The Man Behind Trump’s Throne

President Donald Trump Signs Executive OrdersThe media has reported extensively on the flurry of activity surrounding Donald Trump’s first week in office.  But perhaps “flurry” is not the right meteorological analogy.  To myself and many others it seems more like a destructive hurricane.

So many unprecedented events filled the news cycle this week, that is it impossible to comment on them all.  For those who wish a refresher, this brief summary from British television should suffice. Overall, it provides a rather chilling tally not only of a long-anticipated right-wing wish list, but also of actions to curtail civil liberties and democratic freedoms including the freedom of dissent, information and expression.

As noteworthy as these events have been – many of them gathering considerable media attention – what has been going on behind the scenes is even more important in the long run, And unfortunately, this has not been given near the attention it deserves.

trump-appointeesAs the Senate confirmation hearings of Trump’s Cabinet appointees has revealed, there is considerable daylight between some of their positions and those of Trump himself.  Politico reported this week that to ensure they do not stray from Trump’s own agenda,

The White House is installing senior aides atop major federal agencies to shadow the administration’s Cabinet secretaries, creating a direct line with loyalists who can monitor and shape White House goals across the federal bureaucracy.

voalogoThen there is Donald Trump’s so-called “war” with the media.  Things are falling into place for him to erect his own tightly controlled alternative to the public media.  In mid-December the newly-convened Congress passed legislation to abolish the independent body that oversees government-backed media outlets like Voice of America, replacing it with a chief executive named by the President and approved by the Senate. As Politico reported this week,

On the first Monday of his administration, Trump, who has flirted with the idea of launching his own TV network, deployed two “transition officials” who will evaluate the managers and studios of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which has an annual budget of $800 million and includes Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Networks.

Many people are not aware that legislation passed in 2013 now permits these government-funded outlets to broadcast to American audiences as well as to those in other countries.   Throughout the cold war, the Voice of America was the official propaganda arm of the U. S. government, and some people within this organization are now concerned that it may be turned into a propaganda mouthpiece for the Trump administration.

trump-and-mediaNote that this comes on the heels of Trump railing against CNN and Buzzfeed as “fake news” at his first official press conference, his press secretary Sean Spicer attacking the news media the day after the election for not backing Trump’s false claims on the size of the inauguration crowd, and Trump himself launching a similar attack on the public media during his visit to the CIA headquarters, calling journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”  The next day Trump’s chief White House Strategist, Stephen Bannon, called the media “the opposition party, and stated that “It should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” The following day Trump said that he fully concurred with Bannon’s view.

The Bannon Factor

This kind of rhetoric is completely unprecedented, and one might well wonder what is behind it.  The source of this animosity toward the mainstream media does not seem to originate with either Donald Trump or his Press Secretary Sean Spicer (or even his chief spokesperson and surrogate Kellyanne Conway).  All the evidence points to it originating with Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon.

bannon-and-trumpAs Michael Gyrnbaum explained in the New York Times this week,

Among Mr. Trump’s advisers in the White House, Mr. Bannon is responsible for putting into action the nationalist vision that Mr. Trump channeled during the later months of the campaign, one that stemmed from Mr. Bannon himself. And in many ways Mr. Trump has acted on that vision during his first week in office — from the description of “American carnage” he laid out in his inauguration speech to a series of executive actions outlining policies on trade agreements, immigration and the building of a border wall.

Mr. Bannon is one of the strongest forces in an administration with competing power centers. A savvy manipulator of the press, and a proud provocateur, he was among the few advisers in Mr. Trump’s circle who were said to have urged Sean Spicer, the new press secretary, to give a confrontational, emotional statement to a shocked West Wing briefing room on Saturday, when the White House disputed news reports about the size of the inauguration crowd.

A very revealing article in Axios this week reveals the extent of Bannon’s influence in the Trump administration (along with policy guru Stephen Miller):

  • They wrote the Inaugural speech and set in fast motion a series of moves to cement Trump as an America-first Nationalist.
  • They maneuvered to get more key allies inside the White House and positioned for top agency jobs.
  • Theywrote many of the executive orders, sometimes with little input from others helping with the transition.
  • They egged on Trump to take a combative approach with the media, China, Mexico and critics.
  • And Bannon punctuated the week with a full-throated, Trump-pleasing bashing of the media.

Just how small this group of decision-makers is was revealed this week is a series of reports stating that

trumo-executive-order2-jpgPresident Donald Trump’s team made little effort to consult with federal agency lawyers or lawmakers as they churned out executive actions this week, stoking fears the White House is creating the appearance of real momentum with flawed orders that might be unworkable, unenforceable or even illegal.

For example,

The White House didn’t ask State Department experts to review Trump’s memorandum on the Keystone XL pipeline

And

Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo were “blindsided” by a draft order that would require agencies to reconsider using interrogation techniques that are currently banned as torture

In addition,

Just a small circle of officials at the Department of Health and Human Services knew about the executive action starting to unwind Obamacare, and only less than two hours before it was released. Key members of Congress weren’t consulted either, according to several members. And at a conference in Philadelphia, GOP legislators say they had no idea whether some of the executive orders would contrast with existing laws — because they hadn’t reviewed them.

This was especially true with regard to Trump’s executive order limiting the entry of refugees into the U.S. issued this past Friday.  Politico reported that

When President Donald Trump declared at the Pentagon Friday he was enacting strict new measures to prevent domestic terror attacks, there were few within his government who knew exactly what he meant.

Administration officials weren’t immediately sure which countries’ citizens would be barred from entering the United States. The Department of Homeland Security was left making a legal analysis on the order after Trump signed it.

Furthermore,

It wasn’t until Friday — the day Trump signed the order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspending all refugee admission for 120 days — that career homeland security staff were allowed to see the final details of the order.

stephen-bannon3It is completely unheard of for the Executive office to not vet its executive orders with the Department of Justice or to keep its Cabinet officers and department heads in the dark about them until after they are proclaimed.  Stephen Bannon along with a tiny group within Trump’s circle of trusted advisors are in many cases drafting these articles without proper consultation with the offices that must implement them.  It is the kind of unilateral (even dictatorial) action that President Obama was (without justification) frequently accused of taking, but which is quickly becoming a hallmark of the Trump Administration.

Since the inauguration, Stephen Bannon has been busy consolidating his influence within Trump’s inner circle with the facilitation of Trump himself. On Friday Donald Trump issued an executive order restructuring the National Security Council, creating a new position installing Stephen Bannon on the Council alongside the Secretary of Defense (James “Mad Dog” Mattis) and Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson). At the same time, the Director of National Intelligence (Dan Coats) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Joseph Dunford) are being shunted to the side and will henceforth only attend committee meetings that pertain to their “specific responsibilities and expertise.”  David Ferguson notes that while serving on the council “Bannon will be privy to some of the country’s most highly classified military and intelligence secrets.”

By way of contrast, Tillerson will assume his position as Secretary of State in a very weakened position.  On Wednesday it was announced that the entire State Department Management Team had been fired by the Trump administration.  As Allegra Kirkland reported for Talking Points Memo,

“It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate,” David Wade, State Department chief of staff under Secretary of State John Kerry, told the newspaper. “Department expertise in security, management, administrative and consular positions in particular are very difficult to replicate and particularly difficult to find in the private sector.”

This leaves Stephen Bannon as the second most powerful person in the Trump administration next to the Donald Trump himself.  It has been reported that he sits in on all of Trump’s phone calls with international leaders, and has a direct hand in all major decisions.

Who is Stephen Bannon?

stephen-bannon2

Sixty-three year old Stephen Bannon was a founding member of Breitbart News, an extremist right-wing online news service dominated by provocative reporting and “fake news.”  Upon Andrew Breitbart’s death in 2012, Bannon became its Editor-at-Large. As David Ferguson explains, Bannon

presided over the expansion of Breitbart.com from a fringe right-wing web community to a sprawling hub of the so-called “alt-right,” a collection of white nationalists, racists, anti-feminists and neo-Nazis.

Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Breitbart, described Bannon as a “pathological liar who has a temperament that governs by bullying and intimidation.” And as Ben Shapiro, a former staff member at Breitbart, writes,

Bannon has goals. One of those goals is maximization of personal power, which is why he spent the last decade and a half glomming onto powerful right-wing personalities … and then moving on up the chain. With [Andrew] Breitbart and Trump, he picked two winners in a row – and that means he’s now at the pinnacle of American power.

So, what will he do with that power? He’ll target enemies. Bannon is one of the most vicious people in politics. … [M]ore importantly, Bannon’s interested in turning the Republican Party into a far-right European party.

Bannon’s personal agenda was further clarified by Ronald Radosh on the day after Trump’s inauguration when he related a conversation he had with Bannon at a social gathering back in 2013.  In their conversation, rather describing himself as a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed, “I’m a Leninist.” He quickly clarified that by this he did not mean that not mean that he was a communist (he was most certainly not), but rather that he saw himself as a radical revolutionary.

“Lenin,” he said, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

By “all of today’s establishment” he meant the traditional establishment parties – both Democratic and Republican – as well as the traditional conservative press.

Donald Trump found in the Breitbart press managed by Bannon exactly the kind of anti-establishment message that appealed to him.  Bannon became one of Trump’s most trusted allies in waging his own public war against the existing political “establishment,” and Trump soon brought him into his inner circle.  When Trump’s Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign after his lobbying work for pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs became public, Trump turned to Bannon, naming him as his “chief strategist and senior counselor.”

In November The Hill reported that although Bannon is best known for his populist nationalist views on domestic issues such as immigration, he is also “fascinated with the military and global affairs.”

Bannon admires right-wing nationalists and hard-line illegal immigration opponents in Europe and elsewhere. He wants to work more closely with them and sees them as part of a worldwide movement to overthrow the “globalists,” according to multiple sources familiar with his thinking.

Bannon is a longtime skeptic of international alliances like the United Nations and the European Union. He cheered on Brexit — the decision made by British voters in a June referendum to leave the EU — and he admires French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

stephen-bannon1This may be the first time that an actual agent provocateur has held a key position within an American administration.  Donald Trump trusts Stephen Bannon implicitly, and has given him access to all aspects of administrative responsibilities.  As Trump’s chief strategist he is responsible for rolling out the president’s executive orders, his media events, and his public pronouncements.  He is both the gate keeper and the initiator operating behind the scenes.  Everything that Trump does passes through his hands and is shaped by his counsel.

One ultimately has to ask, who is really in charge of the presidency?  Donald Trump the showman?  Or Stephen Bannon the presence behind the throne?

Photo credits: Gerald Herbert/AP; Ron Sachs – Pool/Getty Images; Reuters; Christine Frapech – AP/Newseum; Joshua Roberts/Reuters; ABC News; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Alex Brandon / 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.”

election-protests-seattle

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

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,

promising

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

Stephen Harper’s Evaporating Legacy

Harperism bookIn his 2014 book, Harperism, veteran journalist Donald Gutstein argued that Stephen Harper, during his time as Canadian Prime Minister, sought to fundamentally change the course of Canadian political history. His goal was nothing less than to establish a permanent legacy under his own name similar to the economic and social policy legacies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

In maintaining careful control over his agenda, Harper kept his Ministers on a short leash. He insisted on unwavering party loyalty and strict adherence to the party line. He even went so far as to provide his Ministers with scripted responses to questions in Parliament and carefully vetted their statements to the press.

But since losing to the Liberals in the federal election last October and resigning as leader of the Conservative Party, Harper’s hoped for legacy seems to be rapidly evaporating. In their first few months siting in opposition, his former ministers, MPs and other party members have quickly distanced themselves from their former leader’s policies.

Rona AmbroseThe first sign of a break from Harper’s legacy came just two weeks after the election when Rona Ambrose, the newly appointed interim leader of the Conservative Party, announced her support for a public inquiry into murdered and indigenous women. CBC News described this as “a stunning reversal of the position taken by the Conservatives under Stephen Harper, who repeatedly rebuffed growing calls for a national inquiry.”

Tony_ClementMore recently Tony Clement, a prominent Minister in the Harper government and former candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, forcefully called on the Liberal Government to make public the report on the recent controversial arms sale to Saudi Arabia that his own government had negotiated in secret and had refused to release to the public. When criticized for asking the Liberals to release the information that the Conservatives had steadfastly refused to release while governing, Clement replied, “the new leadership of the Conservative Party feels differently.”

cbc_radio_logoBut perhaps the most telling sign that Canadian Conservatives are seeking a dramatic break from the legacy of Stephen Harper and his policies, came to light in a panel discussion this past Saturday on CBC Radio’s current affairs program, The House. When asked whether Conservatives should mount a long or a short campaign in selecting their next leader, the Parliamentary Bureau Chief for La Press, Joel-Denis Bellavance, replied,

The strategy to have a long race is to encourage people from the outside to come up and join that race. Right now if you have a short race, only former cabinet ministers will be running. Some of them say right now to defeat Justin Trudeau, you need somebody who’s equal in terms of youth and generational change.

In other words, the emerging view is that if the Conservatives are to have any chance of governing again, they will need to choose a leader who is not strongly connected with the previous Harper government. They will need a fresh face and new ideas signaling a “generational change” within the Conservative Party.

Stephen Harper’s hoped-for permanent legacy is evaporating before our eyes.

A New Era in Canadian Politics

ballot boxThe federal election on October 19 dramatically changed the political map of Canada. Click here to see two overlapping maps of Canada, one showing the seats held by each party following the 2011 election and the other showing the results for 2015. In moving the cursor over the maps one sees the shift from one election to the other.

The Liberal Party under its new (and untested) leader Justin Trudeau, swept the Atlantic provinces, made major gains in Québec and Ontario, established inroads in the main urban centers across the Canadian prairies, and finished strong in British Columbia.

As a result, the Conservative Party has been confined to its traditional strongholds in Southern Ontario and the Canadian Prairies. It no longer represents all regions of Canada. And that is significant. Here’s why.

In Southern Ontario there used to be both “Blue Tories” and “Red Tories.” The Blue Tories (also known as “small ‘c’ conservatives) stood for lower taxes, small government, embraced neo-liberal economic policies, and leaned toward libertarian ideals.

The Red Tories, on the other hand, were knows as “progressive conservatives,” and argued that the wealthier members of society had a special responsibility (a noblesse oblige) to contribute to the common good. They endorsed broad social programs to assist the poor, fund education, and provide public health care. Both wings were housed within what was at that time called the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

KimCampbellBut in the 1993 federal election the Progressive Conservative government under Kim Campbell (Canada’s first female Prime Minister) imploded with the PCs going from 169 seats in Parliament to just 2 seats and losing their official party status. Replacing them on the conservative spectrum was the upstart Reform Party under Preston Manning based in Alberta, which went from 1 to 52 seats in Parliament.

The Reform Party was, generally speaking, a populist party representing Western conservative interests. By 2000 it had morphed into a decidedly right-wing populist party briefly known as the United Alternative, then the Canadian Reformed Alliance Party (until they realized that it spelled CRAP) so it was quickly changed to the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance, and finally just the Canadian Alliance. In the 2000 federal election it campaigned on a platform of tax cuts, ending the federal gun registration program, and traditional “family values” (largely opposing gay rights and abortions).

After severe infighting within the party, Stephen Harper emerged as the leader of the Canadian Alliance party in 2002 (he had previously been its chief strategist). In December of 2003 it merged with the (eastern based) Progressive Conservative Party (which at that time held just 12 seats in Parliament), becoming known as Conservative Party of Canada in what some easterners viewed as a “hostile takeover.” In March 2004 Stephen Harper became the new national party’s leader.

Harper_2004Stephen Harper can be credited with building up the Conservative Party from the ground up; it is his creation and bears his personal stamp. Ever the strategist, and vigilant against the kind of inner-party dissidence that had plagued the earlier Canadian Alliance Party that he had headed, Harper held tight control over the party’s MPs. Everyone spoke from prepared scripts approved by Harper himself, and no one deviated from the official party line. Harper was widely seen as an impersonal calculating micromanager, and he certainly lived up to that reputation.

However, through calculated tactics, thoroughly managed messaging, and more than a bit of luck, Harper was able to revive the Conservative Party’s fortunes. After two short-lived minority governments in 2006 and 2008, he was finally able to win a majority in 2011, and began implementing his aggressively conservative platform.

Needless to say, Harper’s conservatism was very much in turn with present Republican conservatism in the United States. So closely was Stephen Harper aligned with the policies of his contemporary, George W. Bush, when he took office that some commentators have called his election loss the defeat of the last surviving Bush-era government in the West.

The writing has been on the wall for some time for Stephen Harper. When he first formed government in 2006 he made sure to appoint some leading Progressive Conservatives to key positions within his cabinet to keep peace within the party. By the time he had called the election at the beginning of August this year, his last remaining Progressive Conservative cabinet minister had resigned. Other incumbent former Progressive Conservatives declared that they would not be candidates in the election. They realized that they no longer had any place in Harper’s Conservative Party. Former Progressive Conservative Prime Ministers Bryan Mulroney and Joe Clark have been fairly scathing in their assessment of Harper’s leadership and policies.

In the wake of the election it became clear that the only long-term conservatives re-elected in Ontario were former Blue Tories; the Red Tory faction was not to be found. Overall, the moderate conservative faction has now disappeared from Canadian politics just as it has in the U.S.

During his time in government, Stephen Harper fought hard to crush his main political opponent – the Liberal Party of Canada – and he nearly succeeded. It plummeted from having 135 seats in Parliament in 2004 to only 34 seats in 2011, dropping to third-party status. The Liberal comeback under Justin Trudeau in this election was therefore all the more remarkable.

Justin_Trudeau-3After Trudeau was elected as party leader in 2013 he set about giving the party not only a new public face, but also a redefined identity. He was criticized for being absent from Parliament much of the time, but he spent that time travelling the country meeting constituents, listening their concerns, and consulting with a broad range of interested parties.

Trudeau’s strategy as leader has been to redefine the party, working from the ground up, and also to redefine how it operates, just as Stephen Harper did with the party he was elected to lead. But Trudeau has chosen a very different model than Harper. Instead of tight management and strict ideological control, Trudeau has initiated a process to make the party more open and transparent, more consultative and inclusive, and more cooperative and engaging.

In speaking with Canadians from across the country over the past two years, Trudeau has worked hard to develop a new consensus around core policy issues and fresh policy initiatives. He has shown a keen political sense (in the best meaning of that term) for identifying the chief concerns of the majority of Canadians and then shaping them into policy positions that are positive, unifying, and non-polarizing.

This was especially seen during the election campaign. During the campaign Trudeau refused to engage in negative advertising (no personal attacks on candidates or leaders – just stick to the issues) or to exploit the “politics of fear” that defined Harper’s campaign. Instead, he presented a positive message of “hope” and “change” (one which had worked quite effectively for Obama in 2008).

Whereas Harper talked about constraints and what could not be done – warning of economic dangers, the threat of terrorism, and the need to cut social programs while maintaining military strength – Trudeau’s campaign capitalized on the phrase, “This is Canada. And in Canada we can always do better.” (Sounds a lot like Obama’s 2008 refrain of “Yes, we can!”) In fact, many are saying that with Justin’s election victory Canadians are now enjoying their own kind of “Obama” moment.

Can Justin deliver?

Justin_Trudeau-2Since the election results came in a week ago, many people have been asking, “Will Justin be able to deliver on his election promises?”

Just look at the uphill battle that Obama has faced in getting his legislative agenda through congress. Look at the refusal of the Republican-controlled House (and now Senate) to pursue the initiatives he has spelled out in his State of the Union addresses. Look at the ongoing efforts to repeal (or cripple) even the programs he did manage to get through Congress before the 2010 midterms. Could the same thing happen to Trudeau?

The answer, simply put, is NO. Not a chance. And to understand why, one needs to understand a bit about the Canadian parliamentary form of government.

Like Americans, Canadians have an Executive branch of government, a Senate, and a House, but they all operate quite different from the American system.

The first thing to do in comparing the two system of government is to forget about the Executive branch. The highest-ranking Canadian official is the Governor General, who acts as the Queen’s personal representative in Canada. This person is not elected, but is appointed (normally for a five year term) by the Prime Minister. They are to be strictly non-partisan, and they fill what is largely a ceremonial role in greeting foreign heads of state, and providing royal assent to all legislation passed by Parliament. Only then does it become law. But the Governor General neither proposes this legislation, not will he or she ever attempt to amend it. They simply give final assent, acting for the Queen who is the constitutional ruler of Canada.

Next, forget about the Senate. Members of the Canadian Senate are also not elected, but are appointed to their positions for life by the Prime Minister. (It’s kind of a Canadian adaptation to the British House of Lords.) Senators do not initiate legislation; only the House does that. Senators merely receive the bills passed by the House and review them (as the chamber of “sober second thought”) with the ability to suggest amendments and return the bill to the House if needed. Most of the time they do not do that, but simply ratify the bills, so that they can be passed on to the Governor General to be signed into law.

House of CommonsThat leaves only the House of Commons, which actually does function a lot like the House of Representatives in the United States. And this is the most important thing to know about the Canadian parliamentary system. The Canadian Prime Minister operates most closely like the Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress.

Like the Speaker of the House, the Canadian Prime Minister is historically chosen by his own party members to lead the affairs of the legislative chamber. (In recent years this has been widened to a convention of party members rather than being limited to sitting parliamentarians.) Like the Speaker of the House, the Prime Minister chooses what legislation will be introduced on the floor of the House (and what will not be considered). The PM shepherds that legislation through its successive stages of debate (first and second readings) and through its final passage. All government-sponsored bills must go through committee (to be costed out and to establish their final wording) before being voted on, and the Prime Minister makes those committee appointments. So really, he holds all the cards.

One important difference between the Canadian and American systems of government is that in Canada whenever the party in power has a majority of the seats in Parliament, the opposition can do very little to hamper its operation. Neither the Senate nor the Executive branch can counter its will. This is much different than the American system.

The American founding Fathers, wary of the dictatorial dangers inherent to the British parliamentary system of government, designed an elaborate system of “checks and balances” to limit the power of any one branch of government. Canada follows the British system and does not have any such system of checks and balances. This means that the Prime Minister has far greater political power than either the Speaker of the House or the American President. On the plus side, it means that there is no danger of congressional gridlock as in the American system. On the negative side, it means that the Prime Minister is free to operate in a near-dictatorial manner if he or she wishes to do so.

A year ago I published a blog entry entitled “A Real Dictator?” comparing criticism from Republican ranks that Obama was acting as a dictator with the much more sweeping “dictatorial” powers of the Canadian Prime Minister (having in mind the way Stephen Harper operated). In that blog I summarized the powers of the Prime Minister as follows:

The Canadian Prime Minister appoints the Senators who give all legislation a “second reading” and can either approve the legislation or amend it and send it back to the House for reconsideration. He appoints the Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada) who provides the final signature passing any bill into law. The Prime Minister appoints members of the Supreme Court and all Federal Court judges. He appoints the ministers in his Cabinet, every Deputy Minister, and all parliamentary secretaries and committee chairs. In addition, he appoints the Governor of the Bank of Canada, the heads of all major crown corporations (national public utilities, etc.), and the Chief of the RCMP (the national police force). Even the (supposedly) independent officers of Parliament, such as the Auditor General, the Information Commissioner and the Privacy and Ethics Commissioners, are all appointed by the Prime Minister. These appointments are not subject to opposition, debate, or review. The decision is solely the Prime Minister’s.

So, returning to the question of whether or not Justin Trudeau will be able to make good on his election promises, the answer is – there is little to stop him.

He will, of course, face the same financial constraints in implementing some of his desired programs that any Prime Minister would face. He will have to face vocal opposition from his political opponents across the aisle (with no real power to alter his plans, however). And he will have to face the press and deal with public opinion. But basically, he is free to do whatever he wants (within constitutional limits) between now and when he chooses to face the electorate again in four or five years to ask for a renewed mandate.

Justin_Trudeau-1Judging from the leadership style that Justin Trudeau has consistently demonstrated in leading the Liberal Party for the last two years, I doubt that he will abuse his powers in the way that Stephen Harper was often accused of doing. Instead, I look forward to seeing him continue to operate in a manner that emphasizes openness and transparency, inclusiveness, and cooperation.

We shall see over time whether or not he lives up to the role model he has established for himself.

Photo credits: Canadian Press; Sean Kilpatrick/CP; Riziero Vertolli – Burlington Post

Crisis in Congress – Who Will Be the Next House Speaker?

Kevin McCarthyThis week Republican wunderkind Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew from the race for House Speaker just before the vote was to be taken.

His boast on Fox News about the Republicans putting together the special committee on Benghazi to discredit Hillary Clinton seems to have done him in. Opposition to his comments by Republican leaders was swift and severe.

McCarthy would need to receive a majority of 218 votes in the House to be elected as Speaker. The Democrats can all be counted on to cast their votes for Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader. With 247 Republicans in the House, that leaves a margin of less than 30 dissenting votes on the Republican side to achieve a majority. (Remember that John Boehner narrowly survived a leadership vote earlier this year when 25 fellow House Republicans voted against him.)

Daniel WebeterBut on Wednesday the House Freedom Caucus (with appx. 40 members) announced that it was backing Daniel Webster for speaker, with one of its members, Rep. Paul Labrador, informing CNN that the group would be voting as a block for their candidate instead of for McCarthy. Sensing that he could not unify the party behind him, McCarthy quickly withdrew his name.

But there is more to the story than that. It is possible that McCarthy was blackmailed into withdrawing from the race.

The previous day (Oct. 6) Rep. Walter Jones of N. Carolina sent a letter to the Republican Conference Chairman

asking that any candidate for Speaker of the House, majority leader and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public.

Then, just after 8 am on Thursday morning (the morning of the vote) McCarthy received an email from Steve Baer, a well-known conservative GOP donor with the subject line: “Kevin, why not resign like Bob Livingston?” (a reference to the Republican candidate who was set to replace Newt Gingrich as House Speaker in Jan 1999 until it was revealed that he was having an extra-marital affair; he resigned from Congress a few months later). The email contained a series of links to stories alleging that McCarthy was having an affair with Rep. Renee Ellmers of N. Carolina, and was copied to 91 influential conservatives both in and outside Congress.

Although both Ellmers and McCarthy have stated that these accusations are unfounded, it may nevertheless explain McCarthy’s abrupt withdrawal from the Speaker’s race without further explanation.

YoungGuns_Cover_DV_20100831125157Until McCarthy’s now infamous statement on Fox News, he was seen as one of the fast-rising stars within the Republican Party. He was one of the celebrated “Young Guns” who, along with Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan in the book they co-authored in 2010, became the standard-bearers of a new generation of conservative Republican leaders.

McCarthy rose rapidly through the ranks of party leadership. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2006, served as Republican Chief Deputy Whip from 2009 to 2011, then as House Majority Whip from 2011 to 2014.

Eric Cantor became House Majority Leader in 2011, but lost his seat in 2014 to a more radical Tea Party ‘outlier’ in the primaries who then replaced him in the House. McCarthy took over Cantor’s vacated #2 position as House Majority Leader in August 2014, and was until this week poised to assume the top position as Speaker of the House.

But much like Cantor, McCarthy has had his political future torpedoed by a discontented, vocal, and more radically conservative faction within his own party. It was the House Freedom Caucus specifically that took the lead in orchestrating McCarthy’s leadership demise.

Capitol Hill Re-Groups One Day After Surprise In Speaker's RaceMembers of Congress have historically divided into different party caucus groups to work together in promoting specific agendas. In 1973 the Republican Study Committee was formed as part of a rising conservative movement within the Republican Party to oppose the moderate Republicans who dominated the House at that time.

With the Republican Party’s swing to the right in recent years, more than three-quarters of House Republicans (some 170 members) now belong to the RSC, far outstripping the less than 50 House Republicans belonging to the moderate Main Street Partnership.

But many of the recently elected House members (largely from the Tea Party faction) have come to see the RSC as not conservative enough for their taste. After many months of planning, in January of this year they formed a splinter group called the House Freedom Caucus to pursue a decidedly right-wing agenda.

The HFC keeps its membership list secret, but is known to number around 40 members. With such a large voting block, they exert considerable weight, and can keep any proposed legislation in the House that does not have Democratic support from passing. A month after its formation, members of the HFC pushed the House majority close to a partial government shutdown in opposing President Obama’s executive order on immigration.

An angry John Boehner struck back, relieving some HFC members of their House duties. This led to near open warfare between the HFC and Speaker. Over the summer one of the affected HFC members, Rep. Mark Meadows of N. Carolina, filed a motion to oust Boehner from the speaker’s chair. Boehner ended up announcing his resignation before the motion could be voted on.

Now that the House Freedom Caucus has achieved Boehner’s resignation, and has turned against Kevin McCarthy as the front runner to replace him, Republicans are scrambling for a new candidate who can receive the required majority – which means satisfying both the conservative and extreme right-wing factions within the party. With the House Freedom Caucus holding the decisive block of votes, that appears to be a near impossibility.

Paul_RyanSome party conservatives have pleaded with Paul Ryan, the remaining “Young Gun,” to stand for nomination, but he has steadfastly refused. He knows that the speaker will face enormous pressures in the weeks to come. As Alexander Bolton noted this week in The Hill,

Congress has less than a month to raise the nation’s debt limit and only two months to find a deal to avoid a government shutdown.

If the new speaker cooperates with Democrats or the President to avoid a shutdown, he will face the wrath of House ultra-conservatives who will likely demand his immediate resignation. And if he allows a government shutdown to take place, he and other Republicans may incur the wrath of the entire nation. Either way, such a step could easily ruin Paul Ryan’s political career.

The House Freedom Caucus is playing a strong hand. On Thursday Politico published a “questionnaire” distributed by the HFC that seeks a commitment from any new speaker that any increases in the debt ceiling would be tied to cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Cutting these benefits is viewed negatively by the public at large and even by some Republicans. But so would be refusing to increase the debt ceiling and causing America to default on its debts.

The questionnaire also asks,

Would you ensure that House-passed appropriations bills do not contain funding for Planned Parenthood, unconstitutional amnesty, the Iran deal and Obamacare?

In other words, it asks the House Speaker to commit to not funding the government unless Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, Obama’s immigration orders and the Iran deal are all defunded in the process. As Judd Legum notes in an article in ThinkProgress,

This is essentially the Ted Cruz strategy which prompted at 16-day shutdown in 2013. This would now be enshrined as the official policy of the Speaker Of The House.

It would be dangerous for any untested Speaker to shepherd such radical legislation through the House. There is sure to be an enormous backlash as well as some unforeseen casualties.

But right now the House Freedom Caucus holds all the cards. And it will be difficult to elect a new speaker without their cooperation.

Interesting – and perilous – times lie ahead.

Photo credits: Scott Applewhite/AP; Andrew Harnik/AP; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Dead Cat and Dog Whistle Politics

ca_election_2015The Conservative Party of Canada has just mounted a strategic ploy to try and salvage a win in the closing days of the federal election campaign.

Throughout the first half of the campaign the Conservatives were regularly on the defensive, with the media giving extensive coverage to three contentious issues: First came the Mike Duffy hearings and the Senate scandal (very bad for the ruling Conservative Party). Then came non-stop coverage of the drowning of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi and Canada’s appalling record in taking in refugees (another black eye for the Conservatives). This was followed by the economic news that Canada had just recorded its second consecutive quarter of negative growth and was technically in a recession (again, bad news for the Conservatives who were campaigning on experienced fiscal management).

But behind the scenes important changes were taking place.

LyntonCrosbyIn September Stephen Harper hired an Australian political consultant, Lynton Crosby (the so-called “Wizard of Oz”) who masterminded the political campaigns of the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson. Crosby has fine-tuned the art of “dog whistle” politics in securing his political wins. He is said to be especially skilled at finding issues that voters can suddenly seize upon to turn around a flagging campaign.

In 2013 Boris Johnson described one of the key campaign tactics he learned from Crosby.

Let us suppose you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and, the more people focus on the reality, the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as “throwing a dead cat on the table, mate.”

That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table—and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words, they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.

In the French language debate last Friday Harper threw “the dead cat” on the table. Suddenly everyone is taking about “the niqab issue.” As Evan Solomon reported in a feature article in McLean’s (Canada’s national news magazine),

The NDP, which was once riding high on polls that showed Quebecers were ready to turf Harper, have whiplash. It has lost control of the agenda. It’s all niqab, all the time.

So, what is the niqab issue?

In 2011 the Conservative government implemented a policy stating that candidates for citizenship must remove any kind of face covering that could conceal their identity when taking the public citizenship oath. Since then precisely two people have declined to go through the citizenship ceremony under those conditions. (So this deserves to be a major issue?)

niqab-citizenship-zunera-ishaqOne of these people is Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani woman and devout Sunni Muslim who is seeking Canadian citizenship. Based on her religious beliefs, Ishaq wears a niqab, or veil, to cover most of her face when out in public.

She has stated that she is quite willing to remove her niqab in private before the ceremony for a female citizenship officer to verify her identity, but that she is opposed to appearing immodestly without the niqab for the lengthy public citizenship ceremony.

Ishaq took the federal government to court over the ban, and a Federal Court judge struck the ban down. The federal government applied for a stay of the ruling to prevent her from taking her citizenship oath and thus become eligible to vote in the October election. On September 18 the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s decision, saying there was no basis for issuing a stay, and cleared the way for Ishaq to take her citizenship oath. The Conservatives threatened to take the case to the Supreme Court, to once again prevent her from voting in this fall’s election.

Now the Conservative Party has made the ban on the niqab a major campaign issue. They have pledged that legislation will be introduced within 100 days of a re-elected Conservative government that will require one to show one’s face while swearing the oath of citizenship.

Chris AlexanderIn a news conference on Friday, The Conservative’s Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander, stated, “Let’s be clear. This practice of face covering reflects a misogynistic view of women which is grounded in medieval tribal culture.”

In this news conference Alexander also reminded voters of the Conservative government’s Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act passed last November. Alexander promised more government resources to uphold the act if re-elected, and also proposed a RCMP tip line where people could report “information about incidents of barbaric cultural practices in Canada.” 

As Edward Keenan pointed out on Saturday in The Star, when Stephen Harper refers to “barbaric culture,” that is dog-whistle terminology for “Islam,” and he is hoping that this appeal to Islamophobia will turn the election around and solidify his conservative base.

nun : niqabBut most Canadians are not Islamophobic, and outside that base, this tactic has resulted in an explosion of Twitter memes pointing out the hypocrisy of singling out face coverings worn by Muslim women as misogynistic and grounded in medieval tribal culture, but ignoring similar accepted face coverings worn by women in Western societies.

In addition, a host of satirical sites have sprung up such as http://www.reportyourneighbour.ca/ accusing the Conservative government itself of promoting “barbaric cultural practices in Canada.”

The majority of Canadians are able to see through this rather desperate diversionary tactic being mounted by the Conservatives. Let’s hope the debate soon returns to real election issues that the Canadian public actually wants to debate.

Photo credits: Rex Features; Patrick Doyle/CP; Canadian Press