At a recent CNN town hall, Democratic hopeful Pete Buttigieg took specific issue with Vice President Mike Pence’s support of Donald Trump. Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pence’s home state) and openly gay (ahem, not Pence’s favorite distinction), criticized Pence for his support for Trump in an apparent abandonment of his principles as a Christian. As Buttigieg put it, “How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn star presidency? Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?”
As far as the post-event dissection and sound bite accumulation went, this was Buttigieg’s quote of the night. For what it’s worth, the pointed criticism of Pence and the religious right is well taken. Prior to the rise of Trump, white evangelicals were most likely to insist on a candidate’s morality as an important quality. Now, however, they downplay Trump’s moral and other deficiencies of character, in this respect acting more white than evangelical. For some, it may be unconscious, but either way, religious conservatives see an ally in a president who appears to exemplify the so-called “prosperity gospel” and who would uphold their brand of “religious freedom.”
Mayor Buttigieg, though, is not a member of the religious right. He is a Democrat and Episcopalian whose mere sexual orientation would make him a target of conservative Christians’ scorn. His attack of Trump’s “porn star presidency” is a double-edged sword that strikes not only at Mike Pence’s hypocrisy and that of his ilk but also at adult entertainers and their choice of vocation. Within his comments are an implicit criticism of porn stars—or at least a failure to defend them. Trump is a bad person. He consorts with porn stars. By association, if you associate with him or them, you are a bad person.
The unnamed allusion to Trump’s extramarital liaison with Stephanie Clifford a.k.a. Stormy Daniels is not the first knock on the woman who alleges she slept with Trump and was paid off in advance of the 2016 presidential election for her silence. Rudy Giuliani—or the crazy person masquerading as Rudy Giuliani for the purposes of defending Donald Trump—expressed to a national audience the belief that Daniels has no credibility because she is a porn star. Translation: Stormy Daniels is a lying whore who can’t be trusted because all porn stars are lying whores. Michael Avenatti’s detractors on the right have leveled similar criticisms of Daniels’s then-lawyer on guilt-by-association principles. He represents porn stars, ipso facto, he is a lying scumbag.
Irrespective of what you think of their personalities—Avenatti, in particular, strikes me as an obnoxious attention-seeker—their choice of vocation or client shouldn’t have a bearing on their believability. As is oft said, love the sinner; hate the sin. In this instance, however, even on the left, there are those who condemn the sinner and sin. Trump is a “porn star president.” Lost in the discussion of his and Pence’s and Daniels’s and Avenatti’s morality is the more relevant issue of whether Donald Trump specifically directed a payoff to Stormy Daniels and whether that constituted a breach of campaign finance law. It shouldn’t matter whether Daniels is a porn star or prostitute or any other similar type of professional. It’s Trump’s conduct with which we should be primarily concerned.
Unfortunately, this bilateral takedown of adult entertainers and other sex workers is emblematic of our larger discomfort with sex work as a function of our discomfort with, well, sex. Sex is enjoyable. It’s the reason most of us are here, barring in vitro fertilization or the like. Talking about it, though, for many of us can be an, er, icky prospect, necessitating the use of double entendre or other euphemistic language. And showing our appreciation of its splendor? Oh, no. Especially for women, that’s not very “lady-like.” Too much sex and you risk getting branded as a “slut.” Worse yet if you’re a prostitute. Then you’re a criminal and deserve to be admonished. So much for the world’s oldest profession.
I watch porn. (Mom, if you’re reading this, apologies.) I’m not without my reservations. There are the usual complaints. The costumes tend to be tacky. Lo, the cut-rate nurse uniforms. The dialogue is often stilted. The acting is frequently subpar. And is there nothing that doesn’t get a porn parody? Who asks for a Rugrats porn parody anyway? Who finds that sexy?
Even when these things are improved upon—and I do think the production value of today’s adult entertainment is largely superior to the XXX offerings of yesteryear—there are troubling aspects of the presentation and of the industry as a whole. The plots—which often barely qualify as such and for some reason usually revolve around sex with stepfamily—can be steeped in misogyny, involving coercion or trickery of the female participant(s) as pivotal “plot” points.
Even when the content is geared to be more “female friendly,” the on-screen enjoyment is often reserved for wealthy characters who enjoy lavish accommodations on the count of being highly-paid hard-working individuals. It’s luxury porn on top of being actual porn. There are also concerns off camera about suicides of numerous high-profile stars and the ever-present worry about transmission of sexually-transmitted infections in a world where condom use is infrequent. And we haven’t yet gotten to the problem of monetization for production companies and actors/actresses alike.
So yeah, the adult entertainment industry has its issues—and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Still, I’m not sure why there seems to be such a disdain or disregard for the people involved, the type which prompts left-leaning comedians like Chelsea Handler to equate porn stars with abusers, child molesters, and Russian hackers. I get that its objectors may see porn as exploitative and the performers as lacking talent. But why the hate? Because they love sex and like getting paid for it? Even within the context of the on-film productions, there seems to be an inherent condemnation of the young women in these situations modeled on real life. These whores will do anything for money! They can’t control themselves when they see what he’s packing down there! We condemn them for their vices while absconding to our bedrooms, gratifying our pleasures. To the extent that these scenes are a reflection of us and our society is disconcerting.
Morality also appears to cloud our collective judgment when it comes to our demonization of escorts, prostitutes, et cetera and advocacy for their rights. A presumption in this regard is that the sex worker has agency over her or his circumstances—and that may be a big presumption to make. There are arguments by some feminists and others that sex work is an oppressive form of labor, especially as it relates to exploitation by “pimps.” Speaking of exploitation, there are serious concerns about human and sex trafficking that would subvert that necessary agency and constitute a serious crime. In many cases, there are quantifiable risks to the sex worker, including drug use, poverty, rape, sexually-transmitted infections, and violence.
These issues notwithstanding, the stigma of sex work lingers. As with adult entertainers, prostitutes who get involved with this line of work for the money or sex are demeaned as unskilled opportunists, and as for the risks they face, the consensus response seems to be an effective shrug of the shoulders. They chose this lifestyle. If they don’t like it, they should get an education and a real job. This comes to a head when discussing sex workers’ desire for safety and protection against burdensome regulations as well as freedom of movement, available health services, and other rights that mere status as a human being should confer. In practice, this is not always the reality.
Meera Senthilingam, a CNN Health and Wellness editor, penned an article which appeared on CNN in February concerning “what sex workers really want.” In the opinion of one sex worker interviewed for the piece, seeing as they pay the same taxes, sex workers should be afforded the same rights as other service professionals who are allowed to work from home. There is also the problem for some prostitutes when law enforcement gets involved. In places where the legality of the practice is null or vague and dependent on who solicits who, the presence of police may actually be a deterrent to would-be customers.
This assumes, by the by, that the police aren’t the ones abusing, exploiting, or harassing sex workers, and as with the agency of sex workers mentioned earlier, this is quite an assumption to make. As with any profession, there are bad actors, and for a population in sex workers already susceptible to violence and other health and safety concerns, it puts practitioners in a bind, to put it mildly. It begs the question: who will watch the watchers when it comes to safeguarding their liberties as citizens?
The above deliberations are worth talking about. Whether it’s because of a deprecating attitude regarding sex work, a discomfort in approaching such matters, or both, however, even those on the left who usually are keen on standing up for individuals’ agency over their bodies and protecting their inalienable rights appear loath to mention sex workers specifically. Chalk it up to social mores or personal morality, but in 2019, America and the world at large is evidently lagging on this topic.
You might ask why we are worried about the feelings and opinions and rights of someone like Stormy Daniels. The woman didn’t even vote, for crying out loud! What do she and her contemporaries have to contribute to the larger discussion about Donald Trump and American politics? To be honest, I’m not totally sure, but if we dismiss her as an opportunist and a slut from the jump, what chance do we have to listen and know with an open mind?
In front of an audience of 500 women or so at The Wing, a work and community space designed for women in Washington, D.C., Daniels recently said she believes Michael Cohen to be true in his testimony to lawmakers. Cohen, like Daniels, has had his credibility attacked reflexively by Republican supporters of the president, and while she may not possess a great deal of affection for the man—she referred to Cohen as “dumber than herpes”—she thinks he is honest and that, like her, he came forward because he’s tired of “being bullied” and “being called a liar and a rat.”
Sure, this is just one person’s opinion, but it comes from someone who alleges to know Trump intimately—in more than one sense of the word. In this respect, her thoughts have at least much value as a shameless defender of Trump like Sean Hannity. Instead, though, she’s a porn star to be derided alongside the president, Mike Pence, and even child molesters and wife beaters. Thanks for the insight, but we’d rather scoff at you from atop our high horses. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.
Whether it’s within the context of #MeToo or of simply acknowledging the dignity of sex workers as human beings, the left has a problematic relationship with those storytellers it considers to be problematic or unsavory. Daniels has stressed she is a not a victim with regard to #MeToo. Cohen, set to spend three years in federal prison, is sure as heck not a victim.
Through all the deals they’ve struck and monies they’ve received, this doesn’t mean they’re utterly irredeemable. And their past actions and vocations have no bearing on the veracity of what they say about Trump. To allow our social and moral misgivings to stand in the way of our better judgment is to fall prey to the same kind of prejudices that have characterized conservatism of late. You know, when its practitioners actually heed their conscience or the teachings of scripture.
Rejoice! If you’re reading this, it means we haven’t yet managed to get ourselves embroiled in a nuclear war and that the future of our civilization as a going concern—despite our best efforts—is still a possibility!
Whatever your outlook on the days, weeks, and years to come, it’s worth looking back on the moments of the past 12 months and revisiting the themes they evoked.
Without further ado, it’s time for…
2018 IN REVIEW: HEY, WE’RE STILL HERE!
Mueller…always a good call.
When the year started, what did you figure the odds were that Robert Mueller’s investigation would still be going? 50% Less than that? At this writing—with Donald Trump and this administration, you never know what might happen and who might suddenly quit or get fired—the Mueller probe into Trump’s presidential campaign and possible collusion with Russia continues largely unimpeded.
This is not to say that its continued operation and final delivery are guaranteed. Jeff Sessions’s watch as Attorney General has ended, and his dismissal created the objectively strange sensation of a furor over his removal by the left despite his support of the Trump administration’s destructive agenda. His replacement, Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist, inspires little faith there will be any obfuscation of the investigation, especially since he has rejected the advice of an ethics official from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to recuse himself from the investigation.
With Mitch McConnell the obstructionist refusing to allow a vote on a bill that would safeguard the investigation, there’s little hope Congress will act to intervene should Trump move to fire Mueller. Which, as he has reminded us umpteen times, he can do because he’s the president. Whatever Mueller’s fate, the results of his team’s findings are yet impressive and suggest the probe should be permitted to run its course. Over 30 people and three Russian companies have been charged in the special counsel’s investigation, producing more than 100 criminal charges, and more yet might be on the way.
Despite Trump’s hollow concerns about the cost—Mueller’s probe is a “waste of money” and yet we should fund a wall that a lot of people don’t want—Robert Mueller and Co. have been remarkably effective and efficient. Trump shouldn’t mess with this investigation if for no other reason than not to risk a major public outcry against him.
“Guns don’t kill people,” but more people killed people with guns
The February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 students were killed and another 17 injured was perhaps the most notable for the activism it helped inspire, but there were other newsworthy shootings around the country. Yountville, California at a veterans home. Nashville, Tennessee at a Waffle House. Santa Fe, Texas at the high school. Scottsdale, Arizona in a series of shootings. Trenton, New Jersey at the Art All Night Festival. Annapolis, Maryland at the Capital Gazette building. Jacksonville, Florida at a Madden NFL 19 tournament. Aberdeen, Maryland at a Rite Aid. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Tree of Life synagogue. Tallahassee, Florida at a yoga studio. Thousands Oaks, California at a bar. Robbins, Illinois at a bar. Chicago, Illinois at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center.
Gun rights advocates may point to the varying locales of these shootings and suggest that no matter where you go and how restrictive the gun laws, people can still acquire firearms by illicit means and can do harm. In any number of cases, however, shooters haven’t needed to subvert legal channels. Either way, this shouldn’t deter lawmakers from passing more restrictive gun laws. It should be difficult for individuals to acquire guns. There are too many guns. More guns means a higher likelihood that people will get shot. This is not complicated.
If you want to talk about mental health aside from the gun issue, I’m with you. If you want to insist that we just need more good people with guns, I’m not with you, but I still think we should talk about it. In the case of Jemel Roberson in the Robbins, Illinois shooting, he was the good guy with a gun, and got shot because he was black. We haven’t come close to solving the gun violence problem in America, and as long as groups like the National Rifle Association will continue to lobby against gun control and resist statistical research into fatalities related to gun violence, we won’t make progress on this issue. Here’s hoping the NRA continues to suffer a decline in funding.
Stormy Daniels alleges Donald Trump had an extramarital affair with her back in 2006. Trump, who denies everything, denies this happened. Meanwhile, someone paid her $130,000 in advance of the election. Who do you believe? Also, and perhaps more to the point, do you care?
I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Daniels’s account. For some people, though, the mere notion she gets and has gotten money to have sex on camera puts her word in doubt. She’s an opportunistic liar looking to cash in on her 15 minutes of fame. Ditto for her lawyer Michael Avenatti, who naturally has political aspirations.
Even for those who might believe her or who would like nothing more than to nail Trump on some dimension, the nature of her profession is such that they might be loath to discuss the matter of Trump’s infidelity and hush money payments. Talking about sex and adult entertainers is, well, icky for some.
In this respect, our willingness or unwillingness to confront this chapter of Daniels’s and Trump’s lives is a reflection of our own set of values and morals. It’s especially telling, moreover, that so many white evangelicals are willing to forgive Pres. Trump his trespasses. For a group that has, until Trump’s rise, been the most insistent on a person’s character to eschew such concerns demonstrates their willingness to compromise their standards in support of a man who upholds “religious liberty” and who exemplifies the prosperity gospel.
Thus, while some of us may not care about Stormy Daniels personally or may not find campaign finance law riveting, there’s still larger conversations about sex and money in politics worth having. Despite what nonsense Rudy Giuliani might spout.
FOX News continued its worsening trend of defending Trump and white supremacy
Oh, FOX News. Where do we begin? If we’re talking about everyone’s favorite source for unbiased reporting (sarcasm intended), a good place to start is probably their prime-time personalities who masquerade as legitimate journalists.
Sean Hannity, now firmly entrenched as FOX News’s night-time slot elder statesman with Bill O’Reilly gone, was revealed as a client of Michael Cohen’s (yes, that Michael Cohen) and an owner of various shell companies formed to buy property in low-income areas financed by HUD loans. Surprise! That surprise extended to Hannity’s employer, to whom he did not see fit to disclose a potential conflict of interest when propping up the likes of Cohen and Ben Carson, or his adoring viewers. Not that they care, in all likelihood. Hannity tells it not like it is, but how they want to hear.
As for more recent more additions to the prime-time schedule, Laura Ingraham, when not mocking Parkland, FL survivor David Hogg for not getting into colleges (he since has been accepted to Harvard) or telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” denounced the “massive demographic changes” that have been “foisted on the American people.” She says she wasn’t being racist. She is full of shit.
Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, remained the go-to guy for white supremacist viewpoints, questioning the value of all forms of immigration and more recently deriding immigrants as poor and dirty. He has lost more than a dozen advertisers since those latest comments. Good. The only criticism is that it took them this long to dissociate themselves from Carlson’s program.
FOX News has seemingly abandoned any pretense of separation from the Trump administration in terms of trying to influence the president’s views or tapping into his racist, xenophobic agenda. It hasn’t hurt them any in the ratings—yet. As those “demographic changes” continue, as television viewership is challenged by new media, and as President Trump remains unpopular among Americans as a whole, however, there is no guarantee the network will remain at the top. Enjoy it while you can, Laura, Sean, and Tucker.
Turns out big companies don’t always do the right thing
Facebook, Papa John’s, and Wells Fargo would like you to know they are very truly sorry for anything they may or may have not done. Kind of.
In Facebook’s case, it’s selling the information of millions of users to Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm which did work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and was founded by Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon). It also did a piss-poor job of weeding out fake news and hate speech and has since taken to relying on a questionable consortium of fact-checkers, most suspect among them The Weekly Standard.
Papa John’s had to reckon with the idea John Schnatter, the company’s namesake, is, well, kind of a racist dick. They’ve been battling over his ouster and his stake in the company ever since. As for Wells Fargo, it’s still dealing with the bad PR from its massive account fraud scandal created as a function of a toxic sales-oriented corporate culture, as well as the need to propose a reform plan to the Federal Reserve to address its ongoing shady practices (its proposals heretofore have yet to be approved).
In all three cases, these companies have sought to paper over their misdeeds with advertising campaigns that highlight their legacy of service to their customers or the people within their organization who are not bigoted assholes. With Facebook and Wells Fargo in particular, that they continue to abuse the public’s trust conveys the sense they aren’t truly repentant for what they’ve done and haven’t learned anything from the scandals they’ve created.
Unfortunately, cash is king, and until they lose a significant share of the market (or the government refuses to bail them out), they will be unlikely to change in a meaningful positive way. The best we can do as consumers is pressure our elected representatives to act on behalf of their constituents—and consider taking our business elsewhere if these organizations don’t get their shit together.
Poor Sarah Sanders. It seems she can’t attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner or go out for a meal with her family without being harangued.
While I don’t necessarily think people like Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Stephen Miller should be denied the ability to eat (although it’s pretty f**ked up that Miller and Nielsen would go to a Mexican restaurant amid an immigration crisis), calls for “civility” are only as good as the people making such calls and the possibility of substantive action in key policy areas.
People were upset with Michelle Wolf, for instance, for telling the truth about Sanders’s propensity for not telling the truth by making allusions to her as Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale and by referencing her smoky eye makeup as the ash from burned facts. Members of the press tripped over themselves to comfort Sanders and to disavow Wolf’s performance. But Wolf was doing her job, and told truth to power. It’s Michelle Wolf who deserves the apology, not habitual liar and Trump enabler Sarah Sanders.
I believe we shouldn’t go around punching Nazis—as satisfying as that might be. That said, we shouldn’t allow people to dispense hate simply to appease “both sides,” and we should be vocal about advocating for the rights of immigrants and other vulnerable populations when people like Miller and Nielsen and Sanders do everything in their power to pivot away from the Trump administration’s destructive actions. After all, it’s hard to be civil when children are being taken from their mothers and people are being tear-gassed or dying in DHS custody.
There’s something about Alexandria
Love her or hate her, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has arrived on the national stage following her upset of incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic Party primary for New York’s 14th congressional district.
If you’re a devotee of FOX News, it’s probably the latter. The incoming first-year representative has joined Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi in the vaunted space of people to be booed and hissed at for pretty much everything she does. She took a break before the start of her first term? How dare she! She refused to debate Ben Shapiro? What is she afraid of? As a young Latina socialist, she ticks off all the boxes their audience possesses on their Fear and Hate Index. All without spending an official day on the job.
Like any inexperienced politician, AOC has had her wobbles, chief among them when she flubbed a question on Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, she has handled the numerous attacks on her on Twitter and elsewhere with remarkable deftness and grace. More importantly, she appears ready to lead her party on key issues, as evidenced by her outspokenness on the concept of a Green New Deal.
Party leaders may downplay the significance of her upset primary win, but Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence, to many, heralds a progressive shift for Democrats, one in which its younger members and women are not just participants, but at the forefront. At a time when establishment Dems only seem more and more unwilling to change, there is yet reason for genuine excitement in the Democratic Party.
John McCain died. Cue the whitewashing.
I don’t wish death on anyone, but John McCain died at the right time. That time would be the era of President Donald Trump, and by contrast, McCain looks like a saint.
McCain is best remembered for his service to the United States and for helping to kill the Republicans’ intended replacement for the Affordable Care Act. But we shouldn’t brush aside the less-savory elements of his track record. As a Trump critic, he still voted in line with the president’s agenda most of the time. He was a prototypical war hawk, advocating for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a proponent of armed conflict with Iran—even after all he saw and endured in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, as a presidential candidate, though he is celebrated for defending Barack Obama at a town hall as a good Christian man (though he didn’t specify that he’d be worth defending if he were actually a Muslim), he was an unrepentant user of a racial slur directed at Asians and he signed off on the unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate. A lot of the fondness he receives now from journalists likely stems from the access McCain gave reporters while on the campaign trail. Even his vote not to quash the ACA was done with a flair for the dramatic that belied the seriousness of its implications.
John McCain wasn’t the worst person to inhabit the U.S. Senate. But simply being more civil than Donald Trump is a low bar to clear. Regardless, he should be remembered in a more nuanced way in the name of accurate historical representation.
There were a lot of shameful occurrences in American politics in 2018. I already alluded to the Trump administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the immigration situation and of ripping apart families. The White House also seems intent on hastening environmental destruction, doing nothing to protect vulnerable subdivisions of the electorate, and pulling out of Syria as an apparent gift to Assad and Vladimir Putin.
And yet, the nomination and eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court somehow became the most galling example of D.C. partisanship witnessed in sometime. Of course, any discussion of Kavanaugh would be incomplete without the mention of Merrick Garland. On the heels of Republicans’ refusal to hear him as a nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia and after Neil Gorsuch was sworn in, things were already primed for tension between the two major parties.
When reports of multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct dating back to Kavanaugh’s high school and college days surfaced, though, the GOP’s stubborn refusal to budge and choose a new candidate was downright appalling. Kavanaugh didn’t do himself any favors with his testimony on the subject of these accusations, lashing out at the people who questioned him, insisting this investigation was a partisan witch hunt, and assuming the role of the aggrieved party like the spoiled frat boy we imagine he was and perhaps still is.
Kavanaugh’s defenders would be wont to point out that the rest of us are just salty that “they” won and “we” lost. Bullshit. Though we may have disagreed with Gorsuch’s nomination and conservatism prior to his being confirmed, he didn’t allegedly sexually assault or harass anybody. Brett Kavanaugh, in light of everything we now know about him, was a terrible choice for the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans should be ashamed of this chapter in American history, and this might be a good segue into talking about term limits for Supreme Court justices. Just saying.
Death by plastic
In case you were keeping score at home, there’s still an ass-ton of plastic in the world’s oceans. According to experts on the matter, the global economy is losing tens of billions of dollars each year because of plastic waste and we’re on a pace to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?
By all means, we should keep recycling and finding ways to avoid using plastic on an individual basis. Every bit helps. At the same time, we’re not going to make the progress we need until the primary drivers of plastic waste are held accountable for their actions. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, Unilever—looking at you.
In terms of world governments, China is the worst offender hands down, and numerous Asian countries line the top 10 (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia), but we’re not exactly above reproach. In fact, with Trump at the helm, we’ve been active in helping water down UN resolutions designed to eliminate plastic pollution.
Plastic pollution is not an isolated problem, and it’s not going away either. Literally. That stuff lasts a long time. We need to stop plastic production at the source, and push back against companies like Nestlé who exploit downtrodden communities with lax water safeguarding laws. This isn’t a game.
The Dems flipped the House, Brian Kemp stole an election, and other observations about the midterms
It’s true. Though Republicans widened their majority in the Senate, Democrats flipped the House, presumably paving the way for Nancy Pelosi to return to the role of House Majority Leader. Groan at this point if you’d like.
With the Dems running the show in the House, there’s likely to be all sorts of investigations into Donald Trump and his affairs. I mean, more political and financial, not the other kind, but you never know with that guy. That should encourage party supporters despite some tough losses. Beto O’Rourke fell short in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz from Senate, despite being way sexier and cooler. Andrew Gillum likewise had a “close but no cigar” moment in the Florida gubernatorial race. Evidently, voters preferred Ron DeSantis, his shameless alignment with Trump, and his thinly-veiled racism. Congratulations, Florida! You never fail to disappoint in close elections!
Perhaps the worst of these close losses was Stacey Abrams, edged out by Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race. If you ask Kemp, he won fair and square. If you ask anyone else with a modicum of discretion, he won because, as Georgia’s Secretary of State, he closed polling stations, purged voters from the rolls, failed to process voter applications, and kept voting machines locked up. Kemp’s antics and the shenanigans in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District give democracy a bad name, and beckon real voting reform championed by grassroots activists. After all, if Florida can restore voting rights to felons—Florida!—the lot of us can do better.
George H.W. Bush also picked a good time to die
Like John McCain, I didn’t wish for “Bush Sr.” to die. Also like John McCain, people on both sides of the aisle extolled his virtues at the expense of a more complete (and accurate) telling of his personal history.
Bush, on one hand, was a beloved patriarch, served his country, and had more class than Donald Trump (again, low bar to clear). He also was fairly adept at throwing out first pitches at baseball games, I guess. On the other hand, he campaigned for president on dog-whistle politics (see also “Willie Horton”), pushed for involvement in the first Gulf War by relying on fabricated intelligence, escalated the war on drugs for political gain, turned a deaf ear to people suffering from AIDS, and was accused by multiple women of trying to cop a feel. So much for being miles apart from Trump.
Was George H.W. Bush a good man? I didn’t know the man, so I can’t say for sure. But he was no saint. Nor was his son or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or any other president. He led the country. Let’s not erase his flaws in the name of “togetherness.”
I chose to review these topics because I covered them at length on my blog. This obviously doesn’t cover the sum total of the events that transpired in 2018. Let’s see.
Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA and rolled back Dodd-Frank, extending our use of warrantless surveillance and making it more liable we will slide back into a recession. That sucked. Devin Nunes released a memo that was reckless, misleading, dishonest, and not quite the bombshell it was made out to be. That sucked as well. Our national debt went way up and continues to rise. American workers are making more money because they are working more, not because wages have risen.
What else? Trump got the idea for a self-congratulatory military parade—and then cancelled it because people thought it was a waste of time, effort, and money. DACA is still in limbo. U.S. manufacturing, outside of computers, continues its downward slide. Sacha Baron Cohen had a new show that was hit-or-miss. Oh, and we’re still involved in Yemen, helping a Saudi regime that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
So, yeah, in all, not a whole lot to get excited about in 2018 on the national news front. Moreover, that there seems to be mutual distrust between liberals and conservatives dampens enthusiasm for 2019 a bit. And let’s not even get started on 2020. If you think I’m raring to go for a Biden-Trump match-up (based on current polling), you’d be sorely mistaken.
And yet—step back from the ledge—there is enough reason to not lose hope. Alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a record number of women won seats in Congress. Ayanna Pressley became the first black women elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Michelle Lujan Grisham became the first Democratic Latina governor. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland were elected as the first Native American women to Congress. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected as the first Muslim women in Congress. Guam got its first female governor in history in Lou Leon Guerrero. That’s real progress.
Indeed, while Donald Trump as president is intent on standing in the way of progress, and while his continued habitation of the White House is bad on so many fronts, his win has been a wake-up call to ordinary people to get involved in politics, whether by running for office, by canvassing for political candidates and issues, or by making their voices heard by their elected representatives one way or another. Politics can’t be and is no longer just the sphere of rich old white dudes. Despite the efforts of political leaders, lobbyists, and industry leaders with a regressive agenda as well as other obstacles, folks are, as they say, rising up.
There’s a lot of work to do in 2019, the prospect of which is daunting given that many of us are probably already tired from this year and even before that. It’s truly a marathon and not a sprint, and the immediate rewards can feel few and far between. The goal of a more equal and just society, however, is worth the extra effort. Here’s hoping we make more progress in 2019—and yes, that we’re still here to talk about it same time next year.
Sean Hannity likes to claim he is not a “journalist” when confronted about potential conflicts of interest surrounding the content he provides as a commentator on his show on FOX News. Yet he also likes to argue that his program breaks “real news” and conducts interviews the way a legitimate journalist would. In a manner of speaking, Hannity is trying to have his cake and eat it too, and as far as many of his viewers are concerned, they probably don’t care. They should care, however, as should FOX News and anyone concerned with journalistic integrity.
Hannity has been thrust into the spotlight recently because of the revelation that he is a client of Michael Cohen, the same Michael Cohen who is an attorney and spokesperson for one Donald Trump, who had his home and office raided by federal investigators in relation to payments made to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels, and whose own legal team only last week revealed their connection during a court hearing. Hannity’s entanglements with Cohen are particularly salient considering he has used his platform as a means of decrying any investigations into the affairs of Cohen and Trump, but never disclosed this relationship to his viewers, and reportedly, even FOX News executives were blindsided by the disclosure.
Despite Sean Hannity’s downplaying of the situation, it’s not as if the reason for soliciting Cohen’s legal counsel is immaterial. According to a report by Jon Swaine and referencing public documents obtained by The Guardian, Hannity is linked to some 20 “shell” companies formed in Georgia devoted to the purchase of real estate including foreclosed properties and, in some cases, properties from below-median income/above-average poverty areas. The mere existence of these companies is not an indication of illegality, but it does make his railing against the Obama administration for the high rate of foreclosures when he has benefited from it disingenuous, if not patently ironic.
Similar failures to disclose key relationships seem of more than just passing interest. Two of Hannity’s most lucrative properties (apartment complexes) are financed by loans through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the current head of which, Ben Carson, has appeared on Hannity to the host’s praise. Along these lines, Hannity has featured Bill Lako, a principal at the firm Henssler Financial, as an expert. This same firm just happens to have registered Hannity’s various shell companies. Once again, that Hannity is a client isn’t something about which to be so cavalier, particularly when his relationship with this featured personality may impact the viewer’s opinions and judgment on financial matters.
This is where the issue of whether or not Sean Hannity is a “journalist” becomes most relevant, and why, to many, his self-serving faux surprise at being of supposed persecutory interest to the mainstream media rings hollow. Hannity and his defenders would aver that he is a commentator who renders his opinions, and as such, is not bound by the same journalistic standards as, say, a reporter. Conversely, some observers would insist that if Hannity walks, swims, and quacks like a reporter, he may well be considered one, despite how he identifies himself.
Such explains why there is tension not only between conservatives like Sean Hannity and the rest of the news media community, but even among FOX News’s talking heads. There are those on-air personalities like Shepard Smith who fashion themselves as journalists and see what Hannity and Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson do as entertainment more so than news. Which, predictably, prompted Hannity and Ingraham to fire back on Twitter that they do “real reporting” and aren’t just purveyors of theater.
This creates a kind of conundrum alluded to in the opening, particularly for Hannity. On one hand, he wants to be treated seriously as a leading voice in conservative thought and a dominant presence in cable news. Even through the controversy over Hannity’s persistence in covering the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich as some sort of hit job related to his supposed identity as a source for WikiLeaks that saw his show lose sponsors, the FOX News veteran has remained a priority of the network’s as a ratings draw, especially with Bill O’Reilly no longer in the mix, and thus, he at least has the second half of the proverbial equation satisfied.
On the other hand, however, Sean Hannity doesn’t want the same standards of accountability to apply to his delivery of what he calls “REAL NEWS.” (His emphasis, not mine. Evidently, when you put things in all caps, THEY MAGICALLY BECOME MORE BELIEVABLE.) So, like his boy Donald Trump, his answers—in his case, as to whether he is a journalist—are malleable, changing to fit his purpose or perhaps his mood. As Paul Farhi, media reporter for The Washington Postdetails, Hannity has “flipped” repeatedly on his ownership of the term journalist, or has otherwise striven to qualify the use of the word, labeling himself an advocacy journalist or opinion journalist.
As experts on the American press and television journalism quoted for Farhi’s column insist, meanwhile, this may be all but semantics. Either way, the lack of transparency risks a loss of trust from Hannity’s viewers, an idea which would lead other news personalities to disclose any potential conflicts of interest out of a sense of duty to their profession. But Hannity claims (when it suits him) that he is not a journalist. Thus, he lacks any such consideration of ethical quandaries, and surprisingly enough, a significant portion of his viewership and of the broader news community doesn’t seem to be too bothered by his lack of disclosure.
That FOX News is apparently giving Sean Hannity a free pass on these matters is telling for a number of reasons. For one, it underscores how important Hannity is in the bid to best CNN and MSNBC in the primetime cable news wars. More than this, though, it signifies how the network’s own journalistic standards have eroded over the years—and it’s not like they were all that highly regarded before the era of Trump. Only a few years ago, FOX News brass were preventing Hannity from appearing at a Tea Party rally in Ohio.
Now, he’s not only advising President Trump and sharing legal representation with him, but he’s serving as a major mouthpiece of FOX’s pro-Trump propaganda machine, a reality that helps further put him at odds with Shep Smith and other anchors at the network. For a media outlet that billed itself as “fair and balanced” during the George W. Bush years—a slogan which strained the bounds of credulity even then—its present stance seems to be to drop all pretense of objectivity. FOX News now touts what it offers as “real news, real honest opinion.” Pardon me if all this talk about what’s “real” and “honest” doesn’t quite have me convinced.
Callum Borchers, writing for The Washington Post, penned an analysis in response to the revelations about Sean Hannity, opining that his fans will still support him in spite of the notion he is a hypocritical “welfare queen” because he provides his audience with a highly entertaining escapist defense of a president in Trump that frames “attacks” on #45 as unfair, unpatriotic, and vicious. The “welfare queen” line, in it of itself a reference to Reagan-era use of the term, was recently invoked by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens during a discussion about Hannity’s property holdings on MSNBC:
I think it’s funny Sean Hannity turns out to be a welfare queen for HUD, having taken advantage of guarantees that were put forward by none other than the Obama administration. Look, you know, Hannity, he’s said over and over again—that he is not a journalist. He proves it every single day. The question for Fox News is whether they want to consider themselves a journalistic institution and continue to employ as an anchor a guy who clearly is better at real estate than he is at reporting.
For Stephens and other independent observers, the issue with Hannity is not that he has made use of federal monies to accomplish his real estate investment goals; from my understanding, this is fairly commonplace, and he shouldn’t be faulted for it any more than we would fault Trump for his use of bankruptcy in his business dealings. Rather, it is with his unspoken reliance on the HUD program while decrying other people’s taking advantage of government “handouts” that eats at his professed credibility. As Stephens goes on to say, it’s not even as if Hannity, while a particularly bad example given his high profile, is the lone bad actor in this regard:
The currency of our political moment is hypocrisy. It is the most valuable currency of our political moment, right? So I can trade on—I can say anything. I can do anything. I can be in conflict, right, as long as I’m pursuing my own self-interest and being narcissistic and whatever. As long as I’m doing that, I don’t have to worry about the consequences. So norms are being cast aside from the top all the way down to the bottom and people who claim to be the moral arbiters of our politics turn out to be the biggest violators.
There is no shortage of figures to which to ascribe these comments on both sides of the aisle, but for Stephens, a conservative who has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, the implicit reference to him and Hannity as unprincipled sorts who weaken the conservative brand is clear. Even if Stephens’ derision is more narrowly focused, though, his point is well taken given the American people’s eroding confidence in the nation’s political institutions, most notably with respect to Congress and the Democratic and Republican Parties but with the media and the office of POTUS not dramatically better either. Do as I say, not as I do. It is no wonder so much of the electorate has reacted like children rebelling against their parents—act inconsistently as a public servant, and that’s the risk you run.
As Borchers explains, though, Sean Hannity’s viewers are willing to look past his “transgressions” because he gives credence to their feelings and beliefs, much in the way evangelicals and other Christians will look past Trump’s infidelity and his attacks on minority groups because he reinforces expression of anti-abortion views and “religious liberty” at the expense of others’ civil rights. At the heart of their appeal is acceptance of their supporters’ worldview in the face of a rapidly-changing world that increasingly rejects this worldview’s long-held assumptions and prejudices. As much as we might chide Hannity and Trump as blockheads and gasbags, we can acknowledge they do possess a talent for communicating a sense of shared experience to a large audience.
In rendering my opinions across the blogosphere, I am part of the ever-growing global community designed to facilitate a discussion through political commentary. My opinions, of course, are my own, and you, the reader, are certainly free to agree or disagree, or even summarily dismiss them as incomplete. At the very least, however, I strive to do my homework by consulting other viewpoints on a given topic and citing appropriate information when relevant. Not to be grandiose about these things, but I do this because I think it’s right to do.
This is exactly why FOX News’s lack of journalistic standards and refusal to admonish Sean Hannity is disturbing, even for an amateur commentator and non-FOX-viewer like myself. Until there is an apparent rejection of the network’s methods which eschew facts and fuel the right-wing Trump propaganda machine, there is every worry that upward trends with respect to hasty, inaccurate reporting as well as the promulgation of fake news will continue. It was striking to see a little over a year ago, during an exchange between Hannity and CBS News special commentator Ted Koppel, the latter coolly answer in the affirmative when asked point blank by the former whether he is “bad for America.” Hannity insisted Koppel was selling the American people short, but a year after the fact, perhaps Koppel’s “cynicism” was justified.
To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.
Russian prostitutes and golden showers. If there is anything about the so-called Steele dossier with which you are familiar, most likely, it’s related to these kinds of salacious details/services that Donald Trump is alleged to have solicited at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Moscow in 2013. To be sure, there are more serious concerns to be had within the Trump-Russia dossier, ones pertaining to notions that Vladimir Putin and Russian operatives cultivated Trump as a candidate and means to disrupt Western alliances, that key members of the Trump campaign worked alongside Russian leadership to foster this relationship and to discredit Hillary Clinton, and that Trump and Co. negotiated deals which outlined a plan for Trump to lift sanctions on Russia and to remove Russian intervention in Ukraine from a list of campaign priorities in exchange for a stake in Russian oil. Very, very serious concerns.
Of course, these aspects of the dossier do not grab attention and headlines quite like lurid tales of peeing on beds as a way of thumbing one’s nose at Barack and Michelle Obama. What’s more, this scatological material and doubts raised by some critics as to the veracity of the dossier’s contents have made even those on the left who would characteristically jump at the chance to exploit such intel about Trump reluctant to do so. It is in this context that we may view the delicate relationship between those who demonize the President and his supposed affair with Stephanie Clifford, known more commonly to the world as Stormy Daniels, screenwriter, director, and pornographic actress. According to Daniels, she had a sexual encounter with Donald Trump after meeting him in 2006 when she was 27 and he was 60. Oh, and he happened to be married to Melania at this point, too.
Recently, Daniels was interviewed by Anderson Cooper for 60 Minutes, and while many of the details discussed may have been known to people who have specifically been following this story, having it unfold on national television lends itself to being talked about at the water cooler, or throughout the blogosphere or Twitterverse. Much of it, for better or worse, is entertaining. Daniels spanking Trump with a magazine with his own face on the cover. That the pair did not use a condom. Trump telling Daniels she reminded him of his daughter, Ivanka. (Creeper alert!) As with the Steele dossier, there are larger issues to be found within Stormy Daniels’ insider account, including but not limited to a $130,000 payment to Daniels facilitated by Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, associated with the alleged signing of a non-disclosure agreement to keep this affair secret less than two weeks before the 2016 election (which may be part of a campaign finance violation), as well as threats of lawsuits and physical violence against Daniels if she did not comply or violated the terms of the agreement.
Again, there are elements of this story which people on both sides of the political aisle would find disagreeable, and thus would make Stormy Daniels a strange and uncomfortable bedfellow. Certainly, Trump loyalists will question Daniels’ credibility based on notions that she is leveraging her supposed encounter with Trump for fame and money, or that she claims to have lied about the affair never happening because she felt she was under duress or otherwise forced to; Anderson Cooper alludes to these thoughts of naysayers at different points during the interview. Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, many Trump haters, though perhaps eager to discredit POTUS on matters of deficient moral fiber, are nonetheless gun-shy about invoking the words of a porn star when they may possess their own reservations about her character. There’s a separate discussion that merits having with respect to expression of sexuality in our society, especially for women, but suffice it to say that even discerning members of the left may view Daniels as a lesser-than who lacks real skill or talent, or worse yet, tantamount to a whore.
Even if we see less value than others do in Stormy Daniels’ chosen profession—though I have a number of concerns with aspects of the adult entertainment industry, I personally don’t see value in shaming sex workers, but you’re entitled to your opinion—and even if we question her motives in speaking out publicly about her affair with Donald Trump, whether or not she’s telling the truth about having sex with “the Donald” or being paid “hush money” or being threatened legally and physically is a separate issue. Jose Canseco may have cheated the game of baseball and its fans years ago by using performance-enhancing drugs, but when it came time to name names, a number of his accusations rang true. The genesis of Christopher Steele’s research into potential collusion of the Trump campaign with Russian leaders began with funding by the Clinton campaign for the sake of research, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that all of what Steele came back with is hogwash.
As for Daniels, her career involves people having sex on camera, and she stands to make more money as a result of being in the spotlight of late. But this has no bearing on how truthful her public statements are. Anderson Cooper—and likely scores of viewers at home—too questioned the motives of Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti. Cooper noted how, in the past, Avenatti has done opposition research of his own for Democrat Rahm Emanuel, and how this type of case is not his usual cup of tea, suggesting to some that this involvement is politically motivated. Avenatti, for his part, said he has not been involved in politics in some 20 years, and that he took the case because Daniels is “credible” and “telling the truth.” Skeptical as we may be of that assertion, if the evidence bears out that what his client says about Mr. Trump and her is accurate, who are we to judge? Unless critical evidence is being hidden or manufactured, the truth is the truth and should be recognized as such, regardless of the source.
Stormy Daniels’ account of extramarital intercourse with the man who is the putative “leader of the free world” also makes for a compelling case study against the backdrop of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. In saying this, let me stress that Daniels is not a victim of sexual assault or other misconduct here, nor is she claiming to be; in the interview, Daniels was explicit about the idea the sex was consensual. If there’s any fault-finding to be done here regarding what transpired back in 2006, it’s on the side of morality, and that’s on the individual voter to decide how much (or little) he or she cares about what Donald Trump did before he was ruining the country as President. Still, it’s not as if Trump has been free of genuine allegations of unwanted advances and other impropriety along the lines of #MeToo and Time’s Up. Hell, the man was caught on tape boasting of his ability to exploit his status to cop a feel. That he is a philanderer doesn’t automatically make him a predator, but it doesn’t help recover his character either.
Yet more to the point, the uneasiness that bringing up Stormy Daniels’ name promotes—both among those who defend Donald Trump and those who want to see Congress vote to give him the ol’ heave-ho—intersects with concerns about defending “imperfect” accusers that existed long before advocates of victims’ rights were tweeting their outrage about systemic oppression. Should we value Daniels’ concerns about her image and about what really happened concerning the NDA less because she is an adult entertainer, thereby engaging in another form of “slut shaming?” Does the notion she accepted the $130,000 invalidate those concerns completely? Does her reluctance to bring threats made against her to the police also work to undermine her arguments? On top of all this, even if Daniels were a victim, would the public be putting her lower than, say, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, one of Harvey Weinstein’s more recent victims (from 2015) and a key figure in his downfall, in their continuum of esteem simply because she (Daniels) is a sex worker?
These are seemingly problematic questions even for purported liberals and feminists, making it that much harder for women who tell their stories to find advocates when tabloids and other publications go out of their way to cast aspersions on their character. Battilana Gutierrez’s reward for shedding light on Weinstein’s misdeeds was a slew of negative press about her and her apparent blacklisting in terms of modeling gigs. Kathleen Parker, a nationally-syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, pulled no punches in her negative assessment of Daniels, underscoring the fact she is not a victim and that she could’ve resisted the advances of a man to whom she had no attraction, suggesting she is no more than an attention-seeker “whose principal purpose is to facilitate her audience’s onanistic gratifications,” and asking, point blank, “Who cares about Stephanie Clifford, really?” Jeez Laweez, Ms. Parker. She is a human being, after all.
Even if you, the reader, are not as brutal as Kathleen Parker in your condemnation of Stormy Daniels or as dismissive of the whole affair with Donald Trump, you might very well share her sentiment of “Who cares?” Particularly if we are subjecting this case to the “whatabout-ism” that evidently plagues today’s politics and political analysis, the encounter occurred 12 years ago—before Trump was President of the United States—and thus meriting a distinction from the antics of someone like Bill Clinton. By this token, it’s old news, and plus, nobody got hurt. Daniels got her money and is getting mainstream attention. Everyone wins, right? Besides, it’s not like this is apt to damage Trump in any substantial way. After all, for some of us, it’s pretty hard to like him any less than we already do, if we’re thinking ahead to 2020. Nor will this episode lead to his impeachment, even though that is a “careful what you wish for” scenario given that Mike “Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s 1699” Pence is next in line.
Even the business of Michael Cohen facilitating a hush money payment to Daniels and potentially violating campaign finance laws is likely considered weak sauce to many. On the campaign finance side, as serious as the implications are for this scenario (recall the close proximity of Cohen’s payment to Election Day) and topic undermining democracy, election financing is not a sexy topic. Not when the fate of Dreamers remains uncertain or when people like Stephon Clark are getting shot 20 times by police or when high schoolers have to become activists on gun law reform because previous generations have failed to do their part. There are so many issues facing our country and our world today, and election laws, assuming we are even familiar with them or understand them, aren’t the attention-grabber that they could or perhaps even should be, another aspect of the political process about which to throw up our hands and “wish” we could change.
As for CBS’s decision to make the Stormy Daniels story its feature presentation on 60 Minutes, the network and the show’s producers are being criticized in their own right for their seeming opportunism. Sure, they may have delved into consideration of campaign finance law and possible infractions therein, but as some would have it, what they were peddling was, ahem, trumped-up smut that appealed to a lower common denominator. Stephen Galloway, executive editor for The Hollywood Reporter, indicates as much in a response piece to the Daniels interview’s airing:
Landing an interview with the porn star was a terrific scoop for Anderson Cooper, but it further lowered an already low bar on broadcast and cable. It was the kind of thing once reserved for the tabloids, until the dividing line between tabloid and mainstream vanished with the Monica Lewinsky scandal that came to light exactly a quarter-century ago.
Twenty-five years since the media indulged in an orgy of Lewinsky coverage, nothing’s changed for the better. The sordid and the squalid are still given priority over anything that might shape actual lives.
Sure, 60 Minutes tricked up its interview with talk of campaign finance and the legal risks to President Trump, just like all the news media that have been breathless in Daniels’ pursuit; but deep down, its producers knew we were looking for smut. We were eager for dirt, anxious to glean any detail of licks and tickles and bites. We wanted the licentious, the kind that Standards and Practices probably would never have permitted on the air.
There’s nothing wrong with that — to a degree. But in giving Daniels and her peers so much attention, TV is leaving no room for anything else. Switch on the evening news and you barely get a glimpse of the important events around the world. Turn on cable and it’s even worse: an endless recycling of the same three or four stories, with nary a sop to Brexit or the UN or the refugee crisis that’s upending nation states and devastating millions of lives.
Severe lack of confidence in the media, including cable news, has been brewing for some time now, and for what Galloway’s comments are worth, this TMZ-worthy fodder probably won’t help. Worse yet, Trump supporters probably see this story as further evidence of bias against Donald Trump and a deliberate attempt by the “liberal left” to take down the President. Such a reactionary attitude is reminiscent of the quip that it’s not paranoia if everyone is truly out to get you, but I’ll leave it up for you to decide whether or not CBS is merely trying to get a rise out of its viewers or is interested in pursuing legitimate news.
Going back to the subject of morality, what may be of greatest value with respect to the Stormy Daniels affair is any additional strain this puts on evangelicals and other Christians who contort themselves to defend “Two Corinthians” Trump despite his “lapses” and, while we’re keeping it 100, his ignorance of the Good Book itself. Christians, by and large, went hard for Trump in spite of his adultery, his less-than-fervent commitment to a “love thy neighbor” outlook, and his petty name-calling leading up to the 2016 election. To some, this is just another indication that many ultra-conservative Christians are hypocrites, the likes of whom are standing behind Trump because he defends their positions on abortion, “religious liberty,” and other matters of heightened importance to them.
Then again, it may be simply in the Christian spirit to forgive one for his or her trespasses. Of course, it would help this theory if Trump were to actually admit he has “sinned,” and not only does Trump refuse to acknowledge he had sexual relations with Daniels, but he apparently has commented that he doesn’t even find her attractive. This seems highly dubious, as anyone with a pulse seems more like his speed, but again, you can believe what you choose to believe.
Whether or not you care about whether or not Donald Trump cheated on Melanie with a porn star and later paid her off/threatened her is one thing, but why you care or don’t care is another. Discussions about how we regard Stormy Daniels and sex workers in general, how much importance we place on getting money out of politics, and whether morality matters in today’s politics are all worth having. For all the time spent watching what is captured through a camera’s lens, we should be turning the lens around and seeing what our own reactions say about us.
To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.
As I have emphasized on this blog and as numerous other concerned members of the Resistance would offer, when something crazy is going on in national news and politics—which these days unfortunately seems to disproportionately involve President Donald Trump and his embarrassing conduct—it merits watching what is going on when Congress actually gets around to advancing and/or passing legislation through the House and Senate. To be sure, there have been a fair amount of distractions recently that have dominated headlines and have made this task more difficult. Probably the biggest topic on everybody’s minds was the President’s alleged use of the word “shithole” in describing countries like El Salvador, Haiti, and various African countries that are less savory as sources of immigrants than, say, Norway. I say “alleged” because several Republican lawmakers present for the meeting and DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have denied that he used that word. But come on—you know they’re full of shit. Even with a distraction like this, there’s another layer of distraction built in. Yes, Trump used a bad word, but the more important notion is Trump insinuated that it would be better if we accepted people from a country where white people are the majority as opposed to countries where black or brown people are the majority. Never mind that Americans are more likely to immigrate to Norway than the other way around because people who live there enjoy a high standard of living, universal health care, and generally are among the happiest individuals on Earth. The implication was clear to those who understand Trump has basically been a white supremacist’s wet dream since he started running for office.
Otherwise, there were more salacious accounts involving Trump’s personal life, specifically that he was having an affair with then-porn star Stormy Daniels while he was married to Melania back in 2006, and that, so as to not undermine his political chances or damage his brand or what-have-you, his lawyer formed a shell company in 2016 to negotiate the payment of $130,000 so that she would not disclose details about their relationship. Even though Daniels apparently did tell a number of details about it back in 2011 when interviewed by In Touch Weekly magazine—including the revelation that Trump is obsessed with sharks and hates their shark-y guts. Not a particularly damning revelation, mind you, but just entertaining. Why we haven’t heard or likely won’t hear more about it is perhaps puzzling—Chris Cillizza of CNN surmises it is likely because Trump’s camp has denied any connection between Trump and Daniels, people don’t want to be involved with anything even tangentially related to porn (at least where prying eyes might see), that we’ve heard it all about Trump already, or all of the above—but regardless of the profile of this story, it seems like pretty reprehensible behavior on Trump’s part from a moral standpoint, and pretty ethically inexplicable from a legal standpoint if there wasn’t any legitimate reason for Daniels to be getting $130K (and why wasn’t it $150K—that’s a much nicer “round” number than $130K, no?).
On top of this, there was the drama involving the government shutdown, which wasn’t so much of a “distraction” given that there were real consequences for this happening, but the partisan squabbling it encouraged was realistically more theatrical than anything. Democrats expressed their concerns about the level of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and for the level of protection for “Dreamers” under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Republicans were outright blaming the Democrats for this mess and used military pay as a bargaining chip, alleging that the Dems held these all-important monies for our uniformed men and women hostage. Donald Trump kept insisting that someone needs to pay for a border wall. All the while, fingers were being pointed in every direction—with most Americans pointing back at Congress for not being able to strike a deal or by tying the DACA issue to the budget resolution issue, even if Democratic, Republican, and independent voters alike broadly support an extension of DACA. In short, and after the fact, no one looks good as a result of this, and for all his past criticisms of President Obama in presiding over shutdowns, it looks especially bad for Trump now that he has encountered one in just a year or so since he began his tenure—and with both the House and Senate under GOP control, no less.
All this, and we haven’t even gotten to the #ReleaseTheMemo business that conservatives have had on the tip of their tongue of late! Congressional Republicans have been alluding to a memo in Devin Nunes’ possession that outlines Obama-era abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by the FBI and Department of Justice, specifically as it regards investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election. Worse than Watergate, they claim! It is with this final distraction that I’ll bring in a recent piece by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone for an excellent contextualization—as he is wont to provide—of this particular instance of click-bait news. Taibbi starts by saying what most reasonable observers have put forth: that if the memo is really as jaw-dropping as outspoken Republicans have made it out to be, then by all means, it should be released. At the same time, though, as Taibbi argues, if this material truly exonerates Donald Trump of any wrongdoing re Russia, why hasn’t the man himself released it? After all, Trump, um, is characteristically not afraid to share. From the article:
By all means, if the memo is important (although I doubt it) let’s let the public see it. But followers of this story should also remember that if this or any classified document somehow exculpates Donald Trump on any front, he’s had the power all along to declassify such information. Why Trump hasn’t done so on a number of these occasions has been one of the enduring mysteries of this affair. It’s given pause to even the most hardened Russiagate skeptics.
This includes people like former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy of the National Review. McCarthy has been highly critical of the Robert Mueller investigation, but has also repeatedly wondered why Trump is not lifting the veil on some of these documents. One of the few figures in the media to explore holes in Russiagate theories propagated by both sides, McCarthy had this to say in August:
“I can’t get past a nagging question: Why must we speculate about whether the Obama administration abusively exploited its foreign-intelligence-collection powers in order to spy on Donald Trump’s political campaign? After all, Trump is president now. If he was victimized, he’s in a position to tell us all about it.”
At the very least, it’s food for thought, and prompts Matt Taibbi to label the #ReleaseTheMemo fervor “curious and disingenuous at best.” (Also not helping this case: that this hashtag has been linked to Russian bots that have helped to get it trending on Twitter.) At the same time, Taibbi indicates that it’s not like individuals on both sides of the political aisle haven’t been working to obscure what the sources of their information on Russia may be. Already, given its history of attention-grabbing details like lurid tales of Russian prostitutes and “golden showers,” and the subsequent backlash it received for having the likes of Buzzfeed break the news unconfirmed, the Steele dossier, for one, has not necessarily been something the mainstream media wants to acknowledge as informative of the investigation into Trump’s affairs. In other words, there’s much confusion and misdirection about what people know and how they know it re Russia, and thus far, it has mostly amounted to nothing more than additional confusion and tedious back-and-forth accusation, as it did with the shutdown.
The main thrust of Taibbi’s article, meanwhile, and getting back to the notion of these events as distraction and theater, is that while all this political brinksmanship was going on, important legislation with serious implications was being passed, aided by Democrats crossing that proverbial aisle. The first, coincidentally, involves FISA. Specifically, the House and Senate passed an extension of Section 702 of the Act, which lets the U.S. government obtain the communications of foreign nationals outside the United States without a warrant. Per the language of the law, intelligence agencies are not permitted to target U.S. citizens or nationals, or to use the power of Section 702 to surveil individuals on American soil. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties-minded organizations, however, have expressed doubts about how this program may be used and abused. The ACLU, in particular, enumerates these charges concerning the deleterious effects of Sec. 702:
Section 702 allows warrantless surveillance of people inside and outside the U.S.
Despite the fact that the law is not supposed to be used to target Americans, the government has been doing just that for years.
Information collected under Section 702 could be used against you, and you likely wouldn’t know.
Section 702 is used to examine communications flowing in and out of the U.S. in bulk.
Surveillance programs have been abused by the intelligence agencies.
There is little that prevents Section 702 from being used against critics, activists, religious minorities, or communities of color.
The program is not subject to any meaningful judicial oversight.
The government has deliberately chosen to hide the impact of the program from the public.
Section 702 surveillance chills freedom of speech and association.
There are more detailed explanations for each of these items on the ACLU page linked to above, but suffice it to say, there are legitimate concerns about how broadly Section 702 may be used to capture information that is relevant to “foreign intelligence”—a distinction that is subjective and seemingly intentionally vague—how this sensitive information may be stored in databases for undetermined lengths of time, how political or even personal enemies may be targeted by intelligence community members as an abuse of their privilege, how legal procedure may be circumvented in the name of “anti-terrorism” efforts, and how so few data have been made clear to interested parties regarding the surveillance of Americans and the usage of their online communications. Liberal or conservative, it creates trepidation on the part of the average telephone/mobile/Internet user-consumer, and perhaps worst of all, it feeds the narrative of the “deep state” on the right that undermines even the best-intentioned government actions. But, by all means, let’s have more conspiracy theories!
As Matt Taibbi submits, too, it may be patently self-defeating to reauthorize the “virtually limitless surveillance powers of this president” when many suspect him to be aided or compromised by Russia. Which makes it all the more frustrating—at least to me—that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff would vote for an extension of Section 702 of FISA when they have publicly expressed their doubts about Trump. Taibbi explains what is likely behind this “yes” vote from key House Dems:
This is a classic example of something that’s been axiomatic in Washington for ages: that both parties tend always to be interested in expanding executive power, no matter who’s in office or what the political situation. In this case, the principle of expanding presidential authority outweighed even concerns of abuses by the likes of Donald Trump.
Or, perhaps to put this another way, yes, let’s give the executive more power so we can exploit it when our party is in the White House. As tends to be the case in the world of politics, moral objections are relative to how many seats you control and whether or not your side is in the Oval Office.
The other piece of legislation which stands to get through the Senate, notably with the help of several Democrats, and which is equally if not more concerning, is the rolling-back of regulations provided for by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, already criticized for not going far enough to do either of its stated objectives. The list of Democratic co-sponsors to the so-called Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, which was released on December 5 of last year, reads like a who’s who of irritatingly moderate Democrats. Michael Bennet. Joe Donnelly. Heidi Heitkamp. Tim Kaine. Angus King, who technically is an independent, but let’s give him, ahem, credit where credit is due. Joe Manchin. Claire McCaskill. Gary Peters. Jon Tester. Mark Warner. These are self-professed Dems from states like Colorado, Montana, Virginia, and West Virginia in which being a centrist on matters of regulation of business appears to be a self-preservation move more than anything. Unless, as Taibbi suggests, they were either tricked or wooed by lobbyists for the banks. Here’s what he had to say on the matter:
In another bizarre episode, at least ten Senate Democrats recently crossed the aisle to support a rollback of key provisions of the Dodd-Frank banking reform bill, the killing of which of course has long been a major policy goal of Trump’s. The Dodd-Frank bill story is particularly disturbing, because it signals a rare potential area of consensus amid the otherwise reassuringly dysfunctional three-headed monster that is the lunatic Trump, establishment Republicans, and Democrats.
The bill has been pitched as aid and regulatory relief to small banks and credit unions. Such groups are the widows and orphans of financial reform: nobody’s ever against helping them, which is why even giveaways to Wall Street behemoths are often dressed up as aid to regional bankers. The Dems who crossed the aisle to support the Dodd-Frank rollback bought into the lobbyist-flogged idea that Too-Big-To-Fail banks have too many punitive regulatory requirements, and moreover that “smaller” companies (i.e. firms with less than $10 billion in assets) should be exempt from the already watered-down Volcker rule, which prevents depository banks from gambling for their own accounts.
One of the main ideas behind the proposed bill, which passed the banking committee 16 to 7, is changing the definition of a “Too Big to Fail” institution from having $50 billion in assets to having $250 billion in assets. This quintupling of the size limit would mean a number of huge companies would now enjoy relaxed capital requirements and other benefits. Only about 10 companies would be left to face the more stringent rules.
Why is this a concern? Only because it would increase the risk of another financial meltdown like we had ten years ago. As Taibbi and others argue, de-concentrating financial power by breaking up the big banks and by forcing them to separate banking and investing (read: sanctioned gambling) activities helps to mitigate this risk. Besides, if you’ll recall, it was taxpayers who bore the brunt of the last recession, but absent more stringent rules to keep Wall Street and the financial industry in check, there’s no guarantee another crisis won’t manifest. And once more, we would be the ones called on to bail out the big companies who played fast and loose with our money—not the other way around.
As Taibbi frames this, this is Congress in a nutshell: they fight publicly over something that’s “irrelevant, inaccurate, or far from a resolution,” only to have a consensus group advance a bill that is highly important/relevant, but “unsexy” and unlikely to garner the same attention, or even the kind of attention it merits. For the liberal progressives among us, this is a decidedly poor modus operandi.
Even as distraction, the three-day “kerfuffle,” as Matt Taibbi called it, over the shutdown was particularly galling to many on the left because the Democrats made a deal without any real assurances from Republicans that voting on a new DREAM Act would be taken up in the near future. Oh, sure, Mitch McConnell swore there would be, but trusting Mitch McConnell is like the fabled frog trusting the scorpion not to sting it as they cross the river—the scorpion will sting because that’s its nature, and McConnell will back out of his promise because he, like our President, is a lying sack of shit. Of course, Chuck Schumer didn’t waste much time backing out of certain terms either—after initially indicating prior to the end of the shutdown that a border wall would be on the table as part of forthcoming negotiations, he apparently pulled a 180 and made it clear the wall was no longer on the table. Psych! Regardless, after Donald Trump and congressional Republicans were done lambasting the Democrats for causing the whole government shutdown, the relatively short duration of the shutdown dovetailed ever nicely into jabs from conservatives that the Dems “caved” on the issues at hand. Name-calling though it might be, it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The fate of Dreamers and the wall are still sticking points, and once more, the can has merely been kicked down the road noting that this resolution is merely a temporary budget fix.
Not that this necessarily means a huge deal, but if Americans are disappointed and embarrassed by this particular episode in U.S. politics, you can just imagine what the world thinks of us—distractions and all. Zack Beauchamp, writing for Vox, researched this very topic, and was struck by one prevailing theme which emerged from the responses he received from international observers: that there is something profoundly wrong with the American political system. For those looking on in Canada, France, and even the United Kingdom, with whom there yet remains some sympathy for our backward ways, there is cause for both concern and vague deprecation. For less understanding authoritarian regimes and otherwise tightly-run states, there is outright glee that America’s government can descend into chaos so easily, and unfounded as the claims may be, the shutdown makes us look weak, suggesting to some that Western democracy is fundamentally flawed (hello, Chinese propaganda!) or that the shutdown is pure theater to distract from the Democrats’ conspiracy theories about Trump’s ties to Russia (hello, Russian propaganda!). All these reactions without having to mention golden showers, shitholes, or Stormy Daniels. Jeez—has it only been a year so far? It feels more like ten with all the nonsense that’s gone on heretofore.
To reiterate, though, this goes back to the notion of distraction. For all the blaming and finger-pointing that went on this past week, where consensus has been achieved, yet worse consequences stand to be realized. The extension of Section 702 of FISA, as noted, is concerning to liberals and libertarians alike, and the continued collective kowtowing of Congress to “Too Big to Fail” institutions and Wall Street alumni is seeming proof that both parties work first for their benefit, and get to our concerns if and when they have the time and wherewithal. If you think a three-day shutdown is bad, just wait until the next economic nosedive, something that arguably is less a question of if and more a question of when.