Month: December 2015

2015: The Year in Review

The year 2015 was a busy year.  Some of the most significant political events of the year are reviewed here as a final way to say goodbye to the year about to end.

The SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage.

On June 26, the US Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, effectively requiring states to allow same-sex marriages and to recognize such marriages effected in other states.  The case was a consolidation of several cases from different states, including the title case from Ohio, as well as Michigan’s DeBoer v. Snyder, Kentucky’s Bourke v. Beshear, and Tennessee’s Tanco v. Haslam.  The Court ruling overturned federal legislation such as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA, 1996), and state laws and constitutional amendments banning or restricting same-sex marriages.  Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, noting that marriage was “a building block of our national community,” which has itself evolved over time, and that unrestricted rights to marriage ensure the protection of American families and children.  Chief Justice John Roberts dissented by denying that the Court had authority to rule on a right which “has no basis in the Constitution.”

Despite national celebrations of the new-found freedom, some dragged their feet.  Ten counties in Alabama simply refused to issue any more marriage licenses to anyone; while five more counties in Kentucky and Texas took questionable positions (on the even more questionable ground of “religious freedom”).  While the Supreme Court ordered one clerk, Rowan County, Kentucky’s Kim Davis, to begin issuing marriage licenses after her brief campaign to oppose the ruling, other counties still have unchallenged refusals to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The Papal Encyclical on the Environment

In May, the Vatican released a new papal encyclical, Laudato Si (Praise Be to You), calling for a new human ecology.  The work was both praised and criticized as a “climate change” directive.  Pope Francis worked with both the Vatican’s own scientists, and with noted international scientists, and he criticizes man’s increasing destruction of the Earth.  The Pope cited Biblical verse to contradict the traditional Christian view of man as having domination over the Earth; and instead tied man to his “sister,” the world in which we live.  He called for “a broad, responsible scientific and social debate” to help develop an “integral ecology,” treating ourselves and our environment as one and the same.  The Pope also calls for “an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of the so-called ‘global commons’.”  But he also endowed all Christians with the responsibility for making ecologically sustainable consumer choices, and for educating both our children and our political leaders on the need for a more integrated and sustainable ecology.  Unsurprisingly, American conservatives reacted negatively, criticizing the Pope (a credentialed chemist) for speaking on scientific matters.  The Pope’s encyclical also was viewed by both the left and the right as a more leftist document than it really is.  The Vatican sees man as “responsible” (empowered to do good), without acknowledging “blame” for increasing warming and extreme weather.  The Pope also defends the Vatican’s continued opposition to birth control and abortion, seeing population increases as beneficial to future human advances and to ecological conditions.

The Iran Nuclear Agreement

On July 14, an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was finalized in Vienna, between Iran, the European Union, and a group of powers called the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany), after some 20 months of negotiations.  Both before and after the completion of the agreement, conservatives in Iran, the US, and Israel criticized the process (each of them mistrusting the others), as well as the final agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  Conservatives on all sides viewed the agreement as a surrender to the other side (and ignored the fact that the other side’s conservatives thought the same way).  Nonetheless, the Iranian Parliament passed the JCPOA in October.  In the US, where the JCPOA has the status of a “political agreement” (not a treaty requiring Senatorial ratification), the agreement is subject only to review by Congress due to a 2015 law (the Iranian Nuclear Agreement Review Act).  However, President Obama’s warning to Congress that he would veto any resolution disapproving of the agreement pushed Republicans against the wall as is turned out (amid increasing support for the agreement by professional military and security specialists) that neither house of Congress had the votes to defeat a presidential veto.  Nonetheless, the Republican majorities of both houses remain opposed to the deal; but the agreement is insulated by its legal status for so long as Democrats can retain the White House.

The agreement itself severely restricts Iranian production and enrichment of uranium (placing under IAEA control virtually all of Iran’s enriched uranium, and virtually all of the high-grade centrifuges needed to enrich more).  In return, the US, UN, and EU are obligated to suspend (not to repeal) economic sanctions against Iran; but only after Iranian compliance with IAEA controls is verified.  Iranian conservatives fear that the agreement surrenders Iran’s nuclear program to the West, with no guarantees of Western compliance in sanction relief (which it does).  On the other hand, American conservatives feel that the limits on Iranian production and enrichment are insufficient (with some of the controls eliminated after 8 years, although some controls remain in place for 25 years).  With IAEA inspection to be a permanent reality in Iran, critics fear that Iran can still bypass inspectors at a few key sites.  However, most arms-control experts and nuclear inspection specialists agree that these criticisms are misplaced, and that the JCPOA is a powerful and effective agreement capable of disarming the Iranian nuclear program.

The Syrian Civil War, and the Rise of ISIS

First igniting as part of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Syrian Civil War helped to solidify a group formed in Iraq in the wake of the power vacuum resulting from President Bush’s failure to implement effective post-invasion reconstruction policies.  The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, itself an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group formed after the US invasion) proclaimed in 2006, and separated formally from Al Qaeda  in 2014, declaring itself a “caliphate,” rejected and condemned immediately by most of the world’s Islamic nations.  In 2015, violence in Syria and Iraq escalated further.  ISIS, formed from a merger between ISI and other extremist groups, acquired the allegiance of groups in Afghanistan (later neutralized by both Taliban and US security operations), Pakistan, and India in January; Nigeria in March; and other groups in the Caucasus and Uzbekistan.  As of December 2015, ISIS controls a large swath of territory in eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq (mostly unoccupied desert; but with some towns and cities, and access to some Iraqi oil fields).

To fight against the group, the US orchestrated the establishment of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), an international coalition, in October 2014.  In 2015, Russia joined with Iran, Iraq, and the Syrian government to form a combined operations group; and both coalitions have initiated operations not only against ISIS, but to a degree against each other.  However, in late 2015, these nations met in Vienna (without the participation of any Syrian parties, none of whom were invited), and agreed on a tentative transition plan with UN-monitored elections of a new Syrian government.  Despite this agreement, the future status of President Assad’s regime remains in question, with Russia still supporting the regime, and the US insisting that it must go.

In the meantime, the war has spilled over into regions far from the field.  Adding to the over 250,000 dead in Syria and Iraq (as well as over 7 million displaced and 4 million refugees), Paris suffered two separate terror operations in 2015:  January’s shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices (by a Yemeni Al Qaeda group), and November’s Friday the 13th attack by ISIS-associated European nationals.  November also saw multiple terror attacks throughout the Middle East.  In December, a pair of extremists with apparent sympathies for ISIS perpetrated a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.  These attacks (and the question of how to respond to them) have widened the political divide in the US, especially as the presidential campaigns move forward into 2016.

Planned Parenthood

Following the release in 2015 of two controversial video clips, the Planned Parenthood Federation (PPFA) came under fierce conservative attack for its involvement with abortion services.  One video, released by anti-choice activists from the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), showed the activists attempting to purchase fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood representatives, while another video showed a vaginal delivery of an early fetus, released by former Pentagon propaganda warfare specialist Gregg Cunningham’s Center for Bio-ethical Reform (CBR).  The CMP clip was used by anti-choice activists to argue that abortions could have some profit incentive (despite existing laws prohibiting this, and which also allow for “reasonable fees” for organizational costs in handling tissues).  The second, CBR clip was completely inaccurately described by Republican presidential candidate Carli Fiorina as showing “…a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”  The video shows a vaginal delivery of an approximately 17 or 18 weeks old fetus (which doctors insist is too young to attempt to keep alive; some doctors having viewed the clip also suggest it may depict a miscarriage rather than an abortion).  There is no sound on the original clip; so no one is recorded as saying anything.  Also, there is no identification of the facility or provider, so it has no established connection with Planned Parenthood.  Nonetheless, the two videos were used to justify efforts by Republican lawmakers to cut off federal and state funding to Planned Parenthood, as a provider of abortion services.  Republicans ignored the fact that by law, Planned Parenthood only uses public funding for non-abortion services (which account for over 90% of their activities), and that abortions are furthermore legal procedures in accordance with Roe v. Wade.  Instead, Republicans exploited public gullibility to bypass Roe v. Wade by shutting down legal medical service providers that had any connection with abortion-related activities or referrals.

As public debate and misinformation developed (with anti-choice activists ignoring the basic facts of their own videos), a terrorist in Colorado incited by this misinformation, Robert Dear, took matters into his own hands in November, opening fire at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs.  Three people were killed, and nine injured (including three police officers, one of whom was killed).  Dear refuses counsel, and admits his guilt proudly.  The shooting was just one of many acts of domestic terrorism in the US in 2015.

Terror in the US

The Colorado Springs attack in November and the San Bernardino attack in December were just drops in the bucket of violence and terror in the US, which saw multiple police shootings and multiple “mass shootings” (with definitions of that term confusing both the actual count and the debate about addressing the problem).  Ironically, while overall violent crime in the US continued its two-decades-long drop to an historic low, singular incidents of police violence and public shootings outpaced crime as a growing threat for American citizens.

Roughly 1,200 Americans were killed by police officers in 2015, many in incidents recorded on bystanders’ cell phones, car security cameras, and other digital technology.  Hundreds of victims were unarmed.  Blacks were more than twice as likely to be victims than were whites; and Hispanics and Latinos were marginally more likely than whites to be victims.  The Black Lives Matter movement continued its campaign to educate the public and to help victims and families.  The police, for their part, suffered less than 130 casualties on duty in 2015 (including accidents, “friendly fire,” and medical problems).  While violence against police was up from 2013-4, those two years (and 2015) are part of an overall historic low; 2015 police casualties are still much lower than in any year of the twentieth century.

Mass shootings became a potent threat in 2015; with some estimates including at least one on virtually every day of the year.  However, the definition of “mass shooting” (like the definition of “terrorism,” another term applied to some of these incidents) is debated, with most experts applying such terms to some incidents but not to others (thereby also changing the actual count).  However, many experts agree that mass violence is showing a steady, upward trend.  As such, foreign terror incidents like Charlie Hebdo and the Friday the 13th attacks pale in comparison to the regular gun violence by Americans against each other; some of which was perpetrated by the police, and much of which involved legally acquired firearms.  While President Obama has expressed repeated frustration with Congress’s refusal to discuss the problem, the threat is often sidelined into discussions of mental health and tactical measures like banning assault weapons.  As of yet, however, no measures have been implemented nationally, or been seriously debated in Congress.

Out With Speaker Boehner; In With Speaker Ryan

Following the visit by Pope Francis to the US, in which the Pope addressed Congress, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) resigned the speakership in October.  The resignation was seen as symbolizing (and resulting from) the progressive take-over of the GOP by the extremist wing of “Tea Party” activists, and the refusal by Congress to enact any legislation or to govern.  The move came after a year of failed attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, long a Republican extremist target; and after the refusal of extremists to play by the rules in passing legislation and budgets.  Efforts of those like Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to impede the legislative process also frustrated Boehner and other more mainstream Republicans.  Boehner was ultimately replaced by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, and since 1999 a rising star among Hill Republicans.

Paris Climate Agreement

On December 12, 195 nations taking part in the Paris Climate Conference (COP 21/CMP 11) agreed in principle on a plan to limit global warming.  The member nations agreed to a previously established target of keeping warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial standard, and to “pursue efforts” at limiting warming to under 1.5 degrees.  The agreement was praised by President Obama, French President Hollande, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, former US Vice President Al Gore, and many other leaders; while conservatives in the US and Australia attacked the measure.  The agreement has no formal force until at least 55 nations (representing at least 55% of global GHG emissions) ratify or implement the agreement.  Ratification is scheduled to run from this coming April through April 2017.  Ratifying member nations are required to set their own limits to GHG emissions (ostensibly within limits set by other instruments such as the Kyoto Protocol).  However, there is no specific requirement that any nation must meet, and there are no methods of enforcement or sanction against any nation failing to meet (or enact) its own emissions-reduction requirements.  The agreement does call for an evaluation conference every five years (to review progress and consider additional measures).

Despite the praise by leaders known to be in favor of climate policy, and the criticism by climate-change deniers, some on the left demonstrated in Paris and elsewhere against the weakness of the agreement.  French police reported both legal demonstrations and illegal demonstrations (under security measures implemented after October’s Friday the 13th attacks).  While the agreement does not specifically require US ratification, the 55% GHG emissions target will be far more difficult to reach if the US does not ratify; and the Senate’s Republican majority is highly unlikely to ratify it.

The Presidential Campaigns Warm Up for 2016

This year saw the official kick-off of the 2016 presidential election cycle as the candidates formally announced their candidacy.  As is usually the case (at least when there is not an incumbent president running for re-election), both parties saw a number of candidates stake their claims, as well as more candidates seemingly “considering” running.  While the campaign process often quickly eats up the small fry in favor of more established (or more competent) candidates, and while the Democratic Party saw relatively quick drop-outs of unlikely prospects like Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, the Republican Party became and has remained swamped by a multitude of candidates.  Both parties have forceful “insurgent” candidates (Sanders and Trump), as well as establishment candidates (Clinton and Bush).  In addition, the GOP field includes other political hopefuls, like private individuals with no political experience (Trump, Carson, and Fiorina).  While the Democratic Party remains solidly in favor of Clinton (polling at easily twice the favorability of Sanders), the Republican Party is torn between a front-runner (the insurgent Trump) with barely a third of the party behind him (and unlike virtually all of his key opponents, not a single endorsement by a Republican super-delegate, a substantial weakness going into the 2016 primary season), a few lower-polling candidates (Cruz and Rubio, for example) with firmer party endorsements, and a number of establishment candidates each polling in the single digits and waiting for the others to drop out.  Those few Republicans who have dropped out have been some (not all) of those polling less than 1%.  The main establishment Republican who is poised to pick up after Trump’s seemingly inevitable decline is Senator Ted Cruz, representing both Trump’s extreme views and the thinness of Trump’s policy presence.  Cruz, however, is still polling in the teens; barely half that of Trump.  The Republicans end the year, unlike the Democrats, with no apparent standard-bearer that the bulk of the party is willing to follow.

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A Primer on the Primaries

With the 2016 election year almost upon us, it is time to review the election process that is about to unfold.  The three major political events of the 2016 election process will be:  the primaries (from February to June); the party conventions (in July), and the general election (in November).  The first two events (primaries and conventions) are party events, with Democratic and Republican party events taking place more or less separately; while the general election will of course be a contest between and involving both parties (and possibly smaller, “third” parties).

The primary process begins on February 1, and actually includes both party caucuses and party primaries, two different forms of decision-making.  Each state’s party engages in only one of the two types, for the purpose of selecting delegates to the conventions (each of whom will then, in turn, support one of the party’s candidates for the party’s nomination for president).  Caucuses are larger, more involved and complex activities than are primaries, and they typically include informal meetings, “town halls,” and other events, as well as formal party votes.  Because of the greater demand on time for participants, caucuses tend to involve smaller numbers of voters, and are therefore oriented more toward party activists and politicians.  Primaries, on the other hand, are generally just basic elections (in regular polling places); the voters come, vote, and leave, and they therefore also turn out in greater numbers than they do for caucuses.  Some states have “open” or “mixed” primaries or caucuses, that allow people to get involved regardless of their party registration status; while others have “closed” primaries or caucuses, in which voters may only participate in party activities if they are registered with that party.  Whichever system a particular state and its parties use, the primaries and caucuses will select delegates (and the delegates’ support to specific candidates) to the party conventions in July.

The two parties use this system slightly differently in allotting delegations and support to the candidates.  The Republican Party employs a more uniform system in assigning numbers of delegates to the states based on their electoral weight.  The Democrats, on the other hand, combine electoral weight with each state’s proportionate support to previous presidential candidates (in past general elections).  Those states that voted more heavily for the Democratic candidates get a greater delegation than those with the same electoral weight but which saw weaker Democratic votes in the previous general election.  In other words, states with strong Democratic parties get proportionally more weight at the conventions than do those with weaker Democratic parties.  Republicans and Democrats also differ in handing state delegations’ support over to the candidates.  Republicans use a combination of “winner takes all” in some states, and proportionate representation in others (so some states can support only a single Republican candidate; while others can support multiple candidates).  The Democrats more uniformly use only proportionate representation; each Democratic state delegation can in theory support multiple candidates.

A greater difference between the parties during the primary season is the Democratic Party’s use of “superdelegates,” a practice used to a much lesser extent by the Republican Party.  The Democratic National Committee (DNC) allots roughly one sixth of the delegates’ voting power at the convention to various individuals of importance within the party.  The superdelegates (selected by the DNC) include certain DNC members themselves; former presidents and vice-presidents; congressional leaders; and certain US Senators, US Congressmen, and state governors.  There are currently (for 2016) over 700 of them.  Unofficially, almost half of them (329) have already endorsed Hillary Clinton, and are therefore expected to vote for her at the convention; while only a handful support either Bernie Sanders (who has 7 endorsements) or Martin O’Malley (with only 3).  Although the entire primary process still lies yet before us, Clinton is already poised to jump out of the gate with an overwhelming advantage.

The first state caucus, on February 1, will be in Iowa, which since 1972 has kicked off every presidential election primary season.  Then, on February 9, New Hampshire will hold the first state primary, also considered a traditional beginning to each primary season.  Later in February, the Nevada state parties will caucus, and then the South Carolina voters will get to vote in their primary.  These first primaries and caucuses can play havoc with campaigns, until then only graded by public telephone polling which tends to record rather different results than do actual electoral events.  Strong campaigns, especially by insurgent candidates (like Trump and Sanders), can deflate rapidly, and be replaced by mainstream candidates (like Bush and Clinton), who are generally stronger in caucuses than in primaries (as the former are more based on career party activists and politicians), and who do much better in electoral events than in public opinion polling.

Then, on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, each party will hold caucuses and primaries in over ten states simultaneously, the largest electoral event of the primary season.  Until that day, called “Super Tuesday,” each state gets its primary or caucus to itself; and candidates usually visit each state during these vital first primaries and caucuses, talk to their voters, and speak on issues of particular importance to the voters of each of those states.  On Super Tuesday, candidates have to make priorities; usually “triaging” the states so that their limited time can be used to reap the greatest rewards.  Candidates may ignore states whose decision is not likely to change if they stay away, and focus on those states where they believe they can make a difference and change the voters’ minds.  They typically also spend more time in states with the most delegates (Texas and Georgia, in particular, among those states voting on Super Tuesday).

Two weeks later, on March 15, after numerous additional primaries and caucuses, comes a smaller version of Super Tuesday with five states voting at the same time, including the typically vital battleground states of Florida and Ohio (which usually see heavy campaign activity).  March 15 is  also a key date because with the states voting on that date, those states which have already voted have collectively, in both parties, over half of the weight of delegates to the conventions; and a good picture may finally have developed of which candidates look strong for the finish, and which candidates no longer have much hope for victory.  As weaker candidates drop out, their resources (remaining campaign funds, activists, and supporters) may be turned over to specific remaining candidates, endorsed by candidates suspending their campaign operations.

The primary process continues until June 7 or so (although some lesser primaries, like the Democratic primary in the District of Columbia, may take place after this date).  On June 7, the last five states (the massive state of California, the dominant New Jersey, as well as Montana, New Mexico, and South Dakota) hold their primaries.  This last, big Tuesday can still breathe life into a foundering campaign with California’s massive party delegations, or kill a campaign barely holding an edge over its competitors.  Once the smoke has cleared, a winner should have emerged; and at the very least only those candidates with strong, national bases and support should have survived.

In the following month, July, the parties will hold their conventions – first the Republicans in Cleveland, Ohio; and then the Democrats in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  A party convention can be a formality, if the winner is clear from the primaries, and the losing candidate(s) have conceded victory and endorsed the winner.  If doubt remains within either party whom their nominee will be, the delegates at the convention will have opportunities (possibly multiple such) to cast or recast (and change) their votes.  If a seemingly weaker candidate refuses to concede victory, and can still tie up enough delegates to keep a stronger candidate from getting the nomination, the process can draw out until one side or the other puts the interests of party over their personal ambitions and concedes.  Drawn-out convention fights can also erode independent voter support, and turn party voters against the party’s nominee if the final mud-slinging goes on too long and too far.  Ultimately, whether the nominee is decided before the convention, or during it, the party convention process is intended to finalize the selection within each party of that party’s nominee for the presidential campaign in the general election.  After the nomination, each party works to steer all of its support toward its nominee, including especially the candidates and supporters recently contesting the nomination.

After the party conventions and nominations in July, the two parties and their candidates concentrate on battling each other for the general election on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.  There will be more debates, between the presidential candidates; and between the vice-presidential candidates, generally also selected during the convention process.  Candidates will continue to visit those states seen as strategically vital and/or potentially undecided (the “battleground states”), and other states with something to offer one or both of the candidates.  Finally, in November, comes the general election to decide which candidate (and their party) deserves the chance to steer national policy for the next four years.  And then, we have but a mere two years until the so-called “mid-term” elections (to Congress and various state and local offices), and another two years until the next presidential election; and we begin the process all over again.

Headline image via PBS and Getty Images.

Driving the Nation on Cruz Control

Standing next to Donald Trump at the most recent Republican debate (moderated by CNN in Las Vegas on December 15) was the junior Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz.  Cruz’s position on the stage was not accidental.  He is currently polling at second place (with roughly 15% among Republican respondents); but Cruz also argues a policy cut from much the same cloth as that of Trump.  In party endorsements, Cruz is running seventh place; but as Trump still has no party endorsements at all, Cruz is poised to reap great rewards from what some consider to be Trump’s inevitable flame-out in the primaries.  Like Trump (who seems to have copied some of his positions from the more intelligent and agile Cruz), Cruz argues on just a  few narrow issues (immigration, reduction of the federal government, and tax reform), but with much more attention to detail.  However, Cruz’s overall platform shows a candidate completely unable to perform the job of president.  Cruz’s policies are anathema to the consensus of a general election, and call for a weaker government, a weaker military and security establishment, and a weaker economy.  To drive our country forward into the twenty-first century, we will need to keep Cruz’s hands off of the steering wheel.

Ted Cruz, 44, was born Rafael Edward Cruz in Calgary, Alberta, to an American mother and a Cuban immigrant father.  He acquired dual Canadian and American citizenship, and only became an exclusively American citizen when he renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2014 in preparation for his presidential run.  Cruz has strong educational credentials, including a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard.  He has also, like President Obama, served as a law professor.  While Obama specialized on constitutional law, Cruz specialized in Supreme Court litigation while teaching law at the University of Texas in Austin.  Cruz has also worked his way through the political machine, clerking for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, serving as Texas’ Solicitor General, working on the presidential campaign for George Bush, and serving in various legal positions in the federal bureaucracy.  He is currently a first-term US Senator for Texas, elected in 2012.  Cruz’s background, and political climb, interestingly share several parallels with that of President Obama; but there the resemblance ends.

As a newfound presidential hopeful, Cruz has built up only the smallest issues platform, weaker in some respects than even those of outsider candidates Trump and Carson.  His issues platform (on his campaign website) provides more detail on each issue than do Trump’s and Carson’s platforms; but Cruz speaks to a smaller range of interests than do either Trump or Carson.

By far the issue that Cruz attends to with the greatest enthusiasm is immigration.  Cruz elaborates a detailed platform that seems to have been copied in basic principle by Trump.  Cruz, himself an immigrant from Canada and the son of an immigrant from Cuba, seeks to reduce both legal and illegal immigration to the US, much as Trump does.  Cruz wishes to cap legally approved immigration at least until unemployment diminishes below the historical average (although that remains undefined; current unemployment rates are below those of, for example, the Reagan administration).  He also wants to suspend the H-1B program of employment visas pending an audit on its impact on domestic job availability.  He calls for a prohibition on government support for any immigrants, allowing only self-sufficient persons to come here, and denying entrance to “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” who have traditionally built this country.  Finally, he wants to end birthright citizenship, accepting the odium of blaming new American citizens for their parents’ actions.  Cruz also attends to illegal immigration through measures such as building a wall, and tripling the US Border Patrol (similar to Trump’s tripling of ICE, with a similar number of personnel).  Cruz also wishes to spend more money on aerial surveillance and electronic tracking of immigrants.  He wants to rescind amnesties and deport immediately all those not formally approved to be in the US.  Cruz’s immigration policy, argued as a restoration of rule of law, in fact is intended to limit immigration (legal and otherwise) to those already endowed with material advantages, and rejects a long history of poor immigrants coming to America and raising themselves up (and others), creating jobs and wealth, and enhancing the country economically, culturally, and politically.

Cruz also argues for a massive shut-down of the federal government, through his “Five for Freedom” platform.  Cruz imagines that he can save the taxpayers some $500 billion over the next decade by eliminating entirely numerous federal agencies and departments, including the IRS, and the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development.  Not addressing how the domestic economy will absorb the sudden loss of some 254,000 jobs (mostly of educated, middle-class professionals), Cruz moves on to axe 25 other lesser agencies and programs (such as the NEA, the Public Broadcasting Corporation, and the federal regulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses).  He also proposes a hiring reduction, legally limiting the federal government to replacing only one third of each agency’s personnel leaving voluntarily or through force reductions.  This means an across-the-board reduction of all agencies, including the CIA, the NSA, the Border Patrol (which he also argues should somehow be tripled in strength), the Department of Defense, the Justice Department, the DHS, etc.  Cruz also argues for an end to automatic COLAs, effectively “encouraging” federal employees to find work elsewhere.  Cruz’s “Five for Freedom” envisions a future without a strong federal government, decentralizing into a confederation, unable to pursue national priorities beyond the verbal encouragement of state governments and private structures.  Cruz’s America depends ever more fully on major corporations and the larger state governments to achieve economic and political vitality; weakens the nation militarily; and takes away even the boot-straps from those hoping to lift themselves up.

Cruz’s tax plan is similarly toxic to our City on the Hill.  Cruz advocates that conservative chestnut, the flat tax (which he wants to implement at 10%, with only those earning below a level just over the federal poverty line exempted).  He pretends to “abolish” the corporate income tax; but actually just renames it a “business flat tax” at 16%.  Cruz works some fiscal magic by abolishing payroll taxes, while nonetheless promising to maintain “full funding for Social Security and Medicare.”  Finally, Cruz wants to abolish taxes on income earned abroad, rewarding companies for operating overseas and exporting jobs instead of products.  He argues that this will return jobs, as companies bring their overseas profits back to the US (“with a 10% repatriation fee”); but he ignores the reality of corporate motivations after “repatriation.”  Corporations will continue to see opportunities in overseas markets, labor, and political conditions, and under Cruz’s rules will suffer less (none, in fact) retribution for off-shoring than they do today.  This policy is clearly aimed at gaining financial campaign contributions from major corporations with off-shore operations, which wish to move jobs away from expensive American workers.  There is, ultimately, nothing in Cruz’s tax plan that can help the nation.  Progressive taxes have consistently pushed forward economic growth.  Cruz’s unabashedly Reaganomic bourgeoisie tax is steered not toward economic growth, but toward corporate profits for the thin top layer of major multinational corporations, especially those with overseas operations not employing Americans.

These three platform issues (immigration, defederalization, and the flat tax) complete Cruz’s formal platform.  However, Cruz’s views on other issues can be sifted out of his speeches and interviews, and his activity as a senator.  On education, Cruz mirrors Trump (or vice versa), calling for the abolition of the Department of Education and a repeal of Common Core.  He otherwise has no education policies or ideas.  On energy, Cruz hopes for an “energy renaissance” to flower from his elimination of the Department of Energy, as unregulated oil and coal companies blanket the skies with their fumes.  He wants to give them unlimited access to resources on federal lands, and wants expanded oil and coal production for job creation and export income.  Cruz’s energy policy is also consistent with his radical denial of climate change.  While Cruz sometimes agrees that “science matters and data matters,” he brazenly ignores the science and data when presented to him in congressional testimony, and he even uses real data counterfactually.  On health care, Cruz has worked tirelessly to repeal the ACA; his latest attempt being the Health Care Choice Act (S.647), currently in committee limbo.  Cruz hopes to replace the ACA with state-based health-care plans, and to enable interstate commerce interests to overpower the health-care needs of the working poor.  Finally, Cruz is virtually silent on defense and national security; his sole security concern is that of immigration (and the related issue of refugees).  He demonstrates no knowledge of or interest in military subjects; as well as a complete unpreparedness to assume the duties of Commander-in-Chief.

While intelligent, well educated, and an expert debater, Cruz is staking out for himself a far-right position in the GOP, in the very near vicinity of Trump, but with far more poise and public acceptability than the real-estate developer has.  Cruz is essentially a “realistic radical,” not very different from Trump’s core “vision,” but far less boorish and uncouth.  Cruz puts a human face on the inhumanity of conservative radicalism.  He wants a virtually complete shutdown of the federal government (including even our intelligence, security, and defense establishment during a time of increasing world conflict), and works toward the betterment of only those at the top of the corporate food chain.  A Cruz presidency would therefore be bad for the American people; bad for those abroad victimized by violence, radicalism, and terror; bad for businesses and workers; bad for the poor and middle class; and in the long term, bad even for the rich, who would no longer have a secure, protective administration able to look after their interests.  If we are to continue driving the United States forward, into the twenty-first century and towards the vision of the city on the hill, we are going to have to do it without the help of Ted Cruz.

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Fear and Anger, Live and On Stage: The CNN Republican Party Debate

On Tuesday, December 15, 2015, the nine leading presidential candidates of the Republican party met in Las Vegas to debate on stage, moderated by Wolf Blitzer, with the help of conservative Hugh Hewitt and CNN’s own Dana Bash.  The party’s final debate of the year was a simplified “Fear and Anger” debate, ignoring the vast array of substantive issues, and allowing Republican bloviators to puff themselves up on questions about national security.  The candidates (Rand Paul, Carli Fiorina, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump) argued that they possessed some key to defending the US; but their notions on national security were amateurish, uninformed, and outdated.  If any of these candidates gain power over Washington, their government will escalate crises, strengthen current enemies like ISIS and Al Qaeda, and provoke potential partners like Russia, China, and Iran; possibly even into open warfare.

As the candidates began their introductory remarks, Paul led by arguing that the fight against ISIS is an Arab fight, and needs to remain so.  He critiques sharply Trump’s and other candidates’ anti-Islamic rhetoric for losing us the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab street.  Bush and Kasich both led with vague notions about leadership and excellence, leaving behind neither any lasting impressions nor cohesive ideas on policy.  Christie and Fiorina both lathered the audience with their anger at Democrats.  Christie accused the Democrats for “betraying” the nation; while Fiorina claimed that her experiences in diminishing Hewlett-Packard’s stock values (while serving as the company’s CEO) and in being fired show that she has been “tested” as a leader – obviously ignoring the fact that she failed that test.  Rubio defended bigots following Trump and other conservatives for “holding onto traditional values,” and claimed that the Democrats want the US to be like the rest of the world.  Cruz simply stated that refugees from terror should be banned to keep out “jihadists,” while Carson opined that a Congressional declaration of war on ISIS might somehow make some strategic difference.  Finally, Trump congratulated himself for “open[ing] up a very big discussion [on Muslims] that needed to be opened up.”

With Trump’s remarks on Muslims up for discussion, Bush criticized Trump and called for concerted action with the Arab states against ISIS.  Bush argued that Trump’s rhetoric pushed potential Arab allies away, into the arms of extremists, and that Trump was a “chaos candidate, and would be a chaos president.”  Rubio and Cruz both posed as moderate bigots, attacking both Trump for going too far, and President Obama for not going far enough (for promoting the admission of Syrian refugees).  Christie repeated his tired claim that serving as a federal prosecutor gave him unique executive experience and proved his ability to tackle all imaginable problems (a claim he would reiterate continuously throughout the debate).  Finally, Kasich agreed with Paul that the US needs to work with European and Arab partners against ISIS; and then he actually criticized Obama’s administration for also managing to attend to other issues besides the war with ISIS, such as the Paris conference on climate change.

The conversation then moved to electronic surveillance and other matters, with Cruz and Rubio feuding over the USA Freedom Act.  Cruz had supported the measure, claiming that it increased the National Security Agency’s overall surveillance capability (while limiting the ability to spy on American citizens).  Rubio, who also argued for increased government intrusion (saying our security services need “more tools, not less tools”) argued that the law diminished security capabilities.  Paul, not surprisingly, argued his anti-federalist line that the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata makes us less safe, and is also ineffective in preventing domestic terror situations like the San Bernardino attack.  Carson continued his argument that the government needs to monitor places deemed “anti-American,” that the US needs a formal declaration of war, and that our society can no longer afford political correctness.  Bush waxed vaguely on “leadership” (his own campaign’s centerpiece theme), and talked about an American “military second to none” as if the US did not already possess by far the most well-trained and overwhelmingly equipped force in the world.  Fiorina completed this conversation by calling on the federal government to monitor social media sites for potential terror indicators.  Cruz, Rubio, Carson, and Fiorina therefore all push for a much larger and more intrusive federal government as a key to national security; while Bush hopes mostly for an expanded military budget.  Paul remained “the only fiscal conservative on the stage,” as he later noted in his final remarks.

As the conversation turned to ISIS, Cruz showed that he does not understand basic military terminology, confusing “carpet bombing” with surgical strikes (which he called for in response to moderators’ questioning about his calls for the former).  He does, however, argue more effectively for a need to work cohesively with the Kurds to build a successful state structure in the region.  Rubio wants an expanded US Air Force and air campaign, while working with some hypothetical (and unidentified) “Sunni ground force” as our “boots on the ground.”  He at least claims to understand (unlike many of his party comrades) that information and propaganda (and psychological warfare) are key to a political war with terror groups.  Trump, unable to form any cohesive thoughts on national defense or security strategy, merely calls on the US to begin targeting families and civilians in terrorist-controlled areas (especially the families of identified terrorists).  Trump’s complete lack of historical knowledge, particularly on the historical ineffectiveness of repression in reducing popular opposition, threatens to escalate the terror war to an unprecedented level of violence and barbarity.  Paul, meanwhile, recommends working with Assad’s regime in Syria, rather than against it, and argues that the last two decades of regime change (in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Syria) produced the very problems we face today.  Fiorina (knowing as little about military policy as she does about public policy) prefers, in place of a strategy, simply “bring[ing] back the warrior class” of generals (citing specifically Generals Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Keane, and Flynn).  She counterfactually blames Obama for their “political” retirements, and ignores the reality of at least three of the five retirements (not to mention that generals who retired voluntarily, some like Petraeus with significant medical problems, may not wish to return to duty under an obvious strategic amateur with no political experience).  Finally, Carson agrees with Trump’s proposal to target ISIS’s oil income capabilities, and to destroy “the caliphate” (without actually identifying what kind of campaign or results would be needed to achieve that).  Carson is ready to commit US ground forces for yet another major war in the Middle East.  However, following a commercial break, he also stated that the US cannot fix the problems in the Middle East with a “few little bombs, and a few declarations,” seemingly contradicting his own focus on a declaration of war as having some strategic significance.

As the conversation turned to other security problems, the candidates’ language became frighteningly apocalyptic.  Fiorina argued that the US should openly provoke Russia through an escalated crisis environment of increased military opposition to Russian movements and increased provocations near Russia’s borders.  Christie similarly earned Paul’s designation of him as the “World War Three candidate,” for stating that he would shoot down Russian planes in a no-fly zone in Syria.  Fiorina then expressed the incredible notion that to confront North Korea, we should first bully and provoke China; and then ask China for their help in containing Kim Jong-Un’s regime.  Bush and Christie both also want to up the ante with China, at least in pursuing a more vigorous cyberwar against them.  The GOP showed clearly a tug-of-war between Paul’s non-interventionism and the other candidates’ open wish for greater international tension and conflict (and their clear willingness to risk, or even fight, a global nuclear war in doing so).

We cannot really blame the Republican candidates for answering the questions asked of them (sparingly as they did).  No questions were asked about jobs or the economy; about infrastructure or education; or about climate change or social problems.  There was only the briefest dialogue between Cruz and Rubio on immigration reform (each effectively criticizing the other for seeking to ease the path to citizenship for undocumented aliens), with Bush blaming immigration for increasing rates of heroin addiction.  Rubio continues his war on fiscal conservatism by calling for more border controls, more laws and regulations, and more overall federal government.  The issue fit into the context of CNN’s overall moderation of the “Fear and Anger” debate focusing on threats to the US.  Of course, the GOP did not take (and the CNN did not ask) questions about increasing firearms safety and security in our communities, or about the security and safety of minorities in an overwhelmingly anti-minorities police culture and criminal detention system.  This was mostly a white man’s “Fear and Anger” debate.  Carson’s soporific mumblings, and Fiorina’s toneless obliviousness to her own irrelevance, helped to put a diversified face on the stage; and Cruz and Rubio were there to help bring Latino voters to the party.  But the focus remained on WASP-oriented fear and anger.  Furthermore, all the candidates demonstrated a simplistic, linear, zero-sum, nineteenth-century chess-game approach toward modern multidimensional and asymmetric warfare, and they showed their unpreparedness to lead in the twenty-first century wars that they wish to provoke, escalate, and fight.  They also wish to alienate and provoke some of the key players in these fights (such as Russia, China, and Iran), players which have not yet aligned on the other side, and which have great motivations to fight collectively against our current enemies.  The candidates proved to anyone watching that the GOP is able neither to protect our nation, nor to help the US participate constructively in the modern world.

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Trump’s Potemkin Candidacy

During the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia, her favorite, Grigory Potemkin, created a fake village to show her, to prove that her reforms had made life better for the peasants.  The term “Potemkin village” derived from this has come to mean an elaborate facade built to hide the emptiness behind it.  Donald Trump, the GOP’s current front-runner candidate, seems to have taken the story to heart in developing his website and platform.  He is the GOP’s Potemkin candidate, with the barest veneer of policy, but hiding behind it a vast emptiness of thought or competence.  He is running on a thin film of xenophobia and nostalgia for a “whites only” America that has not existed since the 1950s.  This facade of policy is spelled out through five platform issues that together virtually ignore the entire range of issues vital to Americans today, and which also contain no logical consistency or even basic conservatism, beyond the xenophobic paint on the cover.

First on the list of Trump’s platform issues is US-China trade reform.  On no other trade issue does Trump enunciate any ideas, so his trade strategy is hinged solely upon achieving greater success in China.  Trump assigns our current trade imbalance with China to “Wall Street insiders that [sic] want to move US manufacturing and investment offshore,” thereby ignoring his own business model in doing exactly that.  He claims his own administration will somehow employ “smart negotiators”; but he neglects to say what strengths or strategies he would have that are different from past negotiations.  Trump blames Chinese tariffs and other barriers for protecting Chinese markets from American products; but he fails to explain how he would bring lost jobs back to the US, or how American-made products (which are more expensive than Chinese-made products) would penetrate the lower-income Chinese economy.  He also elucidates no strategy or plan for solving (as he promises to do) the problem of Chinese intellectual property abuse.

Trump does advocate, however, certain points that he thinks would improve American negotiating strength.  He wants first to lower the corporate tax rate in the US; but he ignores the main problem pushing jobs out of the US, which is that wages and overall production costs are substantially lower in China and other overseas markets than in the US.  He claims that reducing overall American debts and deficits would reduce Chinese financial advantages (which they likely would); but of course he ignores the fact that most of his overall platform involves greater spending and lower taxes, a clear recipe for greater reliance on Chinese financial underwriting of his typically Republican “borrow and spend” approach to government.  Finally, Trump imagines that a greater US military presence in the Pacific (especially in the East and South China Seas) would somehow push China into more cooperative behavior.  He clearly ignores China’s historical gift for long-term geopolitical strategy, and China’s historical lack of response to momentary military demonstrations.  Trump also fails to explain how the already overwhelming strength of US forces in the Pacific are insufficient; and the economic cost of greater deployments to the western Pacific also goes unmentioned.  Trump’s China “strategy” (his only plan for enhancing American trade) therefore ignores basic political, strategic, financial, and economic realities; and also is based on an unexplained hope to somehow negotiate more successfully, without any ideas as to how that might be done.

Trump’s next platform issue is the inefficiency of the Veteran’s Administration.  Trump offers to make the VA more competitive, by enabling vets to get care through any doctor or facility that accepts Medicare.  He, again, fails to explain where Medicare is supposed to find the available funds.  He also wants to spend more money to fund more research on veterans’ mental health issues (e.g. PTSD); and on job training and placement, veterans’ education, and business loans for vets.  He wants to expand the VA dramatically by creating satellite clinics in rural and other areas.  His main complaint about previous attempts to fix the VA is that they adopted a strategy of throwing money at the problem; and yet that is exactly what he proposes to do, by expanding both Medicare and VA funding.  Trump also blames waste and corruption in the VA, and imagines that a simple house-cleaning should fix things.  He offers no numbers indicating to what extent a house-cleaning would improve efficiency; and he offers no guidance as to how he would get an increasingly miserly GOP to pay for other people’s health care with the substantially greater funds he proposes to throw at the problem.

Tax reform is a greater and more central problem for Trump.  He wants to lower not just taxes, but our debt and deficits.  With greater spending on military and VA programs (the former already the nation’s single-greatest fiscal problem, and therefore the only real option for large-scale deficit reduction), Trump cannot adequately explain how he would reduce both taxes and the deficit.  His tax reduction plan is typically childish.  He wants poor people to send an “I win” form to the IRS, relieving them of paying taxes which they already do not generally have to pay.  How they get to “win,” by still not paying taxes, is never explained, not to mention insulting considering the paltry services available for their support.  He wants to simplify the tax code (from seven to four main income brackets), lower the corporate tax rate (to a maximum of 15%), and eliminate estate taxes.  He claims that encouraging more domestic investment, and taxing off-shore income more consistently, will make up for the great losses elsewhere; but of course he has no actual numbers to back any of this up.  Trump is blissfully free of difficult or enlightening details, and merely expects that his sheer Trumpness will somehow change the fiscal realities of American taxation and economics.

Trump also expends some of his very sparse language on promising to do nothing whatsoever about the problem of increasing gun violence.  He refuses to accept bans on military-style weapons, and he calls for national right-to-carry legislation that would stomp all over states’ rights to defend their citizens from out-of-state gun carriers.  Trump’s unabashedly federalist approach also includes expanding mandatory minimums for various classes of crimes, taking away power from the judicial branch of federal and state governments.  He also falls upon the “mental health problem” of gun violence; and (of course) fails to identify how he would ensure that those without any diagnoses or clinically documented histories of mental illnesses (but who harbor the kind of anger that has been producing atrocities like mass shootings) would somehow be prevented from gaining access to weapons – or how doing so would not, contrarily, violate the very Second Amendment he promises to uphold.

Trump’s final platform issue is immigration reform.  Trump continues his bigoted and unsubstantiated claim that aliens pose a violent crime hazard, and he still promises to get Mexico to pay for the construction of a massive border wall.  Looked at more closely, this claim actually is intended to implement a large-scale increase on fees for legally documented immigrants coming to the US; making not the Mexican government but the legal immigrants themselves pay for the wall.  Trump actually offers few measures for tackling illegal immigration, focusing almost entirely on reducing overall legal immigration (and he ignores the effect this would have of incentivizing illegal immigration).  He also refers to the main pathway by which illegal immigrants gain residence, by arriving here legally but then overstaying temporary visas, as “… a threat to national security” (without explaining that insulting assertion).  Finally, as with so many of Trump’s other proposals, he comes to the conclusion that we need to spend more money (this time by tripling the personnel of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE), as the billionaire seems uniquely suited to finding new ways to spend other people’s money.

As the reader may have noticed, this short list leaves out most of the vital issues up for debate between the parties for 2016.  Some very few clues can be gleaned from statements elsewhere (speeches and interviews, etc.), but there is a vast silence on a number of vital questions.  With national security and defense a suddenly predominant issue, Trump’s silence is appalling.  He has denigrated veterans (such as Senator John McCain) and claimed his high-school education (at a pre-military prep school) gave him more military training than some of our professional soldiers get.  But that “training” has not manifested in any other ideas of how to defend our nation, beyond banning Muslims (and/or marking them and putting them into concentration camps), and claiming that illegal immigration is a significant threat (without any substantiation).  Trump’s xenophobia has alienated over half of the American voting public (not to mention some 72% of potential Democrats), erasing any possibility that he could be a consensus candidate or achieve strength among independent voters.  And he has offered nothing at all about defense policy, deployments (other than expanding our Pacific forces in theory), strategy, etc.

Trump has also offered virtually nothing at all on the economy, only his few scattered and unrealistic notions on trade with China, and his skepticism on raising the minimum wage.  With jobs and economic security a major issue for many voters, his silence is ominous.  He also has little to say about health care, focusing his few thoughts upon throwing more money at the VA, and repealing ACA, without indicating any replacement.  Previously, Trump had been more of a leftist on that issue, favoring universal socialized care along the lines of that used in Canada, but he claims now to have changed his mind (to conform with the expectations of his new-found alliance with the GOP).  On the issue of climate change, Trump’s statements would almost be funny if they were not so pathetic.  He admits that, “I believe there’s weather.  I believe there’s change…,” and otherwise denies the science as anything more than a “Chinese concept” for somehow gaining some industrial advantage.

Education, a major issue influencing American competitiveness in the twenty-first century, is another problem area.  Trump tells us that he is “…not cutting services, but [is for] cutting spending” (again, without clarifying how to get the same services at lower costs).  He wants to cut the Department of Education’s budget, eliminate Common Core, and delegate education administration almost entirely to the states, apparently relieving himself of the burden of forming his own thoughts about priorities or strengthening overall educational performance.  In addition, Trump’s failed attempt to develop a for-profit “scamiversity” (Trump University, now the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative) presents an ill omen of support for other anti-education businesses posing as educational institutions, a sobering prospect for higher education and American competitiveness.

Finally, Trump’s cultural position shows a complete failure to appreciate historical trends and demographics.  On women’s issues (beyond wanting more money for women vets), Trump has been absolutely silent.  On minority issues, he has said too much; proposing to deport, or mark and concentrate, immigrants and refugees.  He also openly encouraged his supporters’ violence against BLM protesters.  He is eager to surrender to ISIS and similar groups their main immediate objective, that of making the US more afraid of Muslims and more anti-Islamic, to push them into the arms of extremist recruiters.  Trump clearly wishes to restore a pre-1960s, “for white men only” America, which is exactly what making our superpower “great again” is intended to mean.

Trump’s platform is weak in both establishing objectives, and in offering actual proposals for meeting those objectives.  Trump is virtually silent on a vast array of major issues (national security, health care, the economy, education, and climate change), and he has little more to say on the few superficial issues he has deigned to care about – immigration reduction, trade with China, VA reform, tax reform, and federalized gun-rights expansion.  However, his few suggestions for policy all add up to one thing:  increasing the size and cost of the federal government; while at the same time he offers to reduce taxes.  That recipe has always meant borrowing from China, bizarrely another policy he claims to reverse.  While working within the GOP, his platform is barely conservative, and is predominantly federalist and expansive, but in ways which will lose liberal and independent voters.  His policy is like the old Potemkin village of Russia, designed to fool those looking only long enough to see the facade but no more.  Trump intends to reach only the low-information voter who cares nothing about data or logic.  For anyone else, Trump’s “ideas” (such as they are) can only mean one thing for the real City on a Hill behind the Potemkin village:  complete and utter disaster.

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What We Have to Fear From Trump

The internet has in many ways cheapened and vulgarized our definitions of knowledge and dialogue.  Expressions of emotional content, uninformed by facts or logic, abound on all sides of the political scale.  Internet phenomena have even developed rules of their own, such as Godwin’s Law, which suggests that in any uninformed political conversation, comparisons by one side of the other to Adolf Hitler or to Nazism are effectively inevitable.  Hitler is seen (justifiably, of course) as an ultimate evil, and his name is used to denigrate everything opposed by uninformed political amateurs and commenters, from Bush’s war in Iraq to the Affordable Care Act and even Obama himself.  The latest recipient of the comparison is Donald Trump; but for once, critics have finally come close to the truth.  Trump is not Hitler; nor could he ever replicate Hitler’s initial success or the terrors that he unleashed.  But Trump has created a monstrosity of fascist forces beyond his control, forces which themselves now pose a greater threat to our nation than the foreign terrorists of ISIS.  Trump has unleashed forces that threaten the community of our City on a Hill; and to defeat our enemies abroad, we must defeat these forces at home.  But our enemies are not a new Nazi Party or anything like it.  Our enemies are our own hatreds, fears, and paranoia about each other, and about our community and government.

Comparisons of politicians and their philosophies and policies with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler have become a part of the political vulgarity, a cheap and generally uninformed criticism of issues beyond the understanding of most of those who make the comparison.  Cheap shots are fired from both sides, by meaner and uneducated critics of the other side, and recent presidents (and other leaders) of both parties have been compared to Hitler by those not understanding either the full meaning of the terms they used or the politicians they wished to criticize.  George W. Bush’s unpopular decision to invade Iraq for reasons later proven to be wrong subjected him to leftist criticism which was cheapened by such comparisons, and his successor, Obama, has also weathered such moronic attacks, which amazingly compared giving uninsured Americans access to health care to genocide policies of the Third Reich.  One problem with the frequency of such attacks is that they are reminiscent of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf.”  They desensitize Americans to the problem of actual fascists among us, such as southern “flaggers,” and other extremists.  It becomes easy not only to compare such icons of bombastic pettiness and hatred like Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, but to ignore such comparisons as a now too-common cost of doing business in politics.  Trump supporters can deflect such arguments with the same casual superciliousness and nonchalance that Democrats enjoyed when Obama was Hitlerized by right-wing extremists, or that Republicans experienced when Bush suffered such comparisons.  The ease with which both sides can now both fire off and ignore comparisons to Nazism therefore closes our eyes, as in the case of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” to real enemies of our City on the Hill when they arise in our midst.  When the real wolf shows up, we treat him as just another prank.

The latest wolf in our midst is Donald Trump; and to a lesser extent the Republican Party’s current field of political leaders.  Trump, who has no political experience at all, and no political legitimacy at all, has managed nonetheless to build a base of rabid supporters from the lowest common denominator of hatred, fear, and self-entitlement.  Tapping into a politically marginalized horde of anti-intellectuals and xenophobes, Trump uses simple facsimiles of public oratory such as his slogan “Make America Great Again.”  There is an easy parallel to find with Hitler’s promise to put Germany “back” as the centerpiece of European civilization, and with Hitler’s promise of an innate and genetic German greatness that had been oppressed by a conspiracy of foreign powers and subhumans.  Trump’s argument is not nearly as thought out (however ahistorically) as was Hitler’s message.  Trump merely pushes his base into seeing that at one time, America was “great”; but that now – due to the actions of “stupid” politicians – we have lost that greatness.  Trump claims also to have the solution:  close the borders, build a wall, keep out Mexicans and Muslims, deport or intern and publicly mark such untermenschen; and, of course, believe in the essential greatness of our new Leader.  Trump ignores essential constitutional principles (which at any rate lie above his educational and intellectual pay grade), and he cares less about the basic history behind the challenges the US currently faces, challenges with which our next presidents will have to contend.

An even scarier comparison to Hitler can be found in those following Trump.  Trump’s supporters have attacked, openly and violently, those opposing or questioning his candidacy, a frightening parallel to the Nazi Party’s use of the Sturmabteilung (SA) in fomenting street violence and providing “security” at Nazi Party events.  Trump has encouraged such violence from his supporters by applauding the rough treatment of anti-Trump protesters.  However, Trump demonstrates himself to be less a leader than an impotent follower unsure of how to handle the violent base he has crafted from the dregs of our polity.  Unlike the Nazis, who deliberately created an organized political street army (with uniforms, ranks, and all), Trump manifests more as a Dr. Frankenstein, unable to control the monster he’s created.  The monster is real; and the evil behind the monster’s creation is also just as real.  But it is getting out of the control of its depraved and alienated creator.

It is with Trump’s metamorphosis from Hitler to Frankenstein that some of the problems of Hitler analogies begin to manifest.  Other problems with the analogy arise, such as Hitler’s acquisition of power through the collapse of a weak and inflexible political structure.  Hitler never faced an electoral situation like that provided for by the US Constitution; and the US has never had a small party take power without developing substantial electoral strength throughout the nation.  With even his own new-found Republican Party fleeing from him in droves, his front-runner status may still be strong in the polls in comparison with his rivals, but only a small portion of Americans (or even of Republicans) actually support him.  The prospect of Trump facing a Democratic candidate (Clinton or Sanders) is both exciting and nerve-wracking to Democrats; exciting because it virtually guarantees a Democratic victory, but nerve-wracking because of the small but frightening prospect that he might actually win anyway.

Another problem in comparing Trump with Hitler is in their relative political and oratorical skills.  Hitler demonstrated much political acumen in his earlier years (later becoming ever more unable to grasp basic political realities); and his skill at using public oratory to move the crowds remains legendary.  He brought even well-educated people over to his side, and powered them with a thirst for greatness and a belief in their rights to it.  Trump, on the other hand, is an oratorical buffoon, able to move with xenophobic rhetoric those weak-minded enough to enlist in his mob army, but easily dismissed and laughed at by comedians, pundits, and real politicians.  Trump’s few proposals for action on problems faced by our country earn a similar reception, as the creations of a simple-minded child unable to cognize the world around him.  Trump is unable to master even conservative politics as he has attempted to do, earning not only the front-runner position in public polling (a position not backed up yet by any state primaries), but also a firmly entrenched opposition to him from the very party he claims to be leading.

As with any political phenomenon, the two American parties of course have different responses to Trump’s “campaign.”  Usually, most candidates in the pre-primary struggle for relevance defend their partisan comrades from the other side, but point out the great differences between themselves and their rivals.  While the Democrats have very cohesively defended each other against external attacks (e.g., Sanders’ defense against Clinton’s critics on the email investigation and the obviously partisan Benghazi committee), and the mainstream Republican field has done much the same among themselves, the GOP has become increasingly hostile to Trump, with House Speaker Paul Ryan, Carli Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, and others objecting to Trump’s anti-Islamic rhetoric.  If there’s anything the nation can seem to get together on, it is that Trump’s core political values are a betrayal of our City on a Hill.  Nonetheless, as Clinton, Obama, and others have pointed out, while the GOP mainstream is opposed to Trump’s cheap invective, they still collude with Trump on the party’s basic message, including their mutual xenophobia.  What the GOP fear in Trump is not so much a transformation of the country, as that a political outsider and neophyte would be at the helm of that transformation.  They do not fear the developing paranoia or nationalism; but they fear their own loss of power as the traditional helmsmen of such forces, and they fear that Trump’s political incompetence will make the transformation superficial and ephemeral, risking the future of the conservative revolution.

Donald Trump’s campaign, and the many trending comparisons of Trump to Hitler, teach us that we have many demons yet to fight before we can achieve our City on a Hill, and that those demons, our greatest threats, are here at home.  Trump is not Hitler, nor could he ever be, for a variety of individual and political reasons.  But he is unleashing, deliberately, forces which threaten the core values of our nation.  He is unleashing, deliberately, forces of hatred, fear, xenophobia, and mutual suspicion.  He is unleashing, deliberately, forces opposed to the formation of a community of care, a value that forms the center of the American promise.  That promise is what our enemies, both foreign and domestic, hope to destroy:  the promise to build a community of all people, of all faiths, of all races and nationalities, of all classes, working together and caring for each other.  To defeat our foreign enemies, and defeat those here at home, we must respond not in fear but with strength and confidence in our mission, welcoming those wanting to join us, and caring for those in need.  Those fearful of others, those frightened of their neighbors, are the ones threatening our City on a Hill, and strengthening our enemies abroad.  Just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt observed that such forces threatened America in the 1930s, just as he saw not foreign enemies but Americans’ own fears of each other as itself the greatest threat to our security, we must once again be warned that, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

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Trumbo: The Right Film for the Right Time

Director Jay Roach’s biopic Trumbo has come along at just the right moment, to remind us of the costs of vilifying our political enemies, to remind us of the ideals that our country is supposed to represent, and to remind us of the costs for failing to live up to these ideals.  Written by John McNamara, and based on a book by Bruce Cook, this film deals with the extremism of that American political staple, the political witch-hunt.  Filled with an all-star cast (Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad as Dalton Trumbo, Diane Lane as his wife Cleo, Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, John Goodman as Francis King, and Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird), the film tells the tale of the House Un-American Activities Committee‘s investigation into what was called the “Hollywood Ten,” and the effects of that investigation on the lives of those involved.

The movie depicts Hollywood screen writer Dalton Trumbo as an unapologetic Communist, whose party affiliation and sympathies lead to his fight with HUAC, resulting in a conviction for contempt for Congress (for failing to respond as desired to HUAC’s questioning).  Trumbo serves time in jail, as do some of his cohorts; and he is later joined in jail by Congressman J. Parnell Thomas (chairman of HUAC in 1947) on charges of corruption.  In reality, Trumbo and Thomas served time in different prisons; but two other members of the Hollywood Ten did serve in the same prison as Thomas, and at the same time.  After his release from prison, Trumbo continues to work underground for the film industry, as film-makers and producers need his talents but are unwilling to let his name be attached to their work.  A few of Trumbo’s films win Oscars; but with other writers taking credit for the screenplays.  Trumbo’s name and career are ultimately rehabilitated in part through the help of luminaries such as director Otto Preminger, actor Kirk Douglas (insisting that Trumbo get the writing credit for Stanley Kubric’s Spartacus) and President John F. Kennedy (who crossed right-wing picket lines to see the movie, and urged other film-goers to do the same).

As the movie’s erstwhile hero, Trumbo is actually quite flawed.  He is shown as a less than available husband and father to his family, putting many demands upon them, but not showing much in the way of affection or sympathy.  And the movie makes it plain to the viewer that, unlike many Americans who were unfairly judged for sympathies they did not have, or may never have had, Trumbo remained every bit a Communist.  The film also pokes some fun at Trumbo’s pre-blacklist success in Hollywood, becoming quite rich, an unlikely economic position for someone claiming to be a Communist.  What the film shows is not that the accusation of Trumbo’s being a Communist was itself inaccurate; but that it is constitutionally irrelevant.  As an American citizen, Trumbo demanded (and legally had, whatever the courts may have decided) the right to have and to speak his views, especially as he was not in any way involved in any kind of power politics or calling for the violent overthrow of the government.  As nothing more than a screenplay writer, there was no legal or constitutional basis for his, or the rest of the “Ten’s” persecution.  And yet, as he noted, lives were lost, and more lives destroyed, solely because of either their political views or their connections to others with unfashionable political views.

The importance of the role played by this film is not merely as a typically Hollywood presentation of the “fighting the good fight” feel-good movie, or as an historical portrayal of typically questionable accuracy.  Rather, the importance lies in the very notion of America, as a country that promises each of us the room to be what we want to be, so long as we abide by the most basic laws.  When that promise is broken, when our nation persecutes those merely because of where we (or our ancestors) came from, or what religions or politics we believe in, or whom we wish to associate with or work with (especially when they, too, have broken no actual laws), then we lose all of the moral high ground claimed by our City on the Hill.  While it was unfortunate indeed that during the Red Scare, some Americans were punished for beliefs that they no longer (or possibly never) had, it is also unfortunate – and was, in fact illegal and unconstitutional – to punish even those who were Communists, even those who expressed sympathies with our Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, so long as they were not themselves conspiring to take over the nation through means other than electoral politics.  The Red Scare was a typically Orwellian notion, recalling of course Erich Fromm’s introduction to 1984, in which Fromm warned readers that Orwell’s book was not about the Soviet Union; but was a warning to the West that in struggling against Communism, the West was going to assume the worst sins of Communism.  The persecution of Communists, in complete abandonment of all our constitutional principles and of all of our expressed beliefs in the rightness of our civil liberties, was a withdrawal from a high place of superiority justifying our struggle with the Soviet Union, to the lowest depths in which we and the Soviet Union became briefly, and frighteningly, one.  And today, as Americans consider terrorism abroad (and ignore its presence in our midst); as we vilify those claiming allegiance to a religious faith indistinguishable from that held by a majority of our own citizens; and as we view each other’s political parties with suspicion and distrust, we need this film and others like it to remind us that our freedoms are not a mere convenience, to be discarded when inconvenient; but are the centerpiece of what we fight for and what makes our nation worth fighting for.

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The American Cultural Divide: Freedom for One, or Freedom for All?

When candidates for political office debate or make short public statements, they sometimes wax on vague notions such as their vision of America and the nature of freedom.  They try to connect with voters by referencing what many Americans think are basic national virtues.  However, the cultural divide between Right and Left has widened over the last half century, and the very definitions of essential American virtues have themselves been changed with this divide, as the two sides redefine these virtues through increasingly divergent perspectives.  The most essential divergence between Right and Left is on the definition of that most seemingly American value: that of freedom itself.

While both the Right and Left view themselves as fighters for freedom, the two view freedom through substantially different perspectives.  The Right views freedom from within the context of a zero-sum game, in which freedom and personal rights are finite and competitive.  One person’s freedom limits another’s, and the expansion of one’s freedom means a contraction of another’s.  The Left, on the other hand, views freedom as inherently indefinite and communal; the extension of freedom for any member of the community expands overall communal freedom, benefiting all other members.  This cultural divide informs both sides’ views on the nature of the American community, with the Right portraying the community as a Darwinian survivalist competition, a dog-eat-dog collection of individuals each seeking to survive at the expense of the others, while the Left sees the American community as a shared environment which itself strengthens the community’s individual members, each member gaining from the extension of freedom to any of their own.

The cultural divide, and the differing perspectives on American community, plays out through both large-scale approaches and specific issue positions.  Both sides, alike, recognize that the American culture largely evolved from the social dominance in Europe, colonial America, and the post-revolutionary United States, of rich, white, European, Christian men.  However, while the Right sees any movement to extend rights, freedom, opportunity, and wealth to other classes and identities, as an effective attack on the rights of existing dominant groups (in effect, a “culture war”), the Left sees the expansion of freedom not as a “war” upon some within society, but as a strengthening of freedom for all in society including the existing dominant groups (especially considering that those dominant groups themselves are often core supporters of both the Right and Left).  To the Left, freedom is not a war between groups for power over the others, but a bounty which any can access, and which itself grows with the size of the population able to access it.  The Left therefore champions multiculturalism, to extend freedom as much as possible, to grant access to freedom to as many as possible, to better improve and increase the freedom of all.  The more freedom we share, the more allies we have against groups trying to take that freedom away; and the more freedom we share, the harder it is for the courts to legitimize restrictions on those freedoms.  The Right, however, sees multiculturalism as a “culture war” or “class war” against the existing freedom of prevailing dominant groups.  The Right sees society as “one against all, and all against one,” (in essence an “army of one” against oppression), while the Left sees society as “one for all, and all for one” (effectively a mutual defense treaty against oppression).

We can see these large-scale approaches in specific issue platforms.  For example, on the same-sex marriage issue the Right sees the expansion of rights to marriage as an “attack on marriage” (thereby necessitating the now overturned Defense of Marriage Act), whereas the Left sees any expansion of access to the legal rights extended to married couples as effectively strengthening the institution of marriage and the freedoms and benefits accruing to it.  The Right does not care that more kinds of people getting married takes nothing away from those already allowed that right; the expansion of freedom must, they feel, somehow decrease their own agency and freedom whatever the reality might be.  There is, of course, a greater cultural war by the Right to delegitimize those not like them, and restricting access to traditional institutions is a part of that cultural war to keep freedom from being shared or expanded.  Meanwhile, the Left cannot fathom any kind of logical basis for conservative reaction against same-sex marriage, as those on the Left come from the perspective that more people getting married can only create a greater social push toward providing protections and benefits to all married couples, regardless of what groups they represent.  The Right sees marriage as a zero-sum game; the Left sees it as a freedom shared by and strengthening the community.

Other issue positions are similarly determined by the large-scale approaches of the zero-sum competition and the shared-rights community.  For example, the Right exploits racism and xenophobia by directing national urges to fix our problems toward hatred against immigrants seeking to join our City on a Hill, while the Left reaches out to those communities.  Although the Right, when in power, never actually pursues any “solution” to “immigration problems” (because they are ultimately dependent on exactly those population groups that would be affected by such “solutions”), they fan the flames (especially when not in power) to gain political points by speaking about freedom and opportunity within the framework of a competitive zero-sum, in which “they” are coming to take “our” freedom and jobs.  The Left is informed and supported by ethnic groups who have themselves created jobs and expanded American freedoms by their very arrival and work here, making our nation ever greater, stronger, and richer.

Other lesser examples can be found in cultural symbols like the conservative myth of a so-called “War on Christmas,” seeing multiculturalism as somehow taking away Christmas or Christ from those celebrating such images.  The majority of Leftists who are themselves Christians obviously see things differently, understanding that the expression “Happy Holidays” is not an attack on their faith, or a restriction of what they can believe or celebrate, but merely an inclusion of others into the national merriment that the dominant Christian majority has always vocalized and expected everyone to join.  Another lesser example can be found in the recent “flagger” debate between some southerners (who generally gained the sympathies of the Right) feeling that the Confederate battle flag represents southern history and culture; and those (north and south, and generally gaining the sympathies of the Left) who feel that the South has plenty of legitimate, non-racist symbols of pride, and that the selection of a symbol with an obvious racist legacy therefore also demonstrates what image of the South pro-flag advocates want to portray:  a white-dominated, racially ordered and enforced community of racially selective freedom.  The “flaggers” prefer a symbol of the zero-sum approach (where blacks fighting to secure their freedoms have to fight against whites for those freedoms, and take away white freedoms in the process), whereas other southerners prefer other symbols of the South that portray its greater, diverse community and the South’s many champions for freedom for all races and peoples.

The Right also prefers some issues precisely because they do show a tendency toward zero-sum competition for rights.  The right to bear arms (under the ambiguous language of the Second Amendment) is an excellent example.  The Right believes that the Second Amendment rights of those Americans seeking to use them trump the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness recognized by the Constitution’s preamble as the cornerstone for all American rights.  Second Amendment rights are to the Right more important than the basic rights of the 40,000 Americans killed by gun-fire each year to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and those deaths (roughly equivalent to losing the Vietnam War all over again every single year) are an acceptable “cost of doing business” for those demanding the justice of an overarmed populace.  Of course, with violent crime in the US at an all-time historic low, the Second Amendment is itself a greater threat to our freedom than those threats seemingly recommending a nation-in-arms.  Such an argument relegates the protection of individuals and families to police and communal law enforcement (taking rights to such away from gun-owners, and confirming the zero-sum nature of this particular issue); but also recognizes the greater rights of the greater American community to the most essential freedom, that of life itself.

While both those on the Right and those on the Left claim to believe in and defend the American promise of freedom, their vision about what that promise holds has diverged into conflicting perspectives on the nature of community in America.  The Right insists on, and fights to preserve, an anarchic collation of competing individuals and forces, living in an environment of restricted and finite freedoms, which cannot be shared or realized communally (at least not without taking away such freedoms from the individual).  The Left insists on, and fights to preserve, a vision of a community of shared rights, with every individual’s own rights extending the rights of others in the community, and of the community as a whole.  The Left’s vision is far more compatible with the earliest vision of American community, John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” vision of an America acting as a greater, cohesive community to foster greater agency, greater responsibility, and greater morality at both individual and communal levels.  The Right’s vision, on the other hand, is effectively a failure of faith in the expansive nature of freedom, in the nature of the American community, and in the nature of the religious faith to which American conservatives often pretend to defer.  The Left’s vision is more compatible with the traditional American vision, with the argument on American exceptionalism, and with the Christian faith upon which that vision and that argument were originally based.  Whether the core of American conservatism will find its way back from the great divide, and embrace an expansive vision of American freedom, shall remain to be seen.