Category: Personalities

How It Happens

In the 1800s, political combat in Germany helped form conflicting political ideologies, including modern liberalism, Marxist communism, Nietzchian conservatism, and the seeds of Nazism.  A century of national and international struggle, within Germany and without, put Hitler into the chancellery in 1933.  Today, it is all too easy to see Hitler as inevitable for 1930s Germany, and to forget the liberal German philosophies opposed to Nazism and the constitutional strengths of both imperial Germany and the Weimar republic.

The United States now finds itself in a situation in many ways resembling Germany in 1933, with the fascists now effectively in control of a major political party, and that party ignoring or even celebrating their links to avowed racists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and religious fascists.  The Democrats are attempting to rally the forces of American democracy against the new specter of fascism; but right now the polls indicate that the US lies on a precipice overlooking an unprecedented national catastrophe.

Is this an exaggeration of our national situation?  Would Donald Trump, if elected president, really present a threat to our republic?  The Republican Party itself has long predicted disaster that would emanate from Democratic presidencies, particularly the apocalyptic warnings that those like Trump made about President Obama and now about Hillary Clinton.  Are we on the Left overreacting and simply repeating the GOP’s own ridiculous exaggerations, allowing the last adult in the conversation to reduce himself to the uneducated mutterings of the other children?  Can we perhaps relax and presume that while Trump would steer the nation away from our record of progress and success, the republic is strong enough to survive him?

These same questions were asked by Germans on the eve of, and just after, Hitler’s ascendance to the chancellery.  A nation which had long inspired the world with its liberal visions, and had also infused politics with more radical philosophies like socialism and communism, saw Hitler’s power as a survivable necessity, something that would be a defeat for the forces against him but which could nonetheless experience some measure of success and which certainly would soon see other, more reasonable forces back in power.  But unlike the failure of American Democrats to live up to Trump’s and other Republicans’ warnings, Hitler and his movement showed German liberals and moderates and even conservatives what comes from underestimating a demagogue with a strong, populist backing.  Those liberal, moderate, and conservative voices quickly found themselves in “protective custody” in Dachau and elsewhere.

Germany’s Weimar government did not provide for the powers of a führer, and the powers of Chancellor were in fact quite limited.  These limitations on power did not stop a man “speaking plainly,” or his followers, from using legitimate powers of government to expand Hitler’s political authority until there was nothing left of the Weimar constitution.  This is the danger we must be wary of with Trump.  The US Constitution limits and checks the powers of the presidency; but Trump now has a viable path from these limitations and checks to the unlimited powers of dictatorship.  This is not a threat to be taken lightly.

The threat posed by Trump consists first of the nature of his rise to power, and second of the weaknesses our system has for preventing a dictator from gaining power through the electoral process.  First, Trump himself has not shied away from evoking an image of himself as führer, from the Nazi-style salute used at his rallies, or his deleted tweet of German SS re-enactors paired with his face on the American flag, to his calls for violence to be part of the political process (promising to pay the legal fees of supporters employing violence at his rallies, saying he would himself like to punch the detractors, etc.).  But Trump’s Hitlerian vision go far beyond enjoying displays of Nazi rally techniques.  Trump seeks to control the press, a control at times resisted and later succumbed to by the chief conservative agitprop outlet, Fox News.  Trump gained popularity among his fascist base not only by attacking fellow conservative TV personality Megyn Kelly with grotesquely misogynist reductions but also through his degrading mockery of a disabled journalist, Serge Kovaleski.  Trump showed other journalists that he would accept no one falling outside his own eugenically limited definition of humanity, and he seeks to limit thereby the presence of nonconformist and non-fascist media.  He continues to try to control the press through a multitude of actions, like lawsuits, blacklists, and insults; and he seeks to reduce reporters’ First Amendments rights to free speech and freedom of the press.

Trump’s nomination also saw Hitlerian and unconstitutional calls (championed by Governor Chris Christie) to jail their political opposition.  Christie’s own experience as a prosecutor ought to have dissuaded a less opportunistic and cynical jurist from a mob-justice, call-and-response conviction based solely on fact-free expressions of wrath toward a woman daring to enter the male-dominated field of politics.  Jailing leaders of the opposition on propped-up charges, or on no charges at all, was a chief, early tactic of the Nazis, even before they gained full control of the government.  Were Trump to gain the presidency, his “law and order candidacy” suggests that not just Clinton, but all vocal opposition would soon find themselves in jail, regardless of the nation’s established justice procedures.

Trump has called for mass deportations of undocumented workers, and for a registry of American Muslims, both of which evoke early Nazi moves toward “purifying” the nation’s racial profile.  The uncontested popularity of these suggestions with white supremacists and with ultranationalists both in the US and overseas, shows the frightening sync between Trump’s new order of fascism and Hitler’s old scheme.  The unconstitutionality of his suggestions bother neither himself, his advisors, the GOP now that he has been nominated (disregarding some bickering and whining before they knelt before him to crown him as their führer), or the extremist fascists who form his base.  Trump’s racist proposals, and his violently racist followers, show clearly the nature of the neo-racist state that they hope to build across the nation in our hallowed halls of federal, state, and local government, and disregarding all parts of the Constitution with the exception (for the moment, at least) of the Second Amendment.  The fascism of Trump and his supporters is frightening and indisputable, presenting a nauseatingly long list of offenses committed openly and on purpose, to expand the envelope of publicly allowable violence and hatred perpetrated against fellow Americans.

With a republic over 240 years old, and with multiple checks and balances acting on the federal presidency, how could Trump possibly warp the powers of the presidency into a dictatorship?  The same process that Hitler used would serve Trump or any other demagogue to bypass the Constitution.

First, now that he is the official nominee, Trump is also the new leader of the Republican Party.  He can now begin reforming the party, executing at will his own “Night of the Long Knives” to ensure Republican compliance.  Certain political measures might wait until after the election, to encourage moderate independents to vote for him in November.  After the election, however, Trump can begin pruning moderates and conservatives from the party, completing its transformation into an extremist party more in line with his hunger for power.

Second, the next president has an immediate vacancy to fill on the Supreme Court, due to Scalia’s death and to the GOP’s unprecedented obstruction of the constitutionally mandated processes of government.  Trump, if elected, would fill that slot as one of his first presidential acts, putting on the bench someone he knows would support his unconstitutional approaches to government.  In addition, leading liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83, and centrist justice Anthony Kennedy is 80.  They are the next likely justices to retire or die on the bench, and their seats may both potentially need filling during the next term of president.  Putting three “trumpets” on the bench to ensure that no challenges to Trump’s contempt for constitutional law survive, Trump can effectively operate without fear of a SCOTUS overturn; and he can also stamp the next 20-30 years of American jurisprudence with his sad little brand and his extremist vision.

Third, having greater control of a more conformist and extremist Congress (through greater control of the Republican Party), and a more conformist and extremist Supreme Court, Trump can also solidify extremist control of state and federal district gerrymandering to further their gains, to cement their control of districts, and to divide opposition communities from within and keep them electing conformist, extremist Republicans.  SCOTUS will continue to strip voting protections from minorities and from women, and will solidify extremist voting results.  No Republican would dare stand in the way of such an onslaught; fearing if not for their lives than at least for their careers and political relevance.  And whenever Trump chooses, he can simply ignore whatever provisions of the Constitution he wishes, with neither his puppet Congress or his puppet Court opposing him.

Finally, if these measures do not appeal enough to his entitled yearning for adulation and obedience, then there is always the Reichstag fire.  Trump continues to fan the flames of hatred; and he continues to urge greater veneration of gun ownership and public carrying.  These two weaknesses together guarantee a growth of domestic lawlessness and terror under a Trump regime.  It will be easy either to engineer a staged incident or to encourage or exploit a real one, and then to call for “emergency measures” that, as in Germany, only “temporarily” suspend the Constitution.  With his opponents in jail, with Congress and the Court dominated by his puppets, no one would be left with the power and will to keep such “measures” from happening, or to ensure that they are “temporary.”  The “emergency” will be the duration of Trump’s regime; a duration that then can also be maintained for as long as Trump sees fit to remain in power.

Is this an extreme view of Trump’s vision and the threat posed by him to our republic?  It is intended to be.  Have other, reasonable politicians been accused by Republicans in Godwinite exaggerations of being “Hitler,” with no validity?  They have, indeed.  But Republicans do not get a “nominate Hitler for free” card by painting Hitler mustaches on President Obama’s likeness, or by confusing the provision of health care with the Holocaust or with slavery.  Such extremist ridiculousness does not mean that when a real wolf finally shows up, we have to let the sheep keep sleeping.  When the boy cries, “Wolf!”, we have to at least stop to consider whether a wolf is in fact present.  Trump has angered people of all “races” (including “white”), all genders and identities (including male and straight), all religions (including Christian), and all political thoughts (including conservatives and Republicans) with his extremist voice, and with that of his followers; and with his extremist approach to law and to contracts; and with his extremist style of “debating” and campaigning.  Godwin has left the building; and Hitler is threatening to break out of Trump’s ridiculous hairdo.  Trump may have no intention of going anywhere as far as I have suggested; but he can, and can we afford to risk that?  Should we risk that?  There may not be an apocalypse around the corner.  But as the missiles are armed and the launch hatches opened, should we not consider the possibility that this just might be our last real election if we do not stop this idiocy right this very moment?

Headline image from Huffington Post blog, “Donald Trump: The Man, the Candidate, the President,” 2/15/16.




Growing a Family with Water in Flint

The Guys from Texas

While the city of Flint, Michigan waits for a long-term resolution for its beleaguered water system, as its citizens struggle from day to day for the most basic of needs, that of water, the people of Flint look eagerly to any support they can get.  For now, at least, the city is blessed with the limelight and the attention of our fickle media.  Help is coming in from across the state and across the nation; at least for now.  This is the story of four amazing men who joined in that drive, and built new family connections in the process.

After my recent volunteer experience, I went back to Flint on Saturday with my wife Tonya and our young friend Joshua.  This time, we ended up getting sent by the Red Cross to Crossing Water, operating out of St. Michael’s Catholic Church.  We spoke with Michael Hood, program director, who is sending support teams to Flint households to determine families’ needs and provide for them as best they can (Crossing Water was also the subject of another writer’s experience, which I re-blogged here). The group is currently working very hard to find people with the most urgent circumstances and get them some relief: disabled people unable to lift and carry cases of water, mothers of young babies that require clean water for mixing formula, undocumented people lacking the proper identification to show the National Guard workers checking residents through the water pick-up stations, home-bound elderly folks without access to the pick-up stations, etc.

While talking with Michael (in a room filled with eager volunteers, many also sent from the Red Cross), we met four young men (see photo above; from left to right):  Samah Haider, Wajahat Zaidi, Daniyal Taqvi, and Mohammed Bhayani.  These four men had arrived in the room through a very different path from the rest of us.  They had just arrived in a U-Haul truck filled with 12,000 bottles of water (300 cases, in six pallets), and they had driven up from Texas to help get water to the needy families of Flint.  I spoke later with Daniyal Taqvi, and learned how they had made their way to Michigan.

Earlier in the week, Daniyal had been watching TV, and he saw news reports of Flint children suffering from lead poisoning and going to the hospital with tragic complications.  That image truly brought the reality of Flint’s crisis home to him.  Daniyal is a board member of the Houston chapter of the “Who is Hussain” organization (an Islamic organization whose Michigan chapter has already contributed directly to Flint, with over 30,000 bottles).  As Daniyal explained to me, Hussain ibn Ali, the martyr honored by the group, died while suffering from thirst.  “Water is something that touches a bond with us,” Daniyal said.  “All people need water, and as a human being, it is my responsibility to be able to provide water to them.”

Already experienced in working together on food and water drives in Houston, Dallas, and Austin (for the homeless, and to help build the Muslim community), these four young men were able to use the Who is Hussain structure and other elements of Houston’s Muslim community to collect some $1,500 for Flint in three days.  But they did not just want to send money.  Daniyal explained that maintaining a human connection with the care that these men were providing, and with the community they were aiding, was for them a key part of that care.  During our conversation, Daniyal was close to tears as he described the love and human closeness that he felt with those of us who joined his team, and with those to whom he gave water.

As the four men made their way up north in a rented car, they had little idea of what was to happen on arrival.  Their way was eased by compassionate souls in the rental company, and in a bank helping with the trip’s finances.  Daniyal tells me that in both places, the companies waived various fees when they learned of the group’s mission, to help them get aid to the north.  However, despite this aid, and the money raised in Houston, the group wanted to dedicate the donations entirely for water; so all actual costs of the trip itself were borne by the four men as part of their own donation to the cause.

Never having been to Michigan in the winter, the team expected a frozen winter wasteland, and they were bemused by the unseasonably mild temperatures and the lack of snow on the ground.  They arrived in Dearborn, rented a U-Haul, bought 6 pallets of water from Sam’s Club, and drove to Flint.  After using Google to locate aid centers in Flint, the men got the email of an organizer at St. Michael’s church at 609 E 5th Ave; and the men finally found themselves in a room with Crossing Water’s Michael Hood, and with about 15 Red Cross volunteers, including my own little team, Jason Garcia and his family, and others.

Michael Hood’s phased operation (mapping out needs, and then getting water to those specific people needing it) was a longer-term and broad-based system of care, and our Texan friends wanted to get water into the hands of those needing it rather more quickly, and more personally.  They did, however, donate about a third of their supply to Crossing Water (two pallets; about 4,000 bottles in 100 cases).  As they began unloading cases onto the ground, we formed a daisy chain together to get the cases from the truck to the church, and into a storage area inside.  As we unloaded, cars driving by inquired about getting water, and we gave some of them cases of water as well.

Water Truck

Samah and Daniyal getting ready to unload the last of the two pallets for Crossing Water.  Photo by Jason Garcia.

Once the church’s storage room was full, Daniyal and his team-mates wanted to go into Flint neighborhoods to deliver water personally, their main motivation in coming all the way to Michigan from Texas.  We met a Flint woman who needed water; and she told us that her whole neighborhood needed water.  Soon a convoy was formed, headed by the Flint native’s car, followed by myself, the water truck, and a couple of other cars of Red Cross volunteers.  Other volunteers remained with Crossing Water to help with their canvassing campaign.  Meanwhile, our watering convoy descended on northwest Flint, in the area of Dupont Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave.  We went door-to-door; some of us contacting residents to find out who needed water, while others did the heavy lifting and moved cases to those homes needing it.  The volunteers’ cars all had water as well (which we had all brought to donate), and we emptied out our car stashes while also taking cases from the truck.

In that first neighborhood, a resident told us about another nearby neighborhood needing water, and we found our way to a building with many elderly residents (many without cars and unable to get to the drive-through pick-up locations).  We formed another daisy chain, and unloaded a pallet’s worth or so into a central holding area that a building resident had identified as the best place to leave water where everyone could get to it.  While we were there, an elderly lady began crying when she talked to Daniyal, learning that help had come to her all the way from Texas.

Another resident told us about a government housing project, Aldridge Place, that was very large and very needy.  She agreed to show us the way, and our mobile watering army followed her there.  It was indeed a large complex, with numerous buildings and cul-de-sacs.  We simply dropped off a case at each door, knocking to alert residents, many of whom came out and thanked us as we worked.  As one resident saw Daniyal moving a case of water, she also began crying, hugged him, and said, “Everything’s getting better.”  Finally, with only a little water left in the truck, the Flint native who had led us to the project showed us to a last nearby neighborhood where we unloaded cases at each house that showed signs of occupancy.  At last the truck was empty.  We all thanked each other, hugged or shook hands, took pictures of the truck with our tired little army, and then called it a day.  (My family met up with our new Texan friends for dinner in Dearborn later in the evening, but that’s another story.)

Tired Relief Crew.png

A tired relief crew at the end of the day.

When I asked Daniyal what motivated them all to do such charitable work, he reminded me that we are all human beings, first and foremost, whatever else we may be.  He also felt it important that, with so much of the media’s attention focused on bad examples of Muslims, Americans should see the positive impact that Muslims and their faith can play in our society, with Islam’s own unique imperatives of charity and brotherhood.  His own organization, Who is Hussain, has organized other water drives in Flint, as well as peace rallies in the wake of last year’s darkest moments of terrorism.

Daniyal has come away from this experience with a deep sense of family connection with us in Michigan.  He feels new, profound connections with those like myself who followed the lead of these men and helped them fulfill their mission of mercy.  And he also feels a profound connection to those needy to whom he gave water, a meaningful and spiritual experience for him.  These men came to give; but they got back something that they felt distanced from in the north – family.  Daniyal was touched by the realization that “humanity still exists,” that while not everyone is equally blessed, those with more can share their blessings with those who have less.  Daniyal wishes now that everyone could do something like this at least once; to realize we are all part of a greater human family.  He, Samah, Mohammed, and Wajahat are proud to have given water to their family.

Flint is only one place in the US that needs help, as much as it lies on the headlines of today’s papers and internet sites.  My city in Michigan, or their cities in Texas, could be among the next places that need outside assistance, that need good people like these to come from other towns to help.  These men did not come here to help people that looked or dressed or worshiped like them.  They came here as people, to help other people in need, members of the same community of mankind regardless of petty differences.  They came here in the best tradition of their faith, and of the nation we all share, traditions that call for all people with extra resources to help those without.  This is the ultimate meaning of our City on a Hill, the building of a community of care and welfare.

Those politicians and extremists who call for restricting entry to our City of people in need of shelter (some of whom look precisely like these four amazing men from Texas) are not building our City, or defending our nation or what it stands for.  And they threaten the ties that build our nation – the ties between the diverse communities and cultures of our City.  Such ties will be needed more than ever as our nation’s infrastructure ages, as political rhetoric demonizes and marginalizes the poor and the different, as some Americans refuse to accept others as members of the same human race.  Instead of such politicians and pundits, we need more men like these four.  We need more men like Daniyal Taqvi, like Mohammed Bhayani, like Samah Haider, and like Wajahat Zaidi – they are the true builders of our City, examples of our best traditions, and leaders who give real meaning to our values.

With special thanks to Jason Garcia, Michael Hood, John Gleason; and of course our new brothers in Texas.

Genius, Mediocrity, and the Perception of Victory

Quote of the Week:  Only mediocrity can be trusted to be always at its best. Genius must always have lapses proportionate to its triumphs. –Max Beerbohm

As a political writer, I take these words to heart.  They are especially relevant to the risks that a writer must take as a natural part of the process.  Not everything I do ever ends up being perfect; and it is astounding how completely different something I have in my head looks once I start putting it into words.  Even outlines and drafts change radically as I enter words here, and often the transformation can be not only astounding but disheartening.  Sometimes I have ideas that work just fine in theory but come out looking more like something I would have written in high school.  At any rate, Beerbohm’s words indicate that as a writer I should be prepared to face a possible disaster (a “lapse of genius,” if you will) in order to strive for the higher goal of a well-constructed and delivered argument.

Looking past my own concerns, Beerbohm’s words are also relevant to the recent Iowa Caucus.  Two candidates in particular (Clinton and Trump), as well as the media, made their results out to be more than what they really are.  Clinton’s “virtual tie” (to use Bernie Sanders’s description) is painted instead as a “victory” (in a state she was expected to win, and by a good margin); at least in part because she is also expected to lose New Hampshire to Sanders, and needs to prevent a perception building up of an unstoppable Sanders momentum.  However, Clinton does have hope on the horizon, in the shape of Nevada (possibly), South Carolina, and Super Tuesday.  South Carolina in particular should be a big win for Clinton, and it is difficult to see how Sanders will keep up in the multiple-front onslaught of Super Tuesday.  But to get her there, Clinton strives to shape perceptions of her campaign as the unbeatable juggernaut.  She simply changed expectations at the last minute by having it appear that any win, even by the tiniest margin, was a “great victory,” regardless of the omens portended by Iowa.  But Clinton is a genius of political organizing, and that includes being married to another great political organizer.  Mediocrity is not a problem that Clinton suffers; and the campaign need not fear its lapse.  The genius of organization behind the Clinton machine should be allowed to consider soberly the reality of Iowa and find a way to connect to the new, young voter (who is overwhelmingly in favor of Sanders, and who well may play a vital role, as young voters did in 2008).  The genius of Clinton should be allowed its lapse; and it should be allowed to see and portray that lapse as what it is – not a fatal weakness, but a problem that needs to be fixed as the campaign moves on to its next objective.

Similarly, Donald Trump brought in a much lower percentage of Iowans than his pre-caucus poll numbers indicated.  Those numbers gave him a second place not far from the first, held by Ted Cruz, but also even closer (by a single percentage point) to Marco Rubio’s third place.  Trump is underplaying the result, treating it as if it had been expected.  Yet Trump had more campaign stops in Iowa than any other GOP candidate.  He clearly invested far more resources in, and expected far greater results from, the people of Iowa (despite at one point insulting them by asking, “How stupid are the people of Iowa?”).  He also moves on to New Hampshire, a state where he is expected to do much better – a likely win.  And yet, the New Hampshire primary is basically “small time,” and like Iowa allows for much time and preparation, neither of which will be available for subsequent steps like Super Tuesday.  Trump’s failure to understand the voters, to understand the campaign process, and to understand his own rivals for the nomination (Rubio especially, whom Trump simply never saw coming) indicates not so much a “genius” showing an inevitable lapse, but the expected results of mediocrity trying to compete with its betters.

With Trump in Iowa, we see mediocrity at its best; unable to look past his own nose, or hear past the crowd of those around him.  Whereas with Clinton, we see political genius afraid to allow itself the comfort of a clear lapse.  For the good of the American political process, Trump’s mediocrity would best continue to “be always at its best,” but Clinton’s genius should be allowed to experience both its first lapse as well as its potential future triumphs.

Headline image via Google Image Search

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.

Headline image via Google Image Search

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.

Headline image from; via Google Image Search

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.”

Headline image via Google Image Search

Hillary’s Hard Choices: What Her Resume Says to the Voters

Hard ChoicesIn June, 2014, before announcing her candidacy for president (in April 2015), Hillary Rodham Clinton published a massive tome of 600 pages, Hard Choices, cataloging her experience as the 67th US Secretary of State (serving from January, 2009 to February, 2013).  While a great many politicians, and especially former Secretaries of State, have published memoirs and other works based on their experiences, it was clear from the start that this book was meant to be more, from an author who herself intended to continue with her political career to the next step – the path to the presidency.  And indeed, Hard Choices reads like an overwhelmingly fleshed-out resume.  Taking the book as an argument for her qualification for the next job in her sights, the book argues clearly (as a resume should) about the candidate’s experience, training, professionalism, relevance, and attitude.  Clinton’s detractors may condemn her self-congratulation for solving major problems, and for explaining away those episodes (especially the Benghazi consulate attack) that the conservatives have used to attack her.  The book may, in part, have been written in the intention of finding allies against such attacks.  However, despite ending her book with uncertainty about whether to run (and considering that question as her next “hard choice”), Clinton clearly wrote the book to market herself for the next major job ahead.

Taking Hard Choices as Clinton’s resume, Clinton argues, in effect, that her foreign policy experience and philosophy is her key asset as a prospective president, rather than her domestic issues platform.  At the very least, the book is an argument that Clinton’s foreign-policy platform is well grounded (and her campaign since releasing the book and announcing her candidacy has striven to beef up her domestic issues portfolio).  Clinton describes her basic approach to foreign policy as “smart power,” tying “soft power” elements of diplomacy, technological development, humanitarian assistance and relief, cultural ties; and a multilayered involvement moving past governments and foreign ministries to include businesses and corporations, students, unions, NGOs, and other institutions of civil society (and especially political non-state actors who are growing in international political power and significance); with “hard power” elements of military force and alliance systems (p. 33).  Throughout her book, Clinton details her involvement with all of these elements of international strategy and foreign policy.

Clinton argues that her executive experience is strong, and that it shows her ability to face crises and make the “hard choices” posed by both unexpected and long-developing events, conditions, and situations.  Her executive experience is of course the main study of her argument, depicting the world from the point of view of the office of Secretary of State.  Clinton shows herself to be not merely an office-dwelling paper-pusher, but an activist solver of problems, flying millions of miles in the course of her four-year term to a multitude of nations across the world.  She clearly believes in an up-close and personal “shuttle diplomacy” style of engagement, visiting with foreign leaders (political and otherwise) directly, and negotiating settlements and agreements directly.  Clinton argues that, particularly in Asia, a key region of modern global development and policy, personal relations and in-person conversations are central to building close international ties (and Pew Research Center polling indicates that, indeed, global popular approval of the US spiked during Clinton’s term as Secretary of State; although it is likely that Obama’s presidency beyond Clinton’s own work may have helped generate global support for the US).

Clinton’s close and personal style of foreign policy has helped build relations with world leaders, and she describes her work with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, etc., not just in terms of effective policy but in terms of her own personal connection with these leaders.  She argues in effect that the US can best be served by having a leader who already knows, is friendly with, and has had positive and successful dealings with the many players on the stage of global affairs.

The title and concept of Clinton’s book themselves also argue that Clinton is capable of facing crises and taking risks, a necessary qualification for any President and Commander in Chief.  She depicted risky, multilayered approaches to foreign policy problem areas such as China, where while negotiating for trade and political agreements, she still pushed human rights (and specifically defended certain “celebrity dissidents,” such as Chen Guangchen and Gao Yaojie), and she defended the smaller powers of southeast Asia from a Chinese attempt to dominate the region during ASEAN talks in July 2010.  In Afghanistan, while leading efforts to wean both lesser members and higher heads of the Taliban away from the movement (or at least toward reconciliation with Karzai’s regime), she continued and expanded efforts to build agency and opportunity for women (which many Islamic fundamentalists consider to be a deal-breaker).  Afghanistan also figures as an example of Clinton’s “smart power” approach, where “hard” military operations were linked to nation-building efforts (by both military and civilian organizations), and by other “soft” power venues.  Clinton also describes the “Russian reset” during Medvedev’s term as president, with the US engaging cooperatively with Russia on issues where possible, working with other powers to “contain” Russian expansionism where not, and working at local, “popular” levels to build relations with the Russian people and with non-governmental actors.  Despite Putin’s own later “reset” upon returning to the presidency (transforming Medvedev’s more cooperative Russia back into Putin’s more aggressive state), Clinton notes the successes of the American “reset” in “…imposing strong sanctions on Iran and North Korea, [and] opening a northern supply route to equip our forces in Afghanistan…” (p. 235).  Clinton also described her management of crises in Libya (working with the ground forces of the revolution to remove Gaddafi from power), the Gaza War (using “shuttle diplomacy” and her personal relationship with Netanyahu to tone down the tense and violent conflict with a limited cease-fire), and Haiti (leading the effort to rebuild after a massive earthquake, and supporting the peaceful transfer of power from President Préval to Michel Martelly).

Clinton uses both the overall narrative of the book, as well as a dedicated chapter, to argue that she in particular has been a dependable soldier for human rights.  From a controversial speech as First Lady in Beijing, declaring that “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights,” to a similar speech in Geneva as Secretary of State, using the same phraseology to argue that LGBT rights are human rights, to steering US support to political activists in Belarus, helping dissidents in China and Burma, aiding Haiti in a rare, peaceful transition of power, connecting with women’s rights activists in Yemen and Afghanistan, Clinton demonstrates her commitment to human rights.  She argues that as Secretary of State, her commitment helped to realize a noticeable improvement in human rights across the world.

There are subtler messages in Clinton’s narrative which, while not tangible arguments, manage to bleed through the lines to argue for her candidacy.  Her work with Obama is demonstrated as a principle of pushing past political fights and working with political opponents, and therefore reads as an argument that she can also work with other political rivals within the Democratic Party, with Republican conservatives, and perhaps even with Tea Party extremists.  Her depiction of her husband Bill Clinton’s mission to North Korea to arrange the release of two American journalists effectively argues that, as a team, the two Clintons would make a formidable political force if given once again the powers of the White House.  Clinton also depicts the events leading up to, and including, the US special forces operation killing Osama bin Laden.  While she does not take credit for the operation, her narrative seems to argue a right to “collateral credit” for being in the room and for supporting the operation with her own diplomatic forces.

If viewed as a resume, Clinton’s Hard Choices does what a resume should do.  It is a document told from the point of view of a prospective candidate for a job, selling and focusing on the strengths of the candidate for that job, and minimizing (or at least explaining) the candidate’s failings and mistakes.  A resume is sometimes used to blow up a candidate’s actual, smaller role in previous jobs into a greater fiction; and Clinton’s detractors may well see a similar, self-serving message in her narrative.  The length of the tome may also discourage less enthusiastic or interested readers; and therefore suffers from the tendency to preach to the choir.  On the other hand, the principal rule of marketing is: first, last, and always, market to your existing customers.  This Clinton’s book purports to do.  As to how much of her message will reach, and will resonate with, the rest of her party, and the rest of the nation, the next year of campaigning will have to tell.

Ben Carson: What is he for, and Who is for him?

Ben Carson

The day after the CNBC broadcast of the third Republican Party candidates’ debate, the Wall Street Journal and NBC conducted a series of polls to take the voters’ temperature across the partisan field.  Looking at both major parties, the poll demonstrated that Democratic respondents became less enamored of Bernie Sanders, and more favorable to Hillary Clinton (except in New England, especially New Hampshire, which in February will host the second state Democratic primary).  A blog article published on WSJ‘s website attributes much of Clinton’s resurgence to her success in shrugging off the Benghazi committee attacks. Among Republicans, numbers showed a sudden spiking of support for Ben Carson, and a noticeable loss of support for Trump, with Carson now the front-runner of the moment.  The polls further demonstrated that, were Clinton to have run at the time of the polls against a Republican opponent, only Carson could potentially have taken the election (although both Clinton and Carson had the same rating: 47% of the respondents).  All other Republicans would have lost the popular vote to Clinton (although these numbers leave aside the question of state electoral votes that would have actually decided the question).  Trump was, of the potential opponents posed against Clinton, the most likely to lose to Clinton.  Rubio and Bush both lose in a popular race, but by less of a margin than Trump.  So, for the moment, Ben Carson is the new golden child of the Republican clown car, running neck and neck with Clinton.

At the CNBC debate, Carson was soft-spoken and said little about his platform (and, indeed, the questioning was often more aimed at candidates’ personal histories and views, rather than being truly centered around potential policies).  One might be tempted to think that his quiescence bespoke more on the debate procedures than on his own thoughts about how the nation should move forward.  However, his campaign website says little more about his positions on major national issues than what he was able to articulate at the debate.  Carson remains a man whose thoughts, if any, on issues of substance remain known only to himself.  The position statements on his website, such as they are, are tuned not to the voter who wants actual answers, but to the voter who wants simple, unsupported platitudes.

Carson lists ten issues of importance to him (and presumably to those choosing to support him):  opposition to abortion, passing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, de-federalizing government controls on public education, keeping the Guantanamo detention facility open, replacing the ACA with health savings accounts, using the power of government to protect religion, maintaining strength against Russia, preventing further work on gun control, supporting Israel, and simplifying the federal tax code.  Carson avoids discussion of any kind about the economy and jobs, about peace and security in the Middle East (other than our need to support Israel), about climate change, about banking reform, about energy policy, about law enforcement and incarceration, or about any other substantive national issue.  His issue statements, such as they are, pose few actual policy suggestions and indicate a childishly simplistic ideation (to use that word loosely) of modern political realities.

For example, rather than indicate that he himself would cut any spending, he merely calls for the ratification of a constitutional amendment mandating the balancing of a budget (he is unsurprisingly short of actual details of how that would work).  His education policy is limited solely to de-federalizing government oversight over public education; he avoids any discussion of higher education, or of actual educational goals beyond making education more subject to local controls.  Yet, reinforcing the modern American conservative contradiction between wanting less government in some areas but desiring more government in others, Carson advocates (again without any specifics) using the powers of government to “jealously protect” religious practices.  And finally, he seems to agree with Carly Fiorina’s hope to simplify the tax code as the solution to American fiscal issues.

On foreign issues, Carson’s website is virtually silent.  Carson does see Russia as a rising threat, and that opposition must be led by America “from a position of strength,” and of course he fails to identify any mistakes made by Obama’s administration or anything he would do differently.  He also neglects to consider any other forces of opposition (such as ISIL, Iran, Al Qaeda, North Korea, China, etc.), or any allies or other forces with which we should pursue relations, beyond the state of Israel.  There, too, while advocating the continuing support of Israel (an issue never actually in question), Carson neglects to state what his administration would do differently from the current one, past administrations, or those of any of the other prospective candidates of either party.

This is the sole website presence of “Ben on the Issues” (as his website pretends to portray), and having read it, the reader is challenged to find a single thing a Carson administration would do about most of these issues.  We learn simply, and vaguely, that Carson seems to oppose using the government to provide basic social supports, but is eager to see religious practice protected by government power.  He wants a balanced budget, but does not want to have to do it himself.  He doesn’t have a better idea on how to improve the revenue stream other than by simplifying the tax code to something that would fit on a cereal box.  And he has no ideas of any kind as to how to pursue American interests abroad.  Yet this very ambiguity, as well as his sanctification of unborn life and his use of the government to protect religion, are tuned to the low-information voter who feels entitled and threatened by a modern, complex, tolerant society that expects them to act like adults.  While Carson speaks less to the angry (who are, the WSJ/NBC polls indicate, more defiantly pro-Trump than Carson’s supporters are pro-Carson), Carson is the “bleed-through” candidate best positioned to benefit from the inevitable weariness of conservatives with the Trump “comic-book candidacy.”

While it is far too early to predict that the ultimate race will be one between Clinton and Carson, the current polling demonstrates that Clinton can potentially gain yardage through a clear, but simple, articulation of actual policy proposals and a greater diversity of issues capability and relevance.  Such yardage will never attract the low-information voter; but those voters are harder to move from party to party.  The 2016 race will have to be fought and won, and can at the moment be won, on more intellectual grounds.