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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 in Review: Hey, We’re Still Here!

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other women newly elected to Congress are a big reason for excitement leading into 2019 despite disappointments in 2018. (Photo Credit: Mark Dillman/Twitter)

Rejoice! If you’re reading this, it means we haven’t yet managed to get ourselves embroiled in a nuclear war and that the future of our civilization as a going concern—despite our best efforts—is still a possibility!

Whatever your outlook on the days, weeks, and years to come, it’s worth looking back on the moments of the past 12 months and revisiting the themes they evoked.

Without further ado, it’s time for…

2018 IN REVIEW: HEY, WE’RE STILL HERE!

Mueller…always a good call.

When the year started, what did you figure the odds were that Robert Mueller’s investigation would still be going? 50% Less than that? At this writing—with Donald Trump and this administration, you never know what might happen and who might suddenly quit or get fired—the Mueller probe into Trump’s presidential campaign and possible collusion with Russia continues largely unimpeded.

This is not to say that its continued operation and final delivery are guaranteed. Jeff Sessions’s watch as Attorney General has ended, and his dismissal created the objectively strange sensation of a furor over his removal by the left despite his support of the Trump administration’s destructive agenda. His replacement, Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist, inspires little faith there will be any obfuscation of the investigation, especially since he has rejected the advice of an ethics official from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to recuse himself from the investigation.

With Mitch McConnell the obstructionist refusing to allow a vote on a bill that would safeguard the investigation, there’s little hope Congress will act to intervene should Trump move to fire Mueller. Which, as he has reminded us umpteen times, he can do because he’s the president. Whatever Mueller’s fate, the results of his team’s findings are yet impressive and suggest the probe should be permitted to run its course. Over 30 people and three Russian companies have been charged in the special counsel’s investigation, producing more than 100 criminal charges, and more yet might be on the way.

Despite Trump’s hollow concerns about the cost—Mueller’s probe is a “waste of money” and yet we should fund a wall that a lot of people don’t want—Robert Mueller and Co. have been remarkably effective and efficient. Trump shouldn’t mess with this investigation if for no other reason than not to risk a major public outcry against him.

“Guns don’t kill people,” but more people killed people with guns

Think we don’t have a problem with gun violence in the United States? That there’s an entire Wikipedia entry for mass shootings in the U.S. in 2018 alone begs to differ.

The February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 students were killed and another 17 injured was perhaps the most notable for the activism it helped inspire, but there were other newsworthy shootings around the country. Yountville, California at a veterans home. Nashville, Tennessee at a Waffle House. Santa Fe, Texas at the high school. Scottsdale, Arizona in a series of shootings. Trenton, New Jersey at the Art All Night Festival. Annapolis, Maryland at the Capital Gazette building. Jacksonville, Florida at a Madden NFL 19 tournament. Aberdeen, Maryland at a Rite Aid. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Tree of Life synagogue. Tallahassee, Florida at a yoga studio. Thousands Oaks, California at a bar. Robbins, Illinois at a bar. Chicago, Illinois at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center.

Gun rights advocates may point to the varying locales of these shootings and suggest that no matter where you go and how restrictive the gun laws, people can still acquire firearms by illicit means and can do harm. In any number of cases, however, shooters haven’t needed to subvert legal channels. Either way, this shouldn’t deter lawmakers from passing more restrictive gun laws. It should be difficult for individuals to acquire guns. There are too many guns. More guns means a higher likelihood that people will get shot. This is not complicated.

If you want to talk about mental health aside from the gun issue, I’m with you. If you want to insist that we just need more good people with guns, I’m not with you, but I still think we should talk about it. In the case of Jemel Roberson in the Robbins, Illinois shooting, he was the good guy with a gun, and got shot because he was black. We haven’t come close to solving the gun violence problem in America, and as long as groups like the National Rifle Association will continue to lobby against gun control and resist statistical research into fatalities related to gun violence, we won’t make progress on this issue. Here’s hoping the NRA continues to suffer a decline in funding.

“Stormy” weather

Stormy Daniels alleges Donald Trump had an extramarital affair with her back in 2006. Trump, who denies everything, denies this happened. Meanwhile, someone paid her $130,000 in advance of the election. Who do you believe? Also, and perhaps more to the point, do you care?

I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Daniels’s account. For some people, though, the mere notion she gets and has gotten money to have sex on camera puts her word in doubt. She’s an opportunistic liar looking to cash in on her 15 minutes of fame. Ditto for her lawyer Michael Avenatti, who naturally has political aspirations.

Even for those who might believe her or who would like nothing more than to nail Trump on some dimension, the nature of her profession is such that they might be loath to discuss the matter of Trump’s infidelity and hush money payments. Talking about sex and adult entertainers is, well, icky for some.

In this respect, our willingness or unwillingness to confront this chapter of Daniels’s and Trump’s lives is a reflection of our own set of values and morals. It’s especially telling, moreover, that so many white evangelicals are willing to forgive Pres. Trump his trespasses. For a group that has, until Trump’s rise, been the most insistent on a person’s character to eschew such concerns demonstrates their willingness to compromise their standards in support of a man who upholds “religious liberty” and who exemplifies the prosperity gospel.

Thus, while some of us may not care about Stormy Daniels personally or may not find campaign finance law riveting, there’s still larger conversations about sex and money in politics worth having. Despite what nonsense Rudy Giuliani might spout.

FOX News continued its worsening trend of defending Trump and white supremacy 

Oh, FOX News. Where do we begin? If we’re talking about everyone’s favorite source for unbiased reporting (sarcasm intended), a good place to start is probably their prime-time personalities who masquerade as legitimate journalists.

Sean Hannity, now firmly entrenched as FOX News’s night-time slot elder statesman with Bill O’Reilly gone, was revealed as a client of Michael Cohen’s (yes, that Michael Cohen) and an owner of various shell companies formed to buy property in low-income areas financed by HUD loans. Surprise! That surprise extended to Hannity’s employer, to whom he did not see fit to disclose a potential conflict of interest when propping up the likes of Cohen and Ben Carson, or his adoring viewers. Not that they care, in all likelihood. Hannity tells it not like it is, but how they want to hear.

As for more recent more additions to the prime-time schedule, Laura Ingraham, when not mocking Parkland, FL survivor David Hogg for not getting into colleges (he since has been accepted to Harvard) or telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” denounced the “massive demographic changes” that have been “foisted on the American people.” She says she wasn’t being racist. She is full of shit.

Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, remained the go-to guy for white supremacist viewpoints, questioning the value of all forms of immigration and more recently deriding immigrants as poor and dirty. He has lost more than a dozen advertisers since those latest comments. Good. The only criticism is that it took them this long to dissociate themselves from Carlson’s program.

FOX News has seemingly abandoned any pretense of separation from the Trump administration in terms of trying to influence the president’s views or tapping into his racist, xenophobic agenda. It hasn’t hurt them any in the ratings—yet. As those “demographic changes” continue, as television viewership is challenged by new media, and as President Trump remains unpopular among Americans as a whole, however, there is no guarantee the network will remain at the top. Enjoy it while you can, Laura, Sean, and Tucker.

Turns out big companies don’t always do the right thing

Facebook, Papa John’s, and Wells Fargo would like you to know they are very truly sorry for anything they may or may have not done. Kind of.

In Facebook’s case, it’s selling the information of millions of users to Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm which did work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and was founded by Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon). It also did a piss-poor job of weeding out fake news and hate speech and has since taken to relying on a questionable consortium of fact-checkers, most suspect among them The Weekly Standard.

Papa John’s had to reckon with the idea John Schnatter, the company’s namesake, is, well, kind of a racist dick. They’ve been battling over his ouster and his stake in the company ever since. As for Wells Fargo, it’s still dealing with the bad PR from its massive account fraud scandal created as a function of a toxic sales-oriented corporate culture, as well as the need to propose a reform plan to the Federal Reserve to address its ongoing shady practices (its proposals heretofore have yet to be approved).

In all three cases, these companies have sought to paper over their misdeeds with advertising campaigns that highlight their legacy of service to their customers or the people within their organization who are not bigoted assholes. With Facebook and Wells Fargo in particular, that they continue to abuse the public’s trust conveys the sense they aren’t truly repentant for what they’ve done and haven’t learned anything from the scandals they’ve created.

Unfortunately, cash is king, and until they lose a significant share of the market (or the government refuses to bail them out), they will be unlikely to change in a meaningful positive way. The best we can do as consumers is pressure our elected representatives to act on behalf of their constituents—and consider taking our business elsewhere if these organizations don’t get their shit together.

Civility, shmivility

Poor Sarah Sanders. It seems she can’t attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner or go out for a meal with her family without being harangued.

While I don’t necessarily think people like Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Stephen Miller should be denied the ability to eat (although it’s pretty f**ked up that Miller and Nielsen would go to a Mexican restaurant amid an immigration crisis), calls for “civility” are only as good as the people making such calls and the possibility of substantive action in key policy areas.

People were upset with Michelle Wolf, for instance, for telling the truth about Sanders’s propensity for not telling the truth by making allusions to her as Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale and by referencing her smoky eye makeup as the ash from burned facts. Members of the press tripped over themselves to comfort Sanders and to disavow Wolf’s performance. But Wolf was doing her job, and told truth to power. It’s Michelle Wolf who deserves the apology, not habitual liar and Trump enabler Sarah Sanders.

I believe we shouldn’t go around punching Nazis—as satisfying as that might be. That said, we shouldn’t allow people to dispense hate simply to appease “both sides,” and we should be vocal about advocating for the rights of immigrants and other vulnerable populations when people like Miller and Nielsen and Sanders do everything in their power to pivot away from the Trump administration’s destructive actions. After all, it’s hard to be civil when children are being taken from their mothers and people are being tear-gassed or dying in DHS custody.

Brett Kavanaugh…ugh. (Photo Credit: Ninian Reed/Flickr)

There’s something about Alexandria

Love her or hate her, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has arrived on the national stage following her upset of incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic Party primary for New York’s 14th congressional district.

If you’re a devotee of FOX News, it’s probably the latter. The incoming first-year representative has joined Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi in the vaunted space of people to be booed and hissed at for pretty much everything she does. She took a break before the start of her first term? How dare she! She refused to debate Ben Shapiro? What is she afraid of? As a young Latina socialist, she ticks off all the boxes their audience possesses on their Fear and Hate Index. All without spending an official day on the job.

Like any inexperienced politician, AOC has had her wobbles, chief among them when she flubbed a question on Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, she has handled the numerous attacks on her on Twitter and elsewhere with remarkable deftness and grace. More importantly, she appears ready to lead her party on key issues, as evidenced by her outspokenness on the concept of a Green New Deal.

Party leaders may downplay the significance of her upset primary win, but Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence, to many, heralds a progressive shift for Democrats, one in which its younger members and women are not just participants, but at the forefront. At a time when establishment Dems only seem more and more unwilling to change, there is yet reason for genuine excitement in the Democratic Party.

John McCain died. Cue the whitewashing.

I don’t wish death on anyone, but John McCain died at the right time. That time would be the era of President Donald Trump, and by contrast, McCain looks like a saint.

McCain is best remembered for his service to the United States and for helping to kill the Republicans’ intended replacement for the Affordable Care Act. But we shouldn’t brush aside the less-savory elements of his track record. As a Trump critic, he still voted in line with the president’s agenda most of the time. He was a prototypical war hawk, advocating for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a proponent of armed conflict with Iran—even after all he saw and endured in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, as a presidential candidate, though he is celebrated for defending Barack Obama at a town hall as a good Christian man (though he didn’t specify that he’d be worth defending if he were actually a Muslim), he was an unrepentant user of a racial slur directed at Asians and he signed off on the unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate. A lot of the fondness he receives now from journalists likely stems from the access McCain gave reporters while on the campaign trail. Even his vote not to quash the ACA was done with a flair for the dramatic that belied the seriousness of its implications.

John McCain wasn’t the worst person to inhabit the U.S. Senate. But simply being more civil than Donald Trump is a low bar to clear. Regardless, he should be remembered in a more nuanced way in the name of accurate historical representation.

Brett Kavanaugh…ugh.

There were a lot of shameful occurrences in American politics in 2018. I already alluded to the Trump administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the immigration situation and of ripping apart families. The White House also seems intent on hastening environmental destruction, doing nothing to protect vulnerable subdivisions of the electorate, and pulling out of Syria as an apparent gift to Assad and Vladimir Putin.

And yet, the nomination and eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court somehow became the most galling example of D.C. partisanship witnessed in sometime. Of course, any discussion of Kavanaugh would be incomplete without the mention of Merrick Garland. On the heels of Republicans’ refusal to hear him as a nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia and after Neil Gorsuch was sworn in, things were already primed for tension between the two major parties.

When reports of multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct dating back to Kavanaugh’s high school and college days surfaced, though, the GOP’s stubborn refusal to budge and choose a new candidate was downright appalling. Kavanaugh didn’t do himself any favors with his testimony on the subject of these accusations, lashing out at the people who questioned him, insisting this investigation was a partisan witch hunt, and assuming the role of the aggrieved party like the spoiled frat boy we imagine he was and perhaps still is.

Kavanaugh’s defenders would be wont to point out that the rest of us are just salty that “they” won and “we” lost. Bullshit. Though we may have disagreed with Gorsuch’s nomination and conservatism prior to his being confirmed, he didn’t allegedly sexually assault or harass anybody. Brett Kavanaugh, in light of everything we now know about him, was a terrible choice for the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans should be ashamed of this chapter in American history, and this might be a good segue into talking about term limits for Supreme Court justices. Just saying.

Death by plastic

In case you were keeping score at home, there’s still an ass-ton of plastic in the world’s oceans. According to experts on the matter, the global economy is losing tens of billions of dollars each year because of plastic waste and we’re on a pace to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?

By all means, we should keep recycling and finding ways to avoid using plastic on an individual basis. Every bit helps. At the same time, we’re not going to make the progress we need until the primary drivers of plastic waste are held accountable for their actions. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, Unilever—looking at you.

In terms of world governments, China is the worst offender hands down, and numerous Asian countries line the top 10 (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia), but we’re not exactly above reproach. In fact, with Trump at the helm, we’ve been active in helping water down UN resolutions designed to eliminate plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is not an isolated problem, and it’s not going away either. Literally. That stuff lasts a long time. We need to stop plastic production at the source, and push back against companies like Nestlé who exploit downtrodden communities with lax water safeguarding laws. This isn’t a game.

The Dems flipped the House, Brian Kemp stole an election, and other observations about the midterms

It’s true. Though Republicans widened their majority in the Senate, Democrats flipped the House, presumably paving the way for Nancy Pelosi to return to the role of House Majority Leader. Groan at this point if you’d like.

With the Dems running the show in the House, there’s likely to be all sorts of investigations into Donald Trump and his affairs. I mean, more political and financial, not the other kind, but you never know with that guy. That should encourage party supporters despite some tough losses. Beto O’Rourke fell short in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz from Senate, despite being way sexier and cooler. Andrew Gillum likewise had a “close but no cigar” moment in the Florida gubernatorial race. Evidently, voters preferred Ron DeSantis, his shameless alignment with Trump, and his thinly-veiled racism. Congratulations, Florida! You never fail to disappoint in close elections!

Perhaps the worst of these close losses was Stacey Abrams, edged out by Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race. If you ask Kemp, he won fair and square. If you ask anyone else with a modicum of discretion, he won because, as Georgia’s Secretary of State, he closed polling stations, purged voters from the rolls, failed to process voter applications, and kept voting machines locked up. Kemp’s antics and the shenanigans in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District give democracy a bad name, and beckon real voting reform championed by grassroots activists. After all, if Florida can restore voting rights to felons—Florida!—the lot of us can do better.

George H.W. Bush also picked a good time to die 

Like John McCain, I didn’t wish for “Bush Sr.” to die. Also like John McCain, people on both sides of the aisle extolled his virtues at the expense of a more complete (and accurate) telling of his personal history.

Bush, on one hand, was a beloved patriarch, served his country, and had more class than Donald Trump (again, low bar to clear). He also was fairly adept at throwing out first pitches at baseball games, I guess. On the other hand, he campaigned for president on dog-whistle politics (see also “Willie Horton”), pushed for involvement in the first Gulf War by relying on fabricated intelligence, escalated the war on drugs for political gain, turned a deaf ear to people suffering from AIDS, and was accused by multiple women of trying to cop a feel. So much for being miles apart from Trump.

Was George H.W. Bush a good man? I didn’t know the man, so I can’t say for sure. But he was no saint. Nor was his son or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or any other president. He led the country. Let’s not erase his flaws in the name of “togetherness.”


I chose to review these topics because I covered them at length on my blog. This obviously doesn’t cover the sum total of the events that transpired in 2018. Let’s see.

Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA and rolled back Dodd-Frank, extending our use of warrantless surveillance and making it more liable we will slide back into a recession. That sucked. Devin Nunes released a memo that was reckless, misleading, dishonest, and not quite the bombshell it was made out to be. That sucked as well. Our national debt went way up and continues to rise. American workers are making more money because they are working more, not because wages have risen.

What else? Trump got the idea for a self-congratulatory military parade—and then cancelled it because people thought it was a waste of time, effort, and money. DACA is still in limbo. U.S. manufacturing, outside of computers, continues its downward slide. Sacha Baron Cohen had a new show that was hit-or-miss. Oh, and we’re still involved in Yemen, helping a Saudi regime that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

So, yeah, in all, not a whole lot to get excited about in 2018 on the national news front. Moreover, that there seems to be mutual distrust between liberals and conservatives dampens enthusiasm for 2019 a bit. And let’s not even get started on 2020. If you think I’m raring to go for a Biden-Trump match-up (based on current polling), you’d be sorely mistaken.

And yet—step back from the ledge—there is enough reason to not lose hope. Alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a record number of women won seats in Congress. Ayanna Pressley became the first black women elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Michelle Lujan Grisham became the first Democratic Latina governor. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland were elected as the first Native American women to Congress. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected as the first Muslim women in Congress. Guam got its first female governor in history in Lou Leon Guerrero. That’s real progress.

Indeed, while Donald Trump as president is intent on standing in the way of progress, and while his continued habitation of the White House is bad on so many fronts, his win has been a wake-up call to ordinary people to get involved in politics, whether by running for office, by canvassing for political candidates and issues, or by making their voices heard by their elected representatives one way or another. Politics can’t be and is no longer just the sphere of rich old white dudes. Despite the efforts of political leaders, lobbyists, and industry leaders with a regressive agenda as well as other obstacles, folks are, as they say, rising up.

There’s a lot of work to do in 2019, the prospect of which is daunting given that many of us are probably already tired from this year and even before that. It’s truly a marathon and not a sprint, and the immediate rewards can feel few and far between. The goal of a more equal and just society, however, is worth the extra effort. Here’s hoping we make more progress in 2019—and yes, that we’re still here to talk about it same time next year.

Trump’s Bad “60 Minutes” Interview and Worse Economic Policy

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President Trump gave scarily bad answers in his “60 Minutes” interview with Lesley Stahl. But it’s what his administration and fellow Republicans are doing with respect to economic policy that’s truly terrifying. (Photo Credit: Michael Vadon/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The way President Donald Trump operates, it’s not like many of the remarks he made during his recent interview with Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes were particularly surprising or groundbreaking. Many of his comments were riffs on the same songs he has sung before.

Even if they weren’t very earth-shattering or shocking, meanwhile, Trump’s comments were nonetheless disappointing to hear/read as an American who doesn’t share the same set of values. Stahl’s questions ranged across a fairly wide set of topics, but here are some of Trump’s most noteworthy insights:

Trump “doesn’t know” that humans have a role in climate change.

Pres. Trump seemed to walk back one-time comments he made that climate change is a “hoax.” In the same breath, however, he expressed doubt that it’s manmade, and when Stahl pressed him on the overwhelming evidence that it does exist and that we’re contributing to it, he suggested that this climate change could simply reverse somehow and that the scientists advancing the consensus theory have a “very big political agenda.”

That Trump would feign concern for the effects a shift away from fossil fuels might have on American jobs is commendable, at least by his standards. Trying to effectively deny our hand in climate change as part of a political agenda when the scientific consensus is such a strong one, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of thinking we don’t need at this stage in the game when more urgent action was needed yesterday.

Trump suggested there could be “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if found they were behind the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but didn’t provide specifics.

Trump admitted it was possible the Saudi government was behind the murder of Khashoggi, and indicated the vehement denial on the part of the Saudis. He then hinted that weapons deals could be at stake, but as he did with concerns about climate change, he pivoted to worrying about jobs at companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. So, while he acknowledged the possibility of sanctions, Trump doesn’t seem all that committed to endangering business ties with Saudi Arabia because of it. Astonishment of astonishments there.

At this writing, reportedly, the Saudis are preparing to admit Khashoggi died during a botched interrogation. Obviously, the interview was taped prior to these reports. What was worst about this segment, though, was that Trump said the matter was especially troubling because Khashoggi was a journalist, even making an aside about how strange it must be to hear him say that. Yeah, it is, and it comes off as more than a little disingenuous after regularly railing at members of the press and calling them the “enemy of the American people.” Pardon us if we’re not especially enthralled by your promises that you’ll get to the bottom of his disappearance.

Trump claimed that Barack Obama put us on a path to war with North Korea, and qualified his “love” for Kim Jong-un.

Evidently, under President Obama, we were going to war with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but now—BOOM!—no more war and Kim is talking about nuclearization. You’re welcome, America. Get that Nobel Peace Prize nice and shiny for “the Donald.”

Within Trump’s logic, it’s his trust for Kim that has been such an essential diplomatic asset. This despite the possibility raised by Stahl that North Korea hasn’t gotten rid of any weapons and may actually be building more. Trump, attempting to further distance himself from Obama, intimated there are no plans to ease sanctions, but Stahl persisted on the topic of Trump’s stated “love” for North Korea’s despotic leader. Trump tried to minimize the language he used as a figure of speech, but Stahl belabored North Korea’s horrid human rights record under Kim and his father.

Trump’s admiration for dictators is nothing new, but hearing him downplay talk of gulags and starvation is yet bothersome. More on this to come.

Trump still has no idea how tariffs work, nor does he apparently have high regard for his supposed allies.

President Trump insisted China is close to negotiating on tariffs and other matters of trade. In the meantime, though, President Xi Jinping (another leader with dictatorial aspirations overseeing a country with questionable regard for human rights) and China are content to retaliate with tariffs, and Stahl questioned how long we will be content to try to strong-arm China into negotiation when it’s American consumers who are bearing the brunt of these tariffs. Is the point to use the people of each country as bargaining chips in an escalating trade war?

Trump argued with Stahl for a while about whether or not he called it a trade war, a skirmish, or a battle, but this is semantics (and he totally f**king did call it a trade war, according to Stahl). Alongside likely overstating our trade deficit with China, Trump once more communicated his faulty understanding re tariffs. What’s more, he seemed ambivalent as to the continued integrity of diplomatic relations with Europe as a function of NATO membership, and grew combative with Stahl on the point of levying tariffs on our allies and inviting disunion. As long as Trump and his advisers hold to the narrative that the United States is being taken advantage of by the rest of the world when it comes to defense spending and trade, the average consumer is the one who will be caught in the middle.

Trump believes that Vladimir Putin is “probably” involved in assassinations and poisonings.

But only probably. Continuing the earlier conversation about Pres. Trump and his love of autocrats, the man would not commit to saying that he believed Putin was behind attacks on critics and political opponents, professing that he “relies on” Russia and that it’s their country, so it’s essentially their business. I’d be eager to know what precisely he means when he says he relies on them, and it’s possible his drift is a more innocent one, but when so much seems to hint at Trump being compromised by Russian ties, it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.

This sentiment only grows when considering his hedging on Russian interference in the election and his evasiveness on the Mueller investigation. When prompted by Stahl on meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Trump was quick to rebut by claiming China meddled as well. Even if that were true, however—experts say there is evidence of a pro-Chinese influence campaign at work, but no concrete evidence of Chinese electoral meddling—it’s a deflection. Stahl called him out on this tactic, only to be argued with in the spirit of whataboutism.

Additionally, Trump refused to pledge that he won’t shut down the Mueller investigation. In other words, um, yeah, you should still be worried about Mueller’s fate as special counsel. Particularly if the midterms go poorly for the Republican Party.

That whole family separation thing was all Obama’s fault.

When asked what his biggest regret so far has been, the first thing that jumped to Trump’s mind was not terminating the NAFTA deal sooner. Not the whole taking children away from their parents thing, as Stahl interjected. It’s not exactly mind-bending to witness Trump fail to recognize a policy bent on unmitigated cruelty as his worst mistake, but it still stings like salt in the proverbial wound if you fashion yourself a halfway decent human being.

To make matters worse, Trump defended the policy under the premise that people would illegally enter the United States in droves otherwise. Furthermore, he blamed Barack Obama for enforcing a policy that was on the books. To be fair, Obama’s record on immigration is not unassailable, as his administration was responsible for its share of deportations. But separating families is a new twist on trying to enact “border security,” and it ignores the perils immigrants face upon return to their native land, perils we have helped exacerbate. Try as he might to escape it, Donald Trump and his presidency will be inexorably tied to this heartless policy directive.

The country is divided, but that’s the stupid Democrats’ fault.

According to Trump, the country was very polarized under Obama, but now on the strength of the economy, he can see it coming together. You’re welcome, America. Stahl questioned him on this criticism of Obama and the Democrats’ contributions to political rancor when he and his Republican cronies just won on the Kavanaugh confirmation and he proceeded to immediately lambast the Dems. Trump predictably deflected by saying it’s the Democrats who don’t want the country to heal. They started it! They were so mean to Brett Kavanaugh! What a bunch of stupid babies!

In case you had any doubts, Trump doesn’t give two shits about Christine Blasey Ford.

Continuing with theme of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Lesley Stahl addressed Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford’s testimony before Congress, asking why he felt he had to make fun of her. Trump says she was treated with great respect. Stahl was, like, really? Trump was, like, anyway, who cares? We won.

That’s right, ladies and germs—the ends justify the means. It’s all about the W. You heard him.

The White House is definitely not in chaos. Definitely not.

The on-air portion of the 60 Minutes interview ended with Stahl asking the president about the media reports of a White House in turmoil. Three guesses as to his reply. If you said “fake news,” you’d be correct. (If you didn’t, what’s wrong with you?) Trump also didn’t seem fazed about the high turnover within his administration. Hey, sometimes it just doesn’t work out! Along these lines, Trump wouldn’t commit to James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, nor would he give a ringing endorsement to Jeff “I’m Only a Racist on Days That End in ‘Y'” Sessions. Not that I have any great love for either of those men, but it’s still messed up when a man like Trump expects unflinching loyalty and yet stands by his appointees only when it’s convenient.

Trump also opined on his feelings of distrust of White House officials, consummate with his assessment of Washington, D.C. as a “vicious, vicious place.” Good news, though, fellow Americans: he now feels very comfortable as POTUS. Many of us might be continuously on edge, but he’s right as rain. Well, at least there’s that.


To some, Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes interview with Donald Trump was disappointing in that it didn’t break new ground. Sure, it further revealed that he is ignorant of how basic economic and scientific principles work, that he possesses a predilection for strongmen, that he will blame Barack Obama for pretty much anything, that he holds absolutely no regard for survivors of sexual assault, rape, and sexual violence, and that he has the temperament (and possibly the intellect) of a grade-school child. But we already knew all this. As noted earlier, it’s more salt in the wound for members of the so-called Resistance, but short of potentially alienating our allies with his public comments—which is not to be undersold or encouraged, mind you—but comparatively, his words are sticks and stones.

It’s where Trump’s actions and those of his administration have effect that should truly frighten us, meanwhile. As he so often does, Matt Taibbi provides excellent insight into the area of biggest concern: the U.S. economy. Stahl noted in voiceovers during the interview that Trump loves to talk about America’s economic success. After all, it makes him look good. Never mind that he may have a limited role in that success and that he inherited favorable conditions from his predecessor, but he wouldn’t be the first president to take advantage of others’ successes.

Trump was notably silent, conversely, when the Dow recently fell 1,377 points over two days amid a stock market sell-off. As Taibbi writes, this event is but a prelude to a larger economic disaster, and it stands at the confluence of three irreconcilable problems. The first is the Federal Reserve raising interest rates as a means of trying to rein in the excess of large companies taking advantage of quantitative easing and zero-interest-rate policy.

This might not be such a problem except for the second factor: the Trump/GOP tax cuts. As economic experts warned prior to their passage, the cuts were based on overly enthusiastic projections of economic growth. When the inevitable tax shortfall occurred, we would need to start borrowing more, as is already underway. Higher interest rates on increased borrowing means more of an economic burden.

All of this comes to a head when we consider the third problem: tariffs. To try to make up for the issues raised by higher borrowing rates and a revenue shortfall, the government this week debuted new Treasury bills in the hopes of generating immediate cash. The potential conflict arises when considering China is the primary buyer of U.S. T-bills and holds over a trillion dollars in American debt.

The assumption is that Chinese demand for Treasury notes will remain unchanged despite the tariffs. However, as Matt Taibbi and Lesley Stahl and others are right to wonder, what happens if the trade war’s tariffs hurt the Chinese economy to the point that China no longer can or is willing to subsidize our skyrocketing debt? It’s a purely theoretical question at this point, and a rhetorical one at that, but the fallout from the intersection of these trends could be devastating. Taibbi puts a cap on the gravity of the situation thusly:

As we’ve seen in recent decades, even smart people are fully capable of driving the American economy off a cliff. What happens when the dumbest administration in history gets a turn at the wheel? Maybe last week wasn’t the time to start panicking. But that moment can’t be far.

Ominous, but perhaps not hyperbole. Noting what happened last time when the economy nearly collapsed, when the next disaster strikes, it will undoubtedly be we, the other 99%, that pays most dearly. Especially as Mitch McConnell and his Republican partners would have it, now clearly eying cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

President Trump may enjoy schmoozing with Lesley Stahl and giving bad answers his base will eat up now. In the short to long term, though, the terrible choices of his administration and his party could prove costly to the American economy, and by association, the global economy. Though he undoubtedly won’t meet with our same burden, he should at least take more of the blame when it does.

There’s a Crisis in Yemen, and the U.S. Bears Responsibility

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Without a formal authorization of war, we’ve been providing weaponry and logistical assistance to a coalition including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while a humanitarian crisis unfolds on the ground in Yemen and al-Qaeda grows in influence. For our involvement, meanwhile, little attention has been paid to Yemen and the extent of the suffering there. (Photo Credit: UNICEF/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

There is only so much time in a day, and only so many resources that news services can devote to the coverage of the pressing matters of the world. Still, the relative sparsity of mainstream attention to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is a phenomenon that a lack of manpower, time, or money can’t explain. Indeed, there’s a conscious effort to sanitize the news and downplay the U.S.’s role in perpetuating the violence that has made for such a catastrophically deadly situation for civilians, and one that has otherwise led to widespread malnutrition and massive displacement of people.

Yemen has been in the throes of a civil war for more than three years, in which Shia-led Houthi rebels backed by Iran have been fighting against the Yemeni government of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and yes, the United States of America. With the insinuation of the likes of the Saudis and the UAE into this conflict as part of a coalition designed to ostensibly reinstate Hadi to power, the nature of the violence being inflicted on the people of Yemen has only gotten worse.

Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Harvard University graduate and Yemeni by birth, writing for In These Times, explains the magnitude of the turmoil there, as well as the extent of the U.S.’s involvement:

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have provided the Saudi-led coalition with extensive military support, selling hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, deploying U.S. Special Forces to the Saudi-Yemen border and providing midair refueling of Saudi and Emirati jets during bombing campaigns. American support has continued as more than a million people have been infected with cholera, tens of thousands have been killed by violence, and at least 113,000 children have perished from malnutrition and preventable illnesses.

The publication of Al-Adeimi’s piece comes on the heels of two significant developments relating to the situation in Yemen. One is the August 2 airstrikes carried out by coalition forces on the city of Al-Hudaydah which killed upwards of 55 civilians, strikes that targeted a market and a hospital and of which coalition leadership denies any involvement.

This sort of crime against humanity is difficult, if not impossible, to hide, and of course, is a bad look for the coalition forces supporting Hadi, hence their disavowal. Yet even much of the reporting of this catastrophe tends to overlook America’s role in arming the Saudis who lead the coalition. UPI speaks of the U.S. providing “logistical support” to those responsible for the strikes, but this omission covers for the fact that the U.S. is dealing weapons to Saudi Arabia.

The other relevant development here is the recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorized a $717 billion defense budget for 2019. This legislation and its language are what especially draws Ms. Al-Adeimi’s focus, language that by itself is insufficient to either limit the scope of America’s complicity in war crimes or to prevent deadly airstrikes against civilians like the ones that ravaged Al-Hudaydah. Al-Adeimi writes:

Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), as well as Representatives Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.)—all of whom oppose the United States’ unauthorized military involvement in Yemen—successfully included provisions in that aim to limit the NDAA’s use toward the war on Yemen. These include measures requiring the Secretary of State to verify that the U.S.-backed coalition is taking steps to alleviate the humanitarian disaster, minimize harm to civilians and end the civil war. According to the bill, such certification is required for the United States to engage in midair refueling to support bombing campaigns. However, the Secretary of State could issue a waiver to allow midair refueling for “security reasons,” so long as a detailed justification is submitted to Congress.

These stipulations are better than nothing, given that, in the words of Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), there is “an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen.” The cooperation between House and Senate lawmakers on including the “Yemen provision” stems from growing concern about U.S. complicity in apparent war crimes.

These caveats, however, pose a significant problem for a coalition that has consistently denied bombing civilians and infrastructure outright despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or dismissed such bombings as “mistakes.” The August 2 attack conducted by the Saudi-led Coalition on al-Thawra Hospital and a popular fish market in the embattled city of Hodeidah has been described by locals as a “massacre.” The airstrikes killed at least 55 civilians and left over 124 people injured, many of whom are fighting for their lives in health facilities that are barely functional due to repeated airstrikes and medicinal shortages resulting from the Saudi/UAE-imposed blockade. Whatever “protections” U.S. lawmakers are extending to Yemeni civilians, those protections did nothing to prevent this assault.

It stands to reason that massacres like the attack on Al-Hudaydah are liable to happen if we sell aircraft and weaponry to Saudi coalition forces backing the Yemeni government. Sure, the U.S. government might ask real nicely for the Saudis not to bomb civilians, but as long as the Saudis possess such superior military capability, and as long as Iran is invested in the Yemeni civil war, shows of force like this are eminently possible, if not probable. After all, if the Saudi-led coalition can carry out attacks on fish markets and hospitals without acknowledging its culpability and without proportionate censure from the international community, there’s no real risk for it to operate with anything other than impunity.

To stress, however, even if America isn’t the one pulling the trigger, they’re still implicated in the devastation in Yemen. What’s more, the United States’ involvement preceded President Donald Trump’s tenure, and has continued despite the absence of a formal authorization by Congress to engage in hostilities there.

How does this happen? How does the United States of America provide “logistical support” for years to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—and thus serve as party to human rights violations—in relative obscurity? As Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone tells, the cone of silence surrounding the atrocities in Yemen is owed to a perfect storm of factors that lend themselves to sparing media coverage and limited interest from Jane and John Q. Public. He writes:

Ultimately, the ancillary humanitarian disaster that has grown out of the war has become a distinct tale in itself. The U.N. puts the number of displaced persons at over 2 million, with more than 22 million people “in need.” Yet still the Yemen crisis has received little attention, likely because it represents a whole continuum of American media taboos.

For one thing, the victims are poor nonwhite people from a distant third-world country. Also, our involvement is bipartisan in nature, which takes the usual-suspect cable channels out of the round-the-clock-bleating game (our policies in the region date back to the Obama presidency, and have continued under Trump).

Thirdly, covering the story in detail would require digging into our unsavory relationship with the Saudi government, which has an atrocious human rights record.

In just a few sentences, Taibbi outlines a number of elements lying behind the failure of much of the news media to adequately address the situation in Yemen. There’s a racial component (likely aided by a distrust, for many, of Muslims and a sense of hopelessness about peace in the Middle East), the specter of classism, a shared sense of blame for representatives of both parties (which doesn’t help generate clicks in an era of partisanship), and a long-standing material financial relationship with the Saudi government buttressed by a mutual distrust of communism and a mutual love of oil.

This is all before we even get to discussing the possibility that the U.S. starts selling drones to the Saudis, a concern Taibbi addresses. As part of our aversion to being associated with Saudi violations of international law, we’ve, until now, refused to supply Saudi Arabia with killer drones (although we’re happy to sell them F-15s and help them re-fuel in mid-air). With China already supplying the Saudis and the UAE with drones, meanwhile, there is a push within the United States government to ease restrictions on the sale of these machines. If you were thinking President Trump is leading this push, you were right. It’s unfortunate, and yet wholly predictable.

At the end of the day, America’s penchant for meddling in other countries with military might alongside Yemen’s status as an unsexy topic in this Trump-oriented age of clickbait news has pushed the crisis there to the back pages at a point when Yemeni civilians are the most vulnerable and their plight merits a more robust response from the international community. As Taibbi writes in closing, “Until [Yemen] becomes a political football for some influential person or party, this disaster will probably stay at the back of the line.”

As part of a line including American farmers hurt by Trump’s trade war, immigrant families deported and separated as a function of the administration’s “zero tolerance exercise in cruelty, victims in Puerto Rico of Hurricane Maria and the government’s woefully insufficient response to the storm, and a water crisis in Flint of which the impact stands to be felt for decades to come, that’s a wait that Yemenis in need can ill afford.


What makes matters worse—yes, it does get worse—is that Yemen is home to one of the most dangerous wings of al-Qaeda in the form of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and the bombings/drone attacks and substandard living conditions there only give rise to an increased ability for this terror network to recruit new members.

In this respect, the United States is apparently caught between competing interests. On one hand, in its ongoing (and amorphous) war on terror, it wants to combat the influence of extremist elements in the Arab world and in other countries where Islam has a significant number of followers. On the other hand, it is loyal to a Saudi government engaging in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, a government that is notorious as a sponsor for jihadism. If the cautionary tale of Syria is any indication, then inaction presents its own consequences. As is always the case, there is no perfect solution to a problem marked by hostilities between groups along international and sectarian divides.

Complicating this power struggle and U.S. involvement is the notion that Saudi-Emirati coalition forces are actively negotiating with al-Qaeda to leave key areas in exchange for cash, equipment, and weapons. An Associated Press report by Maggie Michael, Trish Wilson, and Lee Keath details the nature of these arrangements, as well as the anger in certain circles that America is prioritizing coalition concerns with Iranian expansionism over fighting terrorism and stabilizing Yemen.

To be clear, the AP report states there is no evidence that American money has gone to AQAP militants, and the U.S. government has denied complicity with al-Qaeda. This notwithstanding, the gist one gets is that we’re at least aware of these deals. In all, it’s a big mess of factions and interests, and what’s more, the indication in the report that AQAP’s numbers are on the rise suggests there is some degree of comfort for the group in Yemen. At any rate, it runs counter to a narrative that coalition forces are stamping out al-Qaeda’s influence in the region, and for a war we’re involved in that hasn’t even been met with a congressional declaration, that’s not encouraging.

At the heart of the trouble with the Yemen situation is the overwhelming humanitarian need, it should be emphasized. Sadly, and while not to dissuade aid efforts, until real progress can be made to curb open hostilities, treating the victims will only temporarily assuage their wounds and will only help a portion of those impacted. Accordingly, due notice must be paid to the suffering of the Yemeni people, and with that, the United States’ hand in this state of affairs.

Based on principle alone, Yemen deserves more attention, and noting the U.S.’s assistance to the Saudi-Emirati coalition, it’s yet more incumbent upon our nation to accept responsibility. Whether or not the prospects of such recognition are particularly good, however, is another matter entirely.

On the Decline of U.S. Manufacturing (and No, It’s Not All About Automation)

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While automation is widely believed to be the key to manufacturing job losses in the United States, more recent research suggests globalization and practices by competitors like China have made more of a difference than otherwise might have been believed. (Photo Credit: Joshua Schnalzer/Flickr/Creative Commons

Ready for a deep dive into economic trends and theory facing the American manufacturing sector? I get it—the topic may not be an altogether sexy one—but the implications that accompany these trends are important ones, so bear with me for a bit.

Gwynn Guilford, reporting for Quartz, recently penned an excellent analysis of the United States’ effective stagnation when it comes to growth in the manufacturing sector, an eventuality that even trained data-driven economists have misinterpreted by viewing manufacturing more holistically. She begins her piece by talking about Donald Trump decrying globalization as a job killer on the campaign trail, and this being dismissed by economists and other data-driven analysts as rhetoric in favor of automation as the dominant explanation for job loss in the States.

As Guilford tells it, though, Trump was closer to the truth than a lot of experts might otherwise have entertained—though for reasons he likely can’t iterate, so let’s not give the Devil too much of his due.

First, a matter of context. According to Guilford, who cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing employment has declined by more than 25% since 2000, to the tune of some 20 million jobs. At the same time, however, the manufacturing sector’s output has continued to increase despite the job loss, roughly in line with growth in the U.S.’s gross domestic product (GDP). The easy explanation for this is that advances in management, skill, and—you guessed it—technology have made manufacturing processes more efficient, yielding superior output and production when adjusting for inflation.

True as these justifications for industrial improvement may be, though, there is still the matter of the paradox created with respect to rising output and concomitant declining employment in the manufacturing sector. Here’s where the economic theory comes into play. Susan Houseman, economist and specialist in matters of globalization, in conjunction with Federal Reserve economists, looked at detailed statistics regarding calculations of manufacturing output.

As Guilford explains, integral to understanding what Houseman and her colleagues saw is how economists assess year-to-year measurements. Not only do they look at the raw numbers of finished products made from one period to the next minus the costs of production (a principle known as “value added”), but they adjust for changes in price and product quality. The problem with measuring things in this way, meanwhile, is that adjustments based on assumptions of value can be misinterpreted as or otherwise confounded with sales data, making it seem as if the country is selling more goods than it actually is.

As Houseman et al. contend, this is precisely what’s happening with the consensus analysis of the U.S. manufacturing sector, and one relatively small subsector is skewing the observed data: computers. The evidence of this is alarming when controlling for the computing industry in plotting private industry and manufacturing growth over time. Between 1947 and 1977, graphs of statistics recorded by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show growth of manufacturing and private industry largely in step, on a steady incline. From 1977 on, however, taking computers out of the manufacturing equation creates a stark downward departure for the Manufacturing, Less Computers line. As Guilford puts a cap on this, “By 2016, real manufacturing output, sans computers, was lower than it was in 2007.”

In other words, the health of the American manufacturing sector looks to be dangerously overstated, and while automation did, of course, occur here, Guilford points to evidence that globalization and trade may have done more damage than previously considered. In this regard, China, a frequent target of Donald Trump’s as he stumped for votes, indeed plays a central role.

China’s emergence as a major exporter of goods is estimated by one group of economists as costing America over 2 million jobs from 1999 to 2011, helped by competitive advantages in the form of artificially devalued currency and cheaper labor, and exacerbated by the strengthening of the U.S. dollar, which reduced the demand for American exports. But American leadership is not without its culpability herein. As economists Justin Pierce and Peter Schott argue, China’s joining of the World Trade Organization as a member in 2001 negated the ability of the U.S. to retaliate against Chinese currency manipulation and other protectionist policies, a situation Bill Clinton, among others, encouraged as President of these United States.

In addition, going back to the notion of automation as a job killer, there are some logical flaws in the emphasis on this cause being a primary driving force. For one, as Guilford bluntly puts it, robots “have to work somewhere.” Given the statistic that more than 75,000 manufacturing plants in the U.S. closed between 2000 and 2014, for overall manufacturing output to increase, other factors would have to be at play. There’s also the matter of the United States lagging behind other developed nations such as Korea, Singapore, Germany, and Japan in terms of use of robotics. The numbers, as they say, don’t add up.

Thus, if anyone or anything should get a wag of the finger, according to Gwynn Guilford, it’s “two decades of ill-founded policymaking,” the kind that “put diplomacy before industrial development at home, offering the massive American consumer market as a carrot to encourage other countries to open up their economies to multinational investment.” In doing so, we as a nation dismissed the threat of foreign competition and accepted (and continue to accept) the popular narrative that automation was and is the major driver of job extinction.

What’s particularly problematic about this mindset is that it obscures the importance of manufacturing to the U.S. economy and as a provider of skills to American workers. With production facilities closing their doors, there’s less incentive to do the kind of research and development that leads to better, more competitive products. As you might expect, too, the brunt of the costs of manufacturing’s decline outside of the computing subsector have been borne by the middle class, while the lion’s share of the benefits of globalization have been reaped by the so-called urban professional elite and multinational corporations.

In turn, politically and socially speaking, the country has become increasingly unequal and more polarized. All of these elements suddenly seem tailor-made for Trump and his faux populism to swoop in and capture an upset victory like he did in the 2016 election. The man struck a nerve in the heart of blue-collar America. Predictably and unfortunately, though, he hasn’t done much to boost U.S. manufacturing, instead focusing on tariffs and pushing the nation to the brink of a trade war with any number of entrants willing to fight back, and ignoring the currency manipulation angle that validates, in part, his anti-China tirades. Not that this exculpates the Democrats, either, whom Guilford characterizes as possessing “no vision for how to reverse the industrial backslide.”

All of this paints a fairly grim picture of the outlook for the manufacturing sector moving forward, as it does for the country’s susceptibility to divisive rhetoric and strongmen like Trump. To quote Guilford in closing:

US leaders’ longstanding misunderstanding of the manufacturing industry led to the biggest presidential election upset in American history. But they still don’t seem to grasp what’s been lost, or why. It’s easy to dismiss the disappearance of factory jobs as a past misstep—with a “we’re not getting those jobs back” and a sigh. Then again, you can’t know that for sure if you never try.

It’s one thing for political leaders, often derided as out of touch with John and Jane Q. Public, to misunderstand the issues about which they profess to know—assuming they ever understood in the first place. When economic analysts are falling prey to the same faulty reasoning, however, it doesn’t instill a great deal of confidence in those of us less well-versed in such matters. The most inspiring sentiment here is Guilford’s seeming doubt about whether or not the jobs we take for granted are really lost for good, that we don’t know for sure one way or another. Then again, we have to try first, and based on the current state of affairs, that’s no guarantee.


Considerations of the stagnation of American manufacturing accompany this week’s not-so-great news for workers amid an ongoing assault on workers’ rights from the political right. In a 5-4 decision that saw conservatives comprise the majority, the Supreme Court ruled that employers can compel their employees to sign arbitration agreements in which they waive their rights to bring class-action suits against the employer. Justice Neil Gorsuch, while indicating this practice of company management is “debatable,” nonetheless found that federal arbitration law does not conflict with the National Labor Relations Act, a piece of legislation in place since 1935 governing the rights of employers and employees alike, and designed to protect the ability of the latter to collectively bargain and form trade unions.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, meanwhile, speaking in dissent, was unequivocal in her negative assessment of the ruling, calling it “egregiously wrong,” and offering these additional sentiments on the matter:

The court today holds enforceable these arm-twisted, take-it-or-leave-it contracts—including the provisions requiring employees to litigate wages and hours claims only one-by-one. Federal labor law does not countenance such isolation of employees.

As the “Notorious RBG” finds, these agreements are evocative of the so-called “yellow dog” contracts used by employers until being outlawed in 1932 that barred workers from forming or participating in unions as a condition of employment. Now more than 85 years removed from a legislative remedy to such lopsided bargains, to know that we are potentially moving backward on the subject of workers’ rights is frightening.

Ginsburg isn’t the only one painting this decision in such ominously historical terms either. While the Court didn’t specifically address discrimination in the workplace with this ruling, civil rights advocates have expressed their fear it will set a precedent that will allow employers to skirt their responsibility with respect to claims of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Add to this fears that a conservative majority ruling in Janus v. AFSCME could strip unions of their ability to collect “fair share” fees from non-members who nonetheless benefit from union representation, and there is any number of reasons for concern for the fate of American unions and the imbalance of political power fueled and perpetuated by moneyed interests.

As with intervening to attempt to save manufacturing jobs, the impetus should be on lawmakers and the country’s leadership to steer the nation in the right direction on upholding workers’ rights, a point Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized in her dissent. At least as long as Republicans control both Congress and the White House, however, any pushback on efforts to undermine organized labor appears unlikely, especially while establishment Democrats fail to rise more strongly to its defense until it’s time to campaign—and even then there are failings, as the story of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 electoral loss demonstrates. A year-and-a-half after the fact, one is left to wonder what lessons, to be exact, the Dems have learned from their defeats of previous years.

Donald Trump was closer than he probably realized to the truth about China’s role in the United States’ manufacturing woes, and it got him to the White House. Until we as a nation get better at diagnosing this reality and abandoning the “robots took our jobs” narrative, crafting proactive-minded policy to adapt to the challenges of a global market, and ensuring that workers can organize and advocate for better wages and working conditions, we run the risk of similarly unqualified candidates taking advantage of the unrest that is apparent in teachers’ strikes and other walkouts which are happening, have happened, and will continue to happen—not to mention continued efflux of research and development skill, factory closures, and job loss.

On the surface, American manufacturing looks to be growing as it has in past decades. A deeper dive into the numbers, though, tells a more complete story—and one that doesn’t obviously lead to a happy ending. Let’s hope we as a country realize this before it’s too late and we fall too far behind on the world stage.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

Donald Trump: The Art of the (Reckless) Deal

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Gag me with a spoon. (Image Credit: Amazon.com)

With all the political commentary made during the campaign season, even after the fact of the election, certain stories or turns of phrase still stick in one’s mind while unpacking recent events. These may not even be widely publicized news reports or soundbites, just random bits of information and opinion that resonate with the individual. For yours truly, one interview which comes to mind is Snoop Dogg’s waxing philosophical on a number of topics in a sit-down with Rolling Stone. When asked specifically about politics and the subject of Donald Trump, and in particular, his reference to the yet-to-be-elected Trump being a “punk-ass,” Tha Doggfather had this to say:

How could we have someone as reckless as him running our country? I been around for a long time. I seen Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bushes, Clintons. And I never seen a motherf**ker like him.

“Never seen a motherf**ker like him.” About a man who is set to become the next President of the United States. Leave it to the one and one only Snoop D-O-Double-G to put Donald Trump’s win in historical perspective, placing the matter in its deserving context and plainness: the president-elect is as reckless as they come. On some level, I feel Trump and his supporters would approve of this verbiage which eschews political correctness. Of course, they would probably in the same breath deride him as a degenerate weed smoker, with Mr. Trump himself taking the opportunity to demean him in a Tweet-storm, but that’s how it goes these days, apparently. Any criticism must be met with an equal or disproportionately large clapping back at the source of the criticism. Double points IF YOU USE ALL CAPS FOR A PORTION OR THE WHOLE OF YOUR RESPONSE. YOU’RE SHOWING ENTHUSIASM!

The other anecdote from the campaign season which I feel got lost in the shuffle of the media frenzy that was the 2016 presidential race was a Jane Mayer piece in The New Yorker from July which profiled Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of Donald Trump’s 1987 memoir The Art of the Deal. To summarize Mayer’s report briefly, Schwartz helped paint a portrait of Trump as the consummate businessman and deal-maker, and especially in light of Trump’s newfound political prominence, he regrets that decision. In breaking a long-standing silence on his role in the deification of Donald Trump, Tony Schwartz made this cutting admission, among others quoted in the piece:

I put lipstick on a pig. I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is. I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.

As Jane Mayer and her interviewee would have it, there are two big myths The Art of the Deal and Donald Trump’s own tall tales have helped perpetuate. The first is the notion that Trump largely made it on his own, without the help of father Fred. Indeed, the image of Donald J. Trump as the self-made millionaire has been essential to his populist appeal. But it’s an illusory one. Fred Trump was there for his son financially, politically, and even legally when needed to co-sign on business contracts to which Donald was a party. The second is that Donald Trump possesses some sort of keen intuition or business savvy, with the reality being that Trump has led both his business and personal lives with an appetite for destruction, incurring heavy amounts of business debt, getting multiple expensive divorces, and spending money like it was going out of style. As journalist Timothy L. O’Brien, also cited in Mayer’s article, adds to the discussion, Trump’s mythmaking in the form of The Apprentice is a reiteration of these themes, only to a greater extent. From there, where is there to go upward from running a business but to run the whole damn country? To a blowhard and egotist like Donald Trump, it seems as much a logical conclusion as anything.

Reckless. Time and time again, this word encapsulates Donald Trump’s approach to life. Reckless with his business finances. Reckless with his own finances. Reckless with his words. Reckless with purported facts and Tweeted graphics. Hell, the man alluded to the size of his dick during a presidential debate, which, at least for me, was the point when this campaign season officially jumped the shark. Many Americans are struggling, and people are getting killed in unspeakable ways both here and abroad, and here we are talking about Trump’s penis. That kind of low-brow fare is fodder for the likes of Jerry Springer, not for a discussion of the most pressing issues facing the nation and the world today. Bur I guess it generates clicks, so that’s all that matters, right? That’s OK. All that stuff about the Social Security trust fund running out in a matter of years was a downer anyway.

Before the election, there at least was the small amount of solace that Donald Trump’s brazen disregard for others was confined to his business dealings or to political debates. Now that Trump has won the presidency and is meeting with heads of business and heads of state, however, the blast radius of his heedless myopia has multiplied exponentially. I mean, dude’s not even President yet and already he’s pissing people off. On a domestic front, President-Elect Trump recently negotiated a deal to keep Carrier, an HVAC and refrigeration brand under the United Technologies Corporation banner, from relocating some 1,000 jobs to Mexico. Sounds great, right?

In actuality, it’s a terrible bit of negotiating. In a piece for FORTUNE Magazine, commentator Robert Z. Lawrence explains just how bad the Carrier deal is for American manufacturing. First of all, Lawrence outlines how, in no uncertain terms, the actions that led to Carrier/UTC staying in the U.S. were part of unsound policy, and the reasons are several, at that. For one, threatening to “blackball” Carrier for moving jobs to Mexico—even though this is perfectly legal—is a clear example of government overreach on President-Elect Trump’s part. Also, in a potentially more injurious way monetarily, by negotiating a tax break for Carrier/UTC to prevent them from leaving the country, Trump has opened the door for other large companies stationed in the United States to demand similar treatment, or else they will threaten to bail for climes with cheaper labor/yet more favorable tax treatment. In addition, Lawrence points out, if Carrier acts in accordance with advice from Donald Trump and/or his administration, and theoretically faces financial struggles afterward, the company will be wont to seek some sort of assistance from the federal government. Three strikes, you’re out, Mr. Trump.

Lawrence has yet more to say on how dumb Donald Trump’s approach to addressing the expatriation of multinational corporations is, including the sheer illegality of what he has suggested doing with tariffs relative to participation in the World Trade Organization, not to mention the modest gains in employment in the manufacturing center that would be realized in the event he manages to knock all his “deals” and “negotiations” out of the park, but for our purposes, we already have enough to construe that “the Donald’s” agreement with Carrier was ill-advised and reckless. The reactions from prominent critics to the deal second the notion that this bit of negotiation is, as the kids say, not all Gucci. Bernie Sanders, finding a topic right in his wheelhouse—you know, bad trade deals, losing jobs and tax revenue to foreign countries, that sort of thing—is among those decrying Trump’s move and what it may signify for his broader economic policy. Sanders even went as far as to pen an op-ed discussing the implications of the Carrier/UTC deal. From the piece:

President-elect Donald Trump will reportedly announce a deal with United Technologies, the corporation that owns Carrier, that keeps less than 1,000 of the 2,100 jobs in America that were previously scheduled to be transferred to Mexico. Let’s be clear: It is not good enough to save some of these jobs. Trump made a promise that he would save all of these jobs, and we cannot rest until an ironclad contract is signed to ensure that all of these workers are able to continue working in Indiana without having their pay or benefits slashed.

In exchange for allowing United Technologies to continue to offshore more than 1,000 jobs, Trump will reportedly give the company tax and regulatory favors that the corporation has sought. Just a short few months ago, Trump was pledging to force United Technologies to “pay a damn tax.” He was insisting on very steep tariffs for companies like Carrier that left the United States and wanted to sell their foreign-made products back in the United States. Instead of a damn tax, the company will be rewarded with a damn tax cut. Wow! How’s that for standing up to corporate greed? How’s that for punishing corporations that shut down in the United States and move abroad?

In essence, United Technologies took Trump hostage and won. And that should send a shock wave of fear through all workers across the country.

A point well noted amid Bernie Sanders’ commentary is that this is a tax break for a company that is not one of the little guys, and one that is not exactly hurting in terms of business, either. As Sanders cites in his essay, United Technologies made a profit in 2015 of $7.6 billion and has also received more than $500 million from the Import-Export Bank as well as sizable tax benefits. Insert quip about the rich getting richer here. What makes the Carrier deal especially egregious is that it directly flies in the face of Trump’s campaign promise to get tough with corporations who abscond with jobs that could be done in the United States. Granted, on some level, we expect politicians to renege on pledges made during stump speeches and rallies. In Donald Trump’s case, the man has a known proclivity for prevarication, so to many of us, it’s even less surprising. It doesn’t make it any less reckless on Trump’s part, however, and it’s all the worse considering over 60 million people voted for him with hopes of positive change in some way, shape or form. Many more thousands of American manufacturing jobs potentially hang in the balance, and the President owes it to his constituents to do more than make hasty deals that expedite the widening inequality in this country.

Trump has been no less frustrating or even worrisome on a foreign policy/diplomacy front. Recently, according to President-Elect Trump, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen called him to congratulate him on his electoral victory. Just a social call, right? No harm, no foul? Not when the very existence of Taiwan as an autonomous, distinct entity is debated, it isn’t. As the reporting team of Amy B. Wang, Emily Rauhala and William Wan, writing for The Washington Post help communicate, the history and relationship between mainland China and Taiwan is complicated. Once upon a time, in the year 1895, China ceded control of China to Japan, only to regain it some fifty years later when Japan surrendered in World War II. Since that time, China has insisted Taiwan is part of China, much as it has with Tibet. The United States, for its part, hasn’t done anything to challenge this claim, even though it has maintained a working relationship with Taiwan, notably in the area of arms sales, which has ruffled China’s feathers in the past. By and large, however, America has striven to, um, not piss the Chinese off on the subject of Taiwan, and despite its reality as a self-governing, democratic island, since 1979 and as a function of re-opening diplomatic relations with China, we don’t have a formal, in-name relationship with Taiwan. In fact, no American president had even spoken with a Taiwanese president, either in person or over the phone, since that stipulation was enacted over 35 years. That is, of course, until Donald Trump just went ahead and exploded that wall of silence with his big yap.

Details are murky surrounding the circumstances behind this phone call and what its true intent was. As noted, Trump alleges President Tsai called him unsolicited. Taiwan, meanwhile, has averred that the two sides worked together to set up a conversation, and since Trump is a congenital liar, I tend to believe the alternative account. As for the purpose of the call, both Trump’s transition team and the Taiwanese government have explained the heart-to-heart under the premise of some vague sort of discussion of “economic, political and security ties” or “strengthening bilateral relations.” Even that, though, may be cover for what some suggest are Trump’s true intentions: building a hotel in Taiwan. Donald Trump’s seeming reluctance to break all ties with his business operations or to put his holdings in a blind trust, paired with reports that a representative from the Trump Organization visited a possible site for the hotel in September, raise serious doubts about whether his foreign policy is driven by a legitimate desire to benefit the United States as a whole, or merely line his own coffers, even if indirectly. Even putting that potential conflict of interests aside for the moment, though—an admittedly big ask, mind you—Trump’s willingness to engage with Tsai Ing-wen in defiance of China, a major player on the world’s stage and one which regards even slight breaches of tradition as provocation, is just throwing reckless fuel on the reckless fire. Either Donald Trump was ignorant of the U.S.’s long-standing policy with China regarding Taiwan, or he intentionally disregarded it, but whatever the case, it portends poorly for his negotiations with other nations. Even if China is inclined to give him some leeway, we shouldn’t be encouraging Trump as POTUS to dance with the Devil.

Whether it’s picking the likes of Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development when the man has no public policy experience and didn’t even really want the job in the first place, flirting with countries with which we have no business talking and alienating allies and trade partners (“Hey, Pakistan came on to me!”), or shooting from the hip when deciding which corporations get what benefits and which get snubbed and Tweeted about (“Boeing was mean to me! Big mistake!”), Donald Trump’s childish temperament, deficient knowledge of domestic and foreign policy, and overall reckless behavior are sure to negatively impact the nation. What’s more, if not picking dangerously unqualified candidates like Carson, he’s doing the exact opposite of what he claimed he would do. He’s not draining the swamp, but as I’ve heard it said, he’s instead feeding its alligators. He’s not making America great again, but rather making it better only for the wealthiest Americans and the top executives of large multinational companies—and essentially giving the rest of the country the middle finger as he does it. The Donald Trump less than half of America elected is a myth, a liar, and quite frankly, not a good human being. He may have won TIME Magazine‘s coveted Person of the Year award, but only because of his newfound stature that he won dishonestly. In reality, he’s not worth the paper his picture is printed on, and the sooner the American people realize the man synonymous with “The Art of the Deal” isn’t the leader he is made out to be, the sooner we’ll all realize what a shitty deal we got.

President Obama, Stand Up for Standing Rock

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President Obama, you spared two turkeys for Thanksgiving. After a holiday in which many Americans looked past the brutal history which belies the narrative told by white America, don’t look past the people of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. (Image retrieved from stupiddope.com.)

As part of his presidential duties, Barack Obama pardoned, in time for Thanksgiving, the final turkeys of his tenure from the highest political office in the nation. As a lame duck president, if Obama wants more than the sparing of two birds to add to his legacy in his final days as POTUS, he should stand with the people of Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota and their supporters—before it’s too late.

Let’s walk things back a bit, though. What exactly is President Obama’s legacy, and what do we make of all this business in Standing Rock? On the first count, well, it’s complicated. Ask five different people what they think about Barack Obama’s eight years in office, and you’ll likely get five different responses. According to the most recent Gallup polling, at any rate, on approval of the job President Obama is doing, from the period spanning November 14 to November 20, 2016, 56% give the man a thumbs-up. This figure is under the high watermark of 69%, the average set across the three-day period from January 22 to January 24, 2009, when Obama was just settling into his new role as leader of the free world, but significantly better than the 38% nadir he registered numerous times after that 69% zenith, most recently in September of 2014. To put this in historical perspective, Barack Obama’s 32nd-quarter rating is about four percentage points higher than that of U.S. presidents across history. It is roughly equivalent with the approval rating enjoyed by President Ronald Reagan at the same point in his presidency (57%), a few points behind that of Bill Clinton (63%), and, ahem, leaps and bounds ahead of George W. Bush (29%). So, per the vox populi, Pres. Barack Obama is in line with what we’d expect from a person of his stature, and even slightly better.

While public opinion can inform history’s larger judgment of a president’s impact on the country, perhaps it would prove more instructive to view Obama’s two terms through the lens of major events within them. Accordingly, let’s review his seven-plus years and change and see what stands out:

Stimulus package/Economic policy

Even the most hard-hearted Republican critics of Barack Obama as President of the United States would probably tend to acknowledge the guy was handed a pretty rough deal in light of economic happenings at the time. The country was reeling from the global financial crisis known here in the U.S. as the Great Recession, and in a move designed to prevent the American economy from complete collapse, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, which authorized $787 billion in spending to combat the negative effects of the recession. The Obama administration contended that the various measures enacted under ARRA were necessary to avoid an even worse fate for the nation. Of course, this argument seemed all but lost on GOP lawmakers; in an example of the kind of partisan conflict Barack Obama’s initiatives would experience throughout his time in office, ARRA would only make it to his desk to be signed on the strength of Democrats’ votes, with just three Republican senators voting yea as the bill worked its way through Congress. Emergency spending bills, threats of government shutdowns—Jesus, the GOP really likes to play chicken with the U.S. economy, don’t they?

The Obama administration lobbied for a second such “stimulus package” later in the year, but this would fail to pass. By this point, Republican assassination of the legacy of the ARRA was well under way, with the idea of a “stimulus” bill proving wildly unpopular with the public. Still, it is not as if President Obama’s policies didn’t make an impact even beyond the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Speaking of large cash infusions to institutions, Obama presided over a second auto bailout to the tune of $9.3 billion more. Pres. Obama also signed into law a federal minimum wage increase up to $7.25, which is great for the workers it affects but falls well short of the $12 minimum wage Barack Obama himself had sought and which Hillary Clinton had stressed as a part of her economic plan during her campaign.

As for post-recession trends during Obama’s two terms, median income has yet to rebound from its 2007 pre-recession rate, prompting fears those incomes will never return. GDP growth has been positive, but not overwhelming. Short-term interest rates only recently increased after staying near zero for most of the Obama presidency. Finally, unemployment has seen a decline from its 10% peak in 2009, and lately has been hovering around a rate of 5%, but this figure is somewhat misleading owing to things like comparisons between part-time and full-time workers as well as inability to account for those who have given up looking for work. Broadly speaking, one might judge Barack Obama’s presidency, in economic terms, as one which averted disaster, but otherwise has been uneven to minimal in the benefits it has promoted in these key areas.

Other economic policy stances

The political hot potato that it always seems to be, the national debt has also been a topic of considerable discussion during Obama’s tenure as POTUS. While other countries faced austerity measures related to the global financial crisis, U.S. government debt has grown under Barack Obama’s watch, paving the way for conflicts along politically ideological lines concerning whether or not spending should be slashed in key areas. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, or the Simpson-Bowles Commission, was commissioned in 2010 to address ways in which the United States might significantly lower its debt. Numerous individual measures were suggested as part of this report, though the analysis that resulted from the Commission was broadly encapsulated by calls for spending cuts (e.g. cutting into our bloated military spending) and tax increases. Of course, suggesting we spend less on the military and take more from wealthy Americans generally doesn’t sit well with the GOP, so perhaps unsurprisingly, these proposals never received a vote of approval in Congress. Oh, well. The academic exercise was fun, wasn’t it?

Even before Barack Obama took office in 2009, Republican lawmakers were primed to give him hell on matters of the nation’s debt ceiling. When the GOP, buoyed by surging popularity of Tea Party Republican politics, cleaned up in the 2010 mid-term elections, and their voice got that much louder in the House of Representatives, debates over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling and/or effect significant cuts in areas like entitlement programs and military spending grew that much more contentious. Obama, to his credit, tried to negotiate with John Boehner and the other House Republicans on these matters. Predictably, that didn’t work in terms of a “grand bargain.” Instead, we got the Budget Control Act of 2011, which raised the debt ceiling, kicking the proverbial can down the road as per the usual, as well as established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which also didn’t work, and provided for budget sequestration, which would automatically take effect in case Democrats and Republicans couldn’t reach an agreement through the Committee. Which, of course, it did.

Later on in Obama’s presidency, in October 2013, there was a fun little government shutdown, again resulting from an impasse on concerns of a budgetary nature—this time, over whether or not to defund ObamaCare. The end result of that political kerfuffle was a resolution to end the shutdown, fund an omnibus spending bill, and raise the debt ceiling—again. The above conflicts, viewed out of context, can be viewed as a hallmark of a presidency helmed by a divisive leader. In reality, though, it takes two to tango, and since achieving a majority in the House and the Senate, Republicans have been every bit the stubborn obstructionists we might expect from lawmakers deferring to party politics. In other words, for all the griping about Batack Obama’s failure to reach across the political aisle, GOP lawmakers were awfully quick to slap at his hand on the occasions he did eke it out.

Foreign policy

There’s so much material here it’s difficult to know where to begin. We might have to look at some of the highlights within the highlights, so to speak. Here are just some of the areas that helped define Barack Obama’s time as the so-called leader of the free world:

1) Afghanistan and Iraq

Much as President Obama inherited an economic shit-storm with the advent of the Great Recession, the man inherited a veritable quagmire in the Middle East after George W. Bush plunged us headlong into armed conflict in not one, but two, countries. Noting the challenges presented by America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama should be afforded some understanding with respect to the tough decisions he was forced to reckon with as Dubya’s successor. Of course, this is not to absolutely meant to exonerate him either. On one hand, Barack Obama, a vocal critic of the Iraq War during his initial campaign, was instrumental in the substantial drawing-down of troops stationed in Iraq, at least prior to the rise of ISIS.

On the other hand, as advised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, Obama authorized the expansion of American servicemen and servicewomen to a high mark of 100,000 in Afghanistan before signing an agreement to leave major combat operations to Afghan forces. If there’s one major criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the ongoing situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, from my perspective, it is that it has been too eager to spin a narrative of success and close the book on our efforts in these countries when the ever-present threat of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and, within the former, the Taliban, exists and causes unrest. By the same token, this is not to meant to overstate their danger, but only to consider that the way in which we fight wars is changing, and to put a timetable on completion when deep ideological divisions lie behind conflicts on international and national levels almost invites that schedule’s destruction.

2) China/East Asia

China has been a toughie for Barack Obama as President, no lie. While more recently, the emerging power has seen a slowing of its economy, its overall improvement in stature on the world’s stage has meant that President Xi Jinping and Co. have been eager to whip their dongs out and swing them around. In particular, the U.S. and China have shared a rather tentative relationship of late, with periodic spats over issues like arms sales to Taiwan, climate change, cyber-security, handling of North Korea, human rights, and territorial disputes. If nothing else, though, the apparent declining support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—an agreement meant, if nothing else, to assert American economic presence in Asia alongside the People’s Republic—seems to have saved Obama from a potential stain on his legacy.

Speaking of North Korea, by the way, um, it’s still there, and still working on nuclear weaponry. Sweet dreams.

3) Cuba

So, that whole thing about Cuba being on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list is done with. Also, recently, diplomatic relationships have been restored between Cuba and the United States, and economic restrictions have been loosened. Shit, Obama even went to see a baseball game down there! Cuban-American relations, in short, seem to be on the upswing. Then again, if Fidel Castro’s parting words before his recent passing are any indication, the U.S. would be wise to proceed with caution, and perhaps vice-versa. Castro wrote caustically that Cuba does not need any gifts from “the Empire,” and furthermore, that Barack Obama has not tried to understand Cuban politics. While it may seem as if everything is hunky-dory now, seeds of resentment toward America may yet exist in Cuba and elsewhere in lands touched by communism.

4) Drone strikes

Perhaps one of my biggest gripes with Barack Obama’s foreign policy stances over his tenure was that his administration saw an expansion of the drone warfare program set upon by George W. Bush. The predominant criticism with this bit of policy shift is that for all the terrorist figureheads “neutralized” by strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, numerous civilian casualties have resulted, including those of American citizens. A drone strike was even used to intentionally take out Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen and Muslim cleric with ties to al-Qaeda, controversial in its own right for essentially being an extrajudicial killing OK’d by the Commander-in-Chief.

It seems more than vaguely hypocritical for the United States to police the world and portray itself as a white knight of sorts when it goes around bombing other countries, killing innocent people, and apologizing with a note saying “Oops!” We may not be terrorists per se, but indiscriminately flexing our military muscles with little regard for collateral damage is a sin in its own right. And Obama is guilty in his own right, to be sure.

5) Gitmo

The obstruction of Republicans notwithstanding, that President Obama has been unable to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay as intended—a goal he has reaffirmed year after year, at that—has got to feel like a disappointment for both he and human rights advocates. Sure, strides have been made in reducing the number of captives at the naval base there, as well as ending the practices of “enhanced” interrogation techniques and referring to those being held in detention as “enemy combatants,” but that detainees can still be held indefinitely without being charged is gross overreach on the part of the United States government. From where I’m sitting, Gitmo’s legacy is a stain on our national character, and potentially giving Donald Trump and his appointees broad access is deeply troubling.

6) Iran

Republicans tend to get all worked up about where we are in our relationship with Iran, with two main triggers in this regard. The first is America’s resolution with Iran concerning the latter’s agreement to limits on its nuclear program and access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in return for reducing sanctions. To be fair, it doesn’t exactly warm the cockles of one’s heart to have to negotiate with a country that has more or less made “Death to America” a national slogan. Nonetheless, outside the realm of Congress and with no disrespect to Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu, it would seem as if there is high approval for such an accord, and I, for one, feel better about having some sort of understanding in place and approaching the situation with a greater sense of diplomacy than George W. Bush and his hawkish administration did.

The other issue that gets GOP politicians and conservative theorists alike all hot and bothered is a supposed $1.7 billion “ransom payment” (includes interest) to the Iranian government in return for the release of three American prisoners. The timing was suspicious, as I’m sure many on both the left and right can agree, but not merely to minimize this controversy, but I also don’t know what evidence there is that these monies were wired for the express purpose of hostage release. It’s bad optics, yes, but there is the possibility it is just that.

7) Libya

By now, most of America’s fixation on Libya seems to involve the events surrounding the attack on Benghazi. I remain critical of the Department of State’s handling of this situation, as I believe requests for more security and resources at the diplomatic mission were ignored by Hillary Clinton’s department, and suggesting she isn’t culpable because she wasn’t made aware of the deteriorating situation in Libya rings hollow when it can be argued that she should have been more aware, especially when she and others within the Obama administration were instrumental in pushing for Gaddafi’s deposition. While perhaps not the most egregious chapter in the book of Barack Obama’s presidency, America’s involvement in Libya during his two terms also doesn’t do much to allay concerns about our nation’s “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude when it comes to addressing international and national disputes.

8) Osama bin Laden

Oh, yeah. We killed that f**ker. Moving along.

9) Russia

Relations between the United States of America and the Russian Federation seemed to be moving in a positive direction, at least during Obama’s first term. Our president and their president signed a major nuclear arms control agreement. Russia joined the World Trade Organization, and the two countries were doing business again. The U.S. and Russia—Russia and the U.S.—we were like BFFs! And then Vladimir Putin took the reins again in Russia, and that got shot to shit. With actions such as the annexation of Crimea, repeated incursions into the Ukraine, and propping up the deadly regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Putin’s militarism has put his country on a course directly at odds with the “reset” Barack Obama had envisioned for U.S.-Russia relations. Most recently, probable interference of the Russians in American electoral affairs—needless to say, so not cool. Obama has caught a lot of flak for not meeting Putin’s shows of force with the same contentious spirit, but I applaud his administration’s levelheadedness, as too much fuel on the fire could lead to an escalation of any conflict, armed or otherwise. Sometimes, restraint is the best policy. Looking at you, President-Elect Trump.

10) Syria

Speaking of Syria, it’s a mess. Assad, insurgent forces, ISIS, Russia, and the U.S. launching airstrikes—and the proud people of a country with a rich history caught in between. It’s a devastating situation, and no doubt you’ve seen some of the photos of the carnage. In November of last year, Barack Obama announced a plan to resettle some 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States. If you ask me, the number should probably closer to 100,000—conservative Republican rhetoric be damned. Though the civil unrest is a conflict of a military nature, the suffering within Syria is a fundamentally human issue. Pres. Obama did not cause this war. He and Hillary Clinton did not give rise to ISIS. As such, he alone cannot solve the complex problems within the Syrian state. Alongside cooperation with neighboring countries, what we sorely need is compassion for the people affected by the fighting in Syria.

Social policy/domestic initiatives

Again, there’s a lot of ways we could go with topics under this heading, but seeing as we’ve already been through a lot of material, I’ll try to be briefer on this end. The domestic initiative most synonymous with Barack Obama’s presidency is, of course, the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as ObamaCare. There are a lot of ObamaCare haters out there, and in light of this antipathy, even staunch Democrats have found themselves hard-pressed to defend the ACA. For my part, though the initial execution may have been flawed (recall all those early problems with Healthcare.gov), this initiative does put us closer to where we need to be in terms of universal healthcare—which is a right, mind you, or should be. The notion of any sort of mandate, be it required of employers or individuals, it would seem, really sticks in the craw of its detractors, but despite the hooting and hollering about government overreach from the right and railing about the burden on small businesses, having large numbers of uninsured Americans creates its own costs, and potentially larger ones at that down the road. ObamaCare is not perfect, but to label it an outright failure is more than a little misleading.

On other dimensions of domestic policy, Pres. Obama’s initiatives, if not particularly far-reaching, can be once more understood within the context of an obstructionist Congress. Barack Obama signed into law a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but only on the strength of support from Democratic lawmakers. Though the Obama administration saw a record number of deportations, Obama himself has been a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act, and signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy into law—even though he has been fought tooth-and-nail on both issues. Attempts to pass sensible gun law reform have been, in a word, cock-blocked by Republicans’ subservience to the NRA. And anyone thinking Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency would magically fix what ails the nation in terms of racial prejudice has full permission to go screw. As recent political events have brought to the forefront, there is a lot of deep-seated racism present in the United States, the likes of which Jesus Himself couldn’t hope to overcome. To those who would brand Barack Obama as a divider and not a uniter, I must express my doubts about how seriously you were willing to be united in the first place—that is, on terms other than your own.


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Mr. President, you shed tears for the victims of gun violence. Will you do the same for the people of Standing Rock Indian Reservation and the planet? (Photo Credit: AFP)

Full disclosure: I used and thank Wikipedia’s page on Barack Obama’s presidency for serving as a template for my personal opinions on his administration’s policies in light of the challenges he has faced. If you do check that link, you’ll notice I omitted two sections. One is science, technology, and the environment, a lot of which I found to be dry and uninteresting, quite frankly, and since this post is long enough already, I opted to scrap it, though environmental concerns are related to the discussion soon to follow. The other section, meanwhile, is ethics, and it is at this point which I’ll strive to make the connection to Standing Rock. Overall, I feel Barack Obama, who easily outpaces George W. Bush in leadership skills and sound foreign policy navigation (not exactly the most difficult achievement), if I may say so myself, has done a fairly good job at steering the nation along a path of incremental progress, a job made that much more difficult by the obstinacy of the GOP.

This notion of the virtue of incremental progress, however, in itself a limiting factor, and thus, in general terms, is at the same time a major criticism of the Obama occupancy of the White House—that his policies haven’t gone far enough, even noting Republican resistance. Don’t get me wrong—I like Barack Obama. As a person, I think he’s got a great personality, not to mention a beautiful family and a wife and First Lady in Michelle who may be as capable a leader as he, if not more so. Nevertheless, there are points where I disagree with the President, a notion some Democratic Party loyalists treat as tantamount to disrespect or even heresy. On an economic front, as alluded to earlier, I disapprove of Obama’s stubborn adherence to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As a true Bernie Sanders devotee, I also find fault with his administration’s seeming unwillingness to go beyond the provisions of Dodd-Frank, as many would agree is necessary to keep Wall Street in check, including but not limited to reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, not to mention his extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. Within the sphere of social policy, too, for all the reforms made in the intersection of the criminal justice system and drug laws, the war on drugs still rages on, and the DEA is still wont to equate marijuana with a drug like heroin, while substances like alcohol, opioids and tobacco are easily accessible.

Additionally, invoking again matters of ethics, for a president who vowed that lobbyists wouldn’t find a place in his White House and that his administration would be the most transparent in history, Barack Obama has waffled if not deliberately violated these precepts. If we add the revelation of the existence in 2013 by Edward Snowden of the PRISM mass electronic surveillance program as a function of the NSA, the willingness of the Obama administration to cross ethical lines, if not legal and constitutional lines, is all the more unsettling. If we bring contemplations of social and moral responsibility into the mix, meanwhile, while, again, Obama has fared significantly better than his predecessor, as regards the environment, it’s yet a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, Pres. Obama has identified climate change as the biggest threat the nation and world faces, and has set forth legislation on numerous occasions designed to cap carbon emissions and overall reduce the United States’ emissions footprint. On the other hand, Obama has only nixed domestic offshore drilling and other projects like the Keystone XL extension because they weren’t economically viable, not for strict adherence to environmental principles. Do as I say, not as I’d do if the money were better.

Enter the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Some background information, first. Energy Transfer Partners, a Fortune 500 natural gas and propane firm, seeks to construct a pipeline that would run from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota to a point in southern Illinois, going underneath the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and part of Lake Oahe near Standing Rock in the process. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the proposed pipeline would have little to no impact on the surrounding area. This assessment, however, has been judged by outside observers as being rather limited in scope, failing to analyze the situation in terms of a potential area-wide environmental impact, and since being asked to conduct a full-scale review by various related agencies, even the Corps has acknowledged it needs more time to make an adequate assessment on the impact the Dakota Access Pipeline could have.

That’s the good news, the delay. The bad news comes with how little attention the progress of the Dakota Access Pipeline project and the protests of its completion have received until recently, and just how severe the backlash has been against protestors from security guards contracted by those involved with the pipeline project as well as law enforcement siding with the corporate entity. There have been reports of guard dogs and pepper spray used on protestors, as well as concussion grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons in freezing conditions, not to mention the use of the criminal justice system to intimidate and silence journalists. Even if some protestors were being unruly, though, as North Dakota state police have alleged, this use of force appears disproportionate and harsh. What’s more, this treatment would seem to run at odds with how other superficially similar situations have unfolded. Making an allusion to the extended occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by armed militants, the coiner of the term Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza had this to say:

So let me get this correct. If you’re white, you can occupy federal property … and get found not guilty. No teargas, no tanks, no rubber bullets … If you’re indigenous and fighting to protect our earth, and the water we depend on to survive, you get tear gassed, media blackouts, tanks and all that.

The disparity seems pretty telling. In America, the sanctity of Indian lands and water sources evidently pales in comparison to the whims of the fossil fuel industry and white privilege. If you’re pumping vast sums of oil or you’re Caucasian and packing heat in vague protest of government overreach, you stand to fare better than a Dakota Access Pipeline protestor or, say, a black person stopped by the cops for a minor traffic violation.

Thankfully, in light of the apparent brutality shown toward these protestors, along with the sheer number of people who have stood with Standing Rock, not to mention several entertainers and other celebrities who have drawn attention to the plight of the reservation’s Sioux citizens and others who have suffered for the cause (for Christ’s sake, they arrested Shailene Woodley, of all people! Shailene Woodley!), average Joes like you and me are taking notice. One voice above all, though, would carry considerably more weight, and since I spent some 3,000 words talking about him just now, I think you know to whom I’m alluding. Barack Obama has been notably silent on matters of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, as were Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton once it became, for all intents and purposes, a heads-up contest for the presidency.

It’s not like his involvement hasn’t been sought, either. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader and voice for the Great Sioux Nation, has pleaded with Pres. Obama to keep his word with recognition of treaties with native peoples and to act when they are violated. Bernie Sanders has spoken at a protest in front of the White House and personally appealed to the President to act against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and other senators have urged him and his administration to do a more thorough environmental assessment of the project’s impact, as well as consider consulting more directly and openly with tribal representatives. Obama himself has even acknowledged Standing Rock Reservation and the associated protests by name on more than occasion.

Acknowledgment of the problem helps, and I encourage those of you who support resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline to use the hashtag #NoDAPL in your social media posts and dialogs. But we need action—not just from people like you and I—but from our leaders, those with the most direct path and power to affect change. And Barack Obama is at the top of the list. As noted, Obama and Co. has killed offshore drilling projects and the Keystone XL extension—though not necessarily for the purported altruistic reasons. Going back to his legacy, though, if ever there were a time to stand for something on principle, it would be now, and standing with the people of Standing Rock and the future of the planet over the Dakota Access Pipeline and the fossil fuel industry. President Obama, if I may address you directly, sir—you are a lame duck president. Your political party just had its ass handed to it in the election, despite the results of the popular vote for the president, in part because people are fed up with politics as usual and the incremental progress paradigm of yesteryear. And while party loyalists and more moderate liberals may support you no matter what, those of us disenfranchised with the status quo are asking for more, and to boot, those on the extreme right are intent on destroying the best points of your legacy.

Which is why, Mr. President, now is the time to act. Stand with Standing Rock, because Donald Trump almost certainly won’t. Re-write the narrative. Leave one final meritorious page in the storybook of your presidency. I, concerned citizens around the world, and the planet itself will thank and remember you for it.