On the Question of 70-Year-Old Men

There is no doubt about it. President Donald Trump’s latest tweets have rightly triggered a firestorm of disgust and angry responses. The personal attacks on MSNBC reporters Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski have revealed a level of meanness and misogyny even Trump’s most craven defenders find impossible to ignore, with the exception of his White House press team, whose jobs, of course, depend on continuing to justify whatever he says. Thus, we have deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reminding us that, when Trump feels attacked (read “criticized”), he feels compelled to “fight fire with fire.” The problem is that he typically goes off the rails with comments of little substance or truth that would cause most other people to be fired and led out of their office by security. But he is, after all, the President. The people hired him. Or at least, that portion of the public voting in the right places to comprise a majority of the Electoral College even as he lost the popular vote by roughly three million.

My focus in this essay, however, is different from all that, although connected to it. I do not intend to reprise Trump’s acid tweets or analyze or parse or dissect them. My target is certain members of the television punditocracy who should know better and are insulting senior citizens in the process of criticizing Donald Trump. The fact that Trump is their target does not blind me to the ignorance of one statement some reporters have repeated so often I have not kept track of exactly who has said it or how often: “Donald Trump is a 70-year-old man, and 70-year-old men don’t change.”

Poppycock. This is a lazy excuse for failing to take a closer look at the real problem in his case. It is also a display of ageism that should not go unchallenged, certainly not any more than Trump’s misogyny. It is an expression of bias that needs to stop.

Slicing the cake at my APA retirement party, May 31. Not that was I about to disappear to a Florida golf course. Photos by Jean Schwab

I will reveal a personal stake in this debate. In little less than two and a half years, I will be one of those 70-year-old men. At 67, it is not just that I feel very little in common with Trump’s world view. It is that I know in my gut that I remain capable of change, that I have core principles that I hope will not change, and that I have one fundamental quality that Trump appears to lack—that of spiritual, moral, and intellectual curiosity. I approach 70 in the humble knowledge that I do not know everything, have never known everything that matters, and that I never will know everything that matters. I also approach 70 in the certainty that my thirst for new knowledge must remain until my last breath, barring any mental deterioration that might forestall such curiosity. I recall a friend of mine, who had read a biography of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, telling me of book, Honorable Justice (by Sheldon M. Novick). Although the passage does not appear in that book, he noted a story in which newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt is visiting the retired 92-year-old man and finds him reading Plato.

“Why do you read Plato, Mr. Justice?” Roosevelt asks.

“To improve my mind,” Holmes responds.

Which gets us to the problem of the current President. It is commonly said that he does not spend much time reading. Reading is one activity that informs learning, and learning inspires change, and therein lies the problem. We have a President who is so certain of his own superiority, who, on the wings of inherited wealth, has spent so little time being challenged on his core beliefs, that he has not acquired the habit of intellectual curiosity. This is the only trait that truly explains his poorly informed intransigence on climate change, immigration, election fraud, and numerous other issues where his depth of knowledge often appears paper-thin. It also explains his intense, narcissistic preoccupation with personal image reflected in comments about other nations laughing at “us,” and in his perceived need to strike back at anyone who merely disagrees with him, however honest and honorable that person’s disagreement may be.

To what can we attribute this sad state of affairs? Clearly, not just to Trump himself. After all, despite the distortions in popular will wrought by the Electoral College, no one can win the Electoral College without being at least close to a plurality of the popular vote. No one with a weak base of voter support can even hope to win the nomination of either major party in the United States. Inevitably, we must look at the nature of the support that launched Trump into the White House.

There can be little doubt that some of that support involved a level of dislike or dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton that allowed voters to overlook the manifold shortcomings of Donald Trump, although polls surely indicate that many are now reassessing that comparison. Let’s be honest. Clinton had her own baggage and an imperious style that turned off a large part of the electorate. She could have spent far more time with blue-collar voters in the Midwest but chose not to. Whether Sen. Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump, we will never know. History does not afford us the luxury of testing such scenarios. Sanders did not win the nomination, and there is little more to be said. Better luck next time.

Colleague Richard Roths (right), still stirring the waters and challenging conventions in his own retirement, alongside Benjamin and Rebecca Leitschuh, former students (of both of us) and co-workers (of mine), at my APA retirement party.

What I want to emphasize, however, is that Trump’s lack of intellectual curiosity, and his remarkable ability to tune into similar qualities among people very unlike him—the working-class voters worried about job security—reflects a sullen streak in American culture that has long glorified ignorance. Mind you, I am not saying that white working-class voters all fall into this category. I emerged from that environment. My father was a truck mechanic. I have met and known many union members and leaders with much more generous and positive attitudes. (I am married to a Chicago Teachers Union activist.) I am speaking of a particular tendency that can be found anywhere but tends to assert itself in uncertain economic times and under certain cultural circumstances, such as those highlighted by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.

There is a cultural tug-of-war within America that is as old as America. It is between the intellectual innovators and their curiosity and all the changes they have wrought that have launched this nation to international leadership in technology, literature, and science, and those who willingly disparage the value of education, knowledge, and curiosity, whether out of jealousy or resentment or stubbornness. There is an element of social class attached to it, but more often it transcends class. Sometimes, aspects of both traits can be found in the same person. For all his innovative genius in science and politics, Thomas Jefferson remained a racist to his dying day. On the other hand, another “70-year-old man,” his contemporary George Washington, rose above his heritage long enough at the end of his life to free his slaves, upon his wife’s death, in his will, believing that the institution of slavery would need to wither away. Jefferson did no such thing.

So, we fight this war within ourselves at times, and as we do, we need to acknowledge it in order to overcome it, so that our biases are not petrified in old age. Trump seems to have chosen the opposite course. Unfortunately, he won election by tapping into an anti-intellectual streak in American politics that runs rampant across age groups, although we can hope that the worst biases are dying off among the young. But beware of the mental calcification that can start at an early age.

Deene Alongi, to my right, will begin managing speaking tours for me this fall. I may have a few things to say!

Seventy-year-old men and women can readily change. Having retired from APA just a month ago, I am rapidly acquiring new routines, setting new goals for the coming years, and trying to think new thoughts. Like Holmes, I cannot wait to read books new and old, and I want to remain intellectually challenged. I hope everyone following this blog has similar aspirations. It is the only way we will keep our nation, and indeed the entire world, moving forward and confronting challenges in a positive way.

And I don’t want to hear one more ignorant reporter talk about how “70-year-old men don’t change.” To them, I say, look inside yourself and ask why you are saying such a thing. Is it because you anticipate being stubborn like Trump when you reach his age? Perhaps you have some biases of your own to overcome.

Beware: From now on, I may start recording reporters’ names when I watch the TV news and hear comments about old men not changing. And I will call them out when they repeat their ageist slurs.

 

Jim Schwab

When Words Lose Meaning

This is not going to be a polite blog post. It is going to be blunt and brief. Politeness serves a purpose in life, but mostly when engaging with other people of honest intentions but different perspectives, in an effort to keep discussion civil and respectful. It is not an effective tool in dealing with prevarication, obfuscation, and deflection.

Those are the tools of the current President of the United States, and I feel sorry for those who are so enamored of the narcissist named Donald Trump that they have become incapable of seeing this reality. But I am just stubborn and old-fashioned enough to believe there is such a thing as truth. Most of us may struggle to various degrees with the challenge of discerning it, but it does exist. And many of us also are at least aware when someone is trying to obscure it rather than illuminate it.

Let us consider the case of a presidential candidate who has only recently acknowledged, as President, the reality of Russian interference in the U.S. elections through fake news and hacking of e-mails, among other activities intended to destabilize democracy, using a set of tactics they appear poised to repeat in other nations. Trump, who last year refused to admit such things were happening, and whose campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia, now has the effrontery to tweet that then President Obama did “NOTHING about Russia after being notified by the CIA of meddling” and that Obama “didn’t ‘choke,’ he colluded or obstructed.” And somehow, although it was Hillary Clinton who was the target of Russian interference, Obama did this to help her.

Look—as a parent and grandparent, I know a dodge when I see one. What parent of multiple children has not heard in some form the “He did it too” defense as a means of deflecting blame? I almost have to wonder about the parenting skills of those mature voters who fail to recognize this game for what it is. It almost does not matter what Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or anyone else ever actually did or failed to do; the only real point is to deflect attention in order to avoid accepting responsibility. To the extent that we allow elected officials to play this game, we voters are essentially like ineffective, overindulgent parents who fail to call their children to account. I say this without regard to party or philosophy, even though I am targeting Trump as the current deflector extraordinaire. And I am focusing on Trump because, instead of taking the presidency seriously, he is elevating this ruse to dangerous new levels.

This requires serious linguistic deconstruction to grasp what is happening. Trump as a candidate denied and ignored Russian interference even as he sarcastically urged the Russians to hack some more. (Sean Spicer now says he was joking). How is this now the focus of alleged collusion and obstruction by Obama? If Obama is guilty of anything, in the eyes of most rational and experienced observers, it is perhaps of being too cautious to warn the public until October. And even then, when Obama or other administration officials mentioned it, they were greeted with jeers and skepticism by the Trump campaign. More importantly, note the misuse of the word “obstructed.” In the context of the current investigations being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, obstruction is a legal term that refers to efforts to impede the administration of justice. In the Trump context of the recent tweet, suddenly it refers to hesitancy or inaction at a time when officials were still trying to determine the proper course of action in response to an attack on the American electoral process that Trump was insisting was not even happening. In the absence of any criminal investigation at the time, how does official inaction, to whatever extent Obama’s reluctance to go public can be characterized as such, become obstruction? Obstruction of what? And how does one collude by failing to act more quickly against an identified enemy whom Trump does not even perceive as such?

If this were an isolated instance of such an assault upon the meaning of words, I might not be writing this essay. But any astute observer, including many worried Republicans, knows by now that this is a persistent pattern—the rule of Trump, not eethe exception. Words are turned inside out, stripped of all normal meaning, deprived of context. James Comey should worry about tapes, while the White House spends weeks refusing to acknowledge tapes exist before finally deciding to say they don’t, and now we are to believe this was merely a ploy to keep Comey honest. A ploy, that is, by a president who has yet to establish his own credibility with anyone but his core followers. The president who would protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security seems woefully unaware of the contents of the Republican health care legislation, gleefully tweeting that he wants a Senate bill with “heart,” even as it starts from a premise of depriving millions of Americans of accessible health insurance through a bill that whose content was secret until only a week ago. But who cares about details when you can spend your time bashing Obama? Why spoil the fun?

Buckle your seat belts. Barring impeachment or resignation, this steady erosion of the essential meaning of words in the English language will almost assuredly continue for at least another three and a half years. The upside is that, if our democracy and constitutional system can survive this trial, it can quite possibly survive nearly anything. Keep your BS detectors fully charged and operative.

 

Jim Schwab

Shoot the Messenger (Even When the News Is Positive)

The people of Iowa are about to get a new governor. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will be sworn in as soon as Terry Branstad wins confirmation to his new post of U.S. ambassador to China and he resigns his position as governor. President Trump nominated him because of the business ties he has cultivated between Iowa and China, a state that makes ample use of Iowa agricultural products. Branstad faces little controversy in his nomination hearings in the U.S. Senate, so his confirmation is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, the people of Iowa who retain some common sense are hoping that he completes his long legacy as governor by vetoing a particularly asinine piece of legislation that recently passed both houses of the General Assembly. Senate File 510 defunds the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and mandates its closure by July 1.

Branstad, a Republican, was first governor from 1983 to 1999, when he stepped down and Tom Vilsack, later to become President Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, won the office. Branstad returned when he defeated one-term Governor Chet Culver. But he was governor in 1987 when the Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act, which used fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides to fund the creation of the Leopold Center. That act was passed because of widespread concerns about pollution from agriculture and industry that diminished the quality of the state’s groundwater. Branstad signed that act into law. A subsequent campaign by the chemical industry against the bill’s supporters backfired in the 1988 elections, a result I wrote about the following year in The Nation (“Farmers and Environmentalists: The Attraction Is Chemical, October 16, 1989).

Apparently, the current Republican-dominated legislature fears no such backlash because Senate File 510 directly targets the Leopold Center, whose total annual budget is only $1.3 million, yet somehow is unaffordable according to the legislature. What Iowa loses is much greater:

  • It loses the status of a national leader in practical research on sustainable agriculture. Bryce Oates, writing for the Daily Yonder, described the center as “sustainable agriculture loyalty,” and “a hub for information.”
  • Last summer I wrote here about Iowa State’s crucial research on the value of filter and buffer strips in reducing runoff in waterways and mitigating flooding in the process. That kind of research would likely not be happening without the Leopold Center. The filter strips also play a role in reducing nitrate pollution.
  • The center has supported research and cost-benefit analysis of hoop house and deep-bedding livestock production methods used by meat companies that supply natural food stores and restaurants like Chipotle, Whole Foods, and many independent outlets. The center also helped launch “Agriculture of the Middle,” connecting family farmers with value chains that provide better prices for farming operations.

 

The entire focus on more sustainable, less environmentally damaging agriculture must have been too much for the commodity groups and agricultural giants and their water carriers in the legislature. They apparently see this modestly funded program as too great a threat to agricultural business as usual, which says a great deal about their own their own sense of vulnerability. So there is but one effective solution: Even when the messenger is producing good news about alternative, less polluting forms of agricultural production, shoot the messenger. It is a message that is all too common in the current political climate.

Jim Schwab

Make Community Planning Great Again

The American Planning Association (APA), the organization that employs me as the manager of its Hazards Planning Center, made me proud last week. It took a rare step: It announced its opposition to President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

It is not that APA has never taken a position on a budgetary issue before, or never DSC00244spoken for or against new or existing programs or regulatory regimes. In representing nearly 37,000 members of the planning community in the United States, most of whom work as professional planners in local or regional government, APA has a responsibility to promote the best ways in which planning can help create healthy, prosperous, more resilient communities and has long done so. It’s just that seldom has a new administration in the White House produced a budget document that so obviously undercuts that mission. APA would be doing a serious disservice to its members by not speaking up on behalf of their core values, which aim at creating a high quality of life in communities of lasting value. That quest leads APA to embrace diversity, educational quality, environmental protection, and economic opportunity. Making all that happen, of course, is a very complex task and the reason that young planners are now largely emerging from graduate programs with complex skill sets that include the use of geographic information systems, demographic and statistical knowledge, public finance, and, increasingly, awareness of the environmental and hazard reduction needs of the communities they will serve. They understand what their communities need and what makes them prosper.

The Fiscal Year 2018 White House budget proposal, somewhat ironically titled America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, is in essential ways very short-sighted about just what will sustain America’s communities and make them great. Making America great seems in this document to center on a military buildup and resources to pursue illegal immigrants while eliminating resources for planning and community development. The proposal would eliminate funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, the HOME Investment Partnerships program, and the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. It also eliminates the Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, which was created under President Ronald Reagan, as well as the Department of Energy’s weatherization assistance program.

It also eliminates the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports job training in the very areas where Trump irresponsibly promised to restore mining jobs. There is no doubt that hard-hit areas like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky are in serious need of economic development support. Trump’s promise, however, was hollow and reflected a lack of study of the real issues because environmental regulation, which the budget proposal also targets, is not the primary reason for the loss of mining jobs. The mines of a century ago were dangerous places supported by heavy manual labor, but automation reduced many of those jobs long before environmental protection became a factor. Competition from cheap natural gas, a byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) revolution in that industry, has further weakened the coal industry.

No rollback of clean air or climate programs will change all that. What is clearly needed is a shift in the focus of education and job training programs, and in the focus of economic development, to move the entire region in new directions. To come to terms with the complexity of the region’s socioeconomic challenges, I would suggest that the President read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which deals compassionately but firmly with the deterioration of the social fabric in Appalachian communities. If anything, it will take a beefed up Appalachian Regional Commission and similar efforts to help turn things around for these folks who placed so much faith in Trump’s largely empty promises.

The March 9 issue of USA Today carried a poignant example of the realities that must be faced in producing economic opportunity in the region. The headline story, “West Virginia Won’t Forget,” highlights the problem of uncompleted highways in an area where a lack of modern transportation access impedes growth, focusing specifically on McDowell County, one of the nation’s most impoverished areas. It is hard for outsiders to grasp the realities. In the Midwest, if one route is closed, there are often parallel routes crossing largely flat or rolling land that maintain access between communities. In much of West Virginia, narrow mountain passes pose serious obstacles when roads no longer meet modern needs. It is the difference between the life and death of struggling communities, with those left behind often mired in desperate poverty. When I see a budget and programs from any White House that address these questions, I will know that someone wants to make Appalachia great again.

I say that in the context of a much larger question that also seems to drive much of the Trump budget. You must read the budget blueprint in its entirety, with an eye to questions of community and coastal resilience and climate change, to absorb fully the fact that the Trump administration is at war with any efforts to recognize the realities of climate change or facilitate climate change adaptation. The proposal zeroes out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coastal mapping and resilience grant programs. I will grant in full disclosure that APA, in partnership with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, is the recipient of a Regional Coastal Resilience Grant. For good reason: Our three-year project works with pilot communities in Georgia and Ohio to test and implement means of incorporating the best climate science into planning for local capital improvements. Communities invest billions of dollars yearly in transportation and environmental infrastructure and related improvements, and in coastal areas, ensuring that those investments account for resilience in the face of future climate conditions will save far more money for this nation than the $705,00 investment (plus a 50% match from ASFPM and APA) that NOAA is making in the project. The problem is that you have to respect the voluminous climatological science that has demonstrated that the climate is changing and that a serious long-term problem exists. And it is not just the focus of our singular project that matters. Today’s Chicago Tribune contains an Associated Press article about the race by scientists to halt the death of coral reefs due to ocean warming. The article notes that the world has lost half of its coral reefs in the last 30 years and that those reefs produce some of the oxygen we breathe.

The damage on climate change, however, does not stop with the NOAA budget. The Trump budget also zeroes out U.S. contributions to international programs to address climate change and undermines existing U.S. commitments to international climate agreements.

There is also a failure to take seriously the role of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which would suffer a 31% budget reduction and the loss of 3,200 jobs. Among the programs to be axed is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, ostensibly on grounds that, like the Chesapeake Bay programs, it is a regional and not a national priority and therefore undeserving of federal support. That ignores the fact that four of the five lakes are international waters shared with Canada. It also ignores the history of the agency and its 1970 creation under President Richard Nixon, largely as a result of the serious water pollution problems experienced at the time.

IMG_0256Younger readers may not even be aware of some of this. But I grew up before the EPA existed; I was a college student environmental activist when this came about. When I was in junior high school several years earlier, our class took a field trip aboard the Good Time cruise, which escorted people down the Cuyahoga River to the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland. The river was such an unspeakable industrial cesspool that one classmate asked the tour guide what would happen if someone fell overboard into the river. Matter-of-factly, the guide responded, “They would probably get pneumonia and die.” We have come a long way, and for those of us who understand what a difference the EPA has made, there is no turning back. I am sure that White House staffers would say that is not the point, but to me it is.

I am sure that, as with other agencies, one can find duplicative programs to eliminate, and ways to tweak the budget for greater efficiencies. That should be a goal of any administration. But in the broad sweep of the damage this budget proposes, I find it impossible to discern that motive in the butcher cuts the White House embraces. It is time to contact your Senators and U.S. Representatives. Ultimately, the budget is up to Congress, which must decide whether the new priorities make sense. My personal opinion is that they are short-sighted and ill-informed.

 

Jim Schwab

“For God’s Sake, Don’t Repeal It”

Overflow crowd attends health rally at SEIU-HCII hall.

Overflow crowd attends health rally at SEIU hall.

“Six weeks ago,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who is assistant minority leader in the U.S. Senate, “I got a call from Burlington, Vermont.” It was Sen. Bernie Sanders, who told him “we need to rally in cities across the U.S.” to preserve health care for Americans. Sanders, though falling short of the Democratic nomination last year against Hillary Clinton, showed a noteworthy capacity as a prescient organizer. He clearly anticipated the assault that the new administration and congressional Republicans have now launched against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as Obamacare. And so today, five days before Donald Trump will be inaugurated the 45th President of the United States, rallies to preserve the ACA took place. Durbin spoke in Chicago at the overflowing hall of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Health Care Indiana-Illinois (HCII) unit.

Line forms at the back of the building. It got much longer.

Line forms at the back of the building. It got much longer.

My wife and I arrived about 15 minutes before noon, parked our car in the lot behind the building, and joined a long and rapidly growing line of people seeking to attend the 1:00 p.m. rally. Limited by fire code, the SEIU staff had to cut off the number of people entering, directing the rest of the crowd to a Jumbotron behind the building. We were lucky, among the last 25 people allowed inside, and the line behind us stretched around the corner. Clearly, the Republican attack on health care had stirred a hornet’s nest, at least here in Chicago.
Durbin was the leadoff speaker following an opening by Greg Kelley, executive vice-president of SEIU-HCII. With

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky posing with followers.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky posing with followers.

him were several Chicago area Congressmen—Reps. Mike Quigley, Jan Schakowsky, Brad Schneider, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, all Democrats, along with Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle. Durbin cited the statistics that reveal the origin of the angst driving the overflow crowd. He noted that some 1.2 million people in Illinois stood to lose their health insurance coverage if the ACA is repealed, roughly 10 percent of the population. The ACA saves seniors in Illinois an average of $1,000 per year on prescription drugs. People stood to lose the ACA’s protection against lifetime limits on coverage, which in the past often led to bankruptcy for people with catastrophic illnesses like cancer.

“The Affordable Care Act was the most important vote I have ever cast as a member of Congress,” Durbin concluded. “If the Republicans can’t replace it with something as good or better, for God’s sake, don’t repeal it.”

A true citizen uprising needs more than politicians at the podium, and union leaders, such as SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, health care consumers, representatives of Planned Parenthood and a small business alliance, and others, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, kept the standing-room-only crowd revved up. Tracy Savado, introduced as a health care consumer with a story to tell about lifetime coverage caps, shared that her husband had been diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia. Fearful of lacking enough insurance, she inquired of her insurance company representative about this point, and, she said, was told that President Obama’s health care law had done away with such limits. Prior to the ACA, she noted, about half of all insurance policies had lifetime caps on coverage. She added that she had recently attended a farewell for outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell. Asked what might happen in the new administration, Savado said, Burwell paused and noted that the biggest obstacle to the GOP plan for repeal is “people sharing their stories” about the benefits they have enjoyed from the new law. “When people understand what’s at stake, they aren’t going to want repeal,” she concluded.

Many of the other speakers essentially made many of the same points in different ways for almost an hour and a half, until William McNary, co-director of Citizen Action Illinois, ended the rally on a boisterous note with a rousing speech in which he declared that “the only pre-existing condition the Republicans want you to have is amnesia.”

His comment is a powerful point that is worth remembering in considering how matters came to this pass. More than a few Americans who voted for Trump in the recent election are also benefiting from Obamacare. While people clearly can and do vote on issues other than health care, it remains undeniable that this constitutes some form of contradiction that requires explanation. Even amid the 2010 debate that ended with the passage of the ACA, Tea Party rallies often featured protesters with signs that read, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” What sort of stunning ignorance is required to fail to understand that Medicare was and is a creation of the federal government by a vote of Congress in the 1960s and that, absent the “government hands,” it would never have come to be in the first place?

Recent polls have shown overwhelmingly that voters favor virtually all the key features of the Affordable Care Act even as many nonetheless oppose whatever they perceive as “Obamacare.” A post-election Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found public support at 80 percent oDSCF3283r above for ACA provisions allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans, eliminating most out-of-pocket costs for preventive services, subsidies for low-income insurance purchasers, and state  options for expanding Medicaid, as well as 69 percent for prohibition of denial of insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Only 26 percent want the law repealed. What we have faced since 2010, and must confront now, is not a real plan to replace Obamacare with something better, but an incredibly slick campaign of propaganda to associate the word Obamacare with something evil.

People who come to terms with the origins of such contradictions may find themselves in a better position to understand the remarkable political gall required for the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass repeal in recent days without offering a clue as to what will replace Obamacare. “Repeal and replace” was Trump’s campaign mantra, yet even he has offered no details of consequence about what that will mean even as he insists Congress will somehow do both within the next few weeks. Anyone who believes that can be done by a party that has failed to define an alternative for the last six years is truly prepared to believe in political miracles.

It would be more realistic to look closely at Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, a man who advocates replacing much of current Medicare coverage with a voucher system and is devoted to dismantling Obamacare. Read his intentions closely, get angry, and organize.

Jim Schwab

The Voice of Identity

For many Americans, including numerous prominent Republicans, one of the more troubling phenomena in the 2016 presidential election was the rise of certain groups who seem to attach their own identity to resentment and rejection of those who do not fit traditional images in our culture. The frequently demonstrated reluctance of Donald Trump to distance himself from advocates of white nationalism or supremacy served only to reinforce a sense of unease about the direction our nation was taking. The situation raised some disturbing questions about who we are as a nation at the same time that it also revealed a very real sense of the loss of possibility among those who embraced the Trump messages. Before we hasten to condemn this trend, it is important to keep in mind that many of the people who launched Trump into the White House have felt a very real unease of their own, a feeling of losing their footing in what they experience as a stagnating economy. The feeling transcended party boundaries and went a long way toward explaining the surprising popularity of the Bernie Sanders candidacy in the Democratic primaries. This great stirring is far from over just because Trump won.

I do not raise this issue to reach any partisan conclusions or even to address it in any specifically political terms. But I was moved to think about it in part after observing some of the more blatant instances of racist prejudice in post-election interviews with the likes of Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute. Spencer grabbed some attention with a speech that included the phrase “Hail Trump,” a barely veiled echo of “Heil Hitler,” and, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, made clear his dream is “a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans,” and has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” It is hard to imagine how ethnic cleansing can possibly be peaceful, so I think one can hardly be blamed for suspecting deceitful propaganda. No matter how many disclaimers the alt-right may use in trying to reframe its identity, the old stench of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi movements refuses to go away.

But I want to make a larger point and then delve into the very question of how we frame identity, and how it frames us. Our sense of identity can be both liberating and oppressive, both loving and resentful, thoughtful and downright stupid. Spencer, in a recent television interview, effectively expressed the notion of simply claiming his white identity in the same way that blacks take pride in theirs. Many on the alt-right take pains to note how much white people have contributed to our society as a means of expressing dominance. This is rather simplistic for the obvious reason that our society long was of predominantly European origin, so it stands to reason that most of our heritage bears that mark. But it is not nearly so simple as all that. The whole notion bears some dissection.

What has come to be identified as the African-American experience, for starters, resulted from a forced common experience of bondage in which most slaves lost any or most of their specific African heritages under circumstances that were not only unquestionably racist but involved violent subjugation as well. It is no accident that black slaves often readily identified with the biblical story of the Israelite release from slavery. Liberation movements throughout world history have played a role in forging new identities through struggle. The fact that the struggle has continued to this day in the form of civil rights battles has served only to strengthen those ties.

And yet—one needs only to observe the assimilation into American society of African and Caribbean black immigrants to realize that there are subtleties and variations in the African identity. President Barack Obama himself, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a Kenyan student at the University of Hawaii, struggled in his youth to establish his own sense of identity, which did not come from claiming slave ancestors in the Deep South. In current American society, one can see expressions of Ghanaian culture, as well as of Ethiopians, Nigerians, and Somalis, all arriving long after the most bitter civil rights and liberation struggles have been fought, seeking to establish their own ethnic identities in a very diverse America. The tapestry is ornate and continues to enrich American society with everything from new cuisines and artistic expression to new ways of understanding what attracts people to the American dream.

These variations and nuances extend to the frame of “white American” experience. Because what became the United States of America began with English colonies, the experience of early Americans was very English in nature—but not entirely. Early on, the British empire absorbed Dutch and French settlers into its universe, as well as a modest number of American Indians who intermarried. (It should also be noted that perhaps one-fourth of African-Americans have some American Indian ancestry, in no small part because of slaves escaping to Indian communities and integrating and intermarrying over time. See Black Indians for just one interesting exposition of this fascinating history.) Over two or three centuries, “white” America gradually absorbed more non-English elements, beginning with the Irish and Germans, and eventually including all sorts of largely non-Protestant immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as well as Lebanese, Turks, and others.

All these people brought with them unique cultural attachments. For example, Greeks brought not only their Orthodox church, but numerous specific perspectives on the world based on their own historic and philosophical outlooks, all tempered over time by new experiences in the New World. In many cases, those initial experiences included some discrimination and challenges in becoming American. Any serious student of American history is aware of such phenomena as the Know-Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s, a period when factory doors often sported signs indicating that “Irish need not apply.” Tensions boiled over at times, including one notable instance in Chicago in 1855 known as the Great Lager Beer Riot. Know-Nothing Mayor Levi Boone sought closure on Sundays of the pubs and bierstuben that the Irish and German workingmen patronized, and a confrontation erupted. Boone became a one-term mayor, and his initiative came to naught.

The targets of white-on-white discrimination shifted over time into the early and even mid-20th century, as assimilation proceeded and various nationalities won grudging acceptance. American literature is replete with very personal interpretations of these experiences from Norwegians, Lebanese, Greeks, Russians, and others trying to find their place in American society. One astute student of the subtleties of this evolution, Mel Brooks, generated the biting and wickedly comic satires Blazing Saddles. I have long felt that movie, which I have watched several times, offers far more insight than meets the unlearned eye into the sometimes explosive mixture of influences that shaped the American West. My own discerning eye for the subtleties of this movie came after living in Iowa for more than six years and researching a book on the farm credit crisis, as well as marrying a Nebraskan, all of which made me very aware of the diverse ethnic communities that comprise much of the West. Rural America is not nearly as monochrome as many urban Americans imagine it to be.

Let me return briefly to the phony vision of the alt-right. What I have just described should make abundantly clear that the notion of “white identity” can have only one purpose. That purpose is white supremacy and the oppression of minorities because the overall “white” experience in America is itself so diverse and has evolved so far from its English colonial roots that the only possible meaning one can attach to this “white identity” is that of suppression of any other form of identification with the meaning of “American.” I also do not think a blog article like this can do more than scratch the surface of this subject. Whole books have been devoted to the formation of personal and collective identity in the American melting pot without successfully exploring all the nooks and crannies of the issues involved. Nonetheless, I strongly believe we must keep this subject open for further exploration. We have little choice if we want to understand both ourselves and what is happening around us.

I also want to make clear that I do not believe that Donald Trump is endorsing white supremacy. What troubles me is his willingness to exploit this sentiment to advance his political ambitions. Many of the obvious splits within the Republican party had as much to do with the discomfort of Mitt Romney, John Kasich, John McCain, and the Bush family, among others, with this exploitation of prejudice as with any other stance that Trump took. These past Republican leaders simply found themselves unable to stomach such intolerance. Trade and foreign policy issues are fair game in a presidential contest, but for reasons related to his own view of the imperative of winning at any cost, there is little question that Trump took the low road in making his arguments. That choice will leave him mending fences for the next four years if he truly wants to be president of “all the people.”

Ultimately, our collective national identity is a composite of the many individual identities we construct for ourselves. Some of us construct these identities carefully and deliberately over many years, and others simply accept inherited attitudes, privileges, or resentments. But one of the central claims of the conservative right has been that America has traditionally been a Christian nation. That is a position that, in some respects, also ignores the freedom of religion that is enshrined in the First Amendment, which includes the right of people to observe other faiths or no faith at all. But I would prefer to confront white identity on Christian grounds both because I am willing to claim Christian identity and because real Christian faith flatly excludes white identity: “For in Christ there is no longer Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male or female.” (Galatians 3:28) Saint Paul did not need to add “black nor white” to make his point perfectly clear. The only thing that is remarkable is how often this simple point is missed or ignored.

Another piece of Christian wisdom is well known and comes directly from Jesus (Luke 12:48), that from those to whom much has been given, much also is demanded. I can think of few things more appalling than to waste one’s life and talents disseminating hatred and bigotry in a world badly in need of greater love and understanding. An honest search for our collective or personal identity demands both an open mind and respect for our fellow citizens. I can think of nothing that would ever alter my perspective on that final observation.

Jim Schwab

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

Voters Beware

Labor Day has passed in America, and that traditionally means presidential candidates launch their campaigns in earnest, though it is hard to say in reality when that transition occurred in 2016, if not immediately after the Republic and Democratic conventions. I cannot recall any respite, although it is clear that Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has struggled to solidify the management of his race to the White House. He is, of the course, the newcomer, and Hillary Clinton has had time to practice this routine.

I have no great desire in this blog post to pontificate on the merits of the two candidates. It is clear enough that neither will enter the Oval Office unscarred and flawless, so it behooves voters to make some clear-headed determinations of just who they think is actually better, or even if they prefer to give the nod to a third-party candidate like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. For the record, I will not kid anyone: I think Hillary Clinton has been far more serious and steady in her approach to the campaign, even if she is utterly human and far from perfect. But I can understand why many voters are uneasy or dissatisfied with their choices, though I also think that in a democracy, an imperfect choice is far better than none at all. Our republic has survived numerous mediocre presidencies, and some candidates who seemed less convincing at the outset in fact became some of our greatest, while others entered office with great expectations and produced great disappointment. I have read dozens of presidential biographies over the years. I know. There have been no saints in the White House, but there surely have been some heroes.

With that in mind, I want to bring to readers’ attention a solid piece of writing by a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, David Cay Johnston. His book, The Making of Donald Trump, follows the candidate’s family and career across three generations, concentrating, of course, on Donald Trump as an adult, a businessman, and most recently a politician. If someone really wants to be fully aware of what he or she is getting in Trump as a presidential candidate, this is essential reading.

There are and will be numerous other books as a result of this unusual and unorthodox campaign. Many are and will be mediocre, no matter which candidate they profile, or whether they cover both or the campaign generally, because so often such books are either whole-hearted advocacies of one cause or another, or are hatchet jobs directed at opponents, or aim to fire up supporters with broad platitudes. I do not generally waste my time on them. Serious investigative journalism, however, is another matter because people of Johnston’s caliber respect facts, know how to ferret them out even when candidates prefer to bury them, and insist on the truth.

Johnston does all the above. We learn that Trump University has little to do with Trump personally but a great deal to do with ripping people off. Johnston details that the Trump Foundation made a donation to the campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, which raises instant questions of illegality (foundations are not allowed to donate to campaigns) and propriety (Bondi was pondering whether Florida should join a suit against Trump University and declined). We learn that Trump has retained business associates with ties to organized crime. And these are but the beginning. There may be explanations for some of these situations, but I have not heard them. What I have seen on numerous interview shows on CNN, MSNBC, and other formats is a line of Trump surrogates regularly trying to deflect attention from these questions by pointing to some allegations against Clinton. That may seem like an effective tactic, but it is becoming transparently evasive, to the point where just yesterday I watched one of them, Boris Epshteyn, try to speak over another guest to drown out what he did not want to hear. Such behavior has taken political crudeness to new levels, even though we have all seen some of this before.

Johnston, in concluding his modest tome, says that he wrote about Trump mostly because he was introduced to him more than 25 years ago as a New Jersey reporter covering development in Atlantic City, where Trump was building a casino. Had he been in Arkansas instead, he notes, he might have written instead about Clinton. If I find a book of similar investigative quality that explores Hillary Clinton’s career, I will share it with readers because this campaign is important. But what is curious about Johnston’s conclusion is that he also reaches for a moral tone that sometimes escapes investigative reporters, who can become cynical over time, although the best invariably retain a strong commitment to unveiling the truth. But few would ring up this paragraph near the end of such a book:

Trump says he does not see any reason to seek divine forgiveness because he has done nothing wrong in his entire life, an oft-made observation so at odds with the most basic teachings of Jesus that I am at a loss to explain any religious leader embracing him. Trump’s own words are aggressively antithetical to the teachings of the New Testament. His understanding of the one Old Testament phrase he knows is warped at best. Now factor in his statements denigrating communion—“I drink my little wine, eat my little cracker”—and his fumbling pronunciation of Paul’s second letter to the believers in Corinth, and weigh them against his claim that he reads the Bible more than anyone else. These are signs of a deceiver.

He goes on to say that both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders “tapped into a frustration I have chronicled for decades,” and concludes that neither has the skill to address problems of inequality, and that while Clinton has both the skills and a history “on behalf of the less fortunate,” it may not be her top priority.

His afterword is dated July 4, 2016. The book has not been out for long.

 

Jim Schwab