Tag Archives: Donald Trump

How Christianity Got Co-Opted and We Got Trump

David Tigabu is a producer and writer based in Washington, DC. In this post, he explores how and why the white American evangelical movement rejects core Christian teachings and embraces Donald Trump.

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David Tigabu

In the wake of the 2016 presidential cycle, readers have been treated to a barrage of think pieces focused on factors that led to the November outcome. Seemingly every publication worth its salt has featured an analysis zeroed in on one demographic in particular—the white working class. This has set off a debate, particularly within the Left, on issues of race and class, how they intersect, and the complex dynamic that is identity. However, the spotlight on the white working class has also overshadowed a much-needed look at a more decisively Trumpian constituency—white evangelicals.

Exit polls reveal that just over 80 percent of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump. 80 percent. Trump cheerleader and neo-nazi rag Breitbart gleefully celebrated this occurrence, pointing out that the President received more votes from this faction than any Republican presidential candidate since 2000. To put it more starkly, this means that shameless Bible thumper George W. Bush received fewer votes from this group than a guy who says his favorite book in the Bible is “Two Corinthians.”

So how did this happen? How could white evangelicals vote for a candidate who mocks the disabled, promises to ban adherents of an entire religion from entering the country (a promise he is already acting upon), brags about not “giving unto caesar,” and speaks of groping women by their vagina? How could family values dogmatists and reputed practitioners of morality support the thrice-married candidate with a penchant for lies and a bloated sense of vanity? The answer can be found in two basic truths about white evangelical Christianity—its current state of decline, and its moral and political commitment to maintaining white American hegemony.

The first revelation can be found in the institution’s demographic problem. Simply put, Christianity ain’t the only game in town anymore.  According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in 1974, sixty-three percent of Americans identified as protestant, but by 2014, that percentage had fallen to forty-three percent. Most of this religious decline has been concentrated in white protestant communities. In that same PRRI study, 51 percent of Americans identified as white protestants in 1993, but that number dropped to 32 percent over roughly two decades. Black and Hispanic religious identification has held steady during the same period.

A quick scan of the white protestant blogosphere reflects deep anxiety over this predicament. Attempting to address this issue, a subculture of think-pieces, denominational meetings and conferences have sprouted, devoted primarily to understanding why young people are leaving the church. Some younger protestant groups point to conservative stances on social issues taken by church leaders, while the evangelical wing maintains that the exodus stems from what they perceive to be an increasingly liberal church. Where there is consensus, however, is the idea that the church is currently in a state of crisis.

Former Republican and rigorous evangelical Michelle Bachman echoed this sentiment during an interview on Christian Broadcasting Network’s (CBN) program Brody File, claiming that she believed “without a shadow of a doubt this is the last election. This is it. This is the last election.”

Trump cleverly tapped into this conviction while appearing on the same CBN show. “I think it’s going to be the last election that the Republicans can win. If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure. You’ll have a whole different Supreme Court structure,” he said. The group with the most fatalistic view of American cultural change are white evangelical Protestants, three quarters of whom (74 percent) say that American culture has changed for the worse since 1950.

It’s within this context that voting for Trump came to be an act of desperation, a last gasp of sorts. For many white evangelicals, the 2016 election represented a last-ditch effort at preserving a way of life that seemed to be coming to an end. “It’s a math problem of demographics and a changing United States,” Bachmann pointed out. This was in many ways an attempt to cling on to some notion of Christian America

Interestingly enough, today’s concept of a Christian America is a relatively recent development in American political life. Contrary to conventional wisdom, its history does not go back to the country’s founding, and it did not come out of debates over abortion and school prayer. As Kevin Kruse points out in One Nation Under God, the modern evangelical Right was actually formed out of opposition to the New Deal, a series of major public investment initiatives put forward by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.

These policies were developed to address the Great Depression that had hit the country only several years prior, and through programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), provided millions of people with employment, retirement income, and housing assistance. To be sure, these programs were far from perfect. For instance, the exclusion of African Americans from many of these wealth building programs played a major role in the racial wealth gap that we see today.

However, a different kind of opposition emerged, one that did not take issue with exclusionary elements of the New Deal as much as they found its programs too generous. Fearing the immense popularity of the New Deal and a nation they thought was heading towards socialism, groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) attempted to undermine public support for Roosevelt’s legislation and the broader virus of “collectivism.” Understanding the clout that ministers had, NAM leaders began pushing preachers and religious influencers like James Fifield and Billy Graham, ministers that could peddle a brand of theology more palatable to the interests of big business. Over the ensuing decades, these leaders pushed ideas like the synonymy between Christianity and capitalism, God’s preoccupation with the salvation of the individual, and the broader notion of a Christian America. Once capitalism and individualism were situated under the Christian banner, the fusion of religion and state could be rendered complete.

Issues like abortion, public prayer, gay marriage, and school vouchers would eventually join Christian Libertarianism in shaping white evangelical politics, becoming the most potent political force in the country over the last 40 years. The focus on these issues is ostensibly Bible-based, as Ben Carson and many other evangelicals often like to point out.

Which is all well and good, provided one doesn’t pick up a Bible and read what’s in it. The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps Christianity’s fundamental ethical decree, makes no mention of homosexuality or abortion, issues that most certainly existed at the time. The passage contains no celebration of entrepreneurship or family values. What is found, however, is a concern for the poor, an embrace of pacifism, a condemnation of judging others, and a rebuke of false prophets masquerading as true teachers. What’s also found is a repudiation of public prayer in which Jesus commands that people “not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others,” a point that does not fit too squarely with school prayer advocates.

Both testaments emphasize a commitment to social justice and liberation, ideals that are nowhere to be found in the white evangelical ethos. Concern for the indigent, the sick, and the immigrant are a constant theme throughout the Old Testament, especially in the prophetic books like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. In Luke 4:18, Jesus says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

While it may be tempting (read: easier on the conscience) to believe that Jesus was speaking directly to the need to develop more first-century Jewish philanthropic institutions, a more honest reading of that passage indicates that Jesus cared about systems that oppress marginalized people. Yet seeking to confront such systems in an effort to create a more just world is jettisoned by the white evangelical in the name of personal responsibility. These problems are better left to charity. The issue at hand, to paraphrase U2 singer Bono, is that many white evangelicals are more interested in modes of charity than the presence of justice.

At the end of the day, what’s happened in evangelical America is simple: the language and iconography of Christianity has been co-opted to serve a set of narrow political interests, none of which have anything to do with Christianity. The outcome of such a project is the transformation of a social revolutionary murdered by the state into an abstract proponent of American imperialism, greed, patriarchy, and bigotry.

In her book All About Love, feminist bell hooks refers to this dynamic when she writes: “Fundamentalists, be they Christian, Muslim, or any faith, shape and interpret religious thought to make it conform to and legitimize a conservative status quo.” The fundamental truth about the white American evangelical movement is that its real ethical commitment lies more towards its white American prefix than its evangelical appendage. Donald Trump, with a Republican Congress behind him, is now set on destroying an already meager U.S. social safety net and facilitating environmental disaster, and already appears to be signaling violence towards the country’s most vulnerable communities, all with major support from this particular group.

It’s up to all of us who give a damn about living in a world not governed by white supremacy, corporate rule, theocracy, and environmental destruction to expose these false prophets for who they really are, and how far removed they are from the truly radical message of Christianity.

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Bigotry and Disenfranchisement: Making Sense of Trump Supporters’ Motivations

Like many other people, Jesse Soza has spent a lot of time thinking about what might have motivated Donald Trump’s supporters to vote for him. Soza, a former classroom teacher, discusses the complementary nature of bigotry-based and economic explanations in this post.

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Jesse Soza

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” – Dietrich Boenhoeffer

In the past couple of weeks, the American public has been flooded with a variety of attempts at rationalizing Donald Trump’s unlikely victory over Hillary Clinton. What has struck me is that in almost every piece that I have read, explanations tend to fall into one of two categories. On one side, explanations revolve around the extreme racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia that Trump was able to bring out of his supporters. On the other side, various pieces point to Trump’s ability to speak to a large population of Americans who are experiencing high levels of social, political, and/or economic disenfranchisement.

As each side continues to attempt to validate its case as a way to legitimize or delegitimize Trump’s victory, it has become clear that rational discussion between these groups has reached an impasse. Due to the incredible amounts of emotion tied to this issue, it is not a surprise to see each side making its argument with little to no consideration of the middle ground. The fact that each side has dug in behind its respective strawman argument means that the critical dialogue necessary to begin repairs to American society is unlikely to occur. Such dialogue can only begin when each side is willing to believe that there is some validation in the other’s stance.

With that in mind, the following is my attempt to validate both explanations for how America has reached this point, and to explain how they’re connected. Others, typically in the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, have made similar points about the links between bigotry and a political and economic system that has left millions of Americans behind.  But as I believe a failure to call out bigotry is the most glaring problem in this debate, my focus will be on the undeniable role it has played in this election.

A Historical Commonality

Throughout the course of history, racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, etc. and social, economic, and/or political disenfranchisement have been inexorably linked. Over and over again, we see that humans find scapegoats when times get tough, and those scapegoats have often been vulnerable groups within a population. Think about what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany, the Tutsis in Rwanda, or the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Acts of violence towards these groups provided perpetrators with a sense of regaining control and power where there had previously been none or the belief of losing it. Such acts did not actually improve the situation of the disenfranchised, but given their relative lack of persecution, some may have felt better off. The fact that this cause-effect relationship between social hardship and the targeting of vulnerable groups is so prevalent throughout history necessitates a critical examination of current events in America to see if there are similarities. (Spoiler Alert: There are.)

If social and mainstream media’s statement of economically and politically disenfranchised groups is true (which it undeniably is), we must acknowledge what that means at a deeper level: If conservative America considers themselves disenfranchised, they almost assuredly harbor deep anger, resentment and frustration. Whether this anger stems from economic difficulties, political disenfranchisement, or a more deep-seated resentment of the move away from conservative White values (likely a combination of all three for most Trump supporters), it is now clear that there was a powder keg of emotional turmoil hidden within conservative America.

I will admit, at the beginning of this election, that I, like many others, was woefully unaware of the degree to which people were angry with the system. Did I see frustration? Yes. But did I truly know that so many Americans had such deep feelings of alienation? No. The results of the election have shown that the magnitude of anger and frustration residing within many Americans was significantly higher than many of us predicted. How did so many people miss it?

I think such large numbers of people failed to predict the level of anger residing in conservative America because, until recently, that anger had no guided direction. Without a unified bearing, such feelings were hidden behind a veil of superficial civility and tolerance. Sure, we’d see random acts of violence and injustice from hyper-racist groups or individuals, but never did we believe that America’s problems with race, religion, sexual orientation and gender would become a national crisis. Shame on us. We became numb to the signs, and thus somewhat indifferent, to the potential for something much bigger and far more dangerous as a result of what was seeded within our nation. Because we failed to fully realize how strongly conservative America believed that they were losing their nation economically, politically, and socially, no major attempts were made to address the ticking time bomb of anger and resentment that stayed more or less under the radar as these Americans waited for someone who might empathize with their plight and give them direction.

Enter Donald Trump

One of the most common criticisms of Trump is that he never really explained how he was going to actually do anything he was promising. But I now believe that appealing to logic in terms of political action was never what he intended to do. Where I used to chalk up his lack of logic to incompetence, I now have to believe that it was his game plan. Trump’s talent resided in his ability to elicit emotional responses. Early on, he recognized the anger and frustration that was bubbling in the hearts of many Americans (both Democrats and Republicans) and knew that if he could tap into that, he’d get all the support he needed. The question was how he would do it.

Through his speeches, actions and promises, he stoked the emotional fires of those who felt they had been pushed aside by the economy, government and the rest of American society. In doing this, Trump knew that he could win the hearts of his constituency. He provided the age-old answer to “who/what is to blame,” thus giving all their anger and resentment direction and solidifying his status as “the answer.”

That, by itself, wouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing, as almost all strong leaders find some way to tap into the passion of their people and give that passion direction. However, in a reprehensible move, Trump, like so many despots of the past, chose to use fearmongering as the way to achieve this end. He successfully created and fostered the notion that there were enemies among us, implying that if we were to defeat these enemies, America would be great again. Trump’s 21st-century answer to America’s plight was to dehumanize Mexicans, Muslims, Black people, LGBTQ individuals, Jews, and women, painting immigrants in particular as the source of our woes. Historically speaking, when humans are labeled as impediments to progress, the corresponding social response sets a very dangerous precedent. It is frightening to think about what America is already flirting with, especially considering that Trump and his values have not yet officially taken office.

Trump’s bigotry and lust for power have played a primary role in stoking the anger and resentment that has been brewing in conservative America. Furthermore, he knowingly chose to funnel that anger towards vulnerable people. For that, Trump must be held accountable. We must acknowledge that the surge in overt bigotry America is currently experiencing is a direct effect of how Trump chose to run his campaign. Instead of calling for unity and working together as we overhaul a system that has disenfranchised many Americans (regardless of party affiliation), Trump chose to create and lead a modern day witch hunt. And like so many people in the past, a significant portion of downtrodden, resentful and angry Americans have attached themselves to a charismatic leader who is selling the idea that ultra-nationalistic bigotry will be the answer to their anguish.

Yes, Donald Trump spoke to the groups of people who felt that the economy and government weren’t on their side. Yes, he did unexpectedly well because his message was one of reforming a broken system. But we must remember how he framed his message of change. The change he promised was undeniably tied to racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, those hateful –isms (and –obias) that have acted as foundations of this country since it was established. He stoked the fires of bigotry and anger without regard for the consequences of his actions simply because he knew that it would draw people to him. For too many Americans, he galvanized the idea that there are people within this country who deserve ire and intolerance. His campaign has not only emboldened individuals to practice injustice towards others, it has legitimized such behavior as a patriotic means of “making America great again.”

Donald Trump is dangerous. While I doubt he’ll be able to do even half of what he promised (though you should take that with a grain of salt, as I had similar doubts about him becoming president), the real danger lies in his capability to foster feelings of hatred and bigotry within a distressed conservative America while disguising such acts as patriotic. As a leader, he will continue to divide the American people and feed into the false notion that acts of injustice and dehumanization will lead to a better, more recognizable home for disenfranchised Americans. Due to his position, charisma and the fact that so many Americans are desperately looking for an answer to their perceived troubles, people will believe him.

Donald Trump has, without question, made it to the White House by painting both our fellow Americans and fellow human beings as what is wrong with America. In doing so, he has effectively made them targets for discrimination, oppression and dehumanization. Furthermore, the nature of his campaign has played a primary role in giving tacit approval for Americans to oppress each other.

Moving Forward

We must acknowledge the reality that Donald Trump has and will continue to encourage acts of injustice. To deny that or mask it with a neutral stance would be ignorance at its worst. Whether we see new discriminatory policies or other citizens who have bought into Trump’s misguided message that bigotry is the right course for America, we must get outraged and intervene. We cannot stand idly by if the rights and humanity of others are in jeopardy.

We also have an obligation to try to understand why so many people voted for Trump. Though the common idea that such a decision was made not because of racism, sexism, or other forms of bigotry but in spite of them may strain credulity for some of us, we must consider that possibility and the possibility that, even in cases in which an –ism was the primary driver of a Trump vote, that -ism is deeply connected to a system that isn’t working. We can continue to straw man our respective arguments by oversimplifying answers or we, as a unified American society, can try to reach out in an attempt to acknowledge and appreciate the deep-seated pain and anguish that are currently feeding American anger and resentment.

The task before us is immense, possibly necessitating one of the largest social movements in American history. It is made more difficult by the fact that we have a charismatic individual coming into office who knows how to harness, incite and utilize social anger to his advantage. Still, acknowledging these things means we may have a fighting chance of pushing back against the tide. We know what the problem is: Anger stemming from pain. The solution: Love, compassion and understanding.

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Truth or Politics

Tom Block is an author, artist, and activist whose most recent book, Machiavelli in America, explores the influence of the 16th-century Italian political philosopher on America’s politics.  Machiavelli’s impact is particularly apparent today, as Block explains in the post below.  Block (who you can follow on Twitter at @tomblock06 and learn more about at www.tomblock.com) is also the founder of the Institute of Prophetic Activist Art in New York, where he works with artists and activists in building their social interventions along the lines of the activist theory he developed.

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Tom Block

One of the greatest dangers to our democracy is the insignificant role that “truth” plays within our political discourse. The 16th-century Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli first enshrined the importance of lying within the political realm in his seminal treatise The Prince.  As Diana Schaub (professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland) noted in “Machiavelli’s Realism:” “Machiavelli deployed words as a weapon . . . Machiavelli, the supposed champion of the force of arms, was in fact a practitioner of verbal fraud and distortion.”

Far from fading away over the ensuing centuries, Machiavelli’s strategy has expanded to overwhelm our contemporary political discourse.  And this dynamic, nurtured by the media and exploited by politicians, has helped lead in a direct line from the Florentine thinker to the viable presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

Publisher and Founding Father Ben Franklin stated: “It is a principle among printers that when truth has fair play, it will always prevail over falsehood.”  But as Jim Rutenberg noted recently in the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s surrogates…regularly go on television to push the point of the day from a candidate who . . . has asserted more outright falsehoods than all the other candidates who ran for president this year combined.”

While truth may well overmatch falsehoods in a forum where each has equal play, as Rutenberg notes, that is simply not the case currently in our political discourse.  Truth is rarely utilized as the lodestar for public dialogue.  Our journalists and pundits opt instead for simply repeating outright lies, reporting them as “news,” or – in the best of cases – for a dubious objectivity, often representing little more than a midpoint between two opposing political or social opinions, regardless of these opinions’ relationship to the truth.  As was pointed out this July 18, 2016 in the New York Times, the press bears much responsibility for the unimportance of truth to our political discourse, and therefore the rise of Trump:

There’s still a real chance that [Trump] might win. How is that possible? Part of the answer, I’d argue, is that voters don’t fully appreciate his awfulness. And the reason is that too much of the news media still can’t break with “bothsidesism” — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.

Ben Franklin must be spinning in his eternal resting place (Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia).

The sad and frightening fact is that what is perceived by the public as “truth” often represents little more than a stew of popularly held (though often misinformed) attitudes. These arise as a reaction to polling data, Super PACfueled propaganda (the $3 billion in dark money sloshing around this election season), surrogates’ meaningless blather on cable news programs, a narrow reading of history (“remember the good old days!”), the weight of tradition, and a basket of other impressions, none of which are forced by the press to relate in any meaningful way with the actuality of the matter.

It is certainly not difficult to see how politicians gleefully exploit this Machiavellian dynamic to “play” the media, spewing any garbage they think will help their cause, while suffering little (if at all) when their mistruth is uncovered.  Since I started paying genuine attention to this gloomy aspect of American democracy, I have been astounded by the bald-faced lies used to win political elections, running from Lee Atwater’s “Willie Horton” ads (Bush I v. Mike Dukakis in 1988) through Karl Rove’s “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” lies (Bush II v. John Kerry) and continuing through Mitt Romney, whose team falsely claimed, among many examples, that President Obama doubled the deficit (it was actually slightly down in his first four years) and that “up to 20 million people [would] lose their insurance as Obamacare [went] into effect” (almost the opposite of what’s actually happened).

Donald J. Trump has raised the bar of political falsehoods that perhaps all of us thought could go no higher.  None have exploited the media’s obsession with objectivity and false equivalency more successfully than the current Republican standard bearer.  His ability to lie, lie, and lie again, and not be called out once and for all (through references in every single citation as “Lyin’ Donald J. Trump,” for instance) allowed him to vault over 16 Republican candidates and stand at the precipice of taking the reins of the most powerful nation in today’s world.

As Machiavelli stated: “The great majority of humans are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”  The art of the lie is far more important to the leader than learning how to tell the truth.

Donald Trump follows Machiavelli’s dictum with the same passion that the devoted practice their religions. An astounding 70% of Donald Trump’s statements are mostly or completely false, according to PolitiFact, while only 15% are mostly or entirely true.  And though now, finally, there is a growing chorus of media members gingerly stepping in to call a lie a lie, they also dutifully repeat the lie over and over again before refuting it.  Through this repetition, the lie itself becomes embedded in the public consciousness, thus giving the many and absurdist propositions spewed from the latest Republican candidate for President a patina of reality.  Journalists should lead every article about Trump with this fact: he is, as Bernie Sanders averred, a pathological liar.  But unfortunately, despite the few truth-based journalists writing in alternative outlets like The Intercept or in the back pages of the Washington Post or New York Times, the media is central to the problem.

Journalists too often imagine their obligation to be simply reporting the “news” (whatever any partisan actor tells them), remaining indifferent to whether the statements have any relation to reality or truth.  In the journalistic code of ethics, this impartiality represents the highest code of honor.  As Sharon Bader noted in “The Media: Objectivity:”

Objectivity in journalism has nothing to do with seeking out the truth, except in so much as truth is a matter of accurately reporting what others have said. This contrasts with the concept of scientific objectivity where views are supposed to be verified with empirical evidence in a search for the truth. Ironically, journalistic objectivity discourages a search for evidence; the balancing of opinions often replaces journalistic investigation altogether.

Journalists such as Thom Hartmann, Glenn Greenwald, Rania Khalek, and other lesser known (to your average American, at least) writers do point out this problem, though they are always in a very slim minority. We find little succor in the mainstream media. Even such alleged “truth tellers” as the website PolitiFact, the Washington Post’s soothsayer Glenn Kessler, and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman (now a New York Times columnist) have a dubious relationship with the facts.  As the editor of this blog has shown, all three of these sources have ignored evidence and/or gotten storylines completely wrong during this election cycle.

Without a genuine moral ombudsman to separate fact from fiction in our public square, all opinions – true or not – are simply viewed as offering differing “points of view.” Katrina vanden Heuvel (publisher and part-owner of the magazine The Nation) noted in the Washington Post:

For too many journalists, calling out a Republican for lying requires criticizing a Democrat too, making for a media age where false equivalence — what Eric Alterman has called the mainstream media’s “deepest ideological commitment” — is confused, again and again, with objectivity.

This quote comes from the last election (Romney v. Obama, 2012), though the situation has not gotten better, and perhaps has even worsened. As was noted in the aforementioned July 18, 2016 article from Krugman in the New York Times:

And in the last few days we’ve seen a spectacular demonstration of bothsidesism in action: an op-ed article from the incoming and outgoing heads of the White House Correspondents’ Association, with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” How so? Well, Mr. Trump has selectively banned news organizations he considers hostile; he has also . . . attacked both those organizations and individual reporters, and refused to condemn supporters who, for example, have harassed reporters with anti-Semitic insults.

Meanwhile, while Mrs. Clinton hasn’t done any of these things, and has a staff that readily responds to fact-checking questions, she doesn’t like to hold press conferences. Equivalence!

Perhaps more frightening than these simple facts is that we’re not talking about a subterranean conspiracy of which only a privileged few are aware. This dynamic is embedded in the journalistic canon. Krugman has said, for example, that his editors at the New York Times did not allow him to use the word “lying” back in 2000 when debunking the George W. Bush campaign’s claims about tax cuts Bush proposed.  And in an editorial by the Los Angeles Times calling the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations against John Kerry fictitious, the editors stated:

[T]he canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over Dukakis’ patriotism or Kerry’s service in Vietnam…And they have been distracted from thinking about real issues (like the war going on now) by these laboratory concoctions.

The most disturbing line in this editorial is: “The canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  Why is this so?  That they can’t call a lie a lie?  Who wrote these “canons,” which seem to explicitly demand that journalists lie to their readers, in the name of “objectivity?”

Although I have seen many instances of this overt self-awareness by journalists, I am still left with the mouth-agape question: why not?  Why can’t truth be the central pillar of journalistic ethics, instead of a “canon” of false equivalency which allows Lee Atwater, Karl Christian Rove, Donald J. Trump, and others to use lies to great effect?

Matt Taibbi (a journalist reporting on politics, media and finance for Rolling Stone and other outlets) noted in On the Media:

Though we’re tempted to blame the politicians, it’s time to dig deeper. It’s time to blame the press corps that daily brings us this unrelenting symphony of horseshit and never comes within a thousand miles of an apology for any of it. And it’s time to blame the press not only as a class of people, but also as individuals.

This lack of accountability in the media presents one of the greatest threats to democracy and the American republic. Greater then climate change, greater than the terrorist menace, greater even than a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea, the media’s unwillingness to base their reporting in the truth, opting instead for a mushy and moving center point between whatever the members of the two major political parties are saying, reduces the public conversation on matters such as climate change, the terrorist menace, and a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea to a debate over points of view (one often factually inaccurate), instead of an exploration of the unassailable truth of any issue.

The unwillingness to base reporting in truth allows lies to fester, metastasizing from the corners of the Internet into a presidential campaign (Donald J. Trump’s) which fuses White supremacists, climate denial, fascist undertones, and an increasing series of lies into a viable candidacy.

Even worse is the level of awareness and even pride some journalists show concerning this “canon” of objectivity.  As Washington Post journalist Melinda Henneberger observed, concerning her profession’s (lack of) attachment to truth in reporting: “Newspapers hardly ever haul off and say a public figure lied, and I like that about us.”

This same mainstream columnist stated, concerning some media outlets which tagged as “flatly inconsistent with the facts” a number of points vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan made in his Republican National Convention speech in 2012: “of course, each of these pieces is analysis or opinion rather than a straight news story.”  And this “opinion” (i.e. the truth) has less impact on the shared reality of the public square than a “straight news story” (i.e., one that does not separate fact from fiction).

Political campaigns agree: facts can be presented as “spin” by partisans, and therefore fall under the rubric of “opinion.”  Consider, for example, this excerpt from an article in the Washington Post in 2012:

Jon Cassidy, writing on the website Human Events, said one fact-checking outfit declares conservatives inaccurate three times as often as it does liberals.  “You might reasonably conclude that PolitiFact is biased,” he wrote [as opposed to the fact that Republicans simply lie more often].

…Brooks Jackson, executive director of FactCheck.org, said he fears that the campaigns have come to see running afoul of fact checkers as something of a badge of honor.

Now, in Donald J. Trump’s America, even the lying spinmeisters are welcomed into the journalistic tent.  After Corey Lewandowski was fired as Trump’s campaign manager on June 21, 2016, he immediately resurfaced as a CNN political commentator – even though he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Donald J. Trump!  As Rutenberg noted in his New York Times article:

Mr. Lewandowski has frequently wandered past the bounds of truth…[though, when he was hired by CNN,] Mr. Lewandowski told [fellow CNN journalist] Erin Burnett that he’d call “balls and strikes” in spite of his agreement with Mr. Trump.  But when he weighed in on Mr. Trump’s big economic speech last Tuesday, all he saw was a home run (“Mr. Trump’s best speech of the presidential cycle,” he gushed).

For the sake of full disclosure (and the truth), it must be noted that, although the Democrats are certainly not immune from this particular political sport (see: “Hillary Clinton” + “emails,” for instance), the Republicans have perfected the Machiavellian art of conflating “truth” and “lie.”  Two longtime Washington insiders, Thomas Mann (Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution) and Norman Ornstein (Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute), wrote a book that got at this idea and summarized it four years ago in an article entitled: “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans are the Problem:”

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition . . . “Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias . . . But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomena distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we could change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth?

Finally! One true statement about the political situation in the United States.

However, those in the media did not appreciate the sentiment.  After publishing their book and then article in the Washington Post, these two writers were essentially ostracized for their bipartisan, honest point of view.  As the alternative news outlet Media Matters noted a couple of weeks after the publication of the piece, “their [Mann’s and Ornstein’s] recent conclusion that Republicans are responsible for political dysfunction has been largely ignored, with the top five national newspapers writing a total of zero news articles on their thesis.”  Media Matters also pointed out that, after years of being go-to voices on the various Sunday political programs, Mann and Ornstein saw those invitations dry up after the publication of their book.

Given all of this, the rise of Trump should come as no surprise.  He is simply better at using lies to shape reality than the other 16 candidates he bested.  And he is cognizant that the press – compliant concubine that it is – will mostly parrot whatever garbage he spews from his mouth.

Donald J. Trump has risen from the fetid fertilizer of years of Republican obfuscation, lies, false accusations and other pernicious verbiage, all of which have been dutifully reported as one “opinion” (countered by an equally-weighted “opinion” known as the truth).  And when respected journalists have attempted to point out the problem of false equivalence, they have been “ostracized” by their mainstream compatriots or even shut down by their editors.

Trump is not an outlier, surprise or anomaly. He is the natural outgrowth of years of terrible reporting, coupled with Republican exploitation of this dynamic.

In a sense, Trump is doing us a favor. He is exposing the undercurrent of American democracy which has been hidden beneath the surface of “civility” and “objectivity” provided by the supine press. However, we must learn from his rise, and demand – once and for all – that truth, and not false equivalence, becomes central to our political discourse and public square.

If not, we might well learn just how far America can go toward becoming a fascist government ourselves, instead of fighting against them as we have in Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea and other places around the world.  While all of us certainly want to “make America great,” the question becomes for whom, and at what cost?  A question that the mainstream media should – but never seems to – put at the exact center of the conversation about Donald J. Trump, and our public square in general.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System

Perspective Should Trump Sensationalism

Prominent Democratic media figures and politicians have long argued that Donald Trump is a uniquely terrifying threat to America’s future.  Back in February, for example, Ezra Klein called Trump “the most dangerous presidential candidate in memory.”  In March, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz claimed that Trump is “the most extreme and vile, misogynistic candidate in modern times.”  And more recently, right before the Indiana primary, President Barack Obama said that Trump “is not somebody who, even within the Republican Party, can be considered as equipped to deal with the problems of this office.”

These claims, however, are missing vital context.  Trump would probably make a really bad president, but far from being a unique disaster, his nomination may have actually been the best-case outcome of this year’s Republican primary.

Many of the things Trump is known for – his overtly racist comments, for example – certainly are, as Jenée Desmond-Harris recently noted in The New York Times, “infuriating and frightening.”  But they’re not anomalies.  Both Republican and Democratic politicians have long played more subtly on racist stereotypes.  Trump’s blatant racism, as Desmond-Harris explains, makes it harder for people to pretend racism doesn’t exist or not to “understand what it represents about the country.”

There is, of course, a very legitimate concern about the costs of such unconcealed racism from a prominent public figure.  Trump “has given people permission to openly trumpet views they may once have kept to themselves — and gives them a place to gather together.”  Violence is a predictable result of these gatherings – especially considering the fact that Trump has at times encouraged it – and we’ve already seen it happening at Trump rallies all over the country.

At the same time, it’s not like the pre-Trump era was free from violent White supremacy, and when racism and other forms of discrimination are easily identifiable, they’re much easier to confront.  Consider, for example, Trump’s despicable proposal to ban Muslims from the country.  Given that American society has persecuted Muslims intensely for the past 15 years and that the mainstream media and numerous politicians – again, in both major parties – have facilitated this persecution, it’s hard to believe we’d be seeing the same outrage about the ban (let alone legislation intended to thwart it) if it had been proposed in more coded language by someone perceived to be more mainstream.  In fact, survey evidence highlights this point; Democratic support for a Muslim ban grows from 25 percent to 45 percent when voters don’t know the ban is Trump’s idea (Republican support is above 70 percent whether voters know it’s Trump’s idea or not).

Marco Rubio’s comment that Trump “says what people wish they could say [but] can’t [because of] consequences, here and around the world” is telling.  The consequences are in the form of popular backlash, and it’s the fear of that backlash, in part, that’s driving Right-wing opposition to the Republican nominee.  Radio and television personality Glenn Beck, for instance, worries “that the GOP is going to be completely racist – whether it’s true or not – because of Donald Trump. You will never have another Republican president ever again.”  Beck is likely wrong about his electoral prediction, unfortunately, but he may be right about Trump exposing the racist, sexist, and xenophobic elements of America that are particularly prevalent in the Republican party.  It’s perfectly rational to fear having those prejudices out in the open, but that exposure could also be what’s necessary to begin to dismantle them.

The other reason a lot of prominent Republicans don’t like Trump is that, as Nate Silver put it back in September of 2015: “There’s an alternate reality in which he decided to run as a Democrat instead — he wouldn’t have to change his policy positions all that much.”  That was certainly the argument of Ted Cruz, who complained in a Super Tuesday speech about, among other things, Trump’s support for “socialized medicine,” Planned Parenthood, “compromise…on Supreme Court nominees,” and neutrality when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

The man Trump calls “Lyin’ Ted” described most of Trump’s positions incorrectly, but there was also an element of truth in what Cruz told his supporters.  Despite Trump’s promise to repeal Obamacare during the primary, he’s also said, to the chagrin of his Republican foes, that he wants to replace it with more universal coverage; he’s even been a supporter of single-payer health care in the past.  Though Trump has argued for defunding Planned Parenthood, he’s also maintained, unlike other Republican candidates, that he has “a lot of respect for some of the things they do.”  It’s hard to know what Trump would do with the Supreme Court – as one legal scholar mused in March, he’s a real “wild card” – but unlike most Republican candidates (John Kasich is another exception), he has floated less insane justices in the past.  On Israel and Palestine, Cruz actually got Trump’s prior statements right, and while Trump recently spoke much more hawkishly about the conflict, that may be in response to Hillary Clinton’s “attempt to cast herself to Trump’s right” on the issue.

It’s hard to know for sure what Trump believes – “his hair has been more permanent than his political positions,” as AEI’s Thomas Miller said last July – but there are actually a few domains in which Trump might have better policy positions than Clinton.  Trump and Clinton both say they oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, but while Trump’s opposition isn’t quite for the right reasons, it’s fairly credible; Clinton’s, on the other hand, isn’t.  While Clinton and her supporters make arguments more extreme than Antonin Scalia’s in defense of her big money donors and speeches at Goldman Sachs, Trump is telling the truth about the influence of money in politics (which he openly admits that he has benefited from as a donor and, like Clinton, pledges to reform).  Trump says he wants a much bigger investment in infrastructure than does Clinton, and there’s a legitimate case to be made that, in general, Clinton has a bigger “appetite for military engagement abroad” than Trump does.

In other areas, Trump’s positions may be less extreme than his primary posturing suggests.  For example, he now says he is open to raising the minimum wage, he initially frowned upon North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law, and there are indications that he may walk back his plans to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and deport millions of immigrants.  To be clear, he hasn’t given a number on the minimum wage, he decided North Carolina’s law was a state decision in response to pressure from Republicans, and he has not yet pulled support for a border wall or deportations.  His positions here are completely unacceptable, as are his tax plan and his statements on guns, torture, and much else.  Furthermore, as mentioned above, it’s hard to know whether he would adhere to anything he’s said, and it would be a serious understatement to say that his advisers inspire little confidence.  But it’s also important to remember that it’s hard to know what Clinton truly believes, that there is cause for concern about who her staff would be, and that she was absent from the fight for a higher minimum wage, opposed to marriage equality, and supportive of border barriers and deportations until relatively recently, when the right positions (pro-large minimum wage increase, pro-marriage equality, anti-border barrier, and anti-deportations) became politically advantageous for a Democratic Party politician.

None of that is to say that anyone who believes in social justice should consider voting for Trump; please don’t.  I strongly disagree with the notion that he’d be the lesser-of-evils candidate if Clinton is the Democratic nominee.  (If that happens, I encourage Bernie Sanders supporters to vote for a third-party candidate.)

I would, however, urge everyone, both here and around the world, to treat Trump less like a heretofore unseen danger.  It’s not a bad thing that Trump “is reinforcing long-held suspicions that America is a racist, imperialist nation” – there are very good reasons for those suspicions, and we can’t fix our problems if we don’t acknowledge them.  And it’s also not a bad thing that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan – who Dylan Matthews recently called a “doctrinaire, down-the-line supply-sider who wants massive cuts to safety net and social insurance programs and equally massive tax cuts for the wealthy” – has wondered whether his “conservative principles will be championed” by the Republican nominee for president.  As even pro-Clinton journalist Jonathan Chait has pointed out, “a Trump presidency would probably wind up doing less harm to the country than a Marco Rubio or a Cruz presidency.”

That certainly doesn’t mean fears of Trump are unfounded.  But let’s also make sure we give his candidacy the appropriate context.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Race and Religion

Donald Trump is A Problem, Not The Problem

Last September, Frank Rich wrote an article for New York Magazine entitled “The Importance of Donald Trump: Far from destroying our democracy, he’s exposing all its phoniness and corruption in ways as serious as he is not. And changing it in the process.”

How so?  Rich argued that Trump has “ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe.”

Well, that cat left the bag long ago, at least when it comes to anti-Muslim bigotry.  As 2015’s last GOP presidential debate made clear, there isn’t a single Republican candidate willing to declare that Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslim non-citizens from entering the country is bigoted and unconscionable.  Instead, Trump’s challengers fell all over themselves to court the 59% (or more) of Republican voters who support such a plan.  Even Lindsey Graham (who has since dropped out of the race) and Jeb Bush, who got credit in some corners for challenging Trump’s proposal, could only muster the courage to question whether it would undermine our ability to build coalitions and stay safe.  They left the core problem with it – that it is completely immoral – unmentioned, and they insisted that loyalty to the eventual Republican nominee was more important than the rights of the world’s Muslim population.

So is Rich right?  Does Trump expose the despicable views of his fellow candidates, thus enabling us to confront and discredit them?  Or, as Rachel Maddow asked several weeks ago (in the same vein as these comments from Steve Benen), does Trump shift the Overton window of acceptable political discourse?  In other words, does Trump’s rhetoric normalize similarly repugnant proposals from Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and just about every other Republican presidential candidate by making them seem tame in comparison?

I don’t profess to know the answer to that question.  But either way, those of us who truly believe in freedom and justice need to stop treating Donald Trump like some sort of anomaly.  It’s also incumbent upon us to stop acting like despicable, racist, anti-Muslim sentiment and policy ideas are confined to the Republican party; though unethical rhetoric and proposals rear their ugly heads among prominent Republicans more often and more overtly than they do in many other quarters, the mainstream media, popular “liberals,” and high-ranking Democrats are complicit in the persecution of Muslim communities as well.

Consider CNN, the news network that hosted the aforementioned Republican debate.  In October of 2014, for example, network anchors Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota invited renowned scholar Reza Aslan to an interview (shown below) that began with an absurd question: “Does Islam promote violence?”  Aslan’s responses throughout the rather hostile and offensive set of interview questions, in which he was interrupted by both Lemon and Camerota several times, were well-reasoned and, for the vast majority of the interview, remarkably calm.  He noted that female genital mutilation has nothing to do with Islam – this human rights violation is common in many countries in and around Central Africa, regardless of their majority religion, and is not an issue in majority-Muslim countries outside that region.  He explained that “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it.”  He pointed out that women in majority-Muslim Turkey have had more political success than women in the United States, and, finally, getting a little fed up with Lemon and Camerota’s ignorance, explained more forcefully that the use of the phrase “‘Muslim countries,’ as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same, as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same…is, frankly…stupid.” (Aslan actually apologized for using the word “stupid” after the interview – even though it’s a fairly accurate description of the generalization he was describing – presumably because he wanted to make sure Camerota knew that he wasn’t directing the comment at her intelligence).

CNN’s response to this exchange, rather than to reflect on what their anchors might have done wrong, was to put Lemon and Camerota back on air to defend their interview in a discussion with Chris Cuomo (shown below).  In his closing remarks, Cuomo said that Aslan’s “tone was very angry, so he wound up kind of demonstrating what people are fearful about when they think of the faith in the first place, which is the hostility of it.”

If you want a more recent example, check out the next interview below, this one between CNN anchors John Vouse and Isha Sesay and Yasser Louati, head of the International Relations Desk for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.  Just like Lemon and Camerota, Vause and Sesay started with a bigoted and offensive premise – all Muslims should take responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Paris – and continued to ask the same inappropriate question over and over again after Louati politely debunked it.

I wish these videos were outliers, but they aren’t; CNN’s anchors, as well as many members of ostensibly “liberal” media and policy circles, disparage Muslims all the time.  And CNN doesn’t condone this behavior because of an unwavering commitment to freedom of expression for its staff; less than a week after the interview with Louati, CNN suspended its global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, for issuing the following tweet:

In some ways, CNN is more at fault than the Republican candidates for spreading Islamophobia.  When a major television station that many people believe to be broadcasting “objective news” censors tolerant opinions from some of its journalists while giving other journalists free reign to bash the Muslim community, it mainstreams ignorant, prejudiced views far more successfully than Donald Trump ever could.

That’s a large part of why Barack Obama and the Democratic presidential candidates also deserve rebuke (as does George W. Bush, despite the praise he has received from Hillary Clinton).  To their credit, they are all careful to draw a clear distinction between Islam the religion and violence perpetrated by a small number of individuals who profess to believe in it.  Obama, at the State of the Union this week, said that “we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”  Yet his and others’ words often lend cover to anti-Muslim animus by (intentionally or not) erroneously implying that “terrorism” and “Islam” are linked.  At the last Democratic presidential debate of 2015, for example, Clinton put the burden on Muslim-Americans to “stop radicalization,” and even Bernie Sanders, who is by far the best major presidential candidate on this issue, insisted that we are in a “war for the soul of Islam.”  Unless the candidates also think that the terror the Israeli government visits in the Middle East or that the fear the Ku Klux Klan still inspires in the United States represent wars for the souls of Judaism and Christianity, respectively, there is no excuse for this kind of language.

The Democrats’ foreign policy positions also contribute to the problem; their support for aggressive war in response to perceived threats of terror normalizes an “us versus them” and “ends justify the means” mentality used to oppress Muslims in various countries around the world.  Clinton is by far the worst perpetrator among the candidates in this regard – her foreign policy record and rhetoric are worse than those of many Republicans.  As but one example, she presided over massive increases in weapons deals to the Saudi Arabian government, one of the most repressive regimes in the world that just began 2016 by beheading 47 people, while they donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation.  But Obama is very far from blameless.  Phrases like “our enemies” and “have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed” from the State of the Union don’t help, nor do Obama-ordered drone strikes that mostly murder innocent civilians.  And even Sanders has lent cover to the Saudis.  When the supposed “liberals” take these positions, it’s little wonder that Republican debate moderator Hugh Hewitt can suggest that it is a virtue to “order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands” without anyone batting an eyelid.

It’s also little wonder that anti-Muslim sentiment runs alarmingly high among Democratic voters; between 15% and 25% (depending on the poll) support Trump’s proposal.  Even scarier, that number could be as high as 45% when Democrats don’t know that the proposal is Trump’s, suggesting that there’s actually much more of a bipartisan consensus in favor of institutionalized discrimination against Muslims than many party loyalists would like to believe.  Constant threats, intimidation, and violent attacks against Muslim citizens aren’t a Trump problem; they’re an American problem.

So while it is perfectly appropriate to condemn Donald Trump and the Republicans for their bigotry, we must not treat them as anomalies.  We must also confront the media, the Democratic candidates, and all of our friends who, whether purposefully or not, and whether explicitly or not, spread the lie that Islam is uniquely violent.  We must go beyond pointing out that prejudice and aggressive war make us less safe, that far more “acts of terror” are carried out by Right-Wing extremists than by those professing to be Muslims, and that state-sanctioned violence by Western nations is responsible for far, far more deaths of innocent civilians than ISIS ever will be.  We must, first and foremost, stand in support of Muslims worldwide by denouncing profiling, implicit forms of discrimination, demonization of the “other,” and aggressive calls for war – no matter who they’re coming from – as morally wrong.

Note (7/6/16): This post used to contain audio from the Rachel Maddow show on the Overton window, but it is no longer available.  The reference to it has been replaced with a reference to a piece on Maddow’s blog.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Race and Religion