Nowadays, it’s hard to know what political norms have a function or are otherwise subject to being summarily eschewed. In the era of President Donald J. Trump, it would seem all bets, as they say, are off. One set of guiding principles that’s still fairly sacrosanct, meanwhile, is what I call the Hitler Rules. As I would phrase them, they are as follows:
Don’t talk about Adolf Hitler in a remotely positive light or quote him without a very good reason for doing so.
If you find yourself extolling Hitler’s virtues or publicly citing Mein Kampf, stop immediately and apologize profusely.
Dear God, why are you still talking about Hitler?
If you get to Principle #1, you messed up. If you get to Principle #3, you really messed up. If any of this doesn’t make sense, go watch the History Channel or visit the Holocaust Museum or open up a book (yes, an actual physical book) about World War II. There’s way too much to cover in the span of one blog post.
And yet, people like Candace Owens evidently are unapologetic about their references to a man who advocated for the ethnic cleansing of an entire people. Back in February, the conservative activist Owens spoke at the London launch of right-wing organization Turning Point USA, a student-oriented group focused on changing the narrative that the liberal left has a “monopoly” over young people. When asked by an audience member how those who champion nationalist causes can, well, not be called “nationalists,” Owens had this to say:
I actually don’t have any problems at all with the word “nationalism.” I think that the definition gets poisoned by elitists that actually want globalism. Globalism is what I don’t want. […] Whenever we say nationalism, the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler.
He was a national socialist. But if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize. He wanted everybody to be German, everybody to be speaking German. Everybody to look a different way. To me, that’s not nationalism. In thinking about how we could go bad down the line, I don’t really have an issue with nationalism. I really don’t.
So, wait: Hitler wasn’t bad until he took his act on the road? What about the whole, you know, attempted extermination of the Jews thing? However you slice it, it seems pretty bad. Also puzzling is Owens’s definition of “nationalism.” It’s one thing for members of a state to embrace certain cultural elements and values. It’s quite another to insist people all act, look, and speak a certain way as part of a racist or xenophobic agenda. Oxford Dictionaries defines nationalism as “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” Including but not limited to starting a world freaking war and killing millions of people in accordance with some perverted ideal of racial purity. Yes, Ms. Owens, that would make Hitler a nationalist.
In the ensuing backlash, Owens insisted she was taken out of context, which conservatives often like to claim when being held accountable for dumb shit they say. In an ex post facto explanatory video uploaded to Twitter, Owens derided Buzzfeed and its report that helped draw attention to her remarks as a “scum-of-the-earth” publication. She also doubled down on her assertion that wanting to protect the “sovereignty” of one’s nation from outside “threats” shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing, defending the likes of Pres. Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, as well as standing by her interpretation of “nationalism” to exclude Hitler on the basis he didn’t put Germany first because he killed German Jews. You could’ve at least mentioned that the first time around, Ms. Owens.
Owens put a cap on her rebuttal by pointing to the “insanity” of leftist journalists for highlighting her comments about Hitler. Here’s the thing, though, Ms. Owens: no one forced you to bring up Hitler. You made the initial comment that people (which people, anyway?) think of the Führer when they think of nationalism. You could’ve stopped there. At any rate, you should’ve denounced his hate and genocidal violence right then and there in your initial answer. But you didn’t. At best, your explanation was a lazy one. At worst, it intentionally left out the mass murder of European Jews as a matter of German domestic and foreign policy. Don’t blame liberal journos for your deficiency. Even given full context, your lack of clarity merits admonishment.
When not explicitly issuing bad takes on Adolf Hitler, others in recent memory have questionably quoted his inflammatory language as a means of attacking the other side. A few weeks ago, Republican Mo Brooks invoked Mein Kampf as a way of railing against Democrats and the Mueller investigation. Citing Hitler’s words directly, he assailed Dems for promoting “big lie propaganda.” Evidently, Rep. Brooks tried to make the connection that because some Democrats identify as socialists and because the Nazis identified as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the Democratic Party is akin to the Nazi Party. Um, what?
First of all, Rep. Brooks, Hitler and the Nazis were fascists. Their “national socialism” was a nationalist recontextualization of the term socialism that emphasized hierarchical structures (as opposed to universal equality) and disdained representative democracy. As with the Nazis’ use of the swastika and their celebration of an Aryan “master race,” their brand of “socialism” was a perversion of the kind adhered to by the likes of the Marxists.
Second of all, even if the point you were trying to make was a sound one —which it was not—this is Mein freaking Kampf we’re talking about here. We can do without Hitler’s verbiage. Besides, while we’re discussing whether people are being taken out of context, Hitler’s concept of a “big lie” refers to the notion of a Jewish conspiracy to blame Germany’s defeat in World War I on German general Erich Ludendorff. Its function was to foment anti-Semitism, effectively creating a scapegoat in the Jewish people. So what—you’re alleging the president is as persecuted as the Jews? Pardon me if I elect not to weep for a man of Trump’s purported wealth, a straight white male, no less.
In both Owens’s and Brooks’s cases, these mentions of Hitler were unsolicited on the part of those observing. For Owens, it was a discussion of the leader of the Nazi Party and nationalism that sounded like a defense more than anything and that was wrongheaded either way. For Brooks, it was a ham-handed comparison between the Democratic Party and the Nazis, one that unnecessarily and disingenuously cited Mein Kampf and therefore could’ve been replaced by the writings of pretty much any other public figure such that it would’ve made for an improvement. Heck, you could’ve thrown a random Post Malone lyric out there. I’m not sure what the relevance would have been, mind you, but at least it wouldn’t have come from Hitler-Comma-Adolf. Both of these individuals flagrantly violated the Hitler Rules—and no amount of context can take them off the hook for that.
Conjuring images of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany willy-nilly is, for most rational people not beholden to a regressive conservative agenda, ill-advised. Of course, if you’re a member of a far-right political organization or a neo-Nazi group looking to recruit new members, naked affection for Hitler’s agenda is likely welcome. With today’s Republican Party under Donald Trump, the separation between a party that implicitly excludes people on racist and classist principles and one that openly campaigns on destruction of the other is ever narrowing.
Then again, some people may just be invoking a different fascist leader. Sen. John Cornyn made news in February when he posted to his Twitter account a quote, without context, by Benito Mussolini. As with Mo Brooks, this was a dig at self-professed democratic socialists. Never mind that Mussolini, like Hitler, was a fascist who, despite earlier socialist leanings, came to denounce the Italian Socialist Party as he embraced a more nationalist outlook and eventually rose to dictatorial heights. In other words, if your aim as Sen. Cornyn is to demean socialism by promoting fascism or otherwise directly quoting a mass murderer and despot, your priorities may need realignment.
We might be remiss if we didn’t consider that conservatives are not the only ones who have made allusions to Hitler in their comparisons. Candace Owens noted in her violation of the Hitler Rules how nationalism, at least in the U.S., gets conflated with Germany’s one-time Nazi leader. As the Promulgator-in-Chief of “America First” nationalism, Trump is therefore the Hitler figure in this analogy.
This is where Trump’s defenders customarily begin to lose their shit and/or exhibit their performative umbrage over the supposed likeness. How dare liberals talk bad about our beloved president! He’s a great man and certainly no Adolf Hitler! In an ironic twist, they throw a hissy fit and talk about something they allege the left suffers from in “Trump derangement syndrome.” Which, not for nothing, is a terrible name. For one, it’s cumbersome. Second of all, it doesn’t make awfully clear which party is the deranged one. Just as easily, I could infer that Trump is the one who suffers from his own distinctive brand of insanity. From a marketing perspective, it doesn’t “pop.”
Literally speaking, Trump isn’t Hitler. He hasn’t led the Axis Powers on a mission of world conquest, nor has he advocated for the full-scale deletion of an entire race. (Not yet, at least.) Nevertheless, elements of his administration’s policy and Trump’s rhetoric are worrisome and reminiscent of Hitler’s stewardship of Nazi Germany.
Maiken Umbach, professor of modern history at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, wrote a piece back in 2016 prior to the election asking what the similarities between Hitler and Trump are. It’s not just the denigration of minority groups. Sadly, Trump is not the only bad actor in this regard worldwide; we need look no further than Marine Le Pen’s candidacy for the top office in France or the success of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum vote for other modern cohorts. Umbach would also echo the concern that Trump is not proposing a “final solution” to get rid of Mexicans and other immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. Although by now, the separation of families at the border and putting them in glorified cages, hearkening back to how Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps during World War II, doesn’t exactly bolster Trump’s credibility on this front.
These thoughts aside, where Umbach and others see parallels between Trump and Hitler is in the promotion of domestic and foreign policy short on specifics and long on the creation of a charismatic leader who claims he alone can decisively move the country forward and in a way that breaks with established corruption. She closes her article with these considerations:
Like Hitler, Trump is capitalising on a longing for charismatic leadership, to which even highly developed Western democracies seem very susceptible when democratic structures fail to deliver all the desired outcomes. No Western democracy currently faces problems on the scale of those Germany grappled with before 1933. And yet, there is a very real sense amongst a large part of the population that they have not been on the “winning side” for a long time.
The gap between rich and poor is getting wider, and in the process, the classical attributes of political leadership – education, expertise, eloquent speeches – have come to be seen not as problem-solving strategies, but as the identity markers of a social elite who are looking after their own interests only.
Even where new policies on healthcare, education, or job creation achieve their goals, they are not popular, because they are tinged with that smell of elitism that makes many ordinary people not feel valued by the political classes. Trump has not been the first demagogue to capitalise on such sentiments, and he will not be the last. If elected, we will not see a resurgence of National Socialism. Trump is, nevertheless, a symptom of a fundamental problem with our democratic system, which we seem utterly unable to fix.
As it must be stressed, President Donald Trump is merely an outgrowth of a dysfunctional political system and an embodiment of prejudices that have existed long before his rise to power. In Umbach’s parlance, he is not the first and won’t be the last. Just the same, the attitudes and behaviors he encourages should not be altogether dismissed, nor should we ignore the conditions that led to Trump’s upset electoral victory. Feelings of anger, fear, and hate have come to be associated with Trump’s base. That the Hitler comparison even appears credible at points suggests this is not simple hyperbole or “derangement.” And it’s not just American leftists throwing out the analogy either. When Holocaust survivors tell you there is room for comparison, you tend to listen.
Whatever side of the political fence you’re on, name-dropping Adolf Hitler is a move to which one should give due weight before acting on it. The above examples coming from the right are rather egregious instances of individuals attempting to defend their personal embrace of nationalism or attack their political rivals according to a faulty pretext. The left is not altogether blameless in this regard, however, and must be judicious in its connections to Nazism lest its card-carrying members lose credibility amid the withering criticism of right-wing trolls.
If nothing else, though, the concession should be easy to make that Hitler wasn’t a “good” leader. A few weeks back, in my home state, a high school athletic director tried to make the case that Hitler was a good leader with “bad moral character and intentions.” It may seem like semantics, but beyond framing Hitler as an effective leader who led his country down a dark and ruinous path, there should be no justification for calling him a good leader. That is, you can’t neatly separate his leadership style from the deleterious results, presuming you think it effective in the first place.
The same might be said for Trump and an assessment of his presidency as a whole. Judging by the turmoil in his administration and the Cabinet as well as the damage he has done to our standing in the world by moving America deliberately backwards, Trump’s presidency has been an utter disaster. Never mind what he and his backers might aver. The ends, in this case, by no means justify the means, and by this token, Trump is no good leader either.
We can’t forget the lessons World War II and Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy have taught us. The context in which we revisit these lessons, on the other hand, matters. Candace Owens and Mo Brooks in particular should heed this advice or risk suffering the consequences.
Without having seen one of his YouTube videos or hearing him speak, I have to rely on second-hand accounts about intellectual and psychologist Jordan Peterson and his ideologies. From what I have read and witnessed about him, Peterson is a charismatic orator, a gifted debater, and intellectually brilliant. He’s also apparently arrogant, confrontational, and dismissive of opinions that are not his own. To even acknowledge his burgeoning popularity is to give credence to his platform and potentially invite a backlash from his adoring followers (though, given my limited readership, this probably all but negates the risk).
So, what is the appeal of writing a blog entry about Jordan Peterson, other than that I needed someone or something about which to write and I didn’t feel like writing about the Trump administration for the umpteenth time?
I suppose my interest was piqued in Peterson only in the last few weeks or so when I began to encounter an onslaught of negative press about the man, his latest book, 12 Rules for Life, and his musings about “enforced monogamy,” the latter of which supposedly is a not a dystopian, government-controlled “insistence” on the virtues of monogamy, but rather a socially and culturally promoted set of ideals which likewise supposedly is reflected in anthropological, biological, and psychological research and theory.
“Enforced monogamy” also informs Peterson’s belief as to a solution to the likes of the attack allegedly perpetrated by Alek Minassian in Toronto last month, evidently a participant in so-called “incel” culture comprised of “involuntary celibate” men who show resentment toward a society that denies them the ability to have sex, actively or otherwise. As Peterson sees it, enforced monogamy is the cure for that anger, and specifically in Minassian’s case, he was angry at God. This despite any stated political or religious affiliations as indicated by authorities at the place and time of the incident. But, hey—maybe this is just another indication of Peterson’s brilliance that he was able to divine this information!
Some of you may read these musings of Jordan Peterson’s on monogamy and the Toronto van attack and think, “Well, this guy is full of shit—I’ve heard all that I need to hear.” Such is well within your right to believe. You may commence with skimming this article and head toward the conclusion. Still, for those of you like me who choose to dig deeper, beyond the headlines that may exist if only to bait you into clicking and to engender outrage (or are just plain masochistic), it’s worth it to study Peterson’s worldview with the help of those who have reviewed his public statements at length or those who know him personally.
One such reviewer is known by the nom de tweet Natalie Wynn, a transgender ex-academic with a background in philosophy who comments on the cultural and philosophical issues of the day from her YouTube channel ContraPoints. In her latest video, Wynn, while jokingly alluding to Peterson’s past invocations of hierarchies in lobsters in talking about human societal order and putting Peterson’s face on a dummy’s body and soaking with it in a bathtub—this is part of her offbeat charm—acknowledges that after listening to his podcasts, reading his books, and watching his videos on YouTube, she gets why people like him.
For Natalie, Peterson has real talent as a public speaker and life coach, with his major distinguishing quality being that Peterson infuses traditional self-help verbiage with biblical insights, Jungian psychoanalysis, philosophy, and psychology. In this respect, nothing that he presents is really new—especially if you’re familiar with the trappings of AA, Ms. Wynn quips—but as far as she is concerned, from a self-improvement standpoint, more power to the Canadian psychology professor.
The issue with Peterson’s life coaching, however, as Wynn views it, is that it is a “Trojan horse for a reactionary political agenda,” one that opposes progressive politics as something “totalitarian and evil.” Peterson refers to progressive politics by the term postmodern neo-Marxism, and Wynn, using her educational background, painstakingly dissects this use of the terminology. Going through a cursory-yet-lengthy history of modernism, she eventually gets to a point that Marxism is a fundamentally modernist worldview that theorizes the human condition in economic terms, while postmodernism is a kind of skepticism that denies humans’ capacity for knowing universal truths about the world around them.
Accordingly, these concepts would seem to be at odds, and Peterson’s use of the term would only seem to enhance the confusion. As Natalie Wynn outlines, Jordan Peterson’s animus is levied upon a rather nebulous group that includes administrators at colleges and universities, civil rights activists, corporate human resources departments, feminists, liberal politicians, Marxists, postmodernists, and so-called “social justice warriors (SJWs).” It’s a problematically loose association of leftists which ignores the tensions that tend to exist between so many of the subgroups under this umbrella and on which Peterson tries to pin the downfall of Western civilization amid his fearmongering.
Likewise problematic is Peterson’s concept of “the West.” As Wynn breaks it down, Peterson’s “West” is emblematic of concepts like capitalism, individualism, and “Judeo-Christian values,” while “postmodern neo-Marxism” is aligned with anti-Western sentiment, collectivism, relativism, and totalitarianism. Marxism and postmodernism, as Wynn elucidates, are Western philosophies, so this immediately calls Peterson’s framework into question, as does his insistence on SJW ideology as a non-Western function.
Moreover, Wynn argues, if Peterson were really concerned about celebrating individuality, he would be more open to, for instance, the use of gender-neutral pronouns to suit the needs of individual students (Peterson made headlines when he vowed he would refuse to comply with any provincial laws on the use of “alternative” pronouns). In addition, if he were more insistent on preserving “the West” as a geographical and philosophical construct, he would, you know, rail against Buddhism, or own that the Marquis de Sade, for one, was into some stuff that doesn’t really fit with “Judeo-Christian values,” and he was from the West. By these standards, Peterson’s categories seem woefully arbitrary and haphazard.
Thus, despite her mild admiration for Peterson’s attention to the tendency of some people on the left to shout down even slightly different opinions, as well as an appreciation for the need to provide folks with a positive, proactive ideology rather than a liberal focus on everything one shouldn’t be doing and a preoccupation with how society oppresses people without a path to corrective action, Natalie Wynn sees a real danger in Jordan Peterson’s anti-leftist rhetoric.
She’s not alone, either. Bernard Schiff, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Toronto and someone who knows Peterson well as one of his historically staunchest defenders against other faculty at the university, recently penned a special opinion piece for the Toronto Star regarding his change of heart, so to speak, on Peterson and his methods. In Schiff’s opening to his expansive essay, he sets the tone for the piece by explaining what he admires about his colleague, and why he has more recently pivoted on someone he has considered a friend:
I thought long and hard before writing about Jordan, and I do not do this lightly. He has one of the most agile and creative minds I’ve ever known. He is a powerful orator. He is smart, passionate, engaging and compelling and can be thoughtful and kind.
I was once his strongest supporter.
That all changed with his rise to celebrity. I am alarmed by his now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before. His output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in the service of a message which is difficult to pin down. He can be very persuasive, and toys with facts and with people’s emotions. I believe he is a man with a mission. It is less clear what that mission is.
So, why did Schiff have to defend Peterson as a fellow professor among the faculty at the University of Toronto? Shocker!—though his celebrity may be bringing out the very worst in him, Peterson was always kind of a son of a bitch. Schiff concedes that Peterson possessed a rather immaculate record prior to his arrival at the University of Toronto, and despite misgivings from others about his “eccentricity,” he advocated for Peterson because he thought he could bring a fresh energy and new ideas to the department.
As it turned out, though, according to Schiff, Peterson wasn’t just a little “eccentric.” He sparred with the university’s research ethics committee, suggesting they lacked the authority and expertise to weigh in on his work (despite, you know, it being their government-mandated job to serve this function). He also, alongside numerous enthusiastic reviews from people who had taken his courses and a rapt audience of those who attended, repeatedly acknowledged the dangers of presenting conjecture as fact, and promptly went ahead and did it anyway in his lectures.
For Schiff, this was fine, albeit vaguely concerning; no one was getting hurt, and Peterson’s sermons were largely confined to the classroom. The turn came, however, when Peterson not only misrepresented the relationship between biology and gender in his opposition to Bill C-16, the aforementioned gender-neutral pronoun policy, but misrepresented his own risk at not supporting the law:
Jordan’s first high-profile public battle, and for many people their introduction to the man, followed his declaration that he would not comply with Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act extending its protections to include gender identity and expression. He would refuse to refer to students using gender neutral pronouns. He then upped the stakes by claiming that, for this transgression, he could be sent to jail.
I have a trans daughter, but that was hardly an issue compared to what I felt was a betrayal of my trust and confidence in him. It was an abuse of the trust that comes with his professorial position, which I had fought for, to have misrepresented gender science by dismissing the evidence that the relationship of gender to biology is not absolute and to have made the claim that he could be jailed when, at worst, he could be fined.
In his defence, Jordan told me if he refused to pay the fine he could go to jail. That is not the same as being jailed for what you say, but it did ennoble him as a would-be martyr in the defence of free speech. He was a true free speech “warrior” who was willing to sacrifice and run roughshod over his students to make a point. He could have spared his students and chosen to sidestep the issue and refer to them by their names. And if this was truly a matter of free speech he could have challenged the Human Rights Act, off-campus and much earlier, by openly using language offensive to any of the already-protected groups on that list.
Perhaps this was not just about free speech.
Subsequent actions by Peterson to oppose legislative attempts by the province of Ontario to defend additional trans rights grew all the more worrisome. Peterson railed against the proposed Bill 28 under the premise that it “subjugates the natural family to the transgender agenda.” First of all, and apropos of nothing, the man missed an obvious opportunity to coin a portmanteau in transgenda. Secondly, what the heck is the “transgender agenda,” anyway? And how does it relate to a bill that sought to change the language about families away from “fathers and mothers” to “parents”? Bernard Schiff, for one, is confused, and I find myself similarly perplexed. You might, too.
This sense of wonderment quickly gives way to genuine fear, meanwhile, when considering Jordan Peterson’s conflation of Marxism, the left, and murderous regimes like those of Joseph Stalin that pervert their professed ideology to serve the purposes of the individual at the helm. Here is where Bernard Schiff’s concerns begin to echo those of Natalie Wynn’s. Wynn explicitly states her belief that Peterson is not a fascist. Whether or not Schiff believes Peterson has fascist tendencies is less clear, though he does make allusions to other people’s characterizations of Peterson and fascists in general, so that might tell you all you need to know. Regardless of exact labels, Schiff sees parallels between Peterson’s anti-Marxist, pro-status-quo language and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist, anti-immigrant fervor. Obviously, this is not a flattering association.
Ultimately, Schiff puts forth that while he may be overstating the potential threat posed by his colleague, to remain silent presents its own risk—one he is not willing to take. Schiff, in suggesting that Peterson does not play by some of his own 12 rules—notably the ones involving assuming the other party knows something you don’t, pursuing what is important and not just what is expedient, telling the truth, and using precise language—expresses regret. Part of that regret lies in his inability to see Peterson’s rise as a self-styled cultural “warrior” coming despite the apparent warning signs. The other half of his regret, if you will, is his role in bringing Peterson to the University of Toronto in the first place. As Schiff plainly writes, “I have been asked by some if I regret my role in bringing Jordan to the University of Toronto. I did not for many years, but I do now.”
Part of what makes Jordan Peterson so frustrating to talk about is his seemingly intentional inscrutability, a quality his devotees laud as a virtue in that the “liberal media” can’t neatly fit him into a box. Indeed, Bernard Schiff goes to great lengths trying to plot out Peterson’s inconsistences. He defiantly asserts his own right to free speech, but then actively tries to steer students away from professors whom he associates with “postmodern neo-Marxism.” He claims to be a champion of scientific research and inquiry but rejects attempts by university administration to scrutinize his methods and cherry-picks data to prove his point. He, like so many conservatives, decries those on the left he sees as willing victims, but plays the martyr when challenged all the same. He’s calm and collected one moment, and angrily confrontational and defensive in the face of criticism the next. It’s a pretty maddening study in contracts.
Equally frustrating is trying to engage Peterson in a conversation on his terms. Natalie Wynn provides examples of Peterson’s rhetorical style, which essentially puts earnest interviewers like Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News in a no-win situation. As Wynn frames it, Peterson verbalizes something generally accepted to be true, while at the same time implying something more controversial and possibly unrelated. For instance, he’ll say that “there are biological differences between men and women,” but in the context of the underrepresentation of women in government. Your apparent choice is either to fall into the trap of arguing against the factual information Peterson presents, or to try infer a meaning by which he can argue that you’re misrepresenting his point of view. Whatever that may be.
Wynn highlights how Peterson used this kind of argument with respect to his famous/infamous “lobster” comment, when he led with a discussion of the notion that human social hierarchies are a construct created by Western patriarchy, and followed that with a note about how lobsters exist in hierarchies and how this structure has existed before Western patriarchy. The problem with this line of discourse, instructs Wynn, is that no one is arguing hierarchies are a product of “Western patriarchy,” and that lobster hierarchies are a non sequitur to the discussion of human social hierarchies. That is, no one is trying to start a lobster revolution. Peterson’s argument, as intellectual as it sounds, is gobbledygook, more or less.
Another oft-cited moment in the Newman-Peterson interview was when Newman asked Peterson why his right to freedom of speech should trump a trans person’s right not to be offended, and Peterson countered by asserting that “in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive,” and answering her question with another question: “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that?” Peterson’s extended response left Newman all but speechless, to which he interjected, “Ha! Gotcha!” Newman, flabbergasted, conceded defeat on this point. This moment is Exhibit A in Peterson’s supporters’ evidence that their icon “won” the interview over Ms. Newman, or “destroyed” her, or “obliterated” her, or did something else to nullify her very existence. Because there has to be a winner or loser in these types of discussions. Right.
Looking back at Peterson’s statements, it’s easier to find the flaws in his reasoning. To equate his personal offense at being challenged to a trans individual’s right to self-identification is a false comparison. This is to say that Peterson’s taking umbrage to a reporter’s queries results in nothing more than his personal irritation, while attacks on personhood for the trans community, a minority group, can lead to continued abuse and physical assaults. It’s not the same thing, something Cathy Newman might’ve been able to express given the time to parse out Peterson’s logic. You or I might’ve found ourselves similarly flummoxed in the same situation against such a skilled orator.
On top of this, Cathy Newman’s reward for attempting to take Jordan Peterson to task for expressed viewpoints and for inadvertently helping to elevate his stature? Numerous vicious personal threats. Peterson did intercede amid the harassment to ask his followers to back off, but his is the kind of sermonizing about the need to defend “Western” culture with obvious appeal to straight white Christian males that lends itself to preemptive strikes against members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, women, and everyone in between. When cultural debates are characterized in the context of a “war,” those who take up the fight with earnest believe all is fair, but this is not automatically the case.
Natalie Wynn ends her segment by abnegating personal responsibility in the debate about Jordan Peterson’s merits, professing she only likes to make YouTube videos for their production value. Bernard Schiff ruefully acknowledges his personal failure in identifying Peterson’s dangerous patterns of behavior and likens his (Peterson’s) desire to preach from the pulpit to the designs of late evangelist Billy Graham. Perhaps there is no single conclusion to be reached about Peterson that would prove satisfactory.
A common thread between the analyses of Wynn and Schiff, though—and one to which I might subscribe in my own thinking—is the idea that maybe those outside his vanguard need to take his meteoric rise more seriously. The “experts” who downplayed the threats of a “Brexit” or a Donald Trump presidency were summarily proven wrong. The hubbub about Jordan Peterson could be much ado about nothing. As with Schiff’s decision not to stay mum, however, do you believe it’s worth the risk of ignoring him?
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In Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers and the HBO program on which it is based, millions of people suddenly vanish from the Earth in a Rapture-like event. Spoiler alert? No, this is the very premise of the book and the show. Besides, you probably weren’t going to read the novel or watch the program anyway, right? OK, now that that’s behind us. In the universe of The Leftovers, a cult-like group called the Guilty Remnant forms in the wake of people’s search for answers and established religion’s immediate failure to explain this mysterious phenomenon. Its members dress all in white, smoke constantly and say nothing. They are agitators, and get into silent confrontations with non-members, but with a purpose: to remind people that they are the leftovers, that this “Sudden Departure” did indeed happen, and that they couldn’t just pretend as if it did not, like it was just another day. If the Guilty Remnant were to be the world’s conscience, as frustrating and inconvenient as they were, so be it.
On Friday, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, with Mike Pence assuming the office of Vice President. No, some 2% of the world’s population did not spontaneously disappear, and yes, as has been the custom, there was an Inauguration Ceremony as with other presidents who have come before Trump. But Donald Trump and his campaign were quite unlike anything we have seen in modern history—and this is not a celebration of that idea. The way Trump conducted his campaign, and the way he conducts his affairs in general, are not normal. The sense of empowerment and entitlement he has given to those who ascribe to an exclusionary, prejudicial and xenophobic worldview, and the acceptance of this element in our society, is not normal. And while the proceedings of Inauguration Day occurred in accordance with tradition, as with the reaction of people to the Sudden Departure, to behave like this ceremony as a culmination of what occurred in this nation over the election cycle is just another day is to engage in serious self-defeating, self-deception. This all is not normal, and we can’t pretend like it is.
Let’s start with what was said during President Trump’s Inauguration speech. A lot of the ideas within it are by now familiar to us, but the tone and a key phrase within it are important to note. Trump, as is his custom, painted a picture that speaks to the United States in a bleak state, and to average American men and women as forgotten. Here is a notable passage from his address:
From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body—and I will never, ever let you down.
America will start winning again, winning like never before.
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work—rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.
We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.
We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world—but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones—and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.
It would be a good speech, if only it weren’t so terrifying and disturbing. In this critical juncture of President Trump’s address, he establishes the theme of his comments and likely of his domestic and foreign policy at large: “America First.” More on that slogan, if you will, in a moment. Trump vows his utmost efforts on behalf of the American people and promises the U.S. will start “winning” like never before, apparently ascribing to Red Sanders’ oft-quoted (and misattributed) view that “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.”
The question a lot of us conscientious objectors would have, though, is at what cost, and that’s where the sentiments within Pres. Trump’s speech get so frightening. As usual, stressing the “Islamic” aspect of terrorism risks conflation of jihadism with Islam at large, thereby increasing the danger to Muslims around the world sympathetic to America’s cause and morally opposed to ISIS. As I’ve heard the analogy before and have used it in my writing, peace-loving law-abiding Muslims are to organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as the Ku Klux Klan is to white Americans who disavow its agenda. Jihadists pervert Islamic principles to suit their own destructive purposes, and though this criticism is nothing new as regards use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” that solidarity with Muslims who live in and love America isn’t made clearer by Trump is nonetheless disappointing.
What’s more, Donald Trump speaks to a “total allegiance” to the United States as a bedrock of our politics, as if plain old regular allegiance is insufficient. As with the insertion of Islam into the abstract concept of radical terrorism, the vagueness of this phrase allows for more sinister interpretations of the language. If everyday Americans seem less committed to patriotism and the U.S. as rabid Trump supporters and jingoists do, do the more fervent believers among them have the President’s blessing to admonish and harass the dissenters? I, in expressing my contempt for Donald Trump shortly after being sworn in, was told by someone on Facebook to “show some f**king respect” and to “move to Canada” if I couldn’t show my American pride—and I feel like I got off light. Moreover, if we talk about allegiance as a bedrock of our nation’s politics, do those who would subvert Trump’s will or stand in opposition to conservative values and Republican ideals become somehow less American? It’s a worrisome inference, to say the least.
Perhaps worst of all, though, is the unfortunate legacy of that phrase “America First.” Christopher Brennan, writing for the New York Daily News, outlines how the America First Committee was an organization formed in 1940 by Gen. Robert E. Wood and Charles Lindbergh (yes, that Charles Lindbergh) which resisted the United States’ intervention to aid Great Britain when it was under attack by Hitler’s forces. As Brennan details, a significant portion of the Committee were Nazi sympathizers, and if we know our history, Lindbergh traveled to Nazi Germany numerous times and even received a medal from the Third Reich. Wait, you’re thinking, Trump is stupid—he has no idea of the historical implications of what he’s saying. Except for the idea the Anti-Defamation League has already asked Trump not to use the phrase owing to its associations with fascism and anti-Semitism. Regardless, President Trump’s ignorance on this count would be dubious at best. In all likelihood, Trump is speaking in coded language, appealing to those who bleed red, white and blue at the superficial level, and giving a nod to alt-righters, neo-Nazis and white supremacists in any form. Our President or Mein Führer? With a hint of sadness, I’ll note the allusion is not as crazy as it might seem.
If Donald Trump’s swearing in as the 45th President of the United States was the culmination of a brutal election season, the confirmation hearings for various Trump Cabinet appointees leading up to the Inauguration could presage a likewise unbearable agenda for his administration. It is one thing that a number of them seem to espouse positions that run contrary to what a majority of Americans believe, and certainly speak to views which fly in the face of what more liberal Democrats and progressives hope to achieve. It is another, however, that they appear to be woefully unqualified for their intended office if not wholly incompetent, or otherwise seem to possess a rather cavalier attitude given they are representing the American public and are supposed to be acting in its interest. Here are the nominees for whom hearings have been held so far (not listed are Gens. James Mattis and John F. Kelly, who represent the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, respectively, and who already were confirmed prior to this writing):
Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson
January 11’s scheduled hearings for Cabinet picks saw two heavy-hitters tested on their qualifications fairly early in the confirmation process. Jeff Sessions, Pres. Trump’s pick for Attorney General, to his credit, said he would oppose the use of torture by military personnel, as well as a ban on Muslims entering the country and a registry for Muslim Americans, three things that Trump insisted on throughout his campaign. On the other hand, though, Sessions harped on the criticism that police forces have received for doing their jobs in the wake of high-profile shooting incidents—without much apparent credence to civilian deaths—did little to nothing to allay concerns that he respects civil rights, specifically voting rights, and seems to have intentions for his would-be department, the Department of Justice, to more vigorously enforce immigration law. As someone who has been met with allegations of racism in the past concerning his record during his tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, despite his insistence he will uphold and enforce existing laws, seems only somewhat committed to issues affecting blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, and women, among other groups. Not entirely surprising coming from a moneyed white male (Sessions’ estimated worth is about $6 million), but surely not altogether encouraging at the start of a presidency of a man with historically-low approval ratings.
That Sessions seemed to soften on certain hard-line stances meant his hearing was still uneven in light of his judicial and legislative record, but nonetheless, he made his bid for confirmation more plausible, if not highly likely. Rex Tillerson, um, did not fare as well in his confirmation hearing, as Tessa Stuart of Rolling Stone indicated in a feature article. Among the points during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing which merited criticism of Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State—which is, by the way, a natural stepping stone for a CEO of ExxonMobil, a role that does not require specific foreign policy experience:
He wouldn’t say if he supported sanctions against Russia if it turned out allegations that the Russians tried to interfere in the U.S. presidential election were true, and claimed he has yet to have an in-depth conversation about Russia with Donald Trump.
He claimed to have no knowledge of ExxonMobil’s attempt to lobby against sanctions against Russia, when in fact, the company had and Tillerson was involved in conversations about these matters.
He deferred to the notion he would need to see more intelligence before labeling Vladimir Putin a war criminal despite allegations the Russians targeted and killed civilians alongside the Syrian government army, not to mention well-documented accounts of having political rivals and critics of Putin murdered.
He similarly dismissed the human rights violations of Rodrigo Duterte’s administration in the Philippines and the treatment of women in countries like Saudi Arabia.
He expressed support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
He would not commit to the Paris climate accord.
He acknowledged that climate change exists, but wouldn’t comment on whether or not humans play a role in it, and when asked by Sen. Tim Kaine on whether or not he lacks the expertise to answer the question or the will, he quipped, “A little of both.”
He said that despite being with the company for some 40 years, he had no knowledge of whether not ExxonMobil has done business with Iran, Sudan or Syria.
When asked specifically by Tim Kaine regarding the evidence that Exxon knew about the role humans play in affecting climate change and funded efforts and research contrary to this science, Tillerson claimed he could not comment because he was no longer part of the company. Because apparently, when you resign from an executive post, your memory is wiped along with it.
Rex Tillerson’s experience with the oil industry and his ties to Russian interests and Putin in them of themselves made him a questionable pick for Secretary of State. Now with his testimony on record, the doubts are stronger and more numerous. Tillerson shouldn’t be confirmed for Secretary of State, even though he probably will be owing to the Republican majority in the Senate.
Ben Carson, Elaine Chao, Michael Pompeo
Ben Carson, like Rex Tillerson, was nominated for a position in Secretary of Housing and Urban Development that his personal experience in no way prepares him to hold. As aloof as he often seemed during his presidential campaign despite, you know, possessing the acumen to be a freaking neurosurgeon, Carson largely managed to hold his own, although it should be noted that observers described efforts by Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike to challenge him on his qualifications as fairly tepid. The tensest moments came from lines of inquiry from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown. Warren asked Carson point blank about whether or not he could assure the Senate and the American people that any HUD money would not be lining the pockets of Pres. Trump, a question he seemed ill prepared to answer. Brown, meanwhile, confronted Ben Carson on how his department could avoid conflicts of interest with Donald Trump given his family’s involvement in at least one subsidized housing project, and though he expressed his willingness to work with the committee, again, he didn’t seem to have much of an idea of his own. Ben Carson realistically won’t always be able to phone a friend, if you will. So, while he wasn’t Rex Tillerson bad, he wasn’t top-notch either.
Elaine Chao, in the running for Department of Transportation, like Carson, while not offering anything that raised any giant red flags, similarly didn’t offer a lot of specifics for the possible direction of her agency, especially as a subset of the Trump administration. All in all, though, most in attendance were in agreement that Chao seems highly qualified for her position, with the various reports covering Chao’s hearing describing it as a “love-fest” full of laughs and smiles, or otherwise referring to her “skating” through her confirmation process. So, yeah, Elaine Chao looks like she’s good as gold regarding her nomination, and I maintain her most questionable bit of judgment preceded her hearing: that of marrying Mitch McConnell. Sorry, I just can’t with that guy.
And then there’s Mike Pompeo. Despite positions expressed during his tenure as Senator from Kansas, Pompeo seemed to allay concerns that he was not a dogmatic follower of hardline conservative principles. He pledged to defy President Trump if asked to resume torture as a primary interrogation technique, expressed his belief that the conclusion reached by U.S. intelligence leaders that Russia tried to intervene in our election, in part, to help Trump was a sound one, and vowed that he would “speak truth to power” if confirmed as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. So, basically, Mike Pompeo promised not to be Donald Trump. Atta boy, Mike! In the time I took to write this post, Pompeo has been confirmed, so that hurdle has been cleared, but as CIA Director, his greatest test may just be beginning, namely that of getting his agency and the President himself to work together. Because right now, quite frankly, they ain’t. Thus, while I wouldn’t have nominated Pompeo in the first place, I wish him the best of luck. Because I wouldn’t wish Trump on my worst enemy, let alone the head of the CIA. Best of luck, Mike—you’re gonna need it.
Betsy DeVos, Ryan Zinke
We’ll get to Ms. DeVos in a moment. First, let’s skip ahead to Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Zinke, like other Cabinet picks of Pres. Trump’s, may acknowledge climate change exists in the abstract and therefore diverges from the belief that it is an outright hoax, but it is still dangerously reluctant to recognize the role we humans play in contributing to effects like global warming. This stance is significant, because Zinke, as head of the Department of the Interior, would oversee all federal lands as well as the resources on and below them. This means he could and likely would be instrumental in opening expanses up to coal mining and oil and gas drilling that were previously unavailable for these purposes under Barack Obama. Seeing as Trump has already signed executive orders to revive the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone Pipeline XL extension, Ryan Zinke is poised to be a partner in crime—that is, “crime” against the environment—and should be admonished as a nominee for his intended position.
Speaking of admonishment, the hearing for Betsy DeVos, tapped for Secretary of Education, rivaled if not surpassed Rex Tillerson’s review in terms of being, as the kids call it, a “hot mess.” DeVos, apparently, is to knowledge of the United States education system as Sarah Palin is to mastery of U.S. geography. Among the revelations from Betsy DeVos’s hearing:
She evidently believes guns should be in schools, or at least won’t commit to the idea schools should be gun-free zones.
She expressed the belief the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) should be left to the states to apply, despite this being a federal law.
She would not agree to the idea all schools which receive federal funding should be held equally accountable.
She would not commit to enforcing gainful employment regulations which prevent for-profit universities and other career training programs which bury students in debt with little ability to repay from receiving federal subsidies.
She did not appear to understand the accountability debate regarding whether testing should measure students and schools based on proficiency or growth.
She did not answer a direct question about the failure of charter schools and other “school choice” iterations to perform markedly better than public schools. Probably because she and her children have never spent a day enrolled in public school and, what’s more, she has a vested financial interest in K12, an online charter-school and home school curriculum resource. As usual, it helps to follow the money.
In short, Betsy DeVos doesn’t have a clue about the state of education in America at large, especially public education. She should be nowhere near a department as critical as the Department of Education, or any federal public office, for that matter.
Nikki Haley, Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, Wilbur Ross
Wilbur Ross, like Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire. Unlike DeVos, however, he, from nearly all accounts, acquitted himself quite nicely of his ability to serve in the capacity for which he was nominated: that of Secretary of Commerce. Certainly, his tone on important economic issues was appreciably more moderate (and sensible) than that of the President, and though this is not a particularly high bar to clear, he seemed better prepared and more readily forthcoming than either Betsy DeVos or Rex Tillerson. Wilbur Ross is not necessarily above criticism, as he, like so many within the Trump administration not to mention the man himself, comes with concern about potential conflicts of interest due to his shipping investments. This notwithstanding, his expertise and support from labor leaders makes Ross a likely confirmation, and quite possibly the best of the bunch (again, perhaps not a particularly high bar to clear).
Now then—let’s get to the other riff-raff, shall we? Nikki Haley, who, like Mike Pompeo, has been confirmed by the Senate since I began this post, will serve as the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations. This despite having any foreign policy experience. Welcome to Donald Trump’s Cabinet—actual qualifications need not apply. At the very least, Haley said she favored a tougher stance and the preservation of sanctions against Russia, condemned the extrajudicial killings of Rodrigo Duterte’s regime in the Philippines, cautioned a measured approach in deciding whether or not to scrap the Iran nuclear deal, and said she opposes the creation of a Muslim registry. On the other hand, she seems to echo Trump’s strongly pro-Israel stance on the Middle East, and even supports the controversial relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. As with Secy. Pompeo, Nikki Haley has my best wishes, and I similarly hope her appointment won’t be one we look back on with regret.
Where there’s good, though, there is frequently the bad and the ugly, and Scott Pruitt is where the January 18 hearings start to slide downward. Scott Pruitt has been nominated for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency he has sued (unsuccessfully, at that) some 14 times as Oklahoma Attorney General, and one which he has explicitly referenced as deserving of having its regulatory power diminished and has accused of an “activist agenda,” as if activism is an inherent force to be resisted. So it should be no surprise, though no less disheartening, that Pruitt professed that his feelings on climate change were immaterial and would not commit to the idea humans play a significant role in promoting it, nor would he give credence to the idea man-made air pollution could be behind the comparatively high rates of asthma in his state. And talk about ethical concerns—Scott Pruitt has received buku bucks from the energy industry, notably from fossil fuel companies. He is not only arguably highly incompetent, but a shameless shill for Big Oil as well, and in no way should be confirmed for the post of Secretary of the EPA, let alone being considered for it.
Tom Price, meanwhile, is no stud in his own right, as he possesses his own bevy of ethical concerns to weigh, including failure to disclose late tax payments which were discovered upon further investigation, improper valuation of shares he owns in an Australian pharmaceutical company, allegations of insider trading with respect to those shares, and proposing legislation which would benefit other investments of his. All this on top of concerns that Republicans’ desire to repeal ObamaCare comes without a credible and fair replacement and that the GOP appears to want to turn the current Medicaid system into a “block grant” format that conceivably would make access to health care more difficult for more disadvantaged Americans. Price, simply put, is a poor choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Or as Happy Gilmore once so eloquently put it, “The [P]rice is wrong, bitch.”
Rick Perry, Steve Mnuchin
Last but not least—OK, well, possibly least—we have the likes of Rick Perry and Steve Mnuchin. Perry, as been oft referenced, once was responsible for a gaffe in which he forgot the name of a third agency he would get rid of as President during a Republican Party debate. That third department, as it turned out, was the Department of Energy—the very department he is now being asked to preside over. I see you starting to pour into that shot glass over there, and I’m with you, my friend. Perry, to his credit, seems to see value in renewable energy sources, but like Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke and Rex Tillerson and God knows how many other Republicans, doesn’t place a great deal of weight on the human factor in climate change. Rick Perry’s intended “all-of-the-above” approach is indeed a bit problematic when considering that a major point of the DOE is trying to make energy more affordable for Americans. Also, concerning nuclear power, which falls under the Department of Energy’s banner, a critical issue is how to store nuclear weaponry and nuclear waste, and while Perry seems open to suggestions, he doesn’t seem to have many concrete ideas on his end. To put it bluntly, Rick Perry was a dumb choice in the first place for this post, and from what I’ve seen and heard of him, he seems like kind of a dick (see also his potshot at Sen. Al Franken during the review for being a former cast member of Saturday Night Live). Even if he didn’t flunk his hearing outright, I can’t seriously consider him for Secretary of the DOE.
Speaking of kind of a dick, it’s Steve Mnuchin, who, apropos of nothing, I have a persistent urge to want to call Steve Munchkin. Mnuchin, Pres. Trump’s Secretary of Treasury nominee, has a checkered past that raises serious doubts about his worthiness for his intended role. Most notable is his legacy as the “foreclosure king” during his time as OneWest Bank, and the committee had plenty of testimony at its disposal from OneWest customers with their horror stories from during Mnuchin’s tenure. Yet again, there were failures to disclose critical financial information regarding real estate and other assets totaling upwards of $95 million, as well as troubling ethical positions revealed in Steve Mnuchin’s past assistance of helping clients avoid taxes through tax havens. As with Rick Perry, even if he didn’t crash and burn, on principle, I can’t get behind Munchkin. Dammit, I mean, Mnuchin.
Donald Trump’s blustering rhetoric is worrisome, especially, um, the whole allusion to anti-Semitism bit, but ironically, much as he chides lawmakers for being “all talk, no action,” we know some if not a lot of what he said in his Inauguration speech stands to be empty promises. Trump’s picks for key government positions, on the whole, are troubling, for when they are not flagrantly unqualified or engaging in activities that are borderline unethical/illegal, tend to be sparing on specifics regarding how they would achieve what they profess they and President Trump wish to accomplish. Still, there is the chance that some of these nominees won’t be confirmed, even if remote, and either way, we’ve survived idiots holding public office over the years. My, have we survived it. From my perspective, though, maybe the most frightening sign of what’s to come from a Donald Trump presidency, especially if left unchecked, is his administration’s relationship to the press and to objective facts. In what may be the example par excellence of the slippery slope Trump and his lackeys are greasing, both press secretary Sean Spicer and whatever-the-heck-she’s-technically-considered Kellyanne Conway tried to argue that Donald Trump’s crowds in attendance for the Inauguration were the biggest in U.S. history. This is objectively false, and there’s no getting around it either, for Trump didn’t even manage to surpass his predecessor in this regard, let alone all previous American presidents, or even the Women’s March throngs in protest of his presidency the day after.
Spicer, though, for his part, held a press conference with the apparent intention of dispelling the myth that President Trump’s ceremony wasn’t the biggest and best in our nation’s recorded history, in fact, his first press conference of the term. The Washington Post offers an excellent transcript of this moment annotated by political reporter Chris Cillizza. Within his annotations, Cillizza notes the following:
Sean Spicer cited numbers regarding how many people can physically fit in proscribed sections of the National Mall, saying “we know” this much, but these have the ring of guesses more than anything.
Spicer claimed Metro public transit numbers from Inauguration Day for Pres. Trump exceeded those of Obama’s two ceremonies, but this is simply inaccurate. Donald Trump managed just over 570,000 people, based on numbers from the Metro. Barack Obama, meanwhile, accrued 1.1 million in 2009, and 782,000 in 2013. The math doesn’t lie.
Spicer alleged Trump, in his recent visit with the CIA, was greeted by a raucous crowd of some 400-plus employees, but Cillizza characterizes this visit as mostly—surprise, surprise!—another attack on the media, and the 300 to 400 attendance were likely mostly Trump supporters.
Spicer attacked the media specifically for “sowing division about tweets and false narratives,” as if the press is supposed to cater to the whims of the White House.
Spicer uttered this: “This kind of dishonesty in the media, the challenging—that bringing about our nation together is making it more difficult.”
On that last count, Chris Cillizza was notably, for lack of a better word, defiant. And I quote:
The idea that the media “challenging” (Sean’s words) claims made by Trump and his team somehow undermines an effort to bring the country together is simply a false choice. The media’s job is to probe and prod to make sure that what is being sold as fact from the White House – ANY White House – checks out. A healthy democracy includes a free and independent press keeping those in power accountable to those who they govern. Period.
Sean Spicer, too, advanced the notion that the press should be held accountable, which Cillizza agrees with and you and I can get on board with as well. However, as Chris Cillizza points out and as is critical to stress, the press shouldn’t be threatened or intimidated for doing its job, which is the tone Spicer strikes here. And he also probably shouldn’t walk off without taking any questions. Which is what he did. So much for a “press conference” where you don’t actually talk to the namesake of the term. Not an encouraging start to this relationship, no, Sir or Madam.
If Sean Spicer’s first press conference was a serving of state-controlled ice cream, Kellyanne Conway’s interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press was the whipped cream and cherry on top. As with Spicer, the theme was the tally of Trump supporters and others in attendance at the inauguration proceedings, and the veracity of his administration’s claims. Chuck Todd, in fact, asked Conway about Spicer’s press conference in particular:
You make a very reasonable and rational case for why crowd sizes don’t matter. Then explain…why did the president send out his press secretary, who’s not just the spokesperson for Donald Trump? He could be—he also serves as the spokesperson for all of America at times. He speaks for all of the country at times. Why put him out there for the very first time in front of that podium to utter a provable falsehood? It’s a small thing. But the first time he confronts the public it’s a falsehood?
Chuck, I mean, if we’re going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms I think that we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here. I want to have a great open relationship with our press. But look what happened the day before talking about falsehoods. We allowed the press…to come into the Oval Office and witness President Trump signing executive orders. And of course, you know, the Senate had just confirmed General Mattis and General Kelly to their two posts. And we allowed the press in. And what happens almost immediately? A falsehood is told about removing the bust of Martin Luther King Junior from the Oval Office.
This is what my father and I refer to as a “yeah-but.” Yeah, Ms. Conway, TIME Magazine Zeke Miller initially reported he thought a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office, but he was mistaken, and moved to correct himself in the minutes and hours after the fact, issuing multiple mea culpas in the process. This was just one detail, and Conway was rather obviously dodging the question, which is why Chuck Todd pressed her on the issue of the crowd size:
You did not answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood. Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office on Day One.
And this is how Kellyanne Conway replied, and I am not making this up:
Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What—you’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.
Todd did not let Conway off the hook, telling her, “Alternative facts are not facts—they’re falsehoods,” but I must stress this attitude, above all else, goes to the point I made in the opening to this piece. Conway’s thinly-veiled threat about having to “rethink” her and the White House’s relationship with Chuck Todd, as well as the sheer notion something like “alternative facts” could exist, speaks to the dangerous state of affairs we are in regarding the perceived role of news media, the perceived power of the President and his surrogates, and the perceived value of observable facts over strongly-held opinions. The press is not beholden to the Trump administration. President Trump should not be allowed to think he can do whatever he wants in violation of ethics and international law just because he won the electoral vote this past November. Furthermore, the veracity of factual information should not be determined by who yells loudest, interrupts the most or acts the most threatening. For anyone believing Donald Trump’s presidency is some sort of “new normal,” it is not and should not be treated as such.
So, after 5,000+ words, what am I trying to say? We of the Resistance should develop a smoking habit, dress all in white, and become mute? No, the Guilty Remnant as a creation of fiction is enough in it of itself. Rather, any way we can question the legitimacy of Donald Trump and his Cabinet where this scrutiny is due, or to reject the authoritarian and prejudicial aspects of his presidency, is encouraged. I try to inject humor into these entries when I can, and I applaud acts like the Dallas Stars jokingly displaying the night’s attendance as 1.5 million on the Jumbotron in an homage to Trump and Company’s wayward estimations of the Inauguration ceremony’s attendance, or Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account defining the word “fact” for Kellyanne Conway’s sake. By and large, however, these are not laughing matters and, indeed, these are troubling times. For those of us who haven’t fallen for Trump hook, line and sinker, we are the Leftovers who have to try to make sense of the apparent Sudden Departure of many here in the United States from the realm of sanity.