How is it that President Trump is able to consistently maintain an approval rating over 40 percent despite the lies, chaos, mistakes and failures of his presidency? The answer should be obvious: The news media allow him to promote his message without countervailing views from the opposition party. As president, Donald Trump’s tweets are deserving of coverage, but they should be paired with responses, official or otherwise, from the opposing party, the Democrats. Otherwise the president’s distorted version of reality will be all many Americans will hear.
The president’s State of the Union address is always followed by the opposition party’s response. The president’s tweets and rants, at least some or most of the time, should be accompanied by a Democratic reply.
Consider how the approval rating of Robert Mueller has plummeted. According to a recent CNN poll, 36 percent of all registered voters view Mueller unfavorably. That compares to the 23 percent who viewed him negatively eleven months ago. The special counsel doesn’t speak publicly, so what accounts for the drop in approval? Trump and his allies have been bashing Mueller and his probe constantly, and it has clearly taken a toll on his favorability rating. In fact, 53 percent of Republicans now have an unfavorable impression of Mueller, compared to just 27 percent who said the same a year ago. Trump’s relentless criticism of Mueller, combined with a lack of countervailing responses, has resulted in a negative public view of the once highly respected former director of the FBI.
There have been complaints from anti-Trump voters as to why Democrats aren’t speaking up after every Trump irrational claim. Why aren’t Schumer, Pelosi and other Democrats relentlessly criticizing Trump? In truth, Democratic politicians are talking to the public. They just aren’t getting even a fraction of the coverage that Trump and his outrageous tweets and rants are getting. The president speaks, the media comments, and Democrats are ignored. No wonder the president’s bizarre view of reality is taken seriously by many Americans.
The corporate news media needs to understand its role. The job of the press should not be the official transcriber of the current administration, but rather it should be to inform the public. Allow the opposition party an equal opportunity to answer the astonishing falsehoods and distortions of the chief executive and I would expect the president’s approval rating to be closer to what he really deserves. In other words, a lot lower.
Trump has turned words into weapons. And he’s winning the linguistic war
From ‘spygate’ to ‘fake news’, Trump is using language to frame – and win – debates. And the press operate like his marketing agency
By George P Lakoff and Gil Duran/ The Guardian/ June 13, 2018
‘Trump is subjecting American democracy to a brutal test. Our survival requires that the press halt its unwitting complicity in his power grab.’ Photograph: Michael Candelori/Rex/Shutterstock
Donald Trump has been a salesman for nearly half a century. He is now selling himself, his worldview and his self-serving views of the law and the truth. His principal tools are language and the media. By faithfully transmitting Trump’s words and ideas, the press helps him to attack, and thereby control, the press itself.
Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas. His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the press and social media. This poses an existential threat to democracy.
Language works by activating brain structures called “frame-circuits” used to understand experience. They get stronger when we hear the activating language. Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world.
Even negating a frame-circuit activates and strengthens it, as when Nixon said “I am not a crook” and people thought of him as a crook.
Scientists, marketers, advertisers and salespeople understand these principles. So do Russian and Islamic State hackers. But most reporters and editors clearly don’t. So the press is at a disadvantage when dealing with a super salesman with an instinctive ability to manipulate thought by 1) framing first 2) repeating often, and 3) leading others to repeat his words by getting people to attack him within his own frame.
Language can shape the way we think. Trump knows this. Here are some of his favorite manipulation techniques.
First, he weaponizes words. The modifier “crooked” convicted Hillary Clinton without a trial. The media’s constant repetition sealed the verdict. “Fake news” proclaims that the news is fake. The use of “fake” is designed to delegitimize the press itself. Trump also uses strategic name-calling to undermine the Russia investigation, tagging it as a “witch-hunt” by the “deep state” in an attempt to shift blame. It’s false, but when the press repeats it, his narrative wins.
A possible immediate correction might have been to use “RussianSpyGate,” repeatedly focusing on the Russian contacts of Trump’s campaign aides Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, with the FBI informant checking on Russian spying in the Trump campaign. This would have had to be done over and over, with reporters bring it up whenever “spygate” was used. Not an easy fix.
Then there are what cognitive scientists call “salient exemplars” – well-publicized individual cases, where wide publicity leads the public to take them as having a high probability and typifying a whole class. Trump turns them into weaponized stereotypes. He is a master at defaming entire groups of people as liars, rapists, terrorists – or in the case of US law enforcement and intelligence agencies – agents of corruption.
He knows how to avoid taking responsibility for a claim. “Maybe.” “I don’t know.” “We’ll see.” Yet the claim has been made and stands, with no responsibility for it.
In The Art of the Deal, Trump discusses using “truthful hyperbole” – exaggerated claims suggesting a significant truth. His hyperbole can be either positive (“great”, “terrific”, “the best”) for what he likes or negative (“a disaster,” “the worst ever”) for what he dislikes. “The worst trade deal ever” frames trade agreements as “deals”, where “deals” are seen as zero-sum games that you either win or lose – and winning is the only good outcome. “Doesn’t it feel good to win!” “You’ll win so much, you’ll feel tired of winning!”
“Deal” and “winning” are not just words. They are central to his worldview. Those who win deserve to win; those who lose deserve to lose. Those who don’t win are “losers”. This is a version of individual responsibility, a cornerstone of conservative thought. There is a moral hierarchy. Those who win are better than those who lose.
“America first” means that America is better than other countries, as shown by its wealth and power. And that wealth and power should be used to win – to acquire more wealth and power in all its “deals” – even with our allies. Power includes the power to bully or punish – for example, to impose tariffs or pull out of treaty – or at least threaten if others don’t go along with him.
Trump’s tweets are not random, they are strategic. There are four types: 1) Pre-emptive framing, to get a framing advantage. 2) Diversion, to divert attention when news could embarrass him. 3) Deflection: Shift the blame to others. And 4) trial balloon – test how much you can get away with. Reporting, and therefore repeating, Trump’s tweets just gives him more power. There is an alternative. Report the true frames that he is trying to pre-empt. Report the truth that he is trying to divert attention from. Put the blame where it belongs. Bust the trial balloon. Report what the strategies are trying to hide.
Cornered by the Russia investigation, Trump is working overtime to twist the facts, the law, and reality in general, to benefit himself. As the indictments and the evidence pile up in favor of a case for Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 election, he’s made it clear that he considers himself above both the law and the truth. As president of the United States, anything he says – true or false – is faithfully parroted by the press. This needs to change.
Trump is subjecting American democracy to a brutal test. Our survival requires that the press halt its unwitting complicity in his power grab. The press has become complicit with Trump by allowing itself to be used as an amplifier for his falsehoods and frames. When the press gives Trump absolute power to dictate coverage, it abdicates its role as a pillar of democracy.
How can the press do a better job? Here are some basic suggestions:
First, journalists must understand how propaganda works on the brain and grasp the cognitive science that marketers of propaganda have implicitly mastered: frames, metaphors, narratives and brain basics.
Second, keep a steely focus on the fact that American democracy is under attack by a foreign power, possibly with collusion from the sitting president’s campaign. This is a crisis. Certain rules don’t apply in a crisis, especially the rule that the press must amplify the president’s words, whatever they are.
Third, stop letting Trump control the news cycle. Newsgathering should be a serious affair controlled by editors whose power rivals any politician’s. Stop chasing his tweets and elevating every sideshow. Start every story with truth and the context of what’s really important to citizens in a democracy. More BBC, less TMZ.
Fourth, don’t spread lies. Don’t privilege Trump’s lies by putting their specific language in the headlines, the leads or the hashtags. Don’t repeat the lies assuming people will automatically know they’re lies. People need to know the president is lying, but be careful about repeating the lies because “a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth”. Repetition of lies spreads them.
The job of the free press is to seek the truth and report the truth, especially the morally important truths and their consequences. If the press fails to do this job, not only does it lose its freedom, but we all do.
The warmongers have no more of a plan for “regime change” in Iran than they had in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria. European allies, whom Trump alienated when he walked away from the Iranian nuclear agreement, are in no mood to cooperate with Washington.
NEW YORK–Seventeen years of war in the Middle East and what do we have to show for it? Iraq after our 2003 invasion and occupation is no longer a unified country. Its once modern infrastructure is largely destroyed, and the nation has fractured into warring enclaves. We have lost the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban is resurgent and has a presence in over 70 percent of the country. Libya is a failed state. Yemen after three years of relentless airstrikes and a blockade is enduring one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. The 500 “moderate” rebels we funded and armed in Syria at a cost of $500 million are in retreat after instigating a lawless reign of terror. The military adventurism has cost a staggering $5.6 trillionas our infrastructure crumbles, austerity guts basic services and half the population of the United States lives at or near poverty levels. The endless wars in the Middle East are the biggest strategic blunder in American history and herald the death of the empire.
Someone has to be blamed for debacles that have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead, including at least 200,000 civilians, and millions driven from their homes. Someone has to be blamed for the proliferation of radical jihadist groups throughout the Middle East, the continued worldwide terrorist attacks, the wholesale destruction of cities and towns under relentless airstrikes and the abject failure of U.S. and U.S.-backed forces to stanch the insurgencies. You can be sure it won’t be the generals, the politicians such as George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the rabid neocons such as Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton who sold us the wars, the Central Intelligence Agency, the arms contractors who profit from perpetual war or the celebrity pundits on the airwaves and in newspapers who serve as cheerleaders for the mayhem.
“The failed policies, or lack of policies, of the United States, which violate international law, have left the Middle East in total chaos,” the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Gholamali Khoshroo, told me when we met in New York City. “The United States, to cover up these aggressive, reckless and costly policies, blames Iran. Iran is blamed for their failures in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon.”
The Trump administration “is very naive about the Middle East and Iran,” the ambassador said. “It can only speak in the language of threats — pressure, sanctions, intervention. These policies have failed in the region. They are very risky and costly. Let the Americans deal with the problems of the countries they have already invaded and attacked. America lacks constructive power in the Middle East. It is unable to govern even a village in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or Syria. All it can do is use force and destructive power. This U.S. administration wants the Middle East and the whole world to bow to it. This is not a policy conducive to sound relationships with sovereign states, especially those countries that have resisted American influence.”
“The plan to arm ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria was a cover to topple [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad,” the ambassador went on. “The Americans knew there were no ‘moderate’ rebels. They knew these weapons would get into the hands of terrorist groups like Daesh [Islamic State], Al-Nusra and their affiliates. Once again, the American policy failed. The Americans succeeded in destroying a country. They succeeded in creating bloodbaths. They succeeded in displacing millions of people. But they gained nothing. The sovereignty of Syria is expanding by the day. It is hard to imagine what President Trump is offering as a strategy in Syria. One day, he says, ‘I will move out of Syria very soon, very quickly.’ The next day he says, ‘If Iran is there, we should stay.’ I wonder if the American taxpayers know how much of their money has been wasted in Iraq, Syria and Yemen?”
Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, although Iran was in compliance with the agreement, was the first salvo in this effort to divert attention from these failures to Iran. Bolton, the new national security adviser, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, advocate the overthrow of the Iranian government, with Giuliani saying last monththat Trump is “as committed to regime change as we [an inner circle of presidential advisers] are.”
“The Iran nuclear deal was possible following several letters by President Barack Obama assuring the Iranian leadership that America had no intention of violating Iranian sovereignty,” Ambassador Khoshroo said. “America said it wanted to engage in a serious dialogue on equal footing and mutual interests and concerns. These assurances led to the negotiations that concluded with the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. From the beginning, however, America was not forthcoming in its dealings with us on the JCPOA. President Obama wanted the agreement to be implemented, but he did not want it implemented in its full capacity. Congress, on the day JCPOA was implemented, passed a law warning Europeans that were doing business with Iran. The staffs of companies had to apply for a visa to the United States if they had traveled to Iran for business purposes. This began on the first day. The Americans were not always very forthcoming. OFAC [Office of Foreign Funds Control] gave ambiguous answers to many of the questions that companies had about sanctions, but at least in words the Obama administration supported the JCPOA and saw the agreement as the basis for our interactions.”
“President Trump, however, even as a candidate, called the agreement ‘the worst deal America ever made,'” the ambassador said. “He called this deal a source of embarrassment for America. Indeed, it was not the deal but America’s unilateral decision to walk away from an agreement that was supported by the United Nations Security Council, and in fact co-sponsored and drafted by the United States, that is the source of embarrassment for America. To walk away from an international agreement and then threaten a sovereign country is the real source of embarrassment since Iran was in full compliance while the U.S. never was.”
“In 2008, the Israelis told the world that Iran was only some days away from acquiring an atomic bomb,” he said. “The Israelis said there had to be a military strike to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. What has happened since? During the last two years, there have been 11 reports by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] clearly confirming and demonstrating Iran’s full compliance with the JCPOA. All of the accusations [about] Iran using nuclear facilities for military purposes were refuted by the IAEA as well as by Europe, Russia, China, along with many other countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa. America is concerned about Iranian influence in the region and seeks to contain Iran because the U.S. administration realizes that America’s policies in the Middle East have failed. Their own statements about Iran repeatedly contradict each other. One day they say, ‘Iran is so weak it will collapse,’ and the next day they say, ‘Iran is governing several Arab capitals in the Middle East.'”
Iran announced recently that it has tentative plans to produce the feedstock for centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium, if the nuclear deal is not salvaged by European members of the JCPOA. European countries, dismayed by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement, are attempting to renegotiate the deal, which imposes restrictions on Iran’s nuclear development in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
Why go to war with a country that abides by an agreement it has signed with the United States? Why attack a government that is the mortal enemy of the Taliban, along with other jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda and Islamic State, that now threaten us after we created and armed them? Why shatter the de facto alliance we have with Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why further destabilize a region already dangerously volatile?
The architects of these wars are in trouble. They have watched helplessly as the instability and political vacuum they caused, especially in Iraq, left Iran as the dominant power in the region. Washington, in essence, elevated its nemesis. It has no idea how to reverse its mistake, beyond attacking Iran. Those both in the U.S. and abroad who began or promoted these wars see a conflict with Iran as a solution to their foreign and increasingly domestic dilemmas.
For example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, mired in corruption scandals, hopes that by fostering a conflict with Iran he can divert attention away from investigations into his abuse of power and the massacres Israel carries out against Palestinians, along with Israel’s accelerated seizure of Palestinian land.
“The most brutal regime is now in power in Israel,” the Iranian ambassador said. “It has no regard for international law or humanitarian law. It violates Security Council resolutions regarding settlements, its capital and occupation. Look at what Israel has done in Gaza in the last 30 days. On the same day America was unlawfully transferring its embassy to Jerusalem, 60 unarmed Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli snipers. [Israelis] were dancing in Jerusalem while the blood of unarmed Palestinians was running in Gaza. The Trump administration gives total support and impunity to Israel. This angers many people in the Middle East, including many in Saudi Arabia. It is a Zionist project to portray Iran as the main threat to peace in the Middle East. Israel introducing Iran as a threat is an attempt to divert attention from the crimes this regime is committing, but these too are failed policies that will backfire. They are policies designed to cover weakness.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, facing internal unrest, launched the war in Yemen as a vanity project to bolster his credentials as a military leader. Now he desperately needs to deflect attention from the quagmire and humanitarian disaster he created.
“Saudi Arabia, as part of [the civil war in Yemen], has a tactical and strategic cooperation with Israel against Iran,” the ambassador said. “But the Saudi regime is defying the sentiments of its own people. How long will this be possible? For three years now, Saudi Arabia, assisted by the United States, has bombed the Yemeni people and imposed a total blockade that includes food and medicine. Nothing has been resolved. Once again, Iran is blamed for this failure by Saudi Arabia and the United States in Yemen. Even if Iran wanted to help the Yemenis, it is not possible due to the total blockade. The Yemeni people asked for peace negotiations from the first day of the war. But Saudi military adventurism and its desire to test its military resolve made any peaceful solution impossible. The U.S. and the U.K. provide military and logistical support, including cluster bombs to be used by the Saudis in Yemen. The Emiratis are bombing Yemen. All such actions are doomed to failure since there is no military solution in Yemen. There is only a political solution. Look at the targets of Saudi airstrikes in Yemen: funerals. Wedding ceremonies. Agricultural fields. Houses. Civilians. How do the Saudis expect the Yemeni people to greet those who bomb them? With hugs? The war has cost a lot of money, and Trump responds by saying [to Saudi Arabia], ‘Oh you have money. [Paraphrasing here.] Please buy our ‘beautiful weapons.’ They are killing beautiful children with these ‘beautiful’ weapons. It is a disaster. It is tragic.”
And then there is President Donald Trump, desperate for a global crusade he can use to mask his ineptitude, the rampant corruption of his administration and his status as an international pariah when he runs for re-election in 2020.
“Of course, blaming and threatening Iran is not new,” the ambassador said. “This has been going on for 40 years. The Iranian people and the Iranian government are accustomed to this nonsense. United States intervention in the internal affairs of Iran goes back a long time, including the [Iranian] war with Iraq, when the United States supported Saddam Hussein. Then America invaded Iraq in 2003 in their so-called ‘intervention for democracy and elimination of WMDs.’ Iran has always resisted and will always resist U.S. threats.”
“America was in Iran 40 years ago,” the ambassador said. “About 100,000 U.S. advisers were in Iran during the rule of the shah, who was among the closest allies of America. America was unable to keep this regime in power because the Iranian people revolted against such dependency and suppression. Since the fall of the shah in 1979, for 40 years, America continued to violate international law, especially the Algeria agreements it signed with Iran in 1981.”
The Algeria Declaration was a set of agreements between the United States and Iran that resolved the Iranian hostage crisis. It was brokered by the Algerian government. The U.S. committed itself in the Algeria Declaration to refrain from interference in Iranian internal affairs and to lift trade sanctions on Iran and a freeze on Iranian assets.
The warmongers have no more of a plan for “regime change” in Iran than they had in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria. European allies, whom Trump alienated when he walked away from the Iranian nuclear agreement, are in no mood to cooperate with Washington. The Pentagon, even if it wanted to, does not have the hundreds of thousands of troops it would need to attack and occupy Iran. And the idea — pushed by lunatic fringe figures like Bolton and Giuliani — that the marginal and discredited Iranian resistance group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which fought alongside Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran and is viewed by most Iranians as composed of traitors, is a viable counterforce to the Iranian government is ludicrous.
In all these equations the 80 million people in Iran are ignored just as the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria were ignored. Perhaps they would not welcome a war with the United States. Perhaps if attacked they would resist. Perhaps they don’t want to be occupied. Perhaps a war with Iran would be interpreted throughout the region as a war against Shiism. But these are calculations that the ideologues, who know little about the instrument of war and even less about the cultures or peoples they seek to dominate, are unable to fathom.
“The Middle East has many problems: insecurity, instability, problems with natural resources such as water, etc.,” Khoshroo said. “All of these problems have been made worse by foreign intervention as well as Israel’s lawlessness. The issue of Palestine is at the heart of turmoil in the Middle East for Muslims. Any delay in finding solutions to these wounds in the Middle East exposes this region to more dangerous threats. Americans say they want the Middle East to be free from violent extremism, but this will only happen when the Middle East is free from occupation and foreign intervention. The Americans are selling their weapons throughout the Middle East. They calculate how much money they can earn from destruction. They don’t care about human beings. They don’t care about security or democratic process or political process. This is worrisome.”
“What are the results of American policies in the Middle East?” he asked. “All of the American allies in the region are in turmoil. Only Iran is secure and stable. Why is this the case? Why, during the last 40 years, has Iran been stable? Is it because Iran has no relationship with America? Why is there hostility between Iran and America? Can’t the Americans see that Iran’s stability is important for the region? We are surrounded by Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen. What good would come from destabilizing Iran? What would America get out of that?”
Mr. Alexander is a professor of political science at the University of Virginia.
I know many liberals, and two of them really are my best friends. Liberals make good movies and television shows. Their idealism has been an inspiration for me and many others. Many liberals are very smart. But they are not as smart, or as persuasive, as they think.
And a backlash against liberals — a backlash that most liberals don’t seem to realize they’re causing — is going to get President Trump re-elected.
People often vote against things instead of voting for them: against ideas, candidates and parties. Democrats, like Republicans, appreciate this whenever they portray their opponents as negatively as possible. But members of political tribes seem to have trouble recognizing that they, too, can push people away and energize them to vote for the other side. Nowhere is this more on display today than in liberal control of the commanding heights of American culture.
Take the past few weeks. At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, the comedian Michelle Wolf landed some punch lines that were funny and some that weren’t. But people reacted less to her talent and more to the liberal politics that she personified. For every viewer who loved her Trump bashing, there seemed to be at least one other put off by the one-sidedness of her routine. Then, when Kanye West publicly rethought his ideological commitments, prominent liberals criticized him for speaking on the topic at all. Maxine Waters, a Democratic congresswoman from California, remarked that “sometimes Kanye West talks out of turn” and should “maybe not have so much to say.”
Liberals dominate the entertainment industry, many of the most influential news sources and America’s universities. This means that people with progressive leanings are everywhere in the public eye — and are also on the college campuses attended by many people’s children or grandkids. These platforms come with a lot of power to express values, confer credibility and celebrity and start national conversations that others really can’t ignore.
But this makes liberals feel more powerful than they are. Or, more accurately, this kind of power is double-edged. Liberals often don’t realize how provocative or inflammatory they can be. In exercising their power, they regularly not only persuade and attract but also annoy and repel.
In fact, liberals may be more effective at causing resentment than in getting people to come their way. I’m not talking about the possibility that jokes at the 2011 correspondents’ association dinner may have pushed Mr. Trump to run for president to begin with. I mean that the “army of comedy” that Michael Moore thought would bring Mr. Trump down will instead be what builds him up in the minds of millions of voters.
Consider some ways liberals have used their cultural prominence in recent years. They have rightly become more sensitive to racism and sexism in American society. News reports, academic commentary and movies now regularly relate accounts of racism in American history and condemn racial bigotry. These exercises in consciousness-raising and criticism have surely nudged some Americans to rethink their views, and to reflect more deeply on the status and experience of women and members of minority groups in this country.
But accusers can paint with very wide brushes. Racist is pretty much the most damning label that can be slapped on anyone in America today, which means it should be applied firmly and carefully. Yet some people have cavalierly leveled the charge against huge numbers of Americans — specifically, the more than 60 million people who voted for Mr. Trump.
In their ranks are people who sincerely consider themselves not bigoted, who might be open to reconsidering ways they have done things for years, but who are likely to be put off if they feel smeared before that conversation even takes place.
It doesn’t help that our cultural mores are changing rapidly, and we rarely stop to consider this. Some liberals have gotten far out ahead of their fellow Americans but are nonetheless quick to criticize those who haven’t caught up with them.
Within just a few years, many liberals went from starting to talk about microaggressions to suggesting that it is racist even to question whether microaggressions are that important. “Gender identity disorder” was considered a form of mental illness until recently, but today anyone hesitant about transgender women using the ladies’ room is labeled a bigot. Liberals denounce “cultural appropriation” without, in many cases, doing the work of persuading people that there is anything wrong with, say, a teenager not of Chinese descent wearing a Chinese-style dress to prom or eating at a burrito cart run by two non-Latino women.
Pressing a political view from the Oscar stage, declaring a conservative campus speaker unacceptable, flatly categorizing huge segments of the country as misguided — these reveal a tremendous intellectual and moral self-confidence that smacks of superiority. It’s one thing to police your own language and a very different one to police other people’s. The former can set an example. The latter is domineering.
This judgmental tendency became stronger during the administration of President Barack Obama, though not necessarily because of anything Mr. Obama did. Feeling increasingly emboldened, liberals were more convinced than ever that conservatives were their intellectual and even moral inferiors. Discourses and theories once confined to academia were transmitted into workaday liberal political thinking, and college campuses — which many take to be what a world run by liberals would look like — seemed increasingly intolerant of free inquiry.
It was during these years that the University of California included the phrase “America is the land of opportunity” on a list of discouraged microaggressions. Liberal politicians portrayed conservative positions on immigration reform as presumptively racist; Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, once dubiously claimed that she had heard Republicans tell Irish visitors that “if it was you,” then immigration reform “would be easy.”
When Mr. Obama remarked, behind closed doors, during the presidential campaign in 2008, that Rust Belt voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them,” it mattered not so much because he said it but because so many listeners figured that he was only saying what liberals were really thinking.
These are the sorts of events conservatives think of when they sometimes say, “Obama caused Trump.” Many liberals might interpret that phrase to mean that America’s first black president brought out the worst in some people. In this view, not only might liberals be unable to avoid provoking bigots, it’s not clear they should even try. After all, should they not have nominated and elected Mr. Obama? Should they regret doing the right thing just because it provoked the worst instincts in some people?
This is a limited view of the situation. Even if liberals think their opponents are backward, they don’t have to gratuitously drive people away, including voters who cast ballots once or even twice for Mr. Obama before supporting Mr. Trump in 2016.
Champions of inclusion can watch what they say and explain what they’re doing without presuming to regulate what words come out of other people’s mouths. Campus activists can allow invited visitors to speak and then, after that event, hold a teach-in discussing what they disagree with. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that states had to allow same-sex marriage, the fight, in some quarters, turned to pizza places unwilling to cater such weddings. Maybe don’t pick that fight?
People determined to stand against racism can raise concerns about groups that espouse hate and problems like the racial achievement gap in schools without smearing huge numbers of Americans, many of whom might otherwise be Democrats by temperament.
Liberals can act as if they’re not so certain — and maybe actually not be so certain — that bigotry motivates people who disagree with them on issues like immigration. Without sacrificing their principles, liberals can come across as more respectful of others. Self-righteousness is rarely attractive, and even more rarely rewarded.
Self-righteousness can also get things wrong. Especially with the possibility of Mr. Trump’s re-election, many liberals seem primed to write off nearly half the country as irredeemable. Admittedly, the president doesn’t make it easy. As a candidate, Mr. Trump made derogatory comments about Mexicans, and as president described some African countries with a vulgar epithet. But it is an unjustified leap to conclude that anyone who supports him in any way is racist, just as it would be a leap to say that anyone who supported Hillary Clinton was racist because she once made veiled references to “superpredators.”
Liberals are trapped in a self-reinforcing cycle. When they use their positions in American culture to lecture, judge and disdain, they push more people into an opposing coalition that liberals are increasingly prone to think of as deplorable. That only validates their own worst prejudices about the other America.
Those prejudices will be validated even more if Mr. Trump wins re-election in 2020, especially if he wins a popular majority. That’s not impossible: The president’s current approval ratings are at 42 percent, up from just a few months ago.
Liberals are inadvertently making that outcome more likely. It’s not too late to stop.
Donald Trump is the result of a long process of political, cultural and social decay. He is a product of our failed democracy. The longer we perpetuate the fiction that we live in a functioning democracy, that Trump and the political mutations around him are somehow an aberrant deviation that can be vanquished in the next election, the more we will hurtle toward tyranny.
The Trump administration did not rise, prima facie, like Venus on a half shell from the sea. Donald Trump is the result of a long process of political, cultural and social decay. He is a product of our failed democracy. The longer we perpetuate the fiction that we live in a functioning democracy, that Trump and the political mutations around him are somehow an aberrant deviation that can be vanquished in the next election, the more we will hurtle toward tyranny. The problem is not Trump. It is a political system, dominated by corporate power and the mandarins of the two major political parties, in which we don’t count. We will wrest back political control by dismantling the corporate state, and this means massive and sustained civil disobedience, like that demonstrated by teachers around the country this year. If we do not stand up we will enter a new dark age.
The Democratic Party, which helped build our system of inverted totalitarianism, is once again held up by many on the left as the savior. Yet the party steadfastly refuses to address the social inequality that led to the election of Trump and the insurgency by Bernie Sanders. It is deaf, dumb and blind to the very real economic suffering that plagues over half the country. It will not fight to pay workers a living wage. It will not defy the pharmaceutical and insurance industries to provide Medicare for all. It will not curb the voracious appetite of the military that is disemboweling the country and promoting the prosecution of futile and costly foreign wars. It will not restore our lost civil liberties, including the right to privacy, freedom from government surveillance, and due process. It will not get corporate and dark money out of politics. It will not demilitarize our police and reform a prison system that has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners although the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population. It plays to the margins, especially in election seasons, refusing to address substantive political and social problems and instead focusing on narrow cultural issues like gay rights, abortion and gun control in our peculiar species of anti-politics.
This is a doomed tactic, but one that is understandable. The leadership of the party, the Clintons, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Tom Perez, are creations of corporate America. In an open and democratic political process, one not dominated by party elites and corporate money, these people would not hold political power. They know this. They would rather implode the entire system than give up their positions of privilege. And that, I fear, is what will happen. The idea that the Democratic Party is in any way a bulwark against despotism defies the last three decades of its political activity. It is the guarantor of despotism.
Trump has tapped into the hatred that huge segments of the American public have for a political and economic system that has betrayed them. He may be inept, degenerate, dishonest and a narcissist, but he adeptly ridicules the system they despise. His cruel and demeaning taunts directed at government agencies, laws and the established elites resonate with people for whom these agencies, laws and elites have become hostile forces. And for many who see no shift in the political landscape to alleviate their suffering, Trump’s cruelty and invective are at least cathartic.
Trump, like all despots, has no ethical core. He chooses his allies and appointees based on their personal loyalty and fawning obsequiousness to him. He will sell anyone out. He is corrupt, amassing money for himself–he made $40 million from his Washington, D.C., hotel alone last year–and his corporate allies. He is dismantling government institutions that once provided some regulation and oversight. He is an enemy of the open society. This makes him dangerous. His turbocharged assault on the last vestiges of democratic institutions and norms means there will soon be nothing, even in name, to protect us from corporate totalitarianism.
But the warnings from the architects of our failed democracy against creeping fascism, Madeleine Albright among them, are risible. They show how disconnected the elites have become from the zeitgeist. None of these elites have credibility. They built the edifice of lies, deceit and corporate pillage that made Trump possible. And the more Trump demeans these elites, and the more they cry out like Cassandras, the more he salvages his disastrous presidency and enables the kleptocrats pillaging the country as it swiftly disintegrates.
The press is one of the principal pillars of Trump’s despotism. It chatters endlessly like 17th-century courtiers at the court of Versailles about the foibles of the monarch while the peasants lack bread. It drones on and on and on about empty topics such as Russian meddling and a payoff to a porn actress that have nothing to do with the daily hell that, for many, defines life in America. It refuses to critique or investigate the abuses by corporate power, which has destroyed our democracy and economy and orchestrated the largest transfer of wealth upward in American history. The corporate press is a decayed relic that, in exchange for money and access, committed cultural suicide. And when Trump attacks it over “fake news,” he expresses, once again, the deep hatred of all those the press ignores. The press worships the idol of Mammon as slavishly as Trump does. It loves the reality-show presidency. The press, especially the cable news shows, keeps the lights on and the cameras rolling so viewers will be glued to a 21st-century version of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” It is good for ratings. It is good for profits. But it accelerates the decline.
All this will soon be compounded by financial collapse. Wall Street banks have been handed $16 trillion in bailouts and other subsidies by the Federal Reserve and Congress at nearly zero percent interest since the 2008 financial collapse. They have used this money, as well as the money saved through the huge tax cuts imposed last year, to buy back their own stock, raising the compensation and bonuses of their managers and thrusting the society deeper into untenable debt peonage. Sheldon Adelson’s casino operations alone got a $670 million tax break under the 2017 legislation. The ratio of CEO to worker pay now averages 339 to 1, with the highest gap approaching 5,000 to 1. This circular use of money to make and hoard money is what Karl Marx called “fictitious capital.” The steady increase in public debt, corporate debt, credit card debt and student loan debt will ultimately lead, as Nomi Prins writes, to “a tipping point — when money coming in to furnish that debt, or available to borrow, simply won’t cover the interest payments. Then debt bubbles will pop, beginning with higher yielding bonds.”
An economy reliant on debt for its growth causes our interest rate to jump to 28 percent when we are late on a credit card payment. It is why our wages are stagnant or have declined in real terms — if we earned a sustainable income we would not have to borrow money to survive. It is why a university education, houses, medical bills and utilities cost so much. The system is designed so we can never free ourselves from debt.
However, the next financial crash, as Prins points out in her book “Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World,” won’t be like the last one. This is because, as she says, “there is no Plan B.” Interest rates can’t go any lower. There has been no growth in the real economy. The next time, there will be no way out. Once the economy crashes and the rage across the country explodes into a firestorm, the political freaks will appear, ones that will make Trump look sagacious and benign.
And so, to quote Vladimir Lenin, what must be done?
We must invest our energy in building parallel, popular institutions to protect ourselves and to pit power against power. These parallel institutions, including unions, community development organizations, local currencies, alternative political parties and food cooperatives, will have to be constructed town by town. The elites in a time of distress will retreat to their gated compounds and leave us to fend for ourselves. Basic services, from garbage collection to public transportation, food distribution and health care, will collapse. Massive unemployment and underemployment, triggering social unrest, will be dealt with not through government job creation but the brutality of militarized police and a complete suspension of civil liberties. Critics of the system, already pushed to the margins, will be silenced and attacked as enemies of the state.
The last vestiges of labor unions will be targeted for abolition, a process that will soon be accelerated given the expected ruling in a case before the Supreme Court that will cripple the ability of public-sector unions to represent workers. The dollar will stop being the world’s reserve currency, causing a steep devaluation. Banks will close. Global warming will extract heavier and heavier costs, especially on the coastal populations, farming and the infrastructure, costs that the depleted state will be unable to address. The corporate press, like the ruling elites, will go from burlesque to absurdism, its rhetoric so patently fictitious it will, as in all totalitarian states, be unmoored from reality. The media outlets will all sound as fatuous as Trump. And, to quote W.H. Auden, “the little children will die in the streets.”
As a foreign correspondent I covered collapsed societies, including the former Yugoslavia. It is impossible for any doomed population to grasp how fragile the decayed financial, social and political system is on the eve of implosion. All the harbingers of collapse are visible: crumbling infrastructure; chronic underemployment and unemployment; the indiscriminate use of lethal force by police; political paralysis and stagnation; an economy built on the scaffolding of debt; nihilistic mass shootings in schools, universities, workplaces, malls, concert venues and movie theaters; opioid overdoses that kill some 64,000 people a year; an epidemic of suicides; unsustainable military expansion; gambling as a desperate tool of economic development and government revenue; the capture of power by a tiny, corrupt clique; censorship; the physical diminishing of public institutions ranging from schools and libraries to courts and medical facilities; the incessant bombardment by electronic hallucinations to divert us from the depressing sight that has become America and keep us trapped in illusions.
We suffer the usual pathologies of impending death. I would be happy to be wrong. But I have seen this before. I know the warning signs. All I can say is get ready.
These mass shootings don’t keep happening because we don’t know what to do.
With another mass shooting in the US — this time, in Santa Fe High School in Texas — many Americans are once again horrified and bewildered by what feels like constantly occurring tragedies. Calls for action are already popping up on social media. But if this plays out like it has before, there’s a very high chance that little to nothing will happen on a national scale.
Since I began covering mass shootings at Vox, I have seen this pattern play out again and again: A shooting happens. There are demands for action. Maybe something gets introduced in Congress. The debate goes back and forth for a bit. Then people move on — usually after a week or two. And so, with little to nothing changed, there’s eventually another mass shooting.
As a reporter, I have become eerily attuned to this horrible American ritual. I do the same thing every single time we get news of a mass shooting: verify reports, contribute to a “what we know” article, and then begin to update our old pieces on guns. I do this almost instinctively at this point — and that terrifies me. No one should get used to this.
As I see it, the core issue is that America as a whole refuses to even admit it has a serious problem with guns and gun violence. And more than that, lawmakers continue acting like the solutions are some sort of mystery, as if there aren’t years of research and experiences in other countries that show restrictions on firearms can save lives.
Consider President Donald Trump’s initial speech in response to the Parkland, Florida, school shooting: His only mention of guns was a vague reference to “gunfire” as he described what happened. He never even brought up gun control or anything related to that debate, instead vaguely promising to work “with state and local leaders to help secure our schools and tackle the difficult issue of mental health.”
This is America’s elected leader — and he essentially, based on his first public response, ignored what the real problem is. And although the White House eventually camearound to bipartisan proposals to very slightly improve background checks and ban bump stocks, the compromises amount to fairly small changes to America’s weak gun laws.
In my coverage of these shootings, I’ve always focused on solutions through studies and policy ideas that would tamp down on the number of shootings. The good news is there are real solutions out there.
But America can’t get to those solutions until it admits it has a gun problem and confronts the reality of what it would mean to seriously address it.
1) America has a unique gun violence problem
The US is unique in two key — and related — ways when it comes to guns: It has way more gun deaths than other developed nations, and it has far higher levels of gun ownership than any other country in the world.
The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times that of Sweden, and nearly 16 times that of Germany, according to United Nations data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)
Mass shootings actually make up a small fraction of America’s gun deaths, constituting less than 2 percent of such deaths in 2013. But America does see a lot of these horrific events: According to CNN, “The US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds 31% of global mass shooters.”
The US also has by far the highest number of privately owned guns in the world. Estimated in 2007, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 88.8 guns per 100 people, meaning there was almost one privately owned gun per American and more than one per American adult. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 54.8 guns per 100 people.
Another way of looking at that: Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population yet own roughly 42 percent of all the world’s privately held firearms.
For example, a 2013 study, led by a Boston University School of Public Health researcher, found that, after controlling for multiple variables, each percentage point increase in gun ownership correlated with a roughly 0.9 percent rise in the firearm homicide rate.
This chart, based on data compiled by researcher Josh Tewksbury, shows the correlation between the number of guns and gun deaths (including homicides and suicides) among wealthier nations:
Guns are not the only contributor to violence. (Other factors include, for example, poverty, urbanization, and alcohol consumption.) But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America’s high levels of gun ownership are a major reason the US is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.
Most recently, they’ve blamed mental health issues for mass shootings. This is the only policy issue that Trump mentioned in his first speech following the Florida shooting.
But as far as homicides go, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence. And Michael Stone, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who maintains a database of mass shooters, wrote in a 2015 analysis that only 52 out of the 235 killers in the database, or about 22 percent, had mental illnesses. “The mentally ill should not bear the burden of being regarded as the ‘chief’ perpetrators of mass murder,” he concluded. Otherresearch has backed this up.
More broadly, America does not have a monopoly on mental illness. That’s not to say more access to mental health care wouldn’t help; it could, for example, be effective for reducing the number of gun suicides. But mental health issues aren’t what make the US stand out in terms of gun violence.
The problem that’s unique to the US, instead, is guns — and America’s abundance of them.
As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, based on data from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:
Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.
”A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”
This is in many ways intuitive: People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone will get angry at an argument and be able to pull out a gun and kill someone.
3) The research shows that gun control works
The research also suggests that gun control can work. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews,found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to firearms can save lives.
Consider Australia’s example.
In 1996, a 28-year-old man walked into a cafe in Port Arthur, Australia, ate lunch, pulled a semiautomatic rifle out of his bag, and opened fire on the crowd, killing 35 people and wounding 23 more. It was the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history.
Australian lawmakers responded with legislation that, among other provisions, banned certain types of firearms, such as automatic and semiautomatic rifles and shotguns. The Australian government confiscated 650,000 of these guns through a mandatory buyback program, in which it purchased firearms from gun owners. It established a registry of all guns owned in the country and required a permit for all new firearm purchases. (This is much further than bills typically proposed in the US, which almost never make a serious attempt to immediatelyreduce the number of guns in the country.)
Australia’s firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42 percent in the seven years after the law passed, and its firearm suicide rate fell by 57 percent, according to a review of the evidenceby Harvard researchers.
It’s difficult to know for sure how much of the drop in homicides and suicides was caused specifically by the gun buyback program and other legal changes. Australia’s gun deaths, for one, were already declining before the law passed. But researchers David Hemenway and Mary Vriniotis argue that the gun buyback program very likely played a role: “First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates.”
One study of the program, by Australian researchers, found that buying back 3,500 guns per 100,000 people correlated with up to a 50 percent drop in firearm homicides and a 74 percent drop in gun suicides. As Dylan Matthews explained for Vox, the drop in homicides wasn’t statistically significant because Australia already had a pretty low number of murders. But the drop in suicides most definitely was — and the results are striking.
One other fact, noted by Hemenway and Vriniotis in 2011: “While 13 gun massacres (the killing of 4 or more people at one time) occurred in Australia in the 18 years before the [Australia gun control law], resulting in more than one hundred deaths, in the 14 following years (and up to the present), there were no gun massacres.”
4) State and local actions are not enough
A common counterpoint to the evidence on gun control: If it works so well, why does Chicago have so much gun violence despite having some of the strictest gun policies in the US?
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made this argument after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting: “I think if you look to Chicago, where you had over 4,000 victims of gun-related crimes last year, they have the strictest gun laws in the country. That certainly hasn’t helped there.”
It’s true that Chicago has fairly strict gun laws (although not the strictest). And it’s true that the city has fairly high levels of gun violence (although also not the worst in the US).
This doesn’t, however, expose the failure of gun control altogether, but rather the limits of leaving gun policies to a patchwork of local and state laws. The basic problem: If a city or state passes strict gun control measures, people can simply cross a border to buy guns in a jurisdiction with laxer laws.
Chicago, for example, requires a Firearm Owners Identification card, a background check, a three-day waiting period, and documentation for all firearm sales. But Indiana, across the border, doesn’t require any of this for purchases between two private individuals (including those at gun shows and those who meet through the internet), allowing even someone with a criminal record to buy a firearm without passing a background check or submitting paperwork recording the sale.
So someone from Chicago can drive across the border — to Indiana or to other places with lax gun laws — and buy a gun without any of the big legal hurdles he would face at home. Then that person can resell or give guns to others in Chicago, or keep them, leaving no paper trail behind. (This is illegal trafficking under federal law, but Indiana’s lax laws and enforcement — particularly the lack of a paper trail — make it virtually impossible to catch someone until a gun is used in a crime.)
The result: According to a 2014 report from the Chicago Police Department, nearly 60 percent of the guns in crime scenes that were recovered and traced between 2009 and 2013 came from outside the state. About 19 percent came from Indiana — making it the most common state of origin for guns besides Illinois.
That doesn’t mean the stricter gun laws in Chicago, New York, or any other jurisdiction have no effect, but it does limit how far these local and state measures can go, since the root of the problem lies in other places’ laws. The only way the pipeline could be stopped would be if all states individually strengthened their gun laws at once — or, more realistically, if the federal government passed a law that enforces stricter rules across the US.
5) America probably needs to go further than anyone wants to admit
America’s attention to gun control often focuses on a few specific measures: universal background checks, restrictions on people with mental illnesses buying firearms, and an assault weapons ban, for example. It is rare that American politicians, even on the left, go much further than that. Something like Australia’s law — which amounts to a confiscation program — is never seriously considered.
As Matthews previously explained, this is a big issue. The US’s gun problem is so dire that it arguably needs solutions that go way further than what we typically see in mainstream proposals — at least, if the US ever hopes to get down to European levels of gun violence.
If the fundamental problem is that America has far too many guns, then policies need to cut the number of guns in circulation right now to seriously reduce the number of gun deaths. Background checks and other restrictions on who can buy a gun can’t achieve that in the short term. What America likely needs, then, is something more like Australia’s mandatory buyback program — essentially, a gun confiscation scheme — paired with a serious ban on specific firearms (including, potentially, all semiautomatic weapons).
But no one in Congress is seriously proposing something that sweeping. The Manchin-Toomey bill, the only gun legislation in Congress after Sandy Hook that came close to becoming law, didn’t even establish universal background checks. Recent proposals have been even milder, taking small steps like banning bump stocks or slightly improving the existing system for background checks.
Part of the holdup is the Second Amendment. While there is reasonable scholarly debateabout whether the Second Amendment actually protects all Americans’ individual right to bear arms and prohibits stricter forms of gun control, the reality is the Supreme Court and US lawmakers — backed by the powerful gun lobby, particularly the NRA — widely agree that the Second Amendment does put barriers on how far restrictions can go. That would likely rule out anything like the Australian policy response short of a court reinterpretation or a repeal of the Second Amendment, neither of which seems likely.
None of that is to say that milder measures are useless. Connecticut’s law requiring handgun purchasers to first pass a background check and obtain a license, for example, was followed by a 40 percent drop in gun homicides and a 15 percent reduction in gun suicides. Similar results — in the reverse — were reported in Missouri when it repealed its own permit-to-purchase law. It’s difficult to separate these changes from long-term trends (especially since gun homicides have generally been on the decline for decades now), but a review of the evidence by RAND linked milder gun control measures, including background checks, to reduced injuries and deaths — and that means these measures likely saved lives.
There are also some evidence-based policies that could help outside the realm of gun control, including more stringent regulations and taxes on alcohol, changes in policing, and behavioral intervention programs.
But if America wants to get to the levels of gun deaths that its European peers report, it will likely need to go much, much further on guns in particular.
A major war in the Middle East would be catastrophic, yet that is the direction we are heading. With President Trump withdrawing from the nuclear accord with Iran, we are left with a frightening scenario. Upon ending the deal, Iran might fast-track a nuclear weapons program, which would give the Trump administration what they really want: a reason to attack Iran. That would set in motion a quick war led by the United States and Israel. Iran would lose the war, but untold thousands, if not millions, would die and leave the Middle East a smoldering, unstable mess. Is that what we really want?
National Security Advisor Michael Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump have made it clear what they want. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” Bolton said last year. “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself.” It should be noted that Bolton was a staunch advocate of the disastrous American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
American policy, Bolton wrote in January, “should be ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its fortieth anniversary (next February). Recognizing a new Iranian regime in 2019 would reverse the shame of once seeing our diplomats held hostage for four hundred and forty-four days. The former hostages can cut the ribbon to open the new U.S. Embassy in Tehran.”
Our new Secretary of State, too, is solidly on record as hostile to Iran. Pompeo served in the military before being elected to Congress in 2011, where he was known as an outspoken hawk and a supporter of pre-emptive war against Iran. In 2016, Pompeo circulated a letter written by 190 retired generals, admirals and other military officers calling the accord “dangerous” and likely to lead to war. “Congress must act to change Iranian behavior,” he said, “and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.”
President Trump, of course, has long wanted the deal scrapped. During the election campaign, he declared it “the worst deal ever negotiated.” He told an AIPAC convention in 2016:“I have been in business a long time. I know deal-making. And let me tell you, this deal is catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole of the Middle East.” A year earlier, Trump said, “They [the Iranians] have so out-negotiated our people, because our people are babies.They have no idea what they’re doing. They will find out that if I win, we’re not babies. There’s no more being babies anymore.”
I’m sure it’s not lost on President Trump that an invasion of Iran would distract from his numerous scandals, and might even bump up his popularity. It’s a recipe for disaster, and there may not be enough cooler heads left to slow down this out-of-control train wreck.
“Trump disseminated false medical records to fool the public about his health.” That is a headline you have never seen, though you should have.
If you’ve gotten tired of hearing how something President Trump did would have been a major or even career-ending scandal for any other candidate, I sympathize. But that fatigue is exactly the problem, because from the beginning of his run for president, Trump has been treated not just by different rules but by rules that indulge his most dangerous tendencies.
At the same time, we allow him to manipulate us into chasing false charges that he makes against other people. And if we don’t realize how pernicious this is, we’re going to keep making the same mistakes, especially in 2020 when Trump will have a Democratic opponent to slander.
In February 2017, a top White House aide who was Trump’s longtime personal bodyguard, along with the top lawyer at the Trump Organization and a third man, showed up at the office of Trump’s New York doctor without notice and took all the president’s medical records.
That “New York doctor” is Trump’s former physician, Harold Bornstein, the source of the account. The “longtime personal bodyguard” is Keith Schiller, at the time a White House staffer.
This appears to be a clear violation of the law. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), they would have had to present Bornstein with a special form in which Trump authorized them to receive copies of his records, which they reportedly didn’t. They certainly wouldn’t be allowed to rifle through a doctor’s records and seize the originals, which is how Bornstein described what happened, calling it a “raid.”
Bornstein himself may have committed a HIPAA violation when he told the New York Times that he had prescribed a hair-growth drug for Trump. That article ran two days before Schiller’s visit to his office, suggesting the article (and Trump’s inevitable rage over it) is what prompted the visit.
The White House insists that this is no big deal. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “It would be standard procedure for the newly elected president’s medical records to be in possession by the White House medical unit, and that was what was taking place — is those records were being transferred over to the White House medical unit as requested.”
But that doesn’t seem true either. They could have just asked for a copy of Trump’s records to be sent over so that he could be properly treated by the White House medical unit. Sending Trump’s bodyguard to New York to seize the originals is an entirely different matter.
In addition, Bornstein now admits that when he wrote a letter in December 2015 attesting to Trump’s good health, he was actually taking dictation from Trump himself.
Now here’s why this is important. At the time, everyone understood that was exactly what happened. The letter was not something any trained physician would write, and it was written in Trump’s distinctive sixth-grade braggadocio. It said “Mr. Trump has had a recent complete medical examination that showed only positive results,” that Trump’s blood work was “astonishingly excellent,” that “his physical strength and stamina are extraordinary,” and finally, that “if elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” It could not have been more obvious that Trump was the actual author of the letter if it had been signed “Donald J. Trump, I mean Harold Bornstein.”
If Hillary Clinton had done that, we would have been apoplectic, and rightfully so. But at the time, everyone treated the whole thing almost as a joke. Trump should certainly be more forthcoming, reporters said, but here’s this wacky-looking doctor with long hair writing this absurd letter — isn’t that hilarious?! Well, yes, it was comical. But a presidential candidate was hiding his medical situation from the public. And not any candidate, but the candidate who would become the oldest president ever elected, and who seems to eat nothing but fast food.
Yet at the very same time, the press not only treated Clinton’s health as a matter of utmost seriousness; it also was quick to accuse her of being overly secretive and dishonest about it.
You may remember that in September 2016, Clinton had a bout of pneumonia. At a Sept. 11 memorial event on a hot day, she got lightheaded as she was headed toward her car, stumbling and being caught by aides. The reaction from the press was to treat it as an absolutely momentous event that not only raised profound questions about her fitness to be president but also showed how sneaky and deceitful she was for not announcing the illness to the press the moment it was diagnosed.
“Hillary Clinton Is Set Back by Decision to Keep Illness Secret” said the front-page headline in the New York Times the next day. On that day, the cable TV networks ran a total of 13½ hours of coverage of Clinton’s health. Fox News went into paroxysms of speculation about the varieties of brain ailments Clinton might be suffering from. Politico published a photo gallery entitled “Hydrated Hillary: 9 times Clinton quenched her thirst,” just to show her bizarre water-drinking behavior that surely must have been concealing something.
All this demonstrates the shifting standards candidates are treated with, which somehow kept working to Trump’s benefit. On one hand, there’s a presumption that politicians tell the truth most of the time, so the things they say should be treated with a basic level of respect. Which means that when someone like Trump comes along telling obvious, constant lies, those lies just get passed on to the public over and over. Any particular lie gets discussed for a while, then set aside with a chuckle and a shake of the head. We sure are living in crazy times!
Yet when he makes false charges about others, as he regularly does, they’re given what is functionally the same respect as any other statement, to be passed on and repeated until concrete evidence emerges to prove they’re false.
Trump understands all this perfectly well. As he once told his then-toady Billy Bush when Bush called him out (privately) for lying about how great the ratings for “The Apprentice” were: “People will just believe you. You just tell them, and they believe you.”
While this is something that should concern us each and every day, we need to be particularly on guard when the 2020 election begins. Trump is going to run a scorched-earth campaign against the Democratic nominee, not just of sneering ridicule but also of innuendo and outright slander. One way we can prepare for it is to stop treating the lies Trump tells — such as putting out false letters about his medical condition — as though they’re anything less than the scandal they ought to be.