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.

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.

There Sure Are a Lot of “Lone” Wolves Out There

Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a Charleston, SC church in 2015, though considered a “lone wolf” attacker, is one of a growing number of people dining on hateful beliefs promulgated in online circles. (Photo Credit: Charleston County Sheriff’s Office)

A bar or nightclub. An office building. A place of worship. A school. Seemingly weekly, news of horrific acts of violence by a “lone wolf” attacker reaches our consciousness. Just recently, a shooting at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in southern California, which left one person dead and three injured, made headlines.

The profile is all too familiar: a sole gunman entered and opened fire with an assault weapon. That the shooting occurred on Passover also suggests this was more than a coincidence; multiple officials, including President Donald Trump, referred to it as a “hate crime.” According to San Diego County sheriff William Gore and as first reported in USA TODAY on April 27, though law enforcement officials were still verifying its authenticity, a “manifesto” of sorts posted online around the time of the attack hinted at the shooter’s possible motivations/reasons for targeting Jews.

In terms of our experience and our feelings about these attacks, it’s difficult to know to what degree we should feel encouraged or dismayed. Concerning the Poway synagogue shooting in particular, that only one person died certainly is worth celebrating. Viewing these matters more globally, however, the verdict is less clear, and with each attack, our ability to process it all is tested.

Undoubtedly, for the communities directly impacted by this sort of violence, the brutality and sense of loss felt is profound. Recent suicides by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, FL and by the father of one of the children lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary attack speak to the devastating long-term emotional toll gun violence can effect. To say the suffering is a shared one appears wholly accurate.

Even for those of us who haven’t felt the brunt of the carnage wrought by lone wolf attackers and other perpetrators of mass violence, the repetition of the same story may be affecting in its own way. Each tragedy can feel like a punch to the gut, or worse, we may become numb to these events as a function of their apparent frequency. As is often talked about in media circles, we then run the risk of allowing these acts of terrorism to become the “new normal.”

A survivor of a 2018 school shooting in Santa Fe, when asked whether she were surprised about what transpired, replied that she felt “eventually [a shooting] was going to happen” at her school. Her resignation to this idea as a young child, sounding more defeated than optimistic, was perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of this affair. I can only imagine how parents of young children must feel today, sending their children off to school in clear or bulletproof backpacks to participate in active shooter drills. It’s not a set of circumstances I envy.

Witnessing news reports on incidences of hate-fueled violence, as with other crimes, can make them seem more common than they actually are. We respond to the gravity of these situations and not necessarily to the statistical likelihood we will face our own personal encounters with this type of thing. Still, trends in observed data surrounding mass shootings and mass murderers are enough to cause alarm, even though the odds of an attack in our neighborhood may be comparatively slim.

Though published back in 2016, a Frontline PBS report by Katie Worth on the increasing incidence and lethality of lone wolf attacks still carries weight. Citing available research from multiple sources on the subject, Worth explains how five core findings have emerged relating to trends in this kind of violence in the United States. The findings, as she spells them out:

1. Lone wolf attacks are becoming more common. While noting these attacks are still rare and though they are nothing new, Worth details how both the number of attacks and the number of fatalities from these events have gone up in the past decade. In fact, by the date of the Frontline report, the 2010s had already surpassed all other decades in these regards, so one can only imagine where we’re at now.

2. White supremacist ideologies remain the top source of inspiration for lone wolves, though jihadism is also a significant influence. Though the left is not immune to instances of lone wolf attacks, predominantly, it is right-wing extremism which motivates these terrorists. And whether they are white supremacists or jihadis, they are terrorists. Though their exact motivations may be different (the appeal of al-Qaeda and ISIS for some young Westerners is particularly disturbing to national security experts), don’t let the absence of their condemnation and the disproportionate anti-Muslim rhetoric of conservative circles convince you there is some gargantuan divide between them.

3. Lone wolves are different than conventional terrorists. Though terrorists they may be, there are distinctions to be had. Lone wolves are mostly single white males with a criminal record, diverging from those who commit violence as part of a political organization in that they tend to be older, less educated, and significantly more prone to mental illness. Perhaps most surprisingly, lone wolf attackers motivated in part by politics tend to resemble if they aren’t patently indistinguishable from apolitical mass murderers who harbor some personal grievance. The only major difference herein is that mass murderers are more likely to perpetrate violence in a place with which they are familiar, whereas lone wolves are more likely to go somewhere previously unknown.

4. Guns are lone wolves’ weapon of choice. Though once upon a time, lone wolf attacks in America more frequently featured the use of explosives, controls on the purchase of bomb-making materials following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings are believed to be a key factor in reducing the incidence of attacks involving explosive devices. The bad news is that the permissiveness of U.S. gun laws has afforded would-be lone wolves with a staggering array of high-velocity firearms capable of hurting or killing many people in a short span. Say what you want about the Second Amendment, but the statistics are pretty clear on this front.

5. Lone wolves usually tell others about their plans. Whether it’s a cryptic post on social media, a manifesto mailed to media outlets, or some other sign of intent, lone wolves frequently telegraph their acts of violence. Of course, prevention is no easy task and finding useful intelligence to this effect raises concerns about surveillance and possible infringement of people’s civil liberties. As the report also indicates, lone wolf attacks tend to be less effective and deadly than coordinated attacks involving multiple actors. These notions aside, with this type of threat on the rise, there is some comfort in knowing investigators have hope for stopping the next tragedy in that these threats don’t usually arise in complete isolation.


It bears underscoring that not everyone who holds extremist beliefs goes on to shoot up a church or school or what-have-you. As alluded to earlier, lone wolf attacks, though on the rise, are still fairly uncommon. It should also be noted that not everyone professing fealty to an extremist cause necessarily believes in all its tenets. As experts on the subject will aver, what complicates our understanding of lone wolf attacks is that some individuals get involved with extremist movements simply as a means of inciting violence. The backdrop of hate serves as a backdoor to inflicting pain and suffering.

From a law enforcement/criminal justice standpoint, this may facilitate their prosecution. Whatever the reasons for committing these crimes, they are highly visible. In our ever-present search for meaning, however, the obscurity of a perpetrator’s motive can lead to frustration or downright despair. How do we overcome something when its very form is elusive? To say this isn’t easy seems like the understatement of understatements. In addition, our comprehension of these matters is hindered by a lack of available information on the subject, aided (and abetted) by a shift at the federal level away from viewing all forms of domestic terrorism as such. Under President Trump, counterterrorism efforts have focused almost exclusively on Islamic terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has eliminated distinctions between different types of domestic terrorism, conflating white supremacist violence with that of so-called “black identity extremists” in its new category of “racially-motivated violent extremism,” confusing the frequency of cases between the two. This is no accident, a move with political designs written all over them, a concession to Trump’s base and to the changing face of the Republican Party. The president’s supporters by and large do not want to contemplate the rise of white supremacist violence here and abroad. Trump and his administration are only too happy to acquiesce.

This intentional minimization of the threat posed by white supremacists in the U.S. is understandably not lost on the rest of us, especially not members of the opposition party. Earlier this month, a handful of Democratic senators including presidential hopefuls Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris signed and sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr (yes, that AG Barr) and FBI director Christopher Wray admonishing the Department of Justice and the Bureau for failing to adequately acknowledge and address the growing danger posed by white supremacist terrorism.

The senators also charged the DOJ and FBI with taking concrete steps to address this issue, outlining resources to be used in their efforts, and to explain why its classification system for domestic terrorism changed in the first place. Decry this as an “attack” on Trump designed to garner political capital if you will, but these concerns are undoubtedly shared by these legislators’ constituents and scores of other Americans like you and me. Even political opportunists get it right at least occasionally.

Irrespective of examples of mass shootings and other violence, the exigency of curbing white supremacist influence around the world demands action. Since Trump’s inauguration, outward shows of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice have become more mainstream. On one hand, that these dark attitudes and behaviors are becoming more visible means we are better able to combat them with love, understanding, and if necessary, peaceful resistance. On the other hand, to the extent this sense of empowerment would allow those possessing extremist beliefs to expand their reach, such transparency is recognizably problematic.

Seattle-based investigative journalist David Neiwert, in a recent opinion piece, writes about how hate groups are recruiting young people into a “toxic” belief system at an alarming rate. Addressing the increasing frequency of lone wolf attacks like the Chabad of Poway shooting, Neiwert underscores how many of these perpetrators of violence feel they are doing something heroic, fed by conspiracy theories and convinced they have taken the “red pill” and see what is real. Often, social media and other online or phone-accessible forums are the breeding ground for this hate. What’s more, we as a society need to acknowledge the proliferation of dangerous extremism for what it is. From the article:

It’s time for us to stop looking away and start paying attention. We need to acknowledge that our own children are being radicalized online, and that a social media ecosystem predicated on a toxic libertarianism that allows hateful speech to run rampant has been the main platform enabling this phenomenon. Before the arrival of the alt-right, white nationalism was on its elderly deathbed. Now the numbers are unquestionably surging with youthful converts. Judging from pure internet, social media and gaming-hub traffic, we’re talking in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of new young white nationalists being born online right now. We need to recognize that there are policies that are fueling it, as well as irresponsible media entities doing the same — and that these things must cease.

What also must be stressed is that, while we employ the term “lone wolves” to apply to the individuals who carry out these heinous attacks, as Katie Worth’s Frontline PBS report underscores, usually someone is made aware of their intentions. To this point, Amy Spitalnick, executive director of the nonprofit Integrity First for America, writes in her own essay how anti-Semitic lone wolves aren’t really “lone” wolves at all, but rather a group hiding in plain sight.

As Spitalnick tells it, these attackers are “part of an online cabal that perpetuates this violent hate.” Whether it’s through messaging apps, 8chan, the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, or some other forum, lone wolves are often making their intentions to do harm known to others, with their postings reading like a “virtual road map” after the fact. These premeditations are not met with condemnation and revulsion, but acceptance, fame, and idol worship.

Along these lines, Spitalnick shares Neiwert’s sense of urgency about how to combat this disturbing phenomenon. At a minimum, she advocates for recognition of the surge in white supremacist terrorism as a national emergency, as well as investment by the federal government in programs designed to address this crisis rather than cuts and amorphous distinctions between white supremacists and “black identity extremists” which misrepresent and obscure. To boot, platforms like Twitter need to get serious about curbing abuse, harassment, hate, and threats of violence. Looking at you, @jack.

Having Donald Trump promote white nationalist views from his bully pulpit in the White House is bad in it of itself. Even if we remove him from office through electoral or other means, though, the problem won’t be solved. He is not the Night King whose defeat will suddenly mean the destruction of all other bigots around him. Trump’s rise is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and with all these “lone” wolves committing wanton acts of violence, the time for a unified front working to stem the spread of chilling right-wing extremism is now. To borrow another Game of Thrones reference, winter isn’t coming. It’s already here.

Identity Politics, the Double-Edged Sword

Joe Biden isn’t necessarily a bad candidate because he’s an old white guy. He still may be a bad candidate, mind you, just not necessarily because he’s an old white guy. (Photo Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Dear discerning members of the left,

What if I told you there is a 37-year-old person of color running for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2020 who believes in health care for all, free public tuition, a $15 minimum wage, supports the Green New Deal, stands by our veterans, promotes intersectionality, advocates for upholding the rights of vulnerable subsets of the population, champions large-scale economic, political, and social reform, and holds rallies attended by thousands of enthusiastic young people across the country? You’d sign up for that candidate in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?

OK. Now assume the same things about this candidate—only change that instead this individual is a 77-year-old white guy. Are you suddenly less enthused?

In a nutshell, I’ve just described Bernie Sanders’s platform and one of the common criticisms I’ve observed anecdotally in my interactions with various Democratic and left-leaning activist groups. Never mind that Bernie believes in criminal justice reform, demanding the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes, empowering Native American tribal nations, expanding Social Security, fair trade and workers’ rights, getting big money of out politics, gun safety, immigration reform, investing in rural America, LGBTQ equality, racial justice, reinvesting in public education and teachers, standing up for the people of Puerto Rico, and Wall Street reform. At the end of the day, he’s just another old white male.

I get it. The U.S. presidency has been a bastion of white male privilege for, well, ever, with Barack Obama being the notable exception to the rule, and after him going right back to Donald J. Trump, who is pretty much the poster boy for this concept. For what it’s worth, I also happen to think the women of the 2020 presidential race haven’t gotten a fair shake thus far next to other candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren. Hell, Kirsten Gillibrand is getting killed in the polls, and beyond what you may believe about the authenticity of her leftward shift since she became a member of the Senate, that her being among the first in her party to call on Al Franken to resign may be a major factor in her low polling numbers seems more than a little plausible. So much for the #MeToo era. Female Democratic Party supporters, try to maintain some semblance of decorum as you throw one of your own under the bus and back over her just to run her over again. Sheesh.

But, yes, it strikes me as counterproductive that so many voters desperate to throw Trump out of office are evidently more concerned about the identity of the person running and whether he or she “can stand up to Trump”—a judgment predicated on hypotheticals, preconceived notions of leadership, and other subjective factors which may lack real credence—than the actual platform on which that candidate is running and what it might mean for the country. Admittedly, it may be a bit early for policy specifics roughly a year-and-a-half from November 2020, though going back to Bernie, he’s got a whole page of positions on key issues on his campaign website, so maybe not. An arguably more productive exercise would be to take these various candidates’ stances, divorce them from the individuals delivering them, and assess them in a blind “taste test,” so to speak. In theory, it shouldn’t matter who’s making the case as long as he or she is making the right case.

Such is why I bristle at the idea Bernie is too old or white or socialist or “not a real Democrat”—whatever that means. If Cory Booker or Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg were pitching the same platform, would we be having the same sort of discussion, looking for other ways to discredit them along demographic lines? Or would we be instead extolling their virtues as a black man, a woman of color, or a highly-educated gay man and veteran?

Though I believe there are other reasons why he’s not an ideal candidate for the Dems—and more than just that some would identify him as the creepy handsy uncle of the Democratic field—I fear 76-year-old Joe Biden, now officially running for president, may suffer from the same treatment. So he’s old and white. Does this mean he can’t do the job? After all, should he prove incapable at a point after getting elected, there’s a whole line of succession after him. Ladies and gents, there are safeguards in place.

This is the double-edged sword of identity politics. On one hand, it allows you to embrace a diverse field of candidates as it relates to ethnicity, gender, geography, religion, sexual orientation, and other identifying characteristics. On the other hand, it can cause you to miss the forest for the trees, getting you caught up in notions of “electability” and whether someone looks or sounds presidential rather than whether they possess the ideals and the vision for the job. This is before we even get to Pres. Trump, who sure doesn’t act or sound presidential but enough people voted for him so he got the position anyhow. If any member of the Democratic Party field isn’t presidential next to him, they’re actively trying not to be.

Of course, this may be much ado about nothing. Biden and Sanders are among the front runners in current polls, so being old white dudes sure doesn’t seem to have hurt them so far. Still, opinions change and polls have been known to be wrong, and once we get deeper into primary season, what amount to trifles now may loom larger if we’re still tearing down candidates irrespective of what they have to offer voters in terms of stated policy specifics or lack thereof. Unless we’re not serious about beating Trump no matter what. We are serious about that, aren’t we?


To paraphrase poet Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Identity politics, for their appeal to diversity, can be elaborated to absurd extremes that work against voters’ best interests. On a similar note, the current climate of concern about Russian hacking and influencing efforts with respect to our elections speaks to a very real concern for Americans across the political spectrum.

When not carrying water for Pres. Donald Trump re the state of immigration policy in this country, recently deposed Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen evidently was concerned enough about Russian meddling to want to bring the issue up with the president, only to be warned against such a move by Mick Mulvaney as Chief of Staff. This is another one of those occurrences that is galling because it goes against what many of us believe is morally correct but, based on what we know and suspect of Trump as his sphere of influence intersects with Russian interests, it is not the least bit surprising.

This preoccupation with meddling, too, however, can be taken a bit too far. Amid the hypersensitivity about Russia compounded by Trump’s upset win in the 2016 election and the findings of the Mueller report coming out in dribs and drabs, though we are more than a year away from the general election, criticism of one Democratic Party candidate on the part of another’s supporters runs those detractors the risk of accusations of engaging in activity that “will help Trump get re-elected” or, worse yet, betrays their identity as Russian agents or bots.

Going back to criticisms of Joe Biden’s candidacy, to refer to him simply as “Creepy” Uncle Joe absent of additional context or insight only seems to invite the defensive, reflexive anti-Russia “J’accuse!” that is characteristic of Democratic loyalists in this zeitgeist. More constructive criticisms, meanwhile, would seem to be found in revisiting Biden’s past actions and legislative hallmarks. Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine, speaks to marks on Biden’s CV in musing that he is “losing his glow.”

Adding to #MeToo-era deliberations on the appropriateness of Biden’s interactions with certain women, Jones highlights other events which do not paint the former U.S. senator in the best light. As has been observed by numerous critics, for one, Biden played a critical role in questioning Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, doing so in a way that “devastated and shamed” a “credible, intelligent woman” and set women back who would’ve otherwise come forward with sexual harassment claims in hostile work environments. To make matters worse, he hasn’t apologized directly to Ms. Hill about his involvement as chair of the Senate committee presiding over the hearing.

There’s also the problem of Biden’s legacy as a principal author of drug crime laws which have helped fuel America’s ongoing mass incarceration problem as they have been elaborated and modified over the years. These laws disproportionately target people of color, with mandatory minimum sentencing and sentencing disparities giving rise to a prison population explosion that feeds an ever-hungry for-profit prison industry. And Jones doesn’t even address the issue raised by Elizabeth Warren and others that Biden has a rather cozy relationship with the health insurance and banking industries as a former legislator from Delaware. If a kickoff fundraiser bankrolled by telecom and health insurance corporate execs is any indication, Biden’s identity as a working-class hero and champion of the “every-man” is more problematic than perhaps many realize.

These are legitimate criticisms of Biden as a seeker of the highest political office in the nation. But are Biden’s steadfast backers and other Democratic Party supporters desperate to unseat Trump willing to listen? Giving little thought to qualms about Biden’s prior questionable actions, those apologists with whom I’ve interacted online have defended his character, his legacy of public service, and his willingness to stand up to Trump, in doing so casting aspersions on my personhood separate from being a Russian operative and lamenting how some people only want to a tear a “good man” down.

To the extent that some naysayers only wish to denigrate candidates as part of some never-ending purity test without offering an alternative or advancing a point of meaningful debate, I agree with such an assessment. Not everyone is a bot or stooge for Vladimir Putin, however. That some people would seek to squelch discussion along these lines says something profound about just how toxic political discourse can become when facts give way to feelings, distrust becomes an all-too-valuable currency, and arguments are “won” or “lost” based on who yells the loudest or who has the most followers on social media.

When we get this far, no amount of rational deliberation will make a difference, and in fact, those armed with logic can fall into the trap of wasting their time and effort on a lost cause. As the Republican Party under Trump has demonstrated time and again, such a pitfall may well be intentional—though the line between cold calculation and overall incompetence may indeed be blurry.

Focusing on the identity of the politician making appeals on policy matters or that of his or her objectors may provide us with some measure of satisfaction. But personality and individual attributes, charming or otherwise, are not substitutes for a well-developed party platform. If the goal is truly to beat Donald Trump next November, maybe we should worry less about who is leading the charge and pay more attention to appealing to what voters want the most.