Elizabeth Warren and that Washington Post story

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Trump’s SOTU speech was a cynical exercise in pretend bipartisanship

Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi in happier times. 2017 photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Was President Trump’s bipartisan outreach in his State of the Union address Tuesday night a cynical attempt to recast himself as something he fundamentally is not? Or was it an even more cynical attempt to be seen as bipartisan while winking and nodding to his hardcore supporters? As Lily Tomlin once observed, “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” I thought it was clear that Trump was pursuing the latter course. So take this as my attempt to stay ahead of the Tomlin curve.

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A malign force from Nixon to Trump: Revisiting the Roger Stone biopic

Roger Stone. Illustration (cc) by DonkeyHotey.

In rewatching the Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone” this week, I was reminded of how crucial Stone was to the entire Trump political enterprise — starting in the late 1980s, when Trump visited New Hampshire at Stone’s instigation.

“The Trump candidacy was a pure Roger Stone production,” says Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote a profile of Stone for The New Yorker and is one of the principal talking heads in the 2017 film, directed by Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro.

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Yes, the networks were right to give Trump airtime. No, it wasn’t worth watching.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Of course the networks made the right decision in giving President Trump airtime to deliver yet another pitch for his border wall. Yes, he lied, as we all knew he would. Yes, he engaged in fear-mongering, which is to say that he opened his mouth and spoke. But the notion that television executives should have said no to a president making his first request for a prime-time Oval Office address in the midst of the shutdown crisis (a crisis of his own making, but still) is hard to take seriously.

And yet that’s where we are.

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God help me, but I’m writing about Elizabeth Warren and the likability factor

Elizabeth Warren. Photo (cc) 2012 by Edward Kimmel.

A few very brief thoughts about Elizabeth Warren and whether she’s “likable enough” (to recycle an unfortunate old quote from Barack Obama) to be elected president — the subject of a front-page story in today’s Boston Globe as well as multiple other outlets.

First, yes, of course there’s an element of sexism to it, as there was when the same questions were raised over and over about Hillary Clinton. But let’s not get carried away — it’s not just sexism. Republicans used the likability factor like a sledgehammer against Al Gore and John Kerry, and it was effective. Their opponent, George W. Bush, was regularly described as someone you’d rather have a beer with, which always struck me as pretty odd given that Bush was an alcoholic who had given up drinking.

Second, in Warren’s case, “likability” is shorthand for something real — a lack of political adroitness despite her substantive strengths and despite being, as best as I can determine, genuinely likable. The whole Native American thing is ludicrous, and it seems as though she should have been able to put it behind her years ago when Scott Brown and the Boston Herald first tried to make an issue of it. Yet it’s still here, and it makes you think she should have handled it differently. Certainly the DNA test didn’t help.

Third, there’s something to the idea that she let her moment slip away. The news and political cycles are so accelerated now that 2016 may have represented her best chance. That has nothing to do with likability. The fact that Beto O’Rourke may be a serious candidate seems silly unless you view it in that context.

Finally, Warren’s likability is a phony issue because it’s about the pundits, not the voters. If she wins the nomination and is ultimately elected president, there’s the answer to your question: she’s likable enough.

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Romney kicks off 2020 presidential campaign

Mitt Romney. Photo (cc) 2012 by Gage Skidmore.

In case you missed it, Mitt Romney kicked off his 2020 presidential campaign Tuesday by harshly criticizing President Trump in a Washington Post op-ed piece.

It seems transparently obvious that Romney believes Trump won’t survive the Mueller investigation and that he’ll be in the best position to pick up the pieces. Add to that the fact that Utah Republicans can’t stand Trump, and this is a no-risk move by the Mittster — which is to say the only kind of move he ever makes.

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The latest low: The bully-in-chief appoints a judge who supports dwarf-tossing

Candidate Trump mocks a disabled reporter in 2016.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

President Trump, whose multifarious assaults on basic decency include mocking a disabled reporter in front of a crowd of hooting supporters, may have hit yet another new low. Neomi Rao, Trump’s choice to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, is an enthusiastic supporter of dwarf-tossing. Rao’s peculiar obsession with the practice of throwing short-statured people against Velcro walls was reported late last week by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones.

As you might imagine, Rao, a veteran right-wing activist currently serving in the Trump administration, does not claim to take part in this humiliating and dangerous practice. Rather, she has argued on several occasions that dwarf-tossing should be a matter of choice, writing that it should be up to the tossee whether picking up a few bucks in some shady barroom is worth the risk to his health and his self-respect.

Rao explained her views several years ago at The Volokh Conspiracy, a libertarian legal blog, in which she criticized a ruling in France against a little person who wanted to take part in dwarf-tossing. Rao wrote that it “demonstrates how a substantive understanding of dignity can be used to coerce individuals by forcing upon them a particular understanding of dignity irrespective of their individual choices.” She added:

The issue is not whether laws prohibiting dwarf throwing, burqa wearing, prostitution, or pornography may be desirable social policy. Rather these examples demonstrate that the conception of dignity used to defend such policies is not that of human agency and freedom of choice, but rather represents a particular moral view of what dignity requires. These laws do not purport to maximize individual freedom, but instead regulate how individuals must behave in order to maintain dignity (and in the case of criminal prohibitions, stay out of jail).

The individual-rights argument may seem appealing. But it ignores all kinds of activities that society has decided to ban or regulate in order to protect not just the person taking part in those activities but also the rest of us — prostitution, as Rao notes, as well as drug use, cockfighting, underage drinking, casino gambling (until recently), practicing medicine without a license, and driving on the wrong side of the street. So it is with dwarf-tossing, which not only puts the person being tossed at risk of injury because of the spinal abnormalities present in most forms of dwarfism but also places others with dwarfism in harm’s way by normalizing a practice that should be considered beyond the pale.

I have skin in this game, though I hardly consider it a game. Our daughter, Rebecca, has achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. My 2003 book, “Little People,” examines the culture and history of the dwarfism. Among the people I interviewed was Doyle Harris, a dispatcher at the University of Louisville and a former official with Little People of America, an organization for dwarfs and their families. As I wrote in the book:

Nearly twenty years ago, he [Harris] and some friends were waiting outside a Louisville nightclub. It was right around the time that dwarf-tossing — an Australian import that rears its ugly head wherever drunk, stupid men in their twenties gather — had first come to the attention of the media. “One of these guys came out — he was a little inebriated — and he went, ‘Oh, they’re going to have dwarf-tossing tonight. Well, let me practice,'” Harris recalled. “And the next thing I know, the guy literally picks me up and throws me out onto the grass. It was not a good situation. It was very demeaning to me. I was in fairly nice clothes, I was looking to go out, and I’m out in the grass, rolling around, getting grass stains and muddy. It was totally against my will.”

Florida, at one time the locus of dwarf-tossing in the United States, banned the practice in 1989. Incredibly, a state legislator proposed lifting the ban in 2011, dredging up the tiresome freedom-of-choice argument. As Angela Van Etten, a lawyer with dwarfism whose work helped lead to the original ban, wrote in The Huffington Post: “Dwarf tossing appeals to a lower instinct in people and creates a hostile environment in which Little People are disrespected and ridiculed. It legitimizes bully behavior.”

Exactly. Yet we now live in an environment in which bullying is not only condoned but indulged in by the president. In that respect, Neomi Rao seems like the perfect Trump appointment. According to Mother Jones, in addition to her fervor for dwarf-tossing, she holds retrograde views on LGBTQ rights and affirmative action and is an anti-regulation zealot. She should not be confirmed. But who will stop her?

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Despite a pundit meltdown, the midterms were good for Democrats

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I was puzzled as I watched the returns roll in from Tuesday’s midterm elections. For weeks, the polls had pointed to a solid Democratic win in the House, continued Republican control of the Senate, and a tough slog for rising Democratic stars in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. That’s exactly how it played out. And yet the pundit class was acting as though Hillary Clinton had just lost again.

“This is not a blue wave. This is not a wave knocking out all sorts of Republican incumbents,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper. NBC News’ Chuck Todd agreed: “It is not a blue wave.” Added New York Times columnist Paul Krugman: “Clearly Republicans are doing better than expected after a closing argument based entirely on fear and lies. This is going to be grim.” (Quotes compiled by Alex Shephard of The New Republic and Ryan Saavedra of The Daily Wire.)

Why such gloom over being right all along? I’d attribute it to irrational exuberance followed by the dope slap of cold, harsh reality. Even though the data predicted the outcome pretty accurately, I think a lot of commentators — rightly horrified by the deeply unpopular president’s lies, racist outbursts, and attacks on the media — believed in their heart of hearts that a hidden surge of new Democratic voters would sweep the countryside.

It didn’t happen. Nor should anyone have expected it. And by this morning, commentators appeared to have regained their equilibrium. “Republicans will pitch this as a split decision, because they gain seats in the Senate,” wrote Aaron Blake of The Washington Post. “It’s not; the Senate map was highly favorable to them, meaning that maintaining control of it was expected. Democrats just took over a chamber of Congress, and that’s a big thing for them, period.” Michael Brendan Dougherty put it this way at the conservative (but mostly anti-Trump) National Review:

No one should kid themselves. Republicans may have been more resilient in the Senate and in governor’s mansions than people expected, but it’s a big night for Democrats. Early exit polls show that polarization along the lines of sex is real, and a real problem for Republicans. Republicans have turned off women.

It would have been an even bigger night for Democrats were it not for structural disadvantages that artificially boost the Republican vote. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne pointed out, Democrats won the popular vote in House contests Tuesday by about 9.2 percent — more than Republicans won in their big midterm victories of 1994 (7.1 percent), 2010 (7.2 percent), and 2014 (5.7 percent). The votes are still being counted, but if that 9.2 percent margin could be applied nationally, then Democrats would control the House by a margin of 237 to 201. The actual margin will fall well short of that.

House seats aren’t assigned on the basis of a national vote, of course. But partisan gerrymandering that favors Republicans, coupled by a Democratic electorate that is increasingly concentrated in overwhelmingly blue urban areas, means that Democratic victories invariably fall short of the party’s actual vote total. And that’s not even counting the enormous built-in problems they face in presidential and Senate elections, which I wrote about recently.

Three other quick observations about Tuesday’s returns:

1. Democrats prevailed in the House despite what is often described as the strongest economy in years, something that generally favors the party in power. Perhaps the economy wasn’t as much of an issue as it might have been because Trump is so unpopular. Or maybe it’s because the topline economic numbers mask the continued erosion of wages and widening income inequality. Most likely: both.

2. The most significant win for Democrats may have taken place in Florida, where voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to restore voting rights to 1.2 million ex-felons. Samantha J. Gross reported in the Miami Herald that Florida was only one of three states that permanently banned felons from voting. Given the vast racial disparities in the criminal-justice system, the change should provide a large boost for the Democratic vote in 2020.

3. Two Democratic African-American gubernatorial candidates, Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida, appear to have fallen just short of victory. (Abrams, also victimized by voter-suppression efforts, had not yet conceded as of this morning, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) Both candidates were the subject of over-the-top racist attacks. The Washington Post reported, “Robo-calls in Georgia featured a voice impersonating Oprah Winfrey and calling Abrams ‘a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.’ In Florida, robo-calls mimicked Gillum as jungle sounds and chimpanzee noises were heard in the background.” Nauseating — but also effective with the white racists Republicans needed in order to win.

The most important takeaway from the midterms is that the Trump presidency has been significantly diminished, and that investigations into possible wrongdoing on his part and that of his administration have gotten a new jolt of life. As David A. Graham wrote at The Atlantic, “While it will be all but impossible for Democrats to actually turn any of their priorities into law, House control provides them a position to conduct strict oversight of the Trump administration and to further bog down an already sclerotic presidency.”

The punditocracy’s initial reaction was wrong, but that’s hardly a surprise. If you’re a progressive, a Democrat, or just an appalled critic of the president, imagine what today would be like if Republicans had hung on to the House. Tuesday’s results were good for accountability — and, thus, for the country.

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What would Mister Rogers have said about the Trump-inspired hatemongers of the right?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It was an irresistible hook at a moment of horror: Squirrel Hill, the heavily Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh where a hate-mongering gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, was the home of the late Fred Rogers, the otherworldly host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

“It doesn’t just feel like a ‘Mr. Rogers kind of neighborhood’ — it was Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood,” wrote my friend and former Northeastern colleague Dina Kraft in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, whose bat mitvah was held at Tree of Life after her family’s regular synagogue burned down, recalled Jews and gentiles working together to put out the fire:

As Beth Shalom’s executive director told a reporter at the time: “I didn’t have to look — everyone came to me.” The line put me in mind of my favorite of Fred Rogers’ sayings. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

Last summer we saw the Fred Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Rogers was not a major part of my life. I was too old for his original television show, and by the time we had kids the program was fading away. But I’ve thought about Rogers quite a lot since seeing the film and have wondered what this profoundly unhateful, uncynical children’s advocate would say about what is happening to us.

How might things be different if the Pittsburgh shooter had been exposed at the right time in his life to someone as devoted to the emotional development of children as Rogers? Or the conspiracy-minded Florida man who was arrested last week and charged with sending pipe bombs to high-profile liberal and media targets such as the Clintons, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, and CNN? Or the racist white Kentucky man who authorities say walked into a supermarket last week and murdered two elderly African-Americans — but only after he tried and failed to enter a black church?

Or — it has to be said — what if someone like Fred Rogers had been able to reach President Trump at a young age?

I find myself feeling more sad than angry. That sadness stems not just from the terrible events that have taken place during the past week but from the certainty that our president has helped stoke the right-wing lunacy that has been unleashed upon us. Trump does not care about the consequences of his words as long as he believes they will advance his own selfish interests.

There has been much speculation in recent days — renewed speculation, that is — as to whether Trump is an anti-Semite, notwithstanding the fact that some members of his own family are Jews. I think that’s the wrong question. So what if, in his heart, he does not harbor anti-Semitic views? What matters is that he is willing to use anti-Semitism when it suits him, just as he is willing to use racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny. Meanwhile, anti-Semitism is on the rise, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Rich Lowry, a callow opportunist who passes for a responsible conservative by the low standards of our times, had the temerity to sneeringly ask on Twitter: “What’s even the theory supposed to be that Trump is an anti-Semite?” That brought about a devastating retort from the journalist Mehdi Hasan, who pointed out that Trump has engaged in such dubious behavior as consorting with white nationalists and attacking “globalists,” a euphemism for educated Jews.

Much of the Trump-inspired hysteria of the past few weeks can be tied to the president’s exploitation of the so-called caravan of Honduran immigrants who have left their country to escape violence. Never mind that they are in southern Mexico and that few of them have much chance of entering the United States. Trump and his sycophants on Fox News and elsewhere have conflated this into some sort of George Soros-financed (that is to say, Jewish) plot to flood the country with illegal aliens — I am using their term, not mine — so that they can vote for Democrats on Nov. 6. The alleged Pittsburgh shooter specifically cited this bizarre theory in a post on Gab, which has been described as a social platform for anti-Semites. Adam Serwer of The Atlantic explains:

The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election. There is no political gesture, no public statement, and no alteration in rhetoric or behavior that will change this fact. The shooter might have found a different reason to act on a different day. But he chose to act on Saturday, and he apparently chose to act in response to a political fiction that the president himself chose to spread and that his followers chose to amplify.

Trump himself has doubled down on his rhetoric, tweeting that “Gang Members and some very bad people” are part of the caravan and repeating his dangerous assertion that the media (oops, sorry, just the “fake news” media) are “the Enemy of the People.”

No doubt Trump is scared. If the Republicans lose one branch of Congress in November, he will finally face the prospect of a serious investigation on Capitol Hill — an investigation that is almost certain to document all manner of wrongdoing. He is willing to say anything to prevent that from happening. As ugly as his rhetoric has been, it is likely to get worse — and damn the consequences. Josh Marshall, for instance, wrote the other day about a new Trump ad that reeks of anti-Semitism.

We have come a long way from Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. And we are all the worse for it.

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How Trump buries the truth beneath a blizzard of lies

Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBH News.

Last week I was asked a provocative question. What prompted it was a panel discussion of The New York Times’ 14,000-word exposé of how President Trump built his fortune on the dual foundations of his father’s wealth and of legally dubious tax schemes. The story was such a sensation that the Times printed it twice — once on Oct. 3 and again the following Sunday. Yet it seems to have barely resonated beyond the Times’ core readership.

Why, the panelists were asked, should we care? Thanks to the Trump effect, paid subscriptions are up at mainstream newspapers like the Times and The Washington Post, listenership has grown at NPR, and donations to nonprofit news organizations like ProPublica have increased. Wasn’t that good enough?

I responded that journalists want to do more than reach an audience. They want to have impact. They want to see concrete evidence that great reporting has an effect. That doesn’t mean journalists — good ones, anyway — want to change the outcome of elections or substitute their own judgment for that of the public. But it does mean that when they do important work, they want it to resonate beyond those already inclined to believe them without having it immediately dismissed as #fakenews by those on the other side of the social and cultural divide. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens in our current hyperpolarized environment.

I’m not sure what can be done. But New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, one of our most perceptive media observers, thinks he knows what’s behind much of it: a deliberate blizzard of lying by our president aimed at burying stories beneath an avalanche of falsehoods; a right-wing populist movement in the United States and Europe that dismisses anything coming out of the mainstream press as corrupt and elitist; and the decline of trust in the media, accompanied and exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of journalism’s business model.

The heart of Rosen’s argument is contained within a recent post at his blog, PressThink:

In the United States the President is leading a hate movement against journalism, and with his core supporters it is succeeding. They reject the product on principle. Their leading source of information about Trump is Trump, which means an authoritarian news system is for them up and running. Before journalists log on in the morning, one third of their potential public is gone. No one knows what to do about it.

Of course, Trump wouldn’t be able to wield this kind of power over the truth if he didn’t have enablers in the media, principally Fox News. But here we are some three and half years since he rode down the escalator and into the center of our political life, and too many journalists still don’t know how to cover him. Not that there are any obvious solutions. But surely the editors at USA Today knew better than to publish his falsehood-filled op-ed piece last week. And mainstream outlets too often engage in coverage that normalizes this most abnormal of presidents.

A large part of what needs to happen, Rosen says, is to acknowledge precisely what Trump is doing. I’m enough of a traditionalist that I have been more comfortable with describing Trump’s “falsehoods” rather than “lies,” mainly because we have no way of crawling inside his head to determine whether he knows the difference. Far too often, though, Trump traffics in false information that has been thoroughly debunked so many times that he has to know better. Through mid-September, he had spoken falsely more than 5,000 times as president. It’s clear that many of those falsehoods are deliberate, and that he lies for a reason. Rosen, in a Twitter thread, explained what Trump is doing:

Flooding the system with too much news, much of it misleading or simply false, not only reduces the weight of any individual story; it has the further effect of keeping opponents in a pop-eyed state of outrage, which in turns shows supporters a hateful image of the other side.

And that is why journalists care not just about reaching their own pre-determined audience but in changing hearts and minds. In decades past, reporters made a difference in how we thought about civil rights, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. Now nothing seems to matter. The Times’ tax story, Rosen wrote in his Twitter thread, “is proving to be simultaneously devastating and harmless, a news condition previously unknown to presidents facing a check-on-power press.” Trump is a historically unpopular president, yet he continues to exert a mesmerizing hold on his base — a base that has proved impervious to facts.

The Times and the Post, in particular, are doing a magnificent job of telling the story of the Trump era. Those two papers have never been more important than they are today. Yet in a fundamental way they have ceased to matter. Democracy dies in darkness. But it might also die in the clear light of day if not enough people care — no matter how much our audience has grown or how many subscriptions we’ve sold.

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