Is Tim Kaine a Progressive?

As a progressive democrat, I was disappointed when Hillary chose Tim Kaine, a politician known as a centrist, for her running mate. Hillary, it seems to me, missed out on a chance to show her progressive good faith and to appeal to a critical part of the electorate. My personal preference was for Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a senator with a strong reform record and a proven concern for the plight of America’s working and middle class.

The choice of vice presidential partner, of course, is important for considerations other than the tactical one of getting elected. The prospective vice president is key not only as a trusted assistant in a Clinton administration, but as a possible future Democratic nominee.

In whatever role he plays, there are different ways of looking at Kaine from political perspective. One finds basically two narratives about him coming respectively from the Hillary and Bernie wings of the party. To begin with the Hillary side, he checks off many of the boxes we think of for a liberal politician. In his senate voting, he gets a respectable 90% rating from Americans for Democratic Action. Kaine takes generally liberal positions on immigration, healthcare,  gun control, the minimum wage, the environment, and energy. Despite a recent attempt to lighten up on small local banks, he is generally supportive of financial regulation. While he has made no secret of his personal opposition to abortion based on his religion, he recognizes the validity of Roe v. Wade, believing that decisions on such matters are beyond the government’s authority.

To his credit, Kaine has shown a strong personal commitment to civil rights over the years. His liberalism on that score has to be understood in the context of his Catholic upbringing. Educated in Jesuit schools, he absorbed the liberal tenets of Catholic social doctrine. While at law school, he took a year off to work for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Honduras. As a practicing attorney, he specialized in fair housing law, taking on cases that involved discrimination against racial minorities. He was elected mayor of the black-majority city of Richmond. And in his personal life, he involved himself in the community he served, attending a black-majority church and sending his three children to the integrated Richmond public schools.

The Bernie wing, on the other hand, raises valid questions about Kaine’s past connections and proclivities. Perhaps most critical is his long-time association with the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a home for middle-of-the-road Democrats who sought to combat leftward tendencies in the Democratic Party. Friendly to the corporate world, it embraced “market-based solutions” and sponsored such ideas as welfare reform, free trade, charter schools, and austerity budgets. It was central to the careers of such politicians as Sam Nunn, Bill Clinton, and Joe Lieberman and presumably provided a template for Tim Kaine.

Kaine, who governed a moderately conservative southern state during the George Bush years, could not avoid being brushed with DLC-type policies. Precluded by a conservative legislature from raising taxes, he presided over a regime of government cut-backs and frequent concessions to corporate entities. He focused on balanced budgets, although this was part of his duty as a chief executive, as required by the state constitution. Later on in the Senate, he apparently bought into the general wisdom fostered by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its allies that trade agreements are unalloyed benefits.

The key question one has to ask is how Kaine stands today on the corporate world’s agenda of market-based solutions and reduced regulation. Would he generally support it, or would he align himself with progressive policies that dial back corporate influence and uphold the broad public interest. To be fair to Kaine, times have changed since he was associated with the DLC. The Great Recession of 2008, which showed what can happen when financial regulations are lax, and the rise of economic inequality in America have produced strong correctives within the Democratic Party. The Occupy Movement, the rise of Elizabeth Warren, and the vibrant campaign of Bernie Sanders are clear illustrations of the new climate.

One can take some comfort from Kaine’s stance on one issue where most Democrats, including Obama and many progressives, have been badly led astray: education (see our previous blogs on this subject). While Democrats these days typically sing the praises of charter schools, Kaine sees through the siren call of the education reformers, having observed public education up close in Virginia. He understand that charter schools, heavily supported by corporate backers and generally not organic to their communities, have drawn federal and state funds away from existing public schools and shown, at best, only mixed results. In absorbing public money, they threaten one of America’s most democratic of institutions. Kaine and his wife Anne Holton (Virginia’s Secretary of Education) are proven supporters of public schools. Kaine’s progressivism on this one issue is a tea leaf in his favor.

But first Clinton has to get elected. And it remains to be seen how Kaine will enhance the ticket, about which I am somewhat skeptical, before we can speculate on how he might affect a prospective Clinton administration.


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The Email Controversy

Whoever could have predicted that an issue as technical and nerdy as  Clinton’s email system would become so controversial? The scandal has dominated her candidacy and sucked much of the oxygen out of issues that cry out to be discussed in the current presidential campaign. Whatever valid questions it may raise about the candidate’s judgement, it needs to be put in perspective. Certainly Bernie was on the right track when he said “Enough about the emails. Let’s talk about real issues!”

The polarization that dominates our politics, of course, has made this a vain hope so far. Key political forces have pushed and continue to push the issue as far as it will go. The Republican Party naturally is the major instigator, believing it has found an issue with the momentum and robustness to cause maximum pain for the Democratic nominee. If something as flimsy as Benghazi could live on for years, why not email-gate? Republicans have raised expectations for months that a criminal indictment was inevitable, understanding that they would win either with a decision for prosecution, which would upend Clinton’s candidacy, or a decision against, which would offer new opportunities for conspiracy baiting and partisan outrage.

The media has also been a key force in the never-ending drama, giving far more credence to sensational interpretations of the scandal, such as expectations of impending indictment, than to sober ones.  The press largely ignored the less hyped observations of experts like William Weld, vice-presidential candidate on the Libertarian ticket and former federal prosecutor, who pointed out that there was no criminal intent in Clinton’s case and hence no chance of indictment.

Moreover, the institutional forces tasked with bringing light to the matter did little to bring closure. In the current polarized climate, what was especially needed was a sense of balance and context. Instead, the FBI investigation focused narrowly on how many classified items in the emails it could find, without acknowledging the serious flaws of the classification system, which is overly broad and improperly applied, or taking into account similar, though less obvious, conduct by other past Secretaries of State. Comer’s condemnation of Clinton for sloppiness together with his decision not to seek an indictment will hardly put an end to the affair. Her opponents are still actively pushing the issue of perjury and seeking further depositions of the candidate. But in the absence of official action, non-indictment still offers them a great way to remind voters of how well people like Clinton fare under a “rigged” system.

Given all the tendencies for prolongation, how do we get beyond the private email issue, which now stands as the centerpiece of the Trump campaign and grist for claims of Clinton’s “corruptness” and “dishonesty”? In my opinion, Hillary’s best way to put it past her would be to make a direct apology to the American people for her “carelessness,” as Comer has put it, at the appropriate time, possibly during the debates when the issue comes up. Voters tend to be forgiving when candidates look them in the eye and admit their shortcomings.

Beyond that, given how the Comer announcement has removed almost all suspense and uncertainty, the email issue seems to have lost its worst sting. Like Benghazi, it has shifted from being something handled through institutional processes to one fanned almost solely by partisan forces. As such, it has the potential to be a reminder of how fixated and relentless the Trump candidacy is. Carried much further, the issue could easily backfire.


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The Man Who Stood Up to Donald Trump: The Lesson of Michael Forbes

Most Americans have probably never heard of Michael Forbes. And perhaps that’s understandable since the man resides in far-off Scotland and is not a typical celebrity. Forbes is an elderly Scotsman who owns a family farm in Aberdeen province and works hard to make ends meet.

But to the Scottish people, Forbes is a national hero. In a well-known annual poll taken in 2010, he was voted “Top Scot,” beating out  Sean Connery and other rich and famous candidates. His claim to fame? His refusal to be pushed around by one of the world’s best-known developers, Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump would, of course, take umbrage at Forbes’ fame at his expense. Michael Forbes goes on Trump’s list as being an obstructor of progress and blot on humanity. But no spinning by the Donald erases the fact that this common man faced him down, stood up for his rights, and came out looking pretty good.

The source of the disagreement between the two men involved a golf resort that Trump decided to develop on the scenic Aberdeen coast in 2006. The development, intended for a well-heeled clientele, was to displace the inhabitants who currently lived around the site. Trump saw it as an easy bonanza and natural extension of his entertainment empire.

True to form, Trump began by lining up all the usual politicians, business organizations, and opinion-makers to bless his project. Promising vast economic benefits to Scotland, he was able to create considerable momentum for the plan. While the local Aberdeen Council voted to block the development, the Scottish government, which had been heavily lobbied by Trump, came back the next year to overrule the Council and approve it.

But even with the official go-ahead, Trump had to grapple with a key local issue: the resistance of the affected landholders. Trump’s plan required that their homes, which stood between the proposed golf course and the coastal beach, be demolished in order to afford golfers a clear, unblocked view of the ocean. Getting the owners to sell and vacate their properties was an unusual challenge. Many of them had lived their whole lives on this strip of land and saw themselves as its natural caretakers. For them, money was not the issue.

Trump became aware of this problem early in the game after sending some of his delegates to try soft persuasion. When this appeared to have little effect, Trump summoned the owners to a local mansion where he laid out his plans. Those few who attended showed little enthusiasm. Michael Forbes, the owner with the largest property, passed the word that if Trump wanted to meet him, “he knows where I am,” giving Trump and his entourage little choice but to walk over to Forbes’ home and engage directly. A few offhand remarks were made about the price of land. But the atmosphere was tense.

Things worsened as Trump began applying pressure. Trump’s deputies took to pestering Forbes regularly in an effort to change his mind. Trump himself launched a campaign of invective, claiming that Forbes’ property was unkempt and “disgusting.” Local officials sympathetic to Trump began finding things wrong with Forbes’ property and requiring intrusive inspections.

When the screw-tightening appeared ineffective, Trump lost patience. After he received government approval for his project, he took the step of asking the government to force the hold-outs to sell. Trump deployed legal surrogates to justify such a bold maneuver. Unfortunately for Trump, the government seemed unwilling to go that far, reluctant to further antagonize the local inhabitants,

Judging from the subsequent tide of public opinion, Trump’s request seems to have been a strategic mistake. As Michael D’Antonio explains in his book Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, the bid for coercion sullied Trump in the eyes of the public and gave his opponents “the high moral ground.”  Trump had failed to take into consideration local pride and tradition. Historically-minded Scots were keenly aware of how the English government had once forcibly appropriated the land of Scottish landowners to make way for hunting estates for the English upper classes. The abused small owners, called “crofters,” were the stuff of national legend and were glorified in Scottish history books as resisters to outside authority. Michael Forbes and his fellow cohorts were seen as part of that esteemed tradition.

Although thwarted in his efforts to persuade or coerce, Trump still showed no let-up in his pressure tactics. As construction work got into full swing, Forbes and his neighbors found themselves facing ever more obstacles to their daily activities and freedom of movement. Mountains of dirt were piled high around their properties, blocking their view and increasing their isolation. Lanes leading into the area became eroded and damaged. Forbes’ access to a beach where he had rights to fish was hindered.

Forbes, as the leader of the holdouts, soon garnered a loyal following among the public. To deter the possibility of government intervention in Trump’s behalf, a group named Tripping Up Trump devised a complicated stratagem of co-ownership for a slice of Forbes’ land involving 7,000 people. The multiple co-owners each held an individual deed to make any attempt at confiscation a potential nightmare for the authorities. On a second front, sympathetic filmakers came down to make a documentary on the standoff entitled You’ve Been Trumped. The film boosted Forbes’ celebrity as a Scotsman willing to fight for his rights.

All of this, of course, only further incensed Trump. His efforts to retaliate publicly, however, only revealed the extent of his pettiness. After Forbes received the “Top Scot” award, largely on the basis of the documentary, Trump decided to take out his anger against the company that sponsored the competition, the Scotch whiskey producer Glenfiddich. By his order, Glenfiddich whiskey could no longer be served at any of his hotels around the world.

In the end, Trump’s Aberdeen golf resort turned out to be a lot less than first boasted. Instead of a grand resort with a golf course, 450 room hotel, conference center, and community of villas, it wound up being a course with a clubhouse and 19 rental rooms in a nearby mansion. Forbes and his neighbors’ plucky resistance was undoubtedly one of the factors that reduced Donald Trump’s dream down to size.

Forbes, of course, paid a heavy price as he witnessed the diminishment of his mobility, his view, the free use of his land, and the surrounding environment. But his independence and pride remained intact throughout the ordeal. There was also the bonus of knowing that he had given his country and the world an important lesson in the limits of greed and power when bravely resisted.

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The Republican Party Will Never Be the Same after Trump

It will be a while before Republicans truly come to grips with a Trump-dominated party. So far leaders are trying to view his upcoming nomination in the old manner, still convinced he can fit a recognizably Republican mold. RNC Chairman Priebus is bravely trying to unite the party behind him, while House Speaker Ryan, not yet ready to embrace Trump, still thinks there is hope of making him ideologically and stylistically acceptable. Trump, however, has already changed the old GOP beyond recognition.

Indeed, on the level of rhetoric and substance, Trump has radically altered what is now talked about on the right. Only a few months ago it was liberty, small government, low taxes, free trade, and the Constitution. Now it is illegal immigration, Islam, unfair trade agreements, and political correctness. Before, it was conservative principles and how best to implement them. Now it is big-stick nationalism and strong-man threats.

Demographically, Trump has fastened upon a receptive audience for his message: disgruntled white voters. Many of them are male, working class, and economically struggling. Such voters, typically those who have voted Republican in the past because they saw nowhere else to go, seem to care little about conservative ideology. They respond to Trump because he talks their language, feels their anger, and offers quick solutions to their present frustrations.

Trump, of course, did not arise out of  vacuum. His right-wing populist approach to politics follows years of extremism in the GOP. Fox News, the Tea Party, radio talk-show hosts all laid the ground for Trump. The targeting of enemies, the no-compromise posture, the vicious rhetoric, the conspiracy thinking all foreshadowed his candidacy. What Trump did was to bring nativism and racial resentment out into the open, to replace ideology with id.

By steering the party in a populist direction, Trump has upset all the familiar alignments within the party. The old dualities of establishment/anti-establishment and purity/pragmatism are no longer so consequential. Establishmentarians and tea partiers must now make personal decisions about how they will adjust themselves to the new reality. The litmus test is how one relates to Trump and his leadership style.

The emerging alliances seem bizarre at best. Thus in the current pro-Trump camp, Tea Party icon Sarah Palin and right-wing brawlers Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Ann Coulter find themselves in league with so-called establishment pragmatists Chris Christy, Rudy Giuliani, and Bob Dole. In the anti-Trump camp, ideologues like Glenn Beck and the National Review crowd are now bedfellows with conventional pols like Romney and the Bushes.

Such alliances, of course, are more motivated by short-term political considerations than by steadfast commitments. There is little certainty about what will follow the November election, when Trump either takes over the Republican Party apparatus in triumph or leaves it in shambles in defeat.

But one thing is fairly certain: there will be no going back to the old Republican Party. There will surely continue to be something like an establishment wing associated with traditional pols and presidential types. And the conservative ideologues, who have long represented the activist wing of the party and control Congress and the red state legislatures, will make their voices heard. But these groups must take heed of and make room for a new potent force, call it the “vox populi” or populist element of the party, which has been awakened from its sullen torpor. Its avid supporters have had a chance to discover their muscle and find a place under a new Republican dispensation. These volatile voters can be expected to cause the party major heartburn for the foreseeable future.

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North Carolina’s Bathroom Law: Culture War Redux

North Carolina’ recent “bathroom bill” is a classic example of legislation that creates a problem rather than solving one. Not only does it make life excruciatingly difficult for a vulnerable minority, it seems to decree general chaos. Among other stipulations about discrimination, House Bill 2 requires all transgender people to use bathroom facilities conforming to their birth gender, in contradiction to their chosen identity. It can only have explosive consequences in the real world since it gives transgenders who look and act like men no choice but to use women’s restrooms, and vice versa for women transgenders. To add insult to indignity, the bill would put police in the untenable position of having to examine people’s genitalia in order to enforce it.

The truth is that transgender people, a small minority that makes up about one-half of 1% of the population, have been using public bathrooms tied to their gender identity for years across the country with virtually no controversy or adverse effects. People in numerous communities have readily adjusted to the situation. Some 225 towns and cities in the U.S. have passed ordinances that forbid discrimination against gay and transgender people in such matters, not just in New York and California but in red states like Utah, Idaho, Indiana, and Texas. And many states have passed similar anti-discrimination laws.

Still, the swift passage of the North Carolina law indicates that transgenderism remains a volatile issue in some places, especially where big cultural divides exist. General unfamiliarity with the issue does not help. In North Carolina, polls show that a majority of the populace doesn’t even “fully understand what it means to be a transgender.”

Given the potential for confusion, the manipulators of fear have moved in to take advantage. They have framed the new law as a safety measure to protect women and children from bathroom interlopers and rapists. They portray tolerance of transexuals as a step too far, a form of catering to immoral lifestyles and capitulation to secular activists. These are the same folks who use religion to justify opposition to same-sex marriage and discrimination against gay people.

The major shaper of the North Carolina law and mentor to the Republican majority is an organization called the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADL), a Christian Right legal group that crafts laws and lobbies for them in Republican-dominated state legislatures. Its mission statement indicates a biblical, socially conservative agenda: “To keep the doors open for the Gospel by advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.” The group, which comes with large financial resources and a network of paid and unpaid activists to support its efforts, has played a key role in the national anti-gay rights movement.

The North Carolina bill borrows heavily from language that ADL has specifically prepared for anti-transgender legislation. The language has served as a template for a number of states considering similar legislation, including Nevada, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Kentucky, although in each of those cases, the legislation was ultimately rejected. North Carolina has the dubious distinction of being the first state to pass a general bathroom-access law.

Along with the bill’s designers, Governor Pat McCrory must share plenty of blame for allowing it to pass. He might easily have followed the recent example of another Republican governor, Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota, who when faced with a similar bill (one having to do with bathrooms in public schools) met with a delegation of transgender people to hear their side. Daugaard then vetoed the legislation, stating that it “does not address any pressing issue.” Instead he encouraged local communities to find practical solutions.

McCrory, who was looking to bolster his re-election chances by catering to his party base, was not so deliberative. He signed it within hours of its passage. Even in the face of widespread outrage and opposition by the business community, McCrory roundly defended the bathroom-related part of the legislation, using the code words and rhetoric of those who wrote it.

After receiving three weeks of negative media coverage, McCrory, still unrepentant on the issue, is now calling for “dialogue.” But, as Chuck Todd pointed out in an interview on Meet the Press, where was the dialogue when the law was muscled through in the first place? Those who start wars are not in a strong position to call for disarmament.

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What Does Bernie Sanders Mean by Socialism?

Perhaps one of the most refreshing aspects of Bernie Sanders’ campaign has been his willingness to use the word socialism, one of America’s long-standing taboos. Of course, associating himself with socialism was always going to be a tricky move for Bernie in the U.S. political framework, even though the Vermonter has long portrayed himself as favoring only the mildest form of it. Because of the Cold War, many Americans, especially of the older generation, have been culture-trained  to associate socialism with communism and tyranny. Owing to that acculturation, less than a majority of today’s voters (47%) say they would even contemplate voting for a socialist candidate. So it took a certain amount of moxie for him to even broach the subject.

So what does Sanders mean by socialism and how does he present his view to the public? Most notably, his concept of the term differs from Marxian socialism in its holding to a reformist approach. He basically proposes to reform the present system rather than overturn it. Thus economically, his conception does not translate into a classic state-dominated planned economy controlling the nation’s major industries. “I don’t believe that government should take over the grocery store down the street, or control the means of production,” he states in a Georgetown speech. While he believes that the economy should be carefully regulated, he supports “private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America.” He directs his wrath mainly toward those that “leave America to exploit low-wage labor overseas.”

In terms of social policy, Sanders is committed to helping those who need help, namely, the broad majority of American working families and the poor. He would guarantee a strong safety net, universal health care, a decent minimum wage, free college tuition, Wall Street reform, and paid family leave. Taxes would be considerably higher than at present, but made more progressive to ensure that the wealthy pay their fair share. Politically, he has called for a “political revolution,” sparked by popular awareness and support. It would be fueled, presumably, by a renewed trust in government based on its commitment to people’s needs. To be effective, it would require changes in how politics operate, including the lessened role of money and the moneyed classes, easier access to the polls, greater transparency, and similar reforms. Democratic socialism of the sort Sanders espouses is unthinkable without a strong emphasis on its “democratic” political aspect.

The above description, of course, makes it fairly obvious that Bernie’s “socialism” is not really socialism, but a blend of capitalism and socialism, an attempt to take the best of both systems. It harnesses the innovative aspects of capitalism, while sensibly regulating it and assuring that the general populace will benefit through a generous social policy. “Social democracy” is one word for it, the “Nordic Model” another.

Nordic countries like Denmark have practiced versions of such a system for almost a century. With a strong union movement acting as a counterbalance to industry, such countries have been able to reach a compact satisfactory to both workers and entrepreneurs. While taxes are relatively high, benefits are generous. People cannot get as rich as in the U.S, but everyone has a stake in the system and nobody is left by the wayside. The people’s satisfaction with this system is suggested by their greater involvement in public life: voter participation is 89% in Denmark compared with only 65% in the United States. The Danes are more politically active apparently because they trust their government to serve their common interests.

The United States admittedly is a different country than Denmark. Its area and population are much more heterogeneous, and its history shows a stronger element of individualism and localism. Still, commitment to communal values is far from absent in our history, as any reading of De Tocqueville demonstrates. A key justification for establishing the Constitution, after all, was “to promote the general welfare,” a prominent phrase in the Constitution’s 52 word Preamble. Government was meant to play a constructive role in the life of the nation rather than withering away, as some on the right have suggested.

In this spirit, Bernie has given his socialism an American twist. He speaks of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights (from his State of the Union Address of January 1944), which outlines rights that go beyond strictly political rights. Political rights are fine, but not adequate in themselves to assure real freedom for most Americans under a competitive form of capitalism. The speech stresses the rights to medical care, education, employment, and basic economic necessities.  Anyone can be the victim of an economic downturn, a disabling illness, a natural disaster, or a homeless childhood. Bernie argues that societies that provide no government insurance against such calamities, while greasing the skids and lowering taxes for the well-to-do, can hardly be viewed as beacons of freedom.

Getting people to talk about socialism, or social democracy, or a Nordic “golden mean” is just a first step, of course. After that, the task is to undo years of anti-government rhetoric foisted on us by the Republican Party. If we can remove the visceral antagonism to government so prevalent today and show people through many steps that it is worthy of their trust, we will be truly able to move in the direction that Bernie points to.


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Trump’s Bullying of the Press is a Threat to Democracy

Donald Trump crosses the line of acceptable political behavior so often that it is easy to become numbed to the danger he presents. A key example is his treatment of the press. An independent, robust free press is one of the things that most distinguishes a democracy from an authoritarian state. This is because the press, for all its faults, serves as a key countervailing force to unbridled executive power. When the press is belittled and browbeaten, as seen in Trump’s attacks on reporters and his threats against press organizations he doesn’t like, it shows a troubling imbalance of forces in our politics. Trump’s abusive treatment of those who cover and critique him warns us of the perils of a Trump presidency.

Mistreatment of the press by political actors like Trump does not arise out of thin air. It usually comes after the press has been verbally abused over a period of time. In the U.S., a campaign of vilification aimed at the “mainstream media” has been a Republican project for years. It began with aggressive attacks on the press during the Nixon/Agnew era, gained momentum with the rise of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s, and became a constant refrain with the advent of Fox News in the 1990s. Bill O’Reilly at Fox soon became the mainstream media vilifier par excellence. Trump’s contemptuous rhetoric, using words like “absolute scum” to stigmatize the press, follows very much in the footsteps of these predecessors.

Trump, however, takes the right-wing campaign against the press one “yuge” step further. Like a third-world autocrat, Trump seeks to domineer the press through bombast and threat. The strategy is one of harassment, intimidation, control, and ultimately exclusion.

Trump’s harassment of the press is public and blatant. It includes the personal bullying and humiliation of reporters, such as his attack on Megyn Kelly, his mocking of New York Times disabled critic Serge Kovaleski, and his shaming of reporter Katy Tur in front of a crowd. Indeed, at rallies Trump often invites his audiences to express their anger toward the press box, a tactic that commonly results in taunting, spitting, and vulgar gestures.

Outright intimidation is used to create fear and submission. A key example was Trump’s recent threat to “open up our libel laws” so that he could sue news organizations for reporting things that did not meet his truth standards, whatever those might be. Trump makes no secret of his vendetta against the Washington Post and the New York Times (“If I become president, oh, do they have problems”). Such threats cannot be taken lightly even if most of Trump’s past suits have gotten nowhere in the courts. The burden of defending oneself in court is enough to make all but the largest players think twice.

The tactics Trump uses to control the press on a daily basis are, by most standards,  obsessive. The going rule for reporters at his events requires their being corralled in pens for the duration. Contrary to other campaigns, which allow news people the freedom to wander at will, any attempt to go beyond the pens for the purpose of interviewing or observing members of the audience is strictly prohibited. Keeping the reporters isolated from the crowd allows Trump to restrict the flow of news to his speeches and away from things that might distract from the great leader himself. To do their job of covering events, reporters have often had to attend rallies as members of the public, a difficult task since they are without technical support and under constant threat of being identified and ousted by Trump’s plainclothes security force.

Outright exclusion from access to the candidate and his campaign events is Trump’s penalty for reporters or outlets that he disapproves of. News organizations as diverse as BuzzFeedDaily Beast, Des Moines Register, FusionHuffington Post, Mother JonesNational Review, and Univision have been blacklisted either permanently or intermittently. The reasons vary: the Des Moines Register made the mistake of writing a negative editorial on Trump; Huffington Post erred by placing its articles on him in its entertainment rather than its political section; Mother Jones has no clue as to the reason other than its progressive stance. Meanwhile organizations like Political Cesspool, which calls itself “pro-White” and features David Duke on its mission page, have had no problem getting credentialed. While allowing special access and interviews to favored news outlets is a common practice in American campaigns, the exclusion of selected ones for political reasons is unprecedented.

Trump’s tactics should worry anyone, liberal or conservative, who cares about constitutional freedoms. The measures he has taken are counter to both the spirit and the letter of the First Amendment, which protects freedom of the press, along with the freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. If Trump can abuse press organizations, which at least have resources to respond and defend themselves, imagine what he could do to regular citizens who might incur his displeasure: people who speak, rally, or demonstrate against his policies, whistle-blowers within a Trump administration, ordinary people who stand in the way of one of Trump’s gigantic projects, and so forth. It is a chilling prospect.

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“Telling Like It Is,” Trump Comes Back to Punish the GOP Establishment

The “tell it like it is” tactic, so brilliantly portrayed in Donald Trump’s current campaign, has long been used as a forceful way of connecting with the voter. On the face of it, it is a form of plain-speaking, where the speaker says things that are candid, unvarnished, and grasped intuitively by plain folks.

Such “telling like it is,” however, has a sharp edge to it in our current environment, relying on the cliché that liberal elites have obscured the truth and substituted in its place a form of political correctness. In reaction, the “teller” claims to expose the real truth, reciting a narrative of official injustice toward the white middle class and favoritism towards undeserving minority and outsider groups.

Politicians who “tell it like it is” have actually been around on the populist right since the 1960s. George Wallace, deploying a message loaded with racist innuendo for the ears of working class whites, was one of the first. But Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s hand-chosen attack dog, developed the tactic into an art form. Claiming to speak for the “silent majority,” Agnew “told it like it was” by vilifying the media and pillorying liberal elites for apparently “indulging” criminals and protesters.

In today’s polarized political environment, a number of Republican stars have used the technique with remarkable effect. In particular, Sarah Palin, with her intuitive grasp of sagebrush America and contempt for urban sophistication, does a free-wheeling version of telling it outright. Governor Chris Christie, using the truth-telling tactic in confrontational settings, brings a bully boy persona to the role.

But Donald Trump seems to have outdone all his predecessors in the art of “telling it like it is.”  His ability to emote scorn and outrage, his use of hyperbole, his articulation of the naughty and the impermissible, his pose of invincibility consistently titillate the press and send his followers into a swoon. What normally passes for barroom talk becomes believable fact. Mexicans crossing the border are rapists, drug dealers, and social rejects. American Muslims represent a danger to the homeland. Solving such problems is simple: Round up and deport millions and build a wall funded by a strapped neighboring country. Halt the movement of Muslim citizens in and out of the U.S. Mr. Trump has proved himself a master at magnifying dangers and following up with draconian threats.

Not surprisingly, Trump harshly attacks the usual suspects, namely, the mainstream media and liberals like Obama, who have allegedly made a mess of things. But, in the heat of the campaign, Trump has widened the scope of his offensive to include anyone opposed to his non-doctrinaire candidacy. The resistant GOP establishment itself has come directly in the line of fire, including all of its proxies–John McCain, Roger Ailes, the neo-cons, the Bush clan, and the conservative commentariat at National Review, to name just a few. One could argue that Trump’s broad targeting strategy has added credibility to his cause, making it something that transcends party labels. Unscripted and un-bought, Trump has strengthened his “tell it like it is” credentials by taking the fight to anything Establishment.

The Republican Party/Fox News colossus is now in corrective mode, trying to douse a fire that, as many have pointed out, it was instrumental in creating in the first place. “Telling it like it is” was meant to promote a tradition-based framework to discredit the more “indulgent” liberal one. In political terms, it was intended to stiffen the spine of a freedom-loving people: to slay the dragon of big government and to disempower the unproductive classes dependent on its largesse. As it turned out, the Republican base didn’t care much about big government. Disempowering those other people it took a bit too viscerally.

The problem for the GOP establishment is that Trump, who remains the center of media attention, now controls the message. His rancid truth-telling has become irresistible to the many who feel empowered by it, and his successes at the ballot box have only enhanced its persuasiveness. So much so that the Republican establishment and donor class, as much as they despise what he says, are now afraid to confront him directly. Ironically for them, their problem may be one that only the Democrats can fix.


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The Plutocrats’ War Against Teachers’ Unions and Some Recent Blowback

While it’s no surprise that America’s billionaire elites oppose unions, it is worth noting how much they focus their attention on unions in the public, as opposed to the private, sector. Teachers’ unions, in particular, seem be their consuming obsession. In 2011, for example, they played a key role in Governor Scott Walker’s notorious campaign against teachers’ unions, along with those of other public employees. More recently, they laid the groundwork for the critical Supreme Court case, Friedrichs versus the California Teachers Association, brought by plaintiffs against a teachers’ union. Why, it might be asked, should the plutocrats be so concerned about unions in the public sphere, which seem primarily a matter for local governments and taxpayers? And why teachers?

Any explanation has to begin with the plutocrats’ anti- government ideology. Many of them, affiliated with Cato libertarianism and Ayn Randian philosophy, have become avid supporters of the “government is evil” mantra of today’s far right. Opposing virtually anything government-owned or government-run, they see “public” as a dirty word. The very idea of public schools, public libraries, public lands, public parks, and public services is, by this reasoning, suspect, and the replacement of these things by private-run entities a goal to be furthered. Pay-as-you-go services, vouchers, and charter schools are the new good.

Public employee unions have to be fought and neutered because their members are the human embodiment of government, being its most reliable stakeholders. As public employees answerable to the taxpayers, they are the poster children of what it means to be “public.” And since “public” means ungoverned by the laws of the marketplace, public employees are deemed by the mighty to be inefficient and dispensable. Moreover, they have an added quality that makes them an ideal target for the plutocrats: they are largely urban residents, women, and minorities who tend to be liberal-leaning and vote democratic. In sum, plutocrats see the breaking up of public employee unions as a way to reduce government, expand the private sector, and weaken an undesirable interest group.

Underlying the ideological argument against public service, however, is a strong economic motivation: the prospect that big money can be made by shrinking the public realm and transferring broad sectors of it to private hands. Indeed, the step-by-step privatization of public sectors of the economy is at the top of the plutocratic agenda, presenting opportunities for hedge-fund managers, venture capitalists, and other nouveau billionaires to put their newly harvested cash to work without undue restrictions.

It just so happens that the plutocrats see education as the mother lode of opportunity for public-to-private transformation. And for good reason: the public education sector of the economic has been estimated at over half a trillion dollars. Moreover, the  education sector is particularly appealing because the investor class has been able to convince state governments to allow charter schools access to public funds while also leaving them less regulated and accountable than the public schools. Who could ask for more? It is no surprise, then, that billionaires like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons have been promoting private alternatives. In the last decade, school privatization has drawn a wide array of big and small entrepreneurs, providing opportunities for the construction, refurbishing, financing, and managing of charter schools as well as markets for ancillary products in K-12 testing, data gathering, and digital instruction, among others.

Still, their privatizing efforts, at least in the education field, have run into some bumps along the way. The reason is simply that most of the public, according to polls, favors public education. The rush to establish charter schools in many poor, urban areas around the country has not turned out as well as promised, with multiple examples of incompetence, corruption, gross profiteering, and often poor educational results. Moreover, the overuse of testing, which has been used as a way of justifying the shutting down of some public schools and introducing charters, is unpopular with parents, teachers, and students.

As a means of persuading the unconvinced, the plutocrats have made their anti-union campaign central to their cause. Their argument has always been that public education needed to be replaced because public employee unions and their pampered teachers had failed to do their job. Such rhetoric was useful in attributing school failure not to the obvious problems of insufficient resources and poverty, but to the work of front-line teachers, who were ostensibly over-compensated and ineffective. The argument led to key elements of the privatization program: the drafting of lightly trained college students to replace teachers (the modus operandi of Teach for America), the use of simplistic testing of students to evaluate the teachers who instruct them, digital teaching and “virtual schools” as substitutes for teachers, the de-emphasis on curriculum content and breadth (where teachers excel), and the emphasis on drill and discipline (which requires minimal training). Most of these methods, judging from the increasing volume of parental complaints, have not worked out so well.

Many parents around the country are not buying the “anti-public” message and have reacted by organizing, forming alliances with teachers, and going political to protect their local public schools. For the last couple of years, they have been attacking Common Core as a threat to local control and organizing anti-testing boycotts in many states, notably New York, Colorado, New Jersey, and California. Their ardor and relative success in many areas has threatened the privatizers’ narrative of inevitability.

If the plutocrats are running into resistance, it is because they have  been tone deaf to core parental concerns. For parents, education is not a commodity purchased in a shopping mall or one of a line of bright new products. More than simply consumers, parents see themselves as active participants in their children’s education. They serve on PTA’s, get to know their kids’ teachers, participate in after-school programs, and monitor their children’s reaction to school. This hands-on attitude makes them inclined to favor a school with a sense of community and with leadership that has a higher goal than profit and the bottom line. Above all, they want a school that is directly answerable to them.

In this classic pitting of public versus private, communitarian versus libertarian, labor solidarity versus management authority, bubble up versus top-down, we are in the process of seeing a real test of American democracy. Although it is impossible to predict the outcome, there is reasonable hope that the tide is a’ turning.

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What Trump Hath Wrought: Mobs versus Elites in the GOP

The Republican higher-ups can hardly contain their horror and dismay. Enfant terrible Donald Trump, by embracing chauvinistic populism and garnering popular support in the race for the GOP nomination, has thrown “their” party into chaos. He has sucked up the available oxygen and left his lackluster opponents gasping for air.

Trump’s popularity, of course, is closely related to a demographic phenomenon: the growth of a new brand of alienated voter in the party. These voters, who apparently represent about a third of professed Republicans, happen to share much of the anti-establishment sentiment of the Tea Party. But, unlike the tea partiers, the new outsiders are not focused on the conservative truisms of liberty and small government. Instead, situated on a lower rung of the social ladder and having suffered much of the pain of the recent recession, these voters are driven by strong socioeconomic frustrations and resentments. Their main concerns have more to do with threats to their jobs and status, and perceived favoritism towards other ethnic and racial groups, than any longing for “republican virtue.” The xenophobic and often violent rhetoric they favor is more in line with that of right-wing European parties.


Because the rise of Trump could well affect the future of the GOP, many party conservatives have taken sides on the issue. The battle lines seem to be fairly well drawn. The anti-Trumpians are headed by party elders, office-holders, and strategists who shudder at Trump’s crude demagoguery and fear the effects of his nomination on their own interests and the party’s direction. They are joined by Chamber of Commerce types and corporate libertarians worried over Trump’s free market heresies, neo-cons turned off by his eccentric international posture, and Christian leaders unimpressed by his Christian credentials.

The Republican commentariat, meanwhile, makes no secret of its disapproval. Fearful that he will ruin the party brand, regulars George Will and Charles Krauthammer label Trump a counterfeit Republican and a know-nothing xenophobe, respectively. Over at National Review, Jonah Goldberg and Richard Lowry, so-called custodians of conservative orthodoxy, point out Trump’s errors, including his failure to talk up the virtues of freedom, faith, and constitution, or to properly condemn big government and deficits. Hardline blogger Eric Erickson, conservative entrepreneur Glenn Beck, and others join in the fray.

But the Trumpians also have their defenders. Among them are conservatives who see themselves in affective harmony with the vox populi, the aggrieved voice of the inchoate hinterland. They include the celebrity talk show hosts Limbaugh, Levin, Hannity and others, like Sarah Palin, who speak for the forgotten masses. As public pulse takers, they are moved far more by the sweet sounds of discontent than by any sort of party loyalty. Joining them on the periphery are those like anti-P.C. activist John Nolte at and paleo-conservatives Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan at who thrill at Trump’s rhetorical style and message. Even less savory characters with predilections for the white race, e.g. David Duke and the Stormfront crowd, cheer appreciatively in the background.

Fox News has mostly gone along with the new Trump phenomenon, apparently realizing its dangers but also taking due note of its popularity among the viewership. Roger Ailes is clearly playing a double game, wanting both to control and follow the contours of conservative opinion. Sometimes the two strategies come into conflict. When Megyn Kelly, one of Ailes’ star announcers, offended Trump with some aggressive questioning in an early debate (Fox’s attempt to bump him down a notch?), Trump threatened to boycott the station. Ailes found himself in an untenable position when it became clear that his viewers were on Trump’s side. Ailes lost face and essentially backed down. Licking its wounds, Fox has since retreated into a more submissive stance.


While Fox is riding the Trump wave for the most part, a curious form of class warfare between pro and anti Trump elements has broken out elsewhere in the conservative media. In one such instance, Jonah Goldberg, a conservative watchdog frustrated by Trump’s growing popularity, referred to the Trump movement as  the “Trumpenproletariat” (a cute play on Marx’s lumpenproletariat, a segment of the masses deemed unreliable). Goldberg sees the Trumpians as unreliable populists who are dangerous because, well, the people can be wrong. The result, he states, is a corruption of conservative ideology, a “bonfire of principles.”

John Nolte, a defender of Trump’s heterodoxy, swiftly responded, furious that Goldberg was looking down his nose at the conservative base. Goldberg, he claimed, was a member of the “anti-Trump bourgeoisie,” an intellectual elite seeking to exclude newcomers from the conservative club. Nolte argues for inclusion, praising the new movement for expanding the boundaries of conservatism and attempting to slay the dragon of political correctness.

While the Goldberg-Nolte flap is unusual for its public evoking of  the class issue, class-related tension between the two sides is clear for all to see. Haughty disdain and angry resentment are in the air. Thus Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal sees Trump as a “loudmouth vulgarian appealing to quieter vulgarians.” Gerald Seib from the same newspaper reduces Trump to a facsimile of George Wallace. David Harsanyi of the Federalist views him as “porn for nativists.” Meanwhile, Ann Coulter and the talk show crowd rage against the elites and their perfidious influence. Rush Limbaugh admits to going easy on Trump, who is not a conservative, because Rush will have nothing to do with the elites who try to take him down.

The bitterness and angst brought on by the Trump campaign suggests there will be no easy resolution of the current party divisions, touched as they are by the odor of class animus. By saying loudly what many people thought but dared not express in polite circles, Trump broke a socially sensitive sound barrier.

Even if Trump eventually drops out of the primaries, as is quite probable, nothing will be quite the same again in the GOP. Indeed, it is increasingly unclear what it means to be a Republican. Extreme positions on immigration, identity issues, national security, and executive power are out of the bottle and no longer confined to Trump, as seen from the developing views of candidates Cruz, Christie, Fiorina, and even Rubio.  Meanwhile the establishmentarians continue to search for a candidate who will repeat the old formulas, keep the angry class at bay, and deliver for the guys at the top. It will be an interesting campaign season.

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