How Did We Get to Donald Trump?

Less than a week after the most gut-wrenching election of modern times, we’re flooded with articles and essays purporting to offer “the real reason” that Donald Trump won (or Hillary Clinton lost). As I’ve mentioned before, I agree with a sentiment that Colonel Jack Jacobs once expressed on MSNBC: “I’m not a fan of single factor analysis.”

The truth is that when a country like the United State puts itself squarely on a path towards intolerance and fascism, it doesn’t occur as a result of any one single reason or because of any single individual. In fact, there were plenty of reasons for Clinton’s defeat, some of which date back a generation or more. Here, then, is my admittedly incomplete list of the most important milestones on our way to Trumpism, the inflexion points in history when we might have taken a different direction than the one that ended in last Tuesday’s tragedy:

  • The Founding Fathers create the Electoral College specifically to amplify the influence of slave-holding states in the nation’s governance (1787).
  • Writer Ayn Rand (whose personal morality included the long term cuckolding of her husband with one of her acolytes) releases Atlas Shrugged, an amoral magnum opus designed to provide a specious intellectual justification for unbridled capitalism (1957).
  • L. Brent Bozell founds an organization, the Media Research Center, devoted solely to the purpose of relentlessly promoting a baseless notion of a monolithic, liberal, left-wing media (1987).
  • The abolition of the Fairness Doctrine paves the way for right-wing talk radio (1987).
  • In the wake of George McGovern loss of 49 states in a reelection rout by Richard Nixon, the Democratic Party erroneously attributes the crushing defeat to McGovern’s political leanings and resolves to never again nominate an unabashed liberal (1972).
  • Bill Clinton runs for president as a “third way” Democrat, tacitly repudiating the party’s history of progressivism on his way to electoral victory (1992).
  • In the wake of Obama’s victory, the GOP explicitly opts for an unprecedented strategy of pure obstructionism for any and all initiatives undertaken by the new president, choosing partisanship over patriotism. (2009)
  • Right-wing media and the Republican Party embrace a strategy of relentless racial agitation, embracing the demonstrably false notion that Obama is not a citizen and empowering bigots and racists in the party’s base (2009).
  • In Citizens United vs. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court removes key restraints on corporate donations and “dark money” in U.S. elections (2010).
  • After Barack Obama installs Debbie Wasserman Schultz as the Chair of the DNC, she embarks on a strategy of paving the way for a single presidential candidate in 2016 rather than supporting the efforts of all qualified, viable candidates (2011).
  • In Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court guts the Voting Rights Act (2013).
  • CBS president Les Moonves is the least discreet of all the country’s media moguls when he explicitly and relentlessly promotes Donald Trump as a candidate because of Trump’s impact on network ratings, in the process providing Trump with billions of dollars worth of free coverage (2016).
  • Republican FBI Director James Comey defies the Justice Department and puts the FBI’s massive finger on the scales in support of Trump’s candidacy during the leadup to the election (2016).

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.

What Now? Advice for My Fellow Bernie Sanders Supporters

One of the most fundamental rules in politics is to position oneself as capable and influential, as being able to make things happen. Yesterday morning, the progressive movement succeeded in pushing the odious Debbie Wasserman Schultz out the door and off the national political stage. It was, in many ways, an impressive and improbably victory.
 
So, how did my fellow Bernie Sanders supporters reacted? By trumpeting an important win? No, they complained that Wasserman Schultz will be hanging around until the end of the week and grousing that she was given an honorary position with the Clinton campaign. Instead of proclaiming a victory and thereby asserting the power of our movement, this faction is making the entire Sanders movement look as though it’s populated with malcontents and political morons. These purists are making Hillary look like the adult in the room instead of like someone who was subdued by the power of a united progressive movement… which is precisely what she is.
 
Bismark once described politics as “the art of the possible.” I’m afraid that these folks—their zeal and good intentions notwithstanding—are sacrificing genuine progress at the altar of the unattainable.
 

Yes, Bernie lost an unfair contest. As much as we might wish it were otherwise, these nothing to be done about it now. It’s like losing a football game on a bad call. Once the game is over, the league is not going to reverse a result, no matter how egregiously bad the call might have caused it. (Try Googling “NFL admits error but upholds result” and see what happens.)

And one more important point: Take a look at the calendar. Where do you see enough time to overhaul the DNC, redress all the transgressions from the primaries, and still have enough time to win an election in November? I’ve looked carefully and I don’t think it’s there.

 
Sanders and ClintonI’d like to urge my fellow Sanders supporters to take your cue on how to respond to what’s going on from Bernie. If we trusted his judgment to run the country, why should we ignore his judgment here? It makes little sense for any of us to try to out-Bernie Bernie. Deposing Wasserman Schultz was a huge victory. Let’s learn to take “yes” for an answer, claim a hard fought win, and then go out and do what we must to win an election we cannot afford to lose.

In 1968, Democratic Party officials turned the nomination over to a candidate who didn’t win a single primary! Liberals (we weren’t called progressives then) were rightfully incensed at the unfairness of the process and the disdain the party showed for us and the white-haired guy who was our hero then, Eugene McCarthy. They stayed away from the polls to show their disdain for a corrupt process. Do you remember the progressive renaissance that their indignation produced over the ensuing eight years? No? Neither do I.

This Bernie Sanders objective has always been to create a movement, not to win an election. We might wish we’d achieved a different result over the course of the primary season but the most important contest now is the one that’s in front of us. Let’s not blow this one because we’re still stewing about the last one. That would make no sense for us tactically nor would it do any good for the larger issues we care about.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen tonight and see what Bernie has to say.

The Hillary T. Firefly Primary Season

duck-soup-5The Marx Brothers’ greatest movie was their 1933 classic, Duck Soup. Described as an “anarchic classic,” it follows the exploits of Rufus T. Firefly, a ne’er do well who finds himself in charge of Freedonia, a small country that’s bankrupt and on the brink of collapse. As the thoroughly unqualified Firefly (played by a brilliantly subversive Groucho Marx) muddles through his first cabinet meeting, this inspired exchange takes place:

Firefly: And now members of the cabinet, we’ll take up old business.
Cabinet Member: I wish to discuss the tariff.
Firefly: Sit down, that’s new business. [pause] No old business? Very well, then we’ll take up new business.
Cabinet Member: Now, about the tariff…
Firefly: Too late, that’s old business already. Sit down.

As a gag in a farcical comedy, the exchange works perfectly. But as a template for selecting a candidate for president, it’s a great deal less amusing. Yet a virtually identical approach is being employed by the Democratic Party’s leadership. It’s stiff-arming the party’s progressives and stonewalling any substantive challenge to the establishment’s anointing of Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee.

It’s early March and only a handful of states have voted but a persistent drumbeat has already emerged, a demand to forestall any pointed offensive against the frontrunner. The message comes across in a variety of formats. On the Daily Kos, it’s Markos Moulitsas’ cynical declaration on March 4th (!) that the site will officially transition “to a General Election footing” on March 15—roughly half way through the primaries—if Bernie Sanders hasn’t made enough progress by then to satisfy Moulitsas. On social media, it’s the oft-repeated contention that criticizing Hillary is tantamount to supporting Donald Trump.

While the specifics vary from one occurrence to another, the unwavering theme is that it is criticism of Clinton—and only Clinton—that needs to be muted. Implying that Sanders is a sexist or a covert racist or is contemptuous of children who were murdered at Sandy Hook are all fair game. The entreaties for party unity mysteriously seem to only operate in one direction.

The justification for the virtual gag order is ostensibly a fear of weakening Clinton in advance of the November contest. (Apparently, the prospect of Sanders emerging as the party’s nominee is not deemed worthy of serious consideration.) But concern-trolling from our very serious commentariat notwithstanding, there’s really very little evidence that a vigorous primary contest hurts a party’s nominee in the ensuing general election.

There were few primary contests in recent memory as vigorously contested as the one between Clinton and Barack Obama. While few Sanders supports rule out supporting Clinton in November, there were plenty of Clinton supporters in 2008 who swore they wouldn’t back Obama. In the end, they did what almost all partisans do: they backed their party’s candidate.

The 2000 bout between George W. Bush and John McCain was as nasty as modern political bouts ever get but McCain and his supporters closed ranks in the fall and helped Bush get to a point from which he was ultimately able to prevail in the Supreme Court and take office. Bush faced many obstacles on his way to the White House but blowback from supporters of the man he smeared in the South Carolina primary was not one of them.

The only two modern contests in which a bitter primary season might have contributed to a candidate’s defeat in November were in 1976 and 1980. Both cases involved weak incumbent presidents, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter respectively, who had plenty of other problems beyond a challenge in the primaries. In fact, in contests that don’t involve an incumbent, it’s easier to make a case that primaries strengthen the victorious candidate than that they weaken him or her.

Besides, there’s more at stake than simple electoral considerations. If now is not the time to examine one of the party’s prospective candidates, then when are we supposed to do it? And if we’re not allowed to ask pointed questions, if one candidate is assiduously protected from any and all criticism within the party, then what is the nature of the process by which Democrats are supposed to decide?

Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have put their fingers on the sentiment that’s motivating and angering voters in 2016. (In a different way, Donald Trump has, too.) That sentiment is a visceral reaction to an inescapable perception that the game is rigged, that the fix is in. That’s already true when it comes to perceptions about the economy. But the Democratic Party is playing with fire if it continues to feed the perception that it’s also true when it comes to our elections.

Nevada and South Carolina

If you’re like me, here’s your soundtrack for tonight’s results from Nevada’s Democratic caucus and South Carolina’s Republican primary:

Hillary Clinton, a deeply flawed candidate who almost certainly cannot win in November (and who wouldn’t exactly represent a step forward for the country even if she did), looks like she’ll be squaring off against Donald Trump, the embodiment of almost everything that is wrong with the U.S. in 2016. If you’re looking for a silver lining concerning tonight’s results, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. I got nothing.

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.

Feeling the Bern at Liberty University

It shouldn’t be any secret that I’m supporting Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. I happen to believe that he’s right on the issues. At least as important is that face that, whether you agree with him or not he, brings a degree of forthrightness and integrity that we seldom see in top tier, major party candidate.

The only other prelude I’ll provide for this video is that I appreciate the courage of any candidate who steps into the opponent’s territory. In this case, Senator Sanders is venturing to Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell to be the cradle of his Moral Majority.

I believe that over the course of a long campaign, addressing inequality in our system will be a message that resonates with a large swath of voters. In reality, there are more substantive interests that unite the bottom 99 percent than divide us. Now, click ahead to the 16:00 mark and give a listen to a guy who flies coach:

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.

A Modest Proposal for Medical Marijuana Opponents in Florida

Attorney John Morgan’s United for Care is readying another campaign to pass a Constitutional Amendment in Florida that would provide for the therapeutic use of cannabis under doctors’ supervision. (The organization’s previous attempt in 2014 was approved by about 58 percent of voters—a higher percentage than any candidate on the ballot including Governor Rick Scott—but failed to reach the 60 percent threshold required to pass this kind of ballot initiative.)

Medical-Cannabis1While the prospects for success look good in a presidential election year, the opposition is gearing up, too. A coalition of religious and law enforcement organizations including the Florida Sheriff’s Association is trotting out the familiar arguments here. (It’s worth noting that opposition to legalizing cannabis is far from universal in the law enforcement community. A number of progressive law enforcement officials believe that cannabis prohibition is considerably more harmful and dangerous than the plant itself.)

While many point out that law enforcement agencies in Florida have a vested interest in continuing prohibition—they generate millions of dollars for themselves from civil forfeiture proceedings, for example—I’m willing to stipulate that their arguments against liberalizing cannabis laws are made in good faith. But if public health and safety are genuinely what they’re concerned with, I’d like to make a modest proposal that might clarify the issues surrounding cannabis and enhance the credibility of the arguments they’re making.

Simply put, I wonder if the Sheriff’s Association would be willing to broaden the scope of its concern to include all of the substances that individuals use to self-medicate:

  • Cannabis
  • Tobacco
  • Alcohol
  • Dietary supplements
  • Over the counter medications

To claim, as the coalition’s website does, that cannabis “has a high potential for abuse with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence” is, at best, an incomplete telling of the story. If the problem is that cannabis is dangerous then it’s worth asking: Compared to what?

It seems that we, as a society, have long ago determined that we’re willing to balance the perceived benefits of using any of these substances against some hypothetical state of absolute safety. It shouldn’t be necessary, then, to demonstrate that cannabis is perfectly safe under any and all circumstances. After all, we couldn’t make that claim for aspirin and we certainly couldn’t make it for bourbon.

So, here’s my proposal. Let’s establish an objective set of safety standards and then apply them to all of the items on our list. Then, the Sheriff’s Association or any of the other organizations in the anti-cannabis coalition can make their policy prescriptions in a rational and objective context.

Here’s what doesn’t make sense: Insisting that one item on the list meet standards that we’re not willing to apply to other items that are objectively more dangerous. (If anyone wants to make the case that cannabis is more dangerous than tobacco or alcohol, then I’m happy to let them do so… but I’m guessing that any sort of supporting data would be difficult to produce.)

If it’s genuinely important to prosecute cannabis users in order to protect them from themselves, then don’t we owe the same level of protection to individuals who choose to self-medicate in other ways? But if we refuse to do that—if it seems like an irrational overreach to do so—then maybe it’s time to admit that prosecuting cannabis users never really made much sense in the first place.