention. (See: D-Day) That obviously will not be an option when it comes to the most powerful country in the history of the world, a country which, while it would never call them that, and would be loathe to admit it, is now running a system at the southern border that is rapidly coming to resemble the concentration camps that have sprung up all over the world in the last century. Every system is different. They don’t always end in death machines. But they never end well.

“Let’s say there’s 20 hurdles that we have to get over before we get to someplace really, really, really bad,” Pitzer says. “I think we’ve knocked 10 of them down.”

We’re already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and it stands to get worse. Make no mistake: these concentration camps—yes, concentration camps—are a stain on the fabric of America’s moral character, a fabric of which the resiliency is continually being tested under President Trump and which already reveals its share of black marks and tears over its history despite this nation’s overall promise.

We should all own this sad chapter in the saga of our proud nation. And above all others, though his self-absorption and cultivated public image won’t allow acknowledgment on his part, Trump should be tied to the cruel escalation of Clinton-era and Obama-era border policies behind the mass detention of asylum-seekers and immigrants. For a man who loves slapping his name on things, including other people’s successes, his legacy as president should forever be linked with this disgrace.

Sarah Sanders, You Will Not Be Missed

Sarah Sanders demonstrably lied to the public. But sure, let’s have her run for governor of Arkansas and throw her a going-away party. (Photo Credit: Voice of America)

Bye, Felicia.

That is, to quote various Internet commentators—themselves quoting Ice Cube’s character in the seminal comedy Friday—upon hearing the news Sarah Sanders plans to leave the White House by the end of the month, ending her tenure as press secretary.

Of course, now begins the rampant speculation as to who will succeed Sanders in this role. A few people have wryly suggested conservative vloggers, social media personalities, political activists, and Fox Nation hosts Diamond and Silk are the new oddsmakers’ favorites to win the position. This is a joke—although given the disjointed and surreal way the Trump administration has operated heretofore, you can’t rule this possibility out either.

From a survival perspective in the tumult of the Trump White House, Sanders’s run is notable. Certainly, she has well eclipsed the likes of Anthony Scaramucci, whose short service in the capacity of White House Director of Communications is the minimum standard by which future Trump appointees might be judged. For that matter, she also has far surpassed her predecessor, Sean Spicer. If we’re giving Sanders credit—the conditions for which doing so are seemingly miniscule in the Trump era—there’s that, at least.

As Sanders’s watch comes to a close, though, and as per the wont of the American opinion journalism landscape, one is left to ponder what her legacy is alongside her contemporaries and others who have held her title in the past. Brian Stelter, chief media correspondent for CNN, puts it rather succinctly: “Sarah Sanders’ primary legacy as White House press secretary will be the death of the daily press briefing.”

On the infrequency of her appearances before the media, he’s not wrong. At this writing, Sanders’s last press briefing occurred on March 11, more than three months ago. In doing so, she broke her own previous records for the longest span without a briefing held in White House history. As an added bonus, and as Stelter notes, last month, reporters spied a coating of dust on her podium. Yeah, it’s that bad.

To be fair, many might not consider this a significant loss given Sanders’s propensity to stonewall White House reporters if not lie to them outright. From the details of the Mueller report, we know she admitted to fabricating tales of “countless” FBI agents thanking President Trump for firing James Comey as director on multiple occasions. She later characterized her description as a “slip of the tongue.”

But this was more than just misleading. This was a lie. When members of the journalism community found this much out, several called for her immediate ouster or resignation. Whatever credibility Sanders had maintained up to that point, she had destroyed it by acknowledging her prior comments were “not founded on anything.” Without the public’s trust, what good is having her on board?

Sanders’s wanton disregard for truth-telling, paired with the notion that her replacement probably won’t be much of an improvement—if at all—would therefore seem to render her departure inconsequential. As Stelter finds, meanwhile, her abdication of even the pretense of authenticity and transparency is a significant departure from past precedent. Both she and President Trump have contended that these press briefings aren’t essential when the president and other members of the administration are accessible in other ways. Namely Twitter.

And yet, 3 A.M. rants by the Commander-in-Chief aren’t the same as scheduled events marked by the ability of a free press to ask the White House direct questions. As Stelter puts it:

Press briefings matter for both symbolic and practical reasons. Symbolically, televised briefings show that the White House is open for business and willing to answer questions. And on a practical level, briefings are an efficient way for the administration to address numerous topics and engage with a wide variety of news outlets.

Accountability. Directness. Fairness. Visibility. These are hallmarks of good communication notably absent from the White House with Sanders as press secretary. Even within the confines of the Trump era, Sanders is not the only representative of the president to have a contentious and disingenuous relationship with the media; Kellyanne Conway’s thumbing her nose at the Hatch Act as well as the very existence of verifiable facts is an affront to everyone who listens to her speak. From an historical perspective, too, there are umpteen instance of presidents nakedly exhibiting antipathy toward the press. See also “Nixon, Richard.”

This merely provides context, though. It does not exculpate her as a member of an administration that has all but declared war on journalists. It doesn’t clear her of going after Jim Acosta’s press credentials if not his job citing blatantly edited footage, his alleged grandstanding aside. Or for tweeting about the Red Hen restaurant refusing to serve her from her official government Twitter account. Or for accusing the media of spreading “fake news” about President Trump. Or for insisting he has never encouraged the use of violence against protestors.

Wait—there’s more. Or for misrepresenting legal situations involving the president or members of his administration such as Rob Porter. Or for citing the Bible and blaming Democrats for Trump’s family separation policy. Or for seriously overstating the numbers of individuals on the terror watch list getting apprehended at the Mexican border. Or for repeatedly failing to agree with the idea that the press “is not the enemy of the people.” Sanders may not be the only or worst example of bad behavior in the White House—we need look no further than the man setting the tone at the top for the ugliest conduct of all. But she’s an example of it nonetheless.

Indeed, as someone who once tweeted with relish about “Trump derangement syndrome,” a fictitious malady supposedly afflicting Democrats and other liberals, one has to assume Sanders, at least on some level, approves of Donald Trump and his agenda. That she’s jumping ship now like so many other officials have done under Trump’s watch shouldn’t make her look more palatable, nor should she get a round of applause given the difficulty of her placement. She agreed to this arrangement. Like the rest of her fallen comrades, she had to have some idea of what she was getting herself into.


What is perhaps most befuddling about the news of Sarah Sanders’s imminent departure is that it comes attached with multiple reports of her political aspirations, specifically “seriously considering” running for governor of Arkansas, a post once held by her father, former-presidential-candidate-turned-online-conservative-troll Mike Huckabee. Sanders has already established that she’s a professional liar, which some might concede makes her better qualified to be a politician. Our cynicism aside, is this the kind of person Arkansans want to represent them? Because her dad used to be governor, does she therefore make more sense than other candidates? Or is it that she carried water for President “Make America Great Again?” She didn’t even finish a full term as press secretary. What makes voters think she’ll be willing to work with them over the long haul?

Even yet more quizzical is the news that members of the media are evidently planning a going-away party for Sanders involving “farewell drinks” at an upscale D.C. bar. A going-away party? For the woman who refused to say that the press is not the enemy of the American people and who has let her podium literally collect dust? It’s preposterous and yet totally believable coming from a group that sought to console Sanders after her roasting at the hands of Michelle Wolf at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Wolf did her job. Sanders has flouted her responsibility. The only “going-away party” I would want to see or attend if I were a White House reporter is one saying “good riddance” to someone who didn’t have my back after my colleagues came to her defense for being the lying mouthpiece of a would-be despot.

Again, Sarah Sanders may not be the worst the Trump administration has to offer and her yet-unnamed successor stands to be a downgrade. That’s not saying much for her as a person, however. As far as I am concerned, and as I know other conscientious objectors to the Trump presidency feel, Sarah Sanders, you will not be missed. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube: Where the Rules May or May Not Apply

YouTube hasn’t removed Steven Crowder’s content despite his repeated violations of its terms of service prohibiting abusive behavior and hate speech. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a recent piece for The Intercept, Sam Biddle outlines how Project Veritas, a conservative group known for using deception and subterfuge in its attempts to expose the alleged misdeeds of leftists and left-leaning outlets like The Washington Post, has openly violated Facebook’s guidelines about the use of fake profiles in the service of “coordinated authentic behavior.”

The article, which includes deposition from members of the group admitting to how manufactured Facebook profiles factor into their work as well as context about the group’s backing, has this to say about Facebook’s oversight of the content it hosts alongside the company’s stated goal of stemming disinformation and propaganda:

The real issue is uneven, arbitrary enforcement of “the rules.” Max Read, writing in New York magazine on another social network’s enforcement blunders, argued that “the problem for YouTube is that for rules to be taken seriously by the people they govern, they need to be applied consistently and clearly.” YouTube is about as terrible at this exercise as Facebook is, and there’s a good chance that if Facebook treated malicious right-wing American exploitation of its network the same way it treats malicious foreign exploitation of its network, it would probably botch the whole thing and end up burning people who actually do use phony Facebook profiles for work toward the public good.

That a company like Facebook is even in a position to create “rules” like the coordinated inauthentic behavior policy that apply to a large chunk of the Earth’s population is itself a serious problem, one made considerably worse by completely erratic enforcement. It’s bad enough having a couple guys in California take up the banner of defending “Democracy” around the world through the exclusive control of one of the most powerful information organs in human history; if nothing else, we should hope their decisions are predictable and consistent.

While Biddle acknowledges that Facebook would probably screw up its attempts to officiate its policies against domestic political manipulation anyway, that it gives the practice a half-hearted, inconsistent effort doesn’t make matters better.

As the allusion to YouTube in Biddle’s closing additionally suggests, this phenomenon of tech giants being inadequate gatekeepers of authentic information free from hate speech is a pattern of frustrating behavior for observers across the political spectrum. Recently, YouTube caught a lot of heat from the journalist community when Carlos Maza, producer, writer, and host of the “Strikethrough” video series at Vox, made a public plea to the video-sharing website in a series of tweets pointing to homophobic and racist abuse by Steven Crowder, a conservative talk show host and self-professed comedian who has near four million subscribers to his name.

Crowder’s hollow defense against Maza’s compilation of all the times he referred to him as a “queer,” a “Mexican,” or demeaned his “lispy” delivery while caricaturing gay men has been that his is a comedy show and that his comments amount to nothing more than “playful ribbing.” This, however, to most objective observers, is unmitigated bullshit. Crowder’s repeated jabs at Maza for his criticisms of right-wing talking heads like Tucker Carlson are much stronger than the barbs you’d reserve for one of your friends—and even then they’re probably not all that appropriate and definitely not funny.

Crowder’s protestations of YouTube’s responses during this whole affair also miss the mark. Predictably, YouTube first addressed Maza’s plight by doing, well, nothing, claiming Crowder hadn’t violated its terms of service. This, like Crowder’s claims of innocence, is bogus. YouTube’s rules explicitly outlaw “content or behavior intended to maliciously harass, threaten, or bully others” and furthermore view hate speech as a violation. Representatives from the company explained that it opted not to take action against Crowder because he didn’t direct his viewers to harass Maza, which is immaterial to the above concerns and, at any rate, irrelevant in consideration of the notion he himself (Crowder) was the one doing the bullying.

Eventually, however, enough people raised objections whereby YouTube moved to demonetize Crowder, itself a token gesture given the conservative provocateur gets the bulk of his revenue from merchandise sales (including his ever-tasteful “Socialism Is for Fags” T-shirt depicting Che Guevara). Crowder’s reaction? This was YouTube caving to the demands of a corporation throwing its weight around to “censor” a conservative voice in accordance with the demands of a leftist who had targeted him, one of the “little guys,” because he didn’t like his viewpoints. Never mind that Maza is a gay Latino who regular receives abuse on both Crowder’s channel and Vox each time he makes a post. Right, Mr. Crowder, you’re the marginalized one here.

This isn’t censorship, though. This is a private company enforcing its rules by which Crowder did not abide. What’s more, it’s not even doing that right. For violations of its terms, YouTube should be removing this content, not simply demonetizing it. Instead, the offending remarks remain and Crowder gets to use this episode to rally his troops and paint Maza as the aggressor. Show your outrage by signing up for the Mug Club! What better way than to proudly exhibit your freedom!

At a minimum, this is an episode that makes YouTube look very bad. That its decision-making appears so wishy-washy lends credence to the criticism that the company is trying merely to avoid accusations of bias rather than doing the right thing. It doesn’t help either that these events are unfolding during Pride Month, an occasion for which YouTube has touted its commitment to the LGBTQ community. If it were really interested in upholding the civil rights of a vulnerable subset of the population beyond mere window-dressing, maybe YouTube would actually stand in solidarity with its LGBTQ creators rather than banning them too in the interest of purported “fairness.”


I mentioned Twitter in the headline for this article. Emil Protalinski, news editor for VentureBeat, while trashing YouTube for, alongside perpetuating the Maza-Crowder fiasco, allowing its automated recommendation system to show random people’s videos to pedophiles and providing platforms for content creators to capitalize on the anger of impressionable young male viewers, likewise takes Facebook and Twitter to task for their uneven commitment to rules they aver are clearly posted and stated.

In both cases, Protalinski views failure to consistently uphold a set of guidelines as occurring so often that there are simply “too many examples to list.” The instances he does highlight, meanwhile, are salient and illustrative. Re Facebook, its refusal to remove a video headily edited to make Nancy Pelosi look drunk, senile, or some combination thereof was highly criticized at the time for irresponsibility in allowing false/misleading content to exist contrary to the company’s stated goals.

As for Twitter, Protalinski cites the social media behemoth’s dilatory response to other apps and sites banning conspiracy theory promulgator Alex Jones from its service. If nothing else, Twitter is woefully behind the curve when it comes to properly marshaling the content it hosts. And, not for nothing, but why are there so many Nazis hanging around? Like, why is banning them evidently so controversial?

Lather, rinse, repeat. We’ve sadly seen this before and we’ll see it again. Protalinski writes:

There are two whack-a-mole cycles happening on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. First, these companies fail to write clear rules. Disgusting content on their platform is brought to light. It isn’t removed. Users protest. The companies point to their rules. More outrage follows. Finally, if there is enough of a blowback, apologies are issued, the rules are “clarified,” and the example content is taken down.

The second cycle is happening at the same time. A given rule is already clear and specific. Disgusting content is brought to light. It isn’t removed. Users protest. The companies fail to explain why it wasn’t removed immediately or make up excuses. More outrage follows. Finally, if there is enough of a blowback, apologies are issued, the rules are “clarified,” and the example content is taken down.

In these cycles, only blatant and high-profile cases are removed. And that process can take anywhere from weeks to months from when the original content was published. By then it has done the damage and generated the revenue.

In either scenario, the sticking point is not necessarily the specificity of rules (although lacking clear standards of conduct is in it of itself a problem), but rather the inability or unwillingness to consistently enforce them independent of political affiliation or other identifying characteristic. Without the requisite amount of outrage or clout of the individuals expressing that outrage, nothing moves forward. Even then, actions taken are liable to be too little, too late, and backed by an inauthentic, insufficient rationale. In other words, and to echo Protalinski, the damage is done.

To be fair, this business of moderating the wealth of content that appears on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is no easy task given its sheer volume and the rapidity with which it is created. At the same time, this is the responsibility these companies bear as providers. If your priorities involve retaining your share of the content creation/streaming market and growing your business, you’re going to have invest in a modicum of safeguards to ensure that users and creators alike feel comfortable using your platform.

So spare us the half-assed excuses and non-apology apologies. If people like Steven Crowder don’t want to play by the rules, invite them to abide by your code of conduct or find somewhere else to peddle their hate and disinformation. I, for one, could do without the moral quandary I face by using your services—and I know I’m not alone.

On Anti-Vaxxers, Climate Change Deniers, and Flat Earthers

Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, Flat Earthers: you are among those encouraged not to cherry-pick data and rely on charlatans to tell you what is wrong with our world today. (Photo Credit: Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)
  1. The Earth is an oblate spheroid, not flat.
  2. Climate change on Earth is real.
  3. Vaccines don’t cause autism and you should definitely vaccinate your kids.

Many of us would agree readily to all of the above. Ample evidence exists that glaciers are melting, the seas are rising and warming with the rest of the planet, and more and more animal species are facing extinction. The link between vaccines and autism is a spurious one, having been debunked numerous times over. The Earth is round because, well, it’s 2019 and we have technology that lets us see that sort of thing.

And yet, there are those people who would contest one or more of these statements. Flat Earthers, as the name implies, contend that the Earth is flat, citing visual evidence. Anti-vaxxers, often inspired by some Republicans/libertarians, insist that the government is wrong to mandate they vaccinate their children, making the issue a matter of personal freedoms. Climate change deniers dispute that global warming exists, argue against humans’ role in promoting deleterious climate change, and/or say that all this carbon dioxide we’re creating is actually a good thing because plants need it. Right.

It’s one thing, for instance, for Flat Earthers to more narrowly believe that our globe is not a globe and have it end then and there. The rest of us say one thing, they say another—to each his or her own. Sure, some (or most) of us might laugh at their expense, but we agree to disagree.

The problem arises when subscription to an alternative viewpoint potentially puts the non-subscribers among us at risk. Anti-vaxxers are wingnuts to be dismissed—that is, until areas start encountering outbreaks of measles, a disease said to be eliminated from the United States in 2000. Climate change deniers are all well and good—except for the notion the world is on fire and we need all hands on deck to prevent a climate catastrophe. And when even Flat Earthers move from a relatively innocuous refusal to accept that the world is round to the theory that tragedies like the Holocaust and the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting never happened, it would appear their healthy skepticism is anything but.

Such is why all of the above extreme stances existing in opposition to verifiable scientific evidence must be regarded seriously, even if some members of these various movements aren’t wholeheartedly committed or straightforward. Susceptibility to mis- and disinformation campaigns is a pressing matter, especially in the digital age. A few errant clicks and you may find yourself down the proverbial rabbit hole, led astray by some YouTuber with a cursory grasp of video production and a passion for pushing conspiracy theories. Or—who knows!—that red-blooded American you’ve been talking to online might not have your best interests in mind—and he or she might actually be half a world away at that.

As a point of emphasis, the growth of these factions is disconcerting. Though measles is on the rise in the U.S. after a historic low, it’s not all the fault of anti-vaccination rhetoric. Inadequate access to vaccinations for poorer Americans/families of color and imported measles cases from overseas are contributing factors, too. Nonetheless, the anti-vaxxer movement is gaining traction and, along with it, so is the risk that measles or any other highly contagious disease may spread. Climate change skepticism, even if it were to be standing pat, is an impediment to the kind of progress we need to be making on this issue. Simply put, staying still at a moment in which we need to be moving forward is effectively sending us backwards.

Making matters worse is the idea these movements are at the cusp of becoming mainstream if not already there. A handful of celebrities—some of them comparatively minor but even so (cough, B.o.B., cough)—have counted themselves at one point among those who doubt the sincerity of NASA and other scientific organizations for putting forth a round-Earth framework. Republican leaders like Kentucky governor Matt Bevin promote anti-vaccination talking points from their seats as elected officials. On the climate change front, meanwhile, there is perhaps no more prominent skeptic than the Denier-in-Chief himself, Donald Trump, who once famously referred to the observed effects of climate change as a “hoax.”

These aren’t just fringe campaigns. They possess real potential to influence large swaths of individuals, people who are our neighbors, parents of children at our schools, even family and friends. Like the diseases vaccines are developed to guard against, left unchecked, they have the ability to spread and do real damage. What’s more, addressing them in the wrong way could make holders of their core beliefs that much more resistant to change.

This begs the question: how do those of us who have accepted phenomena like the efficacy of vaccines, human beings’ part in contributing to climate change, and the very roundness of Planet Earth as fact have a conversation with those who don’t? How do we operate in an environment in which truth almost seems to be treated as merely a construct, a relativistic abstract concept independent of what we can test and infer? Despite the obvious perils accepting alternative theories presents, the evident uptick of pseudoscience peddlers is, in it of itself, alarming. As the great thinker (if only in his own mind) Ben Shapiro has said, facts don’t care about your feelings. Fine. Great. But when it’s my facts vs. your “facts,” we are at quite an impasse indeed.


Earlier, I noted how it’s easy these days, as a result of a few errant clicks, to find oneself in the company of a YouTuber who peddles nonsensical arguments and unsubstantiated conjecture to serve a particular narrative. On that note, I’m about to supplement my stances with content proffered by…a YouTuber. Wait, the climate-change-eschewin’, flat-Earth-believin’, no-vaccine-havin’ among you may say, you think your YouTubers are better than our YouTubers because they subscribe to the prevailing views of the scientific community and we don’t? My answer to this is, um, in a nutshell, yes. Yes, I do.

In a video essay on the Flat Earth ideology from December of last year, Harry Brewis, known by the handle “Hbomberguy,” argues that, despite how ludicrous some of us might find this position, its holders may not necessarily, ahem, flat out reject scientific principles. He explains in the waning moments of his 40-plus-minute production:

These people are attempting a form of science, and I think that’s what really gets to me about them—not simply that they’re pretending they’re scientists who’ve secretly found the truth. … People like Mark [Sargent] are right to want to question authorities on issues. They’re right to want to question everything they know about reality and the society they live in, and that’s because at the center of Flat Earth—not the North Pole, the actual center of the ideology—its core is a tiny, shining fragment of a systemic critique. It’s the beginning of trying to understand what’s wrong with our society and what to do about it.

… People seek these solutions because they perceive, on some level, a problem—and they’re right. Something is wrong with the world right now. The world is figuratively on fire. World leaders are asleep at the wheel. There’s nothing in place to prevent another massive financial crash which will destroy thousands if not millions of livelihoods. And ecologically speaking, on top of being, you know, figuratively on fire, the Earth is literally on fire. Wildfires are getting worse, temperatures are all over the place, ice is melting at an astounding rate. Even on a globe Earth, the edge is coming fast.

So I can’t blame anyone for feeling alienated and lonely about living in late-capitalist society. At least under feudalism, we had job security. So of course people are going to try to find something that helps them cope or seems like a solution. That’s why you get cults. That’s why you get Scientology. That’s why you get Jordan Peterson supporters. Something is wrong and we can all tell, and some people have arrived at a solution that doesn’t really work or at the very least makes them feel a little bit better.

… Believing these things isn’t a solution, and it’s not really accurate about what the problems are. The problem isn’t NASA. The problem isn’t the Earth being flat. The problem is something else.

While mercilessly roasting the more outspoken promulgators of Flat Earth like Mark Sargent and calling out its most bigoted elements, Brewis does seem to possess a certain degree of sympathy for its followers. The same might apply to anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. They feel something is wrong. They distrust the authorities and institutions that, to a large extent, have let them down.

When someone comes along and offers them an alternative, who tells them they are right to be scared and eagerly points out a scapegoat, that’s how we get parents who decry the long arm of the state in forcing them to vaccinate their children. That’s how we get millions of viewers who believe the likes of Steven Crowder regarding the notion the ice at the poles is growing, not shrinking. That’s how we get Brexit and President Donald Trump. These people are right to be skeptical. Unfortunately, they’ve picked the wrong matters to be skeptical about and the wrong people to guide them in their search for meaning and purpose.

This rejection of scientific consensus based on anecdotal evidence (“I’ve never seen the Earth curve—have you?”) or disqualification due to a presumed agenda (e.g. vaccines as a ploy of the for-profit health care industry) is not to be utterly exonerated. Certainly, those individuals who would exploit others’ susceptibility to manipulation in this way should be held accountable as well.

The question of how to interact with these types of people, however, still lingers. How do you penetrate a world in which facts don’t matter to people who claim to believe in science? A piece by Bill Radke and Sarah Leibovitz accompanying Radke’s interview of Boston University philosopher of science Lee McIntyre for KUOW’s The Record might provide some insight.

As McIntyre did or at least attempted to do going undercover at the Flat Earth International Conference, he approached attendees armed not with evidence or an attacking or condescending manner, but with a “philosopher’s question”: What would it take to convince you you’re wrong? According to the article, they didn’t have an answer.

McIntyre submits that this is a hallmark of anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, Flat Earthers and the like and thus where they diverge from true scientists: they cherry-pick data, ignoring information that disagrees with what they believe. To be fair, in a time in which Russian bots and other foreign agents try to influence public opinion and in which information reaches our senses faster than we can rightly process, it’s not just the InfoWars-Breitbart crowd who can fall prey to what is termed “confirmation bias.”

Prevailing trends of the population at large notwithstanding, McIntyre cautions against simply brushing these alternative-theory movements aside for fear of encouraging other campaigns built on faulty reasoning. He also reasons you shouldn’t write off their subscribers or cut them off, but rather “engage, listen, and work the facts in where you can.” Additionally, scientists need to do their part in standing up for the importance of uncertainty to the scientific method. It’s OK not to have the answers—that is, as long as this admission is made in the service of trying to find them in earnest.

The Earth is an oblate spheroid, not flat. Climate change on Earth is real. Vaccines don’t cause autism and you should definitely vaccinate your kids. It’s important we uphold these truths. At the same time, we can engage non-believers in an accessible, trust-oriented way and draw attention to the real causes of the problems Harry Brewis and others might enumerate. After all, we’re going to need a communal effort to solve them and it’s going to take all types of people working together to do it.

In New Jersey, It’s Phil Murphy vs. the Political Machine

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney opposes a “millionaires tax” and has been instrumental in stalling legislation to legalize marijuana. But sure, the state doesn’t have enough money and needs to raid public workers’ pensions. (Photo Credit: Lbiswim/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)

In politics, corruption is often presumed to be so much of a tradition and so pervasive that at times we become inured to it. As my father is wont to say, “They’re all crooks,” before summarily ending all seeing of, hearing about, and speaking about politics until further notice like the three wise monkeys of lore.

As it frequently manifests itself, the political response to alleged malfeasance on the part of one or more public figures involves members of the opposing party decrying these heinous acts and demanding accountability. The hubris! The outrage! This is unacceptable! That is, until one of the party’s own is caught with his or her proverbial hand in the cookie jar. Then, as the saying goes, all bets are off.

In my home state of New Jersey, meanwhile, even with understanding of a tradition of backroom deals and other less-than-transparent arrangements, one set of circumstances involving misuse of the state’s economic resources is shocking if only because of the breadth of the scandal. Moreover, the resulting war between factions of the same party is striking for its rancor.

At issue are millions of dollars in tax incentives included as part of more than $11 billion facilitated by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority under Gov. Chris Christie. An audit of the EDA by the state comptroller published earlier this year found that “New Jersey’s lavish corporate subsidy programs operate with little oversight and no evidence of spurring economic growth.” Of particular issue, especially as the news has grabbed headlines from local outlets and even national publications like Politico, are the findings that businesses and individuals linked to insurance executive and Democratic Party boss George Norcross benefited disproportionately from the tax breaks authorized by the NJEDA.

As this opinion piece from the New York Daily News editorial board explains, Norcross is South Jersey, “controlling just about everything in and out of sight. One of his brothers is a congressman; another is managing partner at a big law firm. A solid bloc of loyal state senators are always ready to bend the family’s way.” In other words, Norcross has connections—to put it mildly.

That he would leverage his influence to steer economic benefits to those personal connects is, while again not terribly surprising, nonetheless remarkable for its brazenness and its magnitude. An investigation by WNYC and ProPublica found that of the $1.6 billion in tax incentives greenlit for capital investment in Camden, Norcross’s hometown, $1.1 billion went to Norcross’s insurance brokerage, his affiliated businesses and charities, and clients of his brother Philip’s law and lobbying firms. Camden also received better than four times as many tax breaks as the combined benefits provided to other designated “growth zones.”

With all due respect to the city of Camden, New Jersey’s poster child for the ravages of income and wealth inequality and thus a city in legitimate need of investment, this reaping of the lion’s share of the EDA’s incentives seems excessive with respect to the way in which it was achieved. It’s especially egregious when considering claims by activists and community developers that the employees coming to work in Camden from the suburbs aren’t really contributing to the local economy. They’re not living there. They’re not spending there. They’re out by five each day, effectively rendering downtown Camden a ghost town. This does not appear to be what the NJEDA’s designs are all about.

In response to findings of abuse of its programs, Gov. Phil Murphy, Christie’s successor, created a special task force to investigate the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. This prompted George Norcross, the good Democrat that he is, to do the logical thing: sue. That’s right—Norcross alleges in a suit that Murphy “unlawfully empowered the task force with powers he did not possess and authorized the retention and payment of New York lawyers who proceeded to commence and conduct an investigation in violation of multiple provisions of New Jersey law.”

To the degree Norcross’s case has any merit is beyond me. From the outside looking in, the aspect of the task force’s lawyers allegedly not being able to practice law in the state of New Jersey could be problematic. There are also questions about what the task force is able to legally do (according to Norcross’s legal team, it can’t issue or enforce subpoenas) and who it can investigate (Norcross and Co. claim that because he isn’t a public official, he is out of bounds). In addition, the plaintiffs in the case have stated they have “made an enormous investment in the revitalization of Camden” and have been “falsely” accused of misconduct.

Norcross’s and his cronies’ purported innocence notwithstanding, their protestations strike one as weak sauce. Realistically, their arguments against Murphy’s task force involve technicalities such as legal standing, not a resounding repudiation of their guilt. And if Norcross’s motives seem petty or suspicious related to this lawsuit, what do we say about fellow Democratic politician Stephen Sweeney, president of the New Jersey Senate since 2010 and someone backed by Norcross?

Sweeney, born in Camden, has been instrumental, for one, in stalling marijuana legalization legislation which appeared to be on its way to being voted on by if not passing the Senate and Assembly prior to the bombshell revelations of the WNYC/ProPublica report as well as a whistleblower’s account of her employer lying about its relocation plans to secure a tax break. Sweeney also formed a tax incentive committee called the Senate Select Committee on Economic Growth Strategies that has its sights set on the very task force created to investigate misappropriation by the EDA. Which, if it supplements the work of the task force is great, but otherwise looks like nothing more than political retribution.

And this is before we get to other criticism of Sweeney for his steering of the state Democratic Party as one of its leaders. Doing a 180 from his position during Christie’s tenure as New Jersey governor, Sweeney has backed off his support of a millionaires tax now that Murphy is in the governor’s seat, echoing Republican talking points. To boot, his proposed “Path to Progress” initiatives have been slammed by public workers who stand to see cuts in their health care and pensions to pay for them while the pensions of other public workers (notably firefighters, law enforcement, and judicial employees) are evidently sacrosanct. That Sweeney has few qualms about bypassing Gov. Murphy to achieve these goals would only seem to speak volumes about dysfunction among New Jersey Democrats.

In all, these events paint New Jersey politics, already murky in its expression, in a harsh light, not to mention they cast a pall over a key victory for Democrats in the Trump era in Gov. Murphy’s triumph over Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno. On top of this, they underscore a more global tension between establishment politicians and progressives who are new to the political process or otherwise can be characterized as “outsiders,” a divide which tends to get played up for effect by news media to generate sales and clicks but one that does exist and which shines a spotlight on the roadblocks leftists face from actors on both sides of the political fence in advancing their ideals.

It’s a conflict worth fighting, though everyday voters are still caught in the middle, chiefly poorer New Jerseyans, women, and people of color, distinctions which recognizably aren’t mutually exclusive of one another. If we’re assigning blame, however, the best place to start might be with the persons of George Norcross and Steve Sweeney. After all, they’ve been playing this game for a longer period of time.


It admittedly feels strange to talk about Phil Murphy as the “progressive” politician of the bunch here given that his track record leading up to becoming an elected official wasn’t exactly a grassroots organizer’s dream. Murphy, a Goldman Sachs alum, bought his ticket to the gubernatorial general election by opening his personal checkbook and donating generously to the various county wings of the Democratic Party in New Jersey.

Before that, as a prominent Democratic Party donor, his finances were also key to his securing an ambassadorship to Germany under Barack Obama, a tenure that saw him have to weather a diplomatic storm after his negative comments about Angela Merkel and other German officials were made public as part of WikiLeaks’s U.S. diplomatic cables leak. With the memory of Jon Corzine, another ex-Goldman Sachs who ended his run as governor at a mere 33% approval rating, fresh in the minds of New Jerseyans, there was every reason to be wary of Murphy. Especially when his campaign strategy appeared to be little more than running against Donald Trump, not his actual competitor in the gubernatorial race, and his ads involved repeated promises that he “doesn’t owe the insiders anything” and that he’s “got our back”—all delivered with a cheesy smile.

Heretofore, though, the results have been better than perhaps many would’ve expected. Murphy signed a bill banning offshore drilling in state waters. He has also signed into law legislation to automatically register voters at Motor Vehicle Commission offices and other agencies, to close the gender pay gap, and to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024, among others, and his Cabinet has been the most diverse in the state’s history.

As with any administration, there has been room for criticism. Murphy has taken a lot of heat from environmentalists for his failure to more strongly oppose the construction of a proposed natural gas power plant in the Meadowlands amid a push for a more robust commitment to renewable energy sources. In addition, Murphy’s administration met with scandal after Al Alvarez, one-time chief of staff of the Schools Development Authority, was accused of rape by fellow Murphy campaign staffer Katie Brennan (now chief of staff of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency) but officials couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say who had hired him or how he was allowed to remain on the payroll for months after the accusations. Not a highlight of Murphy’s tenure, to be sure.

By and large, however, Gov. Murphy has been a marked improvement over Gov. Christie, who, like Gov. Corzine, ended his governorship in ignominy. Going back to the New York Daily News‘s editorial on his spat with George Norcross, too, if their opinion is any indication, it’s the latter who is the fly in the ointment. From the piece:

Phil Murphy is the elected governor of New Jersey and he’s asking crucial questions about who got what in tax breaks from the state Economic Development Authority.

Norcross doesn’t like it one bit, but he can go suck an egg, because the people’s money demands an honest accounting.

That’s really the crux of the matter. Murphy is an elected official accountable to taxpayers. Norcross is not and has materially benefited from the public’s contributions. This is a serious subject deserving more than Norcross’s legal team’s attempts at an end-around and warnings by Camden mayor Francisco “Frank” Moran that Murphy is not welcome in the city until he stops “attacking” it. Think about that. He’s the governor of New Jersey and you’re telling him to stay out. That’s quite a show of chutzpah from South Jersey Democrats toward a member of their own party.

Ditto for Steve Sweeney. He has protected himself better in terms of public opinion relative to Norcross, but as progressives might argue, he’s playing hardball with the budget and advocating for cuts for certain public sector employees in the name of “responsibility” when significant approval exists for raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents and legalizing marijuana, potentially viable sources of revenue. Sweeney is making a power play here, seeking to take advantage of Murphy’s rising disapproval from moderate voters. But he is out of step with public opinion on these issues and risks overplaying his hand in advance of a possible state government shutdown this summer, particularly when considering his past support for such a tax during the Christie era.

Political figures should be held accountable regardless of experience and party affiliation. This applies to Phil Murphy, at the top of the New Jersey hierarchy, but equally so to “power brokers” like George Norcross, Stephen Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. In an age in which people-powered solutions to political dilemmas are in increasing demand, we don’t need a political machine dominated by a few to dictate our future.

Hell No, I Won’t Give Republicans Credit

Rep. Justin Amash deserves a modicum of credit for recognizing Pres. Trump’s conduct as “impeachable” as read in the Mueller report. But by and large the rest of his party does not, nor do Democrats merit overwhelming praise either. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Give the Devil his due.

Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Sure, he may have had a lot of help in doing so. After all, it was, ahem, awfully fortunate to have Russia meddle on his behalf. Also, there was that whole suspiciously-timed letter by James Comey to Congress about reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private E-mail server.

And WikiLeaks had that whole DNC E-mail dump. Oh, and Trump lost the popular vote, but because of our crazy, mixed-up Electoral College, he still won (and subsequently gets to promote conspiracy theories about electoral fraud on the part of Democrats from his bully pulpit). Plus, income and wealth inequality, low turnout, racism, sexism, strategic mismanagement from the Clinton campaign and the Democrats in general, and other factors played a probable role in the final outcome.

But yes, strictly speaking, Trump won in 2016. Do I think he deserves some great degree of credit for this, however? No, I don’t, and my question to you is this: for what do you think he merits praise exactly?

From the very beginning of his campaign, Donald Trump ran on a platform of divisiveness that would be laughable today if A) it weren’t so reprehensible and B) he didn’t actually win. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. By now, this is one set of remarks in a long line of boorish, ignorant rhetoric on Trump’s part. At the time, though, it was stunning to have someone with presidential aspirations utter these words with a straight face. This didn’t come from some character on HBO’s Veep. This was a real person really saying these things. But give the Devil his due, right?

In spite of the expert predictions, Trump didn’t sink his chances right then and there. Instead, he flourished, all the while going after his political rivals on both the left and the right, going out of his way to criticize those who dared to challenge him. Megyn Kelly was only asking him tough questions because she was on her period. John McCain was less of a man because he got captured while serving in the Vietnam War (never mind that Trump himself never served because his father used an allegedly fabricated diagnosis of bone spurs to get him off the hook). Carly Fiorina was ugly. Marco Rubio became “Little Marco.” And was “Lyin'” Ted Cruz even eligible to run for president because of the whole being-born-in-Canada thing? With every jab at a fellow Republican, Trump revealed a new ugly dimension to his character. And his supporters reveled in it.

Truth be told, they still are. Long before potential Democratic challengers were lining up to be the one to take a shot at making him a one-and-done president in 2020, the man was holding the same type of rallies he held in advance of 2016. Eschewing teleprompters, he continued to rage against the changing face of America and to harp on Hillary’s conduct despite having won, all the while taking potshots at the likes of Maxine Waters and suggesting that, as a black woman, she was fundamentally less intelligent than him. LOCK HER UP! IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, GET THE F**K OUT! To you or I, this might feel like Hell on Earth. But to these attendees, it was a party. And for once, they felt like they were winning. Whoever they were anyway.

In Trump, they saw a figure who made them proud to be Americans, who they felt understood how they were being ignored, replaced, talked down to. He tells it like it is. He’s not a politician. He’s the epitome of success. Hey, at least with him it won’t be boring. For whatever reason or mix of reasons, they celebrated his political ascendancy. So what if he allegedly cheated on his wife with an adult entertainer and paid her not to talk about it? So what if he claims to be a religious man but won’t (or can’t) name a particular chapter or verse of the Holy Bible he finds illuminating? So what if he said he would be too busy during his tenure to play golf but has already outpaced Barack Obama in time spent away from the White House with clubs in hand? We’re making America great again. Even if we have to drag you kicking and screaming into that new America which looks a lot like the old America.

Regarding the voters who opted for Trump, then, while we might not absolve them completely for their questionable decision-making and should press them on why they continue to support the president if they still do, we can keep in mind that they are not political experts. They are flesh and blood, not necessarily guided by reason, prone to failings as we all are. It is Trump, meanwhile, who primarily deserves admonishment herein. Purporting himself to be a man with all the answers who alone can fix America’s ills. A man of the people, one lacking polish but one who connects with everyday voters. He’s not politically correct. He’s not a Washington, D.C. insider. He gets it. TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP! Promises made, promises kept.

Except he hasn’t. Where is the wall that Mexico is going to pay for? Where is that big replacement for the Affordable Care Act that is supposed to be loads better than Obama’s signature achievement? Where is the infrastructure investment he promised? What about his vow that we’d make no cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security? Or the improved Iran deal we’d be negotiating? Or the notion we’d eliminate the federal debt in eight years? Or that he’d willingly release his tax returns? I’m not saying Pres. Trump has broken all of his campaign promises, mind you. Disappointing as actions like taking America out of the Paris climate agreement and keeping the prison at Guantanamo Bay open are, Trump said he’d do them and he did.

Given how much he boasted he would do, however, to brag now about “promises made, promises kept” is to engage in disingenuousness. Judging by PolitiFact’s scorecard, more than half of Trump’s promises have either been broken, have stalled, or have been subject to some sort of compromise. If you include initiatives in the works which have yet to come to fruition, the percentage of promises kept grows yet smaller. This is especially notable for Trump’s most chant-worthy agenda items. BUILD THE WALL? We’re not even close on the steel slat barrier Trump and Co. have envisioned. LOCK HER UP? Last time I checked, Hillary Clinton isn’t behind bars. DRAIN THE SWAMP? Lo, but the president has done nothing but feed its alligators, populating his administration with appointees with ties to Goldman Sachs.

To put it another way, for all Trump has pledged to do, how often has he followed through, and along these lines, how beneficial have these policies actually been for the average American? Probably the biggest “achievement” Trump and his party can claim during his presidency is passing tax legislation that primarily benefits corporations and the wealthiest among us. There’s also Trump’s liability for getting involved in trade wars that see the cost of goods and materials passed on to consumers and put American jobs in danger. Even the relatively strong economy Trump has enjoyed as POTUS was inherited from his predecessor. Though come to think of it, it is rather on-brand for Trump to get a favorable situation handed to him and try to take credit for it afterwards.

When it boils down to it, the only thing for which we possibly could be giving credit to Donald Trump is being a fraud—and that’s not something most of us would agree deserves applause. He connived his way to the White House like his father connived his way out of the draft on his behalf, and later in life, he sold Americans a bill of goods they were only too willing to pay for. As president, he has continued his faux populist charade, all the while making everyone not like him—a rich white Christian male who shares his worldview—either a mark for the con or a target for abuse.

Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote about this “skill” of Trump’s amid his penchant for cruelty back in October 2018:

Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.

This is the United States in the age of Trump, and that he seems to have taken so much of the Republican Party with him is startling. The GOP as a whole merits scorn for their wholesale failure to adequately condemn him and/or their utter abandonment of their stated conservative principles, as well as their identities as ostensibly decent human beings.

Lindsey Graham? He has turned from a sometimes-critic of Trump to his sycophantic defender. Mitt Romney and Susan Collins? They’re “troubled” by Trump’s actions to the point when they actually have to stand for something—and then they end up toeing the party line when it comes time to vote. Mitch McConnell? He got Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court by refusing to do his job, has obliged the president on the use of the “nuclear option” to confirm his awful nominations for key government posts, and has reflexively stonewalled legislation advanced by a Democrat-controlled House as a matter of partisan gamesmanship. And this is what deserves applause?

I’ve heard it said that whereas Democratic supporters feel they need to fall in love with candidates, Republican supporters fall in line and that’s why they keep winning. Based on their control of the White House, the Senate, and numerous state houses and governorships, this may be true in part. Again, though, do I hold this “strategic” approach in any high esteem? No, I don’t. Not when Trump and the rest of his party are pandering to the lowest common denominator, lying, cheating, and stealing their way to victory.

Do the rest of us bear at least some responsibility for allowing ourselves to be manipulated in this way? Hell yes. Our disorganization, shortsightedness, and silence help fuel their misdeeds. But do I propose that the GOP get credit for playing one big shell game and reaping the benefits? Hell no.


It is in the context of us-versus-them, Democrat-versus-Republican, winning-versus-losing binary paradigms that Rep. Justin Amash’s breaking of ranks with his GOP brethren to indicate Pres. Trump has “engaged in impeachable conduct” after reading the unredacted Mueller report is so intriguing. That he would make his conclusions known publicly, jeopardizing his standing within the party and, perhaps more significantly, his financial backing suggests some level of courage more tepid challengers such as Jeff Flake and Mitt Romney lack.

Of course, we the American public may cheer Amash’s going out on a proverbial limb without necessarily subscribing to all his political views. Awash in a cultural tide of black-and-white depictions of public figures and “canceling” anyone who utters something out of turn, we can appreciate Amash’s candor on this issue while still acknowledging the need to hold him accountable on less agreeable positions. This is a conversation about impeachment, not an ideological purity test.

Amash’s defection, if you will, is made doubly noteworthy by House Democrats’ reluctance to push for impeachment as steered by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It certainly eats away at the narrative put forth heretofore that Trump “isn’t worth impeachment.” Here’s a Republican—a Republican!—saying that the contents of the Mueller report are grounds for impeachment.

Elie Mystal, contributor to The Nation, takes it one step further by declaring that Amash “is putting the Democrats to shame.” As Mystal sees it, the Dems should’ve been making the case for impeachment since taking back the House in November but they’re too scared, “as if merely uttering ‘the I word’ will bring a curse upon their house.” He writes:

The Democratic Party strategy has been to wait for somebody else to make the argument that Trump should be impeached, then glom onto it. They’ve been waiting for somebody else to do the hard work of convincing people for them. The New York Times reports that some Democratic leaders are now privately more insistent on starting impeachment proceedings, if only to counter the hardball tactics being employed by the White House. It would seem sheer embarrassment is pushing the House towards the option they should have been advocating for all along.

The Democrats were hoping for Robert Mueller to take care of things on his own, but that didn’t pan out. Or maybe a different Republican “with honor and decency” might have come forward, the expectation of which Mystal characterizes as a “disease” Democrats like Barack Obama and Joe Biden appear to get when winning an election. Former White House Counsel Don McGahn has reportedly defied a congressional subpoena, so he’s out too. Now, against the odds, a “Tea Party joker” who “has positions [Mystal] could easily spend the rest of [his] life opposing” has taken the initiative to assent to impeachment. The Democrats’ cover has effectively been blown.

Mystal ends his piece with this stinging criticism of the Democratic Party:

[Amash] is out there looking like he’s got actual convictions, even as Republicans gear up to primary the hell out of him. He’s not waiting for Democrats or Republicans to make the argument that Trump should be impeached. He’s making it himself. He’s taking it directly to his voters. He’s trying to convince them that he is right. It’s dangerous. He might lose his seat. But as they’d say in the neighborhood: he ain’t no punk.

The Democrats look like the punks. They’re standing on top of a diving board, scared and shivering, hoping somebody would just push them in already and save them from their embarrassment.

Bringing the conversation back to the central issue of who deserves credit, Justin Amash earns some on the subject of impeachment, putting his views above the public stance of party leadership and risking a backlash from party organizers and voters alike. But that’s as far as it goes.

Along these lines, the Democrats get some credit for generally adopting more progressive policy positions than the Republicans. That, however, isn’t that onerous a task given how far off the deep end the Republican Party has apparently gone, and what’s more, the Dems (with a few exceptions) have blown a good chunk of that goodwill in not pushing for impeachment and therefore not communicating they care to hold President Trump accountable. Forget what the Senate will (or won’t) do. Forget how Trump will take it (um, guessing he won’t like it). At a point, you have to stand for something.

As the saying goes, give credit where it is due. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of reason to give credit in Washington these days, least of all not to Donald Trump and his Republican enablers.

Give the Devil his due? Hell no.

In Nancy We Trust?

Nancy Pelosi has earned her reputation as a shrewd deal-maker and certainly outclasses President Donald Trump. Her strategic approach is not above criticism, though, notably as it concerns the denigration of progressive policy goals. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

A disciplined leader. A woman focused on specific policies that affect people’s lives. Someone who gets results. These are among Will Saletan’s characterizations of Nancy Pelosi as expressed in a largely laudatory recent piece written about her for Slate.

Before we get to the meat of Saletan’s article, titled simply “Trust Pelosi,” there’s the matter of a profile of Speaker Pelosi by Glenn Thrush that appeared earlier this month in The New York Times, of which Saletan’s essay serves primarily as a reaction piece. Thrush shines a spotlight on Pelosi’s stewardship of the Democratic Party, particularly as it intersects with notions of impeachment and taking back the White House in 2020.

As Pelosi would have it, impeachment is not the way to remove Donald Trump from the Oval Office. It’s beating him in the upcoming presidential election—soundly. Otherwise, Trump et al. might contest any Democratic victory as illegitimate. Impeachment proceedings are all but guaranteed to stall in the Senate and the ensuing confrontation would likely energize Trump and his supporters. Rather than risk alienating moderates, Pelosi believes in “owning the center left to own the mainstream” rather than “engaging in some of the other exuberances that exist in [the Democratic Party].” That is, more Affordable Care Act and less Medicare-for-All. Sorry (not sorry), progressives.

What about other elements of the current American political landscape? How does Ms. Pelosi feel about recent events which stand to affect the balance of power in Washington, D.C.? On the increasingly troublesome handling of the Mueller probe/report by Attorney General William Barr juxtaposed with the ever-erratic behavior of the president, while Pelosi finds it testing her commitment to no impeachment, she remains firm on this point, even if privately she thinks he (Trump) has earned this treatment several times over. On the field of potential Democratic challengers to Trump? Pelosi sees Joe Biden’s popularity in the polls as a symbol of voters’ familiarity and trust, dismissing concerns about his 90s-era treatment of Anita Hill. On working with Republicans? Pelosi is for it, notably if it can help Democrats retain or win hotly contested congressional seats.

There you have it. The communicator of a simple message. Tough as nails. Able to keep rogue members of the party from “hijacking” the House Democratic Caucus. Cordial when the occasion arises but willing to clap back (literally) when the circumstances invite such behavior. It’s Nancy, bitch. Deal with it.

This is the backdrop against which we view Saletan’s own analysis on Pelosi’s role as de facto party leader until a presidential nominee is chosen. As he views subsequent criticism by progressives related to her comments in Thrush’s feature, it is “overblown.” Along these lines, Saletan points to several reasons why Pelosi should make “liberals from San Francisco” (as she describes herself) proud:

She’s more “progressive” than you think

If we’re judging Nancy Pelosi simply as a function of her lack of support for the Green New Deal, describing her as a “leftist” or “progressive” is understandably problematic. As Saletan argues, however, her voting record suggests she is more in step with the left than her detractors might otherwise concede. She argues for affordable health care, education investment, environmental protections, equal pay, fair wages, gun safety, immigration reform, infrastructure investment, protecting Social Security, women’s rights, and other tenets of the party platform most people on the left can broadly agree on. Since Donald Trump took office and as of this writing, Pelosi has voted with the president’s position 18.6% of the time, as calculated and tracked by FiveThirtyEight. That’s not dissimilar from someone like Tulsi Gabbard (20.5%) and significantly lower than Beto O’Rourke (30.1%).

For Pelosi, it is more advantageous to defend policy stances that “are well understood and supported” against the other side’s attacks rather than advancing big ideas that might “alarm the other side’s voters more than they inspire yours.” Hence the focus on the ACA rather than Medicare-for-All and on elements of the Act for which polls already show broad support.

She focuses on policies, not ideologies

For Pelosi, the name of the game is connecting with undecided voters and on maintaining, if not further cementing, the Democratic Party’s control of the House. Concerning the former, she makes a point of avoiding belaboring talk about Trump in favor of highlighting the ways Democrats are fighting for everyday Americans, pointing to the tangible benefits of their policy goals (e.g. framing the climate change issue as a jobs issue). On the latter, Pelosi wants to make sure vulnerable Democratic incumbents in “purple” districts are protected, arguing that there aren’t enough deep-blue districts to approach things the way progressives might prefer. After all, if Republicans regain a House majority, the progressive agenda becomes moot, at least in a pragmatic sense.

To this effect, the speaker emphasizes values over movements. As Saletan underscores, for instance, she is much more apt to describe positions in terms of their purported “fairness” than evocative of “socialism,” a term which carries baggage and is used by the right to try to engender opposition and fear. Pelosi’s vision of the Democratic Party is one of an appeal to pragmatic reason and to voters in the center “abandoned” by the GOP.

She seeks to connect to voters’ values rather than demonizing the right

Continuing with the idea that Democrats can own the center Republicans have forsaken, Rep. Pelosi hopes to sway voters who lean Republican but may be critical of Pres. Trump to vote blue, contrasting his record with that of former presidents like Ronald Reagan. In making such a pitch, she stresses the importance of “values” as a practicing Catholic. The environment. Health care. Separating families at the border. These are values issues, ones that Americans who hold deeply religious views can consider as a subset of their faith. Moreover, by making appeals in this way, Pelosi is speaking to those who vote with their gut rather than based on a comprehensive understanding of policies.

She believes in impeachment, but wants the public’s support

To the extent that impeachment proceedings would die in the Senate or would be used to energize Trump’s base, Pelosi approaches such a move with trepidation. On this note, she favors continuing House committee hearings that build on what we know from the Mueller report and other investigations, hoping to turn public sentiment against Trump much in the way Americans turned against Richard Nixon in the wake of months of investigation into his (mis)conduct. Quoting Pelosi in the final moments of his piece, Saletan closes with these thoughts:

On the whole, the speaker has it right. “Public sentiment is everything,” she likes to say, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln. “With it, you can accomplish almost anything. Without it, practically nothing.” Pelosi schooled Trump in the fight over the government shutdown, and she’s patiently waiting him out in the standoff over who will propose taxes to pay for an infrastructure plan. The liberals of San Francisco should be proud.

While “schooling” Trump may seem an almost dubious achievement—the man’s penchant for malapropisms and spelling errors have become the stuff of legends in the age of Twitter—it seems certain that Pelosi is well-equipped to deal with him. You know, as well as anyone can reasonably deal with a man-child like Trump.

Anecdotally speaking, in my online discussions and in-person Democratic club meetings, Pelosi’s stature is that of a female legislative icon beyond her historic identity as the first (and only) woman to serve as Speaker of the House. Despite misgivings about her leadership in advance of this Congress, she has weathered that storm and is apparently not going anywhere anytime soon. For most rank-and-file Democratic supporters, that’s at least “somewhat favorable.”


The thrust of Will Saletan’s and Glenn Thrush’s articles may well agree with what they believe personally. In Saletan’s case, it is an opinion piece, so we would envision his views and Nancy Pelosi’s align somewhat closely. In Thrush’s case, this is a report that cites Pelosi directly, so the author’s personal inclinations are less clear, though there is very little if any pushback against her assertions within.

In a day and age in which memes are accepted as fact and in which publications are bidding to outdo one another in terms of clicks and exclusives that break before anyone else, though, the sources of the information we consume should be considered for potential bias. Slate, though fairly liberal among mainstream news outlets, has existed under the Washington Post banner since its acquisition in 2004. The New York Times, irrespective of accusations on the part of Donald Trump and other conservatives, also tends to promote an outlook that falls left of center.

Even so, these companies are part of a network of news sources backed at least in part by money linked to major corporations or wealthy patrons. The Washington Post, as of 2013, has existed under the ownership of Nash Holdings, a limited liability holding company established by Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos. The New York Times is publicly traded and controlled by the Sulzberger family by means of two classes of shares, of which Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú is the largest single shareholder. Journalist Matt Taibbi notably criticized the Times‘s favoritism of Hillary Clinton over the grassroots-oriented candidate Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary. These purveyors of news may be left of cable news conglomerates and are certainly far removed from the likes of Breitbart, The Drudge Report, Glenn Beck, and InfoWars, but they still may reflect more of a centrist or elitist bias than their readers, hungry for content and subject to their own biases.

In the case of Nancy Pelosi, access to a politician of her stature and a desire to appeal to a readership fueled by anger at the president likely informs the essentially congratulatory tones of these features. With all due respect, Saletan acknowledges that Pelosi’s strategy “is open to dispute.” For one, the praise of Ronald Reagan and other Republican leaders of yesteryear is fraught with complications; ask communities of color ravaged by the war on drugs or the LGBTQ community ignored during the peak of the AIDS crisis and see if they’re as charitable in their recollections.

There’s also the matter of not wanting to criticize Trump for fear of antagonizing those who voted for him, a tactic which Saletan indicates arguably plays better in deep-red districts than as a one-size-fits-all methodology. Other possible points of contention are her adherence to centrism in the hopes of warding off moderate Republicans challenging for House seats (“that might be playing it too safe”) and her harping on the likelihood that Trump will contest the results of the 2020 election if they go against him (Saletan suspects “she’s using that scenario as a scare tactic to motivate her troops”). Trump and his ilk routinely turn molehills into mountains or simply fabricate those mountains entirely. This sadly might be an inevitability.

Speaking as someone who ascribes to a progressive mindset, my biggest concern is that Speaker Pelosi seems to both overestimate the American people’s ability to handle worsening economic and environmental trends and underestimate her party’s supporters. Regarding her dismissal of Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, and other progressive policy goals, Pelosi’s positions belie the seriousness of various crises. We are in the midst of a climate crisis. Americans are saddled by medical, student, and other forms of debt. Income and wealth equality are widening, with far too many people in this country living in poverty or close to it. Defending the ACA and embracing incrementalism when warning signs abound conveys the sense you don’t feel the same pinch your constituents do, inviting accusations of being an out-of-touch elite, even if exaggerated.

As for the notion Democrats should prioritize policies “that are well understood and supported,” this assumes voters are not especially well-informed about or desirous of progressive policy designs. Some clearly are not. On the other hand, if the popularity of younger progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is any indication, these ideas are not far outside the mainstream and voters, particularly young voters, are quite knowledgeable about them indeed. I keep thinking back to the episode not long ago in which Dianne Feinstein lectured a group of young environmental activists about political realities and pointed to her legislative record. Thank you for your service to this country, Sen. Feinstein. But this is serious business and if you’re not going to lead on the subject of climate change, you need to get out of the way of those who can and will.

In all, what strikes me about Nancy Pelosi’s strategic mindset and that of other establishment Democrats is that they appear content to play not to lose rather than swinging for the fences, walking on proverbial eggshells in Donald Trump’s shadow. That didn’t work in 2016, prompting one to wonder what party leadership has learned exactly since then.

To be clear, I think Pelosi’s experience and shrewdness are assets in connecting with voters. I would tend to agree that it’s useful if not essential to be able to pitch parts of a platform in different ways to different voters and voting blocs. For better or worse, not everyone is swayed by considerations of morals and presidential ethics. That said, I’m not sure her deprecation of her party’s “exuberances” convey the right message. Not when aggressive centrists like Josh Gottheimer are making House Democrats and the party look bad by extension. But sure, keep siding with him over Ilhan Omar.

In Nancy we trust? On many issues, yes. But I have my doubts—and chances are you do as well.