In case you were previously unaware, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller is soulless human garbage in a suit and shouldn’t have a role anywhere near the President of the United States. But Donald Trump is our president, Miller has been one of the longest-tenured members of his administration, and here we are.
You may not know much about Miller other than that he has a receding hairline and pretty much every photo of him makes him look like an insufferable dick. He also can claim the dubious honor of having his own uncle call out his hypocritical douchebaggery in an essay that made the rounds online. His own uncle. Let that sink in for a moment.
Of course, resting bitch face and do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behavior do not a monster necessarily make. Promoting white nationalist propaganda and conspiracy theories, obsessing over conceptions of “racial identity,” and invoking Hitlerian attitudes on immigration, though, are more conclusive signs.
In a series of E-mails between Miller and Breitbart News editors first leaked to the Southern Law Poverty Center by Katie McHugh, a former editor at Breitbart, the depth of Miller’s affinity for white nationalism is laid bare. SLPC’s Hatewatch blog, in reviewing more than 900 E-mails which span from March 2015 to June 2016, characterizes the subject matter of these messages as “strikingly narrow,” unsympathetic, and biased. Regarding immigration, Miller focused only on limiting if not ending nonwhite immigration to the United States. That’s it.
To this effect, Miller’s correspondence included but was not limited to these delightful exchanges and messages:
Sending McHugh stories from white nationalist websites known for promulgating the “white genocide” theory as well as those emphasizing crimes committed by nonwhites and espousing anti-Muslim views
Recommending Camp of the Saints, a 1973 novel depicting the destruction of Western civilization through mass immigration of nonwhites, as a point of comparison to real-world immigration and refugeeism trends
Pushing stories lamenting the loss of cultural markers like the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments
Embracing restrictive American immigration policies of yesteryear, the likes of which were based on eugenics theory and were referenced favorably in Mein Kampf
Offering original conspiracy theories as to why the “ruinous” history of the Hart-Celler Act wasn’t covered in “elitist” publications
Hatewatch also revisited Miller’s history with prominent white nationalist figures to provide context for these E-mails. Specifically, Miller has connections to Peter Brimelow, founder of VDARE, a white supremacist website, and Richard Spencer, like, the poster child for white nationalism and the alt-right, from his time at Duke. He and Spencer worked together to organize a debate between Brimelow and journalist/professor Peter Laufer on immigration across our southern border. Miller has sought to refute this relationship, but Spencer has acknowledged their familiarity with one another in passing. Miller’s denial is, as far as the SPLC is concerned, implausible.
As noted, these E-mails are several years old and his time at Duke yet further back. Still, not only are these messages not that far behind us, but Miller’s fingerprints are all over Trump’s immigration policy directives. As Hatewatch has also documented, Miller was one of the strongest advocates for the “zero tolerance” policy which saw a spike in family separations at the border with Mexico, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis there. In addition, alongside Steve Bannon, he was a chief architect of the so-called “travel ban,” which is a Muslim ban in everything but the name.
Again, as the leaked E-mails and SPLC’s additional context hint at, there is a path to these policies in Miller’s past associations. As recently as 2014, he attended an event for the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative foundation which traffics in Islamophobia, introducing his then-boss Jeff Sessions as a speaker.
There’s his involvement with the Center for Immigration Studies, too, a anti-immigrant think tank (if you can call it that; the inclusion of the word “think” seems like a stretch) whose very founders subscribed to white nationalist and eugenicist world views and of which misleading/false claims about immigrant crime are a mainstay. Miller was a keynote speaker at a CIS conference in 2015 and has repeatedly cited CIS reports in publicly defending Trump administration policy directives.
As always, one can’t know for sure how many of Miller’s professed beliefs are true to what he believes deep down. After all, he, like any number of modern conservative grifters, may simply be leveraging the prejudices of everyday Americans as a means of bolstering his own profile.
Ultimately, however, as with his current employer, it is immaterial what he truly believes. His words and (mis)deeds shared with the outside world are what matter, and the zeal with which he has pursued bigoted, racist, and xenophobic policies and rhetoric conveys the sense he really means it. Like the saying goes, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Stephen Miller walks like a racist and quacks like a racist. I don’t know about you, but that’s good enough for me.
At this writing, 107 Democratic members of the House of Representatives and Mike Coffman, a House Republican, have called for Stephen Miller’s resignation or firing. It’s not just members of Congress either. Over 50 civil rights groups, including Jewish organizations (Miller is Jewish), have likewise condemned Miller’s bigotry. Predictably, the White House has used these calls for the senior adviser’s head as fodder for charges of anti-Semitism, much as the man himself has tried to use his faith as a shield from criticism in the past.
The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, though. You can be a Jew and still suffer from prejudice. None of us are immune herein regardless of our religious or political beliefs. Besides, the nature of the White House’s defense obscures the intent of the growing resignation demand. This isn’t a bunch of totalitarian leftists trying to exploit the E-mail leak as political weaponry. Miller has given his critics across the political spectrum plenty of ammunition throughout his tenure in the Trump administration. The leak is just the racist, Islamophobic straw that broke the camel’s back.
Does all of this outrage matter, though? Will President Donald Trump turn a deaf ear to the controversy surrounding Miller, more concerned with his own concerns over his ongoing impeachment inquiry? Would he consider keeping Miller in his present role just to signify his stubborn will and/or to “own the libs?”
It’s hard to say. On one hand, some of the worst crooks and liars have seemed to do the best (that is, last the longest) in the Trump administration. Betsy DeVos is still carrying water for Trump as Secretary of Education despite a history of evidenced incompetence and notions she, like Trump, is using her position to enrich herself. Kellyanne Conway continues to be employed despite being a professional author of “alternative facts.” And don’t even get me started about Jared Kushner. If that guy has any personality or foreign policy know-how worth sharing, it is unknown to the rest of Planet Earth.
So, yeah, Stephen Miller is a natural fit for the Trump White House and this bit of public outrage may just be a blip on the radar of his career as a political influencer. Then again, it may not. While several Trump administration officials have resigned, Trump has let the ax fall on occasion. Among the figures identified by CNN as either “fired” or “pushed out” are high-profile names like Jeff Sessions (Attorney General and Miller’s one-time employer), John Bolton (National Security Adviser), John Kelly (White House Chief of Staff), Michael Flynn (also National Security Adviser), Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State), and Steve Bannon (White House Chief Strategist), not to mention holdovers from the Obama administration like Andrew McCabe (FBI Deputy Director), James Comey (FBI Director), and Sally Yates (Deputy Attorney General). Heck, Anthony Scaramucci only lasted 10 days as White House Communications Director.
When not striking a defiant tone, Trump and Co. have also exhibited a sensitivity to low public support. That zero-tolerance immigration policy championed by Miller which will forever serve as a black mark on an already-checkered American legacy? It has been formally ended, though it has been reported that children continue to be separated by their parents and logistical problems facing the reunification of families remain. Alas, nothing goes smoothly with this administration, especially not when cruelty is on the agenda.
The president has additionally and vocally wavered on Syria, not only with respect to withdrawal of troops but whether to support the Kurds fighting there or to roll out the proverbial red carpet for Erdogan and Turkey after widespread bipartisan condemnation of abandoning our allies there. Trump’s not a smart man, but he can tell when the prevailing sentiment is against him. (Hint: If the chowderheads at Fox & Friends and 2019’s version of Lindsey Graham are disagreeing with you, you know you screwed up.)
All this adds up to the idea Stephen Miller’s job may not be as safe as we might imagine. Whatever the outcome, the pressure for him to be fired or resign should continue as long as he is one of the worst examples of what the Trump White House has to offer and one of the ugliest Americans in recent memory given his personally- and professionally-stated beliefs. As his leaked correspondence with Katie McHugh shows, Miller is even worse than we thought. It’s time to get him out before he does any more damage to the country than he already has.
2017 looks poised to finish on a high note, at least economically speaking. The stock market in the United States is near a record high, likely buoyed by the GOP’s corporation-friendly tax cut that President Donald Trump signed into law. Reportedly, the holiday season saw an increase of 5% in sales, an increase of 3.7% from the same span in 2016. Winning, winning, winning. Aren’t you tired of winning so much, fellow Americans? Aren’t you glad Pres. Trump is making America great again? Never mind the notion that he may not have as much to do with the economy as he would lead you to believe. Also, maybe we shouldn’t mention that, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research in London, England, China and India’s economies will surpass that of the U.S.’s by 2030. In other long-term news, meanwhile, productivity growth within America’s economy remains low, income inequality remains startlingly high, the federal debt continues to skyrocket, and the nation is gripped by an opioid dependency epidemic.
So, glass half empty or glass half full? How do you see these United States shaping up over the next few years and into the future? It likely depends on which side of the political or socioeconomic fence you live—and whether or not you stand to personally benefit from the policies the Trump administration and a Republican-led Congress aim to advance. Looking just at the GOP tax cuts, opponents of this policy shift have assailed it as a present for the super-wealthy and industry leaders at the expense of average Americans, and as a greasing of the slippery slope toward the erosion of Social Security, Medicare, and other social safety net programs. In other words, the advantages of this agenda would tend to be appreciated by the few rather than the many, and perhaps it is no wonder Trump’s approval ratings are languishing south of 40%, a historical low at this point in the presidency.
Perhaps it’s instructive to see where we’ve been to help gauge where we may be going in 2018, in 2020, and beyond. Let’s take a look back at some of the topics covered in 2017 on United States of Joe. Warning: we may have a bit more to say regarding our orange leader. If you have any small children in the room, you may want to move them to a safe location—especially if they happen to frequent beauty pageants. I hear El Presidente and his buddies like ’em young, and like to invade dressing rooms of contestants while they’re potentially less-than-fully clothed. Without further ado, let’s do the…
US of J 2017 Review: This Time, It’s Personal—Because Our President Takes Everything Personally
The Biggest Inauguration in U.S. History—Kinda, Sorta
Hey—did you realize Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election? No? Let Trump himself tell you about it! In fact, let him tell you about how he won going away every time something goes wrong or the press challenges him on the quality of his performance as President. You know, even though he didn’t win going away—dude didn’t even win the popular vote. Of course, Trump being the stupid baby that he is, he would challenge the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton’s supremacy in the popular vote, a harbinger of a disturbing trend that continues to play out with the Tweeter-in-Chief. Hillary didn’t win the popular vote—it was massive fraud involving undocumented immigrants that illegitimately got her that small victory. There’s absolutely no credible evidence of this, mind you, and the bullshit voter fraud task force the White House commissioned hasn’t turned up anything either. Trump’s Inauguration crowds were bigger than Barack Obama’s. Don’t believe the visual evidence? That’s OK—Trump, Sean Spicer and Co. were simply offering “alternative facts.” Don’t care for CNN’s brand of reporting? No problem—it’s “fake news.” After all, the media isn’t to be trusted in the first place—it’s the enemy of the people. I’m sure you felt that deep down anyhow, though.
Donald Trump’s assault on the truth and on verifiable fact is unmistakable, and his attacks on the press, including his fetishistic obsession with CNN, are overstated. That said, it’s not as if American news media is blameless in this regard either. Even before Trump was elected President, the mainstream media was an unabashed enabler of his antics. With Buzzfeed’s release of the “Pee-Pee Papers,” a salacious and unauthenticated account of Russian prostitutes performing sex acts at Trump’s behest supposedly based on credible intelligence, and CNN retracting a story on a supposed connection between Anthony Scaramucci, whose tenure as White House Communications Director was remarkably short-lived, and Trump’s Russian ties, Trump suddenly appears more credible. In the push for ratings and clicks in an turbulent era for journalism, the rush of media outlets to meet the demand of consumers for up-to-date information is understandable, but this does not excuse sloppy, irresponsible reporting. For the sake of the institution as a whole, the U.S. news media must balance the need to generate revenue with the importance of upholding standards of journalistic integrity, and must stand together when Trump et al. would seek to undermine one among their ranks—or risk a more precipitous downfall.
Gorsuch: Silver Fox and Supreme Court Justice
One of the big concerns following the death of Antonin Scalia and prompting voters to think hard about voting strategically between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the idea the next President would get to nominate Scalia’s successor. We would be remiss if we did not mention that Barack Obama, well in advance of his departure from the White House, had already tapped Merrick Garland, a fine candidate to fill Scalia’s void. Mitch McConnell a.k.a. Turtle McTurtleface and the other Republicans in the Senate, meanwhile, would not even entertain Obama’s choice, prompting their constituents to protest outside of their offices and chant “Do your job!” In other words, it was really a dick move on the GOP’s part, and a gamble that the party would win the 2016 presidential election so they could install Antonin Scalia 2.0. Trump’s upset electoral victory thus paved the way for Neil Gorsuch to ascend to the highest court in the United States.
Gorsuch, previously a U.S. Circuit Court Judge with a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, is eminently qualified in his own right. This didn’t seem to be a point of contention between leaders of the two parties. Still, coming off a situation in which a perfectly good candidate in Garland was blocked as a function of mere partisanship, it brought an added measure of scrutiny and tension to confirmation proceedings. The Democrats filibustered to prevent cloture and delay a confirmation vote. The Republicans countered by invoking the so-called “nuclear option,” effectively changing Senate rules whereby they could break the filibuster with a simple majority. By a 54-45 vote, Neil Gorsuch was confirmed as the latest Supreme Court Justice. The whole process ultimately revealed few interesting tidbits about Gorsuch, and more so demonstrated the ugliness of political brinksmanship that has become a hallmark of Congress in this day and age. And we wonder why average Americans are not more politically engaged.
The Trump Administration vs. the World
As a function of “making America great again,” Donald Trump apparently believes strongly in defense spending and letting the world know the United States is #1. After alternatively touting his desire to bring the country along a more isolationist track and vowing to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” on the campaign trail, Trump, well, sort of did both. In terms of shows of force, his administration was responsible for dropping the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan, as well as approving the launch of dozens of missiles into Syria, supposedly as retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of toxic gas on its own people. The latter, in particular, got the dander of his white nationalist supporters up, though as far as most kinder, gentler souls are concerned, the disappointment of a bunch of ethnocentric xenophobes is not all that much of a loss. Less talked-about, but perhaps no less significant, were other less successful operations across international lines. First of all, not long after Trump took office, there was a botched raid in Yemen that saw Navy SEAL Ryan Owens killed, and to date, little information has been offered on the attack that led to his death and by all appearances was ill-advised. And there was the massacre at a mosque in Syria outside Aleppo. According to U.S. officials, numerous al-Qaeda operatives were taken out by the strike in the town of Jinah, but activists and others on the ground there tell a different story, one of civilians attending religious services and being fired upon as they tried to flee the place of worship. Reportedly, at least 46 people were killed in the assault on the mosque, and the U.S. military was criticized by humanitarian groups for not doing its due diligence in assessing the target for the possibility of civilian casualties. Oh, well—they were Muslims and not Americans anyway. Whoops!
In terms of isolating itself from the international community, America has done that under Donald Trump—if for other reason than it has done to things to alienate that international community. There was the whole backing of out of the Paris climate accord thing, which is voluntary in the first place and thus mostly serves as a middle finger to those here and abroad who give a hoot about polluting and climate change. Even before apparent attacks on American diplomats there, Trump and his administration have reversed course on Cuba relative to an Obama-era thawing of frigid diplomatic relations, and the benefit of this 180 to either side merits questioning. They’ve taken a tough tone with Iran and accused the country of not meeting its end of the bargain with respect to the nuclear deal much hated by conservative Republicans, in apparent deference to the whims of Saudi Arabia. Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong-un have basically had a year-long war of words through television news media and social media, with the latter referring to the former as a “dotard.” (Essentially, he told our President he’s a senile moron. Thanks, Merriam-Webster!) The White House has resolved to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to acknowledge the city, contested as to its very boundaries, as the capital of Israel, prompting a United Nations resolution condemning the move. And this is all before we even get to the investigation into Trump, his transition team, his administration, and suspected ties to Russia. In short, if Donald Trump hasn’t pissed you off this year, you’re either one of his core supporters or have just run out of f**ks to give—and I’m not sure which one is worse.
Race to the Exit: The Trump Administration Story
Viewing some of Trump’s picks for Cabinet posts and various positions within the White House at length, it was a wonder for many to see who might be first to go or fail to even get confirmed. At least Andrew Puzder, then-CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, had the decency to withdraw before the confirmation process was over; as potential Secretary of Labor, it was his employ of undocumented immigrants which was his undoing. Not giving less than half a shit about his employees and being opposed to raising the minimum wage? Nah, that was fine. In fact, it made him more than suitable for nomination in the era of Trump. Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Linda McMahon, Mick Mulvaney, Steve Mnuchin, Rick Perry, Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions—these are the kinds of individuals that Donald Trump, seemingly without irony, tapped for important government posts despite a lack of proficiency in their area of supposed expertise, a stated desire to abolish the very agency they were named to head, or both. Price ultimately resigned when information about his questionable spending of the government’s finances to suit his convenience came to light, and there have been whispers about the job security of Sessions and Rex Tillerson from time to time, but for the most part, the bulk of them still remain. And so much for draining the swamp—between Goldman Sachs and billionaires, this Cabinet is as marshy as they come.
As for other appointees and residual officeholders, there was yet more volatility to be had. Michael Flynn was National Security Adviser for all of about a month before getting canned, and currently, he’s facing repercussions after pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators. Not to be outdone, the aforementioned Anthony Scaramucci lasted a scant ten days before his sacking as White House Communications Director, and in that short time, he divested himself of business ties and ruined his marriage. Welcome to the team, Mooch—and don’t let the door hit you on your way out! His predecessor, Sean “Spicey” Spicer, made it to July before bowing out, but not before some hilarious cameos on Saturday Night Live featuring Melissa McCarthy as Spicer. Steve Bannon, the Skeleton King, made it to August before he was either fired or before he resigned—depending on who you ask. Sebastian Gorka also departed in August, and seeing as he didn’t do much but argue with the press in interviews anyway, I’m relatively sure he isn’t missed. Omarosa Manigault Newman is set to resign in January, and evidently is not afraid to tell all. In sum, people can’t get out of the Trump White House soon enough, and whether some vacancies will go unfilled or simply are taking forever to get filled, the hallmark of this administration is disarray and upheaval. And somehow Kellyanne Conway still has a job. Sorry—that’s the sound of my head hitting the wall. I’ll try to keep it down.
The Democrats Form a Killer Strategy to Win in 2018, 2020, and Be—Oh, Who Are We Kidding?
For a while, it was relatively quiet on the Democratic Party front following the election and even the Inauguration with the Dems licking their wounds. This is not to say, obviously, that nothing was going on behind the scenes. One event which seems fairly minor but reflects deep conflicts within the Democratic ranks was the election of a new Democratic National Committee chair to replace departing interim chair Donna Brazile, herself a replacement for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Keith Ellison, a Bernie Sanders supporter and popular progressive Democrat, was the front-runner for the position early, but concerns about Ellison’s lack of obeisance to the positions of the DNC’s rich Jewish donors and the establishment wing of the party not wishing to cede too much control to the “Bernie-crats” among them led former Labor Secretary Tom Perez to enter the fray. In the end, the vote was close, but Perez carried the day. That the Obama-Hillary segment of the Democratic Party would expend so much energy on a position that is largely ceremonial and concerned with fundraising is telling, and signals that any progressive reform of the party will be slow in coming—if at all.
If there is any further doubt about this, look at how certain races played out outside of the presidential milieu. Sure, Democrats may point to more recent victories in the gubernatorial elections of New Jersey (Phil Murphy) and Virginia (Ralph Northam), as well as the special election to replace Jeff Sessions in Alabama (Doug Jones), but other losses appear indicative of the Dems’ failure to commit to a comprehensive, 50-state strategy, namely Jon Ossoff in Georgia, James Thompson in Kansas, and Rob Quist in Montana, who lost to Greg Gianforte, even after the latter beat up a reporter. Seriously. Elsewhere, Hillary Clinton, after a moment of repose, released a book in which she accepted full responsibility for losing a election she was largely expected to win. Kidding! She blamed Bernie Sanders, voters for not coming out more strongly for her, James Comey, and even the DNC. That last one seems particularly disingenuous, especially when considering that Donna Brazile herself had a book to release critical of Hillary and one which confirmed what many of us already knew: that Hill-Dawg and the Committee were in cahoots long before the primaries. The Democrats seem content to allow Donald Trump and the machinations of the Republican Party to dig the GOP into an electoral hole. For an electorate increasingly weary of the “We’re Not the Other One” line, though, this does not a strategy make, and without an obvious frontrunner for 2020, the Democratic Party’s presumed advantage could well be overstated. Such that, if Trump actually makes it that far, it’s not inconceivable to think he could be re-elected. Talk about a recurring nightmare.
The White Supremacists, They Come Bearing Tiki Torches
In 2017, I would’ve thought it crazy for a scene to play out like it did in Charlottesville, Virginia this past August. And yet, lo and behold, it did. Some 250 protestors, carrying kerosene-filled torches and rebelling against a perceived erosion of their heritage and history, marched on the University of Virginia campus, shouting epithets, vowing not to be “replaced,” and generally ready to start a ruckus over the planned removal of a statue honoring Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The next day, though, if not as frightening in terms of the imagery, was worse in terms of the outcome. Protestors arrived carrying nationalist banners clubs, guns, and shields. Counter-protestors were also on hand to “greet” the white supremacists, the anti-fascists among them armed as well. It was not long before violence broke out, and by the time the police intervened, there already were injuries to tally. The worst of it all, though, were the fatalities. Heather Heyer, a counter-protestor, was killed as a result of a man deliberately plowing into people, and two state troopers, H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates, died in a separate helicopter crash. In terms of senseless violence and loss, the Charlottesville riots seem to epitomize the very concept.
The apparent surge in white nationalist leanings following the election of Donald Trump is disturbing in its own right, but by the same token, so too is it unsettling that people would condone attacks against their ranks so readily. Some people who reject any set of principles that resembles Nazism believe violence to suppress hateful rhetoric is justified. Such is the belief of various antifa groups, and this where the debate of the movement’s merits comes into play. Though anti-fascists like those who don the mark of the Black Bloc don’t actually have much to do with traditional liberalism, their association with the left threatens the credibility of true liberal and progressive groups, and nullifies the bargaining power that these individuals have over the deficient worldviews they oppose. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and violence as a tool to suppress violence does not serve its intended purpose.
Congress vs. Everyday Americans: F**k Your Health Care, and F**k Your Income Inequality
Per President Trump, the Affordable Care Act, also affectionately known as “ObamaCare,” is a total disaster. Republican leaders likewise have been decrying the ACA for some time now, painting it as an unwanted intrusion of the federal government in the health care industry. Never mind that a significant portion of red-state voters depend on the provisions of the Affordable Care Act to be able to pay for medically necessary services, and that a sizable subset of America would actually like to see the nation move to a single-payer/Medicare-for-all model. Trump and a GOP Congress had a lot riding on a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and replacing it, though owing to the notion the devil is in the details, that Republicans tried to rush legislation through the House and the Senate with little idea of what was in it was telling that it probably wasn’t something they would want to share with their constituents. In the end, John McCain’s “no” vote on a “skinny” repeal of ObamaCare turned out to be pivotal in the measure’s failure to pass. Trump would later issue an executive order that would broadly task the government with working on ways to improve competition, prices, and quality of care, though it faced criticisms for how it essentially opened a backdoor for the destabilization of ACA marketplaces by taking younger, healthier consumers of the equation. Yet more significant could be the planned ending of cost-sharing subsidy payments to insurers that would likely mean higher prices for the consumer. Whatever the case, Trump and the GOP haven’t killed the Affordable Care Act, despite their boasts—they’ve only repealed the individual mandate aspect of the law. Of course, this doesn’t mean the Republicans are done coming for affordable health care. Far from it, in all likelihood.
Where Trump et al. found greater success—to our detriment, it should be stressed—is in the passage and signing of their tax reform bill. Once again, the knowledge of its contents prior to voting among lawmakers was questionable, but ultimately, by relatively slim margins in the House and Senate, what many have referred to as the “GOP Tax Scam” cleared Congress. Make no mistake: this is not good news for average Americans. Any benefits to be enjoyed in the short term are outweighed by how the wealthiest among us and corporations will experience that much more of a boon, with long-term consequences to the national debt and minimal rewards to be trickled down to the rank-and-file. In short, it’s class warfare, and potentially a troubling herald of future attempts to screw with Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlement programs—and the worst part is most of us seem to know it. One can only hope that Republicans will face their own consequences in forthcoming elections. It’s not a great consolation, but at this point, it’s the best we’ve got.
Some Protests Get Lost in the Shouting/Tweeting; Others Succeed Beyond Expectations
Even before Colin Kaepernick, there were player protests and refusals to stand at attention for the playing of the National Anthem at professional sporting events. Not long after the start of the NFL season, however, the continued kneeling, sitting, staying in the locker room, or raising of fists raised the ire of one President Donald Trump who, while apparently not busy playing golf or signing disastrous legislation into law, started a fracas about players refusing to stand during the Star-Spangled Banner, suggesting they should be suspended or outright released for their disrespect of the flag and of those who have served and died for our country. Trump also cited the NFL’s declining ratings and ticket sales as a direct impact of the players kneeling. While it’s possible reactions to player protests may be a factor in these downturns, this overlooks other persistent issues facing professional sports in general: declines in traditional television viewership among younger adults, high costs of premium sports channel packages, the prevalence of injuries and concerns about traumatic brain injuries, the steep price tag for attending games in person, and the mediocrity of play of any number of teams. All the while, the original thrust of Kaepernick’s protest—to raise awareness of the unfair treatment of people of color at the hands of police and other institutions—seemed to get lost in the discussion of who was protesting, which teams issued ultimatums about standing and which did not, and why people weren’t watching now. So much for fighting racial injustice. Better luck in 2018, people of color.
In perhaps a surprising turn of events, though, and possibly a watershed moment in the fights for gender equality and for standing up for victims of sexual assault and harassment, movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s exposure as a habitual offender of sexual misconduct, if not outright rape, opened the floodgates for other accusations, admissions, allegations, and denials. Hollywood has apparently borne the brunt of the revelations inspired by the #MeToo movement, with any number of projects shelved or cancelled as a result of men’s misdeeds, but the political realm also has seen its share of high-profile figures caught in the spotlight. Al Franken was forced to resign from his seat in the U.S. Senate after numerous women accused him of impropriety. John Conyers, another congressional Democrat, resigned too in the wake of a veritable mountain of allegations. Roy Moore didn’t abandon his political aspirations even after the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan suggested he should step aside, but he also didn’t win as a Republican in Alabama. And then there’s maybe the biggest fish of them all: none other than Donald Trump. That Trump hasn’t been brought down by his own accusations—or for any other wrongdoing, for that matter—is somewhat deflating. Then again, maybe it’s only a matter of time. As with members of the GOP losing in 2018 and 2020, once more, we can only hope.
Meryl Streep famously put Donald Trump on blast at the Golden Globes. Predictably, this invited jeers from Trump supporters who felt “limousine liberals” like herself should “stay in their lane.” You may not like that Streep has a platform in this manner, but she still is an American, and that means not only is she entitled to say what she wants given the opportunity, but as she and others might see it, she has a civic duty to speak out when someone who ostensibly represents us, the people, does so in a destructive way. Kudos, Ms. Streep. I look forward to your acceptance speech at the forthcoming Golden Globes. Come on—you know it’s coming.
Bill Maher more or less engaged in a conversation with Sam Harris about how Islam is a deficient religion—though both men notably have their issues with organized religion, so take this for what it’s worth. In a separate chat with Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, when jokingly asked by the senator if he would work in the fields of Nebraska, Maher referred to himself as a “house n****r.” For an educated guy, Maher is kind of a dickish moron.
Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz had a health care debate on CNN. Why? Why not! At any rate, it was better than the Republican Party debates from last primary season.
In perhaps a glaring example of where we are as a nation in 2017, our President revealed he did not know who Frederick Douglass is—though Trump being Trump, tried to play it off like he did. Also, Kellyanne Conway continued to speak words that sounded like actual thoughts, declaring herself a “feminist” who apparently doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and elsewhere suggesting microwaves can be turned into cameras and be used to spy on us. Hmm—it appears my nose is bleeding. Or maybe that’s just my brain liquefying from these comments. Carry on, please.
In international news, Canada moved closer to legalizing marijuana, with a target date of Canada Day, 2018. In the States? Jeff Sessions the Racist Dinosaur and others like him talk about how weed is a drug for “bad people.” So, if you’re keeping score at home: cannabis :: bad; alcohol, tobacco, and firearms—things that are way more deadly than cannabis :: good. Well, at least we’ve got our priorities straight.
A handful of inmates were executed in Alabama, essentially because the state had a bunch of drugs used in lethal injection at its disposal set to expire, so—what the hell!—might as well use them! Pardon me for waxing philosophical as this moment, but the death penalty is state-sponsored murder. It is revenge for the sake of revenge, and way too often (and too late), it has ended the lives of those whose guilt would be proven false with new evidence and advances in forensic science. It should be abolished. Thank you. I’ll get down from my soapbox now.
James Comey was fired from his post as FBI director. This was in no way politically or personally motivated and in no way related to the investigation into Donald Trump, his finances, and any collusion with or other connections to Russia involving him or his surrogates. Right.
In Florida, the Grieving Families Act was signed into law, allowing women who have had miscarriages to obtain a “certificate of nonviable birth” for their fetus. So it’s about providing solace to women and their families? No, not really. At heart, it’s an end-around about abortion that seeks to specify when life begins and potentially heralds future attempts to chip away at women’s reproductive rights. Not to mention it connotes the idea that women who lose or terminate their pregnancies should only feel grief, when really, it can be a complex mix of emotions. As long as men are making decisions on the behalf of their female constituents about what they can and can’t do with their bodies, we’ll continue to see policies like this. Keep your eyes peeled.
Dana Loesch released a fiery video about the NRA and how it is “freedom’s last stand.” In other exciting gun news, a guy shot up a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and killed a bunch of people. Let freedom ring, eh?
White nationalists apparently love Tucker Carlson because he question the merits of all immigration—legal or not. Carlson, like Bill Maher, is kind of a douche.
Venezuela held a sham election “won” by Nicolas Maduro. Maduro identifies with socialism. Socialism, therefore, is bad, and Bernie Sanders is the devil. Are you following this logic? If it makes sense to you, um, you’re probably not the intended audience for this blog, but thanks for reading anyway.
Catalonia had a vote to declare independence from Spain. The Spanish government, well, didn’t like that too much. The result was a violent crackdown against pro-independence protests and a lot of international attention drawn to the situation, and in a recent vote, separatists won a slim majority after Spain ousted the previous Catalan government. Great job, Prime Minister Rajoy! You really screwed the Puigdemont on that one.
Joe Arpaio, a virulent racist and all-around ass-hat who held inmates in substandard conditions and profiled residents suspected of being undocumented immigrants as Maricopa County Sheriff in Arizona, was pardoned by President Trump. In other words, f**k off, Hispanics and Latinos.
Millennials can still be blamed for pretty much anything, depending on who you ask. The extinction of the dinosaurs? Oh, yeah—we did that shit.
Bitcoin continues to see wild swings in its valuation after the spike in the second half of the year which brought it to the national consciousness. Does this mean it’s inherently bad? Not necessarily. As with any emerging technology, there are ups and downs to be had with Bitcoin made more pronounced by its recent prominence. Are you behind the curve now, though, with respect to making big bucks off of a relatively small investment? Most definitely.
By installing Mick Mulvaney as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, America moved one step closer to eliminating the one agency expressly devoted to protecting consumer interests as regards their finances and investment vehicles. Consumer advocacy—what a joke!
Speaking of one step closer, the powers-that-be edged the Doomsday Clock one tick nearer to midnight. Er, pop the champagne?
In advance of the coming year, as far as politics and current events are concerned, there are all kinds of things that may factor into predictions for 2018. Certainly, though, we would expect certain things to continue as they are. Our beloved President will undoubtedly keep Tweeting acrimonious barbs at anyone who runs afoul of him and making cheap concessions to his supporters, especially from the context of rallies that he shouldn’t be having while not on the campaign trail. A GOP-majority Congress will still try to pass off policy designed to primarily benefit its wealthy corporate and individual donors as a boon for the “American people.” Bitcoin will probably still see extreme volatility as to its price, if the bubble doesn’t burst outright. And don’t even get me started about America’s attention to environmental conservation. When Trump and his Republican cronies are repealing Obama-era protections on keeping mining waste out of clean water, reversing bans on the Keystone XL Pipeline going through Native American reservations, allowing for the use of lead ammunition in national parks, and greenlighting drilling for oil in wildlife refuges, you know we are not close to doing our part to combat deleterious climate change. These actions belie the seriousness of the problem, and stunt the progress which can’t be stopped regarding the transition to renewable energy sources away from fossil fuels. At a time when we need to do all we can to slow or reverse the damage we’ve done to our planet, standing still is going backward.
Sounds bad, huh? While there are yet more reasons to be concerned from an activism/human rights standpoint—the all-too-slow recovery from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; the pervasive influence of money in politics and gerrymandering purely for political gain; the plight of immigrants, migrants, and refugees worldwide; and the repeated iterations of the travel ban (read: Muslim ban) jump to mind—there is yet for hope for those on the left, and perhaps even those on the right. You know, even if they don’t know any better. In the political sphere, in particular, the deficient policies advanced by Republicans could end up in an electoral backlash in 2018 and 2020. Granted, this does not mean that Democrats don’t need to be held to higher standards, and as bad as GOP leadership has been, that Bernie Sanders, an aging independent from Vermont, remains a more popular choice than most prominent Dems suggests not is entirely well with the Democratic Party either. Speaking of bad leadership, and depending on the contents of Robert Mueller’s investigation, President Donald Trump might also be in real trouble from an ethical/legal standpoint. While visions of impeachment and President Mike Pence aren’t all that inspiring, at this point, anyone seems better than President Pussy-Grabber. I mean, eventually, all the terrible shit Trump has said and done has to come back to him, right? Right?
In truth, I am not terribly optimistic about 2018. But I’m also not done resisting against those who compromise ethical and moral standards to enrich themselves at the expense of others. By this, I mean the people at the top who are willing to see everyday Americans struggle through hunger, poverty, sickness and even death to further their bottom line. For all the preoccupation about border security, crime, and terrorism for many prospective 2020 voters, the “rigged” system about which Trump offhandedly talks is a yet bigger worry, and the aforementioned climate crisis our Earth faces is potentially worst of all. This all sounds very old-hat and trite, but until we start making real progress on the various forms of inequality which plague our society, these aphorisms must be repeated and stressed. Accordingly, through all the trepidation we might feel, there is too much work to be done not to do it. It’s worth the effort. After all, it’s our very lives and livelihoods we’re fighting for.
Whatever path you choose, best wishes to you and yours for 2018 and beyond, and keep fighting the good fight.
If people look hard enough for signs of the apocalypse, they’re sure to find them. Donald Trump as President of the United States, if not a herald of the end of the world, certainly doesn’t bode well for its future—just ask the powers-that-be behind the Doomsday Clock. Other aspects of life today, while perhaps not damning in them of themselves, in sum total may likewise well presage our civilization’s decline. Selfies. All-you-can-eat buffets. The phenomenon that is “Cash Me Outside” Girl. The Human Centipede movies. Sandwiches and other meals in which fried chicken is the bread. OK, maybe these are just things for which I personally have low regard, but I have my reasons. (Especially for The Human Centipede movies.) In fact, the breakdown of society is a popular trope across entertainment media. A show about the zombie apocalypse is not only one of the biggest shows on television these days—it has a spin-off that is essentially just the same show in a different location! In short, imagery of global destruction is all around us, such that it’s hard not to adopt feelings of doom and gloom surrounding the current state of affairs, at least now and again. Sometimes, all we can do is to latch onto something which grounds us in the here and now and brings us some measure of comfort.
It is within this context that I invoke a recently-published study conducted by a group of scientists regarding fairly recent trends in animal populations from which they’ve concluded Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction. The study cites significant declines in numbers of close to 9,000 vertebrate species just since 1900, including the outright extinction of almost 200 species, and does not mince words, depicting the situation as a global “biological annihilation.” Furthermore, these scientists caution that the window for effective action is a small one. Like, a mere 20 or 30 years. With Pres. Trump set to run the country—if you can call what he’s doing “running” the country—for the next three-and-a-half years, if not more, this puts us behind the proverbial 8-ball. While one might be careful not to overstate the damage Trump can do with so much momentum already behind efforts to create sustainable operations in both the public and private sectors, his ability to stunt this growth by halting regulations is nonetheless worrisome given the narrow time frame for intervention on the Earth’s behalf.
As reports on this study such as this one from Kristine Phillips of the Washington Postindicate, there is far from a consensus on the point of where are we on the timetable of mass extinctions or if we are in the midst of one at all. The researchers use data to back up their assertions, finding about a third of their sample of 27,600 vertebrate species have seen significant declines in population and habitat size over the course of study. More specifically, more than 40% of mammals (that’s us) in the sample, of which 177 species were scrutinized for the sake of this study, saw their numbers plummet. For the sake of an example, African lions have declined in number by more than 40% in just the last 20 years.
These findings seem stark and substantial, but not everyone in the scientific community is convinced. One expert in the field cited in Phillips’ report says that a mass extinction may well be underway, but it is only just beginning, and regardless, “telling people that we’re all doomed and going to die isn’t terribly helpful.” Well, no, but let’s also not undersell the whole mass extinction angle because it might frighten some people or bum them out, OK, guy? Another critical expert quoted within believes comparing prevailing trends in animal populations to the previous five established extinction-level events amounts to little more than “junk science,” as this is somewhat of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Or, perhaps to be more animal-centered, a baboon-to-porpoise comparison?
Regardless of whether or not animal population declines mediated by disappearing habitats qualifies as a distinct era of extinction, however, what these scientists can all seem to agree on is that humans have played a role in a number of these species extinctions, and that more are likely to come. Besides, there are those cohorts within the scientific community who believe such direct language on the need for conservation is not only advisable, but necessary. Sound the alarm bells! We’re going downhill—fast! As Kristine Phillips also notes, this is not the first time the idea has been advanced that we are in the midst of a mass extinction; some of the same researchers behind the current study raised concerns along these lines with a study only two years ago. In addition—and for those of us who might be standing on a ledge about now—there may be hope for all of us animals yet. Efforts to conserve endangered species and their habitats can and do work, and moreover, with regard to imperiled species numbers, safeguarding these populations can allow them to rebound like Shaquille O’Neal in his prime. (Note: O’Neal may or may not have been as prolific a rebounder as I remember him. The majority of my familiarity with basketball from that era is limited to playing NBA Jam.) Right down to planting native plants in one’s yard, we, as concerned citizens, can help.
Now that you’re clambering down from the ledge and heading back through the skyscraper window, let’s bring in the Trump administration and a Republican-led Congress. Wait—don’t turn around and head back for that ledge! With respect to paths to action as outlined by Phillips and the scientists she cites, the caveat in recommending readers contact their elected representatives is that any number of them currently occupying seats don’t feel quite the same zeal for looking after the Earth and the fauna inhabiting it, particularly when espousing conservative or otherwise industry-centered views. As Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, sets forth, the current Congress is the “most anti-endangered species in history,” and his organization has identified 34 different active pieces of legislation which would weaken protections for the most vulnerable species.
And don’t even get me started about Donald Trump and his flunkies. Talk about setting a tone at the top—Trump not only once infamously espoused the belief that climate change was a myth created by the Chinese, but as President, he pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, a non-binding international commitment to combat the adverse effects of climate change. Non-binding. With no penalties. You get it—why doesn’t he? His selections for prominent positions in his Cabinet likewise fail to inspire on an ecological front, and for that matter, appear designed as deliberate attempts to undermine the departments to which the confirmed candidates have been assigned. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, is a former CEO of ExxonMobil. Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, marked his confirmation by approving a measure that would roll back restrictions on the use of lead ammunition for hunters on federal lands. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, sued the EPA umpteen times as Attorney General of the state of Oklahoma. Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy, would’ve advocated for the dissolution of this department when campaigning for President—but he was too blockheaded to recall its name during the debate when asked.
These are the jokers who have aided and abetted Trump in his crusade to undo every meaningful environmental regulation from Barack Obama’s tenure, and so many of these reversals of policy are evidently unnecessary. We need more lead ammunition so—what, exactly? More birds of prey can get sick and die from lead poisoning from feeding on animals shot with it? It was so vital to repeal the Clean Water Rule because—oil/gas and fertilizer/pesticide companies were so inconvenienced by having to not dump shit in our streams and other waterways? Trump and Co. are very clearly putting profits over people and animals here, and in doing so, are ascribing to the belief that conservationism is bad for our bottom line. This, however, like so many of this administration’s ideas, is dead wrong.
Like so much of President Trump’s agenda, the shift toward an even more lax regard for the natural environment seems predicated on a short-term reward—and not one that the country as a whole will reap. Oh, sure, the part of the constituency for whom this plays may be thrilled at the vague idea we as a nation will start to do more for Joe the Miner than we did under Barack Obama or would have done under Hillary Clinton. From the outside looking in, though, we know better than to think Donald Trump is playing fast and loose with the fate of the planet primarily for their benefit. Instead, it’s on behalf of other rich assholes like himself, especially leaders of industry, and of course, himself, in terms of their vote come 2020. What facilitates this tacit agreement between the governor and the governed—or at least the portion of the governed that comprises his would-be supporters—is a larger shift away from confidence in science and the scientific community that supplies all the inconvenient facts climate change deniers and their ilk don’t like so much. In recent years, we’ve seen a sea change in the public’s credence of scientific principles and verifiable evidence.
As this intersects with politics, Newt Gingrich somewhat unwittingly invoked the seemingly growing divide between facts—those tidbits which are verifiably true or are generally accepted to be true based on a broad scientific consensus—and feelings—those assumptions which are based on assumptions and prejudices which may be true, but are not supported by evidence and are thus prone to error. In an interview with Gingrich on CNN during the Republican National Convention, the at-one-time-vice-presidential-nominee to Trump was pressed on the matter of whether or not violent crime had gone down over the years. Trump’s tone in his keynote speech was one of dystopian hyperbole, fire, and brimstone, in which he depicted the United States of America as a few murders short of a scene out of the Purge movies. The facts, unsurprisingly, don’t support Donald Trump’s claims; all one needs to do is access recent publicly-available data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, read about the trends, and see the line graphs going down. Easy-peasy.
Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, argued that these verifiable facts and figures were of less importance because Americans don’t feel them to be true. That is, John and Jane Public, good friends of Joe the Miner, don’t feel we are any safer of late. The implications of this line of thinking are all-too-frighteningly clear. By prioritizing feelings over facts, we are encouraging the cherry-picking of data to be used in analysis that only serves the purpose of the persons skewing this information to promote their desired narrative. Furthermore, by sanctioning the use of data in this way, we are implicitly approving the creation of policy and voting in accordance with the figures extracted using faulty science. Essentially, Gingrich is arguing it’s OK to mislead an American electorate which already tends to fall prey to trusting what their gut tells them as opposed to what their mind, aided by provable data, does. In other words, it’s not politicians’ fault that the rank-and-file among us can be guided like sheep into an enclosure. To a certain extent, he’s not wrong that we bear some culpability, but the ends certainly do not justify the means.
Ethan Siegel, astrophysicist, author, and primary writer on the science site Starts with a Bang!, wrote a post in response to Newt Gingrich’s arguments regarding the merits of feelings over facts shortly after the actual event occurred. Surely, as a member of the scientific community and an expert in his field, Siegel is not neutral on this subject, nor should we expect him to be. Still, as someone who, like so many of us, is concerned about the future of our country and of our world, his perspective on how we see expertise and its bearing on our relationship with factual information is potentially quite valuable, and certainly not one to be automatically dismissed. Siegel offers these thoughts on humans’ tendency to cherry-pick data and otherwise resist disconfirming evidence:
Most of us are uncomfortable with relying on others — even experts — even when we ourselves don’t have expert knowledge, expert training or the expertise of the full suite of all relevant facts. Particle physicist Brian Cox recently discussed this, saying: “It’s entirely wrong, and it’s the road back to the cave. The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.”
The facts do not change because of how we interpret (or misinterpret) them. Homeopathy is scientifically, robustly 100% ineffective against cancer. Fluoridated water results in a blanket 40% reduction in cavities, on average, on top of any other dental health programs in children. Violent crime has continued to decrease in America, continuing a trend that has persisted for more than 20 years. […] And human-caused changes to the environment are causing the Earth to warm, a long-term trend that is visible in the global temperature records for many decades now.
Both Ethan Siegel and Brian Cox (the man he quotes) come from a similar place when it comes to recognition of experts. This is to say that even they recognize experts aren’t always right about what they study—I’m sure some of you are recalling past errant weather forecasts made by meteorologists and nodding your heads in agreement—but they nonetheless understand that expertise is our best path toward some kind of truth. As Siegel tries repeatedly to reinforce, facts don’t become any more or less true depending on our personal beliefs. It is incumbent upon us as end users of documented scientific information to sift through the findings and draw our own conclusions, as it is with politics.
Coming back to the notion that started this whole meditation on the nature of scientific inquiry, you may choose to believe or disbelieve the idea that a sixth mass extinction is underway. Whatever you decide, though, the science on climate change is substantially less arguable, and at any rate, the value placed on factual information must be held sacrosanct. Whether it’s a literal cave in which one would isolate himself or herself from the outside world, or a figurative bubble into which to recede and ignore the inconvenient truths which cause us discomfort, becoming too entrenched has its certain perils.
How many times have you heard the phrase “live each day like it’s your last?” It’s good advice, in theory. Certainly, you should be active in shaping your destiny and not waiting for things to happen to your benefit. Then again, taken to absurd extremes, this could be a dangerous mantra by which to live. At no point is it recommended that your drain your savings, spend it on alcohol, drugs, and other diversions, and throw the party to end all parties. Swimming pools full of liquor à la Kendrick Lamar. Sex with many anonymous partners. Fun, perhaps, yes, but not terribly prudent. If it seems like I’m a bit of a wet blanket in this regard, it’s only because, by all accounts, I am.
President Donald J. Trump, for his part, seems to subscribe to this way of thinking, or at least approaches running the country in this way. Risk the position of the Republican Party by insisting on a replacement to ObamaCare, an unpopular travel ban, a militaristic immigration policy and overall approach to criminal justice, and an expensive wall at the Mexican border, among other things? No big deal—Trump hasn’t been a very faithful member of the GOP, and basically ran his campaign without the full backing of the party’s leaders (in fact, that probably only helped him). Fire off crazy, unfounded remarks regularly on Twitter? Fine—the news media is happy with all the clicks and TV ratings it receives every time he makes his feelings known. Appeal to corporations and workers alike with a pro-business, anti-environment agenda? That’s OK—he’ll probably be dead by the time the worst effects of deleterious climate change hit (though at the rate he’s going, who knows).
More recently, however, it is the firing of FBI director James Comey that has people up in arms, particularly incensed about the decision of a man known for acting suddenly and capriciously. Now, was Mr. Comey a saint? Far from it, as evidenced by his rather brazen actions which directly influenced voters’ perceptions of the 2016 presidential race—which he testified as being absolutely sick about, because he had no intention of doing anything to sway the outcome. Sure, Jim, you’re really helping your credibility there. In fact, after Comey effectively threw hurdles in Hillary Clinton’s lane in the race for the presidency, many were calling for his head. You know, figuratively speaking. At least I think it was figuratively speaking. This past election sure dredged up some powerful feelings—and still continues to, if I might add.
Based on his guilt, then, James Comey doesn’t inspire a great deal of sympathy merely for losing his job. Where the outrage lies, meanwhile, is what the presumed motivations are for Trump deciding to fire Comey at this point in time. The White House has indicated it was because of Comey’s apparent bias and his lack of fairness in dealing with Hillary Clinton, among other things, but come on—nobody believes that. After all, why wait until May 2017 to make the determination to ax Comey if that were the case? Such reasoning is not only illogical, but it’s pretty damn insulting to our intelligence as readers, Tweeters, and viewers of the news.
No, the consensus opinion is that James Comey was fired because he was getting too close for comfort in his investigation of Donald Trump himself and other close associates. It is all but known that Trump and prominent members of his administration/campaign have direct financial ties to Russian oligarchs or had contact with Russian ambassadors prior to the election, and hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s and John Podesta’s E-mails raise serious concerns about whether or not Trump and his team were involved in an apparent plot to screw with American democratic proceedings and sway the election in his favor. In addition, viewed in the context of other firings within the Justice Department, namely those of Sally Yates and Preet Bharara, Comey’s removal is suspicious in that those individuals who have been involved with investigating Trump’s affairs have all been sent packing by the President. Sure, there’s no definitive proof these firings were all politically motivated—well, not yet, at least—but this trend raises one’s eyebrows. Heck, John McCain broke ranks with his fellow Republicans to express his disappointment in Comey proving to be a casualty of the Trump White House. When members of the GOP are publicly casting doubts about Trump’s motives, you know it’s a big deal.
Predictably, a number of his Cabinet members came to Pres. Trump’s defense, as I’m sure his fans on blogs, on Breitbart, and on talk radio did as well. The rationalization that stuck with me the most, though, was that of Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations and, more recently, Donald Trump apologist. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on his show This Week, Haley said that “[Trump] is the CEO of the country. He can hire and fire anyone he wants.” This is a striking assertion to me, not merely because Trump, as President of the United States, can’t just fire anyone he wants. A significant portion of Trump’s lasting appeal is his identity as a political outsider and a successful businessman (only one of the two is accurate), and in this regard, his presidency is almost an experiment of sorts in applying a business leadership model to a publicly-elected office. In talking with my close circle of friends about Donald Trump (spoiler alert: we’re generally not fond of him), we discussed how Americans who voted for the orange one may have been swayed by vague notions of wanting to see how the country could or would be run if it were handled like a corporation or other business. Given this frame of mind, Trump’s perceived success or failure and the future political prospects of other prominent Republicans could therefore be seen as a referendum on such an industry-focused approach.
Now well past the 100-day mark of Trump’s tenure, it’s worth considering whether or not more and more Americans who voted him into office might be suffering from a case of buyer’s remorse, not to mention contemplating just how well the Trump-as-CEO-President analogy fits. As John Cassidy, writing for The New Yorker, insists, if Donald Trump were a CEO, he’d probably be fired. To this end, and in his assessment of Trump’s tenure heretofore, Cassidy is pretty much unequivocal:
Donald Trump has built his political career on his reputation as a successful businessman, so it seems fair to assess his recent performance as President as if he were a C.E.O. running U.S.A., Inc. The report card isn’t pretty. Indeed, if Trump were the chief executive of a public company, the firm’s non-executive directors probably would have been huddled in a crisis meeting on Tuesday morning, deciding whether to issue him a pink slip.
In such a corporate scenario, the board members would likely decide they had no choice but to oust Trump to protect the reputation of the company and prevent further damage. During the past week, he has twice messed up monumentally, doing grave harm to his own credibility and undermining the country’s reputation around the world. And these were just his latest mistakes. During his four months in the corner office, Trump has repeatedly shown that he is patently unsuited for the position he holds, and he has also demonstrated a chronic inability to change the way he operates.
I would think more moderate Trump supporters and voters would be apt to concede that “the Donald” lacks the qualifications you might desire of a Commander-in-Chief, much in the way reluctant Hillary Clinton voters would likely concede their choice was—how can I put this delicately?—somewhat out of touch with working-class Americans. Those same people would also probably agree that flexibility and Donald Trump do not necessarily come part and parcel, though they might disagree to the extent this is a virtue or vice. For all those individuals who profess to want a negotiator who will work with members of both major political parties and knows how to compromise, there seems to be, if not an equivalent number of people, then a sufficiently vocal minority which believes the opposite: that refusal to compromise is an element of strong leadership, and that sticking to one’s proverbial guns is to be lauded, not decried.
In other words, John Cassidy would be remiss if he did not cite specific examples of how Donald Trump as POTUS and chief executive has failed. Thankfully, at least for his sake, he does not disappoint. Though I’m sure you can imagine which recent events top his list, here are the two big blockbusters that he cites to prove his point:
1. The firing of James Comey
We’ve addressed this in part, but Cassidy points out the incongruity in the public statements about why Comey was fired is a public relations disaster, and, though it almost certainly means nothing to Trump, he really hung Vice President Mike Pence out to dry by contradicting his account of why a vacancy at the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation now exists. Trump’s ensuing Tweets that appear to be warning James Comey that he had better hope there were no tapes of their conversations only further the notion that he (Trump) is the kind of unstable person who you wouldn’t want caring for your pet goldfish, let alone a company or the United States of freaking America. I mean, to put it another way, um, blackmail tends to be frowned upon in our society.
2. The disclosure of classified information to Russian officials
At a bare minimum, this is a case of bad optics, but in a different country or perhaps even in a different era, Donald Trump would stand to be harangued or tarred-and-feathered—or worse—for what some might argue is tantamount to treason. We all know of Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin and other world leaders suspected of crimes against humanity. But seriously, bruh, this is Russia we’re talking about here. You know, the country responsible for hacking our election? As Cassidy puts it, running with the metaphor of America as a corporate entity (realistically speaking, it’s not much of a stretch), “Just how much damage Trump’s indiscretions have inflicted on the company isn’t yet known. But it’s clear that he was guilty of a serious breach of trust, and another stunning error of judgment.”
For most of Trump’s tenure as “CEO,” other executives within the company (high-ranking Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell) and its most bullish shareholders (Trump supporters) have been willing to roll with the punches, but as of late, #45’s antics have made even them skittish. Thinking in terms of the big picture, there is a clear element of risk here, and in terms of economic hazards, not just political danger. With the unpredictability of Donald Trump’s actions and the civil unrest that has accompanied his rise to power, both domestically-based and foreign-owned companies are less liable to seek to invest in our nation. The same goes for those individuals who would study or travel or work here. If not worried about their physical safety, the fear may well be for what is called, in business parlance, the going concern of the company, or its ability to remain in business for the foreseeable future. In the case of the United States of America, not only are concerns about our debt and our infrastructure more than justified, but the prospects of a climate catastrophe or world war don’t seem all that remote either. The ticking of the Doomsday Clock grows ever louder.
Donald Trump’s behavior of late has intensified talks of impeachment. In terms of potential impeachable offenses, the reported request made by Trump of James Comey to effectively look the other way on Michael Flynn looms especially large, as it points to a deliberate attempt to obstruct justice. Then again, for months, critics have been circling, highlighting, and putting a bright neon sticky note on Trump’s and his family’s refusal to divest or put Trump Organization assets in a blind trust, saying this alone is sufficient grounds for removal based on violation of the now-famous Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Let it be stressed, though, that these calls for the deposition of Pres. Trump come with their own caveat. For one, cries for impeachment proceedings from the general public will likely need to be amplified by Congress, and the Republicans in the House and Senate don’t seem to give a serious enough shit to act to curb Trump’s wanton disregard for ethics, human decency, and said Constitution. Besides this, getting rid of Trump doesn’t mean that the leadership gets profoundly better based on who’s next in the line of succession. After Donald Trump—just to name a few—it’s Mike Pence (Vice President), followed by Paul Ryan (Speaker of the House), Orrin Hatch (President pro tem of the Senate), Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State), and Steven Mnuchin (Secretary of the Treasury). What a bunch of winners, eh? Hard to know which is slimier or more slippery than the next, and, yes, better than Trump, but as has been well established, that’s a low bar to clear.
President Trump’s reckless behavior, though, while it should be rightly admonished and while it forms the basis of much of John Cassidy’s analysis, doesn’t speak to the full scope of his ineffectiveness as CEO of the company-country. John Micklethwait, Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, views things somewhat more holistically in terms of how well managed the White House is. As with Cassidy’s findings, meanwhile, the results are similarly unenthusiastic. Micklethwait’s piece is entitled “Would You Let Trump Run Your Company?” and hits on a number of the same themes that thus have been presented. The same antics that Cassidy enumerates are referenced herein, but the author quickly pivots to assessing the Trump presidency purely on its merits as a cohesive unit and the boss’s merits as a facilitator:
Behind this list of individual transgressions sit four larger failings: This CEO-in-chief has failed to get things done; he has failed to build a strong team, especially in domestic policy; he hasn’t dealt with conflicts of interest; and his communications is in shambles.
On the first count, you can basically spin the domestic policy wheel of fortune and pick an area where Trump and Co. have been unable to get substantive policy authored and enacted. The American Health Care Act, the GOP’s putative replacement for the Affordable Care Act, still has yet to be passed by both halves of Congress, and faces stern opposition not only from minority-party Democrats, but concerned constituents regardless of political affiliation. His proposed tax reform has yet to be even fully visualized. Ditto for his infrastructure plan, and to boot, several of his executive orders have (thankfully) been challenged in and stayed by the nation’s judiciary. So there’s that.
On the second count, Donald Trump is much further behind in filling needed posts than Barack Obama was at this point in his presidency. Even putting the drama with the quick-to-resign Michael Flynn aside, John Micklethwait points to a “whiff of cronyism” in the Trump administration ranks, capped off by positions of influence for Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner despite their apparent lack of qualifications for their associated stature. As Micklethwait puts it: “There appears to be little structure in the White House. It’s more like a court than a company, with the king retiring to bed with a cheeseburger and spontaneously tweeting orders.”
On the third count, there’s Trump’s conflicts of interests, to which I’ve already alluded. Micklethwait highlights the contrast between how most—for lack of a better term—normal executives manage their personal investments next to those of their business, and how Trump, ever cavalier, has approached his affairs. In the author’s words once more:
In most businesses, this is something most incoming bosses deal with quickly and automatically. There’s an ethics policy, and you follow it. That policy usually has two levels: first, obeying the law; second, setting standards and following processes that avoid even the impression of any conflict. This second prohibitive level is crucial.
Again, and to make a long story short, the Trump family has failed this test, if you can even say that, because calling them failures implies they have at least nominally tried to comply with ethical and legal guidelines. They haven’t.
On the fourth and final count, there’s the communications aspect. Donald Trump is characteristically unpredictable, a quality he likely sees as a virtue because it keeps his would-be competitors guessing. Unfortunately, in terms of working with his so-called team, when figures like Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson aren’t contradicting one another, Trump himself is Tweeting something that flies in the face of what Mike Pence or Sean Spicer or some other mouthpiece for the President says. Or he’s just flat-out lying, and unlike other CEOs who ultimately cop to their falsehoods and express some degree of contrition, Trump only doubles down on his assertions, and tries to bully or goad dissenters into silence. He’s not just merely falling short on this dimension—he’s helping create a dangerous world where facts are ignored or marginalized in favor of who has the loudest or sexiest argument.
In all respects, therefore, Pres. Trump is not proving an effective leader, and America is not “winning” nearly as much as he boasted we would because of it. In fact, we may be starting to lose outright. Stocks rebounded this past Thursday across major indexes, buoyed by strong economic data, but they had to rebound because uncertainty surrounding Donald Trump and whispers of impeachment sent the Dow Jones, for one, tumbling by more than 350 points. On one hand, two or three or four days does not a definitive economic trend make. Still, with a man in the White House whose penchant is unpredictability, that we might continue to see these individual “shocks” is reasonable, if not probable. When the fate of the markets is largely in the hands of reactionary investors, the question becomes how bumpy is too bumpy a ride before these shareholders want to get off.
In closing his op-ed, John Micklethwait offers these sentiments, essentially telling us it’s up to Republican Party leaders to decide whether or not it’s time to come get their boy Trump. You know, assuming he doesn’t suddenly become more presidential—and one is advised not to hold his or her breath to that end:
There is a semi-charitable explanation for much of this chaos. Trump does not have any experience as a CEO—at least in the sense that most of corporate America would recognize. One telling irony: Many of the banking executives now trying to curry favor with him would never have lent him money in the past. His skills were in dealmaking, rather than running a large organization. The core Trump company had barely 100 people. It’s possible that if he takes on some of the basic management lessons to do with structure, process, and delegation, then he may be able to run America. The question now is whether he has already made enough mistakes for the board to get rid of him. The closest thing America has to a board is the group of Republican senators who must decide what to investigate. Trump will hate the analogy, but at this moment, their leader, Senator McConnell, is his chairman—and the CEO has a lot of explaining to do.
In the lead-in to this post, I referred to Donald Trump leading the country like there’s no tomorrow. The GOP, too, has been playing a short-term game, doing what they can to approve the legislation and nominees they wish to have confirmed, even going as far as to use the “nuclear option”—changing Senate rules to overcome the power of filibuster. Otherwise, they have been performing a balancing act with their policy stances, eager not to alienate Trump supporters in possible bids for re-election. As the rocky road of Donald J. Trump as CEO of the US of A continues, however, how long will it be before they start to panic in their own right? For those who wanted a pro-business outsider from the private sector in the Oval Office, or simply someone who would advance a conservative Republican agenda, be careful what you wish for. You may not get the returns you’ve been seeking, and even worse, you may find your support for the CEO-President only serves to work against you after all.
Though it’s been fairly quiet on the confirmation front lately (President Donald Trump has been repeatedly criticized for his—shall we say—dilatory commitment to filling vacancies in his Cabinet), even ex post facto, it can be educational to see how our U.S. senators voted on the 19 nominees thus confirmed. A particularly valuable resource in this regard is an interactive graphic from The New York Times authored by Wilson Andrews, Times graphics editor, that plots the confirmation vote records of each and every senator, sorted by most “no” votes to least.
On the Republican side, the results are disappointing, if not unsurprising. Of the 52 Republicans with a seat in the Senate, only four have registered at least one “no” vote: Lisa Murkowski (DeVos), John McCain, (Mulvaney), Rand Paul (Pompeo, Coats), and Susan Collins (DeVos, Pruitt). Aside from Andrew Puzder, who withdrew his name for consideration for the role of Secretary of Labor, and Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, who required Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 tie and has been the only nominee to receive multiple “no” votes from Republicans, no one else has really been in doubt to pass confirmation proceedings. The only other candidates who have failed to garner even 55 votes are Mick Mulvaney (Office of Management and Budget), Jeff Sessions (Attorney General), Tom Price (Department of Health and Human Services), Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency), and Steven Mnuchin, the likes of which, either based on their past conduct, their conflicts upon conflicts of interest, or both, haven’t exactly distinguished themselves—well, at least not in the positive sense.
As for the Democrats and independents, the results are decidedly more varied. The top “no” voter in the Senate, tallying 17 of 19 nays, is Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who is not really regarded as a progressive heroine, but has seemingly moved further left as she has gone along, and certainly more so than in her days in the House. Also high on the list are some of the more popular and well-regarded senators in terms of their principles—Cory Booker, Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, all of whom have issued 16 of 19 “no” votes. These senators and others who have voted no roughly two-thirds of the time—13 or more “no” votes, let’s say—comprise a minority even within the group of just Democratic and independent senators. Only 15 of this bloc of 48 senators have voted “no” 13+ times (31.25%), and that clip decreases to a scant 15% within the U.S. Senate at large. On one hand, that more Democrats are willing to break ranks is perhaps encouraging in terms of the desire to not merely rubberstamp or preemptively dismiss nominees along the path to confirmation. On the other hand, if you were looking for a unified front from the Dems, you can go ahead and keep looking, and moreover, the divide in votes may be indicative of a larger ideological divide within the Democratic Party.
Though a minority in its own right, a group of eight Democratic or independent senators has failed to record 10 or more “no” votes in 19 confirmation vote proceedings, with five of them failing to eclipse even six of 19, or a third of votes. These are the lowest of the low, literally speaking, regarding “no” votes:
Joe Manchin III (D-WV)
“No” Votes: 4 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Price, Ross)
Joe Manchin, a professed Democrat, has cast as many “no” votes as Republican Senators who have voted “no” altogether during the confirmation process. As noted, that’s a bar that should be fairly easy to clear—and he hasn’t. The votes for Scott Pruitt and Rex Tillerson don’t come as that much of a surprise for Manchin, hailing from a state that is synonymous with coal, but the “yes” vote for Jeff Sessions is particularly egregious. Some are comparing Joe Manchin, based on his willingness to break from other Dems, to Joe Lieberman, a comparison which is not all that endearing. Though obviously a joke, it’s telling when the official Twitter feed for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee suggests Democrats oppose Manchin in the 2018 primaries with a lump of coal. Brutal, but not wholly undeserved.
Heidi Heitkamp, like Joe Manchin III, suffers the ignominy of voting “yes” on both Pruitt and Tillerson. Also like Manchin, she hails from a state in North Dakota of which fossil fuels make up a significant part of the economy, so not a huge shocker there, but still disappointing. That she would be so principled on nominees like Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Sessions, Tom Price, and Steven Mnuchin makes her positions on Scott Pruitt and Rex Tillerson all the more jarring. Either way, Heitkamp and Manchin are the only two Democrats to vote for both Pruitt and Tillerson, and the former, like the latter, should receive her due censure from progressives within the party.
Angus King of Maine is one of two independents in the Senate, alongside a certain senator from the state of Vermont who gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money regarding the Democratic Party nomination. Like Bernie Sanders, he caucuses with the Democrats. Apparently, though, he doesn’t vote with them nearly as often as his counterpart. Certainly, the “yes” vote for Rex Tillerson is concerning, but his approval for the likes of Ben Carson and Rick Perry is also vaguely disconcerting. Mr. King, you may be independent and may caucus with the Dems, but you are no Bernie Sanders. Not even close.
Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
“No” Votes: 6 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Price, Mnuchin, Tillerson; did not vote on Pruitt)
If you believe Joe Donnelly, he is a lawmaker committed to making life better for his fellow Hoosiers, and this includes working across the aisle when necessary. If you approach his statements and his voting record from a more pragmatic or even cynical viewpoint, though, you might say he capitulates to conservatives when he has to. As both a member of the House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator, Donnelly’s record has been marked by his being more moderate on both economic and social issues. While I respect that this likely has caused him stress in being the subject of attacks from both the left and the right, speaking as someone from the far-left, I and other progressive-minded individuals are looking for better than 6-for-19 on these confirmation votes. That would be fine in baseball, but Indiana does not have a major league team, and these matters are more important.
Mark Warner has the exact same voting record on Cabinet position confirmations as the aforementioned independent Angus King. That’s not an endorsement—nor should it be considered as such. Once again, the principled stance on Pruitt alongside a “yes” vote on Tillerson is an odd juxtaposition, and even casting votes in favor of Rick Perry or even Ryan Zinke raises the progressive brow. Warner, it should be noted, is the top Senate Democrat investigating ties between Russia and Trump, particularly in the arena of interference in the 2016 presidential election. That said, being recently spotted having a chat over wine with Rex Tillerson doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for Democratic supporters that his interests and party loyalty are all that pure. Mark Warner, you’re on notice.
Even for those Democratic senators who have cleared the low hurdle of six “no” votes, a few others have yet to garner double digits, putting their judgment in question, or, if nothing else, suggesting they may be too close to center to really inspire enthusiasm among younger members of the party base. The following senators, if not getting an explicit wag of the finger, are nonetheless worthy of a wary eye:
Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
“No” Votes: 7 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Pruitt, Mnuchin, Tillerson, Carson; did not vote on Price)
You may have heard Claire McCaskill’s name in the news recently, when she called upon Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from any investigations into Russia and Trump, averring that she personally had never met Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—when, in fact, she totally had. She also has recently been making a push to Bernie Sanders supporters in her bid for re-election—you know, despite endorsing Hillary Clinton early in the primaries and criticizing Sanders’ campaign at the time. These stories may say enough about the Democratic senator from Missouri, but her voting record alone on Trump’s Cabinet nominees should prompt criticism from the left.
As far as moderates go, Jon Tester is fairly well regarded among liberals based on a number of his votes in the Senate, as well as policy positions which have evolved and moved further left over time (e.g. same-sex marriage, Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell). A bleeding-heart liberal Tester is not, though, with his pro-gun stance, for instance, painting him as more of a “your grandpappy’s” kind of Dem than the “elitist liberals” that are always being decried in right-wing circles. At least on the gun issue, this is perhaps to be expected in a red state like Montana. Still, one might have liked to see more push-back on nominees like Wilbur Ross or even Linda McMahon given his past diatribes against the wealthy. You get a pass this time, Sen. Tester. This time.
Tim Kaine’s presence on this short list means Virginia has two under-10 “no” vote senators to its name, the only such state to earn that distinction given two Democratic/independent senators. Kaine, as you’ll recall, was Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president, and a way too “safe” one at that. He is the sort that is unlikely to generate much enthusiasm from even party loyalists, let alone a younger portion of the base looking for more conviction on important issues, such as free trade (like Clinton, Kaine has supported NAFTA and came late to his resolution against the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and regulation of the banking industry (proposals of his, while under the guise of being pro-regulation, have been criticized by progressive groups as being anything but). Tim Kaine may be a nice enough guy, but he was the wrong choice for Clinton’s presidential campaign, and may be symbolic of the “mainstream” wing of the Democratic Party that is keeping it from more enthusiastically embracing more liberal views.
To be fair, one might argue that “no” votes without much hope of dramatically altering the outcomes of these Cabinet nominees mean very little. In this regard, stances taken against potential office holders amount to little more than posturing. By the same token, however, for those who have registered more “yes” votes than “no” votes, perhaps these confirmation votes presage a deeper reluctance to embrace the Democratic Party as a whole, or at least magnify the effect of their senator’s centrism.
Where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, then, is with the looming vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch as the next Supreme Court justice. In a vacuum, Donald Trump’s choice of Gorsuch to fill the vacancy left by the passing of Antonin Scalia might not be so hotly contested by Democrats. As things in the political world have shaken out of late, though, there is additional context to consider. Republicans already had majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate before the fateful events of November, and with Trump—a loose cannon if ever there were one—ascending to the highest office in the nation, the stakes are higher than ever for a party in the Democratic Party that is reeling from electoral defeats up and down the levels of government.
Of even higher relevance, meanwhile, is Merrick Garland’s stalled nomination for this same vacancy. As you’ll likely recall, Garland was tapped by President Barack Obama near the end of his tenure, which he was perfectly justified in doing. Effectually, Obama called conservative Republicans’ bluff, nominating the kind of jurist that appeals to those on both side of the political aisle, and thus requiring GOP lawmakers to all but in name concede their refusal to confirm or hear Merrick Garland was petty gamesmanship. Which, of course, they did. Mitch McConnell and Co. held their breath and waited for Obama’s second term to conclude, rejecting calls from their Democratic counterparts and their constituents alike to “do their jobs.”
With all this in mind, we return to the current kerfuffle over Neil Gorsuch. Whereas Trump’s various Cabinet picks have only needed a 51-vote majority to secure confirmation, the role of Supreme Court justice, because it is so vital and because it is a lifetime appointment, would require 60 votes as part of a procedural cloture vote to end debate and move on to the actual confirmation vote if Senate Democrats are determined to filibuster the nomination. So, how committed are the Dems and independents in the Senate to staving off the confirmation vote? Well, let’s just say they should have enough votes—a minimum of 41 would be required—to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination. But it’s not exactly a safe margin, and fairly significantly, I feel, a few senators have either wavered on whether or not they will support a filibuster, or have outright indicated they are against this measure. Once again, Wilson Andrews and The New York Times, with the help of Audrey Carlsen, Alicia Parlapiano, and Jugal K. Patel, have devised another helpful graphic to help us sort out the positions for or against filibuster.
Undecided or Unclear: 2
Up for Re-election: 2 (Benjamin L. Cardin, Robert Menendez)
Ben Cardin and Bob Menendez are likely to vote against Neil Gorsuch in a final vote to determine if he is confirmed or not. Remember, though, we are talking about specifically pledging to support the 60-vote filibuster, and as of Tuesday, April 4, 4:30 P.M. EDT, their commitment was judged by the team at the Times to be undecided or unclear on that front. Cardin, for what it’s worth, has said he supports the filibuster on social media, and Menendez has apparently followed suit. Both senators are facing re-election in 2018, but that provides only slight plausibility as to why they would wait until Democrats were all but assured of having the necessary 41 votes given they do not really hail from strong red states. In short, and to be quite frank, it’s pretty cowardly of Ben Cardin and Bob Menendez to make their intentions known after the fact. The above-cited article from The Hill also name-checks Angus King, who, as we know, is an independent and has only managed a scant six “no” votes (and is up for re-election), as a late decider. As Democrats, however, you would expect better of Cardin and Menendez, both of whom have gone 12-for-19 in “no” votes, and as a progressive hailing from the state of New Jersey, I am severely disappointed in the latter.
Against Filibuster: 4
Up for Re-election in Solid Trump State: 3 (Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin III)
Not Up for Re-election: 1 (Michael Bennet)
Joe Manchin. Heidi Heitkamp. Joe Donnelly. We’ve heard these names before, haven’t we? Suddenly, their positions on Cabinet nominees, viewed through the lens of their opposition to the filibuster, make a lot of sense. All three are running for re-election in what are deemed “solid Trump states,” meaning Donald Trump carried them by more than five percentage points in the presidential election.
On one hand, I get that re-election in hostile territory, so to speak, stands to be difficult, and there are those of us who would be willing to accept a moderate Democrat who agrees with the party at least some of the time as opposed to a Republican who is more likely to promote a regressive political agenda. On the other hand, though, being, for all intents and purposes, light versions of Republicans arguably does little for the party and only helps depress turnout in elections, especially among independents and progressives. In this regard, the Dems who capitulate to conservative or even moneyed interests can be seen as conceding without making a concerted effort to expand their base among neglected demographic groups in their jurisdictions—playing politics in the short term and risking party support in the long term. In other words, the likes of Donnelly, Heitkamp and Manchin are playing not to lose rather than to win, and this same strategy as employed by Hillary Clinton and other Democrats only seems to be hurting the Democratic Party at the polls. Once again, speaking bluntly, Democratic leadership doesn’t seem to “get it.”
As for Michael Bennet, even for someone whose job is not immediately in danger, he has recognizably faced pressure from both the left and right regarding the filibuster. If Jon Tester, a senator in a red state up for re-election can support the filibuster, however, I submit Bennet (10-of-19 “no votes”) could have, too. Way to ride that center rail, Mike.
The Senate Republicans are expected to exercise the so-called “nuclear option,” essentially rewriting the rules so that 51 votes can advance proceedings to the actual confirmation vote. So, why bother with a filibuster? Democrats and others on the left would insist that this is more than warranted for the GOP’s refusal to hear Merrick Garland, and besides, with a president whose ethical conflicts are barely disguised as such, and who many contend is too unhinged to serve in his present role, there are those who call on Senate Dems to demand Trump release his tax returns at a minimum before considering Neil Gorsuch for the vacancy in the Supreme Court. Then again, Republicans would say that the Democrats “started it,” after rewriting Senate confirmation rules for executive and judicial nominees in their own right in 2013. Is all fair in love, war, and politics, or do two wrongs not make a right? I guess it depends on what side of the fence you’re on, honestly.
Even if the Republicans “go nuclear,” as President Agent Orange would have it, resisting the confirmation of Gorsuch and other picks until that point based on the merit of held ideals would convey to voters that the Democrats are willing to fight for their constituents and for what they believe in rather than merely trying to hold on to what seats they have. Moreover, claims from Joe Manchin et al. that politics should be kept out of the judiciary are weak sauce when politics so clearly stand behind the decision to nominate Neil Gorsuch in the first place. If Dems like Claire McCaskill want votes from Bernie Sanders supporters, they can’t just ask for it—they have to earn it. That is, they have to demand the kind of change that authentically speaks to the needs of their rank-and-file constituents, and not merely count on voters’ ability to distinguish their policies from those of the GOP, especially when calling for incremental or middling reforms. Otherwise, with Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?
As I’m sure you’re aware, on the evening of January 29, in Quebec City, a 27-year-old man named Alexandre Bissonnette walked into the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec mosque and started firing. By the end, six men were killed, with others injured, and the next day, Bissonnette was charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder with a restricted weapon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quick to condemn the attack as a terrorist act and one of cowardice on the part of the assailant, and authorities and Canadian citizens alike called for a spirit of inclusivity and togetherness in the wake of the violence. While mass shootings have become regrettably almost run-of-the-mill in America, mass shootings in Canada have been relatively sparse.
Within the United States, however, for a number of vocal Trump supporters during the early confusion of details filtering down from Quebec, the attack on the Centre Culturel Islamique was Exhibit A as to why the recently-enacted “Muslim ban” is not only advisable, but patently necessary. Initial reports identified two suspects in connection with the shooting, one of whom was Mohamed Belkhadir, a 29-year-old engineering student originally from Morocco. The jingoists among us, eager to fly the Stars and Stripes at first notice of an exclusionary narrative onto which to latch, were likely already foaming at the mouth at mention of the name “Mohamed,” and news of Belkhadir’s connection with the crime just sent them over the top. See, this is why we don’t want to let refugees from Muslim nations into the country! There’s too great a danger! You never know when ISIS might be lurking around the corner! Bear in mind Morocco isn’t one of the countries specified in President Trump’s ban on immigration, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good argument, shall we?
Except for the eventual revelation Mohamed Belkhadir was not actually a suspect in the mosque attack, but a witness. Oops! According to reports, Belkhadir was trying to administer first aid to a friend and fled to the cultural center’s parking lot when he saw someone with a gun, not knowing that person was a cop. Indeed, the search for a narrative and the desire to run with it led to a hasty presumption based on unconfirmed information and betrayed a series of arguments predicated on racial and xenophobic prejudice. What’s more, regarding the person of Alexandre Bissonnette, a synopsis of various media sources by Manisha Krishnan, writing for VICE, paints a picture of the Laval University student that might easily be recognized stateside as well as in Canada. According to these reports, he is a loner, a subscriber to right-wing views, a xenophobe, someone who displays misogynistic tendencies and trolls a Facebook group for refugees, is a white nationalist, and—to top it all off—is a fan of Donald Trump and his policies. Oops, again! While I personally might balk at the idea that Bissonnette is one of the Trump Train lot, as, ahem, not every Trump supporter is a mass murderer, that Bissonnette would seem to be an admirer of the President’s puts an almost ironic twist on the quick finger pointed at the Muslim world wholesale by those espousing similar right-wing views.
There are any number of striking things about this example of brutality. Certainly, the idea that Donald Trump’s influence translates into French Canada and abroad may startle, though the rise of white nationalism is certainly not limited to Trump; Alexandre Bissonnette is also said to be an admirer of France’s Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party has gained popularity by adopting a similar anti-immigrant stance. What also grabs the attention, however, at least for yours truly, is statistical information regarding all Canadians’ attitudes toward Muslims. Justin Trudeau, either because he’s being diplomatic, he truly believes it, or both, has, in the wake of the mosque attack, consistently preached the country’s support for the Canadian Muslim community and solidarity with the population. Personal views, meanwhile, tend to vary. Alyssa Favreau, a Montreal-based writer, connects the Quebec shooting to a rising sea of anti-Muslim sentiment.
As Favreau notes within the piece, police-reported hate crimes against Muslims more than doubled in Canada from 2012 to 2014, and the raw number (99) stands to be much larger because the majority of these crimes go unreported. What’s more, the attitudes of average Canadians toward Islam on the whole speak to a vague apprehension about the religion and its practitioners. A 2015 survey by the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that, despite about half of respondents having reservations about organized religions in general, a significantly higher percentage of those surveyed said they felt more uncomfortable about someone wearing a hijab as opposed to one wearing a cross. As for the Canadian population as a whole, based on a Forum Poll (Canada’s leading public opinion service) survey, more than a quarter of respondents had unfavorable feelings about Muslims. In other words, if Trudeau’s sentiments conveyed the sense some sort of love-fest exists in his country for followers of Islam, evidence points to the contrary.
In the United States, meanwhile, according to a report by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and the director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, just under half of respondents across a composite of four polls during the election year disapproved of Islam on the whole; the approval rate for Muslim people fared yet better, with 70% of respondents viewing this subset of the population in a positive light, as opposed to 28% surveyed viewing Muslims in a negative light as of October 2016. This actually marks an improvement on these ratings since November 2015, and in spite of the salience of events like the Orlando shooting. As Telhami instructs, the upward trend in pro-Muslim leanings is almost exclusively attributable to changing views among Democrats and independents, and may well be a reaction to Donald Trump’s divisive actions and rhetoric. While the direction of this trend may be surprising, the source seems less so. After all, we would expect more liberal-oriented respondents to more readily embrace Islam and those who practice the faith.
If American views of Islam and Muslims are on the upswing, and even though progressives would like to see improvement on the dimensions governed by the polls interpreted by Shibley Telhami and his associates, it is therefore somewhat troubling to have people who would more readily identify with the left espousing views that mischaracterize Islam. By and large, I appreciate the comedy of Bill Maher, and while I may not agree with all of his positions on key issues, I have a certain degree of respect for the man. His stances on Islam and Muslims, on the other hand, I patently disagree with, and his embrace of fringe theories about this religion is not only arguably counterproductive, but potentially dangerous as well.
On a recent airing of his show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the namesake host featured a conversation with Sam Harris, author, cognitive neuroscientist, and co-founder of Project Reason, on the nature of Islam. Harris, no stranger to the program and notable for being a leader within what has been coined the New Atheist movement, had some choice words for the Muslim world and those liberals who support them. According to Sam Harris, “the left has allied itself with Islamists and closet Islamists,” and while on one hand, he and Bill Maher reject the merits of the Muslim ban, he had this to say about criticisms from left-leaners of others possessing Islamophobic tendencies: “You don’t have to be a fascist or a racist or even a Trumpian to not want to import people into your society who think cartoonists should be killed for drawing the Prophet.” Maher was quick to chime in at one point on this broad subject, condemning comparisons made between Islamist terrorist groups and the Ku Klux Klan, saying dismissively, “The KKK is not seeking nuclear weapons.” Um, bully for them then?
Both Sam Harris and Bill Maher, in discussing Muslims and Islam in this way, appear to be making a fundamental error. Harris, making a sweeping generalization, evidently believes all Muslims and refugees from countries where the predominant faith is Islam think cartoonists should be killed for drawing the Prophet Muhammad or otherwise representing them in a less-than-holy light, when realistically, this is a hallmark of radical or ultra-conservative Muslims, and not necessarily your everyday followers. As for Maher, he makes the distinction between the Ku Klux Klan and various Islamist groups, as if to say, “See? What did I tell you about Islam!” If saying the KKK doesn’t want nukes is your primary defense of this group, though, it’s a bit of splitting proverbial hairs, no? It’s like saying Donald Trump isn’t Hitler because he hasn’t tried to exterminate the Jews. That’s really a cold comfort, and besides, dude’s still got ample time in his first 100 days and Stephen Bannon the Skeleton King pouring poison into his ear. In either case, Harris and Maher are conflating the work of jihadists with that of rank-and-file Muslims, and such discourse not only seems to be steeped in faulty logic, but potentially is dangerous given the national voice these figures possess.
Sadly, this is nothing new for either man. Though a bit dated by Internet standards, Salon in 2015 compiled a compendium of Bill Maher’s “greatest hits” on Islam, which includes references to Muslims’ beliefs as “pernicious,” the Koran as a “hate-filled holy book,” and to Islam itself not being a religion of peace. As for Sam Harris, Glenn Greenwald, perhaps the best journalist you’ve never heard of, penned a lengthy op-ed about Harris and other New Atheists on “anti-Muslim animus” back in 2013. I know—positively ancient, right? And yet, not much seems to have changed or evolved within Harris’s world view since. Greenwald acknowledges Sam Harris’s antipathy toward organized religion as a whole (Bill Maher, though not an avowed atheist, is like-minded in his distaste for organized religion and its more deleterious effects), but notes how Harris, for lack of better phrasing, has a hard-on for Islam and those that worship in accordance with its precepts. From the essay:
The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice western Christians (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Jews: “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.” In his 2005 “End of Faith”, he claimed that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”
This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that “we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.” He has also decreed that “this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda.” “We”—the civilized peoples of the west—are at war with “millions” of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between “civilized” people and Muslims: “All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.”
This isn’t “quote-mining”, the term evidently favored by Harris and his defenders to dismiss the use of his own words to make this case. To the contrary, I’ve long ago read the full context of what he has written and did so again yesterday. […] Yes, he criticizes Christianity, but he reserves the most intense attacks and superlative condemnations for Islam, as well as unique policy prescriptions of aggression, violence and rights abridgments aimed only at Muslims. As the atheist scholar John L Perkins wrote about Harris’ 2005 anti-religion book: “Harris is particularly scathing about Islam.”
The larger significance of these kinds of attitudes, as Glenn Greenwald sees things, is that this thinking can be used to justify all sorts of aggression, human rights abuses, and violence against Muslims, the kinds of acts to which rights activists independent of political affiliation strongly object. They include anti-Muslim profiling, state violence (i.e. liberals are “soft” on terrorism), support for Israel even in the face of international criticism, and torture. What’s more, whereas defenders of divisive behavior and rhetoric on the right might view this as justified based on vague ideas of Christian righteousness or outright racism and xenophobia, the foundation of New Atheism’s anti-Muslim sentiments is feelings and notions of a moral superiority. Sure, Sam Harris and his confederates might view their objections to Islam as more correct because they are not based on strict adherence to religious doctrine, but viewed in the context of secular morality and a battle of good versus evil, they are equally as insidious, if not more so. “They know not what they do”? Hardly. Harris and Company know exactly what they do—and that’s the point.
As Glenn Greenwald frames his arguments, then, Bill Maher’s and Sam Harris’s wholesale character assassination of Islam fits in all-too-nicely with a generalized American and Western condemnation of the Muslim world, and a tendency to side with our own interests even when they may be seen as wrong. Greenwald describes the problem with Harris’s denigration of Muslims and Islam quite succinctly:
Harris’ self-loving mentality amounts to this: those primitive Muslims are so tribal for reflexively siding with their own kind, while I constantly tout the superiority of my own side and justify what We do against Them. […] He is at least as tribal, jingoistic, and provincial as those he condemns for those human failings, as he constantly hails the nobility of his side while demeaning those Others.
As Sam Harris and other New Atheists would have it, the end game of Islam is to convert everyone to the faith, politically subjugate those who don’t convert, or kill those who stand in the way. Otherwise, the assumptions they make about the way Muslims think are based not on factual observation or rational, intellectual inferences, but rather a spirit grounded in religious or “tribal” attitudes—and if we really want to get down to brass tacks, this liberal Islamophobia is pretty much a religion in of itself. So much for that whole “no religion” bit.
It’s one thing for educated folks like Bill Maher and Sam Harris to sneer at the section of right-wing America that, to paraphrase Barack Obama’s infamous quote, clings to its Bibles, its guns, and its resentment against the foreign and the unfamiliar. It’s quite another, however, for their likes to convey an elitist tone and deride the Muslim ban as an obvious poor choice while they, in the same breath, denigrate Muslims and what they believe. So, while Maher, Harris and other non-believers/agnostics may thumb their noses at those who get caught up in matters of sectarian conflict, looking down at the rigidity of organized religions from atop their high horses, by painting Islam and Muslims with broad, largely negative strokes, they are no better than the Americans who, say, argue Muslims are a danger to the United States because they want nothing more than to make sharia law the supreme law of the land and subvert our existing statutes in the name of Allah.
Speaking of which, on that last note, in another one of those quasi-ironic twists that I seem to love these days, if anything is liable to bring religiously-motivated laws into a position of greater influence and effect, it is not Muslims, but the man behind the ban himself, President Donald Trump. Alongside plotting a gutting of the Dodd-Frank Act, a piece of legislation crafted in direct response to the irresponsible banking, lending and other regulatory practices which led to the global financial crisis almost a decade ago, Trump vowed recently to destroy the Johnson Amendment, which effectively bars churches from making political contributions, and thus, is an important aspect of the separation of church and state in the United States. Evidently, and in short, Trump, his cronies, and Republicans who aid and abet him in terrible policy-making are content to let the financial industry and religious organizations alike run amok. As many of us may reason, they might as well. You know, after confirming the likes of Rex Tillerson, a man who has ties to Vladimir Putin and who until recently helmed a company that dealt with countries considered state sponsors of terrorism, and Betsy DeVos, whose millions of dollars of political contributions somehow are supposed to count for a complete lack of competence and experience, there’s almost nowhere to go but up. Almost.
What we don’t need, therefore, returning our focus to the topic of anti-Muslim sentiment, is more noise from individuals professing to uphold science and intellectualism but instead giving way to beliefs that smack of white ethnocentrism and are reliant on a warped understanding of a religion practiced by over a billion people worldwide. People like Sam Harris argue liberals are in bed with jihadists and others like Bill Maher feel political correctness holds us back from having an honest and open conversation about Islam and the Muslim world, and at worst, makes us “pussies.” Little do they realize, however, it is, to a considerable extent, their closed-mindedness which only fuels mutual misunderstanding between East and West and drives us all further apart.
In Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers and the HBO program on which it is based, millions of people suddenly vanish from the Earth in a Rapture-like event. Spoiler alert? No, this is the very premise of the book and the show. Besides, you probably weren’t going to read the novel or watch the program anyway, right? OK, now that that’s behind us. In the universe of The Leftovers, a cult-like group called the Guilty Remnant forms in the wake of people’s search for answers and established religion’s immediate failure to explain this mysterious phenomenon. Its members dress all in white, smoke constantly and say nothing. They are agitators, and get into silent confrontations with non-members, but with a purpose: to remind people that they are the leftovers, that this “Sudden Departure” did indeed happen, and that they couldn’t just pretend as if it did not, like it was just another day. If the Guilty Remnant were to be the world’s conscience, as frustrating and inconvenient as they were, so be it.
On Friday, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, with Mike Pence assuming the office of Vice President. No, some 2% of the world’s population did not spontaneously disappear, and yes, as has been the custom, there was an Inauguration Ceremony as with other presidents who have come before Trump. But Donald Trump and his campaign were quite unlike anything we have seen in modern history—and this is not a celebration of that idea. The way Trump conducted his campaign, and the way he conducts his affairs in general, are not normal. The sense of empowerment and entitlement he has given to those who ascribe to an exclusionary, prejudicial and xenophobic worldview, and the acceptance of this element in our society, is not normal. And while the proceedings of Inauguration Day occurred in accordance with tradition, as with the reaction of people to the Sudden Departure, to behave like this ceremony as a culmination of what occurred in this nation over the election cycle is just another day is to engage in serious self-defeating, self-deception. This all is not normal, and we can’t pretend like it is.
Let’s start with what was said during President Trump’s Inauguration speech. A lot of the ideas within it are by now familiar to us, but the tone and a key phrase within it are important to note. Trump, as is his custom, painted a picture that speaks to the United States in a bleak state, and to average American men and women as forgotten. Here is a notable passage from his address:
From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body—and I will never, ever let you down.
America will start winning again, winning like never before.
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work—rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.
We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.
We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world—but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones—and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.
It would be a good speech, if only it weren’t so terrifying and disturbing. In this critical juncture of President Trump’s address, he establishes the theme of his comments and likely of his domestic and foreign policy at large: “America First.” More on that slogan, if you will, in a moment. Trump vows his utmost efforts on behalf of the American people and promises the U.S. will start “winning” like never before, apparently ascribing to Red Sanders’ oft-quoted (and misattributed) view that “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.”
The question a lot of us conscientious objectors would have, though, is at what cost, and that’s where the sentiments within Pres. Trump’s speech get so frightening. As usual, stressing the “Islamic” aspect of terrorism risks conflation of jihadism with Islam at large, thereby increasing the danger to Muslims around the world sympathetic to America’s cause and morally opposed to ISIS. As I’ve heard the analogy before and have used it in my writing, peace-loving law-abiding Muslims are to organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as the Ku Klux Klan is to white Americans who disavow its agenda. Jihadists pervert Islamic principles to suit their own destructive purposes, and though this criticism is nothing new as regards use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” that solidarity with Muslims who live in and love America isn’t made clearer by Trump is nonetheless disappointing.
What’s more, Donald Trump speaks to a “total allegiance” to the United States as a bedrock of our politics, as if plain old regular allegiance is insufficient. As with the insertion of Islam into the abstract concept of radical terrorism, the vagueness of this phrase allows for more sinister interpretations of the language. If everyday Americans seem less committed to patriotism and the U.S. as rabid Trump supporters and jingoists do, do the more fervent believers among them have the President’s blessing to admonish and harass the dissenters? I, in expressing my contempt for Donald Trump shortly after being sworn in, was told by someone on Facebook to “show some f**king respect” and to “move to Canada” if I couldn’t show my American pride—and I feel like I got off light. Moreover, if we talk about allegiance as a bedrock of our nation’s politics, do those who would subvert Trump’s will or stand in opposition to conservative values and Republican ideals become somehow less American? It’s a worrisome inference, to say the least.
Perhaps worst of all, though, is the unfortunate legacy of that phrase “America First.” Christopher Brennan, writing for the New York Daily News, outlines how the America First Committee was an organization formed in 1940 by Gen. Robert E. Wood and Charles Lindbergh (yes, that Charles Lindbergh) which resisted the United States’ intervention to aid Great Britain when it was under attack by Hitler’s forces. As Brennan details, a significant portion of the Committee were Nazi sympathizers, and if we know our history, Lindbergh traveled to Nazi Germany numerous times and even received a medal from the Third Reich. Wait, you’re thinking, Trump is stupid—he has no idea of the historical implications of what he’s saying. Except for the idea the Anti-Defamation League has already asked Trump not to use the phrase owing to its associations with fascism and anti-Semitism. Regardless, President Trump’s ignorance on this count would be dubious at best. In all likelihood, Trump is speaking in coded language, appealing to those who bleed red, white and blue at the superficial level, and giving a nod to alt-righters, neo-Nazis and white supremacists in any form. Our President or Mein Führer? With a hint of sadness, I’ll note the allusion is not as crazy as it might seem.
If Donald Trump’s swearing in as the 45th President of the United States was the culmination of a brutal election season, the confirmation hearings for various Trump Cabinet appointees leading up to the Inauguration could presage a likewise unbearable agenda for his administration. It is one thing that a number of them seem to espouse positions that run contrary to what a majority of Americans believe, and certainly speak to views which fly in the face of what more liberal Democrats and progressives hope to achieve. It is another, however, that they appear to be woefully unqualified for their intended office if not wholly incompetent, or otherwise seem to possess a rather cavalier attitude given they are representing the American public and are supposed to be acting in its interest. Here are the nominees for whom hearings have been held so far (not listed are Gens. James Mattis and John F. Kelly, who represent the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, respectively, and who already were confirmed prior to this writing):
Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson
January 11’s scheduled hearings for Cabinet picks saw two heavy-hitters tested on their qualifications fairly early in the confirmation process. Jeff Sessions, Pres. Trump’s pick for Attorney General, to his credit, said he would oppose the use of torture by military personnel, as well as a ban on Muslims entering the country and a registry for Muslim Americans, three things that Trump insisted on throughout his campaign. On the other hand, though, Sessions harped on the criticism that police forces have received for doing their jobs in the wake of high-profile shooting incidents—without much apparent credence to civilian deaths—did little to nothing to allay concerns that he respects civil rights, specifically voting rights, and seems to have intentions for his would-be department, the Department of Justice, to more vigorously enforce immigration law. As someone who has been met with allegations of racism in the past concerning his record during his tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, despite his insistence he will uphold and enforce existing laws, seems only somewhat committed to issues affecting blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, and women, among other groups. Not entirely surprising coming from a moneyed white male (Sessions’ estimated worth is about $6 million), but surely not altogether encouraging at the start of a presidency of a man with historically-low approval ratings.
That Sessions seemed to soften on certain hard-line stances meant his hearing was still uneven in light of his judicial and legislative record, but nonetheless, he made his bid for confirmation more plausible, if not highly likely. Rex Tillerson, um, did not fare as well in his confirmation hearing, as Tessa Stuart of Rolling Stone indicated in a feature article. Among the points during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing which merited criticism of Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State—which is, by the way, a natural stepping stone for a CEO of ExxonMobil, a role that does not require specific foreign policy experience:
He wouldn’t say if he supported sanctions against Russia if it turned out allegations that the Russians tried to interfere in the U.S. presidential election were true, and claimed he has yet to have an in-depth conversation about Russia with Donald Trump.
He claimed to have no knowledge of ExxonMobil’s attempt to lobby against sanctions against Russia, when in fact, the company had and Tillerson was involved in conversations about these matters.
He deferred to the notion he would need to see more intelligence before labeling Vladimir Putin a war criminal despite allegations the Russians targeted and killed civilians alongside the Syrian government army, not to mention well-documented accounts of having political rivals and critics of Putin murdered.
He similarly dismissed the human rights violations of Rodrigo Duterte’s administration in the Philippines and the treatment of women in countries like Saudi Arabia.
He expressed support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
He would not commit to the Paris climate accord.
He acknowledged that climate change exists, but wouldn’t comment on whether or not humans play a role in it, and when asked by Sen. Tim Kaine on whether or not he lacks the expertise to answer the question or the will, he quipped, “A little of both.”
He said that despite being with the company for some 40 years, he had no knowledge of whether not ExxonMobil has done business with Iran, Sudan or Syria.
When asked specifically by Tim Kaine regarding the evidence that Exxon knew about the role humans play in affecting climate change and funded efforts and research contrary to this science, Tillerson claimed he could not comment because he was no longer part of the company. Because apparently, when you resign from an executive post, your memory is wiped along with it.
Rex Tillerson’s experience with the oil industry and his ties to Russian interests and Putin in them of themselves made him a questionable pick for Secretary of State. Now with his testimony on record, the doubts are stronger and more numerous. Tillerson shouldn’t be confirmed for Secretary of State, even though he probably will be owing to the Republican majority in the Senate.
Ben Carson, Elaine Chao, Michael Pompeo
Ben Carson, like Rex Tillerson, was nominated for a position in Secretary of Housing and Urban Development that his personal experience in no way prepares him to hold. As aloof as he often seemed during his presidential campaign despite, you know, possessing the acumen to be a freaking neurosurgeon, Carson largely managed to hold his own, although it should be noted that observers described efforts by Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike to challenge him on his qualifications as fairly tepid. The tensest moments came from lines of inquiry from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown. Warren asked Carson point blank about whether or not he could assure the Senate and the American people that any HUD money would not be lining the pockets of Pres. Trump, a question he seemed ill prepared to answer. Brown, meanwhile, confronted Ben Carson on how his department could avoid conflicts of interest with Donald Trump given his family’s involvement in at least one subsidized housing project, and though he expressed his willingness to work with the committee, again, he didn’t seem to have much of an idea of his own. Ben Carson realistically won’t always be able to phone a friend, if you will. So, while he wasn’t Rex Tillerson bad, he wasn’t top-notch either.
Elaine Chao, in the running for Department of Transportation, like Carson, while not offering anything that raised any giant red flags, similarly didn’t offer a lot of specifics for the possible direction of her agency, especially as a subset of the Trump administration. All in all, though, most in attendance were in agreement that Chao seems highly qualified for her position, with the various reports covering Chao’s hearing describing it as a “love-fest” full of laughs and smiles, or otherwise referring to her “skating” through her confirmation process. So, yeah, Elaine Chao looks like she’s good as gold regarding her nomination, and I maintain her most questionable bit of judgment preceded her hearing: that of marrying Mitch McConnell. Sorry, I just can’t with that guy.
And then there’s Mike Pompeo. Despite positions expressed during his tenure as Senator from Kansas, Pompeo seemed to allay concerns that he was not a dogmatic follower of hardline conservative principles. He pledged to defy President Trump if asked to resume torture as a primary interrogation technique, expressed his belief that the conclusion reached by U.S. intelligence leaders that Russia tried to intervene in our election, in part, to help Trump was a sound one, and vowed that he would “speak truth to power” if confirmed as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. So, basically, Mike Pompeo promised not to be Donald Trump. Atta boy, Mike! In the time I took to write this post, Pompeo has been confirmed, so that hurdle has been cleared, but as CIA Director, his greatest test may just be beginning, namely that of getting his agency and the President himself to work together. Because right now, quite frankly, they ain’t. Thus, while I wouldn’t have nominated Pompeo in the first place, I wish him the best of luck. Because I wouldn’t wish Trump on my worst enemy, let alone the head of the CIA. Best of luck, Mike—you’re gonna need it.
Betsy DeVos, Ryan Zinke
We’ll get to Ms. DeVos in a moment. First, let’s skip ahead to Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Zinke, like other Cabinet picks of Pres. Trump’s, may acknowledge climate change exists in the abstract and therefore diverges from the belief that it is an outright hoax, but it is still dangerously reluctant to recognize the role we humans play in contributing to effects like global warming. This stance is significant, because Zinke, as head of the Department of the Interior, would oversee all federal lands as well as the resources on and below them. This means he could and likely would be instrumental in opening expanses up to coal mining and oil and gas drilling that were previously unavailable for these purposes under Barack Obama. Seeing as Trump has already signed executive orders to revive the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone Pipeline XL extension, Ryan Zinke is poised to be a partner in crime—that is, “crime” against the environment—and should be admonished as a nominee for his intended position.
Speaking of admonishment, the hearing for Betsy DeVos, tapped for Secretary of Education, rivaled if not surpassed Rex Tillerson’s review in terms of being, as the kids call it, a “hot mess.” DeVos, apparently, is to knowledge of the United States education system as Sarah Palin is to mastery of U.S. geography. Among the revelations from Betsy DeVos’s hearing:
She evidently believes guns should be in schools, or at least won’t commit to the idea schools should be gun-free zones.
She expressed the belief the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) should be left to the states to apply, despite this being a federal law.
She would not agree to the idea all schools which receive federal funding should be held equally accountable.
She would not commit to enforcing gainful employment regulations which prevent for-profit universities and other career training programs which bury students in debt with little ability to repay from receiving federal subsidies.
She did not appear to understand the accountability debate regarding whether testing should measure students and schools based on proficiency or growth.
She did not answer a direct question about the failure of charter schools and other “school choice” iterations to perform markedly better than public schools. Probably because she and her children have never spent a day enrolled in public school and, what’s more, she has a vested financial interest in K12, an online charter-school and home school curriculum resource. As usual, it helps to follow the money.
In short, Betsy DeVos doesn’t have a clue about the state of education in America at large, especially public education. She should be nowhere near a department as critical as the Department of Education, or any federal public office, for that matter.
Nikki Haley, Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, Wilbur Ross
Wilbur Ross, like Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire. Unlike DeVos, however, he, from nearly all accounts, acquitted himself quite nicely of his ability to serve in the capacity for which he was nominated: that of Secretary of Commerce. Certainly, his tone on important economic issues was appreciably more moderate (and sensible) than that of the President, and though this is not a particularly high bar to clear, he seemed better prepared and more readily forthcoming than either Betsy DeVos or Rex Tillerson. Wilbur Ross is not necessarily above criticism, as he, like so many within the Trump administration not to mention the man himself, comes with concern about potential conflicts of interest due to his shipping investments. This notwithstanding, his expertise and support from labor leaders makes Ross a likely confirmation, and quite possibly the best of the bunch (again, perhaps not a particularly high bar to clear).
Now then—let’s get to the other riff-raff, shall we? Nikki Haley, who, like Mike Pompeo, has been confirmed by the Senate since I began this post, will serve as the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations. This despite having any foreign policy experience. Welcome to Donald Trump’s Cabinet—actual qualifications need not apply. At the very least, Haley said she favored a tougher stance and the preservation of sanctions against Russia, condemned the extrajudicial killings of Rodrigo Duterte’s regime in the Philippines, cautioned a measured approach in deciding whether or not to scrap the Iran nuclear deal, and said she opposes the creation of a Muslim registry. On the other hand, she seems to echo Trump’s strongly pro-Israel stance on the Middle East, and even supports the controversial relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. As with Secy. Pompeo, Nikki Haley has my best wishes, and I similarly hope her appointment won’t be one we look back on with regret.
Where there’s good, though, there is frequently the bad and the ugly, and Scott Pruitt is where the January 18 hearings start to slide downward. Scott Pruitt has been nominated for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency he has sued (unsuccessfully, at that) some 14 times as Oklahoma Attorney General, and one which he has explicitly referenced as deserving of having its regulatory power diminished and has accused of an “activist agenda,” as if activism is an inherent force to be resisted. So it should be no surprise, though no less disheartening, that Pruitt professed that his feelings on climate change were immaterial and would not commit to the idea humans play a significant role in promoting it, nor would he give credence to the idea man-made air pollution could be behind the comparatively high rates of asthma in his state. And talk about ethical concerns—Scott Pruitt has received buku bucks from the energy industry, notably from fossil fuel companies. He is not only arguably highly incompetent, but a shameless shill for Big Oil as well, and in no way should be confirmed for the post of Secretary of the EPA, let alone being considered for it.
Tom Price, meanwhile, is no stud in his own right, as he possesses his own bevy of ethical concerns to weigh, including failure to disclose late tax payments which were discovered upon further investigation, improper valuation of shares he owns in an Australian pharmaceutical company, allegations of insider trading with respect to those shares, and proposing legislation which would benefit other investments of his. All this on top of concerns that Republicans’ desire to repeal ObamaCare comes without a credible and fair replacement and that the GOP appears to want to turn the current Medicaid system into a “block grant” format that conceivably would make access to health care more difficult for more disadvantaged Americans. Price, simply put, is a poor choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Or as Happy Gilmore once so eloquently put it, “The [P]rice is wrong, bitch.”
Rick Perry, Steve Mnuchin
Last but not least—OK, well, possibly least—we have the likes of Rick Perry and Steve Mnuchin. Perry, as been oft referenced, once was responsible for a gaffe in which he forgot the name of a third agency he would get rid of as President during a Republican Party debate. That third department, as it turned out, was the Department of Energy—the very department he is now being asked to preside over. I see you starting to pour into that shot glass over there, and I’m with you, my friend. Perry, to his credit, seems to see value in renewable energy sources, but like Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke and Rex Tillerson and God knows how many other Republicans, doesn’t place a great deal of weight on the human factor in climate change. Rick Perry’s intended “all-of-the-above” approach is indeed a bit problematic when considering that a major point of the DOE is trying to make energy more affordable for Americans. Also, concerning nuclear power, which falls under the Department of Energy’s banner, a critical issue is how to store nuclear weaponry and nuclear waste, and while Perry seems open to suggestions, he doesn’t seem to have many concrete ideas on his end. To put it bluntly, Rick Perry was a dumb choice in the first place for this post, and from what I’ve seen and heard of him, he seems like kind of a dick (see also his potshot at Sen. Al Franken during the review for being a former cast member of Saturday Night Live). Even if he didn’t flunk his hearing outright, I can’t seriously consider him for Secretary of the DOE.
Speaking of kind of a dick, it’s Steve Mnuchin, who, apropos of nothing, I have a persistent urge to want to call Steve Munchkin. Mnuchin, Pres. Trump’s Secretary of Treasury nominee, has a checkered past that raises serious doubts about his worthiness for his intended role. Most notable is his legacy as the “foreclosure king” during his time as OneWest Bank, and the committee had plenty of testimony at its disposal from OneWest customers with their horror stories from during Mnuchin’s tenure. Yet again, there were failures to disclose critical financial information regarding real estate and other assets totaling upwards of $95 million, as well as troubling ethical positions revealed in Steve Mnuchin’s past assistance of helping clients avoid taxes through tax havens. As with Rick Perry, even if he didn’t crash and burn, on principle, I can’t get behind Munchkin. Dammit, I mean, Mnuchin.
Donald Trump’s blustering rhetoric is worrisome, especially, um, the whole allusion to anti-Semitism bit, but ironically, much as he chides lawmakers for being “all talk, no action,” we know some if not a lot of what he said in his Inauguration speech stands to be empty promises. Trump’s picks for key government positions, on the whole, are troubling, for when they are not flagrantly unqualified or engaging in activities that are borderline unethical/illegal, tend to be sparing on specifics regarding how they would achieve what they profess they and President Trump wish to accomplish. Still, there is the chance that some of these nominees won’t be confirmed, even if remote, and either way, we’ve survived idiots holding public office over the years. My, have we survived it. From my perspective, though, maybe the most frightening sign of what’s to come from a Donald Trump presidency, especially if left unchecked, is his administration’s relationship to the press and to objective facts. In what may be the example par excellence of the slippery slope Trump and his lackeys are greasing, both press secretary Sean Spicer and whatever-the-heck-she’s-technically-considered Kellyanne Conway tried to argue that Donald Trump’s crowds in attendance for the Inauguration were the biggest in U.S. history. This is objectively false, and there’s no getting around it either, for Trump didn’t even manage to surpass his predecessor in this regard, let alone all previous American presidents, or even the Women’s March throngs in protest of his presidency the day after.
Spicer, though, for his part, held a press conference with the apparent intention of dispelling the myth that President Trump’s ceremony wasn’t the biggest and best in our nation’s recorded history, in fact, his first press conference of the term. The Washington Post offers an excellent transcript of this moment annotated by political reporter Chris Cillizza. Within his annotations, Cillizza notes the following:
Sean Spicer cited numbers regarding how many people can physically fit in proscribed sections of the National Mall, saying “we know” this much, but these have the ring of guesses more than anything.
Spicer claimed Metro public transit numbers from Inauguration Day for Pres. Trump exceeded those of Obama’s two ceremonies, but this is simply inaccurate. Donald Trump managed just over 570,000 people, based on numbers from the Metro. Barack Obama, meanwhile, accrued 1.1 million in 2009, and 782,000 in 2013. The math doesn’t lie.
Spicer alleged Trump, in his recent visit with the CIA, was greeted by a raucous crowd of some 400-plus employees, but Cillizza characterizes this visit as mostly—surprise, surprise!—another attack on the media, and the 300 to 400 attendance were likely mostly Trump supporters.
Spicer attacked the media specifically for “sowing division about tweets and false narratives,” as if the press is supposed to cater to the whims of the White House.
Spicer uttered this: “This kind of dishonesty in the media, the challenging—that bringing about our nation together is making it more difficult.”
On that last count, Chris Cillizza was notably, for lack of a better word, defiant. And I quote:
The idea that the media “challenging” (Sean’s words) claims made by Trump and his team somehow undermines an effort to bring the country together is simply a false choice. The media’s job is to probe and prod to make sure that what is being sold as fact from the White House – ANY White House – checks out. A healthy democracy includes a free and independent press keeping those in power accountable to those who they govern. Period.
Sean Spicer, too, advanced the notion that the press should be held accountable, which Cillizza agrees with and you and I can get on board with as well. However, as Chris Cillizza points out and as is critical to stress, the press shouldn’t be threatened or intimidated for doing its job, which is the tone Spicer strikes here. And he also probably shouldn’t walk off without taking any questions. Which is what he did. So much for a “press conference” where you don’t actually talk to the namesake of the term. Not an encouraging start to this relationship, no, Sir or Madam.
If Sean Spicer’s first press conference was a serving of state-controlled ice cream, Kellyanne Conway’s interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press was the whipped cream and cherry on top. As with Spicer, the theme was the tally of Trump supporters and others in attendance at the inauguration proceedings, and the veracity of his administration’s claims. Chuck Todd, in fact, asked Conway about Spicer’s press conference in particular:
You make a very reasonable and rational case for why crowd sizes don’t matter. Then explain…why did the president send out his press secretary, who’s not just the spokesperson for Donald Trump? He could be—he also serves as the spokesperson for all of America at times. He speaks for all of the country at times. Why put him out there for the very first time in front of that podium to utter a provable falsehood? It’s a small thing. But the first time he confronts the public it’s a falsehood?
Chuck, I mean, if we’re going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms I think that we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here. I want to have a great open relationship with our press. But look what happened the day before talking about falsehoods. We allowed the press…to come into the Oval Office and witness President Trump signing executive orders. And of course, you know, the Senate had just confirmed General Mattis and General Kelly to their two posts. And we allowed the press in. And what happens almost immediately? A falsehood is told about removing the bust of Martin Luther King Junior from the Oval Office.
This is what my father and I refer to as a “yeah-but.” Yeah, Ms. Conway, TIME Magazine Zeke Miller initially reported he thought a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office, but he was mistaken, and moved to correct himself in the minutes and hours after the fact, issuing multiple mea culpas in the process. This was just one detail, and Conway was rather obviously dodging the question, which is why Chuck Todd pressed her on the issue of the crowd size:
You did not answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood. Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office on Day One.
And this is how Kellyanne Conway replied, and I am not making this up:
Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What—you’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.
Todd did not let Conway off the hook, telling her, “Alternative facts are not facts—they’re falsehoods,” but I must stress this attitude, above all else, goes to the point I made in the opening to this piece. Conway’s thinly-veiled threat about having to “rethink” her and the White House’s relationship with Chuck Todd, as well as the sheer notion something like “alternative facts” could exist, speaks to the dangerous state of affairs we are in regarding the perceived role of news media, the perceived power of the President and his surrogates, and the perceived value of observable facts over strongly-held opinions. The press is not beholden to the Trump administration. President Trump should not be allowed to think he can do whatever he wants in violation of ethics and international law just because he won the electoral vote this past November. Furthermore, the veracity of factual information should not be determined by who yells loudest, interrupts the most or acts the most threatening. For anyone believing Donald Trump’s presidency is some sort of “new normal,” it is not and should not be treated as such.
So, after 5,000+ words, what am I trying to say? We of the Resistance should develop a smoking habit, dress all in white, and become mute? No, the Guilty Remnant as a creation of fiction is enough in it of itself. Rather, any way we can question the legitimacy of Donald Trump and his Cabinet where this scrutiny is due, or to reject the authoritarian and prejudicial aspects of his presidency, is encouraged. I try to inject humor into these entries when I can, and I applaud acts like the Dallas Stars jokingly displaying the night’s attendance as 1.5 million on the Jumbotron in an homage to Trump and Company’s wayward estimations of the Inauguration ceremony’s attendance, or Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account defining the word “fact” for Kellyanne Conway’s sake. By and large, however, these are not laughing matters and, indeed, these are troubling times. For those of us who haven’t fallen for Trump hook, line and sinker, we are the Leftovers who have to try to make sense of the apparent Sudden Departure of many here in the United States from the realm of sanity.
On Monday, January 9, the underdog Clemson Tigers defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide in a thrilling upset and game overall. Of course, if you were a fan of the pure spectacle and sport of the proceedings, including the notion Clemson overcame a 14-point deficit to score the winning touchdown with a second left on the game clock, you, in all likelihood, enjoyed the experience. (If you are an Alabama fan or had money riding on the game, um, you, in all likelihood, did not.) As noted, the Tigers were an underdog—by as much as six or six-and-a-half points prior to the game—which is not insignificant by football odds standards. The Crimson Tide, after all, were the consensus #1 team in the country, topping both the Associated Press and Coaches’ polls as well as the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision rankings. Undaunted, the Clemson Tigers proved victorious.
From my standpoint, I was glad to see Clemson win, even if it aligned with my brother’s amateur prognostications of the Tigers’ victory and thereby fed the notion of his self-professed expertise, for it, if only temporarily, put aside notions of an Alabama dynasty in college football. For better or for worse, though, what I’ll remember most from the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship was not an instance from the game itself, but a moment from the hoopla afterwards. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney—great name, by the by—during the post-game press conference referenced a comment made in November by Colin Cowherd, former ESPN personality and current Fox Sports radio and television host. Back then, Cowherd had this to say about Clemson’s relative talent level:
“Clemson’s a fraud. Clemson is going to get their ears boxed by whoever they play. They should have three losses, maybe four. I don’t buy into Clemson. They’re the New York Giants of college football. I don’t care what their record is. I don’t buy into them. And I had Clemson in the final four, so I should be rooting for them. I got no dog in the fight here. I think USC is the second-best team in the country and Vegas agrees.”
Strong words. After all, Colin could’ve merely said they were overrated or lucky or what-have-you, but calling someone a fraud seems a bit personal, as if to go for the jugular. This is perhaps why Swinney didn’t take the criticism lightly, and fired back thusly during the post-game presser:
At the end of the day, we left no doubt tonight. We wanted to play Alabama because now y’all got to change your stories. You got to change the narrative. Y’all got to mix it up. The guy that called us a fraud? Ask Alabama if we’re a fraud. Was the name Colin Cowherd? I don’t know him, never met him. Ask Alabama if we’re a fraud. Ask Ohio State if we’re a fraud. Ask Oklahoma if we’re a fraud. The only fraud is that guy, because he didn’t do his homework. I hope y’all print that.
As the kids would say, “Oh, snap!” In faith, I don’t think either of these men are “frauds.” Retrospectively speaking, I’m not sure whether or not Clemson benefited from a particularly weak schedule, but regardless, they proved their mettle and that they weren’t the, ahem, paper tiger Colin Cowherd made them out to be. Cowherd himself is a radio show host who is paid to give his opinions, and I begrudgingly acknowledge he was right about the Giants. To call someone a “fraud,” literally speaking, is to find him or her intentionally doing something wrong with a design to deceive. Barring any evidence of malfeasance on Clemson’s coaching staff’s part or some financial misappropriation perpetrated by Cowherd, neither is the dictionary definition of a fraud.
Why do I include this anecdote about Clemson, Colin Cowherd, Dabo Swinney, and the indiscriminate hurling around of the word “fraud”? Perhaps it is indicative of the current zeitgeist in which the public’s trust in institutions like news media and voting is being challenged, if not eroded, and allegations of electoral fraud and unsubstantiated reports are seemingly rampant. Leading up to the presidential election, President-Elect Trump was quick to suggest that if he didn’t win enough electoral votes, it was due to some sort of collusion or electoral fraud. Then, he won the electoral vote, but he lost the popular vote, and stuck with the whole fraud angle—despite any actual evidence of this. Accordingly, it made for an intriguing bit of theater when Trump challenged the integrity of CNN reporter Jim Acosta and his organization during his Wednesday press conference for all to see and hear.
First, let’s back up a bit and discuss the press conference at large, which, as you might imagine, was in it of itself quite the intriguing spectacle. Feel free to watch the video and read the New York Times transcript for yourself to get the full effect, but here are some “highlights,” if you want to call them that:
1. First, before we get to the aforementioned first, let’s discuss what already had Donald Trump, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and other Trump Train riders all in a tizzy. CNN reported on Tuesday that U.S. government officials had made Trump aware of an intelligence report indicating that Russian agents had claimed to possess compromising information about him. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, published its own report claiming to offer the contents of the larger 35-page memo on which this alleged intelligence report was based, but the claims for this material were unverified, explaining why CNN worked the following day to distance itself from the BuzzFeed report. Which was a prudent thing to do, even though a lot of Americans deep down wanted it to be true. I mean, lurid tales of Donald Trump paying prostitutes to perform “golden showers”? No wonder #GoldenShowers was trending on Twitter! It was worth it for all the piss jokes!
2. Trump, after a lead-in from Spicer which more or less harangued CNN and BuzzFeed as partners in crime—even though the content of their reports were very different—and a short introduction by Mike Pence, which also lashed out at the media and its “bias,” began by further attacking the two media outlets and praising the rest of the providers/publications present, essentially for just not being either BuzzFeed or CNN. Then, he launched into his usual rambling, semi-coherent, self-congratulatory blather. Trump’s mish-mosh began with more praise, in this case, for Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors for saying they would be keeping jobs in the United States. This is the same Fiat Chrysler which later on in the week would be accused by the EPA as utilizing software to bypass emissions standards much in the way Volkswagen did, and which already is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for allegations of securities fraud based on inflated sales numbers, but that’s another story.
3. President-Elect Trump (still hurts to say) next spoke about the need to orchestrate deals to win back the pharmaceutical industry and the military aircraft industry. I believe the emphasis here is on saving American jobs. Well, I mean, it should be. After all, if you’re asking us to feel bad for the industries themselves, it would seem misplaced, as they don’t seem to be hurting with the kind of revenues they’ve generated in recent years.
4. Donald Trump then talked about—huge surprise!—the fact that he won the election. In doing so, he took potshots at the pollsters who incorrectly predicted he would lose. He also seemed to intimate that those states which helped him win would benefit in terms of jobs and security, once again conforming to his habit of playing favorites with those who brown-nose and curry his favor. Not that I would’ve encouraged New Jerseyans to kowtow to Trump for this reason, but it appears we are SOL for voting blue in 2016. Oh, well.
5. Following a reiteration of his pick-and-choose mentality—i.e. let’s “make America great again,” but only those portions of the country which don’t piss me off—Trump casually dropped the day’s appointment: David Shulkin as head secretary of the Veterans Administration. You know, a non-veteran. Makes total sense. Why is blood dripping from my nose? That’s right—this is Trump’s America now. Thinking too hard only encourages pain.
6. Then, we got to the meat of the press conference: the actual “press” portion. The floor was opened up to the gates of Hell, and President-Elect Trump revealed his true demonic form. Kidding! It was simply opened to questions from the reporters and writers in attendance. Here are some of the queries and responses realized in this segment:
When asked about the two-page summary of the allegations that Russia had dirt on him, as well as the theoretical consensus of the U.S. intelligence community that Vladimir Putin ordered the DNC hack and the attempted hack of the RNC, Trump first deferred and went on a diatribe about the unsubstantiated “crap” that people had reported. Once that was dispensed with, Trump then said he thinks it was Russia who hacked us—but come on!—who hasn’t tried to hack us? Oh, by the way, the Democratic National Committee, for allowing themselves to get hacked, were idiots. Not like the Republican National Committee. What an organization! Also, aren’t Hillary Clinton and John Podesta just awful? Next!
The press, apparently still not done asking questions about the Russian hacks—you know, only because it’s a HUGE F**KING DEAL—then queried Donald Trump about whether he accepts the notion Putin orchestrated these hacks to help him win the election, and whether he would touch the sanctions President Obama authorized based on the findings of U.S. intelligence. On the first count, Trump said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Hey! So Putin likes me! Big whoop! Isn’t it good that he likes me? We can have slumber parties together, making popcorn, watching movies, and discussing how to dismantle ISIS.” On the second count, Trump, um, didn’t really answer, but basically symbolically whipped his junk out and asked, “Does this look like I wouldn’t be tougher on Putin than Hillary would?” (Side note: if Donald Trump actually did this, I think people would be interested to see, if only to verify: 1) whether his member is as orange as the rest of him would suggest, and 2) if visible, whether or not his pubic hair looks as ridiculous as the hair on top of his head does.)
Trump was asked again about those unsubstantiated BuzzFeed memos and whether or not he could be a target of blackmail by the Russians. His response? Bizarre, man. First, he insisted he is, like, the careful-est when he travels abroad and in the public purview. Second, he touted the Miss Universe contest in Moscow—you know, the competition which judges women on their physical features and only occasionally on their brains. Lastly, he said he was a bit of a germophobe, presumably making a funny about the whole “golden showers” bit. Golden showers, golden showers, golden showers. There—I think I’ve gotten it out of my system.
Here was, if not the most stupefying portion of the program, a close second. President-Elect Trump was asked if he thought the Russian hacking—boy, these reporters are persistent buggers, aren’t they?—was justified, how he planned to untangle his business entanglements, and whether he would do us the courtesy of releasing his tax returns to prove he had no conflict of interests. Here’s where it gets stupid: when Trump answered. According to Donald J. Trump:
He has no deals or debt with Russia, and “as a real estate developer, he has very little debt.” As if by mere virtue of working in real estate, the idea of debt is mutually exclusive. This is, in case you haven’t guessed, balderdash, hogwash, and pure poppycock. Trump had estimated his debt at $315 million (so little), but more conservative (read: more accurate) estimates place the figure closer to $1 billion. That’s a shit-ton of debt for someone who professes he’ll do wonders for the U.S. economy and help us reduce our own mounting obligations.
He has a no conflict of interest provision as President. Um, not a thing. Not even close to being a thing. Being President of the United States does not magically permit you to run the country and your business at the same time. In fact, it should compel you to divest yourself of all your business entanglements. There’s no way you could be more wrong in what you just said, Mr. Trump.
He can’t release his tax returns because he’s under audit. Also not a thing. The IRS themselves debunked this notion months ago, and so I wonder if his stubborn adherence to this explanation means he thinks we all believe it, or that he really doesn’t give two shits what we believe. Speaking of not giving two shits what we believe, Trump made the bold claim only reporters care about what’s on his tax returns (which, according to him, don’t tell you all that much anyway), and that we, the people, don’t. Hey, President-Elect Trump, thanks for personally not asking me what I care about, but as it turns out, I do care about what’s on your tax returns. A lot of us do. Release them.
Finally, he says he will be ceding control of his company to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric. No conflict of interest here. They certainly won’t be talking business with their pops, right? Not at all. These men are “professionals,” after all.
7. Donald Trump then turned over control of the press conference to Sheri Dillon, tax lawyer for the firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, to explain how his turning over of his business to his sons was OK. Because he sure as shit didn’t make the case. Dillon’s speech within the speech was pretty lengthy and detailed, and included a lot of tax and legal mumbo-jumbo, apparently about how what the Trump family is doing is totes kewl. Sec. 18 USC 202 doesn’t apply to POTUS, OK? Anyhoo, since Donald Trump is too legit to quit, first of all, he’s putting his ish in a trust. Believe that. Also, his sons and a guy named Allen Weisselberg are running the Trump Organization now, with no interference from the main man himself, y’heard? Also Part Two, we’ve got an ethics adviser on board. Ethics, son! Have some! Plus, Ivanka’s got nothing to do with this whole enterprise. That just happened! Still not satisfied? Peep these deets: only liquid assets in the trust, no new foreign deals, he will only received consolidated profit-and-loss statements, and we’re going to have a chief compliance counsel. He didn’t even have to do that last one, but he did—FOR ALL OF YOU. Dude’s like Jesus up in this piece. Now, before a lot of you bustas start mouthing off, I know what you’re thinking—what about a blind trust? First of all, what about your blind trust? Dude’s President, and he loves America. Loves it. Second of all, eff that blind trust business. I mean, Mr. Trump just can’t unknow his businesses, can he? That would just be some dumb shit right there. Speaking of dumb, what trustee would know better than his sons how to run his interests? No trustee—that’s who. Or some of you might be saying, “What about the Emoluments Clause?” What about the Emoluments Clause? What is an emolument anyway? Do you know? No, you don’t. No one does. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Last but not least, all foreign government payments to his new hotel are going straight to the United States Treasury. You’re welcome. I would drop the mic, but this press conference is still happening! Dillon out!
Sounds all good and fancy and convoluted, right? Too bad, according to Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Per Shaub’s remarks on Wednesday at the Brookings Institute:
We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit. That’s why I was glad in November when the President-elect tweeted that he wanted to, as he put it, “in no way have a conflict of interest” with his businesses. Unfortunately, his current plan cannot achieve that goal. It’s easy to see that the current plan does not achieve anything like the clean break Rex Tillerson is making from Exxon. Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective. The Presidency is a full-time job and he would’ve had to step back anyway. The idea of setting up a trust to hold his operating businesses adds nothing to the equation. This is not a blind trust—it’s not even close. I think Politico called this a “half-blind” trust, but it’s not even halfway blind. The only thing this has in common with a blind trust is the label, “trust.” His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns. His own attorney said today that he can’t “un-know” that he owns Trump Tower. The same is true of his other holdings. The idea of limiting direct communication about the business is wholly inadequate. That’s not how a blind trust works. There’s not supposed to be any information at all.
Here too, his attorney said something important today. She said he’ll know about a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees in on TV. That wouldn’t happen with a blind trust. In addition, the notion that there won’t be new deals doesn’t solve the problem of all the existing deals and businesses. The enormous stack of documents on the stage when he spoke shows just how many deals and businesses there are. I was especially troubled by the statement that the incoming administration is going to demand that OGE approve a diversified portfolio of assets. No one has ever talked to us about that idea, and there’s no legal mechanism to do that. Instead, Congress set up OGE’s blind trust program under the Ethics in Government Act. Under that law anyone who wants a blind trust has to work with OGE from the start, but OGE has been left out of this process. We would have told them that this arrangement fails to meet the statutory requirements.
The President-elect’s attorney justified the decision not to use a blind trust by saying that you can’t put operating businesses in a blind trust. She’s right about that. That’s why the decision to set up this strange new kind of trust is so perplexing. The attorney also said she feared the public might question the legitimacy of the sale price if he divested his assets. I wish she had spoken with those of us in the government who do this for a living. We would have reassured her that Presidential nominees in every administration agree to sell illiquid assets all the time. Unlike the President, they have to run the gauntlet of a rigorous Senate confirmation process where the legitimacy of their divestiture plans can be closely scrutinized. These individuals get through the nomination process by carefully ensuring that the valuation of their companies is done according to accepted industry standards. There’s nothing unusual about that. For these reasons, the plan does not comport with the tradition of our Presidents over the past 40 years. This isn’t the way the Presidency has worked since Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978 in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Since then, Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all either established blind trusts or limited their investments to non-conflicting assets like diversified mutual funds, which are exempt under the conflict of interest law.
Now, before anyone is too critical of the plan the President-elect announced, let’s all remember there’s still time to build on that plan and come up with something that will resolve his conflicts of interest. In developing the current plan, the President-elect did not have the benefit of OGE’s guidance. So, to be clear, OGE’s primary recommendation is that he divest his conflicting financial interests. Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts.
While it lacks of the panache of my urbanized version of Sheri Dillon’s defense of the Trump’s position, Shaub’s explanation makes up for it with being vastly more correct than the statement which preceded it. So much for all that ethics junk.
8. Back to the Q & A. Donald Trump was asked about having a Cabinet and administration full of conflicts of interest, including but not limited to his own. Trump then proceeded to take out a pistol slowly from his jacket coat, and fired several times, killing the correspondent dead on the spot. OK, so that didn’t happen, but you know he totally would if he thought he could get away with it. I could tell you what he actually said, but it started with Rex Tillerson and disintegrated into some gibberish about bad trade deals. Next!
9. Finally, a question about ObamaCare! You know, the thing the Republicans are trying to dismantle without anything to replace it. Mr. Trump was asked what the GOP would do in place of the “disaster” that is the Affordable Care Act. More gibberish. No substantive answer. There, I saved you the trouble.
10. The question was about whether Donald Trump planned to involve himself in all these individual deals with companies (e.g. Carrier) and when we would see the program on capital repatriation and corporate tax cuts. Simplified answer from Trump-speech: those companies who want to leave for Mexico are going to pay a hefty border tax. Unless, you know, they work out a highly-visible sweetheart deal with the U.S. government and I get to talk about how many jobs I save—even though those numbers probably don’t tell the whole story.
11. The next question was a three-part question with three very different parts, so bear with me. On (1) the status of the Mexican border wall, uh, still evidently happening. There appears to be some sort of reimbursement aspect now involved with it, though to be fair, he could’ve just made that up on the spot. On (2) the status of his Supreme Court pick, that’s evidently coming in the fortnight after Inauguration. And on (3)that bizarre Tweet about us living in Nazi Germany, more griping about the unsubstantiated BuzzFeed reports. Because that’s what happened in Nazi Germany. And, um, just the attempted extermination of the Jews. Other than that, though, exactly like it.
12. Trump was asked if President Obama went too far with his sanctions on Russia, and what he thought of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s plan to send him a bill for tougher sanctions. Succinctly, he said no, Obama didn’t go too far, and then proceeded to belittle Graham’s presidential aspirations. Classy, Mr. Trump. Classy.
14. President-Elect Trump was asked once again about all this “false news” business and what reforms he might suggest for the news industry, pray tell. This is literally what he said: “Well, I don’t recommend reforms. I recommend people that are—that have some moral compass.” Spoken by the pussy-grabber himself.
15. The rest of the press conference was devoted to more about Russia, hacking, and Russian hacking, so let’s breeze through this, shall we? Yes, Donald Trump trusts his intelligence community, but only the people he’s appointed and they’ve got a great hacking defense strategy coming—just you wait and see. Wait, does Trump believe Russia was behind the hacks? Probably, but maybe not. (Writer’s Note: Ugh.) What is his message to Vladimir Putin, if, indeed, he was behind the hacks? Mr. Putin, you will respect America. Same goes for you, China. Japan, Mexico, everyone else, you too. And Don and Eric, you better do a good job, or I’ll say, “You’re fired!” No, seriously, he said his catch phrase. At the end of a presidential press conference. Hmm, it appears that that bleeding coming from my nose has intensified. Could someone grab a box of tissues, please? I think my brain may be in the process of complete liquefaction. Remember me as I was prior to Donald Trump being sworn in, I beg of you.
You may have noticed a number was missing from the ordered list comprising my extensive breakdown of Trump’s Wednesday press conference. Hey, it’s called triskaidekaphobia, and I’m sensitive about it! Seriously, though, I’ve had enough of bullshit explanations from the man himself, so let’s get to it. At a point in the press conference, Donald Trump, in his usual delicate style, referred to BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage,” and went on to say that CNN “went out of their way to build it up,” as if to suggest that CNN piled on to the pile of garbage that BuzzFeed had created. In reality, though, CNN’s report preceded BuzzFeed’s, and was appreciably different, with the latter’s being of a salacious and irresponsible manner, prompting a rebuke from Chuck Todd of MSNBC for willingly publishing “fake news.”
Naturally, when impugned by name, you may wish to defend yourself, or at least have a chance to speak, which is what CNN’s Jim Acosta tried to do, asking, “Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question, Mr. President-elect?” Simple, respectful, no? This was Trump’s response: “Your organization is terrible.” He then proceeded to move onto another questioner, and when Acosta pressed him for a chance to defend his organization, Trump fired back by telling him “don’t be rude” and eventually admonishing him by saying “you are fake news.” And he refused to grant Jim Acosta a question. Just like that. Acosta’s question would actually be asked and answered in the waning minutes of the press conference, but the damage was already done, and furthermore, according to Acosta’s account, he was approached by Sean Spicer and told that if he were to “do that again,” he was going to be thrown out of the press conference. So much for freedom of the press.
Predictably, self-appointed enemies of the left and the “liberal media” loved this result, with numerous conservative “news” sites cheering Donald Trump’s “beatdown” of Jim Acosta. Spicer himself insisted Acosta was behaving inappropriately and rudely, and both he and Newt Gingrich called on him to apologize to Trump. Not the other way around. What’s most striking to me and numerous others, I’m sure, though, is how pretty much everyone else in the press just sat or stood by and let Trump efface Acosta from the press conference, metaphorically stepping over his carcass to get a place at the dinner table. Matt Gertz of Media Matters for America has an even starker comparison for it: “Trump Just Shot Jim Acosta in the Middle of Fifth Avenue and the Press Didn’t Blink.” Referencing a boast from the campaign trail of Trump’s that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and he wouldn’t lose voters, Gertz pointed out a trend of Donald Trump lashing out at criticism of him and his campaign, banning members of the press and whole news organizations, and the rest of the press corps not doing shit about it:
This is a pattern. Members of the press have repeatedly refused to stand together as Trump has lashed out at their colleagues. Trump banned The Des Moines Register from covering his campaign after it printed a critical editorial. There was no collective response from the press. So he banned more outlets when he didn’t like their coverage. His campaign threw a New York Times reporter out of an event. No response from the press. He confined the reporters to press pens where he could mock them by name to the glee of his supporters, putting them in physical danger. And into the pens they went, day after day. His campaign manager allegedly manhandled a reporter. CNN hired the campaign manager! Trump treats reporters like conquered foes who he can manhandle at will. If they can’t figure out a way to stand up together and for one another, he will pick them off one by one and grind the free press into the dirt.
Even if people in the news community came to Jim Acosta’s and CNN’s defense after the fact, that they were content to remain silent during Trump’s finger-wagging illustrates the point: the news media generally isn’t willing to stand up for one of its own when that isolated target gets attacked. Case in point FOX News, which, prior to the rise of Trump, Breitbart, the alt-right, and fake news sites which specifically target audiences on social media feeds, more or less had the market covered on fake and misleading coverage. On one hand, correspondent Shepard Smith came to CNN’s defense with journalistic principles in mind, saying as much Wednesday following the press conference:
CNN’s exclusive reporting on the Russian matter was separate and different from the document dump executed by an online news property. Though we at FOX News cannot confirm CNN’s report, it is our observation that its correspondents followed journalistic standards, and that neither they nor any other journalist should be subjected to belittling and delegitimizing by the president-elect of the United States.
FOX News, whose personalities—notably Megyn Kelly while still in the network’s employ—are no stranger to Donald Trump’s wrath, and so it at least makes sense that someone like Shepard Smith would support CNN and Jim Acosta in this way. On the other hand, Neil Cavuto, fellow FOX News talking head, couldn’t help but put a smirk on his face and stick it to the network’s cable news rival a day later. On Your World with Neil Cavuto—at least, I think it was Your World with Neil Cavuto; I don’t really give a shit about any of the programs he hosts—the program’s namesake had this to say about Trump’s rough handling of CNN in this instance:
How does it feel to be dismissed, or worse, ignored? How does it feel when your feelings are hurt, when your reporters are singled out, and you’re treated unfairly and unkindly, even rudely?
Later on in the segment, Cavuto closed with this mean-spirited jab at CNN:
Isn’t it obnoxious and unfair how some celebrate your plight? Kind of feels like the way you celebrated ours, doesn’t it? They say payback’s a bitch. If only you would take a moment to rewind the tape and see the shoe was on the other foot. Or am I confusing it with the one now kicking you in the ass?
My, my, Neil, aren’t you the tough guy? In Neil Cavuto’s defense, President Obama’s relationship with the press corps was far from sterling, as numerous outlets criticized the lack of transparency with which his administration dealt with the press as a subset of his administration’s larger failings in this regard. Moreover, Cavuto is mostly right that other members of the mainstream media didn’t come to FOX News’ defense when Obama singled them out, though interestingly enough, Jake Tapper of, ahem, CNN, has. Still, two wrongs don’t make a right, and if Cavuto is expecting an apology because FOX News has become popular by pandering to liberal-bashers and Obama-haters and because Donald Trump won the election, he’s got a long wait on his hands. Besides, today it’s CNN, but what’s to prevent FOX News from being next on Trump’s hit list or on it at some point in the future? Will Neil Cavuto be quite so smug then? What if CNN comes (again) to his network’s defense?
For any number of reasons, Donald Trump’s press conference in advance of his inauguration is frightening stuff. His persistent refusal to blame Russia for anything, his failure to provide substantive answers to anything related to policy decisions, his and his administration’s questionable ethical standards and conflicts—you name it. But Trump’s refusal to field a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta with the justification that his organization is “terrible” and “fake news” should concern all Americans and members of the press, and not just those on the left. Barack Obama wasn’t exactly a saint, but Trump has displayed signs of being a tyrannical leader well before formally being sworn in. In an age in which fake news is threatening our knowledge of the facts, and political leaders are trying to make us believe truth is not as relevant as opinion and how much we feel something should be true, the failure to hear real news is even worse than the fake article.
We get it—Barack Obama is a lame-duck president. In less than a month, Donald J. Trump is set to take the reins of the presidency. On a related note, animals may spontaneously begin to howl to themselves, instinctively aware something is amiss. Human animals, too, some of whom already have shed some tears, may yet have more crying to do, or at least some hand-wringing and head-shaking. Then again, some people may be just as ready to protest and raise hell. If nothing else, this should help communicate to the incoming President that roughly half of the country hates his guts. To what this extent this might faze him, if at all, I’m not sure, but if it at all causes to Trump to put that imbecilic sourpuss look on his face and want to Tweet up a storm out of vexation, I’d deem it worth the effort.
For once, though, it is not the President-Elect who is ruffling feathers, but the lame duck himself. Evidently not about to leave the White House without some parting shots, Obama and his administration have flexed their diplomatic muscle in the waning hours of his presidency with respect to two particular (and particularly contentious) situations. The first is that of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the likes of which I don’t really have to tell you are contentious. In this specific iteration of the seemingly endless conflict, Israel has drawn criticism for its establishment of settlements on the West Bank. Greg Myre, international editor for NPR, and Larry Kaplow, NPR’s Middle East editor, together have put together a fairly good primer on the situation and why the settlement situation is such a big deal, addressing seven key points worth considering in understanding the forces behind the discord.
1. Settlements are growing rapidly.
A key distinction made by Myre and Kaplow is that these “settlements,” while the term evokes something more rudimentary, are often large subdivisions or sizable cities. Since peace talks began in 1993 between the Israelis and Palestinians, the number of Israelis living in these settlements has quadrupled, and has continued to expand during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister. Even the more moderate and liberal within Israel have pushed for more settlements. Indeed, most of the censure regarding the proliferation of settlements within the West Bank has come from the international community, and not from within Israel’s ranks. In fact, to argue against this trend of increase would seem to be tantamount to political poison for someone like Netanyahu or anyone else of stature within Israel.
2. Settlements complicate efforts for a two-state solution.
I’ll say they do. With settlements all over the West Bank, and the Israeli military on hand to patrol these areas, the prospect of a Palestinian state, already somewhat dim, is made all but impossible. Never say never, yes, but um, don’t hold your breath either.
3. There is a distinction to be made between East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
According to Israel, East Jerusalem, which is part of the West Bank, is the nation’s “eternal and indivisible capital.” Funny story—no one else recognizes this, including the United States, which is why, at least until Donald Trump has his way, the country maintains a diplomatic presence in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. As for Palestinians, meanwhile, they consider East Jerusalem the site of their own future capital given statehood, and together with the West Bank, deem it all occupied land. Evidently, land rights, as beauty, are in the eyes of the beholder.
4. What does Israel say about settlements?
Um, that it’s complicated? On one hand, supporters of settlements cite the rich tradition of Jewish history, the good old Bible, and things such as the need for “strategic depth.” On the other hand, while Israel claims to have annexed East Jerusalem, it makes no such claim of sovereign control over the West Bank, despite the wishes of many of those who have settled there. It therefore remains but “disputed” territory currently being occupied. In other words, the West Bank is not quite “no man’s land” with hundreds of thousands residing within its bounds, but it’s no country’s territory all the same.
5. How about the Palestinians?
Yeah—how about the Palestinians? This section is short on Kaplow’s and Myre’s part, and this would seem appropriate given the simplicity of their argument. Here is their explanation, in its totality:
From some Palestinian cities, there are clear views of Israeli settlements — and new construction — on nearby hillsides. And in most settlement neighborhoods, there are wide areas of empty hillside closed to Palestinians, which Israel says are necessary buffers for security.
Palestinians see them as visual proof that their sought-after independent state is being taken from them. Palestinian leaders have opposed peace talks in recent years while, as they see it, Israel is building on land that is part of those talks.
From this standpoint, I feel those who don’t have a specific vested interest in this conflict would probably tend to agree this makes a lot of sense. How could I feel welcome as a Palestinian when Israeli settlements are continuously expanding and whole swaths of land are closed to me seemingly on principle? Though this may hew close to Israel’s actual intent, for the Palestinians, this doesn’t make a two-state solution seem wholly viable when everything around you tells you you’re not wanted.
6. Has Israel ever dismantled settlements?
Yeah, but, like, once—ever. According to the NPR article, back in 2005, some 8,000 Israeli settlers were forcibly removed from the Gaza Strip on the premise that these settlements were too hard to defend. And when I say, “forcibly removed,” I mean dragging, kicking and screaming. As the authors sum this up succinctly: “The episode demonstrated that Israel could remove settlers, but it also showed how much friction it creates inside Israel.” I’ll say it does.
7. What are the proposed solutions?
Here’s where the discussion gets down to brass tacks—how Israelis and Palestinians move forward. At least from the United States’ perspective, the key proposition is an exchange of land rights. The largest Israeli settlements, which are close to the border with Israel as an established state, would formally become part of Israel. The Israeli settlements deep within the West Bank more removed from Israel, meanwhile, would be ceded for the purpose of a Palestinian state. As Myre and Kaplow indicate, however, and as should be no great surprise, this is complicated, outside of the immediate logistics 0f such a swap. Palestinian leadership is unlikely to accept any deal that does not involve removal of settlements, and yet to suggest the removal of settlements within Israel is politically disadvantageous given the current climate. As with any story, there are two sides to such a two-state solution, and as far as Israel and Palestine are concerned, a spirit of reconciliation does not seem to be felt or sought in abundance.
This already fractious situation was made more disagreeable by a recent resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council that calls for an end to the building of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Egypt originally proposed the resolution, though they were forced to delay a vote on the resolution based on pressure from Israel, but what really got Israel’s proverbial goat was the United States’ decision not to vote and not to veto the resolution. As far as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel were concerned, they thought they, President Obama and the U.S. were cool. In a move construed as better late than never, however, Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking for the administration at large, condemned Israel’s continuously expanding settlements as undermining the viability of a two-state solution and thereby standing in the way of peace. Acting in this way, Kerry, again speaking on behalf of Barack Obama, his administration and his legacy, argued that Israel is positioning itself on a path toward isolation from the international community and perpetual warfare with the Palestinians.
Certainly, Netanyahu and Company disagreed with this speech and the accompanying no-vote on the Security Council resolution, calling Secretary Kerry’s address a “disappointment.” There was also disapproval on the domestic front, though, including censure from the likes of prominent lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, including John McCain and Chuck Schumer. But two other interested parties had their own reactions to this apparent reversal of stances, one that moved the U.S.’s position away from their evident unwillingness to challenge Israel on the proliferation of settlements within the West Bank. Within the Arab world, which has a dog in this fight given its solidarity with the Palestinians, the response was generally favorable, although not without a fair bit of indifference among those individuals who feel this about-face is too little, too late. In line with the more apathetic attitudes of some, Arab critics of the speech are quick to point out that change in favor of a two-state solution seems unlikely in light of the ascension of a second relevant interested party.
That would be—you guessed it—Donald Trump. Trump, who has, ahem, not been shy about expressing his opinions with respect to international politics and U.S. foreign policy, condemned the no-vote by the Obama administration, taking to—you guessed it again—Twitter to voice his displeasure, offering the following:
We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S.—but not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong, Israel—January 20th is fast approaching!
Ugh. The very notion that is man is going to be our President is enough to make one’s head hurt and eye twitch. I was unaware Israel was continually so disrespected by the United States, but that’s our Donald—trumping up any perceived slight against him or the people he favors from Molehill status up to Mountain proportions. The Iran nuclear deal, which in reality is a separate issue, is invoked here by Trump as a means of ginning up his base and gaining support for his positions among those distrustful of Iran’s intentions, if for no other reason than Iran is a Muslim-led nation. As for the discussion of Israeli settlement expansion on its merits alone, President-Elect Trump seems content to simply kowtow to the wishes of Netanyahu’s Israel and a majority of its constituents. Adopting a position that has been characterized by some as more Zionist than that of the Zionists, he appears set to discard any ideas of a two-state solution. For one, his choice of American ambassador to Israel, one David Friedman, has not only has dismissed the idea of such a policy but has actively funded some of the settlements John Kerry criticized. In addition, Donald Trump has announced his intention to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the much-disputed city of Jerusalem. So, for all intents and purposes, Trump and his cronies have made it clear that they could give a f**k about a Palestinian state and Arabs as a whole. But you probably already guessed that, too.
The exact nature of Donald Trump’s appeal to the Orthodox neo-Zionist crowd is admittedly somewhat perplexing. As Bernard Avishai, author, visiting professor of government at Dartmouth University, and adjunct professor at Hebrew University wrote about in a December 31, 2016 piece for The New York Times, Trump may feel he is indebted to this group who has voted Republican where the majority of American Jews has not, and will thus advance the extremist Zionist cause, but potentially at the expense of the already-waning confidence the latter group has in him and in U.S. foreign policy in general. Furthermore, the purported move of the United States embassy to Jerusalem—assuming it would actually come to pass, and many imagine the move of dubious likelihood—would threaten stability in Jordan, an important American ally in the Middle East but one with significant Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations. Trump wouldn’t risk the destabilization of a crucial friend in the region just to satisfy Israel’s monomaniacal pursuits, would he? Even if the answer is “I don’t know,” this much is vaguely frightening.
With the latest involving Russia and allegations of hacking, meanwhile, the likes of which is believed to have been designed to interfere with the election and get Donald Trump into the White House, as well as intended to undermine public confidence in the electoral process, Trump’s motivations seem more transparently self-serving. Shortly before 2016 ended, President Barack Obama ejected 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the United States, imposed sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence organizations, and penalizing four top officers of the GRU, a Russian military intelligence agency. The State Department also acted to close two estates that were suspected of housing Russian intelligence activities, and levied sanctions on three companies/organizations believed to have been involved in the hacking. Not bad for a lame duck, eh?
These actions come backed by our own intelligence, from organizations like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, which purport to have identified malware and other indicators of Russian cyber-attacks. Reservations about the FBI’s credibility in the wake of the Clinton E-mail investigation debacle notwithstanding, there would appear to be every reason to believe that these attacks were coordinated, and while the published findings (i.e. those which won’t remain classified) came short of suggesting any senior Russian officials of the two sanctioned intelligence agencies tried to influence the election, or that these attempts had any material impact on the election’s outcome, as Obama himself insisted, this kind of espionage and meddling in our affairs should concern any reasonable American.
Except now we’re about to address Donald Trump and people talking smack about his man-crush, Vladimir Putin. Already, unless you are a rabid Trump supporter, you might be predisposed to thinking the man, a pathological liar with the temperament and attention span of a young child, is the antithesis of reasonable. Throw in the effective throwing of shade at Putin, an individual for whom President-Elect Trump has expressed his admiration on numerous occasions in the past, and every semblance of reason would seem to go out the window. Trump, while reportedly agreeing to hear U.S. intelligence experts out, reacted to the news of sanctions by insisting that everyone has to “move on” from this whole hacking thing. Moreover, at the news Putin would, heeding the recommendations of his advisers, refrain from retaliating by jettisoning American diplomats from Russia, Trump tweeted, “I always knew he was very smart!” Um, Mr. Trump, you do realize it looks very bad when you’re heaping praise on the leader of a country that just has been publicly reproached for deliberately working against U.S. interests, right? When even your own party is praising Barack Obama for taking action against Russia—albeit in the same breath criticizing this move, as Arab critics of his administration’s condemnation of Israel’s settlements did, deriding this stand as too little, too late—you may want to reassess your position.
As with Donald Trump’s extremist position on Israel which breaks with decades of U.S. policy, not to mention would make the United States an outlier within the international community for its complicity with the Greater Israel ideal, his laudatory sentiments geared toward Vladimir Putin in the face of Russian hacking revelations that put him at odds with fellow Republicans is frustrating, yet not all that surprising. Critics of Trump and his love affair with the Putin regime have largely been left to their own devices regarding suppositions of why a seeming “bromance” exists. Some might suggest Trump, in his naïveté, thinks he can be the best of buddies with Putin, and to some extent, that may be true. Otherwise, his deflecting from allegations of hacking and interference with the election may be seen as defensiveness about his win, as if even the mere allusion to his victory by illegitimate means is an insult to his manhood. Even though, you know, he’s been the foremost accuser of electoral fraud and rigging of the results since the election happened—and, in fact, he was casually throwing out these kinds of charges before the whole shebang started.
As has been inferred from analysis of his business dealings, however, these explanations are merely red herrings for the true reason Donald Trump is all but writing down Vladimir Putin’s name and drawing hearts around it: that he has a vested financial interest in a pro-Russian agenda. Economist Robert Reich—of whom, if you’ve read this blog over the past few months, you’ve heard mention numerous times—penned an op-ed about a week or so again regarding a “dark cloud of illegitimacy” which stands to hang over a Trump presidency, one related to his financial ties to Russia as well as those of his associates. As Reich notes, Trump has close business ties to Russian oligarchs who have financed projects of his and likely have loaned him billions of dollars, and his son, Donald Trump, Jr., remarked at a real estate conference in 2008 that he saw “a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort also has consulting ties to Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who was propped up by Russia, and two of Trump’s appointees, foreign policy advisor, Michael Flynn, and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO, have been honored guests at Russian public ceremonies with Vladimir Putin in attendance.
Reich sums up the larger meaning behind these connections and Donald Trump’s refusal to give credence to evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election nicely:
None of these points taken separately undermines the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. But taken together, they suggest a troubling pattern — of Trump deceitfulness about the election, of Mr. Putin’s role in helping Mr. Trump get elected, and the possible motives of both men for colluding in the election. The dark cloud of illegitimacy continues to grow darker.
Of course, we would be better assured that Donald Trump has no ulterior motive in cozying up to Vladimir Putin and the Russians if, say, he would disclose these ties, agree to fully divest himself of his business dealings, and put his holdings in a blind trust. Like the prospect of him agreeing to hold regular press conferences whereby he might be subject to questions by unbiased members of the media, or even that of him apologizing to Rosie O’Donnell for calling her a fat pig, though, this all doesn’t seem bloody likely. And this cuts to the heart of the issue with Trump—you know, besides him being a hateful, know-nothing man-baby. If Trump really had nothing to hide, then he would’ve released his tax returns without all the nonsense about his being audited preventing that, and would be more forthright with the American people and with the press. But he’s not, and so you are left to doubt whether he became President for any reason other than to boost his ego and his personal wealth. I mean, sure, there is the alternative theory that he’s actually a Russian agent (Keith Olbermann advances this idea, if only in partial jest). More likely, however, is the simple idea he is looking to capitalize for his own sake. “Make America Great Again”? More like, “Make Me More Money.”
Barack Obama may be the lame duck president, yes. But incoming president Donald Trump, in his stubborn support of Israel’s one-state monomania at the likely expense of stability in and around the West Bank, as well as his borderline treasonous fidelity to Vladimir Putin and Russia even in the face of disturbing reports of repeated Russian intrusions in American affairs, seems like quite the turkey. Here’s hoping against reason we all don’t wind up with egg on our face because of it.