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Our Fake President, Part II: The Minister of Propaganda

Photo of Donald Trump with one arm raised

Donald Trump is less the president of a superpower than he is a master of marketing and propaganda.  In style, temperament, and character, he is reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party member who became Adolf Hitler’s Propaganda Minister in 1933 and served in that role until May 1945 when he and his wife killed their children and took their own lives as the Russians invaded Berlin.  As the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels had power over all German radio, press, cinema, and theater.  He controlled the party’s messaging to the German people and masterminded the denigration

Photo of Joseph Goebbels
Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels

of the Jews in the minds of Germans that paved the way for the Final Solution.

Goebbels didn’t invent propaganda, but he was one of its shrewdest practitioners and theorists.  His Principles of Propaganda are instructive because they illuminate much of what Donald Trump does as he attempts to manipulate American public opinion.*  Here are ten of Goebbel’s Principles and how Trump uses them to create political advantage:

  1. Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must evoke the interest of an audience and must be transmitted through an attention-getting communications medium.

In 1930’s Germany, the principal media were radio and print.  In our era, Trump uses Twitter as his primary communications medium.  Twitter gives him a direct conduit to millions of his followers, and his tweets, particularly the more inflammatory and outrageous ones, are reported in newspapers and on television.  So he reaches tens if not hundreds of millions of people through his tweets.  His other primary attention-getting media are television and political rallies, where he markets himself and his ideas to thousands of followers directly and millions more indirectly through television reporting on his rallies.  The rallies give him not only a supportive audience for his ideas but also the attention and adulation he craves.

  1. Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Credibility alone must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false.

Goebbels believed that it didn’t matter if what the propagandist says is true or false; it only mattered that it appears credible in the minds of the audience.  Trump has long been an adherent to conspiracy theories because he knows many people will accept even the most outlandish claims because those claims reinforce already deeply held suspicions or biases.  The notion that Obama was not born in the United States is one example.  As was the ridiculous claim that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex ring operating out of a diner with D.C. (called Pizzagate, this conspiracy theory prompted a North Carolina man to travel to D.C. and open fire inside the diner with an assault rifle.  He’s now serving four years in prison).  More recently, Trump has claimed that there is rioting in some California cities by people opposed to them being sanctuary cities (not true), and that Democrats organized the caravan of migrants now traveling north through Mexico to the U.S. border (not true—Democrats had nothing to do with it), and that the Democrats are promoting “unhinged” mob rule (ridiculous, not true).  Trump is a skilled propagandist, and it doesn’t matter to him if his claims are true or false.  The only thing that matters is that his supporters and other gullible people find the claims credible enough to be fearful and vote for Republicans.  I’ve offered only a few examples of Trump’s lies and outlandish claims, but in the past two years there have been thousands of examples.  The sheer volume of his propaganda is difficult to keep up with.

  1. Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must be carefully timed.  The communication must reach the audience ahead of competing propaganda.

Trump understands that he needs to control the narrative by making his claims and accusations ahead of competing media (i.e., the fact checkers in traditional media outlets).  Timing is crucial for Trump because he wants his opponents to be reactive rather than proactive.  When the counter-narrative of reporters in traditional media houses gains enough strength, Trump changes the narrative by introducing a new, controversial topic (past examples have included granting presidential pardons in questionable cases or threatening to fire cabinet officials like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and more recently Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis).  Shifting the narrative enables Trump to shorten the life cycle of counter-narratives and change the public’s focus so often that people are distracted by the blurring of events.

  1. Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: A propaganda theme must be repeated but not beyond some point of diminishing effectiveness.

Photo of Donald Trump
Donald Trump, master of marketing and propaganda

Trump knows that in propaganda, as in marketing, your major themes—the things you want people to remember most—must be repeated.  His propaganda features recurrent themes: Crooked Hillary, the Mueller witch hunt, the fake news media, no collusion.  He repeats and emphasizes these themes to the point that they become drilled into the consciousness of his intended audience.  People who don’t buy into his nonsense may be annoyed by Trump’s repetition, but it works well with his base—with people who are already inclined to believe it or who have heard it so often they believe it without realizing why and how their beliefs were formed.

To doubt that this propaganda tool is effective you would have to believe that marketing has no impact on viewers and listeners—and study after study has shown that marketing does change people’s minds, that it does influence their buying behavior.  The current Liberty Mutual television ad is a good example of intentional repetition.  After the substance of the ad, a chorus sings a short jingle that ends with “Liberty.  Liberty.  Liberty.”  Liberty Mutual’s ad agency cares less about you remembering the substance of their ad; they primarily want you to remember “Liberty.”  So when you need insurance, that word pops up in your mind.

Likewise, Trump wants his audience to remember that Hillary is crooked, that Mueller is leading a witch hunt, that the mainstream new media spouts fake news, and that there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians.  He drills those points home through constant repetition.  Does it ever reach the point of diminishing effectiveness?  I think this depends on the audience.  I have an adverse reaction to Trump’s annoying repetition of these themes, but his true believers likely see it as reinforcement of what they already believe.

  1. Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must label events and people with distinctive phrases or slogans.

Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Crazy Bernie Sanders, Goofy Elizabeth Warren (Pocahontas), Little Marco Rubio, Horseface Stormy Daniels (his insults about women are often based on their appearance).  Trump understands the power of labels as well as the guilty pleasure of ridicule:  we take pleasure at seeing other people ridiculed, just as we are secretly pleased at others’ misfortunes.  This is a phenomenon known as schadenfreude in German.  Psychologists say that we are often pleased with others’ misfortune, particularly if we think the person deserves the misfortune, we had no part in causing the misfortune, and the misfortune is relatively minor.  We find ridicule in the form of name calling humorous in the political arena when the person being ridiculed is on the other side of the aisle or when we think there is some truth to the label.   To those who were troubled by Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, the label “Crooked Hillary” fit, and if they didn’t like Clinton (as many people didn’t), it was pleasing (secretly or not) to hear Trump call her that.

But ridicule through name calling is more than a political gag because labels shape people’s opinions of the victim.  By calling Clinton “Crooked Hillary,” Trump shaped the public’s opinion of her, not everyone, to be sure, but enough of the public to sway the vote.  Labeling her “crooked” helped convince many people that there was something shady about those missing emails, that Clinton couldn’t be trusted.  Calling Cruz “Lyin’ Ted” convinced some people that Cruz was a liar, even in the absence of evidence (the irony, of course, is that Trump himself is a monumental liar, but propagandists often accuse others of disparaging traits they themselves have in abundance).  Calling Elizabeth Warren “goofy” makes some people think it must be true and therefore she doesn’t have to be taken seriously.

In a political era when civility has sunk to its lowest point, Trump is a master of schoolyard-worthy name calling.  It is an adolescent form of bullying, unworthy of a man who holds the highest office in the land, but Trump resorts to name calling over and over because it works.  When the gloves are off (and Trump took them off), labeling your opponents with derogatory terms will influence many voters—perhaps enough to sway an election.  This is one of Trump’s most effective propaganda techniques.

  1. Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must evoke desired responses which the audience previously possesses.

In other words, effective propaganda must reinforce or reflect previously held beliefs or inclinations, and Donald Trump does this admirably well.  He knows how to appeal to his base’s prejudices and fears.  Prior to the 2016 presidential election, he read the mood of Republican voters and mainstream white Americans better than any other candidate.  He stoked their fears and biases by presenting himself as anti-Obama, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim—and pro-law-and-order, pro-military, and pro-jobs.  By wrapping the whole message around “Make America Great Again” he built upon the needs and attitudes of a large segment of the population.  He intuited how they felt and fed them propaganda that evoked the response he desired from them.  Donald Trump didn’t invent their sense of disenfranchisement, but he understood it and crafted his messages to appeal to fears and beliefs they already possessed.  In much the same way, Joseph Goebbels and Adolf

Photo of Joseph Goebbels
Joseph Goebbels speaking at a rally

Hitler crafted messages they knew would appeal to a German population still reeling from the disaster of World War I and the mistreatment they felt they received from the victorious allies at the end of that war.

  1. Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must be capable of being easily learned, and it must be utilized again and again, but only in appropriate situations.

Donald Trump keeps his messages simple.  Whether he does this by design or because he’s incapable of more sophisticated messages is debatable.  However, he has a knack for the right name calling or the right turn of phrase to make his messages easy for his audience to remember.  His latest “#jobsnotmobs” tagline is an example.  In this simple tag he implies that the Republicans are for jobs and the Democrats are a mob.  It’s simple and easy to remember.

Trump uses these kinds of tags often, arguably too often.  His accusations and exaggerations are repeated so often that they begin to sound strident and hollow.  If you’re not a Trump supporter, the sheer repetition of these simple messages can become not only annoying but counter-persuasive.  But for Trump’s base and persuadable people on the fence, his simple, repeated messages become a subliminal message thread that is woven into their subconscious and shapes what they believe and how they vote.

  1. Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda to the home front must create an optimum anxiety level.

A month ago, Trump claimed that if the GOP losses the mid-term elections, there will be violence from the left.  He also claimed that if he is impeached, the stock market will crash and everyone will be poor.  His mini-me, Rudy Giuliani, said that if Trump is impeached, his supporters would rebel.  All these warnings are intended to ratchet up the fear and anxiety level among his followers.  When they’re fearful, they’re motivated.  When they’re afraid of the other side winning, they’ll get out and vote.  Donald Trump wants Americans to be afraid, and he wants them to believe that only he can protect them.  He knows, as Goebbels did, that fear is a glue that creates cohesion among masses of people who will support or at least acquiesce to the leader’s political will.  It worked in Nazi Germany, and it’s working here.

  1. Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must reinforce anxiety concerning the consequences of defeat.

Trump excels at inciting fear and loathing among his base, particularly raising fears of criminals like MS-13 running through the streets, which he claims will happen if Democrats win, and raising the specter of lost jobs and higher taxes and unprotected borders.  His propaganda emphasizes the extreme negative consequences that will arise if he or his agenda are not supported or if his critics are not disregarded or otherwise silenced.

  1. Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle:  Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.

The specters that Goebbels raised were the Jews, the gypsies, and the communists, as well as the old factions in Germany that were responsible for defeat in World War I and kept Germany from achieving its manifest destiny.  The specters that Trump raises are loss of jobs, drugs flowing into the country, rampant lawlessness, floods of illegal immigrants taking American jobs, the loss of Second Amendment protections, and in generally subtle ways, the displacement of whites and white privilege in an increasingly diverse country.  He wraps that all up in hatred of the Democrats, whom he depicts as enemies of the people, along with hatred of most mainstream media, whom he labels “fake news.”

Trump understands that the purpose of propaganda is to create enemies, to target people and groups his followers should fear and loathe, and thus to rally his supporters against this “common enemy.”  It’s not a unifying message, but Trump has no desire to unify the country.  He wins only if he stays in power, and to stay in power he must manipulate his followers and shape their beliefs.  He knows that to accomplish that he must channel his followers’ fears and aggression to specific targets, and he is a master at letting them know what those targets are.

Photo of Donald Trump
Donald Trump speaking at a rally

How effective has Trump been in specifying targets for hatred?  Look at the recent pipe bombs mailed to CNN, the Clintons, the Obamas, Joe Biden, Maxine Waters, John Brennan, Eric Holder, George Soros, Tom Steyer, Kamala Harris, James Clapper, Cory Booker, and Robert De Niro.  All are critics or opponents of Trump, and he has targeted them using inflammatory rhetoric, lies, and exaggerations.  The suspect in this case, Cesar Sayoc, is a criminal with a long rap sheet, and he's also a registered Republican whose van was covered by pro-Trump bumper stickers.  Sayoc is the kind of dangerous person who's been brainwashed by Trump’s propaganda and has acted to harm or kill those who oppose or criticize him.  Propaganda is dangerous.  From 1933 to 1945, Joseph Goebbel’s Propaganda Ministry told lie after lie and helped propel the world into a war that took  between 70 to 80 million lives.

Today, in America, we had a bomb-making fanatic who took it into his own hands to try to kill Donald Trump’s opponents.  Don’t imagine that it will end here.  When Trump and his Republican cronies demonize their political opponents, they create an atmosphere where irresponsible, mentally ill, or criminally inclined people may decide to take action.

 

The purpose of propaganda is to manipulate the populace by creating a false narrative that causes people to believe what the propagandist wants them to believe, usually to advance a political cause or purpose, consolidate power, or sanctify an idea that legitimizes action against a person or group.  Propagandists use facts selectively, exaggerate, or lie to achieve their goals.

Joseph Goebbels was a master of propaganda during the Nazi era in Germany.  Donald Trump is a master of it in America now.  I am not saying or implying that Donald Trump is a Nazi. But he is using the tactics of propaganda that Joseph Goebbels used so effectively in Nazi Germany, and propaganda is deceptive manipulation of the truth.  It is dangerous.

Those of us who recognize his propaganda for what it is have an obligation to speak out.  Those who don’t recognize it—and are influenced by it—should step back and ask themselves if what they’re hearing from Donald Trump, in his tweets and at his rallies, is really true.  They have an obligation to recognize that they are being manipulated by a modern Minister of Propaganda, a powerful con man with a gift for marketing whose intentions are entirely self-serving and whose methods are devious.  Propaganda is a dark art, and Donald Trump is a masterful practitioner of it.

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*The Goebbels principles of propaganda that I’ve cited here are from Leonard W. Doob’s “Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda,” published in Public Opinion and Propaganda:  A Book of Readings edited for The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

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Senator Ben Sasse on Government Reform

As I write this, the contentious hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court are taking place.  In his opening statement, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, a member of that committee, argued that the hearings are contentious because the role of the judiciary has changed in the last century, along with the roles of the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the “fourth” branch of government, the administrative bureaucracy.  Whether or not you believe Kavanaugh should be confirmed as a supreme court justice, Ben Sasse’s arguments about the current distorted state of our federal government are worth listening to or reading.  We desperately need reform in our government.  We need to limit executive power to that which the authors of the Constitution intended.  We need legislators, no matter which party they belong to, to act in the best interests of the people of this country instead of to partisan political interests or the manipulations of thousands of Beltway lobbyists and political action committee operatives.  And we need a completely non-partisan and apolitical judiciary.

Below is a YouTube video playing Senator Sasse’s comments on government reform.  Following that is the text of his remarks.

 

 

 

Senator Klobuchar, you did Madison, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Magna Carta and your Dad taking you to court. Well done. I had all that on my BINGO card.

I have little kids and I’ve taken my two little girls to court a few times too, mostly to juvie just to scare them straight, not to turn them into attorneys. There’s wisdom in Minnesota.

Congratulations, Judge, on your nomination. Ashley, congratulations, and condolences. This process has to stink. I’m glad your daughters could get out of the room and I hope they still get the free day from school.

Let’s do some good news bad news.

The bad news first, Judge: Since your nomination in July, you’ve been accused of hating women, hating children, hating clean air, wanting dirty water. You’ve been declared an existential threat to our nation. Alumni of Yale Law School, incensed that faculty members at your alma mater praised your selection, wrote a public letter to the school saying quote, “People will die if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed.”

This drivel is patently absurd and I worry that we’re going to hear more of it over the next few days. But the good news is, it is absurd and the American people don’t believe any of it.

This stuff isn’t about Brett Kavanaugh when screamers say this stuff for cable TV news. The people who know you better, not those who are trying to get on TV, they tell a completely different story about who Brett Kavanaugh is. You’ve earned high praise from the many lawyers, both right and left, who’ve appeared before you during your 12 years on the D.C. Circuit. And those who’ve had you as a professor at Yale Law and Harvard Law, people in legal circles invariably applaud your mind, your work, your temperament, your collegiality.

That’s who Brett Kavanaugh is.

And to quote Lisa Blatt, a Supreme Court attorney from the left who has known you for a decade, “Sometimes, a superstar is just a superstar and that’s the case with this Judge. The Senate should confirm him.”

It’s pretty obvious to most people going about their work today, that the deranged comments don’t actually have anything to do with you. So, we should figure out: why do we talk like this about Supreme Court nominations now. There’s a bunch that’s atypical in the last 19-20 months in America.

Senator Klobuchar’s right, the comments from the White House yesterday about trying to politicize the Department of Justices, they were wrong and they should be condemned and my guess is that Brett Kavanaugh would condemn them.

But really, the reason these hearings don’t work is not because of Donald Trump… It’s not because of anything these last 20 months… These confirmation hearings haven’t worked for 31 years in America. People are going to pretend that Americans have no historical memory and supposedly there haven’t been screaming protestors saying, “Women are going to die” at every hearing for decades. But this has been happening since Robert Bork. This is a 31-year tradition. There’s nothing really new the last 18 months.

So, the fact that the hysteria has nothing to do with you means that we should ask, what’s the hysteria coming from? The hysteria around Supreme Court confirmation hearings is coming from the fact that we have a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Supreme Court in American life now.

Our political commentary talks about the Supreme Court like they are people wearing red and blue jerseys. That’s a really dangerous thing and, by the way, if they have red and blue jerseys, I would welcome my colleagues to introduce legislation that ends lifetime tenure for the judiciary. Because if they’re just politicians, then the people should have power and they shouldn’t have lifetime appointments.

So, until you introduce that legislation. I don’t believe you really want the Supreme Court to be a politicized body. Though that’s the way we constantly talk about it now.

We can and we should do better than this. It’s predictable now that every confirmation hearing is going to be an overblown, politicized circus. And it’s because we’ve accepted a bad new theory about how our three branches of government should work — and in particular about how the Judiciary should work.

What Supreme Court confirmation hearings should be about, is an opportunity to go back and do School House Rock civics for our kids. We should be talking about how a bill becomes a law, and what the job of Article II is, and what the job of Article III is.

So, let’s try just a little bit. How did we get here and how do we fix it? I want to make just four brief points.

Number one: In our system, the legislative branch is supposed to be the center of our politics.

Number two: it’s not. Why not? Because for the last century, and increasing by the decade right now, more and more legislative authority is delegated to the executive branch every year. Both parties do it. The legislature is impotent. The legislature is weak. And most people here want their jobs more than they really want to do legislative work. And so they punt most of the work to the next branch.

The third consequence is that this transfer of power means that people yearn for a place where politics can actually be done. And when we don’t do a lot of big actual political debating here, we transfer it to the Supreme Court. And that’s why the Supreme Court is increasingly a substitute political battleground. It is not healthy, but it is what happens and it’s something our founders wouldn’t be able to make any sense of.

And fourth and finally: we badly need to restore the proper duties and the balance of power from our constitutional system.

So point one: the legislative branch is supposed to by the locus of our politics properly understood. Since we’re here in this room today, because this is a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, we’re tempting to start with Article III. But really we need Article III as the part of the Constitution that sets up the judiciary. We really should be starting with Article I, which is us. What is the legislature’s job?

The Constitution’s drafters began with the legislature. These are equal branches, but Article I comes first for a reason and that is because policymaking is supposed to be done in the body that makes laws. That means that this is supposed to be the institution dedicated to political fights. If we see lots and lots of protests, in front of the Supreme Court, that’s a pretty good litmus test barometer of the fact that our republic isn’t healthy. Because people shouldn’t be thinking they ought to be protesting in front of the Supreme Court. They should be protesting in front of this body.

The legislature is designed to be controversial, noisy, sometimes even rowdy because making laws means we have to hash out that we don’t all agree.

Government is about power. Government is not just another word for things we do together. The reason we have limited government in America is because we believe in freedom. We believe in souls. We believe in persuasion. We believe in love. And those things aren’t done by power. But the government acts by power. And since the government acts by power, we should be reticent to use power. And so it means when you differ about power, you have to have a debate. And this institution is supposed to be dedicated to debate and should be based on the premise that we know since we don’t all agree, we should try to constrain that power just a little bit, but then we should fight about it and have a vote in front of the American people. And then what happens? The people get to decide if they want to hire us or fire us. They don’t have to hire us again.

This body is the political branch where policymaking fights should happen. And if we are the easiest people to fire, it means the only way the people can maintain power in our system is if all the politicized decisions happen here. Not in Article II or Article III.

So, that brings us to a second point. How do we get to a place where the legislature decided to give away its power? We’ve been doing it for a long time. Over the course of the last century, but especially since the 1930s and then ramping up since the 1960s, a whole lot of the responsibility in this body has been kicked to a bunch of alphabet soup bureaucracies. All the acronyms that people know about their government or don’t know about their government are the places where most actual policymaking, kind of in a way, lawmaking is happening right now.

This is not what Schoolhouse Rock says. There’s no verse of Schoolhouse Rock that says give a whole bunch of power to the alphabet soup agencies and let them decide what the governance decisions should be for the people because the people don’t have any way to fire the bureaucrats.

And so, what we mostly do around this body is not pass laws. What we mostly do is decide to give permission to the Secretary or the administrator of bureaucracy X, Y, or Z to make law-like regulations. That’s mostly what we do here. We go home and pretend that we make laws… No, we don’t. We write giant pieces of legislation — 1,200 pages, 1,500 pages long that people haven’t read. Filled with all of these terms that are undefined and we say the Secretary of such and such shall promulgate rules that do the rest of our dang jobs.

That’s why there are so many fights about the executive branch and about the judiciary because this body rarely finishes its work — and the House is even worse… I don’t really believe that… it just seemed like… you needed to unite us in some way.

So, I admit, that there are rational arguments that one could make for this new system. The Congress can’t manage all the nitty-gritty details of everything about modern government and this system tries to give power and control to experts in their fields where most of us in Congress don’t know much of anything — about technical matters, for sure — but you can also impugn our wisdom if you want. But when you’re talking about technical, complicated matters, it’s true that the Congress would have a hard time sorting out every dot and tittle about every detail.

But the real reason, at the end of the day, that this institution punts most of its power to executive branch agencies is because it is a convenient way for legislators to have… to be able to avoid taking responsibility for controversial and often unpopular decisions. If people want to get reelected over and over again — and that’s your highest goal — if your biggest long-term thought around here is about your own incumbency, then actually giving away your power is a pretty good strategy… it’s not a good life but it’s a pretty good strategy for incumbency.

And so, at the end of the day, a lot of the power delegation that happens from this branch is because the Congress has decided to self-neuter. Well, guess what? The important thing isn’t whether or not the Congress has lame jobs… the important thing is that when the Congress neuters itself and gives power to an unaccountable fourth branch of government, it means that people are cut out of the process.

There’s nobody in Nebraska… there’s nobody in Minnesota or Delaware who elected the Deputy Assistant Administrator of Plant Quarantine at the USDA. And yet, if the Deputy Assistant Administrator of Plant Quarantine does something that makes Nebraskans’ lives really difficult — which happens to farmers and ranchers in Nebraska — who do they protest too? Where do they go? How do they navigate the complexity and the thicket of all the lobbyists in this town to do executive agency lobbying? They can’t.

And so, what happens is that they don’t have any ability to speak out and to fire people through an election. And so, ultimately, when the Congress is neutered… when the administrative state grows… when there is this fourth branch of government, it makes it harder and harder for the concerns of citizens to be represented and articulated by people that the people know they have power over.

All the power right now… or almost all the power right now happens offstage. And that leaves a lot of people wondering who is looking out for me.

And that brings us to the third point, the Supreme Court becomes our substitute political battleground. It’s only nine people. You can know ’em. You can demonize ’em. You can try to make ’em messiahs. But ultimately, because people can’t navigate their way through the bureaucracy they turn to the Supreme Court looking for politics.

And knowing that our elected officials no longer care enough to do the hard work of reasoning through the places where we differ and deciding to shroud our power at times, it means that we look for nine Justices to be super-legislators. We look for nine justices to try to right the wrongs from other places in the process.

When people talk about wanting to have empathy from their justices, this is what they’re talking about. They’re talking about trying to make the justices do something that the Congress refuses to do as it constantly abdicates its responsibility. The hyperventilating that we see in this process and the way that today’s hearing started with 90 minutes of theatrics that are pre-planned with certain members of the other side here, it shows us a system that is wildly out of whack.

And thus, a fourth and final point. The solution here is not to try to find judges who will be policy makers. The solution is not to try to turn the Supreme Court into an election battle for TV. The solution is to restore a proper constitutional order with the balance of powers. We need Schoolhouse Rock back. We need a Congress that writes laws and then stands before the people and suffers the consequences and gets to back to our own Mount Vernon, if that’s what the electors decide. We need an executive branch that has a humble view of its job as enforcing the law, not trying to write laws in the Congress’ absence. And, we need a judiciary that tries to apply written laws to facts in cases that are actually before it.

This is the elegant and the fair process that the founders created. It’s the process where the people who are elected two and six years in this institution, four years in the executive branch can be fired because the justices and the judges, the men and women who serve America’s people by wearing black robes — they’re insulated from politics. This is why we talk about an independent judiciary. This is why they wear robes. This is why we shouldn’t talk about Republican and Democratic judges and justices. This is why we say justice is blind. This is why we give judges lifetime tenure. And, this is why this is the last job interview Brett Kavanaugh will ever have. Because he’s going to a job where he’s not supposed to be a super legislator.

So, the question before us today is not what did Brett Kavanaugh think 11 years ago on some policy matter, the question before us is whether or not he has the temperament and the character to take his policy views and his political preferences and put them in a box marked irrelevant and set it aside every morning when he puts on the black robe.

The question is, does he have the character and temperament to do that. If you don’t think he does, vote no. But, if you think he does, stop the charades. Because at the end of the day I think all of us know that Brett Kavanaugh understands his job isn’t to re-write laws as he wishes they were. He understands that he’s not being interviewed to be a super legislator. He understands that his job isn’t to seek popularity. His job is to be fair and dispassionate. It is not to exercise empathy. It is to follow written laws.

Contrary to the Onion-like smears that we hear outside, Judge Kavanaugh doesn’t hate women and children. Judge Kavanaugh doesn’t lust after dirty water and stinky air.

No, looking at his record, it seems to me that what he actually dislikes are legislators that are too lazy and too risk-averse to do our actual jobs. It seems to me that if you read his 300+ opinions, what his opinions reveal to me is a dissatisfaction, I think he would argue a constitutionally compelled dissatisfaction with power-hungry executive branch bureaucrats doing our job when we failed to do it.

And in this view, I think he’s aligned with the founders. For our constitution places power, not in the hands of this city’s bureaucracy — which can’t be fired — but our constitution places the policy-making power in the 535 of our hands because the voters can hire and fire us. And, if the voters are going to retain their power, they need a legislature that’s responsive to politics, not a judiciary that’s responsive to politics. It seems to me that Judge Kavanaugh is ready to do his job, the question for us is whether we’re ready to do our job.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

 

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Seven Ways to Spot a Bully

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Kevin Cashman is a best-selling author, global thought leader, and CEO coach

Bullies have always been around.  From schoolyard brutes to world leaders, they are unfortunately a fact of life.  However, there is an increasing amount of research available to detect and deal with these dominant, self-focused types.  In his new book, Negotiating with a Bully:  Take Charge and Turn the Tables on People Trying to Push You Around, Greg Williams provides some thoughtful counsel on understanding and dealing with this aggressive, anti-social breed.  Here are seven things we need to pay attention to in order to spot a bully:

  • Bullies are egocentric. They have to be the center of attention in order to satisfy their need to appear superior to others.  As such, they will belittle, demean, and put others down to maintain their illusion of superiority. Be careful not to associate egocentricity with toughness, competence or confidence.
  • Bullies attract people weaker than themselves. A bully tends to recruit weaker people into his or her fold and uses them as foils in an attempt to build up their image.  The caveat being, the bully needs to be the sole leader and will only allow those in their immediate sphere who will subjugate themselves.  Associating yourself with a bully ultimately weakens you.
  • Bullies alter facts to make them look good. Doing so is a way to psychologically arrest the logical thought process of others in an attempt to bend their outlook to his or her will and perspective.  Bullies create alternative realities with themselves at the center.
  • Bullies are loyal until you become a threat. Once threats occur, loyalty loses its two-way dynamic.  Bullies will willingly throw supporters under the bus.  Loyalty becomes one-way, and that way is in favor of the bully.  Loyalty to his or her supporters becomes muted because of the bully’s need to maintain a hold on power at all costs.
  • Bullies need constant praise. However, can you praise them without losing your values and integrity?  It is a tough and risky balancing act.

    PHoto of the cover of Kevin Cashman's book Leadership from the Inside Out
    Cashman’s classic book on leadership is in its 3rd edition.
  • Bullies lie incessantly. They manipulate others to attract people to their perspective.  This action of the bully is very dangerous because one never really knows what to believe and what to trust when a bully speaks.
  • Bullies keep others subjugated to their will. Once a bully begins to lose the appeal that makes others bow to him, he can become more aggressive in his attempts to reacquire the power and control he has lost.  That’s when a bully is most dangerous, because he may engage in activities that are very far outside the realm of rationality or civility.

On deeper psychological examination the behavior of bullies intersects closely with sociopathic tendencies.  Why is this critical to leadership?  Jon Ronson in his research for his book, The Psychopath Test, estimates that as many as 4% of organizational leaders are sociopathic in their orientation.  He chronicles the devastating consequences when sociopathic tendencies intersect with leadership roles. Massive value destruction is often the sad long-term result.

Bullies often lack the character, courage and competence to lead with values, inspiration, service and collaboration.  Leadership becomes self-serving versus enterprise-serving under their anti-social influence.  Do you know any bullies in your life?  In our world?  Recognizing and removing bullies from positions of power may be one of the most difficult and courageous leadership challenges we face today.

Kevin Cashman is a best-selling author, global thought leader, world-class speaker, and CEO coach.  He is the founder of LeaderSource Ltd. and the Chief Executive Institute®.  In 2006, LeaderSource was acquired by Korn/Ferry, where Kevin is now Global Leader of CEO and Executive Development.  He is the author of Leadership from the Inside Out:  Becoming a Leader for Life and The Pause Principle:  Step Back to Lead Forward.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.  We are grateful to Kevin Cashman for permission to reprint it here.

Photo credits:  All photos are from www.cashmanleadership.com except for the feature image, which is courtesy of Doddis at Dreamstime.

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John McCain: The President We Should Have Had

August 26, 2018.  Senator John McCain died yesterday of the brain cancer he’s been battling for a year.  The tributes are pouring in, as they should, for a towering figure in American politics:  a war hero from a line of Navy admirals, graduate of the Naval Academy, a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War who was shot down and held prisoner for five years, a six-term United States Senator from Arizona, and a presidential candidate twice.  McCain described himself first and foremost as a servant to the country he loved, and we’ve rarely had so honorable and courageous a public servant.

One of the most remarkable episodes in John McCain’s life occurred while he was a prisoner of war.  After a year of captivity in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp, McCain was offered an

John McCain endured five years as a POW

early release, but he refused to leave his fellow prisoners, saying that he was not a hero himself but was in the company of heroes.  In refusing to abandon his fellow POWs, he had to endure another four years in deplorable conditions.

Can you imagine the current occupant of the White House turning down release from a prison where he is mistreated and tortured because he refuses to abandon his fellow prisoners?  No, you can’t because in character, leadership, and public service Donald Trump is the opposite of John McCain.

McCain stood up for what he believed in and fought for changes in public governance that he felt were essential, namely, campaign finance reform.  He believed that the special interests had far too much influence in Washington and sought to limit them.  It was a noble effort but times have changed and McCain’s efforts failed, as evidenced by the influence peddling and corruption in the current administration.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, McCain was the Republican nominee.  He faced Barak Obama, whose campaign of hope came in the waning years of an unpopular George W. Bush presidency and the crashing of the economy, which began in earnest in September, two months before the election.  The housing market had collapsed, throwing millions of people into debt who’d joined the bandwagon in leveraged real estate buying and causing banks and investment houses like Lehmann Brothers to collapse.  An overinflated economy, precipitated by inadequate banking regulations, disintegrated on the eve of the election, and Obama’s promises of hope were like manna from heaven.

Meanwhile, John McCain was waging a good fight to become president, but he was tainted by the outgoing Republican administration, which had left a sour taste in the mouths of voters.  Then

Choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate was McCain’s biggest political mistake

McCain made the single most damaging blunder of his political career:  he selected Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate.  Palin was an odd choice from the start.  She had very little government experience (Governor of Alaska), had no national presence on the political stage, and was oddly chirpy and uninformed from the start.  Her gaffes during interviews with reporters like Katie Couric left many people questioning whether she was prepared to occupy the White House if President McCain could not continue serving.  Had it not been for Palin’s unfitness to service, I think McCain may have had a fighting chance to win the 2008 election.  We’ll never know, of course, but in Palin’s conduct in the years following that defeat she has continued to undistinguish herself.

McCain was one of the few Republicans in Congress to stand up to the Trumpian tidal wave that has drowned nearly every other Republican voice.  He and fellow Arizona senator Jeff Flake have steadfastly refused to shame themselves by acquiescing to Trump’s dishonesty, moral turpitude, executive mismanagement, power grabs, and baldface lying.  McCain singlehandedly defeated an ill-thought-out Republican measure to destroy the Affordable Care Act, which would have caused millions of Americans to lose their healthcare coverage.  He has spoken out against Trump’s lies and made it clear that he would resist the worst of Trump’s initiatives.  He was one of the few senators to question Trump’s overtures to North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Un and his unsavory, lapdog relationship with Vladimir Putin.  McCain felt strongly that Trump was leading us down a disastrous path and said so publicly.  Few other senators have demonstrated such courage or steadfastness of principle.

McCain was known for his temper.  He could be as irascible an opponent as anyone ever had, but no one could question his courage, integrity, or commitment to the United States of America.  We’ve had other public servants as dedicated to preserving American values but none that surpassed John McCain in his loyalty to the country.

John McCain exemplified courage, integrity, principled leadership, and loyal public service

As our national leader, he would have held fast to sound principles and American values, worked tirelessly for nonpartisan solutions to our problems, and upheld the highest traditions of the presidency.  We might not always have agreed with him, but we would have had confidence that this selfless man was working in our best interests and was providing the kind of leadership we would wish to emulate.

I don’t need to point out that what we have now is nearly the exact opposite.  Trump is a puerile man who primarily serves his own interests, has no moral compass, is completely lacking in integrity, and lies so often that it’s the norm rather than the exception.  Donald Trump is a disgrace to this country, and in John McCain’s passing we find ourselves weeping twice—once for this valiant pubic warrior whom we’ve lost and once for the leadership he would have provided had he been our nation’s chief executive.

John McCain is the president we should have had, but in electing Donald Trump we have demonstrated that as a citizenry we don’t deserve a leader as honest, capable, and courageous as McCain would have been.  More’s the pity.

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How Donald Trump Wins

His Five Strategies for Conning His Constituency

He is a deeply flawed leader–a vain, narcissistic self-promoter; an exemplar of moral turpitude; an absurdly uninformed, undisciplined and inarticulate thinker; a grandiose misfit who can’t

Photo of Donald Trump with one arm raised
Donald Trump with arm raised

tolerate criticism and lashes out at every slight, deriding opponents with schoolyard taunts and blatant misrepresentations.  He is scandalously hostile or indifferent to our closest allies but embraces dictators and tyrants like new-found best friends.  And he lies, so shamelessly and so often that truth is obscured in the chaos of the noise and confusion he creates.

He is our president.

How he won the presidency—and how he maintains a loyal following among a devoted minority of Americans—is a case study in the art and practice of manipulation.  He longs to be incomparable among men, and while he is a deeply flawed leader of our nation he is unquestionably a great flimflam man, perhaps the greatest in history.  Flimflam is the art of fraud and deception, a con game achieved by clever manipulation of victims.  Donald Trump practices this dark art through the accomplished use of five strategies:  ignoring, counterattacking, obfuscating, agreeing (and then disregarding), and minimizing contamination.  He uses these five strategies so predictably that they’ve become behavioral tics, his signature moves for confounding both his allies and his enemies.

Ignoring Controversies

One of Trump’s most frequent strategies, especially in dealing with issues that would derail a normal president, is to ignore the issue long enough for it to die on the vine.  He has done this successfully so far with the Stormy Daniels controversy.  An alleged affair with a porn star is tawdry enough to rank with Bill Clinton’s use of a cigar with Monica Lewinsky, but Trump has simply declined to respond to the allegations with one notable exception—when he lied on Air Force One about not knowing about Michael Cohen’s payments (just days before the election) to Daniels to buy her silence.  But for that one slip, Trump has consistently ignored the Stormy Daniels controversy and allowed his minions to deny the affair and deflect Michael Avenatti’s ongoing attacks.

Photo of Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti
Porn star Stormy Daniels and attorney Michael Avenatti

The Daniels affair has generated ongoing buzz because Avenatti (Daniel’s attorney) has doggedly pursued it in the media, but Trump has been more successful in ignoring his affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal, with whom he had an ongoing relationship after First Lady Melania Trump gave birth to their son.  It is arguably more morally repugnant to have an affair while your wife is nursing a baby than to have a one-time romp with a porn star, but the McDougal affair has faded into the recesses of public memory because McDougal lacks an Avenatti bulldog.

Ignoring his affair with Karen McDougal has worked beautifully for Trump.  So has ignoring the controversy surrounding White House aide Kelly Sadler’s comment that they could ignore John McCain‘s opposition in the Senate “because he’s dying anyway.”  That impolitic blunder made huge waves in the press and brought well-deserved ire down on a White House insider who crudely attacked a war hero and highly respected Senator.  Trump dealt with the controversy—by ignoring it.  He refused to address the aide’s comment and did not fire her, as most normal people would, and his minions chose to deflect attention to the outrageous comment about McCain by attacking “leakers” in the White House.

Trump also deftly ignored the criticism following his Oval Office meeting on immigration when he said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”  Likewise, he ignored criticism of his failure to condemn far-right extremists in Charlottesville, Virginia, who marched through the streets carrying torches, screaming racist remarks, and attacking counter-demonstrators.  In both cases, his unpresidential behavior drew widespread bipartisan ire, and he dealt with it by ignoring it.  Trump knows that news cycles have a short half-life and when people become preoccupied with the latest controversy the previous one loses steam and fades into the dustbins of memory, disregarded by his loyalists and deflated in the minds of detractors whose endurance, after all, does have limits.

Counterattacking Opponents

Trump has frequently said that he is a counterpuncher.  What this means is that he allows no slight, insult, or opposition to go unpunished.  He uses this strategy to defend against the most serious threats to his self-image or position:  Hilary Clinton’s candidacy, the firing of James Comey, the Mueller investigation, and credible vocal critics.  He counterpunches principally through ad hominem attacks, labeling his opponents “Crooked Hilary,” “Slippery James Comey,” “Crazy Bernie (Sanders)”, “Goofy Elizabeth Warren” and “Pocohontas,” “Little Rocket Man (Kim Jong-Un), “Dickie Durbin,” “Liddle Bob Corker,” and so on.  In an unusual moment of candor, Trump revealed his purpose in using these schoolyard put-downs to 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl when she asked why he relentlessly attacked the press.  He replied, “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Photo of Josef Goebbels
Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels

That is Trump’s strategy in a nutshell:  to discredit his opposition through relentless accusations and name-calling, which he knows will stick in the minds of many rank-and-file voters if he repeats it often enough.  As Nazi Propaganda Chief Josef Goebbels once observed, “The rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine.  Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitious.”  Trump knows this better than any living politician.  If you append a simple, demeaning moniker on an opponent and say it frequently enough through mass media, you can discredit your opponents and persuade millions of people to believe the worst about them, even if they’re lies.

The Mueller investigation of Russian meddling in our 2016 election is the most serious threat to Trump’s ego, credibility, and presidency, and his counterattack on Robert Mueller is consequently more complex though it’s essentially the same strategy.  Through a rotating team of lawyers, he has sought to denounce the investigation as unconstitutional, politicized, and unfair.  Many of his Twitter attacks are focused on the Mueller investigation, wherein he repeats the words, “Witch hunt,” “no collusion,” and “angry Democrats.”  His lawyers, notably Rudy Giuliani, frequently appear on news channels berating the investigation for one reason or another.  Giuliani confessed recently that they were attempting to damage Mueller’s credibility enough to undermine any subsequent attempt to impeach Trump.  Never mind that the truth matters and that Russian meddling in our democracy is a serious and ongoing threat to the country; their only aim is to protect Donald Trump.  And it appears to be working.  An alarming number of Americans today believe the Mueller investigation is politically motivated.

Creating Alternate Realities to Obfuscate the Truth

A common Trump strategy is to blatantly lie so as to create an alternate reality.  His charge last year that the Obama administration wiretapped his campaign phones is one example.  There was absolutely no truth to this charge, but to Trump the truth doesn’t matter.  His aim is to make noise and distract both his supporters and detractors with conspiracy theories so patently ridiculous that only fools would believe them—and plenty of fools do.  They’re the same fools who argue that the Earth is flat, that NASA faked the moon landings, and that our government masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon.  The lunatic fringe is eager to believe such nonsense, but a sizable part of the population is also gullible because they want to believe Trump’s claims.  They support the conservative tide he represents and are willing to believe it’s possible that Obama, whom many of them hated, could have stooped to wiretapping his political enemies. Here, confirmation bias is working in Trump’s favor.  People are inclined to believe something that confirms what they already think is true, so if Trump’s claims the Democrats are to blame for separating immigrant children from their parents–a claim Trump has made many times although it’s untrue–people in Trump’s base are inclined to believe it because they are already biased against Democrats.  Similarly, Trump has claimed that Democrats want to protect criminal gangs like MS-13.  This is another blatant lie, but enough of Trump’s supporters will believe it because they want to believe Democrats are weak on crime.

Just a month ago, Trump was promoting what he termed “Spygate,” the idea that the FBI planted a spy in his campaign.  He railed against this phony offense on Twitter, and many of his supporters ate it up.  Trump’s been trashing the FBI (largely because of their role in the Mueller investigation and because the hated James Comey used to direct the agency), so Trump’s more gullible loyalists could well imagine that he’d been wrongly spied upon by our own government.  When Congressional leaders heard the classified account of what the FBI actually did, the Spygate charge lost its luster.  No less a conservative Republican than Trey Gowdy said there was nothing to Trump’s Spygate charge, and Paul Ryan later confirmed Gowdy’s conclusion.  Both of these Trump-manufactured conspiracy theories were nonsense, but he doesn’t care.  His goal is to use fake facts to create noise in the system, to rile up his supporters and dominate the news cycles until he uses Another Next Big Lie to sow more confusion.

Like a good propagandist, Trump understands the value of symbolism.  He surrounds himself with American flags, military bands, and members of the military.  He professes outrage at NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem and uses the media to excoriate them, saying not only that they should be fired but that they should leave the country.  He wraps himself in the symbols of patriotism and denounces his opponents for being unpatriotic.  In the 1930’s, Hitler did the same thing in Germany, and the Nazi flag became a symbol of righting all the imagined wrongs that Germany’s enemies had inflicted on the Motherland.  Hitler built his power base by excoriating his enemies and adopting German patriotism as both a rallying cry for his supporters and a weapon against his detractors.  When Trump declares that Democrats are unpatriotic, you should not believe it–but many people will, particularly those in his polarized base–but also many people who might be on the fence.

Illustration of Donald Trump and an American flag
Donald Trump and the American flag

Appearing to Agree—and then Disregarding the Agreement

During his presidential campaign, Trump was repeatedly asked to make his income tax returns available.  He delayed by saying that his returns were being audited, so he could not release them.  The IRS said that an ongoing audit did not matter; his returns could be released.  But Trump stuck to the assertion that he couldn’t release his returns until post-audit.  Then the election came and went, and he still hadn’t released his returns.  Afterwards, when people asked for his returns, he said he won the election without releasing his returns, so it obviously didn’t matter to the voters.  He still hasn’t released any returns.

With this strategy, Trump appears to agree with someone, makes excuses why it can’t happen right away, and then allows the issue to become a non-issue by delaying until it no longer matters.  Another example of this strategy is his response to the Parkland, Florida mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  In the horrific aftermath of that massacre when there was so much emotional fervor about gun control and taking steps to curtail the violence in our schools, Trump met with some Stoneman Douglas survivors and parents, and he earnestly promised to take steps to curb school violence, including some gun control measures.  He spoke loudly and (in)sincerely in a cabinet meeting about not being afraid of the NRA.

Then he appointed a commission to study how to end school violence, and he put Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in charge of it (surely the best way to ensure that nothing beneficial will come from it).  Recently, the DeVos commission said they were studying many ways to curb school shootings but were not looking at guns as an issue.  So much for Trump being unafraid of the NRA and being invested in ending school violence.  Just over two months after the Parkland shooting, he was a headline speaker at the NRA Convention.  When Donald Trump appears to agree with you, watch out.  He is as insincere as a con man’s smile and slipperier than a smooth-soled shoe on ice.

Minimizing Contamination

Here is a warning to Trump’s close friends:  you may be in-house now but if stuff sticks to you you’ll be out-house soon.  Among Trumps close friends who’ve felt the wind on their backs as they’ve

Photo of Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen leaving a Federal courthouse

been dumped are Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, and Michael Cohen.  Trump demands unconditional loyalty, but his own loyalty to others is barely skin deep.  His strategy, when scandal strikes nearby, is to minimize the contamination by distancing himself from the infected party.  After Paul Manafort came under Mueller’s microscope, Trump’s staff spun the idea that Manafort was a minor player in the campaign.  Trump dismissed him as having served only 45 days on the campaign.  Likewise, after Michael Cohen’s woes deepened, the official line was that Cohen actually did very little legal work for Trump and is no longer representing Trump.

Trump’s White House washing machine has a huge spin cycle operated by the likes of Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and no distortion of the truth is too large for these intrepid image cleaners.  They can make the dirtiest laundry look and smell brand new, or at least they try hard.  Many  people can see through this charade and recognize the attempt to manipulate reality, but enough other people will be fooled to make the effort worthwhile.

 

The pattern here is as evident.  If an issue is an embarrassment to Trump that he can’t make go away he will ignore it until it drops off the front page.  If an issue is serious, he will counterattack, usually through ad hominem attacks or he’ll try to create an alternate reality based on big, bold lies.  If he can’t avoid an issue, he may appear to agree and then disregard the agreement later, and if the issue is an insider who’s caught in a scandal, he will minimize the contamination by distancing himself.  What these strategies rely upon is the gullibility of a large part of Trump’s audience and his willingness to misrepresent the facts in order to create noise and confusion.

This is how Donald Trump wins.  It’s how he’s always won, and it’s how he will continue to win.  God help us if the country’s best interests get in the way because nothing matters to Trump except winning.

 

Photo credits:  Trump with arm raised:  Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com; Trump in front of U.S. flag:  VILevi / Shutterstock.com; Trump at rally:  a katz / Shutterstock.com; Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti:  JStone / Shutterstock.com; Michael Cohen:  JStone / Shutterstock.com.

 

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Trump as the Walls Close in

On May 2, 2018, Ty Cobb, Trump’s long-time White House attorney, resigned.  Cobb had been leading Trump’s legal effort to handle the Robert Mueller-led Russian investigation, and he’d been preaching cooperation with Mueller rather than confrontation.  Cobb’s advice from the beginning of the Special Counsel’s investigation had been to maintain a cordial and professional relationship with Mueller.  But as the walls close in on Trump he is slinging more mud at Mueller, and Cobb is reportedly frustrated at Trump’s bellicose “counterpunching.”  Trump is circling the wagons and bringing in a more belligerent team of lawyers, most recently Rudy Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor and mayor of New York, and attorney Emmet Flood, who represented Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings.

Days before, the New York Times reported a set of questions that Mueller and his team purportedly want to ask the President, and this revelation shook up the White House.  Now the Trump team is suggesting that he won’t agree to meet with Mueller to answer questions, and Mueller responded by hinting that he may subpoena Trump to appear before a grand jury.  Meanwhile, a group of conservative Republican House members have drawn up articles of impeachment against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.  Rosenstein responded by saying that the Justice Department would not allow itself to be extorted.  A game of tit-for-tat that was being played with tennis balls is now being played with cannonballs.

After Rosenstein’s comment, Trump lashed out with a series of tweets aimed at the Justice Department and Mueller’s Russia investigation:

A Rigged System – They don’t want to turn over Documents to Congress.  What are they afraid of?  Why so much redacting?  Why such unequal “justice?”  At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!

There was no Collusion (it is a Hoax) and there is no Obstruction of Justice (that is a setup & trap).  What there is is Negotiations going on with North Korea over Nuclear War, Negotiations going on with China over Trade Deficits, Negotiations on NAFTA, and much more.  Witch Hunt!

So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were “leaked” to the media.  No questions on Collusion.  Oh, I see…you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information.  Nice!

As these tweets illustrate, Trump is increasingly alarmed and distracted by the ongoing Russia investigation and is threatening courses of action that could lead to a constitutional crisis—or at the very least a near-total dismantling of the Republican Party.  Short of cooperating with Mueller and telling the truth, which Trump is incapable of and might incriminate him anyway, the President has few safe options, especially if he does “use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved”:

  • He can fire Rod Rosenstein, which he has repeatedly threatened to do. However, firing Rosenstein could prompt Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign (which he has indicated he may do if Rosenstein is fired).  In and of itself, firing Rosenstein is dangerous because it could be construed as obstruction of justice and it would likely fuel the ire of Democrats and some Republicans with a conscience, and if Democrats take control of the House next November they could initiate impeachment proceedings based on this action.  Besides, firing Rosenstein won’t necessarily derail the Mueller investigation.  To truly derail it, Trump would need to appoint a new Attorney General who has no scruples and is one of Trump’s loyal toadies, in short, a person who would do whatever Trump orders him to do (Does Scott Pruitt come to mind?).

 

  • Trump can fire Robert Mueller, but this option is even more dangerous. As legislators on both sides of the aisle have indicated, they would view this action as tantamount to obstruction of justice.  Mueller is respected by a bipartisan spectrum of lawmakers.  Trump’s firing of him would generate greater disapproval among the American electorate as well as in Congress and would fuel a backlash in the press (except for Fox News, the President’s personal propaganda machine).  Ty Cobb was one of the moderating voices on Trump’s legal team.  With his departure and the arrival of more aggressive lawyers, we may see Trump follow this course of action, especially as Mueller’s team comes closer to the President.  If that happens, Republican members of Congress will be forced either to defend Trump or defend the rule of law and our system of justice, and the schism created could further destroy the Republican Party.

 

  • Trump’s legal team could attempt to disrupt Mueller’s proceedings by creating a legal sandstorm—filing lawsuits and motions aimed at obfuscating the issues and delaying the Russia investigation long enough for it to lose momentum (and interest among the American public). This option seems most likely, but it’s doubtful that it would succeed long enough for Trump to reach the end of this term of office.  Nevertheless, this is a tactic they will likely adopt.

  • The most likely option is for Trump to continue his mud-slinging on Twitter and try to discredit the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, and Robert Mueller to the point that the public turns against them. He keeps repeating “NO COLLUSION” and “WITCH HUNT” as though if he says it enough people will believe it.  However, while his base succumbs to this ruse, and some Americans will tune out because they’re sick of the whole mess, Trump’s poisonous behavior is alienating many others in the citizenry who will be driven to vote against him and the Republicans who support him.  That Trump’s legal team is pursuing this option was confirmed when Rudy Giuliani went on Fox News and called New York FBI agents “stormtroopers.”  Discrediting our justice system and law enforcement officials is a cynical tactic that could cause some Americans to lose faith in the justice system.  We’ve come to expect no less from Trump, who would readily burn down revered institutions to save his own skin, but Giuliani’s participation in this spectacle is a dispiriting departure from the “law and order” mayor he once was.  Look no further for a man who has sold his soul to the devil.

 

  • A final option for Trump is to create an even bigger national issue that totally takes the public’s focus away from the Russia investigation—starting a war or provoking an adversary like Iran, Russia, or North Korea to attack American assets or interests and then strike back in retaliation. Creating an armed conflict with mounting casualties and ongoing military action would no doubt take the public’s focus off the Russia investigation.  In times of crisis, people rally around their national leaders, and Trump surely knows this.  We don’t see evidence that Trump will follow this course of action, but he hasn’t been pushed to the brink yet.

We do predict that if Trump sees a serious threat to his presidency he may use his presidential powers to pardon Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen (maybe not), and anyone else in his inner circle who’s in danger of indictment, especially family members at risk:  Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kushner.  Trump won’t care about the hullabaloo arising from such pardons.  He’ll just do what he can to protect those closest to him.  The one provision of the U.S. Constitution that may stymie him in his use of presidential pardons is the requirement that the president faithfully execute the powers of his office, and parsons for the purpose of self-protection would likely violate this constitutional requirement and subject him to impeachment.

Trump is a man without scruples, and he has a wounded animal’s impulse for self-preservation.  As the walls close in, he will lash out and become more vicious.  And if he goes down, he’ll go down swinging.

 

Art credits:  Top two illustrations:  Doddis@dreamstime.com; bottom two illustrations:  Reniutami@dreamstime.com; feature photo:  Danny Raustadt@dreamstime.com.

 

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The Signs of Protest: March for Our Lives

 

Even more remarkable, March for Our Lives was organized and led by high school students pushing for greater gun control following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  It is estimated that as many as two million people joined protest, with more than a quarter of a million marking in Washington.  The protest signs the marchers carried bear witness to the emotional energy of the moment and the marchers’ commitments to change.

Protesters standing by a sign reading "Make American Safe Again"
Make America Safe Again

Make America Safe Again is an ironic twist on Trump’s famous campaign promise to “make America great again.”  It reminds us, first, that a nation cannot be great if its children are regularly massacred in their schools.  In a civilized society, mass murder in schools should never occur.  This sign reminds us, too, that America used to

Woman carrying a sign saying, "A am no longer accepting the things I cannot change."
I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change

be safer than it is now.  When I attended high school in the early sixties, school shootings were unheard of.  The America of today is a more violent place in part because we have more guns per capita than any other nation on earth, and our politicians lack the will and courage to effect sensible constraints on acquisition of the most dangerous weapons.

Accepting Change is a powerful reversal of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:  “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”  When you’re angry enough, serenity is an apathetic option.  You can remain silent, or you can stand up and shout like the lunatic television news man in the movie “Network” who encouraged viewers to open their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”    But anger abates and hopelessness in the face of political inaction dulls

Massive crowd in D.C. at the March for Our Lives event on March 24, 2018
Large Crowd: Two million people marched worldwide

the senses as well we the passions, so change will not occur unless the energy and commitment shown in this march continues.

Large Crowd shows a few of the hundreds of thousands of people who marched in D.C.  It reminds us that mass movements are a collection of millions of individual commitments—every person who decided to march that day instead of going to brunch, walking in the park, seeing a movie, or doing a hundred other mundane things.  Each person decided that the issue was important enough for them to do something extraordinary, to make a protest sign, to show up, to join hands with others in a common cause.  It reminds us, too, that mass movements cannot be sustained unless in the weeks, months, and years following, millions

Teachers protesting during the March for Our Lives
Teachers Protesting

of individuals recommit and continue to ACT.  One protest, however large, will not change the minds or voting behavior of the politicians who run our country.

Teacher’s Protest captures the angst of young teachers marching that day.  School should be a second home, not a last home.  If we have to play defense with a school shooter, we’re already too late.  My classroom should not be a crime scene.  Schools are for learning, not lockdowns.  I’m with Emma.  We call BS.  I teach the generation who will save us all.  Those last two signs referring to Emma Gonzalez, one of the most vocal of the Parkland students, and to the generation of high school students who are saying “enough is enough.”  Amen.

Woman carrying a sign reading, "Kevlar should not be a school supply"
Kevlar should not be a school supply

Kevlar shouldn’t be on anyone’s school supply list.  In recent weeks, teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona have been protesting low pay and insufficient resources in schools.  I’m reminded of the grade school teachers I know who routinely use their own money to buy school supplies for students whose families cannot afford them, that teachers salaries are shamefully low for the services they provide, and that state spending on schools has steadily declined.  But the broader issue here is how, in the Age of the Gun, we can protect our children in what should always be a very safe environment for them.

Girl carrying a protest sign
If I die in a school shooting

 

If I die in a school shooting is a powerful image not only for the message on the sign but also for its two symbols of death:  the girl’s closed eyes and her shadow cast on the sidewalk beside her.  Interestingly, in the “#NEVERAGAIN” sign held by the man behind her, the assault rifle is pointed at the girl, signifying the anonymity of the victims of mass shootings.  But if this girl dies, she wants her body laid at the feet of the mostly Old White Men (OWM) in Congress whose continued inaction on gun control enables mass murderers in school shootings to easily obtain their weapons of mass destruction.

 

I’m joining whatever political party those kids in Florida just started reflects the truth that political change is rarely led by older people; it’s led by the young, by those who are old enough to know things are wrong and outraged because the problems are not being fixed by OWM in power.  The older some people get, the more conservative they become because they want to

Woman carrying a sign reading, I'm joining whatever political party those kids in Florida just started.
I’m joining whatever political party

protect the status quo.  We fought a Civil War because an entire region of the country wanted to preserve slaving-owning plantation life.  What’s notable in this image is that most of the people shown are older.  In fact, the average age of the protestors was 49, and not all were there to advocate for gun control.  Forty-two percent of marchers were there to opposed Donald Trump.  Many equate Trump with the continued inaction on gun-control legislation, a fact that may plague Republicans in the mid-term elections.

Sign reading, "The number of bullet holes in this poster are the number that can be shot in the time it takes to read it."
The number of bullet holes in this sign

 

The Number of Bullet Holes sign reflects an uncomfortable truth that radical Second Amendment advocates frequently ignore—that the high capacity and rate of fire of assault rifles makes those weapons more suitable to mass shootings than to hunting.  If target practice is your goal, then you don’t want a gun whose rapid-fire recoil makes target shooting too erratic, and if your goal is hunting, one carefully aimed shot is more humane and sporting than spraying the field with bullets.

 

Sign showing an NRA gunman holding the Statue of Liberty hostage
The NRA holding the Statue of Liberty Hostage

Hostage is a recreation of Michael de Adder’s cartoon in the Toronto Star of the NRA threatening to shoot the Statue of Liberty.  The gun lobby is the single most powerful voice against gun control—in any form.  They oppose any restrictions on gun ownership despite the recent spate of massacres at Parkland, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and more too numerous to mention.  The NRA maintains its stranglehold on the OWM in Congress (and the Presidency) not only through political campaign donations but also by grading public officials who support or oppose them.  Politicians who support sensible gun control are intimidated by potential NRA-sponsored smear campaigns.  The NRA is estimated to have around five million members, which is just 1.5 percent of the U.S. population.  It is the ultimate example of the tail wagging the dog.

 

Signs about "Change is coming" and the November 6, 2018 mid-term election
Silenced voices: Change is coming

Change is Coming is an important reminder that the mid-term elections are looming.  As long as the Republicans control the House and the Senate, there will be no meaningful action on gun-control legislation.  The Republican OWM in Congress are owned by the NRA, whose members constitute only 1.5 percent of the country’s population.  The only road to change is to vote the Republicans out.  The students who organized and led March for Our Lives are too young to vote yet, but they will be voters in a few years.  Meanwhile, the adults who support their cause and believe that meaningful gun control is essential must vote in their stead and throw the NRA-supported OWM out.

The March for Our Lives protest was a stunning achievement for high school students who have suddenly, unexpectedly been thrust into the national limelight and are leading what they pray is a revolution.  Kudos to them and the adults who joined them.  However, this protest will amount to nothing more than street theatre unless they (we) have the energy and commitment to sustain the momentum and exercise our right to vote in November and again in 2020 when Trump—if his scandal-ridden administration lasts that long—is up for reelection.

Every vote counts.  Advocate.  Organize.  Vote.

 

Many thanks to photographer Bob Greenberg for permitting me to publish these photos.  You can find more of Bob’s work at BobGreenbergImages.com.  Background image of the March for Our Lives in front of the Trump Tower is used with permission (Cpenler | Dreamstime.com).

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Senator Jeff Flake’s Speech on Trump and Truth

Reflections Blog

On January 17, 2018, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake gave a landmark speech on President Trump’s abuse of the truth and attacks on the press.  He is one of the few Republican lawmakers with the courage to speak out against this president’s mangling of the truth and corrosive effects on American values and culture.  Flake’s message is too important to forget.  Sadly, he has decided not to run for reelection.  Without his voice in the Senate, we risk losing one of the few Republican checks on Donald Trump’s deleterious and reckless disregard for all we hold dear in this country.  Here is the full text of the Senator’s speech:

Mr. President, near the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident …” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America.

As the distinguished former member of this body, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” During the past year, I am alarmed to say that Senator Moynihan’s proposition has likely been tested more severely than at any time in our history.

It is for that reason that I rise today, to talk about the truth, and its relationship to democracy. For without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, Mr. President, our democracy will not last.

2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. “The enemy of the people,” was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.

Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase “enemy of the people,” that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of “annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader.

This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements. And, of course, the president has it precisely backward — despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him “fake news,” it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.

I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of “fake news” are dubious, at best. Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the globe, encounter members of US based media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth. To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice.

According to the International Federation of Journalists, 80 journalists were killed in 2017, and a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents that the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has reached 262, which is a new record. This total includes 21 reporters who are being held on “false news” charges.

Mr. President, so powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time in office. Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful — in fact, we question the powerful most ardently — to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.

No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have it.

Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.

No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. And Mr. President, an American president who cannot take criticism — who must constantly deflect and distort and distract — who must find someone else to blame — is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.

Now, we are told via Twitter that today the president intends to announce his choice for the “most corrupt and dishonest” media awards. It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are.

And so, 2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it. In this effort, the choice is quite simple. And in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible. Together, my colleagues, we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.

Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth — and not partners in its destruction.

It is not my purpose here to inventory all of the official untruths of the past year. But a brief survey is in order. Some untruths are trivial — such as the bizarre contention regarding the crowd size at last year’s inaugural.

But many untruths are not at all trivial — such as the seminal untruth of the president’s political career – the oft-repeated conspiracy about the birthplace of President Obama. Also not trivial are the equally pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate — to the effort to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all — the supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a “hoax” — as the president has many times — is a falsehood. We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat to both American sovereignty and to our national security. It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter, wherever the investigation leads.

Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks. We are told by our intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently been reported that there has not been a single cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Not one. What might seem like a casual and routine untruth — so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington – is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.

Mr. President, let us be clear. The impulses underlying the dissemination of such untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated.

Mr. President, every word that a president utters projects American values around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so, respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports.

But a recent report published in our free press should raise an alarm. Reading from the story:

“In February…Syrian President Bashar Assad brushed off an Amnesty International report that some 13,000 people had been killed at one of his military prisons by saying, “You can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.”

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has complained of being “demonized” by “fake news.” Last month, the report continues, with our President, quote “laughing by his side” Duterte called reporters “spies.”

In July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to the Russian propaganda outlet, that the world media had “spread lots of false versions, lots of lies” about his country, adding, “This is what we call ‘fake news’ today, isn’t it?”

There are more:

“A state official in Myanmar recently said, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” referring to the persecuted ethnic group.

Leaders in Singapore, a country known for restricting free speech, have promised “fake news” legislation in the new year.”

And on and on. This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr. President. Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.

We are not in a “fake news” era, as Bashar Assad says. We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.

In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for profound alarm, and spur to action. Add to that the by-now predictable habit of calling true things false, and false things true, and we have a recipe for disaster. As George Orwell warned, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”

Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.

What is the goal of laying siege to the truth? President John F. Kennedy, in a stirring speech on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, was eloquent in answer to that question:

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Mr. President, the question of why the truth is now under such assault may well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world — made all the more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily disassembling of our democratic institutions.

We are a mature democracy — it is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring — or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.

I sincerely thank my colleagues for their indulgence today. I will close by borrowing the words of an early adherent to my faith that I find has special resonance at this moment. His name was John Jacques, and as a young missionary in England he contemplated the question: “What is truth?” His search was expressed in poetry and ultimately in a hymn that I grew up with, titled “Oh Say, What is Truth.” It ends as follows:

“Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,

For the limits of time it steps o’er.

Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst.

Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,

Eternal… unchanged… evermore.”