Tag Archives: 2016 election

Sexism and the Clinton Candidacy

Open misogyny, like open racism, has become a fringe position in America. But even people who believe they don’t have a sexist bone in their bodies are still influenced by it.


I’m a guy, and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. Lots of us are.

Naturally, I also know men who aren’t voting for her. But you know what I haven’t heard? Not one of the anti-Clinton men I know personally — not even in a wink-and-nod, just-between-us guys sort of way — says that it’s because she’s a woman, or that women in general have no business being president.

Of course, it’s also true that if you go looking for that opinion, you can find it. (Samantha Bee even found a woman who thinks women shouldn’t be in charge.) And if you want to rile yourself, it’s not hard at all to dredge up comments on Facebook and other social media calling the former Senator, First Lady, and Secretary of State a bitch, a cunt, or some other misogynistic name. If you visit the vendors outside a Trump rally, you can even get a misogynistic epithet on a t-shirt or bumper sticker.

But still, open misogyny has become a fringe position. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 92% of Americans said they could vote for a woman for president. Maybe that’s only because admitting otherwise has become uncool, but there are also more specific signs of progress. Just two election-cycles ago, during Clinton’s first presidential run, whether a woman could be commander-in-chief still came up from time to time. In this cycle, though, she has managed to turn that issue around, contrasting her own experience and gravity against Donald Trump’s impulsiveness. In a recent Fox News poll, voters trusted Clinton more than Trump on “making decisions about using nuclear weapons” by a 56%-34% margin.

So hurray! Sexism is over in American politics and we can stop talking about it.

Well, not exactly.

The racism parallel. Eight years ago, after we elected our first black president, a lot of people convinced themselves that racism was over. And if we’re talking about open KKK-style racism, they were almost right. Few people in 2008 or 2012 said they wouldn’t vote for Obama because he’s black. Using the N-word against him in public, openly calling for white supremacy — you can still find that if you look, but it’s a fringe position.

And yet, the last eight years have been a lesson in just how pervasive the more subtle forms of racism are. If few white Americans would admit — even to other whites — that they didn’t want a black president, many many white people have seemed to hunger for some non-racial reason to dislike or mistrust Barack Obama.

And so, based no credible evidence whatsoever, a large segment of the American public have decided that he isn’t really an American, and so isn’t eligible to be president at all. Another large segment (with considerable overlap, I imagine) has convinced themselves that Obama’s whole religious history is a fraud, that he is secretly a Muslim, and is probably rooting for the jihadi terrorists (the same ones that he’s been killing with raids and drone strikes).

Others look at his family through jaundiced eyes. To them, Michelle — a beautiful, elegant woman by any standard — resembles a gorilla. When Sasha and Malia wear typical teen-age-girl clothes they get admonished to “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar“. The luxurious White House lifestyle, never an issue when white families lived there, suddenly looks uppity; and the cost of keeping the First Family safe on vacations — again, never an issue for the Bushes, Clintons, or Reagans — has been a point of resentment.

Whenever Obama acts like the President of the United States and accepts the deference that is due his office — like when a Marine holds an umbrella for him, or he puts his feet up on a White House desk — it just looks wrong. Sure, white presidents have been doing the same things for decades without irritating anybody, but this is different because … because … well it just is.

And the aura of respect that has sheltered even our most unpopular presidents from direct abuse in formal settings? That vanished as soon as a black man took control of the White House. Undoubtedly, Joe Wilson was not the first congressman to think a president had said something dubious in a State of the Union address. But none of the previous doubters had judged it appropriate to yell “You lie!”.

Summing up, a lot of Americans might say to President Obama: “I don’t hate you because you’re black. I hate you because so many of the things you do look wrong to me.” But if you take a step back and look at comparable situations from previous administrations, it’s hard to escape the realization that what is really wrong in Obama’s actions is that he’s black when he does them.

It’s not that blackness is bad per se — that would be the Jim-Crow-style racism we’ve almost all outgrown. It’s that for many Americans, blackness-in-power invokes a harsher standard of judgment that makes “This black president is bad” an almost inevitable conclusion.

Back to Hillary. So I think we should bring some skepticism to the idea that Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorable ratings are simply a fair public reaction to things she has said or done.

As with Obama and racism, not everybody who opposes Clinton is a sexist or dislikes her for gender-related reasons. But even if you can list apparently good reasons for not liking her, you need to consider the possibility that the things she says or does seem as bad as they do because Clinton is a woman when she does them.

Like racism, sexism may no longer dictate the views of most Americans, but it still has a strong influence.

Appearance. The most obvious way that Clinton is treated differently from male candidates is with regard to her appearance. Prior to Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, one of the most googled questions was what she would wear. A white pantsuit was the answer, a decision deemed worthy of historical analysis in The Atlantic.

For a man, of course, the question has a standard answer: a dark suit with a light-colored shirt and a red or blue tie. If a man wears that, he can count on everybody to forget what he’s wearing and concentrate on what he’s saying. But there is no standard choice for women, because no woman has ever been in this situation before. Whatever she wears, it just doesn’t look presidential. I mean, would Abe Lincoln wear a white pantsuit?

For contrast, look at the two men Clinton has run against — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both men have unusual hair. Both take some ribbing for it, but it’s really not a big deal. (Clinton could never have turned a bad-hair day into a t-shirt, as Bernie did.) I doubt that either of their campaigns wasted a single minute of meeting time discussing “What are we going to do about his hair?”

Ditto for wardrobe. Trump wears expensively tailored suits, while Bernie sometimes looks like he slept in his. Both choices are OK and raise no issues. But every fashion choice a female candidate makes is fraught. Does she look too “frumpy“? Or is she too vain? Does she worry too much about her appearance, or spend too much on her clothes? (Both Clinton and Sarah Palin got skewered on that one.) It’s fine for Mitch McConnell to get increasingly jowly as he ages, but could Nancy Pelosi get away with that? And if she takes action to avoid facial sagging, that’s an issue too.

Clinton’s voice is another perpetual problem: It’s too shrill and she shouts too much. But Trump and Sanders also shout a lot without anybody making an issue of it. Bernie’s gravelly voice is far from what they’re looking for in broadcasting school, but somehow it makes him more authentic, like Bob Dylan.

Sex and marriage. There’s also a moral double standard. As we all remember from high school, someone who has a lot of sex is a stud if male, and a slut if female. That double standard hasn’t gone away.

Imagine, for example, if Clinton had a marital history like Trump’s. Picture her standing on the convention stage with a much-younger male model for a husband, waving to the crowd while surrounded by the children she conceived with three different fathers, all still alive. It’s an absurd vision, because no such woman could be elected to any office whatsoever.

Oratory. The big fear leading up to Hillary’s acceptance speech was whether she could match the great speeches of the previous nights’ speakers: Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and the ultimate master of the convention speech, Barack Obama.

By all accounts, she didn’t. It was a good speech that made her case and did her credit, but she didn’t even attempt to lift our spirits like Obama did in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

But consider this: Is an Obama-level speech even possible for a woman candidate in 2016? Would we know how to listen to it and recognize its greatness?

I don’t think we would. I’m not even sure that I would. We’re well trained to hear certain kinds of ideas from men, and respond in a certain way to them. Hearing the same speech from a woman would be a different experience entirely. For example, Joe Biden basically gave a Knute Rockne halftime pep talk. Could a woman have pulled that off?

“But what about Michelle?” you might ask. “She’s a woman and her convention speech was magnificent.” Indeed it was, but it was rooted in her experience as a wife and mother. She was not a candidate, and was not asking us to give her power. If she had been, say, running for the open Senate seat in Illinois, we might have heard her speech very differently.

The rogue’s gallery. The example of Bernie’s “authentic” voice points to an even more subtle pattern that is frequently overlooked: Just as there are negative stereotypes (like slut or ball-buster) for women, there are endearing stereotypes that make excuses for the flaws of men. As a result, if a man needs us to cut him some slack, it doesn’t seem like that big a stretch.

As Franklin Roosevelt is supposed said about a Central American dictator: “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” That line has been repeated about a number of American politicians since, including Richard Nixon. It’s a compliment of sorts: This guy may be immoral, but he’s going to do immoral things for us.

Trump’s long history as a con-man generates a similar excuse: Yes, he cheats people, but that’s why we need him: so that he can cheat the Chinese and the Mexicans on our behalf. Trump claimed that dubious virtue in his acceptance speech:

Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.

Lyndon Johnson was known as a wheeler-dealer, a stereotype that makes a virtue out of a man’s ability to bribe and threaten. If he can wheel and deal his way to Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, so much the better.

A standard character in our movies and TV shows is the charming rogue: Indiana Jones, Rhett Butler, Serenity‘s Captain Mal. He’s a rebel, a rule-breaker. He may be annoying at times and completely unreliable, but you keep forgiving him because it’s just so entertaining to watch him wriggle in and out of trouble. Trump and Bill Clinton both benefit from this stereotype, and in some circles so does Ted Cruz. (“Shut down the government? That scamp! What will he pull off next?”)

Female leaders don’t have any of those forgiving loopholes available to them. When the FBI announced that Hillary’s email mistakes were not indictable crimes, her supporters sighed with relief and her critics seethed with anger. (“Lock her up!”) Literally no one was charmed by her skill as a escape artist. (“She’s so smart! They’ll never nail her.”) If she were a man, though, many would be.

Clinton has been known to lie or mislead when she’s accused of something, behavior which (as the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof pointed out Sunday) is pretty standard for an American politician. And yet, a fairly small set of examples is enough to support an image of exceptional untrustworthiness.

Meanwhile, it is virtually impossible to hold a conversation with Donald Trump — on any subject — without hearing him lie. (Kristof: “In March, Politico chronicled a week of Trump remarks and found on average one misstatement every five minutes.”) The result: Slightly more voters describe Trump as “honest and trustworthy” than say the same of Clinton.

This is a pattern we should recognize from racial discrimination: We insist on high standards from our leaders, except when we don’t. Members of privileged groups — whites, men — can wrangle exceptions. Only the non-privileged — blacks, women — are actually held to those standards.

“But I just don’t like her.” Any woman running for office has to thread a very narrow needle: She has to look good without appearing vain, to sound strong but not bossy, project as friendly but not soft, and have years of experience without seeming old and stale. (Donald Trump can have no track record in government and be an outsider. A comparable woman would just be unqualified.) For a lot of Americans — even the 92% who told Gallup they could imagine voting for a woman — there might not be an eye in that needle at all.

Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute, writes:

High-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success – and specifically the behaviors that created that success – violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she “should” behave. By violating beliefs about what women are like, successful women elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine.

Michael Arnovitz looked at the long-term graph of Clinton’s favorability and noted:

What I see is that the public view of Hillary Clinton does not seem to be correlated to “scandals” or issues of character or whether she murdered Vince Foster. No, the one thing that seems to most negatively and consistently affect public perception of Hillary is any attempt by her to seek power. Once she actually has that power her polls go up again. But whenever she asks for it her numbers drop like a manhole cover. … Most of the people who hate Hillary when she’s running for office end up liking her just fine once she’s won.

I’ve heard a number of people, even a few women, tell me that they wish the first woman nominee had been someone different. To which I respond: How different could she be and still have gotten here?

“But I’m not sexist! I’m voting for Jill Stein.” As every Green voter knows in his or her heart, Jill Stein is not going to be our next president. So the disorientation and the fear-of-the-unknown that Clinton evokes simply does not rise for anyone considering Stein.

Likewise, Stein hasn’t run the decades-long gauntlet (with its corresponding decades of unfair criticism and invented scandals) that puts a woman in position to be a major party nominee. If she had, I suspect she would seem like damaged goods too.

We’ve seen something similar to the Stein option with the Republicans and race. Herman Cain in 2011 and Ben Carson in 2015 both had moments in the sun, as Republicans waved their signs and said, “See! I’m against Obama, but I’m not racist.” Strangely, though, both candidacies had faded long before the first primaries. So no one ever had to cast a vote that had a serious chance of putting Cain or Carson into power. Similarly this November, no one will cast a vote that has a serious chance of putting Stein into power either.

A woman as a message-carrier? A woman as the symbol of an impossible dream? We’re all fine with that. But the prospect of giving a woman real power is something else.

Can we compensate? Obviously, it would make no more sense to vote for Clinton because she’s a woman than to vote against her for that reason. So what am I asking you to do?

Here’s my point: It is a very human reaction to instinctively recoil from something you’ve never seen before, to imagine that there’s something wrong with it, and then to go looking for reasons you can use to justify that pre-rational feeling of wrongness. I strongly suspect that lots of people who hate Hillary Clinton (and even a few who are going to hold their noses and vote for her out of disgust with Trump) have done that, or have been influenced by opinion-makers who do that.

Which is not to say that everyone who isn’t whole-hearted supporting Hillary is reacting out of sexism. She’s an American politician who has views, plans, and a record, none of which are perfect. No candidate — even great presidents who were white men — gets 100% of the vote.

But think about what you would like to have told those 2012 voters who were convinced that Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born terrorist-sympathizing fake Christian who hates America and wants to undermine our culture and society. Not that those wouldn’t be good reasons to vote against him, but why do you believe them? Could the thinking process that led you to those beliefs have been influenced by the subtle racism that infects almost everything in our society?

Our society is similarly infected with subtle sexism. Those things you believe about Hillary that make her uniquely objectionable, or so repellant that the difference between her and Trump seems too insignificant to take seriously, why do you believe them?

Could sexism have played a role in forming those beliefs? Think it through again.

Disbanding NATO: Why Vlad loves Donnie

Nobody’s sure exactly what Trump sees in Putin. But in the other direction, the allure is obvious.


Last week I characterized the idea that Vladimir Putin hacked the Democratic National Committee to help Donald Trump become president as “mostly a conspiracy theory” and “pretty speculative”. That theory got quite a bit more believable this week.

Trump even called for Russian hackers to try to find the emails deleted from Clinton’s server, though he later backed off and called the request “sarcastic“. (No doubt Trump would be equally amused if Clinton called on Chinese hackers to find the tax returns he refuses to reveal.)

Then he got caught in a tangle of his own previous lies. In the past he has exaggerated his connection to Putin, because that’s what hucksters do: namedrop to make themselves seem more important than they really are. But now that he’s accused of having an improper relationship with the Russian dictator, he says “I never met Putin.

In The Atlantic, David Frum lists the various ways Trump has deferred to Putin.

  • When asked whether he would tell Putin to stay out of U.S. elections, Trump said that he would not tell Putin what to do.
  • He has called NATO “obsolete”, and told the NYT he would not necessarily defend NATO countries if Russia attacked them.
  • He weakened a pro-Ukrainian plank in the Republican platform. (As Rachel Maddow points out, he showed little interest in the rest of the platform.) (Sunday, he appeared confused about Ukraine, saying that Russia was “not going to go into Ukraine” under a Trump presidency, when in fact it has occupied parts of Ukraine for two years.)
  • He replied “Yes, we would be looking at that” when asked whether he might drop the sanctions that were imposed on Russia after its takeover of Crimea. (Again, though, Trump may just be a victim of his own bluster. In TrumpSpeak “We will be looking at that” usually means “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He says it fairly often.)

Various people have proposed reasons he might be so pro-Putin. Maybe he admires Putin’s strong-man style of leadership. Or his investments are entangled with Russian oligarchs. Or he wants to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. So far, though, that’s still the speculative part of the theory.

But regardless of why Trump loves Putin so much, it’s obvious why Putin would want to help Trump: The best thing that could happen to Russia is for NATO to disband, and a President Trump might well make that happen.

NATO has not been a partisan issue in the U.S. since the alliance was formed during the Truman administration. But now it is. In an interview with the NYT’s David Sange and Maggie Haberman, Trump was explicitly asked whether he would defend the Baltic republics from Russian attack, as the NATO treaty obligates us to do. And Trump did what Trump does with any contractual obligation: He looked for a loophole.

SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——

TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.

HABERMAN: And if not?

TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.

At the time, I thought he was referring to a longstanding American complaint that the other NATO allies don’t spend enough on defense, leaving us to shoulder the burden. NATO guidelines call for members to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense, but only  the U.S., Greece, United Kingdom, Estonia, and Poland currently do. Getting tougher with the other members about their defense spending would be consistent with Trump’s “America First” slogan. (Even so, one member-nation failing to meet a guideline is hardly legal justification for another member to violate the treaty. To make an analogy: I retain my constitutional rights as an American even if I’m behind on paying my taxes.)

But in subsequent statements, Trump made a very disturbing word choice: He talked about NATO countries paying “us”. Not fulfilling their obligations to spend money on their own defense, but paying us for defending them.

Trump offered an even more explicit ultimatum to NATO allies.

“I want them to pay,” he said. “They don’t pay us what they should be paying! We lose on everything. Folks, we lose on everything.”

He went on to criticize former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record: “She makes it impossible to negotiate. She’s not a negotiator. She’s a fool.”

“We have to walk,” Trump added. “Within two days they’re calling back! Get back over here, we’ll pay you whatever the hell you want.”

“They will pay us if the right person asks,” he said. “That’s the way it works, folks. That’s the way it works.”

Trump’s view of NATO, in other words, is not an alliance; it makes Europe an American protectorate, which it has never been before. Currently, member countries may pay the cost of the bases on their soil and then invite our troops to use them, but no NATO country pays us for defense.

If you know your classical history, this should ring bells: After the wars with Persia, Athens led the Delian League, an alliance of city-states that contributed ships, soldiers, and money to the common defense. Eventually, though, Athens moved the League’s treasury from Delos to Athens and told the other members of the league to just send money. In other words, Athens now collected tribute from its former allies, who became subjects in an Athenian empire.

Unless he just doesn’t understand what his words mean — another distinct possibility — that’s what Trump is proposing to do with NATO: We threaten to “walk”, leaving European countries to face Putin alone, and offer the alternative that they start paying us tribute and become provinces in an American Empire.

I strongly suspect that Germany, France, Britain, and Italy have no interest in being American tributaries, and so NATO would cease to exist in anything like its current form.

If I were Vladimir Putin, and I could get that result for the price of a few computer hacks, I’d consider it a very good deal.

Why Bernie Backed Hillary

The path to an eventual progressive victory is to take over the Democratic Party, not break it.


Monday night at the Democratic Convention, Bernie Sanders came through for Hillary Clinton in a big way.

His speech contrasted sharply with much of what we heard at the Republican Convention from the candidates Donald Trump defeated, or with the unenthusiastic support for Trump from Republican office-holders like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

Bernie didn’t have to put his heart into it like that. He could have stayed home and watched the convention on TV, like John McCain and John Kasich. He could have made the minimum necessary party-unity statement, like Marco Rubio did by video. Or he could have left his party’s nominee out of the picture entirely, restated his own principles, and then urged his followers to “vote your conscience”, as Ted Cruz did. He could even have denounced Clinton by name, as Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have denounced Trump.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein has been begging for Sanders to join her, and vigorously campaigning for the votes of his frustrated supporters. So even while keeping his word by tepidly supporting Clinton, he could have winked and nodded at Stein, giving his tacit blessing to Berners who decided to turn Green.

He did none of that. Instead he endorsed Clinton with enthusiasm in prime time.

This election is about which candidate understands the real problems facing this country and has offered real solutions – not just bombast, fear-mongering, name-calling and divisiveness.

We need leadership in this country which will improve the lives of working families, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor. We need leadership which brings our people together and makes us stronger – not leadership which insults Latinos, Muslims, women, African-Americans and veterans – and divides us up.

By these measures, any objective observer will conclude that – based on her ideas and her leadership – Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close.

He reviewed in detail all the issues where a Clinton presidency would be far more progressive than a Trump presidency: the minimum wage, infrastructure, the Supreme Court, the cost of college and student debt, climate change, health care, and immigration reform. And just in case you thought he was making a lesser-of-two-evils argument, he closed with a clear positive statement:

Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding president and I am proud to stand with her here tonight.

He didn’t have to go that far. So why did he? If you find that decision mysterious, or think it requires some dark conspiracy-theory explanation, I have three responses:

  • Bernie was never as anti-Hillary as you might think.
  • Hillary has always been more progressive than you might think.
  • Long-term, Bernie wants to capture the Democratic Party, not break it.

Bernie was never as anti-Hillary as you might think. In the beginning of his campaign, Sanders was relentlessly positive, and refused to go negative on Clinton at all. Recall his line from their first debate:

Let me say — let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.

In the MSNBC debate in March, he prefaced his response to her first comments with:

I have known Secretary Clinton for 25 years and respect her very much.

As the primary campaign got more contentious, there were three levels of criticism of Clinton: fairly mild criticism from Sanders himself, more aggressive statements from his campaign manager Jeff Weaver, and all-out Hillary-is-evil diatribes from Sanders supporters on social media. If you have feel-the-Bern friends on Facebook or Twitter, you know that everything Hillary did seemed sinister to them. Even if she put Elizabeth Warren on the ticket, it would only be to get Warren’s independent voice out of the Senate.

Memory has a way of mixing those criticisms together, so it may seem as if Sanders must be a complete hypocrite to support Clinton now. But Sanders was never running a stop-Clinton campaign. At the beginning, I doubt he thought he had any chance to deny her the nomination.

But he didn’t want a repeat of what happened in 2008, when none of the three candidates who emerged as serious contenders — Obama, Clinton, and John Edwards — proposed single-payer healthcare. As a result, when the ObamaCare discussion began in 2009, single-payer never got a hearing. It was a fringe idea that no “serious” person supported.

This year, if Clinton ran to keep Social Security as it is and the Republicans ran on cutting it, the logical eventual outcome would be to cut it a little less than the Republicans wanted. The idea that it ought to be expanded would be a fringe notion unworthy of discussion. And so on across the board.

Hillary has always been more progressive than you might think. A staple of the Bernie-or-Bust social-media posters is that Clinton is the enemy of progressive change: Whatever they want, she is opposed to, and every move she makes is part of a sinister plan to thwart their ambitions.

But again, if we return to the first debate, Clinton says this to Sanders about healthcare: “We agree on the goals, we just disagree on the means.”

That isn’t just rhetoric. All along, on a wide variety of issues, the debate between Sanders and Clinton has been more about how change happens than about where they want to go. Sanders believes you state your big idea and keep converting people to it until you have a majority, while Clinton believes change happens incrementally: You grab the small amount of progress you can get right now, and hope that its success sets the stage for the next small step. Sanders believes that you call out your opposition and take them on directly, while Clinton looks for proposals that will split the opposition.

If they were football coaches, Sanders’ team would throw deep and often, while Clinton’s team would have a bruising ground game that pushed the ball down the field 3-5 yards at a time. Sanders is always looking to the end zone, while Clinton is looking for the soft spot in the opponent’s line.

So on health care, Sanders has supported a Scandinavian-style single-payer system for as long as he’s been in politics, while Clinton’s 1993 plan was a more complicated public/private mix that she thought she could pass. When it failed, she looked for the opposition’s soft spot and found it: children. The Children’s Health Insurance Program got through Congress in 1997, moving the ball a little further towards universal coverage. And if you were surprised to hear her support putting a public option back into ObamaCare — it was taken out during the congressional debates in 2009 — you shouldn’t be: Her 2008 plan had a public option.

One reason Clinton hasn’t gotten credit for the progressive positions she’s been running on is that across the board Sanders has proposed something bigger and better. His $15 minimum wage trumped her $12 minimum wage — which in a different campaign would have been a bold increase over the current $7.25. Her quarter-trillion-dollar plan to create jobs by building infrastructure looks small next to Bernie’s trillion-dollar plan.

The units of change she calls for have always been smaller than Bernie’s units, but on the vast majority of issues the direction of change is the same.

Long-term, Bernie wants to capture the Democratic Party, not break it. At 74, Bernie is probably too old to run for president again himself. But he sees himself as part of a larger movement that will go on after he bows out of presidential politics. His hopes are not just that the movement will be a way for democracy-loving progressives to express their fine sentiments — the Greens have that covered already — but that it will someday take over the government and implement its policies.

If that’s the goal, the movement has two possible strategies: Take over one of the major parties, or break one (or both) of them and form something new out of the resulting chaos. Both strategies have worked in American history, but the last time the second strategy worked was in the 1850s, when the Whig Party ruptured on the slavery issue, and abolitionists and other slavery-restricting forces created the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln was an anti-slavery Whig who became a Republican. He was elected president in 1860 in a bizarre four-candidate race that he won with 40% of the vote. If the Southern Democrats hadn’t walked out of the convention that was set to nominate Stephen Douglas, Republican success could have been delayed a lot longer.

The last 150 years have seen third-party challenges by candidates like Eugene Debs, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Ross Perot, but none of them came close to winning the presidency. You can argue that they had their effect by changing the two major parties: Debs’ socialist campaign can be seen as a forerunner of the New Deal, while Thurmond and Wallace were part of the decades-long shift of white Southerners from the Democratic to the Republican Party. But none of them created a new party that outlived their candidacies and replaced either the Republicans or the Democrats.

However, the rise of the primary system in the 1970s created a new possibility: If you can win primaries, you can take over a major party from the inside. Ronald Reagan was the first person to pull that off. At the time, many conservatives thought the Nixon/Ford Republican Party was a lost cause and urged Reagan to lead a Conservative Party. But Reagan ran as a Republican in 1976, narrowly lost the nomination, again resisted the temptation of a third party, and came back to win the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1980. The Republican Party has been the Reagan Party ever since, with the moderate-to-liberal Republicans of the mid-70s going extinct.

In recent years, the Tea Party has been a second wave of conservative revolution within the Republican Party. Despite calling itself a party, it has all along been a faction within the GOP, and has picked up a number of seats in both houses of Congress. Through primaries, it has deposed even members of the Republican congressional leadership like Eric Cantor, and has struck fear into the hearts of non-Tea-Party leaders like John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

Bernie clearly has decided — I believe correctly — that under the current rules the Reagan model is a more viable path to reform than the Lincoln model. The Lincoln Whigs had to spend 1852 and 1856 in the wilderness, and watch a Supreme Court dominated by slavery-supporting appointees produce the Dred Scott decision. By contrast, Tea Partiers have been able to maintain and make use of Republican control of Congress, while building their own revolutionary caucus inside that majority.

A Sanders/Stein Party might or might not outpoll the Democrats in some far-future election. But in the meantime the split center/left vote would virtually guarantee right-wing dominance of the government, and a far-right Supreme Court that would stymie any progressive who might eventually manage to win the presidency.

But the prospect of winning primaries at all levels — producing a strong Progressive Caucus within a Democratic Party that could reasonably aspire to a majority in Congress, and capturing the Democratic presidential nomination for a strong progressive in 2020 or 2024 — seems like a far more promising and less risky path to victory.

That vision explains not just Bernie’s endorsement of Hillary, but also its fervor and his plea for his supporters not to disrupt the Convention with protests: He foresees the day when some future Bernie will be the Democratic nominee seeking party unity. The enemies that he avoids making today may be the friends that candidate will need, if that transformed Democratic Party is going to succeed in winning elections and governing the country.

You Have to Laugh


Whatever else you may have thought about last week’s Republican Convention, it was a gold mine for comedians.


If you watched the Republican Convention live, it didn’t seem like a laughing matter: chants of “Lock her up!”, endless talk about the Muslims and Mexicans who are coming to kill us, and assertions that “our very way of life” is threatened. Even Donald Trump’s attempt to assure us that “I alone” can fix the rigged system was a bit creepy, along with his claim that “I am your voice.” (I’d been wondering why I’ve sounded so raspy lately.)

Away from the podium, the situation was even worse, with calls for Hillary Clinton to be “shot for treason” or left “hanging from a tree“. Perhaps even more disturbing was the Trump campaign’s half-hearted distancing from such rhetoric: “We’re incredibly grateful for his support, but we don’t agree with his comments [about shooting Clinton].”

Admittedly, there were a few moments of unintentional humor, like when Trump’s third wife did a Rickroll testifying to his loyalty, or his daughter introduced him by talking admiringly about policies — equal pay for women and affordable childcare — that are part of Hillary Clinton’s platform, not her father’s. Those thigh-slapping moments, though, were few and far between.

But events and people that are nothing to laugh about are often precisely the ones that we need to laugh at, so for comedians Donald Trump has been maybe the best opportunity since Charlie Chaplin had that German guy to spoof. And last week our political humorists did not let us down. Jon Stewart may have walked into the sunset last year, but the Daily Show alums — Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and John Oliver — brought their A-game. The other late-night hosts pitched in admirably. And never say Donald Trump never did anything good for us: Jon even came back to cover him.

Trevor Noah got the week off to a good start, with his coverage of Rudy Giuliani’s opening-night fear-mongering.

In my opinion, he also had the best response to the Melania Trump plagiarism flap:

We should be encouraging her. Because if she feels comfortable stealing Michelle’s speeches and we make it normal, maybe Donald Trump will feel OK stealing Obama’s policies, and then the country won’t be in such a dangerous place. And I know people might say, ‘Wait, Trevor, we can’t just just plagiarize President Obama, can we?’ And I say: Yes. Yes we can.

Here’s the whole segment:

Runners-up for Melania coverage were Bill Maher, who reached a similar conclusion by a somewhat crueler path:

She stole a speech about her parents teaching her values, confirming what Donald has always said: Immigrants steal. I hate to generalize, but Slovenia is not sending us its best people. They’re plagiarists, they’re models — some of them I assume are good people.

… And of course in the media this is the only story anybody cares about. Have they been watching this convention? These assholes cheered letting off the cops who killed Freddie Gray. They’re against health insurance and for coal mining. I want them to steal more ideas from Michelle Obama.

and Late Night‘s Seth Meyers, who had the best one-liner:

Melanie did it: She found something less original than being a model married to an old billionaire.

Throughout the week, Meyers had a series of on-point characterizations. Trump’s fog-and-silhouette entrance Monday was “like ET returning to Earth“. Chris Christie’s Tuesday-night speech — with it’s repeated calls to the audience to pronounce Clinton “guilty” — was “a Stalinesque show trial“. Ben Carson’s linking of Clinton to Saul Alinsky to the Rules for Radicals dedication and from there to Lucifer was “the old six-degrees-of-Satan technique“. In his acceptance speech Thursday, “Trump talked about America like he was pitching a post-apocalyptic show to the SyFy network.” And Marco Rubio appeared by video

probably in hopes that once he was projected on a giant screen, Trump would stop calling him Little Marco. “Did you see me Donald? I was 50 feet tall!”

After Ted Cruz’ boo-provoking refusal to endorse Trump, Meyers asked: “Is there anybody more comfortable being hated than Ted Cruz?” Which was followed by my favorite: After playing a clip of Cruz telling the Texas delegation:

That pledge [to support the nominee] was not a blanket commitment that if you go slander and attack Heidi, that I’m gonna nonetheless come like a servile puppy dog and say “Thank you very much for maligning my wife and maligning my father.”

he imagined Chris Christie’s response: “Ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff.”

About Christie’s speech: Trevor Noah demonstrated how easy it is to evoke the verdict you want from a friendly audience by getting the Daily Show audience to pronounce Christie guilty of Bridgegate and a variety of other things, some completely absurd. And he protested the RNC’s favoring a chant of “Lock her up” over any serious discussion of the issues facing ordinary Americans, by leading his audience in a chant of “Cut the shit.”

Daily Show reporters also had some good moments. Here, they ask conventioneers: “When was America last great?

Samantha Bee’s Monday-night time slot was mistimed for convention coverage, so instead she emphasized her journey to Cleveland, during which she stopped in on a moderate Republican politician from Pennsylvania.

SAMANTHA: So we’re stuck with this shit sandwich, let’s eat it.

REP. JIM CRISTIANA: I think that’s a fair way to characterize what I just said.

She also filed short updates from Cleveland.

Trump named Omarosa as his African-American outreach person. She is uniquely qualified, since she is actually the only African-American the campaign has ever reached out to.

Stephen Colbert brought back the Bill-O’Reillyish character from his old show, and did a “The Word” segment on “Trumpiness“.

Eleven years ago, I invented a word: truthiness. Truthiness is believing something that feels true,  even if it isn’t supported by fact. … I have to admit [Trump] has surpassed me now. Truthiness has to feel true, but Trumpiness doesn’t even have to do that. In fact, many Trump supporters don’t believe his wildest promises, and they don’t care.  … Truthiness was from the gut, but Trumpiness clearly comes from much further down the gastro-intestinal track.

Colbert rediscovered his alter ego when he tracked Jon Stewart to the wilderness cabin where he has been hiding, and called him back to service.

I found that segment surprising, because I was sure Jon was hiding in the ruins of the old Jedi temple on the planet Ahch-To. But Colbert’s mission led to Jon taking over Colbert’s Late Show desk Thursday night.

And Jon closed by addressing Sean Hannity and other conservative voices directly:

I see you. You’ve got a problem with those Americans fighting for their place at the table. You’ve got a problem with them because you feel like the — what’s Rep. Steve King’s word for it? — subgroups of Americans are being divisive. Well if you have a problem with that, take it up with the Founders: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Those fighting to be included in the ideal of equality are not being divisive. Those fighting to keep those people out, are.

Prior to the convention, Colbert took on a different character and invaded the podium to announce “The Hungry for Power Games“.

As for printed humor, Andy Borowitz is the champion.

Donald J. Trump was jubilant Thursday night after accomplishing his goal of delivering a speech that no one will ever want to plagiarize, Trump aides confirmed. …

“There was one sentence toward the beginning that had traces of humanity and rational thought,” Manafort said. “Fortunately, we caught it in time.”

Of course, we can’t forget the great Trump comedy pieces of previous weeks. Like Australian comedian Jim Jefferies’ Trump rant:

He’s a lot of fun. And there’s a little bit of me that thinks: “Fuck it. Let’s do it. Let’s do it and see how fucking crazy shit can get.”

… But this is where it’s not fun. … You’re a 16-year-old boy or girl that’s a Muslim living in this country. You’ve lived your entire life in this country. You’ve always considered yourself American. And then all of a sudden, someone who could be your president says “You are not welcome here” and that you should be put on a register. Now that kid … how fucking quickly do you think that kid could be radicalized now?

And Jimmy Kimmel’s parody of The Producers.

Finally, John Oliver summed it all up last night:

It was a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over facts. … This is a graph of the violent crime rate in the United States. It’s not a fucking Rorschach Test. You can’t infer anything you like from it. … [Newt Gingrich] just brought a feeling to a fucking fact fight. … I think we can all agree that candidates can create feelings in people. And what Gingrich is saying is that feelings are as valid as facts. So then, by the transitive property, candidates can create facts. Which is terrifying, because that means somebody like Donald Trump can essentially create his own reality.

OK, I have to admit: That part wasn’t funny. There was a lot to laugh at last week, but when you boil it all down, the scary essence is still there.

Even Charlie Chaplin couldn’t sum up the reality of The Great Dictator in a funny way. The climax of his movie was both serious and a fantasy.

We didn’t get that speech Thursday night. So after we laugh — and hopefully regenerate our energies by laughing — we have to go back to the reality of a frightening political situation.

The Big Lie in Trump’s Speech

Stopping Mexican or Muslim immigration will not make you safe.


To explain Donald Trump’s acceptance speech properly, I have to go back to two previous posts: 2015’s “How Propaganda Works”:

If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

and also 2012’s “How Lies Work“:

You can’t be blamed for the false information, irrational prejudices, and ugly stereotypes that already sit inside people’s heads, waiting to be exploited. So good propaganda contains only enough false or repulsive information to leverage the ignorance and misinformation that’s already out there.

In other words, the central lie in an effective propaganda campaign is the one you never explicitly say. It’s out there already, sitting in the minds of your followers, so you just need to allude to it, suggest it, and bring it to consciousness in as many ways as you can. Your target audience will hear it, and afterwards most will believe you said it. But because you aren’t saying it in so many words, it’s immune to fact-checkers, and you barely need to defend it at all. Let PolitiFact and NPR carp all they want about the details of your speech. They can’t touch your central point because it’s not really there.

The explicit promise of Trump’s speech is that he will make the country safe, not just eventually after doing the long, hard work of changing public policy, but almost instantly.

The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.

So if you have been hiding under your bed, you’ll be able to come out next January.

This is the kind of sweeping pledge that ordinarily would be met with embarrassed laughter. It’s as if Barack Obama had promised not just that he would get health insurance for millions of people before he left office, but that all the uninsured would be covered by the time he got done with his inaugural address.

Imagine if Hillary Clinton were to promise this week in her acceptance speech that poverty and unemployment “will very soon come to an end, beginning on January 20”. I’m voting for Clinton, but I’d laugh at that promise. I might give her credit for good intentions, but systemic problems like poverty and unemployment are obviously beyond the power of presidential wand-waving.

So are crime and violence, but for some reason Trump’s audience was not laughing. Why not? What in the worldview of Trump or his followers makes it credible that “the crime and violence that afflicts our nation” can be ended “very soon” by presidential action?

If you don’t already know, the speech will not tell you. In fact, if you don’t already understand the big lie that the speech is based on, you will have a hard time making sense of it at all: The whole hour-plus speech will seem like a grab bag of loosely related anecdotes and factoids, many of which are false.

Since the speech never lays out that central claim, I will: The main threat to your personal safety is the street crime and terrorism brought to America by Mexican and Muslim immigrants.

If you hold that (false) fact in your head, the speech hangs together. Many of its details are still untrue, but at least it begins to tell a coherent story.

Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.

Here we begin to see how crime and violence might come within the president’s power, and what could instantly change on Inauguration Day: President Obama doesn’t enforce the law; President Trump will.

But what laws has President Obama stopped enforcing? Murder laws? Rape laws? No: In the American law enforcement system, those crimes are almost entirely the responsibility of state and local officials. But there is one kind of law that falls almost entirely under federal enforcement: immigration laws.

Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens. [See endnote 1.] The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total of 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.

Trump goes on to mention several individuals (some of whom previously spoke to the Convention) who are victims of violent crimes by Hispanic immigrants. The existence of such stories should not surprise anyone; it wouldn’t be hard to compile anecdotes of crimes by any reasonably large group of people, like the left-handed or the red-haired. What makes these immigrant-crime stories more than just talk is the unspoken implication that they illustrate some kind of trend: an immigrant crime wave.

But in reality, the anecdotes are just anecdotes: There is no trend. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, commit fewer violent crimes per capita than American citizens. They are responsible for such a tiny amount of violent crime in America that, if Trump does manage to make them all disappear somehow, your safety will be virtually unaffected. In short: There is no immigrant crime wave.

One more thing you should notice in that quote: how effortlessly Trump glides from immigrant criminals to immigrant families, and from public safety to public resources. Since there are so few violent immigrant criminals, the white voters Trump is targeting are very unlikely to be their victims or to know any of their victims. But many white families send their children to school with Hispanic children whose immigration status they don’t know. (Most are either legal immigrants or American citizens.) The point of lumping families and criminals together is to imply that those Hispanic children are a threat to your white child. [2]

In addition to crime, Americans are afraid of terrorism. This is another part of “the crime and violence than today afflicts our nation”. The federal government has a key role to play in disrupting 9-11 style plots, in which terrorist groups conspire to kill large numbers of Americans. In recent years it has been doing that job very well (or else the threat is not a large as we thought immediately after 9-11). No plot remotely comparable to 9-11 has been carried out.

But it’s not clear how much the feds can do to stop lone-wolf terrorists like Dylann Roof (a native-born American white Christian who bought a gun legally and used it to kill nine members of a black Charleston church) or Omar Mateen (a native-born American Muslim of Afghan heritage who used legal guns to kill 49 people in a LGBT nightclub in Orlando). For every American who carries out an attack, countless others fantasize about one in some vague way, and may even discuss their fantasies on social media. We can’t lock them all up.

But Trump again ties this threat to immigration.

Lastly, and very importantly, we must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place. We don’t want them in our country.

My opponent has called for a radical 550 percent increase — think of this, this is not believable, but this is what is happening — a 550 percent increase in Syrian refugees on top of existing massive refugee flows coming into our country already under the leadership of president Obama.

She proposes this despite the fact that there’s no way to screen these refugees in order to find out who they are or where they come from. I only want to admit individuals into our country who will support our values and love our people. [3]

The only Muslim immigrant tied to a recent terrorist act is Tashfeen Malik, half of the couple who killed 14 people in San Bernardino last December. (Her husband was native born, as was the shooter in Orlando. So were the assassins who killed police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.) She came to this country on a fiancée visa, not as part of any refugee program or by sneaking across a border. So even in that exceptional case, building a wall or refusing to help Syrian refugees would have made no difference. There is no Muslim refugee terrorism problem.

The real American terrorist threat is overwhelmingly homegrown, and includes white supremacists, violent anti-abortion activists, and Bundy-and-McVeigh-style anti-government militiamen, in addition to native-born ISIS-inspired jihadists. Nothing Trump has proposed will do anything to make you safer from them.

The speech then segues from fear of violence to economic fears, and again immigrants are at fault:

Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens

Two things to notice here: First, in TrumpWorld those low wages have nothing to do with the decline of unions, which has diminished workers’ negotiating power. They also have nothing to do with the decades-long decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage, which Trump wants to see continue. In short, anything real the government could do to improve the lot of low-wage workers has been pushed aside in order to scapegoat immigrants.

Second, and perhaps even more important, adjectives like illegal or undocumented have vanished: All immigrants are the problem now. Having raised fear with anecdotes of violent crime by undocumented Hispanic immigrants and implications that Muslim refugees are responsible for our terrorism problem, that fear is now channeled into anxieties about jobs and money, and targeted at everyone who comes to America, including those who come legally hoping to find legal jobs, as my ancestors did 150 years ago.

So now that I’ve laid out the larger structure of Trump’s speech, and the unspoken big lie that pulls it together, I invite you to go back and read his text end-to-end, preferably one of the versions annotated by fact-checkers. If, as you read, you bear in mind that there is no immigrant crime wave and no Muslim refugee terrorism problem, I predict that the speech’s whole theme will fall apart. You will be left with a collection of cherry-picked statistics and random falsehoods, which the fact-checkers can handle quite well.


[1] The Chicago Tribune adds context to this number:

The actual crimes committed by this group are not documented, however, so Trump cannot easily claim that all of these illegal immigrants “threaten peaceful citizens.” A significant percentage of their crimes involve immigration violations and nonviolent offenses, according to historical records.

In other words, we’re more likely to be talking about paper crimes, like faking a driver’s license or other ID, rather than the violent crimes Trump is implying. And that stands to reason: If you’re in this country without legal status, you’re trying to hide from authorities, not call attention to yourself by assaulting someone.

[2] Obama’s most obvious non-enforcement of immigration laws is that he is not deporting the Dreamers, those undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children, who grew up in the U.S. and know no other country. Trump’s rhetoric also makes them a threat to your child.

Today, Dreamer Astrid Silva addresses the Democratic Convention. I invite you to watch her and do your own threat evaluation.

[3] Fact-checkers can catch all the individual lies here: We are admitting only a tiny number of Syrian refugees, so even a 550% increase will still be just a drop in the bucket. (About 5000 since October 1, and 1682 in the year before that. For comparison, Germany already had about 100,000 Syrian refugees a year ago, and is talking about admitting 500K a year. There are about five million Syrian refugees worldwide — 11 million if you count the ones displaced to other parts of Syria.) We are vetting them extensively. So far, the refugees who make it through the U.S. vetting process are responsible for zero acts of terrorism.

The “support our values and love our people” line is a dog whistle to Islamophobes. Newt Gingrich spelled it out on July 14:

Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be: Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up Sharia, glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door.

As other people have explained in more detail, sharia is not the same as terrorism, and asking Muslims whether they “believe in” sharia is like asking Jews if they believe in the laws of Moses. At some level of interpretation, of course they do; but that doesn’t necessarily mean they intend to kill adulterers or gay men. Gingrich’s implication — that we can accept Muslims in America only if they don’t take their religion seriously — ought to offend any person who does take religion seriously.

BTW: Cutting off Syrian immigration means turning away Syrian Christians, who are being wiped out in some areas and whose relief is a special project of many Evangelicals. But if Trump makes an exception for them, then he’s back to having a religious test for letting people into the U.S.

Mike Pence. I’ve heard that name before.

He hasn’t come up often, but the examples are illuminating.


Friday, a few days before the Republican Convention that begins today in Cleveland, Donald Trump announced his vice presidential choice: Governor Mike Pence of Indiana.

This is a liberal blog and I make no secret about rooting for Democrats. After all, my commitment to my readers is to be honest, not unbiased. (I’m skeptical of people who believe they can be totally objective.) Being honest, I confess to this perceptual bias: Whenever the Republicans nominate someone, all his previous actions seem to take on a sinister aspect, and I find myself suddenly realizing that he is the worst human being since Hitler. (“How did I miss that until now?” I wonder.)

So to discipline my thinking, I thought I’d look back and see where Pence has come up in the The Weekly Sift in the past, before I knew he’d be a national candidate. Two kinds of Republicans make frequent appearances in the Sift: decision-making leaders like Paul Ryan and fringe voices like Sarah Palin or Louie Gohmert, who are constantly saying things too crazy to ignore. (Ted Cruz is a bit of a hybrid: a leader of the crazy faction.) So where and when has Pence shown up?

I found two mentions of him by name and a third story I somehow left his name out of, even though he was right in the middle of it. That verified my initial impression that he has been around a while and done a few things, but so far has had little historical significance.

The first mention is just two sentences and falls into the crazy category: In March, 2009, when the economy was still plunging and even conservative economists were talking about a stimulus of some kind, Pence was urging Congress to push demand down further:

Indiana Republican Congressman Mike Pence knows just what to do in these times when nobody but the government is spending: “Freeze federal spending immediately!” I’m speechless.

The second is harder to pigeonhole: During the 2012 campaign, I was reviewing the bait-and-switch by which the Tea Party had focused on the deficit during the 2010 campaign, but then immediately pivoted to a right-wing social agenda once they took office. This 2011 Pence quote demonstrated that pivot:

Our economy is struggling and our national government is awash in a sea of debt. Amidst these struggles, some would have us focus our energies on jobs and spending. … I agree. Let’s start by denying all federal funding for abortion at home and abroad. The largest abortion provider in America should not also be the largest recipient of federal funding under Title X. The time has come to deny any and all federal funding to Planned Parenthood of America.

And my comment was:

Annual Planned Parenthood funding under Title X was about $70 million. Take that, trillion-dollar deficit!

In March, 2015 I didn’t name Governor Pence, but he was right in the middle of Indiana’s Christians-have-a-right-to-discriminate-against-gays law, summed up by this cartoon.

The law is basically identical to the one that Governor Jan Brewer — never known as a defender of gay rights — had just vetoed in Arizona, but Pence signed Indiana’s version. That left me facing the emptiness of my own threats:

How the heck am I going to boycott Indiana, when I was never planning to go there anyway?

(Ultimately, Indiana’s business community pushed the legislature to pass a second law, which mitigated some of the damage. Pence signed it.)

The GOP’s anti-science tendencies often come up in the Sift, but Pence has never been the national face of those issues, so I haven’t written about him in that context. However, I can’t conclude this article without mentioning a number of anti-science positions he has taken:

  • He won’t say whether he personally believes that evolution happened, but he wants public schools to teach the evolution/creation pseudo-controversy (“teach all of the facts about all of these controversial areas, and let our students, let our children and our children’s children, decide”), a back-door position through which tax dollars can be spent promoting scientifically baseless religious theories in science classes. This practice not only encourages the relativistic view that you can believe whatever you want about science, but also wastes classroom time that could be spent teaching actual facts.
  • Pence wrote: “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”
  • Pence wrote: “Global warming is a myth … the Earth is actually cooler today than it was about 50 years ago.” (This was not as obviously false when he wrote it in 1998 as it is today, but it was still false. At the time, you could cherry-pick your data (see the second graph in this link), compare an unusually cool 1995 against an unusually warm 1945, and claim they were about the same. But even then you had to know you were playing deceptive games with numbers.) In 2009 he claimed: “In the mainstream media, there is a denial of the growing skepticism in the scientific community on global warming.” (That “scientific” skepticism comes almost entirely from the fossil fuel industry. In the actual scientific community, the consensus is solid and growing in certainty.)

All in all, I have a hard time arguing with Steve Benen’s assessment (which he bases on the DW-nominate system of quantifying congressional voting records on a left/right scale) that Pence is “the most far-right running mate in modern history”.

Let’s put this another way: during his congressional career, Pence wasn’t just more conservative than Paul Ryan. His voting record also put him to the right of Michele Bachmann, Todd Akin, Steve King, and even Louie Gohmert.

So I’m going to restrain myself from speculating about where Pence ranks on the Hitler Scale of human beings. But if we’re looking at the Jan Brewer Scale of right-wing extremist governors, or the Bachmann/Gohmert Scale of crazy congresspeople, he might take it to 11.

What’s Up With Congressional Democrats?

Extreme tactics draw attention to the real source of our government’s dysfunction.


Few 70-somethings get to relive their youth with as much fanfare as Congressman John Lewis did this week. Back before he was a Freedom Rider or one of the organizers of Freedom Summer, Lewis got his start as an activist in 1960 by participating in the sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in Nashville. And Wednesday, he was sitting in again, not as a 20-year-old student, but as a 76-year-old congressman. Led by Lewis, Democratic congresspeople occupied the well of the House chamber for about 24 hours, when the House adjourned until July 5. About 170 participated at one time or another, while Democratic senators cheered them on, and Elizabeth Warren stopped by with donuts.

In essence this was a continuation in the House of what Chris Murphy started last week in the Senate, when he held the Senate floor for 15 hours while demanding the Senate vote on two gun-control measures: One would have barred people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns, and the other would close the gun-show loophole that allows people to buy guns without the background check they would need to pass if they bought from licensed gun dealers. [1]

Murphy was maneuvering within the complex Senate rules governing filibusters — the only time I can remember a filibuster being used to demand a vote rather than prevent one. But the House is stricter and control of the floor is tightly timed, so the only way to do something similar there was to break the rules. Good thing the Democratic delegation included an experienced rule-breaker. Lewis tweeted:

We got in trouble. We got in the way. Good trouble. Necessary Trouble. By sitting-in, we were really standing up.

So far, the sit-in has not accomplished its goal: Speaker Paul Ryan still has no plans to allow any gun-control votes. But Lewis is not giving up yet. “This is not over,” he says. “We must keep the faith. We must come back here on July 5 more determined than ever before.”

Getting attention. Ryan’s dismissal of the sit-in as a “publicity stunt” demonstrates some basic cluelessness: Sit-ins are always publicity stunts. They are a way for otherwise powerless people to call public attention to the bad behavior of powerful people.

Ryan says: “This is not about a solution to a problem. This is about trying to get attention.” But discussion is stalled and the public is on your side, getting their attention is key to solving the problem.

The famous civil-rights sit-ins, like Greensboro, could not by themselves change any laws or corporate policies. But before the demonstrations began, whites could obliviously use all-white public spaces without thinking about segregation at all, or imagine blacks happily using their own separate-but-equal all-black spaces somewhere else. The civil rights movement’s nonviolent tactics drew publicity to the reality of segregation, and once the nation was paying attention those practices could not stand.

Something similar could happen here: The public staggers from one gun massacre to the next, numbed by the belief that nothing can be done. Politicians call for prayer, and Congress holds moments of silence. Other countries somehow avoid getting 30,000 of their citizens killed by guns each year, and do it without being overrun by criminals or taken over by tyrants. But of course we couldn’t, because … because we just can’t.

The immediate point of Lewis’ sit-in and Murphy’s filibuster is to shake that fatalism and put responsibility where it belongs: There are things to do, but the people in a position to do them refuse to act.

Why this? While generally encouraged by the fact that Democratic congresspeople are finally showing some backbone, lots of liberals are complaining that the headline proposal  — stopping people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns — would be a bad law because of civil-liberty concerns. You can wind up on a terrorist-suspect list for all kinds of reasons, not even realize it until you are told you can’t do something (like get on a plane), and have no good way to face your accusers or clear your name. Worse, the lists are constructed entirely within the executive branch, so the process would be open to abuse by some future tyrannical administration.

That is all true, but it also misses an important point: We’re nowhere near passing a law. I am reminded of something Russian dissident (and former chess champion) Garry Kasparov said about uniting behind a somewhat unsavory challenger to Putin:

You have to work with the people who live here. We’re not trying to win elections yet. It’s all about having elections.

When we’re actually in a position to pass a gun control law, we can worry about whether that law is good policy. Now we’re just trying to vote on gun control. Right now, the no-guns-for-terrorism-suspects proposal polls at ridiculous numbers [2], but not even that proposal can reach the floor of the House. That’s what we have to work with, and the situation we need to expose to public attention.

Right now, we’re trying to turn the perception that nothing can be done into an expectation that Congress will debate and vote on changes to our gun laws. Given where we are, just that much would constitute progress.

The larger implications. If sit-ins are a way for the powerless to call the powerful to public account, the House sit-in contains a powerful meta-message: The class of powerless people now includes members of Congress. 

With bipartisanship dead and the Republican majority living by the Hastert Rule — nothing comes to the floor unless a majority of the Republican caucus supports it — the normal procedures of the House offer Democratic representatives nothing. But that in turn invokes the Bobby McGee principle: There’s no reason to keep living by their rules if they’ve already taken everything away from you.

“This is not a way to bring up legislation,” Ryan scolded. But for House Democrats there is no way to bring up legislation. [3] So why pay any attention to Ryan’s rules, when the only way to win is to circumvent the Republican majority by appealing directly to the public? [4]

When “publicity stunts” work. One progressive complaint about the sit-in is: Why wouldn’t Democrats go to the mat like this for other progressive causes, like single-payer healthcare or free college?

The answer is that appealing to the general public only works if you can be certain of their overwhelming support. That’s just not true for most progressive causes. [5]

Tea Party Republicans ran into the same problem when they threatened to breach the debt ceiling if President Obama wouldn’t agree to massive spending cuts. Since no one really wanted to breach the debt ceiling, the showdown was mainly a publicity stunt, meant to rally public support for lower government spending.

But once the public started paying attention, it was horrified by the risk-to-benefit proposition the Tea Partiers were putting forward. The incident backfired on Republicans because the support for their position was neither as wide nor as deep as they had imagined.

However, there is at least one additional progressive issue where publicity-stunt politics would work: voting rights. Congress refuses to fix the hole that the Supreme Court blasted in the Voting Rights Act. If the public were paying attention to this, it would clearly be on the Democrats’ side.

Who is the obstacle to change? Independent of the issue, the optics of extreme tactics by congressional Democrats draws public attention to a meta-issue: In spite of holding the White House for the last two terms, Democrats are the party of change. The obstacle to change isn’t President Obama, it’s the Republican Congress.

This point is in danger of being lost in the 2016 campaign, as a large segment of the dissatisfied public thinks of change in terms of changing the president. Donald Trump gets credit for being the candidate who would “shake things up”, while Hillary Clinton is said to represent “more of the same” and “Obama’s third term”.

But on issue after issue — climate change, healthcare, voting rights, guns, rebuilding infrastructure, immigration reform, and on and on — Obama has been the one pushing for change and being frustrated by a Congress that does nothing. The way to get change isn’t to replace Obama with somebody very different, it’s to get a president who will keep pushing the way Obama has, and elect a more cooperative Congress. [6]

Republicans have no agenda. If Republicans actually had a change agenda of any sort and Obama were the obstacle to this change, Congress would be passing laws right and left and forcing Obama to veto them.

But that hasn’t happened. Even with Republicans in control of both houses, there has been no attempt to replace ObamaCare with a Republican alternative, no reform of the tax system, no plan for repairing the “bankrupt” systems of Social Security and Medicare, no plan for balancing the budget, or for much of anything else.

President Obama has had to cast only eight vetoes since the current Congress was seated a year and a half ago. None of vetoed bills embodied some grand new conservative solution, and most were attempts to undo some change the Obama administration had implemented: One repealed ObamaCare without replacing it, and most of the rest negated rules issued by the EPA, the NLRB, or the Labor Department. In each case, it was Obama who was trying to change something (like lowering greenhouse gas emissions or preventing financial advisers from cheating their customers), and Republicans who were trying to block change.

The best evidence of Republicans being stuck in the mud is in Speaker Ryan’s series of white papers, the ones that are supposed to promote a Republican agenda for the future. Independent of what they say, their very existence indicts Ryan for a simple reason: Speakers of the House aren’t supposed to write white papers, they’re supposed to write laws.

If Ryan had bills he wanted to pass, his caucus has the power to pass them. And yet, it doesn’t.

The Spirit of 48. Harry Truman faced an even worse version of this situation in 1948. In essence, he was running for FDR’s 5th term. And yet, he did not run as the more-of-the-same candidate. Instead, he ran the give-’em-Hell campaign against the do-nothing Republican Congress. He didn’t just hold on to the presidency, but Democrats regained control of Congress as well.

That should be the blueprint for 2016: Don’t just run against Trump, run against the do-nothing Republican Congress. Make the public realize where the real obstacle to change is. Anybody who wants to shake things up needs to shake up Congress.

It’s tempting to try to tie Republican congressional candidates to Trump, but it’s important to tie him to them as well: Where, specifically, does Trump disagree with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell? Aren’t they all climate change deniers who are in the pocket of the NRA? Aren’t they all trying to cut rich people’s taxes and give corporations more power to do as they please? Don’t they all want to repeal campaign finance laws and the Dodd-Frank restrictions on the big banks?

The more attention Democrats can draw to the logjam in Congress, the better. So give ’em Hell, Hillary. Give ’em Hell, John Lewis. The American people need to understand where the real obstacle is.


[1] He got his votes, but lost. A subsequent bipartisan compromise put together by Republican Susan Collins of Maine looks doomed as well.

[2] According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 85% support barring gun sales to people on the terrorist watch list, while 92% support universal background checks. Anecdotally, the watch-list proposal seems to generate more fervent support than background checks. Picturing someone buying a gun without being checked doesn’t raise as much ire as picturing a terrorist buying a gun.

[3] The clearest example of this is immigration reform. In 2013 a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support. Numerous sources estimated that the bill would pass the House if it came to a vote, but since it didn’t have majority support within the Republican caucus, no vote has been held. In fact, in three years no House alternative proposal has come up for a vote either.

[4] I have an off-the-wall suggestion to circumvent the Hastert Rule. Democratic congressmen should all declare themselves Republicans and attend the Republican caucus. If that’s where the important votes happen, why not go there?

I’m sure the Republicans would find a way to prevent this, but it would be another way to dramatize the anti-democratic nature of the House.

[5] The polling on single-payer varies wildly depending on how the question is phrased. In one recent AP poll, 63% had positive feelings about “Medicare-for-all”, while only 44% felt positively about a “single-payer health insurance system”, and a mere 38% supported “socialized medicine”.  They didn’t ask about a “government takeover of the healthcare system”, but I doubt it would be popular.

[6] Those who criticize how little got done during Obama’s first two years not only underestimate how much accomplishment there was, they also usually overestimate the amount of time Obama was free from Republican obstruction.

Al Franken’s election in Minnesota was close enough that Republicans managed to drag a series of vote-counting challenges through the courts. Early on, they might really have thought they could get the outcome reversed, but eventually delay became its own goal:  They kept Franken from taking his seat in the Senate until July 7, 2009.

By then, Ted Kennedy was in the final stages of the cancer that killed him on August 25. (Already by July 9, it was headline news when he came to the Senate to cast a vote. No 60-vote plan could rely on pulling him off his deathbed.) Another legal challenge prevented Kennedy’s temporary replacement, Paul Kirk, from taking office until September 24. And then in the special election on January 19, 2010, Republican Scott Brown won a surprise victory, taking his seat February 4.

So effectively, Obama had a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate majority for slightly more than four months. Since it ended by surprise, no one realized that everything had to be passed at once.

About Those Emails

On the Right, it is an article of faith that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State involves her in crimes that deserve a jail term; either she will be indicted by the FBI or (if not) President Obama somehow is protecting her from indictment. Donald Trump has said “Hillary Clinton has to go to jail.” and “Anything Obama wants, she’s going forward with because you know why? She doesn’t want to go to jail.”

More recently, as it became clear that Clinton would be nominated, some Bernie Sanders supporters began expressing similar hopes: that legal troubles would take Clinton off the board, leaving the nomination for Sanders. Sanders himself has not gone that far, but has urged voters and delegates to “take a hard look” at the report of the State Department Inspector General.

One small place the Clinton/Sanders debate has been playing out is in the comments on this blog, and I have started getting criticism for ignoring or minimizing the issue, particularly the more recent developments. [1] So I thought I’d read the Office of the Inspector General’s report and other well-informed commentary on the Clinton’s emails and report.

What it’s all about. The OIG report says:

Secretary Clinton employed a personal email system to conduct business during her tenure in the United States Senate and her 2008 Presidential campaign. She continued to use personal email throughout her term as Secretary, relying on an account maintained on a private server, predominantly through mobile devices. Throughout Secretary Clinton’s tenure, the server was located in her New York residence.

Instead, she should have used a State Department email account for official business while she was Secretary of State. I don’t think anyone disputes that basic description of the situation. The entire argument is about how serious the issue is.

Separable concerns. The first thing to understand about Clinton’s emails is that there are two separate and more-or-less opposite concerns: security (i.e., keeping information in) and transparency (letting information out).

Most articles about the emails wander from one concern to the other, sometimes irresponsibly. But it makes no sense to jump from an OIG quote about Clinton breaking transparency rules to a charge that she has put the nation’s security at risk. Either, neither, or both might be true, but they are completely different issues.

We won’t know exactly what the FBI is investigating until they tell us, but indications are that they are focused on the security of classified information. If so, then the OIG report is almost a perfect complement: It focuses mainly on transparency; to the extent it discusses security at all, it talks about sensitive-but-unclassified information, which I assume includes things like personnel records.

Transparency. The OIG report is deadly dull to read, because it’s mainly a recent history of record-keeping at the State Department. Clinton is a central figure, but the sweep is much broader.

The report paints a picture of a common bureaucratic problem: The government has good intentions about keeping complete records. Some of those intentions have been written into laws like the Federal Records Act. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has issued government-wide regulations for meeting the legal requirements, and the State Department, like other departments and agencies, has created policies and procedures that (if followed) should fulfill the NARA regulations.

Unfortunately, though, State (like much of the government) never finds the money to create an up-to-date, usable record-keeping system, particularly with regard to modern forms of communication like email. So proper record-keeping is cumbersome, and employees are left with a conflict between following the proper procedures and getting their jobs done.

According to a 2010 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, most agencies do not prioritize records management, as evidenced by lack of staff and budget resources, absence of up-to-date policies and procedures, lack of training, and lack of accountability. In its most recent annual assessment of records management, [the National Archives and Records Administration] identified similar weaknesses across the Federal Government with regard to electronic records in particular. NARA reported that 80 percent of agencies had an elevated risk for the improper management of electronic records, reflecting serious challenges handling vast amounts of email, integrating records management functionality into electronic systems, and adapting to the changing technological and regulatory environments.

You might think that just using the State Department email system would be enough to insure compliance, but no.

Several staff mentioned preserving emails by saving them in their Department email accounts. However, as previously noted, NARA regulations state that agencies may only use an electronic mail system to store the recordkeeping copy of electronic mail messages identified as Federal records if that system contains specific features; the current Department email system does not contain these features.

There’s a separate program for making sure emails get properly recorded, but most people don’t use it.

However, prior OIG reports have repeatedly found that Department employees enter relatively few of their emails into the SMART system and that compliance varies greatly across bureaus, in part because of perceptions by Department employees that SMART is not intuitive, is difficult to use, and has some technical problems.

So working around the system in one way or another has been common.

OIG also reviewed an S/ES-IRM report [don’t worry about the acronym, it looks to be State’s information technology office] prepared in 2010 showing that more than 9,200 emails were sent within one week from S/ES servers to 16 web-based email domains, including gmail.com, hotmail.com, and att.net. S/ES-IRM told OIG that it no longer has access to the tool used to generate this particular report. In another instance, in a June 3, 2011, email message to Secretary Clinton with the subject line “Google email hacking and woeful state of civilian technology,” a former Director of Policy Planning wrote: “State’s technology is so antiquated that NO ONE uses a State-issued laptop and even high officials routinely end up using their home email accounts to be able to get their work done quickly and effectively.”

Previous secretaries of state worked around the system in different ways. Colin Powell used a mixture of personal and official email, while Condoleezza Rice didn’t use email at all. (I’m having trouble imagining how you run a department without email, but somehow she managed it.) Clinton defenders who say that Powell did exactly the same thing as Clinton are exaggerating, but it’s true that no previous secretary had found a way to use email while fully complying with the official procedures.

Nobody worked around the system quite as completely as Secretary Clinton did, and in doing so she undoubtedly violated State Department policies. It’s possible she was in violation of a law against removing government records, though she claims the government still had all her correspondence because the people she was writing to were on government servers. (As we’ve seen, NARA wouldn’t consider that adequate.) She has since sent the government printed copies of her business emails, filtering them out from her personal emails, which were on the same server. (Though critics wonder if she filtered properly.)

But departmental policy is not the same as law, so it’s still iffy whether there’s a technical legal violation related to the FRA. Even if there is, prosecuting for it would be unheard of. The OIG report gives the example of an ambassador to Kenya:

the Ambassador continued to use unauthorized systems to conduct official business [after being told not to]. The Department subsequently initiated disciplinary proceedings against him for his failure to follow these directions and for several other infractions, but he resigned before any disciplinary measures were imposed.

That response — no legal charges, but internal discipline that vanishes when someone leaves State — seems to be how these things are typically handled.

Security. Another point that doesn’t get enough attention in the media is that the State Department’s email system does not have sufficient security to allow classified discussions. Classified discussions require use of a different messaging system, which can only be accessed from secure locations. (I’m wondering whether this system is the one whose messages Chelsea Manning released to the world, but I haven’t verified that.)

So, completely independent of whether Clinton’s email files were stored on her personal server or the State Department’s, those files are not supposed to contain classified information. If they do, there’s been a security violation before the email gets to the server.

In other words, if you’re worried about documents stamped TOP SECRET getting attached to emails and winding up on a hard drive in Clinton’s basement, stop. That’s not how State is supposed to operate or did operate.

The potential security violations we’re hearing about are almost all of the incidental or accidental variety: Somebody (usually not Clinton, but the person writing to her) should have known that certain information ought to be classified, but mentioned it in email anyway. [2] Or an email contained information that the State Department considered unclassified at the time, but was later classified by some other agency.

Politics and sources. Before going into detail about specific alleged violations, another thing to understand is that all our windows into the FBI investigation are distorted by politics. The FBI has not issued any official reports on Clinton’s emails and is not briefing the press directly. But it sometimes briefs members of Congress about what it has been finding, and that information sometimes gets leaked to the press.

So most of the news articles about the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails are based on leaks from Republican congressmen, who may slant their assessments or cherry-pick their quotes because they want to make Clinton look bad. Whenever a story mentions “congressional sources”, that generally means “Republicans”.

As a result, there has been a string of sensational “scoops” that subsequently had to be walked back as more accurate versions came out. (One report that 147 FBI agents were involved in the investigation — making it a Public Enemy #1 scale effort — eventually got reduced to less than 12.) As always, the sensational version sticks in the public mind even after it has been debunked. This is particularly true within the conservative echo chamber.

Recent revelations. This week the The Wall Street Journal published an article (sourced to anonymous “congressional and law-enforcement officials”) describing top-secret information allegedly found on Clinton’s server. These were email exchanges between lower-level State Department officials that got forwarded to Clinton. (I found no claim that Clinton participated in the exchanges.)

The circumstances are worth understanding: The U.S. regularly launches drone strikes in Pakistan without the official consent of the Pakistani government. This fact itself is considered top secret (even though everyone knows it), and plans for specific drone strikes are top secret, for obvious reasons. (If news about the strike got out beforehand, whoever we were trying to attack could get away.)

As you can imagine, the drone program is not popular inside Pakistan. Protests from Pakistani officials got more and more intense, and the State Department was the official channel for receiving these protests. So eventually, officials at State were given prior warning of drone strikes.

The CIA initially chafed at the idea of giving the State Department more of a voice in the process. Under a compromise reached around the year 2011, CIA officers would notify their embassy counterparts in Islamabad when a strike in Pakistan was planned, so then-U.S. ambassador Cameron Munter or another senior diplomat could decide whether to “concur” or “non-concur.” Mr. Munter declined to comment.

Diplomats in Islamabad would communicate the decision to their superiors in Washington. A main purpose was to give then-Secretary of State Clinton and her top aides a chance to consider whether she wanted to weigh in with the CIA director about a planned strike.

Drone strikes are time-sensitive events, because the terrorist leaders they target move around a lot. So if State was going to object, it had to do so quickly. And now we once again run into the limitations of State Department systems.

The time available to the State Department to weigh in on a planned strike varied widely, from several days to as little as 20 or 30 minutes. “If a strike was imminent, it was futile to use the high side, which no one would see for seven hours,” said one official. [3]

Adding to those communications hurdles, U.S. intelligence officials privately objected to the State Department even using its high-side system. They wanted diplomats to use a still-more-secure system called the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Community Systems, or JWICs. State Department officials don’t have ready access to that system, even in Washington. If drone-strike decisions were needed quickly, it wouldn’t be an option, officials said.

So once again, we see people facing a choice between following proper procedures and getting their jobs done. On at least a few occasions, then, discussions about drone strikes happened over insecure email channels.

One such exchange came just before Christmas in 2011, when the U.S. ambassador sent a short, cryptic note to his boss indicating a drone strike was planned. That sparked a back-and-forth among Mrs. Clinton’s senior advisers over the next few days, in which it was clear they were having the discussions in part because people were away from their offices for the holiday and didn’t have access to a classified computer, officials said.

I interpret “cryptic” to mean that the officials tried to be oblique in their references, so that anyone who might intercept the email wouldn’t immediately know what they were talking about. (I picture something like Tony Soprano’s phone conversations, or the ones KGB agents have on The Americans.) This is not considered an acceptable technique for securing classified information, but it seems to have worked.

U.S. officials said there is no evidence Pakistani intelligence officials intercepted any of the low-side State Department emails or used them to protect militants.

The WSJ article also notes that this kind of corner-cutting happens from time to time all over the government.

Several law-enforcement officials said they don’t expect any criminal charges to be filed as a result of the investigation, although a final review of the evidence will be made only after an expected FBI interview with Mrs. Clinton this summer.

One reason is that government workers at several agencies, including the departments of Defense, Justice and State, have occasionally resorted to the low-side system to give each other notice about sensitive but fast-moving events, according to one law-enforcement official.

So: Rules were broken, but not with malicious intent, and apparently without bad consequences. The most serious violations were not by Clinton, but the record of that rule-breaking is on her server and shouldn’t be. If the WSJ article is accurate, prosecuting anyone for these incidents would be highly unusual, and Clinton would not be at the top of the list.


[1] Here’s where I’m coming from: I voted for Sanders in the New Hampshire primary and have been raising many of his signature issues — inequality, campaign finance, etc. — for several years. But I have criticized the anti-Clinton turn in Sanders’ rhetoric. And I have been increasingly disenchanted with his campaign’s tendency to turn the ordinary politics of a presidential contest into a persecution narrative, one that unifies the media, the Democratic Party, election officials, and everybody else who isn’t 100% for Bernie into a sinister Clinton-supporting “Them”.

[2] If you’ve ever worked someplace that handles classified information (I used to and my wife still does), you know that such technical violations of security are not that unusual, because the boundary between what can and can’t be said in certain places to certain people can be hazy. (I’ve heard many face-to-face conversations end with: “But we probably shouldn’t be talking about this.”) Also, while any idiot should know not to mention the names of spies or technical details of weapons systems, a lot of stuff gets classified that really isn’t that important. That kind of information sometimes slides into conversations without anybody noticing.

[3] The article does not speculate about this, but I wonder if the CIA ever gamed the system: By picking particularly inconvenient moments to notify State and leaving very small time windows, they might make it harder for State to interfere with their plans.

What Should “Racism” Mean? Part II.

Republican leaders are disturbed by Trump’s racist comments. But two-thirds of Republican voters don’t think they’re racist at all.


In a week that saw Hillary Clinton became the first woman ever to clinch a major-party nomination, probably more news-network air time got devoted to the effort of Republican leaders to distance themselves from Donald Trump. In the wake of his long series of attacks against the “Mexican” judge overseeing one of the Trump University fraud lawsuits, the word racist came up a lot, and few elected Republicans seemed willing to defend Trump from the charge that it applied to him.

Speaker Paul Ryan described a Trump statement as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Republican Senator Mark Kirk withdrew his endorsement of Trump, saying that in view of his recent statements “I cannot and will not support my party’s nominee for president”. Maine’s Senator Susan Collins refused to rule out voting for Clinton. Former senatorial candidate (and major Republican donor) Meg Whitman compared Trump to Hitler and Mussolini. And on and on. The most blistering attack of all came from the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney:

I don’t want to see trickle-down racism. I don’t want to see a president of the United States saying things which change the character of the generations of Americans that are following. Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation, and trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny, all these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America. [1]

But if the primaries proved anything, it’s that the GOP’s leadership is out of tune with its voters, especially compared to Trump. So when YouGov asked whether Trump’s comments were racist, only 22% of Republicans were reading from Paul Ryan’s textbook, while almost 2/3rds said the comments weren’t racist. By a narrower 43%-39% margin, Republicans said that Trump was right to make those comments. [2]

What could they possibly be thinking?

Trump’s own explanation was far from convincing. In a prepared statement, he argued that his comments had been “misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage” when actually they were just targeted at Judge Curiel, who apparently had it coming because he didn’t dismiss the Trump U lawsuit.

To me, that’s like yelling “Nigger!” at a black driver who cuts you off in traffic, and then feeling misunderstood when the blacks in your carpool take offense. You didn’t launch a categorical attack on all blacks, you just used a racial insult against one guy who had it coming because he was in your way. Why can’t they see the difference?

I got a better clue from listening to Bill O’Reilly. Wednesday night, Bill challenged Congressman Bill Flores about the Texas Republican’s use of racist.

Do you believe that Donald Trump gets up in the morning and says, “You know what? I don’t like Mexicans, I’m going to go out and try to make them look bad.”? Do you believe that? … Don’t you think it was more about Trump being angry with the judge’s decision in a civil litigation rather than the judge’s ethnicity? … OK, I get your point, but I think you understand mine as well. That you don’t use the R-word unless you are [talking about] David Duke, unless you have got a history of trying to denigrate minorities or other people.

Trump isn’t ex-KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, so he’s not a racist. Even labeling specific quotes as racist (which is all Paul Ryan did; he didn’t call Trump a racist) is apparent going too far. The most O’Reilly would say was that they were “unwise”.

And now we’re back on a topic I covered two years ago in “What Should Racism Mean?“. At that time I reviewed a long list of pseudo-scandals that President Obama had started … by doing things that previous presidents had done without upsetting anybody: put his feet on a White House desk, let a Marine hold his umbrella, send secular Christmas cards, and so on. Similarly, the luxurious White House lifestyle — unchanged from previous administrations — suddenly began inspiring outrage when a black family moved in.

So I raised the question: Is that racist? And I allowed for the possibility that some might not want to call it that.

I sympathize with people who want to reserve racism for Adolf Hitler ordering the Final Solution to the Jewish problem or George Wallace standing in the door to block black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. The men who lynched Emmett Till or the grand jury that refused to indict them — those people were racists. I get that it doesn’t seem right to put them in the same category with the people who only just realized in 2009 that life in the White House is pretty sweet.

But a problem comes up: If you want to construe racist and racism very narrowly, then what words do you use for people who (for some reason other than conscious willful hatred) just can’t look at a black president or his family the same way they have always looked at white presidents and their families? It’s a thing; it really happens, and it has important political consequences. What do you call it?

The Trump/Curiel situation is similar. Trump is doing something morally objectionable here. He is taking advantage of his fans’ willingness to believe bad things about Mexican-Americans on flimsy or no evidence (just as, when he was pushing Birtherism, he was taking advantage of their willingness to believe bad things about a black president on flimsy or no evidence), in order to either put pressure on a federal judge or explain away why so many people are suing him for fraud.

In other words, once again he is looking at the public’s racial prejudices and saying, “I can make this work for me.” That doesn’t make him Hitler or David Duke, but it’s a despicable act that needs a name. What is it? O’Reilly’s suggestion of unwise doesn’t fill the bill, because there’s no moral component to unwise. Spending $35,000 on a Trump University course is unwise; Trump’s repeated and calculated abuse of Judge Curiel is something altogether different.

And if you are inside the conservative bubble, that “something” has no name. The word that the rest of the country uses — racism — has been declared off-limits and not replaced. And now that there is no way to talk about Trump’s offense, it doesn’t exist. Whatever is wrong with Trump’s statements can no longer be put into words, so they aren’t wrong — at least not to a plurality of Republicans.

George Orwell had this all figured out in the mid-20th century. As he wrote in “The Principles of Newspeak“:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever. [my italics]

In today’s Newspeak, as spoken by devotees of AmCon, racism has been stripped of all meanings beyond getting up in the morning and saying “I don’t like Mexicans, I’m going to go out and try to make them look bad.” It applies to active white supremacists like David Duke, and no one else.

But if treating a black First Family differently from all white First Families isn’t racism, what is it? If citing a judge’s ethnicity as evidence of his unfitness isn’t racism, what is it?

Unless they’re trying to restrict the language to make these issues “literally unthinkable”, American conservatives owe us some new terminology.


[1] To flesh out what Romney might mean by “trickle-down racism”, look at this report from the Southern Poverty Law Center about how the bigotry in our presidential campaign is showing up in our schools and on our playgrounds.

[2] Among all voters, a 57%-20% majority said Trump was wrong, and a 51%-32% majority said the comments were racist. For some reason YouGov’s headline characterizes that majority as “thin”, but it really isn’t.

Preserving the Cult of the Job Creator

Members of the donor class must accept Trump’s personality cult to maintain their own.


Amazingly, on Wednesday somebody wrote an entire article about the presidential race that said hardly anything about Donald Trump. Even more remarkably, the article was an endorsement of Trump.

It’s true: Home Depot co-founder (and billionaire Jeb Bush donor) Bernie Marcus managed to endorse Trump without mentioning any particular thing he imagines President Trump will do, other than Make America Great Again and take the country in some unspecified “new direction”. No Mexican wall, no Muslim ban or database, no trade war with China, no deportation force rounding up 11 million people, no renegotiating the public debt, no ordering our military to commit war crimes, no nukes for Saudi Arabia. None of the positions Trump has made famous garner a single line.

OK then, maybe Marcus just dislikes Hillary Clinton. But why? That also is a little hard to get a handle on, because his denunciations of Clinton (or maybe President Obama; they’re interchangeable) are vague to the point of vanishing into rhetoric. Clinton will “push the [Supreme] court leftward for generations”, but no specific legal issue explains why Marcus believes that would be bad. Like Obama, Clinton is “hostile to free enterprise” in some unspecified way. Together, Clinton and Obama “have peddled a dangerous sentiment that government can provide for Americans better than the private sector.”

I’d be really interested to find a quote in which either Clinton or Obama actually expressed that sentiment, much less “peddled” it. (As No Democrat Ever said: “Damn this free enterprise system! Why can’t the government just own everything?”) I’ve listened to a lot of speeches from both of them, and I’ve never heard it. [1]

When otherwise intelligent people justify their actions and beliefs with vague claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny, I start to wonder what’s happening under the surface. Something about Clinton, Obama, and Democrats in general pisses Bernie Marcus off. What could it be?

Our main clue is the third major topic in Marcus’ article, one that he discusses at greater length and with more feeling than either Trump or Clinton: Home Depot, and (by inference) himself. In particular: all the wonderful opportunities that it/he has magnanimously provided for others. For example:

One young man started with us at 17 years of age, bringing carts in from the parking lot. Ultimately, he became a regional president. Imagine Americans vilifying this young man, who became a millionaire and earned every penny of it.

Indeed: imagine. You have to imagine, because in reality no one is vilifying Americans for getting ahead by working hard. If anyone were doing that, Marcus could quote them. But no one is, so he has to imagine.

He imagines a lot of other things too. What if the oppressive regulations of “Obama/Clinton-style government” had existed back in the 1970s when his wondrous Home Depot was getting started? Well, a (briefly) small business like his just couldn’t have happened under those conditions, because under Dodd-Frank, bankers would have required a solid balance sheet rather than basing their loan decisions on his “character and determination”. [2]

And Home Depot couldn’t have gone public under Sarbanes-Oxley because … I’m not sure why. IPOs continue to happen. Facebook went public. UnderArmour. Chipotle. But Home Depot wouldn’t have been able to figure it out for some reason.

And that would have been horrible for America because

the risks we took in the 1970s have resulted in millions of jobs – not just at The Home Depot, but at our suppliers, our vendors, and even our customers’ businesses.

This is where I think we start getting to the root of things, because by this point Marcus has left reality completely behind and vanished into self-glorifying mythology.

You see, Marcus may think of himself as a champion of small business and a job creator, but the reality is the exact opposite. Other than WalMart and maybe Amazon [3], I can’t think of any corporation that has destroyed more small businesses than Home Depot.

Whatever Marcus may imagine, Home Depot didn’t create the home-improvement retail market, it captured that market from other businesses that were already serving it.

Not so long ago, hardware stores and electrical supply shops and paint stores and lumber yards were just about all locally owned by businesspeople you could meet and talk to. If you were a tool-loving kind of guy [4] and could scrape some money together, you could start such a business and be your own boss. Now that’s a much dicier proposition — not because of Dodd-Frank or Sarbanes-Oxley or even ObamaCare, but mainly because of Home Depot (and its rival Lowes).

I haven’t done enough research to back this up with numbers, but looking at the merchandise and staff of my local Home Depot, I strongly suspect that (all together) those locally-owned stores of the 1970s employed more people, and probably stocked more American-made products. [5] Looking at the full picture, I’d guess that Home Depot isn’t a job creator at all, especially if we’re talking about American jobs. It’s more of a job destroyer.

So while you can argue that Home Depot captured its markets fair and square (because it provides a larger selection of products at a better price, or for some other reason), you can’t give it credit for millions of jobs, or any jobs at all.

Understanding the job-creator mythology and how divorced it is from reality puts us in a position to explain why Marcus (and so much of the donor class that supported Romney and Bush) has to come around to Trump eventually, even if all his policies and positions are too embarrassing to mention: Republicans have incorporated job-creator mythology into their larger myth of America, while Democrats have not. The reason Marcus and his compatriots think Democrats like Clinton or Obama (or me) are so hostile to “free enterprise” is that we don’t worship them the way they think they deserve to be worshiped.

Democrats readily acknowledge that billionaires like Marcus and corporations like Home Depot are currently King of the Hill. But they want to believe that they created the hill.

Republicans are happy to tell them that they did. Democrats, on the other hand, tell the story this way: Business in the United States has always been a game played under certain rules. Under the rules of the 1970s and the decades that followed, Home Depot succeeded and Marcus became a multi-billionaire. We don’t begrudge his success, or the success of his 17-year-old cart-pushing millionaire employee either (assuming that guy really exists). Marcus won the game and captured the prize, so congratulations to him.

[see more Loren Fishman cartoons at https://humoresquecartoons.com/ ]

But we’d like to shift the rules so that in the future the workplace becomes safer and less discriminatory, so that workers don’t have to go bankrupt if they or their children need serious medical care, and so that those cart-pushers who don’t rise to be regional presidents still make a wage that lets them feed their families without food stamps. With those amendments, we want the game to continue, and businesspeople to keep on winning or losing according to how well they play.

Maybe Marcus and his fellow Kings of the Hill would win the game under those rules too, or maybe not. But that doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s not the end of free enterprise. Conversely, restoring the rules of the 1970s or 1950s or 1850s won’t make America great again, whatever great and again mean in that context.

Understandably, though, Bernie Marcus and his friends are not going to come around to the Democratic point of view, no matter how reality-based it is. They see themselves as Gods of the Hill, and view our attempts to landscape the hill as sacrilege. I can only hope that their self-deifying religion is still a minority faith.


[1] Preserving a role for the private sector is kind of the point of ObamaCare: How do you get healthcare to millions more Americans without the government taking over everything, by working through the existing insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals, and clinics? That’s what the conservative Heritage Foundation designed their proto-ObamaCare system to do, way back in 1989.

[2] They also couldn’t have considered his race. I wonder how many black businessmen were getting loans based on their “character and determination” back in the 1970s. I also wonder how much money the banking industry has lost over the years due to lenders making loans unjustified by financial principles. That was a major cause of the S&L crisis of the 1980s. To the extent that current law limits the discretion of federally-insured bankers, it happens for good reasons.

[3] One of my friends recently closed a local bookstore that had existed in the same location since the 1920s. I never heard him complain about government regulation, but Amazon seemed to be a much bigger problem. I suspect a lot of small businesspeople would tell a similar story.

[4] Yeah, you probably did have to be a guy. It was the 70s.

[5] You can argue that retailers sell Chinese products because that’s what’s available, but the big-box stores — especially Walmart — have been instrumental in pushing their suppliers to manufacture overseas.