Friday, October 28, 2016

The Media and the Message

For my readers who feel that the negatives attached to Hillary Clinton are too strong for you to give her your vote, I want to propose an experiment. Don’t do this for me or for Hillary Clinton; do it for yourselves. Make a list of every reason you can think of why you can’t vote for Clinton. Take your time, and include everything, no matter how trivial. Now remove from your list anything Donald Trump doesn’t agree with. If your list didn’t shrink much or at all, that should scare the hell out of you. How could this happen? The answer is that, if you trace all of your reasons to the root source, you are relying on the same media sources as Donald Trump. At this point, you may tell me that there is no way Trump gets his information from, say, Bipartisan Report, and you might tell me that they are reliably progressive. Yes and no. There are many sites like this, whose owners are truly progressive, but the stories they publish had their start in the right wing media. Even if they don’t, the key is understanding how to tell fact from fiction.

To illustrate this point, let me show you an article a friend of mine posted recently. She proclaimed that this was a deal breaker for her, why she could never support Hillary Clinton. The article was from a site I had never heard of before, True Activist, and the provocative headline was: ”Future Clinton Treasury Secretary Announces Plan To Privatize Americans’ Retirement Savings” . Something didn’t seem right about this, so I tried to find out who was behind this website, and what their agenda was. There is no “About Us” page, so I looked at the submission guidelines for new writers, and I learned that True Activist wants to “expose false or misleading events that are misrepresented by the mainstream media, etc.” Now that could be a rallying cry from the left or the right, and the home page presents a hodge-podge of articles that reflect this. This site seems to have no overarching point of view at all, except for the premise that everything in the mainstream media is suspect. That assumption creates an environment where outright lies can flourish, but I did not have a smoking gun at this point. So I went back to the article itself, and I noticed something I had missed before: the text in red, which I had thought was simply for emphasis, was actually a set of links. Follow the link for “most likely pick for Treasury Secretary”, and you will find an article on Politico that says the subject of the True Activist article, Tony James, is “sometimes mentioned as a possible Treasury secretary in a Clinton administration.” That hardly makes him the future Treasury Secretary proclaimed in the headline, so now I have caught True Activist in a lie. But what about James’ proposal? The article on True Activist never says that his plan privatizes Social Security, but it stokes those fears, saying “Americans’ retirement savings would be lumped together under Wall Street control, allowing them to gamble with the massive sum and make a killing from the bets. However, any “misplaced” bets would be the problem of everyday Americans invested in the system, not the hedge funds who made those bad bets.” So I followed the link that reads, “revealed his plan”. It turns out that Tony James isn’t proposing any changes to Social Security at all. He is actually concerned about how people who do not have traditional pensions save for retirement to supplement the benefits they will receive from Social Security. 401(k)s, IRAs, Keough Plans and more are all completely at the mercy of market gyrations, and these plans are already “under Wall Street control”, as the True Activist writer puts it. What James is proposing is to replace all of this with a Retirement Savings Plan that would be guaranteed by the government to return at least 2% in any year, no matter what the markets did. He also wants to change the tax treatment for this plan, so that lower income workers would get a tax benefit from their contributions that is only available now to more affluent workers. At this point, the True Activist article has collapsed completely, and I feel comfortable saying that they are an unreliable media source, one of many. The author of the article may be a well-intentioned progressive or not, but she read her sources for this article expecting to find a smoking gun. Because the right wing media had spread the idea that Hillary Clinton wanted to privatize Social Security, our hapless author found that, even though it wasn’t actually there.

The point of all this is that we must all become smarter media consumers. A major reason Donald Trump became the Republican nominee in the first place was the development over a long period of time of a system of right wing media outlets that have a blatant disregard for facts. Fox News and Breitbart are two of the best known, but there are many others. This year, they learned that they could create a website that seemed to be engaged in reasoned discourse, and people on the left would spread their stories, ostensibly to support Bernie Sanders. I saw this in Sanders groups throughout the primary season. People avoided the harder task, perhaps, of making the positive case for Sanders, and instead spread anything and everything they could find that attacked Hillary Clinton. This served to legitimize websites that did not deserve it, which only made things worse.

I understand how this can get started. It is true that mainstream media sources will neglect to cover a story that might not sit well with an important advertiser, for example. This does not mean that they are lying in what they do cover, but it does mean we need additional sources of information. I also understand the thrill of discovering a story that no one else has heard of yet, or a new source of information. That is exactly why I went into such detail about the True Activist article, and how I debunked it. It is also why I list fact checkers and trusted media sources on the sidebar of this blog. I don’t pretend that either list is complete, and I welcome suggestions for inclusion, but I intend to be very careful in making any additions; this is just too important. In my example, I mentioned the importance of trying to find out who is behind the website you are using, and determining their agenda. You can also sometimes check the credentials and agenda of the author of the article. If you are still not sure, use your fact checkers; in my example, that was not necessary, but it often is. Finally, understand that no one has an exclusive for long without a reason. If a story has substance, you should be able to find more details and reports in other places within a day’s time.

With all of this in mind, I invite you to return to your list of negatives about Hillary Clinton. Take the time to subject each and every one of them to this test. I guarantee you will have to drop some of them. I don’t agree with everything she wants to do, but I always have a small list of negatives about any candidate for president I decide to vote for. That happens when you have to form a consensus with millions of your countrymen to select your next leader. It’s called Democracy, and I would never be willing to give it up. If your newly fact-checked and smell tested list of Clinton negatives still persuades you to withhold your vote from her, I respect that. But I hope you will do the work first, and know that you are making your decision based on facts.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Bad Business

Donald Trump likes to claim that his best qualification to be president is his great skill as a businessman. As with so many other things he says, there is no good reason to believe this. First, governing is vastly different from running a business. In particular, the management of debt in the real estate business, especially as practiced by Trump, is a recipe for disaster if practiced by a president. Second, there is the widely quoted fact that, if Trump had taken his initial stake in the business world and simply invested it passively in the stock market, he would have been vastly wealthier now than the most generous estimates of his actual worth. This is despite his exploitation of cheap labor from illegal immigrants, his string of bankruptcies that enriched him at the expense of his lenders and investors, and a long line of people who performed work for him that he simply refused to pay for at all.

But none of this is the best way to see how bad a businessman he truly is. For that, we should look at the worst decision he ever made, in terms of its impact on his business interests: his presidential campaign. Donald Trump went from being a wheeler and dealer in commercial real estate to becoming a brand. A good chunk of his money these days comes from deals for the use of his name. In both phases of his career, his reputation was essential. From the beginning of the primaries, however, Trump made the decision to base his campaign on the hatred and fear of Mexicans and Muslims, and his bigotry would spread to others soon enough. Right away, this hurt his business interests, as retailers began to refuse to carry his branded merchandise. In the Republican debates, however, he bullied his opponents, so they knew they could not criticize him for this without him lashing out and highlighting their own failures in this area. The pot did not dare call the kettle black. Hillary Clinton simply introduced American voters to the Khans and Alicia Machado, and let Trump do the rest to himself.

Considering what the Access Hollywood tape has done to Trump’s reputation, he should never, from a business standpoint, have run for president. Even if he did not know the tape existed, he should have known that his abuse of women would somehow become public. Will any businesswoman, or husband of father of a daughter want to do business with him ever again? More and more accusers have come forward as they realized that what happened to them was not their fault. Although it is not happening in such a public way, it stands to reason that former business partners who came out on the short end of a deal with Trump are also realizing that their experiences were not unique. They now know that he can not be trusted to deal with them fairly.

The campaign, particularly the debates, has also shown Trump’s lack of skill as a negotiator. After all, the debates are a kind of negotiation with the American people. You present your deal with the voters, your opponent presents hers, and your job is to persuade us to take your deal as the best option. There are many examples of Trump’s failures to do this in the debates, but one example from the third debate will suffice to make the point. Somehow, the topic of abortion did not come up until this final debate. It has been said that moderator Chris Wallace was trying to help Trump by bringing the subject up. Abortion rights are one of the trickiest cases to make for a liberal. One must somehow avoid the trap of being labeled a baby killer. But Trump played the weakest hand he had by going straight to late term abortions as his focus. Sure, the graphic details of these procedures are horrifying, but these are procedures that no woman or couple ever want to have. Their stories are heartbreaking, and command our sympathies, and several of these stories have now gone viral in the wake of the debate. The exchange in the debate solved a big problem for Hillary Clinton, allowing her to display her genuine passion for this issue and her sympathy for the people it affects. Trump, on the other hand, only showed that he had taken the discussion into an area where he was completely ignorant.

It is now all but certain that Donald Trump will lose the election. The appeal of his brand is largely based on his persona as a winner, but he will have lost the biggest prize he ever tried for. If we see the landslide that now seems so likely, this persona will take an even bigger hit. The damage this election could do to the Republican Party would be an even bigger problem for Trump’s brand in the future. It is not a stretch to say that almost any activity Donald Trump could have engaged in over the last year would have been better for his business interests than the way he chose to run for president.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Victory We Need

In a previous post, I wrote about how important I believe it is to not opt out of this election, either by voting for a third party candidate or not at all. I still think that is important, but I realize that I was thinking in terms of normal strategy for a normal election. This election is not normal. Once in a generation, the Republican Party loses its way so completely that they nominate a candidate who represents a clear danger to everything the country I love stands for. The last one was Barry Goldwater in 1964. The new one is Donald Trump in 2016. If there was any doubt of that before, the release last weekend of the Access America video should put those doubts to rest.

Let me be clear. I do not believe Republican voters are evil. We have an honest philosophical difference that defines the set of solutions for the nation’s problems we think we should pursue. But Donald Trump does not represent traditional Republicans. He represents instead the completion of a takeover of the Republican Party by a group of dangerous extremists ruled by hatred and fear. This is the culmination of a lengthy process that had George W Bush making us a nation of torturers, and Mitt Romney playing to these extremists in order to secure his nomination. It goes back to coded language like “law and order” that encouraged fear of the “other” in our society. And it is the reason the sixteen other options traditional Republicans had to choose from this primary season were such an unappealing lot. It is also how the Republican Party became a Party that refuses to govern when a Democrat is president. Congress as a whole is not the reason why their approval ratings are so low; it is the fact that these extremist Republicans hold undue influence over the Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. So Donald Trump may be the current figurehead, but it is important to understand that he is only part of the problem. His nomination did not occur in a vacuum.

So, what can we do about it? Obviously, first and foremost, Donald Trump must not become president. But a close election would normalize everything he has done. It would be easy then to say, “Well, it didn’t work this time, but next time we’ll get it right.” There must be no next time. The results of this election must be an unmistakable rejection of Donald Trump and the forces that brought him to power. We need a victory by Hillary Clinton that is so thorough that no one could possibly believe the election was rigged. We need an election with coattails that give Clinton Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate. To get there, progressives need to set aside their protest votes for another time, and insure a Clinton landslide of historic proportions. Traditional Republicans need to understand that they must throw what their party has become under the bus this year, in order to reclaim the Party in the future. We need a rejection of Republican House candidates in “safe” districts, especially but not only those who will not renounce Trump.

With luck, this will force the Republican Party establishment to realize that they must once again become a party that shares in the governance of our country. It will also allow Hillary Clinton to govern from further to the left than she will be able to if her Party does not win the Congress. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren might be able to head Senate committees. Clinton could count on getting more liberal nominees to the Supreme Court out of the Judiciary Committee than a Republican-controlled Senate would allow. And the American people, all of the American people, would be able to see for the first time in far too long what good the Government can do when given the chance to actually govern.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Rich Are Different

In this election, we have something we have not seen before. Both candidates come, without apologies, from wealth. The rags to riches story is a staple of American politics, used even by candidates who had to severely strain credulity to claim it. But this year, there are no such claims. Donald Trump was born into an obscenely wealthy family, and Hillary Rodham Clinton was also comes from money. On a subconscious level, the negative approval ratings of both candidates are a statement of class resentment. Because the rich are different, and Americans are not comfortable with the differences.

You can see this when you look at some of the scandals the Clintons have been linked to. In Whitewater, large sums of money changed hands, so there must have been wrongdoing. But for a person of wealth, the amounts of money were not that large, and this was simply a deal that went sour. It happens, and you move on to the next deal. You and I might never be in a position to make such deals, and certainly not take shake off a failed one in this way, but the rich don’t think like us. More recently, Hillary Clinton has drawn fire for her speaking fees from Wall Street firms, and for the donations the Clinton Foundation has received. Goldman Sachs payed her more for one speech than we might earn in four years of hard work. So yes, I would be powerfully influenced by someone who payed me that much all at once. But Hillary Clinton didn’t even need the money; she gave it to charity. When she gives a speech, she accepts a fair market price for her services, and her customers do hope to influence her. But it is all too easy to forget that it is a two way street; Clinton also hopes to influence them. Bill Clinton’s presidency was all about creating a new paradigm for the Democratic Party, a partnership of government and wealth for the purpose of doing as much good as possible. There are limits to this approach, places where the common man gets left behind in the name of compromise. But the Clinton Foundation is a fine example of how much good work can be done this way. Almost 90% of the funds donated go to the Foundation’s programs, and all donations are publicly disclosed. It’s a terrible way to buy favors, but it’s a great vehicle for burnishing your reputation, a verifiable good deed you can boast about. The Clinton Foundation works on AIDS and other public health issues in the third world, climate change, and antipoverty programs in the US and abroad.

And so it is with the rich. To them, money is a tool for extending influence. They give and receive it to burnish their reputations, to try to win an argument, and to recruit allies for their various causes. Bill Gates tries to further his education initiatives. George Soros promotes progressive causes including Black Lives Matter. Even the Koch brothers are trying to advance a social agenda they truly believe in, by playing the influence game. But Donald Trump is an aberration within this world.

The unmasking this week of Donald Trump as a sexual predator really only serves to complete a portrait that has been developing for some time, and extends far beyond issues of gender. Trump truly believes that his wealth means that he can do anything he wants. He can, as he has boasted, buy off politicians and others, as seen in his political donations to end fraud investigations into Trump University. Judge Curiel’s crime, in this world view, is not his Mexican heritage at all, but the fact that he refuses to be bought. Trump believes that his riches and fame mean that no one should refuse him anything, so naturally no woman should ever refuse his sexual advances, no matter how coarse. He took for granted that officials within the Republican Party would have no choice but to line up to support him, and he was right. That may have changed with this week’s revelations, but it is also possible that the Party will come back to his side once the storm blows over. Where Hillary Clinton understands that power is a tool that is not for her exclusive use, Trump believes it is his birthright. Trump can stand in front of a crowd in Ohio and talk about how trade deals are costing American jobs, while dressed entirely in clothes bearing his brand which are made in China, because it is all a game to him. His voters are people whose concerns don’t matter to him, but who can be fooled into doing his will. Where Hillary Clinton can not truly understand what it is like to be poor, Donald Trump does not want or try to understand.

I work with a wide variety of people at my job. We are all in roughly the same place economically, but we are each individuals, and we respond differently to the same circumstances. Hillary Clinton is a rich woman doing the best she can to help. Donald Trump is an outlier, interested only in himself. The rich are different from us, and also from each other.