Most Americans are making more money than they did 25 or 30 years ago. They are working more hours, too. On the face of things or in a vacuum, these trends might seem like fortuitous circumstances for the workers of the U-S-of-A. When we sift through why these phenomena are occurring, and how they may be related, meanwhile, our glasses may not appear quite as rose-colored regarding the employment picture in this country.
A recent report by Jacob Passy for MarketWatch sheds some light on why higher wages and longer hours might not be all they’re cracked up to be. As Passy explains, citing data from the Economic Policy Institute’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, average annual earnings for people in their “prime working years”—age 25 to 54—have increased by some 30% from 1979 to 2016, even after inflation. The bad news? This is often not mediated by an increase in wages/salary, but because people are working more to meet increased costs of living. To make things worse, and as you might expect, the extent to which people need to work to offset their expenses increases as their earnings level goes down. While all income groups saw an increase in hours worked in 2016 relative to 1979—on average, 7.8%—American workers in the bottom fifth of earners saw an increase of 24.3% over the same span, easily dwarfing the rates of increase for top earners (3.6%) as well as representatives of the middle class (9.4%). This is particularly problematic because there are limits inherent in any employment situation. For starters, there are only so many hours in a day, not to mention so many hours that establishments are liable to be open for business. Couple this with the notion that most workers do not make their schedules—rather, hours tend to be set by supervisors—and that availability of shifts might be further constrained by corporate strategy and concerns about profitability, and you’ve got quite the situation on the hands of American workers.
Not depressing enough yet? Wait—there’s more. As Passy reports, and as EPI researchers also found looking at data from the same span, more men in their prime working years are “disconnected from work.” Translation: they’re unemployed and not looking for work. From 1979 to 2016, the rate of men in their prime disconnected from work rose from 6.3% to 11.9%; women saw a decrease over that span from 29.8% to 24.1%. Once more, the picture is bleaker for certain populations, namely people of color, and specifically, black men. According to the EPI statistics, black males are twice as likely as white and Hispanic men to not be working, and when they are working, they work fewer hours, on average. Imaginably, employment rates are worse for those without a college degree, let alone high school diploma or GED equivalent.
This all comes to a head when talking about financial situations of workers across ethnicities, as Passy goes on to explain. Citing additional research by the Pew Research Center, he writes that, on average, white families possess just over $120,000 more of wealth than families of color. In addition, concerning the disparity in earnings, African-American and Latino households are more likely to be financially “underwater,” and children from poorer households—which does not necessarily mean those from minority populations but frequently does—are found to be less likely to achieve educational milestones that lend themselves to career success and increased wages. Talk about your vicious circles.
Skeptics of this information or others who would dismiss the trends about blacks and Hispanics/Latinos might point to stereotypical notions of them being deficient in moral fiber, lazy, and/or unintelligent. This is, of course, racist and unmitigated bullshit, but it’s an explanation that suffices for many, and even if I were to question it with logic and statistics, they would be loath to believe it, so let’s just leave that line of thinking aside and try not to slam our heads against hard objects out of frustration. On the work side of things, however, that people are working more irrespective of class or ethnicity is more difficult to explain than by simply denigrating minorities or the poor for their perceived lack of effort. Though I’m sure that won’t stop some people from trying. After all, people are working more. They’re being more productive. Gosh darn it, they’re illustrating the American spirit with their can-do attitude. U-S-A! U-S-A!
Maybe. But this also might be a space to consider how this feeds into concerns about the work-life balance in this country relative to other developed nations. Kerry Close, in a 2017 article which appeared in TIME Magazine, explored in a case study of sorts how France differs from the United States on its approach to work schedules and work-life balance. In terms of the raw numbers, yes, Americans do work more than their French counterparts, working an average of 1,790 hours per year to France’s 1,482, as measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). American workers are also more productive in terms of raw output and income per capita.
As Close tells, though, this was not always the case, and up until as recently as the 1970s, French workers actually put in more hours than we did. What led to this shift? While it may be no surprise to advocates of organized labor, the efforts of unions and collective-bargaining agreements were essential to this movement. Citing the research of Dartmouth economics professor Bruce Sacerdote, Close explains that in response to rising unemployment in the 70s, French unions advocated a “work sharing” policy that would decrease the number of hours logged by individual workers in favor of more people being afforded the ability to work. These policies, owing to their appeal, helped unions grow stronger and represent more workers, leading to the securing of valuable time off, which persisted even after the employment situation in France improved. As Sacerdote notes, today, France has 25 federally-mandated vacation days, allowing most employees to be off at the same time.
25 days off? That’s preposterous, you may be saying! How do those snail-eating Frenchies get anything done? As with isolated statistics about more hours worked and more money made by American workers having the power to mislead, that the U.S. exhibits a higher raw output and income per capita than France belies the benefits that the latter country experiences by offering more vacation time and other perks. Firstly, concerning those mandated days off, having most employees off concurrently means productivity doesn’t suffer in the same way as it does when people stagger their vacations in the United States, such as with the informal “break” that occurs between Christmas and New Year’s. As for the higher output per capita, again, this is a question of productivity. Giving people a more liberal amount of time away from work and permitting them to fully disconnect from the office—yes, even from work E-mails—tends to make them more productive when they are in the office. Thus, as Close indicates, it is not so much that European culture is by nature inclined to a more relaxed workplace, but that systems like that of France’s evolved out of a response to specific economic circumstances and out of genuine concern for the standard of living of a wide swath of the nation’s workers. In other words, while it’s a good thing that Americans work as hard as they do, in this instance, there certainly would seem to be such a thing as too much of a good thing.
At the heart of this discussion about benefits and stagnant wages is the role that unions play in negotiating for fairer wages, increased benefits, and safer working conditions, among other things. In saying this, I acknowledge public opinion on unions in the United States tends to be mixed; though Gallup polling on approval of labor unions has more recently seen an uptick in favorable responses, not long ago, in the wake of the Great Recession, approval had plummeted to a sub-50% level. Christ, my own father once uttered the phrase, “Unions are what’s ruining this country,” and when he found out Bernie Sanders was a backer of organized labor, he quickly dismissed any idea of supporting him. Just stab me in the heart, why don’t you, Pops?
Perhaps more significant within the same research were divides in responses based on party affiliation, as well as the consensus outlook on the future of unions. On the subject of Democrat-vs.-Republican splits, while favorability of unions has risen even among GOP supporters, Democrats (81%) are about twice as likely as Republicans (42%) to approve of unions, with independents squarely in the middle (61%). Meanwhile, on the subject of union influence and strength, while more respondents expressed the desire to see unions have more influence than they did when Barack Obama was in office, more than 70% of those surveyed expect unions to become weaker or stay the same. This isn’t particularly inspiring noting labor union participation as a subset of all American workers has steadily been on the decline over the past 40 to 50 years, and even less so when you consider the middle class’s share of the nation’s income has been on a similar decline over the same span.
This is before we even get to the case now before the Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME, which once against pits unions against the wealthy and conservative leaders of industry, not to mention the Republican heads of state and lawmakers who actively aid and abet the weakening of unions. The case, which specifically involves whether or not public-sector employees should be mandated to pay union fees even if they are not members and how this relates to First Amendment rights, is another iteration in the larger battle over what is termed “fair-share” representation by labor advocates. Opponents of these fees such as Illinois governor Bruce Rauner (Mark Janus, plaintiff in the case, is a resident of Illinois) and other GOP figures who preside over statehouses have been instrumental in advancing “right-to-work” legislation which limits the extent to which unions can collect dues from non-members or compel employees to join unions.
Roberta Lynch, executive director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, and others of a like mind, counter that fair-share fees are warranted because union leaders advocate on behalf of members and non-members alike. The case is expected to be decided along ideological lines, which could prove disastrous for public-sector unions, assuming Neil Gorsuch joins other conservatives in voting to undercut their power. Plus, by invoking the First Amendment, the precedent set by this ruling could pave the way for any number of legal challenges to other dues of a similar nature outside the realm of labor law. Or it could strengthen union resolve and end up blowing up in the faces of the conservative donors backing Janus (yup, where there’s anti-union smoke, there’s likely to be a Koch Brothers fire a-burnin’). Needless to say, the results could be very messy indeed.
Regardless of your opinion on unions, that wages have stayed mostly flat while the cost of living has gone up, and that people are making more money and working more hours, are two trends which aren’t up for debate. That there is a presumably causal relationship between these observed effects makes this all the more, as Jacob Passy puts it, “depressing.” If earnings are being used to offset expenses and people have to work more and more to make ends meet, this limits a family’s ability to save and prepare for the future, let alone spend time together. For all the talk of “making America great again,” the American dream, for many, is seeming like a pipe dream more than ever.
Alongside the immigration issue, the topic of the GOP tax overhaul is likely to be a prevailing theme leading up to the 2018 midterm elections in November. Republican candidates will be looking to tout its successes, and possibly the Trump White House’s political and economic agenda. Democrats will be looking to hammer their Republican counterparts over the idea the tax cut is intended to primarily benefit the wealthiest of the wealthiest Americans, not to mention corporations, which—and this seemingly can’t be stressed enough—are not people. In both cases, talk about our skyrocketing national debt will apparently be sparing as far as the national consciousness is concerned.
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about the more immediate tangible benefits that American families might experience, and in doing so, not be as dismissive as some Democratic leaders might be. Numerous companies have cited the GOP tax cut as the impetus for bonuses allotted for their employees, and one-time giveaways aside, many workers may have noticed appreciable increases in their take-home pay related to the tax law changes. Even when accounting for context, however, the public comments made by key Democrats don’t seem to assuage the contention coming from conservative circles that the Democratic Party is out of touch with the rank-and-file of the country. Nancy Pelosi, in particular, has been assailed for likening the $1,000 bonuses some people have received to “crumbs” relative to the gains wealthy individuals and large businesses will expect to receive as a result of this policy shift. My girl Debbie Wasserman Schultz (sarcasm intended) also caught flak for her comments as the same event that she wasn’t sure $1,000 goes far for almost anyone. Maybe, ahem, not to the likes of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Wasserman Schultz, but $1,000 isn’t exactly chump change.
So, yeah, the positive aspects of the tax cut are not something to merely brush aside with a wave of the hand. Like crumbs. Or “deplorables,” recalling Hillary Clinton’s epic-fail gaffe. That said, if and how these bonuses apply for the average worker in the short term, and some real global economic concerns over the long term, serve to place the boasts of Donald Trump and Republican Party congressional leadership in a bit of a different light. According to a report by David Goldman and Jeanne Sahadi for CNN and citing a recent survey by Morgan Stanley analysts, only 13% of businesses’ tax cuts will go to bonuses, employee benefits, and pay raises, while 43% of the cuts will go to investors in the form of dividends and stock buybacks, which undoubtedly will involve some executives who are compensated in terms of stock incentives. That’s not nothing, but it’s also not to say that the American worker is a priority in this respect. The CNN report also cites statistics indicating that while companies have announced tax-cut-related bonuses and raises affecting some 3.5 million U.S. workers, that’s less than 3% of the 125.5 million U.S. workers in the employ of a company. Again, not nothing, but it imaginably might seem more like winning the lottery to those who don’t receive such rewards. And God forbid if you are underemployed, unemployed, or “work in the home” and don’t receive a traditional wage.
The obvious rebuttal to this criticism is that the tax cut was just recently put into effect, so it will take time for the economy to grow in proportion to its benefits, and for businesses to hire more and invest within the United States. Based on the way the law was written, however, there are plenty of red flags to be had. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 paves the way for permanent tax cuts for corporations, but on the individual taxation side of things, the modified rates are set to sunset by 2026. This means an extension of the Act’s provisions will need to be ratified by then, and seeing as Congress can’t seem to agree on anything these days except throwing ungodly sums of money at the military, this seems all but certain. In other words, the benefits of the tax cut—if they are to be enjoyed by as many members of the general public as the White House avers they will—are temporary, much like the one-time bonuses that companies are awarding to their employees.
And then there is the matter of our ever-escalating national debt. Annie Lowrey, writing for The Atlantic, probes the intersection of U.S. deficit spending with the GOP tax cut in relation to conservative Republican ideologies. In the onset, Lowrey speaks to the seeming strangeness of Donald Trump to make America’s debt a glaring omission from his State of the Union speech. She writes:
ISIS, tax cuts, public trust. Race, immigration, the Empire State Building. Civil-service reform, North Korea, manufacturing. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech addressed a broad sweep of issues. But one central economic topic went notably missing: the country’s growing annual deficits and its increasing burden of debt. The omission was a sign of the remarkable volte-face the Republican Party has taken on the country’s fiscal situation in just a few years. Republicans spent the early years of the recovery obsessed with the national debt, castigating Democrats for their supposed irresponsibility, warning about the dangers of the almighty bond market, and helping to construct complicated mechanisms to slash federal outlays. They are now spending what might very well be the late years of the recovery ignoring it, having passed a tax plan that will add more to the debt than President Obama’s stimulus package did and having forgotten their once-urgent plans to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
While this trend may prompt deficit hawks like Rand Paul to sob gently to themselves, Lowrey seeks not to be abjectly critical of Republicans in this regard, but rather to underscore just how much of a 180 this position is from the Tea Party fever which ushered so many Republicans into office and paved the way for a decade of legislative defeats for the Democratic Party. While Trump is not your average Republican and all politicians are liable to break their campaign promises—Trump, despite not being a lifelong politician, is a salesman and pathological liar, so somehow even more liable to do so—even he ran on a campaign of reducing our annual deficits and balancing the budget. If there is criticism to be leveled on Lowrey’s part, it is more so on the side of the Republicans’ past obsession with spending that sent the federal government into shutdown mode at least once and gave GOP members of Congress ample opportunity to rail against the Obama administration’s supposed largesse.
Now with Donald Trump as President and Commander-in-Chief on top of Republican control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the shoe is on the other foot, and with the change has come the aforementioned commensurate reversal on the topic of deficit spending. While a minority of American workers are presently receiving one-time gains or improvements to the benefits they receive from their employers, as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, according to figures from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation cited by Annie Lowrey in the article, the tax cut would add $1.8 trillion to the national debt over the 2018 to 2027 span. Not million. Not billion. Trillion. While the magnitude of the addition to the debt might be vaguely surprising, though, the mechanism should not. By effecting a tax cut, it’s a direct drain on revenue paid directly to the government. At the same time, meanwhile, Republicans have more recently shied away from the entitlement reform and domestic program cuts that have previously been a rallying cry for the party, and have further turned the dial up on this trend with calls for more military spending. Mentions of deficits and debt during congressional proceedings, too, have largely decreased since peaking in 2011, and the Trump administration, ever the depiction of tumult, is even more loath to broach the subject, and when it does, as Lowrey notes, its officials do so “with little sense of outrage or concern.”
Is this attitudinal change with respect to the national debt indicative of a seemingly inherent hypocrisy in major-party politics—i.e. when we’re in office/the majority, the same rules need not apply—or simply reflective of a sea change regarding how all of us have come to regard deficit spending? To be honest, it’s probably a little from Column A and a little from Column B. As one Obama-era economic adviser quoted in Lowrey’s piece believes, Republicans’ prior importance placed upon the debt was merely a tactic to garner short-term political capital. To boot, retrospective thinking from experts on the trouble the United States might face in relation to its debt suggests worries based on European credit crises like the one notably faced by Greece may have been overstated, not to mention concerns about how deeply the American public is invested in this topic.
On the latter count, and citing a study by the Pew Research Center, Lowrey notes that whereas 72% of respondents named reducing federal deficits a top priority in 2013, today, fewer than half of those surveyed do. That the U.S. economy is performing well overall at the moment is an important factor herein, but also playing a role is growing attention other political and social issues, namely drug addiction/the opioid crisis, the environment, and improving the nation’s infrastructure and transportation. From our perspective, then, it may not be a case so much of not caring about economic issues like the national debt as much having a lot on our plates. Besides a majority of Americans still viewing the economy as a pivotal priority, fears about terrorism and preoccupations of the state of education in the United States weigh heavily on people’s minds.
Again, though, this isn’t solely a knock on Republicans. If Democrats were in power, there is every indication they’d be running up the country’s debt and not expressing outward reservations about doing so. This is not to say that all deficit spending is inherently bad; investments made which can lead to future growth or prevent future calamity come with a cost. That said, as with personal debt—a subject with which a seemingly increasing number of Americans have become familiar—the national debt is a “drag on the economy,” as a representative of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, quoted in Lowrey’s piece, highlights. Meanwhile, even if GOP leaders have temporarily put aside talk of dismantling core components of the U.S. social safety net, this is not to say that these programs do not need improving. With next year’s annual budget deficit set to top $1 trillion and concern for the sustainability of this arrangement seemingly on the decline, if what Annie Lowrey and other observers say is true, things are likely to get worse before they get better on the debt front. Just how bad, and whether or not a bursting of this bubble might produce a credit catastrophe, unfortunately remains to be seen.
Now that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has been signed into law and we have ample time to actually stop and think and wax philosophical about it, the Republican Party’s strategy is not altogether unsound from the perspective of manipulating public opinion. By the time the individual provisions of the tax cut are to sunset, we’ll be at least two more presidential election cycles down the road. Thus, the GOP can likely reap the rewards of the short-term political gains they’ve helped foster presently, and by the time Donald Trump is out of office (hopefully long before 2024, but these days, given the political atmosphere, I don’t like to get my hopes up) and Democrats have gained a majority in one or more wings of Congress or control the White House, they can defray any ill will they might have incurred related to the tax cut by pointing to the disastrous economic and social policies of the liberal left. In a 24-hour news cycle where viewers are already primed to quickly forget what just happened, it’s a fair bet that many of us will forget who the architects of this concession to corporate executives and wealthy benefactors even were.
This, to those of us insistent on documenting this chapter in American history, is rather obviously a long con. And I do mean con. In effect, it’s part of an even longer-term confidence trick that conservatives and neo-liberals have been imposing on the American public. Though officially titled the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the GOP tax cut is dyed-in-the-wool trickle-down economic theory. The primary beneficiaries of its amendments to tax law are corporations and business owners, under the idea that fewer taxes paid means more money to be invested in creating jobs and improving conditions for workers. The reality is that numerous corporations, financial experts and firms making use of the carried interest loophole, and pass-through entities have been taking advantage of favorable aspects of the tax code for years, and that the insistence from critics on the right that regulation and taxation is killing American industry tends to be overstated. There are a number of complex factors that go into why businesses succeed or fail, including changing social norms and advances in computer/automated technology, but consumer demand and discretionary spending are a crucial part of this mix. As for the employment side of the equation specifically, if firms are offering bonuses and other incentives to their workers, it is most likely not a sign of their generosity, but rather a competitive strategic move. In a tight job market, when companies like Walmart are raising wages, it’s an indication they’re doing so because they feel they have to survive.
Moreover, with the lowering of the top individual tax rate and the permanent slashing of the top corporate rate, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, given its signaled priorities, is very clearly class warfare. The GOP tax cut, ostensibly a boon for the middle class, working class, retired Americans, and the poor, is visibly skewed toward the most profitable companies and wealthiest individuals, and with caps on deductions for state and local taxes and property taxes, as well as the elimination of the personal exemption, the emphasis is not only on limiting the ability of the rank-and-file to alleviate their tax burdens, but to punish states like California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York—states that all went blue in the 2016 election, it should be noted—that feature higher-than-average tax rates and were more liable to take advantage of superior SALT deduction policies. As alluded to before, too, Republicans’ success in passing tax “reform” legislation greases the wheels of attempts at entitlement “reform.” Which essentially means cuts to programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, because all that lost tax revenue is going to have to be made up somewhere else, and in all probability, it will not be coming from the untold sums stashed by the wealthy in offshore banking accounts and other tax havens.
The national debt is a real concern. However, it’s not a politically sexy topic right now, and with the stock market seeing record highs (when it’s not seeing dips related to fears about rising interest rates), it is seemingly of less interest to many of us as well. As yearly deficits continue to mount, and as questions of sustainability persist, it begs the question: how much longer can we continue to ignore that $20+ trillion elephant in the room?
In today’s political climate, detractors who lean one way or another politically are seemingly always looking for a chance to call out the other side on its hypocrisy. With this in mind, and with all due apology, let me express my frustration as a liberal with those on the right who regard the lives of the unborn as sacrosanct and yet possess no qualms about—for the sake of a few examples—dropping bombs indiscriminately on Muslim-majority countries and killing civilians, refusing refugees from war-torn countries, and expressing support for the continuance of the death penalty as a form of punishment. It is these kind of stances alongside opposition to legal abortions that makes the pro-life movement all but a misnomer. These advocates are not pro-life as much as they are anti-choice or pro-telling-women-what-they-can-and-can’t-do-with-their-own-bodies. Even if you think I’m oversimplifying matters or cherry-picking the examples I want to prove my point, you have to admit—the juxtaposition is a bit weird.
While the questionable use of military force and the plight of refugees and economic migrants across the globe are serious problems in their own right, the death penalty is my specific issue here, with the execution of Ledell Lee in Arkansas part of just the latest turn in America’s history with capital punishment. I’ll get to Lee’s case in a moment, but first let’s talk about the death penalty in the abstract, both here and abroad. According to figures from Amnesty International, well-known for its mission of ending human rights abuses, in 2016, 1,032 executions were carried out worldwide across 23 countries. This may not sound like a lot, but two quick things to consider: 1) as many would have it, one execution is too many, and 2) this number is based only on what is reported and observed. In particular, China is cited not only for its use of the death penalty—it is #1 on the list—but of the notion that the true number of executions carried out by the Chinese government is a state secret; the 1,032 tally provided by Amnesty International does not even begin to include what is presumed to be thousands of executions which occurred there. Also high on the list and accounting for a vast majority of the reported executions were countries you might expect to be among the usual suspects, so to speak: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
The United States of America, interestingly enough, finished outside the top five. Good news, right? Well, if we’re judging by the one-is-too-many standard, then no, that we are still executing people in 2016 and into 2017 is not great news. Consider also that only 23 countries across the globe carried out executions last year—next to 141 countries that are considered abolitionist by law or practice. That puts the U.S. on a short list on the world stage, and regardless of the raw numbers, to join the likes of Iran and North Korea—two countries mentioned by name as sponsors of public executions—it’s not a minority of which you necessarily want to be a part. To be sure, that executions in America in 2016 were the lowest in a quarter of a century is encouraging. Still, it’s 2017, Donald Trump is our President, Jeff Sessions is the Attorney General, conservative judge Neil Gorsuch is now a Supreme Court justice, and anything seems possible. You know, in a bad way.
Another good sign-bad sign type of deal manifests with respect to the number of states that carried out executions alongside the level of support within the American public for the death penalty at large. Per a November 2016 report authored by David Masci for Pew Research, only five states executed inmates last year: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Texas. Hmm, notice a geographical pattern? Not to be a Debbie Downer about the scarcity of executions outside the South, but this does not consider those inmates who received death sentences or remain on death row. Also, despite only five states carrying out executions in 2016, 31 states still have the death penalty on the books (voters in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma all rejected ballot provisions that would have banned capital punishment outright or would have restricted it further last year), as does the federal government. This appears to be largely in line with attitudes in the U.S. towards support for the death penalty. Though support for the death penalty is at its lowest point in some four decades, still more Americans (49%) are in favor of the practice than are opposed to it (42%), a reality explained by the disparity in views between Democrats (34%) and Republicans (72%). Another key demographic divide? Race. A majority of whites (57%) favors the death penalty, while only 29% of blacks and 36% of Hispanics favor it. Additionally, a 55% majority of men supports the death penalty, while only 45% of American women are in favor of its use.
In short, trends in use of capital punishment worldwide and support for the death penalty are a mixed bag. OK, so what do we do with this knowledge? Well, I feel that more important than the exact who-supports-what is the why behind those in favor of the death penalty and its use across governments. That is, why do 23 or more countries still insist on death as a viable punishment for certain crimes? It’s no secret that capital punishment has been around for centuries and has been used all over the world. The crimes for which the death penalty has been applied are about as numerous as the ways devised by different cultures for torturing and ending the lives of fellow human beings. Beheading, bludgeoning, boiling, burning, burying alive, crucifying, crushing, disemboweling, dismembering, drowning, falling, flaying, hanging, impaling, shooting, strangling—the list is an exhaustive and gruesome one when you get down to it. As far as contemporary use is concerned, while antiquated forms of execution such as, say, the brazen bull and the guillotine have fallen out of practice, beheading, hanging, lethal injection, and shooting are still viable ways for governments to put one out to pasture, proverbially speaking. In the United States, electrocution and gas inhalation are also among the ways inmates may choose to die, or be executed when lethal injection is unavailable.
But yes, the reasons for exacting the death penalty. Clearly, there are advocates for use of capital punishment, and the primary justifications for its implementation seem to be these:
1. In applicable cases (for certain crimes), the capital punishment is just.
According to judge, jury, and executioner—these views are not mine, as I think you’ve probably gathered. What makes this viewpoint problematic from at least an international perspective is the lack of consensus of certain classes of crimes. Crimes against humanity and murder (given an aggravating factor) have yielded the greatest sense of agreement across borders, but others may seem excessive given the nature of the crime. Depending on the jurisdiction, offenses including adultery, blasphemy, crimes against the state, drug trafficking, espionage, kidnapping, rape, sodomy, terrorism, and treason may also be punishable by death. A number of these crimes reference a moral/religious component, and as such, strike outside observers as contingent on a perhaps unfairly rigid set of beliefs, not to mention clearly eschewing the principle of separation of church and state, and otherwise simply proving too severe given the nature of the offense.
Additionally, some crimes punishable by death, despite being restricted to only one country, evoke questions of the burden of proof. In Saudi Arabia, sorcery and witchcraft may result in one’s being beheaded, despite not formally being defined as punishable offenses. As students of American history, particularly the sordid chapter of the Salem Witch Trials, may have considered, how are these charges to be assessed, at any rate? Can one study them as abstract concepts or does he or she have to knowingly use sorcery or witchcraft to violate these principles? Does circumstantial evidence suffice, or is eyewitness testimony required? These are rhetorical questions, to be sure, but keep the subject of the burden of proof in your mind for now.
2. It’s useful as a tool for police and prosecutors, esp. in plea bargaining.
The threat of the death penalty may indeed be eminently useful for law enforcement and prosecutors in relevant cases, but there are due concerns about how ethical this tactic is, or how effective it even is in reducing the amount of cases that go to trial, which would save money. Threatening defendants in murder cases with execution has been likened to holding a gun to their head, and may potentially coerce people to take a deal even when insisting on their innocence. Moreover, according to a 2006 study by Ilyana Kuziemko out of Princeton University on the effect of reinstatement of the death penalty in New York on plea bargains, while district attorneys were given greater leverage over murder defendants and these defendants were more likely to accept their original charges given the specter of capital punishment, in general, it was not more likely for defendants to accept lesser charges as a function of the law change. In other words, while defendants were more likely to revisit the terms of their arraignment, they were no more likely to accept plea deals with the death penalty on the table. Thus, for more than one reason, the death penalty as a prosecutorial tool appears to be fairly questionable.
3. It deters crime.
Let’s go back to Pew Research’s findings on attitudes toward the death penalty, as referenced above. Citing its own research circa 2015, while only about half of Americans support the death penalty, even fewer (about 40%) believe that it is a deterrent to serious crimes. Wait—if the death penalty doesn’t even accomplish this much, why bother supporting it in the first place? While you mull that over, consider that credible evidence for the notion capital punishment deters violent crime doesn’t exist. Go ahead. Google it. For every study or op-ed that claims to have evidence that the death penalty prevents certain types of crime from being committed, there is a corresponding article or report to show that this is not the case. At the very least, the idea that executions deter crime is suspect. Besides, as one might reason, if one is intent on killing another person, then concern for life—even for one’s own—is probably not of paramount concern.
4. It assures that convicted criminals do not offend again.
The concern here—to use a fancy term—is recidivism, or parolees becoming repeat offenders. Not only is it unlikely for the majority of murderers to commit the same offense, though, but with the death penalty already a mixed bag when it comes to being a tool for district attorneys to facilitate plea bargains as well as deterring crime, the only way to predictably avoid the possibility of recidivism via capital punishment is to, well, kill all inmates convicted of killing, and that can’t and won’t happen. A much more viable alternative is sentencing those convicted to life without parole.
If the case for the death penalty, based on the above four principles, seems tenuous as best, when considering the numerous reasons inherent in the case against this institution, justifying what is tantamount to state-sponsored murder becomes that much more difficult. The ACLU, like Amnesty International, is staunchly opposed to the use of capital punishment in the United States, and has outlined why the death penalty should be abolished better and more completely than I could ever hope to. The points as to why the death penalty is not effective as a means of better serving the public interest, according to the ACLU, include the following:
The death penalty is disproportionately levied against people of color and the poor, an effect exacerbated by the inability of disadvantaged defendants to afford sufficiently skilled legal representation, as well as implicit bias of the justice system toward defendants based on where they live/where the crime is committed.
According to views expressed by law enforcement professionals and research done on frequency of homicides across states, the death penalty does not deter individuals from committing violent crimes, and states that have the death penalty on the books actually tend to have higher murder rates. Factors which are better predictors of crime reduction include more police officers, programs to combat drug abuse, and better economic conditions leading to more jobs. In other words, it helps when we treat people like human beings as opposed to the sum of their bad behavior. Just a smidge.
Related to the last point, the death penalty is a waste of taxpayers’ money if it doesn’t prevent murders or help reduce their rate of occurrence. As if the cost of human life weren’t enough.
Innocent people may be killed to satisfy a death sentence, and because this isn’t Game of Thrones, that’s, ahem, a one-way street. Per the ACLU, in close to 45 years, over 140 people who were condemned to death have been exonerated as a result of new evidence, notably DNA evidence. Moreover, for every 10 people executed, one person is exonerated. In matters of life and death, you’d like a better rate of success than that, and again, these are the happy endings we’re talking about here. Particularly when prosecutors aggressively pursue a conviction and the death penalty, errors and omissions may be made, and the finality of death makes for a burdensome realization for all parties involved if the defendant’s innocence is proven at a later date.
As a liberal, I’m unquestionably biased as to what I think are the most compelling reasons for or against the death penalty, but even if considerations of right and wrong do not sway you, the notion that capital punishment is costly and ineffective should give one pause. If the morality behind the abstract concept does, in fact, move you, then the aforementioned story of Ledell Lee, with the primer on the death penalty fresh in your mind, should indeed provoke a reaction within you. Who was Ledell Lee, in the context of the ongoing debate on the death penalty? Lee was convicted in 1995 of the murder of Debra Reese after the latter was found dead in her home in Jacksonville, Arkansas, strangled and beaten with a baseball bat. Ledell was spotted by several witnesses around the area of the crime scene, but beyond this, not too much in the way of verifiable forensic evidence seems to tie him to the crime itself.
Per a report by Erika Ferrando and Michael Buckner for THV 11, a local CBS affiliate based in Little Rock, AR, Lee maintained his innocence up until his execution, and there are elements of both the case against him for Reese’s murder and other cases which are potential red flags that raise the mere possibility the defendant did not get a fair shake from the Arkansas criminal justice system. In one of his trials (Lee was also charged and convicted for the rape of two Jacksonville women following his being charged for Debra Reese’s murder, and was tried for the murder and rape of a woman named Christine Lewis), Ledell Lee had to be assigned a second lawyer after his first legal representative appeared to be noticeably intoxicated throughout the proceedings. As the execution date neared, and the ACLU became involved, they found that new post-conviction DNA testing may prove that Lee was not responsible for the murder of Debra Reese, and also brought up the potentially relevant fact that Lee suffered from an intellectual disability stemming from fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition evidently never raised or considered by his lawyers heretofore. If nothing else, the testing would be able to prove that Ledell Lee was unquestionably the murderer. After all, if the state’s case was as solid as it claimed, there should be no worry that the DNA evidence should prove anything to the contrary.
But Pulaski County Circuit Court judge Herbert Wright denied the request, insisting that even if the DNA testing on blood and hair samples could be found to not tie Lee to the murder, the state still had enough of a case to convict him. Wait—what? The Innocence Project, an organization specifically devoted to exonerating the wrongly convicted through DNA testing, at this point became involved, and appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court to stay Lee’s execution and allow the new DNA testing to occur. The appeals brought the question of the stay all the way up to the Supreme Court. And along ideological lines, the high court voted 5-4 to allow the execution of Ledell Lee to move forward, with—you guessed it—newly-minted Justice Neil Gorsuch casting the deciding vote. Quite a first vote to establish your legacy as part of the Supreme Court—paving the way for a man’s death despite a questionable lack of evidence.
What makes this all especially egregious on the part of Arkansas and governor Asa Hutchinson is that Ledell Lee’s execution is just one of eight originally planned as part of accelerated execution schedule designed by the state to make use of its supply of the drug midazolam before it expires at the end of the month. That’s right—can’t let this stuff go to waste, so we might as well cram as many executions as we can in. Strap ’em in, boys—we may have to schedule them two at a time! If this seems like a hollow reason as any to rush inmates through death row, it’s only because it is, and the state of Arkansas is apparently unfazed by the act of essentially herding in human beings like cattle to be slaughtered. Reportedly, the state may even have purchased vecuronium bromide, the second of three drugs to be used in its administration of lethal injections, under false pretenses from McKesson Medical-Surgical. It all adds up to what can be characterized, at best, as a case of bad optics for the state of Arkansas, and more probably, deliberate refusal to grant a stay for fear it may have to admit potential wrongdoing on multiple levels. Either way, Hutchinson and Co. should be ashamed of themselves—plain and simple.
I’d like to close with returning to Pew Research’s surveys into the attitudes of Americans on the death penalty and questions of its morality, fairness, and effectiveness. On the last two dimensions, the percentage difference between those who favor the use of the death penalty and those who do not hover somewhere between twenty and thirty percent, encompassing meditations on whether there is risk of innocent people being put to death, that it doesn’t deter crime, and that minorities are disproportionately sentenced to die. Those disparities are about what you’d expect. The greatest divide, meanwhile, was recorded on whether or not the death penalty is morally justified. 90% of those who support it agreed, while only 26% of those who oppose it agreed. That’s a veritable Grand Canyon between the two sides, and it makes me wonder just how long it will take for reform in jurisdictions where use of capital punishment and support for the death penalty is most entrenched. Talk about your cultural divides. Plus, while support for the use of the death penalty steadily declines, a rash of executions in Arkansas and tough talk from the likes of #45 and Jeff “Hawaii Is a Dumb Little Island in the Pacific” Sessions makes me worried that positive momentum built up toward making our criminal justice system, well, more just will not merely be stunted, but possibly even reversed.
Whatever your political ideologies or moral/religious convictions, there is ample justification for why the death penalty should be abolished in every state in the country, and efforts should be continued to change policy on an international front. I get it—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, why not a life for a life?—but this is 2017. Not only are executions inefficient and ineffective, but—and not merely to be insensitive about matters such as these—but they don’t bring murder victims back, and if one or more life sentences for the convicted individual(s) does not provide sufficient relief or solace for the families of the victims, I don’t know that putting someone else to death will do it that much better or will give them a far superior sense of justice. Maybe I’d feel a lot different if I were in these relatives’ shoes—and I solemnly hope I never have to bear their sense of loss—but at present, I find this to be an example of “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Simply put, I’m against the death penalty no matter the circumstances, and I feel the sooner we move to an execution-free America, the better we’ll be as a nation for it.
Trump supporters have really been, as the kids would say, “popping off” since their esteemed leader was elected to be President of the United States and has since been sworn in to fill the vacancy left by Barack Obama’s departure. It’s been terrible—I know. Through my anecdotal research of social media, as I have seen, one hashtag which is particularly oft-used by Trump Train riders, alongside the ubiquitous #MAGA, short for Make America Great Again—a slogan which is vaguely insulting in the insinuation America is not great right now, and which any number of us would insist is already great, albeit not without its share of problems, namely President Trump—is that of #Winning. Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump promised that if he were to be the next President, we as a country would start winning so much we would, quite frankly, get tired of winning so much. The analogy which comes to mind for me, a seemingly apt one in its distinctly American flavor, is that of going to a buffet and eating all the delicious food on the menu, only to develop a serious case of indigestion afterwards. Trump reiterated these sentiments in his Inauguration speech: “America will start winning again, winning like never before.” All we’d do is win, win, win—no matter what—and as the likes of DJ Khaled, Ludacris, Rick Ross and T-Pain would have it, everybody’s hands would go up, and what’s more, they would stay there. You know, until our arms get tired, presumably.
#Winning. As is my tendency, I scrutinize trends related to President Trump and his followers. Mostly because they’re patently frightening, and like a rubbernecker on the freeway glancing at a burning wreck, I can’t help but look, but even so. This reference to “winning” without much consideration of context gets me wondering: if these supporters believe the amorphous “we” are winning, or that maybe just they are, who are the implied losers in this scenario, and at what cost might we/they be winning? This boast reminds me at least of the famous (or infamous) claim of Charlie Sheen’s from his 20/20 interview with Andrea Canning in 2011 that he was winning. Sorry, I mean, WINNING! His evidence of his winner status was in his accounts of being rich enough to buy stupid shit and to do stupid shit and get away with it, dating porn stars, and doing drugs, among other things. When it was revealed in 2015 and later confirmed by Sheen himself that he is HIV-positive, it seemed as something of a cruel and ironic twist of fate for the man who just a few years earlier had to make it painfully clear that he was—duh!—winning, and as still others might imagine, this news might just be proof karma is real. (Side note: I’m not sure how Charlie Sheen might have contracted HIV, but I submit maybe his reference to possessing “tiger blood” was more telling than we might otherwise have imagined. Maybe he got it from a literal blood transfusion that would have seen actual tiger blood enter his veins. These are the things about which I think.)
Enough about Charlie Sheen, though. Getting back to the topic of another self-destructive rich white asshole and his fans, if only they are truly #Winning, who isn’t? The key to their logic, twisted as it might appear, is in their use of a pejorative term which seems to have taken on a new and increased significance in the past year or so: that of “snowflake.” You may have even heard it directed at you if you subscribe to a more liberal political orientation and world view—certainly, it gets thrown around a lot. To what does it refer, though? Well, as much as the term is used in a political context, its exact definition is somewhat elusive. Rebecca Nicholson, writing for The Guardian, explores the use of the term and its origins as “the defining insult of 2016.” The term, despite its recent explosion, is not new, and as Nicholson notes, may be, in part, related to a line uttered by the character Tyler Durden in Fight Club: “You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” A sobering sentiment, no? What may be yet more sobering is the very idea that snowflakes, themselves, are not necessarily unique, as researchers have been able to construct identical patterns within snowflakes within controlled environments. I know—mind blown, right?
We could do our own separate analysis of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and the accompanying film, or the crystalline structure of precipitation, but let’s not get lost in the proverbial weeds. Rebecca Nicholson, in citing countless notable iterations of the term “snowflake,” outlines how its early use was characterized by perceived generational differences in attitudes, specifically coming from those espousing “traditional” values as a criticism of younger generations. Within this purview, “snowflake” as an insult is a rejection of the apparent inclination within American society and other developed countries toward hypersensitivity. The tone is one of condescension, depicting millennials/young adults as easily offended, entitled, narcissistic, thin-skinned crybabies who lack resiliency, are enemies of free speech, and constantly need attention. Accordingly, when it comes to discussions of things like “safe spaces” on college and university campuses, the self-identifying anti-snowflake segment of the population eschews such notions, much as conservatives and members of the alt-right online and on social media deride those who rail against discrimination and defend political correctness as “social justice warriors,” another pejorative designation You can probably hear or see the comments in your mind along these lines. Get over it. Suck it up. Especially now that Donald Trump is President of the United States, here’s one that might sound familiar: “Don’t worry, snowflakes—the adults are in charge now.” Or: “There’s a new sheriff in town, kids!” As if Barack Obama somehow wasn’t or isn’t an adult or let lawlessness reign supreme.
Easily offended. Entitled. Narcissistic. Thin-skinned. Crybaby. Enemy of free speech. Constantly needs attention. Wait a minute—these traits sound familiar. If the revelation that Charlie Sheen is HIV-positive was ironic given that he trumpeted his exploits with adult entertainers and saw virtue in living with reckless abandon, it is seemingly as ironic, if not more so, that those pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps types among us who decry “snowflakes” as weak-willed thumb-suckers have gravitated toward a figure in Donald Trump who not only seems to embody these qualities, but is evidently an exemplar of these tendencies in their worst forms. Recently, ABC News anchor David Muir interviewed President Trump, the transcript of which is one of the most terrifying interviews I have ever read from a world leader in light of what it stands to mean for America—and this is no hyperbole. Feel free to read it for yourself, but I’ll try to spare you with a summary of the, ahem, finer points:
President Trump appreciates the magnitude of the job—tremendously bigly
The first question Muir asked Pres. Trump was, “Has the magnitude of this job hit you yet?” This was his response:
It has periodically hit me. And it is a tremendous magnitude. And where you really see it when you’re talking to the generals about problems in the world. And we do have problems in the world. Big problems. Business also hits because of the—the size of it. The size. I was with Ford yesterday, and with General Motors yesterday. The top representatives, great people. And they’re gonna do some tremendous work in the United States. They’re gonna build back plants in the United States. But when you see the size, even as a businessman, the size of the investment that these big companies are gonna make, it hits you even in that regard. But we’re gonna bring jobs back to America, like I promised on the campaign trail.
The size, indeed. Big, great, tremendous. Everything is of a superlative magnitude in Trump’s America. Including the problems. Oh, do we have problems, Mr. Trump? Oh, really? Gee, thanks! We had no idea, because we’re all a bunch of f**king morons. This interview is starting off on a great note.
Where there’s a wall, there’s a way
Following the illuminating revelation that problems face the nation, David Muir got down to the more serious questions. His first real topic of discussion was that of the wall at the border with Mexico, construction of which has been authorized by the President by way of executive order. Muir asked Trump, point blank, if American taxpayers were going to be funding construction of the wall, and Trump replied by saying they would, but Mexico’s totally going to pay us back. This is in spite of the notion Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has vowed Mexico will not pay for construction of the wall, a point Muir pressed him on. And Pres. Trump was all, like, yeah, but he has to make a show of it first. Of course they’re gonna reimburse us. Muir then labored on the notion of reimbursement further, commenting that the sense he (Trump) gave voters was that Mexico would be covering the construction costs from the onset. And President Trump was all, like, I never said they’d be paying from the start. But they will pay us back, and besides, I want to start building the wall. Muir then asked for specifics on when construction would begin, and Trump indicated it would start in months, as soon as physically possible, in fact. We’re drawing up the plans right now. Right freaking now.
In speaking about the wall and the payment plan, if you will, Pres. Trump also referenced needing to re-work NAFTA, because we’re “getting clobbered” on trade, and that we have a $60 billion trade deficit with Mexico. In the past, Trump has highlighted this deficit as a means of our neighbor to the south covering the costs of the wall’s construction, and it is evident from his insistence on this point that he doesn’t really understand how it works, which is why I’m making an aside here. President Trump treats the trade deficit as proof that Mexico is getting over on us, but it’s not as if the existence of the deficit means that Mexico has all this cash lying around, just waiting to be allocated for a project like the wall. In a piece which appeared on CNN back in October, Patrick Gillespie addressed the myths about trade that Trump himself helped feed. For one, Gillespie advances the idea that a trade deficit may be a good thing, for when a country exports to the U.S., for example, they also tend to invest more here, which helps create jobs, including in the field of manufacturing. In addition, Mexico is a major trade partner for the United States, with millions of jobs and many American businesses depending on business with Mexico. This bluster about the wall, therefore, risks damaging a critical trade relationship for our country, not to mention it likely puts average Americans on the hook for building and maintaining a structure that is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars and has been consistently criticized as something that would ultimately prove ineffective, if not counterproductive to its larger aims. Other than that, though, it’s a great idea. Tremendous, in fact.
Yes, the “dreamers” should be worried
Keeping with the subject of illegal immigration, David Muir next moved the conversation to so-called “dreamers,” or children who were brought to this country by their parents, also undocumented immigrants. Could President Trump assure them they would be allowed to stay? To which Trump replied, they shouldn’t be worried, because we’re going to have a strong border and because he has a “big heart.” Seriously, though—he said that shit. Muir pressed him on this issue, asking again more succinctly if they would be allowed to stay. Pres. Trump dodged, though, saying he’d let us know within the next four weeks, but that he and his administration are looking at the whole immigration situation, once more emphasizing how big his heart is, and then seguing into a diatribe about getting out those “criminals”—those “really bad people” who come here illegally and commit crimes—who are here. So, um, sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants: be afraid. Be very afraid.
So many “illegals,” so much fraud—so little evidence
Almost as liberally as the term “snowflake” is thrown around in mockery of liberals, allegations of fraud have been hurled about rather indiscriminately these days, and Donald Trump is a prime suspect in this regard. David Muir asked Trump directly about perhaps his most reckless claim to date: that some 3 to 5 million illegal votes were cast in Hillary Clinton’s favor, explaining why he lost the popular vote. As Muir noted, it would be the biggest fraud in American electoral history, so where, pray tell, was the evidence? Pres. Trump first deflected by saying that was supposed to be a confidential meeting, but Muir interjected by saying he had already Tweeted with these allegations. It was at this point, though, that the interview began to go off the rails a bit. Mostly because Trump kept interrupting David Muir. I would’ve gone to California and New York to campaign if I were trying to win the popular vote. By the way, if it weren’t for all that fraud, I would’ve won the popular vote. Handily. But there were dead people who voted. Dead people! Oh, yeah! And people registered in multiple states. So we’re going to do an investigation. You bet your ass we will.
When he could actually get a word in edgewise, Muir fired back by saying these claims have been debunked. Donald Trump was all, like, says who? I got a guy at the Pew Center who wrote a report. And Muir was all, like, no, he didn’t—I just talked to him last night. And Trump was all, like, then why did he write the report? This report, by the way, was published way back in 2012, and David Becker, the man referenced by Muir and Trump in their back-and-forth and director of the research, said Pew found instances of inaccurate voter registrations, including people registered in multiple states and dead voters still on voter rolls, but that these were not evidence of fraud. Though Becker did note these inaccuracies could be seen as an attempt at fraud—especially by someone who lost the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes and has a serious axe to grind. What’s more, Trump said Becker was “groveling” when confronted with the idea that his organization’s research proved evidence of fraud. This is the same word, for the sake of another by the way, that Pres. Trump used to characterize Serge Kovaleski, the disabled reporter he mocked—even though he said he didn’t—and under similar circumstances, too. Recall when Trump made the blatantly false claim that thousands of Muslims were cheering in the streets of Jersey City on 9/11 after the Towers fell. Once again, Donald Trump is misremembering, misleading, and out-and-out lying.
David Muir wasn’t having it, though, advancing the notion that Paul Ryan and Lindsey Graham have also commented on the lack of evidence of widespread fraud, and trying to move the conversation to “something bigger.” To which President Trump said—and I am not making this up—”There’s nothing bigger.” Really? Really? People are about to lose their health insurance and pay for a wall they don’t want and refugees from seven countries are barred from entering the United States—and we’re here talking about whether or not a few dead people or “illegals” (nice way to make Hispanics feel particularly welcome, while we’re at it) voted in the election. It was at this point when Muir posed the question: “Do you think that your words matter more now?” Pres. Trump said yes, of course. To which Muir followed up by asking: “Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence? You don’t think it undermines your credibility if there’s no evidence?”
And Trump? He said no, and then went off on a crazy tangent. All of these illegal votes were for Hillary Clinton. None were for me. I had one of the greatest victories in American history. Barack Obama didn’t do anything about this fraud—and he laughed about it! He laughed about it! We can’t downplay this! We have to investigate this! And perhaps the most salient point of all Muir barely managed to eke out over all Trump’s overtalking: “It does strike me that we’re re-litigating the presidential campaign and the election.” In other words: “You won, bruh! Give it a rest!” President Trump would not be assuaged on this point, though. Because he can’t be, and will concoct any evidence to try to prove his case, evidence his apologists will believe and defend. This man is our President, he muttered to himself, sighing deeply.
“My crowd was bigger than yours!”
David Muir, likely with great unspoken relish, pivoted to the kerfuffle about the size of Mr. Trump’s Inauguration Ceremony crowd size relative to that of Barack Obama’s attendance. As a reminder, the claims of Donald Trump, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, and that of the Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, are objectively false. Obama’s crowds easily surpassed those of the current President. Easily. With this in mind, Muir asked Pres. Trump when things like the crowd size at the inauguration, the size of his rallies during the campaign season, and being on the cover of TIME Magazine start to matter less, keeping with the theme of, “You won, bruh! Give it a rest!” And Donald Trump was all, like, David, bruh, don’t even. That speech was a home run. They gave me a standing ovation. I mean, it was Peyton Manning winning the Super Bowl good. And your little network tried to throw shade at me for it. I didn’t even want to talk about this whole crowd size business, but you made me, so there. I had to drop some truth bombs. Muir responded, though, by questioning the merits, whether or not Trump and his administration are right about the crowd sizes—which they’re not, let’s stress—of having Sean Spicer come out in his first press conference, talk about this junk, and not take any questions. Aren’t there more important issues facing the nation? And President Trump was all, like, how dare you and your network demean me and my crowd! No wonder you only have a 17% approval rating! (Side note: Trump’s approval rating, as of this writing, is at a scant 42%, and the 45% approval rating he experienced as of the Sunday following Inauguration is the lowest rate in Gallup’s polling history for an incoming President. Ever.)
So, in summary, guess there isn’t anything more important than Donald Trump and his manhood. Oh, well. Sorry, America.
How do you solve a problem like Chi-raq?
Easy answer: you call in the feds. David Muir tried to pin President Trump down on this comment he made regarding the murder rate in Chicago and how to fix it, the so-called “carnage” in America’s third-largest city. This is, however, and as we know, like trying to pin down a jellyfish in a kiddie pool full of baby oil. Trump suggested that maybe we have stop being so politically correct. When Muir pressed Pres. Trump on this issue, he demurred, saying that he wanted Chicago to fix the problem, and when Muir pressed him further, Trump resorted to his platitude of needing to get smarter and tougher—or else. And when Muir asked him what “or else” means, effectively pressing him on whether or not he would send in the feds for the fourth time, he simply replied, “I want them to straighten out the problem. It’s a big problem.” So, um, yeah, Chicago, better fix that shit before martial law is declared. I’m not saying—just saying.
It’s all fun and games until someone gets waterboarded
Is this interview still not scary enough for you? Wait—it gets better. And by “better,” I mean much worse. David Muir shifted to the contents of a report that stated Donald Trump was poised to lift the ban on “black sites,” locations which are not formally acknowledged by the U.S. government, but where torture and indefinite periods of detention of terrorism suspects were known to occur during President George W. Bush’s tenure. Trump, ever the coy one, said, “You’re gonna see in about two hours.” (Spoiler alert: he totally f**king did.) Muir then responded by asking, more or less, um, are you OK with torture? And Trump was all, like, sure I am! I mean, it gets results! Why shouldn’t I like it? I mean, for Christ’s sake, David, they’re chopping off our heads! Muir was all, like, even waterboarding? Trump was all, like, especially waterboarding. Just in case you thinking I’m making this up, here is an actual quote from the man:
Do I feel it works? Absolutely, I feel it works. Have I spoken to people at the top levels and people that have seen it work? I haven’t seen it work. But I think it works. Have I spoken to people that feel strongly about it? Absolutely.
Let this sink in for a moment. I feel it works. I think it works. Um, shouldn’t you know if it works, Mr. President? I could say I feel like veggie pizza is healthy, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. And on the subject of waterboarding, this is way more serious than pizza, although obviously nowhere as delicious. A 2014 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report found that waterboarding was not a credible means of saving American lives nor was it believed to be superior to other “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And where did the Committee gets its information? Oh, you know, only from the CI-f**king-A—that’s who. Waterboarding, in case you were unaware, involves putting a cloth or plastic wrap over a person’s face and pouring water over his or her mouth, as if to simulate the feeling of drowning. That’s right—you’re made to feel as if you are dying. This is torture. We cannot and should not bring waterboarding back as an interrogation technique. No, no, no, no, no.
The Muslims—they hatin’ on us
To the subject of refugees we go—and mind you, this was before the so-called “Muslim ban” took effect—David Muir asked Pres. Trump about his intended executive action to suspend immigration to the United States, as we now know from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. You know, the ones where he doesn’t have business interests, and from which nationals hadn’t killed an American on U.S. soil during the period from 1975 to 2015. Those ones. Muir was all, like, come on, dude, this is a Muslim ban, isn’t it? And Trump, he was all, like, no, it isn’t! It’s countries with tremendous levels of terror! Listen, I want America to be safe, OK? Barack and Hillary were letting all kinds of people into this country. Germany is a shit-show. We have enough problems here in the United States. We don’t need a bunch of people here trying to kill us. Muir then asked President Trump why certain countries were not on the list, namely Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, just for kicks. It’s because he has business interests there. I know it. You know it. And Trump—surprise!—didn’t answer. He talked about something called “extreme vetting,” despite the notion the vetting that’s currently in place is pretty damn extreme. Muir rightly asked in follow-up whether or not he was concerned this would just foment anger within the worldwide Muslim community. And the President was all, like, more anger? I don’t think that’s possible, because they’re pretty damn angry already. The world is a mess, David. What’s a little more anger?
David Muir then got up very slowly, went to the wall of the room where a samurai sword was strategically placed, and plunged it into his stomach. OK—Muir didn’t do that, but I’d like to imagine he was thinking about it, if for no other reason than to more quickly put an end to the interview. Instead, it continued. The next topic was Iraq, and the specific remark by Pres. Trump that, “We should’ve kept the oil, but OK, maybe we’ll have another chance.” Like, what the f**k was that supposed to mean? Trump, apparently, was totally serious on this point. Yeah, David, we should’ve kept the oil. It would’ve meant less money for ISIS. And Muir replied by suggesting that critics would say this would be sorta kinda a violation of international law. And Trump was all, like, who the f**k said that? Idiots. If we take the oil, that means more money for us. For schools. For infrastructure. How is that a bad thing? And Muir, likely trying to prevent his eye from twitching uncontrollably, moved to address the particular idea that “maybe we’ll have another chance.” That is, you might just start shit and risk American troops for that purpose? And Trump, likely with a smirk on his face, said this—for real—”We’ll see what happens.”
What an asshole.
I could tell you what David Muir and President Donald Trump said about the Affordable Care Act, but it would be a waste of time
This is the end of the interview, and sorry to wrap things up so unceremoniously, but here’s the gist: Trump and the GOP hate “ObamaCare,” and say they will replace it with something better, but they have no g-d clue about a superior successor to President Obama’s hallmark legislation. What we need is single-payer or universal health care. Just listen to Bernie Sanders—he’ll tell you. Don’t listen to Pres. Trump. For, ahem, the sake of your health.
The start of Donald Trump’s tenure as President of the United States has been nothing short of hellacious. Renewed talk of building a wall at the Mexican border and mass deportations. Effecting a Muslim ban—on Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less. Allowing Steve Bannon to have as much power as he does, a trend which only seems to be on the incline. Bringing us back full circle, though, to Trump’s supporters, this amounts to little more than “sore loser” talk. We won. You lost. Democracy in action. Get over it. What is particularly striking about this attitude, aside from the notion it is really not in the spirit of sportsmanship or togetherness, is that it comes with the supposition on the part of those supporters taunting young adults and liberals/progressives as “snowflakes” that they are superior because “they” never protested when Obama was sworn in. How quickly or easily they forget, though—or just plain deny. As this video from the online publication Mic explains, protests at President Obama’s Inauguration featured some particularly hateful rhetoric, including references to Obama not being born in this country—the “birther” controversy Trump himself helped perpetuate—images evocative of lynching, and allusions to Obama being a secret Muslim. This same video notes Trump also asked his Twitter followers back in 2012 to “march on Washington” after Barack Obama’s re-election in protest of this “travesty.” It’s only fair, then, that we march in protest of President Trump, right?
Either way, the equivalency between the protests then and now, despite some acts of vandalism and violence this time around from a few bad actors, is a false one. Protests of Donald Trump as President are not a rejection of the political process, but of a man who has made exclusion, hate, prejudice and xenophobia his calling cards. By this token, marches like the Women’s March on Washington earlier this month and planned marches in the coming weeks and months are about solidarity, not about trying to divide a cultural wedge into the country’s center. Even at their worst, however, these demonstrations and endless social media chatter in resistance of Trump’s policies have nothing on the reactionary, thin-skinned ways of the Bully-in-Chief himself. As Rebecca Nicholson details in her above-referenced column, the left has taken to trying to reclaim the term “snowflake” by, in part, turning it around on Trump and his endless griping, and if this muddles the meaning of this phrase or neutralizes its effect, so be it. Otherwise, they might do well to claim it as a badge of honor. Jim Dale, senior meteorologist at British Weather Services, is quoted in Nicholson’s piece as understanding why the term “snowflake” is used, but that there is a hidden power within this designation:
On their own, snowflakes are lightweight. Whichever way the wind blows, they will just be taken with it. Collectively, though, it’s a different story. A lot of snowflakes together can make for a blizzard, or they can make for a very big dump of snow. In which case, people will start to look up.
I, for one, hope this is the case. So, for all of you out there #Winning because President Trump is “making America great again,” know that for all your jeering of people like me who would be called “snowflakes,” we stand to become more organized and prepared to fight for our preferred version of America than you might think or might otherwise have realized had your boy not won the election. And enjoy this feeling of exuberance while it lasts, but don’t look up now—we snowflakes might be ready to make a very big dump on you.
We had the 2016 presidential election, which sucked. We talked about why the 2016 election sucked. (Short answer: because the candidates both sucked and half the country made a stupid choice.) We’ve discussed just how much it’s going to suck should what we think what is going to happen actually comes to fruition. Therefore, in contemplating just how profound the suckitude, if you will, will prove, we have put the election behind us and are ready to move on and steel ourselves for the politics of the years to come. Right?
Not so fast. By now, most of us get the gist of what went down but a few weeks ago both in terms of the Electoral College and the popular vote. Concerning the former, which is what counts given our current system, Donald Trump carried Election Night. His 306 electoral votes, ahem, trump Hillary Clinton’s 232, an advantage secured by winning 30 states to his rival’s 20. Conversely, with respect to the latter, Clinton had the better showing; as of this writing, over 125 million votes have been counted, and her tally of 64.8 million bests Trump’s figure of 62.5 million, more than 2 million more. Percentage-wise, it’s still close—Hillary captured about 48.0% of the vote to Trump’s 46.3%—but no matter how you slice it, the woman of 1,000 pantsuits won the popular vote. You can’t take away the historic nature of her nomination as the Democratic Party nominee for President of these United States, and you can’t act as if, to borrow a Trump-ism, Hillary Clinton got “schlonged” in the general election.
These realities of the election seem pretty much ironclad. So what’s the lingering preoccupation with the results, especially on the part of people who supported and/or voted for Hillary? Aren’t they just kidding themselves, living in a state of denial? While on some level this may be the case, to be fair, some of the outcomes of individual states were close contests. Like, really close. In Michigan, for example, Donald Trump captured 16 electoral votes on the strength of a margin of victory of less than 10,000 votes, a difference of only about two-tenths of a percent. In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, too, a divide of only about 1% separates who won and who lost, with the victor (Trump) earning 10 or more electoral votes despite the slim advantage. Noting these narrow wins, which would appear to fall within some sort of margin of error, it wouldn’t be outrageous to think that error alone could have swayed the results in one candidate’s favor. Or, perhaps something more nefarious.
If only there were some way to verify whether or not the purported vote totals in key states are accurate, or at least more accurate than previously determined. Oh, wait—there is. It’s called a recount. As in counting again. When the tallies are this close between candidates, it’s not only advisable to effect a re-running of the ballots through the machine, but one might argue it should be necessary. If the results in swing states and other close contests are enough to potentially sway the election, shouldn’t it be incumbent upon the powers-that-be in these jurisdictions to revisit the vote counts for the peace of mind of the electorate as well as their own sense of self-respect for wanting to do their jobs correctly? Suppose a county clerk in one of these states went rogue and inserted the ballots of 20,000 dead people and fictional characters for his or her candidate of choice. If Darth Vader and Kylo Ren voted for Donald Trump in Lancaster County, PA (they totally would vote Trump if given the choice, by the way—you know they would), I, as a voter from this area, would want to know as much. From what we know of history, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that local voting officials might try to game the results coming out of their district.
This last scenario speaks to more than just the possibility of error in the processing of people’s ballots, but in line with the idea of something more “nefarious” happening, electoral fraud occurring within the 2016 election. Now, with all due respect, even during the primary season, reports of fraud and voter disenfranchisement were rampant on the Internet and social media. Anecdotally, I observed a number of Bernie Sanders supporters/political conspiracy theorists indiscriminately hurling around accusations that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and its friends in high places were rigging the electoral process in her favor. With yet more due respect, as Wikileaks has helped convey, the Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and members of the news media were more than a little chummy with one another, and especially on the part of the DNC, deliberately operated and spoke against the Sanders campaign. Within the specific sphere of influence of primary voting, however, a lot of these reports are, if not unfounded, then otherwise unproven. As much as I might be loath to admit it, Hillary Clinton fairly easily outpaced Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primaries, and even if independent voters were allowed to cast ballots for one of the two in these party primaries (many states did not permit this), Clinton likely still would’ve come out ahead. Of course, we’ll never know for sure what would’ve happened had Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Co. not acted so conspiratorially and/or undeclared voters had been given an authentic voice, but let’s not act as if fraud completely got her the nomination.
With all this in mind, though, let’s also not completely negate the possibility that something underhanded occurred with respect to voting in one or more key regions, and furthermore, that those instrumental in influencing American votes were based outside the United States. While Hillary Clinton and her campaign were awfully quick to throw out the specter of Russia as a deleterious force in our electoral process (that is, while the Russians were likely behind hacks of the Democratic National Committee which led to the Wikileaks DNC E-mail dump, they didn’t coerce the officials represented in those messages to say the disagreeable shit they did), at the same, we shouldn’t consider it impossible that skilled Russian operatives could hack the software used in our voting machines. J. Alex Halderman, professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, recently wrote a piece about this very hypothetical scenario.
As Halderman reasons, Russia has already been asserted by multiple government agencies to be behind hacks of the DNC and the E-mail of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, as well as voter registration systems in Arizona and Illinois, not to mention the vote-counting infrastructure in Ukraine during its 2014 presidential election, almost causing the wrong winner to be announced completely. What’s more, as Prof. Halderman cites, we’ve been able to hack our own machines. Princeton professor Andrew Appel was able to do it with the help of graduate students—Halderman himself being one of them. J. Alex Halderman is reasonably certain he and his own grad students at Michigan could pull off the same caper, and with numerous states reading ballots using machines with severely-outmoded software, lacking the resources or perhaps the urgency to update what they have, the risk is all the more widespread. The solution, as Halderman and election security experts reason, seems counter-intuitively old-fashioned, but nonetheless may yet prove more effective in deterring fraud: checking the paper trail. To quote the Professor:
I know I may sound like a Luddite for saying so, but most election security experts are with me on this: paper ballots are the best available technology for casting votes. We use two main kinds of paper systems in different parts of the U.S. Either voters fill out a ballot paper that gets scanned into a computer for counting (optical scan voting), or they vote on a computer that counts the vote and prints a record on a piece of paper (called a voter-verifiable paper audit trail). Either way, the paper creates a record of the vote that can’t be later modified by any bugs, misconfiguration, or malicious software that might have infected the machines.
After the election, human beings can examine the paper to make sure the results from the voting machines accurately determined who won. Just as you want the brakes in your car to keep working even if the car’s computer goes haywire, accurate vote counts must remain available even if the machines are malfunctioning or attacked. In both cases, common sense tells us we need some kind of physical backup system. I and other election security experts have been advocating for paper ballots for years, and today, about 70% of American voters live in jurisdictions that keep a paper record of every vote.
To interpret what J. Alex Halderman is saying for my own purposes, maybe voting and the necessity of paper ballots is something with which we shouldn’t f**k around. Additionally, maybe—just maybe—we should check these records in the event of an inquiry, because these matters of choosing a president are kind of a big deal.
So, about this whole idea of a recount now. We know where we might opt for to revisit the tallies for each candidate. We know why it might be prudent to go ahead with such an electoral review. We even know who might be hacking our dadgum machines. How do we make a recount reality? Just ask Jill Stein. Wait, the Green Party presidential candidate? One and the same, reader, one and the same. As someone who voted for Stein in the general election knowing full well she wouldn’t win, it’s vaguely amusing to see opinions of her change now that she has been instrumental in fundraising and otherwise spearheading a campaign for a recount in the pivotal states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. For some voters, opinions aren’t really changing, but rather are being formed in the first place, as there’s a good chance they had no idea Jill Stein was the Green Party representative, or a representative for any party, for that matter. For the Democratic Party voters who dismissed Stein as a lightweight candidate and annoyance as a potential spoiler for Hillary Clinton’s hopes to become the United States’ first female President, many are likely regarding her with a newfound sense of appreciation, and at any rate, probably figure it’s the least she could do after taking votes from their candidate.
But about her supporters and those within the Green Party ranks? Daniel Marans, writing for Huffington Post, helps to map out the tangled web of approval and disapproval that has met Jill Stein in her quest for a three-state recount, and concerning the Green Party, Stein’s choice to challenge results in these states and primarily for the benefit of Democrats, at that, has these Green Partiers, ahem, seeing red. So, what’s got Jill’s critics up in arms? Let’s review the charges, if you will:
1. The recount doesn’t help Green Party in its efforts to build and grow.
Right, although this is the beginning of December, the election just happened, and the window to file a recount is tighter than Chris Christie in skinny jeans. One jurisdiction Marans cites in the article that Green Party brass would rather Jill Stein focus on is Texas, where a Green Party candidate almost captured the 5% of the vote to keep the party on the ballot for the 2018 midterm elections in the state. On one hand, I am sympathetic to the cause of Andrea Merida Cuellar, party co-chair, and others who feel this is an important battle to be fought for the sake of the Green Party’s initiatives and values. On the other hand, however, Stein, as the face of the party, is generating publicity for their movement, even if she happens to be “serving the interests” of Democrats in doing so. In the big picture, Stein may be doing more good for third parties than her supporters otherwise might think.
2. There are more pressing issues facing election integrity in this country.
From a purist’s standpoint, yes, there are serious problems facing the electoral process in the United States. As Kevin Zeese, adviser to Jill Stein’s campaign, notes, issues with voter registration and the prevention of people voting are pressing concerns, the kind that tends to get glossed over in the winner-takes-all format of the Electoral College. Still, Zeese and other like-minded critics behave as if these concerns are the likes of which can be quickly resolved, or that by raising support for a recount, these other pursuits will be done irreparable damage. America’s electoral system is indeed riddled with flaws, but they will not be solved overnight, and it is not as if calls for a recount do not expose additional liabilities of individual state systems.
3. If the recount is not done manually, inherent inadequacies of our electoral system will be not exposed.
It seems kind of silly that a “recount” of the balloting in key states would involve anything other than a by-hand review of the tallies for each candidate, but yet that is what is being contemplated in Wisconsin, for one, where a judge ruled that Jill Stein’s campaign could not compel the state’s 72 counties to actually count their ballots, though Daniel Marans’ Huffington Post piece notes that a majority voluntarily obliged anyhow. Otherwise, though, what would suffice as a recount would be merely re-running the votes through the machines and seeing if anything else comes out. Presumably, this could turn a spotlight on any attempts at computer fraud or external hacking, but it still seems just as likely that this would provide little solace or new information. As far as Stein is concerned, though, as with votes for the Green Party, she’ll probably take what she can get.
4. Depending on the level of Democratic Party involvement in the recount, the integrity of the results might be doubtful.
Merely petitioning for a recount, an act which might benefit Democrats, has raised suspicion among Green Party activists. Throw in the fact that Jill Stein’s representation for the sake of the recount in Michigan, Mark Brewer, was once chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, and you can understand from the appearance of things why independents and party supporters might be upset. Especially in the minds of progressives, neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party are particularly trustworthy institutions right now. That said, I think a good part of the antipathy to Stein’s mission for multiple recounts is that she apparently decided to crowd-fund and solicit the recount petitions in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin of her own volition—that is, without consulting Green Party leadership. Jill Stein is a bit of a political neophyte still, and it’s very possible she didn’t think she had to let anyone know first. From the gist of Marans’ report, though, Green Party die-hards aren’t real happy with her decision, and this could be the beginning of the end for Stein as the face of the party. It’s never easy to serve in such a role, is it?
At this writing, Wisconsin’s recount is ongoing, though Trump supporters have filed a lawsuit and request for a temporary restraining order in federal court in hopes of bringing it to a stop. Donald Trump’s camp and the Pennsylvania Republican Party have also asked a court to dismiss a recount request in Pennsylvania, where Trump’s lead has shrunk from 1% to 0.8% as some of the final votes in some counties have come in. And in Michigan, a request to prevent a recount was issued by—guess who—Donald Trump supporters, but with the state elections board vote ending in a deadlock, the case will proceed later next week unless a forthcoming court order supersedes this result. The common theme with these individual state recounts, viewed through the lens of opposition to them, obviously is that the Trump campaign and his followers really, really don’t want any recounts to occur. The reason behind this is likewise painfully clear: President-Elect Trump has everything to lose from a challenge to the results of the votes already tabulated, having secured enough electoral votes to garner victory. Bested by more than 2 million votes in the popular vote, and with potentially less than a percentage point separating the winner and loser in valuable swing states, there is sufficient reason for concern on his point. Anytime a candidate fails to win a convincing majority, I feel there should be at least some concern that a recount could produce a materially different outcome.
Jill Stein, for her part, has averred that she is asking for a recount with the best intentions. That is, she only wishes to confirm the integrity of the results—not anticipating a meaningful change in the counts already observed—and is not soliciting a review of the tallied ballots to curry favor with the Democratic Party or anything of that nature. Indeed, even with her penchant for conspiracy-theory-type disbelief of what the mainstream media tells us, she is not the one who has cast the most doubt on the veracity of the American electoral process this cycle. No, in his usual baffling, counterproductive style, it is Donald Trump himself who has cast aspersions on the fidelity of the counts thus recorded. As noted, Trump has everything to lose from challenges to the totals in key states, having captured the win with narrow margins in a few of them.
But, lo, it his losing the popular vote which has truly set him off. The self-centered egotist that he is, Trump has built his legacy on the iconography of being a “winner”—of course, with a healthy heaping of helping from his father, as well as his evident ability to lie, cheat and steal his way to greater fortune—such that winning the presidency is not good enough for him, apparently. Indeed, losing the popular vote has stuck in Mr. Trump’s craw, to the extent he has challenged the results in his own grouping of states, and most reprehensibly, says he would have won if not for the “millions of people who voted illegally.” He’s not saying it directly, but you know he’s saying it in a way for his faithful to interpret in such a way: he’s accusing undocumented immigrants of voting for Hillary Clinton. Non-citizens, as we know, are unable to vote in presidential elections, and to wit, election officials and reporting news media outlets have found no evidence that such widespread fraud occurred in the 2016 election. What’s more, to have millions of people voting illegally for the same candidate suggests collusion on the part of Democrats. It’s believable enough for the crackpots among us, but reckless as f**k otherwise. It’s not like this is the first time we’ve heard this charge from the man, either. Even before Election Day, Donald Trump preemptively insinuated the election would be proven as “rigged” if he lost the state of Pennsylvania. He still might, mind you, but why even invite this allegation for a specific state? To your non-supporters, it only makes you seem more suspicious. What can you say, though? Dude’s worse than a sore loser—he’s a sore winner.
Whatever you call him, insinuations of this sort are a dick move on Trump’s part, as the American people’s flagging confidence in politicians and voting doesn’t need any more grease to help it along a downward path. According to this article by Daniel S. Levine on Heavy.com, an estimated 57.9% of eligible voters voted in the 2016 presidential election. That’s better than half, but still low by international standards. Moreover, according to survey information, even fewer have deep and abiding confidence in the electoral process as a whole. In a Pew Research report authored by researchers Betsy Cooper, Daniel Cox, Rachel Lienesch, and Robert P. Jones and published less than a month before Election Day, 43% of the individuals surveyed said they had great confidence that their vote would be counted accurately, and a significant gap was found between the confidence of intended Clinton voters and Trump supporters—with those riding the Trump Train pulling down the overall average. Donald Trump isn’t just casting a single line in the hopes of eroding public confidence in the electoral process—he’s chumming the water. And a significant portion of Americans, like sharks smelling blood, are eating it up. This would be fine if it were Shark Week, but it’s not, and this country doesn’t need help in fomenting its innermost fears. I mean, if Trump said snakes and spiders were attacking Americans on the regular and thus presented a present danger to the United States, I tend to believe too many of us would have clubs and tissues on hand, ready to bludgeon and squish these creatures in a spirit of bloodlust and wanton destruction. As far as many of us are concerned, it’s a scary time, politically speaking, in this country.
Now that I’ve mentioned sharks and snakes and spiders, you may be dredging up all sorts of personal nightmares, so let’s bring this discussion back to its central thrust. Should we have a recount in crucial swing states? Sure, it couldn’t hurt, and if we are really concerned about pervasive fraud, we should encourage such examinations of the accuracy of the vote, right, Mr. Trump? What does Jill Stein’s involvement in recount efforts mean for the future of the Green Party? I don’t know, but all the pissing and moaning about potentially helping the Democratic Party’s cause seems rather short-sighted. We get it—major parties are not to be trusted—but occasionally, the interests of both parties do coincide, especially when Donald Trump is up to no good. What do we make of Trump’s ranting and raving about millions of people voting illegally? Quite frankly, very little, and once again, it’s upsetting the mainstream media is not more vocal in denouncing his false claims. For an institution like the news media, you would think they would understand the importance of maintaining and bolstering public confidence when they have faced their own difficulties in attracting and keeping customers, but as usual, the lure of short-term ratings numbers are evidently too much to ignore. Finally, where does all this leave us? As with the future of the Green Party, one can’t tell for sure, but one thing is certain: though a winner has been called, the 2016 presidential election is far from over. Unfortunately.
A few days ago, NBC News aired a Commander-in-Chief Forum with presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump prominently featured, and to say it was not well received would be a bit of an understatement. To be fair, NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andy Lack—not to be confused with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck—singularly praised moderator Matt Lauer’s performance during this television special, and the presentation did garner some 15 million viewers. To be less fair, however, Lack’s lauding of Lauer’s handling of the forum may be singular in that he seems to be the only person who thought the whole shebang was capably handled. Members of the press, officials from past presidential administrations, pundits, and social media critics alike blasted Matt Lauer’s handling of the admittedly-limited thirty minutes devoted to interviewing both Clinton and Trump. Among the points of contention from the dissatisfied peanut gallery:
Lauer spent about a third of his time with Hillary Clinton talking about her ongoing E-mail scandal, while glossing over a number of arguably more important topics, such as national security.
Lauer did not fact-check Donald Trump when he made the claim that he never supported the Iraq War, even when most of the audience seemed to be aware he totally f**king did.
Lauer appeared to let Trump be, you know, himself and talk over the person asking him the questions, while frequently interrupting Clinton, inspiring allegations of sexism.
Lauer did not press Trump more strongly on stupid shit he said or has said in the past, such as the Republican Party nominee’s Tweet which evidently suggested it’s women’s fault by enlisting in the first place for getting sexually assaulted in the U.S. military, or his assertion that he knows more about ISIS than the actual American generals in charge of combat operations in the Middle East, or even his continued support for Vladimir Putin, a man who was instrumental in the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and who may or may not be behind hacks of the Democratic National Committee.
In other words, Lauer more critically interviewed Olympic swimmer and professional moron Ryan Lochte than he did a man who might actually become President of the United f**king States.
Perhaps it is no great wonder with public relations disasters such as the Commander-in-Chief Forum in mind to hear news such as this report back from June from Gallup that Americans’ confidence in newspapers has gone down 10% in the past decade from 30% to 20%, and that their faith in television news has likewise declined by 10% from 31% to 21%. It should be noted that other institutions asked about in this same survey have their own confidence problems, including churches/organized religion (down 11% to 41%), banks (down 22% to 27%), and Congress (down 10% to a mere 9%). Still, Americans’ distaste for and mistrust of the news media is real, something that neither bodes well for the success and continued survival of various news outlets, nor augurs particularly auspiciously for an informed public, at that. Seeing these statistics in a vacuum, it’s hard to tell, in chicken-egg fashion, whether flagging confidence in the mainstream media has fueled the downturn of newspapers and cable TV, whether public interest has waned in response to an inferior product already on the decline, or, like the ouroboros—the snake eating its own tail—these two trends exist not within a linear cause-effect relationship, but rather as part of a circular duality that feeds on itself. If the last case is indeed true to reality, this is doubly bad, for not only does this set of circumstances likely accelerate the process of disintegration, but if we are still thinking of serpents after the last metaphor, we are likely profoundly scared in an Indiana Jones-like way. DAMMIT! I HATE SNAKES, AND I HATE MSNBC!
On the subject of the decline of newspapers as a source of information, undoubtedly, the rise of television and later the Internet meant there was only so much consumer attention to go around, and online content and news providers have an added leg up on newspapers in being able to tailor advertising to individual users, which hurts print media’s ability to generate valuable ad revenue. From a cost perspective, too, newspapers fight a losing battle in trying to limit expenses in light of the burden of overhead, with clear disadvantages in the price of physical circulation, printing each edition, or even rewarding writers and other employees for their services. There are additional challenges faced by newspapers and all media for that matter, such as the fragmentation of the market to reflect niche interests, the social media requirement faced by businesses irrespective of industry, and the lingering economic effects of the Great Recession, to consider. All in all, it’s a potent brew of negative influences on newspapers’ ability to thrive today, and a number of publications serving major metropolitan areas have been forced to limit print circulation or fold altogether over the years.
Meanwhile, on the matter of television news networks, while recently the networks have enjoyed ratings coups owing to people tuning in to witness the shit-show that is the 2016 presidential election, on the long-term whole, as of May 2015, cable news has seen its overall median daily audience shrink 11% since 2008, according to Pew Research. Potentially outmoded statistics aside, many reason what happened to newspapers vis-à-vis cable news will repeat itself with the likes of CNN, FOX News and MSNBC relative to blogs and other online media. As Paul Farhi, writing for The Washington Post, outlines, prime-time cable news shows are heavily reliant on an aging audience, and face obvious competition from online news sources better served to meet the needs and desires of younger generations. Meaning that while the network that professes to offer “news” but really just utilizes fear-mongering, prejudices and unsubstantiated claims to gin up its viewers is enjoying a long-standing run atop the charts, even it might have trouble sooner than later. And not just because the GOP is a shell of its former self and has been co-opted by idiots and white supremacists.
Indeed, going forward, the traditional news media has its work cut out for it if it wants to stay afloat in a sea of competing interests. To this end, various media outlets need to generate clicks, ratings and subscriptions, and to do this, they have to find some hook with the consumer-user. How these news services achieve this end, and whether or not this will only guarantee them a worse fate in light of the public’s fragile confidence in them, is the multi-billion dollar question. Right now, as noted, the corporate media is riding high. After all, almost 15 million viewers tuned into NBC News’s Commander-in-Chief debacle—and that wasn’t even a debate! Whether or not the American people will actually turn out to vote in November is another story, but in the lead-up to the election, there certainly seems to be a great deal of interest in who stands to become our next President and what sort of damage he or she might inflict on the country should he or she win. At the end of the campaign season, though, and following the election and even inauguration, it almost seems inevitable there will be a drop-off in interest, and in the post-election hangover in which America will find itself after months of a tiresome primary/debate schedule, the traditional media may discover it has less clout and more competition than it might otherwise have considered.
From the swivel chair on which I’m sitting, news media has not done a good job of covering the 2016 presidential election cycle. Nor has it done a fair job, or even a “Needs Work” kind of job, as a child might see on his or her grade-school assignment. No, the mainstream media has done a piss-poor job of serving the public interest when it comes to the campaign season. (I perhaps would’ve referred to it as a “deplorable” job, but Hillary has ruined that word for the foreseeable future—and may have even done damage to her election bid with her “basket of deplorables” turn of phrase.) The powers-that-be behind today’s remaining major newspapers and big-name news networks would be apt to protest this characterization, and furthermore, would insist they are providing fair and balanced coverage that considers all viewpoints. While under most circumstances, objectivity in reporting is highly advisable, when the situation warrants a firmer hand in steering the discussion, particularly when representing all angles means to give a voice to elements whose arguments are little more than bigotry and deliberate misrepresentation of reality, the refusal of the news to intervene is a failure, and a seemingly cowardly one at that, or else it values ad revenue over integrity.
Former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien recently took her old employer to task over its lack of discretion in reporting on the U.S. presidential election. O’Brien’s takedown of CNN’s coverage, particularly in the network’s kowtowing to the more reprehensible voices on Donald Trump’s side of the fence, is to be commended for its directness as well as its consideration of the implications not only for the outcome election, but for the fate of CNN and television journalism itself. What most agree are the critical points of Soledad’s impassioned remarks:
On giving white supremacists a platform because they are Trump supporters/delegates…
“I’ve seen on-air, white supremacists being interviewed because they are Trump delegates. And they do a five minute segment, the first minute or so talking about what they believe as white supremacists. So you have normalized that. And then Donald Trump will say, ‘Hillary Clinton, she’s a bigot.’ And it’s covered, the journalist part comes in, ‘They trade barbs. He said she’s a bigot and she points out that he might be appealing to racists.’ It only becomes ‘he said, she said.’ When in actuality, the fact that Donald Trump said she’s a bigot without the long laundry list of evidence, which if you looked at Hillary Clinton’s speech, she actually did have a lot of really good factual evidence that we would all agree that are things that have happened and do exist. They are treated as if they are equal. That’s where journalists are failing: the contortions to try to make it seem fair.”
And on CNN and others building up Donald Trump for ratings…
“Hateful speech brings a really interested, angry audience. ‘This is genius! We should do this more often. What shall we do when this election is over? We’re going to have to think about ways to really rile people up, make them angry and divide them.’ Because that is something that cable news, frankly, and everybody can cover really well. So, I find it very frustrating. I believe he was over-covered at the beginning. Now, it is ‘he said, she said’ all the time. We have lost context. We actually don’t even cover the details of something. We just cover the back and forth of it. It’s funny to watch if it weren’t our own country and our own government actually operating.”
What supposed “bigot” Hillary Clinton believes at heart about the key voting demographics to which she panders, one can’t be sure, but Soledad O’Brien is right: at least she has not made attacks on minorities the cornerstone of her campaign the way Donald Trump has his. Furthermore, I’d argue she’s deadly accurate on what the media has done, by and large, to frame the ultimate showdown between Clinton and Trump. Make no mistake—a winner-take-all electoral competition between Hill and Don is exactly what print media and the major news networks wanted. The aggregate favorability rating of the Democratic Party and Republican Party nominee is an almost-historically low one, if not the lowest altogether, such that viewers and even the supporting casts related to each campaign themselves have strong feelings one way or another. Throw in the apparent belief of media outlets that their audiences are stupid, don’t care about “the issues,” and would rather see these party heads squabble than speak substantively on important subjects, and you’ve hit on, to a large extent, the news media’s approach to covering this election.
Indeed, the mainstream media is trying to dance precariously between two functions, and the discussion of whether or not their routine is a winning one is accordingly worthwhile. On the one hand, America’s major news outlets, like many concerned citizens, don’t have a death wish. Donald Trump, who hasn’t been good at very much in his 70 years—let’s be honest—would make an even worse President of the United States than the shady businessman the more informed among us know him to be. Hillary Clinton, by proxy, is made to look through headlines and clickable, shareable content that much stronger as a candidate on matters of policy, aside from her obviously superior experience after years in politics. On the other hand, however, said outlets really, really like the ratings and traffic the mere mention of Trump’s name generates, including that which derives from the man’s more, shall we say, outspoken supporters, and so, despite their better judgment, they all but waive their editorial discretion in the name of “fairness.” The result is that both candidates have not been pressed by the press as strongly as they could or perhaps should be questioned, and as a result, the detractors of both Clinton and Trump can claim the media is letting them off the hook. To a certain extent, they’re all right.
If I were in Matt Lauer’s shoes, granted, I would be likely be a bit apprehensive about confronting the two biggest figures in American politics right now, and I would also have to balance the probing nature of journalistic intent with the direction of the NBC brass—you know, provided I wanted to remain employed. All this aside, if I were to have the opportunity to interview Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I would want to pose these types of questions:
1) OK, we get it—you regret voting for the Iraq War. Now that you’ve adequately expressed your remorse for political purposes, what do we do about our continued entanglements in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere abroad? What is our timetable for a meaningful reduction in military spending, or for that matter, a reduction in the number of American troops deployed in combat areas, if at all?
Dating back to the party primary season and even during the Democratic National Convention, Hillary caught a lot of flak from Bernie Sanders supporters and surrogates from her stances on the Iraq War and her perceived hawkishness. Indeed, Mrs. Clinton seems to be a bit right of center on the subject of the use of the military and spending to accomplish its goals, so these are worthwhile questions, especially for those who got behind the Sanders campaign and support more progressive aims of the Democratic Party. With the 15th anniversary of 9/11 just behind us and talk of “we will never forget,” it seems ironic to employ such verbiage when the U.S. still is invested heavily in Afghanistan and Iraq, and thus can’t forget a War on Terror still ongoing. More like “we will never get out,” if you ask me.
2) Unless you’re hard up for donations—and judging by your big-ticket fundraisers and speaking fees, you have plenty of cash at your disposal—why should the Clinton Foundation wait until after winning the election to stop accepting monies from corporations and foreign interests?
Hillary Clinton already has a bit of an optics problem regarding trustworthiness in light of her ongoing E-mail imbroglio, concerns about where monies are going after they reach the Hillary Victory Fund, and other scandals which may be somewhat trumped up by Republicans but otherwise do reflect legitimate character concerns. The Clinton Foundation, which has come under fire recently for insinuations it is emblematic of a pay-to-play paradigm which coincided with her affairs as head of the State Department and thus may have crossed ethical lines, and has been characterized by some vocal dissenters as more or less a money laundering operation, by these tokens, is not helping matters.
Among others, Robert Reich, who avidly supported Bernie Sanders until Clinton won the Democratic Party nomination, and now has put his influence behind Hillary because of his recognition of the danger of a Donald Trump presidency, recommends the Clinton Family divest itself of operational ties to its namesake charitable organization, in the interest of propriety and transparency. If Hillary Clinton and her campaign were smart, they wouldn’t wait to effect these changes, and certainly wouldn’t make them contingent on an election victory, but this a major-party presidential campaign we’re talking about here—sound judgment often falls by the wayside.
3) Don’t you think it a bit douche-y to wear a $12,000 Giorgio Armani jacket and talk about income inequality?
I’ve brought this up before, but I would have to ask HRC directly just to gauge her reaction. Follow-up question: why did you or anyone pay so much for something that looks so hideous?
4) Why exactly were aides of yours smashing devices with hammers? What reasonable explanation is there for this that does not involve wanting to hide or obscure information?
Like Tom Brady smashing his phone in the midst of the Deflategate controversy, this is pretty much a rhetorical question, but I’d like to see and hear her explain why so many Blackberries and iPads had to be obliterated. Though I will admit it was probably oddly pleasurable for the person or persons tasked with doing the destroying. But still.
5) At this point, what does it matter whether the DNC and your campaign were hacked by Russia, or by Guccifer 2.0 acting independently, or by aliens, as Susan Sarandon jokingly suggested? What does it matter, Mrs. Clinton?
OK, so getting hacked is obviously a concern for any organization, and thus society as a whole, as is the theoretical publication of private information of individuals pursuant to matters of privacy in various data leaks. Still, the Democrats seem a little eager to point to Russia and shout, “Look what they did!” when the content itself of the leaked messages is objectionable. Whether it’s intentional bias against the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign or the influence of money on leadership within the party or even in government as a whole, these connections give the public a clearer picture of the kinds of people and institutions with whom/which they are dealing, and how democracy continues to be constrained by party politics and corporate/individual wealth. To this end, the DNC Leaks et al. are a public service, even if the manner in which they were obtained is suspect. Confessedly, though, as much as I feel I’m making a valid point, I kind of just wanted to take a swipe at Hillary Clinton’s semi-infamous “What does it matter?” moment from the hearings of Benghazi. When Americans die, in a potentially avoidable way, and the public is misinformed as to whether or not the attack was terroristic in nature, it does matter. Perhaps not as much as to warrant the extent of the costly investigation into the events surrounding Benghazi to date, but it does.
1) Why won’t you release your tax returns?
I’ve also discussed this before, musing as to why Donald Trump so obstinately has refused to acquiesce on this count. Some suspect it is because of his supposed ties to Russian businesses (though the Clintons have profited in their own right from Russia, including through the sale of uranium), but I suspect, perhaps more benignly, that Trump wants either to conceal the likely situation that he pays little to no taxes through loopholes, or—even worse in his eyes—that he doesn’t have nearly as much money as he says he does. This may not sound terrible to you or I, but when your entire brand is built on the image of you as a successful entrepreneur able to afford a lavish lifestyle, losing this appearance of obscene wealth could be devastating to this myth. It would be like the storied emperor with no clothes—and I’m immediately sorry for any mental images you now own because of this comparison.
2) How do you explain the immense rent increase for the Trump campaign headquarters in Trump Tower in July after you started receiving considerable funding from donors and weren’t just “financing your own campaign?”
The Trump campaign has explained the nearly four-times spike in its rent expense at Trump Tower resulting from adding “two more levels to its existing space,” whatever that means. While there’s no proof of anything shady, that purchases leading to greater expenses are synchronous with the addition of benefactors, and that Trump stands to indirectly benefit from this arrangement, is enough to raise one or more eyebrows. The deflection that the Clinton camp pays more on rent doesn’t assuage potential culpability either. Saying you spent less than Hillary Clinton on rent is like saying you smoke less weed than Tommy Chong. It’s not exactly something to hang your hat on.
One thing the press has not discussed nearly enough regarding Donald Trump’s business dealings is that he has repeatedly screwed people out of money, and then has shielded himself behind the cloak of litigation or has relied upon the auspices of bankruptcy law to avoid having to pay all his bills. If Trump can’t pay his staffers as he should, why should we expect him to do what’s right for America’s finances, or for that matter, give him the keys to the country?
4) Would you like to personally apologize to Jersey City, and in particular, its Muslim population, for making claims about thousands of people cheering in the streets when the Towers fell, even though this has been thoroughly debunked?
OK, I gotta say this one’s for me. When even Crazy Rudy Giuliani disagreed with Trump’s steadfast assertion that thousands of Muslims in Jersey City were celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center, you knew the man was full of shit, and anyone else who sides with Trump on this issue is either full of shit too, or has spent too much time watching Fox News and has had the parts of their brain devoted to higher-order thinking and encoding of memory eaten away by the stupidity. I don’t care if you’re talking about Muslims, undocumented Mexican immigrants, or members of the Borg collective—if they’re from New Jersey, step the f**k off.
5) Seriously, though, release your f**king tax returns.
Not really a question anymore, but then again, it shouldn’t be. If you have nothing to hide, you should have no problem complying. Shit, even Crooked Hillary obliged on this front. You don’t want to be worse than Hillary at something, do you, Donald?
Returning to the theme of journalistic accountability in the mainstream media and perceptions of bias, even before the events of this election cycle and the rise of online content/social media, a core group of outspoken Americans took to distrusting the “liberal media” and its leftist agenda. How dare they believe in concepts like gender and race equality? How come their “facts” don’t match what I know deep down in my gut? Why do they insist on telling me I’m wrong for hating gays and transgender people and telling them they can’t buy wedding cakes in our shops or pee in our bathrooms? TOO MUCH POLITICAL CORRECTNESS! TOO MANY BIG WORDS! AAAAAHHHH! This kind of mentality, I believe, has helped fuel the rise of the alt-right and eschewing of more reputable news sources for airheads such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and even conspiracy theorist extraordinaire Alex Jones. Which, though it may chagrin network executives and digital content managers, might not be a huge loss for the rest of the viewing population. Not for nothing, but the fewer trolls we have on Comments sections of major news providers’ sites criticizing “libtards” and demeaning them as a bunch of whiny, sissy babies, I feel, is a good thing.
However, in news media’s indiscriminate push for ratings and revenue, that liberals and conservatives alike can be alienated by CNN, or The New York Times, or even Huffington Post, suggests that corporate-owned media outlets, buoyed by short-term successes, may only be riding a road to ruin in the long term. For libertarians, progressives, skinny people, fat people, people who try to ford the river or caulk it and float it, there are umpteen options, and while not all of them are winners (many, indeed, are not), by appealing to a more provincial audience, they stand to draw away attention from the big players in the mass media market. Again, when survival is anything but assured, prominent networks and newspapers are justifiably desperate for the public’s consumption. Catering to a lower common denominator, however, or failing to curb those who pander to a more deleterious element, seriously risks undermining the public’s trust and guaranteeing that they won’t come back. After all, when trust is gone, what else is left worth keeping?
Concerning television dramas to come out in the last 20 years or so, there is always room for debate with respect to which series is #1. If we measure purely by IMDb rating, the tie at the top goes to Band of Brothers and Planet Earth. If we go by pure popularity, and consider the breadth of a program’s fan base as well as the scope of the content itself, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead might also be in the mix. Meanwhile, if we focus on character-driven dramas and the darkness within each of us as represented by its leading figures, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos might top many people’s lists. For my part, though, the show that received due critical acclaim in its initial run and backed it up most consistently with tightly constructed character-driven stories, while still giving due weight to the big-picture issues that color the world in which the various individuals integral to the plot find themselves, is The Wire. Like a number of fans, I did not really appreciate David Simon’s highly-regarded ode to the city of Baltimore until after the fact, but retrospectively, the series continues to resonate with me and illuminate the kinds of conflicts we still see within communities and on a larger scale today.
In Season One of The Wire, the primary focus is on the intersection between the Baltimore police and the drug dealers of the city’s streets. In investigating Avon Barksdale’s outfit, members of a task force known as the Major Crimes Unit begin to find that pursuing one of Baltimore’s most powerful gangs is more dangerous and bigger than they might have otherwise anticipated. Not only do bodies quickly pile up in the course of the Barksdale crew’s affairs, but so too do apparent connections, through allocations of cash and real estate, to prominent businessmen and politicians. Lester Freamon, a forgotten man within the Baltimore PD ranks for running afoul of a higher-up once upon a time, through his instincts and investigative savvy, begins to make himself into a valued member of the Major Crimes Unit. As he explains the connection between crime, money and power, “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the f**k it’s gonna take you.”
Follow the money. It’s the very refrain heard in All the President’s Men, the 1976 film based on the nonfiction work of the same name. The book, written by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, chronicles their investigation of the Watergate scandal all the way through the revelation of the existence of the Nixon tapes. The phrase “follow the money” does not actually appear in Bernstein and Woodward’s book, and appears to be a device of the screenplay penned by William Goldman. It comes in a clandestine meeting in a parking garage between Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and his confidential government source, known only as “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook). The latter only offers so much help to Woodward, speaking guardedly and cryptically in his comments, but urges him to follow the money, saying this about what potentially could be found down the proverbial rabbit hole: “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is: these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
Follow the money. The more one repeats it, the more it sounds like a rallying cry of sorts. The events of The Wire may be fictional, but as a show rooted in realism, we can appreciate the plausibility of the widespread illegality for the subjects of the investigation and of the plot’s development—black or white, rich or poor, those without a badge and those wearing one. The film version of All the President’s Men, though fictionalized, evokes an actual real-world scandal in Watergate. Accordingly, there would appear to be every bit of value to applying this mantra to current events, especially those that involve money and political influence.
Speaking of guys who aren’t very bright, Donald Trump’s business and personal finances have consistently become a point of scrutiny for his critics. Which makes sense, you know, because, besides banning Muslims from entering the United States and building walls to keep out Mexicans who aren’t overrunning our country the way he and his ilk would depict it, this is pretty much his favorite topic of conversation—his considerable wealth and business acumen. Scores of people taking a good, hard look at Trump’s boasts about his net worth have cast aspersions on the veracity of his statements, which is only fair because 1) Donald is running for President of the United States, and thus should be vetted before possibly taking the reins of the top office in the country, and 2) the man lies like a rug. For one, Donald Trump’s claims of philanthropy, notably those concerning his purported donations to organizations supporting American veterans, by many accounts are all talk and no action, with concerns that the Trump Foundation is little more than a slush fund which masquerades as a meritorious charity. Even more than this, however, Trump has been accused of dramatically overstating his personal wealth as an extension of his brand. What certainly does not help the self-professed sole author of The Art of the Deal in his assertions is that his own assessments of his net worth over the years have proven amorphous and variable.
Much of the confusion surrounding what, if anything, Donald Trump has donated to veterans’ charities, how exactly his income factors into his net worth, whether or not he has business ties to Russian interests, whether or not he actually pays taxes owing to loopholes and other breaks, and other pertinent questions involving his finances, could be spelled out or at least made clearer if the man were to release his tax returns. It’s not as if this is an odd request either, as most GOP nominees since the 1970s have honored this tradition. Trump, however, has flatly refused to acquiesce on this point, and even semi-famously quipped that his tax rate is “none of your business.” The absence of the information from those returns has lent itself to rampant speculation as to why the Republican Party nominee has ducked and dodged the repeated calls to show his tax records. Some think it’s because his effective tax rate is zero, a reality which would fly in the face of the image he is trying to cultivate as the voice of the little guy, or a “blue-collar billionaire,” as some have stupidly tried to call him. Some believe it’s because of those alleged business ties to Russia, which also conflicts with the depiction of Trump as the All-American strongman. “The Donald,” for his part, has also tried to claim that, since he is being audited by the Internal Revenue Service, he can’t oblige with the request for his tax returns. According to the IRS, though, this is complete bullshit, with everyone’s favorite CEO and genius investor Warren Buffett chiming in with the information that he, too, is being audited by the IRS, joking that he’d be perfectly willing to share his returns with Donald Trump.
Why do I believe Trump won’t release his tax returns? I think, worse than anything else from his perspective, it would convey to the rest of Planet Earth that he doesn’t have as much money as he says he does. The essence of Donald Trump is style over substance, the projection of success to any and all who will listen. For anyone to even suggest that he is not everything he claims to be, the situation is liable to end up with a lawsuit against that detractor, as well as censure and ridicule on Twitter from thin-skinned man-baby Trump himself. When Donald Trump was roasted by Comedy Central, pretty much everything was fair game—his business failures, his casinos (also business failures), his hair, his multiple marriages, his privilege, his relationships with models, his (ahem) uncomfortable relationship with his daughter, Ivanka—but anything which alluded to the man not being as rich as he tells the world he is was off-limits. That was the cardinal sin.
For Trump, his presidential run is one big vanity play, as well as an exercise in how easily millions of Americans can be conned into believing he is anything but a blowhard, idiot, racist and fraud. In relation to those supporters who are either unaware of Donald Trump’s business-oriented misdeeds, or actively choose to suppress this knowledge because they enjoy some of his ideas and/or how he’s “not a politician” (though by now, I think he’s had enough practice to be considered one), it is an obvious irony that he labors on calling his political rival “Crooked Hillary.” On the flim-flam operation that is Trump University alone, the Republican Party nominee merits a serious investigation for having his name on an enterprise that appears to have bilked hard-w0rking people putting their faith in his professed business know-how out of serious amounts of money. According to a May article in The New York Times by Michael Barbaro and Steve Eder, citing the testimony of former Trump University managers, the school is “an unscrupulous business that relied on high-pressure sales tactics, employed unqualified instructors, made deceptive claims and exploited vulnerable students willing to pay tens of thousands for Mr. Trump’s insights.” Indeed, though Trump’s name is front and center in this dubious institution, he apparently has had little to do with how it is run, though this certainly does not exonerate him. Lawsuits have been numerous against Trump University, LLC from those who have been victimized by its false promises, including in the state of California, prompting the abhorrent situation of Trump insinuating that Judge Gonzalo Curiel couldn’t be trusted to be impartial in his handling of any case involving him because he is of Mexican descent.
Donald Trump’s history as an executive of questionable integrity and knowledge, however, runs far beyond his farcical “university.” Kurt Eichenwald, in a piece for Newsweek, provides a comprehensive guide on Trump’s ruinous track record in his business dealings. I recommend reading the piece in its entirety to get the full effect, because his failures are just about too numerous to list here. Among his “achievements”: alienating Native American Indians and losing management agreements to rival casino owners; massive personal losses owing to failed real estate partnerships and interest owed to lenders, necessitating financial rescue from Daddy; running casinos in direct competition with one another, effectually cannibalizing a number of them and forcing declarations of bankruptcy; authorizing the failed endeavor of Trump Shuttle; defaulting on all sorts of loans; putting his name on the ill-fated projects Trump Mortgage, GoTrump.com, Trump Vodka, and Trump Steaks; and licensing deals on disastrous Trump properties that have prompted accusations of fraud. In all, Donald Trump owes his fortune and his stature to a combination of his father’s financial support—the likes of which few Americans could ever hope to be able to rely upon—proverbial smoke and mirrors of the Trump myth which have duped countless investors and voters, and when all else fails, litigating the opposition into silent submission.
Donald Trump’s missteps, characterized by unflappable arrogance, incendiary racist rhetoric, and utter incompetence, should be enough to disqualify him from running a Taco Bell, let alone the country. However, owing to his rich father’s patronage, the provisions of bankruptcy law, an army of lawyers as a safeguard in numerous legal disputes, and America’s obsession with celebrity—alongside, let’s be honest, an almost-historically-weak Republican primary field—Trump finds himself in the championship round, if you will, of the 2016 presidential race. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, who faced a robust challenge for the Democratic Party nomination from Bernie Sanders, and who has a decided advantage in political experience, the more developed party platform, and—yes, the campaign donation infrastructure—should be poised to obliterate her major-party competitor. Indeed, Clinton currently leads in most polls, despite what Michael Cohen, executive VP of the Trump Foundation and special counsel to “the Donald” might question.
And yet, it is Hillary’s own complicated history with donations and other monies which inspire doubt from a majority of Americans, such that any lead in pre-election surveys Clinton might possess, in spite of Donald Trump’s recent spate of blunders—the likes of which have Michael Moore and others convinced Trump is intentionally throwing the election—feels tenuous, at best. Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine both recently released their latest tax returns, which would appear to put them leaps and bounds ahead of Donald “The Artless Dodger” Trump. Especially since it shows, at least on the surface, the Clintons as payers of more than their fair share of taxes—recompensing Uncle Sam at an effective rate upwards of 40%. According to their returns, they also give nearly 10% of their adjusted gross income back to charity. Clinton and Kaine—the model of financial transparency!
Whoa—let’s slow it down a bit first. For critics of Hillary’s, especially those who were fervent supporters of Bernie Sanders’ during the primary season, the notion that Bill and Hill made most of their money last year through fees for delivering speeches recalls the controversy over the latter’s speeches to Goldman Sachs that netted HRC several hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop. The Clinton campaign defended their candidate’s acceptance of large sums for her appearances, averring that a) Goldman Sachs and other companies were the ones to offer her that much, so you can’t blame her on that end, and b) that a quid pro quo on matters of policy can’t be assumed from this sort of arrangement. To a certain extent, I agree; in the absence of any proverbial smoking gun, you can’t prove Clinton would necessarily go easy on Wall Street, big banks, and other power players. All the same, despite repeated requests from Sanders himself, Hillary Clinton has patently refused to release the transcripts of her speeches, making it all the more curious what is so g-d good that Goldman et al. would throw all that dough her way. To put it another way, if she has nothing to hide within the contents of those addresses, there’s no reason she should keep them such a guarded secret. After all, she is a paragon of transparency, right?
It’s more than just the speeches, though. The sources of funding for Hillary’s campaign contributions and charitable donations has raised the suspicion of agencies and individuals, regardless of political affiliation. In particular, the workings of the Clinton Foundation and the Hillary Victory Fund have raised concerns about whether or not ethical, moral and even legal considerations were violated by HRC and her surrogates. Clinton’s most die-hard advocates have criticized the attempts of Republican lawmakers and other politicians over the years to knock her and her husband down a peg, and to be sure, any merit to be found in criticism of her handling of matters of foreign policy such as the Benghazi debacle (as far as I’m concerned, Hillary should have been more aware of the deteriorating situation in Libya, or at least its possibility, after the deposition of Muammar Gaddafi) has tended to get lost in her questioning at the hands of Congress, who have made what could be construed as a legitimate inquiry feel more like an unabashed witch hunt.
With respect to potential wrongdoing related to the Clinton Foundation, on the other hand, it is not a partisan team bent on political assassination, but rather the Internal Revenue Service—that same friendly agency supposedly in the midst of auditing Donald Trump—who is leading the investigation. According to State Department E-mails obtained by Judicial Watch as a result of a lawsuit filed by the latter under the Freedom of Information Act, top Clinton Foundation donors were given special consideration, potentially even in the form of government positions, for their contributions, suggesting a “pay-to-play” rewards system was in effect during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, and at the very least, that Clinton Foundation business and State Department time was intertwined, despite any inherent conflicts of interest. What’s more, key Foundation donors are regarded, shall we say, highly skeptically on an international wavelength, chief among them Gilbert Chagoury, who was convicted in 2000 in Switzerland for money laundering in Nigeria. Essentially, then, it is not outrageous to think the Clinton Foundation, originally conceived by Bill, has become a haven for cronyism and loose ethics/morals. Perhaps this is why, according to the Clinton campaign, the Clinton Foundation will stop accepting corporate and foreign donations—that is, if she wins. To me, though, this sounds like the addict or career criminal saying he or she will quit after one last score or hurrah. Right, Hillary. We’ll believe it when we see it.
And then there’s the Hillary Victory Fund. The fundraising vehicle, which is supposed to be a joint committee comprised by the Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee and 32 state party committees that share in the proceeds from donations apparently doesn’t share them all well—at least not in a way that keeps the money in the state committees’ coffers. Per Kenneth Vogel and Isaac Arnsdorf, writing for Politico, as of May 2016, less than 1% of the $61 million generated by the Fund has remained with state fundraising efforts, with roughly 88% of what has been transferred to the states being funneled right on to the DNC. This means the bulk of the money has gone to—surprise!—the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, which, as we know from the DNC leaks, is basically just another way of saying the Clinton campaign and the Clinton campaign. From the article:
The victory fund has transferred $15.4 million to Clinton’s campaign and $5.7 million to the DNC, which will work closely with Clinton’s campaign if and when she becomes the party’s nominee. And most of the $23.3 million spent directly by the victory fund has gone toward expenses that appear to have directly benefited Clinton’s campaign, including $2.8 million for “salary and overhead” and $8.6 million for web advertising that mostly looks indistinguishable from Clinton campaign ads and that has helped Clinton build a network of small donors who will be critical in a general election expected to cost each side well in excess of $1 billion.
The arrangement has sparked concerns among campaign finance watchdogs and allies of Clinton’s Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. They see it as a circumvention of campaign contribution limits by a national party apparatus intent on doing whatever it takes to help Clinton defeat Sanders during the party’s primary, and then win the White House.
But it is perhaps more notable that the arrangement has prompted concerns among some participating state party officials and their allies. They grumble privately that Clinton is merely using them to subsidize her own operation, while her allies overstate her support for their parties and knock Sanders for not doing enough to help the party.
Though Hillary certainly has since clinched the Democratic Party nomination and now has the full backing of Bernie Sanders in an effort to defeat Donald Trump, once more, in a wry sort of way, we can appreciate the irony; much as Trump calling Clinton “crooked” is a pot-kettle situation, the Clinton campaign attacking Sanders for not being a “true” Democrat and for not doing his part to help Democrats seems more than a bit disingenuous. As with the promise to stop taking foreign and corporate donations if she wins, Hillary Clinton speaking to the need to overturn the ruling of Citizens United v. FEC—when she has been involved in some of the most embarrassingly excessive fundraising events in recent memory—smacks of duplicity. Do as I say, not as I do. Don’t worry—things will magically change once I am Madam President. That Giorgio Armani jacket was totally necessary.
See, here’s the thing. For all of Hillary Clinton’s promises about what she will do if given the keys to the White House, the warning signs are such to give progressives pause. Much ridicule was heaped on the Sanders delegates and other dissenters who made their presence felt at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July, with the others trying to celebrate Hillary’s coronation more or less treating them as babies and sore losers (recall Sarah Silverman’s “you’re being ridiculous” line), but if this report from the Convention by Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick is true to reality, the fears of those objectors may be justified. As Nick and Amy set the scene:
After a wrenching yearlong nominating battle with searing debates over the influence of Wall Street and the ability of ordinary citizens to be heard over the din of dollars changing hands, the party’s moneyed elite returned to the fore this week, undeterred and mostly unabashed.
While protesters marched in the streets and blocked traffic, Democratic donors congregated in a few reserved hotels and shuttled between private receptions with A-list elected officials. If the talk onstage at the Wells Fargo Center was about reducing inequality and breaking down barriers, Center City Philadelphia evoked the world as it still often is: a stratified society with privilege and access determined by wealth.
For someone like Robert Reich who “felt the Bern” but now supports Hillary Clinton, like Bernie, because he believes Donald Trump can’t win the election, this makes him worry that HRC really doesn’t “get it.” What seems to elude Clinton and numerous political analysts about this frustration of the American people with establishment politics and the need to reclaim our democracy from moneyed interests is that this demand for “revolution” and freedom from a rigged system that perpetuates and widens the gap between the super-wealthy and the rest of the country is apt to be more than just a flash in the pan if trends toward increasing inequality continue. Lest Hillary’s winning the nomination be regarded as some sort of mandate of the general public, as Pew Research finds, only 29% of eligible voters participated in either the Democratic or Republican primaries. While it’s possible Clinton could’ve upended Bernie Sanders by an even larger margin with higher turnout, with aspects of the primary process conspiring to act against independents and working people, it’s hard to know who or what truly is indicative of the voting populace.
As someone who supported Bernie Sanders until his campaign was officially kaput, and who supports him now in his quest to help America “take back” democracy, I fully acknowledge that my judgment and opinions are grounded in a certain way of thinking. This notwithstanding, knowing what we know about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, that so many people are willing to cast these considerations aside and readily endorse/vote for one of them boggles my mind. With all due respect, I don’t understand either why so many people would readily watch The Real Housewives of [INSERT LOCATION], or would wait in line for hours just to get an iPhone or Shake Shack, just to give you some perspective on my lack thereof.
Still, let’s review. Trump is more or less a celebrity con man who has been directly responsible for scores of business failures, and whose Trump University and countless licensing deals have swindled folks out of their life’s savings. On top of the notion he is a bigot, climate change denier, racist, sexist, xenophobe, and all-around asshole. Clinton, meanwhile, has accepted huge sums of money from corporations and wealthy investors both inside and outside the United States, likely violating election laws and ethics in the process. Not to mention she is/has been the subject of investigations by both the FBI and the IRS, as well as a Special Committee related to Benghazi, such that New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan, professed Hillary supporter, could not state that her candidate of choice is honest—even when asked directly three times. According to a recent Economist/YouGov poll, only 28% of voters think Hillary Clinton is “honest and trustworthy,” a mere percentage point—less than the survey’s margin of error—higher than Donald Trump’s rating. Meanwhile, on the subject of favorability, per the most recent Gallup polling data, Hillary manages only a 38% Favorable rating—with 57% of respondents rating her Unfavorable—and Trump, worse, at a clip of 32%, with 62% giving him a thumbs-down. (Compare, for example, with Bernie Sanders’ 53%/37% Favorable/Unfavorable split, or even John Kasich’s 37%/28% approval/disapproval level). Shouldn’t we like our candidates more than we dislike them? Or, at the very least, shouldn’t we be able to trust either of them?
Not long ago, I discussed the leaked DNC E-mails, which show collusion among the DNC ranks to work against the Bernie Sanders campaign despite officials’ stated neutrality, with my brother, someone who I consider to be a reasonably intelligent man. I, of course, fumed about the whole situation, and like Bernie, though not surprised, was disappointed by what the leak revealed. My brother, meanwhile, who is pro-Hillary, insinuated that if Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her flunkies believed undermining Sanders and elevating Hillary Clinton was the best way to defeat Donald Trump, maybe they should have done so. And this, this is where I have my gravest concerns regarding the electoral process in the United States today. In our winner-takes-all format, victory at any and all cost seems to be order of the day, with any collateral damage in misappropriating donations or inciting hatred to be swept under the rug for the sake of earning the W. But the process, the journey leading to the destination, matters—or it should, at any rate. Candidates for public office, especially those running for President of the United States, should have to adhere to ethical, legal and moral guidelines. They should have to earn our vote, rather than assuming we’ll “fall in line” and choose either the Democrat or Republican on the ballot. Without this much, for all our bombast about this being the greatest nation in the world and the home of modern democracy, we’re really no better than the lot of “lesser” nations we look down upon.
Follow the money. If you do, you’ll find those politicians who have fallen in love with it will do anything to keep it and make more of it—with little or no regard for the American people and doing the right thing in the process.