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

March 29, 2017

The Papier-Mache President

By David K. Shipler

            Now we know, if we had any doubts, what lies behind Donald Trump’s expansive promises and self-promotion as a tough dealmaker: nothing. The health-care debacle makes it clear that when it comes to driving a hard bargain, Trump is a chump, to use a word that has become fashionable in the mainstream press. He can’t even twist arms in his own party.
His assault on measures to stem climate change, and his withdrawal from the trans-Pacific trade agreement, benefit only China, which is moving to fill the vacuum left by the American departure. Thomas L. Friedman calls this policy, Make China Great Again. And Trump’s shameless use of coal miners as props this week for his empty promises to bring back jobs in a declining industry made him look either cynical or ignorant.
The miners were evidently advised to wear casual short-sleeved shirts, not the customary suits and ties, to the ceremony where Trump signed an executive order to begin a long, legally contentious process of replacing the Obama administration’s restrictions on coal-burning power plants. The class-conscious picture—men in suits vs. men carefully dressed down—said as much about the Trump White House as last week’s photo of all white men discussing their bill stripping women’s health services from insurance requirements.
 These images are icons of contempt. Moreover, they add up to a president who is just a life-size cardboard cutout that you can stand next to and have your picture taken. Behind the façade, there is no there there.
“You know what this is?” Trump said to the miners as he held up his executive order. “You know what this says? You’re going back to work.”
But market forces say otherwise. Abandoning the regulations requiring the closing of old coal plants and prohibiting the construction of new ones might slow the descent of the coal market in the near term. But mechanization and competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy—the wind and solar power increasingly mandated by states, embraced by new industry, and favored by the public—mitigate against a resurgence of demand for coal. Doesn’t this vaunted businessman know anything about economic markets?
In a Los Angeles Times political cartoon, a miner at the front of a line of coworkers in hardhats asks Scott Pruitt, the global-warming denier who heads the Environmental Protection Administration, how “gutting the EPA and going backwards on climate change [will] bring back our coal jobs.”
“Oh, gosh, fellas,” Pruitt replies, with a couple of cigar-chomping fat cats behind him, “your jobs are never coming back, but the president thanks you for your gullibility.”
Hillary Clinton was savaged for her comment a year ago about the dim future of coal. The most circulated quote was: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” But the line was taken out of the context of a compassionate and honest discussion of a shifting economy in which blue-collar workers would need help to adjust.
“We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people,” she said. “Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.” It won’t be a surprise to learn that Fox News didn’t report those words.
Trump, by contrast, has never engaged the facts of the coal miners’ predicament, which will require job retraining and other government assistance that Republicans are loath to provide sufficiently.
A similar disregard for his supporters was evident in Trump’s embrace of the Republicans’ failed health care bill. Here was a man who made replacing Obamacare a constant theme of his campaign and a post-election pledge: “We’re going to have insurance for everybody. There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us. [They] can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”
            Then, he enthusiastically endorsed a Republican bill that would have thrown 24 million Americans out of health insurance, allowed the insurance companies to eviscerate coverage—no mental health, maternity, or preventive care—and permitted much higher premiums for those between 60 and the Medicare age of 65. This was the “something terrific” he said would replace Obamacare.
            Unsourced reports leaking out of the meetings he had with Republicans say that he didn’t even understand the bill he was calling great. He didn’t study its provisions and didn’t bother to familiarize himself with the impact it would have on his own supporters, those whose lives he promised to improve. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he had said earlier: too complicated for him to take the trouble to grasp, evidently.
When will his voters begin to see the emptiness behind the cutout? An analysis by BloombergPolitics found that the bill’s tax cuts—the elimination of Obamacare’s 3.8 percent investment tax levied on individuals with incomes over $200,000 and married couples over $250,000—would have benefited counties that went for Hillary Clinton to the tune of $21.9 billion a year, compared with only $6.6 billion in counties won by Trump.
If Trump had been a stand-up guy, he would have told the Freedom Caucus to get lost, forced changes that would have pulled in Democrats, and rolled up his sleeves to do some of that hard bargaining he prides himself in. He would have learned enough to tell the rightwing extremists in his own party that cutting government out of health care, as they’d like to do, was inhumane and unrealistic, and that whatever fixes to existing law were made had to truly benefit the working class he has courted so zealously. Just imagine a populist president who was actually a populist, not an elitist, and who was willing to go against his own party in the interest of ordinary Americans.
Trump has leverage if he’s willing to work with Democrats, and they with him. So far, though, he acts as if he’s still the CEO of a family-owned company who can just order people about and fire them if they don’t jump to his commands. Fortunately for those of us who are mere citizens, government is not a business.   

March 23, 2017

Judge Gorsuch's "Magical Notion"

By David K. Shipler

            Late in the third day of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii summed up the judge’s picture of American jurisprudence with three words: “a magical notion.” She called his portrait of neutral, apolitical judges interpreting the law fairly and without personal bias a Norman Rockwell painting of the courts, as if he himself weren’t being promoted by the dark money of hidden billionaires, as emphasized by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse in a tough interrogation.
            Through incisive questioning by Democratic senators (Republicans lobbed only softballs), Gorsuch stuck resolutely to his line that there were no “Republican judges or Democrat judges.” In this phrasing he repeatedly allowed his mask to slip, since the use of the noun “Democrat” as an adjective instead of “Democratic” is embedded in the lexicon of the right, designed to deny that opposition party the mantle of representing masses of citizens. He also took several opportunities to mention that judges appointed by “Democrat” presidents had joined him in opinions. In other words, the courts transcend politics.
            It would be a grand gift to the republic if it were always so. It often is, especially on lower courts, such as the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals where Gorsuch has served for a decade, and which are bound by precedent. He and the two other judges on his panel relied on a particularly cruel precedent when they denied an autistic child payment for private residential educational services that the local school district could not provide. The earlier case in his circuit found that under the law, such schooling “must merely be ‘more than de minimus,’” Gorsuch wrote, adding the word “merely.”

March 17, 2017

The Gradual Death of Honest Curiosity

By David K. Shipler

            The United States these days seems overrun by the indignantly incurious. They already know everything. They take no pleasure in ambiguity. They bask in certitude, entertain no doubts, and miss the beauty of seeing their preconceptions contradicted by complexity. They populate the political left and the political right, the halls of government, the studios of propaganda outlets masquerading as “news,” and even college campuses. Most seriously, they refuse to listen to those who disagree and even try to silence them.
            Dogmatic absolutists have always found places in American society: Jim Crow segregationists, black-power separatists, white supremacists, true communists, red-baiting conservatives, and ideologues of all stripes who never let facts get in the way of a good screed.
But they have never gained as much national power as today. This feels like something different. Where is the ballast that has righted the country in the past? Has a tipping point been reached?
The problem is not just the “fake news” that permeates the internet. It is the people who believe it. The problem is not just the lying by Donald Trump and his minions--their fabrications about imaginary surveillance, voter fraud, terrorist attacks, and the like. It is the citizens who feed Trump’s frenzy by roaring approval without bothering to reach for truth by checking the facts, which they could do online from home by evaluating sources. It’s not such a daunting task.
Americans are split between those who do just that and those who don’t, between those who are open and those who are closed to the cross-currents of reality. This is a serious fault line running through the United States, this divide between curiosity and complacency, between those willing to accept challenges to their opinions and those who sift out whatever they don’t want to believe.

March 6, 2017

What Should Democrats Do?

By David K. Shipler

            The distraught Democratic Party is at odds with itself about how to counter the unconventional presidency of Donald Trump. On the revolutionary side are the Bernie Sanders supporters and others who want to trash the party’s own establishment, play Tea Party politics, and obstruct everything proposed by the White House and Congressional Republicans. On the pragmatic side are the political pros who want to get elected in states that went for Trump. Both sides recognize the need to win seats in local races and state legislatures, plus the all-important governorships ahead of the 2020 census that will determine redistricting.
            Among the key decisions that must be made is how—or even whether—to approach the white working-class citizenry that voted for Trump. Some argue that the nationwide demographic wave favors Democrats as minorities ride to majority status in the country at large. Identity politics will eventually work as the percentage of whites diminishes, so goes the reasoning, because Republicans have turned their backs on minority interests while Democrats have embraced them.
            But the assumption has flaws. First, minority voters come in many different political flavors and can’t be counted on to vote overwhelmingly for liberal Democratic ideas, even if they’re most helped by them. Socially conservative currents run through certain nonwhite subcultures: the anti-abortion views promoted by some black churches, for example, and an anti-regulatory position among small-business owners. It’s possible that an aversion to female leaders was partly responsible for Hillary Clinton’s poor showing in Florida’s largely Hispanic counties. Exit polls showed that Trump won 28 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, to Clinton’s 66 percent, compared with Obama’s 71 percent in 2012.

February 26, 2017

Speak Loudly and Carry a Small Stick

By David K. Shipler

            When will we stop listening to Donald Trump? Yes, he’s president with a lot of power to make people’s lives miserable, but his tweets? Please. His latest, at this writing, is an attack on an ad (“a bad one”) for the “failing @nytimes” scheduled to air during the Oscars ceremony. The Times ad declares: “The truth is hard. The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.” How fitting that Trump should make his debut in the art of reviewing TV commercials by panning one that extols the virtue of truth.
It might be imperative in a democracy to remain shocked, to sound the alarm again and again. But at what point does the public become numb to presidential absurdity? How literally do we take his historical allusion, for example, calling the “fake news” media the “enemy of the people.” Did Trump know that he was borrowing a line from Lenin and Stalin that was used as a condemnation deserving of death or imprisonment? The phrase is so heavily weighted that it was avoided in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953.
            The Times ad selling truth follows the exclusion of the paper’s reporters, plus those from CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and several other news organizations, from an informal briefing by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, whose contempt for the press seems to have begun in college when the student newspaper called him Sean Sphincter. Editors then insisted it was just a mistake, a typo. Yeah, sure. Spicer doesn’t seem to have healed.

February 16, 2017

Lies Beget Lying

By David K. Shipler

            If you lie to your children, they will learn to lie to you. If you lie to your spouse, you will create a family culture of falsehood in which he or she will, unless strongly honest, lie to you as well. If you lie to your employees, don’t expect them to pass uncomfortable truths up the chain of command. And if, as president, you lie to the country and perhaps to your staff, many of them will breathe the miasma of fabrication that emanates from the top, and will surely assume that lying is an acceptable way of life in the White House.
            So President Trump’s dismissal of Michael Flynn for lying is like a projection of Trump’s own personality flaw onto his subordinate. It is worth noting that this happened only when the Flynn offense became public, courtesy of the “dishonest” Washington Post, which Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he hadn’t seen—a lie in itself, given that he’d been told two weeks earlier by the Justice Department about the contents of wiretapped conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador.
Does anyone think that the then president-elect did not authorize those conversations, that Flynn just flew solo without consulting with Trump? Is it possible that Trump ordered, or at least approved, Flynn’s discussing the post-Ukraine sanctions with the ambassador, perhaps obliquely suggesting that they could be eased by the incoming administration? Then, in the poisonous atmosphere of the West Wing after the inauguration, might Trump have wanted the substance of those discussions held closely, even from Vice President Mike Pence, who is no Russia fan? So, was Flynn just following his boss’s wishes in telling Pence that sanctions had not been discussed?
And by the way, shouldn’t the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency know that the Russian ambassador’s phone calls are monitored by the National Security Agency? Did Flynn figure on Trump’s having his back if transcripts were ever leaked? Note that the day after asking for Flynn’s resignation, Trump called him “a wonderful man” who was treated unfairly by the “fake media” and outed by leakers who committed a crime.
You see, Mr. President, this is what compulsive lying at the top leads to. Everything down below begins to look like a lie as well.

February 10, 2017

The Propagandist and the Press

By David K. Shipler

            It might be time to recognize that President Trump’s tweets and ill-tempered outbursts about the press are not just scattered impulses but part of a foundation being carefully laid to stifle investigative reporting and robust expression by the country’s news organizations. And a large plurality of Americans will be with him, as he showed during the campaign, when roars of approval greeted his threatening vilification of reporters covering his rallies.
            Now, in office, he and his new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, are in a position to test the limits of the First Amendment by various means, including legal actions that might be too expensive for any but the major news outlets to withstand. These could include extreme measures to silence government whistleblowers, aggressive demands on reporters to identify their confidential sources, and even moves to prosecute editors for publishing classified information. A Trump administration might make another attempt at prior restraint, which was repelled in 1971 by the Supreme Court, 6-3, when the Nixon administration tried to block publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War.
            Some responsible news organizations are already bracing for the onslaught and have redoubled their efforts to dig beneath the visible news. They now include on their websites instructions on how to use various encrypted communications to “share news tips with us confidentially,” as The Washington Post explains. The Post, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, for example, include links to such mechanisms as WhatsApp, Signal, SecureDrop, Strongbox, and Pidgin, with details on how much information about sender and receiver is retained by the providers. Even where the texts of messages are encrypted, some providers keep metadata—users’ phone numbers, email addresses, and time stamps—which could be subpoenaed by government to show that an official has been in contact with a reporter.  
These invitations to get in touch are useful, but they’re passive. The press also needs to assign beat reporters to regulatory agencies that have never received much day-in, day-out coverage. Getting into the weeds where mid-level officials reside, and finding what the columnist James Reston used to call “the man with the unhappy look on his face,” is essential for documenting the subtler shifts in rules and enforcement that are likely under Trump and the team of dismantlers he has assembled.

February 3, 2017

Trump's Next Target: Muslims in America?

By David K. Shipler

            Under a proposal reportedly circulating in the Trump administration, the Muslim Brotherhood would be listed by the Departments of State and Treasury as a terrorist organization. It would be a legally questionable step, given that the Brotherhood is so diffuse that it probably wouldn’t qualify as an “organization.” But at least until a successful court challenge, the designation could subject many Muslims in the United States, including American citizens, to prosecution under the law that punishes those who provide “material support” to terrorist groups.
            That is because key White House officials evidently accept the assertion by anti-Islam conspiracy theorists that many mosques, Islamic centers, and Muslim rights associations in the United States are fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood and training grounds for jihadists. Despite the absence of evidence, several top aides, including Trump’s senior counselor Stephen K. Bannon and national security advisor Michael Flynn, have given credence to activists who see a grand scheme engineered by the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate government, subvert the West, and impose shariah law—all this by Muslims who account for a mere 1 percent of the country’s population.
 As chairman of Breitbart News before joining the Trump campaign, Bannon provided a large megaphone to the small fringe of anti-Muslim propagandists. He distributed their alarmist warnings without a hint of skepticism, and without raising questions about their sources, which invariably disintegrate under scrutiny. Flynn served on the board of advisers for ACT for America, a radical group that agitates against Islamic centers and organizations.
 Islamic centers throughout the United States house mosques, schools, and facilities for community gatherings. But their image of innocent good works masks a sinister purpose, according to John Guandolo, a former FBI agent and periodic guest on a show Bannon hosted, broadcast on SiriusXM Radio. In a December 2015 edition, for example, Bannon accepted without challenge Guandolo’s contention that over 75 percent of the Islamic centers are “owned by the North American Islamic Trust, which is the bank for the Muslim Brotherhood here.”

January 26, 2017

The Leading US Manufacturer—of Problems

David K. Shipler

             The truckload of problems that new presidents suddenly face when they enter the Oval Office must not be enough for Donald Trump, because he is manufacturing his own to add to the pile. These are problems that did not exist beforehand. Some are inventions of his fertile imagination, others are new and damaging twists to old issues whose scars had long healed.
            Here is a short list:
            Mexico. As a cardinal rule of national security, you do not pick fights with a peaceful friend who shares a 2,000-mile border. You do not risk stoking anti-American radicalism that could bring an antagonistic government to power and turn your neighbor hostile. You do not endanger your security by jeopardizing the anti-drug cooperation that has developed. You do not provoke Mexico's president to cancel a visit to Washington. And if you don’t want more Mexicans to cross illegally into the US, you don’t make it hard for them to get decent jobs at home. By bullying companies not to build factories there and by imposing steep tariffs on their goods, you damage their economy and create more incentive to come to the US.
            China. If you want to address the actual, serious tensions that exist with China—trade, military expansionism, and the like—you don’t reopen the one-China policy by engaging with Taiwan, an approach with no gain for the US. If you’re a post-election Trump and you can’t resist tramping around awkwardly inside the carefully groomed garden of foreign policy, at least try to think more than one stomp ahead. And if you commit a clownish faux pas by speaking with the president of Taiwan, let it pass and be seen in Beijing as a rookie mistake. Don’t follow it up with threats to use some recognition of Taiwan as a bludgeon against China in other areas. Since Nixon, China has grown accustomed to the US accepting the fiction that Taiwan is just a Chinese province. It’s silly to us but essential to Beijing, which could probably invade and seize Taiwan before Trump could tweet, “Sad.”

January 19, 2017

America Enters a Fourth World

By David K. Shipler

            Beginning at noon Friday, when Donald Trump becomes the most childish, reckless, and truthless president in modern American history, the United States takes the first step into a new category of nations: those once mighty and noble that are falling into frailty and disrepute. Unless our institutions and traditions turn out to be stronger than our people—which is entirely possible—we will become the charter member of what can be called the Fourth World.
            It is a place of undoing. It is a place where moral values of the common good are picked apart, strand by strand, until only the shreds of caring and justice remain. It is where progress is dismantled: progress—albeit fitful and incomplete—in mobilizing the society through government to protect the impoverished from utter ruin, the innocent from false imprisonment, minorities from tyranny, children from hunger, families from dangerous foods and medicines and polluted air and water, and the earth from the end-stage of catastrophic global warming.
            There is nothing divinely ordained about America’s greatness. Once Trump and the radicals who will populate most of his cabinet finish their efforts to destroy what has been painstakingly constructed over decades, it will take a generation to recover. That is the actual time when it will be appropriate to plead, “Make America Great Again!”
            The Fourth World will come after the Third World, a term coined in 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, a French demographer, to mean poor, undeveloped countries “ignored, exploited, scorned, like the Third Estate,” he wrote in L’Observateur. His reference to the Third Estate dated back to the gathering storm of the French Revolution, when Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes used it to refer to the common people, as opposed to the clergy (First Estate) and the nobility (Second Estate).