Tag Archives: Rush Limbaugh

Secession… Again?

This decision will have far-reaching ramifications for the future of our constitutional republic. Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution. — Allen West, chair of the Texas Republican Party on the Supreme Court decision turning down the Texas lawsuit to overturn the election results in four states.

My guy Abraham Lincoln and the Union soldiers already told you no. — Representative Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican.

We have seen this movie before: A significant minority of Americans refusing to accept the results of an election. In 1861, it led to Fort Sumter and four years later the ruin of the Confederacy and the end of slavery. Americans for a century-and-a-half since believed the Civil War settled the question of the inviolability of the Union. As President Abraham Lincoln said in his First Inaugural Address in the midst of the secession winter: “No State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union…. The Union is perpetual.” 

But, some Americans apparently did not stay for the end of the movie. They still do not believe in the essence of democracy, which is that losers accept the results of the election. The peripatetic Allen West — who represented Florida in Congress but now serves as chair of the Texas Republican Party — seems to be among those Americans. Count Rush Limbaugh — the radio show host and provocateur — also among them. Limbaugh said recently, “I actually think that we’re trending toward secession.”

There are at least two significant differences between the secessionists of 1861 and the nutty folks of 2020. In 1861, the South left the Union not because it did not believe Lincoln was the legitimate president of the United States, but rather because it recognized Lincoln as the legitimate president and the secessionists believed his election represented a threat to slavery. Lincoln and his fellow Republicans (this is when the Republican Party was loyal to the Union) could protest forever that all they intended was to limit slavery in the Western territories and to leave it alone in the Southern states. Southerners, however, understood that restricting slavery was the first step to its abolition, so they left the Union.

The second difference is the sectional nature of secession in 1861. One section of the United States, the South, seceded. The eleven states of the Confederacy were contiguous, and they all sought to protect a socio-economic system — slavery — at odds with the ethos of American democracy and 19th century morality. The rest of the United States believed slavery immoral, and while most Northerners did not seek the immediate abolition of slavery, most  believed the country should embark on a path leading to the eventual end of the institution.

But, look at a map of the 2020 election. While it is true that most of the blue areas are on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the upper Midwest and the interior of the nation is red, there are anomalies. Georgia is surrounded by red states. Will North Carolina and South Carolina of the Trump States of America grant a right of transit from the rest of the United States of America to Georgia and vice versa? And, then there is the question of voting patterns. Even in deeply red Oklahoma, one-third of Sooners voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Same, only in reverse, in California, where a third of the voters sought to keep Trump and Pence in power. Will Republicans from the United States of America and Democrats in the Trump States of America have a population exchange reminiscent of the bloody Hindu and Muslim exchange during the birth of independent India and Pakistan?

Secession in 1861 led to internecine violence. The chance of secession in 2021 is next to zero, but the threat of violence is real. Election officials merely doing their jobs in reporting Democratic victories in swing states have been targets of right-wing threats. On Saturday, the odious Alex Jones of Infowars told pro-Trump rally goers in Washington, D.C., that President-elect Joe Biden “will be removed one way or another.” It does not take much imagination to understand what “another” means in this context.

This is scary stuff, and it is being tacitly encouraged by Republicans who supinely are following Trump in his fantasy that the election was stolen and that the “steal” can be stopped. Every Republican in Congress and every Republican state attorney general who supported Texas’ absurd law suit will be complicit if the worst occurs. Trump is irredeemable, but really, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, do you believe the election was fraudulent?

The real Civil War likely will be not between Democrats and Republicans but within the Republican Party. Already, there are signs that some Christian evangelicals are rethinking their blind loyalty to the Republican Party. Beth Moore, the founder of Living Proof Ministries and a popular Southern Baptist speaker, voiced on Twitter her frustration: “I’m 63 1/2 years old & I have never seen anything in these United States of America I found more astonishingly seductive & dangerous to the saints of God than Trumpism. This Christian nationalism is not of God. Move back from it.” Another evangelical, Karen Swallow Prior, tweeted: “While I did not ever vote for Trump, I did vote for local and state @GOP candidates. (I am a lifelong conservative, after all.) I am now embarrassed and ashamed that I did so. What a bunch of money-grubbing, power-hungry, partisan cowards who care nothing about conservatism.” As conservative columnist David French notes, “The frenzy and the fury of the post-election period has laid bare the sheer idolatry and fanaticism of Christian Trumpism.” Some, proving the French’s words, are saying: Enough. 

Revulsion over Trump’s antics and Republican sycophancy has not reached significant proportions yet. But, cracks in the overwhelming support evangelicals have given Trump are appearing, and state and local Republicans have declined to do Trump’s bidding in overthrowing a legitimate election. Even some elected Republicans in Congress have shown they are willing to stand against Trump and Trumpism. 

Their courageousness may tear the Republican Party apart. That would be a shame, since the nation needs two vibrant political parties representing different points of view and serving as checks on each other. But, a civil war among Republicans is preferable to a civil war among Americans.

Posted December 15, 2020


Trump’s Campaign Strategy: The Big Smear

President Donald Trump is fixed in his beliefs and prejudices, incapable of learning anything new. The two major events of this week — his acquittal by pusillanimous Republican senators (Utah’s Mitt Romney excluded) and the Iowa caucuses — only reinforce his preconceived political modus operandi.  

What does that mean? On the one hand, the failure of the Senate to demonstrate spine and oust the rapscallion from office confirms Trump’s lifelong conviction that the rules do not apply to him and he can engage in further lawless behavior. On the other, Trump will interpret the results of the Iowa caucus as confirmation that sliming opponents works. 

This is the nexus of Trump’s Ukrainian escapade and the 2020 presidential election — scandal meeting campaign. They are the linked outcomes of Trump’s amoral approach to politics. Trump has no ideas; he is incapable of articulating a political thought beyond shibboleths taught him by his handlers and slogans tested at his cult-like rallies. The words “Trump” and “thought” do not belong in the same sentence. But, attacks and insults come naturally to him. The veracity of those attacks and insults is irrelevant.

Trump knows most people view him as ethically challenged. He understands that stink follows him from his business career and personal life. He hides as much as he can (remember those promised tax returns?), but what we know combined with what he keeps from us makes us justifiably suspicious. That goes for his followers as well as his opponents. His core strategy is not to appear ethical, certainly not to suggest he is more ethical than his adversaries. No, the Trumpian approach is to make his rivals appear no better than he. If voters conclude that both candidates — Trump and whomever the Democrats nominate — are scandal-ridden, then voters well throw up their hands and vote for the candidate who entertains them. And, for many voters, Trump is entertaining. (Note: His Tuesday night State of the Union was pure theater, from having First Lady Melania Trump hang a medal on controversial talk radio host Rush Limbaugh to reuniting a military family in the gallery.)

So far, the strategy works. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and I am sure he believes he wounded Joe Biden in Monday’s Iowa caucus. It is irrelevant that Trump’s accusations against his opponents are either downright erroneous or highly exaggerated. What matters is that he — and his sycophantic surrogates — repeat the accusations frequently and loudly. The attacks gain currency through frequent repetition in the media, and as totalitarian leaders such as Hitler and Stalin demonstrated, a lie told often enough becomes accepted “truth.”

Every day of the 2016 campaign seemingly brought a new Trump scandal, yet he succeeded in deflecting his ethical challenges by aggressively pushing the Clinton email story. Clinton was certainly sloppy in caring for her emails, but any suggestion of equivalence between her purported “scandal” and Trump’s many scandals was absurd. Still, chants of “lock her up” certainly did damage.

I am not suggesting that Clinton lost because Trump attacked her. She ran a bad campaign, former FBI Director Jim Comey’s mishandling of the investigation into her emails wounded her as did Russian interference. But, I am suggesting that Trump believes his attacks worked, just as he probably believes sliming Joe Biden contributed to the former vice president’s disappointing apparent fourth-place finish in the muddled Iowa caucuses. 

Trump launched the Ukraine scandal because he believed Biden was his most dangerous opponent. Even though a whistleblower exposed the scandal and the House impeached the president, Trump, his congressional allies, and rightwing media outlets have been hammering the accusation that Biden is corrupt — or, at least as corrupt as Trump. 

He will use the same approach on other Democratic candidates. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will be attacked as a socialist bordering on communist, and Trump will not shy away from mentioning Sanders’ honeymoon in the Soviet Union, insinuating Sanders engaged in treasonous activities. Trump’s friends in the Russian government may help in this campaign. 

Critics rightly accuse Trump of racism and corruption, but if Pete Buttigieg is the Democratic nominee, Trump will deflect charges of his racial insensitivity with allegations of racism against Buttigieg stemming from his tenure as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. As for Trump’s overt corruption? What about Buttigieg’s consulting work at McKinsey? 

If Trump cannot conjure a scandal, he will engage in ad hominem attacks on his opponents, calling Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” or referring to “Mini” Mike Bloomberg. Trump’s ability to engage in critiques of other people’s physical appearance is mystifying. But, it entertains his followers and works as a substitute for serious discussion of issues.  

How should Democrats pondering who best to nominate against Trump respond? That is a relevant question considering the Democratic side’s emphasis on which candidate is most “electable.” Certainly if electability means a candidate free of scandal, that is an irrelevant criterion. All of the Democratic candidates are, as far as I know, clean. That will not stop Trump from smearing each and every one. But, Trump’s big smear ought not to influence how Democrats choose their nominee.

Posted February 7, 2020

Where is Mitch?

Federal and local law enforcement officials in Kentucky and the District of Columbia have initiated a nationwide search for Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. The Kentucky Republican has been missing since December 22, 2018, the day the longest government shutdown in American history began. Officials are not ruling out the possibility McConnell’s disappearance is connected to the impasse between President Donald Trump and the Democrat-controlled Congress over funding a border wall.

Officials also have not ruled out foul play, but they suspect McConnell is hiding — perhaps in plain sight — to avoid forcing Senate Republicans to vote on Democrat-sponsored bills to open the federal government without providing funds for the wall demanded by Trump. McConnell’s disappearance, if voluntary, means he is not heeding his favorite aphorism: “One of my favorite old Kentucky sayings is there’s no education in the second kick of a mule.” McConnell cited that adage when promising after the failed GOP-inspired government shutdown in 2013 to always keep the government running. At that time, he told Republicans in Congress, “The first kick of the mule was when we shut down the government in the mid-1990s,” and the second kick was six years ago.

McConnell’s apparent willingness to sustain a third kick from the proverbial mule may stem from his lack of popularity in Kentucky. Polls show him ranked as the least popular member of the Senate, and, in the latest poll in Kentucky, 56 percent of McConnell’s constituents disapproved of his job performance. By contrast, the president is more popular in Kentucky than the senator; in a poll last month, Trump’s approval rating in the state was 55 percent. 

McConnell is up for reelection in 2020, and while he, no doubt, would prevail in the general election, despite his unpopularity with voters in the Bluegrass State, he might have difficulty getting that far if he goes back on his promise not to bring a measure to the floor that Trump will not sign. McConnell is doing Trump’s bidding on the wall, despite Trump’s deviousness during the negotiations leading up to the shutdown. On December 19, the Senate passed a measure to keep the government open — without money for the wall. McConnell had Trump’s assurance the president would sign the bill, until provocateurs in rightwing media — Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter — took Trump to task for accepting a budget bill without wall money. At that point, Trump went back on his promise to McConnell.

Fear of a primary challenger on his right may factor into McConnell’s calculation that he is better off shutting down the government for a long period than allowing a vote in the Senate for which the outcome would be no additional money for Trump’s vaunted wall. And, so the majority leader disappears at the very moment when he holds the key to ending Trump’s shutdown over a wall for which Mexico was supposed to pay.

Twenty-one other Republican seats are up in 2020. A few of those seats are in states Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 — Susan Collins in Maine and Cory Gardner in Colorado — and a few other seats may be vulnerable, but the vast majority of GOP-held Senate seats are in solidly Republican states such as Wyoming, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Like McConnell in Kentucky, senators from other red states may fear a primary challenge if they anger the Republican base by a vote to reopen the government that does not include money for the wall.

Still, Senate Republicans may be putting themselves in a worse position by keeping the government closed. Polls show voters overwhelmingly blame Trump and congressional Republicans for the shutdown — 53 percent in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll compared to only 29 percent who cite Democrats. Ending the shutdown would be popular, and while Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020 may face the wrath of rightwing voters, more than 30 Republicans in the Senate do not face the voters until 2022 or 2024. They probably could ride out the anger of the base, and their votes combined with Democratic senators would provide a cushion to override any potential presidential veto of a measure to reopen the government.

But, no vote comes to the floor of the Senate without McConnell’s approval, so the shutdown continues until other Republicans put enough pressure on the majority leader. Senate Republicans are foolish to tie themselves to Trump and his vanity project. The president is flailing, facing the possibility of impeachment and numerous congressional investigations by Democrats in the House, not to mention the possible release soon of a report by special counsel Robert Mueller on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump’s presidency may not last the year. Even if it does, his chances of winning reelection are dwindling. The ship is sinking, and it is time for congressional Republicans to demonstrate courage and abandon it. At some point, Trump’s allies in Congress will have to choose between supporting the criminal enterprise residing in the White House or doing the right thing.

McConnell surely knows all this. Besides, why be loyal to a mercurial president who does not keep his word? How many times will McConnell allow himself to be kicked by the mule in the Oval Office? Apparently many, which is why the senator who cut deals to end previous real and threatened shutdowns remains on the sidelines. “Ultimately the solution to this is a deal between the president and Nancy [Pelosi] and Chuck [Schumer], because we need some of Chuck’s votes, and obviously, we need Nancy’s support,” said McConnell.

Mitch, come back to the Senate and do your job!

Posted January 25, 2019


Government By Temper Tantrum

It is difficult to imagine a way out of the current impasse caused by the temper tantrum thrown by our inept, unimaginative, and ill-informed president who is giving the terrible twos a bad name. Since President Donald Trump lacks any empathy for the suffering of others and because he has no interest in being president of all Americans, he is prepared to keep the government shut for a very long time or take extraordinary measures.

Trump threatens to end the shutdown by declaring a national emergency on the southern border and ordering the military to build his promised wall, or at least part of it, which may be concrete, or steel, or a barrier of some kind, for which he promised Mexico would pay. Some have suggested that a declaration of a national emergency might be the way out of the crisis, since such a declaration would be challenged immediately in the courts, which, so the logic seems to dictate, would rule against the president. This strategy is dangerous for three reasons.

First, there is no guarantee the Supreme Court would rule against Trump. The precedent of President Harry Truman and the steel strike is apt, but not a certainty. Truman tried to seize the steel industry in 1952 to prevent a strike in a vital industry during the Korean War, only to have the Supreme Court rule against him. If Truman lost when there was an emergency, it is hard to see how the courts would empower Trump to declare a national emergency when there is none. Such a seizure of power smacks of monarchism, and if there is one thing the Framers of the Constitution wanted to guard against, it was the emergence of an American king. A simple reading of the U.S. Constitution should lead the court to rule against such a severe expansion of executive power at the expense of the legislative branch. This should apply especially to those conservative justices who claim to be originalists.  

While our Constitution seems a clear guide, it is not a straitjacket. Nothing in that document justifies the Dred Scott decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, Bush v. Gore, the Heller ruling on gun control, or Citizens United on campaign finance, but a majority of Supreme Court justices found reasons to buttress their decisions in these cases. I would bet that Chief Justice John Roberts, at the least, would side with the four liberal justices and rule against the president, but who knows for sure?

Second, the declaration of a national emergency to resolve a manufactured crisis — because the only crisis on the border is of the president’s own making — would be a dangerous precedent for future presidents. Could a Democratic president declare a national emergency to combat climate change — a real crisis — and impose a carbon tax through executive fiat if Congress refused to do so? Moreover, if a president issues such a declaration in a fit of pique, who would believe him or her when the crisis is real?

Third, there is the Nazi example. Remember, Hitler was elected the leader of Germany. Within a month, the Nazis used the pretext of the Reichstag fire to seize absolute power by executive decree, banning other political parties and imposing a dictatorship on Germany. Trump is not Hitler. He lacks the discipline and single-mindedness of the German monster to ever lead America into such a dark night. But, the consolidation of power through executive action is the surest road to autocracy. The oldest play in the dictator’s playbook is to concoct a crisis, then claim the need for extraordinary powers to confront the crisis.

Some have argued that the way out of the current shutdown is to allow Trump to declare a victory, even if he gets nothing. But, that assumes Trump wants to win this fight. I suspect the fight is what is important for Trump, and winning would be counter-productive since it would end the fight. Trump reminds me of the Palestinian leadership in that neither can take yes for an answer. The Palestinians could have had a decent-sized nation if the Arabs had said yes to the United Nations in 1947. They could have had a nation multiple times since then, but they always said no, and every time they said no, the offer got worse.

The same goes for Trump. He turned down a deal a year ago that would have included $20 billion for the wall in exchange for protection for about 700,000 Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to America as young children by their parents. I suspect if the Democrats magically were to agree to $5.7 billion now for the wall, he would turn around and ask for $10 billion. But, every time he says no, the deal gets worse.

Why? Like the Palestinian leadership, Trump cannot afford to say yes. For the Palestinians, any agreement with the Israeli government is a potential death warrant, an invitation for the assassination of a dealmaker by hardline Palestinians who want all of the land west of the Jordan. For Trump, the fear is simple: Anything short of a wall from the Gulf or Mexico to the Pacific Ocean invites the wrath of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. Trump agreed in December to congressionally approved funding measures, only to change his mind when these rightwing zealots accused him of selling out. So, we now have immigration policy in the hands of two despicable provocateurs, who are poised to pounce on the president at any sign of his caving to liberals. Who voted for Coulter and Limbaugh?

A resolution to the shutdown is difficult because Trump is an untrustworthy negotiator, as his buckling to the right last month indicates. “Democrats keep saying, ‘We don’t trust it until Trump will sign it,’ ” Republican Senator Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, a Trump supporter, said. “That’s not an unreasonable request…. We won’t know until we put something in front of him.” Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, pointed to the unhappy experience last year, when Trump turned down the exchange of money for the wall for protection for Dreamers, as a “frustrating” example. “A year ago, we went through this on immigration reform. It did not end well,” he added. 

And, so the government remains partially shut, with hundreds of thousands of federal workers not working and not getting paid while hundreds of thousands work without pay. The pain for the rest of us will get worse as essential services disappear. All because the president threw a temper tantrum.

Oh, and by the way, ever notice how talk about the wall and the government shutdown drowns out the bad news — for Trump — of his legal problems?

Posted January 11, 2019

Then and Now


It was, of course, inevitable. The spate of bombs showing up at the homes and offices of prominent Democratic politicians and at CNN follows inexorably upon the coarsening of the national political discourse. No one — except the perpetrator or perpetrators — knows who is responsible, but two things are probably true: The rhetoric of President Trump, who owns the biggest megaphone on the planet, encouraged these heinous acts, and the “false flag” theory of right-wing kooks — yes, that is what Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and their ilk are — is an instance of the conspiratorial mindset that has infected American conservatism. Anything is possible, I suppose, but the suggestion that some Democratic-leaning individual targeted the Obamas, the Clintons, and others because, as Limbaugh phrased it, “Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,” is absurd.

As for Trump’s culpability, one need go no further than to replay the president’s lowest moments in his recent rallies. He still encourages and relishes chants of “lock her up,” and, just last week, he praised Montana Republican Representative Greg Gianforte as “my kind of guy” for body-slamming a reporter last year, for which Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. True, Trump is not directly responsible for the attempted bombings, but anyone who believes the president’s words and actions do not matter need look no further than a recent incident in which a man justified molesting a woman passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight because “the president of the United States says it’s ok to grab women by their private parts.” 

People naturally believe the era in which they live is unique. To be sure, the age of Trump is particularly nasty and ugly. The president’s incessant lying, name calling, refusal to condemn Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, and praise of violence is deeply troubling, but, perhaps, not all that unique. 

The decade preceding the Civil War witnessed a breakdown in public trust and rational behavior similar to today. Then, as now, Congress was a dysfunctional battleground. In the 1850s, the federal government failed to solve the sectional divide over slavery — an impossible task, of course — and national politics splintered. One political party, the Whigs, ceased to exist; another, the Republicans, came into being; and the Democrats became the tool of Southern slaveowners. Other national institutions, particularly religious organizations, fragmented over slavery.

Violence became commonplace. Congress, in particular, turned into ground zero for fistfights and worse as Northerners and Southerners grew more impassioned when the debate over slavery intensified. As early as 1844, former president and antislavery activist John Quincy Adams, now a Whig representative from Massachusetts, was accosted in the Capitol by a man who shouted, “You are wrong! You are wrong, and I will kick you.” Adams was unharmed, but the incident rattled many.

Many members took to carrying weapons on the floor. In 1850, when tempers were fraying over the issue of slavery in the territories recently seized during the Mexican War, Senator Henry Foote of Mexico pulled a pistol on Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton, who bellowed, “I have no pistols! Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!” Vice President Millard Fillmore, the Senate’s presiding officer, quickly entertained a motion to adjourn before Foote could fire. The incident revealed the difficulty of maintaining civility in a deeply fractured Congress.

Worse was to come. “The world’s greatest deliberative body” became a combat zone on May 22, 1856, when a member of the House of Representatives strode into the Senate and savagely beat a senator into unconsciousness. The genesis lay three days earlier when Senator Charles Sumner, an antislavery Republican from Massachusetts, addressed the Senate on the contentious and explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave or a free state. His “Crime Against Kansas” speech identified two Democratic senators for their role in the “crime”: Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina.

Sumner accused Butler of having “a mistress… who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight — I mean, the harlot, Slavery.” South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, Butler’s relative, determined to avenge his kinsman’s honor, He found Sumner working at his desk. Wielding a metal-topped cane, Brooks beat Sumner senseless. The House tried and failed to censure Brooks, who then resigned only to be re-elected immediately. Sumner spent several years slowly recovering, after which he served another 18 years in the Senate, prodding President Abraham Lincoln to make the eradication of slavery a goal of the Civil War and, later, becoming a vocal Radical Republican during Reconstruction.

Violence became common outside of Washington as well. Most notorious was the near civil war fought in what was known as “Bleeding Kansas.” So-called “border ruffians” from Missouri flooded the territory in 1856, looting and sacking the town of Lawrence, a free-state stronghold. In response, John Brown, who would earn greater notoriety as the leader of the attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, orchestrated a retaliatory raid that resulted in the death of five proslavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek. 

We do not have a “bleeding” this state or that, nor has violence broken out in either chamber of Congress, at least not yet. But, if national leaders — all, but, most importantly, the president — continue to condemn violence only when bombs are sent, but take a different tack when speaking to supporters in rallies and at fundraisers — then violence will become common. The breakdown of civil order that occurred then, may be repeated now.

Posted October 26, 2018

Fake News, CNN, and BuzzFeed

Donald Trump berated CNN during his news conference Wednesday for presenting what he called “fake news” when CNN reported that intelligence officials had given Trump and President Obama a two-page summary of allegations that Russia had compromising information on the president-elect.

Later in the day, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, issued a statement in which he confirmed that intelligence officials had presented a synopsis of the unproven allegations to the president, president-elect, and congressional leaders. So much for “fake news.”

Fake news is deliberate lies, meant to mimic news articles, made up by spurious organizations and individuals with the intent of misleading the public. Fake news is a problem; there is no doubt that myriad fake news stories influenced the 2016 election. Examples of fake news: Pope Francis’s supposed endorsement of Trump for president; the allegation that Hillary Clinton would be indicted before the election; and the absurd story that went viral on the Internet about a child prostitution ring involving Clinton. The last story led a delusional North Carolina man, armed with an assault rifle, to “investigate” a Washington pizzeria. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Those stories are lies deliberately concocted to deceive the gullible, unlike CNN’s report on the summary of allegations given to Trump and Obama. Yet, Trump and his surrogates lumped the CNN story in the same “fake news” basket with “pizza-gate.” (Personal disclosure: I worked for CNN for 20 years, 1981-2001.) Trump’s use, or rather misuse, of the term “fake news” suggests that it has lost meaning. For Trump, “fake news” has become a euphemism for stories that he does not like or that cast him in a bad light. The stories may be true — like CNN’s report — or false, but they are “fake” because they are anti-Trump.

Others on the right have done much the same. Breitbart News sought to discredit as fake news reports that intelligence agencies concluded that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee. Rush Limbaugh has gone so far as to call all “mainstream media” reporting “fake news.” Many Trump supporters agree: At a recent rally in Orlando, Florida, Trump backers heckled reporters with shouts of “fake news.”

“The speed with which the term became polarized and, in fact, a rhetorical weapon illustrates how efficient the conservative media machine has become,” says Nikki Usher, a George Washington University professor. As Jeremy Peters writes in The New York Times, many on the right — including the president-elect — “have appropriated the term and turned it against any news they see as hostile to their agenda.” Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post sensibly proposes that news organizations stop using the term “fake news” because the term has been misappropriated. If a story is a lie, call it a lie; if it is a hoax, label it a hoax.

For Trump, CNN was guilty of disseminating “fake news” because it reported an unflattering story. But, as Clapper’s statement — meant to exonerate the intelligence community of any suggestion that it leaked the news of the summary’s existence — makes clear, the CNN report is true: Important Washington officials received the reported synopsis.

And, that is all CNN reported. CNN did not report the contents of the 35-page dossier, which details allegations that Russia had compiled potentially harmful personal and financial information about Trump, because the allegations have not been verified. Once CNN reported the existence of the summary, other news organizations followed suit, reporting only that Trump, Obama, and a few others were given the summary.

Should CNN have published the report? No doubt, journalism classes in the future will debate the ethics of CNN’s decision to publish. CNN’s rationale is the same rationale that led the intelligence community to inform Trump and Obama of the allegations: They probably would have leaked, sooner or later. As we now know, many news organizations learned during the campaign of the existence of the dossier of allegations involving Trump and Russia, but decided to sit on the information because the allegations had not been verified.

CNN’s decision to report the existence of the synopsis is debatable. BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the contents of the dossier is not. It is not solid journalism to publish rumor and innuendo. That was the guiding principle for countless news organizations privy to the contents of the dossier late last year, and it is still their principle. They exercised the old journalistic philosophy that dictates, “When in doubt, leave it out.” Instead, BuzzFeed decided, “When in doubt, publish.”

BuzzFeed called upon Americans to “make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.” Well, perhaps, but then Americans do not have access to the kinds of information that allows intelligence agencies and government offiicals to put the allegations contained in the dossier in their proper context. CNN declined to publish the contents because, the organization said, “it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations.” BuzzFeed obviously disagreed, but did admit that publishing “was not an easy or simple call…. Publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017,” a reference to the instantaneousness of news in the age of the Internet.

CNN and BuzzFeed handled the explosive story about Trump differently. But, neither organization was guilty of engaging in “fake news.” Neither deliberately distributed lies with the intent of deceiving the public.

Published January 13, 2017

The Autocratic Impulse

Hillary Clinton’s remark about putting half of Donald Trump’s supporters in a “basket of deplorables” may have been impolitic, but it was not wrong. Analysts may quibble about the percentage Clinton cited, but certainly many Trump supporters are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” I would name one more deplorable trait — admiring of autocratic rulers.

One of the strangest aspects of this exceedingly strange electoral cycle has been Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin — Russia’s autocratic ruler. Trump repeatedly has claimed that Putin is a strong leader, doubling down on that assertion when questioned by Matt Lauer most recently at the “Commander-in-Chief Forum.” “I’ve already said he is really very much of a leader,” Trump reiterated. “…[H]e’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.” It is a silly comparison, of course, given that Putin rules his country with an iron hand while Barack Obama honors constitutional restraints and the tradition of the rule of law.

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is a fierce Putin critic, gave the best analysis of the absurdity of Trump’s comments. “Vladimir Putin is a strong leader in the same way that arsenic is a strong drink,” Kasparov said. It would be tempting to dismiss Trump’s comparison of Putin and Obama as the ravings of a delusional individual who once pedaled the “birther” nonsense, except for two points: One, Trump may well be the next president and as such will have to deal with an aggressive and revanchist Putin-led Russia; and two, Trump is not alone in having a crush on Putin and admiring the former KGB agent’s autocratic rule.

In 2014, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — who has reemerged as a somewhat unhinged Trump cheerleader — praised Putin’s leadership in the illegal seizure of Crimea. “[Putin] makes a decision, and he executes it quickly,” Giuliani gushed. “Then, everybody reacts. That is what you call a leader. President Obama, got to think about it, he’s got to go over it again, he’s got to talk to more people about it.” Yes, but then again, President Obama does not act in contravention of international law, a subtle point that appeared to have escaped Giuliani’s notice. Those who criticize Obama for being weak are the quickest to condemn his use of executive orders, a tactic of strong presidents. But then, consistency never has been the forte of the Obama-hating crew.

Sarah Palin has taken the comparison of Putin and Obama a step further, suggesting the shirtless, horseback-riding Putin is manlier than the golf-playing Obama. “Obama, the perception of him and his ‘potency’ across the world is one of such weakness,” Palin said. “Look it, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” Others on the far right, such as Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan also have praised Putin, in part because he champions the Russian Orthodox Church and opposes gay rights. In reference to Syria, Limbaugh once said on his radio show, “Now, you know Vladimir Putin is saying that Obama and [John] Kerry are lying…. Who do I believe, Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama and John Kerry?” In December 2013, Buchanan praised Putin as “a defender of traditional values…” who has shown “moral clarity.” Citing Ronald Reagan’s reference to the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world,” Buchanan had the effrontery to suggest “Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century.”

The praise of Putinesque autocracy by prominent Americans is shocking. Do these Republicans want to see a man like Putin sitting in the White House, running roughshod over constitutional niceties, jailing dissidents, assassinating journalistic critics, and ignoring international law? Does the praise of Putin by Trump and his allies tell the American public something about how a possible Trump administration would act domestically and internationally?

Admiration for Putin sometimes sounds like the old excuse for fascism under Mussolini: “He made the trains run on time.” Well, the trains were often late in the dictator’s Italy, and Putin’s Russia is not doing too well, either. Journalists and other critics of Putin have a nasty habit of turning up dead, and the civil liberties of ordinary Russians have been curtailed severely under Putin. A Russian blogger was convicted for running afoul of a law that criminalizes “the rehabilitation of Nazism.” The blogger’s crime: He had the temerity to suggest that Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939. Apparently, in Putin’s Orwellian world there is no truth to the historical fact that the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the East two weeks after German troops stormed across Poland’s western border.

And, what of life in today’s Putin-led Russia? Life expectancy in 21st-century Russia is much lower than in other developed countries. American men have a 1-in-11 chance of dying before the age of 55; for Russian men, the rate is one in four. Russia now ranks 108th in life expectancy in the world, just behind Iraq and ahead of North Korea. In recent years, the Russian ruble has fallen from about 36 rubles to the dollar to a current 65 to the dollar. While the value of the currency shrank nearly 50 percent, the rate of inflation rose 15 percent in 2015. Western sanctions levied after Putin invaded Ukraine account for some of the economic hardship of the last few years; more of it is attributable to the fact that Russia is a petrostate (it is the world’s biggest exporter of natural gas and the second biggest exporter of oil) hard hit by the plunge in world oil prices over the last decade. When the international price of oil was high in the early years of Putin’s rule, Russia prospered; the unwillingness of Putin’s Russia to diversify its economy has led to economic hardship in recent years as the price of oil fell. In addition, Putin’s authoritarian state showers immense benefits on the small wealthy oligarchy that runs Russia as a kleptocracy for its own benefit.

Not much to admire, which makes the praise of Putin’s autocracy by Trump and others more puzzling. Autocracy is always deplorable, and the current admiration of the autocratic Putin — who leads a failing state —  by prominent Americans is shockingly deplorable. But, apparently, Trump’s candidacy has opened a window onto an authoritarian impulse on the American right.

Who knew?

Posted September 16, 2016

Journalistic Balance

Lagging badly in the polls, Donald Trump is intensifying his criticism of the media. “If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%,” reads one Trump tweet. Another says, “I am not only fighting Crooked Hillary, I am fighting the dishonest and corrupt media and her government protection process. People get it!”

Those are just two of the many tweets from Trump attacking the media. A favorite whipping boy is The New York Times, which has come in for some added criticism for two recent stories, one examining the efforts of Trump advisers to get the candidate to moderate his freewheeling campaign style and the other reporting secret payments to Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, from the ousted Ukrainian government. Further reportorial digging and historical perspective will determine the veracity of the Times’s accounts, but there can be little doubt that Trump will use attacks on the newspaper — and other media outlets — to deflect attention from his floundering campaign while drawing attention to himself.

Trump and his supporters are reprising longstanding and tired right-wing tropes about the supposed liberal media bias. “The media is trying to take Donald Trump out,” says Rush Limbaugh. But, Trump and his supporters are flat-out wrong about the media. Far from being damaged by the so-called “liberal” bias of the media, Trump has benefited from an imbalance in news coverage. Trump’s outrageous remarks about minorities, his mocking of a disabled reporter, and his suggestion that supporters might have to assassinate Hillary Clinton are among many comments that earn him intense press coverage. This is no accident: Today’s Phineas Barnum, Donald Trump is a showman who knows how to keep his name in the news. The reality TV star subscribes to the dictum that all news coverage is good, as long as the media spells his name correctly.

And, outrage works, as Trump’s Republican presidential nomination proves. The news outlets gave more airtime and devoted more ink to Trump than to his sixteen Republican opponents. The most important statistic of this electoral season is this: Trump received $2 billion in free media — that is, free advertising — during the primaries, which was more than six times as much as that of his closest Republican rival. His opponents spent millions — in the instances of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, tens of millions — on paid advertising, while Trump spent little, benefitting instead from all the free coverage.

Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy issued a report in June showing that Trump received not only a high volume of media coverage, but also a high degree of positive coverage — the real estate mogul obtained far more “good press” than “bad press.” According to the Shorenstein Center, Clinton received the most negative coverage of all the candidates, Democratic and Republican. Eighty-four percent of Clinton’s coverage was negative in tone, compared to 43 percent of Trump’s, with the other candidates trailing those two.

Trump gets news coverage because he is good copy. But, he also presents a journalistic problem. Journalists are trained to be objective and to show balance in their coverage. But, how do you cover a demagogue who lies at will? The press has been grappling with this question since Trump descended the escalator in his eponymous building to announce his candidacy and label Mexican immigrants “rapists.” The answer, so far, has been to report Trump’s every outrage and to attempt to show balance by giving equal time and equal treatment first to Trump and his primary opponents and now to both major party presidential candidates.

The attempt to find balance results in a distortion of the truth by either allowing Trump’s lies — which come at a rate too great for even the most ardent fact-checkers — to go unchallenged or by denouncing far less serious and important misstatements by Clinton. This false equivalency appeared recently in an op-ed — under the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press” — written by the incoming and outgoing leaders of the White House Correspondents’ Association. The authors accused both nominees of imperiling the workings of a free press. Lumping Trump and Clinton together, the op-ed concluded, “We are concerned both with the rhetoric directed at the media in this campaign and the level of press access to the candidates. Both Clinton and Trump can do better.”

Fair enough, but there is no equivalence between the two. True, Clinton refuses to hold news conferences, for which she justifiably should be criticized. But, only Trump bans reporters and news organizations he does not like from his rallies and other events. Only Trump refuses to condemn supporters who harass reporters, notably Julia Ioffe who experienced a deluge of anti-Semitic messages after profiling Melania Trump, the candidate’s wife. Only Trump has threatened to “open up our libel laws” to allow politicians to sue media outlets for unfavorable stories.

Some journalists are beginning to respond to the problem Trump presents. “When controversy is being stoked, it’s our obligation to report that,” says Cameron Barr, managing editor of The Washington Post. “If one candidate is doing that more aggressively and consistently than the other, that is an imbalance for sure.” But, Barr adds, “It’s not one that we create, it’s one that the candidate is creating.” Carolyn Ryan, senior political editor for The New York Times, agrees. “If you have a nominee who expresses warmth toward one of our most mischievous and menacing adversaries, a nominee who shatters all the norms about how our leaders treat families whose sons died for our country, a nominee proposing to rethink the alliances that have guided our foreign policy for 60 years, that demands coverage — copious coverage and aggressive coverage,” she notes.

“Copious coverage and aggressive coverage” are the hallmarks of a free press. Trump may threaten to throttle the workings of a free press, but it was journalists — in this case, The New York Times — who reported Clinton’s use of a private email server. It was two young reporters at The Washington Post who exposed the corruption of the Nixon re-election campaign and administration. It was journalists who published the Pentagon Papers and revealed the Iran-Contra scandal. Thomas Jefferson — no surprise — best explained the significance of a free press. “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” wrote the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Posted August 16, 2016

Gotchas and Lies

The continued conservative kvetching about the alleged liberal bias of the so-called mainstream media is pathetic, even for a political party that has made attacking the media a tactic for decades.

Donald Trump employed the trope after the first debate when he launched a viciously sexist attack on Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly. The attacks reached an apotheosis in last Wednesday’s debate with the attempt by a number of Republican candidates to deflect pointed, hard, and legitimate questions by criticizing the media.

Granted, some of the questions in the CNBC debate were silly, such as the one about fantasy football. But the job of good journalists is to search for truth. Voters are ill-served by softball — or football, as the case may be — questions in a debate. On their tax plans, for example, the candidates no doubt would prefer a simple question: Please Dr. Carson tell us about your biblically inspired plan to institute a tithe in the American tax system? But the question Becky Quick asked Carson was why tithing would not explode the deficit: “I’ve had a really tough time trying to make the math work on this.… What analysis got you to the point where you think this will work?” That may be a “gotcha” question to a candidate who does not want to explain his funny math, but it is a legitimate question aimed at providing voters with important information about the candidate’s tax plan.

If anything, the CNBC moderators were too easy on the candidates, allowing them to get away with brazen and unchallenged lies. Ben Carson lied about his ties to Mannatech, a nutritional-supplement company that has had to pay millions to settle lawsuits arising from fraudulent claims. Carson said, “I didn’t have any involvement with [Mannatech]. That is total propaganda.” What should have come next: Well, if that is true, Dr. Carson, how do you explain this four-minute infomercial you cut for Mannatech that we are about to play? Similarly, there were no followups to the lie by Donald Trump that he “was not at all critical” of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for his work on immigration reform and the H-1B visa program and Carly Fiorina for recycling a lie first told in the 2012 Mitt Romney presidential campaign claiming that 92 percent of those who lost jobs in President Obama’s first term were women. No moderator asked Marco Rubio to prove his contention that the media ignored evidence that Hillary Clinton was a “liar” at the Benghazi hearing because “the American mainstream media… [is] her super PAC helping her out.”

And then there was the lie told by Ted Cruz about the Democratic debate, in which the Texas senator claimed “every fawning question from the media was, Which of you is more handsome and why?” Somebody should have asked Cruz in which alternate universe he watched the Democratic debate because he evidently did not see the debate CNN hosted. The first question moderator Anderson Cooper asked Hillary Clinton was, “Plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency…. Will you say anything to get elected?” Cooper mentioned that Bernie Sanders supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and honeymooned in the Soviet Union before asking if the Vermont independent is anti-capitalist. These were hardly fawning questions. In fact, the most fawning moment in the current debate cycle came when ultraconservative radio host Hugh Hewitt prefaced a question in the CNN Republican debate by saying, “I think all of you are more qualified than former Secretary of State Clinton.”

The funny thing about all the complaining by the Republican candidates is that the debates are stacked in their favor. The Republican National Committee seized control of the process, denying MSNBC an opportunity to host, giving Fox three debates, and foisting conservative radio network Salem on CNN as co-host, with Hewitt asking questions. None of this has stopped the complaining, which has been most intense in debates hosted by Fox and CNBC, both of which qualify as conservative-oriented networks. What do the campaigns want, a debate moderated by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin? Actually, that is a suggestion made by Ted Cruz.

Most of the campaigns sent representatives to a meeting this past weekend to take control of the debates and freeze out the RNC. It is not clear that the rival campaigns reached consensus about much except to agree that Fox will remain a favorite network, despite the Trump-Kelly brouhaha from the first debate, and any changes in format will come after the next Republican debate, which is on Fox Business Network. According to a person in attendance, “people are afraid to make Roger mad,” a reference to Roger Ailes, chief of Fox News.

Chris Christie disagreed with the thrust of the other campaigns. “The third debate wasn’t awful. A lot of the questions were bad, but you know what? You learned a lot about those candidates on that stage, too — how you can handle going back and forth,” Christie said. “The presidency is almost never scripted, so we shouldn’t have those debates scripted either.” Carly Fiorina agreed, “My policy remains what it’s always been: I’ll debate anyone, anytime, anywhere. We need to understand that the media is not going to be fair.”

As for the other candidates, they apparently want to be coddled rather than grilled by debate moderators. Most of the GOP candidates fear so-called “gotcha” questions and having their lies exposed by tough followups. It is the Republican version of kill the messenger.

Posted November 3, 2015

An “Arrogant” President Doing His Job

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at John Boehner’s gall.

The speaker of the House had the nerve — the chutzpah — to pen a piece last week for Politico Magazine with the title, “Do your job, Mr. President.”

John Boehner lecturing someone to do his job? THE John Boehner? The man who presides over the fractious, do-nothing Republican caucus? That John Boehner?

Mr. Boehner, you do realize you are the speaker of the Congress that is breaking all records for doing nothing? Wait, that’s not entirely accurate, for it’s true the Republican-led House has acted more than 50 times to repeal or revamp Obamacare, a chimerical, quixotic quest that has no chance of success.

This is the John Boehner, by the way, who intends to sue the president for doing his job.

John Boehner is not the only Republican giving Obama advice. This past weekend, Texas Senator Ted Cruz offered this piece of wisdom: “The president should actually stand up and do his job as commander in chief…spend less time on the golf course.”

Cruz offered his opinion on the president’s activities while munching on a pork chop in Iowa. Is that part of the job description of a U.S. senator from Texas?

This is the same Ted Cruz, by the way, who recently held secret meetings with House Republicans aimed at killing the bill authorizing money to address the immigration crisis on the border, thereby insuring that the House failed to act on yet another important national issue.

Though a freshman senator, Cruz is not bashful about telling others how to do their job. Nor is he bashful in his choice of words to criticize the president, calling him at various times “imperial,” “an out-of-control president,” and “lawless.” But Cruz’s favorite epithet for Obama might be “arrogant.” Appearing on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show a year ago, Cruz referred to the “arrogance of this administration.” To which Limbaugh replied, “Well, you’re right.”

Calling Obama “arrogant” has become standard fare on the right. Even before the 2008 election Karl Rove offered this opinion, “I will say yes, I do think Barack Obama is arrogant.” A year later Rove said, “I’ve always said I think he’s sort of an arrogant guy.”

The right-wing media quickly picked up the theme. John Stoessel, prior to the 2010 State of the Union Address, hoped to hear the president say, “I was arrogant.” John Hood of National Review Online has written, “The cadence and rhythm [of] his speaking voice… come[s] across as flippant and arrogant.” Glenn Beck referred to an “out-of-control, arrogant” president. Sean Hannity of Fox News said during the Republican-inspired government shutdown that “the president wants to be arrogant.” And former Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado recently defended impeachment because of “Obama’s arrogant disregard of the Constitution.”

The pattern is clear: On the right, “arrogant” has become code for “uppity,” a word that in the past was usually followed by the “N-word” and which was used to describe an African American who had the temerity to step outside the bounds of racial stereotypes. Martin Luther King frequently was labeled “uppity” for speaking truth to power.

The association of uppity with racial stereotypes makes the word impolitic today. But since dictionaries often define “uppity” as “arrogant,” the latter has become a useful synonym, a stand-in for describing forceful African Americans.

Of course, in one sense, Obama is “arrogant.” It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t “arrogant” — defined often as the attitude of people who believe they are smarter and better than others — becoming president. George W. Bush surely demonstrated arrogance when he landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and then spoke on the Iraq War under a banner declaring, “Mission Accomplished.”

But that’s not the usage intended by many on the right. Rather, it’s an off-handed attempt to appeal in a not-so-subtle way to racist attitudes. Commentators can’t call him “uppity,” but they can refer to him as “arrogant.”

Arrogant, apparently, for doing his job.

Posted August 12, 2014