Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

October 18, 2016

Trump vs. America

By David K. Shipler

            While Donald Trump reflects the worst characteristics of American society, as many have said and written, he has also emerged as the leading voice of contempt for the country he wants to lead. He doesn’t really seem to like America very much—at least the America that exists in reality: the pluralistic, multiracial, multiethnic, fair-minded America that is engaged with the broader world.
Especially as he sinks in the polls, he is flailing recklessly at the most crucial elements of pluralistic democracy. He has become the leading opponent of a free press and of an electoral process that has guaranteed smooth, peaceful transitions of power for nearly 250 years. Now that he appears to be losing, he has set out to undermine public confidence in the country’s prominent news organizations and in the election itself. And for months he has made pronouncements and promises as if he could, as president, simply dictate and overrun the separation of powers, the checks and balances that the Framers ingeniously created in the Constitution.
A pillar of American democracy is the capacity of the winners of tough campaigns to then govern. Trump could not govern, given the distrust and disgust he has sown at large in the population and among the Republican leadership in Congress. He is now trying to make it impossible for Hillary Clinton to govern as well.
He has urged her imprisonment, called on vigilantes to muster against “rigged” voting at polling places, whipped up a threatening climate against news reporters at his rallies, and peddled fantasies of global conspiracies between the news media and the Democrats. He has trafficked in an item of Russian propaganda, accepting a Kremlin news outlet’s misrepresentation of a hacked email from Clinton’s staff. He even borrowed a smear resembling those in the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in declaring, “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.”        
It has become easy to tell when Trump is lying: when his lips are moving. But he tells lies that millions love to hear. And many of those lies are about an America supposedly on the abyss, at risk of an ISIS takeover, in economic free-fall. Even his crude clone, Maine Governor Paul LePage, echoed him recently in picturing the country “slipping into anarchy” and in need of “a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power.” (LePage later backtracked and said he meant “authoritative.” He also must have meant “slipping into autumn,” judging by the orderly tranquility of the Maine where I’m currently located.)
Political campaigns ordinarily skip over certain problems, such as poverty, and exaggerate others, such as national security risks. Trump has taken this technique to new extremes. Not only has he ignored endemic racism, he has given it license. Its most dramatic manifestation, police shootings of unarmed black men, has mostly led him to champion the police instead of calling for reform.
His head is full of both real and imagined problems, for which he has no actual solutions.  He’s been right to illuminate the hardships of the eroding middle class, failing schools, and the violence and joblessness in inner city neighborhoods. But his bumper-sticker answers (end trade agreements, impose law and order) are simplistic or unworkable, and possibly damaging in and of themselves.
Nor could he actually solve the problems he has invented or embellished: a threat to jobs and security posed by criminal immigration, a collapsing military, a specter of pervasive terrorism. In part because these are imaginary, so must his solutions be. A wall that Mexico will pay for. A huge buildup of military strength while cutting taxes. Exclusion of all Muslims and restrictions on those already here, including American citizens. Does anyone doubt that, in response to more terrorism, he would round up Muslims and put them in camps, as the U.S. did to ethnic Japanese during World War II?
Trump sees a besieged and hollowed out America facing apocalypse. And he is the only savior, of course. In his element, at his rallies of adoring supporters, he basks in the cult of personality that he has created, with the unwilling assistance of the news media he now excoriates. A “cult of personality,” for which Stalin was finally condemned by official Soviet histories, is not an ingredient of an open, democratic system.

As Trump goes down, he seems to be trying to take everything down with him: the Republican Party’s establishment, the Democratic candidate, the free press, orderly voting, the legitimacy of the election, and on. He is now waging a campaign against America—not against the millions who lust for a swaggering, bullying figure who will punch every complex problem in the nose, not against the politically and economically alienated who have been wounded with deep anxiety—but against the American processes and principles that have given this country the essential capacity for self-correction.

October 11, 2016

Voting for the First Principle

 By David K. Shipler

            If you fear and detest Donald Trump, as well you should, but have strong aversions to Hillary Clinton, and if you value your vote as a statement of principle that neither major candidate satisfies, consider this: If you rank your principles in order of importance, the one at the top ought to be the protection of the American democracy, as flawed as it is, against the threats from within.
            The only way to vote for that First Principle is to defeat Trump, and the only certain, practical way to defeat Trump is to vote for Clinton. Not for Gary Johnson the Libertarian or Jill Stein the Green, no matter how attuned their policies are to yours. And not to stay home and abstain. Citizens who fail to vote undermine democracy, too.  
There is little need here to repeat the litany of threats that Trump presents, and which every American who has been paying attention already knows. To his autocratic impulse to ride roughshod over the constitutional system of checks and balances, to sweep away the rule of law, to foster racial and religious hatred, to invite violence against his opponent, to inspire vigilantism at the polls, can now be added his threat, if he wins, to jail his opponent, which he expressed in the second debate. This is the stuff of a banana republic, not the United States of America.
Republican leaders who were shocked, shocked, by his frat-boy, “locker-room” boasts about committing sexual assault against women were holding their fingers to the wind instead of to their brains—or their hearts.
But it is an ill wind that is strafing the country.

October 7, 2016

Dear Post Office: A Sequel

By David K. Shipler

            I bumped into L.J. Hopkins outside the post office yesterday, and he was beaming as I’ve never seen him. He’s always an affable guy, but the smile now glows. With the help of a variety of dedicated folks from many walks of life, from lobstermen to legislators to lawyers, he has won and brought victory to everyone in two small island communities off the coast of Maine.
This report of the happy ending to the story comes in response to far-flung readers who, despite having no personal connection to this tale, asked to learn the ultimate outcome after I described the problem last June. It is partly David and Goliath, partly a case study on how to move a gargantuan bureaucracy that doesn’t give a wit about the little guy.
            Six months ago, the US Postal Service decided that a convenient arrangement was no longer permissible. For nearly thirty years, L. J. had been carrying the mail for the adjacent islands of Swan’s Island and Frenchboro, along with UPS and FedEx packages, prescription medicines and engine parts that islanders needed, and groceries for the island’s only store. His mother had done the same thing for decades before him.
Every morning, L.J. drove his white van, loaded up with essentials, onto the state-run ferry on the mainland, got off on Swan’s, delivered his goods, and took an afternoon ferry home. The stuff destined for Frenchboro then got put into a seaworthy lobster boat owned by the Swan’s Island storekeeper, Brian Krafjack, who would make the run across open water to Frenchboro, weather be damned.
 This lifeline is no small matter. It helps to make the islands viable, keeps them inhabited at a time when the temptations of mainland life play on the imaginations of the younger generations. Swan’s Island has 332 year-round residents, Frenchboro, 61. L.J.’s service has helped islanders who struggle financially avoid some of the steep ferry fares they’d have to pay to spend most of a day going off for medicine or parts.

September 29, 2016

The Miscalculations of Shimon Peres

By David K. Shipler

            Shimon Peres has been lionized since his death this week, but the praise has obscured at least two of his grave errors, which damaged Israel’s options for peace with the Palestinians. One was his early support for Jewish settlements in territories captured from the Arabs in the 1967 war. The other was his unwillingness to call snap elections after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. These two miscalculations, which went unreported in The New York Times obituary, have had lasting effect, and not to the good.
Peres, the last of Israel’s founding fathers, had a long list of accomplishments to his name. He was instrumental in obtaining weapons for Israel before the United States became its chief benefactor, and in getting the materials necessary for the country to develop nuclear weapons. He served in multiple posts, including defense minister, foreign minister, prime minister, and finally president. He philosophized eloquently.
Most important, his aides secretly negotiated with the Palestine Liberation Organization a loose agreement known as the Oslo accords, which led to the PLO’s and Israel’s mutual recognition and opened a way to peaceful coexistence. Peres, Rabin, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded too hastily as it turned out. Ultimately, the Oslo process was violently derailed by extremists on both sides. Ironically, Peres’s mistakes were partly responsible.
Decades before, by facilitating Jewish settlement in occupied lands, he had inadvertently helped give a foothold to a movement that became a zealous force of religio-nationalism, one that today brooks no compromise with the Palestinians. The movement, whose adherents now occupy cabinet positions in the government, reveres the ancient biblical lands of Judaea and Samaria—known to the rest of the world as the West Bank of the Jordan River—captured from Jordan in 1967 and the logical place for a Palestinian state, were it ever to be created. Jews have a historical right to be there, the religio-nationalists argue. And they are there, with some among them committing daily vandalism and vigilantism against Palestinians.

September 26, 2016

Stop, Frisk, and Miss

By David K. Shipler

            On a warm night some summers ago, a wiry sergeant named G. G. Neill and his “power shift” of police officers pulled their four marked squad cars into a somber, impoverished block in Southeast Washington, D.C. Six cops got out, none of them undercover. They were in uniform because they wanted to see what young black men hanging out on a street corner would do when the law appeared. Neill believed that telltale reactions would often betray a person who was concealing a gun.
            The armed man’s buddies, hanging out, might all turn to look at him. He might walk quickly away. He might turn one side away from the cops, lean against a car, hold his girlfriend tightly on his weapon side, or repeatedly touch his waistband to be sure the gun is securely in place. His clothes might be too bulky for the weather, or an ill-fitting jacket would hang lopsided, as if weighed down by something heavy in a pocket.
            This time in this block, however, and in many others during the deep nights when I traveled parts of the nation’s capital with the unit, the young black men did nothing suspicious. That didn’t prevent them from being searched. Some were so used to the cops coming around that they pulled up their T-shirts, without being asked, to show they had nothing stuck in their belts. They were as casual as passengers removing their shoes at airport security. Others allowed themselves to be patted down with no overt objections except for the smoldering looks in their eyes. They raised their arms so the cops could run their hands up and down their bodies and between their legs, then squeeze their pockets.
            This is the sorry state of the Fourth Amendment in the nation’s heavily black neighborhoods. The Framers carefully crafted the protection of “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” But that right, which is not to be overcome unless probable cause exists that evidence of a crime will be found, has been shredded by the war on drugs, the war on street violence, and most recently the war on terrorism. Wars, whether actual or metaphorical, do not comport well with individual liberties.

September 18, 2016

The Mirror Factory

By David K. Shipler

Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and
 put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.
--Granger, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

            A presidential election campaign is a mirror factory with a deception. We think we are looking at the candidates, but we are looking at ourselves. Our foibles and dreams are reflected back at us. The mirrors are unforgiving. They hide no blemishes. All we have to do is concentrate and watch through clear eyes.
            Yes, politicians are to blame. They give us what they think we want to see. And it turns out that many of us want to see fantasies: impossible promises, exaggerated caricatures, and utter illusions. We want to see demons. We yearn for enemies, both foreign and domestic, to purify complexity into enticing mirages of simplicity. Too many of us, with the help of certain politicians, conjure up monsters to blame and hate.
            We are charitable and we are selfish, we are peaceful and violent, accepting and bigoted. Amid all our vast variety, a large proportion of us look in the mirrors for tough guys. We don’t want to see softness or empathy in ourselves. We want to seem caring without being weak. We want hard edges. We want to look in the mirrors and see in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is, you-know-where-you-can-put-it, make-my-day belligerence to confront the whirlwind of self-pity, moral guilt, and learned helplessness to which we imagine once-great America has succumbed.
That part of us doesn’t want to see any acquiescence reflected back. If the half or more of us who will vote for Trump see our reflections honestly in the mirrors, we will see ourselves as torturers who wish to kill the wives and children of supposed terrorists, as war criminals who want to plunder (“take the oil”), as pugnacious bullies spoiling for a war with Iran, as unreliable allies who want turn our backs on our friends, as advocates for the jailing or assassination of the Democratic candidate in what we hail as the world’s leading democracy.
When we look straight into our reflections, we do not see temperate, steady deliberation. We see boiling, zealous impatience. When a voter can declare that a candidate “says what I think,” a remark heard frequently from Trump supporters especially, it’s a sign that the mirrors have been polished.

September 12, 2016

Hillary Clinton's Other Basket

By David K. Shipler

You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic . . . But that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. . . . Those are people we have to understand and empathize with.
--Hillary Clinton

            Nobody who wants to be president of all Americans has the luxury of being “grossly generalistic,” as Hillary Clinton confessed she was about to be when she told a fundraiser last week that half of Donald Trump’s supporters were “deplorables,” some “irredeemable.” Putting groups of people in a basket, like rotten fruit, is distasteful no matter how rancid their racial and social attitudes. And nobody is irredeemable.
Not that she’s wrong about Trump’s fueling bigotry. But it’s “that other basket of people,” those “we have to understand,” in Clinton’s words, who present her and the Democratic Party with a lesson in true failure—and therefore an opportunity for repair.
 Very little has been done by the Democrats over the last eight years to connect with the white, blue-collar citizens whose lives and hopes have been tossed into anxiety. While the government programs the Democrats have championed did help and would have helped more had they not been curbed by Republicans, the sense of commitment and concern at the top rarely filtered down to the grassroots. It’s a constituency the party has mostly lost in recent decades.
 Barack Obama, an excellent president in many ways, did not turn his considerable charm on those Americans. He did not work hard enough to engage the disaffected and the marginalized who had been displaced from jobs that had seemed durable, and from homes that had seemed secure, by the Great Recession precipitated largely by the Republicans.
Granted, his Affordable Care Act, his stimulus bill, his consumer protection measures and banking restrictions have all assisted people in that “basket.” But most of them don’t give him or the Democrats credit. He has not been able to translate those hard concrete measures into the soft engagement with personal hardship that gives a holistic contour to a presidency. His brilliant speeches notwithstanding, his aloof demeanor and his understandable focus on policy solutions have left a gap. And that gap has been exploited by the rightwing, thinly veiled racial propaganda of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and other extremist media, which animated the nativist prejudices that regarded a black man as an undeserving, an alien, and a frightening specter in the White House. That diffuse bigotry—a backlash against having a black president—is part of what has propelled Trump to the verge of the presidency.

September 4, 2016

On National Anthems

By David K. Shipler

            One day in the summer of 1960, just 15 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, a tour bus of Americans, driving through the Netherlands, broke into song, led by a seminary student in the group. It was an old Methodist hymn, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, in a beautiful Haydn melody.
            Suddenly the driver, a Dutchman named Jerry, shouted at us to stop, please stop. He had to pull over, he was so upset. We fell silent, baffled, until he explained that we were singing the melody of the German national anthem, whose lyrics in Weimar and then Nazi times began, “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles/ Uber alles in der Welt,” (“Germany, Germany above all/ Above everything in the world”). Jerry had seen the German tanks and troops roll into Amsterdam. He had seen people hanged from lampposts. By singing that tune, even as a hymn, we were unwittingly sweeping him back into the war.
             For me, at 17, this was a moment of clarity about the innocence of my parochialism, the indelible memories of suffering, and the power of patriotic music. It was a sudden education in the vast symbolic force of national anthems. Like the pieces of colored cloth sewn together into national flags of fierce identity, the arrangements of notes and words can compute into something far greater than the sum of their parts.
So it is that we now see Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, reviled and applauded as he stays seated or takes a knee instead of standing for The Star Spangled Banner. He is protesting what all good citizens should: police shootings of unarmed black men and the country’s stubborn scourge of racism. If he had only made a speech, fine. But failing to respect the national anthem, well, that’s heresy!

August 21, 2016

What Trump is Teaching Children

By David K. Shipler

We’ve seen Donald Trump behave like a 12-year-old,
and now we’re seeing 12-year-olds behave like Donald Trump.
--Richard Cohen, president, Southern Poverty Law Center

            The new school year begins with an opportunity and a challenging risk for teachers: whether to use the presidential campaign as they usually do, as a teaching tool about American democracy, or to treat the brutish campaign of Donald Trump as they would some bloody mass rape and massacre, reported gruesomely on the news but typically avoided in the classroom.
            Teachers are divided, according to about 2,000 responses to an online survey last spring by the Southern Poverty Law Center. For 40 percent of the respondents, the emotional divide whipped up by Trump’s ugly rhetoric was making the election too hot to handle. A teacher in Pennsylvania bars Trump’s name from the classroom. “It feels like it makes it an unsafe place for my students of color.”
Other teachers, though, are eager to put the campaign on the agenda, because students have been so intensely engaged. The problem for each teacher is how, and whether, to maintain the customary neutrality.
            It’s usually a school policy and a mark of professionalism for teachers not to betray their political preferences while leading discussions, and especially not to endorse one candidate over another. But Trump’s bigotry, which has been emulated in student behavior and comments, has driven some minority students to plead for support from teachers, and some teachers say they have felt compelled to offer comfort by denouncing him.

August 16, 2016

Does Putin Want Trump? Really?

By David K. Shipler

            Of all the odd things that have happened on the way to the presidential election, the weirdest is the spectacle of Republicans, once the fist-pounding party of national security, shrugging off Donald Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin and for Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. Further, to turn normalcy completely upside down, the Democrats, once the party of internationalism, are pointing fingers at the specter of treacherous foreign influence subverting American democracy.
            With some exceptions, the right has been indifferent and the left has been apoplectic over Trump’s embrace of Moscow’s perspectives. He has spoken admiringly of Putin, and Putin has returned the favor. The Republican candidate has accepted Russia’s annexation of Crimea, deleted a call for lethal arms to Ukraine from the Republican Party’s platform, brushed off the suspicious murders of nonconforming Russian journalists, and questioned whether NATO members such as the Baltics should be defended in accordance with the treaty’s obligations.
            Presumably to help Trump, two of Russia’s intelligence services hacked the email files of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, with mildly embarrassing releases so far and, surely, more serious disclosures to come. Meanwhile, Trump receives favored coverage and commentary by the Kremlin’s Russia Today television broadcasts in the U.S.
            The question is whether Putin, who is reputed to be a canny manipulator, really thinks that Russia would be well served by having a crackpot in the White House. Maybe so, if he’s as short-sighted as his KGB training taught him to be.