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

January 12, 2018

Trump's Consistent Bigotry


By David K. Shipler

President Trump might be erratic and unpredictable in many areas of public concern, as when he tweeted his disapproval this week—and then, 90 minutes later, his approval—of renewing the government’s authority to collect Americans’ international communications without warrants. His multiple positions on extending permission for Dreamers to stay in the US have been dizzying, and his oscillation between assailing and extolling China seems to depend on how recently the Chinese leadership has feted and flattered him.
But his contempt for people who are not whites of European origin has been as steady as his obsequious adulation of Vladimir Putin and his rampant deregulation of American industry. These seem to be unshakable pillars of attitude and policy, standing solidly against the swirling, impulsive chaos of his White House. Trump has been a dependable bigot, painting entire racial and ethnic groups with the broad brush of prejudice.
Nobody should be surprised. He has a long history. In 1972, federal investigators sent “testers” into a Brooklyn housing development managed by Trump’s company. After a black woman was told that there were no vacancies, a white woman was given a choice of two apartments. Extensive further evidence led to one of the largest civil-rights lawsuits in history.
The Washington Post reported: “Trump employees had secretly marked the applications of minorities with codes, such as ‘No. 9’ and ‘C’ for ‘colored,’ according to government interview accounts filed in federal court. The employees allegedly directed blacks and Puerto Ricans away from buildings with mostly white tenants, and steered them toward properties that had many minorities, the government filings alleged.”
When the Justice Department charged the Trump company with violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Trump denounced the accusations as “such outrageous lies.” Sound familiar? He then hired a family friend, the slimy lawyer Roy Cohn, who had helped Sen. Joseph McCarthy smear loyal Americans as communists, to countersue the government. The case was settled, and Trump never admitted wrongdoing.
Today, American society’s deeply rooted racism is often encrypted, at least in polite company, so that stereotypes are more implicit than explicit. Trump plays to that just-below-the-surface prejudice, either deliberately or instinctively, and often gives it overt voice. He did it by peddling the absurdity that Obama was born in Kenya—a transparent code for saying: He’s not one of us, he doesn’t belong. The curse of “otherness” has long been visited upon African-Americans.
Trump did it—again, whether consciously or not—by summoning up an old stereotype of nonwhites as lazy, as he accused Puerto Ricans after the hurricane devastation last fall of waiting for others to help. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort,” he tweeted from his luxurious golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. It’s a calumny the political right routinely uses against the poor to justify punitive measures built into government social programs. The Huffington Post wickedly ran Trump’s quote beneath a 2011 picture of Donald, Melania, and son Barron, at their extravagant Mar-a-Lago resort, flanked by an army of household workers who evidently do everything for them.
Indeed, federal assistance for Puerto Rico has been stingy compared with the aid that poured into Texas and Florida after the hurricanes. When Trump finally visited the territory, he tossed rolls of paper towels to desperate residents—who are US citizens, by the way. Months after the storms, Puerto Rico still struggles against incomplete electric power, inadequate water supplies, damaged roads, and the rubble of destroyed buildings. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have relocated to Florida, New York, and elsewhere in the US, and many schools are closing for lack of pupils; a debilitating brain drain is underway. The only silver lining is that the influx of Puerto Ricans into Florida, for example, could tip that key battleground state decisively toward the Democrats.
Does any serious person really think that Trump would have practiced such negligence if the citizens who were suffering weren’t brown? Or if, they'd had the political clout in Congress of Texas or Florida?
Trump defends himself against such charges by arguing that race and ethnicity are not factors if he doesn’t mention them. That was his line when he let loose on the professional football players, most of whom were black, who knelt during the National Anthem to protest the state of blacks in America, particularly the pattern of police killing unarmed blacks with impunity. At a rally in Alabama, Trump declared, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” The virtually all-white crowd gave his words a long, loud cheer. He virtually advocated a boycott of the NFL. He ignored the issues the players were addressing, and he ignored the enormous contributions that many make in poor neighborhoods across the country.
Trump voters often take umbrage at being called racists for supporting this racist. But they can’t escape so easily. His crude bigotry was entirely evident during the campaign. Indeed, it was a keystone of his campaign. As everyone must remember, when he announced his run in June 2015, he said of Mexicans, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Again and again as he bashed immigrants, crowds of his supporters—almost all of them white—roared their approval.
The gravitational pull of his bigotry seems to overpower decency and sound judgment, not to mention the country’s interests. He has facilitated the coalescing of neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacist movements and gave light to the sickest tendencies in American society after a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia last August. He equivocated after thousands of torch-bearing whites carried swastikas and banners reading, “Jews will not replace us,” and one of their number rammed a vehicle into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a young woman and injuring 19.
He blamed both the white nationalists and the counter-protesters for violence and said, “You also had some very fine people on both sides.” David Duke, the former KKK leader, praised the president’s statement. In ensuing days, Trump finally condemned the Klan and neo-Nazis, but he could not erase the stain of his first statement.
The examples keep coming to the surface. In an Oval Office meeting with officials last year, Trump was said by some present to have decried the admission of “Haitians to the country,” The New York Times reported, “saying that they all had AIDS, as well as Nigerians, who he said would never go back to their ‘huts.’”
Now, this week, we have his slur against a large swath of the world, telling a Congressional delegation trying to work out immigration reform that he didn’t want people from “shithole countries” like Haiti and African nations but would rather have immigrants from Norway. It’s a safe bet that he was thinking of the blond, blue-eyed Christians from Norway, not Muslim immigrants who live there.
Democratic Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who was present, told reporters that Trump had repeatedly said “things which were hate-filled, vile, and racist.”
Hours later, Trump signed a declaration honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

December 19, 2017

The Business Myth

By David K. Shipler

            Somewhere between the reverence for private business and the excoriation of capitalism there must be a middle ground where the virtues of free enterprise are recognized and its menaces are contained. Finding that territory of moderation seems especially difficult today, as President Trump and the Republican-led Congress move to unchain corporations from the taxes and the regulations that protect social justice, consumer interests, worker safety, and the environment. Meanwhile, the incipient revolution against corporate villainy, now led by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, remains alive but marginal.
            So Washington, for the moment at least, has a government of, by, and for the corporate elite, which was hardly enthusiastic about the Trump candidacy. That is the irony of Trump: a rich entrepreneur stirring up resentment toward powerful business, a splashy spendthrift touting himself as the voice of the “forgotten” struggling blue-collar class, which still approves of him after a year of getting nothing except slogans and wishful thinking.
            The wishful thinking relies on an old myth about business, which has two main parts. First, the notion that reduced corporate taxes will liberate cash to flow to workers, in the form of higher salaries and employment rates, has been a matter of debate for decades between conservatives and liberals. Despite the paucity of evidence from the past, conservatives insist that liberating private companies will boost the overall economy by enhancing capital investment. Liberal economists, by contrast, tend to see the gains going to the wealthy stockholders. Companies are expected to increase dividends and buy back shares, which will raise stock prices.

December 13, 2017

Apathy, Alienation, and Low Voter Turnout

By David K. Shipler

            Not to throw too wet a blanket on Democrats’ euphoria in winning a Senate seat in deeply conservative Alabama, but let’s take a moment to reflect on the sad fact that the worthy candidate, Doug Jones, was elected by merely 20.2 percent of the state’s eligible voters—671,151 out of the 3.3 million who could have cast ballots. His unworthy opponent, the accused pedophile, confirmed bigot, and serial violator of the rule of law, Judge Roy Moore, got 19.5 percent of the electorate.
And the turnout was much higher than expected in a special election, a whopping 40.4 percent, versus the 25 percent that Alabama’s secretary of state had predicted. Wow. In this hotly contested race, which mixed morality with theology and ideology, which put control of the Senate in closer balance, and which exposed the tribal politics that afflicts so many Americans, only 6 out of 10 voters stayed home and let others decide. What an achievement for democracy.
The truth is, it is a democracy that we are in danger of losing unless much higher proportions of citizens participate, at the very least by going to the polls. Otherwise, the middle ground is abandoned to the zealous extremists, some of whom will vote away the civil discourse, the tolerance of political and social plurality, and even the legal rights that protect us all.
This is an urgent truth in presidential elections, just as in state and local contests. With the turnout at 59.3 percent in 2016, only 136.7 million cast ballots, out of 230.6 million eligible voters, whether registered or not. So the percentage needed for victory was very low. It took only 27.3 percent of the country’s eligible citizens over age 18 to put Donald Trump in the White House. (Hillary Clinton got 28.6 percent but of course lost the Electoral College.)
Rule by small minorities has been typical, as a look back two decades demonstrates:
1996 – Bill Clinton was elected by 26.3% of all eligible citizens.
2000 – George W. Bush, by 27.3%
2004 – Bush again, by 31.5%
2008 – Barack Obama, by 33.7%
2012 – Obama again, by 30.6%

December 7, 2017

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

By David K. Shipler

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
Psalm 137:5

            The city of Jerusalem, whose sandstone facades glow ethereally in the slanting light of dawns and dusks, stands on a spine of hills along the lands of milk and of honey. To the east, the land plunging down into the Judean Desert has been traditionally hospitable to milk-producing goat herds. To the west, the fertile coastal plain along the Mediterranean has been sweet with orchards.
            That is the basic biblical geography. At this intersection of semi-nomadic peoples and settled farmers, Jerusalem has been enriched and burdened by ancient affinities and faiths. Its map today is enhanced and scarred by the overlays of history, religion, and nationalism, a treacherous landscape into which President Trump has now stumbled clumsily.
What forces he has unwittingly set loose we do not yet know; predictions in that part of the world are for prophets or fools. But his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State alone, without also recognizing the Palestinians’ yearning for Jerusalem as the capital of their aspirational state, surely diminishes America’s maneuverability.
It’s hard to see what the United States gains from Trump’s move. For the limited profit of catering to his big donors and his narrow base, Trump has tossed away the American coin of neutrality—as tarnished as it was by years of tilting toward Israel’s interests. Not many Palestinians thought of Washington as truly unbiased, since no previous administration did more than use strong words against Israel’s confiscation of territories for Jewish settlement in the mostly Palestinian West Bank and the eastern districts of Jerusalem. No penalty was exacted: no withholding of aid, no reduction of military support. And now Trump has asked nothing from Israel in exchange for his endorsement.

November 21, 2017

The Moral Vacuum in Tribal Politics

By David K. Shipler

            To anyone na├»ve enough to think that sexual decency should be high on a list of virtues, Donald Trump’s news conference just before last year’s second presidential debate was a puzzling scene. Days after the disclosure of the “Access Hollywood” tape that had caught Trump bragging about his predatory exploits, four women who had been victims of sexual assault gave him their support. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump had said on the tape. “You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. Do anything.” Nevertheless, the four women sat with him behind a table, endorsed him, and assailed the Clintons.
            Juanita Broaddrick claimed to have been raped by Bill Clinton. Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey said he had groped them. Kathy Shelton’s grievance was aimed instead at Hillary Clinton, who had been assigned by the court as defense attorney for a man who had raped Shelton when she was 12. Her resentment was misplaced, since Clinton was plainly fulfilling the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a defendant’s right to counsel.
 Shelton and the others might have been expected to see sexual crimes as transcendent, well above politics. That they clearly did not—that they backed Trump in the face of detailed accusations against him by a dozen women who were brave enough to give their names—was as much a commentary on the state of social morality as Democrats’ impulse had been to wish away the allegations against Bill Clinton.
Rumors and stories about Clinton were in the air before his first election to the presidency, but they lacked the specificity that would have confronted liberals with a hard choice. Although Paula Jones sued Clinton in 1994, two years before his reelection, her accusations didn’t sway many voters. And his sexual liaisons with intern Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office didn’t become public until after the election. Even then, his supporters generally opposed his impeachment by the Republican-led House and were relieved when the Senate failed to convict him.
“Sexual misconduct,” it seems, is outrageous only when committed by a member of your opposing political tribe. When it’s your own guy, the accusations are fabricated, concocted by conspiracy, discredited by the character of the accuser, undermined by the delay in reporting, or just ambiguous enough to be dismissed as a misunderstanding.

November 4, 2017

The Military Myth

By David K. Shipler

            At a rest stop in Vermont recently, I fell into conversation with two men staffing a table set up by a veterans’ organization. One, about my age, had been an officer on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam during the war. So we compared notes. I’d been an officer on a destroyer at the same time, but in much safer places, half a world away in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
            “Thank you for your service,” he said. No need for thanks, I replied. I had cruised to exotic ports, loved being at sea, and benefitted from responsibility placed on me at a young age. “But you put yourself in harm’s way,” said the other guy, who’d been in the army. I shook my head. I was never in harm’s way, I told them. I was in more harm’s way as a journalist later, in a couple of war zones, Vietnam included. And I served my country much more significantly reporting important news than sailing on a ship through peaceful waters.
            But American society has adopted a narrow view of service. At least superficially, in the pageantry that accompanies sporting events and various public expressions of patriotism, the men and women in uniform are celebrated. Rightly so, in many cases. But what about the civilians—providers of humanitarian aid, human rights observers, news correspondents who have also risked, and lost, their lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the mission of assisting victims and informing Americans?
            During the recently broadcast series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, citizens who had sacrificed a good deal to oppose the war emailed among themselves, and sometimes spoke and wrote publicly, in wounded complaint that their contributions to the country had been virtually ignored or, worse, given a negative cast by the filmmakers.

October 15, 2017

The Demolition Expert

By David K. Shipler

            You’ve got to hand it to Donald Trump. He’s gone from construction to destruction while scarcely missing a beat. After a real estate career doing deals to build hotels and resorts, he has not constructed a thing to advance the country since becoming president—not a coherent policy, not a beneficial program, not an international agreement, not even the ill-conceived wall that he promised falsely would be paid for by Mexico.
Instead, he relishes firing people and publicly undermines those who still work for him. He bulldozes the structures of government that protect Americans from dirty air, poisonous water, unsafe workplaces, corporate exploitation, inferior health coverage, and racial discrimination. He halts reform efforts in the criminal justice system. He introduces new toxicity into the country’s divides along political, ethnic, class, and racial lines. Years of progress are being rapidly reversed.
 He has driven wedges into our international alliances, made adversaries of friends, and set out to tear apart painstakingly negotiated agreements that promote trade and curb disastrous global warming. He has threatened to obliterate North Korea over its nuclear weapons, yet he simultaneously strives to torpedo the agreement that has suspended Iran’s rush toward such weapons. In the unlikely event that North Korea ever considers a deal with the US relinquishing its nuclear programs, it would have to doubt America’s trustworthiness, as Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry has said.
For Trump has shown the United States government to be unreliable in its promises abroad and to its own people. It has been erratic and unpredictable in a manner that erodes the rule of law, which requires legal stability and consistency.
Trump’s wrecking ball, which he wields with a self-satisfied smirk whenever he signs an executive order, makes it impossible for health insurers, patients, doctors, and hospitals to navigate with assurance through the complex finances of medical care. Business ventures that trade internationally, American farmers who export to Canada and Mexico, health services that treat women overseas, immigrants who seek an American life, foreign leaders who have depended on the American umbrella of protection and leadership, and myriad others can no longer count on the United States government.
This is deeply unsettling. The disruption reaches far beyond Trump’s intemperate tweets, his vulgar personal clashes, and his incessant lies. Mostly in the name of undoing everything with former President Barack Obama’s name attached, Trump seems indifferent to the harm caused to vulnerable people, from women in Madagascar who can no longer get contraceptives through a non-governmental organization dependent on US funds, to American voters of his who will now find their health premiums skyrocketing because he is merrily cutting off government subsidies. They will surely distrust government even more than they did before, when their alienation led to Trump’s victory.
Fortunately, he does not head a dictatorship, for he would be a cruel and vindictive autocrat if he had his way. He would not only urge that NBC stations’ broadcast licenses be revoked for news stories he dislikes; he would revoke them. He would not only call for an end to tax breaks for the NFL in retaliation for players’ kneeling during the national anthem; he would end them. He would not only denounce the critical media for “fake news” when it told unwelcome truths; he would close them down.

August 30, 2017

The Freedom to Hate

By David K. Shipler

            Perhaps alone among established democracies, the United States enshrines in constitutional law the right to preach bigotry. Canada’s Human Rights Commission can levy hefty fines for speech “likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.” Australia’s Racial Hatred Act punishes expression and action likely “to offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate” based on a person’s or group’s race, national, or ethnic origin. 
            Germany in 1985 became the first country to ban Holocaust denial. Further, anyone who “incites hatred against segments of the population . . . or assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population” is subject to five years in prison.
            Nazi symbols, anti-Semitic speech, and Holocaust denial are prohibited in at least 14 other European countries, plus Israel. The Czech Republic also bans the denial of communist crimes.
The constitution of post-apartheid South Africa, while guaranteeing freedom of expression, excludes from that protection “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.” The late Arthur Chaskalson, an author of the constitution and then South Africa’s chief justice, once explained patiently to me that his country’s oppressive racial history required constraints on inflammatory speech.
            Would this be a good idea for the United States? We certainly have a corrosive legacy of racism, now hailed by white supremacists who get a wink and a nod from President Trump. But other countries that have suppressed expressions of bigotry have not eliminated bigotry, which has just been driven underground to fester in darkness without vigorous rebuttal.

August 13, 2017

Bombs and Bombast

By David K. Shipler

            President Trump’s threats that the military is “locked and loaded” to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea are likely to be turned around by history as phrases of self-mockery. They will—hopefully—be on the same list of absurdities as “Mission Accomplished,” that huge banner hung on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln as President George W. Bush spoke of victory in Iraq prematurely, in 2003. Or, remember President Lyndon B. Johnson’s swashbuckling call to US troops in Vietnam to “nail the coonskin to the wall?” As Michael Beschloss notes, it came long after LBJ himself, in 1965, had expressed serious doubts in private that the war was winnable.
            Trump’s hawkish generals—his chief of staff, national security advisor, and defense secretary—seem to know what he does not: that war with North Korea is also unwinnable, because even using conventional weapons alone, Pyongyang could kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans in Seoul and elsewhere within range of the North’s well-bunkered artillery. As American military analysts have noted, the North could send troops pouring across the demilitarized zone, and China would be tempted to enter the fighting. A nuclear exchange would be the Armageddon of the atomic age.
            Trump loves making grandiose (empty) promises and flat statements of tough-guy rhetoric. It’s been suggested that he’s still in real-estate mogul mode, figuring that starting a negotiation with a rash demand gets you a favorable compromise in the end. The trouble is, he sounds more like an unhinged Mafia chieftain than a sober United States president. In threatening North Korea’s annihilation, he reinforces the anti-American propaganda that has propelled Pyongyang’s painstaking acquisition of its nuclear capability.
As Jean Lee, a former Associated Press correspondent in Pyongyang writes in TheNew York Times, the North has schooled children to hate America and fear its aggression. So Trump’s rhetoric now plays into the hands of Kim Jong-un, who needs fear of attack and invasion to weld his people into a compliant mass beneath his dictatorship. Perhaps Trump also needs an outside enemy (in addition to ISIS) to shore up his waning support among Americans and distract from the special counsel’s accelerating investigation of the Russia affair.

July 13, 2017

Russia and the US: The End of Evangelism

By David K. Shipler

            Most Americans during the Cold War would probably have been stunned to learn that the Soviet Union, also known by Ronald Reagan as the Evil Empire, saw itself as a highly moral enterprise. It regarded its economic and political systems—centrally-planned socialism and the order brought by one-party rule—as the most beneficial for other countries, and it sought global influence not only to enhance its national security but also to spread its ideas of social justice.
            It goes without saying that the Soviet system of dictatorship and state-owned production was unjust in the extreme, especially for the little guy. But the Russians’ sense of righteousness was as fervent as the Americans’ reverence for free enterprise and pluralistic democracy. So, pursuing their mirror images of what was best for the world, both Moscow and Washington propagated their beliefs abroad with missionary zeal.
            The evangelical streak in Russian foreign policy ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the death of Marxism as a state ideology. True communism, never achieved, withered as a goal at home and abroad. Today, Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems driven only by a non-ideological impulse to protect its borderlands militarily, promote itself economically, and expand its international reach to recover its reputation from the humiliation of decline.
            The United States has also become less ideological in foreign policy, it seems, since President Trump took office. Defense of human rights and the spread of democracy—and even the promotion of capitalism abroad—have taken a back seat to an inchoate campaign of counter-terrorism. To that end, Trump finds no fault with his chums in the authoritarian regimes of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for example, but cites human rights violations in rolling back relations with Cuba.