The Key to 2020

White House

Election Day 2020 is a mere 19 months or so in the future, so it’ll be here before we know it. We hope.

In the meantime, let’s consider what happened last time and maybe figure out how to keep it from happening again.

MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” is a great slogan. It sold a lot of hats. It’s short and snappy. It has an action verb and it proudly proclaims American greatness. And we can go there again!

OK, we can’t go there again, that part is BS. What’s important for now is that a lot of people tuned in to the MAGA message. It was one part of the sales pitch that helped elect Donald Trump.

A young Democrat named Pete Buttigieg* emerged from virtual obscurity this month, starting with his breakout moment, a CNN town hall on Sunday March 10. In less than three weeks, Buttigieg (we’ll call him Mayor Pete) has gone from nowhere to third place among Democratic presidential contenders nationwide. Only Joe Biden (who has yet to declare his candidacy) and Bernie Sanders (who didn’t want to repeat his own 2016 mistake and wait too long to declare) are now ahead of Mayor Pete.

On March 13 the Los Angeles Times published an article by White House reporter Eli Stokols about President Trump’s aversion to change and science, as suggested by his tweets about modern airplanes being “too complex to fly.” In that article, Mayor Pete said:

The core theme of this president and this campaign is the idea that you can turn back the clock, that you can ‘make America great again,’ that the answer for people worried about change is we’re going to stop it and reverse it — and that’s just not true and it’s just not possible. There’s obviously a shallow appeal to leaders telling us we don’t have to change. But at a moment when automation and AI are deeply transforming our economy and our society, we’d like to believe we have leaders who get it.

I absolutely agree with the thrust of Mayor Pete’s argument, which is that we can’t go back again. The last sentence in that quote makes an important point in saying that “we’d like to believe we have leaders who get it.” True.

In a radio interview last week, Mayor Pete said what he thought Democrats did wrong in 2016: “We spent, I think, way too much time on our side talking about him.” This observation was quoted in an analysis by CNN Editor-at-large Chris Cillizza, and I think it is also true.

Yes, we need leaders who get it. We desperately need that, and we don’t have that. And yes, we did spend way too much time talking about Trump, and we still do. But bear with me, because we have to talk about him a little more.

Trump didn’t get elected because he gets it — he doesn’t. Trump also didn’t get elected because we talked about him too much, though we did. And while social media micro-targeting and Russian interference may have made the difference in getting Trump his Electoral College majority, it only mattered because Trump was already close.

Mayor Pete has also figured out that last point, saying “[A] figure like this president should never have been able to come within cheating distance of the Oval Office. And I fear if we’re not paying attention to the causes that he’s a symptom of, then not only is it possible for him to succeed in 2020, but we could also find ourselves with another figure like him or even worse in the future.” Yes, even Breitbart is now reporting on Mayor Pete.

So what was it?

Trump got elected because he connected with what his voters wanted to believe.

People want to believe a lot of things. Americans want to believe that America is great. We hear about American exceptionalism all the time. Politicians tell us that we live in “the greatest nation on earth.” Trump likes to walk on stage to “God Bless the U.S.A.”

People want to belong and be a part of something bigger than themselves.

People want to believe that they’re doing something important.

People want to believe that they’re doing the right thing.

People want to believe that things are going to be all right.

People who once had it good want to believe that things will be good once again. This is a huge part of Trump’s appeal to his base.

People want to believe that they are valued and respected. In 2016, one of Hillary Clinton’s great mistakes was saying “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call a basket of deplorables.”

Perhaps most important of all – more important than the idea that their leaders get it — people want to believe that their leaders get THEM.

Trump managed to convey to a lot of people with a variety of concerns that he understood them, cared about them, embraced them, and was looking out for them. Trump voters believed it and many still do.

People don’t readily change beliefs and they aren’t necessarily persuaded by facts, but people do sometimes change their minds. It happens. Some practical considerations can be found in this 2017 article by Ozan Varol entitled “Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds. Here’s What Does“.

We need to take a different approach than we did in 2016. I am not suggesting that Democrats should tell voters only what they want to hear or that we should lie to them. We’re trying to win hearts and minds, not just votes, so lobbing verbal grenades is not going to do it. We have to connect on respect, values, mutual interest, involvement, and caring.

*Pete who? How do you pronounce that name? Who is this guy? The Daily Show is here to help with the name and other important stuff about Mayor Pete in “Who is Pete Buttigieg and Why Is He Killing It in the Polls.”

“It’s like a mini-election”

Upper House
Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol

The 22-month special investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election ended this past week with Robert Mueller’s report to Attorney General William Barr on Friday. On Sunday Barr issued a 4-page summary of the report.


  • No further indictments were recommended by Mueller and there are no sealed indictments that have not been made public.
  • Mueller reported “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
  • Regarding possible obstruction of justice by the President, Mueller stated that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
  • Barr and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein “concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
  • Barr said “[M]y goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.”

Trump and his supporters started celebrating, claiming total vindication, looking for people to punish and ways to exert their newly expanded sense of authority.

Journalist Yamiche Alcindor tweeted today:

Senator Lindsey Graham says President Trump sounded relieved and like a man who had just won a presidential election all over again. “To be honest with you, it’s like a guy who just won an election…It’s like a mini-election,” Graham said of Trump’s reaction to Mueller Report.

Indeed. It’s like a mini-election: an election in which only one person voted.

In this election, the only vote was cast by Attorney General William Barr. Barr said that he and Rod Rosenstein concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to establish an obstruction-of-justice offense against Trump, but really, do we know — or does it matter — what Rosenstein said? Barr had the only vote.

Barr was appointed by Trump to replace Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from anything having to do with the Russia investigation and resigned under frequent criticism by Trump. Barr was confirmed on Valentine’s Day by a 54-45 vote in the Senate. Senator Graham got to vote in that mini-election. Graham also had a vote in forwarding Barr’s nomination to the full Senate, as he chairs the Judiciary Committee (all Democratic committee members voted against the nomination).

Some Democrats are now arguing for release of Mueller’s full report, which is probably not going to happen. Some are arguing for ongoing congressional investigations, possibly to include testimony by Mueller.

And, of course, some are arguing for impeachment. Nancy Pelosi spoke to that idea earlier in March in a Washington Post interview:

I’m not for impeachment. This is news. I’m going to give you some news right now because I haven’t said this to any press person before. But since you asked, and I’ve been thinking about this: Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.

Pelosi is right. It would divide the country, and it would not succeed.

There were good reasons to believe that William Barr might not be unbiased in his handling of Mueller’s investigation, but 51 Republican senators voted for him anyway.

Last October there were good reasons to think the Brett Kavanaugh might not be well suited for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court (see Fear and Loathing in the Senate Judiciary for more), but 49 Republican senators and 1 red-state Democrat voted for him anyway.

Mitch McConnell has already said that he will push to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in 2020, in spite of his refusal to allow consideration of Obama’s nominee in 2016.

Is this Democracy? Or is it rule by fixed mini-elections?

Back to the question of impeachment, I see practically no circumstance under which this Republican controlled Senate would vote to remove Donald Trump from office.

Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 65 that the practice of impeachments could be regarded “as a bridle in the hands of the legislative body upon the executive servants of the government.” This president is unbridled. He is also imperious, impulsive, vindictive and selfish. Does he see himself as anyone’s servant, or the exact opposite?

Republicans in Congress, especially in the US Senate, have been bending over backwards for Donald Trump. They’re doing the country a terrible disservice.

Trump is now looking to do away with the Affordable Care Act once and for all, with nothing to replace it.

He is looking to slash social programs and increase defense spending.

He is using an executive order to declare a national emergency to build a border wall.

The debt is exploding. Remember when Republicans claimed to care about that?

The reasons to try to replace Donald Trump in 2020 are too numerous to list. But replacing Donald Trump is not enough. The Republican Senate majority must go.

The Electability Conundrum

I am not a political scientist. I thought I wanted to be one once, way back when I entered college as an 18 year-old kid with a couple scholarships and all the expectations in the world. My undergraduate debacle might make an interesting story sometime. Suffice it to say, for now, that by the time I took the second class in my chosen major, it appeared to be nothing like what I’d hoped or imagined, and that was the end of my formal political science education.

Everything else I know about politics has been picked up from a lifetime of informal, if not always casual, observation. I’ve participated, volunteered, and served as a party officer. I’ve been to caucuses and conventions. I’ve heard more stump speeches than I could count. I drifted from youthful idealism and liberalism into a stodgy, self-righteous conservatism, and was jolted back to my roots by divorce, a major falling out with fundamentalism, and George W. Bush’s woefully misguided or outright fraudulent adventure in Iraq.

In 2004 I waited in a long line and voted for John Kerry, but it was all for nothing; Kerry had been “swift-boated.”

This Land 2004
Remember this one?

By the time 2008 rolled around, I was ready to get behind a Democrat — virtually any Democrat — to retake the White House. At the beginning of 2008, Hillary Clinton seemed like the best bet. I wasn’t excited about Hillary, it just seemed like she was, what’s the word? Inevitable.

And then Iowa happened.

I will never forget it. I was in my kitchen in Colorado when Obama delivered his victory speech after winning the Iowa caucuses. That speech turned my head toward the TV in the living room:

“[Y]ou’ll be able to look back with pride and say that this was the moment when it all began. This was the moment when the improbable beat what Washington always said was inevitable.”

There was that word again. And Obama’s win over both John Edwards and Hillary Clinton proved that nothing was inevitable but that someone would win the nomination. I started donating online and working to support the candidate I wanted to win, not necessarily the one people expected to win.

Obama 20080130 21 crop.jpg
Barack Obama and Caroline Kennedy in Denver, six days ahead of Super Tuesday 2008

There’s a lot of talk about electability in 2020, as a casual web search will quickly reveal. In a March 14th article in Rolling Stone entitled “Beto, Biden, and the Electability Trap,” Bob Moser makes some of the same points I had in mind when I started writing this. Moser observes:

When parties tap the candidates who engage and enthuse them the most, both in terms of style and substance, they elect presidents. When they pay heed to the nattering nabobs of electability, and go with perceptions of “who’s most likely to win,” they lose.

The March 15th Washington Post included an opinion piece by Kathleen Parker in which she dismissed Beto O’Rourke’s 2020 campaign as a “youthful folly.” Pete Buttigieg, who was not mentioned in the column, is even younger than Beto O’Rourke. Buttigieg is 37; O’Rourke is 46.

I commented online about Parker’s column that I didn’t want another celebrity president and continued: “Youth is fine, preferred even, but I want somebody who presents as steady and substantive, as well as positive. Buttigieg is the rising star at the moment.”

A stranger answered “The South would never vote for an openly gay man. Is it fair? No. And it sucks. But it’s the truth.”

Again, I’m no political scientist, but isn’t what we call electability really just a set of assumptions about what other people are going to do?

Have we always been this passive? This uninvolved?

We live in a time when the Internet and social media* allow people to perceive themselves as influential. Some people are even paid as “influencers.” But are we really making a difference that way? Clicking “Like” is about the most low-energy form of voting ever devised — it requires nearly no effort at all. The people who get something out of it are a) the person who just got a little dopamine hit of social validation and b) the media company collecting the data, typically Facebook or Twitter.

I have friends, which is to say actual people I know and like, whom I cannot stand to be around online. Why? Because they’re usually ranting about the behavior of others, as I am doing right now. Such posts, tweets, etc., seldom get much of a response. In fact, I know people who have a thousand or more Twitter followers who might get only a few “Likes” in response to a post about what others are doing/should do/should stop doing.

Are we really influencing others this way?

Yes, electability matters. Having a great potential president doesn’t do anybody much good if they can’t get elected. Neither does it do anybody any good to elect somebody who was a great candidate but a crappy president. We need both.

I haven’t settled on a candidate yet and I’m not inclined to take a lot of shots at the Democrats who are running or might run.**

I live in Iowa, and I’ll be supporting somebody in the not too distant future. The candidate I get behind will be the one I want to win, the one I think would make the best president. I won’t be excluding somebody because I think people won’t support a black man, or an intellectual woman or a young, gay mayor. Stay tuned.

*Twitter is the only social media platform I currently use, and I’ve only recently established a presence there. I’m still figuring out how best to use it. Look for me here: @mstuartwright.

**See Why Bernie should not be the nominee and Joe should not run if you want my take on that.

Democrats don’t hate Jews, the president is a demagogue

On Friday, before boarding Marine One to begin a trip to Florida, the president fired a verbal shot at Democrats:

The Democrats have very much proven to be anti-Israel. There’s no question about that. And it’s a disgrace. I mean, I don’t know what’s happened to them, but they are totally anti-Israel and frankly I think they’re anti-Jewish.

— Donald Trump, March 22, 2019

That’s right, the President of the United States said he thinks Democrats are anti-Semites.

This is demagoguery with a very dangerous edge.

For reference, defines demagogue as a person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people.”

Trump’s remarks on the South Lawn follow this general form:

  • The [other] is anti-[something].
  • “It’s terrible! How could this happen?
  • They are anti-[your group].

Let’s dig a little deeper.

“The Democrats have very much proven to be anti-Israel.” They have? Which Democrats? How so? Trump makes a sweeping generalization, asserting that an entire political party is opposed to the nation of Israel, without offering any evidence to support it.

“There’s no question about that.” Actually, there are several questions about that (see above). The president is seeking to remove any room for doubt when what he’s already asserted is highly questionable.

“And it’s a disgrace. I mean, I don’t know what’s happened to them…” This is a plea to the emotions, arguing that it is shameful to hold any opposing opinion or question the assertions already made (and the affections and loyalties implied). How could anyone not stand by Israel? Well, what if Israel is not acting honorably?

“[B]ut they are totally anti-Israel and frankly I think they’re anti-Jewish.” This is the payload of Trump’s weaponized speech. Trump repeats his unproven, specious argument and equates it to antisemitism.

Bottom line, according to Donald Trump: Democrats hate Jews.

Confirmation bias suggests that people are naturally inclined to agree with something that supports their existing beliefs. The argument that Democrats are somehow not supportive of Israel is already believed by many conservative-leaning people — mainly Republican Christian and Jewish conservatives. Telling them that Democrats are anti-Israel/anti-Jewish may be readily accepted. A really successful bit of demagoguery would get even Democratic Jews to reconsider their party affiliation.

Confirmation bias also suggests that people are more likely to remember and believe the first thing they’re told. Countering a demagogue’s emotional rhetoric may come up short. An outrageous claim, told first, may be more likely to be believed than a well reasoned counter argument offered later.

Another truly dangerous aspect of Donald Trump’s brand of demagoguery is his tendency to disparage individuals or entire groups. Less than three weeks ago at CPAC, Trump asserted that there are members of Congress who hate America (see Flags, Bibles and Dog Whistles for more on that one). In the same speech, Trump railed against people seeking asylum in the United States, asserting that the United States is being invaded and suggesting that Democrats will do nothing about it:

“They give us some very bad people. People with big, long crime records. People with tremendous violence in their past. Murderers, killers, drug dealers, human traffickers… And the Democrats, they’re going to do whatever they do if they get into power, and it won’t have a damn thing to do with whether or not we approve our national emergency. Because let me tell you — they don’t like it when I say it — but we are being invaded. We’re being invaded by drugs, by people, by criminals. And we have to stop it.”

Trump’s favorite targets, in no particular order, tend to be Democrats, journalists, Republican rivals, foreigners and Muslims. Trump tends to dislike and diminish people who are not very much like him, or don’t like him very much.

Most will recall Trump’s serial take-downs of his 2016 rivals for the Republican nomination, replete with insulting nicknames and crazy accusations (example: “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz’s father was with Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 prior to JFK’s assassination).

Crowds at Trump rallies still sometimes chant “lock her up!” when Trump mentions “Crooked Hillary” Clinton.

During the past week Mr. Trump carried on a media war against the late Senator John McCain, whose great sin was apparently a vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare).

Most of Trump’s targets for abuse, however, are very much alive. Some of Trump’s supporters and people with similar views have planned and acted against individuals or groups whom Trump has derided.

  • Last October a fanatic Trump supporter mailed pipe bombs to a number of Trump’s supposed enemies. The Democrats targeted included two former presidents, a former VP, former presidential nominee, and five members of Congress. The bomber pled guilty in federal court on Thursday.
  • In February an active duty Coast Guard lieutenant — a self-described white nationalist — was arrested for amassing a cache of weapons and drugs while plotting a domestic attack targeting politicians and journalists. The plot was uncovered because the would-be domestic terrorist used a government computer in some of his research and planning. According to a court filing, he “compiled a list of prominent Democratic Congressional leaders, activists, political organizations, and MSNBC and CNN media personalities” in the context of targeting “traitors”.
  • Last weekend an Australian holding strongly anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic, white nationalist views attacked two New Zealand mosques, killing 50. The shooter reportedly acknowledged Trump in his manifesto (now officially banned in New Zealand): “As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure. As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no.”

Talking to Breitbart this month, Trump dismissed congressional investigations as “playing cuter and tougher” but asserting that the right actually is tougher and suggested that things could get “very bad”:

You know, the left plays a tougher game, it’s very funny. I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. Okay? I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad. But the left plays it cuter and tougher. Like with all the nonsense that they do in Congress … with all this invest[igations]—that’s all they want to do is –you know, they do things that are nasty. Republicans never played this.

The president is spewing hateful, dangerous rhetoric and making thinly veiled threats which need to be unequivocally condemned, starting here and now. Not cool, sir.

Why Bernie should not be the nominee and Joe should not run

Trump 2012
Remember when the idea of Donald Trump running for president was hilarious?

First, a tip of this Democrat’s hat to a few of the Dems who’ve stated that they are not running for the party’s nomination for president in 2020:

  • Hillary Clinton – This former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and FLOTUS, said last Monday “I’m not running.” The statement was followed by a big but, and there are seemingly people who will never get over their fear/hope that Hillary will run again, but I am taking her at her word. And I suggest that we all hold her to it. Call it tough love. I supported Hillary in 2016 but will not do so again.
  • Michael Bloomberg – This billionaire* businessman and former New York City Mayor, wrote “I’m not running for president” in an opinion piece published on the Bloomberg web site last Tuesday. Another big but followed, because nobody with an ego big enough to run for president can resist telling us how they still plan to be important. Use your wealth and power for good, Michael.

Last night the Des Moines Register published a poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers, which showed Joe Biden in first place with Bernie Sanders close behind. Here’s why neither of the two should be the nominee, starting with Bernie.

Not feeling the Bern

I kind of like Bernie — as an independent Senator from the not-at-all-representative-of-the-US-as-a-whole state of Vermont. I just don’t like Bernie as a potential president. For starters, he’s too old. There, I said it. Sanders will be 79 years old before Election Day 2020. We’ve seen what the presidency does to those who experience it, which is to say that it ages them tremendously. Bernie doesn’t seem infirm today, but it’s a long road ahead.

Bernie did well in caucuses last time around, but did poorly in primaries. He had trouble with women and African Americans. His record in the Senate is not impressive.

Bernie calls himself a democratic socialist. I — and a lot of people I know — object to Bernie calling himself a capital-D Democrat when it suits him to do so. Undoubtedly he’d like to run for president as a major party nominee. Republicans would laugh him out of the building, much as they did to Ron and Rand Paul when they sought the GOP nomination. There’s still a lot of bad blood left over from Bernie’s 2016 run. Talk to any Democrat – or Republican, for that matter — about rigging of the Democratic primary and you’ll get an earful.

Remember when conservatives used to call Obama a socialist? He wasn’t, but they called him that anyway. Why did they do that? Because it worked. What do you suppose they’ll do with a Democratic nominee who calls him or herself a socialist and talks about political revolution?

Donald Trump likes to play nice with Bernie, which makes me think that he’s just itching for a chance to go after him one on one. It would not be pretty.

Bottom line for me on Bernie: he’s not so much a Democrat, and I’m not so much a socialist.

Just say no, Joe

Joe Biden, who is not even a candidate, is the leading choice of Iowans in March 2019. He leads as both first and second choice, and he’s viewed as “about right” (neither too liberal nor too conservative) by 70% of those polled.

All this is great news for Joe Biden, right? Yes. And the minute he were to declare as a candidate, those numbers start going down.

Joe is a little younger than Bernie — less than 15 months — and would be 78 years old before Inauguration Day 2021.

I kind of like Joe, too. I liked him a lot as Vice President of the United States. He helped move Obama forward on some issues, such as marriage equality, so there’s that.

There is no disputing that Joe knows how the government works, particularly the Senate. And that’s part of the rub with Joe Biden. He’s done some things in the U.S. Senate that make a lot of Democrats cringe. The treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings springs to mind.

Joe Biden declined to run in 2016, not because he didn’t consider himself qualified, he said, but because he wasn’t ready to give it his all. How might it have worked out? We’ll never know.

Bottom line for me: Biden has not proven to be a strong presidential candidate in the past when he was much younger and certainly wanted the job. He passed on a chance to run four years ago. Whatever the polls might say, a lot of Dems I know think Joe’s time has passed, and I think they’re right.

Joe and Bernie, along with Hillary, Michael and others, have much to contribute to a Democratic administration. I just don’t think any of them should be on the ticket.

Other Options

Who should be running? I’d like to see Senator Michael Bennet get into the race. He would surprise a lot of people, I think. He’s 54 years old and has experience in business and education prior to serving the past ten years in the U.S. Senate.

And among the Democrats who are running, I lean toward Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, both of whom are young and positive. I’m one of those people who likes to be inspired. I also want someone who’s unlikely to push the nuclear button while I’m asleep or die of old age before morning.

I’ll be 60 this year, God willing, and I’d like the next president to have a vested interest in keeping the planet going well after I’m gone. The past several years have left a lot of people angry and hopeless, not feeling “great again.”

It’s time to select candidates looking and moving forward with hope and confidence. Those are the candidates that will turn my head in 2020.

*How rich is Michael Bloomberg? He’s #9 on the Forbes list. As of this writing, Bloomberg is worth an estimated $54.7 billion. Donald Trump, who once said “Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich,” is also, we think, a billionaire. Probably. Forbes puts Trump’s net worth around $3.1 billion.


Flags, Bibles and Dog Whistles

Donald Trump at CPAC 2019

I don’t follow Donald Trump closely and have devoted little ink to him in the past year. Honestly, I try not to think about him more than I have to. Alas, the President of the United States is difficult to ignore, no matter how much some of us might like to do that, and some of the stuff he says rises (or sinks) to a level which demands a response.

Last weekend Mr. Trump went on a verbal bender at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC 2019. The speech was reported to be the longest of Trump’s presidency so far, stretching over two hours.

Trump’s address was bracketed by the obligatory “God Bless the U.S.A.” on the front end and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at the conclusion. Boy, you can say that again.

The entire spectacle, including Trump’s introduction by American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp (in all its self-aggrandizing glory), is available online at c-span’s website here. Personally, I can’t imagine wanting to watch this stuff for any reason other than research, as I find it all profoundly troubling.

There is plenty of coverage on Trump’s CPAC diatribe, so you don’t have to subject yourself to the brain damage of watching the whole thing. Since Trump appeared to be speaking mostly or entirely off the top of his synthetically carpeted head, there’s precious little context to be found anyway.

In his March 4 Washington Post column, Eugene Robinson surmised “If you had an uncle or a grandpa who sounded so divorced from reality, you’d be urgently concerned.” Indeed. Uncle Donald, however, has surrounded himself with people who typically enable and excuse his excesses, rather than attempting to moderate them.

Who were those people within the administration supposedly trying to preserve our democratic institutions and thwart Trump’s “more misguided impulses until he is out of office”? Remember that? It was only six months ago. Have all of those people been purged? Did they ever really exist at all? I digress.

There were two specific aspects of Trump’s CPAC rant that I want to counter.

The first of these is the carefully curated and ever repeated image of Trump as the uber patriot. When Donald J. Trump took the stage at CPAC, with Lee Greenwood’s anthem blaring, he strode to the nearest American flag, clutched it to his bosom, and rocked back and forth.

Trump himself was dressed in his favorite uniform: blue suit, white shirt, and red tie. He wore the omnipresent American flag pin on his left lapel.

Thus the President of the United States, dressed like a flag, wearing a flag, embraced a flag.

It’s been said “when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” Something like that statement has been misattributed to Sinclair Lewis, Huey Long or even Thomas Jefferson. There is no credible evidence that any of those people — or anyone else we know of — actually said it. Seriously, look it up. It’s become a modern American myth.

Nonetheless, it is certainly true that people of questionable motives, reasoning or character have posed with patriotic and religious symbols to try to persuade others to their point of view. Over a hundred years ago, a labor activist named Eugene V. Debs asserted “Every robber or oppressor in history has wrapped himself in a cloak of patriotism or religion, or both.”

Well, last week at CPAC, Donald Trump virtually WAS the flag. This week, while touring tornado devastation in Alabama, he autographed bibles.

Book of books signing
Donald Trump autographing bibles in Alabama

No kidding, you can’t make this stuff up.

Why is this a problem? Because it’s all style and no substance. The flag itself is but a symbol and the bible a collection of religious writings. People may revere the flag, and it is even defined and protected under federal law. People may revere the bible, believing it to be anything from fiction all the way up to the inerrant word of God.

But Donald Trump is not, in fact, the flag. He’s not the country. Donald Trump occupies an elected office. He heads one of the three branches of the American federal government. Trump is not a king, much less a god.

The second item of particular concern to me is something Trump said in his CPAC rant:

We have people in Congress — right now — we have people in Congress that hate our country. And you know that. And we can name every one of them if they want. They hate our country.

It’s us and them. “We” love our country (as exemplified by dressing up as flags, wearing flags, hugging flags) and “they” — whoever they are — hate it.

This is, perhaps, nothing new. In 2003, Al Franken wrote about this specious argument in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them:

If you listen to a lot of conservatives, they’ll tell you that the difference between them and us is that conservatives love America and liberals hate America. … They don’t get it. We love America just as much as they do. But in a different way. You see, they love America like a 4-year-old loves his mommy. Liberals love America like grown-ups.

In an online discussion thread, I wrote that Trump’s they-hate-our-country claim made me think that we had surely hit rock bottom. Within seconds some stranger proved me wrong by replying that there actually are people in Congress who hate America, and they’re all Republicans.

OK, now, perhaps we really have hit rock bottom. Both ends of the political spectrum are claiming that the other side hates the country. We damn and demonize one another. We wreck the chances of working together and enhance the chances that we’ll actually take up arms against one another.

Some fanatics have already done that. The warning signs are there.

Is Donald Trump oblivious to the fact that some of his more fanatic supporters have already mailed bombs to supposed political enemies? Is he aware that an active duty military officer was recently arrested for stockpiling weapons and using government computers to research and plan domestic terrorism against perceived enemies?

Does Trump disbelieve? Or, God forbid, is this actually what he wants?

Are accusations that political opponents hate our country serving as dog whistles to the lunatic fringe on all sides?

The CPAC folks are right, you can’t always get what you want.

But we’d all better be careful what we invite.


These are not even my pants

My father-in-law is a big fan of A&E’s cop show “Live PD.” In one scene, a man is questioned about an open container (a bottle of Rolling Rock) and he is subsequently patted down. When the pat-down uncovers a small quantity of marijuana, the officer asks about it and the suspect starts to respond, then quickly shifts to denying that the pants he is wearing are his own. “These are not even my pants; these are my friend’s pants.”

It’s a good illustration of a bad lie quickly falling apart. The weed was wrapped in an auto parts store receipt from earlier the same afternoon. Initially the suspect denied having gone to the store. Then he acknowledged putting the pants on that morning. When confronted with the time printed on the receipt, the suspect admits that yes, he did go to the store, but still continued to claim that he did not know how the weed got in the pant pocket. Yeah, right.

This week the governor of Virginia was exposed as having a photograph on his 1984 medical school yearbook page depicting a couple men holding cans of Budweiser: one man is in blackface and the other is wearing a KKK costume.

Governor Ralph Northam apologized on Friday for his decision to appear in the photograph. On Saturday he did a 180 and denied being either of the men in the photograph. We can imagine him saying “That’s not even my hood. That’s my friend’s hood.”

If he thought it would help him, Northam would probably say that he is BOTH people in the photograph, along with some self-serving nonsense about how the photo proved that he was “woke” thirty years before the word took on its present-day meaning.

People are going to see that 1984 photograph through the lens of their own life experience and come to all sorts of different conclusions. However, I think that most will agree that dressing up in blackface and Klan gear, posing for a picture in costume, and posting that picture on a yearbook page were all stupid, offensive things to do — even in 1984.

As my wife pointed out (and I had completely overlooked), since both men are disguised — one in blackface and one in a hood — we may never know for sure who those people are. Is it too much of a stretch to consider that one of the governor’s advisors came to the same conclusion after Northam had admitted being one of the men? A voice in Northam’s ear, or one in his own head, told him to deny that he was in the picture.

So, what might have been a teachable moment about the stupid, offensive things we sometimes do and say, and how attitudes can change, is now a conversation about how someone’s story changes when the heat is on.

Today a Washington Post editorial called for Northam’s resignation.

I agree.

A call for Northam’s resignation is not about “political correctness,” as many people will assert. It is not mere political correctness to demand that white people stop blackening our faces for laughs. It is also not seeking some kind of “ideological purity” to expect our elected representatives to represent ALL of us. Democrats should have a reasonable expectation that our candidates share core Democratic values. We should also require them to meet high standards of conduct.

People do and say all sorts of stupid, offensive stuff. That’s ALL people — me, you, everybody. There is no one who can run for office plausibly claiming otherwise. What’s more, in 2019 there are any number of ways to find out what people have done and said.

How is it, then, that we keep electing people who pretend that some of their life history simply never happened? We don’t have to look beyond the White House for a prime examples. Sure, you thought I meant the current occupant of the White House, and I did, but I was also thinking of another president who declared “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” and yet another who said “…people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.”

Right, and these aren’t even my pants.

There is a weird sort of denial of reality that happens when people are caught in the act.

A lot of people who run for office seem to think that some of the stuff they’ve done and said is just never going to come out. When what you’ve done is publish an offensive photo in a yearbook, did you really think that nobody would notice? Did you not consider that somebody out there doesn’t especially like you or what you stand for?

Avoiding detection is a bad plan when you run for public office and have a history of racist photos, domestic abuse arrests, recorded comments about grabbing pussies, etc. We live in a digital age and our lives are ever more thoroughly documented. Whether that’s a good thing is debatable, but there is no denying that it is happening.

Yet some of our candidates pretend that some part of their documented past is invisible or just doesn’t matter and we keep electing them.

A lot of people are saying that Democrats are shooting ourselves in the foot by pushing some of our own, such as Al Franken, out the door. Well, in the short term, maybe. In the long term I have to believe that purging bad actors is the right thing to do. We need to get them out.

Republicans, are you listening?

Northam must go. The Democrats around him, especially Virginians, should be urging him publicly to resign — not just because he did something stupid and offensive in 1984 and hoped it would go away, but because he tried to wiggle out of it when it became public.

Northam’s credibility is shot and it’s tough to govern if nobody trusts you.