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

November 17, 2020

Trump's Winning Strategy

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Donald Trump has been so successful in convincing tens of millions of Americans that he won the election that he plans to market the strategy to sports teams, lawyers, and gamblers, according to remaining sycophants in the White House.

                “He’s very upbeat about this,” a Senior Sycophant disclosed. “He’s already contacted Dan Snyder, who might buy a license to use the Trump Method as early as this season. Snyder considered testing it last Sunday by declaring that Washington beat Detroit—it was so close, decided in the final seconds, just like the stolen election! But Mr. Trump wouldn’t let him do it without a subscription to the service up front. The President is a very canny dealmaker, as you know. He’s created many problems that only he can solve, and he’s actually solved a few. He just wishes that Snyder hadn’t changed his team’s name from the Redskins. What was racist about that? The President’s orange skin makes him look handsome when he smiles—even a Biden voter said so. The Washington Football Team? What a dumb name. But President Trump has made the best of that, too, as he does of everything. He gets a kick out of screwing around with the team’s initials. He calls it the WTF team.”

                The Senior Sycophant descended into peals of laughter so severe that he had to excuse himself to get a glass of Kool-Aid.

                Time is of the essence for the WTF team, whose abysmal 2-7 record, with only seven games left, can be inverted only if it begins to declare victories immediately. “Then, on to win the playoffs and the Super Bowl!” gushed the Senior Sycophant.

With that model, Trump is sure that other teams will subscribe. The Baltimore Orioles come to mind. “Baltimore is not his favorite place,” said a middle-level official, “but he’s a man of principle, as you know, so is willing to put aside race and politics for money.”

 Lawyers ought to be prime customers, but so far Trump’s own attorneys haven’t signed up—except for Rudy Giuliani, according to internal emails intercepted by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, and leaked to The Shipler Report. “These lily-livered lawyers can’t see the writing on the cave,” Giuliani told Trump (as translated from English to Russian to English), “so they won’t use the Trump Method, even for free. I suggest that you bypass them and start declaring victories yourself.”

Gamblers constitute a large potential customer base, and Trump is considering a 3-day free trial, enough to get them addicted to winning. Promotional material is already being prepared with the logo, “I WON!” which is presumably the opening gambit once the dice are thrown or the roulette ball clicks into a number. Customers are promised a handbook and an encoded online strategy for demanding that the wheel and dice be tested, the deck of cards be thrown out and replaced, the cries of “Fraud!” be echoed by ringers planted strategically around the casino. Since Trump knows how to go bankrupt repeatedly, he is sure that casinos will just pay up.

So far, his fellow casino owner and mega-donor Sheldon Adelson has been kept in the dark about this plan. If Mr. Adelson reads The Shipler Report, President Trump might be hearing from him by the end of the day. 

This is satire. It’s all made up, a disclosure made necessary by the absurdity of current reality, which prevents lots of people from telling the difference between truth and fiction.

November 1, 2020

In American Politics, the Uses of Soviet Humor

 

By David K. Shipler 

                A man walked into a medical clinic and asked for an eye and ear doctor.

                “We don’t have an eye and ear doctor,” said the nurse. “We have an eye doctor. And we have an ear doctor.”

                “Not good enough,” the man insisted. “I need an eye and ear doctor.”

                “Why?”

                “Because I keep hearing one thing and seeing another.”

                So went one of the myriad jokes that kept Russians mentally afloat under communism in the Soviet Union, where they were bathed in the good-news propaganda of a government adept at concealing problems—except for problems that citizens could see with their own eyes.

                I confess to a limited imagination back then, in the late 1970s: I never conceived of Soviet jokes being applicable to the United States one day. But here we are, with a president who has lied or exaggerated some 22,000 times, according to a running tally by Washington Post fact-checkers. And thousands of his supporters at rallies cheer his fabulations.

                “Just remember,” Trump told an audience last summer, “what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”

What a relief. COVID-19 cases seemed to be spiking until Trump reassured a rally that the country was “turning a corner” in the pandemic and his son, Donald Jr. declared that deaths were down to “almost nothing” the day they hit 1,000. Trump’s White House recently listed “Ending the COVID-19 Pandemic” first among his accomplishments in science and technology.

At rallies last week, Trump covered his failure to get Mexico to pay for his border wall by claiming that it’s happening. In Sanford, Florida on Monday: “And by the way, Mexico is paying. They hate to say it: Mexico is paying for it.” In Johnstown, Pennsylvania on Tuesday: “And Mexico is paying for the wall, by the way. You know that. I've been saying it. They hate to hear that. But they're paying.” In Des Moines, Iowa the next day: “And as I said, Mexico is paying for the wall.” The eye and ear doctors must be doing a booming business.

I keep wishing a reporter would ask Trump whether, when he tells a lie, he realizes that he’s lying or thinks that he’s telling the truth. I wished Biden had asked him that in the last debate.

It doesn’t take much editing to put Trump into some of those old jokes. In one favorite of politically irreverent Russians, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev are on the train to communism when it grinds to a halt. When it does not move again, Stalin orders the crew taken out and shot. That done, the train still doesn’t go. So Khrushchev orders the crew rehabilitated posthumously. Still, the train doesn’t move. So Stalin and Khrushchev turn to Brezhnev. He pulls down the shades and says, “Now let’s pretend the train is moving.”

As Peter Baker writes in The New York Times, “Born amid made-up crowd size claims and ‘alternative facts,’ the Trump presidency has been a factory of falsehood from the start, churning out distortions, conspiracy theories and brazen lies at an assembly-line pace that has challenged fact-checkers and defied historical analogy.” The same was true in the Soviet Union, except that in the communist dictatorship, joke-telling needed a sanctuary, often around the kitchen table, secure among trusted family and friends.   

We have not come to that in the United States, mercifully, where the safety valves of humor are very public, and the release of laughter spews out daily from professional comedians and amateur Americans alike. Still, it’s distressing how smoothly Trump’s dissembling can be slid into Russians’ lampoons of their Soviet government’s pompous spins into unreality. Let’s end with this one:

At a medical conference, three doctors compared notes.

“I treated a patient for pneumonia, and he died of cancer,” confessed a physician from France.

“That’s funny,” admitted an American. “I treated a patient for cancer, and he died of pneumonia.”

The two looked expectantly at their Russian colleague, who straightened, puffed out his chest defensively, and declared: “Gentlemen, when we treat a patient for a disease, he dies of that disease!”

October 28, 2020

The Criminal Justice of Amy Coney Barrett, Part Two

 

By David K. Shipler 

                The newest Supreme Court Justice, Amy Coney Barrett, writes much better than most of her new colleagues, and she knows how to tell a story. In the area of criminal justice, including defendants’ and prisoners’ rights, she begins each opinion with a narrative vivid enough for a crime writer to treat as a synopsis for a novel. And her rulings, founded on clear legal argument, are hard to categorize along a liberal-conservative spectrum. She stands willing to decide against police, prosecutors, and trial judges when she sees the facts and the law demanding as much.

                That was her record during three years on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. But she was restricted by the precedents of earlier rulings by her circuit and the Supreme Court. In many cases, she wrote for unanimous three-judge panels that included two liberals who surely had significant influence over the shape of the opinion. The highest court’s culture with a conservative majority will be different. Its authority to reinterpret the law and the Constitution exceeds that of appeals courts. With such license, she could shift to the right in cases involving the Fourth Amendment, for example, where she has been fairly tough on law enforcement. On the other hand, as a supporter of the Second Amendment right to own firearms, she gives close scrutiny to police searches that turn up guns and to sentence enhancements for gun possession.

                Following are several of her most interesting opinions that were described more briefly in Part One:

                United States v. Watson—“The police received an anonymous 911 call from a 14-year-old who borrowed a stranger’s phone and reported seeing ‘boys’ ‘playing with guns’ by a ‘gray and greenish Charger’ in a nearby parking lot.” The caller said the “boys” were black. “A police officer then drove to the lot and blocked a car matching the caller’s description. The police found that a passenger in the car, David Watson, had a gun. He later conditionally pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm as a felon.”  Watson then moved to suppress the gun evidence as the fruit of an unconstitutional search.

                 Under the Supreme Court’s application of the Fourth Amendment dating from Terry v. Ohio in 1968, Barrett noted, “an officer cannot stop someone to investigate potential wrongdoing without reasonable suspicion that ‘criminal activity may be afoot.’” She also cited later cases spelling out factors justifying reasonable suspicion, including a particularized and objective basis for suspecting a certain individual of a specific crime. Reasonable suspicion is a lower bar than the “probable cause” required to get a search warrant from a judge. A warrantless search also requires urgency, in that a pedestrian or a driver could depart with evidence before a warrant could be issued.

In Watson’s case, the police claimed that blocking the car and doing the search were justified under those rules. Barrett quoted the first officer as describing the neighborhood as a heavy crime area and worrying that if there were “three or four guys displaying weapons, they might [be] about to shoot somebody.” A second officer said, “any time you have males with weapons, there’s always a sense of urgency ‘cause anything could happen.”

But Barrett found precedents derogating the reliability of anonymous tips in establishing reasonable suspicion. Furthermore, she declined to apply a Supreme Court precedent granting a 911 call considerable credibility because here, she observed, it came from a borrowed phone by a boy whose identity was unknown and could probably not be traced. Furthermore—the clincher—“his sighting of guns did not describe a likely emergency or crime—he reported gun possession, which is lawful.” Her panel suppressed the evidence and vacated the judgment.

October 21, 2020

The Criminal Justice of Amy Coney Barrett, Part One

 

By David K. Shipler 

             For all the close scrutiny of soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s writings on the hot-button issues of abortion rights, gun rights, and Obamacare, little attention has been paid to her rulings on the rights of criminal defendants and prisoners. She has issued opinions in thirty-four such cases and signed on to other rulings in her three years on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, a rather thin record, yet one demonstrating a willingness to rule both for and against police, prosecutors, and trial judges.

At times she conveys compassion for the convicted and a robust regard for the Fourth Amendment’s restrictions on the police power to search. She is occasionally willing to strip officers of their “qualified immunity” from lawsuits. But she can also adopt extremely narrow interpretations of legal language to uphold questionable convictions and heavy sentences.

           In the general area of criminal justice and related civil suits, she has issued only five dissents—four going against inmates and defendants and one arguing that a non-violent felon should be allowed to own firearms, which current federal law prohibits. In another dissent, in Sims v. Hyatte, she opposed the exoneration of a man whose attempted murder conviction relied entirely on his identification by the victim, who turned out to have been hypnotized before his trial testimony—a fact not disclosed to the defense. Two of the three judges overturned the conviction, and the man was released after twenty-six years in jail.

Otherwise, she has written for unanimous three-judge panels, putting her in the mainstream of her court. It is fair to say that most of her opinions in criminal cases have been slam dunks, not even close calls given the facts and the precedents. Some appeals that reached her court seemed like stretches by defense attorneys; others exposed such egregious behavior by authorities that a contrary ruling would have shocked the conscience. (More detailed descriptions of key cases will appear next week in the second part.)

October 18, 2020

Trump Reveals America

                                                         By David K. Shipler 

Michelle Obama has observed that being president does not change who you are. It reveals who you are. The same could be said of the nation: that its president does not change who we are but reveals who we are. And what Donald Trump has revealed about America has taught us sobering lessons about ourselves.

                The United States is a highly segregated society, not only by race and class but also by politics. So little respectful conversation occurs across political lines, so few circles of friendship contain citizens of differing views, that many Americans have remarked in these last four years on how little they understood their own country.

                What has been uncovered is shocking and worrisome, but it can also be constructive if the revelations inspire a curriculum for self-improvement. The test of any society, its capacity for self-correction, has been passed by the United States repeatedly, if erratically, over two and a half centuries. Win or lose next month, Trump will have presented the country with its next challenges. Here are some of the major lessons: 

                1. The Fragility of Democratic Values. When Trump refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, he should be instantly disqualified in the mind of every American citizen who understands that nonviolent transition is the linchpin of democracy, setting free societies apart from dictatorships. No president of the United States has ever before raised such a question about this hallowed principle. He was finally dragged into a begrudging “yes, I will” under tough questioning at last week’s televised town hall, then seemed to add a condition: “But I want it to be an honest election.” He attacked its honesty in advance with fabricated stories of discarded and altered ballots. No president of the United States has ever before campaigned against the legitimacy of the electoral process. And while impediments to voting have plagued this democracy since its founding, the Republican Party’s national strategy to silence the people’s voices through myriad means ought to be cause enough for alarm and rejection.

That Trump’s dismissal of democratic norms has not decimated his support suggests that some 40 percent of Americans who still register their approval have blind spots to the essentials of a pluralistic political system. They seem either not to recognize the threats it can face or not to value it in the first place. The lapses extend into the Republican establishment. “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are,” Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah tweeted on October 8. “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” Does it need to be said that liberty cannot be preserved without democracy? Evidently so.

September 29, 2020

The Method to Trump's Madness

 

By David K. Shipler 

                President Trump’s critics see him as impulsive, willfully ignorant, devoted to immediate self-gratification, and even mentally deranged. He is all of that. But he is something more, too. He is canny and calculating, more skillful at playing the long game than generally recognized.

                Even as he appears candid and unscripted, Trump has cleverly laid the groundwork in managing both public opinion and government for enhancing his power and shielding himself from the consequences of his ethical and legal corruption. And for an heir to moneyed privilege, he is remarkably perceptive about the anxieties and grievances that have driven millions of working-class Americans into his cult of personality. Many thought they were voting for a non-politician, but they got a president with the political instincts of a marksman—at least when they are his target.

                In his first significant play, beginning even before his election, he took a hammer and chisel to chip away at whatever trust Americans retained for news organizations that inform citizens on the workings of society and government. “Fake news!” he cries whenever a press report exposes his lies, incompetence, bigotry, self-dealing, spasmodic policies, defiance of law, and the like. “The enemy of the American people!” he brands the news media, reviving the wording employed by Mao, Lenin, Hitler’s Joseph Goebbels, and Stalin. To anyone who knows history, the phrase is chilling, for millions of Russians under Stalin went into the Gulag or before firing squads after conviction of the charge “enemy of the people.”

September 20, 2020

Supreme Court or Supreme Legislature?

 

By David K. Shipler 

                The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the immediate swirl of politics surrounding a choice of her successor ought to remind Americans of what they are losing in their stressed democracy. The Supreme Court, designed to transcend bitter political divides, now reflects them instead. This is obviously the doing of the justices themselves. But it is also the sin of presidents and senators who nominate and confirm them.

 The judiciary has been the only one of the three branches of government of late to function with reasonable responsibility. The executive branch under President Trump has defied the law, induced chaos, promoted ethnic hatred, and ignored expertise from its own scientists and generals and diplomats. The legislative branch has deadlocked in divisive bickering over police reform, voting rights, prescription drug costs, renewed economic aid during the pandemic, and a host of other urgent matters. Federal judges, meanwhile, have steadied the ship on numerous occasions—though not all—by restraining some radical efforts to curtail immigration, abortion rights, and voters’ access to the ballot box.

But the judicial branch has never been entirely apolitical, if politics means the advocacy of certain policies over others, whether in the law or in social values. Judges ascend to the bench carrying their particular legal and social philosophies. The question is how much they can put aside in the interest of upholding precedent, interpreting the law, and applying the principles of the Constitution. The question is how much they can evolve over years in those exalted positions. And the question is not whether, but to what extent, the courts stand resilient against the vicissitudes of politics and the commands of ideologies.

It is no accident that countries careening toward authoritarianism—Hungary and Poland come to mind—are compromising the independence of their judiciaries, and that longstanding dictatorships—China and Russia, for example—never had true judicial independence in the first place.

As many politicians from Trump on down seek judges whose opinions echo their own, they risk scoring short-term victories at the cost of eroding what the Framers erected as a precious pillar of pluralistic democracy. The latest example is the unseemly struggle over Ginsburg’s replacement.

September 15, 2020

A Quiz for Trump Supporters

 

By David K. Shipler

 

                Dear Trump Supporter:

                                Here are some questions to consider and then answer for yourself.

                1. Do you tell multiple lies a day about matters both large and small?

                2. Do you cheat on your spouse?

                3. Do you antagonize your friends and suck up to your enemies?

                4. Do you think up mean, derisive nicknames for people you don’t like?

                5. Do you spread rumors and conspiracy theories without knowing if they’re true?

                6. Do you think that Americans who join the armed forces are “suckers?”

                7. Do you think that American soldiers who die in battles for their country are “losers?”

                8. Do you encourage violence against people you dislike?

                9. Do you disparage women?

                10. Do you think that you can grab any woman’s genitals whenever you wish?

                11. Do you ridicule people with disabilities?

                12. Do you harbor and express distaste for non-white Americans?

                13. Do you excoriate illegal immigrants and then hire them?

                13. Do you resent legal immigrants who come to the U.S. to seek a better life?

                14. Do you ignore laws and encourage others to do so?

                15. Do you fail to pay people who have done work for you?

                16. Do you ignore and criticize your doctor’s advice on life-and-death medical conditions?

                17. Do you gather people together in ways that you know will endanger their health?

                18. Do you think it should be difficult for citizens to vote?

                19. Do you think federal officials should be able to profit financially from their decisions?

                20. Do you like dictators more than democratically elected leaders?

                21. If you answered no to these questions—or even to most of them—why do you want such a man to lead your country?

September 7, 2020

Policing and Poverty

 

By David K. Shipler 

                Imagine walking into a police station for help as a victim of crime and also getting help as a victim of poverty. Think how policing would change if, under the same roof, assistance were available for the problems of hunger, housing, health, addiction, and joblessness.

                This sounds like pure fantasy, especially as unjustified police shootings continue, the country erupts in protests, and white supremacists threaten Black Lives Matter demonstrators with violence that turns deadly. In many black neighborhoods, the police are seen as the enemy—just another gang, as some residents have said.

But the constructive reform of policing need not be lost in the fog of fury. It needs to be kept as a focused goal whose achievement will take unprecedented cooperation among community activists and law enforcement, including police leadership and officers in the ranks.

The problem has two parts. One is the use of force by cops who are scared or bigoted or poorly trained or all of the above. A great deal of study and thinking has gone into that issue, and lots of sound policies have been proposed, though too rarely adopted, in scattered jurisdictions among the nation’s 18,000 police departments.

The other part has been mostly neglected, however: the clustering of diverse services so that officers can be relieved of onerous tasks for which they have no expertise. It’s a good bet that you won’t be able to find a police officer who loves being called to a “domestic dispute,” where parachuting into a home without context can mean encountering unpredictable, split-second dangers. Nor do cops relish dealing with people suffering from mental illness, who account for a large number of encounters. In short, police are confronted by issues they cannot address, and need tools and training they do not have.

August 15, 2020

The Golden Rule of Politics

 By David K. Shipler

 

                According to the Golden Rule of politics—Do Unto Others  As They Have Done Unto You—Democrats now have an opportunity to smear all Republicans, just as Republicans have smeared them, with a fringe candidate likely to go to Congress. She is Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won her Republican primary in a Georgia district so extreme that she’s bound to be elected to the House of Representatives in November, and then carry into the halls of the Capitol her anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, racist rants about Trump’s opposition by Satan-worshiping child sex traffickers. She is an aficionado of QAnon, the inchoate association of conspiracy theorists that the FBI regards as having the potential for domestic terrorism.

The fact that Greene’s attitudes are not shared across the Republican spectrum—albeit the narrowing Republican spectrum—would not deter astute Democratic campaign operatives from casting them as representative, as they’ve already begun to do. “Georgia Republicans, and Republican candidates running across the country, will have to answer for her hateful views in their own campaigns,” said the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Cheri Bustos.

In this they’ve had help from President Trump, who called her a “future Republican star.” So too, the Republican leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy, first denounced her statements but then rebuffed pleas from some of his colleagues to support her opponent in the primary, John Cowan, a conservative physician. The minority whip, Steve Scalise, did campaign and raise money for Cowan. Still, funding help for Greene reportedly came from other prominent Republicans, including Mark Meadows, now Trump’s White House Chief of Staff, and Congressman Jim Jordan, the outspoken Trump defender.

Democrats have traction here to discredit the Republican establishment as moving in the opposite direction of most Americans in an age of heightened consciousness about racial injustice and yearning for national healing. Should they do it?