Since Senator John McCain passed away after a protracted battle with brain cancer, the tributes have been pouring in from members of the media and political figures on both the left and right. He’s being hailed as a war hero, a maverick, a politician who put country first, and someone who brought dignity to his position as a legislator. He’s also being lauded for changing the way presidential campaigns are run, in that he provided journalists with more access than was the standard at the time.
Hop on Twitter and start digging, however, and you’ll find no shortage of comments from his detractors who, if not downright gleeful about McCain’s death, are devoted to dispelling the myth the media has created about the senator from Arizona. As author Dan Arel tweeted, “He was a monster who killed civilians in Vietnam, voted to kill civilians as a senator, tried to block Martin Luther King Day, sang about bombing Iran…I can keep going. He was a horrible human being and we should be celebrating his death.” But please, Mr. Arel—tell us how you really feel.
In no uncertain terms, therefore, John McCain was a divisive figure in U.S. politics, and since the mainstream media already has the extolling of his supposed virtues covered, let’s get another viewpoint from the vocal minority who has little, if any, praise to spare.
Paul Blest, news editor for Splinter News, wrote a piece shortly after McCain’s passing detailing “the myth of John McCain.” As Blest explains, the media helped McCain craft his image as a “maverick” and “honorable statesman” because, aside from his status as a war hero, he was “always willing to give the media access, the thing it craves above all.”
As such, the press lionized him for doing, as Blest characterizes it, the “bare-ass minimum.” One instance highlighted within is when, during a 2008 town hall, one of McCain’s supporters professed that she was worried Barack Obama might become president because he is “an Arab,” to which McCain replied by taking the microphone, shaking his head, and saying that he’s not an Arab but a “decent family man.”
Members of the media point to this example as emblematic of his extraordinary character, viewing the decade-old clip through rose-colored glasses. Blest and others have pointed out, meanwhile, that a truly meritorious response would’ve been to point out that even if Obama were an Arab, this would not be reason to fear or loathe him, i.e. being an Arab and a decent family man aren’t diametrically opposed.
Another instance of the press celebrating John McCain occurred when he cast his vote against the GOP’s attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In keeping his proverbial cards close to the vest until the last minute, McCain brought a wealth of media attention his way, and prior to entering the Senate chamber, reportedly told reporters to “watch the show.” McCain’s tone here belies the seriousness of the vote about to be cast. Over 20 million Americans were projected to have their health care plans disrupted by a repeal of the ACA. That’s not something to equate with popcorn entertainment.
Thus, while McCain’s willingness to stand apart from his fellow Republican lawmakers when it suited him (see also his opposition to confirming Gina Haspel as CIA director) shouldn’t go unmentioned, as Blest argues, that cases like these were few and far between should give us pause and force us to reconsider his legacy.
One area that really sets John McCain apart—and not in a good way, mind you—is his history as an unrepentant hawk. McCain’s was a leading voice in pushing for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, even past the point when people were considering it a failure and waste of resources, human or otherwise. He also advocated for war with Iran, and celebrated President Donald Trump’s reversal on the Iran nuclear deal. To many, McCain is, simply put, a warmonger, and the decision to name the bill authorizing an exorbitant defense budget for 2019 after him is therefore apropos.
In addition to his beating the drums of armed conflict, and for all his ballyhooed departures from Trump—which the president has treated with his characteristic pettiness in affronts to him beyond the grave—McCain still voted in league with Trump some five-sixths of the time. This included supporting the nomination of Neil Gorsuch and the ability of a Republican-led Congress to block Obama’s pick, as well as voting for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a bill that primarily favored the super-wealthy.
And then there’s John McCain as presidential candidate. His correcting the record on Barack Obama aside, he still agreed to name Sarah Palin, someone clearly not suited to be next in line to run the country (or perhaps any public office of relative import), his running mate in 2008. Arguably, Palin’s rise in prominence gave way to the ascendancy of Donald Trump, for both have been elevated to national political stature owing to rhetoric steeped in factual inadequacy and prejudicial attitudes.
Plus, there’s his whole unapologetic commitment to use of the term “gook,” a racial slur directed at Asians. Even if he meant it primarily for his North Vietnamese captors, it’s still an epithet that Asians and non-Asians alike find offensive. Context notwithstanding, words matter, even (read: especially so) in the era of Trump.
In light of all of the above, and despite tribute after tribute in newspapers and on cable news, Blest suggests McCain’s place in American political history shouldn’t be so highly esteemed. He writes:
McCain’s political legacy should be largely that of someone who frequently and loudly toyed with doing the right thing and yet decided to do the other thing almost every single time, and who was a willing and active participant in the destruction of one country and helping the racist, authoritarian right rise in his own. What John McCain’s legacy will be, however, is the one crafted by the reporters and peers who loved him, who bought hook, line, and sinker that McCain was a different kind of politician, and not the fraud he actually was.
This is blunt talk coming from Blest, and in the immediate aftermath of McCain’s death, his words may come across to some as disrespectful, notably given McCain’s bipartisan acclaim. Just the same, though, Blest’s dissent appears more firmly rooted in patriotic concerns than Pres. Trump’s personal grudge, and at any rate, is authentic to how many Americans feel, particularly those of a progressive bent. These feelings, of course, may be magnified given the day’s tense political climate. But it doesn’t make them any less valid.
It’s admittedly difficult to approach John McCain’s memory with anything but reverence if we focus only on how much the man suffered while imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Certainly, if one recalls the late David Foster Wallace’s extensive profile for Rolling Stone of McCain while on the campaign trail circa 2000, his recounting of the physical abuse the man endured as a naval officer tells of a man committed to his principles and exhibiting a resolve few could hope to match. From Wallace’s piece:
In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and ﬂying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb.
His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a riﬂe butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this.
He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.
He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused. The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code.
The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.
But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest.
It’s episodes like this that John McCain’s backers can easily point to as evidence as a man of a certain character. I don’t know about you, but I don’t suspect I would fare particularly well under these circumstances. I mean, I’m the kind of person who freaks out when I can’t log into Pokémon Go because the server is down momentarily. By this token, four-plus years of physical and psychological torture seems like an impossibility.
And yet, it’s precisely because of what McCain saw and survived during wartime that makes his less savory political stances all the more frustrating. For him to witness or even be party to the atrocities of armed conflict and to turn around and to embrace a foreign policy that prizes indiscriminate bombing of foreign lands and wanton regime change is hard to process. It’s incongruous with the image of the younger man holding strong in a strange land against a hostile enemy, and surely flies in the face of the glowing portrait the mainstream press appears keen to paint.
John McCain’s hagiographic appeal in an era in which Donald Trump and current Republican leadership evidently seek to drag the party down to its darkest depths is such that even the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have paid him tribute, much to the chagrin of their supporters.
It’s disappointing and frustrating, especially since it’s hard to know whether these champions of progressive ideals legitimately believe his “legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service,” as Ocasio-Cortez phrased it, or if they feel compelled to do so for fear of reprisal—and for that matter, which of these is worse. Maybe it’s just that they respect our Armed Forces like most Americans do, even in the face of the military’s ugliest acts, or that from working alongside him (in the case of Sanders and Warren), their sense of personal attachment prevents them from viewing his record more objectively.
Lapses like these are why, in the pursuit of a more progressive vision for the United States of America, it is often more rewarding to be invested in individual issues rather than individual candidates. In this regard, the postmortem borderline deification of Sen. McCain is already excessive, much in the way, for instance, liberals’ elevation of Barack Obama obscures his less commendable devotion to centrism and capitulation to Wall Street and other moneyed interests.
Suffice it to say, then, that not everyone was thrilled with the political career of John McCain, and as far as his legacy is concerned, it should be mixed. Alas, the whitewashing of that legacy appears already underway, a subset of the larger tendency to view long-tenured lawmakers like McCain as sacrosanct, the kinds of leaders we want to see rather than the complicated, flawed humans they are.
In November of 2017, avid Donald Trump supporter Mark Lee, as part of a panel of Trump voters speaking with CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, spoke about Trump’s possible collusion with Russia in the context of religious faith. His comments, which made the rounds on the 24-hour news cycle/water-cooler political discussion loop, were truly astonishing to many. Here’s the one that had people, if not up in arms, scratching their heads:
Let me tell you, if Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia, I would tell him, “Hold on a second: I need to check with the president if it is true.” That is how confident I feel in the president.
You read that right. Hold on, Mr. Savior, I have to ask President Trump if what you’re saying is God’s honest truth. Beyond the seeming absurdity of this scenario—Jesus returned just to tell Trump supporters about his connection with Russia?—the expressed faith in Trump above all others (and I am not using the word faith lightly) was duly baffling.
When Camerota pressed Lee for additional context, Lee, a pest control business owner who expressed vague notions of Trump being an advocate of the little guy, America-first, a drainer of the swamp, and a non-politician, stressed his belief that Trump is a good person, and that he (Trump) “has taken so many shots for us.” Presumably, that “us” is the American people, and any backlash is related to jealousy of his constant “winning.” Dude can’t help it if he’s so famous, handsome, and rich—that’s just how he rolls.
Any number of observers might choose not to share Mark Lee’s views. Heck, I sure don’t. Still, as extreme as Lee’s stances might seem, they may not be that far off from other people’s admiration for or faith in the current President of the United States. Reza Aslan, author, commentator, intellectual, and religious scholar, recently authored a video for Big Think about his notion that the Trump presidency is a religious cult. At first blush, Aslan’s comments might seem as grandiose as Lee’s. Trump as a cult leader? And his devotees are the ones who have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid?
For all our skepticism, though, Aslan does make his case in a very well-thought-out manner. First, before we even get to “why” certain Americans feel compelled to hold up Donald Trump, there’s the matter of “who.” Aslan cites a statistic that 81% of white evangelists who voted in the 2016 election went for Trump. That’s pretty significant, especially when considering that’s a higher percentage than George W. Bush received, an actual white evangelical. What else is significant about this figure? Well, for one, 67% of evangelicals of color who voted cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton. Thus, when Aslan instructs us not to ignore that there is a racial element to Trump’s support, we would be quick to agree that he ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.
As to why, however, white evangelicals “acted more white than evangelical” in their backing of Trump, as Aslan and others have put it, one element Aslan points to is the influence of what is known as the prosperity gospel. Loosely speaking, this is the idea that financial success is God’s blessing, and through faith, preaching the word of God, and, of course, generous donations, one’s material wealth will increase. In other words, if the Lord didn’t want you to have that Mercedes-Benz, he wouldn’t have made it so dadgum shiny. This is the sort of Christianity that Aslan explicitly dismisses and rejects, associating it with the likes of “charlatans” like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, but given Trump’s boasts of wealth and ostentatious displays of such, it makes sense that Christians who adhere to this doctrine would back him, even when his spiritual credentials are, er, lacking.
Additionally, Aslan points to Trump’s promises to afford secular benefits to white evangelical groups and other religious affiliations. In Trump’s apparently ambiguous vows to “give them back their power,” Aslan points to Trump’s willingness to defend Christians in their goal of making a stand on specific issues—even if he may not agree with their positions on those underlying issues—as well as his indication of intent, for instance, to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations like churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Just a few days ago, Trump signed an executive order directing the Department of the Treasury not to find churches guilty of “implied endorsements” much as secular organizations wouldn’t be. Never mind that this could help create a slippery slope that allows churches to bypass campaign finance laws and effectually become partisan super PACs. That sweet, sweet support from the religious right is too much to ignore.
Meanwhile, all of this may merely be prologue to a separate conversation we need to be having about Donald Trump, morality, evangelicals, and the intersection of the Venn diagram of their circles. As Reza Aslan insists, none of the above explains why white evangelicals have gone from a voting bloc that has insisted on a candidate’s morality as a significant qualification for office to one that eschews such concerns—in the span of one election cycle, no less. To reinforce this idea, Aslan highlights the fact that, re Trump, self-identifying atheists were more likely to consider morality as important than white evangelicals. So much for being “values voters.”
As Aslan reasons, this is more than can be reasoned away by talk of race or the prosperity gospel or the Johnson Amendment, and points to a different conclusion: that Trump, his presidency, and his most influential supporters have turned a significant portion of his white evangelical base into a religious cult, and a dangerous one at that. From where he (Aslan) stands, all the signs are there. For one, he points to Trump’s infamous remark that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose votes as being a kind of prophetic revelation. Aslan also alludes to statements made by Pat Robertson that he (Robertson) had a dream in which God took him up to Heaven and Trump was seated at His right hand—the space traditionally reserved for Jesus Christ—and Robert Jeffress, Robertson’s pastor, who said that he (Jeffress) prefers Trump as a candidate to someone “who expresses the values of Jesus.” Suddenly, Mark Lee doesn’t sound so out of place.
The implications, in short, are scary. As Aslan instructs, cults, particularly when confronted by the realities of the world, do not tend to end well. The Trump presidency, for all its claims of stability and success, by most objective accounts is on the brink of collapse, its central figure “spiraling out of control,” as Aslan puts it, and the subject of regular conversations about impeachment or other removal. In the perhaps likely event that leadership fails, the response for cult followers is often to double down on the group’s mantra, and this creates, at least in Aslan’s mind, a very perilous situation for the country at large. As he closes his address, “The only thing more dangerous than a cult leader like Trump is a martyred cult leader.” Ominous, indeed.
Reza Aslan is a religious scholar, and since he often approaches worldly matters from a spiritual frame of reference, even with his treatise on why Donald Trump’s presidency is a religious cult, there would likely be doubters and dissenters on this point. On the right, because so much of politics these days involves taking sides, this is all but a given. Naysayers would undoubtedly highlight Aslan’s Iranian heritage and Muslim beliefs (in reality, his faith is more complex, having been born into a Shia Muslim family, converting to evangelical Christianity, and then converting back to Muslim, all while largely regarding religion as nothing more than a series of metaphors and symbols designed to express one’s faith), as well as his anti-Trump animus (after Trump’s comments on the 2017 terrorist attack in London in which a van struck and killed pedestrians on London, Aslan referred to POTUS as a “piece of shit” and “man baby,” comments that, ahem, didn’t go over too well with then-employer CNN). Never mind that that Aslan is a theologian and literally talks about, thinks about, and writes about this stuff for a living. Because he doesn’t care much for Trump, his opinions must therefore be invalid, right?
For the non-shameless-Trump-backers among us, though, there might similarly be reluctance to characterize the President’s following in terms of a destructive religious cult, since these societies tend to remind us of devices of works of fiction set in apocalyptic times. To this, I submit people may be understating just how abnormal Trump and his presidency are. Besides, as many would aver, we are in the midst of a crisis right now, one primarily borne of climate concerns, but not without worry over its political stability. Trump just pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal without an apparent replacement strategy. Does this make the world safer? Does this instill confidence that the U.S. is a country that honors its agreements and is therefore worthy of trust? On both counts, the answer is a resounding “no,” and that should inspire concern from Americans regardless of their political orientation.
Then again, maybe it’s just that devout Christians can be hypocrites or otherwise twist the Bible to suit their purposes. Phil Zuckerman, professor at Pitzer College and someone who specializes in studies of atheism and secularity, among other topics, penned an essay shortly after Donald Trump’s upset 2016 electoral victory regarding the role of religion in the election’s outcome. Zuckerman—who also cites the statistic about 81% of white evangelicals voting for Trump, as well as 56% of American voters who attend church at least once a week going for the orange-skinned one—points to other disappointing tendencies of the Christian right.
For one, they tend to regard men as superior leaders and reinforce values that support male dominance over obeisant females. They also hate, hate, hate homosexuals, and tend to fear and hate other religions, dividing people into a saved-unsaved binary. Furthermore, fundamentalist Christians place a stronger emphasis on authoritarianism, and mistrust and reject the science which clashes with their faith. Or, as Zuckerman frames this, they are a sanctimonious lot, a subdivision of the American electorate that touts morals and yet voted en masse to elect someone in Trump who is the epitome of immorality. As with Aslan’s criticisms, people would be wont to use context to dismiss Zuckerman’s views. He made these comments not long after Election Day, and thus was probably harboring strong feelings at the time of his piece’s publication. Also, he’s interested mainly in secular studies. Maybe he just hates religious types. PROFESSOR, YOUR BIAS IS SHOWING.
Maybe, maybe not. Irrespective of Reza Aslan’s invectives directed at President Trump and Phil Zuckerman’s discontent with strong Christians for voting for someone clearly not of the same mold, this sense of devotion to Trump by a significant portion of the American people is startling and disconcerting, especially in light of the comparisons between Trump and Jesus. These are the same kinds of “values voters” who, say, conceive of gun ownership as a God-given right. Fun fact: the right to bear arms is a constitutional amendment contained in the Bill of Rights, not one of the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not kill. Gun ownership increases the likelihood you will violate this precept. How does one reconcile these two apparently competing interests?
One oft-cited biblical passage, Matthew 10:34, in which Jesus is believed to have said that he “did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” may just as well speak to Christ’s existence dividing (as a sword would cut) people based on their belief, if not a faulty translation from the original Koine Greek. Psalm 144 in the Book of Psalms, another quoted portion of the Good Book, has been translated as, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle.”
This is context-dependent, however. David, in speaking of bodily strength, ascribes true strength to God, and prays to Him to rescue him and his people “from the cruel sword.” In this context, David is King of Israel at a time when war among rival groups is common, and what’s more, the ending of the psalm expresses a hope for peace. This seems like quite a departure from the rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, which would have you believe in its promotional videos that America resembles a scene from The Purge. Lock ’em and load ’em, ladies and gents. Conflict is brewing, and nothing shouts His love like the cold steel of a .45.
Mark Lee’s pro-Trump comments seemed crazy at the time of first utterance, and a mere six months later, still do. As the Trump presidency wears on, though, at least until anything manifests with respect to impeachment or other means of removal, and as Donald Trump’s support from his base not only holds steady, but grows, one wonders whether Aslan’s depiction of Trump as a salvific figure, as something more than an inspiration to those blinded by patriotism, is accurate. For white evangelicals who support him, in particular, Trump’s actions should prompt them to look critically at their set of beliefs and the importance of morality to their worldview. Whether or not their apparent abandonment of their principles holds beyond Trump’s presidency, meanwhile, is anyone’s guess, and is hard to approach with any sense of faith on the part of those who already don’t believe in him.
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When President Donald Trump announced his intention to back the United States out of participation in the Paris climate accord, what was most startling was not the potential negative ramifications this move might have for climate change on Earth—which are not to be merely undersold, mind you—but the tone this set in terms of America’s relationship to the rest of the globe. As was largely established in his espousal of an “America First” ideology during his Inauguration speech and throughout his campaign, Trump’s abdication of the U.S.’s environmental responsibilities was essentially a “f**k you” to anyone who was not the U-S-of-A. What made Trump’s announcement particularly galling was the idea the Paris agreement is a voluntary, non-binding treaty. That is, if any signatory nation violates the terms of the accord, it is not as if the rest of the nations in the form of some super big army would come in and, say, force the violator to use hybrid cars.
In fact, prior to Pres. Trump indicating he was opting to pull out—cue salacious wink—the U.S. has been by far the worst offender when it comes to carbon emissions, and has further hampered international efforts to effect a set of environmental standards with some teeth, thanks in large part to opposition on the part of Republican leaders and lawmakers who have refuted the science on climate change, or simply have favored weakening regulations as part of their vague conservative pro-business agenda. Climate change—pshaw! It’s ISIS we should be worried about! They want to take over the world and force us all to live under sharia law! I’m sure as shit not giving up pork! Hell, no, we won’t go!
The United States of America has long viewed itself a cut above the rest, something special. To a certain extent, those who feel this way are right—in terms of its history as a fabled melting pot and as a haven for democratic values, not to mention one of the world’s richest countries, the home of the red, white, and blue has a unique place in the international community. Then again, we are long since removed from the days of the American Revolution and Ellis Island serving as a major hub for entry in the United States. Besides, regardless of what era we’re living in, it’s seemingly a fine line between a proclamation of national pride and individuality, and patriotism to the point of stubbornness. Metric system? Forget that! Why would we want a system based on the number 10 which makes all kinds of sense? Better to have some mess of measurements based on the British imperial system that you either have to memorize or constantly look up! And while we’re at it, screw soccer! Football is way better—because you use your hands—which makes it strange that it’s called “football”—but screw it some more! Because America!
Attitudes like those set forth by Donald Trump which would place America first and all others second—presumably this includes Russia, but you are free to draw your own conclusions in this regard—by their nature appeal to the ultra-conservatives and nationalists among his base. Of course, this is Donald Trump we’re talking about here, so his positions on this dimension have been anything but consistent. For all his bluster about keeping out of other countries’ affairs, especially in the Middle East, it certainly knocked the alt-righters who bought a four-year pass on the Trump Train for a loop when he went and authorized the use of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan. As enthusiasts of the military-industrial complex instead would be concerned, America under #45 has already seen its fair share of meddling and flex of military might.
Soon after his Trump’s tenure began, the administration proceeded with an operation in Yemen, the success of which is very much debatable. For all the supposedly “helpful intelligence” that was gathered and despite 14 al-Qaeda militants being killed, according to U.S. officials, the Yemen raid also resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, the destruction of a $90 million aircraft, and the deaths of 23 civilians. John McCain, a man who, ahem, knows something about serving his country, even went so far as to label the mission a “failure.” Once we dispense with the usual self-serving talk from Trump, Sean Spicer, and other flatterers within the administration, we are presented with a case where—surprise!—our President’s judgment and flippant approach to foreign policy can and should be scrutinized.
It’s not just in Yemen, however, that we as a country collectively have blood on our hands under Donald Trump, and as with the botched raid on high-ranking al-Qaeda members in Yemen, the collateral damage and overall questionable utility of certain operations merits more attention than it otherwise has received by the mainstream media. In April, multiple reports confirmed that the United States bombed a mosque in Syria, killing 40 civilians and wounding dozens more, a notion which flew directly in the face of U.S. officials’ accounts that it had targeted an al-Qaeda stronghold. This incident fits in with a disturbing pattern of the use of military force under #45: lower insistence on safeguarding civilians in Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere; spikes in the number of civilian casualties disproportionate to the actual number of airstrikes being carried out; and general lack of oversight by the Commander-in-Chief and leadership by the Armed Forces in general. And this is before we even get to the matter of spending and cost overruns, which have been an issue with the Department of Defense even prior to Trump’s tenure. Just recently, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published a report which found that the DoD blew upwards of $28 million on uniforms for the Afghan Army that not only were inappropriate fits for camouflage given the surroundings (roughly only about 2% of Afghanistan is forest), but were much more expensive than comparable options. Again, whether it’s human lives or millions or dollars, that these are not larger concerns or more publicized is disconcerting. Oh, well. Just put it on our tab. What’s that? A bunch of brown people died in the Middle East? No biggie. They were only Muslims—no big deal.
America First—but just for kicks, let’s bomb the shit out of ISIS and al-Qaeda. Sure, we have tons of things to fix right here at home, but let’s focus on who can and can’t come into the country. President Trump’s professed inclination toward isolationism alongside his apparent hard-on for upping our defense spending and bolstering our nuclear capabilities only hints at an administration of which its foreign policy direction in any given area or region is marked by maddening inconsistency and positions that are far from fully-formed. Trump entertains a call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen—and then goes ahead and agrees to uphold the “One China” policy that has existed in America for decades. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggests Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states overstepped in their blockade of Qatar—and then Trump commends the use of that same blockade. Trump derides NATO as “obsolete”—then backpedals on that assertion. It’s one thing to use the “keep them guessing” strategy so as to try to bolster your position in negotiations or to ward off your enemies. Heck, North Korea relies on this as its default way of interaction with the rest of the world. Do we have nuclear capabilities? Can we fire a missile and obliterate you as you’re sitting and sipping on your latte? Not sure? Guess you better watch out! It’s another, however, when you confuse your allies and members of your own Cabinet with your remarks. The administration is already hampered by inefficiency owing to the number of positions Mr. President has yet to fill or for which to even provide a nominee. Add the inability of Trump and Co. to effectively communicate within their own circle, and it’s no wonder this presidency has been characterized as, as the kids would say, a “hot mess.”
More recently, two overt policy shifts with respect to specific nations have drawn widespread attention, and though they are very different, one begins to wonder whether they are both motivated by a legitimate belief that they are the best option, or perhaps more likely, that they are concessions to his supporters and/or deliberate attempts to do the exact opposite of what Barack Obama did, especially toward the end of his second term. The first is Cuba. Marking a 180 from the previous administration’s renewal of bilateral relations, Pres. Donald Trump’s restrictions on travel and business with the island nation are intended expressly to cripple its Communist-led government—as well as to appeal to the portion of the Cuban-American delegation resentful of decades of rule under the Castros and a voting bloc that has generally and traditionally opted red (though there is evidence that tendency is eroding). Moreover, in the demand for the extradition of Assata Shakur/Joanne Chesimard—who escaped prison after being convicted for the murder of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster, fled to Cuba, and has remained there as a political asylee ever since—Trump is looking to solidify his support from the men and women who wear the badge.
You may agree with Trump that Cuba’s government is not an ideal arrangement. You may yourself favor Shakur/Chesimard being “brought to justice.” Even noting these may be principled stances, though, whether or not to engage in a reversal of America’s course to renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba deserves to be talked about. David E. Wade, former Chief of Staff of the State Department, penned an opinion piece critical of this change. Calling the move “the wrong policy in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Wade, noting the odd juxtaposition of lashing out at Cuba despite Trump’s apparent affection for the likes of Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, first questions the utility of taking a hardline stance with Raul Castro set to step down next year and the Cuban government becoming increasingly unpopular with its own people. But that’s our Donald—a man who seems pathologically incapable of thinking about the long term as opposed to what’s directly in front of his face or what he watches on FOX News.
Secondly, Wade argues, this hurts the Cuban people and does little to disadvantage the regime in power; the spike in tourism from the United States experienced since President Obama effected a thawing of diplomatic relations between the two nations has benefited everyday Cubans, since Americans stay predominantly using Airbnb, while other foreign visitors use government-controlled resorts. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, this move is bad for American economic and diplomatic interests. According to a study cited by Mr. Wade, over $6 billion and 10,000 jobs stand to be lost in Trump’s policy shift, and aside from this, there has been improvement in agreements between Cuba and the U.S. on how to handle drug trafficking, environmental disasters, human trafficking, and other issues of a human rights tint. Not to mention our loss may well be China’s or Russia’s gain. Unless that’s really the whole point—particularly on the side of the latter.
The other big bugaboo is Iran, which was already on the GOP hit list because of the nuclear deal orchestrated with its government, a perhaps imperfect but viable framework for bilateral relations between the two nations. Amidst fighting ISIS in Syria, U.S. forces, which have long advocated removing Bashar al-Assad from power, and Iranian forces, which have lent support to the Assad regime, have found themselves on opposing sides when not trying to root out extremism. Donald Trump, for his part, has thus far only insisted on spewing anti-Iran rhetoric and being buddy-buddy with Saudi Arabia, also notably, ahem, not a big fan of Iran (something we would believe is not-so-coincidental given his business interests there). And while he hasn’t dismantled said nuclear deal yet, Trump’s comments have made it evident where he thinks Iran stands, relatively speaking: he equates the nation with ISIS and al-Qaeda in terms of its danger to the rest of the world. Apparently, all those “Death to America!” chants are not exactly endearing to Iran’s cause—shocking.
This political posturing exhibited by the Trump administration bereft of a concrete strategy in the Middle East, coupled with competing interests that seem difficult, if not unlikely, to reconcile, makes various outside onlookers concerned that an all-out conflict with Iran is not only possible, but probable. In a recent piece which appeared in Politico, Dennis Ross, an experienced U.S.-Middle East negotiator, accedes to as much from the jump by stating that “Trump is on a collision course with Iran.” In laying out the state of affairs in the region which concern both the United States and Iran, Ross goes into depth about the forces and motivations behind what has happened and potentially will happen. Admittedly, much of it is beyond my ken as a humble blogger, but a significant point in his analysis involves the notion that Iran is seeking to create a land corridor to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria. Ross is not the only one to suggest this direction for Iran as an extension of its foreign policy, but regardless of who is supplying this intelligence, if you will, this adds a bit of a wrinkle to American aims in this region. While there clearly is no love lost for Iran within the United States, nor is Assad a popular figure (rightfully so), the U.S.’s priority is ISIS and al-Qaeda. Add Iran’s interference and the presence of the Russians, and we’ve got quite the situation on our hands. On one hand, we want to fight jihadists and don’t want to go looking for trouble with Iran or Russia. On the other hand, though, by letting Iran operate unchecked, this could make it harder for us to fight extremism in and around Syria.
Simply put, and as Dennis Ross elaborates, things are not so simple in this neck of the woods. The YPG, a group of mostly Kurdish fighters who has been most effective alongside the U.S. Armed Forces in fighting ISIS, also has ties to Assad’s government, and there is the risk that clearing militants out of certain areas within Syria will be an immediate boon to the regime and will lead to the kind of oppressive conditions for Sunnis that helped produce ISIS in the first place. The powers-that-be in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states, while certainly concerned with the fate of Syria and ISIS’s influence, are presently more absorbed by the blockade of Qatar, with the Saudis in particular making demands of Qatar to cut ties to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, to close a Turkish military base stationed there, and to disband al-Jazeera, among other things, as well as making unspecified threats should its leadership not comply within a short span. Meanwhile, Iran and Turkey are helping Qatar weather the blockade with food supplies. Each country seemingly has its own agenda, if not multiple reasons for its behavior, at that.
In light of this, as Ross explains in closing, the United States is tasked with trying to navigate the morass of conflicts and clashes of worldviews in the Levant and surrounding areas in forming a strategy moving forward. Saudi Arabia and the UAE need to be convinced to help reshape Syria given a defeat of ISIS and an end to the Assad regime. Turkey has to work with, as opposed to against, the anti-ISIS coalition, and has to be assuaged about its concerns about the growing Kurdish/YPG presence at the Turkish border. And Qatar has to stop supporting extremist groups and giving voices to, for instances, those who condone violence against Israelis by Palestinians—even if there are legitimate issues with the relationship between Israel and Palestine, including our own blanket support for Israel despite the proliferation of West Bank settlements. As Dennis Ross puts this succinctly: “In a confusing landscape, the administration must leave little doubt about its objectives and priorities.” And yet, there are so many doubts about our objectives and priorities, chief among them whether the presidency, for Donald Trump, is merely a vanity project and means by which to enrich himself. Or to try to gain access to certain resources in the region. Just saying what many of us were thinking.
Pres. Trump’s tough talk on Cuba and Iran—and for that matter, Mexico or the Paris agreement—may play well with specific segments of the American electorate. Let’s build a wall! Let’s put a boot in the ass of those who don’t like freedom, baseball, apple pie, and the rest of ‘Murica! Where it doesn’t go over so well is in those countries at which Trump is pointing his freakishly small fingers. In response to Trump’s announced policy shift, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez referred to it as a “grotesque spectacle,” vowing his country will “never negotiate under pressure or under threat,” and scoffing about Trump and America lecturing them on their human rights records—of all countries. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian vice president and head of the country’s atomic energy organization, has similarly warned the U.S. about siding with Saudi Arabia, selling them guns, and threatening to upset the balance of power in the region while ignoring its security concerns. In other words, these countries are not cowed by Trump’s rhetoric, nor would we expect them to be particularly jazzed up about being all but coerced into behaving a certain way. Donald Trump’s brand of “diplomacy,” as a subset of his professed ability as the consummate deal-maker, seems to be little more than a combination of transactional stick-and-carrot appeals and vague militaristic threats, as if a simple token of appreciation or show of chutzpah will be enough to get the other side to acquiesce. Whether it’s because the United States has lost its standing somewhat, whether other leaders believe #45 is only interested in idle gestures, or both, however, they appear more than willing to stick by their principles. Especially when, you know, they’re in the right.
Donald Trump’s vision of America is one of the greatest country in the world continuously being taken advantage of for our riches and generosity. This coming from a man who wears designer suits and claims to speak for the downtrodden among us, and who experiences delusions of persecution in his own life, imagining himself as the subject of the greatest witch hunt in our history. You mean, more so than the actual Salem Witch Trials, Donald? Although that was before we were technically a country, and you’re only getting off with a technicality with this sort of logic. It doesn’t take long before Trump’s claims, unsupported by verifiable evidence, fall apart like a flaky French pastry, and either way, you figure it would behoove him to act with a little more dignity. Though America is great for the ideals on which it was founded, it is not without its excesses and hypocrisies, the likes of which are surely not lost on its critics around the world. As such, it is arguably worth very little to cry about being a victim when we have and continue to throw our weight around economically and militarily.
Alas, Mr. Trump can only pout and stamp his feet, and work to squander, in record time, the credibility and goodwill Barack Obama, the imperfect President that he was, worked to foster. In a framed conflict of America vs. the world, we all lose. What’s more, if prevailing trends in international relations continue as they are, we evidently have much more to lose in the coming days, weeks, and years.
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.
We get it—Barack Obama is a lame-duck president. In less than a month, Donald J. Trump is set to take the reins of the presidency. On a related note, animals may spontaneously begin to howl to themselves, instinctively aware something is amiss. Human animals, too, some of whom already have shed some tears, may yet have more crying to do, or at least some hand-wringing and head-shaking. Then again, some people may be just as ready to protest and raise hell. If nothing else, this should help communicate to the incoming President that roughly half of the country hates his guts. To what this extent this might faze him, if at all, I’m not sure, but if it at all causes to Trump to put that imbecilic sourpuss look on his face and want to Tweet up a storm out of vexation, I’d deem it worth the effort.
For once, though, it is not the President-Elect who is ruffling feathers, but the lame duck himself. Evidently not about to leave the White House without some parting shots, Obama and his administration have flexed their diplomatic muscle in the waning hours of his presidency with respect to two particular (and particularly contentious) situations. The first is that of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the likes of which I don’t really have to tell you are contentious. In this specific iteration of the seemingly endless conflict, Israel has drawn criticism for its establishment of settlements on the West Bank. Greg Myre, international editor for NPR, and Larry Kaplow, NPR’s Middle East editor, together have put together a fairly good primer on the situation and why the settlement situation is such a big deal, addressing seven key points worth considering in understanding the forces behind the discord.
1. Settlements are growing rapidly.
A key distinction made by Myre and Kaplow is that these “settlements,” while the term evokes something more rudimentary, are often large subdivisions or sizable cities. Since peace talks began in 1993 between the Israelis and Palestinians, the number of Israelis living in these settlements has quadrupled, and has continued to expand during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister. Even the more moderate and liberal within Israel have pushed for more settlements. Indeed, most of the censure regarding the proliferation of settlements within the West Bank has come from the international community, and not from within Israel’s ranks. In fact, to argue against this trend of increase would seem to be tantamount to political poison for someone like Netanyahu or anyone else of stature within Israel.
2. Settlements complicate efforts for a two-state solution.
I’ll say they do. With settlements all over the West Bank, and the Israeli military on hand to patrol these areas, the prospect of a Palestinian state, already somewhat dim, is made all but impossible. Never say never, yes, but um, don’t hold your breath either.
3. There is a distinction to be made between East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
According to Israel, East Jerusalem, which is part of the West Bank, is the nation’s “eternal and indivisible capital.” Funny story—no one else recognizes this, including the United States, which is why, at least until Donald Trump has his way, the country maintains a diplomatic presence in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. As for Palestinians, meanwhile, they consider East Jerusalem the site of their own future capital given statehood, and together with the West Bank, deem it all occupied land. Evidently, land rights, as beauty, are in the eyes of the beholder.
4. What does Israel say about settlements?
Um, that it’s complicated? On one hand, supporters of settlements cite the rich tradition of Jewish history, the good old Bible, and things such as the need for “strategic depth.” On the other hand, while Israel claims to have annexed East Jerusalem, it makes no such claim of sovereign control over the West Bank, despite the wishes of many of those who have settled there. It therefore remains but “disputed” territory currently being occupied. In other words, the West Bank is not quite “no man’s land” with hundreds of thousands residing within its bounds, but it’s no country’s territory all the same.
5. How about the Palestinians?
Yeah—how about the Palestinians? This section is short on Kaplow’s and Myre’s part, and this would seem appropriate given the simplicity of their argument. Here is their explanation, in its totality:
From some Palestinian cities, there are clear views of Israeli settlements — and new construction — on nearby hillsides. And in most settlement neighborhoods, there are wide areas of empty hillside closed to Palestinians, which Israel says are necessary buffers for security.
Palestinians see them as visual proof that their sought-after independent state is being taken from them. Palestinian leaders have opposed peace talks in recent years while, as they see it, Israel is building on land that is part of those talks.
From this standpoint, I feel those who don’t have a specific vested interest in this conflict would probably tend to agree this makes a lot of sense. How could I feel welcome as a Palestinian when Israeli settlements are continuously expanding and whole swaths of land are closed to me seemingly on principle? Though this may hew close to Israel’s actual intent, for the Palestinians, this doesn’t make a two-state solution seem wholly viable when everything around you tells you you’re not wanted.
6. Has Israel ever dismantled settlements?
Yeah, but, like, once—ever. According to the NPR article, back in 2005, some 8,000 Israeli settlers were forcibly removed from the Gaza Strip on the premise that these settlements were too hard to defend. And when I say, “forcibly removed,” I mean dragging, kicking and screaming. As the authors sum this up succinctly: “The episode demonstrated that Israel could remove settlers, but it also showed how much friction it creates inside Israel.” I’ll say it does.
7. What are the proposed solutions?
Here’s where the discussion gets down to brass tacks—how Israelis and Palestinians move forward. At least from the United States’ perspective, the key proposition is an exchange of land rights. The largest Israeli settlements, which are close to the border with Israel as an established state, would formally become part of Israel. The Israeli settlements deep within the West Bank more removed from Israel, meanwhile, would be ceded for the purpose of a Palestinian state. As Myre and Kaplow indicate, however, and as should be no great surprise, this is complicated, outside of the immediate logistics 0f such a swap. Palestinian leadership is unlikely to accept any deal that does not involve removal of settlements, and yet to suggest the removal of settlements within Israel is politically disadvantageous given the current climate. As with any story, there are two sides to such a two-state solution, and as far as Israel and Palestine are concerned, a spirit of reconciliation does not seem to be felt or sought in abundance.
This already fractious situation was made more disagreeable by a recent resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council that calls for an end to the building of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Egypt originally proposed the resolution, though they were forced to delay a vote on the resolution based on pressure from Israel, but what really got Israel’s proverbial goat was the United States’ decision not to vote and not to veto the resolution. As far as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel were concerned, they thought they, President Obama and the U.S. were cool. In a move construed as better late than never, however, Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking for the administration at large, condemned Israel’s continuously expanding settlements as undermining the viability of a two-state solution and thereby standing in the way of peace. Acting in this way, Kerry, again speaking on behalf of Barack Obama, his administration and his legacy, argued that Israel is positioning itself on a path toward isolation from the international community and perpetual warfare with the Palestinians.
Certainly, Netanyahu and Company disagreed with this speech and the accompanying no-vote on the Security Council resolution, calling Secretary Kerry’s address a “disappointment.” There was also disapproval on the domestic front, though, including censure from the likes of prominent lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, including John McCain and Chuck Schumer. But two other interested parties had their own reactions to this apparent reversal of stances, one that moved the U.S.’s position away from their evident unwillingness to challenge Israel on the proliferation of settlements within the West Bank. Within the Arab world, which has a dog in this fight given its solidarity with the Palestinians, the response was generally favorable, although not without a fair bit of indifference among those individuals who feel this about-face is too little, too late. In line with the more apathetic attitudes of some, Arab critics of the speech are quick to point out that change in favor of a two-state solution seems unlikely in light of the ascension of a second relevant interested party.
That would be—you guessed it—Donald Trump. Trump, who has, ahem, not been shy about expressing his opinions with respect to international politics and U.S. foreign policy, condemned the no-vote by the Obama administration, taking to—you guessed it again—Twitter to voice his displeasure, offering the following:
We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S.—but not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong, Israel—January 20th is fast approaching!
Ugh. The very notion that is man is going to be our President is enough to make one’s head hurt and eye twitch. I was unaware Israel was continually so disrespected by the United States, but that’s our Donald—trumping up any perceived slight against him or the people he favors from Molehill status up to Mountain proportions. The Iran nuclear deal, which in reality is a separate issue, is invoked here by Trump as a means of ginning up his base and gaining support for his positions among those distrustful of Iran’s intentions, if for no other reason than Iran is a Muslim-led nation. As for the discussion of Israeli settlement expansion on its merits alone, President-Elect Trump seems content to simply kowtow to the wishes of Netanyahu’s Israel and a majority of its constituents. Adopting a position that has been characterized by some as more Zionist than that of the Zionists, he appears set to discard any ideas of a two-state solution. For one, his choice of American ambassador to Israel, one David Friedman, has not only has dismissed the idea of such a policy but has actively funded some of the settlements John Kerry criticized. In addition, Donald Trump has announced his intention to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the much-disputed city of Jerusalem. So, for all intents and purposes, Trump and his cronies have made it clear that they could give a f**k about a Palestinian state and Arabs as a whole. But you probably already guessed that, too.
The exact nature of Donald Trump’s appeal to the Orthodox neo-Zionist crowd is admittedly somewhat perplexing. As Bernard Avishai, author, visiting professor of government at Dartmouth University, and adjunct professor at Hebrew University wrote about in a December 31, 2016 piece for The New York Times, Trump may feel he is indebted to this group who has voted Republican where the majority of American Jews has not, and will thus advance the extremist Zionist cause, but potentially at the expense of the already-waning confidence the latter group has in him and in U.S. foreign policy in general. Furthermore, the purported move of the United States embassy to Jerusalem—assuming it would actually come to pass, and many imagine the move of dubious likelihood—would threaten stability in Jordan, an important American ally in the Middle East but one with significant Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations. Trump wouldn’t risk the destabilization of a crucial friend in the region just to satisfy Israel’s monomaniacal pursuits, would he? Even if the answer is “I don’t know,” this much is vaguely frightening.
With the latest involving Russia and allegations of hacking, meanwhile, the likes of which is believed to have been designed to interfere with the election and get Donald Trump into the White House, as well as intended to undermine public confidence in the electoral process, Trump’s motivations seem more transparently self-serving. Shortly before 2016 ended, President Barack Obama ejected 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the United States, imposed sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence organizations, and penalizing four top officers of the GRU, a Russian military intelligence agency. The State Department also acted to close two estates that were suspected of housing Russian intelligence activities, and levied sanctions on three companies/organizations believed to have been involved in the hacking. Not bad for a lame duck, eh?
These actions come backed by our own intelligence, from organizations like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, which purport to have identified malware and other indicators of Russian cyber-attacks. Reservations about the FBI’s credibility in the wake of the Clinton E-mail investigation debacle notwithstanding, there would appear to be every reason to believe that these attacks were coordinated, and while the published findings (i.e. those which won’t remain classified) came short of suggesting any senior Russian officials of the two sanctioned intelligence agencies tried to influence the election, or that these attempts had any material impact on the election’s outcome, as Obama himself insisted, this kind of espionage and meddling in our affairs should concern any reasonable American.
Except now we’re about to address Donald Trump and people talking smack about his man-crush, Vladimir Putin. Already, unless you are a rabid Trump supporter, you might be predisposed to thinking the man, a pathological liar with the temperament and attention span of a young child, is the antithesis of reasonable. Throw in the effective throwing of shade at Putin, an individual for whom President-Elect Trump has expressed his admiration on numerous occasions in the past, and every semblance of reason would seem to go out the window. Trump, while reportedly agreeing to hear U.S. intelligence experts out, reacted to the news of sanctions by insisting that everyone has to “move on” from this whole hacking thing. Moreover, at the news Putin would, heeding the recommendations of his advisers, refrain from retaliating by jettisoning American diplomats from Russia, Trump tweeted, “I always knew he was very smart!” Um, Mr. Trump, you do realize it looks very bad when you’re heaping praise on the leader of a country that just has been publicly reproached for deliberately working against U.S. interests, right? When even your own party is praising Barack Obama for taking action against Russia—albeit in the same breath criticizing this move, as Arab critics of his administration’s condemnation of Israel’s settlements did, deriding this stand as too little, too late—you may want to reassess your position.
As with Donald Trump’s extremist position on Israel which breaks with decades of U.S. policy, not to mention would make the United States an outlier within the international community for its complicity with the Greater Israel ideal, his laudatory sentiments geared toward Vladimir Putin in the face of Russian hacking revelations that put him at odds with fellow Republicans is frustrating, yet not all that surprising. Critics of Trump and his love affair with the Putin regime have largely been left to their own devices regarding suppositions of why a seeming “bromance” exists. Some might suggest Trump, in his naïveté, thinks he can be the best of buddies with Putin, and to some extent, that may be true. Otherwise, his deflecting from allegations of hacking and interference with the election may be seen as defensiveness about his win, as if even the mere allusion to his victory by illegitimate means is an insult to his manhood. Even though, you know, he’s been the foremost accuser of electoral fraud and rigging of the results since the election happened—and, in fact, he was casually throwing out these kinds of charges before the whole shebang started.
As has been inferred from analysis of his business dealings, however, these explanations are merely red herrings for the true reason Donald Trump is all but writing down Vladimir Putin’s name and drawing hearts around it: that he has a vested financial interest in a pro-Russian agenda. Economist Robert Reich—of whom, if you’ve read this blog over the past few months, you’ve heard mention numerous times—penned an op-ed about a week or so again regarding a “dark cloud of illegitimacy” which stands to hang over a Trump presidency, one related to his financial ties to Russia as well as those of his associates. As Reich notes, Trump has close business ties to Russian oligarchs who have financed projects of his and likely have loaned him billions of dollars, and his son, Donald Trump, Jr., remarked at a real estate conference in 2008 that he saw “a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort also has consulting ties to Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who was propped up by Russia, and two of Trump’s appointees, foreign policy advisor, Michael Flynn, and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO, have been honored guests at Russian public ceremonies with Vladimir Putin in attendance.
Reich sums up the larger meaning behind these connections and Donald Trump’s refusal to give credence to evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election nicely:
None of these points taken separately undermines the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. But taken together, they suggest a troubling pattern — of Trump deceitfulness about the election, of Mr. Putin’s role in helping Mr. Trump get elected, and the possible motives of both men for colluding in the election. The dark cloud of illegitimacy continues to grow darker.
Of course, we would be better assured that Donald Trump has no ulterior motive in cozying up to Vladimir Putin and the Russians if, say, he would disclose these ties, agree to fully divest himself of his business dealings, and put his holdings in a blind trust. Like the prospect of him agreeing to hold regular press conferences whereby he might be subject to questions by unbiased members of the media, or even that of him apologizing to Rosie O’Donnell for calling her a fat pig, though, this all doesn’t seem bloody likely. And this cuts to the heart of the issue with Trump—you know, besides him being a hateful, know-nothing man-baby. If Trump really had nothing to hide, then he would’ve released his tax returns without all the nonsense about his being audited preventing that, and would be more forthright with the American people and with the press. But he’s not, and so you are left to doubt whether he became President for any reason other than to boost his ego and his personal wealth. I mean, sure, there is the alternative theory that he’s actually a Russian agent (Keith Olbermann advances this idea, if only in partial jest). More likely, however, is the simple idea he is looking to capitalize for his own sake. “Make America Great Again”? More like, “Make Me More Money.”
Barack Obama may be the lame duck president, yes. But incoming president Donald Trump, in his stubborn support of Israel’s one-state monomania at the likely expense of stability in and around the West Bank, as well as his borderline treasonous fidelity to Vladimir Putin and Russia even in the face of disturbing reports of repeated Russian intrusions in American affairs, seems like quite the turkey. Here’s hoping against reason we all don’t wind up with egg on our face because of it.
Well, the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has come and gone and the results are in—people are curled up in the fetal position because one of these two will become our next President and they don’t really like either of them! OK, so maybe I’m not speaking for everyone watching, but I tend to wonder how much what was said in the debate will actually change people’s opinions on whom they plan to vote for come November. As for who won the debate, I’m not here to try to pass judgment. After all, I’ve watched boxing fights after which I was pretty sure one participant should emerge victorious because he seemed to dominate the other boxer, but left to the judges’ decision, the actual results were completely the other way around. If you ask the candidates and their campaigns, each side would definitely say they were the winners. For what it’s worth, early polling suggests the American audience thought Hillary won, though I’m more loath as the days go by to trust the veracity of some of these surveys, if I may say so.
But like I said, I’m not here to crown a winner. I seek only to provide commentary where I think it warranted, as well as to offer suggestions for how future presidential debates may be improved. With this behind us, let’s take a narrower look at what went down in the first presidential debate—you know, if we can stand it. Might I suggest some unhealthy snacks or some liquor to sustain you as you read through?
UNITED STATES OF JOE’S ENTIRELY UNNECESSARY COMMENTS ON THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE
1. First of all, let me confess that I didn’t actually watch the debate, which was starting before I had even gotten home from class. To be fair, though, I probably would have been distracted by watching my Fantasy Football team’s hopes of a win go down in flames anyway. To the tandem of Devonta Freeman and Coby Fleener, who proved instrumental in my defeat, let me say that I hate you both with the passion of a thousand burning suns.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system (not really), since I didn’t see the event live, I can’t really comment on what kind of job Lester Holt did as moderator. The general response of viewers and pundits, though, seemed to be a positive appraisal of Holt’s handling of the affair. Although let’s be fair—next to the dumpster fire that was Matt Lauer’s presiding over the Commander-in-Chief Forum, pretty much anything halfway decent would feel like a great success. Kudos, Lester! You’re better at taking Donald Trump to task than Jimmy Fallon!
2. As you might already know/remember from viewing the debate on television, the opening segment was devoted to “Achieving Prosperity.” Sounds like something in Trump’s wheelhouse, doesn’t it? The candidates were first asked about what they would do to stimulate job creation. Hillary Clinton gave her familiar lines: the wealthy need to pay their fair share, let’s invest in infrastructure, raise the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, affordable child care, debt-free college, close tax loopholes, was there anything on the Democratic Party platform I didn’t check off? Donald Trump, meanwhile, railed about China and Mexico and vowed to cut taxes, and also said he was going to renegotiate a lot of trade deals. Because it’s just that simple.
When pressed specifically on how we get companies to bring jobs back to America, Trump was, well, largely incoherent, and pivoted to the notion NAFTA was a bad trade deal. Which may be true, but that doesn’t answer the question. The best the man of the orange and thin skin could come up with was that he wouldn’t let corporations leave, but whether this involves the threat of taxes should they relocate, or literally stopping them at the airport and barring them from getting aboard their overseas flights, Trump’s remedy is woefully impractical.
3. The candidates, under Lester Holt, moved swiftly onto the next question. Well, at least the moderator tried to make that happen. Holt attempted to segue into a discussion about taxes, but first, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had to argue about taxes before they could, well, argue about taxes. To be fair to Clinton, Trump started it, talking about how Clinton would jack up taxes and he would slash them and how wonderful that would be for the US of A. Hillary then countered by saying Donald’s loose semblance of an economic plan would jack up the national debt, while hers would reduce it. Then Donald Trump was all, like, nuh-uh. And Hillary Clinton was all, like, yuh-huh. And then Trump was all, like, whatever! When the dust was allowed to settle, Trump tried to suggest that the wealthy were going to create tremendous jobs. (Except they don’t.) He also—and give El Diablo his due—mentioned eliminating the carried interest loophole, by which wealthy hedge fund managers are allowed to claim a more favorable tax rate by classifying their income as capital gains, even though there is no legal basis for this, and even though President Obama could apparently totally f**king end this practice with little more than a phone call but hasn’t. Then Clinton was alleged to have been given two minutes to respond, but her opponent wouldn’t shut his big yap.
Eventually, what passed for a conversation moved to the subject of Donald Trump’s tax returns, which, as I’m sure you know, he still hasn’t gone and released. Once more, Trump claimed he couldn’t comply with this request because he is under audit. If there’s one thing I have stressed in this blog, perhaps other than the logical fallacy of saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter,” it’s that THIS IS NOT A VIABLE EXCUSE FOR TRUMP NOT TO RELEASE HIS TAXES. THE IRS SAYS IT’S PERFECTLY OK. Trump’s stupid explanations and deflecting with mentions of private E-mail servers notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton brilliantly took the opportunity to insert possible reasons as to why Trump is dodging calls for his tax returns like he (allegedly) dodged the draft. Maybe he isn’t worth as much as he says he is. (Highly likely.) Maybe he isn’t as charitable as he would have us believe. (I can almost guarantee it.) Perhaps, quoth Hillary, it is his hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to Wall Street and foreign banks, or that he has paid little to nothing in taxes over the years.
Donald Trump spins this last notion as a virtue, that he’s a smart businessman. Not only isn’t it like he cleverly came up with the idea for any loopholes he exploits, however, but this also puts him at odds with average Americans who aren’t wealthy enough to be able to afford such preferential treatment. You’re not smart in this regard, Mr. Trump. You’re lucky you were born rich with a daddy who bailed you out when you made dumb decisions, and that you could file for bankruptcy (also not your invention) the rest of the time.
4. The second of the first presidential debate’s triptych of topics was devoted to “America’s direction,” which, not for nothing, is a depressingly vague category. Not to mention it invites the retort from the peanut gallery at home that the country’s direction is headed straight to “the shitter.” But I digress. Lester Holt first confronted the candidates with the question of how the United States can heal its bitter racial divides. Hillary Clinton stuck to, ahem, her guns, by primarily calling for more comprehensive gun reform. She also spoke in broad strokes about the need to improve community relations between police and civilians, as well as the need to address systemic bias in the quality of education among different groups and to deal with glaring disparities in arrests and sentencing of people of color. Beyond the gun issue, I’m not so sure how convincing her answer was or should be, but as usual, it sounded good in a superficial way.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, spoke about how we need law and order—and he wasn’t talking about Special Victims Unit starring Mariska Hargitay. He also casually dropped the suggestion that stop-and-frisk is a good idea, even though it’s ineffective, unconstitutional, and unfairly targets African-Americans and Hispanics/Latinos. Hillary responded with more of how she opened the segment—essentially pandering to the minority vote. Next, when prompted by Holt to comment on implicit racism, Clinton correctly asserted that we all suffer from it to a degree, but you could tell she was framing it in a way so as to drive home the notion she respects police and, at the same time, try not to further alienate potential undecided voters who possess a great deal of respect for officers of the law and, perhaps, are OK with, you know, the occasional murdering of unarmed black citizens.
Then, Donald Trump—ugh. Look, I could try to parse through the gobbledygook that was his response for a coherent message, but let me just pick out the highlights. Trump gave a shout-out to the NRA. He made a quick, offhand remark about no-fly and watch lists. He, apropos of nothing, invoked Clinton’s use of the term “super-predator.” He argued about how crime was going up in New York City without his beloved stop-and-frisk in place—even though this is patently false. And at the end of all this, Lester Holt actually reminded the Republican Party nominee the conversation was supposed to be about “race.” If this isn’t an indictment of Donald Trump’s inability to provide consistent, coherent answers on topics that make him uncomfortable, I don’t know what is.
5. And then came the part when Lester Holt asked Donald Trump about all the times he pushed the narrative that Barack Obama was born in Africa and demanded he produce his birth certificate just to prove him and other conspiracy theorists wrong. Now, before we get to Trump’s part in the whole “birther” controversy, let’s acknowledge that there is a more complicated truth to Hillary Clinton’s side of the story to which the GOP nominee was referring. Once upon a time, in 2008, when HRC was running against Obama for the Democratic Party nomination, her campaign did help to spread this myth. Much as the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton 2016 campaign were apt to latch on to the idea that, say, Bernie Sanders is an atheist to help her chances with more religious voters, it should be no great surprise that Hillary and her handlers would try to gain any advantage to win.
The notion that Hillary Clinton, anyone who has worked on her campaign, or anyone currently serving such a function came up with birtherism, however, is decidedly untrue. The origins are indeed murky as to who or what exactly devised this whole delegitimizing strategy, but regardless, if there was one person who took this awful baton and ran with it, it’s Donald J. Trump. As Holt even noted in his initial question, Trump persisted with the birther train of thinking—even when most Americans were satisfied that Barack Obama was, in fact, born on American soil. That he “succeeded” in getting Obama to produce formal proof of the circumstances behind his coming into this world is an achievement of dubious distinction. Donald Trump should be as proud of his role in the birther movement as he should be of Trump Steaks. And you can’t even eat birtherism. Believe me—I’ve tried.
6. Last but not least, Lester Holt moderated a segment called “Securing America”—between one candidate who issued E-mails on classified matters from one or more unsecured private servers and unencrypted devices, and another who suggested the Russians hack his opponent to find missing/deleted messages. (I hear you banging your head against the desk in frustration through the screen over there, and I second that notion.) Things being what they are, Hillary Clinton uttered something vague about “making it clear” to other nations, especially China, Iran and Russia, that we’re not going to take their hacking BS. Donald Trump, as usual, didn’t really answer the question, and implied that maybe it wasn’t Russia who was behind the hacks—even though it’s entirely f**king likely that it was Russia, amirite?
Clinton, in her rebuttal, quickly pivoted to talk of more air strikes against ISIS, because if there’s one thing HRC likes, it’s blowing up parts of other countries. Trump, in his rebuttal to the rebuttal, um, blamed Hillary again for causing ISIS—which indirectly may be partially true, but she sure had a lot of help. Then Hillary Clinton pointed out her opponent supported the Iraq War. Donald Trump said he didn’t—but he’s a big f**king liar. Clinton said we’re working with NATO. Trump effectively said NATO can kiss his ass, and invoked, of all people Sean Hannity in his self-defense about support for the Iraq War. After that, they argued about who has the better temperament of the two for the job. I don’t know—this was probably the low point of the debate for me personally, because I think both of them have shitty temperaments. Go ahead—argue about how you’re both going to help perpetuate our country’s involvement in unending wars in the Middle East in elsewhere, while I curl up into a ball underneath my bed, sobbing gently to myself.
7. In the second half of the “Sky is Falling” segment, as I like to call it, Lester Holt began with Donald Trump about President Obama’s considerations of changing America’s policy on first use of nuclear weapons (as in not using nukes first), asking Humpty Trumpty what he thought about the current policy. “The Donald” rambled on about not “taking anything off the table” and invoking China to help deal with North Korea, before launching into a tirade against our deal with Iran and our cash giveaway which has been likened to a ransom payment for American hostages. Hillary Clinton responded by acknowledging that problems do exist within our relationship with Iran, but that they involve more than just our nuclear deal, and furthermore, that there are other more global concerns to contemplate. She also fired back at Trump’s criticisms of the deal, saying he talked an awful lot about how bad it was without providing a suitable alternative.
As it apparently inevitably had to, the conversation was then steered to who had the right “temperament” and “stamina” to be President of the United States given the gravity of these matters, not to mention Holt’s probing about Donald Trump’s earlier statement that he didn’t think Hillary Clinton has “the presidential look.” Le sigh. Maybe this was the low point in the debate, because after all, much of this is shenanigans. Hillary doesn’t know how to negotiate. Donald can’t be trusted with weapons of mass destruction. Hillary is experienced, but it’s bad experience. Donald has repeatedly degraded women. Hillary has cooties. Donald not only smelt it, but dealt it as well. See what I mean? It’s disenfranchising hearing 60- and 70-year-olds talk like catty teenagers when they’re vying for the country’s top political office, but that’s really the vibe I, for one, get, at least.
The debate was brought to a close by Lester Holt asking both candidates if they would support their rival should he or she win. Hillary Clinton said she supports any democratic result—BUT PLEASE DON’T VOTE FOR THAT ASS-CLOWN TRUMP. Donald Trump said he would, sure, THOUGH THAT CLINTON BROAD DOESN’T HAVE THE CHOPS. Great. You don’t like each other, we don’t like you. Let’s bring on the shots of alcohol already, shall we?
As noted earlier, I’m not going to get too caught up in who won or who lost, though I’m pretty sure you could tell from the tenor of my responses who had the better performance in the first presidential debate. Of course, all this focus on “winning” and “losing” only takes us so far anyway. First of all, while the winner may stand to get a bump in the polls, this effect may be temporary, not to mention polling data doesn’t always translate equivalently to votes (in fact, often enough, the actual results are significantly different from what even exit polls predict). More importantly, a large swath of the audience likely believes that no matter who wins the debates—or, for that matter, the election—America loses anyway. So, who won the debate? Who cares, that’s who.
From my point of view, aside from any morsels of substance I can find in all that has been said in these debates throughout the campaign season, my interest in this format for political discussions lies in how the whole process may be improved. The following suggestions are ones you and likely scores of others amateur political analysts have come up with, but nonetheless, bear stating or repeating for the sake of concreteness.
JOE IS STILL NOT DONE WRITING, AND HAS SOME IDEAS FOR MAKING PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES BETTER
If they won’t stop talking, mute ’em
The sports talk show Around the Horn on ESPN, in addition to using a subjective scoring system whereby host Tony Reali awards participants points based on the perceived strength of their arguments, is known for its inclusion of a mute button that cuts off a player’s mic for ten seconds when he or she says something disagreeable to Reali (self-promotion, in particular, tends to be rewarded with the silent treatment and a loss of points). I feel a similar sort of system could be employed with presidential debates. If one of the candidates, say, interrupts incessantly (cough, Donald Trump, cough), he or she can be zapped for 10-second increments, or even could be given a more prolonged time-out if he/she can’t behave in a more adult fashion. Not for nothing, but these presidential hopefuls are discussing topics that may affect millions, if not billions, of people, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars. They should be able to act with a certain amount of dignity if they’re going to be interacting with world leaders—and at the very least, make it easier for us average folks to watch on our televisions.
Throw the red flag
If there’s one thing that fans of different sports teams can agree upon, it’s that referees/umpires routinely blow calls. Some are more egregious than others, but to a certain extent, errors in judgment are understandable given the speed at which professional sports are played. Such is why sports like football have implemented a challenge system whereby coaches can throw a red challenge flag, request that the head referee examine video footage of the play in question of which the ruling is being challenged, and confirm, overturn or let the call stand accordingly.
As fast as human beings and spheroid objects move in sports contexts, lies and misleading statements are fast and furious in presidential debates. In light of this notion, I submit candidates should be afforded two or more fact-checking challenges to use at their discretion. If someone claims he or she never called the Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” in trade deals, or professes he or she never Tweeted that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese, on-site fact-checkers can be consulted to catch candidates in obvious untruths. In fairness, this does run the risk of prolonging already laboriously-long presidential debates, but rather than rely on voters to do their own homework and sift through all of the garbage nominees speak, this could more easily bring the truth to light, as well as shame the prevaricator worse than Cersei Lannister being made to walk the streets of King’s Landing in her birthday suit while her subjects hurl epithets and vegetables at her. OK, maybe not that bad, but you get the point.
Wrap it up!
If you’ve seen any award show like the annual Oscars telecast, you know that when winners go up to accept their well-deserved tokens of appreciation, they tend to run long with their speeches. That’s when the orchestra hits them with the hurry-up music, signaling their allotted time has been spent and that they need to call it an acceptance speech. On a similar note, when candidates are about to go over their specified response time, they should first be given a visual warning like a red light, as stand-up comedians might get when performing in a comedy club, and then when they finally do exceed the given number of minutes, how about we hit ’em with a horn? At least some uptempo clarinet or something—the exact instrument can be negotiated. We should let these candidates for public office know when we say “two minutes,” we mean two minutes, gosh darn it! If you want to talk a bunch of nonsense to get around the fact you lack a strong intended policy, do it when millions of people aren’t watching.
Am I the only one who doesn’t think a Double Dare-esque physical challenge would be a welcome diversion during these debates? Let’s see Donald Trump talk about stamina when he tries to run through a 10-part obstacle course! Or Hillary Clinton wear designer suits when she knows she could get Slimed! Come on, fellow millennials—are you with me?
These are just some small tweaks that I, humbly speaking, believe would really make presidential debates more enjoyable to watch without making these events any less informative. Although judging by this first presidential debate, the proverbial bar to clear may be fairly low. And who knows—with the right changes and better candidates in the future, when we talk about winners of the debate, we can put the American audience in that category. Until then, we can all dream, right?