At a recent CNN town hall, Democratic hopeful Pete Buttigieg took specific issue with Vice President Mike Pence’s support of Donald Trump. Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pence’s home state) and openly gay (ahem, not Pence’s favorite distinction), criticized Pence for his support for Trump in an apparent abandonment of his principles as a Christian. As Buttigieg put it, “How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn star presidency? Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?”
As far as the post-event dissection and sound bite accumulation went, this was Buttigieg’s quote of the night. For what it’s worth, the pointed criticism of Pence and the religious right is well taken. Prior to the rise of Trump, white evangelicals were most likely to insist on a candidate’s morality as an important quality. Now, however, they downplay Trump’s moral and other deficiencies of character, in this respect acting more white than evangelical. For some, it may be unconscious, but either way, religious conservatives see an ally in a president who appears to exemplify the so-called “prosperity gospel” and who would uphold their brand of “religious freedom.”
Mayor Buttigieg, though, is not a member of the religious right. He is a Democrat and Episcopalian whose mere sexual orientation would make him a target of conservative Christians’ scorn. His attack of Trump’s “porn star presidency” is a double-edged sword that strikes not only at Mike Pence’s hypocrisy and that of his ilk but also at adult entertainers and their choice of vocation. Within his comments are an implicit criticism of porn stars—or at least a failure to defend them. Trump is a bad person. He consorts with porn stars. By association, if you associate with him or them, you are a bad person.
The unnamed allusion to Trump’s extramarital liaison with Stephanie Clifford a.k.a. Stormy Daniels is not the first knock on the woman who alleges she slept with Trump and was paid off in advance of the 2016 presidential election for her silence. Rudy Giuliani—or the crazy person masquerading as Rudy Giuliani for the purposes of defending Donald Trump—expressed to a national audience the belief that Daniels has no credibility because she is a porn star. Translation: Stormy Daniels is a lying whore who can’t be trusted because all porn stars are lying whores. Michael Avenatti’s detractors on the right have leveled similar criticisms of Daniels’s then-lawyer on guilt-by-association principles. He represents porn stars, ipso facto, he is a lying scumbag.
Irrespective of what you think of their personalities—Avenatti, in particular, strikes me as an obnoxious attention-seeker—their choice of vocation or client shouldn’t have a bearing on their believability. As is oft said, love the sinner; hate the sin. In this instance, however, even on the left, there are those who condemn the sinner and sin. Trump is a “porn star president.” Lost in the discussion of his and Pence’s and Daniels’s and Avenatti’s morality is the more relevant issue of whether Donald Trump specifically directed a payoff to Stormy Daniels and whether that constituted a breach of campaign finance law. It shouldn’t matter whether Daniels is a porn star or prostitute or any other similar type of professional. It’s Trump’s conduct with which we should be primarily concerned.
Unfortunately, this bilateral takedown of adult entertainers and other sex workers is emblematic of our larger discomfort with sex work as a function of our discomfort with, well, sex. Sex is enjoyable. It’s the reason most of us are here, barring in vitro fertilization or the like. Talking about it, though, for many of us can be an, er, icky prospect, necessitating the use of double entendre or other euphemistic language. And showing our appreciation of its splendor? Oh, no. Especially for women, that’s not very “lady-like.” Too much sex and you risk getting branded as a “slut.” Worse yet if you’re a prostitute. Then you’re a criminal and deserve to be admonished. So much for the world’s oldest profession.
I watch porn. (Mom, if you’re reading this, apologies.) I’m not without my reservations. There are the usual complaints. The costumes tend to be tacky. Lo, the cut-rate nurse uniforms. The dialogue is often stilted. The acting is frequently subpar. And is there nothing that doesn’t get a porn parody? Who asks for a Rugrats porn parody anyway? Who finds that sexy?
Even when these things are improved upon—and I do think the production value of today’s adult entertainment is largely superior to the XXX offerings of yesteryear—there are troubling aspects of the presentation and of the industry as a whole. The plots—which often barely qualify as such and for some reason usually revolve around sex with stepfamily—can be steeped in misogyny, involving coercion or trickery of the female participant(s) as pivotal “plot” points.
Even when the content is geared to be more “female friendly,” the on-screen enjoyment is often reserved for wealthy characters who enjoy lavish accommodations on the count of being highly-paid hard-working individuals. It’s luxury porn on top of being actual porn. There are also concerns off camera about suicides of numerous high-profile stars and the ever-present worry about transmission of sexually-transmitted infections in a world where condom use is infrequent. And we haven’t yet gotten to the problem of monetization for production companies and actors/actresses alike.
So yeah, the adult entertainment industry has its issues—and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Still, I’m not sure why there seems to be such a disdain or disregard for the people involved, the type which prompts left-leaning comedians like Chelsea Handler to equate porn stars with abusers, child molesters, and Russian hackers. I get that its objectors may see porn as exploitative and the performers as lacking talent. But why the hate? Because they love sex and like getting paid for it? Even within the context of the on-film productions, there seems to be an inherent condemnation of the young women in these situations modeled on real life. These whores will do anything for money! They can’t control themselves when they see what he’s packing down there! We condemn them for their vices while absconding to our bedrooms, gratifying our pleasures. To the extent that these scenes are a reflection of us and our society is disconcerting.
Morality also appears to cloud our collective judgment when it comes to our demonization of escorts, prostitutes, et cetera and advocacy for their rights. A presumption in this regard is that the sex worker has agency over her or his circumstances—and that may be a big presumption to make. There are arguments by some feminists and others that sex work is an oppressive form of labor, especially as it relates to exploitation by “pimps.” Speaking of exploitation, there are serious concerns about human and sex trafficking that would subvert that necessary agency and constitute a serious crime. In many cases, there are quantifiable risks to the sex worker, including drug use, poverty, rape, sexually-transmitted infections, and violence.
These issues notwithstanding, the stigma of sex work lingers. As with adult entertainers, prostitutes who get involved with this line of work for the money or sex are demeaned as unskilled opportunists, and as for the risks they face, the consensus response seems to be an effective shrug of the shoulders. They chose this lifestyle. If they don’t like it, they should get an education and a real job. This comes to a head when discussing sex workers’ desire for safety and protection against burdensome regulations as well as freedom of movement, available health services, and other rights that mere status as a human being should confer. In practice, this is not always the reality.
Meera Senthilingam, a CNN Health and Wellness editor, penned an article which appeared on CNN in February concerning “what sex workers really want.” In the opinion of one sex worker interviewed for the piece, seeing as they pay the same taxes, sex workers should be afforded the same rights as other service professionals who are allowed to work from home. There is also the problem for some prostitutes when law enforcement gets involved. In places where the legality of the practice is null or vague and dependent on who solicits who, the presence of police may actually be a deterrent to would-be customers.
This assumes, by the by, that the police aren’t the ones abusing, exploiting, or harassing sex workers, and as with the agency of sex workers mentioned earlier, this is quite an assumption to make. As with any profession, there are bad actors, and for a population in sex workers already susceptible to violence and other health and safety concerns, it puts practitioners in a bind, to put it mildly. It begs the question: who will watch the watchers when it comes to safeguarding their liberties as citizens?
The above deliberations are worth talking about. Whether it’s because of a deprecating attitude regarding sex work, a discomfort in approaching such matters, or both, however, even those on the left who usually are keen on standing up for individuals’ agency over their bodies and protecting their inalienable rights appear loath to mention sex workers specifically. Chalk it up to social mores or personal morality, but in 2019, America and the world at large is evidently lagging on this topic.
You might ask why we are worried about the feelings and opinions and rights of someone like Stormy Daniels. The woman didn’t even vote, for crying out loud! What do she and her contemporaries have to contribute to the larger discussion about Donald Trump and American politics? To be honest, I’m not totally sure, but if we dismiss her as an opportunist and a slut from the jump, what chance do we have to listen and know with an open mind?
In front of an audience of 500 women or so at The Wing, a work and community space designed for women in Washington, D.C., Daniels recently said she believes Michael Cohen to be true in his testimony to lawmakers. Cohen, like Daniels, has had his credibility attacked reflexively by Republican supporters of the president, and while she may not possess a great deal of affection for the man—she referred to Cohen as “dumber than herpes”—she thinks he is honest and that, like her, he came forward because he’s tired of “being bullied” and “being called a liar and a rat.”
Sure, this is just one person’s opinion, but it comes from someone who alleges to know Trump intimately—in more than one sense of the word. In this respect, her thoughts have at least much value as a shameless defender of Trump like Sean Hannity. Instead, though, she’s a porn star to be derided alongside the president, Mike Pence, and even child molesters and wife beaters. Thanks for the insight, but we’d rather scoff at you from atop our high horses. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.
Whether it’s within the context of #MeToo or of simply acknowledging the dignity of sex workers as human beings, the left has a problematic relationship with those storytellers it considers to be problematic or unsavory. Daniels has stressed she is a not a victim with regard to #MeToo. Cohen, set to spend three years in federal prison, is sure as heck not a victim.
Through all the deals they’ve struck and monies they’ve received, this doesn’t mean they’re utterly irredeemable. And their past actions and vocations have no bearing on the veracity of what they say about Trump. To allow our social and moral misgivings to stand in the way of our better judgment is to fall prey to the same kind of prejudices that have characterized conservatism of late. You know, when its practitioners actually heed their conscience or the teachings of scripture.
When it comes to the present-day incarnation of the Republican Party, always beware the shell game.
Per Dictionary.com, shell game is defined as “a sleight-of-hand swindling game resembling thimblerig but employing walnut shells or the like instead of thimblelike cups.” If you’re familiar with the setup of three-card Monte, the logistics are essentially the same, only with cards instead of shells. Find the pea (or the Queen of Hearts) under the shell. Double-down on your ability to find it again. If you’re successful, you win big. If you’re not, the opposite happens.
With Donald Trump, Con-Man-in-Chief, working in cahoots with a party whose agenda seems increasingly predicated on deception—so that you don’t discover how bad their policies actually are for you or the country at large—this diversionary tactic is alive and well. Before your eyes, numerous issues await your attention, but energy/money/time being limited, you can only pick one on which to act at the risk of having all three suffer.
Concerning the events of the last week and change, three “shells” jump to mind being of national import, especially fresh after Election Day. All merit scrutiny as threats to democracy, and yet, there aren’t enough hours in the day.
That press conference
President Trump has had some stupendously bad press conferences during his tenure, but his post-election presser, if not the outright worst, ranks right up there. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get to the nitty-gritty, shall we?
The great and powerful Republican Party: First things first, Trump started by lionizing the GOP’s “achievements.” Apparently, not losing control of the Senate and ceding control of the House qualify. At any rate, they were achievements because the Democrats had an unfair advantage in fundraising from special interests and wealthy donors and because the media is so gosh-darned mean to Republican candidates. Also, we had a bunch of retirements. But we had big rallies! And we did better than Obama! The country is booming! If the Democrats don’t screw everything up, we’ll all be united and thriving together!
On bipartisanship: With the whining about the Republicans’ handicap thus dispensed with, it was time for questions. First up, about that spirit of bipartisanship he and Nancy Pelosi talked about. Like, that’s not really going to happen, right? Especially with all the investigations expected to be going on and unless y’all compromise? Trump demurred on the issue. No, we’re totally going to be able to work together with the Democrats. Of course, if we can’t, they’re the ones in control of the House, so you know—their fault.
Oh, that border wall… We’re gonna build the wall. We’ve already started building it, in fact. Just try and stop it. The American people want it. The Democrats want it—they just don’t want to admit it. Fine by me. I’ll take the political capital and run with it. But the caravan is coming, ladies and gents. I can’t say for sure that I’d advocate shutting down the government for it. But come on—I totally would.
On the ever-tumultuous Cabinet: Trump is totally happy with his Cabinet. Good Cabinet. Great Cabinet. As long as no one suddenly displeases him, he has love for all. At this point, in a completely unrelated move, the President pushed a button revealing a pool of sharks underneath the floor and lowering a human-sized cage suspended above it from the ceiling.
The Jim Acosta portion of the program: If there’s one moment of the press conference you heard about, it was likely this. CNN’s Jim Acosta, established persona non grata among Trump’s base, pressed Trump on referring to the migrant caravan in Central America as an “invasion.” Trump was all, like, well, I consider it an invasion. Acosta was all, like, but that caravan is hundreds and hundreds of miles away and you’re demonizing immigrants by showing them climbing over walls, which they’re not going to do. And that’s when things got really interesting. As Trump settled into Attack Mode, Acosta tried to ask a follow-up question. Trump was all, like, you’ve had enough, pal. Nevertheless, he persisted, trying to ask about the Russia investigation. Meanwhile, a female aide tried to grab the mic away from Acosta, which he stifled with a “Pardon me, ma’am” and a hand on her arm. Before Acosta relented, Trump called the investigation a “hoax” and called Acosta a “rude, terrible person.” Fun times.
More about the Jim Acosta portion of the program: NBC News’s Peter Alexander came to Acosta’s defense as next reporter up—only to get harangued by the President in his own right—but the implications of this kerfuffle and the subsequent revocation of Acosta’s press privileges in covering the White House are serious. I don’t care what you think about Acosta personally, even if you feel he’s a self-aggrandizing hack. Judging by the smarmy attitude of other CNN personalities like Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo, elevated self-appraisals seem to be a fairly common occurrence there. I also don’t care what you think about Barack Obama’s frosty relationship with FOX News and the questionable treatment its reporters received at the hands of the Obama White House. On the latter count, two wrongs don’t make a right, and if Trump and Co. want to distinguish themselves, they should do it by being better and less petty—not the other way around. To that effect, squelching Acosta’s voice in a dictatorial way should be concerning no matter where you stand politically in the name of journalistic integrity and a free press. And let’s not start with the whole “Acosta assaulted that young woman” narrative. If you’re relying on a doctored InfoWars clip to make your argument, you already should take the hint you’re probably on some bullshit.
More on bipartisanship: After Jim Acosta was given the ol’ Vaudeville Hook, Alexander questioned Trump on why he was pitting Americans against one another. To which Trump asked back—and I am not making this up—”What are you—trying to be him?” He was referring to Acosta, of course. Even after what just happened, it was stunning. For the record, Pres. Trump gave a dodgy “they’re soft on crime” answer and suggested the results of the election would have a “very positive impact.” So, um, yay togetherness!
If the Mueller investigation is unfair to the country and it’s costing millions of dollars, why doesn’t Trump just end it? I’m posting the whole question here, because the President sure didn’t answer it convincingly.
On voter suppression: “I’ll give you ‘voter suppression’: Take a look at the CNN polls, how inaccurate they were. That’s called ‘voter suppression’.” Um, what?
On the individual mandate: You know, I could tell you what he said, but do you have any confidence that, regardless of how people feel about the individual mandate, Republicans have a plan in mind which will allow them to keep premiums down and cover preexisting conditions? Neither do I.
When all questions by women of color are “stupid” or “racist”: Speaking of three-card Monte, here’s a shell game within the shell game in which you get to pick which one is the most flagrantly dog-whistle-y. PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump about whether his claim to be a “nationalist” has emboldened “white nationalists” here and abroad. Trump said it’s a “racist” question. Putting aside the notion held by many that racism implies power and Trump therefore has no idea what he’s talking about in this regard, it’s a legitimate question. Trump pivoted to his overwhelming support from African-American voters—a fabrication, at any rate—but his lack of an appropriate response betrays his complicity on this issue.
More on denigrating black female reporters: While the dialog with Alcindor was the only such interaction with an African-American female reporter during the press conference, it’s not his only recent unflattering characterization herein. In response to a question by CNN’s Abby Phillip about whether he appointed Matthew Whitaker as acting Attorney General, he called her query “stupid” and opined that she asks “a lot of stupid questions.” As for April Ryan, Trump recently referred to her as a “loser” and someone “who doesn’t know what she’s doing.” If these comments were isolated incidents, one might be able to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. In such close proximity to one another and based on his track record, though, Trump deserves no such consideration. He’s attacking these women of color because he has a problem with being challenged by strong females and because it’s red meat to throw at his base.
Other odds and ends:
Trump evidently can’t turn over his tax returns because he is under audit. This is complete and unmitigated bullshit.
Trump likes Oprah. Even if she, too, is a loser.
If anything is going to be done with DACA, it will apparently have to be dealt with in court. Whose fault is that? You guessed it: the Democrats.
Trump claimed to have a lot of trouble understanding people from foreign news outlets. If there were anything to make him seem like more of the “ugly American,” well, this would be it.
What did Trump learn from the midterm results? Seeing as he learned that “people like him” and that “people like the job he’s doing,” he obviously didn’t learn a damn thing.
Will Mike Pence be Trump’s running mate in 2020? Yes. Glad that’s settled. Nice hardball question there.
How will Trump push a pro-life agenda with a divided Congress? Like a mother trying to give birth, he’s just going to keep pushing—don’t you worry, evangelicals.
Did China or Russia interfere in the election? The official report’s, as they say, in the mail.
How can we enact a middle-class tax cut alongside the existing corporate/high-earner tax cut? With an “adjustment.” What kind of adjustment? Trump’s “not telling.” YOU HAVE NO IDEA. JUST SAY IT.
Per “Two Corinthians” Trump, God plays a very big role in his life. He’s also a “great moral leader,” and he loves our country. On an unrelated note, a lightning bolt ripped through the ceiling during the press conference, narrowly missing Trump as he delivered his remarks.
Au revoir, Monsieur Sessions
Politics makes strange bedfellows. If you’re thinking how strange it is to be protesting the firing of Jeff bleeping Sessions, you’re not alone. Sessions’ aforementioned removal as AG in favor of Trump loyalist Matthew Whitaker—assuming he actually was fired and didn’t resign, though how would we know?—is not something that anyone feels bad about for Sessions’s sake. You make a deal with the Devil, and eventually, you expect to get burned, no? Given his profile as a notorious anti-drug dinosaur who infamously once professed that good people don’t use marijuana, some drug reform activism groups are even happy he’s gone.
Outside of this context, though, the larger partisan hostility toward Robert Mueller and his investigation matters. I’m not going to even get into whether Trump has the right to remove Sessions and replace him with someone like Whitaker who wasn’t confirmed by the Senate, or whether it matters if he was fired or if he quit. Honestly, these questions are above my ken as a citizen journalist.
If past statements are any indication, however, putting Whitaker in charge of the DOJ is suspect. The man didn’t exactly write the book on how to limit the scope of the Mueller investigation, but he did pen an opinion piece for Trump’s favorite news outlet on how it should be done. As with invalidating Jim Acosta’s White House press privileges (a move which has prompted another lawsuit against the Trump administration, mind you), such is a line the president should not cross, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. As Americans, we should all be worried about the fate of the Mueller investigation as it comes to a head, and should implore our elected officials to safeguard the inquiry’s results.
The ghost of the 2000 election
Oh, those hanging chads. It’s somehow comforting—and yet actually deeply, deeply disturbing—that not much has changed since the fracas surrounding the 2000 recount that captivated a nation and prompted cries of a “stolen” victory for George W. Bush. Then again, that Al Gore didn’t win his own state and that thousands of Florida Democrats voted for Bush puts a bit of a damper on pointing to these shenanigans and Ralph Nader as the only reasons why Gore lost. As with Hillary Clinton losing in 2016, alongside legitimate concerns about Russian meddling and James Comey’s untimely letter to Congress, it’s not as if strategic miscues or lack of enthusiasm about the Democratic candidate in question didn’t play a role.
Now that I’ve set the scene, let’s talk about 2018. There were a number of close races across the country this Election Day—some so close they still haven’t been certified or conceded. Depending on your views, some were either disappointments or godsends. If you were pulling for Beto O’Rourke in Texas, while you still should be encouraged, you were nonetheless dismayed to find that enough voters willingly re-elected Ted Cruz, famed annoyance and rumored Zodiac Killer. If you were pulling for Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, meanwhile, you likely were over the moon once the race was finally called.
Of the key races not yet called at this writing, those in Florida and Georgia loom particularly large. In the Sunshine State, the candidates of both the race for U.S. Senate between Rick Scott (R) and Bill Nelson (D) and the race for governor between Ron DeSantis (R) and Andrew Gillum (D) are separated by less than half of 1%. Meanwhile, in the Peach State gubernatorial race, there are enough outstanding votes that Stacey Abrams (D) and her campaign are convinced they can force a runoff election based on the margin.
In all three cases, despite the razor-thin vote disparities, Republicans have been quick to cry fraud or try to expedite certifying the results. Scott, with Trump throwing his own claim around wildly in support, has made accusations of electoral malfeasance without the evidence to back it up.
And this is just speaking about what has happened after the election. Leading up to the election, DeSantis caught flak for telling voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for Gillum, dog-whistling loud enough for racists across the Southeast to hear. Brian Kemp (R), meanwhile as Georgia Secretary of State, oversaw the purging of voters from rolls, the failure to process voter applications, and keeping voting machines locked up—all primarily at the expense of voters of color, a key Democratic constituency.
Depending on how far back you wish to go, the antics of DeSantis, Kemp, and Scott are only the latest turn in a long-standing American tradition of voter suppression aimed at blacks. Carol Anderson, professor of African-American studies at Emory University, provides a concise but effective history of keeping blacks from the polls—by hook or by crook. We may no longer be threatening prospective voters of color with tar and feathers, but voter purges, closure of polling locations, and disenfranchisement of felons from being able to vote aren’t much of an improvement. This is 2018, after all.
As Van Jones and others might insist, Kemp et al. can only win one way: by stealing. To put it another way, if these Republicans were convinced they had won legitimately, they wouldn’t need all the chicanery, subterfuge, and insinuations of impropriety. Even if they do prove to have the votes necessary to win, their conduct is a stain on the offices they have served or will serve.
Like it is with the White House’s revocation of Jim Acosta’s privileges following Trump’s press conference or the suspicious installation of Matthew Whitaker as head of the Department of Justice, the injustice here is such that it should, ahem, trump partisanship. Instead, our “winning is the only thing” mentality and emphasis on results over process all but ensures bipartisan inaction.
Assuming a shell game is run fairly, the customer playing need only follow the correct shell amid all the movement. This itself might be a chore depending on how much and how fast the shells move. Going back to the Wikipedia entry on the shell game, though, there’s an important note about how, frequently, games of these sort are not on the up-and-up:
In practice, however, the shell game is notorious for its use by confidence tricksters who will typically rig the game using sleight of hand to move or hide the ball during play and replace it as required. Fraudulent shell games are also known for the use of psychological tricks to convince potential players of the legitimacy of the game – for example, by using shills or by allowing a player to win a few times before beginning the scam.
In other words, it’s a con. You’ve been following the wrong shell all along because the eyes deceive. In the context of President Donald Trump’s unbecoming behavior, his DOJ shakeup of questionable legitimacy, and the Republican Party’s stacking of the electoral deck, while all of these matters merit your justifiable outrage, they are yet a distraction from something else not even on the table.
For one, shortly after the press conference, Trump issued a directive designed to halt asylum-seeking at our southern border. It’s a particularly problematic order, in that it appears to fundamentally misunderstand asylum law and makes it yet harder to apply for asylum than it already is. It’s also reactionary policy that overstates the dangers of the migrant caravan and illegal immigration in general, and further puts us out of step with international standards on safeguarding refugees/asylees.
This executive order comes on the heels of Trump’s stated desire to end birthright citizenship, another move which would be of dubious constitutional validity and subject to challenge in court by civil rights advocacy groups, not to mention having U.S. troops stationed at the border with Mexico. It’s easy to dismiss these as political stunts designed to fire up his base when you have no skin in the game, so to speak.
For immigrants and would-be applicants for asylum/visas, this rhetoric is more worrisome. Owing to our country’s poor track record of acting on behalf of vulnerable populations—I’ll bring our sordid history of intimidating voters of color and otherwise acting in official capacities to deny them their rights back up, in case you need reminding—this is more than simple hand-wringing based on the theoretical.
In the miasma and noise of a Republican agenda fueled by the views of FOX News talking heads, Koch-Brothers-funded legislative influence, obeisance to moneyed interests and religious conservatives, Tea Party railing against deficits, and Trump’s own prejudicial outlook, it’s legitimately hard to cut through all the bullshit and focus on what we can do as possible influencers. By now, the sense of fatigue is real, especially because when we act to counteract said agenda, there’s also half-hearted Democratic Party policies and media clickbait designed to offend around which to work.
So, what’s the answer? Assuming my words are even that useful in this regard, I’m not sure. As noted, all of the above merits scrutiny, but we have our limitations. It may be useful to zero in on one or a handful of issues that arouse your personal political passions. Plus, if you can afford it, so many causes spearheaded by organizations devoted to the betterment of society deserve your donations, though throwing money at these problems does not automatically equate to solving them.
At the end of the day, though, what is abundantly clear after decades of failed policy initiatives is that tuning out is not a viable option if we want meaningful change. Indeed, people-powered solutions will be necessary if we are to fix our broken democracy—and there’s a lot to fix, at that. Recognize the shell game for what it is, but don’t refuse to play. Instead, change the game.
Michelle Wolf, comedienne, Daily Show alum, and writer, hosted this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. You, ahem, may have heard about it.
Wolf, delivering her routine with a wry sort of smile that often belied a caustic tone, was an equal opportunity joke teller, hurling insults mostly at President Donald Trump, but not sparing members of his administration either. Nor were other media and political figures off limits, as Wolf also assailed the likes of Ann Coulter, Chris Christie, Harvey Weinstein, Hillary Clinton, Michael Cohen, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and the stars of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, among others. On top of this, she took the news media community to task for their part in propping up Trump for the sake of their profits and at the nation’s expense.
Before we get to the myriad responses to Wolf’s monologue, which tidily ran under 20 minutes in length, let’s first go over some of the highlights of her speech, as identified by yours truly:
Michelle Wolf began by asserting that her role was to tell jokes, and that she had no agenda or wasn’t “trying to get anything accomplished.” You can question the merits of her statement if you will, but if she came with any “agenda,” it wasn’t apparent by virtue of her barbs aimed in all directions.
Wolf did not dwell on the Trump-Russia situation, except at one point suggesting #45 is in some way compromised by this connection. Otherwise, she professed that she didn’t want to titillate the liberal media among the audience by going on about it, and seemed to express frustration at how this story has dominated headlines and has encouraged discussion panels reminiscent of a bad family argument at Thanksgiving dinner.
That said, Wolf went after Trump. Hard. She called him a “pussy” for not attending the Dinner, and rather than harping on his misogyny, racism, and xenophobia—though not letting him off the hook about these qualities either—she made a series of jokes designed to eat away at a key part of his image and truly gall him: that he’s not as rich as he says he is.
Wolf also referenced Trump’s pandering to white nationalists, and surmises the term “white nationalist” itself is a cop out. As she said during her monologue: “Calling a Nazi a ‘white nationalist’ is like calling a pedophile a ‘kid friend,’ or Harvey Weinstein a ‘ladies’ man’.”
Wolf expressed the belief that Trump shouldn’t be impeached, if only because Mike Pence is waiting in the wings.
Wolf also mentioned Trump’s Cabinet, and joked she had specific comments for its members, but that they keep changing. She quipped, “You guys have gone through Cabinet members quicker than Starbucks throws out black people.”
As mentioned earlier, if Wolf wrote her routine with any sort of agenda, it was political—especially in the feminist sense—but not partisan. She took Hillary Clinton’s campaign to task for abandoning Midwest states like Michigan, and more broadly chided Democrats for their strategic miscues in races up and down tickets.
Indeed, for all her (deserved) criticism of Trump, her particular disdain for women in positions of relative prominence was apparent. She identified Kellyanne Conway as an out-and-out liar who has no business appearing on news channels, she characterized Ivanka Trump, self-professed advocate for women, as “as helpful to [them] as an empty box of tampons,” likened Sarah Sanders to the character of Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, a brutal authoritarian figure and spreader of propaganda. Last but not least, she took a shot at Megyn Kelly and NBC’s handling of her contract: “Megyn Kelly got paid $23 million by NBC, and NBC didn’t let Megan go to the Winter Olympics. Why not? She’s so white, cold, and expensive, she might as well be the Winter Olympics.”
Wolf’s harshest words perhaps were aimed at the media, and specifically for the way they’ve taken advantage of Donald Trump’s rise within the sphere of U.S. politics. Comparing their attitude toward Trump like a woman who professes to hate her ex-boyfriend but secretly loves him, she uttered, point blank, “You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off him.” For Wolf, this point was one that she sees that members of the media are loath to acknowledge, but bears discussing and repeating.
Wolf’s closing words, underscoring the seriousness of her commentary and serving as a reminder in case anyone forgot (or chose to ignore it): “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.” As far as responses to emergency situations are concerned, I’m sure there are those in, say, Puerto Rico who would nod their heads and add their own situations to the mix.
Reactions to the speech have been fairly predictable. Pres. Trump, of course, hated it, calling it “a very big, boring bust.” Takes one to know one, Donald. Sean Spicer called it a “disgrace.” Ditto. Other conservative publications and sites panned Michelle Wolf’s performance, highlighting the opinion she “bombed.” One tends to wonder if they actually watched her performance or simply formed their opinion based on snippets from blogs and their own kneejerk reactions in defense of the President, but this apparently is the state of critical political analysis in our country today.
To be fair, Wolf has had her detractors outside the political right, too. The media, perhaps likewise predictably, have balked at the idea they have helped create the “monster” that is Trump. As someone like Chris Cillizza of CNN and formerly of The Washington Post would aver, he and other reporters have covered Trump to the extent that he has done and said things that no other president/candidate has done, but that Trump, as the “angry id of the GOP,” was on the rise whether the mainstream media gave him the attention or not. That is, while sites like CNN have indeed profited off of Trump’s increased exposure, Cillizza believes this is different from “creating” him.
Other criticisms seem directed at Wolf’s perceived mean streak, particularly in her take-down of Trump administration officials like Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence, and Sarah Sanders. In addressing the media and telling various outlets not to book Conway, she joked, “If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?” She immediately qualified that she wouldn’t want Conway hurt or killed by the falling tree, just stuck, but the image was enough for some people.
In assailing Pence and his anti-abortion views, a sore spot for many women and people concerned with personal rights, she riffed, “Don’t knock it ’til you try it, and when you do try it, really knock it. You know, you’ve got to get that baby out of there.” Abortion jokes, even for the pro-choice crowd, are always a questionable choice. As for Sanders, Wolf’s comments about her make-up and her resemblance to Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale have been branded as unfair and tantamount to bullying, though Wolf professes she was not making fun of Sarah’s looks, but merely her propensity to lie and spin as a buffer between Trump and the press corps. Despite not having an “agenda,” Wolf was clearly not playing to the room, or for that matter, playing nice.
The bilateral backlash to Wolf’s routine has been such that even White House Correspondents’ Association president Margaret Talev publicly distanced herself from the content of the monologue, putting forth the notion that Wolf’s remarks were not “in the spirit” of what the WHCA tries to accomplish, that the occasion should be one of civility, and of defending a free press and celebrating great reporting, and not intentionally divisive. In making this statement to fellow Association members, Talev seemed to be indicating a bit of buyer’s remorse, and at one point, after making an off-color joke about her own anatomy, Wolf herself followed it with the perhaps-too-on-the-nose line, “You should have done more research before you got me to do this.” Touché, Ms. Wolf. Touché.
At the same time, however, Michelle Wolf has her defenders, especially among her comedian brethren. As they contend, Wolf did the job she was asked to do, and if she ruffled a few proverbial feathers, so be it. Their sentiments echo the feelings of some people that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the problem, not Wolf or her “speak truth to power” mindset. For years, critics of this annual tradition have highlighted the oddity of an event designed to champion fearless reporting and freedom of the press and yet encourage reporters and political or otherwise public figures to coalesce with one another.
The mere suggestion that members of the press are in some way complicit in Trump’s political rise or in downplaying his administration’s dangerous propensity to lie is therefore bound to be uncomfortable. To put this another way, and to sympathize with the views of chief New York Times television critic James Poniewozik, maybe the WHCA should just not hire a comedian if they want less controversy, and as he puts it, “send the cameras away [and] have a nice dinner in peace.” After all, there’s nothing obligating the Association to hire a stand-up performer. Why do it if you’re unable to handle criticism in your own right?
Michelle Wolf, for her part, has responded to criticism of her speech by indicating she wouldn’t change a word of it, and that the backlash she’s received from her comments means she was actually in the right. Poniewozik, in his closing remarks, also defended Wolf to the extent that the White House Correspondents’ Association did not:
The irony of the association’s disavowing Ms. Wolf is that her routine, whether you agree with it or not, was ultimately about defending the mission of the White House press: sticking up for the truth. Michelle Wolf had the W.H.C.A.’s back Saturday night, even if it didn’t have hers the day after.
As Margaret Talev has made evident by distancing Wolf and her jokes from the Association and its purported mission, she is a comedian and not a member of the press. From where Wolf stands, this is probably a good thing, in that it frees her from any conventions which might prevent her from calling a spade a spade. Still, that the WHCA would publicly disavow the contents of Wolf’s monologue and risk chumming the waters for conservative trolls seems like a questionable stance to take.
It’s reminiscent of when Donald Trump, shortly after the contents of the Steele dossier started becoming public news, shouted down CNN’s Jim Acosta during a press conference, calling Acosta and his employer “fake news.” Looking at this situation retrospectively, it’s not so surprising that Trump would verbally attack a member of the media given his frequent angry Tweets lobbed at the “liberal media.”
At the time, however, it was unnerving to see Acosta shut down by the President and have none of his colleagues come to his defense. Sure, Neil Cavuto and others at FOX News may have been glad to smirk and sneer at CNN for what they perceived as their comeuppance for biased reporting and an overall snobby elitist attitude. But this confrontation foreshadowed the all-out assault Trump has levied upon the mainstream media, and it has ominous implications for the future of news media given Trump’s authoritarian streak and the proliferation of genuine fake news—if that makes any sense.
In other words, if individual members of the press don’t stand in solidarity when freedom of the press/freedom of speech is challenged, it stands to become that much easier to pick them off in the future. Wolf, in laughingly referring to print news as an “endangered species,” punctuated her joke by saying, “Buy more newspapers.” Much as she might disagree with their model, and to stress James Poniewozik’s insights, Michelle Wolf, a comedian with no agenda and not trying to get anything accomplished, recognizes the importance of investigative journalism. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and such explains why FOX News personalities came to CNN’s defense when their rival was besieged by Trump early in 2017. Over a year later, though, it already feels like members of the media/press are less inclined to cross Trump, or in the case of FOX News, are unabashedly biased in his favor. Gulp.
It’s anyone’s guess what Wolf’s performance will mean for the future of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, if anything. Chances are good that the furor over her routine will die down by the time next year rolls around and we’ll be reacting with the usual outrage again, having all but forgotten that dinner’s predecessor. For the media outlets implicated in her speech, meanwhile, it might behoove them to look at themselves in the mirror before putting this episode in the rear view. Given the public’s flagging confidence in the news media, an institution that won’t confront its own accountability may just end up hastening its own decline.
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Emma Stone made headlines at this year’s Oscars telecast when she introduced the nominees for the award for Best Director, saying, “These four men and Greta Gerwig created their own masterpieces this year.” Not merely because she echoed the sentiments of Natalie Portman, who took a shot at the powers-that-be behind the Golden Globes when she uttered the phrase, “And here are the all-male nominees.” While Stone definitely has her share of supporters for “keeping it 100,” as the kids say, there are a number of critics online who voiced their displeasure with her remarks, specifically in light of the notion that Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro, also nominated for the award, are people of color.
As these critics would have it, Peele’s and del Toro’s nods are an achievement in their own right, and shouldn’t be diminished by the likes of her. Furthermore, as April Reign, founder of the #OscarsSoWhite movement suggests, not only does Stone’s criticism ring hollow given that she has worked with Woody Allen, an alleged sexual abuser, and played a character of part-Asian descent in Aloha, a roundly-derided example of whitewashing, but her angst is an illustration of white feminism’s failure to appreciate intersectionality. Emma Stone’s elevation of Greta Gerwig, because it occurred at the expense of Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro—not to mention Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan, two talented directors in their own right—led people to cry foul.
While this moment and stories of Emma Watson’s grammatically incorrect “Time’s Up” tattoo may prompt jeering from those who sneer at Hollywood’s elitist celebrations and limousine liberalism—oh, the perils of missed apostrophes!—the divide that can be identified between “white feminism” and “intersectional feminism” is a concern for #MeToo, Time’s Up, and all movements of a like spirit. Back in January in 2017, when Donald Trump was being sworn in, and women were full-throated in their outrage over how a lying pussy-grabber like him could become President of the United States, Alia Dastagir, culture writer for USA Today, authored a piece concerning the buzz around use of the term intersectional feminism and how it may be defined. Dastagir notes how the Women’s March on Washington, initially organized without much, if any, representation from women of color in leadership roles, helped spark conversations about how white privilege can blind some feminists to other concerns which especially affect women of color.
Intersectional feminism, in seeking to empower all women, strives to account for the differences among women so as to avoid marginalizing certain voices within feminist circles, including differences based on economic status, gender identification (i.e. cisgender or transgender), language, nationality, race, religion, sexuality, and whether or not a feminist can be identified as “radical.” This attention to various distinguishing characteristics, in theory, creates a more complete understanding of the underlying issues facing women in society today. Such that, for instance, a discussion about women breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling or earning equal pay might also include a discussion about raising the minimum wage, or addressing women’s reproductive rights might additionally touch upon the inability of some women to afford abortions or even contraception. Intersectional feminism, therefore, complicates the notion that “the liberation of women means the liberation of all.”
It is through this lens of intersectionality that we may start to more critically view the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in terms of the big picture, and in saying this, I want to be very delicate with my words and views here. Broadly speaking, I support #MeToo and Time’s Up. That they encourage recognition of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, harassment, and misconduct, as well as the destructive power these crimes can have on lives and how it is possible for victims to cope with them, notably through sharing their experiences, I believe, is a step forward. That both movements have not only demanded accountability for men who have taken advantage of women in some way, but have yielded real consequences for perpetrators of sexual violence also seems like progress. At the same time, however, and without wishing to appear sexist by invoking criticism, I feel it’s worthwhile to wonder where these initiatives are headed and what their intended purposes are.
First things first, let me speak to the idea thrown around by some high-profile men, notably film director Michael Haneke, that #MeToo et al. are some form of “witch hunt.” While this thinking perhaps bears more credence than Donald Trump’s claim that the investigation into his and his campaign’s dealings with Russia are a witch hunt—if you believe Trump, despite being given every opportunity to succeed, he is the most egregiously persecuted man in the history of the world—framing movements like these along these lines at best undermines the idea that victims should be believed and taken seriously at their word, as well as it belies the low percentage of falsely reported claims of rape and other forms of assault. At worst, it does all of the above and signifies that the person pointing to the irrationality of the angry mob with pitchforks and torches is himself a bad actor. The concept of there being “levels” of sexual misconduct—that not all violations of a sexual nature are created equal—should be similarly and deservedly downplayed. As many observers and experts on these matters have put forth, not every perpetrator is going to be a Harvey Weinstein. Rather, in all probability, they will be more like Al Franken or Louis C.K., ostensible “good guys” who are guilty of misdeeds, even if they don’t involve jail time or even if we like their work. A violation is a violation, no matter the size (I am being serious here, but feel free to conjure innuendo-laden imagery if you desire a humorous aside).
On that last note about how “good guys” can do bad things, even men who are presumably “woke”—a term I usually forgo owing to its ambiguity, if not its blatant disregard for grammatical correctness—one woman’s tale of a date gone wrong with comedian Aziz Ansari created quite a stir when it was published on Babe.net. Prompting its critics to declare that #MeToo had “gone too far” or “run amok,” it depicted an encounter in which the woman felt shocked by Ansari’s aggressive behavior, likening him to a horny teenage boy, a night that he thought was a great time, but that she obviously saw as a nightmare. For some, this is wrong behavior, pure and simple, and Ansari should be admonished for his actions. For others, even those who would identify as feminists and/or socially conscious, though, outing Ansari for something that isn’t a crime, but is related to differences in how men and women may view consent in sexual situations (not that this excuses Ansari, mind you) and something which probably should prompt a larger dialog on the dynamics of sex and male domination, strikes them as excessive, if not sensational or deliberately designed to start controversy. Accordingly, for all the good this cautionary tale might bring about by fostering a conversation, its logistics and naming of names arguably overshadow its merits.
In turn, and speaking to a problem seemingly faced by other activist-led movements concerned with social issues, critics of #MeToo and Time’s Up have suggested that it is not enough to merely name names and wag fingers in condemnation, but to provide a clear path to actionable goals. That is, while stories of sordid acts might entertain us, in the way car accidents may “entertain” us as we rubberneck our way across concrete landscapes, these accounts do not necessarily help us in our bid to reform boardrooms, workplaces, and the like, and need to be more forward-thinking and focused on the victims, as opposed to the due process of and fairness to suspected perpetrators. For all the hoopla about putting Aziz Ansari in the spotlight for poor sexual etiquette, realistically, he is not likely to lose much credibility over the long term (or sleep) in light of what could be recognized as sexual assault (I, not being there, don’t doubt both that Ansari believed the sex was consensual and that the woman believed she was being coerced).
To their credit, people like Tarana Burke who have been instrumental in creating and furthering these movements have identified potential avenues for change, including increased protections for victims, as well as training and vetting of candidates for service, whether in places of worships, schools, workplaces, or anywhere else. This includes Congress, not only as a supposed hotbed of sexual impropriety, but as a place where legislation has been introduced on the subject by Rep. Jackie Speier, and where additional, more far-reaching laws may be approached that more adequately serve the needs of constituents. Still, at a critical moment when change on so many issues seems possible—just look at how the conversation about gun control after the Parkland, FL school shooting has taken on a markedly different tone than it did following, for instance, the Orlando nightclub massacre—and this is not to suggest an onus be thrust on movement leaders, but care must be taken to avoid current and prospective supporters, women and men alike, becoming disenchanted by inaction or feeling alienated as irredeemable obstacles on the path to progress. Lest, at least on the part of the males, they take a cue from the words of Matt Damon and deny any wrongdoing, pushing the truth back into the darkness for fear of what it will do to them and their livelihood.
Returning to the backdrop of the film industry, author Lindy West, in a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, expresses admiration for Academy Award-nominated films like Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, and Lady Bird for challenging the reassertion of “white Christian masculinity as the tentpole of the universe” by Republicans and their ilk, and embraces the resolve and real-world power possessed by supporters of the #MeToo movement. At the same time, though, she insists we as a society need to leverage this newfound influence to address unfinished conversations already begun on related issues. From West’s op-ed:
In the rush of catharsis, it’s important not to lose track of some of those old conceptual conversations, because we never came close to finishing them. We are not done talking about why so many men feel entitled to space, power and other people’s bodies. We are not done talking about our culture’s hostility toward women’s sexual pleasure. We are not done talking about how to get justice for “imperfect” victims, and how to let go of perpetrators we love. We are not done talking about how to decide which abusers deserve a path to redemption, and what that path might look like. We are not done talking about the legal system. We are not done talking about sex. We are not done talking about race.
As we’ve noted, intersectional feminism has something to say about race and the fairness of the legal system on top of other institutions—or lack thereof. Nonetheless, other nuances of the #MeToo/Time’s Up discussion within West’s enumerated list do seem to get lost in the shuffle and kerfuffle of bringing down powerful men. With high-profile political figures like Mike Pence predicting abortion will become illegal in the United States in his lifetime, the sense of entitlement men in power feel to what women do with their bodies is an important area of exploration. Ditto for the double standards that exist for men and women in terms of expression of sexuality, which lends itself to the former being lauded for keeping in mind the biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” and the latter being called “sluts” and being told to “keep their legs closed.” Meanwhile, on the specific subject of redemption for abusers, while the depth of Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds and his unrepentant defiance of violating consent would appear to negate any hope for reformation within the sphere of public opinion, for someone like Louis C.K. who admitted his faults and wrongs—albeit after his initial denial of the “rumors”—is the door closed on him as well? Does Aziz Ansari now make for an unwanted advocated for the Time’s Up movement? And how do we regard the work of those like Kevin Spacey or Jeffrey Tambor? That is, can we separate their craft from what they have done or allegedly done in real life, not to mention our enjoyment of it? These are conversations that many might agree are worth having, but don’t seem to be getting their due in light of the focus on specific perpetrators.
As Lindy West says in closing, “Unseating a couple (or a score, or even a generation) of powerful abusers is a start, but it’s not an end, unless we also radically change the power structure that selects their replacements and the shared values that remain even when the movement wanes.” This echoes her own sentiments expressed earlier in the piece that #MeToo can’t just disrupt a broken culture, but become the culture. It’s a goal that will likely take generations to realize, and thus, will need direction and commitment to survive over that duration. For West, that involves making art that reflects the values we seek to promote. For all of us, it requires a shared recognition that gender inequality is a problem which affects us all, and that women’s and men’s voices of all make and model will be needed if we are to advance the conversation.
How many times have you heard the phrase “live each day like it’s your last?” It’s good advice, in theory. Certainly, you should be active in shaping your destiny and not waiting for things to happen to your benefit. Then again, taken to absurd extremes, this could be a dangerous mantra by which to live. At no point is it recommended that your drain your savings, spend it on alcohol, drugs, and other diversions, and throw the party to end all parties. Swimming pools full of liquor à la Kendrick Lamar. Sex with many anonymous partners. Fun, perhaps, yes, but not terribly prudent. If it seems like I’m a bit of a wet blanket in this regard, it’s only because, by all accounts, I am.
President Donald J. Trump, for his part, seems to subscribe to this way of thinking, or at least approaches running the country in this way. Risk the position of the Republican Party by insisting on a replacement to ObamaCare, an unpopular travel ban, a militaristic immigration policy and overall approach to criminal justice, and an expensive wall at the Mexican border, among other things? No big deal—Trump hasn’t been a very faithful member of the GOP, and basically ran his campaign without the full backing of the party’s leaders (in fact, that probably only helped him). Fire off crazy, unfounded remarks regularly on Twitter? Fine—the news media is happy with all the clicks and TV ratings it receives every time he makes his feelings known. Appeal to corporations and workers alike with a pro-business, anti-environment agenda? That’s OK—he’ll probably be dead by the time the worst effects of deleterious climate change hit (though at the rate he’s going, who knows).
More recently, however, it is the firing of FBI director James Comey that has people up in arms, particularly incensed about the decision of a man known for acting suddenly and capriciously. Now, was Mr. Comey a saint? Far from it, as evidenced by his rather brazen actions which directly influenced voters’ perceptions of the 2016 presidential race—which he testified as being absolutely sick about, because he had no intention of doing anything to sway the outcome. Sure, Jim, you’re really helping your credibility there. In fact, after Comey effectively threw hurdles in Hillary Clinton’s lane in the race for the presidency, many were calling for his head. You know, figuratively speaking. At least I think it was figuratively speaking. This past election sure dredged up some powerful feelings—and still continues to, if I might add.
Based on his guilt, then, James Comey doesn’t inspire a great deal of sympathy merely for losing his job. Where the outrage lies, meanwhile, is what the presumed motivations are for Trump deciding to fire Comey at this point in time. The White House has indicated it was because of Comey’s apparent bias and his lack of fairness in dealing with Hillary Clinton, among other things, but come on—nobody believes that. After all, why wait until May 2017 to make the determination to ax Comey if that were the case? Such reasoning is not only illogical, but it’s pretty damn insulting to our intelligence as readers, Tweeters, and viewers of the news.
No, the consensus opinion is that James Comey was fired because he was getting too close for comfort in his investigation of Donald Trump himself and other close associates. It is all but known that Trump and prominent members of his administration/campaign have direct financial ties to Russian oligarchs or had contact with Russian ambassadors prior to the election, and hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s and John Podesta’s E-mails raise serious concerns about whether or not Trump and his team were involved in an apparent plot to screw with American democratic proceedings and sway the election in his favor. In addition, viewed in the context of other firings within the Justice Department, namely those of Sally Yates and Preet Bharara, Comey’s removal is suspicious in that those individuals who have been involved with investigating Trump’s affairs have all been sent packing by the President. Sure, there’s no definitive proof these firings were all politically motivated—well, not yet, at least—but this trend raises one’s eyebrows. Heck, John McCain broke ranks with his fellow Republicans to express his disappointment in Comey proving to be a casualty of the Trump White House. When members of the GOP are publicly casting doubts about Trump’s motives, you know it’s a big deal.
Predictably, a number of his Cabinet members came to Pres. Trump’s defense, as I’m sure his fans on blogs, on Breitbart, and on talk radio did as well. The rationalization that stuck with me the most, though, was that of Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations and, more recently, Donald Trump apologist. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on his show This Week, Haley said that “[Trump] is the CEO of the country. He can hire and fire anyone he wants.” This is a striking assertion to me, not merely because Trump, as President of the United States, can’t just fire anyone he wants. A significant portion of Trump’s lasting appeal is his identity as a political outsider and a successful businessman (only one of the two is accurate), and in this regard, his presidency is almost an experiment of sorts in applying a business leadership model to a publicly-elected office. In talking with my close circle of friends about Donald Trump (spoiler alert: we’re generally not fond of him), we discussed how Americans who voted for the orange one may have been swayed by vague notions of wanting to see how the country could or would be run if it were handled like a corporation or other business. Given this frame of mind, Trump’s perceived success or failure and the future political prospects of other prominent Republicans could therefore be seen as a referendum on such an industry-focused approach.
Now well past the 100-day mark of Trump’s tenure, it’s worth considering whether or not more and more Americans who voted him into office might be suffering from a case of buyer’s remorse, not to mention contemplating just how well the Trump-as-CEO-President analogy fits. As John Cassidy, writing for The New Yorker, insists, if Donald Trump were a CEO, he’d probably be fired. To this end, and in his assessment of Trump’s tenure heretofore, Cassidy is pretty much unequivocal:
Donald Trump has built his political career on his reputation as a successful businessman, so it seems fair to assess his recent performance as President as if he were a C.E.O. running U.S.A., Inc. The report card isn’t pretty. Indeed, if Trump were the chief executive of a public company, the firm’s non-executive directors probably would have been huddled in a crisis meeting on Tuesday morning, deciding whether to issue him a pink slip.
In such a corporate scenario, the board members would likely decide they had no choice but to oust Trump to protect the reputation of the company and prevent further damage. During the past week, he has twice messed up monumentally, doing grave harm to his own credibility and undermining the country’s reputation around the world. And these were just his latest mistakes. During his four months in the corner office, Trump has repeatedly shown that he is patently unsuited for the position he holds, and he has also demonstrated a chronic inability to change the way he operates.
I would think more moderate Trump supporters and voters would be apt to concede that “the Donald” lacks the qualifications you might desire of a Commander-in-Chief, much in the way reluctant Hillary Clinton voters would likely concede their choice was—how can I put this delicately?—somewhat out of touch with working-class Americans. Those same people would also probably agree that flexibility and Donald Trump do not necessarily come part and parcel, though they might disagree to the extent this is a virtue or vice. For all those individuals who profess to want a negotiator who will work with members of both major political parties and knows how to compromise, there seems to be, if not an equivalent number of people, then a sufficiently vocal minority which believes the opposite: that refusal to compromise is an element of strong leadership, and that sticking to one’s proverbial guns is to be lauded, not decried.
In other words, John Cassidy would be remiss if he did not cite specific examples of how Donald Trump as POTUS and chief executive has failed. Thankfully, at least for his sake, he does not disappoint. Though I’m sure you can imagine which recent events top his list, here are the two big blockbusters that he cites to prove his point:
1. The firing of James Comey
We’ve addressed this in part, but Cassidy points out the incongruity in the public statements about why Comey was fired is a public relations disaster, and, though it almost certainly means nothing to Trump, he really hung Vice President Mike Pence out to dry by contradicting his account of why a vacancy at the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation now exists. Trump’s ensuing Tweets that appear to be warning James Comey that he had better hope there were no tapes of their conversations only further the notion that he (Trump) is the kind of unstable person who you wouldn’t want caring for your pet goldfish, let alone a company or the United States of freaking America. I mean, to put it another way, um, blackmail tends to be frowned upon in our society.
2. The disclosure of classified information to Russian officials
At a bare minimum, this is a case of bad optics, but in a different country or perhaps even in a different era, Donald Trump would stand to be harangued or tarred-and-feathered—or worse—for what some might argue is tantamount to treason. We all know of Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin and other world leaders suspected of crimes against humanity. But seriously, bruh, this is Russia we’re talking about here. You know, the country responsible for hacking our election? As Cassidy puts it, running with the metaphor of America as a corporate entity (realistically speaking, it’s not much of a stretch), “Just how much damage Trump’s indiscretions have inflicted on the company isn’t yet known. But it’s clear that he was guilty of a serious breach of trust, and another stunning error of judgment.”
For most of Trump’s tenure as “CEO,” other executives within the company (high-ranking Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell) and its most bullish shareholders (Trump supporters) have been willing to roll with the punches, but as of late, #45’s antics have made even them skittish. Thinking in terms of the big picture, there is a clear element of risk here, and in terms of economic hazards, not just political danger. With the unpredictability of Donald Trump’s actions and the civil unrest that has accompanied his rise to power, both domestically-based and foreign-owned companies are less liable to seek to invest in our nation. The same goes for those individuals who would study or travel or work here. If not worried about their physical safety, the fear may well be for what is called, in business parlance, the going concern of the company, or its ability to remain in business for the foreseeable future. In the case of the United States of America, not only are concerns about our debt and our infrastructure more than justified, but the prospects of a climate catastrophe or world war don’t seem all that remote either. The ticking of the Doomsday Clock grows ever louder.
Donald Trump’s behavior of late has intensified talks of impeachment. In terms of potential impeachable offenses, the reported request made by Trump of James Comey to effectively look the other way on Michael Flynn looms especially large, as it points to a deliberate attempt to obstruct justice. Then again, for months, critics have been circling, highlighting, and putting a bright neon sticky note on Trump’s and his family’s refusal to divest or put Trump Organization assets in a blind trust, saying this alone is sufficient grounds for removal based on violation of the now-famous Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Let it be stressed, though, that these calls for the deposition of Pres. Trump come with their own caveat. For one, cries for impeachment proceedings from the general public will likely need to be amplified by Congress, and the Republicans in the House and Senate don’t seem to give a serious enough shit to act to curb Trump’s wanton disregard for ethics, human decency, and said Constitution. Besides this, getting rid of Trump doesn’t mean that the leadership gets profoundly better based on who’s next in the line of succession. After Donald Trump—just to name a few—it’s Mike Pence (Vice President), followed by Paul Ryan (Speaker of the House), Orrin Hatch (President pro tem of the Senate), Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State), and Steven Mnuchin (Secretary of the Treasury). What a bunch of winners, eh? Hard to know which is slimier or more slippery than the next, and, yes, better than Trump, but as has been well established, that’s a low bar to clear.
President Trump’s reckless behavior, though, while it should be rightly admonished and while it forms the basis of much of John Cassidy’s analysis, doesn’t speak to the full scope of his ineffectiveness as CEO of the company-country. John Micklethwait, Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, views things somewhat more holistically in terms of how well managed the White House is. As with Cassidy’s findings, meanwhile, the results are similarly unenthusiastic. Micklethwait’s piece is entitled “Would You Let Trump Run Your Company?” and hits on a number of the same themes that thus have been presented. The same antics that Cassidy enumerates are referenced herein, but the author quickly pivots to assessing the Trump presidency purely on its merits as a cohesive unit and the boss’s merits as a facilitator:
Behind this list of individual transgressions sit four larger failings: This CEO-in-chief has failed to get things done; he has failed to build a strong team, especially in domestic policy; he hasn’t dealt with conflicts of interest; and his communications is in shambles.
On the first count, you can basically spin the domestic policy wheel of fortune and pick an area where Trump and Co. have been unable to get substantive policy authored and enacted. The American Health Care Act, the GOP’s putative replacement for the Affordable Care Act, still has yet to be passed by both halves of Congress, and faces stern opposition not only from minority-party Democrats, but concerned constituents regardless of political affiliation. His proposed tax reform has yet to be even fully visualized. Ditto for his infrastructure plan, and to boot, several of his executive orders have (thankfully) been challenged in and stayed by the nation’s judiciary. So there’s that.
On the second count, Donald Trump is much further behind in filling needed posts than Barack Obama was at this point in his presidency. Even putting the drama with the quick-to-resign Michael Flynn aside, John Micklethwait points to a “whiff of cronyism” in the Trump administration ranks, capped off by positions of influence for Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner despite their apparent lack of qualifications for their associated stature. As Micklethwait puts it: “There appears to be little structure in the White House. It’s more like a court than a company, with the king retiring to bed with a cheeseburger and spontaneously tweeting orders.”
On the third count, there’s Trump’s conflicts of interests, to which I’ve already alluded. Micklethwait highlights the contrast between how most—for lack of a better term—normal executives manage their personal investments next to those of their business, and how Trump, ever cavalier, has approached his affairs. In the author’s words once more:
In most businesses, this is something most incoming bosses deal with quickly and automatically. There’s an ethics policy, and you follow it. That policy usually has two levels: first, obeying the law; second, setting standards and following processes that avoid even the impression of any conflict. This second prohibitive level is crucial.
Again, and to make a long story short, the Trump family has failed this test, if you can even say that, because calling them failures implies they have at least nominally tried to comply with ethical and legal guidelines. They haven’t.
On the fourth and final count, there’s the communications aspect. Donald Trump is characteristically unpredictable, a quality he likely sees as a virtue because it keeps his would-be competitors guessing. Unfortunately, in terms of working with his so-called team, when figures like Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson aren’t contradicting one another, Trump himself is Tweeting something that flies in the face of what Mike Pence or Sean Spicer or some other mouthpiece for the President says. Or he’s just flat-out lying, and unlike other CEOs who ultimately cop to their falsehoods and express some degree of contrition, Trump only doubles down on his assertions, and tries to bully or goad dissenters into silence. He’s not just merely falling short on this dimension—he’s helping create a dangerous world where facts are ignored or marginalized in favor of who has the loudest or sexiest argument.
In all respects, therefore, Pres. Trump is not proving an effective leader, and America is not “winning” nearly as much as he boasted we would because of it. In fact, we may be starting to lose outright. Stocks rebounded this past Thursday across major indexes, buoyed by strong economic data, but they had to rebound because uncertainty surrounding Donald Trump and whispers of impeachment sent the Dow Jones, for one, tumbling by more than 350 points. On one hand, two or three or four days does not a definitive economic trend make. Still, with a man in the White House whose penchant is unpredictability, that we might continue to see these individual “shocks” is reasonable, if not probable. When the fate of the markets is largely in the hands of reactionary investors, the question becomes how bumpy is too bumpy a ride before these shareholders want to get off.
In closing his op-ed, John Micklethwait offers these sentiments, essentially telling us it’s up to Republican Party leaders to decide whether or not it’s time to come get their boy Trump. You know, assuming he doesn’t suddenly become more presidential—and one is advised not to hold his or her breath to that end:
There is a semi-charitable explanation for much of this chaos. Trump does not have any experience as a CEO—at least in the sense that most of corporate America would recognize. One telling irony: Many of the banking executives now trying to curry favor with him would never have lent him money in the past. His skills were in dealmaking, rather than running a large organization. The core Trump company had barely 100 people. It’s possible that if he takes on some of the basic management lessons to do with structure, process, and delegation, then he may be able to run America. The question now is whether he has already made enough mistakes for the board to get rid of him. The closest thing America has to a board is the group of Republican senators who must decide what to investigate. Trump will hate the analogy, but at this moment, their leader, Senator McConnell, is his chairman—and the CEO has a lot of explaining to do.
In the lead-in to this post, I referred to Donald Trump leading the country like there’s no tomorrow. The GOP, too, has been playing a short-term game, doing what they can to approve the legislation and nominees they wish to have confirmed, even going as far as to use the “nuclear option”—changing Senate rules to overcome the power of filibuster. Otherwise, they have been performing a balancing act with their policy stances, eager not to alienate Trump supporters in possible bids for re-election. As the rocky road of Donald J. Trump as CEO of the US of A continues, however, how long will it be before they start to panic in their own right? For those who wanted a pro-business outsider from the private sector in the Oval Office, or simply someone who would advance a conservative Republican agenda, be careful what you wish for. You may not get the returns you’ve been seeking, and even worse, you may find your support for the CEO-President only serves to work against you after all.
Who’s the most popular figure in American politics right now? Well, obviously, our fearless leader Donald Trump, right? Um, yeah, no. As of April 12, per Gallup, Trump’s approval rating sits at 41%, seemingly not all that much improved since hurling 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria. In fact, since the start of his term, President Trump has gone from having essentially equal approval and disapproval ratings at a point in the mid-40s, to having his approval rating dip to a level of near-stasis around the 40-percent-mark and his disapproval rating escalate to a near-constant rating upward of 50%. So, yeah, it’s not that guy. For the sake of a contrast, Barack Obama finished his tenure with about a 60% approval rating—though let’s be real—as feelings of buyer’s remorse began to kick in shortly after Trump’s electoral victory, this figure was bound to be on the incline.
Given Congress’s depressed approval rating of late, you would be loath to thinking it would be a member of the House of Representatives or Senate either. Back to Gallup we go. Though hating on Congress is nothing new, it’s still fairly startling to see only one in five Americans giving our lawmakers a proverbial thumbs-up. Democratic respondents, likely frustrated with a Republican-controlled legislature running amok, report a scant 10% approval rating. Independents, likely believing both major parties, by and large, suck eggs, lie at the 20% national average. Even Republican respondent approval ratings of Congress are down; the current approval rating sits at 31%, notable after a 50% rating and seven-year high in February. Apparently, people don’t like it when you screw around with their health care—who knew!
Let’s back up a moment. Who is the most popular senator with his or her constituents? Wait a minute—could it be a certain senator from Vermont? Close! Patrick Leahy is second among senators in terms of approval from the residents he represents. Oh, wait—you meant the other senator from Vermont. Yup, the Granite State has quite the one-two punch in terms of positive vibes, and leading the country in terms of the most beloved senator in these United States is none other than Bernie Sanders, according to a recent Morning Consult poll. Both of Maine’s senators, Angus King (#5) and Susan Collins (#6), also ranked in the top ten, which is actually pretty well balanced between Democrats/independents and Republicans.
It should be noted that Sanders, while most-approved of within this poll and possessing the widest gap of approval to disapproval percentage, does not get the lowest disapproval rating overall; that honor goes to Brian Schatz of Hawaii (#8). For the sake of completion, lowest approval rating goes to Thom Tillis of North Carolina (39%), with Democrats Gary Peters of Michigan (39%), Robert Menendez of New Jersey (40%), and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada (42%), and Republican Dean Heller of Nevada (43%) rounding out the bottom five. Honorable mention goes to dishonorable Mitch McConnell (44%), Republican senator from Kentucky, the only person in the Senate to garner a higher disapproval rating (47%) than his or her approval rating. Congratulations, Mitch—you toad-faced heel.
Forget about mere popularity within the state of Vermont, though. Nationally speaking, Bernie Sanders, according to a FOX News poll dated March 15, enjoys a 61% approval rating, as opposed to a 32% approval rating. That’s significantly better than Donald Trump (44% favorable; 53 unfavorable) or even Mike Pence (47% favorable; 43% unfavorable). As Janice Williams, writing for Newsweek, frames these statistics, this kind of appeal might have been enough to give Bernie the W in a theoretical head-to-head matchup with Trump. Whether or not this is true is anyone’s guess, but regardless, these kinds of figures likely merit the Democratic Party’s attention.
While Sanders ran on the Democratic ticket in opposition to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries, as a member of the Senate, he is, of course, an independent, and one of only two in the Senate alongside the aforementioned Angus King of Maine. As much as Bernie Sanders is keen to preserve his identity as an independent, though, the establishment wing of the Democratic Party appears content to keep him at arm’s length. Such is the complex dance between progressives who are sympathetic to the aims of the Democratic Party at large, especially as regards the Dems’ superior positions on matters of social policy, and mainstream Democrats who, generally speaking, want nothing to do with progressive candidates.
The well-publicized tension between the then-leadership of the Democratic National Committee and the Sanders presidential campaign provides perhaps the most salient example of this divide, but even after a failed attempt to keep Donald Trump out of the White House—an attempt which featured Bernie, upon suspension of his campaign, throwing his support behind Hillary Clinton, mind you—this same kind of tug-of-war informs Democrats’ backing of more liberal candidates, or lack thereof. This past Tuesday, the results of a special election to fill the vacancy of the House seat left vacant by Mike Pompeo’s appointment and confirmation as CIA director were surprisingly close given the setting: a Kansas district, which is situated in a deeply red state and which opted for Trump over Clinton by a 27% margin in the presidential election. Only seven percentage points separated the winner, Republican Ron Estes, from the runner-up, Democratic challenger James Thompson. Whether or not this one election heralds a more pronounced Democratic uprising in future elections is yet to be seen, but in another upcoming special election for a House seat in Georgia, Democratic supporters are licking their chops at the chance to grant victory to Jon Ossoff and send a message—however small—to President Trump and the GOP that their agenda is not approved of by a significant cross-section of the American population.
Give Republicans a run for their money in two red states? Democratic leadership must have invested a lot in both candidates, huh? Maybe—maybe not. In terms of Jon Ossoff, the candidate for the vacant House seat in Georgia, both the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have invested heavily in support of him, adding millions of dollars to the millions his campaign has raised, eager to spin the narrative of sticking it to Donald Trump. As for James Thompson, the progressive from Kansas? Eh, not so much. Sure, after the fact, the Democratic establishment added the closeness of the race between Estes and Thompson to this same anti-GOP, anti-Trump narrative. But during the campaign itself? Support for James Thompson was quantifiably lacking, despite his identification under the Democratic Party banner.
The Democratic establishment tried to appropriate Thompson’s success in the district as a testament that anti-Trump sentiments will translate to big wins for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. However, when pressed on why they failed to support Thompson, they dismissed criticisms for ignoring the race. The Huffington Post reported, “A DCCC official who spoke with The Huffington Post on Monday, however, argued that the party’s involvement would have been ‘extremely damaging’ to Thompson because it would have been used against him by Republicans, who have poured significant money into the race. Thompson has performed better than expected in the race because he stayed under the radar, the official added.” This claim makes little sense, especially given that Thompson’s Republican opponent portrayed him as an establishment Democrat anyways.
Rather than this special election representing an anomaly or misstep from the Democratic leadership, there’s a prevailing trend within the party’s establishment to select and support weak, centrist candidates who provide the party with opportunities to fundraise from corporate donors. This trend is symptomatic of a revolving door within the Democratic Party leadership, where party officials often sell out to work for Republican lobbying firms.
In this equation, Ossoff is that “centrist” candidate, which explains the disparity of support. The thinking from the leaders of the Democratic Party seems to be that a moderate Democrat is better than a Republican—even when courting big money from similar or even shady sources, or even “selling out” to working for Republican lobbying firms after the fact. A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, and as progressives might argue, money in politics, whether at the behest of Dems or Republicans, is still a corrupting influence.
Thus, when it comes to progressive candidates and voters, there’s a dilemma concerning how and where they swear their allegiance in upcoming elections. By virtue of the Republican Party’s alliance with regressive conservative elements, and Trump’s own collusion with the far-right, the right side of the spectrum is a no-go. Supporting the Democratic Party, meanwhile, is problematic in its own right when its leadership doesn’t support them back, hews too close to center, and refuses to authentically embrace grassroots fundraising and organizing on a national level. Existing independent/third-party options are likewise less than savory owing to questionable organizational infrastructure and, as regards the Green Party and Libertarian Party specifically, figureheads in Jill Stein and Gary Johnson that are considered punchlines more so than viable presidential candidates. Broadly speaking, the current list of options for liberals is fraught with frustration.
In fact, if a recent article by Alex Roarty for McClatchy DC is any indication, liberals are “fuming” over the Democratic establishment’s reluctance to stick its neck out for anyone of a more progressive tint. Both Jim Dean of Democracy for America and members of our Our Revolution, an organization founded by former Bernie Sanders campaign staffers, are cited within the piece as reproaching the Democrats for their refusal to “wake up” and to stop ignoring districts they don’t think they can win because they are too “red.” Even James Thompson, the also-ran man from Kansas, was critical of the Democratic Party’s approach to his race, averring simply, “(DCCC) and DNC need to be doing a 50-state strategy.”
The DCCC and DNC spokespeople cited in Roarty’s article seemed to defend the lack of backing for Thompson by throwing up their hands and declaring the race “unwinnable,” a sentiment echoed all the way up to Committee chair Tom Perez himself. This is not the kind of talk that helps energize a party and recruit new members, though. First of all, yes, James Thompson lost, but only by seven percentage points, and with the likes of Mike Pence and Ted Cruz making appearances and Republican donors infusing money into the race against him in the final weeks and days when the final result seemed not so sure. In addition, and in the arena of the self-fulfilling prophecy, if you never try to make inroads in certain districts and areas of the country (e.g. Midwest, South), you are never going to win. It didn’t play well for Hillary Clinton to write off Trump supporters as “deplorables,” and it arguably doesn’t help the Democratic Party to ignore whole swaths of the United States of America.
In short, what are progressive liberals to do, especially when they see some of their most popular figures in Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison reduced to flunkies for the Clinton campaign and/or donation solicitors in the name of “party unity?” See, I think the Democratic leadership thinks we progressives are too stupid to notice that they are less concerned with what’s in our hearts and minds, and more concerned with what’s in our wallets and purses—or that they simply don’t care if we do notice. I believe, however, that progressives—young progressives, especially—are better at reading authenticity or its absence than today’s political leaders give them credit for, such that when Sanders or Warren threw their support behind Hillary for political reasons, or when they create a position in the DNC of deputy chair that is even more ceremonially meaningless than that of Perez’s role of chairperson, it rings hollow. As it should. Representative democracy doesn’t truly qualify as such unless constituents feel they are being represented by someone who embraces and exemplifies their values, and consistently, the Democratic Party brass had made it evident that they can’t or won’t go as far on matters of grassroots fundraising and policy than their more liberal supporters are asking them to.
As Jonathan H. Martin, professor of sociology at Framingham State University, and others of a progressive mindset are convinced, the answer to the question, “What do we do?” is “Form a new party.” As Martin depicts the situation, if people can’t coalesce around an existing party that has seemingly benefited from a Bernie bump of sorts, such as the Green Party, Justice Party, Socialist Alternative, or Vermont Progressive Party, then a new organization needs to be forged, with those who “feel the Bern” in mind. According to Prof. Martin, the two groups who are leading this charge, at least as of late February, are the Progressive Independent Party, which aims to be a coalition of the willing in terms of progressive, third-partiers, and others on the left, and the Draft Bernie for a People’s Party movement, which pretty much says what it entails up front.
Of the two, Jonathan Martin finds the latter more immediately appealing, for if someone as popular as Bernie Sanders were to break ranks and form a new party, polling indicates that not only does a sizable subset of the voting population desire a viable third party, but many Americans do want the kinds of bold reforms that a Sanders type proposes. Martin highlights both the likelihood that this vision could move forward with Bernie at the helm, and the ultimate choice that progressives face in the political uncertainty following the 2016 election, with the following ideas:
While recruiting Sanders for a “people’s party” may sound like a long-shot effort, his own statements indicate that he remains open to third party politics, and might well go that route if his work to reform the Democrats fails. However, if Bernie doesn’t eventually do this, the movement for a new party may go forward without him.
In any case, the DNC election and subsequent events should challenge both influential and ordinary progressives to ask themselves how long they will continue sailing on the U.S.S. Democrat. That ship is not headed toward the desired destination, nor is it even designed to go there. Moreover, in the wake of the 2016 election, it is a boat that appears to be rotting, drifting, and gradually sinking. Why not jump aboard a different vessel, one that really has the potential to get us where we urgently need to go?
For Bernie’s part, the man still seems unwilling to abandon ship, continually speaking in terms of reforming or rebuilding the Democratic Party in more democratic fashion, and eschewing the pleas of Jill Stein and Company to get on board with a third-party agenda. At the immediate moment, therefore, it seems more probable that a theoretical People’s Party will have to soldier on without their muse, though the alternative is certainly not impossible considering just how tiresome the Democratic establishment can be for the rest of us—and we’re not even interacting with them regularly like Bernie Sanders is. As for the rest of us? Perhaps we don’t quite see the Democrats as a rotting, drifting, sinking ship, but how many of us have one foot in a lifeboat—with some rope handy just in case we get the urge to kidnap Captain Sanders and hold him as our progressive prisoner? Presumably, such a political maneuver would be intended for 2020, as the 2018 midterms are just a year-and-change away, but to take a genuine shot at disrupting the duopoly held by the Democratic and Republican Parties, even that kind of mobilization needs to happen sooner than later. In other words, if liberals are thinking about bailing, they may need to make a decision fast with political waters rising.
Fix the Democratic Party or start a new party altogether? For progressives across the United States, it’s a conundrum, to be sure. This much, however, is clear: the Democratic Party, as it is, can’t function as a cohesive unit in the long term, and progressives backed by/composed of a coalition of young voters and working-class individuals either need to be invited to the table, or find a new restaurant altogether. What to do, what to do?
Months ago, before the election, I saw that Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, was trending on social media. As I’m sure you can speak to this phenomenon, the first thing I thought when reading his name was this: “Oh, shit—he didn’t die, did he?” As it turns out, no, it was not his death being reported, nor even false rumors of his death, but news of him switching his allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. At first glance, this seemed like an immediate and egregious betrayal of principles. How could someone switch from one extreme to the other like that? Et tu, Scott? As a supporter of neither Clinton nor Trump, however, and as someone who doesn’t read Dilbert religiously but has enjoyed it on occasion, I figured I would give Adams the benefit of the doubt. Adams explained his reversal of support in an open letter on his blog back in September. He had a number of different reasons for flipping his endorsement, which I would argue varied in their merit. At any rate, here they are, in summation:
1. “Things I Don’t Know”: Scott Adams begins by saying he doesn’t know much about politics, including how to defeat ISIS, how to negotiate trade policies, and what tax policy would be most effective, and on the subject of abortion, he feels men should “follow the lead of women on that topic.” In this respect, he doesn’t know enough to make a decision—and argues that neither do you. To this end, he can’t claim either would make the better president, and thus, based solely on matters of domestic and foreign policy, Adams is effectively neutral on who is, was, or will be the better choice for President of the United States.
2. “Confiscation of Property”: Given his neutrality on large-scale issues, where Adams does seem to possess a particular ax to grind is the estate tax. Scott Adams hates the estate tax, and he particularly disagreed with Clinton’s stance on it as well as her representation of the issue, which he characterized as worse than Trump’s because, rather than offering no details, as he claims, it intentionally tried to mislead people based on outmoded or manipulated data. Essentially, Adams argues, the estate tax is a “confiscation” tax because it taxes payers on income that already has been taxed. He explains further:
You can argue whether an estate tax is fair or unfair, but fairness is an argument for idiots and children. Fairness isn’t an objective quality of the universe. I oppose the estate tax because I was born to modest means and worked 7-days a week for most of my life to be in my current position. (I’m working today, Sunday, as per usual.) And I don’t want to give 75% of my earnings to the government. (Would you?)
3. “Party or Wake”: #3 and #4 in Scott Adams’ list, if you ask me, are his weakest reasons, as they seem highly capricious. With Number Three, he opines that he’d rather ride the Trump Train and plan for a party; in other words; he wants to be “invited to the event that doesn’t involve crying and moving to Canada.” Adams admits straight-up this is not his biggest reason, but regardless, even in jest, it assumes a pre-determined outcome, when prior to the election, the final result seemed like a toss-up at best.
4. “Clinton’s Health”: I’ll let Adams explain himself here:
To my untrained eyes and ears, Hillary Clinton doesn’t look sufficiently healthy – mentally or otherwise – to be leading the country. If you disagree, take a look at the now-famous “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” video clip. Likewise, Bill Clinton seems to be in bad shape too, and Hillary wouldn’t be much use to the country if she is taking care of a dying husband on the side.
OK, I’m just going to call it out here—this is a stupid argument. If Hillary Clinton, like any number of establishment Democrats, is deluded and out of touch with voters on important issues, this is not a sign of mental illness, and it’s vaguely insulting to the millions of Americans who do suffer from mental illness, at that. It’s like with amateur psychoanalysis of Donald Trump in the early days of his presidency. Forget his being emotionally or mentally ill-equipped to handle the job of President. Forget any diagnosis of “narcissistic personality disorder” or referring to him as “unhinged.” The major issues with Trump is that he is deficient in policy knowledge, he is severely ethically compromised, and he is—and these are technical terms—an idiot and a jerk. He shouldn’t have been a legitimate presidential candidate, but he was elected, and here we are. But yes, he has the capacity to lead, even if we don’t like his executive orders, and what’s more, he has the likes of Stephen Bannon the Skeleton King to advise him. Unfortunately.
5. “Pacing and Leading”: Back to the better arguments for switching sides, IMHO. Scott Adams explains in great detail why he thinks Donald Trump isn’t nearly as dangerous as so many of his critics, including myself, feel he is:
Trump always takes the extreme position on matters of safety and security for the country, even if those positions are unconstitutional, impractical, evil, or something that the military would refuse to do. Normal people see this as a dangerous situation. Trained persuaders like me see this as something called pacing and leading. Trump “paces” the public – meaning he matches them in their emotional state, and then some. He does that with his extreme responses on immigration, fighting ISIS, stop-and-frisk, etc. Once Trump has established himself as the biggest bad-ass on the topic, he is free to “lead,” which we see him do by softening his deportation stand, limiting his stop-and-frisk comment to Chicago, reversing his first answer on penalties for abortion, and so on. If you are not trained in persuasion, Trump looks scary. If you understand pacing and leading, you might see him as the safest candidate who has ever gotten this close to the presidency. That’s how I see him.
Adams’ notion is buoyed by the notion that Trump’s stance on Vladimir Putin is one of intended closeness, while Clinton’s approach to Putin was/is one of “insult[ing] Putin into doing what we want.” The latter, in his view, is patently more dangerous. Ol’ Vladdy aside, Scott Adams’ point is that Trump doesn’t really believe all the crazy things he says, but says them to set a tone and to make the actual policies he intends to effect seem more palatable by comparison. Let’s just assume Adams is correct in this respect, because his final bit of reasoning is highly related to this one which precedes it.
6. “Persuasion”: Even if his logic seems flawed, especially noting his earlier admission that he doesn’t know much about politics, Adams has a logic regarding the power of persuasion, and why Donald Trump’s identity as a “trained persuader” makes him superior to Clinton on this dimension. From the man himself:
Economies are driven by psychology. If you expect things to go well tomorrow, you invest today, which causes things to go well tomorrow, as long as others are doing the same. The best kind of president for managing the psychology of citizens – and therefore the economy – is a trained persuader. You can call that persuader a con man, a snake oil salesman, a carnival barker, or full of shit. It’s all persuasion. And Trump simply does it better than I have ever seen anyone do it.
The battle with ISIS is also a persuasion problem. The entire purpose of military action against ISIS is to persuade them to stop, not to kill every single one of them. We need military-grade persuasion to get at the root of the problem. Trump understands persuasion, so he is likely to put more emphasis in that area.
Most of the job of president is persuasion. Presidents don’t need to understand policy minutia. They need to listen to experts and then help sell the best expert solutions to the public. Trump sells better than anyone you have ever seen, even if you haven’t personally bought into him yet. You can’t deny his persuasion talents that have gotten him this far.
Again, I say his logic may be flawed. Economics based purely on confidence, I would submit, risks producing a bubble that will collapse when the realization comes that the economy doesn’t rest on sound fundamentals. As for ISIS, you can try persuading them to stop all you want, but for an organization that views its conflict as a prophesied war between good and evil, the time and avenue for persuasion may be all but closed, if it were ever open in the first place. All this notwithstanding, confidence and persuasion can have a positive effect on upward mobility, economic or otherwise, and as Adams would stress, Trump is not really as extreme or fascistic as he comes across. Clearly, if nothing else, Donald Trump convinced enough voters that he was the better choice, or that Hillary Clinton was a poorer one. Accordingly, if Scott Adams seems to be making these comments from his position way out in left field, nearly 63 million other Trump voters suggests his views were, to a large extent, shared by those casting their ballot in November.
Why do I bring up an almost-five-month-old blog post by the creator of Dilbert about his endorsement of Donald Trump? Because I can—that’s why! OK—you’re looking for something more substantial than that. Scott Adams’ observations, especially the discussion of pacing and leading, are relevant to the larger discussion of President Trump’s leadership style and the evolution of his administration’s policymaking. One apparent strategy used by Trump and American politicians in general is leading with an extreme proposal to facilitate the acceptance of a slightly-less-extreme version of that proposal. It’s along the lines of what car dealerships and their sales representatives do, as detailed by Ben DeMeter in this post about common sales techniques on Investopedia. Referring to this method as the “discounted markup” technique, DeMeter explains it with the following:
Many times, a store will dramatically mark up the price of its merchandise just so it can offer a convincing discount when it comes time to make a sale. This occurs most commonly at car dealerships, where the sticker price on some vehicles can be more than $2,000 above the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). This way, the dealership can allow customers to talk down the price of the car to the MSRP so that they think they’re getting a good deal when really they’re just paying exactly what the dealership had hoped for all along.
Let’s extend this metaphor to Donald Trump, viewed through the lens of the media’s attempts to reckon with the three-ring circus that is his White House. Jason Linkins, editor of Huffington Post’s “Eat the Press,” a feature section devoted to commentary and criticism about politics, the media, and culture, and co-host of HuffPost Politics’ podcast “So, That Happened,” recently penned an essay on the virtues of discretion, patience and refraining from overreacting for members of the media in the Trump era. The specific genesis for this article comes after a recent Associated Press report that it had obtained a memo suggesting the Department of Homeland Security was considering using the National Guard to round up undocumented immigrants across several states in deportation raids. The White House, of course, denied it, which you’d imagine they’d do even if it were true, but in this instance, as with other cited rush-to-judgment breaking news stories, Linkins points to a skittishness of the mainstream media, or as he terms it, a “primed for freakout” condition. By failing to recognize this phenomenon, members of the press not only give the White House ammunition and undermine their own credibility, but they risk the overall inability of their audience and of themselves to recognize bad policy when they see it. Here’s Linkins’ description of the situation:
The AP reported it attempted to get clarification from the White House several times before it went to press, affording the administration the opportunity to disown the policy entirely. That means the White House could have nipped this story in the bud, but opted not to. What does the White House gain from that? Well, additional ammunition to make the case that the media is being unfair, for a start. But even if this is what’s happening — and the White House says it’s definitely not — this game is not new. It’s basic as hell, and used in American politics all the time. Why does anyone propose a six-week abortion ban? To make it more palatable to pass a 20-week abortion ban.
Considering an extreme policy to make political room for a slightly less-extreme policy isn’t some crazy-new innovation that Trump and his cabal of super-geniuses came up with, nor is it something they’ve imported from the Kremlin. As much as it might feel right to believe that, the assumption that you are forever tunneling through a Twilight Zone is going to lead you to paint everything with a paranoid brush and make you more likely to equate the truly extreme ideas of Trump’s White House with every other trivial action the administration undertakes. All things cannot be equally momentous or pernicious. If you can’t make that differentiation, you’ll harm your readership ― training them to either panic at the drop of a hat, or to disregard the dire import of bad policy.
Politics as usual. Pacing and leading. “Discounted markup.” Whatever you call it, the idea is familiar: start incredibly high, move down to a more agreeable position, make the consumers think they got away with something, laugh to yourself when they leave because you really came out ahead in that you wanted to propose that less-extreme position in the first place. It’s sales and persuasion at its most elemental, and yet, it’s effective across contexts. The media may view itself as morally superior or highly informed and intelligent, but with tactics like these that play on our human emotions of dread and outrage, any of us are susceptible to the their trickery.
When not baiting and switching, if you will, President Trump and a largely sympathetic Republican Congress (“sympathetic” as in “sympathetic nervous system”; many Republican lawmakers seem devoid of sympathy and other genuine feelings) evidently like to engage in a bit of sleight-of-hand in terms of putting forth policy. Even if this is an unconscious force, though, the effect is very real. Donald Trump recently had a press conference announcing his pick of lawyer, dean of Florida International University School of Law, and former member of the National Labor Relations Board Alexander Acosta to replace Andrew Puzder as nominee for Secretary for Labor after the fast-food company CEO withdrew his name from consideration. You, um, may have heard about it. The press conference, in short, was baffling to those in attendance, as it was for much of the international community. Tessa Stuart details the shock value of the event with a recap entitled “18 WTF Moments from Trump’s Unhinged Press Conference.” (Here we go again with calling Donald Trump “unhinged.”) As Stuart explains, the press conference, at least in name, was meant to announce Acosta as the replacement risk, but quickly went off topic and off the rails as Pres. Trump went off-script, largely to attack the media, ever-embattled since the beginning of Trump’s tenure. Some of the moments of the press conference which produced a pronounced sense of wonderment from the onlookers:
Trump saying that the leaks leading to Michael Flynn’s resignation were real, but that “the news is fake because so much of the news is fake.” These two concepts should be mutually exclusive, and yet, this is Donald Trump.
Trump insisting the travel ban had a “smooth rollout,” despite it being very un-smooth and struck down by multiple courts of law.
Trump making it clear he’s a nice person, and that he gets good ratings—as if the latter proves the former.
Trump offering up this gem: “We’re becoming a drug-infested nation. Drugs are becoming cheaper than candy cars.” Clearly, I’ve been spending my money in the wrong places.
Trump trying to state that his electoral victory was the biggest since Ronald Reagan, though it wasn’t. Wait, he meant for Republicans. Um, nope—still not the biggest.
Trump bashing Hillary Clinton. You know, despite already winning the election over her more than three months ago. I guess it never gets old, huh?
Trump extolling the virtues of the First Lady, in that Melania feels “very, very strongly about women’s issues.” Like, um, lighter hair?
Trump berating Jewish reporter Jake Turx after a question about how to handle the rise in anti-Semitism in this country, and explaining that he is the least anti-Semitic and least racist person you will ever see in your life. On a related note, I have the power to fly and can move small objects with my mind. I mean, while we’re making outrageous claims and all.
Trump asking April Ryan, an African-American White House reporter, to set up a meeting between him and the Congressional Black Caucus. Because all black people are “tight” like that. And they all look alike. Because Trump.
The sum of this garbage is troubling for those of us with developed consciences, and besides, acting as if President Trump’s behavior is normal is a self-defeating principle. It becomes yet worse when we consider Trump’s Tweets the day after, particularly the one that reads as follows:
The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
Needless to say, this is a dangerous position to take, and I’m not even necessarily talking about for Trump himself. To label certain news organizations as fake because they represent him in a critical light, and to paint the press as an adversary of the average American, is disturbing because it invites an escalation of the concept of the state of affairs in U.S. politics and culture beyond a mere “divide,” and into the realm of all-out “war.” For those who agree with Donald Trump’s sentiments, the very future of the country depends on their resistance to what they see as bastions of liberal fascism. “We” must resist. “They” must falter. This is an ideological conflict with huge implications for the United States of America, one with the makings of a civil war, not fought with bayonets, bullets and cannon fire, but with hashtags, live streams, and memes. Furthermore, like the American Civil War of our history books, the aftershocks of this seismic event stand to be felt for generations after. The resentment. The hate.
Pretty bad, huh? Wait—we’re still not done. Really. While we may poke fun at Trump’s outlandish statements and while labeling the press the enemy of the American people is a serious charge with potentially destructive consequences, to add another layer to this shit sandwich we’re being forced to digest, let’s also consider that the President’s wackiness may act as a smokescreen for other likely deleterious moves by members of his adopted party. While the lot of us were consumed with his antics at the Acosta announcement press conference, Trump’s GOP mates were at work unveiling a broad blueprint for a possible replacement to the Affordable Care Act, and it’s pretty terrible, if you ask me and other critics. Robert Pear and Thomas Kaplan, reporting for The New York Times, provide a synopsis of what this schematic entails—and what it does not. As Pear and Kaplan put forth, the yet-nameless theoretical successor to the ACA does not account for how many people may lose coverage that now have it under ObamaCare, nor does it explain how it all would be paid for. Details, shmetails, amirite?
As for what we know, for starters, Medicaid payments to the states as a function of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion would stand to be greatly reduced, in all likelihood putting a strain on state budgets and putting Americans at risk of losing coverage. Subsidies under the current law designed to help those with needs based on income would be supplanted by a fixed tax credit scheme which negates benefits based on income, instead increasing them with age. The new plan would eliminate tax penalties on those who fail to secure health coverage, and would also get rid of taxes and fees on the health insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical equipment industries, benefitting big corporations and reducing the funding pool for entitlement program benefits. Plus, there’s still nothing about preventing insurers from dropping people based on pre-existing conditions, an important and popular aspect of the Affordable Care Act. Figuratively and literally speaking, this all is, in a word, sketchy, such that average Americans—both Republican and Democrat, Trump supporters and not—stand to be hurt by a repeal. No wonder they went about this reveal relatively quietly.
There’s a word for this technique: misdirection. It’s commonly used in football, especially on trick plays. The defense keys in on the man with the ball—except he just tossed it to the wide receiver running in the backfield the opposite way! In case my analogy is unclear, Trump is the man with the ball, Republican lawmakers are the receiver who actually has the ball, and the ball is not actually a ball, but rather a deeply and intentionally flawed replacement for the ACA. Keeping with this theme, a “touchdown” is the Republican Party paying huge dividends to Big Pharma and other related industries who don’t need them, and shafting the little guy in the process. Um, yay, GO TEAM?
Conceiving of this tactic in a slightly different way, Donald Trump’s role is that of the distraction. He is free to tell obvious lies, boast about himself and his brand, and look tough as Commander-in-Chief—all while Paul Ryan and Republicans in Congress threaten to pull the proverbial rug out from under us. In a piece for ELLE Magazine, Rachel Sklar muses on this very subject, invoking the time Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Broadway, the cast addressed him after the show, and Trump had a hissy-fit on Twitter saying those performers were being so gosh-darn mean to him. Amid this political kerfuffle which Pres. Trump himself to a considerable extent engineered, meanwhile, major shit was going on which suddenly became less visible and none the less important. Jeff “Black People Don’t Really Like to Vote, Do They?” Sessions was nominated as Attorney General. Michael “Islam Is the Devil” Flynn was appointed to be Trump’s National Security Advisor. And last but not least, the Trump Organization settled a fraud case against Trump University to the tune of $25 million. These were no small potatoes, and particular with respect to the settlement, raised serious concerns about Trump’s credibility and ethics. What a lot of people heard, however, was just the blather about Hamilton being overrated (it isn’t) and the cast being nasty to Mike Pence (they weren’t). Flash forward to today, and Sessions, despite serious concerns from Democrats about his judicial record, has been confirmed, Flynn, in light of serious concerns with his and the administration’s ties to Russia, has resigned, and talk of Trump University has been all but shelved. Are you upset yet? If not, you should be.
Lies. Misdirection. Pacing. All of this makes for a morass of manipulation on the part of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, a reality made ten times more troubling by the White House’s attempts to demonize and delegitimize the press. If it seems like one big game, the real and potentially devastating fallout from what is decided but ultimately obscured by these sales techniques should convey the sense the sum of these things should not be taken as fun and light-hearted. So, what’s the takeaway from these thoughts, other than perhaps the newfound notion that the creator of Dilbert seems like kind of a dick?
Well, let me tell you what I take away from them. First, much as the media should do their part not to rush to judgment or rush to print in the interest of journalistic integrity, we should likewise do our part to examine what we see and hear is credible, and to correct the record when we know it to be demonstrably false. You know, lest we end up like Trump claiming to be the best thing since sliced Ronald Reagan, electorally speaking. Second, we should give Trump’s antics the attention they merit as a warning of his dictatorial aspirations, but not get lost in the GOP’s shell game of disastrous policymaking. Republican lawmakers should be held accountable, and as reports are growing of Republicans ducking their constituents at scheduled town halls and other forums, the demand that they not be let of the hook becomes that more serious accordingly. Lastly, and perhaps I am in the minority in thinking this way, but stop giving Trump and the Republicans so much g-d credit. As Jason Linkins and others suggest, their parlor tricks are nothing new, and are more evocative of snake oil salesmen than masters of the media. Anyone can lie, cheat, and steal their way through life—apparently right into the Oval Office, at that. They should be admonished for this, not commended.
From what I’ve seen, confidence in Donald Trump’s brand of leadership and his ability to elevate the position of working-class America is yet quite high. But don’t be deceived or distracted. Trump and the Republican lawmakers who aid and abet his hijinks are out to f**k you over at the behest and to the benefit of the industries and wealthy individuals who help fill their coffers, and if you still don’t believe it, then I’ve got some lovely beachfront property in Nebraska with your name on it.
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.
On Monday, January 9, the underdog Clemson Tigers defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide in a thrilling upset and game overall. Of course, if you were a fan of the pure spectacle and sport of the proceedings, including the notion Clemson overcame a 14-point deficit to score the winning touchdown with a second left on the game clock, you, in all likelihood, enjoyed the experience. (If you are an Alabama fan or had money riding on the game, um, you, in all likelihood, did not.) As noted, the Tigers were an underdog—by as much as six or six-and-a-half points prior to the game—which is not insignificant by football odds standards. The Crimson Tide, after all, were the consensus #1 team in the country, topping both the Associated Press and Coaches’ polls as well as the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision rankings. Undaunted, the Clemson Tigers proved victorious.
From my standpoint, I was glad to see Clemson win, even if it aligned with my brother’s amateur prognostications of the Tigers’ victory and thereby fed the notion of his self-professed expertise, for it, if only temporarily, put aside notions of an Alabama dynasty in college football. For better or for worse, though, what I’ll remember most from the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship was not an instance from the game itself, but a moment from the hoopla afterwards. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney—great name, by the by—during the post-game press conference referenced a comment made in November by Colin Cowherd, former ESPN personality and current Fox Sports radio and television host. Back then, Cowherd had this to say about Clemson’s relative talent level:
“Clemson’s a fraud. Clemson is going to get their ears boxed by whoever they play. They should have three losses, maybe four. I don’t buy into Clemson. They’re the New York Giants of college football. I don’t care what their record is. I don’t buy into them. And I had Clemson in the final four, so I should be rooting for them. I got no dog in the fight here. I think USC is the second-best team in the country and Vegas agrees.”
Strong words. After all, Colin could’ve merely said they were overrated or lucky or what-have-you, but calling someone a fraud seems a bit personal, as if to go for the jugular. This is perhaps why Swinney didn’t take the criticism lightly, and fired back thusly during the post-game presser:
At the end of the day, we left no doubt tonight. We wanted to play Alabama because now y’all got to change your stories. You got to change the narrative. Y’all got to mix it up. The guy that called us a fraud? Ask Alabama if we’re a fraud. Was the name Colin Cowherd? I don’t know him, never met him. Ask Alabama if we’re a fraud. Ask Ohio State if we’re a fraud. Ask Oklahoma if we’re a fraud. The only fraud is that guy, because he didn’t do his homework. I hope y’all print that.
As the kids would say, “Oh, snap!” In faith, I don’t think either of these men are “frauds.” Retrospectively speaking, I’m not sure whether or not Clemson benefited from a particularly weak schedule, but regardless, they proved their mettle and that they weren’t the, ahem, paper tiger Colin Cowherd made them out to be. Cowherd himself is a radio show host who is paid to give his opinions, and I begrudgingly acknowledge he was right about the Giants. To call someone a “fraud,” literally speaking, is to find him or her intentionally doing something wrong with a design to deceive. Barring any evidence of malfeasance on Clemson’s coaching staff’s part or some financial misappropriation perpetrated by Cowherd, neither is the dictionary definition of a fraud.
Why do I include this anecdote about Clemson, Colin Cowherd, Dabo Swinney, and the indiscriminate hurling around of the word “fraud”? Perhaps it is indicative of the current zeitgeist in which the public’s trust in institutions like news media and voting is being challenged, if not eroded, and allegations of electoral fraud and unsubstantiated reports are seemingly rampant. Leading up to the presidential election, President-Elect Trump was quick to suggest that if he didn’t win enough electoral votes, it was due to some sort of collusion or electoral fraud. Then, he won the electoral vote, but he lost the popular vote, and stuck with the whole fraud angle—despite any actual evidence of this. Accordingly, it made for an intriguing bit of theater when Trump challenged the integrity of CNN reporter Jim Acosta and his organization during his Wednesday press conference for all to see and hear.
First, let’s back up a bit and discuss the press conference at large, which, as you might imagine, was in it of itself quite the intriguing spectacle. Feel free to watch the video and read the New York Times transcript for yourself to get the full effect, but here are some “highlights,” if you want to call them that:
1. First, before we get to the aforementioned first, let’s discuss what already had Donald Trump, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and other Trump Train riders all in a tizzy. CNN reported on Tuesday that U.S. government officials had made Trump aware of an intelligence report indicating that Russian agents had claimed to possess compromising information about him. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, published its own report claiming to offer the contents of the larger 35-page memo on which this alleged intelligence report was based, but the claims for this material were unverified, explaining why CNN worked the following day to distance itself from the BuzzFeed report. Which was a prudent thing to do, even though a lot of Americans deep down wanted it to be true. I mean, lurid tales of Donald Trump paying prostitutes to perform “golden showers”? No wonder #GoldenShowers was trending on Twitter! It was worth it for all the piss jokes!
2. Trump, after a lead-in from Spicer which more or less harangued CNN and BuzzFeed as partners in crime—even though the content of their reports were very different—and a short introduction by Mike Pence, which also lashed out at the media and its “bias,” began by further attacking the two media outlets and praising the rest of the providers/publications present, essentially for just not being either BuzzFeed or CNN. Then, he launched into his usual rambling, semi-coherent, self-congratulatory blather. Trump’s mish-mosh began with more praise, in this case, for Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors for saying they would be keeping jobs in the United States. This is the same Fiat Chrysler which later on in the week would be accused by the EPA as utilizing software to bypass emissions standards much in the way Volkswagen did, and which already is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for allegations of securities fraud based on inflated sales numbers, but that’s another story.
3. President-Elect Trump (still hurts to say) next spoke about the need to orchestrate deals to win back the pharmaceutical industry and the military aircraft industry. I believe the emphasis here is on saving American jobs. Well, I mean, it should be. After all, if you’re asking us to feel bad for the industries themselves, it would seem misplaced, as they don’t seem to be hurting with the kind of revenues they’ve generated in recent years.
4. Donald Trump then talked about—huge surprise!—the fact that he won the election. In doing so, he took potshots at the pollsters who incorrectly predicted he would lose. He also seemed to intimate that those states which helped him win would benefit in terms of jobs and security, once again conforming to his habit of playing favorites with those who brown-nose and curry his favor. Not that I would’ve encouraged New Jerseyans to kowtow to Trump for this reason, but it appears we are SOL for voting blue in 2016. Oh, well.
5. Following a reiteration of his pick-and-choose mentality—i.e. let’s “make America great again,” but only those portions of the country which don’t piss me off—Trump casually dropped the day’s appointment: David Shulkin as head secretary of the Veterans Administration. You know, a non-veteran. Makes total sense. Why is blood dripping from my nose? That’s right—this is Trump’s America now. Thinking too hard only encourages pain.
6. Then, we got to the meat of the press conference: the actual “press” portion. The floor was opened up to the gates of Hell, and President-Elect Trump revealed his true demonic form. Kidding! It was simply opened to questions from the reporters and writers in attendance. Here are some of the queries and responses realized in this segment:
When asked about the two-page summary of the allegations that Russia had dirt on him, as well as the theoretical consensus of the U.S. intelligence community that Vladimir Putin ordered the DNC hack and the attempted hack of the RNC, Trump first deferred and went on a diatribe about the unsubstantiated “crap” that people had reported. Once that was dispensed with, Trump then said he thinks it was Russia who hacked us—but come on!—who hasn’t tried to hack us? Oh, by the way, the Democratic National Committee, for allowing themselves to get hacked, were idiots. Not like the Republican National Committee. What an organization! Also, aren’t Hillary Clinton and John Podesta just awful? Next!
The press, apparently still not done asking questions about the Russian hacks—you know, only because it’s a HUGE F**KING DEAL—then queried Donald Trump about whether he accepts the notion Putin orchestrated these hacks to help him win the election, and whether he would touch the sanctions President Obama authorized based on the findings of U.S. intelligence. On the first count, Trump said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Hey! So Putin likes me! Big whoop! Isn’t it good that he likes me? We can have slumber parties together, making popcorn, watching movies, and discussing how to dismantle ISIS.” On the second count, Trump, um, didn’t really answer, but basically symbolically whipped his junk out and asked, “Does this look like I wouldn’t be tougher on Putin than Hillary would?” (Side note: if Donald Trump actually did this, I think people would be interested to see, if only to verify: 1) whether his member is as orange as the rest of him would suggest, and 2) if visible, whether or not his pubic hair looks as ridiculous as the hair on top of his head does.)
Trump was asked again about those unsubstantiated BuzzFeed memos and whether or not he could be a target of blackmail by the Russians. His response? Bizarre, man. First, he insisted he is, like, the careful-est when he travels abroad and in the public purview. Second, he touted the Miss Universe contest in Moscow—you know, the competition which judges women on their physical features and only occasionally on their brains. Lastly, he said he was a bit of a germophobe, presumably making a funny about the whole “golden showers” bit. Golden showers, golden showers, golden showers. There—I think I’ve gotten it out of my system.
Here was, if not the most stupefying portion of the program, a close second. President-Elect Trump was asked if he thought the Russian hacking—boy, these reporters are persistent buggers, aren’t they?—was justified, how he planned to untangle his business entanglements, and whether he would do us the courtesy of releasing his tax returns to prove he had no conflict of interests. Here’s where it gets stupid: when Trump answered. According to Donald J. Trump:
He has no deals or debt with Russia, and “as a real estate developer, he has very little debt.” As if by mere virtue of working in real estate, the idea of debt is mutually exclusive. This is, in case you haven’t guessed, balderdash, hogwash, and pure poppycock. Trump had estimated his debt at $315 million (so little), but more conservative (read: more accurate) estimates place the figure closer to $1 billion. That’s a shit-ton of debt for someone who professes he’ll do wonders for the U.S. economy and help us reduce our own mounting obligations.
He has a no conflict of interest provision as President. Um, not a thing. Not even close to being a thing. Being President of the United States does not magically permit you to run the country and your business at the same time. In fact, it should compel you to divest yourself of all your business entanglements. There’s no way you could be more wrong in what you just said, Mr. Trump.
He can’t release his tax returns because he’s under audit. Also not a thing. The IRS themselves debunked this notion months ago, and so I wonder if his stubborn adherence to this explanation means he thinks we all believe it, or that he really doesn’t give two shits what we believe. Speaking of not giving two shits what we believe, Trump made the bold claim only reporters care about what’s on his tax returns (which, according to him, don’t tell you all that much anyway), and that we, the people, don’t. Hey, President-Elect Trump, thanks for personally not asking me what I care about, but as it turns out, I do care about what’s on your tax returns. A lot of us do. Release them.
Finally, he says he will be ceding control of his company to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric. No conflict of interest here. They certainly won’t be talking business with their pops, right? Not at all. These men are “professionals,” after all.
7. Donald Trump then turned over control of the press conference to Sheri Dillon, tax lawyer for the firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, to explain how his turning over of his business to his sons was OK. Because he sure as shit didn’t make the case. Dillon’s speech within the speech was pretty lengthy and detailed, and included a lot of tax and legal mumbo-jumbo, apparently about how what the Trump family is doing is totes kewl. Sec. 18 USC 202 doesn’t apply to POTUS, OK? Anyhoo, since Donald Trump is too legit to quit, first of all, he’s putting his ish in a trust. Believe that. Also, his sons and a guy named Allen Weisselberg are running the Trump Organization now, with no interference from the main man himself, y’heard? Also Part Two, we’ve got an ethics adviser on board. Ethics, son! Have some! Plus, Ivanka’s got nothing to do with this whole enterprise. That just happened! Still not satisfied? Peep these deets: only liquid assets in the trust, no new foreign deals, he will only received consolidated profit-and-loss statements, and we’re going to have a chief compliance counsel. He didn’t even have to do that last one, but he did—FOR ALL OF YOU. Dude’s like Jesus up in this piece. Now, before a lot of you bustas start mouthing off, I know what you’re thinking—what about a blind trust? First of all, what about your blind trust? Dude’s President, and he loves America. Loves it. Second of all, eff that blind trust business. I mean, Mr. Trump just can’t unknow his businesses, can he? That would just be some dumb shit right there. Speaking of dumb, what trustee would know better than his sons how to run his interests? No trustee—that’s who. Or some of you might be saying, “What about the Emoluments Clause?” What about the Emoluments Clause? What is an emolument anyway? Do you know? No, you don’t. No one does. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Last but not least, all foreign government payments to his new hotel are going straight to the United States Treasury. You’re welcome. I would drop the mic, but this press conference is still happening! Dillon out!
Sounds all good and fancy and convoluted, right? Too bad, according to Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Per Shaub’s remarks on Wednesday at the Brookings Institute:
We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit. That’s why I was glad in November when the President-elect tweeted that he wanted to, as he put it, “in no way have a conflict of interest” with his businesses. Unfortunately, his current plan cannot achieve that goal. It’s easy to see that the current plan does not achieve anything like the clean break Rex Tillerson is making from Exxon. Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective. The Presidency is a full-time job and he would’ve had to step back anyway. The idea of setting up a trust to hold his operating businesses adds nothing to the equation. This is not a blind trust—it’s not even close. I think Politico called this a “half-blind” trust, but it’s not even halfway blind. The only thing this has in common with a blind trust is the label, “trust.” His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns. His own attorney said today that he can’t “un-know” that he owns Trump Tower. The same is true of his other holdings. The idea of limiting direct communication about the business is wholly inadequate. That’s not how a blind trust works. There’s not supposed to be any information at all.
Here too, his attorney said something important today. She said he’ll know about a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees in on TV. That wouldn’t happen with a blind trust. In addition, the notion that there won’t be new deals doesn’t solve the problem of all the existing deals and businesses. The enormous stack of documents on the stage when he spoke shows just how many deals and businesses there are. I was especially troubled by the statement that the incoming administration is going to demand that OGE approve a diversified portfolio of assets. No one has ever talked to us about that idea, and there’s no legal mechanism to do that. Instead, Congress set up OGE’s blind trust program under the Ethics in Government Act. Under that law anyone who wants a blind trust has to work with OGE from the start, but OGE has been left out of this process. We would have told them that this arrangement fails to meet the statutory requirements.
The President-elect’s attorney justified the decision not to use a blind trust by saying that you can’t put operating businesses in a blind trust. She’s right about that. That’s why the decision to set up this strange new kind of trust is so perplexing. The attorney also said she feared the public might question the legitimacy of the sale price if he divested his assets. I wish she had spoken with those of us in the government who do this for a living. We would have reassured her that Presidential nominees in every administration agree to sell illiquid assets all the time. Unlike the President, they have to run the gauntlet of a rigorous Senate confirmation process where the legitimacy of their divestiture plans can be closely scrutinized. These individuals get through the nomination process by carefully ensuring that the valuation of their companies is done according to accepted industry standards. There’s nothing unusual about that. For these reasons, the plan does not comport with the tradition of our Presidents over the past 40 years. This isn’t the way the Presidency has worked since Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978 in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Since then, Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all either established blind trusts or limited their investments to non-conflicting assets like diversified mutual funds, which are exempt under the conflict of interest law.
Now, before anyone is too critical of the plan the President-elect announced, let’s all remember there’s still time to build on that plan and come up with something that will resolve his conflicts of interest. In developing the current plan, the President-elect did not have the benefit of OGE’s guidance. So, to be clear, OGE’s primary recommendation is that he divest his conflicting financial interests. Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts.
While it lacks of the panache of my urbanized version of Sheri Dillon’s defense of the Trump’s position, Shaub’s explanation makes up for it with being vastly more correct than the statement which preceded it. So much for all that ethics junk.
8. Back to the Q & A. Donald Trump was asked about having a Cabinet and administration full of conflicts of interest, including but not limited to his own. Trump then proceeded to take out a pistol slowly from his jacket coat, and fired several times, killing the correspondent dead on the spot. OK, so that didn’t happen, but you know he totally would if he thought he could get away with it. I could tell you what he actually said, but it started with Rex Tillerson and disintegrated into some gibberish about bad trade deals. Next!
9. Finally, a question about ObamaCare! You know, the thing the Republicans are trying to dismantle without anything to replace it. Mr. Trump was asked what the GOP would do in place of the “disaster” that is the Affordable Care Act. More gibberish. No substantive answer. There, I saved you the trouble.
10. The question was about whether Donald Trump planned to involve himself in all these individual deals with companies (e.g. Carrier) and when we would see the program on capital repatriation and corporate tax cuts. Simplified answer from Trump-speech: those companies who want to leave for Mexico are going to pay a hefty border tax. Unless, you know, they work out a highly-visible sweetheart deal with the U.S. government and I get to talk about how many jobs I save—even though those numbers probably don’t tell the whole story.
11. The next question was a three-part question with three very different parts, so bear with me. On (1) the status of the Mexican border wall, uh, still evidently happening. There appears to be some sort of reimbursement aspect now involved with it, though to be fair, he could’ve just made that up on the spot. On (2) the status of his Supreme Court pick, that’s evidently coming in the fortnight after Inauguration. And on (3)that bizarre Tweet about us living in Nazi Germany, more griping about the unsubstantiated BuzzFeed reports. Because that’s what happened in Nazi Germany. And, um, just the attempted extermination of the Jews. Other than that, though, exactly like it.
12. Trump was asked if President Obama went too far with his sanctions on Russia, and what he thought of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s plan to send him a bill for tougher sanctions. Succinctly, he said no, Obama didn’t go too far, and then proceeded to belittle Graham’s presidential aspirations. Classy, Mr. Trump. Classy.
14. President-Elect Trump was asked once again about all this “false news” business and what reforms he might suggest for the news industry, pray tell. This is literally what he said: “Well, I don’t recommend reforms. I recommend people that are—that have some moral compass.” Spoken by the pussy-grabber himself.
15. The rest of the press conference was devoted to more about Russia, hacking, and Russian hacking, so let’s breeze through this, shall we? Yes, Donald Trump trusts his intelligence community, but only the people he’s appointed and they’ve got a great hacking defense strategy coming—just you wait and see. Wait, does Trump believe Russia was behind the hacks? Probably, but maybe not. (Writer’s Note: Ugh.) What is his message to Vladimir Putin, if, indeed, he was behind the hacks? Mr. Putin, you will respect America. Same goes for you, China. Japan, Mexico, everyone else, you too. And Don and Eric, you better do a good job, or I’ll say, “You’re fired!” No, seriously, he said his catch phrase. At the end of a presidential press conference. Hmm, it appears that that bleeding coming from my nose has intensified. Could someone grab a box of tissues, please? I think my brain may be in the process of complete liquefaction. Remember me as I was prior to Donald Trump being sworn in, I beg of you.
You may have noticed a number was missing from the ordered list comprising my extensive breakdown of Trump’s Wednesday press conference. Hey, it’s called triskaidekaphobia, and I’m sensitive about it! Seriously, though, I’ve had enough of bullshit explanations from the man himself, so let’s get to it. At a point in the press conference, Donald Trump, in his usual delicate style, referred to BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage,” and went on to say that CNN “went out of their way to build it up,” as if to suggest that CNN piled on to the pile of garbage that BuzzFeed had created. In reality, though, CNN’s report preceded BuzzFeed’s, and was appreciably different, with the latter’s being of a salacious and irresponsible manner, prompting a rebuke from Chuck Todd of MSNBC for willingly publishing “fake news.”
Naturally, when impugned by name, you may wish to defend yourself, or at least have a chance to speak, which is what CNN’s Jim Acosta tried to do, asking, “Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question, Mr. President-elect?” Simple, respectful, no? This was Trump’s response: “Your organization is terrible.” He then proceeded to move onto another questioner, and when Acosta pressed him for a chance to defend his organization, Trump fired back by telling him “don’t be rude” and eventually admonishing him by saying “you are fake news.” And he refused to grant Jim Acosta a question. Just like that. Acosta’s question would actually be asked and answered in the waning minutes of the press conference, but the damage was already done, and furthermore, according to Acosta’s account, he was approached by Sean Spicer and told that if he were to “do that again,” he was going to be thrown out of the press conference. So much for freedom of the press.
Predictably, self-appointed enemies of the left and the “liberal media” loved this result, with numerous conservative “news” sites cheering Donald Trump’s “beatdown” of Jim Acosta. Spicer himself insisted Acosta was behaving inappropriately and rudely, and both he and Newt Gingrich called on him to apologize to Trump. Not the other way around. What’s most striking to me and numerous others, I’m sure, though, is how pretty much everyone else in the press just sat or stood by and let Trump efface Acosta from the press conference, metaphorically stepping over his carcass to get a place at the dinner table. Matt Gertz of Media Matters for America has an even starker comparison for it: “Trump Just Shot Jim Acosta in the Middle of Fifth Avenue and the Press Didn’t Blink.” Referencing a boast from the campaign trail of Trump’s that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and he wouldn’t lose voters, Gertz pointed out a trend of Donald Trump lashing out at criticism of him and his campaign, banning members of the press and whole news organizations, and the rest of the press corps not doing shit about it:
This is a pattern. Members of the press have repeatedly refused to stand together as Trump has lashed out at their colleagues. Trump banned The Des Moines Register from covering his campaign after it printed a critical editorial. There was no collective response from the press. So he banned more outlets when he didn’t like their coverage. His campaign threw a New York Times reporter out of an event. No response from the press. He confined the reporters to press pens where he could mock them by name to the glee of his supporters, putting them in physical danger. And into the pens they went, day after day. His campaign manager allegedly manhandled a reporter. CNN hired the campaign manager! Trump treats reporters like conquered foes who he can manhandle at will. If they can’t figure out a way to stand up together and for one another, he will pick them off one by one and grind the free press into the dirt.
Even if people in the news community came to Jim Acosta’s and CNN’s defense after the fact, that they were content to remain silent during Trump’s finger-wagging illustrates the point: the news media generally isn’t willing to stand up for one of its own when that isolated target gets attacked. Case in point FOX News, which, prior to the rise of Trump, Breitbart, the alt-right, and fake news sites which specifically target audiences on social media feeds, more or less had the market covered on fake and misleading coverage. On one hand, correspondent Shepard Smith came to CNN’s defense with journalistic principles in mind, saying as much Wednesday following the press conference:
CNN’s exclusive reporting on the Russian matter was separate and different from the document dump executed by an online news property. Though we at FOX News cannot confirm CNN’s report, it is our observation that its correspondents followed journalistic standards, and that neither they nor any other journalist should be subjected to belittling and delegitimizing by the president-elect of the United States.
FOX News, whose personalities—notably Megyn Kelly while still in the network’s employ—are no stranger to Donald Trump’s wrath, and so it at least makes sense that someone like Shepard Smith would support CNN and Jim Acosta in this way. On the other hand, Neil Cavuto, fellow FOX News talking head, couldn’t help but put a smirk on his face and stick it to the network’s cable news rival a day later. On Your World with Neil Cavuto—at least, I think it was Your World with Neil Cavuto; I don’t really give a shit about any of the programs he hosts—the program’s namesake had this to say about Trump’s rough handling of CNN in this instance:
How does it feel to be dismissed, or worse, ignored? How does it feel when your feelings are hurt, when your reporters are singled out, and you’re treated unfairly and unkindly, even rudely?
Later on in the segment, Cavuto closed with this mean-spirited jab at CNN:
Isn’t it obnoxious and unfair how some celebrate your plight? Kind of feels like the way you celebrated ours, doesn’t it? They say payback’s a bitch. If only you would take a moment to rewind the tape and see the shoe was on the other foot. Or am I confusing it with the one now kicking you in the ass?
My, my, Neil, aren’t you the tough guy? In Neil Cavuto’s defense, President Obama’s relationship with the press corps was far from sterling, as numerous outlets criticized the lack of transparency with which his administration dealt with the press as a subset of his administration’s larger failings in this regard. Moreover, Cavuto is mostly right that other members of the mainstream media didn’t come to FOX News’ defense when Obama singled them out, though interestingly enough, Jake Tapper of, ahem, CNN, has. Still, two wrongs don’t make a right, and if Cavuto is expecting an apology because FOX News has become popular by pandering to liberal-bashers and Obama-haters and because Donald Trump won the election, he’s got a long wait on his hands. Besides, today it’s CNN, but what’s to prevent FOX News from being next on Trump’s hit list or on it at some point in the future? Will Neil Cavuto be quite so smug then? What if CNN comes (again) to his network’s defense?
For any number of reasons, Donald Trump’s press conference in advance of his inauguration is frightening stuff. His persistent refusal to blame Russia for anything, his failure to provide substantive answers to anything related to policy decisions, his and his administration’s questionable ethical standards and conflicts—you name it. But Trump’s refusal to field a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta with the justification that his organization is “terrible” and “fake news” should concern all Americans and members of the press, and not just those on the left. Barack Obama wasn’t exactly a saint, but Trump has displayed signs of being a tyrannical leader well before formally being sworn in. In an age in which fake news is threatening our knowledge of the facts, and political leaders are trying to make us believe truth is not as relevant as opinion and how much we feel something should be true, the failure to hear real news is even worse than the fake article.
When someone blows up a physical embodiment of the year “2016” and encourages people to tell that year to go f**k itself, you know it’s been an abnormally bad one. John Oliver took the opportunity to give 2016 this proper send-off (a report on this event was equally properly filed under the category “F**K 2016” by Aimée Lutkin and Jezebel), and that HBO agreed to afford Oliver the chance to explode something of that magnitude likewise speaks to the horror that was this past 366 days. That’s right—in case you had forgotten, 2016 was a leap year, so all-too-appropriately, we were given one extra day to protract the misery. The Julian and Gregorian calendars can eat a collective dick on that front.
I only started this blog in the middle of June of this year, so I missed the chance to comment on some things that happened earlier in 2016. With over 50 posts under my belt on United States of Joe, however, there’s still enough topics to revisit to make reflecting on the year that was worthwhile. Well, at least as far as I’m concerned. And since, despite my overall belief in fair and democratic principles, this blog is not a democracy but a Joe-ocracy, that’s the agenda for this session. You’re welcome. So, kick back. Get plenty of champagne ready—noting how awful the past year has been, it may take quite a bit of alcohol to get into the spirit. And get ready to count down to 2017. It’s time to give our own send-off to 2016, middle fingers in the air and all.
Well, before we take the plunge into the abjectly negative, let’s go back to the app-based sensation that was Pokémon Go. Since its initial breakthrough success which had critics saying the smartphone game had ushered in a new era of augmented reality and had fundamentally changed the way we look at mobile gaming, downloads and use of the title have understandably cooled. In light of the downward trend, members of the media are now looking at Pokémon Go altogether as a disappointment, especially in light of some updates which failed to impress. You need to walk 3 KM just for one stinking Charmander candy? I’m never going to get that Charizard! NEVER, I SAY!
Now that I’m done being dramatic, not only do I find these charges against the game and its maker Niantic overblown (although, seriously, those Buddy System ratios are pretty shitty), but expectations, buttressed by the app’s initial success, were probably always too high. Though Niantic did its part to make the game palatable to people of all ages and ability levels by making gameplay largely based around throwing Poké Balls and by simplifying battles, the players who are most likely to find the experience rewarding are fans of the original game, who are used to grinding for experience, completing the game as completely as possible, and overall, staying in it for the long haul. It’s not Angry Birds. It’s not Candy Crush Saga. It’s not Fruit freaking Ninja. You have to walk and work for your rewards. You know, when you can’t pay money for some of them. Either way, you still have to walk!
When Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in July and formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, it admittedly felt like a punch to the gut. For all the mental preparation made, when the moment actually arrived, it still hurt. What made Sanders’ decision and the associated feelings yet worse, though, was the reception his standing behind Clinton received and the accusations that got hurled around in the wake of the announcement. Con-man. Sell-out. Traitor. Looking at Bernie’s endorsement in a purely ideological vacuum, it is easy to assess this move as a betrayal of his principles and what he stands for. In this instance, however, context is everything, and with Donald Trump having sewn up the Republican Party nomination, Sanders saw greater merit in trying to unite Democrats and other prospective voters in an effort to defeat Trump. Ultimately, the orange one shocked the world and scored an electoral victory, but Bernie Sanders did his best to avoid this eventuality. That not enough Americans either came out to vote or otherwise didn’t buy what Hillary was selling is largely on her, not Bernie.
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the suspension of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the remaining candidates looked to capitalize. Even with the bulk of Sanders supporters presumed to be going over to Hillary Clinton’s camp, Donald Trump himself made an instantaneous pitch to those “feeling the Bern,” trying to tap into their fervent and justifiable anger at the political establishment. Third-party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, too, though, made a play for these suddenly available votes, rationalizing that there was no better time than now than to tell the two major parties to shove it. In endorsing Clinton, Bernie repeatedly tried to communicate the danger and inadequacies of Trump as a presidential candidate first and foremost, even though he may have largely been preaching to the choir, as younger voters by and large detested “the Donald.” He also, meanwhile, cautioned against a “protest vote” for someone like Johnson, Stein, or even Harambe (and yes, he would’ve loved to follow this election), realizing, as did all these newfound suitors for Bernie backers’ affections, that the votes of his faithful could swing the election by helping to decide key swing states. To reiterate, it didn’t work all that well, but the effort on Sanders’ part was there.
Ultimately, as Bernie Sanders himself will insist, his run for President, while important, was always more concerned with starting a revolution and getting more Americans, especially younger voters and working-class individuals, involved with the political process, even at the local level. Whether the energy behind his campaign and the urge for progressive grass-roots activism is sustainable in the United States is yet to be seen, but either way, there is yet room for optimism that people will want to keep active and informed as a means of exerting greater control over their own destiny. Thus, you may call Bernie any name you want, but I choose to label him an inspiration, and I feel history will bear out this sentiment as well.
As we Bernie Sanders supporters worked our way through the Five Stages of Grief and Loss, eventually, we had to come to accept that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was going to be our next President. In fact, even the non-Berners were forced to do the same, in all likelihood ensuring many who were on the fence—that is, on whether or not they would vote at all—would choose the latter option and just stay home. In my piece referenced in the title of this section, I mused about the notion that maybe we, as a collective electorate, did not deserve better than these choices that a significant portion of said electorate neither trusted nor cared for much. Ever since 2000, when Ralph Nader was accused of costing Al Gore the election (even though Gore lost that shit on his own, with an admitted probable helping from electoral shenanigans down in Florida), Americans have been highly critical of parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, with the usual refrain being some combination of “they could play spoiler to a legitimate candidate” or “you’re throwing away your vote” if you opt for one of them.
However, to invoke the words of Mr. Nader himself, not only is this attitude politically bigoted, as it negates the will of the individual to make an informed choice in accordance with his or her conscience, but it nullifies our bargaining power with the two major parties. After all, if we blindly vote either Democratic or Republican, beyond losing the election, what motivation does either party have to institute reform that better reflects the needs and wants of the voting public? Especially for members of the working class, both Democrats and Republicans have seemed to take them for granted, which at least partially explains why the Dems lost this election and why Trump and Sanders achieved the levels of popularity they did this election cycle.
In the end, though, despite the increased visibility of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the lead-up to the election, most Americans who voted (and there was a good portion of the country who could’ve voted which didn’t) cast their ballots for either Hillary or Donald. As historically unfavorable as these two candidates were, and for all their flaws—Trump as an idiot and professional con-man stoking the flames of fear and hatred, Clinton as an out-of-touch elitist with a penchant for pandering and expensive Giorgio Armani jackets—better than nine-tenths of voters decided they had to pick one of the two, if for no other reason than to block the other candidate they liked even less. Which is pretty shitty, if you ask me. Personally, even with the knowledge that she wouldn’t win, I voted for Jill Stein, as I felt neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton had earned my vote. That relative few other Americans opted out of the two-party paradigm, however, signals to me that we, as a nation, are not ready to demand political change as strongly as we should. It’s either red and blue in these United States, and if you don’t like either color, the present message, unfortunately, is to get the f**k out.
Holy f**k, indeed. In retrospect, I’m not sure why the pollsters were so surprised that Donald Trump scored the “upset” victory, or why we were so easily convinced that Hillary Clinton was such a strong favorite to win the presidency, when their models were consistently wrong or failed to predict the magnitudes of certain results throughout the primary season. At any rate, as must be reiterated for anyone who sees Trump’s win as a mandate, the man who considers himself a master of “The Art of the Deal” won the presidency on the strength of electoral votes, not because he had a resounding victory in the popular vote (in fact, he lost by more than 2 million votes, and it apparently tears him up inside)—and certainly not because he ran a stellar campaign.
So, how did Trump win? Looking at the exit poll data, certain trends do tend to stick out. Regionally, Donald Trump fared much better in the Midwest and the South, and of course, he carried key swing states, notably those in the Rust Belt (e.g. Ohio, Wisconsin). In terms of demographic data, Trump had an easy advantage among male voters and voters 45 and above, not to mention he held an appeal among less educated individuals and the wealthiest earners (a seeming paradox, though as evidenced by how they spend their money, rich people aren’t necessarily all that smart—look at Trump himself!), as well as evangelicals and married people, but perhaps most notable of all, whites voted at almost a 60% clip for Donald Trump, while close to three of four non-whites went for Hillary Clinton. CNN commentator Van Jones referred to this aspect of the results as a “white-lash”, as in “white backlash” after eight years of a black president the Republicans have characterized as a cause of America’s problems and someone with a secret Muslim agenda, and it’s hard to argue otherwise, really. When the former head of the Ku Klux Klan is cheering you on and citing you as an inspiration, you know white supremacist beliefs, racism and xenophobia helped you to victory.
On a somewhat related note, the thematic reasons why Trump voters chose the way did are also significant. Speaking of racism and xenophobia, supporters of Donald Trump rated immigration trends and terrorism the most important issues facing the United States. Screw the economy and foreign relations—let’s worry some more about brown people. As for the quality that best drew voters to Trump, it wasn’t whether the candidate cares about them, exhibits good judgment, or has the right experience—those voters tended to go for Clinton—but whether he or she could bring about “change.” Whatever the heck that means.
In a nutshell, that’s why Donald Trump is set to be our next President. As for who we can blame for this, besides the obvious in Trump himself and his supporters, there are three core enablers for the man’s political success. Certainly, the Republican Party let him waltz right in and secure the nomination after a barrage of similarly weak candidates failed to stand in his way, and after the GOP at large sowed the seeds of fear and hate he exploited. The media, too, acted irresponsibly and selfishly, chasing ratings while failing to challenge Trump on his lack of defined policy, his factual inaccuracies, his reckless language, or even his refusal to publish his tax returns. In addition, the Democratic Party, in its own right bears some responsibility. Among its most damning sins are its failure to stand up for the working class, its inability to protect jobs and wages, its support for disastrous trade deals like NAFTA and TPP, its complicity with corporations and wealthy donors, and its allowing antitrust laws to lapse or otherwise become weaker, thereby consolidating power into fewer and fewer hands. The failure to stop Donald Trump is a collective one, and though it probably won’t happen, these enablers should do some serious soul-searching for fear of endangering their long-term prospects.
Should anything happen to Donald Trump, whether in terms of his health (not that I’m wishing for the man to pull a William Henry Harrison or anything) or impeachment, the next man in line may not be all that much of an improvement. Mike Pence, who has been governing the proud state of Indiana, has arguably made a number of shitty choices during his tenure. He vetoed a refund of a tax overcharge on the basis it would have cost too much to administer. Before he got too much (warranted) negative feedback, he proposed JustIN, a state-run news service some likened to Pravda in the Soviet era. He rejected Medicaid expansion in his state under the Affordable Care Act on principle, to the detriment of his constituents. He insisted on a ban against a needle exchange program that was effective in limiting the spread of HIV related to a particular drug injection, and later reversed his position, but refused to use state funding to provide for such exchanges. Perhaps most notably, he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, which allowed for discrimination against the LGBT community and cost Indiana some $60 million in revenue before its reversal. An opponent of gay marriage and women controlling their own reproductive rights, Mike Pence is one of a seemingly increasingly long line of conservative Republican leaders who puts evangelical beliefs ahead of his state’s and the nation’s best interests. He’s not Trump, but he’s no rose either.
In terms of what damage he may do in terms of signing legislation into law and what damage he likely already is doing in his appointees for key positions (Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy—are you f**king serious?), that Donald Trump has been thrust into a position of immense power is bad enough, but his association with the far-right and his inspiration to the likes of David Duke makes for some shitty ripple effects just the same, let me tell you. I said earlier that Trump’s electoral victory should not be seen as a mandate given how he lost the popular vote and in light of how divided we are as a nation. And yet, the Breitbart crowd and members of the so-called “alt-right” have taken it as such, viewing themselves as fighters in a culture war they are winning, standing against political correctness and other liberal “absurdities.” They also apparently like boycotting companies who don’t stand for their white supremacist agenda. You know, even though they probably don’t use their products anyway. But boycott it is! TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP!
When Hillary Clinton formally acknowledged the alt-right in a speech during the campaign, though I feel it needed to be said, it further legitimized this loosely-constructed movement that coincides with the likes of Gamergate’s sexist perpetuators. That Stephen Bannon has been given a prominent advisory role in Trump’s administration, though, should concern us more conscientious Americans. Donald Trump is not normal, and those who sanction his misdeeds and try to normalize his objectionable behavior are standing in the way of progress. Furthermore, the gang mentality with which many of them operate, encouraging online attacks on and/or death threats against individuals whose values clash with theirs, is troubling, as is the unwillingness of social media services to more aggressively pursue those accounts which violate their terms of service for fear of losing traffic. In short, the alt-right has arrived, as much as many of us might not like to dignify them with a response, and it is incumbent upon those of us who have respect for others—not just respect for white males who refuse to admit to their privilege—to speak out against their behavior and words as dangerous and wrong.
Before Donald Trump swooped in to save the day and stop the threat of taco trucks on every corner in the United States, the United Kingdom gave us a teaser trailer for the U.S. presidential election with a referendum vote on whether or not to remain in the European Union. As with the election in the States, the experts predicted voters would do the sensible thing; if this were an analogy in the vein of the old SATs: UNITED STATES: ELECT HILLARY CLINTON :: UNITED KINGDOM: VOTE REMAIN. And, as with the election in the States, voters did the exact opposite.
The parallels are uncanny. The decision to leave the EU was, as it was in the United States, mediated by a greater incidence of older voters opting to do the wrong thing. Like with Trump’s anti-immigrant appeals and vague notions of “making America great again,” Leave voters were swayed by visions of “securing the nation’s borders” and “taking back control” of the country’s economy, not to mention equally empty promises of the UK Independence Party. Additionally, voters seemed to be making choices that were a direct rejection of existing politics. Barack Obama, David Cameron—either way you slice it, the public clamored for change, no matter who would bring it or what it would entail. The fallout from both votes is still being assessed, but the discontentment of the working-class voter and upward trends in outspokenness among white nationalists worldwide suggest the U.S. and UK votes are not isolated incidents, and in turn, that the risk of other Brexit-like events occurring in the future in other countries is all-too-real. The winds of change are blowing, and one can only hope our houses don’t get knocked over when the gusts have subsided.
Contrary to the apparent beliefs of some, black people don’t enjoy getting mowed down by police at routine traffic stops. While police shootings may not have been any more numerous in 2016 than in years past, through the advent of cellphones and other camera-based technologies, violence involving police certainly has become more visible. Whatever the precise rates of deaths related to encounters between civilians and police, it would seem as though we have a lot of progress to make regarding recognition of the disparity of treatment people of color receive at the hands of police and that which is received by whites, regardless of whether the person accosted by one or more officers has a gun or not.
A perfect illustration of the failure of much of white America to confront its privilege in this regard comes in arguments about the very name and nature of black activism in the United States which exists in large part due to documented police brutality. In response to hearing the moniker Black Lives Matter, or merely even the phrase “black lives matter,” some people are too quick to “correct” the original speaker with the phrase “all lives matter,” or counter with their own version (i.e. “blue lives matter”) that serves to negate the critical recognition of blackness inherent in the initial figure of speech. To me, however, this falls prey to a fairly obvious logical trap: if all lives matter, then black lives, as a subset of all lives, should matter too, and there should be no problem accepting that terminology. “Black lives matter” does not mean black lives should matter more than other lives, but simply that they should matter as much as white lives, blue lives, or any other color lives of which one can think. Clearly, though, they don’t, or else there wouldn’t be a need for organizations such as Black Lives Matter.
The need to scrutinize adherence by individual officers to specified protocol when engaging possible suspects, as well as the systems which serve to shield “rogue” cops from criticism and/or prosecution, is undermined by two key strategies of those who react to protests with knee-jerk defenses of our uniformed police. The first is to question the integrity of the victim—yes, victim—who, because he or she is labeled a “thug” or has a history with the law, evidently deserves to be effectively lynched by the police who intercede him or her. The second is to de-legitimize efforts of black activists wholesale, conflating them unfairly with those who loot and otherwise take advantage of violence and associated protests for their own gain, likening them to terrorists, or wrongly insisting they are advocating for the slaughter of police. In both cases, this is counterproductive, regressive thinking.
As some have argued, those cops who are too nervous not to shoot someone at a routine encounter shouldn’t be placed in such a highly leveraged situation, and either way, good police—which comprise the majority of forces around the nation, let’s be clear—should be appreciative of efforts to root out bad actors from their ranks. As for the protests against police brutality, this doesn’t equate to disrespect for the police, nor does kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem constitute an affront to our military, as Colin Kaepernick’s example reminds us. Black Lives Matter et al. don’t want to see law and order dissolved. They just want to see police officers and officials who wear the badge held accountable when they do wrong, and at a very basic level, not to be utterly afraid they might die when getting pulled over by a squad car. It’s 2016. We need to do better as a country in addressing racial inequality, especially within the purview of criminal justice.
There have been too many mass shootings in the United States of late, but the Orlando nightclub shooting, in particular, was particularly devastating for many of us. Not only was it a tremendous loss of life, but that the LGBT community was apparently the specific target of the violence made this brutality that much worse for a population that regularly faces hatred and persecution. Speaking for myself, it is difficult to comprehend how someone could harbor such hate for themselves and others that they would wish to walk into a building and start firing indiscriminately. Perhaps this idea gets the tiniest bit easier to understand when we understand this hate works both ways. As jihadists would seek to inspire terror in the West through bombings and mass shootings, white nationalism encountered in Austria, France, Holland, the United Kingdom and the United States, among other nations, has created an environment that has often proved hostile to Muslims, and has made the prospect of accepting more refugees from war-torn countries like Syria decidedly poor. I mean, Donald Trump ran on a platform of which one of the key tenets was a temporary ban on travel to the U.S. for all Muslims. It’s incredible, and incredibly shameful, at that.
Never mind the idea that all this bluster about “bombing the shit out of ISIS” may actually be good for the Islamic State’s ability to recruit and strengthening its resolve. The jingoists among us would have everyone believe that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with the laws of the United States, that it is a “cancer” to be snuffed out, and that American Muslims who don’t do enough to help discover would-be terrorists in their midst (which, evidently, is quite easy) are guilty in their own right, and regardless, likely merit surveillance of their homes/places of worship and tests administered to gauge their love for and commitment to the U-S-of-A. This conflation of Islam, a religion which preaches peace at its core, and the bastardized religion ISIS and other jihadists/”radical Islamists” practice, is a patently false equivalency.
For the sake of an analogy—one for which I can’t take credit, let me stress—ISIS is to everyday Muslims what the Ku Klux Klan is to white people who aren’t unabashed racists. In both cases, the majority disavows the hate and violence these groups perpetuate. This is by no means saying we shouldn’t be vigilant against individuals who would wish to do us harm. As bad as the Orlando massacre was, though, and as unforgivable as the actions of an organization like ISIS/ISIL have proven, our responses and the negative feelings that accompany some of these reactions reveal an ugly side to our patriotism as well. In the demonization and the pursuit of “the other,” we run the clear risk of losing ourselves.
I didn’t originally write about it, but the Chicago Cubs actually won the World Series. To wit, I have neither observed nor heard any stories about swarms of locusts descending on fields or rivers of blood forming, but I’m not ruling them out just yet. The apocalypse takes time to develop, you know?
Wells Fargo was forced to fire thousands of mid-level managers for directing employees to create fake accounts and sign up customers for services without their knowledge, essentially making them scapegoats for the company’s aggressive sales model. The company eventually apologized—sort of—and John Stumpf was eventually removed from the role of CEO, but the big bank largely closed the book on this sordid chapter of its history without really admitting wrongdoing, and Stumpf had a nice golden parachute on which to drift to security. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo has apparently learned absolutely nothing from this fiasco, as new CEO Tim Sloan has expressed the belief that the company and the banking industry as a whole could actually do with less regulation. Evidently, it’s all fun and games when you get to play with other people’s money.
FBI director James Comey, despite finding that Hillary Clinton and her aides were extremely careless in their handling of E-mail while Clinton was Secretary of State, that Clinton should’ve known certain E-mails were classified and didn’t belong on an unsecured server in the first place, that the State Department was generally lacking in security protocol for classified E-mails, and that Hillary used multiple unsecured devices in locations where American adversaries could have exploited this vulnerability, held a press conference to announce he was not recommending charges be filed against the Democratic Party nominee. Then, a week before the general election, he announced that the Bureau was looking anew into Clinton’s E-mails, which she and her campaign cite as a factor in why she lost. So, nice going, Director Comey! You’ve undermined confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and perhaps swayed the election! Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard!
Chris Christie not only failed to capture the Republican Party nomination, but he was overlooked by Donald Trump for vice president despite being, more or less, his manservant. Oh, and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, two key figures in “Bridge-gate,” were found guilty on all counts in a trial related to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, and a separate criminal trial is set to take place for Christie himself. Congratulations, Chris. You played yourself.
Puerto Rico defaulted on its debt, a result fueled by a combination of fiscal and economic factors, including the repeal of tax breaks for businesses, the creation and sale of triple tax-exempt municipal bonds, the inability of the commonwealth to declare for bankruptcy, exempting wealthy investors and businesses from paying capital gains taxes, “vulture” hedge funds buying up bonds and demanding a full payday, and institutions like UBS selling risky bonds they themselves underwrote to unsuspecting customers. Today, Puerto Rico’s financial future is yet in peril with individuals who are alleged to have helped the island along the path to crisis serving on its appointed oversight board, and with Donald Trump being a crazy mofo. Also, the U.S. Virgin Islands may be on the way to its own debt crisis. Um, huzzah?
In some good news, the Trans-Pacific Partnership seems to be all but dead, being disliked on both sides of the political aisle. Also, the Dakota Access Pipeline is on indefinite hold, as the Army Corps of Engineers found more research needed to be done regarding the environmental effects of its intended route through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Of course, supporters of these canceled or postponed initiatives may yet redouble their efforts, so we concerned progressives can’t really relax. At least we can enjoy a short breather before the ball drops, eh?
In the title of this piece (remember back that far?), I reference the notion that 2017 has to be better than 2016. I’m not sure it amounts to much, though, beyond wishful thinking. If the best qualification for improvement which comes to mind is that we won’t be electing Donald Trump, it’s cold comfort in light of the fact he’ll already be President. Going back to his appointees, if they are any evidence, the country is set upon a bumpy path for the next four years, or until the man gets impeached—whichever comes first. His Defense and National Security Cabinet leaders view Islam as a threat to America. His Education Secretary is an opponent of public schools, despite never having attended one. His Energy Secretary infamously once forgot the name of the department he has been tapped to helm. His Health and Human Services director wants to privatize everything and largely gut social programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. His HUD Secretary knows nothing about housing administration.
Wait, I’m not done yet! His head of the Justice Department failed to be confirmed as a federal judge once upon a time because he was an out-and-out racist. His Labor Secretary opposes raising the minimum wage. His Secretary of State has likely financial ties to Vladimir Putin. His Transportation Secretary is married to Mitch McConnell—and that’s evidence enough of poor judgment. His Treasury Secretary oversaw 50,000 or so foreclosures from his position within OneWest Bank, an entity which was accused of unethical practices and discrimination against minorities. His EPA head is a climate change denier. His Small Business Administration director is former CEO of a fake wrestling empire. And his United Nations representative has no foreign policy experience. Irresponsible does not begin to describe these selections, and fingers are crossed that one or more of them fail to get confirmed by the Senate.
So, yeah, I’m not incredibly optimistic about the United States’ prospects right now. The silver lining, as I see it, is that more and more Americans are waking up to the realization that our system is broken and that it doesn’t work for everyone, and with luck, that number will grow as the sheen wears off the shiny promises Trump has made and can’t hope to keep. I wouldn’t have wished for a Donald Trump presidency in a thousand years, but if this hastens the movement of the nation in a more progressive direction, so be it. For those of us who refuse to accept Trump and the America he has envisioned as normal, and who insist that we’ve come too far as a country to simply put the train in reverse, the resistance starts now. 2017, we look to you in strengthening our resolve. And 2016, once more, you can go f**k yourself.