A Right to Gun Ownership?

orlando-shooting-memorialAs people continue to reflect on the horrors of the mass shooting last week in Orlando, FL, it is important to consider the U.S. policy on firearms that enables such easy access to weapons of mass destruction.

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, columnist Doug Saunders wrote an outstanding article for Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, entitled, “How U.S. gun ownership became a ‘right,’ and why it isn’t.”

It is the best piece of journalism on this subject that I have seen, and contains some surprising facts that are rarely reported in the American media. Portions of article follow:

The American gun crisis, and the attitudes and laws that make it possible, are very new. The broad idea of a right to own firearms, along with the phenomenon of mass shootings, did not exist a generation ago; the legal basis for this right did not exist a decade ago.

Until 2002, every U.S. president and government had declared that the Constitution’s Second Amendment did not provide any individual right for ordinary citizens to own firearms. Rather, it meant what its text clearly states: that firearms shall be held by “the People” – a collective, not individual right – insofar as they are in the service of “a well-regulated militia.” …

“For 218 years,” legal scholar Michael Waldman writes in his book The Second Amendment: A Biography, “judges overwhelmingly concluded that the amendment authorized states to form militias, what we now call the National Guard,” and did not contain any individual right to own firearms.

Warren_e_burger_photoThe U.S. Supreme Court had never, until 2008, suggested even once that there was any such right. Warren Burger, the arch-conservative Supreme Court justice appointed by Richard Nixon, in an interview in 1991 described the then-new idea of an individual right to bear arms as “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” …

NRA-logo-300x298For most of the 20th century, the National Rifle Association fought hard for gun control and strict limits on the availability of weapons. … [Later, however,] the gun-rights movement emerged from the anti-government fringes in the 1960s and ’70s, took over the NRA and raised huge sums to impose its agenda on U.S. lawmakers. And it crept, rather quickly, into mainstream U.S. thought through the Republican Party.
John_AshcroftIn 2002, John Ashcroft, previously known for his strong stances against racial desegregation and birth control, became the first federal attorney-general to proclaim that individuals should be able to own guns.

Then in 2008, in a reversal of all its precedents and a bizarre overturning of mainstream legal and historical scholarship, the Supreme Court ruled that there is indeed an individual right to own weapons (though one with limits).

That court was loaded with seven conservative judges appointed by Republican Presidents: John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Antonin Scalia.

A Controversial Supreme Court Decision

A bit of additional detail on this Supreme Court ruling is in order: The case the ruled on was District of Columbia v Heller. It concerned a D.C. policeman who, under a restrictive gun control law passed in Washington D.C. in 1976, was denied permission to register a handgun he wished to keep at home. The issue focused on whether or not the government can restrict the possession of firearms in light of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states,

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The attorney for the defence made the traditional argument that the Second Amendment applied specifically to the right to bear arms as part of a militia. Heller’s attorney, on the other hand, argued against that interpretation, insisting that the D.C. handgun ban was unconstitutional because it unnecessarily infringed upon an individual’s right to bear arms.

Antonin_Scalia_Official_SCOTUS_PortraitJustice Antonin Scalia wrote of the Supreme Court’s opinion in its 5 to 4 decision in favour of Heller, stating that in the court’s judgment individual possession of firearms is a constitutional right under the Second Amendment. This was a significant departure from previous interpretations of the Second Amendment.

Scalia’s judgment was challenged in a dissenting opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens who argued that the Second Amendment did not protect the use of firearms for non-military purposes. Stevens claimed that,

In reaching their decision “the Majority had set aside normal standards of interpretation in its decision.

[This is seen as a criticism of Scalia’s controversial use of “originalism” in interpreting constitutional documents.] As part of his dissenting view, Stevens specifically charged that,

The Majority had inappropriately ignored the first part of the Amendment: ‘A well regulated Militia.”

troiani-lexington-greenSince the right to bear arms as described in the Second Amendment is specifically within the context of a “well regulated Militia” providing for “the security of a free State,” it is difficult to see how this amendment applies to the private, non-military use of firearms. However Justice Scalia’s commitment to “originalism” allowed him to detach the second phrase of the Second Amendment, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” from the first phrase describing “a well regulated Militia.” In the view of many, this fundamentally distorted the reading and meaning of this article.

Justice Scalia’s ideological commitment to “originalism” was a radical departure from previous standards of jurisprudence. As described by Justin Driver, writing for The Guardian,

Rather than searching for the “original intent” of constitutional Framers, Scalia insisted, originalists should search for the Constitution’s “original meaning” for the public. This shift toward “original meaning” represented a shrewd intervention, suggesting that the Framers’ own understandings of constitutional text were less important than what ordinary citizens would have understood that text to mean.

It is easy to see the fallacy of this “originalist” argument. It is as if the content of a lecture by a respected scholar should be judged, not by that person’s careful research, noted expertise, and deliberate reflection, but rather by the average listener’s personal impression of what was said. Ridiculous!

When the highest court in the land tosses out any consideration of the “original intent” of the framers of the constitution, and relies instead on popular interpretation, the nation is in serious trouble.

Saunder’s article, however, ends on a hopeful note, saying.

The individual right to bear arms is only a few years old, and based on nothing; its fall could be as quick as its rise. Once the Supreme Court has two more appointments by Democratic presidents, it will eventually provide a correct interpretation of the amendment, the interpretation Americans knew and respected for 217 years.

Let us all hope so.

Credits: Militiamen painting by Don Troiani

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

Trump’s Triumph and the Death of Republican Ideals

donald-trumpTuesday was quite the decisive day in American politics. Not only did Donald Trump win big in the Indiana Primary, but Ted Cruz also finally threw in the towel and suspended his presidential campaign. Today John Kasich is reported to be withdrawing from the race as well,  leaving Trump in an uncontested position for the Republican nomination.

tea-partyWhat Paul Krugman calls “Movement Conservatives” – those who support the increasingly right-wing trajectory of American conservative policy from Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency in 1964 through the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and on through the Tea Party era – these “true” conservatives must be shaking their heads in disbelief now that Ted Cruz, their last standard-bearer of conservative ideology, has given up the fight in this year’s presidential race.

nixon_dixielandIn one audacious and masterfully crafted campaign Donald Trump has 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 has been to craft an alliance between a hard-core anticommunist faction, those opposed to new civil rights legislation, and those promoting a governmental “hands off” approach to economics.

trump-making America hate.jpgThis “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.

troops in IraqTrump’s rejection of traditional Republican ideology in his campaign is remarkable. With regard to America’s military policies, Trump has denounced G. W. Bush’s war in Iraq, and called into question America’s continuing support for NATO. In a recent speech laying out his vision for America’s role in the world Trump decried what he called “the dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a western democracy.”

trump-universal-government-healthcareOn social issues Trump long ago carved out a liberal position that strongly departs from official Republican policy. In 1999 he stated on Meet the Press that he was “very pro-choice” and the same year he stated in an interview with Larry King that he was “very liberal when it comes to health care” and that he believed in “universal healthcare.”

In a major departure from traditional Republican economic policy, Social Security cardsTrump has argued that the wealthy get too many tax breaks and they should be required to pay more. He has denounced America’s international trade agreements, which he claims have not created more jobs for Americans but taken them away. He has defended existing social entitlements and has pledged to leave Social Security Medicare and Medicaid benefits intact.

Donald Trump has repudiated a slew of core Republican policies and harshly criticized the Republican National Committrncee itself.  He has thumbed his nose at attempts within to RCN to deny him the party’s candidacy, and in all of this he has prevailed.

The question now is, with Trump poised to claim the Republican Party nomination at its upcoming convention, will the party establishment come around to aligning itself with Donald Trump? Trump has emerged as a polarizing figure both within and beyond the Republican Party. Polls show that fully two-thirds of Americans give him an unfavorable rating, a number that has “no equal among major party nominees in presidential campaigns over the last 23 years.” And so, if Trump loses badly in this fall’s election (as many expect will happen) will the party itself lose credibility in aligning itself with him and his nonconformist policies?

donald-trump-grow-upA new reality has now dawned for the Republican Party: In consolidating his standing as the sole remaining party candidate as an outlier, Donald Trump is well on his way to overseeing the destruction of the Republican brand and, some contend, possibly the destruction of the Republican Party itself.

And so far Republican insiders have been able to do nothing to stop it.

Photo credits: Associated Press; Steve Helber/AP; Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images; Tom Pennington/Getty

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.

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.

Donald Trump’s Appeal

Donald Trump-1

I am not all that surprised to see an egotistical demagogue like Donald Trump run for the U.S. presidency. It has happened before, usually without any serious consequences.

The literal definition of a demagogue, by the way, is “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.” The definition fits Donald Trump to a tee.

What has alarmed me to no end, however, is to see so many Americans enthusiastically supporting him and his rabid claims. Nothing he says ever offends them; it simply makes him more popular. It’s like throwing red meat to a pack of wild animals. He keeps ratcheting up the kind of rhetoric that in any previous election would have destroyed a candidate. But he seems to enjoy total immunity.

As Kevin Drum recently wrote for Mother Jones,

He started off slow with wild claims about immigrant Mexican rapists, knowing it would draw in the rubes. Then he laughably claimed that he’d get Mexico to pay for a border wall. Nothing happened. He insulted John McCain for being a POW. Nothing happened. He started telling obvious lies. Nothing. He lied on national TV and was called on it a few minutes later. Nothing. … He claimed that thousands of Muslims in Jersey City celebrated 9/11. Nothing. He mocked a disabled reporter in front of the cameras. Nothing. He suggested taking out terrorist families. Nothing. He appeared on the radio show of a crackpot conspiracy theorist. Nothing. [He then] insulted an audience of conservative Jews. [Still nothing.]

On Monday Trump called for a blanket ban on all Muslims entering the United States. The media has strongly criticized him for this, as have some other candidates, but Trump’s own audience responded with loud cheers.

Donald Trump-2

Many commentators have tried to explain Trump’s sustained appeal to such a large and enthusiastic audience. The best analysis that I have come across to date comes from Glenn Thrush writing for Politico. He put it this way:

The mystery of why Republican voters love Donald Trump more each time he makes up a story about Muslims dancing on rooftops after 9/11 or slimes a disabled reporter isn’t really very mysterious after all. All that engineered outrageousness isn’t about fact, or politics, or messaging, it’s about channeling the rawest emotions of his fans (and they are fans, not political supporters in a conventional sense). …

The base is seething, for real, with a recent Pew poll finding three times as many Republican voters describing themselves as anger-motivated compared with Democrats. Trump may be the ultimate it’s-all-about-me candidate, but the piercing paradox of 2016 is that it actually isn’t about him — but about his ability to capture the mood of his voters, and that, more than anything, explains his pundit-defying durability. …

Trump may not be telling the truth, but he’s sure as hell telling their truth. This allows him to shatter most conventions of presidential campaigning. … Trump has ridden up to 30 percent on almost unrelentingly negative, Reagan-on-downers message: Build a wall to keep out Mexicans; my opponents are fat, stupid, ugly, nasty, sweaty and poor; keep your “Morning in America,” I’m calling my campaign book “Crippled America.”

The question is no longer whether Trump can win the GOP nomination. He can. It’s whether his message will appeal to general election voters … who don’t share his anger or definition of the truth.

As I said at the beginning, I am not overly concerned with Donald Trump’s demagoguery. But I am absolutely appalled at the enthusiastic support his message has with such a broad swath of conservative American voters. A Bloomberg Poll released on Wednesday showed that

Almost two-thirds of likely 2016 Republican primary voters favor Donald Trump’s call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S., while more than a third say it makes them more likely to vote for him.

Trump’s message to the masses is deliberately inflammatory, intolerant, xenophobic and racist. He is articulating a kind of populist vitriol and scapegoating that we have not seen since the rise of fascist Europe in the 1930s. And his base seems completely OK with that.

glenn_becks_white_nationalist_fansIt is not as if we are talking about a few out of touch radicals championing some marginal extremist cause. This is a broad groundswell movement endorsing the kind of virulent nationalism that was seen in Nazi Germany. It has been nurtured by a throng right-wing talk radio hosts and Fox News, and by a broad network of committed local activists.

It has grown from an easy to dismiss fringe phenomenon into a successful “main stream” movement that now occupies center stage in the political arena. It is nothing less than a homegrown fascist, white nationalist populist movement.

It is extremely dangerous. And it has found its home within the Republican Party.

Photo credits: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images; Chalrie Lright/ Getty Images; Mike Mergen/AP

Revelations from the Republican Debate

On Tuesday evening I listened to the Republican candidates’ debate on economic issues hosted by the Fox Business network and the Wall Street Journal – two bastions of conservative economic ideology.

It felt rather strange to briefly enter the conservative bubble with the moderators giving tacit approval to the candidates’ views during the debate and the hosts applauding them for their views in the personal interviews afterward.

If one accepts the candidates’ premises (which in my view are quite erroneous), their proposed fixes to the economy look very sound.

Just lower taxes and magically create more employment and prosperity for all (hooray!).

Keep wages low and America can successfully compete with China and other countries (paying only $1 a day?).

Expel 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall to keep them out to solve … well basically, all of America’s economic and social ills!

Talk tough to Putin, flex some military muscle, and your opponents will back down (sure they will; nothing could go wrong there).

To me it all sounds alarmingly crazy.

Ted Cruz’ interview afterward was perhaps the most illuminating. He divided the field of Republican candidates into two categories – the remaining large number of ‘moderate’ candidates, as he called them, and the diminishing number of truly ‘conservative’ candidates like himself. I suppose that within the Republican feedback loop that might seem an accurate description. But that is certainly not the way many others see it.

As it happens, I had just a few hours earlier listened to a recent interview with the noted leftist linguist, philosopher, social justice activist, and political commentator Noam Chomsky. Here is a transcription from that interview as he described the current gamut of political positions in American politics:

The spectrum is broad, but in an odd sense. The spectrum is basically from center to extreme right – extreme right – way off the spectrum.

The Republican Party about 20 years ago basically abandoned any pretense of being a normal political party. …What happened is that the party – during the whole neo-liberal period [actually] both parties – shifted to the right … and the Republicans just went off the spectrum.

They became so dedicated to the interests of the extreme wealthy and powerful that they couldn’t get votes. So they had to turn to other constituencies which were there but were never politically mobilized: the Christian evangelicals, nativists [who] were are afraid that ‘they’ are taking our country away from us, people who are so terrified that they carry a gun into the coffee shop – and that’s their base essentially.

He went on to say that

The Democrats have shifted to the right as well. Today’s mainstream Democrats are pretty much what you used to call moderate Republicans.

Dwight_D._Eisenhower,_official_photo_portrait,_May_29,_1959Chomsky then paraphrased Eisenhower’s famous statement in a letter to his brother Edgar in 1954,

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. … Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Chomsky continued,

Well by now [Eisenhower’s position] is a left-wing program – basically Bernie Sanders’ program. … So the spectrum is – it’s true that it’s broad – but in a very strange sense.

While this is the view of a noted leftist, it echoes the consensus of a broad range of recent academic scholarship on American political history [detailed my previous post, The Demise of Moderate Republicans]. Chomsky’s language may be a bit sharper than others, but he forms the same conclusion.
By their measure and historically speaking, Barack Obama occupies a space slightly to the right of Eisenhower and Nixon.
And Bernie Sanders – the “radical socialist” from Vermont – is the sole remaining advocate of the kind of liberal New Deal programs that for more than a generation defined the standard for American economic and social policy.

In contrast, the small but determined insurgent “New Right” of the Goldwater campaign which lost so badly in 1964 finally triumphed in 1980 with the election of their chosen candidate Ronald Reagan. Reagan subsequently became the “patron saint” and standard bearer for the New Right.

However, after George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush disappointed conservatives in not carrying forward Reagan’s economic policies strongly enough, the new “New Right” has pushed the ideological standard far beyond that of Reagan.

Emboldened by right-wing talk radio hosts and Fox News commentators and under the guise of opposing Obama’s “left-wing” policies (really?), this new insurgency backed nativist Tea Party candidates espousing much more radical views in the 2010 midterm elections. They have also supported a large field of extremist candidates in both the 2012 and 2016 primaries. This is where, in Chomsky’s words, the Republican Party “went off the spectrum.” These are some of the same extremist candidates that the staunch traditional conservative John McCain called “wacko birds” in 2013.

Heaven help us if any of these candidates win the presidency in 2016.

Photo credits: Associated Press; Reuters/Gary Cameron; Reuters/Jorge Dan; AP/Andrew Harnik