Since the newspapers that generate over 90% of the news began tanking in the 1990s, we have repeatedly been told that some magic bullet, usually technological but not always, was going to save the industry.
All presidents suck so I hate them. But it takes a special something to trigger me into full-on Presidential Derangement Syndrome.
When you go from contempt to boiling rage at the mere thought of a president’s existence and less to his deeds, that’s PDS. When Reagan and one of the Bushes appeared it took Herculean effort to resist my urge to throw something heavy and lethal at the screen. The thought that two of these worthies are dead gives me nothing but pleasure; I hope to live long enough to witness the trifecta.
I hated their policies. But policies don’t trigger PDS. As a leftie I despise Democrats more than Republicans in the same way that the French loathed the Nazis but hated French collaborators more; Republicans are warmongering racist corporatist monsters but so are Democrats and they ought to know better.
I despised the transparent insincerity of Reagan’s “well, golly” phony folksiness juxtaposed against the viciousness of such actions as gutting the social welfare safety net to cut taxes for the wealthy. As with Reagan my visceral disdain for George HW Bush stemmed from his behavioral hypocrisy; how dare he play the civilized Connecticut preppy while he gleefully ordered a war crime, the massacre of thousands of Iraqis fleeing Kuwait during the Gulf War on the “Highway of Death”?
Bush Derangement Syndrome (about Dubya) pushed me over the edge.
Typically, the man’s politics were despicable. But it was his style, his stage manner, that really drove me nuts: his adopted Texas swagger and equally phony accent, the smirk, his manic cadence—above all, the look in his eyes that said: “I’m a dumbass and I like it.” I didn’t want to have a beer with him, I wanted him to move to the surface of the sun. The incurious idiot drove me to distraction and it shows in my cartoons from the Bush 43 era: angry, pedantic, ineffectual.
In Anglican-founded America, political satire is best served cold.
Living in New York most of my friends are Democrats. I empathize with yet do not share the Trump Derangement Syndrome that is rife throughout liberal-leaning media and among voters.
Trump, TDSers scream, is the worst president ever. They claim that his politics are uniquely ruinous, totally unprecedented, and represent an existential threat to everything good and decent about America. We are doomed! Pendant Trump, le déluge. Trump’s novel awfulness, they explain, is why they hate him so much they wouldn’t even consider having sex with someone hot if they owned a MAGA hat.
Liberals are mistaken. Like all Presidential Derangements, the Trumpian version is provoked by the man’s tone, not the substance of his policies.
No doubt, style matters. This president is the most uncivil, crassest, crudest, ugliest (in several meanings of the word) U.S. leader in memory. Maybe ever.
But style is only style. Style is not substance. Conflating Trump’s weird crazy demeanor with his generically Republican politics exacerbates a problem afflicting our national discourse, our pundits’ tendency to obsess over the distraction of personality rather than the politics that govern our lives.
Though repugnant, neither Trump’s politics nor his policies are significantly worse than those of his precedessors.
Trump separates and jails children at the Mexican border; the policy began smaller under Obama—who jailed and tortured children at Guantànamo (as did Bush). White government officials stole babies from Native Americans until the early 20th century.
Trump ignored Puerto Rico after it was destroyed by hurricanes; have we already forgotten Bush’s malign neglect after Katrina devastated New Orleans?
Trump’s White House staff reeks of nepotism and self-dealing. JFK appointed his brother, who never really practiced private law, as Attorney General. It didn’t take but Clinton tried to make his wife a healthcare czar.
Trump filled his cabinet with unqualified fools and officials who oppose the missions of the departments they lead. Nothing new there either: Reagan appointed a dentist as Secretary of Energy, a military general as the nation’s chief diplomat, a guy who wanted to eliminate the Education Department to run it and James Watt, who hated the environment, to lead the Interior Department.
Though it’s more style than substantial policy, Trump rightly earned contempt for legitimating the “alt right” in Charlottesville. Sadly, this is hardly new ground for a president. Reagan staged his 1980 campaign announcement rally in the tiny Mississippi town where the KKK murdered four Freedom Riders during the civil rights struggle in order to signal to racists that he was one of them. Nixon had his Southern strategy. Wilson (famously a racist) Taft, Truman and Ike tacitly approved of American fascists like Herbert Hoover and Joseph McCarthy as they hunted down “communists” who in many cases were not—and so what if they were?
Trump coddles dictators and tyrants like the Saudi prince who had a journalist murdered and sliced into pieces in a consulate but it would be difficult to identify any US president who didn’t maintain close diplomatic, financial and military ties with brutal dictatorships.
No. Trump is not a departure. He is a continuation of America’s insanely violent, classist, racist and militarist policies as pursued by every one of his predecessors.
The real reason liberals can’t stand Trump is that he’s vulgar. Everything from his ’80s-shiny too-tight suits and too-long cherry-red ties to his combover of death to the brass trimmings he favors in his hotels and his spray-on tan screams “used car salesman.” Obama, now he was a president: slim, trim, calm, professorial, multisyllabic. Anyone who liked Obama and hates Trump is kidding themselves if they don’t admit it: they’re can’t stand President Trump because he’s a terrible casting decision.
Politics has very little to do with it.
I hate Trump, but no more than previous presidents. Actually, there’s something I really like about him.
There’s little disjoint, no disconnect, between his disgusting policies and his equally gross persona. Trump is the president America, specifically American politics, deserve. You can’t help but look at that mean greedy pompous bloated orange flag-hugging idiot and think: here, at last, is the perfect embodiment of who we are and what we do to ourselves and the world.
We’ll probably get another “normal” president after Trump. The awful politics will stay the same, the rich will keep stealing from the poor, the bombs will keep raining down on the brown people and Democrats will go back to sleep.
I will miss him.
(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
George Carlin said: “Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity.” Given the timing I assume he was referring to how the Nixon Administration ramped up bombing in order to strengthen its hand against the North Vietnamese at the upcoming 1972 Paris peace talks. Thousands of residents of Hanoi were killed with no practical effect at the negotiating table. “The wording of the [final peace] agreement was almost exactly the same as it had been at the beginning of December—before the Christmas bombing campaign, Rebecca Cesby wrote for the BBC.
Henry Kissinger, the chief U.S. negotiator in Paris, admitted as much. “We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions,” said Nixon’s secretary of state, never missing a chance to be droll while bathing in the blood of innocents.
Here Donald Trump goes again.
“U.S. Heightens Attacks on Taliban in Push Toward Peace in Afghanistan,” read the headline in the New York Times on February 8th. One wag on my Facebook page commented: “It’s like the headline writers aren’t even trying anymore.”
“The Pentagon has stepped up airstrikes and special operations raids in Afghanistan to the highest levels since 2014 in what Defense Department officials described as a coordinated series of attacks on Taliban leaders and fighters,” began the Times piece. “The surge, which began during the fall, is intended to give American negotiators leverage in peace talks with the Taliban after President Trump said he would begin withdrawing troops and wind down the nearly 18-year war.”
Bombing a military target has obvious benefits: troops, equipment, materiel and infrastructure are destroyed or damaged that otherwise might have been deployed against you and your forces.
Military planners tout a more subtle theory in favor of the strategic bombing of civilians. Military planners assume as an evidence-free article of faith that blowing up urban areas accomplishes more than killing people and destroying their homes. They believe it “softens them up,” lowers their morale and undermines support for the government, perhaps even culminating in a popular uprising bringing the conflict to an earlier conclusion and the installation of a friendly new regime. The thing is, it only seems to have worked once—when Japan surrendered following the nukings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There is no evidence that non-nuclear bombing campaigns, no matter how ferocious or sustained, have ever accomplished more than leaving craters where people once lived. “Although more than 40,000 people died during the eight months of the Blitz and in London about 1,000,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, there were no riots and war production increased steadily,” notes an Economist review of the book “The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945” by Richard Overy. “People suffered, but the majority got used to it… Even when the Royal Air Force in 1942, closely followed by the U.S. Army Air Force, began to put together the famous ‘1000 bomber’ raids that were supposed to ‘knock Germany out of the war,’ German war production continued to ramp up and the Nazi regime never came remotely close to losing political control.”
Like the North Vietnamese in 1972, the Taliban in 2019 read newspapers. They know they’ve won. They know that the U.S. knows it has lost. They know U.S. voters have turned against the war against Afghanistan. Bombing or no bombing, all the Taliban have to do is hang tight before the U.S. leaves and tosses them the keys to the country on the way out.
Ramping up the violence now looks like what it is: a bitter, desperate, last-ditch effort to act even more like the monsters Afghans have become convinced that we are.
Aside from its pointlessness and total waste of life and treasure, what’s shocking about the Trump Administration’s “killing toward peace” campaign is its utter cluelessness about human nature. Trump won the presidency by accurately reading the mood of the electorate, particularly the long-neglected Rust Belt Midwest, when Democrats and the media could not. Why can’t his Defense Department see that an escalated bombing campaign against Afghanistan won’t improve our bargaining position and could make things worse?
For thousands of years in both the Western and Eastern worlds, the peace negotiations that ended the overwhelming majority of wars were concluded during ceasefires. Winding down armed conflict allowed the parties to mourn their dead, revel in their victory or wallow in loss. Most importantly, a ceasefire gives warring sides breathing space to begin to reframe their image of their soon-to-be former adversaries. Enemies become neighbors, eventually trading parties and perhaps even friends. Monstrous Others transform into who they were all along—people just like you and me.
We see now that the senseless slaughter of the 1972 Christmas bombings delayed the true peace of rapprochement between unified Vietnam the United States by years. If the U.S. is ever fortunate enough to reach a similar accommodation with Taliban-run Afghanistan, it will have been pointlessly delayed by America’s latest attempt to “bomb toward peace.”
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
This past spring the president met with his White House counsel to discuss an idea. Donald Trump wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey, the FBI director he fired. “It is not clear which accusations Mr. Trump wanted prosecutors to pursue,” reported The New York Times.
The counsel, Don McGahn, argued against it. He won the day. Trump shelved his boneheaded plan to Lock Them Up. Hillary remains free to collect six-figure speaking fees from ethically-challenged organizations and threaten to run for president again.
That worked out OK. After all, it would be hard to overstate the political crisis that would result if a precedent were established in which the perils of running for political office were to include getting thrown into prison should you lose.
But what about what was supposed to come next: the principled resignation?
Don McGahn stared into the face of the Leader of the Free World and Keeper of the Launchcodes and saw—there’s really no more precise way to put it—a lunatic.
“Mr. McGahn apparently was able to dissuade Mr. Trump from issuing the order to prosecute political enemies by telling him that the plan was so antithetical to American political values that it could trigger impeachment proceedings,” former U.S. attorney Harry Litman wrote in the Times.
No one, not even Trump, needs anyone to tell them that the winner of a presidential election doesn’t prosecute the loser. Bush didn’t file charges against Gore, Reagan didn’t charge Mondale, and FDR didn’t go after Hoover. They do that kind of thing in Pakistan, not the U.S. If Trump didn’t know that already, he’s too stupid to serve and should be removed under the 25th Amendment. If he did know, he’s a tyrant in the making and should be impeached at once. Floating such a crazy idea is automatically, irrevocably, determinately disqualifying.
No one should work for a nutty president (presidential nut?). Remaining associated with such a loon cannot make anything better. It cannot mitigate. It cannot save the republic. It can only lead to guilt by association. When you learn that the President of the United States is insane there is only one moral thing to do: call a press conference, resign and tell the world everything you know.
Yet McGahn remains.
Why? Does he need the money? Does he like the job? Does he believe he can successfully argue against Trump the next time he floats an un-American plan? Maybe he’ll soften some of the terms of martial law. I don’t know why he’s staying on. I do know there’s no good reason and no reasonable excuse. He should have quit last spring.
Now that the news is public, so should everyone who works for Trump.
There have been a lot of McGahns in recent years. No member of the Obama Administration resigned when he greenlit the illegal political assassination of Osama bin Laden, expanded Bush’s drone wars or bailed out Wall Street banks at the expense of Main Street businesses and homeowners. No one left the Bush White House when he ginned up a BS war against Iraq or authorized systemic torture in a new series of “dark site” concentration camps and covert dungeons.
The last major resignation based on political principle seems quaint now. It occurred in 1980 when Cyrus Vance resigned as secretary of state because Jimmy Carter authorized a military operation, the failed helicopter rescue mission to Iran, rather than give diplomacy a chance to resolve the embassy hostage crisis.
Alas poor Cyrus, we hardly knew ye! There never seems to be sufficient outrage (or accountability) to prompt someone to say no to a president or an opportunity.
It’s not on par yet nevertheless worth noting: this week the White House Correspondents Association invited historian Ron Chernow to host its annual D.C. journalist-politico dinner. It’s the first time the soiree has been MCed by a non-comedian or humorist. The reason is obvious: the WHCA caved into Trump’s reaction to stand-up comic Michelle Wolf’s incendiary performance last year.
Of course the president was angry. She was funny! Good humor is dangerous. Good political humor makes big political enemies and Wolf did. After the announcement that the WHCA had ditched satire in favor of historical reflection (why can’t we have both?), Trump tweeted that he might attend this year.
Chernow ought to be ashamed of himself. He’s allowing himself to be used. He’ll be remembered as yet another tombstone on the mass grave of American political satire and as the lickspittle of our rancid little president. But even the author of the “Hamilton” book used as the basis of the hit musical couldn’t resist the siren call of nationally televised attention. He should have said no. Given what went down last year between Trump and Wolf last year, any non-comedian ought to have said no.
In 1969 Jean-Paul Sartre—Professor Chernow, I own your books and his and you are no Sartre—refused the Nobel Prize in Literature. “A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable,” explained the father of existentialist philosophy.
Sartre is better and more fondly remembered for his rejection than many of those who accepted it.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
News conferences are a double oxymoron. Pressers aren’t conferences; conferences involve back-and-forth communication. Nor do they have anything to do with news. News is neither created nor conveyed at a press conference.
The one place in the world where news is least likely to happen is a press conference. If I were in charge of a media organization the last thing I’d spend money on would be a White House correspondent whose role is to sit politely holding up his or her hand, hoping like a compliant schoolchild to be called upon, begging for the privilege of being lied to.
Though there was that time an Iraqi journalist tried to bean George W. Bush with his shoe. Muntadhar al-Zaidi. He’s a journalist. And that was a news-making press conference.
Whatever CNN paid Jim Acosta to transcribe Donald Trump’s BS was too much. Even so, we owe Acosta for pushing the president so far that he yanked his reporter’s press pass in a fit of pique. With a brusque instruction to his despicable minister of propaganda Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump simultaneously exposed his authoritarian personality so that none could deny it. Even Fox News was alarmed, joining CNN’s (probably doomed) lawsuit against the president. “Secret Service passes for working White House journalists should never be weaponized,” quoth Fox’s Chris Wallace.
Trump threatened to revoke more White House press passes should his journalistic stenographers displease him.
The Acosta affair has convinced me of something I’ve been mulling for a long time: the president of the United States should be required to hold an hour-long daily press conference. Unless there’s a national emergency like 9/11. Then he can skip a day.
Why, if press conferences are total BS—and they are—should the president have to do them? Because this a democracy. Trump is not a king.
Roman emperors and generals rode through their triumphs next to a slave who whispered “remember you are mortal” in their ears lest their success convince them they were gods. Presidents should be required to host press confabs so they remember that they are not the people’s boss. Presidents are our servants. They are our slaves. They are accountable to we, the people or, the next best thing in this case, the people’s scribes. Presidents owe us answers.
The death of press conferences reflects the dedemocratization of America’s politics and the rise of an imperial attitude that belies the country’s moral and economic decline. During Donald Trump’s first year in office he held just one old-fashioned solo press conference.
The trend has not been a straight line but the overall track is unmistakable. Obama held seven during his first year, Bush 43 had four, Clinton 11, H.W. Bush 27, Reagan six, Carter 22.
JFK held an average of 23 press conferences a year. Track them down on YouTube; the witty banter and jovial self-confidence is a sad reminder of what we’ve lost.
Trump is not a king, American presidents are not kings, but even that comparison of accessibility is unfair—to hereditary monarchs. In many societies kings and queens were expected to clear their schedules for royal audiences where subjects could lodge petitions and plead grievances. These events are depicted in the alt-medieval fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” In India medieval kings, and then Mughal emperors appeared at their balcony for the Jharokha Darshan, a daily audience where the public griped, groused and begged for royal indulgence.
There will be those who argue that the president is too busy to meet the press. Fortunately, there is ample proof that Donald Trump, like Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him, have more than free time to make themselves available. He, like most former presidents, play the hours-long, fake sport of golf.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
There are no eye sockets big enough for the eye-rolling I want to do when I hear American politicians express shock at political violence like the last week’s domestic terror trifecta: a racist white man murdered two blacks at a Kentucky grocery store, a white right-winger stands accused of mailing more than a dozen pipe bombs to Democratic politicians and celebrities, and a white anti-Semite allegedly gunned down 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
There’s plenty of blame to go around.
The assault weapons ban expired in 2004 and Congress failed to renew it; eight million AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and related models are now in American homes. Mass shootings aren’t occurring more frequently but when they do, body counts are higher.
In 1975 the Supreme Court ruled that a state could no longer forcibly commit the mentally ill to institutions unless they were dangerous. It was a good decision; I remember with horror my Ohio neighbor who had his wife dragged away so he could move in with his girlfriend. Unfortunately it set the stage for the Reagan Administration’s systemic deinstitutionalization policy. During the first half of the 1980s mental hospitals were closed and patients were dumped on the streets. The homeless population exploded. Under the old regime, obviously deranged people like James Holmes (the carrot-haired mass shooter at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado), Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut) and Cesar Sayoc (the homeless man arrested for last week’s mail bombs) would probably have been locked up before they could hurt anyone.
This time, the post-mayhem political classes blame Donald Trump. He’s bigoted and loudly legitimizes far-right extremism. Did his noxious rhetoric inspire these three right-wing bigots? I think it’s more complicated: Trump can convince a reasonable person to turn racist. But it’s a bigger jump to turn a racist into a killer. That has more to do with insanity.
Tone, morale, what’s acceptable vs. what’s unacceptable: social norms come from the top and trickle down to us peasants. Trump’s rhetoric is toxic.
But the message that violence is effective and acceptable didn’t begin with Trump. And it’s hardly unique to his presidency.
To paraphrase the old Palmolive commercial: Violence? You’re soaking in it! And no one is guiltier of our culture of violence than the countless politicians who say stuff like this:
“Threats or acts of political violence have no place in the United States of America.” —Trump, 10/24/18. Untrue. Five days earlier, Trump praised (“he’s my kind of — he’s my guy”) a psychotic Montana congressman who assaulted a reporter, breaking his glasses.
“There’s no room for violence [in politics].” —Barack Obama, 6/3/16. Yet every week as president Obama worked down a “kill list” of victims targeted for drone assassination because they opposed the dictatorial governments of corrupt U.S. allies. And he bragged about the political assassination of Osama bin Laden rather than putting him on trial, as the law requires.
Textbooks teach us, without irony or criticism, about Manifest Destiny—the assumption that Americans have been entitled from Day One to whatever land they wanted to steal and to kill anyone who tried to stop them. Historians write approvingly of the Monroe Doctrine, the insane-if-you-think-about-it claim that every country in the Western hemisphere enjoys only as much sovereignty as we feel like granting them. Implicit throughout America’s foreign adventurism is that the U.S. invading and occupying and raiding other nations is normal and free of consequence, whereas the rare occasions when other nations attack the U.S. (War of 1812, Pearl Harbor, 9/11) are outrageous and intolerable and call for ferocious retribution.
After childhood the job of brainwashing otherwise sane adults into the systemic normalization of state violence falls to our political leaders and their mouthpieces in the media.
Even the best politicians do it. It’s a system. When you live in a system, you soak in it.
“In this country we battle with words and ideas, not fists and bombs,” Bernie Sanders tweeted in response to the mail bombs. What a lie.
The mayor of Philadelphia ordered that police drop a bomb on a row house in a quiet neighborhood in 1985. The botched effort to execute arrest warrants on an anarcho-primitivist group called MOVE killed 11 people and burned down three city blocks, destroying 65 buildings. Police shot at those trying to escape. Naturally, no city official was ever charged with wrongdoing.
Cops kill a thousand Americans every year.
Every president deploys violence on a vast scale. They’re cavalier about it. They revel in their crimes because they think bragging about committing mass murder makes them look “tough.”
How on earth can they act surprised when ordinary citizens follow their example?
After watching Islamist rebels torture deposed Libyan leader Moammar Ghaddafi and sodomize him with a bayonet, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chuckled gleefully about America’s role in his gruesome death (a U.S. drone blew up the dictator’s convoy): “We came, we saw, he died.”
At the 2010 White House Correspondents Dinner Obama joked about his policy of assassinating brown-skinned Middle Easterners willy-nilly: “The Jonas Brothers are here; they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you: Predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking.”
Imagine the president of France or Germany or Canada or Russia saying something that insensitive, tasteless and crass. You can’t. They wouldn’t.
“It’s already hard enough to convince Muslims that the U.S. isn’t indifferent to civilian casualties without having the president joke about it,” commented Adam Serwer of the American Prospect. Assuming Muslims are dumb enough to be convinced.
When political leaders in other countries discuss their decisions to commit violence, there’s often a “more in sorrow than in anger” tone to their statements. Don’t want to, can’t help it, regrettable—just don’t have a choice.
American presidents are different. They swagger like John Wayne.
The crazies who shoot up schools and synagogues sound a lot like them.
“Screw your optics, I’m going in,” accused Pittsburgh temple shooter Robert Bowers posted to social media hours before the incident.
“Hey mom. Gotta go,” Dylan Klebold said on video the day before he and Eric Harris killed 20 people at Columbine High School.
“Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well,” wrote Andrew Stack before he flew his plane into an IRS office in Austin in 2010.
There is, of course, a difference between killer elites and killer proles. The elites kill more people.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.
America squandered an important national moment.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh wept. On national TV. For 45 minutes. The startling visual of a top-tier political figure quaveringly weaving between the emotional cones of anger, embarrassment and despair had the potential to launch a national conversation about masculinity and society’s response to men who lay bare their emotions.
Men need permission to cry, to be vulnerable, too. The #MeToo movement is giving women permission to proclaim their victimhood without shame. Under better circumstances Kavanaugh’s display might have given leave to American men to admit that they too are emotional beings, that they hurt and feel as much as women.
Instead of a national conversation about masculinity and gender norms we got predictable partisan politics.
“A crying Brett Kavanaugh. This is what white male privilege looks like,” sneered the headline of an op-ed by The Sacramento Bee’s Erika D. Smith.
Scorn was the standard liberal response to Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s furious, weepy reading of his prepared remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Men, particularly white and privileged men, find that they can get away with acting like colicky children, and they are infantilized when it suits them,” Jamil Smith lectured in Rolling Stone, equating acting out with childishness. “His testimony was a tantrum.” Smith’s emotion-shaming piece was titled “Brett Kavanaugh’s Fragile Manhood.” Not very PC.
Conservatives were no less hypocritical.
Right-wingers broke macho form in the divide over gender norms, defending their sobbing nominee. During the break between Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s appearances Rush Limbaugh presciently mused aloud: “Do you think Kavanaugh should cry?” Rush answered his own question: “Noooo.” Team politics prevailed. Despite the judge’s failure to take his on-air advice Rush later pronounced himself pleased: “He unloaded on them!”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive considering a 2020 presidential run, mirrored Trump’s description of Kavanaugh but for Dr. Ford: “brave, compelling, and credible.” Calling Kavanaugh “unhinged,” she said he “whined, ranted, raved, and spun conspiracy theories.” Praise versus contempt: the personal has never been more political. Had the roles been reversed, had Dr. Ford been the angry/weepy one, there is no world in which Warren would have described her as unhinged.
“I don’t believe in crying,” Trump told a biographer. “It’s just not my thing. I have nothing against it when someone cries, but when I see a man cry, I view it as a weakness. I don’t like seeing men cry.”
Crying makes me uncomfortable too. “The feminization of America,” a conservative colleague texted me as we watched Kavanaugh. Initially I agreed. Watching a man cry gives me what Germans call fremdscham: vicarious embarrassment for someone else. John Wayne didn’t do waterworks and neither do most guys. Studies find that men cry about one-fifth as often as women.
Were Kavanaugh’s tears the frustrated, desperate expression of an innocent man falsely accused before his friends, family and an entire nation? Or, as one of detractors alleged, did he wimper “because his past finally caught up with him and deep down, he knows it”? Could it be something in between, a blend of anger because some of the accusations are false and self-pity because others are true? We’ll probably never know what really happened at those high school and college parties.
But we don’t need to know why Kavanaugh cried to see why they matter.
However you assess Kavanaugh’s tears, they marked a giant leap for public emotionalism and a major political moment for malekind. Even in a Democratic primary campaign so dominated by liberals that George McGovern ultimately won, Edmund Muskie’s teary press conference defending his wife’s honor in New Hampshire made him look like a wimp. It marked the beginning of the end of his 1972 campaign—and he cried a lot less than Kavanaugh.
After Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder broke down during her announcement that she wouldn’t run for president in 1988, The Chicago Tribune reported that “women reacted with embarrassment, sympathy and disgust” over a display that seemed to reinforce the sexist stereotype that women were too emotional to lead.
Twenty years makes a difference. Running against Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton cultivated a steely Maggie Thatcher-like image—and watched her polls sink. “If you get too emotional, that undercuts you. A man can cry—but a woman, that’s a different kind of dynamic,” Clinton observed. Turns out, voters don’t really want female versions of Spock from Star Trek. Talking about the toll of campaigning at a New Hampshire diner, she shed a few drops in search of a boost. The brief emotional display was almost certainly planned but she won the primary.
If the ideological shoe were on the other foot, if Kavanaugh were a Democrat and he were being grilled by Republicans, I bet my fellow lefties would embrace this moment. They wouldn’t be contemptuous. Far from questioning his judicial temperament because he cried, they’d applaud his courage. Conversely, Dr. Ford’s story might be disbelieved because she kept it together and stayed calm.
Men may not cry as much as women. Some scientists think testosterone inhibits tear flow. All the same, it is natural. “All their lives they were told, ‘Real men don’t cry,’ yet studies show how crying is a way for the body to release toxins from the body,” Sam Louie wrote In Psychology Today. “From a physiological perspective, when humans get stressed there is an increase in adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Over time as this builds it leads to more stress that demands to be released.”
For a political figure like Kavanaugh, however, research suggests that crying in public can achieve something even more important than releasing toxins: being relatable. According to a 2013 Tilburg University study published in Evolutionary Psychology, “respondents report being more willing to provide support to people with visible tears than to those without tears.”
There’s nothing like a good cry. Men want that privilege too.
Donald Trump may last; he may go away. But the influence of his revolutionary approach to American politics will endure. What he learned and taught about campaigning will be studied and emulated for years to come.
Social media matters. In 2016 his free Twitter feed defeated Hillary Clinton’s $1.2 billion fundraising juggernaut.
It’s not location, not location, not location. Clinton dropped buckets of cash on events in big expensive cities. Remember her Roosevelt Island launch announcement, the fancy stage using Manhattan as a backdrop? Trump rode the escalator down to his lobby. He held rallies in cheap, hardscrabble cities like Dayton and Allentown. He understood that his audience wasn’t in the room. It was on TV. It doesn’t matter where the event is held.
Stump speeches are dead. Stump speeches originated in the 19th century. In an era of mass communications you’re an idiot if—like Clinton—you read the same exact text in Philly as you read in Chicago. CNN covered Trump’s rallies more than Hillary’s because not because Jeff Zucker wanted Trump to win. TV networks are in the ratings business; Trump’s free-form extemporizing was entertaining because you never knew what he was going to say.
Now Trump is revolutionizing governance.
The biggest revelation from Trump’s first term—at this writing, I assume he’ll be re-elected—is that bipartisanship is dead. Even with the slimmest majority, a political party can get big things done. You don’t need the other party. Not even a single crossover.
The president can be unpopular. Ditto your party. All you need to govern successfully is party discipline. Keep your cabal together and anything is possible.
Trump’s approval ratings hover around 38%. That’s Nixon During Watergate level. Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate. Conventional wisdom, based as it is on historical precedent, dictates that controversial legislation can only pass such a narrowly-divided legislative body if the majority entices some members of the minority to go along. There’s a corollary to that assumption: the implicit belief that laws are politically legitimate only if they enjoy the support of a fairly broad spectrum of voters.
Not any more.
In this Trump era major legislative changes get rammed through Congress along strict party-line votes—and Democrats suck it up with nary a squawk. Trump’s Republicans passed a huge tax cut for corporations and rich individuals. Protesters? What protesters? The GOP gutted Obamacare and suffered no consequences whatsoever…not even a stray attack ad.
The same goes for judicial nominations. Time was, a President would withdraw a nominee to the Supreme Court if the minority party wasn’t likely to support him or her, as Reagan did with the controversially far-right Robert Bork. Trump rams his picks through the Senate like Mussolini, Democrats be damned.
Rightist extremist Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a slim 54-45. Considering that Democrats were still seething over Republicans’ refusal to consider Obama high court nominee Merrick Garland (a centrist) for 10 months, that was a remarkable success. We don’t know what will become of the battle over Brett Kavanaugh, hobbled by multiple accusations of sexual assault and his anguished, furious performance trying to defend himself on national television; if confirmed it will be by the slimmest of party-line votes.
One can, and perhaps should, deplore the new normal. In the long run, it can’t bode well for the future of a country for its citizens to be governed by laws most of them are against, passed by politicians most of them despise, and whose constitutionality is assessed by court justices most of them look down upon. But this is reality. Sitting around tweeting your annoyance won’t change a thing.
Darwinism isn’t survival of the fittest; it’s survival of the most adaptable. Crocodilians have stuck around hundreds of million of years in part because they’ve learned to eat just about anything. The same goes for politics: if Democrats want to win power and score big victories after they do they’ll learn the lessons of Trumpism or die.
Party discipline is everything. Traitors, Democrats In Name Only, cannot be tolerated.
There is no room in a modern political party for “moderates” or “centrists.” Only a strong, strident, unapologetically articulated left vision can counter the energized GOP base and its far-right agenda.
Politics as bloodsport? It was always so. Republicans knew it. Thanks to Trump, Democrats can no longer deny their clear options: get real or get left behind.
Imagine a store that makes its customers miserable. This interior is ugly and uncomfortable. At best the staff is indifferent and slow; at worst rude and incompetent. You pay sky-high prices for inferior goods. Often you pay full price yet leave the place empty-handed.
You don’t have to be a marketing expert to guess what would happen to such an establishment. It would go out of business. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if a mob of ripped-off consumers burned the place down.
I’ve just described the U.S. government.
You interact with government many times each day. How many of those encounters are positive?
Close to zero.
Let’s look at the single-most common connection between governments and citizens: the payment of taxes. Sales taxes on goods and services — painful and annoying. Income taxes — the same. What do you get back for paying for your taxes? Nothing specially for you. Sure you benefit from public schools, roads and so on. But those bennies are shared. And you might not even use those. What if you don’t have kids, or send your kids to private school because the public school isn’t good enough? Aside from the occasional unemployment check, most people never receive direct help from “their” government.
When we interact with agents of the state — the employees of the metaphorical store I described up top — it’s a miserable experience. OK, you’re thrilled when the firefighters show up. But you’ll probably never have to call them more than once in your life. The vast majority of the government workers you meet aren’t there to help you. They’re out to lower your quality of life.
Here, in rough order of frequency, are the government workers you are most likely to come into contact with:
Cops: they exist to give you tickets. Fines for minor offenses are exorbitant: $150 on average, up to $2400 in some states. Points raise your insurance rates. You might even lose your license. If you’re black they harass you; they might kill you. Once in a blue moon, they might save you from danger. Mostly it’s about the tickets.
TSA: the Blue Derps of the airport world delay your trip, mess up your neatly packed luggage and steal your precious fluids and sharp objects. There’s no evidence they’ve ever foiled a terrorist.
Clerks at government offices like courthouses, the DMV or Social Security: unlike the aforementioned they probably won’t take your money or possessions. Instead they waste your time. Sluggish, cynical and uncaring, the typical civil servant drags their feet with no apparent sense of urgency. Many are surly and rude.
Jury duty: in a perfect world, could be interesting. Most municipalities make jury duty as inconvenient as possible, particularly for the self-employed and parents and other caregivers. Why can’t you write a letter to ask to be excused?
IRS: if you hear from an agent, you’re being audited. Be prepared to cough up thousands. If you’re lucky.
Government facilities are as awful as the people who work there.
Government buildings and offices tend to be old and rundown. Given that wait times drag on interminably you’d think they might provide such basics as comfortable chairs with charging stations and work booths for your laptop and wifi, but no. They could pick up a cue from restaurants that give you a buzzer or text you to let you know when your table is ready so you could get a coffee or whatever while you’re waiting — right. Like they give a damn.
God help you if try to call a government office. Crazy voicemail phone trees, brief office hours (they’re open while you’re working), long hold times, arbitrary disconnections and, if you ever get through, probably no help in the end.
Obviously there are dedicated public servants who view taxpayers as valuable customers and work hard to help them. But these saints are exceptional. Here we’re discussing your typical interaction with government and government workers. Those interactions suck.
By global standards of injustice and inconvenience these problems pale next to getting blown up by a Hellfire missile or being raped or succumbing to cancer. Nevertheless they have serious repercussions.
Lousy customer service by government inexorably creates and grows contempt not merely for specific government agencies like the police but for government in general. Particularly on the right opportunistic politicians exploit the resentments of people who feel mistreated and neglected by a government that supposedly serves them. I get nothing from the government and I work hard, get rid of welfare for lazy slobs! Hell, as Ronald Reagan said, government is the problem, not the solution — get rid of it entirely!
Anti-government sentiment is a major motivation for Donald Trump’s Tea Party base. Liberal entreaties that we ought to appreciate such important “socialist” government services as a military that protects our borders and public universities that educate our children fall on deaf ears (and not just among conservatives) because those positives are psychological abstractions.
Our material day-to-day interfacing with government is as I describe it above: relentlessly negative. They suck away our cash, slow us down and disrespect us.
Crappy government is more of a feature than a bug. Offices are poorly maintained and uncomfortably furnished for a reason: budget planners don’t prioritize renovations. Financial cutbacks in the public sector mean below-market salaries and dead-end jobs without opportunity to advance so it’s hard to attract the best and smartest workers. You can’t blame those who get stuck there — even the good ones — for turning surly.
Bureaucratic dysfunction is so entrenched it’s hard to imagine an improvement. But the blowback will come.
Look at images of revolutionary uprisings throughout history. Crowds of people consumed with rage roam the streets destroying everything in sight.
Look at images of collapse. Hollow expressions from years of being beaten down.
Whether by revolution or implosion, a system that ladles out as many industrial-sized buckets of contempt-provoking annoyance and oppression as the United States government must inevitably go the way of that suicidal, idiotic store.
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This past week more than 300 American newspapers colluded — if the word fits… — to simultaneously publish editorials declaring themselves, contra Trump, not “the enemy of the people.” Shortly thereafter the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring that it too did not consider the press to be, in a phrase that evokes the rhetoric of the former Soviet Union, state enemies.
The Boston Globe organized this journalistic flash mob.
“The greatness of America is dependent on the role of a free press to speak the truth to the powerful,” the Globe‘s editorial board wrote. “To label the press ‘the enemy of the people’ is as un-American as it is dangerous to the civic compact we have shared for more than two centuries.” President Trump has repeatedly derided the media as “the enemy of the people” and purveyors of “fake news” on Twitter and at campaign rallies.
The First Amendment guarantee of press freedom, the Globe wrote, “has protected journalists at home and served as a model for free nations abroad. Today it is under serious threat.”
Is it really?
The surprise election of Donald Trump has elicited more the-sky-is-falling handwringing than any other political event in my lifetime (I will turn 55 next week). Very Serious People have warned in Big Important Newspapers that the rise of Trump harkens the transformation of the U.S., and other Western democracies, into fascist states. Even before he took office, the ACLU called Trump “a one-man constitutional crisis.”
No doubt, Trump’s rhetoric evokes the president’s authoritarian instincts: deriding his foes as anti-American, calling for and ordering mass deportations, supporting torture, and yes, press-bashing showcase the mindset of a man who doesn’t support democratic values and probably doesn’t even know much about the history or philosophy behind them.
But let’s separate Trump’s crude rally remarks and crass online rants from his Administration’s policies. What is he actually doing? How does his day-to-day governance represent a radical departure from the norms established by presidential precedents?
When you set aside Trump’s talk in order to focus instead on his walk, it is hard to conclude that he is an outlier by American standards. A better analogy, a friend observes, is Kaposi sarcoma, a cancer commonly associated with AIDS. It can kill you. But it’s not the main reason you’re having problems.
In other words, Trump isn’t — despite what 300-plus newspaper editorial boards would have us think — a root cause of American crisis. He is a symptom of preexisting conditions. This is important. Because if we delude ourselves into thinking that getting rid of Trump will fix what ails us, things will only get worse.
Running down the list of what offends people about Trump, there is nothing here we haven’t seen before — and ignored when other presidents did them.
Trump stands accused of colluding with Russia to steal the 2016 election. There is still zero evidence that this happened. It’s still just vague insinuations leaked to newspapers with histories of cozying up to the CIA-FBI-NSA by anonymous CIA-FBI-NSA spooks.
There is, on the other hand, ample evidence that Ronald Reagan colluded with Iran to delay the release of the 52 American embassy hostages held in Tehran in order to destroy Jimmy Carter’s reelection chances.
Richard Nixon colluded with a shadowy Taiwanese business executive with ties to South Vietnam in order to scuttle the Johnson Administration’s last-ditch attempt to negotiate peace between South and North Vietnam just before the 1968 election. Nixon squeaked by the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, by 0.7%. LBJ said Nixon was guilty of “treason,” but nothing happened.
Trump has been criticized for mass deportations of illegal immigrants, including separation of children from their parents, and rightly so.
But there is nothing new about Trump’s actions on immigration. Bill Clinton deported 12 million people, George W. Bush deported 10 million and Obama deported 5 million. (Obama’s numbers were lower but more robust because he ordered ICE to charge illegal immigrants as criminals. They faced prison if they returned. Previous presidents merely sent them home on buses and planes.)
As the National Immigration Law Center points out, “President Trump is exploiting the tools and infrastructure set in place by previous administrations to (1) expand the definition of who should be banned and deported and (2) militarize federal agencies and build up the deportation machine.”
Separating children from their parents at the border began under Obama, albeit in smaller numbers.
Trump has legitimized the “alt-right,” i.e. the psychotic right-wingers we used to call Nazis, Klansmen and fascists. Even after a fascist murdered a woman and injured others at an alt-right riot in Charlottesville, the president wallowed in false equivalence: “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” Coddling racists is disgusting. But it’s not new to American politics.
During the 1990s then-First Lady Hillary Clinton called some African-American youth “superpredators.”
Reagan relied on racist dog-whistles during his 1980 campaign, which he launched in the small Mississippi town where the Klan murdered four Freedom Riders during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “I believe in states’ rights,” Reagan said. States right was political code for supporting racial segregation.
On substance, legislation and regulation, Donald Trump is virtually indistinguishable from his predecessors, many of whom are responsible for far more serious attacks on democracy.
George W. Bush alone is guilty of far more heinous crimes. He introduced the dangerous explosion of “signing statements” in which the president signs a bill into law and then crosses his fingers behind his back, secretly ordering that the law not be enforced. And he invaded Iraq preemptively, an extreme violation of international law, which states that nations may only go to war in self-defense or when faced with a grave and imminent military threat.
Where Trump differs from previous presidents is in tone. He is obnoxious and obscene. He lies — loudly. At least in public — they all swear in private — Americans like their leaders calm, deliberative and low-key.
It isn’t surprising that Trump’s trash-talking is freaking people out. But we shouldn’t conflate rudeness with an existential threat to democracy. Democracy, decency and civility were never real American values in the first place. That, not Trump, is the real problem.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s independent political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)