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Shithole countries, revisited

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I was trying to recall all the smug, vulgar insults Trump has spewed over the years. There are so many! “Rapists and murderers” about Mexicans was one. “Grab their pussies” was one. “Blood coming out of her whatever” about Megyn Kelly. “Would anyone vote for that?” about Carly Fiorina’s face. “Thousands of people were cheering as that building came down” about Jersey City Muslims “celebrating” 9/11. “Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay the legal fees,” about Republican thugs beating up protesters at his rallies. And, of course, “good people on both sides” after Charlottesville. But for me, “Shithole countries” sums up everything hideously wrong about Trump.

He said it last year about immigrants from Haiti and Africa. “Why do we want these people from shithole countries coming here?” he said in a meeting that included his new best friend forever, the confirmed bachelor Lindsay Graham, who has yet to say anything on the record about being bothered. It may be that racism still plays well in South Carolina.

Of all the fucked up stuff from Trump, “shithole countries” encapsulates him. It’s anti-Black, for starters–dismissive of entire populations of human beings. It’s the essence of white supremacy, the same Anglo-Saxon arrogance that drove Adolf Hitler to exterminate millions of “inferior” beings. It’s incredibly ignorant. It’s pandering to his base. And it plays into the fact that his father, Fred, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The apple seldom falls far from the tree.

All the presidents we’ve known in modern times were aware of the latent racism in America. But all tried their best to steer America away from its worst excesses. Reagan pandered to Southern racists with his Neshoba County campaign speech, but that was about as far as he went on the anti-Black spectrum. Thereafter he backed off. George W. Bush’s policies were of no help to Black Americans, but one never had the sense that the man himself was a racist. Trump is different. His supporters at places like Breitbart, who most definitely are racists, certainly assume that he’s one of them, and with all the dog whistles and coded language, he has done nothing to dissuade them that he’s not. The KKK white nationalists at Charlottesville, egged on by Stephen Bannon, assumed the same thing. This is why racism is crawling out from the rocks under which it usually hides. People who hates Blacks feel emboldened because the President of the United States shares their views.

The white, under-educated, rural conservatives who form Trump’s base are said to be pissed off that “coastal elites” are dismissive of them and their lifestyles. They resent the fact that New Yorkers and San Franciscans consider them “flyover country.” I don’t think that’s true, but it’s what these Southerners and Midwesterners feel, so it’s true for them. Have they ever considered that, if it is true, then coastal residents consider the interior U.S. as “shithole states”? In other words, they support a man who insults foreign countries, but at the same time they resent Americans who insult them. They really can’t have it both ways; what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And to the extent these same conservatives, in most cases, call themselves “Christian,” they are guilty of violating one of the most profound of Jesus’s teachings: Matthew 25:34, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

These “shithole countries” are poor, destitute, troubled. They are not to the liking of rich white men used to the comforts of a Mar-a-Lago or Trump Tower. In his attitude towards them, Trump displays the typical bigotry of wealthy country club snobs, men who drive from their gated communities to their enclaves of privilege; if they must transit through ghettoes or slums, they roll up the windows and make sure the doors are locked, clucking their tongues all the way: How horrible it is for “these people” to live this way! How fortunate, or talented, I am to have risen to such respectability. Do the Christians of Alabama, Oklahoma, Indiana imagine that their precious Jesus thought that way? He was the first to embrace the unwashed, the rejected, the despised; if he resented any human, it was the wealthy, the Trumps of ancient Judea and Samaria, the money-changers who pretended to love God but who by their actions proved they did not.

“Shithole countries.” Let that sink in. This is the President of the United States, not some drunk white nationalist in a dive bar, ranting about “these people.” The President of the United States…although not, perhaps, for much longer.


Why I am a Democrat

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I was raised to have great respect, even reverence, for the President of the United States, no matter who he or she is. My parents were lifelong Democrats, my father more out of habit, my mother because she had thought long and hard about things and decided that the Democratic Party stood more for fairness and decency than the Republican Party, which was as true then as it is now. My mother communicated those values to me, not so much pedagogically, but in that mysterious way that parents teach their children.

My mother’s experience of politics was influenced by the Depression and by World War II. The Depression taught her that “normal” solutions to economic and political crises sometimes don’t work; exceptional times call for exceptional approaches. That’s why she revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She understood that the New Deal was the kind of radical intervention that America needed to save itself from the excesses of capitalism.

FDR died before I was born. By the time I was a little boy, Adlai Stevenson had replaced FDR in my mother’s heart. She was simply and unabashedly in love with him—as, it turned out, many women were. At the same time, my mother loathed Thomas Dewey, who had been our Governor in New York, and had run for president against Truman in 1948. Dewey and Stevenson formed the guardrails of my budding appreciation of politics: Dewey the Republican bad, Stevenson the Democrat good.

These were childish apprehensions. They took no notice of nuance. I was strongly in favor of John F. Kennedy for the 1960 election, but if you’d asked me why, I don’t think I could have given you a coherent answer, except for the fact that he was young, vigorous, handsome and forward-thinking. Those were qualities that appealed to a young Baby Boomer. I was just turned 13.

The Sixties interfered with my appreciation of politics. I took a bit of a sabbatical, focusing instead on more spiritual and cultural issues. When Nixon was elected, I had no horse in the race. I kept very close attention to the burgeoning Watergate situation, however, and in my circle I was the guy who could explain to my friends what was going on. But it wasn’t until the 1978 primaries that for the first time since JFK I took notice of who was running and what they were saying. I fell in love with Jimmy Carter. His honesty and sincerity turned me on; and of course, he was elected. By the 1980 election, I was for him, although I wasn’t particularly turned off by Reagan. Reagan won. I didn’t care all that much. As a newly minted career climber, lately arrived in San Francisco, I was busy focusing on my own stuff.

In 1988 I happened to see an interview on C-SPAN where Brian Lamb interviewed the Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. It was like the lightbulb went off over my head. Wow. I knew that was the guy I wanted to be President. I wrote him a letter (addressed only to Bill Cllnton, Little Rock) saying so. He wrote back; I still have the letter. Four years later he was elected President, and I have never looked back on my commitment to the Democratic Party.

In 2000, I didn’t vote for George W. Bush but I never hated on him. I saw in him a good man. We differed on many issues, but I didn’t think he was evil. He seemed to love America, which I do too. I thought his religious attraction to evangelicism perverted his views on things, especially homosexuality, but by then I was mature enough to realize that reasonable people can disagree. By the time the Bush presidency was over and the 2008 election was upon us, I was a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton, so I was disappointed when she lost the nomination to Obama. But it didn’t take me long to fall in love with Obama, and when he won—I’ll never forget him walking onstage in Chicago with Michelle and the girls—I was on my feet in front of the T.V., tears falling down my face.

We’ll have to leave it to historians to decide on the Obama presidency, but in my opinion, he was a near-great. I thought Bill Clinton had kept the flame of liberalism alive while the winds of reaction tried to snuff it out. With Obama, I saw him struggle to advance the cause. He might have been braver, more daring; but he was a bulwark for liberalism, which was under constant attack.

Then came Trump. My mother, steeped in the tradition of liberality and decency, would have loathed him. I’m glad she’s not here to witness this abomination. Even before Trump won with the help of the Russians, I knew he was a disaster. For the first time in my life—and I’m almost 73—I hated the President of the United States. But my hatred isn’t permanent. I still have a deep well of reverence for the office. It won’t take much for me to once again esteem him or her. But not while this vile person occupies the Oval Office.

My candidate for 2020? Any Democrat. I’m liking Sherrod Brown. He should take a woman for Vice President. Who? There’s a lot to be worked out between now and the summer of 2020, when Democrats hold their convention, but the choices seem to be Klobuchar, Gillibrand and Kamala Harris. Meanwhile, I am sooooo thankful that the House of Representatives is resuming real investigations of Trump and his family and associates—investigations that colluding Republicans tried to smother when they ran things. Trump’s attempts to stop or smear the investigations are futile. Let us see his taxes! Tick tick tick…


Trump’s #sad State of the Union

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I did not watch Trump’s State of the Union show last night. I just couldn’t. The advance notice, based on White House information, said he was going to issue a “call for unity,” and this in particular is infuriating. (I know I shouldn’t let Trump make me so emotional, but he just does…) How dare this demagogue, the most vulgar, insulting and divisive president in U.S. history, talk about “unity”? That’s like Charlie Manson inviting the LaBianca family survivors to a dinner party. “Can’t we all get along?”

There is no unity and will not be until this felonious braggart is gone and punished. There can be no “forgive and forget.” Trump has caused too much misery and destruction. His words of conciliation ring hollow—no, not just “hollow,” but cynical in the extreme. Donald J. Trump has never been conciliatory with anyone—not his ex-wives, whom he routinely cheated on; not his business partners or customers, whom he repeatedly ripped off; not his “enemies” in the Democratic Party, whom he insults and smears at every turn; and certainly not the American people, to whom he compulsively lies; not even, probably, in his divided mind, with himself.

Conciliation implies repentance. Does anyone truly believe that Donald Trump repents about anything? Does anyone think he’s ever asked for forgiveness from man or God? Does anyone think he’s ever felt shame? True, he has experienced embarrassment, such as after the Access Hollywood tape came out (and he will experience much more embarrassment as the facts of his criminal behavior emerge). But embarrassment isn’t the same as shame. Embarrassment is being caught doing something nasty; the result is a red face. Shame is the moral judgment one imposes upon oneself, followed by, hopefully, self-improvement. Trump is amoral, incapable of moral self-scrutiny. Everybody, including his dwindling band of supports, knows this.

Like everything else Trump does to try to take the spotlight off his scandals, the State of the Union was a piece of ephemera—gauzy, momentary, fleeting and, almost instantly, irrelevant. Trump keeps on thinking he can do something to get out of his mess. It’s amusing to watch him: the analogies pile up. A worm squirming on a hook? A bug about to be crushed? A cornered rat? It may be that in the future a new adjective will be in use: Trumpian, to describe the last, desperate moments of an individual in imminent danger. We had Hitler in his bunker, losing his mind as he wrote out a Last Will and Testament that had meaning only in his deranged, panicked mind. And now we have Trump, going quietly bonkers, forgetting that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Trump keeps on lying, stalling for time, pretending to be conciliatory, pandering to his base’s worst instincts, damaging the presidency, and hoping that “the investigations” he derides will go away, or that Democrats—scared by his threat that there will be “no legislation” until they do—drop them.

There is no chance of that. The investigations are speeding up in the House of Representatives, as well they should; this is why Americans voted for Democrats last November. If there is “no legislation” the public will know exactly whom to blame; and it won’t be Democrats.


Christian “principles” are excuses for bigotry

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Discussions about morality are frustrating. One man’s morality is another man’s sin. It’s common for people who preach their particular morality to claim that they’re standing on principle. For instance, Christian homophobes say that the Bible gives them license—indeed, commands them—to be against homosexuality. “My principles forbid it!” they say, fully aware that they risk being accused of bigotry, but believing that their “principles” inoculate them against such accusations, if not in the eyes of man, then in the eyes of God.

Standing up for your principles has always been admired. Joan of Arc did, and paid the supreme price. Nathan Hale, an American hero during the Revolutionary War, put it in its starkest terms: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” were his last words before being hung by the British as a spy. (Of course, Hitler also stood up for his principles—and we don’t admire him. So what does that say about “principle”?)

The ultimate in standing up for principles, for Christians anyway, was Jesus. Christians who claim to be standing up for their principles usually have the model of Jesus in mind.

What is a “principle,” anyway? The standard definition is “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior…”. The notion was given emphasis in ancient Greek philosophy, for instance in Plato’s treatise on how to live the good life, The Crito, which recreates a dialogue between Socrates and a friend, Crito. Socrates is in prison, having been condemned to death by the state, Athens. Crito tries to persuade him to escape, an action that could easily be accomplished with the help of wealthy friends.

Socrates refuses. He will not repudiate “the principles which I have hitherto honored and revered,” he declares. What principles are those? After some circumlocutions (a Socratic tendency), Socrates arrives at the principle of “the good life,” which he defines as “a just and honorable one. We must do no wrong,” not even when we feel wronged, he insists. “My first principle,” Socrates declares, “[is] neither injury nor retaliation nor warding off evil by evil is ever right.”

For him to escape, he explains, would be to “wrong those whom I ought least to wrong,” i.e. the state, Athens. It was Athens that “aided and begat” him; it was Athenian law that raised, educated and sustained him. Man has “no right to destroy the state, and his country,” even if the state and country tries unfairly to destroy him. The state is to be “obeyed.” And so Socrates must endure “in silence” his punishment, even if he thinks it unjust. That is the “implied contract” between citizen and state: to do as the state commands. If Socrates stays and allows himself to killed, he will “depart [this world] in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil.” Thus, Socrates implores Crito, “Let me follow the intimations of the will of God” and be put to death.

There’s lots to unpack in The Crito. I don’t particularly agree with the notion that a prisoner, condemned unjustly, doesn’t have the right to escape. The old adage “My country right or wrong, but still my country” is superseded by another: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” But it’s not necessary to agree with Socrates’ argument in order to accept the notion that some “principles” exist and are worth dying for. Indeed, that notion seems to be one of the things that makes us human.

But I began by asking the difference between a “principle” and a “belief.” Surely we can agree that beliefs may be wrong. Wise men once believed that the Earth was flat, and that the Sun revolved around the Earth. They believed these things sincerely, and punished men who said otherwise. We now know they were wrong. Beliefs can be wrong; men, even with the best intentions, may be misguided.

Can “principles” be wrong? Socrates spent his entire life “proving” the correctness of his principles through the sternest, most rigorous logic. Indeed, to this day a “Socratic” argument is one in which the Socratic questioner exposes internal contradictions in the listener’s responses—contradictions so apparent, the listener is forced to change his position.

Yet “principles” too can be wrong. Throughout Western history men accepted the “principle” that the white race was superior to black and brown races. They accepted, too, the notion that Christianity was true, where the religions of other cultures were false. Were these notions truly “principles” in the sense of being “fundamental truths,” or were they merely “beliefs”? It seems to me impossible to find a difference between the two. There are “axioms” that are universally true, such as “If A=B and B=C, then A=C,” but human morality is much more fluid and vague than mathematical logic.

My purpose in raising these notions of beliefs and principles is to puncture the defense of homophobic Christians that their “principles” forbid them from accepting gay people. They may indeed hold something they call “principles” sacred. They may indeed believe their God justifies them. But they cannot claim that those principles have any external or eternal validity. These Christians are simply masking their learned prejudice under the pretense of “principles.” They are, to use Socrates’ word, “evil.”


Who will the Democratic candidate be?

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As I’ve said before, I’m not ready to support any of the Democrats who have declared, or who may declare soon, for president in 2020. We have a lot of time—more than a year before the first primary—to listen to the candidates. But if I had to choose now, it would be Sherrod Brown.

All of the Democrats impress me. I admire Kamala Harris’s articulate passion. Cory Booker has a ton of great qualities. Julian Castro is a fine, upstanding younger man. Kirsten Gillibrand I don’t know well, but she seems smart as a whip. Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t be my first choice, but if she runs, I’m for her. Joe Biden hasn’t declared yet, but his resume is the best among any of the possible candidates.

But Brown captures my attention. Most of us are familiar with him as a T.V. presence on networks like MSNBC. What I’ve always liked about him is his sense of gravitas. There’s no glamor there. He doesn’t play to the camera, doesn’t talk in sound bites, doesn’t laugh too much (a tactic that annoys me in politicians). He is in that sense Obama-esque. He also is clearly piercingly smart, and his heart is in the right place. He checks all the right boxes. His appearance—a good-looking guy, with a nice shock of curly hair—doesn’t hurt. But what’s really appealing about him is the state he represents as a U.S. Senator: Ohio.

Democrats lost in 2016 because we lost the midwestern Rust and Farm belts: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Iowa. Brown could correct that. Most of the other candidates are from the East and West coasts. Republicans will run a vicious campaign against anyone from what they will allege is “elitist country,” and that could have some influence among resentful, economically-hurt people who vote against their own interests. Republicans however cannot denounce Sherrod Brown as a coastal elitist. Ohio is as mid-American as it gets. Brown is the guy in the bar you want to talk to, have a beer with, get to know.

Look: The thing Democrats want, or should want, more than anything is to WIN. To BEAT Trump, or whoever the Republican is. And to win, they have to get the Midwest. In 2016, Trump got 306 electoral votes to Hillary’s 232. That’s a difference of 74 electoral votes. The five midwestern states I mentioned– Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Iowa—account for only 71 electoral votes. It’s perhaps a tall order for the Democrat to win all five, but it can be done. Trump fatigue will be a factor: the recent Blue Wave proves that Americans are ready and willing to turn against him. Democrats need to hold onto the states they won—which they will—and then flip a few others. This too can be done. For example, Wisconsin went Republican in 2016, but flipped in 2018. Alaska went Republican in 2016 but flipped in 2018. Maine went Republican in 2016 but flipped in 2018. Together, they have 17 electoral votes.

Donald Trump is the most divisive politician in modern American history. I think if the election were held now, he would lose, decisively. Of course, he might not even run next year: by then, he may have been impeached, or have resigned. I’ve almost never been wrong in my presidential predictions. Ever since JFK, I’ve gotten every one right, with the single exception of Reagan’s first victory, which occurred at a time in my life when I was tuned out of politics. In 2016, from September on, I knew in my heart that Trump would win, although it was hard to admit it even to myself. So I will go on the record: Democrats will retake the presidency next year. I hope they also will retake the Senate, although Republicans have done such an effective job gerrymandering that maybe they won’t. That will make it harder to erase every vestige of Trumpism. But trust me, Trumpism will be eradicated. It, and he, will be repudiated, both in the short and long terms. It’s already happening: just look around.


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