Category Archives: Politics

The Wikileaks DNC email dump is Putin’s latest gift to Trump

Trump's running mate. Official Kremlin photo (cc) 2014 via Global Panorama.

Trump’s running mate. Official Kremlin photo (cc) 2014 via Global Panorama.

The job of the party infrastructure is to win elections. Democratic and Republican party officials regularly recruit candidates and punish weaker contenders who refuse to get out of the way. So the Wikileaks revelation of emails showing that the Democratic National Committee talked about helping Hillary Clinton and hurting Bernie Sanders mean exactly nothing. One email suggested that Sanders be attacked on the grounds that he might be an atheist. That’s pretty vicious stuff, but it didn’t happen.

Top Democrats believed that they were more likely to lose in November with a 74-year-old socialist at the top of the ticket than with Hillary Clinton, however flawed she may be. You’re free to disagree, but that was their judgment, and it’s not insane.

Outraged Sanders supporters might also keep in mind that the Wikileaks email dump is almost certainly a favor to Donald Trump from the Russian government, even if Wikileaks wasn’t directly involved. What we’ve already learned about the Trump-Putin connection would have been enough to force a presidential candidate to step aside in past election cycles. Now no one seems to care.

Meanwhile, Trump is back to claiming that Ted Cruz’s father may have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Trump’s fear-mongering and the authoritarian impulse

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

By now you’ve probably glanced at multiple takes from pundits who are recoiling in horror at Donald Trump’s angry, red-faced, seemingly endless acceptance speech. I don’t disagree with any of them. Yes, he embraced the cult of personality, which is the hallmark of authoritarianism. Yes, his demonization of the Other was reminiscent of fascism.

Underlying all of that, though, is something that went largely unspoken: under the right circumstances, fascism can be popular. And if the circumstances aren’t right, you can sometimes create your own. I’ll get to that. But first, let’s take a look at whether the public liked what it saw and heard.

An instant poll taken right after a speech may not tell us much, but I thought the one conducted by CNN and Opinion Research Corporation was fairly well designed. It was random, and its composition—41 percent Republican, 23 percent Democratic, and 36 percent independent—was, as the pollsters put it, reflective of the fact that more Republicans than Democrats are going to watch a Republican speech.

So what did the CNN/ORC poll find? Fifty-seven percent thought Trump’s speech was “very effective,” and another 18 percent thought it was “somewhat effective.” Just 24 percent had either a “very negative” or “somewhat negative” reaction. In response to what they thought of the policies that Trump outlined, 73 percent said they would move the country in a “positive” direction and 24 percent said “negative.”

In other words, Trump is going to get his convention bounce despite a week marred by chaos, plagiarism, Ted Cruz’s defiance, and Trump’s truly disturbing interview with the New York Times in which he threatened to walk away from our NATO commitments.

The United States in 2016 is prosperous, with the economy slowly returning to normal following the worst collapse since the Great Depression. Illegal immigration is down. Year-to-year blips notwithstanding, crime and violence have declined considerably from years past. With our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down, far fewer American troops are being sacrificed. We are in the midst of an awful period of mass shootings, the killings of black men by police officers under circumstances that are often questionable, and, now, the targeting of police officers. But as terrible as these things are, our 24-hour media culture has made them appear far worse.

But as I said, when the circumstances aren’t right for authoritarianism, the strongman creates his own circumstances. That’s what Trump has been doing for his entire campaign. And it’s what he did Thursday night.

“This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction, terrorism, and weakness,” Trump said in what I thought was the defining moment of his speech. And as Philip Rucker and David Fahrenthold observe in the Washington Post, that brought the delegates to their feet for another round of their favorite chant: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”

At that point, the Great Leader smiled benignly and said, no, their focus should be on defeating Clinton in November. It was Peak Trump—the ultimate piece of political theater from someone who has turned “I didn’t say it, but others are” into an art form. Meanwhile, the hatred Trump has encouraged with his “Crooked Hillary” epithet and his insistence against all evidence that she has committed crimes led to an outburst from one of his own advisers that Clinton should be “shot for treason.”

There was so much mendacity on display that the fact-checkers could barely keep up. Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee’s analysis in the Washington Post was especially comprehensive, finding that Trump lied about crime, immigration, taxes, food stamps, the Iran nuclear deal, Benghazi, Clinton’s private email server, trade, and more. They rightly called his speech “a compendium of doomsday stats that fall apart upon close scrutiny. Numbers are taken out of context, data is manipulated, and sometimes the facts are wrong.”

As has often been observed, we are now living in a post-fact era. But Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s pushback against CNN’s Jake Tapper may have represented a new low. When Tapper pointed out that FBI statistics don’t support the Trumpian view of the United States as a post-apocalyptic moonscape (my characterization, not Tapper’s) of crime and violence, Manafort responded, “People don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods. I’m not sure what statistics you’re talking about. The FBI is certainly suspect these days after what they just did with Hillary Clinton.” In other words, if the facts don’t support you, smear the fact-finder.

Finally, a few words about Trump’s outreach to the LGBT community. Letting Peter Thiel speak and spelling out the letters L-G-B-T-Q as if you were squinting at an eye chart at the optometrist’s is no substitute for signing off on a viciously anti-LGBT party platform—or for choosing a running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, whose anti-gay record is among the worst of any major elected official.

Clinton continues to hold a small but solid lead in the polls. Nevertheless, that margin has been shrinking. As of this morning, FiveThirtyEight gives her a 60 percent chance of winning the presidency (down from 80 percent a few weeks ago) while the New York Times has her at 74 percent.

One thing we learned four years ago (if anything from four years ago still matters) is that even a small lead can prove durable given that most voters in this divisive era make up their minds long before Election Day. But fear and hatred are powerful forces, and Trump has proved himself to be a master at manipulating the emotions of his supporters.

It seems unlikely that he’ll expand that support enough to actually win. But who among us thought a year ago that he’d be standing at the podium on the last night of the Republican National Convention, accepting the party’s nomination for president of these United States?

Cruz looks like a genius after Trump’s NATO outburst

Ted Cruz earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Nathan Congleton.

Ted Cruz earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Nathan Congleton.

Previously pubished at WGBHNews.org.

There is no one in politics better at playing a bad hand than Ted Cruz. Even before we learned that Donald Trump had given a deeply disturbing interview to the New York Times in which he walked away from our NATO commitments, I thought gettingbooed off the stage was likely to prove a good career move for Cruz. Now he looks like a genius.

We’ve all said this a million times over the past year, but Trump’s remarks about NATO struck me as disqualifying in a way that his previous ill-considered outbursts were not. Republicans may have cringed at his racist, violence-loving rhetoric, but ultimately they don’t care if he’s disparaging Latinos, Muslims, or women. But to undermine NATO—why, that’s the sort of thing they would falsely accuse President Obama of, or Hillary Clinton.

If these people had any principles, Paul Ryan today would endorse Clinton. Mike Pence would quit the ticket. Of course that won’t happen. But conservatives who are not institutionally tied to the Republican Party are going to rage about this for the rest of the campaign. Even before the NATO outburst, for instance, the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin, a hardline conservative, offered some advice to Clinton on how she could win over Republicans. And here is a leader of the anti-Trump conservative movement, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum:

There are many lowlights to ponder in the Trump interview, but here’s one that really stuck out:

When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger.

My God. This is exactly the sort of rhetoric that Republicans have been falsely accusing Democrats of using for years. Obama apologized! And, needless to say, Trump is just plain wrong. We have many faults, because we’re a country and because we’re human. But very few nations are as free as the United States. Trump wouldn’t need to build a wall if so many people weren’t trying to come here.

If you haven’t already, please have a look at Franklin Foer’s recent piece in Slate on the ties between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Finally, I will close by reprising anti-Trump conservative Tom Nichols’s tweetstorm from two months ago.

Plagiarism and the political speech

I am not making any excuses for Melania Trump, and yes, I’m sure she was lying when she said she wrote her speech pretty much by herself.

But let me reflect briefly on what an odd construct a political speech really is. You hire a speechwriter and read his or her words. If you’re a neophyte, like Trump, you probably just read what’s put in front of you. And if your speechwriter plagiarized, you’re a plagiarist. But if your speechwriter didn’t plagiarize, you’re not a plagiarist, even though you are passing off his words as your own—the very definition of plagiarism.

How unbalanced media debates enabled Trump’s rise

Donald Trump, large and in charge. Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump, large and in charge. Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore.

Last week the editors of the Washington Post‘s blog In Theory asked me to contribute to a series of posts on the media’s culpability in the rise of Donald Trump. Mine was just published. Later in the week we’ll hear from New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, Post media blogger Erik Wemple, and In Theory editor Christine Emba. The top of my piece follows.

What could be more open and democratic than a debate? For all the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth now taking place over the massive amounts of free media bestowed upon Donald Trump, it was his dominating performance in the televised debates that allowed him to separate himself from the pack.

Yet the debates themselves were an exercise in faux democracy. What really mattered, especially early on, was who got invited, who got to stand where and who was allowed to speak the most. Unfortunately, the media organizations that ran the debates (along with the Republican National Committee) relied on polls to make those decisions right from the very first encounter in August.

Read the rest in the Washington Post.

The end of the line for the Clinton email story

Photo (cc) by

Photo (cc) by Atos.

About three months ago I wrote an analysis for WGBH News on why Hillary Clinton almost certainly wouldn’t be indicted for using a private email server. Today the email story came to its predictable conclusion, with FBI Director James Comey issuing a devastatingly harsh report but recommending no criminal charges.

So we move on. We can only hope that the deeply wounded candidate is able to defeat the racist demagogue who tweets out anti-Semitic memes produced by white supremacists and then tries to blame the media for it.

Clinton has suffered an enormous amount of damage over this story—deservedly so. But it doesn’t strike me that things got any worse for her this morning.

Clinton’s comeback is like nothing since Richard Nixon’s

comparing-hillary-clinton-to-nixon-may-actually-work-in-her-favor

Public domain photos via Business Insider.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Hillary Clinton had seemed like the inevitable Democratic nominee for so long—not just in the current campaign, but eight years ago as well—that she tends not to get the credit she’s due for what is by any measure a remarkable accomplishment.

And it’s not just that she’s the first woman to become the presumptive nominee of a major party, though that is legitimately a big deal. She also staged a comeback unlike any in recent political history. Since her enemies like to compare her to Richard Nixon, she ought to get the benefit of that comparison as well—as she does in a piece by Peter Beinart at the Atlantic, who writes:

In purely political terms, Clinton’s victory—after losing the Democratic nomination in 2008—constitutes the greatest comeback by a presidential candidate since Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination in 1968, after losing the presidential election of 1960.

Clinton’s fall from grace eight years ago was more devastating than we might remember, Beinart argues, noting that major party figures such as Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, and Chuck Schumer were so appalled at the prospect of a Clinton campaign that they urged Barack Obama (some openly, some privately) to run against her. Civil-rights leader John Lewis even unendorsed her and switched to Obama.

“Over the past 30 years, no American political figure has absorbed as many blows as Clinton,” Beinart writes. “And none has responded with more tenacity and grit.”

That theme is also reflected in Amy Chozick’s “how she won” story in the New York Times: “She may not be the orator President Obama is, or the retail politician her husband was. But Mrs. Clinton’s steely fortitude in this campaign has plainly inspired older women, black voters and many others who see in her perseverance a kind of mirror to their own struggles.”

Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Karen Tumulty reminds us of Clinton’s shortcomings as a politician: “Not one for mega-rallies, she prefers small, scripted settings where she can discuss the policy intricacies of heroin addiction, mental health treatment, college debt or gun control—all the while keeping her campaign press corps at arm’s length. There have also been times when her tone-deafness could be spectacular.”

Thanks to the Associated Press’s questionable decision to proclaim Clinton the presumptive nominee on Monday evening (see this Facebook post by Bill Mitchell of Poynter), today’s headlines are anticlimactic. The print edition of the Times leads with “Clinton Claims the Democratic Nomination,” which feels like an update of Tuesday’s awkward banner: “Clinton Reaches Historic Mark, A.P. Says.” Today’s Post offers “Clinton celebrates victory,” and it’s less than a full page across. On Monday the Post went six columns with “Clinton reaches magic number for historic nomination.”

As of Wednesday morning, Bernie Sanders is vowing to stay in the race even though Clinton has now won a majority of pledged delegates as well as superdelegates, and has received nearly 3.7 million more votes. Media and political voices are strongly suggesting Sanders’s refusal to concede might change over the next few days as reality sinks in for him and his supporters.

But after reading this piece in Politico by Edward-Isaac Dovere and Gabriel Debenedetti, I’m not so sure. According to their reporting, Sanders is the chief hothead in his own campaign, continually overruling his advisers in favor of more aggression. “More than any of them,” they write, “Sanders is himself filled with resentment, on edge, feeling like he gets no respect—all while holding on in his head to the enticing but remote chance that Clinton may be indicted before the convention.”

So much for party unity. Then again, the self-styled democratic socialist has only been a Democrat for a few months.

Finally, Tuesday may have been Hillary Clinton’s day, but the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, came close to dominating it, as he does in practically every news cycle.

This time it wasn’t a matter of the cable networks giving him more attention than he deserved. Instead, there was actual news, as Republicans staged a collective freakout over Trump’s racist statements about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, as Matt Viser reports in the Boston Globe; House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced Trump’s comments as “racist” while sticking by his endorsement (“Everywhere Paul Ryan turns, there’s the smell of Trump” is the headline on Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column); and Trump himself issued a nonapology in the afternoon while delivering a rare prepared speech at night in which he viciously attacked Clinton but avoided his usual excesses.

At this point, conservatives are hopelessly divided over how they should respond to the demagogue at the top of the GOP ticket. A Wall Street Journal editorial criticizes conservatives for pressuring Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to abandon Trump, while Jonah Goldberg of National Review, a leading anti-Trump conservative journal, blasts Ryan for not being tough enough: “Because Trump did nothing to earn Ryan’s endorsement, the presumptive nominee may conclude that he needn’t negotiate with the GOP establishment; he can just count on its eventual submission.”

Meanwhile, at the Weekly Standard—whose editor, Bill Kristol, has been unsuccessfully trying to convince a conservative to mount an independent campaign—Jay Cost pens an open letter to Mitt Romney begging the former Massachusetts governor to run. Cost begins:

I write to you not as a fellow conservative, not as a fellow partisan, but as a citizen of our republic. You have served your nation admirably for many years and by any ordinary standard are entitled to a happy retirement. But these are extraordinary times, and your nation still has need of your service. I respectfully implore you to run for president as an independent candidate in 2016.

It’s not likely to happen. Even if a significant number of voters could be persuaded to support an independent, it may be too late for such a candidate to get on the ballot in enough states for it to matter. (I should note that the Libertarian ticket of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld is in fact on the ballot in all 50 states.)

Still, Cost’s desperate plea is a sign of the straits in which the Republicans find themselves with Trump at the top of the ticket.

Someone pointed out the other day that the Iowa caucuses were just four months ago, whereas we still have five months to go before the November election. If you’re sick of this campaign, you’re far from alone. Unfortunately, we’ve just gotten started.