Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Message To The 'Bernie Or Bust' Crew: Your Revolution Runs Through The Supreme Court

[This article also appears on the Huffington Post.] 
As someone who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, I want to make a pitch to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd as to why they are, as Sarah Silverman perfectly put it Monday night, “being ridiculous” by not supporting Hillary Clinton in November.
I am not going to try and convince you that it is “ridiculous” bordering on delusional to think there is no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I vowed to myself months ago that I would not try to convince those considering voting for Trump of the error of their ways. My thought is, if someone can watch as Trump fear-mongers, boldly lies to stoke fear, displays ignorance of policy and the world, offers few realistic specific plans, spews racism, shows a thin skin and a propensity to lash out, retweets white supremacists, and generally behaves in a way that is an embarrassment to the country, and think, “Yeah, that guy would make a good president,” there is nothing I can say that would make a difference. That Trump voter deserves to live in a Donald Trump-led America.
Trying to explain to “Bernie or Bust” adherents that there is a difference between Clinton and Trump seems to me to fall into the same category and be equally fruitless. You don’t care if Trump is elected? Fine, you deserve to live in a Trump-led America, too.
Instead, I’d like to make a point that might actually resonate with a “Bernie or Bust” follower: If you want Bernie’s revolution to happen sometime in the near future, your best strategy is to make sure Donald Trump is not elected for one simple, strategic reason: The next president will appoint up to four U.S. Supreme Court justices, which will shape the government and policy for two to three decades.
Now, I know many “Bernie or Bust”ers feel like things will be fine if Trump wins, since it just means that Bernie or another more progressive candidate can run against Trump and beat him in 2020. It’s not a crazy idea. Exchange the 2016 election for the hope of getting what you really want in 2020. There are certainly some Republicans (fewer than a month ago, though, it seems) who have embraced this very strategy, conceding 2016 to Hillary Clinton with the hope of a non-Trump Republican winning in 2020. So I get the argument.
But there is one fatal flaw in punting 2016 for 2020, and that is the Supreme Court. We have seen how a conservative Supreme Court acted as a roadblock to President Barack Obama’s agenda, for example striking down the state Medicaid mandates in the Affordable Care Act, finding a section of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, opening the floodgates of corporate money in the Citizens United case and blocking Obama’s executive actions on immigration and to fight climate change.
Can you imagine what a Supreme Court with two George W. Bush appointees and four Trump appointees would do to a President Sanders in 2021? Almost nothing Sanders got past Congress or did on his own would survive Supreme Court scrutiny.
So the wait-for-2020 strategy is not an effective one for those looking to advance Bernie’s agenda.
In a democracy change is a process, not a revolution (sorry). If you truly believe in Bernie’s revolution, the real question should be, What is the best way to get there? To take an attitude of, We have to get there right now!!!!!! is not just childish and impractical, it’s short-sighted and dangerous.
The ideological purity of “Bernie or Bust” may feel good, but it’s not actually effective. It makes you no better than the Tea Party.
Again, I have no desire to convince the “Bernie or Bust” crew of the seemingly obvious fact that there are multiple important differences between Clinton and Trump as candidates. But I think it’s clear that if you want Bernie’s policies to be adopted, the most effective, direct line to pursue is not through a Trump presidency ― and thus a Trump Supreme Court ― but rather through a Clinton presidency and a Clinton Supreme Court. Doing so makes success down the road possible.
You know who knows this to be true? Bernie Sanders. That’s why he so strongly endorsed Clinton Monday night at the convention and devoted a good amount of time to talking about the ramifications of a Clinton v. Trump Supreme Court. I think it’s important to lay out the Supreme Court passage of Sanders’ speech here:
“This election is about overturning Citizens United, one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in the history of our country. That decision allows the wealthiest people in America, like the billionaire Koch brothers, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying elections and, in the process, undermine American democracy.
Hillary Clinton will nominate justices to the Supreme Court who are prepared to overturn Citizens United and end the movement toward oligarchy in this country. Her Supreme Court appointments will also defend a woman’s right to choose, workers’ rights, the rights of the LGBT community, the needs of minorities and immigrants and the government’s ability to protect the environment.
If you don’t believe this election is important, if you think you can sit it out, take a moment to think about the Supreme Court justices that Donald Trump would nominate and what that would mean to civil liberties, equal rights and the future of our country.”
And so many Bernie supporters have made the same point. Are we all wrong? Doubtful.
If you passionately support Bernie, why not listen to him now? It’s not like he’s making the strong Clinton endorsement for any personal gain. There is nothing in it for him, beyond that he knows that the best path forward for his goals, in the long term, is for Clinton to win in November.
Bernie has been around fighting for his ideals for a long time. He knows change is a process that takes time. I think even Bernie knows that his full agenda wouldn’t have even happened if he had been elected president, given the realities of trying to get legislation through Congress. I mean, Obama had more than a year of a Democratic House and a Democratic supermajority in the Senate, and yet it still was a fight just to get the Affordable Care Act passed. Democracy is about incremental change.
But Bernie knows there will be no change if a W/Trump Supreme Court acts as a wall (pun intended), blocking a progressive agenda in 2021 and for two decades to follow.
So, “Bernie or Bust”ers, it’s really that simple: You want Bernie’s revolution to move forward? Then listen to Bernie himself and realize that the best next step is to make sure that Clinton, and not Trump, appoints the next set of Supreme Court justices.
You don’t have to like Hillary. You don’t even have to admit that she is better than Trump in any other way. You only have to recognize that she is the better option for the long-term victory of Bernie’s goals, if for no other reason than her Supreme Court nominees won’t stand in the way of a future Bernie revolution. If you can’t see that, you may have to ask yourself what your motives are. Is it really about Bernie’s agenda, or is this some kind of personal journey for you? If it’s about Bernie’s goals, follow the man himself, and make sure Clinton is elected in November.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

It's Time to Get Beyond the Politics and Take Action to End the Police Killings of African-Americans

[This article also appears on Huffington Post. You can access it from my author page: www.huffingtonpost.com/mitchell-bard ]

Exploding defective airbags have killed 10 Americans, resulting in the costly recall of “many millions” of cars.
One American died from a Zika virus infection, and Congress is considering legislation to spend over $1 billion to help combat it.
A few hundred people who ate at Chipotle were victims of an e. coli outbreak, and the CDC sprung into action, as Chipotle’s stock price nearly dropped in half.
However, police have killed at least 136 black people in 2016 so far (sadly, I have to write “so far”), and the reaction by governmental bodies and those in power has been ... nothing. And there has not been enough of an outcry by Americans to move their leaders to action.
We watch on video after video after video as police officers shoot defenseless black people, and while an occasional indictment might result, nothing is done by cities, states or the federal government to address the larger, systemic problem.
Innocent people are dying, and we do nothing.
Now, sadly, in the current hyper-ideological, hyper-partisan atmosphere, everything is politicized. Some conservatives reacted to Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter (even as the implication of Black Lives Matter is that Black Lives Matter ALSO, since white lives already matter as the police do not regularly shoot unarmed white people). These conservatives can’t even admit there is a problem ― it must be the fault of those shot ― because to do so would (big inhale): show disrespect for police officers, show disrespect for the Second Amendment, show a lack of support for tough crime enforcement, require agreement with terrible liberals who are always wrong ... I could go on. And that is without wading into the obvious racism at play.
But the total denial of the existence of this problem is insane. It takes someone watching these videos, watching an innocent man be shot for no reason, and somehow see the victim as wrong. It requires someone to ignore the avalanche of these killings of innocent people and pretend it’s somehow just some isolated incidents, not a systemic problem.
Now, of course, to keep the argument from shifting into accusations that I am attacking the police, I am forced to state some patently obvious things:
  • The overwhelming majority of police officers do good and honorable work.
  • Police officers have a difficult job, as they have to make potentially life-and-death decisions in a split second.
  • Police lives matter, and sometimes police officers have to use force to defend themselves and the members of the communities they serve, and sometimes they are the victims of horrible violence.
But here is the thing: None of those things has anything to do with the epidemic of police killings of African Americans in this country. Zero. All of these things can be true, and there can still be a massive, tragic problem we should be addressing head-on in this country.
To say that there is a problem is not disrespectful to police officers. This epidemic of killing innocent people is the result of damaged systems and poisonous cultures, not a problem of individuals. A fantastic New York Times Magazine profile of an African-American New York Police Department officer who tried to help change the culture in the department relating to race showed at the individual level how deeply ingrained the problem is.
Given the geographic range of places where these killings are taking place ― North and South, East and West and in-between ― this is a systemic national problem. Something has gone horribly wrong that allows these killings of innocents to happen again and again.
Can’t we get past the ridiculous my-side-your-side politics of this issue and just address the unnecessarily dead bodies on the videos in front of us? Can’t we look at the hundreds of deaths of black people at the hands of the police, year after year, and say, hey, something is wrong here and we should try and fix it?
It’s time we stand up as a country and say, “Enough. Not a single other black person should be needlessly killed by the police.”
It’s time for government action. It’s time for every mayor and city counsel, every governor and state legislature, and the president and Congress to take measures to end the killings. Whether it’s changes of leadership, training and/or practices, changes have to be made.
And it’s time for every American to stand up and demand these actions.
As a country, we have moved quickly to address defective airbags, the Zika virus and e. coli outbreaks, none of which killed as many people as the number of African-American people killed by the police.
It’s time for a national change in approach to the issue. If you watch a police officer shoot and kill Philandro Castile in cold blood for no reason at all and think anything else but, “We have to do something about this,” you’ve lost your soul to your ideology, party or, dare I say it, your racism.
No, every American ― right and left, blue and red, North and South, white and black ― who sees that video should be outraged and demand that their representatives ― Democrat or Republican ― do something about this.
It’s enough. We can’t expect to hold ourselves out to the world ― or even to ourselves ― as a country of freedom and the rule of law if we allow the regular, systematic slaughter of innocent people because of their race.
I’m tired of the politics on an issue that shouldn’t be political. It’s time for consensus (killing innocent people is wrong) and government action. Will the Republican leaders have the guts to stand up for what is right and lead? Will Democratic leaders have the guts to move from rhetoric to action? It’s time.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Donald Trump: The First TV Character to Win a Presidential Primary

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

If you are angry about Donald Trump's position as the leader of the Republican presidential race and winner of the New Hampshire primary, just remember this: It's all Stephen Colbert's fault. Well, Colbert and the takeover of the Republican party by its extreme right flank.

It's not really Colbert's fault, of course, but I do believe that like Colbert on his old Comedy Central program, Trump is playing a character who shares his name.

Which is something that we should take into account when evaluating what is going on with Trump's campaign for the presidency. On Vox.com, Ezra Klein argues:

Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he's a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he's also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it's hard to know if he even realizes he's lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.

It's hard to argue with Klein if you are not a Trump supporter. At the same time, though, who is the "he" in Klein's description? Is it Trump the man or Trump the character?

Yes, I am arguing in this piece that the Donald Trump, who has been running for president since July, is a fictional character, and we really don't know what the real Donald Trump would do if he was elected president.

To make my argument, let's take a step back and look at Trump's career in the spotlight. Trump was never a stranger to publicity seeking and self-advertisement. He always struck a confident -- many would say arrogant -- pose. But as his business evolved, so did his public persona. He went from being a real estate magnate to someone in the business of licensing his name and brand. At the same time, he went from being primarily a real estate developer to primarily an entertainer.

As entertainment became his primary business, Trump started playing a character named Donald Trump, a bombastic real estate mogul who is a walking symbol of opulence and a modern, garish appropriation of the notion of class. He bellowed, "You're fired!" week after week on a network reality show, like a 21st century version of the Fonz's, "Ayyyyy!" or Urkel's, "Did I do that?" I mean, he has literally played the Trump character in the epitome of false-reality entertainment: the WWE.

Trump wasn't always as unhinged as his current character. For example, look at Trump's 1988 appearance on "Oprah," in which he has praise for George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson (yes, Jesse Jackson) as presidential candidates. In the clip, Trump is confident -- even arrogant to some eyes, I'm sure -- and emits the familiar air that he thinks he knows better than anyone else. But his voice is quieter, and he speaks with more restraint.

Similarly, promoting his book The Art of the Deal on David Letterman's show in 1987, Trump downplayed his net worth and the amount of money he earned from his casino and real estate investments, preferring to talk about how great his properties are. Letterman hammered away at Trump trying to get him to talk about how much he's worth, but Trump refused to give in. Again, the confidence -- or arrogance -- is there, but, also again, Trump's voice is restrained, and he is not quick to brag. When Letterman asks him if he is a driven person, Trump responds:

I don't think of myself as driven ... I would say I am somebody that enjoys what I do, and I enjoy it so much that, perhaps, I do it well.


Trump later tells Letterman:

I don't look at failures as failures. I think a failure is something that you really want to learn by.

The word loser was never uttered. If the 2016 Donald Trump character watched this clip, I bet he'd scream "loser" at the guy on the screen talking to Letterman.

Watching those late-1980s clips is eye-opening. Trump was a divisive personality even back then, but he was more human. I don't pretend to know what Donald Trump really believes. I am not convinced, though, that any of Trump's positions in the 2016 campaign are, necessarily, what he believes. Colbert (the real one this time) showed in a clever Trump v. Trump debate bit how often Trump has contradicted himself.

It seems clear to me that beginning with his birther attacks on Obama in 2011, Trump decided to create an extension of his entertainment character that would be geared toward running for president, using the rightward tilt of the Republican party as his vehicle. The character would be the raging id of the Republican party.

After all, doesn't "Make America Great Again" seem as on the nose and oversimplified as one of Colbert's declarations on the Colbert Report?

In the way that Colbert created the character of Colbert, a thinly veiled parody of Bill O'Reilly, Trump created the character of Trump, who is, as the Huffington Post puts it in an editor's note at the base of its stories about Trump:

A serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

It's like Trump watched the Republican fringe get more and more doctrinal and unhinged and said to himself, "If I go nuts and pretend to be one of them, I'll get endless press coverage, and these idiots will vote for me. The crazier the stuff I say, the more I'll be beloved." Or maybe it's more like he thought he would retain support even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue.

Donald Trump is punking us. Every last one of us. He is extremely skilled at manipulating the news media, and he clearly has an eye and ear for what has become of the Republican party. Now he is pretending to be a crazy person AND winning the Republican presidential nomination in the process.

Colbert played the character Colbert to be funny and to comment on the ridiculousness of right-wing pundits like O'Reilly. Why is Trump playing the character of Trump? Is he secretly the business-friendly but socially liberal real estate developer with a xenophobic streak he appeared to be in the 1980s and 1990s? Or has he become a power-hungry proto-fascist looking to turn the United States into 1930s Germany? Or is he looking to parlay his character's run for the presidency into the biggest reality television show of all time, the first one based in the White House and following the first family? Sadly, don't all three of those seem equally plausible?

Ezra Klein is right to point out how dangerous Trump is as a presidential candidate. That says a lot about where we are as a country in multiple ways. But, of course, odious people finding success in politics is not really a new story. Just look at Wisconsin, Maine or the guy who beat Trump in Iowa, just to name a few.

To me, what is truly scary about Trump's success is that, somehow, a big chunk of our country wants to elect as president a fictional character, with its creator using the campaign as a giant piece of entertainment. That may be the most American thing ever.

Colbert's transition from character to real person hosting Letterman's old "Late Show" has been a little rocky. What would Donald Trump's transition be like from character candidate to real person president? Or would he even make that transition? Maybe we would have the first television character president. Take that, Jed Bartlet!

Let's hope we never have to find out what a President Trump -- person or character -- would be like.

Correction: In the original version, I referenced a Trump appearance on Letterman's "Late Show." In fact, it was Letterman's NBC show, "Late Night With David Letterman."