Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Hateful speech comes out of the shadows.

Donald Trump rose again this week in defense of Vladimir Putin, suggesting that there was no evidence that the Russian President had ordered the assassination of reporters. After offering his thoughts on Putin, the leading Republican Party candidate for the presidential nomination confirmed that as much as he might hate reporters, he had no plans to kill any.

"I hate some of these people," Trump remarked, gesturing to reporters at the back of a crowd of supporters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, "but I would never kill them. I hate them. No, these people... I'll be honest, I would never kill them. I would never do that." He stopped for a moment and cocked his head as if in contemplation, with a hand gesture suggesting he was weighing the pros and cons of the idea. Then he continued, as the crowd laughed and many craned their necks trying to get a glimpse of the reporters at the back of the auditorium. "I would never kill them. But I do hate them. Some of them are such lying, disgusting people. It's true. But I would never kill them, and anybody that does, I think would be despicable."

It would be despicable as well if a man in Richmond, California, were to target the local Muslim community with homemade explosives, as William Celli allegedly planned to do before his arrest by the FBI on Sunday. Trump may believe that Celli's actions would be despicable, but Celli made no bones about being inspired by Trump's words attacking Muslims, and he confirmed in a tweet that he would follow Trump "to the end of the world." Robert Dear was similarly inspired by the words of politicians who railed against the killing of babies by Planned Parenthood, when he killed three people. Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik were inspired by the words of ISIS leaders and they killed 14 people. We live in a world that is awash in hateful speech, and a world where people are moved by it.

Deciding to shoot someone in America today does not require mental illness--as we know from years of watching Law and Order--it just requires means, motive and opportunity. With 300 million guns floating around providing the means and a plethora of hate speech providing the motive, and there is no lack of opportunity. Trump's delivery, as it so often does, oscillated between seriousness and a certain type of levity, and surely no one doubts that Trump's bit about reporters was his version of stand-up comedy. But given the tenor of the times, will people really be surprised if a reporter is next?

Donald Trump's language has been unabashedly incendiary, but what makes him different from populists over the years is not the sentiments behind his speeches, but rather the bluntness of the words themselves. Trump has eschewed the long political tradition in Republican campaigns of speaking in code, of using dog whistle politics in order to speak to the racial animosities and xenophobic dispositions of elements of the Republican base while not embarrassing the GOP establishment in polite company.

Unlike leading candidates in campaigns past, Donald Trump does not appear to care about embarrassing himself or the party. Perhaps more to the point, those in the Republican base that have embraced his candidacy--largely middle-aged white men with no college education--appear relieved to no longer have to sit skulking in the shadows during this primary season. They love Trump because he embraces them with open arms, unlike those east coast establishment Republicans who for so long have looked down on them.

With Trump, there are no dog whistles slipped inside a speech otherwise sanitized of offensive language. Channeling the resentments of those that have flocked to his banner, he lays it all out there. The fat cats. The Mexicans. The Muslims. And, of course, the press. As much as establishment Republican candidates like to pal around with the well-heeled elites of the business and financial worlds that fund their campaigns--the haves and the have-mores as George W. once famously described them--it is the downscale white voters, with all their warts and blemishes, that have carried the GOP to victory over the years. This time around, as demographics and diversity are tilting the electoral landscape in the favor of Democrats, those voters loom to be more important to the GOP than ever.

Jeb Bush--like many in the Republican establishment--just can't come to grips with the nature of the Republican primary electorate. He continues to blame the failure of his efforts to run an uplifting, positive campaign on Trump's vulgar message and tactics, but the truth is that appealing to the bigotry and xenophobia of elements of the electorate has long been an essential part of the job. Ronald Reagan told his stories about young bucks and welfare queens to stoke the racial animosities of working class and southern whites and bring them into the Republican fold. Jeb's father ate pork rinds and used the explicitly racial Willie Horton ad when he won the presidency to let those voters know that he was more than just a high brow New England prep school kid, and Jeb's brother understood how to run as a compassionate conservative in the national spotlight while at the same time serving up red meat to the base.

Nor is pandering to racism and bigotry through coded language and images in presidential contests the exclusive domain of Republicans.  Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were each southern politicians who understood how to reach out to the same constituencies that have now gravitated to Donald Trump. Jimmy Carter cloak his language supporting segregated neighborhoods under the language of preserving ethnic purity, while Bill Clinton use his Sister Souljah moment to establish his racial bona fides. What has shocked Jeb and others has been how willing Trump has been to eschew innuendo and code words--that have traditionally provided a patina of deniability to otherwise offensive and destructive language--and, at least in the minds of his supporters, call a spade a spade.

The problem facing the GOP establishment is worse this time around. The white working class electorate drawn to Trump has finally come to realize that immigration and outsourcing and free trade and globalization are all part of the toxic mix of policies supported by the GOP and its business allies that have decimated their lives, their families and their communities. When Jeb tried early on in the campaign to soften the language of the immigration debate, he demonstrated how far out of touch he was with the base of his party. Indeed, the more outrageous Trump's words have become--and the higher his poll numbers have risen--the more other candidates have begun to mimic rather than push back against his message. Now, with two-thirds of Republicans supporting anti-establishment candidates, GOP leaders may have finally come to realize that Donald Trump is merely the symptom of a deeper problem: a large majority of the those who self-identify as Republicans may no longer believe that the establishment wing of the party shares their goals and values.

Ultimately, as the crowd cheered him on, Donald Trump decided that he would not kill reporters. But he stood before a crowd of Republican supporters and acted as though he was actually considering it, and no one from the leadership of his party stood up to tell him that he had gone too far. Five months ago, Trump was berated by the leadership of his party simply for suggesting that John McCain was not a war hero. This week, he talked publicly about killing reporters and no one said a word. Gone were the coded speech and dog whistles, gone the patina of deniability. All that was left was speech, and it was dangerous, hateful speech.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

To defeat ISIS, we must stand up for America.

The rise of Islamophobia and the fear that has been consuming much of the country is not just about Donald Trump. The Republican front-runner is embarrassing himself and our nation with his rhetoric. Things have gotten so bad that Trump is being publicly scolded about chauvinistic behavior by a leading member of the Saudi royal family. This is the family whose fundamentalist Wahhabi clerics spawned Islamist terrorism across the globe, who prohibit any worship in the Kingdom but Islam and regularly behead apostates, and whose oil wealth funded the rise of ISIS and of al Qaeda before it. But Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's words, "You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America," are in truth less about Donald Trump's conduct than about all of ours. We are a disgrace to America.

We have seen many mass shootings this year. In June, Dylann Roof killed nine people at a bible study group at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof, a South Carolina native, hoped his killings would spark a war between blacks and whites. In October, Chris Harper-Mercer killed ten people at Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon. Harper-Mercer, a British native raised in the U.S., had an arsenal of 13 guns and appears to have had interests in Nazi and white supremacist culture. In November, Robert Dear killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. Dear, a native of Kentucky, brought with him a duffle bag of handguns and rifles and was long known to hold strong anti-abortion and anti-government views. Then, two weeks ago, Syed Rizwan Farook, an Illinois native, and his Pakistani wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people at a social service center in San Bernardino, California. The couple had four weapons.

Each of these mass killings were motivated by issues that have long histories of inspiring violence--racial animosity, anti-government resentments, white supremacism, anti-abortion convictions, and radical Islamism. And, as much as it has become a common meme to blame mass shootings on mental illness, in the minds of adherents, each of these are motivations that justify the turn to violence.

After initial spasms of blue vs. red invective, our collective responses to the mass shootings in South Carolina, Oregon and Colorado were tempered, and discussion of those events quickly faded. Then came the fierce response to the Farook-Malik murders. Unlike the responses to the Roof-Harper-Mercer-Dear murders of 22 people--which have been toned down to the level of stuff that happens--the Farook-Malik murder of 14 people is now being widely described as the worst terror attack on the homeland since 9/11. While that might technically be an accurate statement, suggesting that a husband and wife shooting of 14 people with two pistols and two rifles was in any respect comparable to the 9/11 attacks and the deaths of 2,977 people as attacks on the homeland is patently manipulative. Just to provide some perspective, the media spin on the Farook-Malik murders could have been that the killing of 14 people in San Bernardino will likely make December 2015 the month with the largest number of deaths by mass shooting since the prior month, November 2015, when 49 people were killed

Roof, Harper-Mercer and Dear killed 22 people. Between the three of them they had dozens of handguns and assault weapons. Their motivations were racial and rooted in their Christian faith. This is not to say that they were radical Christian terrorists, but simply that their motivations--the white supremacist and radical anti-abortion convictions--were grounded in their religious beliefs. In contrast, Farook and Malik had four guns--a small cache compared with their mass murderer counterparts--yet the scale of their "arsenal" has been widely hyped as the ensuing war on terror rhetoric rose in intensity.

Of course, the Farook-Malik murders were terrible, and they were distinct from the other mass killings because they were part of a pattern of mass murder directed or inspired by ISIS. But the depth of the fear that the San Bernardino shooting spree has provoked across the country has been disproportionate.

This was made clear to me when a friend asked if he should be worried about going to a concert in the wake of what happened in Paris and San Bernardino. The framing of the Farook-Malik murders as the worst terror attack on the homeland since 9/11 gave rise to my friend's question, and it has undercut the possibility of having reasoned discussions about how the country should respond to this next phase of Islamist inspired violence. The simple fact is that my friend has a far greater chance of any number of disasters befalling him--being hit by a drunk driver, getting trapped in a collapsed building toppled by an earthquake or choking to death on his popcorn--if he goes to a concert in downtown Oakland than the next Farook-Malik-style murder.

Osama bin Laden built al Qaeda's war with the West based on a straightforward strategic calculation. He believed that through terrorist attacks on the United States, he could draw the United States into wars on Muslim lands. He anticipated that the presence of American soldiers killing Muslims would be an effective recruiting tool for al Qaeda, and he believed that the U.S. military could be defeated, "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy," through the asymmetric warfare tactics that he had seen defeat the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan and the U.S. military itself decades earlier in Vietnam.

In addition to embracing bin Laden's strategy, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is seeking to draw a sharp line between the world of Islam and the world of the unbelievers, and to convince Muslims that they can never be accepted as practicing Muslims living in the West. He defines the world where Muslims in the West live as a gray zone that must be eliminated. A "gray zone" refers to a society where individuals can live their lives in accordance with their faith, while at the same time being part of a larger secular society that respects those choices. Baghdadi's strategy to eliminate the gray zones is built around directing and inspiring terrorist actions that will provoke a reflexive response by Western nations that will achieve his objectives and alienate their Muslim citizens. The Farook-Malik murders were that type of terrorist action. The objective was to provoke exactly the type of panic that has ensued, with a range of reverberating effects--such as Donald Trump's rhetoric and an outpouring of anti-Muslim sentiment--that communicate to Muslims in the United States that they are objects of suspicion who may never truly be at home here.

Like bin Laden before him, Baghdadi has a cunning geopolitical strategy that uses our own worst instincts against us. Over the past several weeks, we have seen how effective that strategy can be. We could have acted quite differently, and responded to the Farook-Malik mass shooting of 14 people in a manner comparable to the Roof-Harper-Mercer-Dear murders of 22 people. Instead, we responded in exactly the manner that Baghdadi hoped we would. Everything we have done, and each of the actions that have been suggested that we might do--develop a registry of Muslim citizens, increase the surveillance of Muslim places of worship, apply religious tests to those who would cross our borders--will feed the anxieties and alienation of Muslims living in the west.

These responses will not make us safer from the risk of these kinds of attacks, and at the same time they diminish the essence of who we are. We need to stop blindly doing what bin Laden and Baghdadi want us to do. America is at its essence a gray zone. Our nation's a priori commitment to religious liberty and our long history of integrating immigrant communities and cultures into the mainstream of American life is the most effective countervailing weapon we have against the future that Baghdadi and ISIS imagine imposing on the world. Whatever actions we take with respect to the continuing war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, here at home we are fighting a different war. We lose this war if we take the kinds of actions that Donald Trump and others have suggested. We win if we draw our Muslim communities closer to us and collectively confront the challenges that ISIS presents.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Reaping the whirlwind.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan waded into the tumult of protests this week against Donald Trump's plan to close the U.S. borders for a time to Muslim immigrants. Trump's proposal has sparked universal condemnation across the political spectrum. Of course, to call it a plan was a bit hasty; as in all things Trump, it was rhetoric. There are no plans to build a wall along the Mexican border.  There is no plan to register Muslim Americans. And there is no plan to implement a religious test for immigration into the United States. There are just words.

This is not conservatism, this is not what the Republican Party stands for, Paul Ryan complained. What is conservatism and what does the Republican Party stand for are probably the right questions, but Ryan is raising those question a few decades late.

Politics in America is not about ethics and it is not an exercise in philosophical debate. There may be implicit arguments involved about what policies might deliver the greatest good for the greatest number, but the core undertaking is about using the democratic process to achieve and maintain political power. And over the past half-century, the Republican Party has played the game well. Despite all the demographic arguments pointing to inherent Democrat advantages, the high-minded theories about Democrats being on the right side of history, and decades-long disadvantages in party identity and registration, the Republican Party stands today with an iron-clad grip on the House of Representatives, a solid majority in the U.S. Senate, and control over an overwhelming majority of state governorships and state legislatures. Only the Presidential election next year stands between the GOP and total domination of U.S. politics.

And there sits Donald Trump as the obstacle to GOP hopes and dreams. The oddly coiffed real estate mogul has translated his two decades of reality show stardom into absolute dominance in the Republican primary season to date. Trump showed early on that he has a sense for the political jugular when he took down the presumptive front-runner Jeb Bush through little more than suggestions that Bush lacked energy, and he has gone on to tap into the zeitgeist of a large share of the Republican Party base with one controversial statement or proposal after another. And each time Republican pundits stated with great assurance that this time Trump had gone too far, Trump's popularity just kept rising. This week, Trump's call for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration into the United States set off two new firestorms, one with respect to the harshness of his rhetoric, and another of panic within the GOP that Trump might be marching the party toward a political catastrophe that it is powerless to avert.

The depth of the Republican problem was made evident by polling published since Trump's most recent pronouncement. On December 9th, a Bloomberg/Purple Strategies poll suggested that Trump's temporary ban on Muslim immigration was supported by 65% of likely Republican primary voters, and that 37% of respondents suggested that his proposal made them more likely to vote for him, while only 16% indicated that the proposal would make them less likely to vote for him. Then, the next day, a CBS News/New York Times poll taken from December 4th through 8th--days both before and after Trump initially made his comments--showed him with 35% support among national Republican primary voters--up 13 points since its last poll in October--and a 19 point lead over second place Ted Cruz. Most notable about the CBS News poll was their observation that Trump's support was 30% before his comments on Muslim immigration, and jumped to 38% after the comments.

As despicable as many view Trump's comments, his populist success should not come as a surprise to the Republican establishment. For the past half-century, the GOP has built its electoral success on an uneasy alliance between the GOP establishment--with roots among the landed aristocracy, Wall Street and Main Street mercantilist classes--and the predominantly white working class and evangelical wings of the party.

This modern Republican coalition was the strategic brainchild of Richard Nixon and Kevin Phillips among others. After losing the 1960 presidential contest to John F. Kennedy by 100,000 votes of 70 million cast, Nixon won the presidency eight years later with a slim 43.4% to 42.7% popular vote margin over Hubert Humphrey, with segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace winning 13.5% of the vote and five southern states in the Electoral College.

Determined not to face a third close contest, Nixon and the Republican Party implemented the Southern Strategy to bring long-time Democratic white southern, rural and evangelical voters into the Republican Party. Those voters, alienated largely by the Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights, became a core GOP constituency. And the strategy was successful. Four years after his narrow win over Humphrey, Nixon demolished George McGovern, winning 49 states and 60.1% of the popular vote. While McGovern was a particularly weak candidate, Nixon's 1972 election numbers largely mirrored what 1968 would have been if you added George Wallace's vote totals to Richard Nixon's, which would have given Nixon 56.9% of the popular vote and a 44 state landslide.

Against that backdrop, Donald Trump's success this year should not be particularly surprising. This year's revolt of less-educated, southern, rural and working class voters against the GOP establishment has been simmering for decades. The Republican Party establishment has long held tight control over its nomination process. As the saying goes, Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line. Yet along the way there has been a history of discord. In 1992 and 1996, Nixon speechwriter and conservative herald Pat Buchanan led his Peasants with Pitchforks uprisings against the establishment candidates, winning 20-25% of the primary vote against the incumbent George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, respectively. Buchanan's share of the vote mirrored exactly the share of the GOP electorate represented by the Wallace voters that Nixon brought into the party. The subsequent emergence of the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party demonstrated more than a decade after Buchanan's last race that the anti-establishment, nativist wing of the GOP was alive and well.

Over the past fifty years, the GOP has catered to the socially conservative views of the voters who migrated to the GOP in the wake of the Southern Strategy, but has been largely inimical to their economic interests. Pat Buchanan railed for years that the GOP was serving the interests of Republican corporate and Wall Street elites by supporting free trade and immigration policies that undermined the economic interests of working and middle class Americans. Donald Trump expanded on Buchanan's attacks on the GOP establishment when he targeted the preferential tax treatment provided to hedge fund managers and the control of GOP candidates by mega-donors and special interests. Last month, a report published by Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case documenting the increasing death rates among middle-aged white Americans--in particular from suicide and substance abuse--provided epidemiological evidence that anger and despair growing out of decades of economic stagnation and decline affecting working class and middle class Americans that have given rise to the anti-establishment revolt within the GOP are reflected in mortality statistics as well.

Even as the GOP establishment is complaining about Donald Trump's rhetoric, the rest of the Republican field has largely ignored evidence from his rise that the Republican base is mad as hell and isn't going to take it any more. Across the board, the candidates have had little to offer their working class constituents beyond one more round of tax cuts, ignoring the simple reality that tax cuts are of little or no value to working and middle class Americans who pay little or no federal income tax. As Mitt Romney famously observed four years ago, the bottom 40% of Americans pay no federal income tax, while those in the middle quintile have an average income tax rate of only 1.3%.

In the wake of the most recent turmoil, leaders of the GOP still seem to be pinning their hopes on Trump voters falling in line, but history suggests that they won't. In 1992 and 1996, when Pat Buchanan won his 20-25%--a bit below Trump's polling today--those voters did not fall in line during the primary season; it is just that their votes did not matter as--like Bernie Sanders this year--Robertson was running against a single establishment candidate who easily won 60-70% of the vote. The problem the GOP faces today is that against a field of 14, Trump's 30% share may hard to beat, unless most of those candidates drop out early on once the voting actually starts, or, as in 1992, Trump takes the path of Ross Perot, who ran as a third party candidate--with anti-free trade rhetoric that mirrored Pat Buchanan's--and won 18.9% of the national vote, enough to cost George H.W. Bush reelection and give the White House to Bill Clinton.

GOP efforts to shame Trump into submission--and preferably into leaving the race--are ill-conceived. As recent polling has suggested--and as has been evident for months now--Trump has his finger on the pulse of a broad swath of the GOP electorate, and those voters appear to be hunkering down in defense of their man. The less educated core of Trump voters today--as has been true for decades--resent being labeled as uneducated bigots, particularly by GOP establishment elites who for fifty years have leveraged their votes to achieve political success, but have offered little or nothing in return except for a stout defense of the second amendment and other social issues. 

Paul Ryan complains that Trump is not acting as a conservative, but Ryan is showing a tin ear to the situation facing his party. The definition of being a conservative--to say nothing of being a Republican--has changed dramatically over the years. Richard Nixon walked away from the New England small government conservatives when he brought southern, rural and evangelical conservatives into the fold who were activists on social issues. Similarly, Ronald Reagan killed the fiscal conservative traditions of the party, while George W. Bush cast out the GOP traditions of conservative restraint in foreign policy in favor of neoconservative activism. But through it all, the GOP remained true to its corporate and Wall Street masters, the elements of the party that were most distrusted by the groups that were brought into the fold fifty years ago, and by Pat Buchanan and the Tea Party in the decades since. Conservatism in Republican politics is not a static concept defined in the writing of Edmund Burke, or Ayn Rand for that matter, as Paul Ryan's words suggest. It has been balanced over the years by the exigencies of what it takes to win. 

Paul Ryan's protests notwithstanding, Donald Trump's populist, nativist rhetoric--as offensive as it may be--is well within the American political tradition, and his campaign has its antecedents in the traditions of the GOP as well. GOP candidates have thrived over the years through their willingness to say the words necessary to motivate their base--however offensive to others they might be--and Trump is no different. The question is what comes next. Now that the GOP top brass--from Speaker Paul Ryan to GOP Chairman Reince Priebus to its éminence grise Dick Cheney--have heaped condemnation on Donald Trump, and many declared him unfit to serve, they have placed themselves between a rock and a hard place. Either they find a way to take Trump down--even if it means daring him to bolt the party to launch a third party bid--and reassert control over the primary process going forward, or they sit on their hands and risk a Trump victory, a fracturing of the Republican coalition on Election Day, and undermining in a few short months what it took them decades to build.