The Depressing Predictability of Donald Trump

A little more than a week after the election, I weighed in with five predictions about what will happen as the new regime settles in after the inauguration. As it turns out, the Trump transition has already validated two of my predictions and there’s still almost a month before the winner of the election loser of the popular vote even takes office.

Prediction #1: I wrote that “After eight years of bleating and braying about the outrageous, unsustainable deficits that Barack Obama ran up (mostly paying for George W. Bush’s recession), Republicans will have an epiphany and realize that deficits really aren’t all that important, especially when they result from tax cuts.” According to Talking Points Memo, the House Freedom Caucus is already laying the groundwork for the new, improved GOP position on fiscal austerity. Check.

Prediction #2: I also wrote that “unattributed stories will make their way around right-wing media that the Obama team sabotaged the incoming Trump staffers through various nefarious means.” Well, the disinformation campaign is bypassing right-wing media altogether (popping up instead in The Washington Post) and the source is not exactly unattributed, but otherwise the whining has already begun. Check.

The 2016 election was wildly unpredictable but the pettiness and cynicism of the incoming Trump administration is something you could have seen coming from a mile away.

So, let me add one more prediction: The next four years are going to be far, far worse than most people imagine right now. We’ve flirted before with leaders who were unprincipled, unprepared, or otherwise unsuited for the office… and we’ve mostly gotten away with it. This time, however, I’m afraid we really screwed the pooch.

The Important Conversation We Never Seem to Have

Since the election, I’ve been consuming a lot of history. It’s oddly comforting to realize that the issues we’re wrestling with in 2016 are the same ones they were wrestling with a hundred years ago. The cast of characters continually changes but the ideological battle lines have remained substantially the same. There is an ebb and flow that plays out over generations and each one of us can only do his or her part and then pass the baton. (If you don’t believe me, check out Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit or Oliver Stone’s outstanding The Untold History of the United States which is currently available on Netflix.)

It seems to me, though, that the real issues we need to confront are not political or ideological. The conversation we really need to have is about values: What values do we embrace and how do we manifest those values in the world? If we get that conversation right, the politics and policies will (theoretically) happen much more easily. But, for the most part, we never seem to have that conversation. Our failure to do so explains why progress in other areas is so difficult to achieve or maintain.

To make the nature of the problem a little clearer, here are a couple of articles that crossed my desktop recently. The first is George Monbiot’s takedown of celebrity culture, “Celebrity isn’t just harmless fun – it’s the smiling face of the corporate machine.” The title says it all. As a culture, we’re awash in various flavors of Kim Kardashian. That doesn’t happen by accident and it’s important to understand how we got here. (Along the same lines, there’s an old question that’s well worth asking: “Cui bono?”)

The second one is an exploration of The Frankfurt School, a collection of philosophers, cultural critics, and sociologists that coalesced in 1938. They believed that mass culture, in all its forms, was a prop for totalitarian capitalism. The ideas were challenging and controversial but they fell out of favor during the generations long somnambulance that followed World War II. The ascendance of Donald Trump, however, has given them a whole new credence and relevance. (Believe me, this is more interesting reading than I make it sound.)

These articles do not, by themselves, represent the conversation about values that we so desperately need to have. They go a long way, though, towards explaining why we never seem to have it. I’d be interesting in hearing what you think.

Random Reflections on Our Elections

If you’re looking for a coherent narrative to explain what happened on Tuesday, I got nuthin’. The best I can do is refer you to the Robert Reich essay I posted about yesterday. Beyond that, I’ll just share a series of tentative reflections and observations that are disconnected and, at times, contradictory. After being wrong so often throughout this election cycle, I’m reluctant to opine at all. In reality, my objective here is not so much to create some insight for you as it is to provide a bit of catharsis for me.

  • What happened on Tuesday was a tragic event for this country, more tragic in some ways, than Pearl Harbor or 9/11. The election obviously didn’t entail an immediate loss of American lives as those two events did but its long term implications could prove to be far more devastating. One thing is certain: Neither Pearl Harbor nor 9/11 threatened our most cherished civic values or the American way of life. The same cannot be said for a Trump presidency combined with a unified and radicalized GOP Congress. On social media the morning after the election, one well-meaning commentator after another posted a variation of the message, “We’ll get through this.” Perhaps we will but saying so right now is pure assertion. There’s no reason to believe that a worst case scenario is not possible while there are plenty of indications that one is, in fact, quite likely. (The best early indicator of how much danger we’re in will be whether or not the GOP kills the filibuster in January. If they do—and I believe they will—then we are well and truly fucked.)
  • In the past, I’ve criticized the Democrats for their lack of resolve in opposing the Republican agenda. The horrifying reality we now face is that the GOP controls all three branches of government and there is no way to for Democrats to put the brakes on their opponents’ agenda no matter how much resolve they have. And, by the way, this is happening precisely as Republicans are radicalizing themselves to an unprecedented degree. This is not your father’s GOP.
  • Hillary Clinton proved to be a flawed candidate in precisely the ways that Bernie Sanders and his supporters predicted she would during the primaries. It was obvious from the beginning that voters of both parties were hungry for change a candidate and that Clinton could never be that candidate. (The GOP faced a similar dynamic in its own contest but no single establishment candidate had been able to preempt the field the way Clinton had on the Democratic side.) It was also obvious from the beginning that Clinton’s 20 years of controversy and distrust were going to be difficult to overcome. (Yes, almost all of Clinton’s baggage was the result of GOP propaganda but that’s irrelevant in terms of the electoral calculus.) Progressives’ analysis of today’s electoral environment and the dangers of embracing corporatism were exactly correct, something the Democratic Party must acknowledge and internalize if it’s going to ever dig out of the enormous hole in which it finds itself.
  • Bernie Sanders was my choice during the primaries and I sincerely believe that he could have and would have won the election. But I have no illusions about the fact that he would have had his own challenges as a candidate and a Sanders nomination would have posed its own risks for the party. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine on the phone yesterday, he made the observation that Joe Biden could have won this election in a landslide, undermining Trump in his core constituency of blue collar white workers. I think that’s exactly correct.
  • Representative Keith Ellison has declared himself as a candidate to head of the DNC. If there’s a single thing the party can do to set itself on a path to recovery, electing him to that position is probably it. He saw Trump coming two years ago when no one else took the idea seriously (see below). His vision and commitment to the party’s historically progressive ideals is precisely what the Democratic Party needs today if it hopes to move forward.
  • Election night made it blindingly obvious that our entire political commentariat has nothing to offer and has been a complete waste of my time. They create lots of heat but very little light, lots of friction but almost no real insight. Reading or listening to them doesn’t make us smarter, it merely makes us more stressed. Five random people out of the phone book would be more insightful about the real world that a typical Sunday morning panel on any of the network news shows. (There will never be a better example of the commentariat’s cluelessness than this panel discussion from This Week with George Stephanopoulos in 2015 that featured an amazingly prescient Congressman Keith Ellison being ridiculed for his suggestion that Donald Trump could become the Republican nominee.) It would be unrealistic to think I’ll be able to avoid commentary entirely but I can promise you that I’ll be make a concerted effort to spend the majority of my time on news sources that reflect Sergeant Joe Friday’s ethos: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
  • Our obsession with polls and the horse race aspect of elections has certainly been discussed before but its damage to our political dialog has reached alarming levels and need to be curtailed. My own favored solution is pretty simple (though I freely acknowledge that it’s drastic): I think we need to dramatically regulate or even eliminate pre-election polls. Obviously, this would be a difficult approach to implement (though I don’t think it’s impossible) but I don’t want to get into that discussion right now. Instead, I’m imagining what campaigns and campaign coverage would be like if day by day polling results weren’t distracting us. (How many times did you click on FiveThirtyEight.com over the last sixty days or so? I’d be embarrassed to tell you how often I did.)
  • Is there any dount at all that the GOP’s deliberate voter supression strategies tipped this election? Of course, Trump was correct that this election was rigged. He and his party were the ones doing the rigging. (This isn’t speculative. They bragged about it in North Carolina, for example.) Also,consider the fact that, since the Clinton administration, two out of five presidential elections (i.e. 40 percent!) have seen the winner of the popular vote lose the election. And in both cases it was the Democrat. That’s not a coincidence.
  • It’s fascinating to consider that Clinton’s campaign might take on the dimensions of a classic Greek tragedy if we learn that she was kept out of office because her husband’s policies disenfranchised voters who could have saved her candidacy.
  • We must never forget this statement by CBS executive chairmen Les Moonves concerning the massive uncritical media coverage his company gave to Donald Trump during the primaries: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” I have no doubt that our corporate Masters of the Universe make statements like this among themselves all the time but it’s shocking that Moonves felt he could say something like that out loud in public. It will always remain one of the most shameful moments of the entire election, a stark and irrefutable illustration of how thoroughly broken our system has become.

Like Romney and McCain, Hillary Extends a Middle Finger to Voters

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, it was clear that Mitt Romney believed his tax returns had the potential to be problematic. No one alleged or even believed that Romney had committed any illegal acts but it was likely that he had aggressively avoided taxes, something that wasn’t going to play well with beleaguered middle class voters who still hadn’t recovered from the damage guys like Romney had done to the economy while fellow scion George Bush was president.

Years earlier, Romney’s father was running for president and pointed out that a narrowly drawn snapshot of a candidate’s taxes could be a “fluke.” In an effort to be as transparent as possible, he released 12 years of his own returns. George Romney’s analysis was clearly correct but 44 years later his son obviously felt that he wasn’t in a position to follow in his father’s footsteps. Mitt’s solution was simplicity itself: He declared that two years’ worth of returns were “what we’re going to put out…those are the two years that people are going to have.” Period. (Breaking with modern precedent, John McCain—the guy who owned so many houses that he couldn’t remember exactly how many—had taken the same tack four years earlier.)

Both candidates basically decided that their message to voters was: Fuck you, it’s none of your business. And although McCain and Romney lost their respective elections, there’s no evidence that either paid a price for their lack of transparency or intransigence.

The lesson that stonewalling is a viable strategy was clearly not lost on Hillary Clinton. Consistent with her longstanding tendency to emulate the worst behaviors of her GOP counterparts, Hillary has settled on a message to voters who want her to come clean about her handsomely compensated speeches to all those Masters of the Universe on Wall Street: Fuck you, it’s none of your business.

Borrowing a tactic from the standard GOP playbook, Hillary pretends that she’s really the victim of a double standard here. In fact, she’s in precisely the situation she anticipated and one for which she prepared meticulously. In her standard speaking agreement, Hillary required her bosses clients to not only provide stenographers at her events but to also stipulate that she, not they, would own those transcripts. All the transcripts exist, then, and there’s nothing preventing her from releasing them other than her own unwillingness to do so.

The Clinton years in the White House were characterized by a willingness to be too cute by half when it came to truth-telling and transparency. It was only Republican overreach that shored up the administration’s approval ratings during the second term. Hillary’s first campaign for president eight years ago exhibited the same casual relationship with the truth and the same barely disguised contempt for anyone those who’d question her.

trump_clintonIn 2016, Hillary’s approach to politics once again reveals a candidate who shares with Republicans a disdain for anyone who wants answers about how she’s conducted herself in the years before she officially became a candidate for the highest office in the land. Her boundaries seem to have been defined by asking, “How much can we get way with?” and, like the Republican stonewallers she emulates, there’s no reason to believe that she’s going to pay a political price for this behavior. At least, not in the primaries. But by the time she gets to the general election, it will be too late for Democrats to do anything about it.

Update: In a masterful and ironic bit of trolling, Mitt Romney is now chiding Donald Trump about releasing his tax returns.

1972 and 1992: A Couple of Overlearned Lessons

“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” Will Rogers

For a generation now, conventional wisdom within the Democratic Party has held that “liberal” Democrats cannot get elected. This was the basic premise of Bill Clinton’s candidacy in 1992 and his success was widely considered to be irrefutable validation of the “centrist Democrat” approach to politics.

George-McGovern-and-Thoma-008As an organizing principle, the idea didn’t get real traction until Michael Dukakis’ defeat by George Bush in 1988 but it’s George McGovern’s crushing loss to Richard Nixon in 1972 that’s more commonly cited by those who dismiss the idea of a genuinely progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders becoming the Democratic standard-bearer. Unfortunately, our collective memory of what happened in 1972 somehow seems to leave out the most important reason—by far—that the election turned into a disaster. And it wasn’t George McGovern’s politics.

McGovern was not the first choice of party leaders but his success throughout the primary process made his nomination inevitable. (This was a brave new world in politics. The Democrats’ previously nominee, Hubert Humphrey, didn’t win a single primary.) After securing the nod on July 12, McGovern approached Ted Kennedy to be his running mate, an offer that Kennedy publicly declined. McGovern then settled on Thomas Eagleton, described as “a little-known, pro-labor, Roman Catholic liberal from Missouri.” His quixotic candidacy got off to an uneven start but it wasn’t until two weeks later that the bombshell hit.

Following a whispering campaign in Washington, Eagleton admitted that he’d been hospitalized three times in the 1960s for depression and stress, and that he had undergone electric shock therapy, an enormous scandal that had not been uncovered during vetting. Days later, McGovern’s “1,000 percent” support for his embattled running mate evaporated as the situation became increasingly untenable. Eagleton resigned from the ticket on August 1.

Then, things got worse. Much worse. Wikipedia summarizes the rest of the story:

A new search was begun by McGovern. Six different prominent Democrats declined to run as his vice-president: Ted Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, Abraham Ribicoff, Larry O’Brien and Reubin Askew. McGovern ultimately chose former Ambassador to France and former Director of the Peace Corps Sargent Shriver, a brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy. He was officially nominated by a special session of the Democratic National Committee. By this time, McGovern’s poll ratings had plunged from 41 to 24 percent.

By the time Shriver came on board, the entire fiasco had dominated coverage of the McGovern campaign for weeks. (Can you imagine a campaign stewing in a story like that for a almost a month?!) In the process, a half dozen of the party’s most prominent names had publicly rejected the nominee’s entreaties to help. Taking on an incumbent president like Richard Nixon would obviously been difficult under the best of circumstances but it was clearly the Thomas Eagleton story, not George McGovern’s policy prescriptions, that made the election result so lop-sided.

Clinton CoverI’d also argue that Bill Clinton’s results in 1992 were somewhat anomalous and don’t support the “centrist Democrat” narrative as neatly as pundits seem to think. Clinton’s big break came in the aftermath of the first Iraq War when George W. Bush’s popularity surged to historic levels. Facing an incumbent president with such lofty approval ratings seemed like a fool’s errand. As a result, the prominent liberal Democrats who otherwise might have run that year—Bill Bradley, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, and Mario Cuomo—all backed out of the race before it ever began.

When the economy went south and took President Bush’s approval ratings along for the ride, Bill Clinton found himself facing a field that could reasonably be described as the Democratic Party’s AAA team. He won the nomination but never had to face his party’s best candidates in the process. He then went on to beat an astonishingly disengaged George Bush.

So count me among those who are not persuaded by the argument that an unabashed liberal can’t be a successful presidential candidate. It’s a tidy narrative but history doesn’t support it.

My Top Ten Tips for Speaking Effectively in Public

Version 2
This is a vintage image of an unidentified corporate presenter. He certainly looks like someone who’s wearing comfortable shoes.

On Facebook recently, the folks who manage the TED Talks page posted an ostensible list of tips they give their speakers. In the ensuing conversation, I mentioned my own experience as a speaker and the mental list of tips I’ve complied over the years. My comment drew responses that were so encouraging I decided to share a slightly expanded version of that list here. While there are no universally applicable approaches, I can tell you that the techniques you’ll find in this list are the most effective ones I learned (mostly the hard way) over a nine year career delivering corporate presentations:

1. Have a reliable opening, one you can deliver expertly and with confidence. Early on, I “appropriated” (from someone who’s name I’ve sadly long since forgotten) a short opening quip that broke the ice with the audience and almost always got a chuckle. It scaled well and worked reliably with all sorts of different audiences. Having this opening in my toolkit de-stressed the beginning of my presentations significantly. I knew that even if no other single line in my talk connected, this one would. The little bit of connection and the confidence it produced in thirty seconds was all it ever took for me to get off to a great start.

2. Use pauses and silences strategically to grab your audience’s attention. Most speakers’ natural inclination when they want to capture their audience’s attention is to turn the volume up to eleven. In fact, it’s often much more effective to pause and let a silence hang over the room, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. From there, you can deliver a bombshell or a punchline to an audience that’s perched on the edge of their seats to hear what you’re going to say next.

3. Wear comfortable shoes. This is advice that most people only learn through painful experience because no one thinks to warn you beforehand. Trust me on this. (And while you’re at it, make sure that your soles are non-slip.)

4. Design your visual aids with a thoroughly minimalist sensibility. Whatever people are there to learn, it’s better for them to hear it directly from you rather than read it off your slides. The best way to use slides is with a single visual on each one. The next best way is to use words as sparingly as possible; use them not as a script but as a scaffold on which to hang the real presentation, the one that you’ve giving right in front of them,

5. Tell stories. If you can find a short story to illustrate each of your important points, you’ll vault yourself into the top tier of presenters at your conference or event. Audiences relate to stories and, more important, they remember stories.

6. Study video of your presentations. You often don’t look like what you think you look like. I still come across blog posts that advise speakers to practice in front of a mirror. Simply put, this doesn’t work. You can’t see the things you need to see in a mirror. Not that they’re not there; you literally can’t see them because your minds edits and selectively interprets the signals it gets from your eyes. You’re just too involved with the image you see in the mirror to evaluative it usefully. Video gives you something relatively more objective to observe.

7. If logistics don’t confine you to a stage, walk around the room. Your judicious incorporation of movement into your presentation will keep your audience on its metaphoric toes. It’s a subtle but significant way to hold their attention and keep them engaged.

8. Find ways to get your audience to participate. There are lots of ways to get an audience involved. Ask a question and solicit answers. Take a poll that requires  show of hands. Get volunteers from the audience to role play. (NB: There’s a significant “degree of difficulty” factor on that one.) Like other items on this list, audience participation increases engagement.

9. Don’t read from your slides. Closely related to item number four above, this is one of the cardinal sins that unpracticed presenters commit. If this was the only item on this list that you totally mastered, you’d be better than at least half of the presenters that members of your audience have ever heard.

10. Practice, practice, practice. It’s almost impossible to do an outstanding job with a presentation you’ve never given before. There are always places that fall unexpectedly flat and transitions that don’t quite flow as smoothly as they did in your head. If it’s at all possible, find an opportunity to try your big presentation out on an “off Broadway” audience before you step out on stage in front of your actual target audience. Every time you give a particular presentation it will get more and more polished. (And here’s a corollary: In general, it’s easier to find a new audience than it is to craft a new presentation.)

A Field of Memes

Now that this blog has a respectable backlog of posts, my plan is to gradually increase the frequency of my posts as I undertake a similarly gradual uptick in my promotional efforts. Toward that end, I’ve begun experimenting with creating memes.

The idea, of course, is to create and distribute memes that will—with any luck—make their way to readers who’ll like what they find here at georgecolombo.com. With all of that in mind, I thought you might want to see a few of my early efforts (along with a random thought or two about each).

CannabisI created this one immediately after writing this blog post about the upcoming efforts to make medical marijuana available in the state of Florida. Both the meme and the blog post seemed to get a fair amount of positive attention on Facebook. I expect this is a topic I’ll be revisiting regularly as the ballot process progresses towards November of 2016.

David Foster WallaceI created this meme after seeing The End of the Tour, a movie about the great author, David Foster Wallace. There’s a slightly better quote than this in the move that conveys basically the same message but I couldn’t find it online and didn’t want to wait. Wallace was a towering intellect and, while Jason Segel delivers a plausible David Foster Wallage, watching video of the real Wallace is more intriguing for me. (Sure, see the movie but check out this Charlie Rose interview in the meantime.)

Martin Luther KingI’ve had three real, enduing heroes over the course of my life but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is at the very top of the list. Today, Dr. King is perceived to be an anodyne figure, bland and inoffensive. The reality is that he was reviled in his lifetime and for a generation afterwards by large numbers of Americans. He was considered a rabble-rouser, publicity seeker, and a communist (the worst epithet you could hurl at someone at the time). This is one of several quotes by Dr. King that have really resonated with me over the years.

Tony BennWhen I saw Michael Moore’s Sicko, this quote by British politician Tony Benn really caught my attention. It’s so stark, so simple and, ultimately, so irrefutable. The specific topic in the movie was healthcare reform but Benn’s sentiment can extend out to embrace a whole range of things we can do with our money besides shoveling it into the production of arms

I’d be curious to get your feedback on these. My intention has been to use quotes that reflect the values of the blog. Does that make sense to you? And a Bonus Question: Can you put your finger on what motivates you to share something when you see it?

Glenn Greenwald on Donald Trump and Jorge Ramos

There are very few indispensable voices in today’s media environment but any reasonable list of those who qualify would have to include Glenn Greenwald. He’s the embodiment of independent journalism and there’s no better evidence of that than his column about the Ramos/Trump story.

It’s tempting to try to summarize the two or three most important take-aways from the article but I’d prefer that you take a moment to read the whole thing yourself. It’s important not only for Greenwald’s perspective on the incident itself but also for the broader issues he raises about the nature of corporate media in 2015. (And by “corporate media,” I mean literally 95 percent of all our media, every newspaper and television program you read or watch.)

If you haven’t seen the video yet, you’ll want to take a look:

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “The hardest thing to see is what is in front of our eyes” but no one can fail to see the inherent absurdities and dangers of this Potemkin campaign of Donald Trump’s. Apparently the real challenge for our “serious” media personalities today is to call out the cynical con that’s right there in front of their eyes.