Tuesday, October 25, 2016

This Is What I Know

I know that this is scariest American election I have ever seen. When I am not distracted by something that needs my attention, I think about the election all the time. As nearly everyone has said, this is an extraordinarily nasty campaign that tarnishes everyone in America, except the tiny number who love and provoke the nastiness.

I know that some of these provocateurs live among Democrats, work in or for various Democratic campaigns, not just Hillary Clinton’s. But a video of two such men talking about fomenting chaos, which never happened, is the worst evidence anyone has found about Democrats’ role in making this such a nasty campaign.

I know that the nastiness has mostly come from the Republican side. I don’t blame all of it on Donald Trump. He is a nasty man in all respects, who can’t help acting like a jerk when he confronts the daily setbacks of modern life, much less the criticism directed at Presidential candidates. Trump’s uncontrolled instinct to denigrate and demean anyone who challenges him meant that this campaign was already in the gutter during primary season. With only one opponent left and the whole world watching, Trump has outdone himself in spreading the stink of fear and the contagion of insult.

But I know Trump was not alone. More professional, more knowledgeable, and equally unscrupulous men have latched onto Trump to achieve the biggest audiences of their lives. Trump’s choice to put his campaign and himself in the hands of Roger Stone and Stephen Bannon is a testament to his judgment and his preferences.

Roger Stone has been a campaign dirty trickster for decades. In the service of Trump, he has repeatedly appeared on a white nationalist radio show. His idea of campaign strategy is to claim that Khizr Khan is a terrorist from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Bannon is Trump’s campaign CEO. At Breitbart News, Bannon has tried to destroy our system with misinformation. He told Ronald Radosh of The Daily Beast, “I’m a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.” That’s a Republican campaign leader?

I know that Hillary Clinton is not the “most corrupt candidate ever to run for President”, a punch-line used by Trump, by conservative media, and by many other Republicans. She certainly is not close to the most ethical candidate. But Republicans have put in decades of work to smear her reputation, and have largely been successful. But they have not succeeded in actually proving their case. Benghazi is a perfect example: Republicans on the campaign trail continue to scream about “criminal behavior” in connection with Benghazi, but the exhaustive and expensive 800-page report by the Republicans of the House Benghazi Committee released in June could find no wrong-doing on her part.

I know that if Hillary Clinton is elected President, she will face a Republican Party determined to prevent her from governing. It’s not just Trump and his most excitable supporters who would make it difficult to govern. They are only the extreme tip of the much bigger Republican Party monolith that refused to work with President Obama and appears to be poised to do the same for another 4 years. John McCain recently said, “I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up.” I don’t know why: either they are not willing to absorb that they only represent a minority of Americans or they believe that as a minority all they can do is block everything.

I know that Trump isn’t as smart as he thinks. No matter how you interpret his business history, he has made some colossal financial blunders to go along with his outsized successes. But in politics at the highest level, success requires calm in constant crisis, broad knowledge, ability to adapt to unpredictability in front of the national media. Trump can’t do any of that. His speeches, whether at his rallies or on Twitter or in formal debates, do not show any more understanding of political complexities than what he said 10 years ago. He couldn’t stay on one topic for more than a few moments in the debates, because he quickly exhausted everything he knew.

I know that one loudmouth who disdains every aspect of military reality, yet believes himself a military genius, would not know how to lead a real opposition movement. Trump is the opposite of a charismatic leader, an egotist who pushes people near him away in the most brutal manner.

I know that America will survive this campaign. We have all heard the dire predictions of chaos after November 8, but I don’t believe in them. Democracies have fallen when clever demagogues appeared, but not in any of the advanced, long-standing democracies of the world. In almost every case, deep economic problems lay behind the weakness of the democratic government. The US has experienced more troubled times in our past, notably during the 1930s, and today’s situation is nothing like that. Public life has been getting uncomfortable over many years, and this may not be worst it gets. But we will survive.

I don’t know whether we will be a better America after Election Day. The discussions of sexual assault, of the value of immigration, and of the strength of white racism that this campaign has opened up will be difficult. The most we can hope for is that the younger generations learn from our failures.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 25, 2016

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Republican Conspiracy Theories

Donald Trump is losing the Presidential campaign. Polls indicate he is heading for a landslide defeat. But Trump thinks he is the greatest winner of all times. So he has an explanation. The biggest worldwide conspiracy of all times is stealing the election from him.

Last week in Florida, he said, “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors .... The political establishment that is trying to stop us is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals, massive illegal immigration and economic and foreign policies that have bled our country dry.... The Clinton machine is at the center of this power structure .... This election will determine whether we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system.”

Several separate historical lines lie behind Trump’s theory. First is his own belief that he never can lose a vote. When his show “Celebrity Apprentice” did not win Emmy awards in 2012, 2013, and 2014, he claimed the votes were rigged: “I should have many Emmys for the Apprentice if the process were fair”. When Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucus, Trump said: “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he illegally stole it.” Before the presidential debates, he said the Democrats were “trying to rig the debates” by scheduling them opposite NFL games. Now he claims the biggest election of all will be rigged to deny him victory.

Second, this fits into the broader Trump line of conspiratorial thinking. His claim that Obama was not born in America implied a wide conspiracy to keep his real origins secret. He has said that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered, that Ted Cruz’s father was involved with Kennedy’s assassination, that the 9/11 attackers’ wives and girlfriends were “were put into planes and they were sent back, for the most part, to Saudi Arabia”, that the federal government sends Syrian refugees to Republican states, that the federal government funds illegal immigration, that the number of illegal immigrants is three times as large as is usually reported, that the Center for Disease Control covered up an Ebola crisis in the US in 2014, that the 5% unemployment rate announced in August was “one of the biggest hoaxes in modern American politics”, and on and on.

But several threads in the fabric of American conspiracy-mongering come from other Republicans. Sarah Palin popularized the idea, now a central piece of Trump’s campaign, that the media are not to be trusted. She complained about the media constantly during the 2008 campaign, and popularized the term “lamestream media” in 2009. Republicans have been complaining that the media are biased against them for decades, despite the fact that major newspapers overwhelmingly tilted toward Republican candidates until the 1990s. Trump has simply raised the level of vituperation, so that reporters are now verbally attacked by his supporters at his rallies.

A second Republican conspiracy thread developed around climate change. Many prominent Republicans, notably Senator Jim Inhofe, have said that global warming is a “hoax”. He has variously implicated the United Nations, Hollywood elites and the media in promoting this hoax. Since scientists all over the world and nearly every political party in every country support the idea that human action is causing climate change, believing that this is a hoax means believing in an enormous worldwide conspiracy encompassing politicians, scientists, media, and universities.

Finally, Republicans at the state level have used imaginary concerns about voter fraud to legitimize their efforts to restrict voting. Although only a handful of instances of voter fraud have been found anywhere in the US, Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed voting restrictions, claiming they are needed to prevent fraud. Restrictions in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, Texas, Ohio and Michigan were all struck down this year by the courts.

Republican voters have been well prepared by their political leaders to believe wild theories which make them victims of vast conspiracies. A significant majority of Republicans said they believed that Obama did not legitimately win the elections of 2008 and 2012. In 2012, half of Republicans were sure that the Democrats had engaged in voter fraud.

Trump has been saying the November election will be rigged for many months. But it’s not just Trump talking. His surrogates have taken up this claim. Rudy Giuliani said on Sunday, “If you want me to tell you that I think the elections of Philadelphia and Chicago are going to be fair, I would have to be a moron to say that.” Newt Gingrich also accused Democrats of cheating, and Senator Jeff Sessions said on Sunday, “They are attempting to rig this election.”

This talk is dangerous for America. When Trump loses, many of his supporters will believe they were cheated. They may follow the predictions of Trump advisors, like Roger Stone, who said in August that there will be a “bloodbath”, and that Trump should promise to shut down the government if Clinton wins. Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke tweeted that it’s “pitchforks and torches time”.

Then the Grand Old Party will be responsible for an American disaster.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 18, 2016

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Trump’s Sex Tape is No News

The big news on Friday was Donald Trump’s sex tape. But there was nothing new on it.

Trump said dirty words. He talked about gleefully pursuing adultery. He bragged to a TV journalist about an unending series of sexual conquests with beautiful women. He explained the method he was so proud of: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. I just start kissing them. I don’t even wait.”

The tape tells us nothing that we didn’t know before. From lawsuits, from interviews with women, from other recordings he made with other crude men. From his own books and public statements.

Why the fuss now? Despite his brazen display of precisely the character he said “wasn’t him”, it has taken a long time for Americans to realize what his character is. Of course, liberals like me were opposed to Trump from the start. Until he leaped on the birther story, I never knew much about him. Just as every slip-up from Hillary Clinton is noticed and magnified by conservatives, like turning a cold into a character flaw, I then noticed the displays of juvenile machismo, nasty attitudes, deliberately malicious attacks, and psychological sickness.

Those who agreed with the political ideas he advanced have been much less willing to see his long string of “unacceptable” behaviors as a window into his soul. In Republican debates over the past year, against all those other men in suits, several of whom descended to his level, he was able to win over millions of people who did not know much about him. Maybe those other guys weren’t so hot, either. Right up to his debate with Clinton, his supporters argued away every awful comment, every fraudulent Trump Foundation transaction, every bit of evidence of his abhorrent personality.

Republican office-holders kept trying to avoid commitment, either to Trump or to the values they have been proclaiming all these years. At every crucial moment, they would repeat their mantra: “That action is unacceptable.” And then they did nothing.

Recently, especially before the first debate with Clinton, stories about Trump have piled up. Newspapers and media who felt a responsibility to inform the public had launched investigations of his business life, his education, his legal troubles, and his past statements about everything. People who had personal or professional experiences with Trump have gradually been coming forward. His lies added up, so that many newspapers decided to be more open about calling a lie a lie.

Trump didn’t come apart in that first presidential debate two weeks ago, nor did he “lose control” over the next few days. In his performance on the biggest stage, he did what he has always done in his relationships with women, with the truth, and with people he doesn’t like. In the second debate this weekend, Trump was unable to do anything more than pretend he was just like any other guy in a locker room.

The sex talk tape is exactly Trump, just cruder, more explicit, more revealing than what we have seen and heard already.

The Republican Party and its leaders have known much more about Trump than we have. Some of the harshest criticisms and the most damaging revelations about Trump have come from conservatives who are not seeking votes for themselves, but a future for their Party. Trump likes to think of himself as Midas, who can turn everything into gold. Instead, he has tainted every Republican politician who allowed him to get near them. They were willing to let this man become President in order to save their political careers.

It will be interesting, but not fun, to watch Republican politicians dance around Trump and their own responses these next few weeks.

It’s too late to change the ticket. Mike Pence is not exactly a profile in courage, either. The best that could be said for him is that he was a kind man who became a blind dupe, who hitched his future to Trump when other Republicans were unwilling, who learned how to repeat Trump’s lies.

This campaign has shown the prejudices lurking deep in our society, ready to be exploited by a shameless demagogue. I’m sad that so many of my fellow Americans liked Trump’s rantings about Mexicans, about African Americans, about Muslims so much that they were willing to ignore his sleaziness. I hope some of them reconsider those ideas, now that they see their main promoter as a charlatan and a pig.

I’ll be even sadder if they vote for him, now that excuses for his character are no longer tenable.

There is no other Trump, no improved Trump, no more mature and less hateful Trump. He would like to be Mr. America, but he’s just a colossal jerk.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook, WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 11, 2016