Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Trump:  Again

Donald Trump appears to relish stoking the emotions of his audiences toward the inevitable climax that connects his use of forbidden language with the audience's own repressed outrage; outrage at the rules of the game that prevent them from saying out loud what is on their mind, at the shoddy deals Washington doles out in the name of public policy; at the never-ending failures of immigration policy; or at Hillary or Obama or other classic Right Wing targets of our recent past.  With a wink and a nod Trump and his audiences clink glasses at the end of a bar, congratulating each other for the courage they have found to share unfettered gossip, the television cameras recording every word be damned.  It is this sense of Trump's linguistic courage, suggesting genuine political courage, that is being rewarded in the polls. Trump understands that his followers want the next president to have balls, huevos, cojones, and probably testicles as well; in short, they seek masculine leadership.

But Trump's courage in breaking verbal taboos is not confined to those that hamstring the Republican Right.  Trump also ventures into Bernie Sanders land to validate the politically incorrect thoughts his followers might have about income inequality.  “These are not nice people, I can tell you,” he confides, referring to the sordid greed of Wall Street.  When The Trump, a creature of Big Money, says something like this it lends more credence to the Bernie campaign than anything Sanders himself or any self-respecting, certified leftie might say about American capitalism.  Another taboo is broken:  yes, you can be a migrant-Muslim-Hillary basher and still clink glasses in the bar with Bernie!  You may not be one of us, Bernie,  but, yes, you got that one right; have another Bud.

Again like Sanders, Trump acknowledges twenty years of failure in foreign policy, violating a strict taboo by the enforcers of Washington-speak:  television producers and talking heads, congressional leaders who Went Along lest they be accused of being soft on terrorism, etc.  Again the Trump message liberates cultural conservatives to think forbidden liberal thoughts.  Neither Trump nor Sanders is likely to become President but their impact on language of American politics today goes far beyond the highly ritualized mating calls of presidential politics as practiced in the past three decades.  Their double-barreled impact undermines the very authority we have allowed the purveyors of culture and our political class to impose upon our thoughts for all these years, and it is deliciously satisfying to see this play out.  However goofy you might think Trump's ideas about policy might be, is he not profoundly correct that outrage and outrageous language are only effective response to, and possibly remedy for, the tyrannies of contemporary American political speech?

But what are we to make of the other end of the candle Trump burns as he targets specific categories of people, echoing the anger of his followers:  lying journalists, Muslims, Mexican migrants, Hillary's bathroom break, Fox News' Megan Kelly?  These make us more uncomfortable.  Is Trump talking about these targets as living human beings who deserve his visceral contempt, making him a first-class cad, or is he puncturing them as cartoon balloons, knee-jerk clichés  of piety that political discourse has taught us to substitute for thought?  Or does he really feel that way?  Either way, we are reminded that politics is not about forcing language to keep people comfortable:  Any change at all will cause discomfort to some and why should we be slaves to someone else's norms about speech?  I have a hard time imagining Trump, as President, actually stoking hatred as a tool of government policy.  But on the other hand history screams out at us that public bashing of people and groups can easily get out of hand.

Less troubling  is the sometimes hilarious rhetorical trick Trump plays in associating the names of his competitors with performance failure:  Trump's Carly Fiorina got fired for failing at business and now wants to run government like a business.  In spite of spending all that frontrunner money Jeb Bush's performance in the polls is dismal.  Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State helped create the foreign policy mess we are in but now she lectures us about how to get out of it.  Cruz may lie in wait hoping to pick up Trump's supporters down the line, but he doesn't  have the "temperament"  to be President.  We want winners, not losers; how did these characters ever get onto the radar screen?

If you think of Trump's campaign not as a true quest to become president, but as a chance to use the bully (pun intended) pulpit to change the verbal sham American politics has become through bipartisan political correctness, his campaign makes sense, and we should all be grateful for this.  If you think of Trump as a serious contender for steering public policy into the second twenty percent of this century, there are some serious flaws.

Billy Graham's talent as an evangelist was to be able again and again with his language and voice, to fathom the rivers and currents of deep-seated, inexpressible frustration with life in thousands of people gathered in his presence, and channel them, however momentarily, into a vision of beckoning spiritual redemption.  Trump's followers are the spiritual (if not biological) grandchildren of Graham's converts, but the redemption Trump offers is not born again salvation, but The Trump himself.  Reagan invited Americans to pitch together in to light up the “city on the hill.”  Trump, on the other hand asks Americans to leave it to the Trump to Make America Great Again.  This summarizes Trump's weakness as a potential president:  so far there is no hint the Trump and his bar companions on the left and on the right, could possibly forge the political alliances, the energy, the inspiration, necessary to Make America Great Again.  That will take a lot more than Trump has shown us so far or, indeed, any of the candidates running on either ticket this year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Part III:  Bernie Sanders and the Republican Southern Strategy

If The Trump was the first curve ball thrown at the 2016 Republican Party Presidential Nomination Shindig, the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders was the second.  Here's why.
For the past forty years, income and wealth in the United States have been moving up the ladder to the very rich.                  1976:  top 1% gets            8%  of all income             23% of all wealth
                         2013:  top 1% gets         23% of all income               42% of all wealth
Income from 1980-2013:  for bottom 90%, slightly down; for top 10%, almost double; for 1%, almost triple.

It took hundreds government actions over several decades to accomplish this massive distribution of income away from the middle class toward the very rich, including massive tax cuts to the richest, campaign financing laws favoring large donors, the weakening of labor unions, concentration of news media ownership, creation of corporate tax loopholes, government non-enforcement of monopoly laws, etc.  Both parties in Congress and the executive and judicial branches were complicit, although clearly Republicans have led the charge.  But this massive shift was never part of the public agenda, never discussed, never debated, and often denied.  It happened relentlessly, clause by clause, buried in obscure paragraphs of legislation often addressing other issues. 
Changes in news media regulation help explain why this massive shift in took place without debate.  Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s radio and TV legislation prevented concentration of radio or TV stations by one owner, by the early 2000s the vast majority of local radio and TV stations were owned by a small number of huge media conglomerates.  The fairness doctrine, which required broadcast outlets to present differing sides of an issue, was dropped in 1987.  Requirements for public service ads were dropped.  Thousands of reporters who covered local news were dismissed, leaving smaller media markets with few effective means of informing citizens about the affairs that concerned them.  Similar changes occurred in the newspaper business.  Not surprisingly, many of the media conglomerates favored by these policies joined the increasing chorus of giant corporate voices calling for even less government regulation, lower taxes for the rich, and a dismantling of the safety nets created over the previous seventy five years.   Analysts referring to growing income inequality on Sunday talk shows were accused of fomenting "class warfare" or "populism," and not invited back.  Many of the most powerful media owners were now taking sides on the most massive shift in income in US history.

But this year, enter Bernie Sanders, a highly improbable presidential candidate.  A conscientious objector, a socialist, with a strong New England accent and a straightforward attack on the rigging of our economic system in favor of the rich, Sanders defied all expectations, getting far more support than anticipated, drawing much larger crowds in the early months than Hillary.  Sanders, it seems, proved income inequality was a themes millions of voters wanted to debate on the national agenda. But how does this affect the Republican presidential election year of 2016?

For the past four decades beginning with Nixon, Republicans have been able to cobble together several national presidential victories using what has become known as the "Southern Strategy," appealing to disgruntled mainly white and male voters, especially in the South and the industrial Midwest, who once tended to vote Democrat.  These voters have been attracted to Republican appeals largely on cultural issues:  strict policies on drugs and crime, gay marriage, abortion, a tough-sounding foreign policy, and the like.   

But as it turns out, Southern and industrial Midwest White Male voters are among the bigger losers in the economic shift toward the rich:  NAFTA and economic policy favoring China and other growing industrial nations caused thousands of jobs in the South and the industrial Midwest to move abroad:  those good jobs have never been replaced. Sanders, in effect, is asking voters to vote their economic self-interest rather than their cultural preferences.  And it seems to be working, according to polls, If even a fraction of voters who normally vote Republican respond to this call it could move several normally tossup states to vote Democrat, tipping the scales in the electoral college:  North Carolina, Iowa, Florida, and Ohio.

Thus, Republicans must consider the threat Sanders' message poses to their Southern Strategy.  Anticipating that Hillary will win the Democratic nomination, Republican candidates have begun attacking Clinton's character, not her relatively conservative message,, continuing to follow the broad outlines of the Southern Strategy.  But Sanders' success in attracting voters has already moved Clinton to address income inequality, and should Clinton get into a tough presidential race next year, she too, might challenge the Southern Strategy by appealing to voters' pocketbooks rather than their cultural preferences and current angers.

Next:  How does The Trump Fit in Here?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My Take on the Dianna Duran sentence:

Yes, the 30-day sentence seems light for such an egregious violation of the public trust.  If a city council member from Sunland Park ripped off $28,000 of public money to pay racino bets s/he would have serious vitamin D deficiency from lack of sunlight upon release from jail.  But our Attorney General asked the judge for no time at all, plus the wacky and very messy deal of giving her a chance to retract her guilty plea--moves that very much call into question his own judgment as our chief law enforcer.

Judge Ellington doesn't let her off the public hook, not by a long shot.  He ordered Duran to pay a $14,000 fine, make restitution of nearly $14,000 to campaign donors, serve five years of probation and perform 2,000 hours of community service while writing the letters of apology to her victims, publishing some in newspapers, and making 144 public appearances to educate school children and others about her crimes.  Plus the humiliation of GPS monitoring to make sure she doesn't go into a casino.  My take is that these highly public acts of penance will serve far more to deter future mischief by other elected officials than another one-to-five years in the privacy of her own forgotten jail cell.  I have no problem with the sentence.  Full Disclosure:  Ellington, many years ago, took one of my political science classes.
Links for December 15, 2105

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Dissecting the Trump:  Part II

Donald Trump's signature behavior has been the flagrant violation of the rules of rhetorical engagement for presidential candidates.  The rules were created to maintain an aura of civility and piety over the nutty and often dirty process of presidential selection.  But they also serve to disguise systemic deception, and Trump's sharp bending of the rules has a way of unmasking these deeper truths.  Instead of, say, timidly advocating denial of drivers licenses to undocumented workers as a "public safety" issue that disguises anti-Mexican or anti-immigrant sentiments behind the cloak of a petty, punitive measure--a proposal gaining ground in several states--Trump doubles or even triples down, flaunting the word "rapists" as an excuse to deport a million undocumented workers.  The shocking use of this terminology causes discomfort in society at large while specifically threatening the interests of entrenched roofing, construction, and meatpacking businesses in Phoenix.  But it's very outrageousness also provides welcome relief for voters of all stripes, weary of the evasive discourse on immigration, distorted beyond all credibility by candidate cowardice and the fear of stepping into politically incorrect terrain.  Trump's insulting language, even as you react angrily, jolts you out of this fear in ways that open up the space previously blocked by political correctness.  This is healthy.

The word "rapists" also created a stir in television newsrooms.  Pundits of all stripes who clucked about Trump's language seemed to be warning him, "we will not take seriously any candidate who violates our rules."  But Trump's refusal to fawn for the approval of overpaid talking heads also created a rush of admiration.  How refreshing to see someone mock this arrogance--even if one totally disagrees with Trump's assertions!   In one stroke, Trump's use of language kicks at the festering mental logjam induced by political correctness.  It hints at the hypocrisy of those who take themselves too seriously as arbiters of political reality while also fulfilling their true corporate function, which is to sell monopolistically priced pharmaceuticals and car insurance for self-interested media moguls.  And it challenges the bipartisan collusion that has prevented any action on a subject most Americans believe needs serious attention, not glib doubletalk.  Wittingly or unwittingly, the Trump campaign did some heavy lifting with the mere use of the loaded word "rapists." Why should we be surprised by The Ban?

So far the Trump campaign has been running on parallel tracks:  On the surface, this is a campaign for the presidency, run by an amateur whose policies can be compared to those of other candidates.   But on a parallel track Trump runs a parody campaign, using forbidden language that, in its earnest naiveté, somehow underscores the sham of contemporary presidential electioneering.  And it is this second track that has generated Trump's poll numbers.  The direction of Trump's policy (the first track) is not the point, at least not yet.  We are so secretly delighted by the refreshing candor of this second track that we are willing to give him a short-term pass on the first. Yes!  Kick those poll numbers up!  Challenge the stuffy rules of presidential politics, insult the pundits telling us what to think, point out the tawdriness at all levels:  this is fun!  And we can sort out who we want for president later. 

Trump, whose trademark hairdo itself suggests a vain or pompous man underneath, has deftly turned the tables and exposed television coverage, mealy-mouthed politicians, and the oppression of political correctness as being far more pompous than the Trump himself, who at least has the grace sometimes to laugh at his own shtick.  This is an amazing accomplishment.

Political parties?  Why, Trump asks, should the servant class of presidential elections, these empty shells no longer serving any observable public good, be allowed to choose the rules of the game for a debate to be watched by millions of potential voters?  Good question.  Fox News?  Why should candidates cow-tow to its self-appointed mission to set the Republican agenda?  The Trump scores again.  ISIS?  Why should voters pay the slightest attention to the carefully worded nonsense of candidates catering to fears within specific sectors of an electorate and vetted through the mirror of public opinion polls?  Trump simply cuts through all of this by saying with a straight face that he has a foolproof way of defeating ISIS quickly and decisively which he will reveal only after he is elected.  Has any other candidate in either party made any more sense of ISIS than this?  Name one.  Terrorism at home?  Ban all Muslims from coming over here.  How's that for starting a more honest discussion about domestic terrorism?  Trump's in-your-face, deliberately incorrect language somehow begs the world to think outside the boundary lines of our log-jammed and disingenuous political discourse.  This is healthy.

None of this means the Trump will be, or should be, President of the United States.  Trump has spent so much time fighting the windmills of the second track of his campaign that we know almost nothing about the first track; and judging from what appears to be his support base, that might take us into dangerous territory indeed.  But Trump's use of outrageous language in the past few months has unmasked the poverty of ideas inside most presidential campaigns, and the self-serving vapidity of most of what passes as news and commentary.  It might even lead to a more honest public discussion about the serious problems that lie ahead.

Part III will discuss the role of Bernie Sanders in shaping the Republican presidential campaign