Category Archives: We The People

The First White President

UPDATE BELOW

The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is the most provocative and compelling article I have read to date about the phenomena of the Trump presidency. You may not like and it may make you feel uncomfortable, but it should be read. Coates argues that the single, underlying factor that defines Trump’s election is race, plain and simple, and that liberal pundits and politicians who push the “working white class” narrative are either in denial or complicit in the racism.

Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.

. . . The scope of Trump’s commitment to whiteness is matched only by the depth of popular disbelief in the power of whiteness. We are now being told that support for Trump’s “Muslim ban,” his scapegoating of immigrants, his defenses of police brutality are somehow the natural outgrowth of the cultural and economic gap between Lena Dunham’s America and Jeff Foxworthy’s. The collective verdict holds that the Democratic Party lost its way when it abandoned everyday economic issues like job creation for the softer fare of social justice. The indictment continues: To their neoliberal economics, Democrats and liberals have married a condescending elitist affect that sneers at blue-collar culture and mocks the white man as history’s greatest monster and prime-time television’s biggest doofus. In this rendition, Donald Trump is not the product of white supremacy so much as the product of a backlash against contempt for white working-class people.

Yes, as Coates explains, Trump won every single demographic of white voters, regardless of whether they were working-class:

Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton’s did, in states as disparate as Florida, Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to nascar dads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant. According to Mother Jones, based on preelection polling data, if you tallied the popular vote of only white America to derive 2016 electoral votes, Trump would have defeated Clinton 389 to 81, with the remaining 68 votes either a toss-up or unknown.

. . . Part of Trump’s dominance among whites resulted from his running as a Republican, the party that has long cultivated white voters. Trump’s share of the white vote was similar to Mitt Romney’s in 2012. But unlike Romney, Trump secured this support by running against his party’s leadership, against accepted campaign orthodoxy, and against all notions of decency. By his sixth month in office, embroiled in scandal after scandal, a Pew Research Center poll found Trump’s approval rating underwater with every single demographic group. Every demographic group, that is, except one: people who identified as white.

Coates is brutal in his criticism of Democratic politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and of liberal pundits like Nicolas Kristof for playing into white identity politics, pushing the disaffected work-class white voter narrative.

My only question to Coates and what I still cannot figure out is why Obama continues to be the most popular political figure in America?

Ultimately, though, Coates’ parting words are indisputable, similar to my own sentiments:

And so the most powerful country in the world has handed over all its affairs—the prosperity of its entire economy; the security of its 300 million citizens; the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food; the future of its vast system of education; the soundness of its national highways, airways, and railways; the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal—to a carnival barker who introduced the phrase grab ’em by the pussy into the national lexicon. It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, “If a black man can be president, then any white man—no matter how fallen—can be president.” And in that perverse way, the democratic dreams of Jefferson and Jackson were fulfilled.

UPDATED 8 SEPTEMBER 2017

A colleague I discussed this article with noted that Coates did not focus enough of gender, specifically that Hillary-hatred, in large part due to her gender, was a decisive factor in Trump’s victory. I have read some criticism of Coates in the the past that he focuses almost exclusively on race at the expense of gender. I would argue that Coates’ statements about white supremacy and Trump could be easily extended to white, male supremacy.

Trump ran a shockingly overt misogynistic campaign. He was relentless in his attack of female journalists and politicians who disagreed with him, always focusing on their physical attributes. But what was particularly disturbing, revealing, and utterly offensive was his insistence that Bill Clinton’s extramarital behavior was a sign of Hillary’s shortcomings.  That all of America witnessed this (in combination with his “grab’em” statement) and still a majority of white Americans voted for Trump speaks volumes about gender equality in this country.

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East West Street and MAGA

I recently finished Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” which tells the interwoven stories of the author’s own family origins in Lviv with the lives of the two central legal scholars behind the theories of genocide and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials. Besides being an excellent read and reminder of the horrors in the not so distant past of European and Western culture, this story made me reflect on how MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) relates to America’s past and present, and how I now as a father relate to the Holocaust.

How Great Were We?

When we think about America at its greatest (what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation”), we think about Americans (including my grandmother’s two brothers, who were the children of immigrants) putting their lives  and resources at risk to save Europe and its minority populations from the Nazi Germany. Any time a European criticizes the U.S. or our policies, we Americans proudly remind them of the beaches of Normandy and our conviction that they owe us eternally for having acted as their savior. Furthermore, our self-image has always been fortified by the contrast between our young men fighting to save the world and the demonic, goose-stepping Nazis.

I certainly won’t deny the bravery of my ancestors and fellow countrymen and women both fighting abroad and working for the war effort at home to make the world a better place. But when we talk about the superiority of American values over say those of the Nazis – now rightly synonymous with evil – I am often reminded of what Jesse Owens had said when asked about Hitler refusing to shake his hand at the 1935 Olympics: that the U.S. president wouldn’t invite him to the White House either. Or that black soldiers returning home from the war in Europe, instead of being treated as heroes were once again assaulted by the Jim Crow South and a G.I. Bill that that  discriminated against them.

What I hadn’t realized (and it shouldn’t be a surprise) was that the U.S. team at the Nuremberg trials was staunchly opposed to prosecuting the Nazi defendants for the crime of genocide for fear that it could open the door to Americans, especially in the South, being tried for their abuse of black and Native Americans. In other words, as heroic as Americans may have been in “saving” other minority groups from tyranny abroad, our government wanted to protect its ability, under International Law, to mistreat and abuse its own citizens and minorities with impunity.

Our greatness was still tainted by our greatest shortcomings.

MAGA and Repeating History

The Nazis did not suddenly come into power one day and on the next day put all of the Jews in concentration camps where they were murdered in mass two days later. No, it was a long, slow process of instilling racist and nativist fear, followed by a series of laws that restricted movement (including entry), employment and association, attire, segregation, all leading to the ghettos, concentration camps and murder. While today in America there has been an increase in open association with white supremacist groups and an increase in open anti-Islamic discourse in private and political life, I don’t believe that the U.S. is on the path to becoming a Nazi state. Yet the similarity with the early days of the anti-Semitic propaganda is uncanny. Ultimately, a large enough chunk of German society bought into the narrative that Jews were dangerous, destructive and incompatible with German values to accept the anti-Semitic laws and then actively participate in or turn a blind eye to one of the most the disturbing massacres in modern human history.

So how easily are we today convinced that Muslims and/or Islam is the problem? How many times have we heard that we should “bomb” or “carpet bomb” an entire region or country? How many times have we heard that their culture is incompatible with our culture? And how many times have politicians and political pundits whether on TV, in print or on the internet advocated for travel bans, bans on immigrants, their attire, language, or religious practices, regardless of the fact that all of these measures violate what we celebrate as our Western values? Glenn Greenwald here gives the perfect example of how everyone was all Je Suis Charlie when Charlie was anti-Muslim but not so much when they were making fun of Texans.

So to make a long story short, the Nazis were not built in a day. Their movement started out with the same type of narrative that we are hearing today from the MAGA folks, one that popular culture has arguably already bought into. And as much as we hail the superiority of the West, the 20th Century’s greatest crimes were perpetrated in the West by a Christian people under the veil of protecting Western values.

As a Father

I have always been very conscious of the Holocaust, not in terms of a mere historical fact that you read in a text book or watch countless movies about, but as a real, concrete horror story that had an ongoing effect on the lives of people around me. As a child visiting my grandparents in the Bronx, I remember being introduced to a woman on the elevator and my grandmother asking her to show me the concentration camp tattoo on her arm. My grandmother wanted me to know what people had gone through. Then a large percentage of the kids that I grew up with had parents who were first generation Jewish Americans whose families had fled from Europe. While no one ever discussed what had happened to their family members who did not make it to America as refugees, the Holocaust was a living, breathing and evident part of their personal experience.

But now as an adult, as a husband and father of three small children, when I read East West Street or think about anything related to the horrors and desperation of trying to protect one’s family (be it from the Holocaust, Slavery, Jim Crow, or a flood in Houston or Bangladesh), I am left speechless, with nothing else to say . . .

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Treason Should Be Remembered, Not Honored

One thing I never understood was how Confederate flagwavers could still be considered American patriots. Isn’t the Confederate flag by its very nature incompatible with the U.S. flag? Now even though I am from Maryland – technically a Southern state— my public school system didn’t have a pro-South curriculum, and in my county we never considered ourselves Southerners. So maybe I just don’t get why the Confederacy by definition hasn’t been widely treated in our history books as an act of treason and why we today do not consider its symbols and monuments as symbols of its treason.

Earlier in the month, Ta-Nehisi Coates, apparently back from a long hiatus, had this to say about the Confederacy (not in relation to Charlottesville, but to HBO announcing its plan to air Confederates, a TV show about what the South would look like today if it hadn’t lost the war):

For while the Confederacy, as a political entity, was certainly defeated, and chattel slavery outlawed, the racist hierarchy which Lee and Davis sought to erect, lives on. It had to. The terms of the white South’s defeat were gentle. Having inaugurated a war which killed more Americans than all other American wars combined, the Confederacy’s leaders were back in the country’s political leadership within a decade. Within two, they had effectively retaken control of the South.

. . . Nazi Germany was also defeated. But while its surviving leadership was put on trial before the world, not one author of the Confederacy was convicted of treason. Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was hanged at Nuremberg. Confederate General John B. Gordon became a senator. Germany has spent the decades since World War II in national penance for Nazi crimes. America spent the decades after the Civil War transforming Confederate crimes into virtues. It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany. The Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.

[emphasis added]

As Coates reminds us, four million blacks were enslaved in the South, comprising 40% of the Confederacy’s population, “the South’s indispensable laboring class, its chief resource, its chief source of wealth, and the sole reason why a Confederacy existed in the first place,” people clearly not honored by the Confederacy’s flags or monuments. And the Confederacy caused a war that killed more Americans than any other war in our history. So if you are not a white Southerner in America, how comfortable are you in 2017 living in a country that publicly honors a bloody war of treason and oppression? Can’t we put the flags and statues in a museum where they belong and use our statues to memorialize our shared values? Those Western ones we’re always bragging about.

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The Country Run like a Family Business

There’s a popular myth, a cliché even, that America should be run like a company and only a successful businessman can get the job done. That’s a nice soundbite, but countries and governments are not corporations, and historically most businesspersons turned politicians are not to be successful presidents.

As mentioned here before, while Trump is a businessperson – with occasional success and regular failure —  he has never run anything like a large corporation where he’s accountable to shareholders. Rather, his managerial experience is limited to running a small family business with a fairly simply business model, where the only ones to enjoy in his venture’s success are family members and those who suffer its losses are employees and consumers.

It follows logically then that when Mr. Trump has no expertise on a subject or bandwidth – which as it relates to both domestic and foreign policy is always – instead of listening or delegating to professional bureaucrats, Trump defers to his children or people that have worked on his business dealings in the past, no matter how unrelated to the issue at hand.

Therefore it is no surprise that as President, instead of letting the seasoned pros do their jobs, Trump sends out his daughter to act as the official U.S. representative in front of foreign leaders, his son – who resembles the rich-kid bad guy from every Hollywood movie you’ve ever seen – or his son-in-law or bankruptcy lawyer to do his billing. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers questions this in today’s Washington Post:

It is rare for heads of government to step away from the table during major summits. When this is necessary, their place is normally taken by foreign ministers or other very senior government officials. There is no precedent for a head of government’s adult child taking a seat, as was the case when Ivanka Trump took her father’s place at the G-20 on Saturday. There is no precedent for good reason. It was insulting to the others present and sent a signal of disempowerment regarding senior government officials.

So the question for Americans is: do we want the United States of America to be run like a family business?

 

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Our Sacred Western Values

In response to Trump’s The West is under siege speech questioning whether, “we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost,” the Washington Post’s editorial board rightfully asks if “Trump wants us to defend ‘our values’. Which ones?

This reminds me of 2003 during the Iraq War when a woman at my gym in Madrid, upon learning that I was American, felt the need to insult me over the lack of values of my country and countrymen. When I asked if she had ever been to my country to see for herself, she said that she would never go as long as we still had the death penalty.

Only four industrialized nations still have capital punishment: the United States, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. In this sense, the Spanish woman was right. Maybe the United States does not represent Western values after all, being the only Western country on the list. In fact, the Europeans use Turkey’s continued application of the death penalty as a key reason for denying them entry into the European Union.

But as I reminded the woman yelling at me, European abolishment of the death penalty began in the 1990s. Did that mean that no one should have visited Spain prior to that time or that Europeans didn’t have values before? Europe and America have different political histories and experiences. It takes time for societies to evolve.

For example, when Medieval Christians judged the innocence or guilt of a person by seeing if he could float or endure grueling pain, Islam represented a revolution in civil and criminal rights. In order to be convicted of a crime, Islamic law dictated that there must be witnesses to the crime and evidence presented against the accused.

As I wrote recently, Christianity in the U.S. was used as the main justification for chattel slavery and the subsequent torture, killings, acts of terrorism, denial of rights, and overall brutality that constituted Jim Crow until 1970. Certainly none of those acts represent Western values today. Does that mean that Americans or American Christianity did not share Western values until recently? Or did Western values change?

When the French, Belgians, English, Spanish and Italians colonized much of Africa to the south and the Middle East, India and South East Asia to the east, whose values were they representing? For example, when the Belgians slaughtered millions of Congolese for both sport and economic gain, were they manifesting Western values? Or when the French complain today about Muslims immigrants not integrating into French society or accepting French culture, did their French grandparents integrate or show any respect for the local cultures of the societies they were raping and pillaging less than 100 years ago? Or did their grandparents simply not yet accept Western values?

In part that is why Mr. Trump’s pontification in Poland is so contradictory: he preaches the values and need to defend the West precisely on the soil where so many human lives were brutally murdered to defend the superiority of those located directly to the west (not to the east). So then what does Trump mean by the “West”?

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Thunder in the Mountains and the Fourth of July

Last night on the eve of the Fourth of July, I finished Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War by Daniel J. Sharfstein. I read his previous book The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America two years ago.

Sharfstein and I went to secondary school together. Not only was Sharfstein the smartest kid in class (he tutored my older, honor roll sister in calculus when she was a senior and he was a sophomore), Sharfstein was also one of the nicest kids around. Back in those days, I spent most of my time playing soccer (and probably listening to Reggae), not doing schoolwork. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to share two courses and interests with Dan: AP Spanish and Creative Writing. What impressed me even back then was that Dan seemed to be motivated by intellectual curiosity and not just getting the answers right. So when I read The Invisible Line twenty-five years after last seeing Dan, I was not surprised how thoughtful he was in choosing his topic or the efforts he put into his research. But when it came to Thunder in the Mountains, I was struck — almost offended even — by what an amazing narrator and storyteller Dan had become. I mean, it is one thing to be the smartest kid in class. It’s quite another to have real talent. And Bravo, Dan! You’ve got both, plus the discipline to put a book like this together. I am beyond impressed.

This morning when reading Eugene Robison in the Washington Post about the Fourth of July:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were highly imperfect men. Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Southerners were rank hypocrites for declaring “all men are created equal” while owning men, women and children as their slaves. John Adams was sour and disputatious, and later as president would sign the Sedition Act cracking down on criticism of the government. John Hancock was accused of amassing his fortune through smuggling. Benjamin Franklin could have been described as kind of a dirty old man.

Yet they laid out a set of principles, later codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that transcended their flaws. At this bizarre moment in our history, it is useful to remember that the ideas and institutions of the American experiment are much more powerful and enduring than the idiosyncrasies of our leaders.

Thunder in the Mountains immediately came to mind as the epitome of this narrative. That constant American struggle to overcome the conflict between our most celebrated and emblematic values and our immediate economic, political and tribal interests is perfect for the Fourth of July. That is Oliver Otis Howard’s story. Howard goes from fighting for the most basic rights of life, liberty and property for certain people to fighting to deny others those same rights.

The story goes something like this. After the Civil War, Howard (for whom the university is named) became the commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau and the face of Reconstruction, convinced that the freed slaves could participate fully in American political life. That didn’t end well.

The notion that equality would follow from emancipation—the great hope of Reconstruction— had been destroyed the moment the federal troops left the South in the mid-1870s. Through murder, fraud, beatings, and threats, white southerners, often acting in military-style terror campaigns, stripped blacks of their voting rights and trapped many in sharecropping contracts with no escape from lives of drudgery, debt, and want. Even in the North, the promise of equality had given way to a consensus steeped in white supremacy and the need for racial separation.

And just as Reconstruction failed, Howard’s reputation took a major hit. In his efforts to rebrand himself, Howard found himself in Oregon commanding the U.S. military’s campaign to expel the Nez Perce people from their land. Howard was led by his Christian conviction that the only salvation for the Nez Perce was for them to abandon their homeland and become Christian farmers on a reservation of the U.S. government’s choice.

That Americans prided themselves on religious freedom while using religion as a sword should not be shocking to anyone. Christianity became a major political force both in its benevolent and extremist manifestations. While the staunchest white abolitionists where devout Christians, Southerners were convinced that Christianity sanctioned chattel slavery and dictated Jim Crow which lasted until 1970. And the main philosophical justification for the new Americans to strip the native populations of their lands was that doing so was destined by God.

But Thunder in the Mountains is also the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Joseph spent his lifetime both before and after the war trying to convince U.S. officials and anyone who would listen that his people deserved the same rights as White Americans, in particular the right not to be deprived of property without due process. Joseph made a lasting impact on almost every U.S. official he met, but his cause and his arguments were ultimately rejected at every turn.

This story is of two tragedies. It is the tragedy of Howard: of how the ideals of equality were first destroyed by the terrorism of others and then by his own extremist views and need for political redemption. Then it is the tragedy of Chief Joseph whose only dream was to remain on his homeland where his father was buried, and whose weapon was to appeal to Americans’ sense of justice. He never regained his land.

* * *

The beauty of the American story is that when we tell it, we can measure ourselves against that original July 4th declaration and hope at least that we are moving in the right direction.

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You Get What You Paid For: Not a Fighter but a Self-Absorbed Thin-Skinned Liar

UPDATE BELOW

They say elections matter. The people vote and get what they voted for. Back when Trump acted like a character out the Sopranos in his handling of the FBI Director, Paul Ryan excused Trump’s behavior – that in competent hands would clearly amount to an abuse of power – as innocent naiveté.  Trump is “new to this”. Maybe Mr. Ryan should have said something more akin to “every nation gets the government it deserves”. This is basically what Mike Huckabee’s daughter, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in response to a recent twitter insult storm by the president: “Look, the American people elected a fighter. . . . They knew what they were getting when they voted for Donald Trump.”

But is Trump really a fighter? Normally when under attack, Trump:

  • cries “unfair” like a five year old child
  • throws a tantrum, like refusing to attend a debate because a female journalist wasn’t nice
  • yells “fake news”
  • bluffs (as in the Comey tape bluff); or
  • insults someone’s ratings, physical appearance or ethnicity.

So really, Sarah, is dissing someone’s ratings or calling a woman ugly or fat the trait of a fighter? Maybe ask yourself what the President thinks of your looks?

No, Trump is not a fighter. He is liar. He is a blusterer. He is a crybaby and a whiner. He is a misogynist. And he is someone that makes shit up all the time and never keeps his word. He is reality TV incarnate, a high school bully and an overall scoundrel. The American people had access before Election Day to the long, well-documented history of Trump’s multiple business failures (subsidized by the American taxpayer), gaudiness, steaks and university, nihilism and nepotism, fraud, self-aggrandizing, infidelity, conspiracy theory pushing, and lack of attention to detail and disregard for the rules.  His tweet storm was the behavior not of a fighter but of a delusional psychopath.

Nonetheless, enough Americans voted for him to make him President of the United States. So maybe Democrats should stop complaining and Republicans stop making excuses for him. Perhaps Trumpsters’ only rational argument left is that if Americans voted for Trump, they “knew what they were getting”.  In other words, that Americans must have wanted a self-absorbed, thin-skinned liar for president. And they certainly got one.

We bought what he was selling, and like every nation, we’re getting what we deserved.

UPDATED JULY 3, 2017:

As if to prove my point, Trump boasts of his fantasy world where he’s a pro-wrestler fighting the hater Fake Press. But in the real world, when it comes to fighting, what does Trump do? He posts a fantasy video about a fantasy sport or he calls people names, insults their looks or their ethnicity. I for one feel a lot safer knowing that we have Trump to fight for us.

I don’t know whether this video promotes violence or what its origin is. What I do know is that our president is a buffoon. A self-absorbed, thin skinned, lying buffoon.

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