Category Archives: Politics

Why we shouldn’t call Donald Trump a Nazi

This is not going to be a post in which I defend Donald Trump’s candidacy for President. On both a policy and personal level, I believe that the man is fundamentally unqualified for the Presidency.  It’s not just stylistic, not just that he comes across like a narcissistic buffoon. As Matt Bai put it recently, his complete inability to apologize for anything, to ever, under any circumstances admit he’s wrong, ever, about anything, is probably, all by itself, disqualifying. And like most political commentators, I find many of his policy proposals completely and utterly appalling. There’s not the tiniest possibility of me voting for him.

But I don’t think we should call him a Nazi, or a fascist, or compare him to Hitler. I have seen many such comparisons lately, both on social media and by professional journalists, and even now, recently, in an ad for John Kasich, one of his opponents for the Presidency. I’m not just saying this on tactical grounds. Donald Trump has many supporters, people who agree with him and find his brash populism rather bracing and courageous, who think he’s just what the country needs right now. Those people are not Nazis, and don’t appreciate being called Nazis. Simple civility would suggest that everyone should cool it with the Trump/Hitler comparisons.

But, again, that’s not the main reason I’m writing here. We shouldn’t call Trump a Nazi because he’s not one.

Adolf Hitler’s regime murdered nine million people, most of them German citizens. They were murdered because they were Jews. They were also murdered because they were gay, or Gypsies, or because they were mentally or physically challenged. The Nazis absolutely defined how evil a state can become. God willing, we shall never see their like again.

Donald Trump, when announcing his candidacy for President, said this:

When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. (Applause). Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting.

Those comments are appalling, and they’re false; they’re factually inaccurate. Trump has subsequently proposed building a wall between the United States and Mexico, and forcibly deporting all undocumented workers in the US, with the added provision for some of them, the ‘good ones’ to return if they want to. This is a preposterous, completely unworkable, utterly unnecessary proposal. I cannot speak out against it strongly enough.

But that’s not what Hitler said and that’s not what Hitler did. Hitler, repeatedly, in public and private, in his writings, and speeches and in interviews, called for the complete annihilation of Germany’s Jews, and Europe’s Jews. Once he came to power (which he did legally, in a free election), he began harassing Jews, falsely accusing Jews, putting restriction after restriction on their activities, arresting them, finally, systematically murdering them. He said, over and over, that he intended to eradicate all Jewish people from Europe, and then he tried to accomplish it. He came pretty close. The Holocaust is pure evil, evil personified. Trump wants to deport Mexicans. That’s deplorable, foolish, morally repugnant. It’s also not what Hitler said and not what Hitler did. Not even close.

More recently, Trump, without quite saying so directly, has suggested that he would be open to requiring American Muslims to carry religiously-specific identification papers. He said mosques should be carefully scrutinized, and, when asked by Stuart Varney of Fox Business News if he would close mosques, replied, “I would do that. Absolutely. I think it’s great.” The idea of forcing members of a religion to carry IDs does have parallels in Hitler’s Germany. It’s certainly a ridiculous, blatantly unconstitutional, dangerous and foolish thing for a Presidential candidate to suggest. Hitler’s actions, though, were part of an overall plan, leading to whole scale murder, which Hitler was, again, quite open about. Trump is simply overreacting to terrorism. The fact that he’s moronic enough to think that marginalizing and persecuting American Muslims would be an effective way to fight ISIS is disquieting enough; it is in addition a completely disgusting idea. We won’t do it, we shouldn’t do it, and we should certainly never go so far as to vote for anyone that silly. But let’s keep our responses proportional. At worst, Trump seems willing to entertain policy ideas that, far more brutally, Nazis actually implemented. That doesn’t make him a Nazi.

Finally, at a Trump rally, a Black Lives Matter protester tried repeatedly to interrupt Trump’s speech, and was beaten up by Trump supporters. Said Trump later, “maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” The liberal website, Daily Kos, called Trump a fascist, and said his comments sent a signal that violence was okay.

What I think the Daily Kos writer was referring to was Hitler’s early paramilitary followers, the Sturmabteilung, the SA, who wore brown shirts and were therefore known as brownshirts. (They got the shirts in bulk and for sale; WWI surplus). The SA started beating up hecklers at Hitler’s speeches as early as 1919. They carried rubber and metal truncheons, and regularly beat up Social Democrats, communists, or anyone who publicly denounced Hitler. They walked the streets in large groups, looking for, and causing, trouble. They even had a word for their favorite pastimes: zusammenstöße. ‘Collisions.’ Eventually, of course, Hitler realized his party was essentially being defined by these thugs, and so, on June 30, 1934, on the Night of Long Knives, Hitler ordered the murder of SA leader Ernst Röhm and other SA luminaries: 150-200 men altogether.

In contrast, Trump supporters beat up one guy. That’s utterly deplorable, completely wrong. I’m astonished that law enforcement didn’t identify and arrest all those responsible, charge ’em with assault. That still can and should happen, and Trump should call for it. The fact that he hasn’t, again, reveals his fundamental unfitness for high office. But Trump’s followers aren’t brownshirts. It’s a matter of proportion. Hitler had a gang of paramilitary thugs at every speech, committing hundreds, probably even thousands, of acts of violence. Trump supporters beat up one guy at one speech. I’ll grant that there are similarities, but with exponential differences of frequency.

Trump’s not Hitler; his policies are not really Nazi policies; his followers are not fascists. We don’t have to go there, and shouldn’t. Trump is an obnoxious blowhard, with horrendous policy proposals. We shouldn’t vote for him, and we should call out his worst ideas on their merits (or lack thereof). He is a successful businessman, and a candidate with ideas sufficiently attractive to some that he leads in the polls. His followers like his call to ‘make America great again,’ and consider his more incendiary comments nothing worse than refreshing candor. We don’t have to compare Donald Trump to the most singularly demonic personality in history. Let’s civilly and thoughtfully explain why we disagree with him, why we think his Presidency would be bad for America. Let’s try reason first. And keep our use of historical parallels (Huey Long? Nathaniel Banks? William Lawrence Scott?) modestly and precisely accurate.

Syrian refugees, and our ridiculous politics

I’ve been obsessed lately with politics, and most particularly the reaction here in the States to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Europe is absolutely deluged with refugees from the Syrian civil war and from the continued brutality in Libya. Our allies in Europe are all trying to decide how many refugees they can accept into their countries. The US has been asked to take only 10,000 refugees, that’s all, and President Obama has agreed. France, victims of the recent attacks, has agreed to take many more. Our 10,000 constitutes only the tiniest fraction of the total number of suffering, homeless, impoverished people seeking shelter. And the American Right has become unified in its opposition to providing shelter for desperate people. It’s becoming the defining issue of this campaign; conservative cowardly intransigence.

They claim to be protecting America. From the potential for terrorism. Which is preposterous; the refugees in question are fleeing terrorism and violence, not committing it. And before they arrive on our shores, they’ll have undergone a rigorous screening process. Or irrelevant side issues get raised; ‘why can’t we help our 50,000 homeless veterans first?’ Homelessness is an entirely different issue than refugee relief (refugees don’t tend to require mental health treatment, for one thing), plus Republicans in Congress keep voting down aid for American veterans. So ignore that one.

Meanwhile, in addition to the humanitarian and Christian imperatives that would seem to require that we welcome these refugees, there are any number of strategic considerations. Large numbers of refugees, sitting in squalid, over-heated camps, are prime candidates for recruitment by groups like ISIS/Daesh. If we are indeed in a hearts-and-minds war with Daesh, an ideological war for the future of Islam v. The West, why not show exactly what our values are, why not demonstrate the essential kindness and compassion of which the American people are, at times, capable? The Daesh propaganda line is that Westerners are Islamophobic and godless hypocrites. It’s a message Daesh is very good at communicating via social media. Why not show the world clearly and unmistakably how wrong they all are?

Is there such a thing as national character? The American people can, at times, demonstrate a tremendous capacity for charity. But we’re people, like anyone else, equally susceptible to appeals based on fear and paranoia. We’re capable of great courage; also great cowardice. We’re a Christian nation when it suits us to be one, but our Christianity does not, apparently, extend to applying Matthew 25: 34-45 to public acts. Meanwhile, the Republican candidates for President have given voice to the most despicable expressions of fear-mongering Islamophobia, appealing to our worst natures. Sadly, that’s working too. When you hear politicians citing the Japanese internment camps as a positive example from our history, something well worth emulating, the only real response is to call for the lads with the butterfly nets.

It doesn’t help that I’m convalescing, with leisure time to watch TV and surf the ‘net, and read. And that distorts perspective, does it not? I’m becoming obsessed with this one issue, the issue of Syrian refugees. Obsessed with the images of children in the arms of their parents, walking, dragging all their possessions in carts and wagons, or floating to shore on boats, desperate for some safe harbor. And the concerns about terrorism expressed by our conservative friends strike me as completely preposterous.

In short, I’m losing my sense of humor.

And that gives me pause.

I’m losing my sense of humor. In a political season dominated by Donald Trump and Ben Carson, I’m losing my sense of humor? Not seeing the funny; does that even sound like me?  I’m so furious, I can’t see how ridiculous politics have become. I’m losing my sense of the absurd. And Donald Trump is running for President.

Donald Trump, with the fly-away hair and the trophy wife and the ridiculous self-importance. A guy who bases his entire campaign on bluster and braggadocio. A guy who seems to invent utterly preposterous policy prescriptions out of thin air, and then defend them ferociously, only to see his poll numbers trend. . . upward? He’s not a political candidate, he’s a cartoon caricature of one, but the joke’s getting old. Of course, it would be fantastically dangerous for our country (and the world!) if he were to actually be elected President, but that seems unlikely. He might win the Republican nomination, though that seems equally unlikely–the nominee will probably be Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Both of whom are scary enough. But then, funny is funnier when the stakes are high. And our politics have become terrifyingly hilarious.

Ridiculous, but dangerous. Preposterous, but potentially lethal. In America’s past, the Know-Nothing party was built on pure xenophobia, but the Know-Nothings never actually won an election, though they were a malignant cancer on our politics for many years. In our past, we’ve seen political movements based on hatred before; the anti-Masons, the anti-Irish, the anti-Chinese. Jim Crow. Our current politics isn’t that vicious; our capacity for actual violence has, blessedly, diminished. Instead, all we have are silly people saying nonsensical things. Jeb Bush suggesting we only accept Syrian Christians, for example, or Ted Cruz calling the President out for insulting him by quoting him accurately, or Dr. Ben and his pyramid grain silos. And Trump calling for a national registry of Muslims. These aren’t serious candidates for high office. And that’s a bit disconcerting, of course. But come on. It’s also pretty funny. Right?

Not so funny, of course, to see American Christians playing the role of innkeeper in an international Nativity. It’s funny to see a whole generation of politicians lose their minds; not so funny to turn away widows and orphans. Thank heavens, on this issue, there’s one grown-up in Washington. And his name is Barack Hussein Obama. Sorry, conservative friends, but in your heart you know it’s so.



Paris, and terrorism

I was riveted this weekend by the images from Paris, of the terrorist attacks that rocked that great city. I can only join many other voices expressing that volatile and contradictory range of emotions such attacks provoke: helplessness and resolve, heartbreak and outrage, hope and hopelessness.

I was particularly taken with the various responses from those oh-so-unofficial American spokespeople, late night talk show hosts. John Oliver responded with vilely appropriate profanity. (A**holes, he kept calling ISIS, which echoes the recent tendency, by President Obama and others, to call ISIS by the organization’s Arabic initials, Daesh, which, apparently, sounds a lot like an Arabic insult; ‘he who causes discord.’ ‘A**holes,’ in other words).

Jimmy Fallon invoked the power of love, and Stephen Colbert (who only heard of the attacks near the end of his Friday show), was appropriately and movingly awkward and inarticulate. Trevor Noah focused instead on the remarkable humanity of the people of Paris, who queued up to give blood, and opened their doors to stranded strangers. My favorite response, though, was Larry Wilmore’s: he expressed solidarity with the people of France, then said this:

And on a personal note, my daughter was born on July 14, Bastille day, and she’s been a Francophile ever since. And I promised her when she was a girl that for her eighteenth birthday, I would take her to Paris. Now, that birthday is in eight months. Do what you will, terrorists, but you can go to hell, because that trip is still happening.

The question that’s been consuming me is this: ‘what do we do now?’ Obviously, one answer to that question is Wilmore’s; we continue with our lives. We recreate, we go to cafes and movie theaters, we ‘go to Paris.’ Terrorism is a tactic, first and foremost, intended to intimidate. We defeat terror by refusing to become terrorized.

But the emotions an attack like this one provokes are direct, raw, and visceral. We respond with fear and with anger. Understandable. And there’s a certain immediate satisfaction to the moral clarity of straightforward calls for revenge. There are certain things we expect our leaders to say, such as French President Hollande, declaring that France would be ‘ruthless’ in response. “Oh, yeah!” we might respond. “Take ’em out. End them.” And we could do it. The United States is the greatest military power the world has ever seen. Put together a coalition, with French forces and NATO forces and (please heaven) some Sunni Moslems, and let’s put ISIS down. We could do it.

And then what?

Which is why I was so grateful to Colbert for adding, on his silly celebrity talk show, another perspective; that of Col. Jack Jacobs, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and expert in the region. I thought this exchange, between a comedian and a genuine military expert, was illuminating:

COLBERT: What has happened so far in response to the attacks in Paris.

JACOBS: Actually, not a lot. A few more air strikes. Everyone has decided that something has to be done, but at the end of the day, really nothing significant will be done, because it’s not possible to knock these guys out unless we’re willing to commit a large number of troops.

COLBERT: How many troops?

JACOBS: Several hundreds of thousands, and for a long time. It’ll take a decade, two decades. It’s time-sensitive. We’re not going to do it, and we can’t get the people in the region to do it, even though they have an interest in making sure these guys. . . .

COLBERT: Why can’t. . .  I mean, if it’s several hundred thousand people, obviously it seems like a coalition would be the answer, not one country, because so many countries have an interest, and so many countries have been attacked by ISIS at this point. Why don’t the regional powers there want to do anything about it, why not Saudi Arabia, why not Iran?

JACOBS: They’re at each other’s throats. Saudi Arabia and Iran are duking it out for domination and influence in the area, so they’re not going to coalesce. As a matter of fact, if you throw Turkey into the mix, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, they all have pretty powerful armed forces, very very good air forces . . . so right now, who’s bombing Raqa? The United States and France. There’s an argument that says that we ought to just shut up about trying to unseat bloodthirsty despots, because in the past they’ve kept the place together.

COLBERT: Would ISIS exist if Saddam Hussein was still in power?

JACOBS: I think not. I think it’s an outgrowth of that. These are Sunni apocalyptic people who are waiting for, not waiting for the end of the world, they are hurtling toward it, and want to bring everybody with them.

COLBERT: So if you had control of our armed forces, what should the United States do right now to try to destroy ISIS, because part of this is that they have nothing to negotiate, they’re not looking for anything from us.

JACOBS: No, no. Everything’s non-negotiable, they want you to die and they want to die themselves.

COLBERT: So how do we give that to them?

JACOBS: Well, we can do it. There are a couple of things to consider here. We’re not going to be able to do it by dropping conventional bombs on people. Militarily, the only purpose for bombs, is to pave the way for people on the ground to seize and hold terrain, long enough to create an environment to create a real government to take out the trash and  . . . we’re not doing it, and it takes a quarter of a million people to do it, probably just in Syria,

COLBERT: Any good news, Colonel?

JACOBS: Well, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

What I love about this exchange is its recognition of the political and logistic complexities of the region, and how ISIS (sorry, Daesh) is able to flourish precisely because of the political vacuum created by previous well-meaning attempts to de-complexify things. Could the Iraqi army clean things up? The Iraqi army is 95% Shi’a. Eastern Iraq is largely Sunni. The people of that region are far more likely to see Iraqis as oppressive than as liberators. Syria is in the middle of a civil war, and Russia supports a different side in that civil war than the US does. The Kurds are able to provide an effective fighting force, when they’re not being bombed by Turkey. Is the answer a  regional coalition? Between Shi’a Iraq, Shi’a Iran, Sunni Turkey, Sunni Saudi Arabia? And independence-seeking Kurds? How likely does that seem?

Meanwhile, Libya is a basket case, with four regions each dominated by a different warlord. One of them, ISIS. Poor Lebanon is overrun with refugees, who they are heroically trying to provide for, with inadequate UN help.

And in the US, a bunch of Republican governors have said they won’t allow Syrian refugees into their states. Nosireebob. Because, who knows, some of them might be terrorists. I’m embarrassed to admit that Mike Pence, governor of Indiana (where I grew up), is among them. I’m proud to say that Gary Herbert, governor of Utah, is not.

We cannot, cannot, allow that kind of unreasoning fear to govern our responses to the Paris attacks, or similar attacks in Kenya, or in Lebanon. Fear and anger are insufficiently complex emotions to deal with the complexities of the current situation. We cannot give in to them, tempting though they are. Simple-minded solutions lead to the ultimate simple-mindedness; the fanaticism of suicide bombings and beheadings and vicious extremism.

We also cannot give in to Islamophobia. ISIS/Daesh is supported by only the tiniest percentage of Moslems. That’s why President Obama insists so strongly on avoiding the phrase ‘Islamic extremists.’ We can’t conflate this tiny group of violent nihilists with mainstream Islam, or allow a terror tactic to define a great world religion. And let’s remember: the Syrian refugees are fleeing violence, not seeking to establish terror strongholds in the West. We should invite ten times as many Syrians to settle in the US. Doing so would greatly bless our nation.

Let’s be smart about all this. Let’s embrace its complexities. Let’s reason together, with whoever we have the ability to reason with, and let’s remember our common humanity. Let’s remember the great ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite, even while remembering the time when those great words were twisted and warped by murderous Jacobin terrorists in the French past. Even terrorists, are, after all, our brothers and sisters, though desperately misguided ones. Open, direct warfare will accomplish nothing.

What will work? I don’t have the faintest idea. And neither does anyone else. And that’s okay.



The Tyson zone, Dr. Ben and The Donald

The ‘Tyson Zone‘ is something the sportswriter Bill Simmons came up with to describe certain train-wreck celebrities. It’s named after the boxer Mike Tyson, and it essentially describes someone who has made such a public mess of his life that there’s almost literally nothing you wouldn’t believe if you heard it about them. Let’s suppose someone said to you ‘hey, did you hear about Mike Tyson? He’s converted to Scientology?’ or ‘He’s having himself surgically turned into an iguana?’ Or ‘he’s become a cannibal.’ You’d sigh and then you’d say something like ‘well, it was just a matter of time.’ You wouldn’t question it, no matter how preposterous it might be. Lindsay Lohan is in the Tyson zone, I think, as are most of the Kardashians.

So is Dennis Rodman. Remember when you first heard that Dennis Rodman, the former Chicago Bull basketball star, had befriended Kim Jong Un, recruited a pickup team of former NBA basketball players, and was in North Korea, playing pickup ball with a North Korean team of stiffs? That Dennis Rodman had become the closest thing America had to a diplomatic contact with the world’s most reclusive and insane dictator? It seemed, uh, implausible. But Rodman’s in the Tyson zone. There’s literally nothing we won’t believe about him. And of course it turned out to be true.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the Tyson zone while laid up the last few weeks, watching the American presidential campaign, and especially the Republican side. I think both Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson are in a kind of political Tyson zone. They’re certainly the two Republican frontrunners, despite the fact that neither has any political experience whatsoever, and despite the fact that neither seems to have the vaguest notion what exactly the President of the United does in our system of governance. But they’re doing well, playing the contrasting roles of id and superego–bombast vs. somnolence, braggadocio vs. self-effacement.

They’re both Tyson-zoners in this sense: the popularity of both continues to strain credulity. It doesn’t seem to matter what they promise, or propose, or stand for. They stay popular, no matter what. That’s why the Republican debates are appointment television. We really, genuinely, don’t have any idea what the candidates (and especially the two poll leaders) are going to say next.

It started when Trump questioned John McCain’s military heroism. That was it, the pundits all said. That was the blunder that would end Trump’s campaign. Instead, he got more popular. He offers no policy specifics, except ‘it’s going to be awesome,’ about some program he clearly hasn’t thought through at all. It doesn’t matter. A substantial percentage of the Republican electorate has decided they like Donald Trump, and it doesn’t matter what he says; he’s in a political Tyson zone.

Same thing with Dr. Carson. The pyramids were grain silos? I figured it for a gaffe. It wasn’t; his base liked the notion just fine.  I understand that he’s a committed Christian evangelical, and that he doesn’t believe in evolution, but gravity? But it doesn’t matter; Dr. Carson is bullet-proof. We need the Department of Education to spend its time investigating universities for liberal bias? Sure, why not.

And that’s why the Republican debates are so entertaining. In a sense, they’re all in a Tyson zone.  The new holiday coffee cups used by Starbucks aren’t sufficiently Christmas-y? They are red and green, after all. But no. Raise the minimum raise? No, actually, it needs to be lower. Because: robots. When the entire field seemed intent on debating the relative moral merit (and financial prospects) of welders and philosophers, the debate veered off the shoulder and into the ditch.

Still I’m not sure anything quite matches the preposterous absurdity of the media digging into Ben Carson’s past, and discovering him to have been an exemplary youth and upstanding citizen, to which scurrilous allegations Dr. Carson furiously calls ‘foul,’ as it’s exactly the kind of smear we should expect from biased liberal media types. He did too try to stab people! Don’t believe all those lies about him being an A student overachiever! He was a hard-core pre-teen gangbanger, yo!

That’s where Dr. Ben becomes so marvelously entertaining as a candidate. Take, for example, the Popeye’s Chicken story. In this story, he was standing in line at a Popeyes, trying to order, when a gunman stuck a gun in his ribs. According to Dr. Carson, he said to the guy “I believe you want the guy behind the counter.” And that’s what the thug did; he went for the counter guy.

So various media outlets tried to confirm that story, and found nothing. And Dr. Carson was furious; they were questioning his veracity. But what’s so weird about the story is how bad it makes him look. He doesn’t come across as remotely heroic; quite the contrary. And he’s the only source for the story! He told his very unflattering story about himself, then seems to have taken umbrage when the media questioned whether it really happened or not? What? Seriously?

So in a way, Dr. Carson’s in an opposite/Tyson zone. Every time he tries to make himself sound like a gangsta, it turns out, he was actually a good guy. And that, for some reason, infuriates him. How dare you call me exemplary! Whereas Donald Trump continues to pull screwy ideas out of his hat, and that doesn’t seem to matter either. And there’s every possibility that one of these two guys could be President. May you live in weird times.


In which I save the Republican Party

All of the sudden, my newsfeed is full of stories about the disintegration of the Republican party, about how that party has become ungovernable. The immediate emergency is the inability of the majority party in the House to choose a new Speaker, which has, as its proximate cause, the decision by current Speaker John Boehner to quit. And I’m not sure who was happier about him quitting–the ultra-right conservatives in the House and elsewhere, or Boehner himself. Let’s face it; when people hate each other this much, it’s time for a divorce. Irreconcilable differences indeed.

Only once before in its history has the House been in this much turmoil over choosing a new Speaker. That was the Speakership contest that took place from December 5, 1859 to February 1, 1860. Essentially, Republicans wanted John Sherman, of Ohio, and Democrats wanted absolutely anyone except John Sherman, of Ohio. The splendidly named Garusha Grow, R-Pa, was also in the fight, as was a Virginia Democrat, John Bocock. The crucial issue, it turned out, was when, and under what circumstances, various men had read a particular book. A poorly written, poorly researched rant called The Impending Crisis in the South, by one Hinton R. Helper, it had the one dubious virtue of being a book with something in it to offend absolutely everyone. In fact, as Bruce Catton has noted, it’s unclear who Helper despised more: slave-owners, or black people. For two months everyone in the House stood and screamed at each other about it. (Sherman, it seems, had endorsed it, without reading it first).

Eventually, one William Pennington, R-NJ was elected, in part on the theory that he was elderly and in poor health, and probably wouldn’t last all that long. As it turned out, he lived until 1862, at which point the whole nation was on fire, and boys were killing each other in very large numbers indeed. And John Sherman, of Ohio, is known today, if at all, as the brother of one William Tecumseh Sherman, of the burning of Atlanta and March to the Sea fame.

I raise all that history to point out that any time you’re involved in an American political dispute, and the closest parallel anyone can point to is one that led directly to the Civil War, that’s probably not a good thing.

For a political party,or really any organization, to function, someone has to be in charge, and that person has to be able to impose discipline. Who is the current head of the Democratic party, right now, 2015? Easy: it’s Barack Obama, right? Who is the current head of the Republican party? Well, honestly, it should be the Speaker, since Republicans control the House. So is John Boehner in charge? Of anything? No.

Think of the greatest Speakers in American History. Henry Clay, Thomas Brackett Reed, Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill. They ruled by persuasion, certainly, by the conferring of favors, and through subtle threats, but they did rule. They wielded power. Reed is probably the name you haven’t heard of, but he was one tough cookie. In his day (1895-1899), the minority could block votes by refusing to answer a quorum call. If there weren’t enough people ‘present’, nothing could be done. So Reed called for a quorum vote, and then when members didn’t answer, he’d call them present anyway. And had the doors locked, so they couldn’t just run off. It turned into an entertaining spectacle, let me tell you. The House continues today to operate under the ‘Reed rules.’

To save the Republican party, John Boehner needs to wield power. The problem is that he has a substantial minority of Tea Party conservatives in his party that have made it clear that they do not want to govern, who believe that they were elected to the House specifically to obstruct the work of the federal government. And he has no effective way to impose party discipline. And he’s quit. And the people who want the job, and there are a lot of them, don’t want to govern either.

I have a plan, a workable plan, that will save the Republican party, save Boehner’s historical legacy, and move the country forward. It does require that Boehner stay in office until January 2017, when the newly elected Congress convenes. He may not be willing to do that. But he’s the only person who can save the Republican party right now.

Here’s the plan. John Boehner needs to expel the Freedom Caucus from the Republican party.

The Freedom Caucus, or HFC, is approximately 40 Tea Party Republicans who vote as a bloc, and who seem determined to disrupt anything approximating regular order in the House. The reason that I say ‘approximately’ is because they’re pretty secretive; nobody knows quite who belongs and who doesn’t.

Here’s what Boehner needs to do. First, announce that he’s not quitting after all. Second, meet with Nancy Pelosi and cut a deal with her. If she’ll promise to provide sufficient votes for him to stay Speaker, then he will agree to allow votes on a certain number of crucial pieces of legislation. My guess is, at a minimum, she’ll ask for a clean budget agreement, a debt ceiling increase, and a highway bill, to rebuild infrastructure. Offer her this too: he’ll call for a vote to rescind the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy, with all revenues targeted towards deficit reduction.

Third, he calls a meeting of the Republican caucus. In that meeting, he says this: I have called a vote to raise the debt ceiling for tomorrow. If you vote for the bill, good, because it’s going to pass.

If you vote against it, though, then we have a problem. Vote against it, and you are expelled from the Republican caucus. You will lose your committee memberships and chairmanships. You will not be allowed to caucus with Republicans, speak on the floor, introduce legislation, introduce amendments. I will send notice to your constituents that you are no longer considered members of the Republican party. And you’ll be assisted in moving from your current offices on Capital Hill, which will be reassigned; currently, your new office spaces are being used for janitorial supplies.

There will be an uproar. I suspect that we’ll see an immediate vote of no confidence in Boehner’s leadership, a vote to remove him as Speaker. But with the solid bloc of Democratic votes behind him, he’ll weather that. I suspect that this action will hasten the creation of a third party, the Tea Party. That’s great too; it’s been inevitable for a long time, and a healthy third party will only enhance our national political conversation.

The result, however, will be a new Republican party, smaller perhaps, but more focused on governing, a disciplined party, a party that stands for something positive. It brings back the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, and yes, even the party of Ronald Reagan.  I think it’s the only way to move forward. And we’ll be able to include John Boehner’s name among the great Speakers of history.


The Speaker of the House battle, and the apocalypse

The Kevin McCarthy era will be missed. In the week–more or less– since John Boehner skipped to a press conference podium singing “zippity do-dah, zippity eh,” to announce that he’d finally had it, the speculation had been the House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy would be the new guy. He got a nice roll-out, starting, on Monday, with what was touted as a substantive address on foreign policy for the supposedly friendly audience at the John Hay Initiative, a neo-conservative policy center. It went not so good. Rachel Maddow had a lot of fun with it:

If you don’t want to bother with the link, here are some highlights:

Those who return home are being disrespected by the VA that can’t keep the simple promise to all of our heroes to the need when they need it most.

We must engage this war of radical Islam if our life depended on it. Because it does.

This “safe zone” would create a stem a flow of refugees.

Unlike during the surge in Iraq when Petreus and Crocker had an effective politically strategy to match the military strategy.

We have isolated Israel while bolding places like Iran.

The absence of leadership over the past six years has had a horrific consequences all across the globe.

In the past few years alone, I have visited Poland, Hungria, Estonia, Russian and Georgia.

It defies belief that the President would allow the ban on Iranian oil exports to be lifted, and also stands by a Russia blackmails an entire continent–all the while keeping the place of the band on America.

Hungria. Create a stem a flow. The place of the band on America. Stirring words indeed.

So, okay, the presumptive new Speaker of the House, it turned out, can’t speak. That would seem to be a fairly essential requirement of the position. However, the next day, it turns out, talking to Sean Hannity, McCarthy was quite coherent.

Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee, what are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping, why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened.

Everyone knew this, of course, that the House select committee on Benghazi wasn’t interested in Benghazi per se, but mostly in doing as much damage as conceivable to Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. But you don’t say it.  So, of course: outrage. From the left and right, as it happens, Democrats feigning anger (while secretly delighted) over this revealed unconscionable politicization of the House’s investigative role, and Republicans genuinely furious that the big doofus was dumb enough to spill the beans.

Who knows? He still might have survived. Thursday morning, at an 8:00 caucus meeting, it looked like he might still become Speaker. By noon, he was announcing that he was withdrawing from the Speakership race. What? Why? Well, there are these titillating rumors, see. . . .

The news outlets that broke the possibility of an affair between McCarthy and a fellow House member are not reputable sources. Probably, McCarthy is as pure as the driven snow. After all, both McCarthy and the Congresswoman in question are Family Values Republicans! It does appear, though, that certain scurrilous emails circulating to House Republicans about that oh-so-unlikely affair were a factor in McCarthy’s withdrawal. Especially given that those emails would not have had much impact in the absence of actual hanky-panky. Anyway, Kevin McCarthy’s staying on as Majority Leader, and the search is on for someone, anyone, willing to take on the oh-my-gosh-so-absolutely-thankless job of Speaker of the House.

(Meanwhile Mark Takano, D-Ca, trolled Republicans by running a Craigslist ad for a new Speaker. It was very funny, especially when the fake ad insisted “Babysitting experience STRONGLY PREFERRED”)

Various conservative luminaries have modestly offered their own poor services to a grateful nation in need. One is Darrell Issa, whose last name always sounds, to me, like Jar-Jar Binks trying out a new contraction for ‘I am.’ Issa was on Morning Joe this morning, trying to sound like Michael Corleone giving orders to Luca Brasi: “we need someone who will go to the mattresses.” He also dissed a rival Speaker wannabe, Utah’s own Jason Chaffetz, essentially because, Issa suggested, Chaffetz isn’t conservative enough. Seriously. Chaffetz has, he darkly intimated, treasonously floated, on occasion, the possibility of (gasp) compromising with Democrats. Another Congressman, the splendidly named Florida Congressman Daniel Webster has also thrown his nickle into the fountain, leading a waggish friend of mine to call a potential Chaffetz/Webster showdown ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster.’

(Full Disclosure: Jason Chaffetz is my Congressman. I live in his district. If elected Speaker, he would certainly be the best kicker ever to serve in the role; he handled field goals and PATs for BYU football team in days gone by. Personal aside: I have never voted for the man, and wouldn’t if the alternative meant facing a firing squad.)

So what happens now? Rachel Maddow laid out the four possibilities. And there really are only four.

1) Paul Ryan. It doesn’t have to be Paul Ryan, but someone like him; a respected national figure serving in the House who could bring the tattered shreds of the House Republican caucus together. Basically, realistically, that means Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, smart, young, a policy wonk. Who really, seriously, desperately does NOT want the job. And I don’t blame him. Ryan’s ambitious; he wants to be President. The House is in such disarray, serving as an interim Speaker would almost certainly damage those aspirations.

2) Mitt Romney. While Speaker is a Constitutional office, there’s no requirement that the Speaker actually be a House member. They could pick someone who is not in Congress to serve on an interim basis. Mitt Romney is not very liked by hard-core conservatives, but he is, again, a respected national figure. made a strong case for him.  Personally, in the unlikely event that Romney’s offered the job, I would hope he doesn’t take it; I like the man personally, and would spare him that misery. Other, similar choices include Newt Gingrich (boo!), and Senator Ted Cruz. He’d have to quit running for President (yay), and he’d have to leave the Senate (yay). Otherwise boooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

3) Nobody. It’s certainly possible that the House is so dysfunctional that they never, ever, are able to elect a Speaker. If they can’t, then the House shuts down. The Constitution is clear enough; without a Speaker, they can’t vote on bills, they can’t hold committee meetings, they can’t debate. They can’t do anything. It would shut down the government. For some Republicans, that may not be such a bad outcome.

4) John Boehner. Rachel Maddow thought this was by far the most likely outcome; that Boehner will not be allowed to quit. That his own patriotism would prevent option 3, and that he would end up being forced to finish the next 18 months as Speaker. Let the new Congress pick one, in 2017, after the election. Boehner was joking recently with reporters about a nightmare he’d had in which precisely this is what happened.

The fact is, the next eighteen months are going to be horrible for whoever is in that job. There’s a budget that has to pass. There is a debt ceiling that absolutely, positively has to be raised, a task that the Tea Party Right, amazingly, opposes. The Highway Trust fund is broke, and desperately needs more funding. Collapsing bridges and undriveable highways beckon. And those are only three of the really tough calls.

And the simple fact is, there are members of the House who are–and I say this with the deepest respect–crazy. By crazy, I mean that they have focused all their attention on a few frankly tangential issues to the exclusion of essentially everything else.

First, they are obsessed with the supposed leadership failures of Barack Obama, and describe the current state of America in the most apocalyptic terms. And the fact that the country is doing pretty well right now hasn’t really penetrated their consciousness. Any cooperation with this President is tantamount to treason. That’s why they hate Boehner; he hasn’t obstructed Obama at absolutely every turn. Just most.

Second, they are obsessed with the national deficit and debt. They are convinced that a financial cataclysm is right around the corner, with hyperinflation, the collapse of financial institutions and resultant violent anarchy. That’s why they so oppose any budgetary process that doesn’t radically cut discretionary spending, and why they are so violently against raising the debt ceiling (an absolutely routine bookkeeping task, something most countries don’t even bother with, that’s also completely necessary). In fact, of course, no such economic collapse beckons, though the debt is certainly something we’re going to need to deal with at some point, as a reasonably low priority. Doing so probably involving a tax hike (which the Tea Party also opposes) and cuts in defense spending (ditto).

Third, though, is something trickier. To some people on the Right, the country has seriously gone off track. The wrong people seem to be in charge, and a bad culture is emerging. That’s why Donald Trump’s ridiculous call to deport 11 million undocumented workers has resonance, or why Ben Carson’s comments on why Muslims shouldn’t be eligible for the Presidency struck a chord. It’s just a discomfort with . . . I don’t know what to call it. Post-racial post-modernity? The way things are? To call it racism is perhaps too strong; most Republicans aren’t cross-burners. But they’ve been made to feel . . . unwelcome. It’s hard to combat, because it’s more a feeling than anything else. But as the Republican base gets older and whiter, it also gets crankier. And the House Speakership fight is only a minor skirmish in a larger war.

Look at McCarthy’s speech above, quoted with such glee by Rachel Maddow. Yes, it’s certainly incoherent. But it’s not entirely gibberish. Unpack it carefully (keeping snarkiness to a minimum), and what he’s saying is something Yeats said much more eloquently.

Turning, turning in the widening gyre; the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. . . and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? (W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming)

Obama? All the while, keeping the place of the band? On America?  No wonder the Speaker fight is being so fiercely waged.



Kim Davis

The best things about the Kim Davis story have been the memes. Kim Davis, in case you were busy discovering water on Mars, is the Kentucky county clerk who has refused to grant marriage licenses to gay couples because, she says, of her deeply held religious convictions. Anyway, the memes have been terrific. A few favorites: Harrison Ford, holding up a sign reading ‘didn’t much care for Star Wars, did his job anyway.’ Freddy Mercury: ‘did not in fact like fat-bottomed girls, did his job anyway.’ And one featuring Congress, reading ‘US Congress, didn’t want to do their job, did . . . oh, wait, shoot, this one doesn’t work at all.’

Still, mock-worthy though Davis’ refusal has been, it’s not entirely risible. Religious liberty is an important constitutional principle. Marriage is an important institution. I wasn’t going to write about her at all, frankly, but after her visit with Pope Francis was confirmed, I thought I would toss a few random thoughts into the old Blog-Generator 2000©. With no particular coherence, and in no particular order, then:

1) Neither her physical appearance or the redneck-cliché look sported by her husband are fair game, or deserving of commentary. But her marriage history is relevant, though not for reasons often presented by our fellow lefties. Her personal story needs to be seen in the context of a conversion narrative. Once lost, now found; once a sinner, now repentant, right? Of course, there’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of her beliefs, and I think her history makes her stance more coherent; she’s been saved, in her mind, in both a spiritual and secular sense. Her life really has changed for the better, in measurable ways, because of her conversion. We should respect that.

2) I wish I could believe that Pope Francis’ visit with her was in the spirit of Jesus ministering to sinners and publicans. (While there has been some dispute about whether this visit actually happened, the Vatican has now confirmed it). This is an exceptionally cool pope; pro-science, deeply concerned with poverty and an opponent of capitalist greed. But he’s still a Pope, however progressive he may seem on a range of issues. On gay marriage, though? Not so much. This is who Francis is, this is what he stands for. Like every other pope ever, he’s infallibly fallible.

3) Let’s be very clear about what the SCOTUS decision in Obergefell did and what it did not do. It did not create new federal law. It did not ‘legislate from the bench.’ It was not a case of ‘five lawyers in Washington redefining marriage.’ The Supreme Court did exactly what it’s supposed to do: judicial review. It found laws banning same sex marriage unconstitutional, violative of the Fourteenth Amendment. That decision did have the effect of legalizing gay marriage across the country, that’s true. But there’s a small but significant between saying ‘you have to stop preventing’ these sorts of marriages and saying ‘you have to allow’ them. They add up to the same optics; deliriously happy folks celebrating their mutual, and now official, commitment. Those optics are also the main reason that public opinion on this issue has shifted so dramatically. I mean, come on.

4) But precisely because SCOTUS did find preventing gay couples from marrying unconstitutional, Ms. Davis was absolutely obligated not to unilaterally overrule their decision. Which, by denying licenses to gay couples who showed up in her office, she was attempting to do.

5) It’s perfectly obvious that Judge Bunning, the guy who jailed her for contempt, absolutely didn’t want to do that. He gave her every opportunity to comply with the Court’s decision. He made every effort to accommodate her beliefs. Her recent actions, which are to provide gay couples with marriage licenses with her name removed, are probably also illegal. This case is not over; she could easily find herself in jail again, for contempt.

6) Can we agree that the footage of Mike Huckabee’s aide physically preventing Ted Cruz from going up on stage and sharing in the ‘solidarity with Kim Davis’ photo-op love is one of the funniest takeaways so far from this political season?

7) I’m setting the over/under on how long before Kim Davis is a Jeopardy question at 18 months.


Soft voices, saying awful things

To the shock and awe of the pundit class, this election cycle has been dominated by The Donald, the Last Trump, the man the Deseret News columnist Sven Wilson calls “a human whoopee cushion; apply some pressure, and disgusting noises come out.”  Trump is bombastic, egocentric, and rude. He’s also either racist, or perfectly capable of saying racist things without embarrassment. And he’s ahead, by a lot, in all major polls. He also holds, on a few issues, policy positions that are (you have no idea how much it hurts to say this, but it’s true), reasonable and moderate. Meanwhile, much more mild-mannered, quiet, personally pleasant-seeming candidates in the race have been, quietly and politely saying awful, and untrue things. And getting away with it, because they’re not Donald Trump.

Case in point: Dr. Ben Carson:

I guess it depends on what that faith is. If it’s inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the Constitution, no problem. I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I would absolutely not agree with that.

Just for the record, the Constitution that Dr. Carson holds so dear states, in Article VI, that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Even if they’re (gasp, shudder!) Muslims.

To be fair, Dr. Carson has walked that back, a little. And I’m going to let go the fact that he’s a creationist, or that he once called the Affordable Care Act the “worst thing to happen to this country since slavery.” Or that he once seriously suggested that the 2016 election might be called off, due to anarchy. Or his suggestion that homosexuality is a choice, because people “go into prison straight – and when they come out, they’re gay.” In fact, Dr. Carson does sometimes walk back his more controversial comments; he’s a master of those ‘if anyone was offended, I’m sorry’ apologies. The point is that Dr. Carson, though ostensibly a very nice man, holds extreme views on almost every major political issue of this season.

Let’s turn to Carly Fiorina. She was widely perceived as having won the last Republican debate. And in a sense, she probably did. She is articulate, smart and a superb debater. And honestly, I enjoyed watching her perfect response to Donald Trump’s insults about her appearance. Her star is rising among Republican voters, and for good reason. She’s an excellent communicator.

But then there’s this. Describing those horrific Planned Parenthood videos, she said this:

Anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’

Wow. That’s powerful stuff. And so we think, inevitably, ‘those Planned Parenthood doctors are moral monsters.’ Except for one little problem; the image she so memorably describes never happened. It’s not on the video. Those videos are misleadingly edited anyway, and we do see a very brief shot of a still-born infant. But the image, and text she describes never happened.

She’s essentially accusing doctors of murder. The doctors in that video, and Planned Parenthood itself, could well sue her for malicious prosecution, a lawsuit they would win. I understand that conservatives are morally opposed to abortion, and that the Planned Parenthood videos are offensive to the sensibilities of many good religious people. They were intentionally edited to provoke precisely that response. Just consider this: shutting down Planned Parenthood will certainly increase, not decrease, the numbers of elective abortions performed in this country.

Ms. Fiorina was recently interviewed by Katie Couric, and they ended up talking at length about global climate change. Kudos to Ms. Fiorina! That’s an important issue, and one that most Republican candidates would rather not address. Again, she came across as reasonable and moderate. Again, she’s very impressive in interviews; well spoken and smart.

Except that essentially everything she said was dead wrong. called her on it. My favorite moment was when Fiorina said that California “destroys lives and livelihoods with environmental regulations.” California does indeed have stringent environmental regulations. California also created more jobs than any other state in the nation last year, and is fifth in GDP growth. And a lot of that growth is in, wait for it, yes, clean energy.

But my favorite is still Ted Cruz. And he was on Stephen Colbert last night, and he said this:

From 1978 to 1982, economic growth averaged less than 1 percent a year. There’s only one other four year period where that’s true. From 2008 to 2012, and what Reagan did was, he cut taxes, he cut regulations, unchained small businesses, and economic growth boomed, millions of people were lifted out of poverty. . .  As I travel the country, I haven’t seen anyone saying, the thing we want from Republicans is to give in more to Barack Obama and the direction we’re going.

Sounds reasonable, sounds principled. And Cruz’s manner is, again, fairly mild. Except that what he said is complete horsefeathers. Politifact checked this out recently. During Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, the number of Americans ‘raised from poverty’ was 294,000. By instructive contrast, during Bill Clinton’s Presidency, the number of Americans in poverty declined by 6.5 million.

It’s certainly true that poverty has increased during President Obama’s time in office. The numbers of Americans in poverty did go up from 2008-2012. The poverty rate has been in rapid decline since 2012, however.

And we all know why. Everyone in America knows why. The Great Recession hit in 2008. The economy nearly collapsed, not just here, but also in most of the developed world. Of course poverty has been high during Obama’s Presidency. He inherited an American economy in free-fall. And he’s done a splendid job of reversing it. Obama’s stimulus, so lamented on the right, created millions of new jobs. The benefits far outweighed the costs.

The simple-minded narrative would be that George W. Bush wrecked the economy, and Barack Obama has saved it. But the root cause of the Great Recession, the deregulation of the financial sector, was signed into law by Bill Clinton. But Clinton was a moderate Democrat, who occasionally embraced conservative principles. In reality, conservatism destroyed our economy, and Keynesian economics saved it. And Ronald Reagan did not lift millions of Americans from poverty, and what people really want is for the Obama recovery to continue. Ted Cruz’s comments, on Colbert, were really very silly.

Someone who speaks quietly will always seem reasonable, even if he is saying horrific things softly. Someone who speaks in full, grammatical sentences, with vivid examples to illustrate her point, will always come across as informed and sensible. Even if nothing she says can survive the most rudimentary fact-checking. Ted Cruz may seem like the Dad in a fifties sitcom, but Ward Cleaver would never stoop to vitriolic and untrue attacks on a sitting President. Style matters. Content matters a good deal more.

So how do we beat Trump?

I don’t know that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for President in 2016. Nate Silver, at, thinks he won’t be. It would be essentially unprecedented for a Presidential candidate with so few important endorsements from opinion-makers and party leaders to win the nomination. It would be similarly unprecedented, however, for a candidate who has held a lead in the polls as big as Trump’s for as long as he’s held it to not win the nomination. So it could happen.

It could happen. Take a second, and wrap your head around that amazing possibility. Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination for President of the United States. A guy whose basic stump speech consists of the rawest immigrant-bashing, braggadocio, attacks on his critics, and open dissing of the personalities of the opposing candidates. He could be the nominee.

So I went to the movies the other night with my wife, and, being an old guy, hit the restroom on the way into the theater. In the men’s room, these two middle-aged guys were talking about the Trump phenomenon. Bright guys; from the context of their conversation, I think they were both attorneys, possibly even law partners. I followed them out of the facility, eavesdropping. And as they went into their theater, one of them said, “The bottom line is, he’s a truth-teller. People like that.”

No. Donald Trump is not a truth-teller. In order to be a truth-teller, you have to tell the truth. Donald Trump does not tell the truth. On many issues, maybe even most issues, he says things that are factually inaccurate. I don’t doubt the sincerity with which he holds his views. I am, most emphatically, not calling him a liar. I am saying that there are such things as facts, as provable objective realities. The authenticity with which a person holds to views does not convey truthfulness on those views.

What Trump is, is authentic. He is who is, unvarnished and unapologetic. He brags all the time, because that’s what narcissists do, but also because he really, genuinely, authentically thinks his plan to defeat ISIS (for example) is going to be awesome. And when he says he’s going to ‘make America great again,’ and says it with his characteristic brio, it’s an appealing idea.

But let’s talk about truth. If I were to say to you, with great confidence, that I think the Earth is flat, I would be saying something untrue. It wouldn’t matter how genuinely I believe the Earth is flat. It isn’t.

In other words, the opposite of ‘truth’ isn’t necessarily ‘a lie.’ It might just be ‘ignorance.’ It might just be ‘factual confusion.’ It might be ‘ideology.’ It’s in that sense that I say that Trump is not a truth teller. I don’t think he’s actively trying to deceive people. I think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

So when he suggests (and I’m paraphrasing here), that America is being flooded with illegal immigrants, that those immigrants represent a major crisis for our country, that the Mexican government is sending those immigrants our way and that the ones they’re sending have a propensity for violent crime, and that our nation’s economic difficulties are largely due to illegal immigration, he is saying things that are not true. I’m not saying this because my opinions differ from his. I say this because all these issues have been carefully studied, published in peer-reviewed journals. And for the most part, the facts are not really in dispute. I mean, we don’t know exactly, precisely, how many undocumented workers there are in the US, in part because one of them died while I was writing this paragraph, but researchers from a number of disciplines, using different approaches to estimate the totals, all come up with figures within a few thousand of each other. I do not believe that Donald Trump is familiar with that research. I don’t think he cares.

I also have opinions about Donald Trump’s opinions. I think his opinions are, at best, based on gut impressions, or prejudices, or are simply made up on the spot. He’s a businessman. When he needs to know something for a project he’s working on, he does just as much research as he needs to do to enable the deal to go through. But I don’t know the man. I’m not in his head.

The poll numbers for Donald Trump, and Dr. Ben Carson suggest that the Republican electorate is fed up with traditional politicians, and with politics as usual. But the poll numbers on the Democratic side are even more interesting. Because right now, Hillary Clinton is floundering, and Bernie Sanders is surging.

I think the way to defeat authenticity is with equal authenticity. And if the electorate really is fed up with traditional politicians, that bodes ill for Hillary Clinton. I admire the woman, and think she’s easily the most qualified candidate in the race. I like her recent speeches. I would very much like for her to be President. But she comes across as, well, inauthentic. She seems like a politician. The ridiculous email non-scandal is hurting her immensely, not because there’s anything there, but because her response to it has seemed lawyerly. If this election is about authenticity, I have this suspicion that her reaction would be ‘I can fake that!’ Her candidacy is massively successful by traditional standards–she has wads of money, endorsements from every shaker-and-mover in the Democratic party, an excellent organization. But she’s floundering.

And she’s about to make a major miscalculation. She’s been attacking Sanders. She might even run ads against him. Bad bad bad idea. Double-plus un-good. Because that’s what politicians do.

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, seems cranky, seems impatient, isn’t terribly charismatic. But tens of thousands of young people flock to his events, driven there mostly through social media and word-of-mouth. He says, over and over, exactly what he plans to do as President. That’s incredibly appealing.

I’m not actually much of a Bernie Sanders fan. He’s skeptical of free trade, and I like free trade. He’s squishy on immigration, because unions are. And he’s indiscriminate in his criticism of big corporations. I’m no fan of corporate malfeasance. But not all big corporations are evil. I mean, if the choices are Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, that’s the easiest call in the history of American politics. If that’s the choice, I’m voting for Sanders. But he’s not the candidate of my dreams.

But there’s one other viable choice. Vice-President Biden hasn’t yet announced his intentions. It’s not surprising that he’s waited this long; after all, his son Beau, who he loved and who he called his ‘best friend’ died just a few weeks ago, a devastating personal blow for a man who has suffered more personal tragedies than most people. But I desperately hope Joe Biden runs.

If you didn’t see it, go on and see Stephen Colbert’s interview with Vice-President Biden. It’s just extraordinary. An astonishing moment of personal connection, between two men whose lives have been shaped by personal tragedy, in which both men talk about faith and love and family and how one recovers from the worst blows human beings ever have to bear.

If Joe Biden runs for President, runs while still consumed with grief and pain, if he stands before the American people, here’s what he will say. This will be his message:

“I have suffered personal tragedies, as have so many of you, my fellow Americans. And what I have learned is this: we have to help each other. We have to respond to pain and fear with courage and with generosity. My son’s death has taught me, more than anything else, one lesson: the purpose of life is to serve others. And I am running for President, because the purpose of government is to help the least fortunate among us.”

The way to fight authentic bombast is with equally authentic humility. The way to fight untruth is with truth. I am praying that Joe Biden runs for President. If he does, I will vote for him, and will work for his success. And he will win.

What I think Donald Trump means by political correctness

Donald Trump is way ahead in all the national polls, in the race for the Presidency. And this unlikely fact is driving the professional political class crazy. Things weren’t supposed to happen this way. In the leadup to the 2012 election, the list of announced Republican candidates had a similar clown car vibe, and unlikely front runners did keep popping up–Herman Cain, anyone?–but eventually order was restored, and the putative favorite, Mitt Romney, did in fact become the nominee. That isn’t happening now. And various pith-helmeted politico/anthropologists have been jungle-safariing for an explanation.

The most recent of these was the respected conservative pollster, Frank Luntz, who declared “my legs are shaking” after meeting with a focus group of Trump supporters:

The focus group watched taped instances on a television of Trump’s apparent misogyny, political flip flops and awe-inspiring braggadocio. They watched the Donald say Rosie O’Donnell has a “fat, ugly face.” They saw that Trump once supported a single-payer health system, and they heard him say, “I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.” But the group—which included 23 white people, 3 African-Americans and three Hispanics and consisted of a plurality of college-educated, financially comfortably Donald devotees—was undeterred.

At the end of the session, the vast majority said they liked Trump more than when they walked in.

The same night, Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace, who is working for the Jeb! Bush campaign, reported similar encounters with one particular Trump supporter: her father. She was on Rachel Maddow’s show a couple of nights ago, and she declared herself similarly baffled and appalled. Trump supporters don’t care: that Trump called Mexicans rapists and insulted Megyn Kelly and holds heterodox views (for a supposed Republican) on a whole range of issues. None of that matters. He says things that would permanently end most political careers, and his poll numbers go up. Then he’s called on it, refuses to apologize, refuses to back down. And his poll numbers go . . . up.

Here’s what I think is going on.

Remember, early on, when he said “I don’t have time for political correctness.” I don’t think he meant ‘political correctness’ as I generally understand the term. Political correctness usually refers to super-persnickity sensitivity to un-or-sub conscious sexism or racism in commonly used language. It relates to, among other things, the dismaying fact that English, unlike other languages, does not have a gender-neutral personal pronoun. Take this sentence: “when your child asks for chocolate, what he’s really asking for is. . . .” That’s sexist. It assumes that ‘your child’ is male. One unsatisfying solution would be to use the feminine pronoun ‘your child . . . she’s.’ Another, equally unsatisfying, would be ‘your child . . . he or she.’ My inner grammar finniken recoils at the increasingly popular compromise ‘they.’ Fact is, there’s not really an elegant way to de-genderize our personal pronouns. Well, the political correctness police don’t care about syntactical elegance. They want sexism gone from our language. They’re fine with ‘your child . . . he or she.’ Or worse, ‘your child . . . your child.’  Now I’m depressed. . . .

Sorry. Back to it. That’s not the kind of political correctness Mr. Trump seems to be referring to. Essentially, he’s saying ‘I’ll be rude if I want to.’ My beloved schoolmarm mother is, properly, horrified.

Digging deeper. I just finished reading a fascinating book, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson describes a woman, Justine Sacco, who, as she passed through Heathrow Airport in London, sent out a tweet about the trip she was taking to Africa. A dumb joke, she thought. She got on the plane, shut off her phone, fell asleep. When the plane landed, and she turned her phone back on, she discovered that her life was essentially over. Her tweet had gone viral, and was widely condemned as racist. She lost her job. She couldn’t get another one, because prospective employers would google her, see the tweet and the reaction to it, and decide she was toxic. 30 years old, and unemployable. Terrifying.

So Ronson’s book is about public humiliation, the ferocity of the cyberworld, the way we judge others based on a single tweet or comment or incident. And he cites several other examples of people whose lives were ruined, as Sacco’s was. But his book also includes a fascinating, and rather Trumpian, counter-example.

Formula One racing mogul, Max Mosley is not just prominent in his own right, he’s also the son of a prominent man–Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader during WWII.  Max Mosley was filmed by the British tabloid News of the World having a spectacular sado-masochistic sex orgy with five prostitutes, in a torture dungeon filled with German memorabilia. And he survived it, reputation and employment intact. He survived by going on a national news program and saying ‘yes, that’s me in those videos. I have a kinky sex life. So what? Lots of people do. I’m not ashamed, or embarrassed, any more than anyone else should be about their sex lives.’ And it worked. If anything, he was more popular afterwards.

I’m not saying that Donald Trump has Nazi-themed sex orgies, or anything like it. But there’s a certain game that somehow attaches to politics more than other endeavors. It’s a cycle of mistake-scandal-contrition-forgiveness that all politicians, when they say or do something embarrassing, are supposed to engage in. When Donald Trump says he rejects political correctness, he’s saying that he’s not playing. He’s unashamed.

Look at Facebook. If your Facebook newsfeed is like mine, it includes dozens, hundreds even, of politically-themed memes. And a lot of them show some prominent political figure, and a quotation of something offensive they said on some subject or other. And we’re supposed to recoil in horror. We’re supposed to take that particular quotation as indicative of the program or platform or personality of that political figure. We’re supposed to conclude that anyone who could say something like that must be either a monster or a moron. Certainly, having said that awful thing disqualifies him or her for public office.

Well, Trump’s not having it. He’s not playing that game. He’s not apologizing. He’s running for President because he thinks America’s on the wrong path. He wants to ‘make America great again.’ And a lot of people agree with him, and love how unabashed he is about it. And one of the things they like about him is that he’s not acting like a politician, carefully parsing every statement and focus-group-testing every stance. I get it; I get why he’s popular.

We all say dumb things all the time. And our mistakes don’t define us. We all have blind spots and we all have cockamamie ideas and we all have irrational and foolish prejudices. Trump just doesn’t apologize for his. Part of his personality is that he says rude things about people sometimes. Part of his personality is that he brags all the time about how great he is. That’s who he is; that’s the package. If you don’t like it, vote for someone else.

And that humiliating search for ‘gotcha’ quotations and past policy preferences, and the perceived necessity of groveling before the media when you get caught; it really does seem demeaning and unnecessary and self-righteous. That’s what Trump’s not interested in. He won’t apologize and he won’t back down. And that’s what he means by rejecting ‘political correctness.’ It is, I’ll admit, kind of refreshing.

(There’s still zero chance I’m going to vote for him. He’s just wrong on too many issues. But I am starting to get his appeal.)