The Death of Establishment Politics

donald-trumpDuring the primary battles Donald Trump made his attack on the Republican establishment a central feature of his campaign. With his strong populist message, he ultimately triumphed over all of his primary contenders and decisively clinched the Republican nomination.

Yet Donald Trump was a contentious figure from the very beginning.  Many prominent Republicans saw him as being so objectionable and abrasive that they could not support him.  Some claimed he was not a “true” Republican, citing the many years that Trump was a registered Democrat supporting Democratic candidates and policies, before becoming an Independent, and only a few years ago joining the Republican Party.

Establishment Republicans, incensed that Trump was taking the Party away from its traditional ideals, fought back.  They mounted a vigorous “Never Trump” campaign which, for a time, seemed to be gaining steam.  By the final weeks of the presidential campaign 275 prominent Republicans either currently or previously serving in federal state and party administrations had gone on record saying they could not in good conscience vote for Donald Trump.  Another 55 conservative academics, journalists and commentators had also declared their opposition to Trump.

bernie-sandersOn the other side of the fence, Bernie Sanders mounted a vigorous populist campaign from the left during the primary season against the favored establishment candidate of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton.  The Sanders campaign strongly criticized the Democratic National Committee for siding with Clinton and working behind the scenes to ensure her nomination.  In the end, despite summoning large enthusiastic crowds wherever he went and winning 22 state primaries, Bernie Sanders had to yield to Clinton as the Democratic nominee.

Despite Hillary Clinton’s embrace of some of Sander’s progressive language, most observers were convinced that she actually represented the party’s establishment center and would remain faithful to its ideals if elected.

trumpclintonThe resulting contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the official candidates of the two parties quickly devolved into a mudslinging match over personalities and trustworthiness rather than policy issues.  Americans as a whole were disappointed with both candidates.  In the tallying of last Tuesday’s vote it was discovered that many people had left the top of their ballots blank, voting for neither presidential candidate, while filling in the remainder of the ballot largely along party lines.

After all the votes have been counted (they are still being tabulated) Hillary Clinton, the Democratic establishment candidate, is expected to win the popular vote by some 2 million votes. However, Donald Trump has chalked up the most Electoral College votes, and in the early hours of Wednesday morning was proclaimed as the President-elect.

Laying a New Course

Donald Trump’s victory leaves a divided party in its wake.  Populism triumphed over conservative ideology, leaving many party conservatives on the outside looking in.  Commentators have noted Trump’s long record of vindictiveness toward those who publicly oppose him.  The experienced establishment old-hands within the party who had opposed him will have no place in his administration.

This divide extends to sitting members of Congress.  Following the shift in conservative ideology in Congress with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 (typified by Ted Cruz and others), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is seen by many as the last prominent torchbearer of Reaganite Republicanism.  But now that too is in jeopardy.

paul-ryan-800x430On the night of the election, as Paul Ryan was back in his home state of Wisconsin with his supporters celebrating his re-election victory (with Fox News coverage of the election playing in the background), Sean Hannity came on the TV saying that Paul Ryan should not remain Speaker of the House since he had not supported Donald Trump during the campaign.

This past weekend Donald Trump announced that Steve Bannon would serve as the chief strategist in his administration working on par with (rather than under) Reince Priebus who will be Trump’s Chief of Staff.  Bannon, who was senior editor of Breitbart News before becoming the head of Trump’s campaign team, has targeted Paul Ryan as the “the enemy” – the very epitome of establishment Republicanism. He called on his staff at Breitbart to destroy Ryan, pledging that he would be gone as Speaker by this spring.”

A battle for control of the House and Senate looms as Donald Trump and his administrative team prepare to take charge.  It is not the traditional battle between Democrats and Republicans – Republicans have a safe majority in both Houses following the election – but between sitting establishment Republicans and the Trump Administration.

A cardinal feature of traditional Republican ideology has been a commitment to small government and balanced budgets.  Yet Donald Trump has promised to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a comprehensive system of coverage that is “even better,” to launch a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure renewal program, and to end sequestering and dramatically increase military expenditures, all while reducing taxes.

David Frum. (CHUCK KENNEDY)The conservative critic David Frum has stated that Donald Trump is bringing the same business plan to government that he has used so successfully in his own business empire, namely, borrow as much money as you can from other people and never pay it back.

Will conservatives in Congress go along with Trump’s return to “big government” (Keynesian-styled) expenditures to expand the economy with its resulting huge deficits, or will they balk?  The next vote on the Debt Ceiling comes up in mid-March, shortly after Congress resumes sitting, so we shall soon see.

Members of Congress must choose their sides carefully.  Donald Trump has displayed a well-established pattern of retaliating against all those who publicly oppose or criticize him.  If members don’t side with Trump, will their access to campaign funds be cut when they seek re-election?  Will they be primaried out of the nomination?  The pressure on them to back Trump’s agenda will be immense – even if it flies in the face of traditional conservative Republican values.

On the other hand, if the Republican members of Congress closely align themselves with the Trump administration and the economy tanks, or inflation spikes, or the anticipated job numbers don’t improve, or the US becomes mired down in another war, or Trump is brought down in a major scandal – in short, if the Trump revolution falls apart for any of a variety of reasons – will voters blame his supporters in Congress for the mess?  Will these Republicans be able to survive the next election referendum?

The Challenge for Democrats

Democrats also face a number of challenges in the days and months ahead.  In backing the widely disliked establishment candidate from their own party in the 2016 election, they have not only forfeited the presidency, but also both houses of Congress.

Just as the Republican Party did after their 2012 election loss to Barack Obama, they will need to conduct a thorough post mortem to determine why they lost this election so unexpectedly and decisively.  They will need to identify their own winning coalition of voters for the next election and decide how they can best appeal to them.

bernie-crowdIf they are wise, they will revisit the Bernie Sanders phenomenon of the primary season and identify the factors that so enthused his base (Hillary had her loyalists, but she never succeeded in enthusing the masses).  One basic factor is already evident: Bernie excited younger voters; they turned out for him in huge numbers.  They identified with him in a way that they never did with Hillary Clinton.  Polls show that if Bernie Sanders had been on the ticket opposite Donald Trump he would have won the election handily.

The nation’s demographics are changing.  The baby boomer generation is retiring and will soon be dropping in numbers while the millennial generation continues to grow in size and influence. One remarkable map drawn up after the election shows how the electoral college vote would have gone if one only counted the votes cast by 18 – 25 year olds.  It would have generated an enormous landslide of 504 votes for the Democratic candidate to just 23 for Donald Trump.

youth-vote-2016The Sanders faction is not waiting around for the next election.  They have launched campaigns to replace party officials in many states and are actively lobbying for the selection of a new Chair of the Democratic National Committee who will be more supportive of their concerns.  And they are already lining up progressive candidates for the next presidential election in 2020.

The 2016 election marked a remarkable sea change in American politics.  In a very real sense, the primary division is no longer between conservatives and liberals but between establishment and populist candidates.  In this election the establishment candidates – on both sides of the aisle – lost out, while voters rallied around their populist choices.

In the coming months we will witness parallel contests within the Republican and the Democratic camps for control of the party machinery moving forward to the next election.  Will the establishment forces be able to wrestle control back from the populist insurgents?  Or will the populists – on both the left and right – become the new face of both parties?

Photo credits: APP/Getty Images; Jim Watson/AFP; Chuck Kennedy; AP

Trump’s Victory Is Only Temporary

2016 Election TrumpI am still in a state of shock over Tuesday’s election results.  Never in a million years could I even conceive of Trump winning the election.  It was worrisome enough that he had been steadily polling at over 40% support for some weeks. That alone I found incredible.

It was like the entire country was oblivious to Trump’s true character, his erratic conduct, his inflated ego, his dangerous demagoguery, his racist and misogynistic views, his record as a sexual predator, his dishonest business dealings, his personal vindictiveness, and his steady stream of lies.  The false equivalence between his public record and that of Hillary Clinton was, to me, astounding and quite unbelievable.

david-dukeBut it has actually happened. The first African-American president has been succeeded by a candidate endorsed by the KKK.  Incredible! David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard, tweeted out, “This is one of the most exciting nights of my life.  Make no mistake about it, our people have played a huge roll in electing Trump.”

marine-lepenOne of the first congratulatory messages from a foreign leader came from Marine LePen, leader of France’s far-right National Front. Vladimir Putin was also quick to applauded Trump’s win. And, perhaps most disturbing, it was welcomed by Al-Qaeda and Egyptian Jihadis. “Trump’s victory is a hard slap to those promoting the efficiency of democratic systems,” the spokesperson for the Syrian affiliate of Al-Qaeda, tweeted. “Starting today we won’t need media releases clarifying the West’s machinations, All we need to do is retweet what Trump says.”

Thousands of protesters have since taken to the streets in many American cities to protest Trump’s election, shouting “He’s not my president.”


I have spent much of the past day sifting through various media reports on the election results, trying to understand what has just happened. I find that international commentary provides a much better perspective on Trump’s victory than most of what comes out of the U.S. right now.  (Americans are notoriously blind to the international implications of their actions.)

the-guardian-logoIt turns out that my own thoughts are quite accurately expressed in the following strongly worded article in Wednesday’s Guardian from England:

We thought the United States would step back from the abyss. We believed, and the polls led us to feel sure, that Americans would not, in the end, hand the most powerful office on earth to an unstable bigot, sexual predator and compulsive liar.

People all around the world had watched and waited, through the consecutive horrors of the 2016 election campaign, believing the Trump nightmare would eventually pass. But today the United States – the country that had, from its birth, seen itself as a beacon that would inspire the world, a society that praised itself as “the last best hope of earth”, the nation that had seemed to be bending the arc of history towards justice, as Barack Obama so memorably put it on this same morning eight years ago – has stepped into the abyss.

Today the United States stands not as a source of inspiration to the rest of the world but as a source of fear. Instead of hailing its first female president, it seems poised to hand the awesome power of its highest office to a man who revels in his own ignorance, racism and misogyny. One who knows him well describes him as a dangerous “sociopath”.

And what awesome power he will soon have. Republicans did not just defy almost every projection, prediction and data-rich computer model to win the presidency. They also won the House of Representatives and much of the Senate. Trump will face few checks on his whims. A man with no control of his impulses will be unrestrained, the might of a superpower at the service of his ego and his id. …

The most obvious impact will be on the country he will soon rule. Just think of what he has promised. A deportation force to round up and expel the 11 million undocumented migrants who make up 6% of the US workforce. A ban on all Muslims entering the country, later downgraded to a pledge to impose “extreme vetting” on anyone coming from a suspect land. A giant wall to seal off the Mexican border. “Some form of punishment” for women who seek an abortion. And prison for the woman he just defeated.

This will be America’s ordeal primarily. But it will affect all of us. A reality TV star with no experience of either politics or the military will have the nuclear button as his toy. This, remember, is the man who reportedly asked several times, during a military briefing, why the US didn’t use nuclear weapons since it had them. This is the man who has said “I love war”. Whose proposed solution to Isis is “to bomb the shit out of them” and steal the oil.

Think of the anxiety this morning in Riga, Vilnius or Tallinn. In the summer, Trump told the New York Times he did not believe in Nato’s core principle: that an attack on one member should be met by a response from all. He seemed to see Nato as a mafia protection racket: unless the little guys paid up, they should be left undefended. Vladimir Putin – Trump’s hero, admired as the very model of a leader by the president-elect of the United States – will not need more of a hint than that. The Russian dictator will surely see his opportunity to invade one or more Baltic states and expand his empire. … A trade war looms with China, the imposition of tariffs that could imperil the entire global trading system. America is about to turn inward, towards protectionism. …

And what about our planet? Trump believes climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. He will do nothing to reduce emissions: he does not believe they exist.

But beyond all that, there is another consequence of this terrifying decision, no less dark. Trump’s success has delighted white nationalists and racists in his own country and beyond. His victories in the key battleground states were hailed by David Duke, a former luminary of the Ku Klux Klan: “God Bless Donald Trump,” he tweeted. “It’s TIME TO TAKE AMERICA BACK.” The Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders was in similarly cheery mood: “The people are taking their country back,” he said, “So will we.” Marine Le Pen will feel the same jubilation, as will every other populist or nationalist who traffics in hate.

The most powerful country in the world is to be led by its most dangerous ever leader … [FDR] once told Americans they had “nothing to fear but fear itself”. That is not true today. America and the rest of us have plenty to fear – starting with the man who now stands on top of the world.

vox_website_logoThe best American commentary I have found comes from Ezra Klein, writing on Wednesday for Vox. He, I think, provides a very realistic view of Trump’s impulses, but also the limits to his power. And he provides some very sound advice for the Republican Congress as they try to work constructively with Trump.

Donald Trump has won the election. Now it is up to America’s institutions, and the people within them, to check his worst instincts.

There is danger in Trump. He’s a man with authoritarian impulses, a conspiracy theorist’s bent, and a taste for vengeance. He has an alarming temperament, little impulse control, and less decency. He has a demagogue’s instinct for finding enemies and a bully’s instinct for finding their weaknesses. He is uninterested in policy, unrestrained by shame, and unbound by norms. He surrounds himself with sycophants and enablers, and he believes both the facts and the falsehoods he finds congenial.

But he is entering an office that is weaker than many realize. For all the same reasons Barack Obama could not bring about the change he had made people believe in, Trump cannot wrench America to his vision of greatness. He is constrained by the House and the Senate, by the Supreme Court, by the executive agencies, and — in ways less formal but no less powerful — by his own staff and party.

There would be more comfort in this if there were more opposition inside these institutions. But Republicans control everything — the House, the Senate, and, after an appointment, the Supreme Court. If Trump is to be checked, it will be because his own party checks him.

So far, the GOP has not shown much interest or ability in standing up to their standard-bearer. Top Republicans closed ranks around Trump despite believing him fundamentally unfit for office. Their embrace did not, however, lead to Trump surrounding himself with more professional staff, developing sounder policy, or moderating his worst instincts.

Already, the Trump campaign has leaked that they will fill their administration with the most supportive staff they can find, not the best. But the number of jobs they appear to have candidates for is slim. They will need many more bodies to fill both the White House and the executive agencies. This is a place where the Republican Party could potentially play a role in surrounding Trump with calmer, wiser advisers who could provide him better information and curb his worst impulses. …

House and Senate Republicans know that Trump’s success is their success, that his strength is their strength. The same goes for his staff, and his appointees. The question is whether they can structure a version of success for him that keeps the country safe, and whether they will be willing, if the worst comes to pass, to cross their president for their country.

If there is hope, it is here: The incentives of governance are different from the incentives of opposition. The Republican majority will have to face the voters in 2018, and then again in 2020. If they have taken health insurance from tens of millions of people without replacement, if they have ripped open families and communities with indiscriminate deportation, if they have embroiled us in disastrous wars or confrontations, if they have sent the economy into tailspin, those elections will not be pleasant.

Perhaps this is a weight Trump will feel in a way he has not over the course of the campaign, and he will change his behavior accordingly. But even if he doesn’t, Republicans have a majority, and it will be one they hope to keep. To keep it, they will need to govern well, or at least convince the electorate they have governed well. And to govern well, they will need to keep Trump’s worst tendencies in check. Now we see how strong the American system really is.

Klein’s article pushes a bit beyond the limits of my own optimism. I do not see the Congress successfully reigning in Trump.  On some legislative matters he will not care what they do, and may gladly sign their legislation into law. But on other matters I expect there to be a real confrontation.  Donald Trump has promised a better health care plan for everyone, massive spending on infrastructure, a return of good-paying jobs, and massive increases in military spending. In other words, a return to (or continuation of) big government spending.

113 Congress1But Congress controls the purse strings, and one would expect the Republican-led Congress to insist on reducing government expenditures, having even lower taxes, and keeping a lid on the deficit.  The next vote on the debt ceiling is scheduled for March 17, 2017, just two months into Trump’s term.  It should prove interesting and quite revealing to see which side will yield on these expenditure issues.

My guess is that Donald Trump is so inexperienced in the ways of politics and completely resistant to following the advice of others, that he will quickly make some major missteps.  When called on it, he will place the blame on others. If challenged, he will lash out against any who defy him.  That is his nature. That is how he acts.

Donald Trump already has a number of opponents within the Republican Party. There are many who accuse him of not being a ‘true’ Republican. (He was a registered Democrat, then an Independent, before running for president under the Republican banner.) Will one see a widening fissure along ideological lines? Or will it simply become an open contest for power? Politics is all about power, after all. And in the end, which faction will emerge as the true standard-bearer of Republican values? It’s all up for grabs. Expect to see your idea of Republicanism become radically redefined.

trump-supportersMore importantly, what will happen in 2 years’ time when the multitudes of the anger-filled supporters who put Donald Trump in the White House to “make America great again” find that he has accomplished little to make their situation better? Who will be blamed for his unfilled promises – Trump himself or the Republican members of Congress? As Ezra Klein says in his article,

The Republican majority will have to face the voters in 2018, and then again in 2020. If they have taken health insurance from tens of millions of people without replacement, if they have ripped open families and communities with indiscriminate deportation, if they have embroiled us in disastrous wars or confrontations, if they have sent the economy into tailspin, those elections will not be pleasant.

It looks very much like a lose-lose situation, and all parties are going to have to tread very carefully to avoid another angry revolt by the electorate against those currently in office. The new Republican hegemony could end up being very short lived.

This is far from over. In fact, the next stage of massive voter alienation is just getting underway. Trump has made too many grand promises and raised expectations far too high for him to get away with backing out of them now. I predict that it will not end well.

Mind you, this is not just going to be a problem for Republicans. As Aaron Blake noted in Wednesday’s Washington Post, with Hillary Clinton’s loss, the Democrats are now a party without a leader or direction, and will have to work hard to redefine themselves before turning to the voters again for support. I expect to see a contest between ‘establishment’ figures and the progressives within the Democratic Party emerging by the 2018 midterm election that will be much more intense than the one in the recent primary campaign. And by 2020 it may be in full force – a counterpart to the newly radicalized ‘non-establishment’ faction that helped put Donald Trump in office.

The next voter revolution may not be far away.

Photo credits: John Locher/AP; Martin Bureau/AFP; Reuters; Gettyimages

Preparing for President Trump

Trump - RNCThis week Donald J. Trump was formally declared to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. In his acceptance speech Trump capitalized on fear, presenting a dystopian view of America, and blaming blacks, Hispanic migrants, Muslims, and foreign actors for America’s woes.

KKK leader David Duke claimed that he could not have said it any better. A fact check of Trump’s statements reveals nearly every one to be a distortion of the facts.  It is well worth reading.

Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Trump has promised to bring a grand solution to America’s problems without supplying any details and without providing any kind of roadmap for getting there. In his acceptance speech he presented himself as the “law and order” candidate, the strongman America needs in its hour of peril who will singlehandedly deliver America from its internal and external enemies.

His message was simple and direct: Trust me. I am the only one who can save America. “I am the only one who can do this.” trump-stagejpg-d661c16fd81ea8d7Against the massive backdrop of the stage – changed overnight from RNC silver to Trump gold – and with his name emblazoned bigger than anyone could imagine, the message was clear that this event marked the coronation of “King Trump.”

To be quite honest, I genuinely fear for America’s future. The fact that 40% or more of Americans polled say they actually support Donald Trump for president scares me. I still believe that he will not win the election. He is far too divisive, polarizing, narcissistic, bombastic, nasty, and erratic to win the confidence of the majority of Americans. (At least I fervently hope this is the case.)

Donald Trump-aBut Donald Trump has accomplished one very important thing. He has (likely permanently) changed ground rules of campaigning.

In making his statement that “we will not be politically correct” a near constant theme in his campaign (and in not being called out on it by a timid media),

Trump has succeeded in normalizing hate speech in American politics.

He has normalized lying and deception.

He has normalized scapegoating and personal attacks.

He has normalized demonizing one’s opponents.

He has normalized misogyny and xenophobia.

He has normalized fear mongering and physical attacks on other.

He has made all of these things “acceptable.”

We can expect to see these tactics employed again in future campaigns. I am not so much worried that Donald Trump will be able to use them to go all the way to the White House. I am worried about what a future, less abrasive and controversial candidate may do with these tools.

America has never been closer to embracing authoritarian fascist-like leadership than at this moment. I am not saying that Donald Trump is a fascist. I am not name-calling. I am merely pointing out, as others have before me [see here and here], that he has been using a standard set of tools from the fascist playbook from the very beginning. We have seen it played out before in the populist rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco two generations ago.

The great battle on the world stage at that time was to defeat this right-wing authoritarian autocratic form of government known as fascism. Now, under the banner of “Make America Strong,” Americans seem willing to embrace it on their own soil. As Alan Gopnik recently warned in the New Yorker,

If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump. Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right—not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak. If he can rout the Republican Party in a week by having effectively secured the nomination, ask yourself what Trump could do with the American government if he had a mandate.

With the events of this last week, and the endorsement of Donald Trump for the presidency, I truly fear for America’s future. It has embarked on a very, very dark path from which it may be impossible to emerge.

Photo credits: Gus Chan / The Plain Dealer; Brian Snyder/Reuters/Landov

Fear and Loathing at the Republican National Convention

republican-national-conventionThis past week the Republican Party held its national convention in Cleveland, Ohio to confirm the nomination of Donald Trump as its candidate for the presidency. It did not go well.

During the extensive primary process of selecting delegates to the convention Trump had defeated 16 other Republican contenders and accumulated the required number of bound delegate votes to ensure his nomination. However a broad “Never Trump” movement of disaffected Republican leaders and delegates also emerged who were firmly committed to preventing Trump’s nomination at the convention.

Trump children at RNCDonald Trump personally orchestrated the convention’s theme, stage décor, and speaker list, which prominently featured his own family. Many prominent Republican leaders (including past presidents and presidential nominees) stayed away. In many ways it was more like a Trump family event than a RNC event. The convention was unlike any other in the history of the Republican Party.

The first and last day of the convention served as bookends to highlight the central message Trump wanted to present. Instead of Reagan’s memorable sunny “Morning in America” message, Trump’s message more on the order of “Be afraid; be very afraid.” According to Trump, we are in a time of crisis; everything is falling apart. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are to blame, and I am the only one who can save you.

The tone of the convention was orchestrated to generate a mood of fear, rage and loathing among the delegates.

makeamericasafeThe first day’s theme at the convention was “Make America Safe Again.” It featured the mother of one of the soldiers slain in the attack on Benghazi who blamed Hilary Clinton personally for the death of her son. This was followed by a video on the Benghazi attack (whose real purpose was to attack Hillary), followed by two former U.S. security contractors in Benghazi who falsely accused Hillary of watching the attacks live via drone feed and doing nothing.

Then the focus shifted to a lineup of speakers who talked about the tragic deaths of family members and the grave dangers posed to American lives by undocumented Hispanic immigrants. (The GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, called these presentations “the weaponization of grief.) Milwaukie County Sheriff David Clarke then launched an attack on Black Lives Matter and former New York mayor Rudi Guiliani whipped the crown into a frenzy by emphasizing the dangers posed by Islamic extremist terrorists and saying that Obama and Clinton would not be counted on to keep America safe. This led the way for Donald Trump to finally come on stage.

The convention theme on the second day was “Make America Work Again.” It was supposed to focus on jobs, but little was actually said about that. The real theme (echoing that of the previous day) was on how a Clinton presidency would put America in danger, featuring more attacks on Hillary’s character.

It was also on this day that Donald Trump became the official nominee of the Republican Party. However, rather than unifying the party around himself, dissention remained strongly in the air. Many delegates were still angry at the way the “Stop Trump” movement had been procedurally overruled by the platform committee and gavelled into defeat on the first day through a voice vote that was anything but decisive.

I remember as I heard the voice votes both yea and nay, how they sounded equally strong. If that many delegates at the convention were solidly opposed to Trump, I thought, it would take a lot of effort to mend fences. When speakers came to the mike to question the chair’s ruling, they were abruptly told to shut up and live with it. So much for mending fences.

On day three the theme was “Make America First Again,” but problems over party unity continued to surface. Ted Cruz was the only speaker of the day to present an actual conservative policy agenda; it was strangely lacking from the other speakers at the convention.

Ted Cruz at RNCBut Cruz was booed off stage when he refused to personally endorse Trump, instead encouraging delegates to “vote their conscience” in November. His wife Heidi had to have protection in leaving the arena. The next day Cruz explained that he could not support anyone who attacked his wife and his father the way Trump had done during the campaign. Trump, in turn, quickly doubled down on the story that Ted Cruz’ father was connected to John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. He even cited the cover of the National Inquirer as proof!

But it did not end there. On Saturday Bloomberg reported that

Donald Trump plans to create and fund super-PACs specifically aimed at ending the political careers of Ted Cruz and John Kasich should either run for office again, after both snubbed the Republican nominee during his party’s convention this week.

Talk about a vindictive streak!

Hillary ClintonInstead of uniting around Trump, the only thing the delegates seemed to be united on was their manifest hatred of Hillary Clinton. At various points orchestrated chants of “Lock Her Up” echoed through the arena, and sales of T-shirts with the slogan “Hillary for Prison” were said to be brisk. Some supporters at the convention screamed that Hillary should be shot. West Virginia delegate Michael Folk tweeted that she should be “tried for treason, murder, and crimes against the U.S. Constitution … then hung on the Mall in Washington, D.C.” And Trump’s advisor on veterans issues, Al Baldasaro, also stated that Hillary Clinton should be put in a firing line and shot for treason.

This is astonishing! Donald Trump has gone from encouraging his supporters to “rough up” dissidents at his rallies to standing by while his supports call for his chief opponent’s execution! Michael Enright, reporting for the CBC, called the attacks on Hillary Clinton at the convention “venomous.” In a report for CBC News, he noted how this shatters the conventional political rules of behaviour, saying

In 1983, 241 U.S. Marines were killed in a terrorist attack in Beirut. The president at the time was Ronald Reagan, a Republican.

[The next year] Democrats held their national nominating convention in San Francisco. They chose Walter Mondale and his running mate Geraldine Ferraro. Had they chosen the low road, they could have blamed Ronald Reagan for the deaths of those 241 Marines.

They didn’t dare.

Trump acceptance speechTrump gave his “victory speech” on the final day of the convention. That, and reaction to it, will be the subject of my next blog.

 Photo credits: Getty Images; Washington Free Beacon; Jim Young/Reuters; Scott Applewhite/AP

Trump, Sanders, and the Future of American Politics

crossroadsAmerica stands at a crossroads. The general consensus is that government is not working as it should. People are resentful. They are angry. They no longer trust the traditional solutions that their elected leaders have been offering them.

There is a powerful insurgency in the making. And it is not pretty. In fact, it has the potential to be quite dangerous.

donald-trump-1Observers around the world have watched in disbelief as Donald Trump, an inexperienced political outsider with outrageous ideas and inflammatory rhetoric, has captured the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency. His message is, in the words of Michael Enright, one of “populism, protectionism, and hostility toward immigrants, coupled with anger directed as mainstream” politicians.

And he is not alone. Insurgent candidates from the far-right of the political spectrum have fast been gaining ground in France, England, Austria, The Netherlands, and even Switzerland. Their movement is on the rise. But what kind of a movement is it? And why is it gaining ground at this time?

FrumThe conservative political commentator David Frum provided some helpful insights in an interview with Michael Enright on CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning program earlier this year (rebroadcast this past week on Ideas). Frum stated,

There’s an old saying that every election presents a choice: More of the same or something new. When times are good, people vote for more of the same – whatever you guys are doing, please keep doing it. But for most Americans, times have been very grim now for the past seven or eight years, and have been troublingly oppressive for close to fifteen.

Even today, after six years of economic recovery the typical American household makes $4,000 a year less than it did in 2007, there’s a lot of evidence that upward mobility has slowed down, and pessimism is overwhelming. And that is especially true among white Americans …

Frum went on to explain,

When you are doing well, people value experience. But what is the experience now? What has happened over the past fifteen years from the point of view of an American voter [when all the things] recommended to them by clever people [turned] out to be a calamity for most people – from investing in dot.coms to the Iraq war…, to the housing bubble, to the Wall Street catastrophe, to the stimulus that produced such disappointing results for so many people?

The result has been that

the people who are the accustomed and self-expected leaders of American society have just consistently failed to deliver results that were beneficial to the voters. And of course, and unsurprisingly, the voters no longer accept that leadership.

This certainly helps to explain why, at one point in the Republican race for the presidency the three leading contenders at that time – Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – all had absolutely no political experience. They were complete outsiders who rejected the proposed solutions of the political establishment and put forward their own distinctive ideas instead. And they had a considerable following. People didn’t want to hear the ideas that the career politicians and political insiders were offering. They carried no weight. People were looking for fresh answers – for different solutions.

Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist who has been running for the Democrats on the left, is also a political outsider. Although he is a career politician, he has always until this point run as an independent, unaligned with and unbeholding to the party establishment. And Bernie too has denounced the traditional establishment thinking of his adopted Democratic Party.

To nearly everyone’s amazement, Bernie Sanders has mounted a groundswell electoral campaign that has seriously rivaled that of the Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. He has captured people’s imagination. His rallies have enjoyed enormous turnouts. His followers are every bit as enthusiastic and engaged as are those of Donald Trump on the right.

Something important is going on here – something that may even signal the demise of the old political process.

Seeking New Answers

When asked last month by Michael Enright what lay behind this serious rift between established politicians and voters, Freddy Gray, the deputy editor of the conservative British magazine, The Spectator, explained,

I think we’re living in a time of tremendous change – technological change, social change – and political parties and the political centre both on left and right are struggling to comes to terms with this change, and they are struggling to adapt to what their voters want. And we see a lot of angry people who feel that there is a sort of elite who is getting richer, … and their country has been left behind. And this is affecting the right more than the left ….

He then added,

it used to be said that the left won the cultural war, the right won the economic war, and the centre won the political war. I don’t think any of those things are true any more. I think the right is losing the economic argument in many ways. The left is probably still culturally dominant, but with issues like free speech we are beginning to see things changing. And the centre – the politically central parties or neo-liberal parties that have been so dominant for the last twenty years (we think of Bill Clinton and Tony Blaire as the great examples of that) they are breaking down.

If the solutions being promoted by the traditionally “centrist” parties no longer have credibility, what will gain their trust? As David Frum reminds us,

The job of political professionals is to pay attention to what the non-professionals are worried about, and to compete to find solutions. When the political professionals don’t do that, they open the door for hucksters and flim-flam men of all kinds.

donald-trump-2Enter Donald Trump.

As I stated in a previous blog, Donald Trump, in his own audacious way,

single-handedly swept aside the carefully constructed coalition of conservative interests that have defined Republican ideology for the past 40 years.

The prevailing Republican strategy since the Nixon presidency had been to craft an alliance between a hard-core anti-communist faction, those opposed to new civil rights legislation, and those promoting a governmental “hands off” approach to economics.

This “three-legged stool” of core Republican principles, as Josh Barro refers to them, namely militarism, social conservatism and libertarian economics, has now been replaced by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric focusing on immigrants, Muslims, and the very rich.

As David Frum noted in his interview with Michael Enright,

Donald Trump either intuited or discovered, that he could put together a new kind of message that was appealing to many of the people who had voted Republican, and it turned out that that so-called conservative base was not ideologically conservative in the way the inner party had assumed it was.

So if conservative ideology is not determining the political message, what is? The answer according to an increasing number of commentators is – Anger. Anger with the political establishment. Anger with the political and the economic elite. Anger with those who are seen as threats to traditional social and economic security.

Donald Trump has tapped into this widespread – and until now largely unvoiced – seething mood of anger against “the others” – those who are different, either culturally, economically or socially.

Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants, Muslims, women and minorities, has been frequently been linked with racism and xenophobia. And there is certainly that dimension to it. But these, I believe, are expressions of a yet more fundamental grievance underlying everything else.

neil-macdonaldNeil McDonald, senior correspondent for CBC and formerly CBC’s chief Washington correspondent, put his finger squarely on this fundamental grievance in a CBC Radio national news broadcast this past Thursday. He said,

We’ve all heard of the angry white male. The angry white male thinks that he is somehow being deprived – which is a bit ridiculous because really white males still run everything. But it’s not just angry white males. It’s angry males and females. In fact, it’s class rage. And they feel that the ground is shifting under them. They are losing agency and they are losing power, and it’s the blacks and the Mexicans, and gays and transgendered – it’s all these people that are clamoring for a seat at the table that was previously populated by them.

One proposed solution taken by many, then, is to attack those “others” who seek a place at the table, who demand to be included and who, in doing so, subvert the privileged status of the dominant group that is accustomed making all the rules.

These formerly privileged individuals now see themselves and their traditional values as being under attack. They complain of a supposed “war against Christian values.” They claim that immigrants are taking away their jobs, that whites are being discriminated against in the workplace, that women should keep in line, and that homosexuals and transsexuals somehow threaten heterosexuals’ own identity.

We have seen these attitudes at play over many decades in the case of African-Americans. As Carole Anderson, the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, stated this week in an interview with Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC Radio’s The Current,

When African-Americans advance, you begin to see an incredible movement to undercut that advancement. … [T]his white rage is in fact very methodical, very clinical, and it cloaks itself in the language of democracy. Protecting democracy, valuing justice, valuing the ballot box. But in fact, doing just the opposite.

The well-documented phenomenon of “white rage” must now be extended to the broader issue of “class rage” that McDonald speaks of. Donald Trump has harnessed this class rage and has made it the cornerstone of his election campaign. It is potent. It is divisive. And it is extremely dangerous.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has harnessed the power of a very different kind of anger. It does not target those who are already marginalized and merely asking for fair treatment and some degree of inclusion. It instead focuses on the various special interest groups that seek to maintain their privileged status – the careerist establishment politicians, the influential power brokers and political insiders, and the Wall Street elite along with their highly paid lobbyists.

Although this week Hillary Clinton secured her nomination as the candidate for the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders has pledged to continue to his efforts to focus

on social justice, on economic justice, on racial justice [and] on environmental justice,


that will be the future of America.

Two paths thus lie before the American people. In rejecting the policies of the past and mobilizing this new mood of public anger and even rebellion, they may take one of two courses of action: They may to attempt to retain the old lines of privilege, or they may work to ensure that all parties have representation at the table to hammer out new policies that will be of benefit to all.

At this point in time, however, it is not clear which path American voters will take.


Photo credits: Charlie Neibergal/AP; Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Imag

The Politics of Replacing Scalia

Antonin_Scalia_Official_SCOTUS_PortraitJust when you thought the American political scene couldn’t get any more contentious, hostilities have suddenly broken out over a brand new issue. The unexpected death of U. S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia over the weekend has thrown Washington into complete uproar.

Until this week one might occasionally hear mention of the fact that, considering the ages of the current members of the Supreme Court, the next president will quite possibly end up nominating two (or even more) new justices during their term of office. That is significant. Since the justices serve for life, these appointments could determine which way the Court leans for an entire generation.

But it was a distant possibility set within a vague time frame. Political watchers on both the conservative and liberal sides were aware of its importance, but it did not gain much public attention.

Now the choice of the next Supreme Court Justice has suddenly become an urgent matter. Everyone is talking about it and speculating about what will happen next.

Of course Republicans don’t want Obama to choose Scalia’s replacement. The addition of a liberal member to the Court would reverse the present 5-4 conservative split. It would prove disastrous to conservative hopes to use the Court to overturn Obama’s executive actions and rule in favor of conservatives on other matters.

Republicans are pinning their hopes on 1) delaying the appointment until after Obama is out of office, 2) winning the Presidency, and 3) retaining their majority in the Senate. That’s a big call. Should they fail to achieve any one of these objectives, their plans will be sunk. On the other hand, if the Democrats win the Presidency and the Senate (it only takes winning four seats), it will mean no possibility of turning back their suspected liberal agenda. So the stakes are certainly quite high.

US-Constitution_flagBut there are a few facts that must be kept in mind. First, the President has a constitutional duty (under Article II, Section 2) to nominate a new appointee to the bench to fill any vacancy. That is usually done within 60 to 90 days. For President Obama not to try and fill the vacancy would be a dereliction of duty.

Second, under the same constitutional article, the Senate has a duty to give its “advice and consent” for the nominee, after which the appointment can proceed. The Senate is not obliged to consent to every nominee, but they are obliged to review and advise the president on the nominee’s worthiness. They can reject the nominee. But for them to refuse to hold a hearing would likewise be a dereliction of duty.

Third, there is no justification for the argument that President Obama should not put forward a nomination since he is a “lame duck” in his last year in office. On no less than seven occasions during the 20th century a Supreme Court position became vacant (either through death, retirement, or resignation) during a president’s final year in office. In each instance, the president put forward a nominee to fill the vacancy, and most of the time that vacancy was filled.

The only time it was not filled was late in Eisenhower’s last year of office and Congress had already adjourned. Eisenhower made an interim appointment, which was quickly ratified by the next session of Congress.

It should also be remembered that President Ronald Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy to fill a vacancy on the bench during his final year in office, and the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed Kennedy by a vote of 97 to 0.

One has to go all the way back to the Civil War to find a time when a President left a Supreme Court position vacant for an entire year – and that was because the nation was … well, in the midst of a civil war.

President Obama has already announced that, in keeping with his constitutional duty, he intends to put forward a nominee to replace Scalia. According to the commentators, he has two main courses of action.

Sri_SrinavasanFirst, he can choose a nominee who, political posturing aside, everyone should be able to agree to. He could, for example, choose someone who was previously confirmed unanimously to a lower court position by the Senate. One name that keeps appearing in this regard is Sri Srinivasan, who has no political ax to grind, has worked for both the Bush and Obama administrations, and is seen as a brilliant jurist. Even Ted Cruz has called him “a longtime friend.” It would be awkward for the same Republican members of the Senate who confirmed him without hesitation to the D.C. Circuit Court in 2013 to now label him as unsuitable.

Loretta_Lynch,_official_portraitThe second option would be for Obama make a more contentious nomination, but one that would cost Republicans dearly in opposing during the presidential election campaign. The current Attorney General Loretta Lynch is frequently mentioned as one such candidate. She has outstanding qualifications as a prosecutor, and was recently successfully vetted by the Senate to become Attorney General. Should she as a woman and as an African-American be rejected by Republicans it could mean voters from both these demographic groups turning against Republicans and rallying to the side of the Democrats in the election this fall.

Mariano-Florentio-CuellarOr, in an even more pointed maneuver, Obama could nominate Mariano-Florentino [Tino] Cuéllar, a brilliant young Latino man who is an Associate Justice on California’s State Supreme Court. He was born in Mexico, but is a naturalized U.S. citizen. His perspective on immigration issues would be unique, and if Republicans should reject him for the Supreme Court it could alienate a vast swath of American Latino voters.

Who will Obama choose as his nominee? It’s anyone’s guess at this point. Will he try to find an acceptable moderate candidate, or act in a more politically partisan way? Perhaps that is not the most important issue.

What really counts now is how the Republican majority in the Senate will react. If it becomes clear that they are going to block any nominee that Obama puts forward, it will further polarize the American public, and may well mobilize Democrats and independents to show up at the polls and ensure that Republican attempts to control the nomination process ultimately fail.

Supreme_Court_US_2010In the meantime, The Supreme Court will be hamstrung with only eight members in a 4 to 4 liberal-conservative split for at least a year. National policy will fragment on a number of important issues such as immigration, abortion, birth control, unions, affirmative action and voter rights, as lower appeal courts decide on differing policies in their separate jurisdictions with no way of resolving these issues at the national level.

The crisis of a Congress that is incapable of doing its job will have spread to the Supreme Court, and the public will be in an angrier and more surly mood than ever.

I have a feeling that this is not going to end well … or quickly. This election is suddenly a whole new ballgame.

Guess Who’s Running for President

Republicanlogo.svgThere are now 10 Republicans who have announced their candidacy for president in 2016 and another 9 who whose announcements are pending, are exploring their candidacy or who have publicly expressed interest in running.

That number may grow in the weeks to come. It’s a “deep bench” and it will be interesting to see what will happen in the upcoming primary debates as they each try to convince voters that they are more right-wing in their views than their opponents.

DemocraticLogoOn the Democratic side there is now a total of 4 Democrats who have declared their candidacy for president: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee.

Hillary Clinton is the uncontested front runner, and it remains to be seen whether O’Malley and Chafee can get any traction. They may just be positioning themselves for the 2020 elections. (Looking back over the history of both parties one sees how often the successful nominee in a given year was an ‘also-ran’ in the prior election. That’s the usual pattern.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Lincoln Chafee and Hillary Clinton were at one time both committed Republicans. I wonder what happened to make them go over to the other side. Was it that the Republican Party has no room for ‘moderates’ any more? Just asking.

Bernie Sanders2The Democratic candidate who continues to receive the most attention apart from Hillary Clinton is Bernie Sanders. He has been regularly speaking to packed houses at his public events.

Yet the mainstream media continues to cast him as a fringe candidate who has little credibility. The fact that he is a self-declared “democratic socialist” (along the Scandinavian model) seems to be enough to guarantee that he will be dismissed as a serious contender in the presidential campaign.

It is difficult to understand what is so “extreme” about democratic socialism. It exists as a practical option in many European countries where socialist, labor parties, and (gasp) Christian Socialists abound. Even in Canada, which shares a 4,000 mile long border with the U.S., the (pro-labor socialist) New Democratic Party forms the official opposition in government.

The fact that there is only one ”democratic socialist” to be found among the 535 members of the U.S. Congress speaks volumes. It shows just how far to the right American government is compared to other Western democratic nations.

Bernie Sanders’ ideas have been broadly dismissed as both “extreme” and impractical. He is said to be out of touch with the American populace. Yet how extreme are his views really?

Sanders says that he wants to get big money out of politics. The vast majority of Americans agree with this, and a good half of Americans are in favor of federally financed political campaigns (such as exist is several states) to level the playing field.

Sanders strongly criticizes the growing gap between the richest 1% and the rest of the population. Polls show that some 63% of Americans also view the current distribution of wealth in the US as unfair.

Sanders has proposed raising taxes on the ultra-rich to fund government programs that will reduce this wealth disparity; 52% of Americans agree with this idea.

Sanders wants to take action to alleviate high student debts and make college education more affordable. 79% of Americans agree that education beyond high school is not affordable for many people, and 57% of those under 30 see student debt as a serious problem.

Bernie Sanders warns of the dire effects of global warming and wants to take effective action to combat it; 71% of Americans agree that global warming is a fact, and 57% are convinced that human activity is causing it.

So much with Sanders’ ideas being “extreme” and “out of touch” with the American public.

Rick PerryMeanwhile, I see that the mainstream media has no trouble treating former Texas governor Rick Perry as a credible Republican candidate for the presidency.

Perry has denounced both Social Security and Medicaid as unconstitutional. He has also denounced Obamacare and other federal health programs as unconstitutional. He sees federal education programs as unconstitutional as well as federal clean air laws and federal laws protecting workers.

Yet somehow the mainstream media doesn’t see Perry’s views as “extreme” or dismiss him as being “out of touch” with the views of the average American.

This is utterly bizarre!

Wake up people! The dangerous fringe candidates are all on the right. The extremists are all in the Republican Party. Get to know your candidates. And take care when you cast your ballot.

photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty