To hear centrist Democrats tell it, going left is too risky. The problem with their narrative, is that they have been losing election after election by going too moderate. So why are they still getting away with presenting themselves as the reasonable ones?
As a society degenerates, life cheapens. The rhetoric that follows death coarsens. Respect paid to fallen rivals is replaced by triumphalism.
Historians observed this trend in ancient Rome. As republic turned to empire and domain expanded and so also arrogance and hubris, vanquished chieftains who previously might have been allowed to keep their thrones as the head of a vassal state were gruesomely executed at public triumphs. Early Christians got tossed to the lions. Gladiatorial combat became all the rage.
The assassination of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by U.S. special forces operating under orders from President Trump reminds us that ours is a nation in moral decline—bloodthirsty and crass, functioning more like a vengeful crime family sending a message to its rivals than a nation of laws, a hell pit so devoid of basic ethics that it doesn’t even occur to its ruling party’s adversaries to raise the question of legality.
Nor does it cross the minds of journalists to mention the United States’ responsibility for the rise of ISIS. Rather than defend the secular socialist government of Bashar al-Assad or staying out of it, the Obama Administration armed and funded the Free Syria Army, parts of which allied with ISIS. This began the civil war. By most accounts al-Baghdadi was radicalized by his time in a hellish prison in U.S.-occupied Iraq—that’s on George W. Bush.
Inserting the caveat that ISIS committed many terrible crimes under al-Baghdadi ought not to be necessary here. Alas, such is the depth of our depravity that to omit such a mention is to risk being accused of approving of ISIS, its religious extremism, its kidnapping, enslavement, torturing and beheading because one suggests, as I do here, that a culture that had not lost its moral moorings would not tolerate what Trump did, what the media fails to question and what even those on what passes for the “left” not only tolerate but cheer.
So here: ISIS sucks. Moving on:
“Thank you and congratulations to our special operations forces and others involved in tracking and getting rid of ISIS/Daesh leader Baghdadi,” tweeted Tulsi Gabbard.
Getting rid of.
Gabbard is, by far, the least militaristic candidate for president.
“In tone and substance,” Vox noted, “the announcements of the deaths of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Osama bin Laden couldn’t have been more different.” In 2011 Barack Obama used “nearly clinical tones” in his taped statement; Trump made fun of the dead jihadi, dubiously claiming that he left this world “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” before detonating a suicide vest. He “died like a dog, died like a coward,” Trump told a press conference. Perhaps Caesar had something similarly classy to say about Vercingetorix.
If ISIS had been defeated as the president previously stated, the death of al-Baghdadi wasn’t a military victory. Worse than the BS was the undiluted repulsiveness of the president’s statement. Trump’s degeneracy did not spring out of thin air; rather, it was the culmination of his predecessors’ increasingly shameless contempt for the human lives we have given them the power to snuff out, and their discovery that holding up a severed head as a trophy can get you votes.
Obama played it cool. He put his surrogates in charge of his death-gloating. “If you are looking for a bumper sticker to sum up how President Obama has handled what we inherited, it’s pretty simple: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” Vice President Joe Biden bragged as he stumped for Obama in 2012. No one in the media questioned the White House about the lack of legal justification for the operation.
“We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cackled in 2011 after she watched on TV as a U.S. drone missile hit the Moammar Khaddafi’s car, driving him into the hands of American-armed radical Islamists who sodomized the Libyan leader with a bayonet. Running for president in 2016, she reminded audiences that she’d been in the Situation Room watching bin Laden being whacked.
“Good riddance,” George W. Bush said after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was hung and decapitated. Bush invaded Iraq on the pretext that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. In fact, Colin Powell admitted to associates that the evidence he presented in a ballyhooed speech to the United Nations was “bullshit.” Saddam never threatened the U.S. Impeaching Bush for conning America into war, Nancy Pelosi said in 2006, was “off the table.”
We have come a long way since 1981, when Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican, signed Executive Order 12333, which states: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”
E.O. 12333—which remains in force—was part of the aftermath of the Church Committee hearings of the 1970s, which exposed assassinations and other illegal acts committed by the CIA in Latin America and elsewhere at the height of the Cold War. American spooks conspired to murder political adversaries and heads of state, mainly on the left, all over the world. Back then, the political class had the grace to pretend to be ashamed.
When asked whether they had ordered extrajudicial assassinations, presidents of that era issued what came to be known as the Glomar response: they refused to confirm or deny. They would never have admitted, much less boasted about, murdering people. The press would never have looked the other way. If they had, the American people would not have tolerated either the politicians or the journalists.
(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.)
More and more, the media seems especially enraptured with political candidates whose policy positions are vague to the point of being nonexistent. It helps if you are somewhat good-looking, young, and have a certain charisma if you want to appeal to today’s journalists. But no one cares about what you want to do to actually help people.
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.)
We keep hearing that Democratic officials are being polite and deferent to president-elect Donald Trump because they respect America’s tradition of smooth transitions of power. Given what Trump has said during the campaign, and the people he has appointed so far, however, that may not be appropriate.