Q: What kind of company views the very existence of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign as an “existential threat?”
A: Facebook, and the doom-and-gloom terms in which it frames this discussion tell you all you need to know about whose side it’s on.
What’s Mark Zuckerberg and Co.’s bugaboo about the progressive Democrat’s candidacy? Senator Warren doesn’t seem like the most physically imposing character. Could one woman really represent that much of a danger to a corporation worth billions of dollars?
Well, if she becomes President of the United States, perhaps. As a Democratic senator from the state of Massachusetts, Warren has built a profile championing corporate accountability and emphasizing standing up for the rights of end users of companies’ goods and services. Despite Joe Biden’s attempt to take credit for it in the most recent Democratic presidential debate, her signature achievement heretofore is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a creation explicitly and singularly devoted to safeguarding average Americans in their solicitation of financial services.
On a related note, Warren has been a vocal critic of Wells Fargo and its executive leadership, memorably grilling then-CEO John Stumpf in 2016 during a Senate Banking Committee hearing about the banking giant’s underhanded business practices and later advocating for the institution to remain under a growth cap imposed by the Fed until it can evidence a willingness to comply with standards of equitable behavior. Seeing as Wells Fargo has seen a revolving door at the top since then and still languishes under an asset restriction, it appears her concerns are more than warranted.
Broadly speaking then, Elizabeth Warren represents a desire to more directly regulate corporate America, including the tech sector, distinguishing herself from rival Bernie Sanders as an adherent of capitalism rather than a self-described democratic socialist. For Facebook, meanwhile, an organization predicated on selling and manipulating user data which might have and should have faced stronger repercussions for the breadth of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, this does not compute.
Understandably, monoliths like Amazon, Facebook, and Google don’t wish to have their size or power circumscribed. The same applies to the big banks, who have met likewise with Sen. Sanders’s ire and calls for separation of their traditional banking elements and more speculative financial services. How Facebook is going about trying to resist demands for greater accountability, however, deserves every bit of admonishment and scrutiny.
Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School and former adviser to both Facebook and the Obama administration, is one of the growing lot who believes it’s time for Facebook to be more strictly regulated. Ghosh’s sentiments come on the heels of an announcement by the social media titan that it won’t censor or even fact-check politicians despite the notion these ads may contain false or misleading claims.
To be fair, actors across the political spectrum are prone to false or misleading content in their political advertisements; Sen. Warren’s campaign, for a bit of shock value, recently led its own Facebook ad with the notion that Zuckerberg and Facebook had endorsed Donald Trump for re-election before admitting within the same space that that wasn’t literally true. (In response, the Facebook Newsroom Twitter account sent a rebuke of sorts referencing the ad, which is vaguely astonishing in itself.) Nonetheless, when a policy shift clearly benefits lying liars who lie such as Trump, such a move gives pause.
Let’s get one thing straight: Donald Trump is not a smart man, but he ain’t no dummy either. This is to say that he knows how to take advantage of an institution which helps his bottom line, and his campaign has exploited Facebook’s refusal to remove disingenuous political content with heavy investment in advertising through this medium as well as Google. While Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s alleged malfeasance have been a frequent target of Trump’s scorn—even though there is no evidence to suggest the Bidens have done anything improper and, ahem, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones—the falsehoods and rules violations have been widespread and numerous. In a way, this spending is a perfect microcosm of a presidency marked by its own flagrant falsehoods and rules violations.
For his part, Zuckerberg has sought to defend Facebook’s new open-door political advertising policy on free speech grounds, weirdly invoking the likes of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.—what?—in making his case across media outlets and envisioning his company as one which charitably allows for freedom of expression. Much as you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater or yell “Bomb!” on a airplane with impunity, though, if you’re a platform with the influence and reach of Facebook, you can’t let other people and entities with influence and reach wantonly peddle their lies—or at least you shouldn’t be able to. At the very least, if you’re going to enforce the rules (or not enforce them), you should do so without apparent political prejudice.
Ay, here’s the rub: for all the accusations of a liberal bias on platforms like Facebook, the company’s actions and its very structure suggest a complicity with conservatism and conservative figures/outlets. Over the past few weeks, Judd Legum has practically made Facebook’s dalliances with right-wing favoritism the raison d’être of his newsletter Popular Information. Among the items Legum has cataloged:
Zuckerberg meeting with Tucker Carlson and other conservative commentators and journalists to discuss matters of free speech and partnership, and Facebook naming the Daily Caller as a fact-checking partner despite a history of inaccuracies (to put it mildly)
Facebook stacking its D.C. office top leadership with veterans of Republican politics
Zuckerberg falsely claiming Facebook was created in response to and as a means to facilitate conversation about the Iraq War and other conflicts
Facebook permitting coordinated inauthentic behavior by the Daily Wire, originally Ben Shapiro’s baby, while acting to outlaw the same practices from progressive sources
Facebook failing to override its automated controls to flag and ban content for Black Lives Matter groups, LGBTQ activists, left-leaning small publications, and others forums which may be critical of conservative views
All this has made for a climate at Facebook hinting at a “frightening new world for political communication,” as Ghosh phrases it. He writes:
It is now the case that leading politicians can openly spread political lies without repercussion. Indeed, the Trump campaign was already spreading other falsehoods through online advertising immediately before Facebook made its announcement — and as one might predict, most of those advertisements have not been removed from the platform.
Should our politicians fail to reform regulations for internet platforms and digital advertising, our political future will be at risk. The 2016 election revealed the tremendous harm to the American democratic process that can result from coordinated misinformation campaigns; 2020 will be far worse if we do nothing to contain the capacity for politicians to lie on social media.
Could the Trump presidential campaign engage in the same kind of chicanery it did in 2016 and still lose in 2020? Sure. In fact, if the results of that election were based solely on the popular vote, Trump never would’ve been elected. Still, Facebook is playing a dangerous game, one which invites great risk to the American political process without much risk to its own survival and which allies the company with disreputable (outside of conservative circles anyway) people like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson. It is deliberately trying to sway the election to serve the desires of executive leadership, whether it legitimately believes the kind of rhetoric from publications like the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire or not.
In doing so, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are making it clear they are acting only in their own selfish interests. That doesn’t sound like something either Frederick Douglass or MLK would’ve wanted.
When we talk about Facebook’s sense of responsibility regarding how it handles user data and the veracity of claims in advertising that appear on the site, opinions may vary with respect to how culpable we truly believe Mark Zuckerberg et al. to be. If we were to take, say, a Friedman-esque examination of things, we might aver that if Facebook is financially responsible to its shareholders and isn’t breaking the law outright, deliberations about corporate social responsibility are much ado about nothing. In other words, while we might find Facebook’s actions objectionable, as far as leadership may be concerned, they are doing what’s best for the business. At heart, that is priority one.
In this day and age, however, such a perspective is a minority opinion. Personal and organizational accountability matter, even if not everyone agrees on how we can enforce adherence to a certain standard of conduct. Fines against a company may look like an appropriate punishment, but not only might these sums function as a mere drop in the proverbial bucket for corporations like Facebook, they don’t get at the personnel and the faulty leadership structures to blame for such lapses or intentional misdeeds.
What’s more, assigning guilt to an entity without the capacity for feeling guilty (i.e. a corporation is not a person) arguably is of limited utility and may only serve to ensnare lower-level accomplices or negatively impact workers on the lower links of the food chain. Much in the way #MeToo can be scrutinized for how much change it has effected and how durable its assignment of repercussions, there is room to wonder how punitive these measures truly are for major players in the U.S. economy, especially within the tech sector. Both in terms of applicable statutes and defined ethical frameworks, we seem to be lagging behind Silicon Valley’s attempts to define itself as an adjudicator of moral standards.
So, what’s the answer? Owing to the complexity of the question re individual vs. company-wide responsibility, the potential solutions are manifold, but some part of what actions should be taken would seem to involve government intervention. As noted, Dipayan Ghosh, for one, believes it’s time to regulate. From the closing of his piece:
If Facebook cannot take appropriate action and remove paid political lies from its platform, the only answer must be earnest regulation of the company — regulation that forces Facebook to be transparent about the nature of political ads and prevents it from propagating political falsehoods, even if they are enthusiastically distributed by President Trump.
Our nation has always aspired to place the interests of our democratic purpose over the interests of markets. Silicon Valley should be no exception.
Going back to Elizabeth Warren, supposed existential threat that she is, she advocates going a step further and breaking up monopolistic tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, even going as far as to call for the undoing of certain mergers such as Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and Facebook’s ownership of Instagram. Zuckerberg, in the leaked audio from a Facebook employee meeting that produced his quote about Warren in the first place, acknowledges the likelihood of a lawsuit to combat such a move, in the same breath expressing his confidence that the company would be successful in an eventual legal challenge. Are Warren’s plans unrealistic? Is Zuckerberg overconfident in this instance? By now, we’re used to big businesses winning, but the courts, interpreting existing antitrust law, may yet favor would-be regulators.
To say the least therefore, the fight over Facebook’s open-door political advertising policy appears far from over. In the meantime, and barring a course change like that of Twitter’s to ban all political ads (personally, I don’t love the idea the company is just throwing up its hands and waiving its potential to be a model actor, but it’s better than doing nothing), what you can be sure of is that, Facebook, a company which has never meaningfully apologized for the large-scale breach of trust exposed by the Cambridge Analytica bombshell, is not your friend. You may like being able to connect with family and friends and share photos and do all the things the social media platform is capable of doing. But executive leadership is neither truly interested in your privacy nor the sanctity of the First Amendment, and if you’re using the service, you’re implicitly giving your assent to their disregard of both. Whether that’s a deal-breaker is up to you.
Wells Fargo not long ago released a commercial titled “Earning Back Your Trust” that starts with a man on horseback riding in slow motion. The voiceover begins, “We know the value of trust. We were built on it.” The narrator then precedes to burnish the company’s credentials by talking about its history of transporting gold from the West, and that it built on the trust it engendered until it, well, lost its way.
Now, however, Wells Fargo is completely re-committed to its customers, and devoted to “fixing what went wrong.” It’s ending product sales goals for branch bankers. It’s holding itself accountable. “It’s a new day for Wells Fargo,” explains the narrator. “But it’s a lot like our first day.” Meanwhile, The Black Keys’ “Howlin’ for You” plays over the slickly-produced minute-long spot.
Ahem, pardon me if I seem unconvinced. Not only is the song choice a curious one—to me, it seems more befitting of a Budweiser commercial with some ruggedly handsome guy chatting up an equally telegenic twenty-something in a bar—but the ad’s tone also seems off. That is, it seems less of contrition, and more of self-congratulation, as if the company’s storied history more than makes up for any momentary ethical lapses.
But, oh, what an ethical lapse it was. Wells Fargo’s promotion of an aggressive sales-oriented culture was highlighted amid a yet-ongoing scandal involving fraudulent sales to unsuspecting customers, one that saw over 5,000 employees fired, the resignation/retirement of CEO John Stumpf, and over $100 million in fines assessed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other agencies.
Moreover, if recent events are any indication, the banking giant hasn’t learned its lesson when it comes to responsible selling practices. Reportedly, more than 550,000 Wells Fargo customers are believed to have been pressured into buying car insurance they didn’t need last year, 20,000 of whom are believed by the company to have defaulted on their car loans and had their vehicles repossessed as a function of the additional costs. This latest turn in Wells Fargo’s saga had the company potentially on the hook for an additional $1 billion in fines as of the time of this CNN report by Donna Borak and Danielle Bronner-Wiener. Noting the earlier allusion to the bar scene in reference to the “Earning Back Your Trust” commercial’s soundtrack, should we, um, just this put this on the company’s tab?
Two things are particularly striking about Wells Fargo’s ad. The first is that the company professes to be primarily interested in the consumer’s satisfaction, and seems content to hold itself accountable, but asking consumers to trust it to do so when it has violated this trust on a large scale is absurd. It’s like asking the fox to watch the proverbial henhouse, and it’s all but a slap in the face to those who were done financial harm or otherwise were put at risk by Wells Fargo’s sanctioning of a manipulative, underhanded sales culture. It’s why there is a Federal Reserve cap in place on the bank’s growth. Wells Fargo hasn’t proven it can hold itself accountable yet, so why should we take them at their word now?
The second is what’s not in the ad: anything resembling the phrase “we’re sorry.” By the end of the ad, Wells Fargo is pivoting to the future. It’s a new day. Cue images of a horse-drawn carriage surging ahead. Another slap in the face. We haven’t even begun to have the kind of conversation we should be having about your company’s malfeasance, but you’re ready to move on with bluesy rock anthems and images designed to sell even more of your products? Clearly, you don’t get it, and that comments are disabled for the YouTube version of this spot only further convey your tone-deafness. At the very least, you should want to hear what the average consumer thinks about your brand to know how far you need to go to repair your image. Evidently, you don’t want to know. You just want those earnings to hold.
Facebook, facing its own scandal involving the breach of the public’s privacy and trust, issued its commercial “Here Together.” The idea is the same. Once again, it’s about a minute in length, and is designed to remind you about what you loved about the company in the first place—to make friends, connect, and feel “a little less alone” (and maybe, er, stalk that cutie you met in your section of Expository Writing)—briefly acknowledge problems with clickbait, data misuse, fake news, and spam, swear the people running the company will do better, and pivot to the future. A future in which you presumably will continue to use Facebook, invest in it financially, and casually ignore that you have little to no idea about how it uses or sells your information. Again, no mention of being sorry. This whole breach of faith was just a hiccup, a bump in the road. And once again, comments are disabled. Facebook, you get a Dislike from me.
These responses to public outcries from Wells Fargo and Facebook are examples of the non-apology apology, an exercise in linguistics that offers the appearance of sympathy without any underlying genuine remorse, and perhaps even masking irritation at having to acknowledge the other party’s concerns. Both companies seem to indicate “mistakes were made,” but using the passive voice, so as not to implicate anyone specific. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we? Besides, isn’t the Wells Fargo mobile app great? Aren’t you excited that Facebook is planning to create a dating service? GET EXCITED, PEOPLE!
By this token, there is no real admission of guilt among the higher-ups at these companies. Any sense of regret, therefore, is in relation to getting caught, not with respect to betraying the trust of its users. What’s more, their sense of indignation likely reflects an understanding of their prominence. Wells Fargo is one of those financial institutions that easily falls under the heading “too big to fail.” Facebook is one of the preeminent social media apps/sites on the Internet and mobile devices, surpassed only by Google and YouTube in terms of popularity.
If the people scrutinizing their decision-making are lucky enough to fully comprehend what these businesses do—with Facebook, in particular, observers argued that senators charged with questioning CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not—there’s still the matter of how to truly hold executives accountable for failures within their organizations. John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo when news of the scandal facing his company broke, retired and walked away with $134 million. And that’s without a golden parachute! His payout could’ve been that much higher had he been fired and given a severance package!
What’s upsetting about all of this is that Facebook and Wells Fargo, while particularly large and notable examples of it, are not the only perpetrators of public relations disingenuousness, a condition that transcends the corporate realm. Politicians and other public figures, for instance, are renowned for their proficiency with the non-apology apology. How many times have we heard the phrase “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by my remarks, but…”?
Implicit in this kind of statement is the notion that the problem may be on the part of the intended audience and not the accused offender, i.e. “you’re being too sensitive” or “you’re upset for some other reason.” You’re right, Mr. Senator, sir. Upon further inspection, I’m the asshole. Sorry for insinuating that the onus should be on the person making public comments in the first place and wasting your time.
If not making some half-hearted attempt to express regret for their actions and/or sympathy for victims and their families, public figures can claim to be transparent while throwing out false or otherwise misleading information. David Fleshler, reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, outlined in a recent piece how Broward County Public Schools, the school district under whose purview Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School falls, has repeatedly insisted that Nikolas Cruz, the shooter behind this tragedy, was never involved with what is known as the PROMISE program—but that this information is patently false.
Even if the PROMISE program, designed to keep at-risk youths from traveling along the school-to-prison pipeline, is somewhat of a red herring being pointed to largely by opponents of gun control, that the school district would knowingly obfuscate this element of Cruz’s history sends the wrong message about the administration’s reliability as a source of information for concerned family members and members of the Parkland community.
Other elements of the district’s interactions with the public of late have been similarly disturbing in their lack of transparency. Superintendent Robert Runcie has claimed that all of Cruz’s school records have been passed along to authorities, but a Broward County detective at a school safety meeting contradicted this assertion. The district has also refused to release any documentation related to these records, citing exemptions under Florida state law that do not apply to school boards, and understated how long Nikolas Cruz had been a student at Stoneman Douglas prior to his expulsion.
Runcie has additionally blocked his critics on social media and has dismissed reports that disagreed with internal accounts as “fake news.” These responses to public inquiries smack of a school district administration that is more concerned with its image than of allaying the doubts of interested parties, and even if its aims are more meritorious, its opacity creates its own set of problems.
Certainly, in financial/economic terms and in terms of the geographical spread of their influence, Wells Fargo’s and Facebook’s lack of transparency are more significant than that of Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. We’re talking millions of users/customers and potentially billions of dollars. That not withstanding, the handling of relevant information by the powers-that-be governing the latter is significant in its own right, owing to a similar perceived lack of empathy and trustworthiness at a place and time where gun violence cost 17 lives—on which you can’t put a price—and when the push for meaningful change on gun policy is so strong.
To be sure, the situation facing the school district is a difficult one. Robert Runcie and others don’t want the point about the need for gun control to get lost in the demand to know details about Nikolas Cruz’s life. To this end, that Cruz was able to buy a weapon legally is not to be diminished. At the same time, offering conflicting reports to families and the media, and restricting the flow of information altogether, exposes the district to all kinds of speculation about its culpability.
David Fleshler notes how the PROMISE program is “controversial” in that its critics argue that the program is too lenient with students, that the system can be “gamed” so that youths can commit offenses so as long as they don’t violate its principles and can time it to earn a clean slate the following year, and that it creates an unsafe environment for the other students in the classroom. Add to this the idea the school district did a poor job of implementing this program and/or tracking Cruz’s interaction with it (Cruz was referred to the program but never completed it), and the narrative of the shooting being primarily fueled by Runcie and Co.’s incompetence as well as the school’s preoccupation with its image becomes that much more compelling—fairly or unfairly.
Superintendent Runcie’s public comments haven’t done much to assuage these concerns either. In a version of the non-apology apology, when asked about why the school district had to backtrack on the assertion that Cruz was never a part of PROMISE, Runcie appeared to accept responsibility (“I’ll take the blame for that”), only to say that he was “conveying what information [he] had received from staff internally, and that’s where we were at that moment in time.” So, wait, it’s the staff’s fault?
As for why he would release incomplete research into Cruz’s history, Runcie replied that he couldn’t tell the media and the public to “wait ’til June when we get our complete investigation done, because there’s a level of impatience out there.” So, wait, it’s the fault of the media and the public for being impatient? Sorry all those kids inconveniently got shot and made you have to do your job, Mr. Runcie.
At the end of the day, the failure of Broward County Public Schools to respond adequately to requests for more information, and to acknowledge more plainly that it failed Nikolas Cruz and his victims, may be, as it is with Facebook and Wells Fargo, about numbers more than people. The PROMISE program, for its good intentions, can have the effect of discouraging communication between schools, law enforcement, and public health agencies, such that touted statistics on lower incarceration rates belie the real danger communities still face of children like Cruz falling through the cracks, so to speak.
And then, of course, there’s the matter of funding. Supt. Runcie has been very vocal about the lack of funding for his school district, the sixth-largest in the nation, as a subset of Florida’s already-low funding compared to the national average (according to Runcie, the Sunshine State ranks 44th nationally in this regard), and recently, the Broward County school board approved a proposal for a homeowner tax increase designed to generate another $93 million to this cause to be voted on later this year.
As legitimate as these needs may be, though, it’s admittedly a tough sell for voting taxpayers when the district’s administration appears less than forthcoming and there are serious questions about how key programs at its schools are being implemented. Plus, from everything I’ve read, there’s no mention at being “sorry” about all the misdirection—not that you’d expect different at this point.
When it comes down to brass tacks, if you’re dealing with any of the aforementioned parties, you’re submitting to some sort of a trade-off. With Wells Fargo, you’re getting the convenience and relative safety (at least compared to smaller financial institutions) of a big bank. You’re also subjecting yourself to the risk that one of more its employees will try to sell you something you don’t need—perhaps without your knowledge, no less. With Facebook, you’re getting the ability to connect with people, share content, and even market a business. You’re also likely giving the social media platform wide latitude to share your information with third parties and to target you based on your identifying characteristics.
As for Broward County Public Schools, reportedly, some of its high schools rank among the best in the nation, including two in the top 500 (Pompano Beach H.S. and Cypress Bay H.S.) and six in the top 1,000 (such as Stoneman Douglas). Whether they are among the safest, however, is obviously a point of contention, and two parents of students slain in the shooting, Lori Alhadeff and Ryan Petty, are running for school board seats in part because of their dissatisfaction with the school district’s perceived lack of accountability, safety, and transparency.
While certainly, criticism of Supt. Robert Runcie and of the PROMISE program on a national front has been particularly strong from conservative publications, Alhadeff is a registered Democrat, and Petty is a Republican. There is room for concern on both sides of the political aisle, especially for those close to the victims of tragedies like the one in Parkland, Florida. Not that it should be welcomed, but death can affect one’s perspective on matters such as these.
Then again, if we’re viewing things in a simplistic and pragmatic manner, what doesn’t possess some form of trade-off? Besides, even if their public responses are lacking, the reactions of entities like Facebook and Wells Fargo are still better than that of, say, lawmakers who regularly avoid their constituents or otherwise confront them in a less-than-conciliatory manner.
As with the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, these billboards are a reaction to an act of brutality involving a child (in Florida’s case, more than one child) and the subsequent perceived indifference or faulty prioritizing from those figures sworn to protecting and serving the most vulnerable people under their jurisdiction. Even if you don’t agree with Avaaz’s methods, the allusion seems all too appropriate.
In short, yes, lack of accountability and transparency in public companies and governmental organizations is not a novel concept. Following a near-catastrophic financial crisis brought on by reckless behavior by the very people who were supposed to help safeguard against this eventuality, however, and in an era in which Americans, fed up with politics as usual, are rejecting “traditional” norms alongside a president who flouts accountability and transparency as a raison d’être, bad behavior yet matters.
Banks that fund pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline at the expense of the environment and Native American land now increasingly run the risk of seeing customers take their money elsewhere. Social media companies that fail to protect their users and their users’ information risk people abandoning their service. Politicians who ignore their constituents invite primary challenges from activism-minded candidates. As prominent as some of these icons of their respective fields are, this is not to say they can’t experience palpable losses.
Mark Harmon’s character Leroy Jethro Gibbs on the show NCIS memorably is quoted as saying, “Never say you’re sorry. It’s a sign of weakness.” Not only does Gibbs break this rule at several points during the series, though, but his numerous failed marriages suggest a pattern of toxic masculinity to which the viewer should not necessarily ascribe. For organizations like Wells Fargo and Facebook, and even down to more regional entities like Broward County Public Schools, the non-apology apology as a means of saving face rings hollow. Do you want to earn back our trust or preach togetherness? Ditch the commercials and interviews, say you’re sorry, and do what you claim you’re going to do. At the end of the day, it’s not a hard concept.
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2017 looks poised to finish on a high note, at least economically speaking. The stock market in the United States is near a record high, likely buoyed by the GOP’s corporation-friendly tax cut that President Donald Trump signed into law. Reportedly, the holiday season saw an increase of 5% in sales, an increase of 3.7% from the same span in 2016. Winning, winning, winning. Aren’t you tired of winning so much, fellow Americans? Aren’t you glad Pres. Trump is making America great again? Never mind the notion that he may not have as much to do with the economy as he would lead you to believe. Also, maybe we shouldn’t mention that, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research in London, England, China and India’s economies will surpass that of the U.S.’s by 2030. In other long-term news, meanwhile, productivity growth within America’s economy remains low, income inequality remains startlingly high, the federal debt continues to skyrocket, and the nation is gripped by an opioid dependency epidemic.
So, glass half empty or glass half full? How do you see these United States shaping up over the next few years and into the future? It likely depends on which side of the political or socioeconomic fence you live—and whether or not you stand to personally benefit from the policies the Trump administration and a Republican-led Congress aim to advance. Looking just at the GOP tax cuts, opponents of this policy shift have assailed it as a present for the super-wealthy and industry leaders at the expense of average Americans, and as a greasing of the slippery slope toward the erosion of Social Security, Medicare, and other social safety net programs. In other words, the advantages of this agenda would tend to be appreciated by the few rather than the many, and perhaps it is no wonder Trump’s approval ratings are languishing south of 40%, a historical low at this point in the presidency.
Perhaps it’s instructive to see where we’ve been to help gauge where we may be going in 2018, in 2020, and beyond. Let’s take a look back at some of the topics covered in 2017 on United States of Joe. Warning: we may have a bit more to say regarding our orange leader. If you have any small children in the room, you may want to move them to a safe location—especially if they happen to frequent beauty pageants. I hear El Presidente and his buddies like ’em young, and like to invade dressing rooms of contestants while they’re potentially less-than-fully clothed. Without further ado, let’s do the…
US of J 2017 Review: This Time, It’s Personal—Because Our President Takes Everything Personally
The Biggest Inauguration in U.S. History—Kinda, Sorta
Hey—did you realize Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election? No? Let Trump himself tell you about it! In fact, let him tell you about how he won going away every time something goes wrong or the press challenges him on the quality of his performance as President. You know, even though he didn’t win going away—dude didn’t even win the popular vote. Of course, Trump being the stupid baby that he is, he would challenge the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton’s supremacy in the popular vote, a harbinger of a disturbing trend that continues to play out with the Tweeter-in-Chief. Hillary didn’t win the popular vote—it was massive fraud involving undocumented immigrants that illegitimately got her that small victory. There’s absolutely no credible evidence of this, mind you, and the bullshit voter fraud task force the White House commissioned hasn’t turned up anything either. Trump’s Inauguration crowds were bigger than Barack Obama’s. Don’t believe the visual evidence? That’s OK—Trump, Sean Spicer and Co. were simply offering “alternative facts.” Don’t care for CNN’s brand of reporting? No problem—it’s “fake news.” After all, the media isn’t to be trusted in the first place—it’s the enemy of the people. I’m sure you felt that deep down anyhow, though.
Donald Trump’s assault on the truth and on verifiable fact is unmistakable, and his attacks on the press, including his fetishistic obsession with CNN, are overstated. That said, it’s not as if American news media is blameless in this regard either. Even before Trump was elected President, the mainstream media was an unabashed enabler of his antics. With Buzzfeed’s release of the “Pee-Pee Papers,” a salacious and unauthenticated account of Russian prostitutes performing sex acts at Trump’s behest supposedly based on credible intelligence, and CNN retracting a story on a supposed connection between Anthony Scaramucci, whose tenure as White House Communications Director was remarkably short-lived, and Trump’s Russian ties, Trump suddenly appears more credible. In the push for ratings and clicks in an turbulent era for journalism, the rush of media outlets to meet the demand of consumers for up-to-date information is understandable, but this does not excuse sloppy, irresponsible reporting. For the sake of the institution as a whole, the U.S. news media must balance the need to generate revenue with the importance of upholding standards of journalistic integrity, and must stand together when Trump et al. would seek to undermine one among their ranks—or risk a more precipitous downfall.
Gorsuch: Silver Fox and Supreme Court Justice
One of the big concerns following the death of Antonin Scalia and prompting voters to think hard about voting strategically between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the idea the next President would get to nominate Scalia’s successor. We would be remiss if we did not mention that Barack Obama, well in advance of his departure from the White House, had already tapped Merrick Garland, a fine candidate to fill Scalia’s void. Mitch McConnell a.k.a. Turtle McTurtleface and the other Republicans in the Senate, meanwhile, would not even entertain Obama’s choice, prompting their constituents to protest outside of their offices and chant “Do your job!” In other words, it was really a dick move on the GOP’s part, and a gamble that the party would win the 2016 presidential election so they could install Antonin Scalia 2.0. Trump’s upset electoral victory thus paved the way for Neil Gorsuch to ascend to the highest court in the United States.
Gorsuch, previously a U.S. Circuit Court Judge with a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, is eminently qualified in his own right. This didn’t seem to be a point of contention between leaders of the two parties. Still, coming off a situation in which a perfectly good candidate in Garland was blocked as a function of mere partisanship, it brought an added measure of scrutiny and tension to confirmation proceedings. The Democrats filibustered to prevent cloture and delay a confirmation vote. The Republicans countered by invoking the so-called “nuclear option,” effectively changing Senate rules whereby they could break the filibuster with a simple majority. By a 54-45 vote, Neil Gorsuch was confirmed as the latest Supreme Court Justice. The whole process ultimately revealed few interesting tidbits about Gorsuch, and more so demonstrated the ugliness of political brinksmanship that has become a hallmark of Congress in this day and age. And we wonder why average Americans are not more politically engaged.
The Trump Administration vs. the World
As a function of “making America great again,” Donald Trump apparently believes strongly in defense spending and letting the world know the United States is #1. After alternatively touting his desire to bring the country along a more isolationist track and vowing to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” on the campaign trail, Trump, well, sort of did both. In terms of shows of force, his administration was responsible for dropping the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan, as well as approving the launch of dozens of missiles into Syria, supposedly as retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of toxic gas on its own people. The latter, in particular, got the dander of his white nationalist supporters up, though as far as most kinder, gentler souls are concerned, the disappointment of a bunch of ethnocentric xenophobes is not all that much of a loss. Less talked-about, but perhaps no less significant, were other less successful operations across international lines. First of all, not long after Trump took office, there was a botched raid in Yemen that saw Navy SEAL Ryan Owens killed, and to date, little information has been offered on the attack that led to his death and by all appearances was ill-advised. And there was the massacre at a mosque in Syria outside Aleppo. According to U.S. officials, numerous al-Qaeda operatives were taken out by the strike in the town of Jinah, but activists and others on the ground there tell a different story, one of civilians attending religious services and being fired upon as they tried to flee the place of worship. Reportedly, at least 46 people were killed in the assault on the mosque, and the U.S. military was criticized by humanitarian groups for not doing its due diligence in assessing the target for the possibility of civilian casualties. Oh, well—they were Muslims and not Americans anyway. Whoops!
In terms of isolating itself from the international community, America has done that under Donald Trump—if for other reason than it has done to things to alienate that international community. There was the whole backing of out of the Paris climate accord thing, which is voluntary in the first place and thus mostly serves as a middle finger to those here and abroad who give a hoot about polluting and climate change. Even before apparent attacks on American diplomats there, Trump and his administration have reversed course on Cuba relative to an Obama-era thawing of frigid diplomatic relations, and the benefit of this 180 to either side merits questioning. They’ve taken a tough tone with Iran and accused the country of not meeting its end of the bargain with respect to the nuclear deal much hated by conservative Republicans, in apparent deference to the whims of Saudi Arabia. Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong-un have basically had a year-long war of words through television news media and social media, with the latter referring to the former as a “dotard.” (Essentially, he told our President he’s a senile moron. Thanks, Merriam-Webster!) The White House has resolved to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to acknowledge the city, contested as to its very boundaries, as the capital of Israel, prompting a United Nations resolution condemning the move. And this is all before we even get to the investigation into Trump, his transition team, his administration, and suspected ties to Russia. In short, if Donald Trump hasn’t pissed you off this year, you’re either one of his core supporters or have just run out of f**ks to give—and I’m not sure which one is worse.
Race to the Exit: The Trump Administration Story
Viewing some of Trump’s picks for Cabinet posts and various positions within the White House at length, it was a wonder for many to see who might be first to go or fail to even get confirmed. At least Andrew Puzder, then-CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, had the decency to withdraw before the confirmation process was over; as potential Secretary of Labor, it was his employ of undocumented immigrants which was his undoing. Not giving less than half a shit about his employees and being opposed to raising the minimum wage? Nah, that was fine. In fact, it made him more than suitable for nomination in the era of Trump. Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Linda McMahon, Mick Mulvaney, Steve Mnuchin, Rick Perry, Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions—these are the kinds of individuals that Donald Trump, seemingly without irony, tapped for important government posts despite a lack of proficiency in their area of supposed expertise, a stated desire to abolish the very agency they were named to head, or both. Price ultimately resigned when information about his questionable spending of the government’s finances to suit his convenience came to light, and there have been whispers about the job security of Sessions and Rex Tillerson from time to time, but for the most part, the bulk of them still remain. And so much for draining the swamp—between Goldman Sachs and billionaires, this Cabinet is as marshy as they come.
As for other appointees and residual officeholders, there was yet more volatility to be had. Michael Flynn was National Security Adviser for all of about a month before getting canned, and currently, he’s facing repercussions after pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators. Not to be outdone, the aforementioned Anthony Scaramucci lasted a scant ten days before his sacking as White House Communications Director, and in that short time, he divested himself of business ties and ruined his marriage. Welcome to the team, Mooch—and don’t let the door hit you on your way out! His predecessor, Sean “Spicey” Spicer, made it to July before bowing out, but not before some hilarious cameos on Saturday Night Live featuring Melissa McCarthy as Spicer. Steve Bannon, the Skeleton King, made it to August before he was either fired or before he resigned—depending on who you ask. Sebastian Gorka also departed in August, and seeing as he didn’t do much but argue with the press in interviews anyway, I’m relatively sure he isn’t missed. Omarosa Manigault Newman is set to resign in January, and evidently is not afraid to tell all. In sum, people can’t get out of the Trump White House soon enough, and whether some vacancies will go unfilled or simply are taking forever to get filled, the hallmark of this administration is disarray and upheaval. And somehow Kellyanne Conway still has a job. Sorry—that’s the sound of my head hitting the wall. I’ll try to keep it down.
The Democrats Form a Killer Strategy to Win in 2018, 2020, and Be—Oh, Who Are We Kidding?
For a while, it was relatively quiet on the Democratic Party front following the election and even the Inauguration with the Dems licking their wounds. This is not to say, obviously, that nothing was going on behind the scenes. One event which seems fairly minor but reflects deep conflicts within the Democratic ranks was the election of a new Democratic National Committee chair to replace departing interim chair Donna Brazile, herself a replacement for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Keith Ellison, a Bernie Sanders supporter and popular progressive Democrat, was the front-runner for the position early, but concerns about Ellison’s lack of obeisance to the positions of the DNC’s rich Jewish donors and the establishment wing of the party not wishing to cede too much control to the “Bernie-crats” among them led former Labor Secretary Tom Perez to enter the fray. In the end, the vote was close, but Perez carried the day. That the Obama-Hillary segment of the Democratic Party would expend so much energy on a position that is largely ceremonial and concerned with fundraising is telling, and signals that any progressive reform of the party will be slow in coming—if at all.
If there is any further doubt about this, look at how certain races played out outside of the presidential milieu. Sure, Democrats may point to more recent victories in the gubernatorial elections of New Jersey (Phil Murphy) and Virginia (Ralph Northam), as well as the special election to replace Jeff Sessions in Alabama (Doug Jones), but other losses appear indicative of the Dems’ failure to commit to a comprehensive, 50-state strategy, namely Jon Ossoff in Georgia, James Thompson in Kansas, and Rob Quist in Montana, who lost to Greg Gianforte, even after the latter beat up a reporter. Seriously. Elsewhere, Hillary Clinton, after a moment of repose, released a book in which she accepted full responsibility for losing a election she was largely expected to win. Kidding! She blamed Bernie Sanders, voters for not coming out more strongly for her, James Comey, and even the DNC. That last one seems particularly disingenuous, especially when considering that Donna Brazile herself had a book to release critical of Hillary and one which confirmed what many of us already knew: that Hill-Dawg and the Committee were in cahoots long before the primaries. The Democrats seem content to allow Donald Trump and the machinations of the Republican Party to dig the GOP into an electoral hole. For an electorate increasingly weary of the “We’re Not the Other One” line, though, this does not a strategy make, and without an obvious frontrunner for 2020, the Democratic Party’s presumed advantage could well be overstated. Such that, if Trump actually makes it that far, it’s not inconceivable to think he could be re-elected. Talk about a recurring nightmare.
The White Supremacists, They Come Bearing Tiki Torches
In 2017, I would’ve thought it crazy for a scene to play out like it did in Charlottesville, Virginia this past August. And yet, lo and behold, it did. Some 250 protestors, carrying kerosene-filled torches and rebelling against a perceived erosion of their heritage and history, marched on the University of Virginia campus, shouting epithets, vowing not to be “replaced,” and generally ready to start a ruckus over the planned removal of a statue honoring Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The next day, though, if not as frightening in terms of the imagery, was worse in terms of the outcome. Protestors arrived carrying nationalist banners clubs, guns, and shields. Counter-protestors were also on hand to “greet” the white supremacists, the anti-fascists among them armed as well. It was not long before violence broke out, and by the time the police intervened, there already were injuries to tally. The worst of it all, though, were the fatalities. Heather Heyer, a counter-protestor, was killed as a result of a man deliberately plowing into people, and two state troopers, H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates, died in a separate helicopter crash. In terms of senseless violence and loss, the Charlottesville riots seem to epitomize the very concept.
The apparent surge in white nationalist leanings following the election of Donald Trump is disturbing in its own right, but by the same token, so too is it unsettling that people would condone attacks against their ranks so readily. Some people who reject any set of principles that resembles Nazism believe violence to suppress hateful rhetoric is justified. Such is the belief of various antifa groups, and this where the debate of the movement’s merits comes into play. Though anti-fascists like those who don the mark of the Black Bloc don’t actually have much to do with traditional liberalism, their association with the left threatens the credibility of true liberal and progressive groups, and nullifies the bargaining power that these individuals have over the deficient worldviews they oppose. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and violence as a tool to suppress violence does not serve its intended purpose.
Congress vs. Everyday Americans: F**k Your Health Care, and F**k Your Income Inequality
Per President Trump, the Affordable Care Act, also affectionately known as “ObamaCare,” is a total disaster. Republican leaders likewise have been decrying the ACA for some time now, painting it as an unwanted intrusion of the federal government in the health care industry. Never mind that a significant portion of red-state voters depend on the provisions of the Affordable Care Act to be able to pay for medically necessary services, and that a sizable subset of America would actually like to see the nation move to a single-payer/Medicare-for-all model. Trump and a GOP Congress had a lot riding on a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and replacing it, though owing to the notion the devil is in the details, that Republicans tried to rush legislation through the House and the Senate with little idea of what was in it was telling that it probably wasn’t something they would want to share with their constituents. In the end, John McCain’s “no” vote on a “skinny” repeal of ObamaCare turned out to be pivotal in the measure’s failure to pass. Trump would later issue an executive order that would broadly task the government with working on ways to improve competition, prices, and quality of care, though it faced criticisms for how it essentially opened a backdoor for the destabilization of ACA marketplaces by taking younger, healthier consumers of the equation. Yet more significant could be the planned ending of cost-sharing subsidy payments to insurers that would likely mean higher prices for the consumer. Whatever the case, Trump and the GOP haven’t killed the Affordable Care Act, despite their boasts—they’ve only repealed the individual mandate aspect of the law. Of course, this doesn’t mean the Republicans are done coming for affordable health care. Far from it, in all likelihood.
Where Trump et al. found greater success—to our detriment, it should be stressed—is in the passage and signing of their tax reform bill. Once again, the knowledge of its contents prior to voting among lawmakers was questionable, but ultimately, by relatively slim margins in the House and Senate, what many have referred to as the “GOP Tax Scam” cleared Congress. Make no mistake: this is not good news for average Americans. Any benefits to be enjoyed in the short term are outweighed by how the wealthiest among us and corporations will experience that much more of a boon, with long-term consequences to the national debt and minimal rewards to be trickled down to the rank-and-file. In short, it’s class warfare, and potentially a troubling herald of future attempts to screw with Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlement programs—and the worst part is most of us seem to know it. One can only hope that Republicans will face their own consequences in forthcoming elections. It’s not a great consolation, but at this point, it’s the best we’ve got.
Some Protests Get Lost in the Shouting/Tweeting; Others Succeed Beyond Expectations
Even before Colin Kaepernick, there were player protests and refusals to stand at attention for the playing of the National Anthem at professional sporting events. Not long after the start of the NFL season, however, the continued kneeling, sitting, staying in the locker room, or raising of fists raised the ire of one President Donald Trump who, while apparently not busy playing golf or signing disastrous legislation into law, started a fracas about players refusing to stand during the Star-Spangled Banner, suggesting they should be suspended or outright released for their disrespect of the flag and of those who have served and died for our country. Trump also cited the NFL’s declining ratings and ticket sales as a direct impact of the players kneeling. While it’s possible reactions to player protests may be a factor in these downturns, this overlooks other persistent issues facing professional sports in general: declines in traditional television viewership among younger adults, high costs of premium sports channel packages, the prevalence of injuries and concerns about traumatic brain injuries, the steep price tag for attending games in person, and the mediocrity of play of any number of teams. All the while, the original thrust of Kaepernick’s protest—to raise awareness of the unfair treatment of people of color at the hands of police and other institutions—seemed to get lost in the discussion of who was protesting, which teams issued ultimatums about standing and which did not, and why people weren’t watching now. So much for fighting racial injustice. Better luck in 2018, people of color.
In perhaps a surprising turn of events, though, and possibly a watershed moment in the fights for gender equality and for standing up for victims of sexual assault and harassment, movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s exposure as a habitual offender of sexual misconduct, if not outright rape, opened the floodgates for other accusations, admissions, allegations, and denials. Hollywood has apparently borne the brunt of the revelations inspired by the #MeToo movement, with any number of projects shelved or cancelled as a result of men’s misdeeds, but the political realm also has seen its share of high-profile figures caught in the spotlight. Al Franken was forced to resign from his seat in the U.S. Senate after numerous women accused him of impropriety. John Conyers, another congressional Democrat, resigned too in the wake of a veritable mountain of allegations. Roy Moore didn’t abandon his political aspirations even after the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan suggested he should step aside, but he also didn’t win as a Republican in Alabama. And then there’s maybe the biggest fish of them all: none other than Donald Trump. That Trump hasn’t been brought down by his own accusations—or for any other wrongdoing, for that matter—is somewhat deflating. Then again, maybe it’s only a matter of time. As with members of the GOP losing in 2018 and 2020, once more, we can only hope.
Meryl Streep famously put Donald Trump on blast at the Golden Globes. Predictably, this invited jeers from Trump supporters who felt “limousine liberals” like herself should “stay in their lane.” You may not like that Streep has a platform in this manner, but she still is an American, and that means not only is she entitled to say what she wants given the opportunity, but as she and others might see it, she has a civic duty to speak out when someone who ostensibly represents us, the people, does so in a destructive way. Kudos, Ms. Streep. I look forward to your acceptance speech at the forthcoming Golden Globes. Come on—you know it’s coming.
Bill Maher more or less engaged in a conversation with Sam Harris about how Islam is a deficient religion—though both men notably have their issues with organized religion, so take this for what it’s worth. In a separate chat with Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, when jokingly asked by the senator if he would work in the fields of Nebraska, Maher referred to himself as a “house n****r.” For an educated guy, Maher is kind of a dickish moron.
Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz had a health care debate on CNN. Why? Why not! At any rate, it was better than the Republican Party debates from last primary season.
In perhaps a glaring example of where we are as a nation in 2017, our President revealed he did not know who Frederick Douglass is—though Trump being Trump, tried to play it off like he did. Also, Kellyanne Conway continued to speak words that sounded like actual thoughts, declaring herself a “feminist” who apparently doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and elsewhere suggesting microwaves can be turned into cameras and be used to spy on us. Hmm—it appears my nose is bleeding. Or maybe that’s just my brain liquefying from these comments. Carry on, please.
In international news, Canada moved closer to legalizing marijuana, with a target date of Canada Day, 2018. In the States? Jeff Sessions the Racist Dinosaur and others like him talk about how weed is a drug for “bad people.” So, if you’re keeping score at home: cannabis :: bad; alcohol, tobacco, and firearms—things that are way more deadly than cannabis :: good. Well, at least we’ve got our priorities straight.
A handful of inmates were executed in Alabama, essentially because the state had a bunch of drugs used in lethal injection at its disposal set to expire, so—what the hell!—might as well use them! Pardon me for waxing philosophical as this moment, but the death penalty is state-sponsored murder. It is revenge for the sake of revenge, and way too often (and too late), it has ended the lives of those whose guilt would be proven false with new evidence and advances in forensic science. It should be abolished. Thank you. I’ll get down from my soapbox now.
James Comey was fired from his post as FBI director. This was in no way politically or personally motivated and in no way related to the investigation into Donald Trump, his finances, and any collusion with or other connections to Russia involving him or his surrogates. Right.
In Florida, the Grieving Families Act was signed into law, allowing women who have had miscarriages to obtain a “certificate of nonviable birth” for their fetus. So it’s about providing solace to women and their families? No, not really. At heart, it’s an end-around about abortion that seeks to specify when life begins and potentially heralds future attempts to chip away at women’s reproductive rights. Not to mention it connotes the idea that women who lose or terminate their pregnancies should only feel grief, when really, it can be a complex mix of emotions. As long as men are making decisions on the behalf of their female constituents about what they can and can’t do with their bodies, we’ll continue to see policies like this. Keep your eyes peeled.
Dana Loesch released a fiery video about the NRA and how it is “freedom’s last stand.” In other exciting gun news, a guy shot up a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and killed a bunch of people. Let freedom ring, eh?
White nationalists apparently love Tucker Carlson because he question the merits of all immigration—legal or not. Carlson, like Bill Maher, is kind of a douche.
Venezuela held a sham election “won” by Nicolas Maduro. Maduro identifies with socialism. Socialism, therefore, is bad, and Bernie Sanders is the devil. Are you following this logic? If it makes sense to you, um, you’re probably not the intended audience for this blog, but thanks for reading anyway.
Catalonia had a vote to declare independence from Spain. The Spanish government, well, didn’t like that too much. The result was a violent crackdown against pro-independence protests and a lot of international attention drawn to the situation, and in a recent vote, separatists won a slim majority after Spain ousted the previous Catalan government. Great job, Prime Minister Rajoy! You really screwed the Puigdemont on that one.
Joe Arpaio, a virulent racist and all-around ass-hat who held inmates in substandard conditions and profiled residents suspected of being undocumented immigrants as Maricopa County Sheriff in Arizona, was pardoned by President Trump. In other words, f**k off, Hispanics and Latinos.
Millennials can still be blamed for pretty much anything, depending on who you ask. The extinction of the dinosaurs? Oh, yeah—we did that shit.
Bitcoin continues to see wild swings in its valuation after the spike in the second half of the year which brought it to the national consciousness. Does this mean it’s inherently bad? Not necessarily. As with any emerging technology, there are ups and downs to be had with Bitcoin made more pronounced by its recent prominence. Are you behind the curve now, though, with respect to making big bucks off of a relatively small investment? Most definitely.
By installing Mick Mulvaney as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, America moved one step closer to eliminating the one agency expressly devoted to protecting consumer interests as regards their finances and investment vehicles. Consumer advocacy—what a joke!
Speaking of one step closer, the powers-that-be edged the Doomsday Clock one tick nearer to midnight. Er, pop the champagne?
In advance of the coming year, as far as politics and current events are concerned, there are all kinds of things that may factor into predictions for 2018. Certainly, though, we would expect certain things to continue as they are. Our beloved President will undoubtedly keep Tweeting acrimonious barbs at anyone who runs afoul of him and making cheap concessions to his supporters, especially from the context of rallies that he shouldn’t be having while not on the campaign trail. A GOP-majority Congress will still try to pass off policy designed to primarily benefit its wealthy corporate and individual donors as a boon for the “American people.” Bitcoin will probably still see extreme volatility as to its price, if the bubble doesn’t burst outright. And don’t even get me started about America’s attention to environmental conservation. When Trump and his Republican cronies are repealing Obama-era protections on keeping mining waste out of clean water, reversing bans on the Keystone XL Pipeline going through Native American reservations, allowing for the use of lead ammunition in national parks, and greenlighting drilling for oil in wildlife refuges, you know we are not close to doing our part to combat deleterious climate change. These actions belie the seriousness of the problem, and stunt the progress which can’t be stopped regarding the transition to renewable energy sources away from fossil fuels. At a time when we need to do all we can to slow or reverse the damage we’ve done to our planet, standing still is going backward.
Sounds bad, huh? While there are yet more reasons to be concerned from an activism/human rights standpoint—the all-too-slow recovery from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; the pervasive influence of money in politics and gerrymandering purely for political gain; the plight of immigrants, migrants, and refugees worldwide; and the repeated iterations of the travel ban (read: Muslim ban) jump to mind—there is yet for hope for those on the left, and perhaps even those on the right. You know, even if they don’t know any better. In the political sphere, in particular, the deficient policies advanced by Republicans could end up in an electoral backlash in 2018 and 2020. Granted, this does not mean that Democrats don’t need to be held to higher standards, and as bad as GOP leadership has been, that Bernie Sanders, an aging independent from Vermont, remains a more popular choice than most prominent Dems suggests not is entirely well with the Democratic Party either. Speaking of bad leadership, and depending on the contents of Robert Mueller’s investigation, President Donald Trump might also be in real trouble from an ethical/legal standpoint. While visions of impeachment and President Mike Pence aren’t all that inspiring, at this point, anyone seems better than President Pussy-Grabber. I mean, eventually, all the terrible shit Trump has said and done has to come back to him, right? Right?
In truth, I am not terribly optimistic about 2018. But I’m also not done resisting against those who compromise ethical and moral standards to enrich themselves at the expense of others. By this, I mean the people at the top who are willing to see everyday Americans struggle through hunger, poverty, sickness and even death to further their bottom line. For all the preoccupation about border security, crime, and terrorism for many prospective 2020 voters, the “rigged” system about which Trump offhandedly talks is a yet bigger worry, and the aforementioned climate crisis our Earth faces is potentially worst of all. This all sounds very old-hat and trite, but until we start making real progress on the various forms of inequality which plague our society, these aphorisms must be repeated and stressed. Accordingly, through all the trepidation we might feel, there is too much work to be done not to do it. It’s worth the effort. After all, it’s our very lives and livelihoods we’re fighting for.
Whatever path you choose, best wishes to you and yours for 2018 and beyond, and keep fighting the good fight.
What began as a trickle of allegations of sexual impropriety against Harvey Weinstein and Alyssa Milano’s unwitting revival of a decade-old hashtag campaign has since crescendoed to a tidal wave of admissions of guilt, suspicions of wrongdoing, and canceled project releases, suspensions, and firings. The list is a growing one, an impressive collection of high-profile names that’s becoming too long to contain even for my purposes in a 3,000-to-4,000-word blog post. Ultimately, what seems most important about these revelations is that they are happening at all. Women and men are coming out of the proverbial shadows to explicitly name their assaulters/harassers, and late in 2017, some measure of accountability for the abusive actions of men in power appears to be being exacted. In this respect, the identities of the accusers and the accused do not seem to be the most critical aspect, especially as it concerns attempts by media outlets and publicists to paint the accuser as a deceiver, liar, Jezebel, or seductress. Civil rights activists hope the #MeToo campaign and other associated movements are indicative of a sea change, a watershed moment for sexual freedom and reproductive rights, or some other water-related metaphor for social progress.
The idea that the names are less important than their associated dirty deeds becomes complicated, however, when the accused are charged specifically with representing and protecting members of the very populations against which they are alleged to have sinned, if you will. Sen. Al Franken, a leader within a party broadly identified with ideals of inclusivity and empowerment of women and other minorities, recently apologized after being confronted by several women about inappropriately touching them—though he didn’t really explain what in particular he was apologizing for. Rep. John Conyers is under pressure from fellow Democrats to resign from his post after his own allegations of sexual misconduct and after announcing he would step down from his role as top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. And then there’s Roy Moore. Beyond questions of his fitness to serve the public in any capacity in an unbiased way—let’s not forget his erecting a monument to the Ten Commandments outside his courthouse as well as continuing to enforce Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage despite it being deemed unconstitutional as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court—there’s the matter of several women accusing Moore of making unwanted sexual advances on them prior to the age of consent (16 in Alabama) and/or sexually assaulting them. And this man currently has a 50-50 shot of winning a ticket to the U.S. Senate seat from Alabama voters.
Herein, a pattern begins to emerge just among those alleged to have committed unthinkable acts within the political sphere. The obvious commonality is that these supposed perpetrators are male and hold more power than the women claiming to be their victims. (I say “supposed” and “claiming” under the premise that these men are innocent until proven guilty, but by the same token, I believe their accusers, so at least for my sake, this is largely a question of semantics.) What are not part of the pattern, it should be stressed, are the race of the would-be assailants—Franken and Moore are white, Conyers is black—or their party affiliations—Conyers and Franken are Democrats, Moore is running as a representative of the Republican Party. Owing specifically to the notion sexual deviancy is a nonpartisan issue—or at least should be—and is a hot-button topic at that, it should be relatively easy for other party members to call for their colleagues to resign or step aside. As noted, other Democrats in Congress and members of the Congressional Black Caucus have suggested that John Conyers resign. Meanwhile, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, alongside other prominent Republicans, have urged Roy Moore to remove his name from consideration for the vacant Senate seat set to soon be decided via special election, or otherwise have distanced themselves from supporting his campaign. Apparently, that he was a birther, hates homosexuals and Muslims, has past ties to neo-Confederate and white nationalist groups, and lied about monies received from his nonprofit Christian legal organization is all OK, but going after young women amidst a groundswell of public support for outing sexual predators—whoa, draw the line!
Which brings us to Donald J. Trump. Before we even get to his seemingly sordid history with women, let’s acknowledge the fact that he has maintained his support for Roy Moore through the litany of allegations, in this regard deviating from key members of his own chosen party. To be fair, other politicians, chiefly fellow Alabamans, have defended Moore in their own right, participating in their share of character assassination of the purported victims of Moore’s misdeeds. Also, Steve Bannon is set to publicly stump for Moore in advance of the election, which should be as much of a red flag as anything, but the point here is that Trump isn’t alone in backing Roy Moore. Then again, when Mitch Mc-freaking-Connell won’t even get behind someone purely for political reasons, you know he or she must be pretty damn toxic. That prospective voters in Alabama are yet on the fence about him would be mind-boggling if not for the idea roughly half of Americans who came out to the polls this past November opted for someone as scandalous and unqualified as Trump. For those voters, morality was an afterthought next to the issue or issues that mattered most to them at the time they cast their ballot. Unless they were voting strategically to block Hillary the Neoliberal and the Democrats, which would be more forgivable if it didn’t play directly into the hands of the two-party system.
So, what possible sins of Donald “Two Corinthians” Trump’s are his supporters potentially forgiving or at least overlooking? You know, besides generally being a shitty human being? In the arena of sexual predation, allegedly, there’s a lot to forgive/overlook. At least 12 women have made accusations of unwanted physical contact, not to mention several women have cited his effective invasion of the dressing rooms of various Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants while the contestants were undressing or undressed. It would be one thing for Trump if it were merely his word against theirs, and even then, he is vastly outnumbered. Being the blowhard and entitled-feeling brat he is, however, we have everything short of an admission on these fronts. Regarding the allegations against him of undesired advances and physicality, Trump basically copped to being a repeat offender in the infamous leaked recording from 2005 where he boasts to Billy Bush, then of Access Hollywood fame, about being able to grab women “by the pussy” and being able to do so essentially because he’s rich and famous. As for the discussion of him being a voyeuristic perv, possibly involving underage women at that, Trump bragged about that, too. In 2005—wow, this was quite the banner year for “the Donald,” wasn’t it?—Trump uttered these words during an interview with Howard Stern, really playing to his predominantly-male audience:
I’ll go backstage before a show, and everyone’s getting dressed and ready and everything else. You know, no men are anywhere. And I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant. And therefore I’m inspecting it…. “Is everyone OK?” You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. And you see these incredible-looking women. And so I sort of get away with things like that.
“Sort of get away with things like that?” What does that even mean? Either you do or you don’t get away with it, and through a #MeToo lens, Donald Trump shouldn’t get away with anything. For a man that many would contend shouldn’t have been allowed to be President in the first place, it stands to reason that he, like Louis C.K. and others fallen from grace, should be removed from his current role, even if he is President of these United States. That is, just because he is POTUS doesn’t mean he is infallible.
President Trump said these things. He may not have been President when he said them, but he did say them. At least with respect to the Access Hollywood tape, though, and more recently, Trump has indicated his disbelief, however insincere or warped it may be, that the tape actually exists. Again, it would be one thing if Trump merely denied the existence of the tape to begin with, and that would make this denial at least plausible on his part. But Trump has publicly acknowledged the contents of the tape. Leaked in the weeks before the 2016 election, it prompted him to issue a hasty apology. That’s a matter of public record, too. He literally said, “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.” So, if the tape doesn’t exist or was “doctored” in some way, for what was he apologizing in the first place? If it was a sincere apology, first of all, it was a terrible one, because it involved one of his favorite strategies to attempt to mitigate his personal responsibility: pivoting to the misdeeds—real or imagined—of the Clintons or some other made-to-be-reprehensible figure. More likely, though, Trump’s apology was wholly insincere. Why do I say this? Because Trump never really apologizes or takes responsibility for anything. It’s been his way leading up to the presidency, so why should it change now? The man simply doubles down on his assertions, claiming he does not remember key details of events that reflect poorly on his character, attacking the credibility of sources that report these events (see also “fake news”), and pivoting once more to other subjects. Even if he is not an abuser—and that’s a big “if”—he sure fits the profile of the kinds of men who have been brought down for less in recent weeks.
When Donald Trump isn’t busy trying to make the incontrovertibly true false, he’s trying to do the opposite. Much as recent reports have indicated that Trump has waffled on the very existence of the tape that painted him as a pussy-grabber, apparently, the man is not done with the whole birther controversy. You know, the one where Trump and others have insinuated Barack Obama was born in another country and should have never been able to be President. According to Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, writing for The New York Times, Trump has questioned the veracity of Obama’s birth certificate behind closed doors. In the same type of forum, Trump has also repeated his belief that widespread voter fraud led to his losing the popular vote. The problem with these notions is that they’re both patently false. Obama has long since released his birth records showing proof of his Hawaiian birth, and Trump has even publicly acknowledged Obama was born in this country—period. As for the whole voter fraud angle, there is no credible evidence to back up Trump’s theories. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Besides, in what would seem to be a telling turn of events, the commission authorized by Pres. Trump has not even convened in recent weeks, though this may simply be a function of it being sued over a dozen times because of lack of transparency and concerns about the privacy of voter information. Either way, it’s a big to-do about something that ultimately has no bearing on the outcome of the election—and seriously, we should get on that whole making-the-popular-vote-decide-the-election thing the law of the land.
All of this talk of personal accountability for Donald Trump and his—how shall we say this?—special relationship with the truth has been within the purview of easily verifiable and already-verified data. There’s a recording of Trump saying awful things about his physical contact with women. There are authenticated birth records that reveal Barack Obama is a natural-born citizen of the United States. There is no evidence that millions of people voted illegally on Hillary Clinton’s behalf. Such an operation to meddle with the results of the election would require a significant amount of organization and resources to effect. You know, the kind of organization and resources, say, a central government would be able to provide, maybe even a foreign power such as—oh, I don’t know—Russia. Wait a minute—that did happen, only it was Trump who was the intended recipient of such collusion! It is on the subject of Russian interference and ties, meanwhile, that we segue to discussion of things yet less transparent: that of matters financial for Trump and his administration.
Even before the election, scrutiny was levied upon the unknowns surrounding Donald Trump’s personal finances. Specifically, people wondered—and still do—what the contents of his latest tax returns might reveal. Sure, Trump has claimed that only the media wants to see his tax information. In fact, at various points, a majority of Americans have wanted him to release his returns, believing it to be important to them and/or how the President does his job. What’s more, the returns are only part of the conversation re Trump and his money. For one, there’s the matter of Trump failing to put his assets in a blind trust. Oh, Trump’s legal representation has gone through contortions in explaining how what he has done with his businesses constitutes such an arrangement, but unfortunately for them, it’s a bunch of hogwash. That the Trump family has still managed a high degree of involvement in Trump Organization affairs clearly points to this so-called “blind trust” as being neither blind nor trustworthy.
There’s also the matter of Trump’s umpteen trips to Mar-a-Lago and other Trump-owned properties. These trips cost money, particularly when considering the need to safeguard the President and secure a host of properties not optimized for ensuring Trump’s safety. While we are talking about particulars, we, the taxpayers, are the ones footing the bill. And the Trump clan is materially benefitting from this arrangement—every time the President takes his golf clubs out of his bag. Based on a 2016 estimate from the Government Accountability Office, just one trip to Mar-a-Lago costs about $3 million. Donald Trump has been President for less than a year, but in that time, has made trips to at least one of his properties on 34 weekends, as of November 22. That’s no small potatoes, and we thus have every right to wonder whether any decision the Trump administration is making is primarily for the family’s benefit. Recall the first iteration of the embattled travel ban, a thinly-veiled bit of prejudice. Conspicuously, the countries that were named in the ban were ones in which the Trump Organization held no properties. Coincidence? Hardly.
It is against this inconsiderate and reckless financial backdrop that I invoke the recent tumult surrounding the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for when Donald Trump isn’t busy enriching himself—and boy, has he been enriching himself at our expense for longer than he has been President—he’s been doing his part alongside his adopted Republican brethren to help other rich assholes like himself stay rich or otherwise unaccountable for their actions. (See also, “Republican tax reform.”) First, a little backdrop for the backdrop, the CFPB was authorized in 2010 with the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a piece of legislation designed to approve accountability for financial institutions and lenders following the financial crisis of 2007 to whenever-the-heck-analysts-want-to-claim-it-ended-despite-people-and-companies-still-trying-to-recover. Broadly speaking, the Bureau is devoted to empowering consumers to make financial choices that best serve their needs, enforcing existing regulations against predatory lenders and other institutions that break the law, and educating consumers and companies alike about their capabilities and responsibilities. Much of their work has focused on credit cards, mortgages, and student loans, the likes of which just happen to produce mountains of debt and keep millions of Americans in financial shackles.
And this is the organization Trump, professed man of the people, and his cronies want to dismantle. The CFPB has not been above controversy in its brief tenure, not the least of which involves its unique structure as an independent agency controlled by a single director, i.e. “who will watch the Watchmen?” As Bryce Covert (great name for an investigative journalist, by the by) writes for New Republic, however, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been the one organization devoted solely to protecting financial consumers, and has produced tangible results, namely netting some $12 billion from the likes of Wells Fargo and other financial institutions as compensatory relief for Jane and John Q. Public. According to Covert, this is precisely why Trump and the GOP want to gut the agency. Despite Trump calling the CFPB heretofore a “total disaster,” (much like ObamaCare, but who knew people actually like keeping their health care!) and despite disputed acting director Mick Mulvaney labeling it a “sad, sick joke,” many would contest the assertions of its conservative Republican critics that the Bureau is bad for banks. As Covert and others would maintain, the big banks, in particular, seem to be doing just fine ten years removed from the financial crisis. That’s what makes the current legal battle over the CFPB’s directorship so critically important. Prior to his resignation, Richard Cordray named deputy director Leandra English as acting director, and English has maintained the language of Dodd-Frank specifies that she should automatically take over as director. Pres. Trump, meanwhile, has appointed Mulvaney, previously one of the conservative mob looking on at the CFPB from afar with pitchforks and torches. Not literal pitchforks and torches, mind you. After all, this is Washington, D.C. we’re talking about here, not Charlottesville, VA.
When it comes down to brass tacks, then, why is Bryce Covert so concerned about Mick Mulvaney taking the reins of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and why should you be as well? Well, in a nutshell, because each and every appointment made by President Trump so far has been a deliberate attempt to undermine the purest applications of the underlying office. From the appearance of things, in fact, Donald Trump looks to be directly trolling the disapproving left, but to suggest such things would be giving him far too much credit. Just look at some of his nominees for key Cabinet positions. Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education—despite having no experience with public education. Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA—after suing it umpteen times as Oklahoma Attorney General. Rick Perry as Secretary of the Department of Energy—an agency he wanted to dismantle while on the presidential campaign trail but the name of which he famously was too blockheaded to remember during one debate. Even Mick Mulvaney himself barely got through Senate confirmation hearings to name him director of the Office of Management and Budget. Mulvaney, a fervent Tea Partier, rode the GOP offshoot’s wave of success during Obama’s tenure to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for the state of South Carolina in 2010. Among his soaring achievements as a member of the House (sarcasm intended) are his involvement in voting in 2015 against a funding resolution which would have prevented a government shutdown, in significant part due to the resolution also funding Planned Parenthood, which he named as a “traffick[er] in pieces of dead children,” being a founding member of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus within the House ([INSERT EYE-ROLL EMOJI HERE]), and opposing the Affordable Care Act and gun control, two things many of his constituents need or want, even the Republicans. Thanks for nothing, Mick!
Between Donald Trump in the White House and Mick Mulvaney as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, there is little to inspire or warrant enthusiasm. Once more, we turn to the insights of Bryce Covert:
[Republicans] opposed the creation of the CFPB from the beginning, and are devoted to whittling away at it. They’ve pushed to weaken its independence and effectiveness by monkeying with its structure. The House passed the CHOICE Act in June, which would strip the CFPB of its authority to supervise, police, and examine financial institutions; bar it from overseeing payday loans; and let the president fire its director at whim.
Candidate Trump appeared ready to strike a different pose in office. On the campaign trail, he railed against “hedge fund guys.” He promised not to “let Wall Street get away with murder,” arguing that “Wall Street has caused tremendous problems for us.” It was all part of his supposedly populist message that he would stand up for those left behind by an elite-driven economy and Washington, D.C. Yet, now in office, he’s gone soft on banks. His administration has already loosened financial regulations, dropped a rule to rein in Wall Street bonuses, and allowed AIG to wriggle out of stricter rules to protect the economy if the insurance giant failed.
And he’s followed the rest of his party in attacking the CFPB. His budget zeroed out its funding completely and proposed other ways to significantly change it. His Treasury Department released a report arguing that the CFPB’s “unaccountable structure and unduly broad regulatory powers” have “hindered consumer choice and access to credit, limited innovation, and imposed undue compliance burdens, particularly on small institutions.” The Treasury also recommended that the president be able to fire the director, that its enforcement be slowed down, and that many of its supervisory powers be handed back to agencies that previously did barely anything to police financial firms.
If Mulvaney survives English’s court challenge, he would be able to bring much of that wish list to life. And there’s no reason to think he’d do anything different. He has outright stated, “I don’t like the fact that CFPB exists.” On Monday he got to work, saying all new regulations from the CFPB will be frozen for 30 days. If he remains the bureau’s leader, we can expect much, much more of the same.
OK, so here’s the thing: Mick Mulvaney is only the acting director. If Leandra English’s legal challenge fails to make an impact, though, who knows how long Mulvaney will be at the helm of the CFPB or if it will even last long enough to make the contested director’s seat a meaningful point of contention? Pres. Trump’s administration has been marked by discord and disorganization, a notion highlighted by his molasses-like filling of key government positions that does little to help serve his agenda, as makeshift as it is. Why wouldn’t he drag his feet on appointing a successor for a bureau he wants to delete in the first place? And why wouldn’t we anticipate more abandonment of existing investigations into misdeeds of the financial sector and relaxation of regulations all under the vague impression regulation kills businesses? To take a cue from Ms. Covert, why expect anything to get better until it gets much, much worse?
Accountability. Responsibility. Truth. Whether with respect to something as trivial as the size of one’s Inauguration crowd vis-à-vis that of the previous President or something as of paramount importance as the health of the nation’s economy, rest assured you will not get these virtues from Donald Trump and the gaggle of Republican yes-men and yes-women he has tapped to distract and dissuade from the real damage they are trying to do for the benefit of their corporate and otherwise wealthy benefactors. Putting Mick Mulvaney at the head of the CFPB in an apparent attempt to eviscerate the one truly consumer-oriented agency designed to safeguard everyday Americans’ finances only furthers this notion. Amid Trump’s culture war on the most sacred American values, the vast majority of us stand to lose. Whether his supporters fail to recognize this, or do and simply don’t care, is the only thing left to question.