What Is at Stake

Before I delve into the essence of this article, let me clarify one point for any potential Trump supporters reading this: No, I do not think Hillary Clinton is the perfect presidential candidate. But I also do not think she is “crooked Hillary,” whatever Donald Trump means by that, nor do I think she is so terrible as to be unacceptable. She has a number of admirable qualities balanced by some noticeable drawbacks, and she is and has been a very serious student of public policy. She is qualified and experienced. That is offset to some degree by some noticeable shortcomings, although the office of President of the United States has almost never been a denizen of saints. She is certainly not a threat to democracy or the democratic process, nor is President Barack Obama, despite right-wing attempts to demonize him. I can think of many presidents of both parties with whom I disagreed on specific policies without worrying about whether they jeopardized the future of the republic.

All that said, I do think Donald Trump has crossed numerous red lines that others before him have, out of principle and concern for the nation, chosen not to cross, which is why previous Republican nominees and presidents—the Bushes, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—have either rebuked his candidacy or repeatedly clashed with him. Two are of special concern.

First, the threat to jail his opponent, following up the litany at the Republican National Convention of “Lock her up!” regarding Hillary Clinton, shows a shocking disregard of the constitutional limits of the presidency. There is a reason no presidential candidate has made such a threat before, and it is not that no one was as crooked as Hillary. It is that it is not the job of the President to decide who is arrested, who is indicted, and who goes to prison. It is the job of the courts and law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, to make that call. With regard to Clinton’s e-mails, James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a Republican, has made the determination there was carelessness but not a crime, but it appears that Trump and his supporters will be satisfied only when they get the outcome they want. This weekend’s revelation that the FBI will examine the Clinton-related e-mails (which apparently were not to or from Clinton herself) found on a computer belonging to former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner and his estranged wife, Huma Abedin, a Clinton aide, has added no real substance to any accusations, Donald Trump’s hyperbolic implications notwithstanding. Trump himself is not entirely immune to prosecution on certain fronts, but it will not be Clinton who forces the issue. It will be the justice system at some level that will decide whether any charges have sufficient merit to justify such steps. Clinton knows far better than to wade into such a swamp even for political purposes.

What Trump’s rhetoric does, however, is dramatically reduce any apparent distance between the constitutional procedures at work in the United States and the more capricious workings of justice in authoritarian nations like Russia or Venezuela. That is a step into the abyss that should alarm any thinking, conscientious American. I say “apparent” because, while I absolutely believe the substantive differences between our political system and those in such nations is very real, Trump is erasing some of the appearance, and perceptions matter.

Second, the claims of a rigged election are despicable and based on nothing. Trump has offered no proof because there is none. Not only are there numerous studies, all cited repeatedly by the news media, showing only infinitesimal vote fraud at a level that would not even affect most municipal elections, let alone the presidency, but our electoral system itself is geared to prevent it. There is no national election system in the U.S. Elections are under the control of state-level Secretaries of State, for the most part, most of whom right now are Republicans. Why would Republican election officials be assisting a conspiracy to keep Donald Trump out of office? In any event, even they lack that power because the administration of elections is generally handled at the county level. The system is thoroughly decentralized. Both parties have long had poll watchers who monitor activity at polling places and can blow the whistle when something is awry. The number of people who would need to be party to a conspiracy in order to rig a national election successfully is so vast as to be laughable. My wife has been an election judge for Cook County. There are strict incentives for accuracy for poll workers on Election Day. The county clerk, David Orr, is a thoroughly honorable man who enjoys great respect.

It is important to recognize, however, that Trump’s allegations of a rigged election are not about the election. They are the desperate efforts of a man who has derided others as losers to deflect attention from the fact that his own inept campaign, hobbled by his own deep character flaws, has turned him into a seeming loser in a campaign he thought he could not lose. Unable to handle or accept responsibility for possible defeat, Trump is driven to find some cause outside himself to blame for it. The problem can never be Trump himself. If he is going down, he will try to take the system down with him. The problem is that he has too many followers willing to follow him into that abyss.

There are other characteristics of Trump that raise serious questions. His thin skin for criticism, which causes him to lash out, has made many people very uneasy with his candidacy. His behavior too closely resembles that of a schoolyard bully who has never matured or moved beyond a brand of egotistical narcissism that is deeply troubling. More experienced politicians with a better perspective on what matters, for instance, would easily have decided that Gold Star parents, through the loss of their child in this nation’s service, have earned the right to express their opinions and that it would be best to simply respect their feelings. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has said as much. But most other candidates would also have had more restraint—and respect for the U.S. Constitution—than to have made the comments about Muslim citizens that provoked the Khans’ objections to Trump in the first place. In the view of a bully, however, such criticism is intolerable and must be squashed.

I also must say that Trump violates one of my own fundamental values—my appreciation for factual accuracy and scholarship. I understand that almost no politician is likely to be entirely truthful 100 percent of the time, in part because no one lasts very long that way. But on the spectrum of perfect honesty versus indifference to the truth, Trump veers so far toward indifference that he has scared the wits out of many Americans who care about honesty. When I hear anyone, politician or otherwise, use hyperbolic rhetoric with words like “huge,” “everyone says,” “so many people tell me,” etc., I begin to cringe with a sense that the speaker is almost immune to the influence of serious information. As a writer and communicator, I understand the need to digest and focus and condense information for popular consumption, but this type of rhetoric is not about that. It is about disguising the speaker’s lack of commitment to learning and to understanding the importance of knowing what you do not know. When absorbing technical information outside my area of expertise, I may well ask an engineer or scientist to concentrate on the essentials without burying me in minutiae, but I still care about the accuracy of what I am learning. And I have learned, sometimes the hard way over the years, that the catch phrases I have cited above are typically those of a bullshit artist. This same reaction is undoubtedly what led CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria earlier this summer to publish his daring op-ed in the Washington Post, “The Unbearable Stench of Donald Trump’s B.S.

Is there any precedent for such a candidate? I think there is, but not where people have been looking. I have heard some comparisons to Mussolini or Hitler, and at one point wondered whether the former was an apt comparison. I think not. For one thing, despite his troubling rhetoric, Trump lacks the discipline both in his campaign and among his followers to imitate these fascist leaders. Fortunately, we see no brownshirts, no jackboots, not even a clear ideology. There is merely a campaign based on numerous grievances, some more legitimate than others, among a portion of the electorate that is hungry for a strong leader who they believe can “make America great again.” He is certainly firing up their fears and paranoia, and that may have some lasting consequences for both the nation and the Republican party. But it simply is not the same thing. Let’s dispense with that sort of hyperbole from the left.

Nor, despite Trump’s apparent admiration, is Russian President Vladimir Putin a valid comparison. Russians at the moment appear to prefer Putin’s strong, silent type of leadership over the brash, talkative role model that Trump embodies.

Instead, I would suggest that the real comparison lies south of the border, in the very nations that are supplying so many of the immigrants that Trump promises to wall out of the U.S. There has long been a style of Latin American politics known as “personalismo” in Spanish, for which there is not a direct translation in English, although “personalism” would be the apparent operative term. Personalismo is built around the messianic appeal of a charismatic leader who basically proclaims, as Trump famously did in the Republican convention this year, “I alone can fix it.” The appeal typically resonates with people who have grown deeply skeptical of the political system and its ability to solve deeply rooted problems. Examples could include Juan Peron in Argentina, and perhaps Eva Peron later as well, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Omar Torrijos in Panama, and Alberto Fujimori in Peru. One might even add the current example of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. These leaders are quite distinct from leaders of the once frequent military juntas in Latin America, who were often distinctly uncharismatic and relied on guns, not votes, for their rise to power. Personalismo produces leaders who rise as a result of a rapid surge in popularity built upon rhetoric often eerily similar to “make America great again,” such as Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” or promises to wipe out crime and rebellion through strong-arm tactics. Personalist leaders often acquire military support, but it is not at the root of their popularity.

The problem is that such exercises in messianic leadership almost never end well. In fact, they almost always end badly and do little to strengthen democracy. If there are rigged elections, they almost invariably happen not in the rise to power, but as el lider’s popularity eventually declines and a need emerges to find ways to prolong his reign. This is largely the route being followed now by the remnants of Chavismo under the far less charismatic successor, current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Losing power is tough to tolerate for a politician who rode to power on a wave of populist enthusiasm. However, as I noted earlier, the U.S. electoral system is loaded with safeguards against such an outcome precisely because it is federal and widely decentralized. Political systems in most Latin American nations have traditionally been more centralized at a national level.

Where does that leave us? The rise of a candidate like Trump, for one thing, does serve a purpose. It exposes the fact that a substantial portion of the U.S. electorate feels disenfranchised and disempowered at some significant level. While many are grasping at straws in embracing Trump as a problem solver, this does not mean the problems should be ignored. The loss of blue-collar jobs creates serious issues of social equity, and the rise of the Bernie Sanders candidacy in the Democratic party should have alerted Clinton to the fact that her presidency may face serious obstacles to success if she does not address them. Clinton could blunt the power of Trump’s following by finding ways to effectively handle the displacement of jobs in mining and manufacturing, but it will take a more deliberate effort than we have seen so far. Communities in places like Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio that have flocked to the Trump candidacy will be hard sells for such programs, yet no president—not even Trump if he is elected—is likely to reverse the long-term decline of coal, or the widespread systemic changes in the steel industry. Some communities will have to be helped to embrace a more promising future. But many of these workers have been offered little hope for a long time, and they are understandably frustrated. There are opportunities to address that frustration, however, and failure to do so will only breed more of the same cynicism that brought us to our current choices. What remains to be seen, if she is elected on November 8, is whether a President Hillary Clinton (or, for that matter, Donald Trump) has the capacity to be bold enough, and courageous enough, to confront this gap between reality and aspiration in a bid to erode such cynicism. And whether Republicans in Congress will help lead, get out of the way, or obstruct progress.


Jim Schwab

Subdivide and Conquer the Flood

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Floods generally result from regional storm systems producing intense precipitation, from fast melting of winter snows, and occasionally from the failure of protective infrastructure such as dams and levees, often as a result of pressure from such events. We tend to think of the resulting flood damages as the inevitable consequences of these events, but they are not. Flood damages are the result of development decisions that place the built environment—and humans—in harm’s way. Most of those decisions, at least in the U.S., are made at the local level. In city halls and in planning commission and city council meetings across the nation, we have met the enemy of flood hazard reduction. It is usually us.

Tucked away from most public attention, the little decisions a community makes in approving new subdivisions are among those with the biggest influence in exacerbating or minimizing flood hazards to residential development. Cities, towns, and counties often assume that, if they simply comply with the fundamental requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), they are home free. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which runs the program, while it can establish minimum requirements for local participation in the program, will never be in a position to substitute for local judgment on flood risk. There are too many important decisions that local government alone can make that FEMA cannot.

Less well understood by many is that there are significant practical limitations to the capabilities of the NFIP. NFIP regulations apply to mapped floodplains, but mapping floodplains for insurance rating purposes costs money, and that means higher priorities for mapping urbanized and developed areas where flood insurance will be sold. With more than 3.5 million miles of coast and river and stream frontage in the U.S., the NFIP has mapped about 1.2 million miles for Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). Much of the rest is in rural and undeveloped areas, along smaller tributaries, such as streams and creeks, where development has yet to occur. Subdivision, of course, is a process of dividing and developing plots of land precisely where development has not yet happened. The possibility of a new subdivision proposal including land with unmapped floodplains is a constant reality. The stream corridors involved may seem small, but when flooding occurs they can often pose serious problems. Moreover, their floodplains may well expand as a result of the creation of new impervious surface in small watersheds—that is, hard surfaces such as building footprints, driveways, and roads. These impacts expand the floodplain because such hard surfaces do not absorb stormwater, unlike open space with trees and grass, thus increasing the volume of storm runoff.


Cover of report reprinted with permission from APA.

To address these sorts of issues, the American Planning Association in 2014 FEMA to fund the production of a report for planners that has just been released: Subdivision Design and Flood Hazard Areas (Planning Advisory Service Report 584). It actually builds on prior work by APA two decades ago in a similar report, Subdivision Design in Flood Hazard Areas; both are being made available online as free PDF downloads and companion documents. The new report, however, goes far in bringing the subject forward and addressing contemporary realities, including the need to get ahead of climate change by anticipating potentially more extreme events and, in coastal areas, sea level rise. To amplify the outreach of the report, APA is scheduling its next Planning Information Exchange webinar in early December to address this topic.

The panel will include California attorney Tyler Berding, of the Walnut Creek law firm Berding & Weil, which has specialized in working with homeowner associations and developed an acute awareness of the problems raised when these associations inherit responsibilities for funding and maintaining flood protection infrastructure such as levees and small dams. As Berding notes, developers often sell local planners and elected officials on the idea that such arrangements, approved during plat reviews, free the municipality or county of the burden of such infrastructure. The problem arises many years later, when it becomes clear that these volunteer-managed organizations lack the expertise and also suffer from predictable downward pressure from property owners on maintenance fees, resulting in steadily deteriorating flood infrastructure that can result in disaster. Also on the panel will be Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers and a major contributor to the report, for which I served as general editor, and Jerry Brems, now a retired planning director of Licking County, Ohio, who lent his experience in advising the project, who has dealt with these issues. I will moderate.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

The overall point of the report is to highlight the fact that there is typically much more a local government can do to exercise vigilance in this respect than typically happens. The report outlines a number of standards communities can adopt with regard to the protection of natural and man-made features on a subdivision site, the layout and design of the site, its infrastructure, platting requirements, and watershed management. It also discusses how all this can be integrated effectively into the larger planning process of the jurisdiction. For instance, it discusses and provides a case study on the use of conservation subdivision design, which allows the clustering of structures on a site to locate them on higher, safer ground while maintaining more vulnerable, low-lying sections in common open space, which in turn allows the creation of such amenities as riverside walking paths, habitat protection for wildlife, and preservation of forested buffer areas along stream corridors. These and many other steps help reduce flood losses while creating a more resilient, safer, and environmentally sustainable community.

In short, the entire project invites communities to explore ways to become more forward-looking and creative in their approaches to flood hazards. The world is improved more often incrementally than radically. We hope we’ve brought planners’ and public officials’ attention to one more such increment.


Jim Schwab

Deepwater Horizon

I have just returned tonight from seeing Deepwater Horizon at the movie theater. It has been a while since I used this blog to review a movie, but I feel compelled. This one, I am willing to say, is well worth your time and money. Peter Berg, as director, has done an outstanding job in using special effects to recreate a realistic sense of the disastrous chaos that ensued when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately spilling more than 5 million barrels of oil over 86 days before the leak was plugged. Mark Wahlberg stars as Mike Williams, a leading member of the crew, along with Kurt Russell as Jimmy Harrell.

I will not dwell here on the details of what happened, which are well documented and readily available on numerous websites about the worst oil industry accident in American history. On the evening of April 20, 2010, the rig, owned by Transocean, exploded and burned as a result of a blowout deep below the water’s surface. BP owned the drilling rights in the area, known as the Macondo Prospect. Eleven men died, and numerous other workers were seriously injured. Billions of dollars of damage to the Gulf Coast environment ensued, resulting in a huge political backlash that ultimately entailed pressure from the White House on BP to establish a $20 billion fund to compensate victims including the states and communities affected by the oil pollution that spread across the Gulf.

The entire environmental and political story might make a good movie and certainly is great material for a documentary, but that is not the focus of the movie. Nor does it have much to do with my recommendation. Instead, the movie calls our attention to the intense human cost of the event among the workers themselves and their families. The value of the stunning special effects is not to make the event surreal, as in most Hollywood productions, but to make it all too real. For most of us, the events of the Deepwater Horizon spill are abstractions, and most of the television news coverage featured polluted shorelines and bayous, tarred and dying birds, and similar scenes that typified the larger impacts of the accident.

In contrast, Deepwater Horizon the movie draws our attention to the traumatic experience of actually working on the rig and exposes us to the tensions between Transocean workers and BP officials. The high human cost among the crew, involving not only physical suffering but traumatic escapes from the burning platform, are the less well understood aspects of the entire event, but the movie makes you feel those impacts at a very intense and personal level. I will admit it forthrightly: the movie left me with tears in my eyes as I began to absorb the horror that unfolded and almost surely left most of these people scarred in the deep recesses of their souls. Several, the movie indicates, never returned to sea or the oil industry again, but moved away from Louisiana and moved on to other things in their lives. It is worth remembering the high price they paid for the shortcomings of BP management.


Jim Schwab