Do We Really Need Al Franken?

Al Franken’s alleged groping of several women may not be the same level of purported offense as that of Donald Trump or Roy Moore. That doesn’t mean we can’t hold him to a minimum standard of conduct, however, and it certainly doesn’t mean we “need him back” in any capacity. (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull/CC BY-SA 4.0)

As concerns the intersection of politics and the #MeToo movement, perhaps no figure encapsulates its potential divisiveness and difficult contemplations like Al Franken.

It’s been over a year-and-a-half since Franken resigned from his post as U.S. Senator from the state of Minnesota, but his case is one that media figures and political junkies alike feel the need to relitigate. Jane Mayer’s recent essay for The New Yorker is the latest high-profile entry in people’s meditations on whether he should’ve resigned.

Mayer considers a lot of angles in her examination of this subject matter: the precipitousness of his fall from grace after once being considered a possible challenger to Donald Trump in 2020, the regret he and numerous former colleagues feel, contrasts with Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s records, the evolution of accuser Leeann Tweeden’s account of sexual misconduct, the nature of U.S.O. shows like the one Franken did with Tweeden and the content of the skit prompting her accusations, character witness accounts on his behalf, proposed logical faults taken with Tweeden’s characterizations of the incident and ruminations on her credibility, FOX News personalities’ personal ax to grind with Franken, that allegations against Roy Moore were fresh in the minds of many, Franken’s physical awkwardness, allegations from other accusers, concerns about lack of due process, the role Kirsten Gillibrand and other Democratic colleagues played in calling for his resignation, the notion that not all accounts of abuse are made equal. In this regard, Mayer’s piece seems reasonably well considered.

This effort to reclaim Franken’s image is arguably not without its problems, however. On one hand, Tweeden’s failure or refusal to acknowledge the context in which the U.S.O. skit was performed and its content (there is a scene of a breast exam in the skit, to which the infamous photo of Franken and Tweeden presumably refers) are curious omissions. Acknowledging this wouldn’t make her accusations any less valid.

On the other hand, we might rightly object at various points in Mayer’s analysis. For one, comparisons to Biden and Trump are whataboutism, pure and simple. We’re talking about Franken here. Their supposed misdeeds are irrelevant to the deliberation at hand. Certain aspects of Tweeden’s life which apparently go to her believability are also of questionable application. Tweeden may have fabricated or embellished whether or not she could’ve gotten into Harvard in the past. She is a noted conservative who has professed admiration for Trump and has appeared on Sean Hannity’s show to talk about birtherism, and she may have a personal animus against the liberal Franken, whose political star was on the rise prior to the events which led to his resignation.

None of this means she is necessarily lying about being assaulted or interpreting Franken’s actions in this way, though, nor do the motivations of any of his accusers or the people who called for his resignation. Gillibrand, who continues to be lambasted for being among the first to publicly call for Franken’s resignation, points out that she didn’t end his Senate career—he did. He could’ve opted to soldier on despite the allegations against him and regardless of the strain it put on Gillibrand and Co.

Jeet Heer, national-affairs correspondent at The Nation, addresses Mayer’s article and notions that Franken was “railroaded” or otherwise was a victim of circumstances, as she might make it seem. Like Mayer, Heer alludes to Franken as a sort of “ghost” haunting the Democratic Party with claims he was all but forced out without consideration of due process.

Heer concedes that Tweeden’s account of unwanted touching and kissing “has all the earmarks of a politically motivated smear.” The problem: there are still seven other accusers. Mayer’s juxtaposition of this alongside Franken’s physical “obtuseness” makes for a strange defense. All his accusers are women and their allegations are of a sexual nature. It’s more than just his being a “hugger.”

There’s also the matter of Franken’s defenders weighing his actions against the Harvey Weinsteins and Strom Thurmonds of the world. Again, in contrast to partisan relativism, Heer speaks to “setting a minimum standard of respect,” regardless of political affiliation or likability. For that matter, all the people jumping at the chance to exonerate Franken or come to his defense because of what they “know” about him is not a guarantee. What they think they know may be dependent on their limited interactions with him or what he allows others to see. I’m not saying the reverse can’t be true, mind you, but human beings are, well, complicated.

As Heer cites Rebecca Traister, New York magazine writer-at-large, if Franken took a leave of absence to re-examine the effect his conduct might have had on women in his life and later came back to speak to women’s rights and the responsibility of men in the #MeToo era, he might still be serving the people of Minnesota in an official capacity today. It was his silence and the conviction he’d be given ample time and a thorough investigation into his affairs that was his undoing—fair or unfair.

Heer takes this a step further in closing by saying that Franken’s playing the victim betrays his lack of understanding of the whole situation and creates a barrier to any real sense of redemption in the future. He writes:

If we want #MeToo to be effective, we need to be careful to distinguish between major criminals and petty transgressors. We also need to figure out how to reintegrate figures like Franken into society. But you can’t have forgiveness without contrition. To this day, Franken sees himself as a victim. Until that changes, there can be no healing.

In his resignation speech back in 2018, Franken was anything but contrite. Instead, he insisted that he knows who he really is and considered it an irony that he was leaving office while Trump, who once bragged about groping women, is president and Moore, who has preyed on young women, has political aspirations. His parting remarks, draped in comparisons to the worst the GOP has to offer, offered sentiments of “no regrets.” It bears wondering whether his accusers could or would say the same, even assuming the small magnitude of his purported offenses.


A big question I have in relation to Jane Mayer’s essay and why The New Yorker felt the need to publish it is: why now? Why are we reconsidering Al Franken’s fall with everything going on with the 2020 presidential race looming, the Trump administration, and any number of crises facing the country and the world today?

Part of the answer would seem to lie with the notion we need someone like Franken in American political discourse. Last year, Bill Maher, in a brave act of defending another white male like himself, expressed the belief that we need a comedian like Franken to ridicule Donald Trump and take down other “rightwing blowhards.” In doing so, he assailed the credibility of Leeann Tweeden, minimized the charges of Franken’s other accusers, and shot back at “purists” who overreact only to suffer from buyer’s remorse later on.

More recently, Pete Buttigieg, when asked during a town hall whether he would’ve called for Franken’s ouster, replied that he “would not have applied that pressure at that time before we knew more.” It probably helps that Buttigieg has raised funds alongside big-bucks Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell, who previously endorsed Kamala Harris despite the fact she was one of the first Senate Democrats to advocate for Franken’s resignation and who has made public positions on the end of Franken’s tenure somewhat of a sticking point. Evidently, the goal is to beat Trump by any means necessary—even it means compromising our moral standards.

To the extent that Franken could add to the discussion on resisting Trump, his absence is regrettable. Are his talents so unique that a void like his in American politics can’t be filled, however? This much seems dubious. To say that Franken was one of the more interesting members of the Senate isn’t saying much. For the integral role Congress plays in shaping the American experience, it is filled with boring people and uninspired ideas. This reality doesn’t obviate the public’s responsibility to hold these public servants accountable and to actively participate in issue advocacy, mind you. Then again, even if this doesn’t excuse voters tuning out, you can sort of understand why they do.

If the Democrats are that desperate to have Franken back because he is the only one who can stand up to Trump or the only one who possesses the requisite skill to ridicule him to the point it rattles him, however, it would seem there are bigger problems within the Democratic Party. It’s along the lines of needing Jon Stewart back as a voice of empathy, reason, and wit in late-night television. Do I miss him? Of course. But if we can’t find others who can approach his level of thoughtful criticism and oddball humor, we might be in more trouble than we know.

One of the lessons of the #MeToo era with which people still appear to be grappling is that men who abuse their fame or position of influence are infinitely replaceable. (The label of “abuser” does not apply to Stewart, to be clear; I invoked him simply as an illustration of my earlier point.) Louis C.K., while clearly talented, is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to stand-up comedy. Nor is Kevin Spacey God’s gift to acting. Without wanting to seem cruel, life goes on. If we can’t meet the need for artists, politicians, producers, writers, and other professionals without sanctioning their alleged violations of boundaries, we’ve clearly failed as a society. No amount of good deeds, intelligence, leadership skills, or talent should supersede another’s right to his or her bodily autonomy and physical safety.

Will Al Franken ever return to the limelight, and with that, U.S. politics? Who knows? In the event he doesn’t, it may be ultimately be unfair to him, though the number of credible accusations against him suggests otherwise. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t feel he needs to apologize because he did nothing wrong. Regardless, though some of us may want him back, that doesn’t signify a need. Yes, we should talk about how and whether to weigh the offenses in each case. Yes, we should discuss how to handle less-than-perfect accusers. But we can do so looking forward rather than back.

Go After “The Squad” at Your Own Risk

Note to Nancy Pelosi: Ilhan Omar has a following that is neither solely on Twitter nor limited to four people. (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

SEND HER BACK! SEND HER BACK!

This was the scene at Donald Trump’s recent rally in Greenville, North Carolina, evidence that every time we think Trump and the GOP have hit rock bottom, there is a new low to which to sink. The audience’s chant was in response to the president’s remarks on Ilhan Omar, which wrongly characterized the first-term representative from the state of Minnesota as an anti-Semite, someone who “looks down with contempt on the hardworking American.”

Trump also criticized fellow freshman Rashida Tlaib, like Omar, a Muslim, as “not somebody that loves our country,” lashed out at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (eventually just calling her “Cortez” because he decided saying “Ocasio-Cortez” is too much work) for sponsoring the Green New Deal and for correctly reporting that the “concentration camps” at our southern border holding detained migrants offer substandard, inhumane conditions, and ridiculed Ayanna Pressley (“Is she related in any way to Elvis?”) for supposedly saying that “people with the same skin color all need to think the same” and somehow connecting her to violence committed by some anti-fascists (which pales in comparison to atrocities committed by white supremacists, but whatever).

Trump’s attacks on Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib amid his jabs at potential 2020 election rivals including “Sleepy” Joe Biden, Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Bernie Sanders are no accident. He’s painting these newcomers to Congress as leaders of the Democratic Party, thereby trying to get his supporters to fixate on them, their ideals, their ethnicities, their religions, their identities as strong, outspoken women, and reject them and other Democrats as a function of subscribing to an anti-liberal, racist, sexist, xenophobic outlook on life.

As Trump would have it, these critics of his are the face of a party that hates America and everything it stands for, and if they don’t like it, they should leave or, more specifically, “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” Trump also tweeted that these “Progressive Democrat Congresswomen… (“progressive” in quotes, as if to doubt how interested in progress they really are) originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe.”

Trump’s public comments, as per the usual, are riddled with inaccuracies and intentional falsehoods. These particular diatribes against the four aforementioned women, however, are especially onerous and reflect egregious and dangerous rhetoric.

First things first, there’s the matter of labeling these women as “originally” from another country, as if they aren’t truly Americans. Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx and is of Puerto Rican descent. Pressley is black and was born in Cincinnati, raised in Chicago, and eventually relocated to Massachusetts. Tlaib was born in Detroit, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. Omar is the only one of the four born outside the United States, originally from Somalia, but her family sought and secured asylum in 1995 and she became a U.S. citizen in 2000. These women are all American citizens and were duly elected to their positions in Congress by their constituents. Referring to them in any other capacity is to engage in unadulterated bigotry.

Well, that is, unless you ask Republicans or the president himself. Trump’s initial “go back” rant directed at AOC et al. sparked international outrage and condemnation. In the aftermath, the hashtags #RacistInChief and #TrumpIsARacist were trending on Twitter and continue to be used as part of the ensuing conversation about his verbal assault on the first-term congressional quartet. All the while, most members of the GOP have defended Trump against claims he is a racist. He doesn’t have a racist bone in his body! He’s saying what many people are thinking! On the latter point, saying average Americans agree with Pres. Trump means that he’s not a racist is a logical fallacy. Popularity is not an indicator of moral rectitude.

On the Democratic side, meanwhile, the House voted 240 to 187 to condemn Trump’s use of racist language. All House Democrats recorded an “Aye” vote. Newly-minted independent Justin Amash joined them, as did Republicans Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Susan Brooks of Indiana, and Will Hurd of Texas. Of course, Nancy Pelosi was quick to specify that this was a vote to condemn Trump’s comments as racist, not the man himself. It would apparently be untoward to level such charges against him. Or to hold him accountable in any meaningful way. (But let’s bank on 2020 when we lost in 2016, right?)

Speaking of the Speaker of the House, it bears underscoring that it was her derisive remarks about Pressley, Tlaib, Omar, and Ocasio-Cortez which helped lead to the group receiving their unofficial nickname: “The Squad.” Back in November, Ocasio-Cortez posted a picture of the four of them together with the one-word caption “Squad” on Instagram. This moniker was invoked again by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in her profile earlier this month on Pelosi, in which the Democratic leader panned their vote against the House’s version of an emergency border funding bill, saying, “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

Since then and notably following Trump’s personal attacks, the use of the Squad nickname has increased exponentially. The widespread employ of this term is not without some pushback, to be sure. Some might see it as appropriative, deprecating, or sexist. On the other hand, it might be conceived of as intentionally exclusive on the representatives’ part.

These four congresswomen, however, have clarified that their “squad” includes, as Rep. Pressley puts it, “any person committed to creating a more equitable and just world.” Which, in response to a piece by The Onion, evidently includes the octogenarian Bill Pascrell, my district’s representative. (Props, Bill, props.) By this definition, you or I might be considered members. It’s a concept with real grassroots appeal.

Trump’s harsh rhetoric hasn’t met with much approval outside his most ardent backers and his most shameless apologists on Capitol Hill and in the media. Moreover, his attempted claim that he denounced the “Send her back!” chant during the event is verifiably false, earning him further censure for trying to gaslight everyone.

As for Speaker Pelosi, her downplaying of The Squad’s influence as one segment in an ever-lengthening line of reprobation and dismissal of progressive Democrats has earned her scorn in her own right as out of touch, markedly from leftists and others who have remained critical of her steering of the Democratically-led House. If nothing else, her repudiation of these women of color and failure to come to their defense except when called out by the president is bad optics for a party that touts its diversity among its strengths. In fact, as Ocasio-Cortez believes, this pattern of behavior on Pelosi’s part doesn’t speak to some innocuous, unprejudiced treatment of The Squad—and she’s not alone in this assessment.

Through all of the slurs, the death threats, the denigration, and the lies hurled at these women, their commitment to their principles and their resolve hasn’t wavered. Consequently, their stars are only shining brighter. Rep. Omar, who received a hero’s welcome when she returned to her home state, addressed Trump’s vitriolic barbs directed at her, defiantly promising to be the “nightmare” the president has made her out to be. Hers was not a threat, but a warning: mess with The Squad and prepare to live with the consequences.


The comments Donald Trump made denigrating the members of The Squad and his refusal to squelch the chants of his attendees aimed at Ilhan Omar speak volumes about the president and the current state of the GOP. A common refrain from those paid to be in attendance and/or professionals within the political sphere (and thus presumably with at least a modicum of discernment apart from Trump’s faithful) as gleaned from social media was that it was one of the most frightening sights they had ever witnessed in the world of politics. Many of those same people felt a sense of dread, suggesting Trump was doing his best to get Rep. Omar killed. Other onlookers professed they’re beginning to understand how the atrocities of Nazi Germany could’ve happened from the very tenor of the event.

The few defections on the resolution about Trump’s racist language aside, Republicans’ inaction and silence on this front make one wonder what line could be crossed that would result in substantive intercedence on their part. For example, Lindsey Graham, one-time Trump critic, has apparently become a full-time sycophant, reversing course on the president after calling him a “race-baiting bigot” in 2015.

Mitch McConnell likewise defended Trump against allegations he is a racist, saying the president is “on to something” in his claims that these women want “to turn us into a socialist country,” dodging questions about the “Send her back!” chorus of nights earlier. Mitt Romney, in true Mitt Romney fashion, said Trump “crossed a line” but isn’t a racist. Marco Rubio. Ted Cruz. Paul Ryan, where was this semblance of a spine when you were Speaker of the House? Where is the conscience of these men, some of whom thought they could represent the entire country? Or was it all a big con, a ploy motivated by political opportunism? Can the same be asked of Trump and the Republican Party at large?

Lest we give the Democrats too much credit, leadership’s inability or unwillingness to rein in moderates bent on opposing the “far left” or defend The Squad against baseless accusations of anti-Semitism further emboldens Trump and his enablers. As far as the “Racist-in-Chief” is concerned, it may as well as be open season on Reps. Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Omar. I mean this in terms of his wont to say anything he wants without fear of reprisal, but returning to reported instances of death threats and even a planned plot to kill Omar, he doesn’t need to pull the trigger. Putting a target on their backs is enough. The Democratic Party bears some culpability here beyond signing onto a toothless House resolution admonishing the president for spreading hate from his bully pulpit.

The ugliness of Pres. Trump’s remarks, whether or not it’s a distraction from the horror of the concentration camps at the border or Jeffrey Epstein’s depravity or the implications of the Mueller report, drives home the notion that representatives of both major parties sooner or later need to take a stand. Republicans must decide at what point political expediency has its limits, consider whether they’ve ceded full control of their party to a fascist, and confront what this arrangement means for the long-term viability of the GOP. Democrats have to face the possibility that waiting for 2020 could take too long, not to mention that standing for something—anything—signals to their base that their cause is worth fighting for. Not merely to be hyperbolic, but the future of these parties and the concept of American democracy as a going concern might just depend on it.

As suggested earlier, popularity doesn’t equate to moral rectitude nor does it necessarily translate to votes or other forms of political engagement. For Democrats and Republicans alike, though, going after The Squad is ill-advised. In the face of adversity, these women are proud inspirations to other political entrants like them. To underestimate them and their supporters is to underestimate the power that everyday people coming together at the grassroots level possess when fully realized. In the end, it could be a costly miscalculation to make.

In Case You Were Unaware, Mitch McConnell Is the Worst

Senator Mitch McConnell has a 36% Favorable rating and 50% Unfavorable rating from his constituents. The other 14% “Don’t Know,” and one can only presume that’s because they’ve somehow never heard of him. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Donald Trump is a moron and a lousy president. Some of you may disagree, but this is not exactly a “hot take.” Trump and his oafish buffoonery have been decried and lampooned long before he became the 45th President of the United States.

Since beginning his campaign in 2015, Trump’s flouting of convention, ethics laws, and other principles—legal or otherwise—have been a source of great consternation and embarrassment to scores of Americans. He’s petty and vindictive. He spews incendiary misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, and otherwise discriminatory vitriol regularly to his Twitter followers. He’s clearly not a student of history, or for that matter, spelling. He enriches himself and his family at taxpayer cost. He emboldens other bigots like him. He consistently breaks promises. He’s a liar, a fraud, and a suspected sexual predator. His administration has manufactured humanitarian crises in Puerto Rico and at the border with Mexico. I could go on.

Of course, Trump is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to rich white racist assholes. For him to succeed both in politics and in life in spite of his incompetence, the man has needed help.

In terms of his career in business, he has received a lot of assistance on the financial and legal front. A lot of it. Donald Trump grew up rich, and when he faltered, there was daddy Fred Trump on hand to bail him out (recall his infamous “million-dollar loan” comment, which, in its tone-deafness, was yet a massive understatement). Or there were his bankruptcy filings (business not personal) centered around his casinos, which he has touted as a symbol of his shrewdness as an executive, but this argument makes little to no sense in light of his numerous failed business ventures over the years. More recently, Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank and his ability to keep securing money from the institution despite his defaulting on his loans has come under scrutiny. In all, it’s easy to avoid disaster when you have such a safety net at your disposal.

As for his career in politics, despite the apparent mismanagement of his campaign, Trump still managed to emerge triumphant from the 2016 presidential race. Once more, a lot of things had to go his way—and these factors were not simply a byproduct of good luck (unless we’re counting the fortune of being born into wealth).

Trump’s Republican primary challengers were a hopeless lot. The Clinton campaign and the DNC didn’t do themselves any favors. The media, seeking clicks and viewership, loaded up on coverage of his day-to-day doings. WikiLeaks. Russian meddling. James Comey. The very existence of the Electoral College. Without any one of these elements helping pave the way for Trump’s ascendancy, his bid for the White House might have ended as the joke many of us thought it was when he began. Instead, he won, riding the perfect shitstorm to victory. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight the fact millions of Americans voted for him.

Donald Trump’s functionality as the CEO of the Trump Organization is, for the time being, null (this neither abrogates Trump’s myriad conflicts of interest nor Congress’s responsibility to investigate them, but we’re speaking of explicitly-stated positions). The 2016 election is over and we’re closer to the end of his first term than its beginning.

As the saying goes, however, what’s past is prologue. In his administration’s elaboration of a destructive agenda, President Trump has had a big assist from Republican lawmakers, including those individuals who were frequent objectors but have since turned into apologists or have remained critics only in the most tepid sense of the word. What’s more, with the House under Democratic control (whether or not Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership is above reproach is another matter, but I digress), one figure’s enabling of the president looms large as calls for impeachment grow more numerous seemingly by the day: Mitch McConnell.

If you’re not familiar with Addison Mitchell McConnell, Jr., you probably don’t follow U.S. politics in the slightest or have been living under a rock for the last five years or so. McConnell has been Senate Majority Leader since 2015 and has served as a U.S. senator from the state of Kentucky since 1985. If you think spending over 30 years in the Senate means McConnell is particularly well liked among his constituents, think again. As of the first quarter of 2019, McConnell owns the distinction of being the only senator currently in office with a disapproval rating of 50% or worse. His 36% approval rating puts him in the bottom 10% of the Senate. The remaining 14% “don’t know” presumably because they somehow have never heard of him, so they might disapprove of him without really knowing it.

McConnell’s position as Senate Majority Leader has taken on a new significance since Trump was sworn in, but even before that, he drew the ire of his constituents and non-constituents alike when he refused to even allow a hearing on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court following Antonin Scalia’s death.

Obama and McConnell were essentially playing a game with Garland’s nomination. The Senate Majority Leader had a chance to confirm Obama’s nominee, someone GOP leaders haughtily predicted he would never choose, and Obama would effectively call McConnell’s bluff. McConnnell’s other option would be to stonewall the nomination, look like an asshole, and risk losing in 2016 and have the new Democratic president nominate someone worse. Either possibility was a losing cause, forcing him to swallow his pride or look like an asshole and piss a whole lot of people off. He did the latter, of course, actually being an asshole.

Ultimately, the gamble paid off with Trump’s upset victory. Do I think McConnell deserves credit for this, though? No. Not for refusing to do his job (if this were you or I, we would get suspended or fired) and for being a partisan obstructionist. This kind of behavior is exactly why people don’t like Congress.

But yes, since Trump took the Oath of Office, McConnell’s tenure as Senate Majority Leader has become that much more meaningful—and not in a particularly good way either. Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota, who was appointed to the role following Al Franken’s resignation and who won a special election to earn her position full time, recently penned an op-ed for CNN outlining why McConnell’s leadership of the Senate has been a “big, fat waste.”

Before we begin, let’s acknowledge the proverbial gorilla in the room: Smith is a Democrat and McConnell is a Republican. By this token, she would seem predisposed to view Sen. McConnell and other GOP members, especially in the current political climate, negatively. That said, an honest assessment of McConnell’s steering of the Senate would most likely agree with Smith’s criticisms herein.

So let’s get to those criticisms. As Smith tells it, “McConnell has transformed the Senate into little more than the Trump administration’s personnel office, the place where good ideas go to die.” She points out that as of July 3, less than 20% of votes taken up by the Senate have involved legislation. The rest have involved pushing Trump-appointed federal judge nominees through Congress. And we do mean pushing them through. Since rules changes made effective in April, the time to debate these nominees has been reduced from 30 hours to two.

On top of this, these nominees tend to espouse nakedly conservative views and/or are borderline unqualified. Smith points to a week that was “pretty typical” by present standards in which 11 nominees were voted on, seven of them for lifetime appointments. One hadn’t ever tried a case in court. Another doesn’t believe divorce laws should apply to members of the LGBTQ community. Others don’t believe in providing women with access to contraceptives or can’t say definitively that Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided. Yup, you read that last one right.

It’s not just nominees to the judiciary either. McConnell and his fellow Republicans have made it a habit of rubber-stamping executive appointments. You may not be surprised to find out many of these nominees are similarly—and dangerously—unqualified. One was Gordon Hartogensis, nominated and later confirmed as Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation head. Hartogensis is married to Grace Chao. Grace Chao is the younger sister of Elaine Chao, Secretary of Transportation. Elaine Chao is married to—you guessed it—Mitch McConnell. On a related note, amid accusations that Chao used her position as Transportation Secretary to steer benefits to McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, the Senate has done nothing to initiate investigation into this potential conflict of interest. Nice how that works.

In all, rather than advancing meaningful legislation that has bipartisan appeal, the Senate has become a haven for obstructionism. Smith closes her piece with these thoughts:

Every day, I talk to Democratic and Republican colleagues with lots of ideas about the work we should be doing. Passing the Violence Against Women Act, protecting our elections from cyberattacks from hostile nations, stabilizing our health care system, expanding rural broadband — these are all issues where most Democrats and Republicans share an interest in getting something done. But in this environment, the already-hard work of legislating has become nearly impossible, thanks to the majority leader’s steadfast commitment to packing the courts to the exclusion of almost everything else.

I had always heard that Mitch McConnell was a master legislator and a true loyalist to this institution. But in the 18 months I’ve been in the Senate, what I’ve seen is an astonishingly limited vision for what the Senate can and should accomplish. What a waste.

It’d be one thing if McConnell would try to make it seem like he and the Republican-controlled Senate were actually trying to get things done legislatively and blame Democrats for the inability to accomplish them. It would be outrageous and disingenuous deflecting, but at least there would be some pretense involved.

Instead, Sen. McConnell revels in being the kind of legislator everyone (at least on the left) loves to hate: the kind who does nothing useful and does so with a shit-eating grin on his face. When asked about Senate Republicans’ priorities this year, he proudly proclaimed they would be in the “personnel business.” In other words, stacking the judiciary with Federalist Society-approved candidates hell-bent on making the U.S. legal system in the image of the Constitution’s original interpretation and a conservative/libertarian one, at that.

McConnell has also welcomed comparisons between himself and the Grim Reaper, the personification of Death itself. As McConnell frames it, he is pleased to be associated with such bleak imagery in the service of defeating the “socialist agenda [Democrats] have been ginning up in the House.” As writer and comedian Dean Obeidallah, for one, would argue, opposing “socialism” has nothing to do with protecting women from violence and unwanted pregnancies or preventing foreign hacking of our elections. Failure on these fronts, rather, further demonstrates the extent to which McConnell has become the prototypical partisan hack.

Again, Sen. Smith has a politically-motivated ax to grind. Republicans have their prejudices against Nancy Pelosi. (For that matter, an increasing number of Democrats appear to be frustrated by her leadership.) That McConnell seems to relish his unpopularity and openly supports our ding-dong of a president (after initially opposing him in favor of Rand Paul, no less) speaks volumes. Mitch McConnell is the worst, knows he’s the worst, and doesn’t care. How do you root for someone like him?


As you may have heard by now, Mitch McConnell has a Democratic challenger in Amy McGrath, a retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. When news broke that she was making her candidacy official, the outpouring of excitement was immediate and palpable. Someone is giving Kentuckians an alternative to the hated McConnell in 2020! Democrats might oust the Grim Reaper and flip a Senate seat in one fell swoop! Don’t let my words alone tell the story, though. Let the $2.5 million in donations McGrath’s campaign raked in on the first day exemplify the fervor shared by McConnell’s detractors around the country.

Regrettably, McGrath has already demonstrated that while she’s running against McConnell, it’s not immediately clear what she’s running for policy-wise. When prompted about the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice, McGrath initially indicated she “probably” would’ve voted in favor of Kavanaugh in spite of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, which she (McGrath) termed as “credible.” Within the span of a day, however, she reversed course, evidently impacted by the wave of negative responses her comments received. Regardless of what McGrath truly believes, her “flip-flop” on such a highly-charged issue puts her conviction in doubt.

Likewise puzzling is her remark that Mitch McConnell is the one standing in the way of President Trump elaborating the agenda he promised voters while on the campaign trail. This reasoning is, at best, naïve and, at worst, a lie. Trump isn’t living up to his word because he’s a liar and a fraud. McGrath’s strategy seems to take a page right out of the establishment moderate Democrat playbook: don’t do or say anything that might potentially alienate Trump voters and independents. It should be no surprise then that McGrath’s announcement comes after months of recruitment by Chuck Schumer. Going against the Grim Reaper with guns blazing, this is not.

Much in the way Doug Jones was a better choice for Alabama than Roy Moore because he is, well, not Roy Moore, Amy McGrath is a quantifiably superior option over Mitch McConnell, the unapologetic entrenched politician who single-handedly is doing his part to undermine an already-low public confidence in the legislative branch.

Even noting McConnell’s unpopularity, however, she is facing an uphill battle. Kentucky is a red state and has only gone for a Democrat twice in the presidential election in the past 40 years. Also, McConnell is still in office because he keeps getting re-elected. In 2014, he beat his Democratic challenger, lawyer Alison Lundergan Grimes, by more than 15 percentage points. Anything but an authentic challenge on the part of McGrath or another Democratic candidate could not only make it an easy victory for McConnell at the polls, but could undermine public perception of the Democratic Party as a whole in the process.

America deserves better than President Donald Trump and Kentucky deserves better than Mitch McConnell. Whether voters truly comprehend this much, meanwhile, is another story. If the Democrats are going to find success in 2020, they’ll need to come with it. After all, it’s not many people who have stared Death in the eye and won.

Bret Stephens Sucks, Or, When Punditry Goes Awry

Despite growing up in Mexico and speaking Spanish fluently, Bret Stephens espouses us-versus-them attitudes and lambasts Democrats for their support of undocumented immigrants. How cool! (Photo Credit: Veni Markovski/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Despite President Donald Trump’s umpteen comments in reference to the “failing” New York Times, the “Fake News Washington Post,” and other notable publications critical of his leadership, there has been a lot of good reporting during his tenure in the White House and in the campaign leading up to the election.

It is good reporting borne out of necessity, prompted by an administration in disarray built on a complete disregard for transparency and truth. Alas, there has also been some less-than-good reporting and/or questionable editorial oversight in recent times. Frequently, media outlets will report Trump’s public comments at face value, devoid of meaningful context. “President Trump accuses Democrats of election fraud.” Right, but what about the idea he is doing so without citing any credible evidence? For the love of journalistic integrity, call a spade a spade, won’t you?

If reporting on Trump’s failed stewardship of the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City or the utter fraud behind Trump University or his repeated aggressive sexual behavior in and out of marriage or his stance on the Central Park Five and advocacy for their execution is the good, and reporting on, say, Stephen Miller eating glue as a child is the bad, the ugly may be the out-of-touch views promulgated by today’s television pundits and columnists, many of them white males who refuse to check their privilege at the door.

Case in point, Bret Stephens, whose work, according to many familiar with it, is a repository for bad takes. In a recent column for the New York Times, Stephens opined that the Democratic Party, as evidenced by the first round of presidential debates, is off to a “wretched start” in advance of 2020 and “seems interested in helping everyone except the voters it needs.”

Let’s put aside our puzzlement over why Stephens, a conservative notorious for being a climate change “agnostic” (as he terms it), feels he needs to criticize the Dems declared for presidential runs in this way even noting his frequent criticism of President Trump. The startlingly crude viewpoints in his piece speak for themselves. In particular, this passage drew jeers and censure from the blogosphere/Twitterverse:

In this week’s Democratic debates, it wasn’t just individual candidates who presented themselves to the public. It was also the party itself. What conclusions should ordinary people draw about what Democrats stand for, other than a thunderous repudiation of Donald Trump, and how they see America, other than as a land of unscrupulous profiteers and hapless victims?

Here’s what: a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.

They speak Spanish. We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t. They pay few or no taxes. We already pay most of those taxes. They willingly got themselves into debt. We’re asked to write it off. They don’t pay the premiums for private health insurance. We’re supposed to give up ours in exchange for some V.A.-type nightmare. They didn’t start enterprises that create employment and drive innovation. We’re expected to join the candidates in demonizing the job-creators, breaking up their businesses and taxing them to the hilt.

As numerous critics have pointed out, for Stephens, who spent his childhood in Mexico and is fluent in Spanish, to lump himself in with the “this is America, we speak English” crowd is woefully disingenuous. You know, unless he suffered a head injury that has caused him to forget the Spanish he learned as well as the very fact he speaks it, which in that case, my condolences.

More than that, though, the dehumanizing “them-versus-us” rhetoric at a time when migrant families are being indefinitely detained en masse in substandard facilities (the term “facilities,” in many cases, is a generous one) without legal representation or even being charged with a crime is chilling. Not to mention it’s riddled with inaccuracies as a function of being grounded in nativism and trickle-down hogwash.

They broke the rules, even though seeking asylum is supposed to be legal. They don’t pay taxes, even though they do. They got themselves into debt. Who? Are we talking about undocumented immigrants here or college students/young adults born in the States, whose issues with repaying their student loans are nothing at which to scoff? And spare me the “job-creators, taxed to the hilt” line. If we’re talking about multinational corporations, some of them have gotten exceedingly proficient in paying little to no taxes while forgoing investment in their employees and the surrounding communities for the sake of relentlessly seeking profit. In this respect, creating jobs (which may not even be that rewarding for the job-holders in the first place) is the least they could do.

Stephens isn’t the only one at the Times trafficking in self-centered moderate conservative whining. In his own reaction column to the Democratic debates, David Brooks, another Never-Trumper, pleads with Democrats not to “drive him away,” taking it upon himself to speak for the 35% of American voters who identify as “moderates.”

In doing so, he decries how “the party is moving toward all sorts of positions that drive away moderates and make it more likely the nominee will be unelectable.” Americans like their health plans. The economy is doing well (yay, capitalism!). These candidates sound like they want open borders, which has lost progressives elections elsewhere around the world. There’s too much raging against the top 1% and not against the top 20% (the upper middle class).

There’s that concept again: “electability.” It’s a concept everyone seems to profess knowing a lot about without being able to clearly define it. Will advocating for Medicare for All (which, by the by, has broad support from Americans across the political spectrum) make a candidate unelectable in the general election? How would we even know? The economy is doing well now. What happens if we suffer another economic crisis (and yes, there are warning signs to be had)?

On immigration, are we to ignore the ethical and moral concerns for-profit imprisonment of asylum-seekers and immigrants presents, not to mention the real economic benefits these people bring to the table, because of moderate whites’ vague worries about a loss of “cultural identity?” On the Democrats trying to engage with Trump in a battle of “populist v. populist,” why not mention how Trump’s supposed “populism” is really just a concession to wealthy white males like himself?

Ultimately and in all, Brooks is critical of progressives who reject calls for civility and, in laying out their vision of the future, ensure the party can’t win next November. What good is “civility,” however, when today’s Republican Party is premised on bad-faith, deceptive arguments for holding up the status quo? And rather than appealing to a shrinking, elusive voting bloc, why not try to generate actual enthusiasm among those who haven’t voted or previously couldn’t vote? Why not try to win rather than playing not to lose? Have we learned nothing from 2016?

Evidently not. Instead, we get moderates who lauded Hillary Clinton and assured us voters would tire of Trump once again propping up an establishment candidate in Joe Biden because he supposedly “can stand up to” the orange-faced incumbent. Never mind Biden’s checkered past as a senator or that he seems to lack original policy ideas. Let the gaslighting continue and ignore the sound of progressives banging their heads against the wall.


I’ve highlighted Bret Stephens’s and David Brooks’s questionable outlooks on the 2020 presidential race, but this kind of analysis is by no means limited to conservatives. On the Democratic/liberal end of things, there are examples of punditry gone awry a-plenty.

Rebecca Traister, columnist at The Cut, an offshoot of New York magazine skewed toward women’s interests, describes this as the “Donny Deutsch problem in media.” As she explains, while the Democratic Party field is indicative of the country’s growing diversity—both ethnic and ideological—the face of today’s talking heads in political media hasn’t kept pace. Traister writes:

Where many Americans have seen the emergence of compelling and charismatic candidates who don’t look like those who’ve preceded them (but do look more like the country they want to lead), some prominent pundits seem to be looking at a field of people they simply can’t recognize as presidential. Where many hear Democratic politicians arguing vigorously on behalf of more justice and access to resources for people who have historically been kept at the margins of power, some prominent columnists are hearing a scary call to destabilization and chaos, imagining themselves on the outside of politics they’ve long assumed should be centered around them.

Altogether, what’s emerging is a view of a presidential commentariat that — in terms of both ideas and diversity — is embarrassingly outpaced by the candidates, many of whom appear smarter, more thoughtful, and to have a nimbler grasp of American history and structural inequities than the television journalists being paid to cover them.

Traister acknowledges Stephens amid the elaboration of her column, but adds some more names as examples of individuals who are supposed to be experts in their field but seem out of touch with what’s happening in the world more than anything.

Following the debates, Joe Scarborough railed against the Democrats’ stances in favor of undocumented immigrants being entitled to health care and that their crossing the border should be decriminalized. Chris Matthews, like Stephens, framed Kamala Harris’s taking of Joe Biden to task on the subject of busing during the debate as making white people feel as if they are “on trial” or that she is speaking out of some racially-based resentment. As for Mr. Deutsch, he panned Elizabeth Warren’s prospects in the general election next to Biden’s, touting his experience as an advertising and branding executive as an affirmation of the validity of his viewpoint. He, like Donald Trump, evidently gets people. Well, I’m sold, I don’t know about you.

As Traister finds and as others would agree, the “safe center” on which these men think the Democrats can rely may no longer be the source of salvation they or other mainstream liberals imagine it to be. This much becomes evident when looking at the substantial appeal of signature policy ideals such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and taxing the wealthy at a higher marginal rate. The contention of Deutsch et al. is that promoting these positions will hand Trump the election in 2020. Maybe it’s through embracing a bold vision of the future (a vision furthered by strong female candidates, no less) that the excitement needed to turn out the necessary voters to prevent his re-election will be achieved, though.

In fairness, Traister admits the likes of Stephens and Scarborough may be right, at least in the short term. Maybe the Democrats will win with Biden as their chosen candidate. Over the long term, however, the party strategy will almost certainly have to change in deference to a “different, faster, smarter, lefter turn toward the future.” To this end, the hegemonic hold white males have over political punditry will need to be addressed at some point too.

Unfortunately, this won’t be realized nearly fast enough, meaning newspaper subscribers and TV viewers will be forced to see the 2020 campaign through the prism of these privileged, moneyed men’s worldviews. Meaning we’re liable to get defenses of Biden and his condescending attitude toward people unlike him ad nauseum until the election or until his bid for the White House goes down in flames.

There’s a #MeToo dimension to this disproportionate representation as well. Matthews caught heat last year for an unearthed “hot mic” incident of sorts from 2016 where he jokingly asked where he put “that Bill Cosby pill” he brought with him in advance of an interview with Hillary Clinton. Deutsch, by his own admission, is a shameless flirt who has fantasized about women he was worked with and waxed poetic on Sarah Palin’s hotness when she first came to political prominence.

When Traister speaks to how problematic it is that potential voters and prospective candidates for public office are having their opinions shaped by these men, she has a firm grasp of what she’s talking about. Their professionalism (or lack thereof) is certainly not above reproach. Might we not submit the same of their political insights?

The male-dominated world of political media reacting with pearl-clutching bewilderment at up-and-comers in the Democratic Party like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leading by example. Joe Biden’s place atop the polls despite his apparent unpreparedness in that first debate. These phenomena are related. These men are unused to a world in which their place atop the hierarchy is no longer guaranteed, where a twenty-something who previously worked as a bartender—gasp!—is beating them in the open exchange of ideas. As the very title of Rebecca Traister’s article asks, politics is changing; why aren’t the pundits who cover it?

Amen, sister.

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.