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

May 24, 2017

The Ahistorical Donald Trump

By David K. Shipler

            There is an intriguing quality about President Trump, one that makes him a laughing stock at one moment, a loose cannon the next, and a breath of fresh air to many of his supporters. He is completely untethered to history—to the history of his own country, to the histories of other countries he deals with, to the history of carefully constructed US policy, and even to the history of his own pronouncements.
            He has no compunction about contradicting himself, as he has in recent days about Islam, and he seems content to address a problem as if it were a blank slate without a long background of messy complications. Unburdened by the expertise of scholarship or diplomacy—which he obviously didn’t tap for his Mideast trip—his statements to Sunni Arab leaders in Riyadh and to Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Tel Aviv and Bethlehem sound simplistic, devoid of all the hand-wringing doubts that specialists in the region would include.
That might be a good thing if it meant cutting past the burdensome histories that weigh down the region. You might call that creative naïveté. But it’s hard to see much prospect in Trump’s bumper-sticker approaches. Both sides want peace, let’s do a deal. All sides want to defeat terrorism, let’s blame Iran and ready our billions in American arms. Let’s give Arab despots the green light to suppress their domestic oppositions in the name of fighting terrorism. Let’s conveniently forget that the Saudi hosts developed Wahhabism from which al-Qaeda’s ideology flourished. Let’s not analyze the endemic, local wellsprings of radicalism but rather—as the writer Robin Wright has noted in criticism—portray it as some alien invasion that can be expelled “out of this earth,” as Trump urged the Muslim leaders gathered in Riyadh.
            You don’t get very far in most parts of the world without understanding the history. On the other hand, you don’t get anywhere being imprisoned by it, as the Israelis and the Palestinians are. They have accumulated layers of historical grievances, sandwiched in between layers of assertive blindness to each other’s historical narratives.
            Israel’s is the story of yearning for a Jewish homeland, propelled most intensely by the Holocaust, and finally realized in the country’s 1948 War of Independence. The Palestinians’ is the story of a people deeply rooted in the same land for generations, being ruled by outsiders and then torn away by that same 1948 war, which they call al-Nakba, the Catastrophe. There is no reconciling these clashing narratives, but to gain peace each side must somehow come to respect the other’s suffering and dreams.
Trump seems oblivious to all of this, to the fact that no peace “deal” can ignore the respective histories. It is not like a real estate contract. Further, you have to know the past to escape from its entanglements, and an escape is necessary for a true agreement. The stuff of a peace treaty—agreeable boundaries and security arrangements—won’t reach deeply enough into the memories of Israelis and Palestinians to heal wounds and revise their self-defining narratives of heroism and victimhood. That requires inspired leadership on both sides, changes in school curricula, and much more.
There’s little an American president can do about this, as Trump’s predecessors have learned, so his exhortations to peace seem destined to fail in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. In the broader Middle East, too, his weapons sales to Sunnis and his blame of Shiite Iran for all evil in the region seem more likely to exacerbate the Sunni-Shiite conflict than snuff out ISIS. For all its nefarious meddling in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, Iran is also fighting ISIS. And its citizens just voted overwhelmingly for moderation. A canny US president would see opportunity there.
But Trump is remarkably tone deaf to the powerful discords of history, especially when they don’t involve him. This, in turn, embarrasses Americans. Consider the following collection of inscriptions written in the guest book of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the somber, haunting memorial and museum commemorating Jews who perished in the Holocaust:
President Bill Clinton: “Today we have come one step closer to the time when the people of Israel will live in peace with all of their neighbors, when the awful events of death and destruction memorialized here will be banished to the past.”
President George W. Bush: “God Bless Israel.”
Candidate Barack Obama in 2008: “I am grateful to Yad Vashem and all of those responsible for this remarkable institution. At a time of great peril and promise, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man's potential for great evil, but also our own capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world. Let our children come here, and know their history, so that they can add their voices to proclaim ‘never again.’ And may we remember those who perished, not only as victims, but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed like us, and who have become symbols of the human spirit.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009: “Yad Vashem is a testament to the power of truth in the face of denial, the resilience of the human spirit in the face of despair, the triumph of the Jewish people over murder and destruction and a reminder to all people that the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.”

President Donald Trump: “It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends – so amazing & will never forget!”

May 11, 2017

Politicizing the FBI

By  David K. Shipler

            The FBI has never been entirely insulated from politics, especially during the long tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, who in his 48 years as director (1924-72) compiled compromising dossiers on government officials and private Americans that gave him enormous leverage. His agency tried to provoke Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide by threatening to publicize the civil rights leader’s womanizing. It sent phony letters to wives of Black Panthers, purporting to be from their mistresses. It conducted surveillance of labor leaders, members of Congress, and at least one Supreme Court justice, funneling information to presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson. (During the 1964 presidential campaign, LBJ had the FBI report on the staff of his opponent, Barry Goldwater.)
            The road back to those days would be long and difficult, even with a President Trump who lacks ethical and constitutional brakes. But it’s possible, and Trump’s next moves will be telling. The first question is whom he’ll nominate to replace James Comey, fired just days after Comey requested more assets for the FBI’s investigation of Russian involvement in Trump’s campaign. The second question is whether enough Senate Republicans will demand that the new director be unassailably independent.
Because, make no mistake: Trump wants to swing his weight around as decisively as possible, and no more dramatically than in security and law enforcement. This is not only about covering up a Russia connection; it is to set the stage for draconian measures against Muslims after the next domestic terrorist attack, to emasculate investigations into police brutality, and to turn the power of the FBI against political dissent. Comey would probably have stood in the way. As bumbling as he was in his public disclosures about the Clinton emails, he was also known as a defender of the rule of law.
The FBI has a sordid history of hunting for phantom communists, keeping loyalty files on hundreds of thousands of Americans, wiretapping without warrants, and infiltrating and disrupting antiwar and civil rights groups—especially under what the bureau called COINTELPRO during the Cold War. Only in the 1970s, after the Church committee exposed the broad swath of wrongdoing, were protections imposed. These included restricting the FBI director to a 10-year term to preclude another Hoover phenomenon. But the position has no job security, obviously, since the president may fire at will.

April 30, 2017

Foreign Policy: The Magnetism of the Center

By David K. Shipler

            The forces of international affairs usually drive US presidents toward the political center. Wherever they may begin, on the left or the right, presidents tend to feel pulled toward a middle ground, a place of more moderation and hesitation than they might prefer. Confronted by the complexity of crisis and the pragmatic limitations of power, most—not all—end up pursuing centrist policies. These bear marked resemblance to those of their predecessors and successors.
            A question now is whether this happens to President Trump. He has staffed his key foreign affairs positions with relatively level heads whose pronouncements are more sober than his own. They often contradict Trump’s dogmatic, threatening tweets and the absolutist, sweeping pledges from his campaign. Trump himself careens from the absurd, scary, and impractical to a more reasonable zone of compromise. Where he will end up on a given issue is highly unpredictable and therefore unsettling across the globe. But his inconsistency also raises intermittent hopes that realities are penetrating policymaking.
            A president has more authority in foreign policy than in domestic affairs, since he commands both military force and diplomacy, and can move more quickly than Congress ever does in picking over budget provisions on the tax code, health care, environmental issues, the social safety net, and other government programs to benefit Americans. In that domestic arena, the center has no apparent magnetism for Trump. Despite the difficulties he faces with the Republican-controlled Congress on health care, for example, he is getting win after win for corporations over individuals, and might do so on his tax proposals. Whatever happens in Congress, his regulatory agencies are in the hands of extreme radicals of the right, whom he has installed to dismantle decades of progress.
 So if Trump begins to look moderate, and beguiles the American public to see him as such, it will be in the international arena, not the domestic.

April 20, 2017

An Encounter with Bill O’Reilly’s Method

By David K. Shipler

            In 2004, with the publication of my book The Working Poor: Invisible in America, I was contacted by producers for the O’Reilly Factor about coming on the show to discuss poverty. First, though, the producers wanted to track down a man who’d made only a cameo appearance in my book, Kevin Fields. He had been buffeted by both his own mistakes and a society that lined up against him as he made assiduous efforts to pull himself into full employment and self-sufficiency. O’Reilly’s producers wanted to get him on the show with me.
            To no good purpose, I was sure. O’Reilly didn’t admire the poor; he stereotyped them. He would make mincemeat of Kevin. So while I tried to locate him, I thought I’d probably warn him what might be coming and perhaps advise him against appearing. But I couldn’t find him. I’d met him through his girlfriend, who had moved and disappeared from public records. There was no listing for him.
This I reported to the producers, but O’Reilly wouldn’t let them give up. So they contacted the penitentiary where Fields had spent two years for assault (with a baseball bat, he had told me, against five guys threatening him and his girlfriend) and got an address. The producers cleverly refrained from telling me that they’d found him, that they’d then interviewed him by phone, and that—while he wouldn’t be on the show—O'Reilly would present distorted facts about him to fit Fields into the conservative image of the immoral, undeserving poor.
I’d mentioned in the book that Fields, trained in prison as a butcher, hadn’t been able to get a job as one and had done mostly landscaping. But O’Reilly was determined to portray him as a lazy, self-indulgent, sex-crazed slacker.

April 9, 2017

Putin's Wrong Bet

By David K. Shipler

            If Vladimir Putin actually preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, he just drew his first bad hand. As (not so) humbly predicted in this journal during the campaign, Clinton would have been a methodical, predictable commander-in-chief who would have acted in Syria and elsewhere within a strong diplomatic and military context, not impulsively based on horrendous photographs of gassed children. That was good enough reason to stir Trump’s latent humanitarian impulses, but a single missile strike without solid preparation and well considered follow-up is unlikely to send what press secretary Sean Spicer called “a very strong signal.” Messages sent with missiles and bombs are rarely received as intended.
Clinton would surely have done what Trump didn’t bother to do: She would have been on the phone with Putin after Syria’s chemical weapons strike. She would have talked with Putin before retaliating. She would have surrounded herself with seasoned foreign-policy professionals who would have been working closely with Moscow, even in tough and hard-headed fashion, to fashion a joint approach to ending the Syrian carnage. She would not have led Putin to fantasize that he had a president in Washington that he could twist around his little finger.
This is a speculative scenario, to be sure. But as both Secretary of State and presidential candidate, Clinton displayed a clear-eyed realpolitik—willing to face down Putin but work with him on the countries’ overlapping interests, especially on counter-terrorism. While more hawkish than President Obama, she showed no inclination to go off on half-cocked military adventures isolated from any coherent strategy.

March 29, 2017

The Papier-Mache President

By David K. Shipler

            Now we know, if we had any doubts, what lies behind Donald Trump’s expansive promises and self-promotion as a tough dealmaker: nothing. The health-care debacle makes it clear that when it comes to driving a hard bargain, Trump is a chump, to use a word that has become fashionable in the mainstream press. He can’t even twist arms in his own party.
His assault on measures to stem climate change, and his withdrawal from the trans-Pacific trade agreement, benefit only China, which is moving to fill the vacuum left by the American departure. Thomas L. Friedman calls this policy, Make China Great Again. And Trump’s shameless use of coal miners as props this week for his empty promises to bring back jobs in a declining industry made him look either cynical or ignorant.
The miners were evidently advised to wear casual short-sleeved shirts, not the customary suits and ties, to the ceremony where Trump signed an executive order to begin a long, legally contentious process of replacing the Obama administration’s restrictions on coal-burning power plants. The class-conscious picture—men in suits vs. men carefully dressed down—said as much about the Trump White House as last week’s photo of all white men discussing their bill stripping women’s health services from insurance requirements.
 These images are icons of contempt. Moreover, they add up to a president who is just a life-size cardboard cutout that you can stand next to and have your picture taken. Behind the façade, there is no there there.

March 23, 2017

Judge Gorsuch's "Magical Notion"

By David K. Shipler

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

March 17, 2017

The Gradual Death of Honest Curiosity

By David K. Shipler

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

March 6, 2017

What Should Democrats Do?

By David K. Shipler

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

February 26, 2017

Speak Loudly and Carry a Small Stick

By David K. Shipler

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