For months she had only intimated it, or delegated the real dirty work to her surrogates and campaign staff, but at the final televised debate this week Hillary Clinton finally let loose: Donald Trump is “a puppet” of the Kremlin, she declared.
It’s worth pausing to consider just how extreme and incendiary that allegation is. For Trump to be a “puppet” of a hostile foreign power—especially Russia, arguably America’s oldest continuous adversary—would be an event of earth-shaking magnitude, unrivaled in all U.S. history. It would mean that by some nefarious combination of subterfuge and collusion, the sinister Russian leader Vladimir Putin had managed to infiltrate our political system at its very core, executing a Manchurian Candidate-style scheme that would’ve been dismissed as outlandish in even the most hyperbolic 1960s-era espionage movie script.
Trump is often accused of violating the “norms” that typically govern the tenor of U.S. presidential campaigns. And these accusations very often have validity: at the same debate, he declined to preemptively endorse the legitimacy of the election outcome, which appears to be without precedent. As everyone is now keenly aware, he’s unleashed a constant torrent of brash histrionics that defy discursive standards and violate “norms” of many kinds—You’re rigged! I’m rigged! We’re all rigged!
But Hillary too violated a longstanding norm this week with her “puppet” screed, which was the culmination of her campaign’s months-long effort to tarnish Trump as a secret Russian lackey using the kind of retrograde nomenclature (“Puppet”? Really?) that would’ve made even the most hardened old-time Cold Warrior blush. Because of Hillary’s barb, there will henceforth be a precedent for accusing a rival major-party nominee of being a stealth agent of a fearsome foreign power, based on only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.
Extrapolating from Trump’s stated belief that cooperation, rather than antagonism, with nuclear-armed Russia is desirable, Hillary’s boosters have long surmised that he must therefore be under the spell of a devious foreign spymaster: it can’t be that he genuinely prefers to be friendly with Russia and forge an alliance with their military. The only tenable explanation by their lights is this harebrained mind-control conspiracy theory.
One central irony to all this is that Trump basically has the same position vis-à-vis Russia as Barack Obama. As Trump pointed out in the Wednesday night debate, Obama attempted to broker a military alliance with Putin’s Russia only a few weeks ago; it fell through after American forces in Syria bombed soldiers loyal to Assad in direct contravention of the terms of the agreement. But it was an instance of deal-making nevertheless, so if Trump is guilty of accommodating the dastardly Russian menace, Obama must be similarly guilty.
Hillary’s increasingly hostile rhetoric on the homefront also likely contributed to “nuking” the accord with Russia, as she’s repeatedly accused Putin of subverting the American electoral process by way of hacks, as well as lambasting him as the “grand godfather’’ of global extremist movements—including the U.S. “alt-right.”
It would be one thing if these fantastic claims were ever substantiated with ample evidence, but they’re just not. At the debate, Hillary attributed her theory regarding the Russian orchestration of recent hacks on her campaign and the Democratic National Committee to unnamed “intelligence professionals.” These unspecified individuals have also failed to produce tangible evidence linking Russia to Trump, or Russia to the hacks. They are also the same sorts of people whose proclamations about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq were uncritically parroted by media allies.
She launched into the “puppet” rant after moderator Chris Wallace quoted an excerpt from one of her speeches delivered to a foreign bank, which had been published by WikiLeaks. It should be reiterated that Hillary had actively concealed these speech transcripts over the course of the entire presidential campaign, and the only reason the American public can now view them is thanks to WikiLeaks. But in an effort to change the subject from her newly revealed (and damning) comments before admiring cadres of financial elites, Hillary accused the rogue publishing organization of being party to a Russian plot. “This has come from the highest levels of the Russian government, clearly, from Putin himself,” Hillary proclaimed.
What evidence has been furnished that demonstrates “Putin himself” directed such efforts? Absolutely none that we are yet aware of. One could feasibly posit that such a blithe willingness to launch baseless attacks against foreign leaders is indicative of a poor temperament on Hillary’s part; it’s exactly the kind of bluster that could escalate into hot conflict, and will likely sour the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship for years to come under a prospective Clinton Administration.
In addition to accusing Putin of hacking the U.S. election, Hillary again announced her staunch support for a “no-fly zone” in Syria, which would necessitate the deployment of thousands more U.S. ground troops to the war-torn country and provoke direct, hostile confrontation with Russia, which is sustaining its client Assad. When asked by Wallace if she would authorize the shoot-down of Russian warplanes, Hillary evaded the question. (A simple “no” would’ve been nice.)
It’s long been known that Hillary is a hawk; she is supported by many of the same neoconservatives who once gravitated to George W. Bush. But her bellicosity toward Russia, which climaxed with the “puppet” diatribe, demonstrates that her hawkish tendencies are far from conventional; they are extreme. Hillary seems to be at her most animated (and one might say, perhaps even crazed) when she is aiming ire at supposed foreign adversaries, which of late has almost entirely been Russia, Russia, Russia. (Russia was the number-one topic broached at all this year’s debates, according to a tally by Adam Johnson of the media-watchdog organization FAIR.)
The tenor of the international situation has gotten exceptionally dire. Last Friday it was reported that the CIA is preparing to launch an “unprecedented” cyberattack on Russia; relations between the two states are at a dangerous nadir not seen in decades, to the point that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has warned that a nuclear exchange is perilously likely.
Trump, for all his faults, has long advocated a sort of détente.
So why aren’t these developments front-and-center in media coverage of the campaign? Instead, it’s still a relentless focus on Trump’s many foibles, notwithstanding what appears to be Hillary’s steady sleepwalk into a potentially catastrophic war.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.
At Sunday night’s clown-show debate, Donald Trump once again invoked Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” sneer from about a month ago, in which she hectored millions of Americans who will be voting for the Republican ticket in November as a “basket” of unsalvageable losers.
“She calls our people deplorable—a large group—and irredeemable,” charged Trump. “I will be a president for all of our people.”
It’s correct that the rant continues to haunt Hillary, because although she technically later withdrew it—as another instance of her conveniently “misspeaking”—it revealed something fundamental about her worldview. Because most Clinton loyalists in the political-commentary racket also adhere to this worldview, the tenets underlying it merit further examination: their explanation for “Trumpism” will have long-term ramifications, regardless of which candidate wins.
As we near the conclusion of a dispiriting and drawn-out presidential campaign, self-assured pundits now think they finally have a clear picture of who constitutes the prototypical “Trump supporter.” Often this picture is based disproportionately on their observations of Trump-supporting trolls on Twitter, rather than much real-life interpersonal contact. (Indeed, Twitter has now been mentioned at all three debates thus far—maybe someone ought to compose a new patriotic anthem entitled “Hail to the Tweet”?)
This represents a genuine quandary for those trying to do political commentary; actual Trump supporters tend not to move (at least openly) in elite spheres—namely media, high finance, and academia—so elite pundits are unlikely to interact with them over the course of their daily activities.
To broaden their horizons, such pundits might consider visiting some places in so-called “swing states” where Trump support is widespread, rather than just bloviating from behind their computer screens. Traversing these areas, one can’t help but bristle at Hillary’s “deplorables” theory as not only politically counterproductive, but seriously foul. She—like the pundits promoting her—has gotten the analysis totally inverted.
The real “deplorables” generally aren’t the people whom Hillary denounced as wholly “irredeemable,” or at whom economically secure commentators fulminate on a regular basis. More obviously “deplorable” are Hillary’s fellow financial, political, economic, and military elites who wrecked the economy, got us mired in endless unwinnable foreign wars, and erected a virtually impenetrable cultural barrier between everyday Americans trying to live fruitful lives and their pretentious, well-heeled superiors ensconced in select coastal enclaves. It is thanks to the actions of this “basket of deplorables” that we’re in the situation we’re in, where an oaf like Trump is perilously close to seizing the presidency.
At a recent Trump rally in Lancaster County, Pa., I was bemused to encounter a coterie of local Amish people who’d traveled there together by bus. Asked why they backed Trump, the overwhelming response was that Amish folks just wanted to preserve their traditional way of life (which they saw as under siege) and perceived Trump as enabling them to carry on with it. Some told me they supported Trump not because of some overweening disdain for their nation’s fellowmen, or immigrants, or even coastal liberals, but because they felt that the federal government was intruding on their ability to properly run their small farms.
One Amish gentleman, remarking on Trump’s apparent lack of strident religious belief, added of Trump: “He’s not a Christian, but he’ll protect the Christian cause.” Veteran religion reporter Bob Smietana later remarked that he could not recall a previous instance of Amish people showing up en masse to a presidential campaign event.
Naturally, upon tweeting photos from the rally, I was inundated with indignant cries from ostensible liberals claiming that the people in question weren’t real Amish, or were desperately deluded, or similar snark. True: the Amish lifestyle isn’t for everybody. Nor do the Amish foist it on anyone else. One virtue of the United States is that it’s a huge, pluralistic democratic republic with lots of land and lots of room for people to practice their beliefs as they see fit.
You don’t necessarily have to love these peculiar belief systems to tolerate their existence. Indeed, some of them undoubtedly contain facets that are bigoted and/or vulgar, and you are free to vociferously criticize them. Some even might be cut off from popular culture, as is the case with the Amish, who certainly are not attuned to the daily outrage avalanche dished out by mainstream-media organs—but this doesn’t mean that the people who practice old-fashioned lifestyles are somehow morally sullied or “deplorable.” It means they have different life trajectories.
This also holds true in Lewiston, Maine, where Trump is favored to win the 2nd Congressional District and therefore at least one (potentially crucial) electoral vote. (Maine and Nebraska allocate their electoral votes by congressional district.) Lots of Franco-Americans populate this area, and many old-timers still speak French with a distinctive Central Mainer dialect. (Often it comes out when folks get inebriated at the bars in town.) When I visited recently, everyone basically had the same story: mills use to be the lifeblood of the local economy and by extension its civic institutions. Once the mills inexplicably shuttered, these workers lost their sense of location and community. Social-club memberships dwindled; parades and marches down the main thoroughfare became less of an attraction. There’s just not a hell of a lot going on nowadays, except Patriots games on TV, drinking, and drugs. Anybody with the means usually either bolts for relatively more prosperous Bangor to the north, or south to Boston and beyond.
Are the people who live in Lewiston really “deplorables”? Most of them like Trump, but they’re not the ones who crashed the economy or agitated to invade Iraq, as Hillary did.
Again: perhaps the true deplorables are the unaccountable elites whose decisions directly worsened life for millions of Americans. Oddly, you never hear Hillary running around to high-roller fundraisers condemning Goldman Sachs for their deplorable conduct; maybe that’s because they’ve directly given her and Bill hundreds of thousands of dollars for “speeches,” excerpts of which finally came out last Friday and are just as degenerate as you’d expect. (Goldman banned partners from giving money to Trump’s campaign, but handing over cash to Hillary is still perfectly fine.)
Maybe the Amish of southeast Pennsylvania or the Franco-Americans of central Maine don’t use the correct Twitter hashtags or subscribe to Lena Dunham’s newsletter, but they’re still good people with normal ambitions for a happy, secure life. Screeching “deplorable!” at them is itself deplorable, especially because it lets the elites who bungled the country’s affairs off the hook.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.
Obviously there is a deep schism in the Republican Party. It has been developing for years, and could be seen to some extent in earlier presidential cycles, but was opened fully and dramatically by the improbable candidacy of Donald Trump. Only one outcome in November would forestall a complete, likely irreversible fracturing: the election of Hillary Clinton. Thus, many elite Republican operators—including lobbyists, elected officials, and pundits—are desperately hoping that Trump loses. Some are limited to expressing this desire privately, for fear of alienating the conservative voters on whom their continued electoral (or business) prospects depend.
Republicans who were especially devoted to Marco Rubio during the primary—whose interests align with the perpetuation of the party’s status quo—are perhaps the most strident in their wish for a Trump defeat. (Recall that the few areas where Rubio prevailed earlier this year included Washington, D.C., and its Northern Virginia suburbs—locations that have profited immensely from the post-9/11 military-industrial buildup.) Under a President Trump, such establishmentarian actors would lose power. Maybe they’d retain some measure of influence within the administration, as Trump exerted his deal-making prowess to bring them into the fold, but their interests would no longer be paramount. Other forces would have propelled Trump to victory, and he would likely prioritize them in governance.
After Trump’s election, many conservative organs and their congressional allies would position themselves as Trump’s enemies, coordinating with Democrats on key initiatives to block his agenda. At the same time, other conservative organs, in tandem with Trump-sympathetic factions of the Republican congressional caucus, would coalesce around the sitting president and support his agenda. Eventually, these factions’ coexistence within the same movement would prove untenable, practically and philosophically.
The result would be less overall leverage for traditional Republican institutions in Washington, the kind whose existence is premised on the maintenance of the decades-old “three-legged stool” formula—social conservatism, free markets, and hawkish foreign policy—for entrenching conservative political power. Trump would saw off one or two of the stool’s legs, and there would be no replacing them, at least not in the short term.
Though a Trump win would necessitate a realignment, it would not happen overnight. Think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation would not undergo a sudden ideological makeover; institutional inertia precludes such rapid transformation. Change would happen slowly, but surely. A president always influences the ideological composition of the body politic—within his own party and the opposition. For instance, Obama’s eight-year term has reshaped the Democratic Party coalition, and also engendered commensurate shifts within internal Republican dynamics.
Under a President Trump, the Republican congressional caucus and affiliated movement-conservative entities would be constantly wracked by internecine warfare of the type that was on vivid display during the GOP primaries. No doubt Ted Cruz would be at the forefront of whatever organized conservative opposition to Trump emerged as he positioned himself for a likely presidential primary challenge in 2020. Cruz would be well situated to pick up the mantle of “true conservatism”—however that ended up getting defined—and he would be able to (convincingly) blame establishment-GOP squishes for fostering the conditions that gave rise to Trump. “True conservatives” of the Cruz variety could feasibly come to include the free marketeers and conventional national-security hawks who cannot countenance Trump.
Conversely, under a President Hillary, movement conservatives could comfortably unify the party in opposition to their longstanding enemy, papering over the ideological divisions exposed by Trump. Such divisions would still exist, but dealing with them would be subordinated to the overriding task of undermining Hillary. Movement conservatives could easily discount Trump’s nomination and failed general-election run as an aberration, and revert more or less back to form. They’d probably proffer some superficial initiatives to address “Trumpism” at the urging of prominent columnists—the somber panel discussions would be manifold—but “Trumpism” as a political program is so ill-defined and malleable that, in practice, any remedial actions wouldn’t amount to much.
It should also be noted that while this schism is especially pronounced among elites—such as those with sinecures at prestigious think tanks, or lobbyists with powerful clients to please—the divisions are far less evident at the voter level. Support for Trump among Republicans is around 90 percent, according to recent polling. In addition to keeping the traditional movement-conservative coalition intact, a Trump loss would narrow the gap between ordinary Republican voters and conservative elites, who could unite in their disdain for Hillary. Thus, those whose livelihood depends on conservative-movement institutions have added incentive to root for a Trump loss.
In sum, Trump poses an existential threat to American movement conservatives. Hillary is their only hope.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.
At 9 p.m. Eastern on Thursday night, Google searches for the term “alt right” were at peak popularity: more people were entering the search term at that point than ever before in internet history, as determined by Google’s tracking metrics. This was an easily predictable consequence of Hillary Clinton earlier in the day choosing to take the once-unthinkable step of coming right out and directly denouncing the “movement” by name, thrilling its adherents and accelerating wider public interest in their purported beliefs. It was a stunning development. That Hillary would have crafted an entire nationally televised speech around attacking the group—an amorphous, loosely amalgamated online phenomenon whose organizing principle is evidently to torment Twitter personalities with deranged and frequently racist meme-blasts—boggles the mind.
Hillary left no doubt that she was aiming her remarks specifically at the nebulous, trollish provocateurs, because she used the exact phrasing the trolls use themselves: “alt-right” is a neologism they proudly coined and bandy about routinely to distinguish themselves from other, more milquetoast right-wingers. The tactical calculation was notable in that Hillary need not have explicitly gone after the “alt-right” in order to accomplish her ostensible goal of tethering Donald Trump to the unsavory populist elements that have coalesced around him. She could have raised the specter of such groups and elucidated their repellent ideological features (to the extent that these groups have any ideology) without giving them an epic signal boost.
Their response, naturally, was jubilation. Leading lights of the burgeoning “movement” could hardly contain their ecstasy, with many thanking Hillary profusely for heightening their profile beyond anything they ever could have imagined. Once confined to a relatively niche subset of internet inhabitants dwelling in obscure forums and chats, the group has now attained a level of prominence such that they are being “called out” by the Democratic presidential nominee, and this could not bring them greater joy.
For one thing, they see their incendiary tactics as having been vindicated. “Alt-right” devotees are known for engaging in outrageous conduct on social media, namely Twitter—barraging perceived enemies with racist iconography, trolling assiduously, and indulging in other forms of relentless irritancy. The reason one behaves provocatively is generally to provoke a reaction, and provoke a reaction they now have—on a grand scale. Elevating the “alt-right” will feed their in-group notions about having some special ability to control wider societal discourse, as if they alone possess the magic keys to unlock the secret mechanisms lurking behind the national conversation. This phantasm will inevitably draw in new converts, hugely amplifying their delusions of grandeur.
While many who Google the term will of course be repulsed upon cursory investigation of what the “alt-right” stands for, others will no doubt be intrigued, fall into a research wormhole, and end up adopting the label. Even if the most recognizable “alt-right” tactics and imagery (such as the absurdist cartoon frog named “Pepe” they incessantly tweet at targets) become widely associated with repugnant conduct, the group is infinitely adaptive by virtue of existing almost solely on the internet. Not every “alt-right” adherent behaves in an outwardly inflammatory way. Some new followers will pick up on discrete bits and pieces of the still-forming belief system and promulgate its tenets more subtly than do the ostentatious “shock troop” types who position themselves on the front lines of a never-ending troll war. (It should probably be noted for posterity: I’ve heard rumblings about physical meetups increasingly taking place, so there might be a tactile component arising to operate in tandem with the internet presence.)
Whatever legitimate points Hillary could have made in the speech last Thursday—and she did make some, calling attention to the mainstreaming of genuinely noxious forces once consigned to the lunatic fringe—they were undermined by her bizarre pivot to Vladimir Putin. Her campaign had been ramping up its frenzied attacks on the allegedly ominous Trump-Putin nexus for about a month now, but over the last week the rhetoric has really escalated to a staggering degree.
First, on August 21, her campaign manager, Robby Mook, went on This Week with George Stephanopoulos and gravely intoned: “The hand of the Kremlin has been at work in this [Trump] campaign for some time. … There are real questions being raised about whether Donald Trump himself is just a puppet for the Kremlin in this race.” Hillary carried forth these themes Thursday by attributing emergent right-wing populist movements across the United States and Europe to the diabolical subterfuge of Putin, whom she ludicrously called “the grand godfather” of worldwide nationalist extremism.
This was all the more ironic because earlier in the address Hillary had (rightly) condemned the GOP populist fringe’s propensity for conspiracy theorizing about all manner of topics—of late notably including her supposed hidden health problems. But she then promulgated a whopper of a conspiracy theory herself, suggesting that Putin is somehow personally orchestrating nefarious populist upswings throughout the Western world. It’s consistent with the narrative propounded days earlier by Mook—“the hand of the Kremlin” as the dark force behind every inconvenient global problem. Her charge had all the hallmarks of a classic conspiracy theory: spurious dot-connecting, unfounded insinuations, and an extravagantly baleful premise (Putin the omniscient evil menace). Then she went on to confabulate all kinds of disparate, tendentious evidence to substantiate the premise.
This would be perversely comical if it weren’t so dangerous: retrograde Russophobic hysterics are now being “mainstreamed” at a pace unseen in decades. Especially with Syria teetering on the brink of all-out multinational conflagration—the new U.S. commander in the region recently threatened Russia and Syria with military retaliation should they attack in areas where American special forces are located—these Hillary campaign tactics are especially worrisome. Accusing Putin of single-handedly empowering Trump via surreptitious meddling not only poisons the well for future U.S.-Russia relations under a prospective Clinton administration, it makes catastrophic military conflict between the two nations far more likely.
Hillary might have accurately identified some nascent right-wing trends in the U.S. and abroad, but she also furthered us down the path of sleepwalking into Cold War 2.0.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.
The Hillary Clinton campaign has recently been trumpeting endorsements from neoconservatives. The candidate’s embrace of figures such as Robert Kagan, Max Boot, and Eliot Cohen—all once regarded as anathema to the contemporary left—has engendered a wave of pushback from progressive critics.
Jane Sanders, wife of Bernie, is the most recent high-profile objector, publicly expressing queasiness about Clinton’s perceived allying with “architects of regime change.” Now, predictably, the pushback has been met with its own pushback, including from Brian Beutler of The New Republic, who cautions progressives not to fret.
“There is no evidence yet—none—that conservative figures with blemished records are rehabilitating their reputations by endorsing Clinton, or that Clinton is cozying up to new advisers, or that together they’re doing anything other than insuring against the risk of a Trump victory,” writes Beutler. Progressive skeptics of military interventionism, he posits, should take solace in the fact that despite her repeated entreaties to neoconservatives, Hillary has tangibly offered them and other bad actors “squat.” So there’s no reason, according to Beutler, to fear that they would exercise any meaningful influence in a Clinton administration. But this framing fundamentally misunderstands how neoconservatives customarily build networks and attain power.
Because their political program has virtually no support among large blocs of voters, neoconservatives have historically been forced to forge coalitions with other movements. Often their ostensible affinities are only tangential. It was not a given, for instance, that neoconservative intellectuals should have had any mutual goals with Evangelical Christians or diehard American nationalists. But they nevertheless fostered partnerships with these groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s, figuring (correctly) that this path would eventually lead them to positions of state authority.
By building what Beutler calls a “permission structure” prominently featuring neoconservatives, Hillary need not make any explicit “offer” to confer upon them tangible benefit. (By the way, what form would an explicit “offer” even take? A press release announcing formal cooperation?) Rather, she provides neoconservatives with an opening to ingratiate themselves into power merely by welcoming them into her prospective governing coalition. Evidence that their catastrophic failures have been forgiven can be seen in the uncritical adulation showered on Kagan, Boot, Cohen, and similar operators by the liberal media, suggesting that their blemished reputations are undergoing undeserved rehabilitation.
Furthermore, Beutler errs in asserting that there is no evidence of Clinton “cozying up to new advisers” who might envisage a role for themselves in a future administration. Kagan has given Hillary not only rhetorical praise, but material support—he even headlined an official campaign fundraiser on her behalf. Foreign-policy analyst Jim Lobe has suggested that Kagan is most likely angling for a job with Clinton.
Kagan, who not so long ago was denounced by liberal Iraq War opponents, co-signed a June report with Michèle Flournoy—the likely candidate for defense secretary under Clinton—calling for escalated U.S. military presence in Syria, a policy that could lead to all-out ground war or direct confrontation with Russia. So it seems he may already be on Clinton’s hawkish team in waiting.
Few reputable critics would argue that Hillary is herself a neoconservative. Far more plausible is that she’ll enable the implementation of a neoconservative foreign-policy agenda by casting the neoconservatives’ goals in liberal-interventionist terms, thus garnering Democratic support for initiatives that would face widespread opposition were they spearheaded by a Republican president. Lobe has written that Hillary represents “the point of convergence between liberal interventionism … and neoconservatism,” and Hillary’s willingness to empower a foreign-policy establishment featuring neoconservatives shows that they have in fact received concrete reputational benefit from lining up behind her.
Hillary may operate on the premise that anything that might conceivably garner her additional votes is justified on that basis alone. Yet even on that premise, heralding neoconservative ideologues doesn’t make sense. Again, neoconservatives have virtually no support in the electorate, as the recent Republican primary contest indicated. Their base is mostly among elites. Beyond that, there’s a serious chance that continuing to tout these people will actually damage her electoral fortunes by alienating left-wing voters who might be cajoled into voting for the Democratic ticket, but can’t countenance the possibility of ushering the Iraq-invasion architects of the George W. Bush era back into power.
So if there’s no obvious electoral upside, the most likely reason why Hillary is reaching out to such characters is a deceptively simple one: she shares common interests with them, respects their supposed expertise, and wants to bring them into her governing coalition. For that, anyone interested in a sane foreign policy over the next eight years should be exceedingly worried.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.
When Donald Trump presented his vice presidential running mate to the world, he was forthright with the rationale for selecting the relatively dull Mike Pence—a man who may perfectly embody the notion of a “generic Republican.” At the unveiling press conference, Trump declared in his characteristically unvarnished manner: “I think if you look at one of the big reasons that I chose Mike … one of the reasons is party unity.”
It doesn’t take much analytical heavy lifting to identify what picking Pence added to Trump’s prospectus. The GOP primary season made clear that ideological movement conservatives, who adhere dogmatically to the classic Reagan-derived “fusionist” brand of Republican politics, are a small, outnumbered faction of the party’s membership. But they still exist and vote at high rates, and a failure to court them would have had a real, adverse electoral impact. Crucially, they also wield disproportionate influence at the elite level. Thus, as Trump readily admitted, Pence serves to mollify these disaffected elements of the GOP coalition, which had been the faction of the party most hostile to Trump. Since the Pence announcement and the conclusion of the Cleveland convention last week, Trump’s favorability rating among GOP voters has risen by several percentage points.
Conversely, Hillary Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine, a milquetoast centrist senator from Virginia, shows how differently she views the imperatives of coalition-management within her own party. Whom, exactly, does the choice of Kaine mollify? There are great swaths of Democratic-leaning voters displeased with the nomination of Hillary, as the dramatic walkout by hundreds of Sanders convention delegates Tuesday in Philadelphia demonstrated. If Clinton had felt obliged to throw a proverbial bone to the chagrined ideologues in her party, as Trump did, Kaine would not have been a tenable choice. At the very least, she would have selected Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown—two Democrats with national profiles who on some level speak to the populist-inflected grievances harbored by the average Sanders voter.
Even after a charged, protracted Democratic primary season that revealed deep philosophical fractures in the party, Hillary’s willingness to cater to actors on her left remains minimal. Accordingly, the historic Sanders delegate walkout is emblematic of what should now be obvious: there is a level of hostility toward Hillary among activist-minded progressives that never existed toward Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012. For one thing, the composition of the party has changed dramatically over eight years. Ideological progressives, who in 2008 yearned principally for emancipation from the nightmare reign of George W. Bush, have since undergone gradations of radicalization: by the financial crisis, the Occupy movement, the Snowden revelations, Black Lives Matter, and other developments. Their critique of the established order is far more targeted and coherent than it was when Obama first ran. And they situate Hillary squarely within that order.
Hillary may have never won over the bulk of these people, but selecting a vice-presidential nominee who aligned somewhat with their present orientation would have at least constituted an attempt at placating them. Tim Kaine does not constitute any kind of attempt. If anything, he represents a rebuke to disaffected progressives. Throughout the primaries, Hillary’s campaign worked feverishly to make rhetorical overtures that suggested superficial awareness of underlying shifts in the party—the most glaring example perhaps being when she tweeted out a convoluted flow chart depicting her apparent vision of “intersectional” race theory, a freighted academic concept that has come to imbue much popular left-wing vocabulary. But when push came to shove and she could have taken a tangible action reflecting her awareness of these shifts, Hillary reverted to old habits: extreme risk aversion and a commitment to perpetuating the status quo.
If hundreds of Republican delegates had staged a mass walkout at the GOP convention last week in open defiance of Trump, does anyone seriously doubt that the elite media—especially on cable news—would have gone absolutely berserk with wall-to-wall, breathless coverage about how Trump failed to “unite the party”? Yes, there were minor displays of dissent by the misbegotten #NeverTrump faction in Cleveland, but nothing near comparable to the scale of this week’s Bernie-related theatrics. That’s an unprecedented level of intra-party dissension now facing Hillary, and her VP selection indicates she has no plans to take any substantive steps to remedy the problem.
It’s worth repeating: there is no precedent in modern history for such a mass display of disunity by elected delegates at a national political convention as occurred this week in Philadelphia. Hundreds of people elected at primaries and caucuses not only vacated the Wells Fargo arena, they subsequently staged incendiary acts of civil disobedience and stared down Pennsylvania State Police riot cops—all to express the depth of their opposition to Hillary. Then, on Thursday, swaths of delegates chanted, booed, jeered, and walked out on Hillary during her nomination-acceptance speech. The closest analog may be the infamous Democratic convention of 1968, which erupted into turmoil mainly over the Vietnam War. But that turmoil mostly had to do with external protests met with violence by Chicago police. These acts of rebellion in Philadelphia were carried out by duly credentialed delegates.
The lack of coverage the tumult received, despite its historical significance, is indicative of a wider problem that Sanders supporters have long identified: few members of the elite media are sympathetic to the “Bernie or Bust” movement, which has resulted in disproportionately little media attention. Conversely, the failed #NeverTrump movement had countless devotees active in elite political, media, and ancillary spheres, so it received outsized coverage relative to the actual number of GOP voters who supported that position. Furthermore, well-placed journalists tend to be fascinated by conservative protest movements, but scornful and dismissive of left-wing protest movements.
As a consequence of all this, perhaps there was no one proximate to Hillary who could have conveyed to her the extent to which the activist core of the Democratic party holds her in contempt. The ramifications may become clearer to her in November.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.
If you didn’t already have enough reasons to find last week’s election results dispiriting, here’s another one to chew on. The wiping out of the Democratic Party in West Virginia appears near-complete—a rather momentous development, though perhaps for not-obvious reasons. Yes, this was a long time coming, and that the Democrats would incur major losses in 2014 was not at all unexpected. Still, the scale of the decimation was staggering. (Natalie Tennant, a white, coal-supporting Democratic Senate candidate, somehow underperformed compared to Obama in 2012. She lost by 27.6 percent)
West Virginia was long home to an idiosyncratic, difficult-to-comprehend ethos that for decades (centuries?) had been somewhat insulated from the transitory, cyclical trends of national politics. Whereas, say, Pennsylvania or Missouri had always been taken as “bellwethers” of sorts, West Virginia perennially marched to the beat of its own drum. The state elected Democrats, and only Democrats, for something like 60 years. Sen. Robert Carlyle Byrd’s name is famously plastered everywhere you look there, because West Virginia sorely needed pork (i.e., infrastructure projects), and Byrd was darn good at bringing home the pork.
But Byrd is dead now. Jay Rockefeller, another legacy Democrat, retired. No one has emerged to carry on the West Virginia populist Democrat mantle; Sen. Joe Manchin, the only remaining Democrat of real repute (perhaps other than Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin), falters in this arena. Unlike Byrd—who spoke out voraciously against the Iraq War, for instance—Manchin doesn’t give the impression of taking populism very seriously. His idea of channelling populist discontent is to position himself as some kind of ill-defined “centrist” with no core convictions other than ostensible “moderation.” (Manchin had been a member of David Frum’s “No Labels” group until quitting last week.) Say what you will about Byrd, but at least he had a relatively discernible political ideology.
“Can you believe that, in anyone’s imagination, they thought that would ever happen in West Virginia?” Manchin said Wednesday. “But things change.”
Well, yes, “things change,” but things also happen because certain actors consciously effect change. The rout of Democrats in West Virginia didn’t have to happen, it was allowed to happen by a combination of fecklessness, poor strategy, and concerted GOP messaging that has successfully “nationalized” politics all over the U.S. Indeed, that was the stated goal of conservative operatives this cycle—to “nationalize” contested races such that they became less about local concerns, i.e., how to best serve the constituents of a particular polity, and instead morphed into nebulous referenda on Obama. (Here’s a video of legendary GOP marketing guru Richard Viguerie explaining how all this went down.)
It’s not simply that Democrats lost and Republicans won. One might imagine a West Virginia political culture that retained its idiosyncrasies and simply elected Republicans instead (after all, West Virginian Democrats tended to be quite culturally conservative.) But I don’t think that is what’s happening here. The incentives presently at work in the American system are truly “nationalizing” politics and thereby negating regional distinctions.
Why the heck should a citizen in Greenbrier County, West Virginia vote for a House member on the basis of aversion to Obama? That calculus makes little sense in terms of his or her own self-interest. However, such a calculus most certainly serves the interests of GOP consultants, who worked diligently and craftily this cycle to “frame the narrative” in a way that would enable them to seize power, and therefore money and influence.
Nick Rahall, a 19-term House incumbent, was ousted last week, even after surviving in 2010, which was widely assumed to have been the absolute low-point for Democrats. (Rahall actually won fairly easily that cycle—by 12 percent. What exactly happened in the ensuing four years? Certainly Obama was unpopular in West Virginia then as well. I don’t know the answer.) Because of his seniority, Rahall was positioned to provide needed resources to his constituents in that very inscrutable area (even relative to other parts of West Virginia) that few understand.
Now, instead of this seasoned Congressman who had held office since 1977, a novice GOP state senator will be representing the district. Is that really going to benefit the Greenbrier Valley? Is that really going to help preserve a very peculiar political culture, which ought to be celebrated in a country that supposedly prizes diversity? Seems doubtful.
And this is all merely on the federal level. Republicans also captured total control of the West Virginia state legislature (including the House of Delegates for the first time in eight decades) on the strength of such candidates as a 17-year-old girl who campaigned on cutting business taxes. (She’s now 18.)
The 2014 elections may have been a sweeping victory for the GOP, but they were a stinging defeat for localism.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.
The following assertion may not seem immediately intuitive, but I believe it to be true: Ted Cruz is the current front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
First, I would implore all readers to watch a full Ted Cruz speech if he or she has not already. The man is simply a performative marvel. He manages to strike some sort of preternatural balance between fiery Southern Baptist sermon and stand-up comedy routine, invariably bringing crowds to their feet. In the era of the tweet-sized soundbite, Ted Cruz’s mastery of the one-liner and the pun are not trivial; they are integral to his success.
The only other potential candidate who holds a candle to Cruz in this regard is Chris Christie, who I wrote earlier this year still stood a fighting chance to acquire the nomination. I no longer believe this to be the case. Christie established a national profile early in his gubernatorial tenure on the strength of his attractively brash personality, and was well-positioned to marshal that into an extremely credible bid for 2016. Now, however, it appears he may not even end up running. (Though I don’t discount his chances completely.)
For all the partisan brouhaha associated with “Bridge-gate,” it looks increasingly like there was in fact serious malfeasance involved, and that malfeasance may directly implicate Christie. A report in the Bergen Record from September 4 revealed that low-level Port Authority Police officers, incensed the morning of the bridge lane closures about potentially catastrophic security problems, were ordered over police radio frequencies to “shut up” by high-level Police commanders. David Wildstein—Christie’s longtime ally, childhood associate, and formerly anonymous progenitor of the influential PolitickerNJ gossip website—was also observed surveying the scene that morning in a car driven by another childhood friend of both Christie and Wildstein, Police Lt. Thomas “Chip” Michaels. The idea that Christie had no knowledge of the plot now strains credulity such that he is virtually disqualified for the purposes of 2016.
The establishment Republican donor class seems to have acknowledged this. A clear subtext of Byron York’s Washington Examiner article last week on the new flurry of chatter about a potential Mitt Romney 2016 candidacy shows that the establishment has all but abandoned Christie. (York also conducted an informal poll of his Twitter followers about their favored 2016 candidate, and found that zero—literally, zero—had a preference for Christie).
It would not be a total shock if Christie gets indicted in the near future. It also seems highly likely that his close ally Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Democrat of New York, possesses some kind of “smoking gun” evidence implicating Christie in Bridgegate, given their shared jurisdiction over the Port Authority bi-state agency. The Wall Street Journal reported in December 2013 that Christie personally phoned Cuomo for still-undisclosed reasons pertaining to the issue. What was the nature of that phone call? We still don’t know. We do know, however, that at a press conference last week on the alleged terror threat facing the New Jersey-New York region, a reporter asked Christie whether any protocols had been put in place to prevent another dangerous security incident, like what occurred on September 11, 2013 as a result of the bridge lane closures. Comically, Cuomo himself intervened as a salve, rattling off a boilerplate non-answer; the two then walked off without saying anything further. Christie looked like a deer in the headlights.
So by my lights, Christie is basically finished.
Jeb Bush appears somewhat reluctant to run for family-related reasons, although he may well end up doing so, and Romney could feasibly run again if only out of sheer narcissism. In any event, there is currently no clear establishment favorite, and it seems unlikely that one will emerge any time soon.
Which brings us back to Ted Cruz.
In the post-Citizens United landscape, traditional donor class support is becoming less and less important. Multi-billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was able to bankroll Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid as nothing more than a personal vanity project. Gingrich went onto win the South Carolina primary. That unpredictable dynamic will only have been heightened by 2016. Ted Cruz may be disliked by elements of the GOP elite, but he doesn’t have to rely on their support to prevail, as likely would have been the case in years past.
Instead, Cruz can lean on what I’ll term the “para-establishment”—a constellation of advocacy groups, media entities, individual mega-donors, and others who have long ago thrown their lot in with Cruz. The speech I linked to earlier in this piece was actually from the Americans for Prosperity annual conference in Dallas, where Cruz was a featured speaker. The crowd absolutely ate him up. He is admired by salt-of-the-earth Tea Party types, but also by powerful factions of the Republican vanguard.
Cruz’s stunt earlier this month at the gathering of persecuted Middle East Christians doubtless solidified his support among the “pro-Israel” neoconservative cohort orbiting around Bill Kristol. Kristol’s new media outfit, the Washington Free Beacon, gave Cruz a mouthpiece in the form of reporter Alana Goodman. (Cruz met privately with Kristol and other donors in Texas just days before the shameful incident.)
The Americans for Prosperity relationship shows that Cruz has been in the good graces of the Charles and David Koch network for years now. This is almost certainly a more significant courtship than earning support from the Republican National Committee.
Cruz also has a potentially compelling “personal story” which could give his candidacy an air of historical significance. He’d be the first president of Hispanic ancestry, and would absolutely be able to tailor a powerful message to that effect. A Harvard Law graduate whom professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz once described as “off-the-chart brilliant,” Cruz’s intelligence should never be underestimated.
For all his pretensions of down-home, aw-shucks conservatism, Ted Cruz is undeniably a member of the cultural elite. He counts his former Princeton classmate, Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, as a personal friend. Meanwhile, Cruz is winning straw polls at major Evangelical events like the Values Voter Conference. Also, his wife is a managing director at Goldman Sachs.
The idea that Cruz could seize the nomination might seem far-fetched now, but the conditions of the American political system are changing radically, and it would be foolish to discount the idea. What’s the alternative? Jeb Bush? Really?
Rick Perry (also under felony indictment)?
Scott Walker (facing potential criminal charges of his own, as well as a fiercely-contested re-election this November)?
Lastly, does anyone seriously think that Rand Paul will be any match for Cruz’s guile?
People assumed Barry Goldwater in 1964 was far-fetched, too. And Ted Cruz is a lot smarter than Barry Goldwater.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.
Chris Christie’s perpetual “town hall meeting” tour across New Jersey subjects the governor to at least a modicum of unscripted public scrutiny. Though held lately on weekday mornings or afternoons in suburban areas, dissension could theoretically erupt without warning at these events, notwithstanding the legions of State Police, municipal police, plainclothes security personnel, and Christie staffers on hand to promote order. Setting the tone of unpredictability is the governor himself, who famously advises prospective questioners that any topic is fair game, and that if necessary he won’t hesitate to put loudmouths, know-it-alls, smart alecks, etc., in their respective places.
Amidst such anticipation, no citizen afforded the opportunity to directly query Christie at recent meetings has asked him any variation of “Will you or won’t you” (run for president). This must bewilder the national political media, as journalists these days lob some variant of The Question at Christie whenever circumstances permit.
Similarly bewildering to them must be how little interest town hall questioners have evinced in what is almost certainly the most famous U.S. political scandal ever to arise as a result of dubious traffic lane closures: “Bridgegate.” Each development in this saga continues to receive copious media coverage, while interest among the general public appears rather less than ardent. Nonjournalists who show up to town hall meetings and get called upon by the governor largely demonstrate concern with the familiar slate of parochial issues: flood preparedness, public employee compensation, and property taxes.
When at an April 24 town hall—after over an hour of placid Q&A mostly related to Superstorm Sandy recovery issues—Point Pleasant Borough resident Len Ludovico finally did pose a question about Bridgegate, journalists suddenly rustled into action and surrounded the 71-year-old. Presenting himself as a staunch Christie supporter in search of effective rebuttals to deploy when friends and family accuse the Governor of wrongdoing, Mr. Ludovico told me it had never even occurred to him that the question could engender such frenzy. But there he was after the town hall meeting, conferring with CNN personnel and displaying a photo of himself posing with the governor at a recent Princeton University football game.
Even if these meetings are demographically unrepresentative of New Jersey, the apparent discrepancy in priorities between political media and the general public is instructive. Consider the narrative propagated by political media since January 2014, when the release of salacious emails triggered national media attention to Bridgegate. The theory went that any potential Christie presidential campaign had been rendered “toast.” Four months later, the vigorous certitude once shown in those heady initial post-scandal days has ebbed—perhaps owing to a steady stream of headlines like this one, from CBS News on April 30: “Could strong fundraising be Chris Christie’s road to redemption?”
Christie’s entrenched support among monied elites affiliated with the Republican Party establishment ought to have been better highlighted all along in the waves of calamitous Bridgegate analyses. The scandal obscured the fact that by January 2014, powerbrokering elements of the party had already exalted Christie for upwards of three years, and there was never good reason to believe this support would totally evaporate as a result of Bridgegate.
For an especially vivid reminder of the depth of Christie’s establishment backing, one need only think back to the night of September 27, 2011, when the governor addressed the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. During the Q&A, a woman rose to beg that Christie seek the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. “Your country needs you,” she pleaded. Then-frontrunner Mitt Romney likely felt at least a tinge of unease when this tearful entreaty led to a thunderous standing ovation. What could constitute a symbolic show of support from GOP establishment actors if not that (melodramatic) episode? Read More…
Commentators short on descriptive idioms often deploy the phrase “strange bedfellows” whenever cross-ideological coalitions arise out of mutual concern for civil liberties. Saturday’s “Stop Watching Us” rally in Washington, D.C., endorsed as it was by organizations both left and right, represented the latest such occasion.
Fresh off a leading role in forcing the partial government shutdown, “Tea Party” group FreedomWorks shared billing with (among many others) the ACLU, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the “Anonymous” hacktivist collective. One MSNBC reporter deemed rally-goers a “strange political hodgepodge,” portraying their heterogeneity as a bizarre phenomenon that never would have materialized but for the uniquely broad-based outrage spurred by Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s mass unchecked surveillance on American citizens.
The rally’s marquee speaker was Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and though a tad tentative in presentation, he detailed with vigor the quickening movement in Congress to restore Americans’ civil liberties. This summer, an amendment Amash co-authored with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to defund the massive NSA phone record collection program nearly passed the House, much to the shock of the intelligence community and conventional wisdom. “When the vote came down, it was close. It scared people,” he said. “It scared the establishment in both parties.” The crowd exulted. Amash later told me he regarded anti-surveillance activism as an “important” step toward lasting transpartisan cooperation, and reported that the USA FREEDOM Act—legislation to curtail the NSA’s powers—would pass today if brought to the House floor. These developments were buoyed by grassroots activism, Amash emphasized.
Perhaps the burgeoning coalition of technologists, traditional conservatives, stalwart liberals, and myriad others receives scorn precisely because it is starting to get results.
In the run-up to the rally, journalist Tom Watson wrote a widely-circulated essay at Salon positing that the operational involvement of the Libertarian Party and kindred organizations “infected” the event irreparably, and the left should therefore withdraw its support. Progressives and libertarians might occasionally find common cause on narrow issues, this argument went, but establishing anything like a formal alliance is indefensible given the standard libertarian positions against abortion rights, social welfare programs, and so forth.
No office-holding Democrat addressed the crowd, but Dennis Kucinich, the former representative from Ohio and eager forger of counter-intuitive alliances, preceded Amash with a rousing speech. Afterwards, I confronted him with Watson’s challenge: ought the robust presence of libertarian groups, some expressly affiliated with the GOP, taint the rally and its message in the eyes of progressives? Kucinich was unmoved. “The Constitution belongs to everyone, whatever their political party, whatever their ideology,” he said. “Everyone deserves the protection of the first and fourth amendments. I said it today—we’re not here as partisans. We’re here as Americans.”
The modern Democratic Party itself is a diffuse coalition of interest groups and factions bound together by little beyond raw political expediency. Why is it defensible for “progressives” of Watson’s ilk to work within a party structure dominated by pro-military intervention corporatists—yet working with libertarians is considered a nonstarter?
Throughout U.S. history, nascent populist-oriented coalitions have always been cobbled together messily, and the left-libertarian anti-surveillance lobby is of course no exception. “Part of what we’re trying to do is set out a new model,” said rally organizer JJ Emru when asked to react to Waston’s line of thinking. “To say, if we overcome some of our differences, we can definitely achieve this.”
If nothing else, efforts like Stop Watching Us have the effect of scrambling party allegiances and creating room for unorthodox coalition-building that can challenge the status quo. In the world of Washington commentary, bipartisan cooperation is lauded as healthy and serious, if it involves “compromises” to expand the national security state or cut spending on entitlements. An alliance featuring the likes of Amash and Kucinich is little more than a fleeting convergence of “strange bedfellows.”
With today’s formal introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), the convergence appears to be more than fleeting. Beyond just reining in the NSA, these “strange bedfellows” are redefining what it means to work across the aisle.
According to many Republicans, Barack Obama has been scandal-plagued since sometime shortly after his inaugural parade. But only within the past few days have national political media begun to adopt the same view, as a cluster of controversies—over Benghazi, the IRS’s targeting of conservative activist groups, and the Department of Justice’s secret seizure of Associated Press phone records—emerged in quick succession, prompting journalists to announce that a watershed moment for the Obama presidency was at hand. “What we are witnessing is nothing less than a dramatic reversal of the nation’s political narrative,” declared Roll Call‘s Stu Rothenberg, who wondered whether all this augured a “game changer for 2014.” Continuing the theme, Politico theorized that these scandals will expose the limits of “a growing and activist government” and consequently “bolster the conservative worldview.”
Of the three controversies, Benghazi is most purely a product of the contemporary “conservative worldview”—Republicans have been promoting the story for eight months, fueled by a barrage of fury on Fox News and right-wing internet outfits. But the outrage has had virtually nothing to do with discontent over “a growing and activist government.” Instead, what seems to animate it is continued suspicion that the Obama administration deliberately lied about the nature of the attack to avoid suffering a potential setback in the heat of a presidential campaign. Last week’s hearing did lend a degree of credence to the theory—progressives are now less inclined to casually dismiss concerns that the post-attack talking points were manipulated—but regardless, recent developments had no bearing on the desirability of “a growing and activist government.” With very few exceptions, Republicans have not used the Benghazi saga as an opportunity to challenge the underlying logic of the Libya incursion, though a considerable swath of voters could be receptive to such a challenge, including disaffected Democratic-leaning folks who object to Obama’s interventionism and militarism.
In the case of the IRS “scandal,” when the news broke, Obama swiftly denounced the agency’s conduct as “outrageous,” and Democrats vowed to fully investigate. Assuming there is no further conspiracy, this issue may harm Obama in the short-term but seems unlikely to effect a broad-based shift in attitudes toward government power other than to intensify feelings among conservatives who already detest the president and the IRS. As the “Tea Party” brand remains extremely unpopular, progressives and independents will generate little sympathy for the self-described “Tea Party” and “Patriot” groups that were targeted.
By stark contrast, Monday’s revelation that the Justice Department seized two months’ worth of phone records from the Associated Press is a veritable “game-changer”—a full-blown scandal in every sense of the word. DOJ officials obtained these highly sensitive records in secret, preventing the AP from seeking judicial review; sources for as many as 100 reporters may have been compromised. Pulitzer Prize winners Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, whose investigative journalism has been indispensable, were among the targets.
The gravity of this “massive and unprecedented intrusion,” as the AP described it, cannot be overstated. Attorney General Eric Holder has claimed that his department carried out the action pursuant to a criminal investigation into a national-security leak that “put the American people at risk,” creating a situation that “required aggressive action” to remedy.
A substantial set of Americans, young people especially, has grown deeply cynical of state officials’ rote invocation of ill-defined “threats” to justify abridging core civil liberties. Ironically, this scandal is by far the most compelling example of what “a growing and activist government” might wreak—yet it also appears to be the scandal in which the GOP has the least interest. It most threatens Obama precisely because it is not tainted by partisan grandstanding. It is a scandal on its face and required no trumpeting from congressional zealots in order to enter the mainstream discourse.
But since the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans have demonstrated a remarkable inability to capitalize on Obama’s many vulnerabilities. Notwithstanding pumped-up “narratives” about the administration’s imminent downfall, there is little reason to expect much will change.
Every four years, the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire serves as a hub for national media activity ahead of the state’s presidential primary. On January 8, 2012, journalists milling about the hotel could occasionally be overheard snickering at the strange melange of street protesters that had flooded Manchester’s downtown area: Ron Paul people, Occupy people, and assorted miscreants. These categories were not mutually exclusive.
Across the street from the hotel, at Veterans Park, the loosely-knit Occupy New Hampshire collective had established their encampment–a kind of outdoor public festival. The first person I encountered there was 21 year-old Manchester resident John Cullen, who wore a green armband signaling affiliation with OccupyNH (though of course there was no formal “membership”). Cullen told me he’d recently been pepper-sprayed by police at the Port of Oakland during a nationwide day of demonstrations. “I was actually trying to get out of there at that point,” he said; by coincidence, his family had been visiting members of their church in the Oakland area, and while Cullen supported Occupy, he wasn’t particularly eager to get doused with painful chemicals for the cause.
When I mentioned I’d be attending a Ron Paul campaign event at the University of New Hampshire in Durham later that evening, Cullen smiled and unzipped his jacket to reveal a classic “Ron Paul reEVOLution” T-shirt. In fact, he announced, it was only several hours prior that he’d participated in a group “sign-wave” outside Murphy’s Taproom, a major gathering point for Ron Paul people in the area. “When Ron Paul gets the Occupiers on his side,” he beamed, “Ron Paul is not going to be stopped. You can’t stop him.”
Cullen had wanted to go to the UNH rally but lacked transportation. So I offered to give him a ride. Traffic that night was surprisingly horrendous; we missed the first bit of Paul’s speech, barely making it in time to hear the congressman remark on Iran sanctions and ask the crowd how they would like it if one day Chinese drones started bombing American targets. Afterwards, hundreds of people waited in line for the candidate, who seemed perfectly happy to oblige all those who desired photos. Cullen waited in this queue and later relayed his interaction with Ron Paul. “You’re a beautiful man,” he reported telling him as they posed for the camera. Ron Paul then inquired about the green armband, and Cullen replied that it stood for Occupy New Hampshire. “Thank you for participating in the democratic process,” Paul commented, cheerfully.
On the very first night of the Zuccotti Park occupation in September 2011, when participants had scant conception of what Occupy would soon become, Ron Paul people showed up and argued with Marxists about whether they were entitled to stay. They stayed. One might say Ron Paul people played a more integral role to the inception of Occupy than conventional Democrats or liberals, many of whom scorned the inscrutable demonstration in its first weeks. The journalist Arun Gupta, who co-founded the Occupied Wall Street Journal in New York City and later embarked on a tour of Occupy sites across America, told me he’d see clusters of Ron Paul supporters and various libertarians virtually everywhere he went. Such folks “tended to be better represented and integrated in red states,” Gupta said–Cheyenne, Boise, Tulsa, Little Rock, Louisville, Charleston, etc.–while in “blue states” they typically formed enclaves that were “tolerated” by the wider group.
A fair number of Occupy people in those days either had no opinion of or actively disliked Ron Paul, but the undercurrents of support were nonetheless noticeable, ranging from individuals who would wield official campaign paraphernalia to others who would concede private support only for narrow aspects of Ron Paul’s platform upon intense questioning. One would more reliably come across vocal Ron Paul supporters at Occupy events than vocal Obama supporters. It was not lost on the Zuccotti Park crowd, for instance, that Ron Paul personally expressed a measure of support for the movement earlier than most any other national U.S. politician–aside from Sen. Bernie Sanders or Rep. Dennis Kucinich. (Gary Johnson, then seeking the GOP nomination, made an appearance at Zuccotti Park and had a generally positive impression.)
Signage bearing the Paul-derived “End the Fed” slogan was common around Lower Manhattan during those frenzied weeks. Stories of Paul-Occupy fusion emerged from around the country: in Los Angeles, a Ron Paul activist successfully added an anti-Federal Reserve amendment to OccupyLA’s working manifesto; an ultimately ill-fated “Ron Paul Tent” was established for a time at OccupyPhilly. Ryan Hirsch, one of the lead Occupy New Hampshire organizers I met last January, described himself more-or-less as a disaffected progressive and was unsure if he’d bother voting in the GOP primary. (Hirsch was the individual pictured here who at a November 2011 campaign event in New Hampshire handed Barack Obama a typewritten note. “Mr. President,” it read, “Over 4,000 peaceful protesters have been arrested…”) But Hirsch ultimately did vote, for Ron Paul. Not because he agreed with everything Ron Paul has ever said, but because Paul spoke on so many critical issues that other candidates systematically neglected: civil liberties, drug prohibition, the military-industrial complex, criminal justice/police problems, Wikileaks, internet freedom.
In October 2011, Paul told journalist Brian Doherty that he viewed the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement as a “tremendous opportunity,” while adding that “it is not necessarily advantageous to overemphasize alliance with people the conservative voters don’t really want to talk about.” Indeed, at the time Occupy was the subject of much derision in right-wing media, with outlets such as Breitbart.com and the Daily Caller propagating endless incendiary anti-Occupy memes, often involving sexual exploitation or human excrement. These were widely circulated on the web and picked up by the talk-radio/Fox News nexus. Republican presidential candidates eagerly piled on: Mitt Romney declared the movement “dangerous,” while Newt Gingrich sneered–to the biggest applause of the night at a Frank Luntz presidential forum–that Occupiers ought to “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.” Ron Paul indicated he was put off by that remark. “I’m not likely to be the one to say, well, ‘Why don’t you get a bath and go get a job and quit crybabying.’ No, I don’t like that at all.”
Paul was probably correct insofar as public outreach to Occupy at the time would have been disadvantageous if his aim was to court registered Iowa Republicans. But Ron Paul’s “affinity” with the movement, as he described it, manifested from the outset. In September 2011 we spoke after a campaign event at a New Hampshire old folks’ home. Some supporters of his, I mentioned, had shown up to Zuccotti Park and were spreading the message of liberty, so to say. “If they were demonstrating peacefully,” Paul reacted, “and making a point, and arguing our case, and drawing attention to the Fed–I would say, good!” Paul drew out his inflection on the word “good,” as if to add–“and it’s about darn time!” In subsequent weeks, he’d go on to speak favorably about Occupy in a variety of venues: rebutting Herman Cain’s criticism during televised debates, extolling the principle of civil disobedience at the National Press Club and elsewhere. As the 2012 campaign dwindled, he started invoking the problem of “police violence” more regularly–of intimate concern to Occupiers–and emphasizing his commitment to “non-coercion,” which is a central tenet of Occupy’s operational ethos.
That a candidate who routinely inveighed against the military-indust
All of these unorthodox elements may be forsaken in coming months, however, as the “Liberty Movement” orients itself to an existence without Ron Paul as its congressional standard-bearer. He retires from office on January 3. Those within the Ron Paul apparatus who insist on merging into the Republican Party infrastructure risk abandoning the legions of young people whose political consciousnesses were enlivened by Ron Paul but who refuse to countenance the machinations and deceptions associated with party politicking. They may have once been willing to work with Republicans to help Ron Paul, but those volunteers were always more “in” the GOP as a matter of practical necessity than “of” it.
During his farewell address to Congress last month, Paul asked, “Why did the big banks, the large corporations, and foreign banks and foreign central banks get bailed out in 2008, and the middle class lost their jobs and their homes?” He then cited the “gross discrepancy in wealth distribution going from the middle class to the rich” as among “the greatest dangers that the American people face today and impede the goal of a free society,” echoing one of Occupy’s central themes–income equality.
Ever the adept politician, Ron Paul understands where public opinion is heading, and he knows how to tailor an argument. He thus wisely plans to continue focusing on youth outreach in post-congressional life. Perhaps the preponderance of eccentric characters in Ron Paul’s own flock made him more inclined to show the maligned Occupy movement a modicum of respect, back when doing so was not an especially advisable tactic. This may not have thrilled members of his campaign operation, but long-term, the goodwill Ron Paul engendered among some unlikely constituencies may prove worth the price.
Michael Tracey is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Reason, Mother Jones, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter.
An enduring mystery of the 2012 election cycle is how GOP candidates managed to lose senate races in both Montana and North Dakota, states which voted resoundingly for Mitt Romney–by 13.5 and 19.8 percentage points, respectively. Though pre-election polling data was relatively scant, statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver pegged the likelihood of a Republican victory in North Dakota at 92.5% and in Montana at 65.6%. Instead, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp prevailed over Rick Berg by 1.0% to replace the retiring Kent Conrad, while Democrat Jon Tester–long regarded the cycle’s most vulnerable incumbent–defeated Denny Rehberg by 3.9%.
Post-election analyses have generally cited demographic trends as a prime hurdle for Republicans, but such explanations would appear inapplicable to these races. An analysis (PDF) by the Winston Group, a Republican polling outfit, flags the two outcomes as particularly troubling signs for the party because they cast doubt on popular explanations for why the GOP floundered. Relative to the rest of the country, the “Big Sky” region is old and white; the percentage of young voters actually decreased by 7% in Montana between 2008 and 2012. Such factors would seem to work in Republicans’ favor.
Neither Berg nor Rehberg held particularly “extreme” views by his state’s standards, and neither were unexpected victors in heated primary contests, i.e. Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock. Rehberg, who lost to Tester, had represented Montana’s at-large House district since 2001; Berg had represented North Dakota’s at-large House district since 2011–both were the “establishment” choices. Neither candidate attracted national attention for controversial remarks i.e. Akin or Mourdock, and were known commodities in their state.
And yet Berg underperformed Romney by 9.2%, while Rehberg underperformed Romney by 10.5%. Thus, a significant portion of voters in these states “pulled a switcheroo,” opting for Romney plus a Democratic senate candidate.
An inference to be made here is that while Obama was sufficiently unpopular in “Big Sky” country that Romney won easy victories, this dynamic did not translate into broad-based support for Republicans. In other words, many voters sought to signal their discontent with Obama, but not necessarily re-empower the Republican Party. It seems unlikely that a different tack on immigration policy, one widely-suggested post-election remedy, would alleviate the party’s woes in Montana or North Dakota. Rather, for a host of reasons, conservatives in these states have soured on the national GOP’s brand.
Anger and paranoia were in the air Monday at Denver’s “Wings over the Rockies Air and Space Museum,” where Mitt Romney held an evening campaign rally. Draped from the hangar rafters was, of course, a massive American flag; miniature American flags were distributed to rally-goers for waving purposes. So, fittingly, Romney mused about “the beauty of the American soul” and related themes. “I love America!” he declared. “I love you.”
The candidate had already been in town preparing for tomorrow’s first presidential debate at the University of Denver. Current polling data and demographic trends suggest that he is highly unlikely to win Colorado, which gave the rally a throwaway feel – as if put on exclusively for the TV cameras and traveling press corps.
Ken Carpenter, 73, and his wife Paula were in attendance; Ken wore a Romney “pilot wings” lapel pin, which were being distributed outside the venue. An Air Force veteran, he contended that Barack Obama is in the process of “systematically destroying America.”
“Have you seen 2016?” Carpenter asked me.
By this, he was referring to “2016: Obama’s America,” the conspiracy propaganda film produced by former Reagan Administration official and “public intellectual” Dinesh D’Souza. Already the fourth-highest grossing documentary of all time, it is a noxious melange of xenophobic conspiracy theories and lies. “I hadn’t considered the anti-colonial stuff,” said Carpenter, remarking on one of the film’s central themes – that Obama seeks to purposefully bankrupt and bring about the downfall of America, thereby fulfilling his estranged father’s anti-Western ambitions, with the ultimate aim of imposing — as Carpenter put it — a “socialist/communist state.”
“Look what he’s done to our Army,” Carpenter said of the president. “No one is scared of us any more!” As a senior citizen, he was also very concerned about the potentially tyrannical impact of healthcare reform. “I’ll be told to take two aspirin and die,” Carpenter said, invoking the age-old “death panels” trope.
But despite the specter of America’s imminent destruction, the rally took on a festive tone. Romney was introduced by John Elway, the two-time Superbowl champion and
owner executive vice president for football operations of the NFL’s Denver Broncos — “a pretty darn good football team,” Romney remarked, calling Elway an “extraordinary man.” Both are adherents of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.
As Romney’s address proceeded, it became clear that the museum’s sound system was deeply flawed. “I can’t hear a word he’s saying!” exclaimed a woman standing near me. Thankfully, however, occasional phrases and “zingers” were audible. Romney pledged to “help middle income Americans have a better future,” certainly a departure from his assertion back in May that 47% of the voting public, including quite a few “middle income” folks, are not even worth appealing to for support given their indolence and dependence on government.
When Romney made some comment castigating organized labor, the same woman who could not hear shouted, “That’s why I got laid off! Stupid unions.”
“The American people are going to have to make their choice as to what path America takes,” Romney proclaimed, because Obama has “fought for a bigger government.” He then went on to decry upcoming sequestration cuts to the military budget, thereby calling for a bigger government.
If Barack Obama wins reelection, as current polling trends predict he will — perhaps resoundingly — we can expect to hear in the weeks that follow endless analytical wisdom from the usual chorus of pundits. Doubtless, they’ll herald the president’s amazing political savvy and tactical brilliance; “No Drama Obama,” his moniker from the 2008 campaign, has done it again! He was always ahead of the curve, they’ll declare — a master of “three-dimensional chess”! Destined to leave the hapless Romney blindsided! Biden was key! Etc.
But as usual with the pundit class, their proclamations from on high will have been total confabulations. Until rather recently, there was every reason to believe that Obama could be defeated. Republicans once regularly basked in the inevitable deposition of his “regime.” If unemployment numbers don’t improve and discontent with healthcare reform remains high, they confidently asserted, the incumbent was toast! Put it in the bank! Recall circa Summer 2011, when elements of the conservative base salivated at the prospective side-by-side chart-based comparison of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s strong economic record with the misery wrought under Obama? Or how about Mitt Romney’s early supporters in elite GOP circles, who appeared certain that their favored candidate’s “Business Experience” would resonate well with undecided general election voters?
Ultimately, for various reasons, Perry flailed and Romney (in all likelihood) imploded — discrediting both. Yet neither of those failings bear on whether Obama was in fact vulnerable, as had been previously assumed. Because his vulnerabilities were indeed profound. However, the opposition party is so mired in its own ideological self-destruction — a fixation on conspiracy theories, ultra-nationalism, religious zealotry, and so forth — that its presidential nominee has proven utterly unable to capitalize.
For one thing, the extent to which Obama squandered the massive political capital he’d garnered following the near-watershed 2008 election confounds even today. Democrats won decisively, on a wave of discontent with the existing political order. Obama/Biden swept everywhere from Indiana to North Carolina; soon after, the cover of Newsweek blared “We Are All Socialists Now,” and the Republican Party was deemed dead in the water. America seemed on a collective emotional high. Racial barriers broken, Bush and Cheney finally sent packing. Time to start anew.
And then. Rather than pursue any kind of systemic reform to prevent future crises, Obama further entrenched the underlying weaknesses of the banking system. Aside from a few token denunciations of CEOs for purchasing expensive bathroom fixtures on the taxpayer dime, he did almost nothing to channel populist anger over Wall Street malfeasance into actionable reform. Now, a month out from what was supposed to have been a “referendum” on his job performance, the country feels no better equipped to avert another Lehman-style calamity.
One of Obama’s first acts as president-elect was to stock his Economic Advisory board with such renowned experts as Larry Summers, who had a singular role in crafting policy during the Clinton Administration — policy generally thought to have set the stage for meltdown a decade later. Remember all that fuss back in September 2008? When the world financial system was about to collapse — or so claimed the “experts” — and our only option, allegedly, was unprecedented intervention by the federal government? When very smart people insisted on infusing billions upon untold billions right back into the pockets of their fellow “experts” — many of whom specialized in securitizing fraudulent mortgages during the boom years? (Both Obama and Romney supported TARP, lest we forget.)
Then there’s foreign policy. Good grief! Fatigued after almost a decade of endless war, countless Americans were searching for a viable electoral rebuke to the Bush-era strategy of invade first, ask questions later. And so Obama was propelled to victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. As an early opponent of the Iraq war — though it’s true that he merely labeled it “dumb” — peacenik factions of the liberal base gravitated to him, rejecting the ever-hawkish Clinton. Joined by African Americans, younger voters, and some others, this confluence was enough for Obama to eek out a slim delegate victory.
But almost nothing about his first term in office suggests that Obama took seriously his core supporters’ yearning for less killing, destruction, or invasions of other sovereign nations. Instead, he dramatically expanded many of the most offending Bush-era programs, thereby sanctifying them with bipartisan consensus. He failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised, unleashed a torrent of lethal (and not exactly “surgical,” as the Administration claims) drone strikes on innocent Pakistanis and Yemenis, authorized an attack on Libya in open defiance of Congress, and the list goes on.
Byron York documents the despair of Mitt Romney’s core supporters, who long that he be “bolder” and “more aggressive” in attacking Barack Obama. The headline of York’s Examiner piece suggests that the entire Republican Party is now in the process of “beg[ging]” Romney for a “tougher campaign.” During a rally in Toledo, Ohio on Tuesday, the candidate seemed willing to temporarily oblige:
“[The president has] a vision of government that is entirely foreign to anything this nation has ever known,” he announced. “That is not the America I know. That is not the America that built Ohio. That is not the America that we’re going to restore.” (Notice the subtle invocation of the infamous “Build That” trope.)
So, what are the features of this America which Romney apparently aspires to “restore”? Does he mean America as it existed under two terms of George W. Bush, wherein middle class incomes stagnated, wars of aggression were launched, backroom deals with megacorporations were routine, and conservative media offered nary a critical whimper? Or is Romney hoping to “restore” the America he knew as CEO of an elite private equity firm, wherein he oversaw billions of dollars sloshing around international markets via complex financial instruments? Is that the America not so “foreign” to ordinary citizens, the America for which he pines?
Perhaps it’s pointless by now to note that the policies pursued under Barack Obama’s centrist-to-liberal (and in some respects verifiably hawkish/right-wing) Administration are certainly not–by any reasonable assessment–indicative of a cataclysmic departure from U.S. governmental norms. Yet Romney simply asserts this as unmitigated truth, without offering much in the way of evidence–aside from the platitudes which have thus far emblematized his campaign. Then on Wednesday, in a fit of schizophrenia, Romney’s operation pivoted without explanation to a far softer critique of the president, releasing a television ad in which the candidate asserts: “President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families…”
So which is it? Either Obama is “foreign” and dangerous and has cynically gamed the system to keep 47 percent of Americans dependent on government so that they’ll vote for him–as Romney strongly implied in the video released last week of his closed-door remarks to wealthy donors–or Obama genuinely does “care” about the American people and is simply misguided. It would seem that these notions are incompatible with one another, yet Romney freely espouses them both near-simultaneously, without compunction.
Why is Romney finding it impossible to offer a consistent, sensible conservative critique of the Obama Administration (one surely exists)? Perhaps because he has marinated for so long in the GOP’s insulated and intellectually-stunted bizarro universe, where facts have fallen out of favor and white-hot demagogic rhetoric is all the rage. He cannot communicate normally with most Americans, who generally do not despise the president on a personal level.
But here’s the most offensive part of Romney’s floundering shtick: In propounding these inflammatory talking points, he echoes the sentiments of none other than Dinesh D’Souza, whose “2016: Obama’s America” propaganda “documentary” has become a smash hit at the box office. The central theme of D’Souza’s film is that deep-down, Obama harbors seething hatred for America, and thus his presidency has been designed to bring about its downfall by a host of surreptitious means. It’s a revolting hour-and-a-half of cinema, targeted at the most angst-ridden and pliable Americans looking for answers–Americans who in turn have certainly provided Mr. D’Souza with a sizable financial reward.
More importantly, however, the film perpetuates this bizarre conspiracy theory that Obama is some kind of radical “Manchurian Candidate” whose agenda–as Romney put it–is “foreign,” and who poses such an imminent danger to Americans’ way of life that he must be replaced at all costs in November. Lacking any coherent critique of the past four years, nor any positive platform of his own, Romney has now adopted this line of argument–a line which was once relegated to the ugly Internet fringes.
I stumbled out of the Democratic National Convention on the final night in a disoriented daze. What seemed like every last delegate — the majority of them earnest and well-meaning, presumably — had eagerly joined the vice president’s exhortation to cry out, in unison, “Osama bin Laden is dead!”
This was a major thematic refrain of the convention. Osama bin Laden was dead! Barack Obama deserved all Americans’ gratitude for courageously making The Call! And therefore, the muscular Obama-Biden team deserved a second term (also, Mitt Romney is a big wuss and insufficiently reverent of our military). John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, posed the challenge: “Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago!”
Outside the arena, I spotted the Rev. Jesse Jackson — himself a former presidential candidate who once inveighed eloquently against state violence. I thought I would seek spiritual counsel. What guidance could he offer? “The cycle has to be broken. Militarism must subside,” Jackson told me. “But at the same time, we are at war.”
Then I encountered David Brooks, the reliably moderate New York Times columnist. He was in a rush, heading toward a waiting car. “I’m late for something,” Brooks said when I approached. How about just a brief comment? Please? Did he share at all in my revulsion to the bin Laden chant? “I had a little of that reaction,” Brooks allowed, hopping quickly into the vehicle.
I thought of Dennis Kucinich. The previous day, I had interviewed the outgoing congressman, who has long been the brunt of jokes and jabs for being fixated on peace. I asked what it meant that both he and Ron Paul, probably the two most unwavering opponents of war, would no longer be serving in the House come January.
“When you look at some of the issues where my supporters and Ron Paul’s supporters tend to agree,” Kucinich told me, “civil liberties, getting rid of the Patriot Act — when you look at that, you’ll see there’s starting to happen in America an alliance — informal however it is — between liberals and conservatives on issues that are fundamental issues in this country. Such as freedom, civil liberties, war and peace, America’s overreach abroad, monetary policy and the Federal Reserve… these are fundamental issues!”
I noted Kucinich was the only Democrat to vote last month against imposing “crippling sanctions” on Iran. (Paul joined him in doing so, naturally.) “The young people involved with Congressman Paul are real,” Kucinich said. “They come to politics out of principle, and that’s great to see. They ought to be encouraged.”
“How about the militarization and federalization of police?” I asked.
“Well, that’s a problem,” Kucinich opined. “And you know, the privatization of our Army is a problem…”
I interjected: “So you have the Department of Homeland Security giving these huge grants to local police departments so they can purchase SWAT gear, heavy weaponry–”
“Or drones,” Kucinich added. “No, I don’t approve of any of that. We have an increasing militarization of our society. And that really is against the basic freedoms of America.”
When the Paul-Kucinich tandem is gone, I wondered — while ambling around downtown Charlotte that night — who will stand against the “increasing militarization of our society”? In his speech at the “We are the Future” counter-rally preceding the Republican National Convention, Paul denounced America’s “very violent culture,” including “police violence,” and defended both Bradley Manning and Julian Assange by name.
Earlier that day, I happened upon another outgoing congressman, Barney Frank, who — like Kucinich — has been a regular cross-ideological ally of Paul’s. I asked what Frank made of the plight of the Paul delegates at the Republican National Convention–did they have legitimate grievances?
“Clearly, yeah,” Frank told me. “They won the delegates fair and square and the rules committee denied them.” And what accounted for this, I asked? Why did it happen?
“Why are you asking me why the Republicans do things? I can’t explain anything they do!”
“Because you’re a very insightful man, congressman!”
“But I’m also no abnormal psychiatrist!” Frank quipped.
Since the Ron Paul phenomenon began in 2007, liberals and establishment Republicans have tended to mock the more eccentric characters associated with the movement. They scorned Paul when he denounced Goldman Sachs and the Israeli occupation of Palestine and stood up for Occupy Wall Street protesters while his rivals for the Republican nomination slimed them. Paul’s role in American politics, these sneering critics contend, can be reduced to hackneyed jokes about “Paultards” and Ayn Rand.
Such critics would do well to meet Catherine Bernard, a public defender from Dublin, Georgia, former Democrat, and passionate Ron Paul delegate whom I interviewed in Tampa. I was encouraged to find her by two fellow Ron Paul delegates from Georgia — there were only three — who told me she “stood up, boldly” at an introductory brunch for their state delegation. Sue P. Everhart, the Georgia GOP chairwoman, had desired that all delegates vote as a bloc for Romney on the floor of the convention. Or in other words, Everhart wanted delegates bound to other candidates to suck it up and support the presumptive nominee.
“The Georgia Delegation is a pretty large delegation,” Bernard told me. “Third largest in the country. So Reince Priebus was there. Our governor was there, a bunch of dignitaries….
“Chairwoman Everhart went ahead and had all the delegates stand, all 76 of us, and then she said, ‘Is there anyone here who doesn’t support Mitt Romney?’ That’s when I raised my hand.
“She looked at me and she said, ‘Well–who are you going to support?’ And I said, Ron Paul ma’am.”
People in the room started clattering; somebody yelled, “He’s nuts!”
“Everhart began to question me on why I wanted to vote for Ron Paul,” Bernard recalled, “which in retrospect was inappropriate for her to ask. But I’m a public defender, so I’m used to judges and prosecutors asking disrespectful questions of me all the time.”
She laughed. “Several other people have characterized it as a berating.”
I found Everhart on the Tampa convention concourse and took the opportunity to ask about the “berating” incident. “If you want to ride with the big boys,” the chairwoman told me, “and that’s what this is — if you can’t do it, don’t saddle up!”
Sure enough, the Georgia delegation’s three votes for Ron Paul were registered when it came time for a roll call. Bernard and her colleagues did not back down.
There was no comparable discord at the Democratic National Convention. Everything felt more scripted and predictable. I could not shake the feeling that night in Charlotte, as legions of teary-eyed Democrats chanted about the killing of bin Laden, that we were all in for some kind of reckoning. That we had ignored at our peril the wisdom of Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich (and Ralph Nader), who warned about militarism infecting every facet of society. And now it was too late.
A week later, crisis hit. The American embassy in Egypt was sacked, our ambassador to Libya murdered. Angry protesters took to the streets everywhere from Tunisia to Yemen. The entire region seems teetering on the brink of calamity. Mitt Romney cravenly accused President Obama of “sympathizing” with the Egyptian attackers and of not being aggressive enough in defending American interests; Obama then ominously intoned that “justice will be done” as warships headed for the Libyan coast.
I felt the same sinking feeling as I did the final night of the Democratic convention, like we had finally reached the point of no return. I don’t know that there’s anything left to do — other than, I suppose, pray. But I do know one thing: come November, I will write-in Ron Paul.
Michael Tracey is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Reason, Mother Jones, and other publications.
In his address before the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, former Florida Congressman Robert Wexler mounted a rollicking, bombastic defense of Israel, affirming America’s “unflinching commitment” to that nation’s security. “The speech I delivered was not a typical convention speech,” he told me, reflecting. “It was actually a significantly substantive speech, in terms of foreign policy about a particular country. To my knowledge, it was the first time that a speech of that nature has been made at either a Democratic or Republican convention outlining an Administration’s policy about Israel.”
Since leaving elected office in 2010, Wexler has been president of a Washington, D.C. think tank, the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. Why, I asked, did he feel that Israel deserved a speech dedicated exclusively to it at the Democratic National Convention?
“Because they’re our closest ally in the Middle East.”
“What about Iraq?” I responded. (You know, the country America invaded in 2003, which Wexler voted to authorize?)
“Iraq is not America’s closest ally in the Middle East,” he said. “Hopefully they will become a very strong democracy who aligns themselves with America.”
His speech touted “the most crippling sanctions in history” imposed on Iran under the Obama administration. This was language Wexler’s fellow Democrats were eager to defend.
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson told me, “stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons is a vital American national security interest. And the crippling international sanctions that — ”
“Is the word ‘crippling’ appropriate?” I asked.
“I think so, yes,” Richardson responded. “When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapon program, yes.”
Yet the problem is, as we know from a decade of sanctions against Iraq, such measures can’t “cripple” weapons programs without also maiming the civilian economy. Democratic administrations have defended such policies before, however–most famously when “60 Minutes” asked Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” She replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”
And now Iran. “They deserve crippling sanctions,” Richardson continued. “We don’t want to go to war, we don’t want military action. But crippling sanctions? Yeah. On the regime.”
“Will sanctions merely foster resentment among the Iranian populace and effectively embolden the regime?” I asked, calling it “the Ron Paul argument.” Read More…
CHARLOTTE—Top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett’s staff called the cops to kick me out of a media area last night when I questioned her about drone strikes.
As I sat up in the rafters listening to some Democratic National Convention speech — I don’t even particularly remember which one — Jarrett suddenly appeared to my right. She was being interviewed on camera by some television hack; I don’t even particularly know whom. So I rose from my seat and observed. There was an unnerving coldness about Jarrett’s demeanor — naturally, she laughed and smiled for the camera, bantering obligingly. But callousness underlain this guise of mainstream jocular propriety. I could see it in her eyes.
“Bye John,” she said, wrapping up the interview. I sprung into action.
“A lot of the president’s Democratic critics are very — ” I started.
“Excuse me, Sir. Sorry —” an aide of hers swooped in, attempting to intercept me. “Sir, excuse me. Sir!”
I spoke over the aide. “A lot of the president’s Democratic critics are very upset about the policy of drone strikes,” I stated — did Jarrett have any comment? She initially said nothing, while the aide continued to protest. “Sir, we need to get to another interview.” Then Jarrett broke her silence.
“If you would like to interview me, then Clo is right there — my Communications Officer. I suggest that —”
“Why can’t you comment right now, given that I’m already interacting with you?” I countered.
“I would suggest that you do just what Politico, and just what [inaudible] did, and ask for an interview. And we would be happy to accommodate you. I don’t think it makes sense —”
“So you have no comment on drone strikes?” I interjected. She started for the exit.
“Many Pakistanis are dying, ma’am,” I shouted. No response. By then Jarrett was out of reach.
“Do you have a card?” her aide, Clo Ewing — Director of Constituency Press for the Obama campaign — queried me angrily. (She did not reply to an emailed request for comment.)
Ewing looked intently at my credential, seemingly incredulous that I was entitled to be in her boss’s presence. Jarrett’s handlers, alarmed, then joined forces with Convention staff and summoned two uniformed police officers, who informed me I was to leave the area immediately — my duly-assigned credential notwithstanding. (In fairness, the officers themselves were friendly about this, and actually seemed rather befuddled.)
As I gathered my belongings, the guy who had been manning the TV camera whined at me: “Come on man, we’re trying to get people up here for interviews. What you did was not cool.”
“Fuck off,” I told him, and left.
Editor’s Note: Elsewhere in national security denialism, yesterday President Obama wouldn’t confirm or deny the existence of a presidential ‘kill list’ when asked by a reporter, despite his administration leaking knowledge of such a list to the New York Times.
After Ron Paul’s speech Sunday evening—part of his “We are the Future Rally” held at the University of Florida Sun Dome—I set out to gauge audience reaction. “He hit a lot of the same points he normally hits,” said James Smack, vice chairman of the Nevada Republican Party and a Paul stalwart. “But there was a little more passion, a little more zest…”
This was also my impression. Some observers thought that Paul would strike a conciliatory tone to ingratiate himself (or more likely, his son Sen. Rand Paul) with the GOP establishment. But as Smack noted, “there were some solid shots taken at the RNC—merited shots.” Paul accused party insiders of flouting convention rules to disenfranchise his supporters.
But this was not what stood out most about the address. Over the course of an hour and 15 minutes, Paul was at his most subversive, demonstrating precisely why the Romney campaign offered him a convention speaking slot only under the condition that they be allowed to vet his remarks. (Paul declined.)
“Let me tell you, Bradley Manning didn’t kill anybody,” the Texas congressman declared at around minute 45, speaking of a “soft spot” in his heart for whistleblowers. “Bradley Manning hasn’t caused the death of anybody. And what he has exposed—he is the equivalent of Daniel Ellsberg, who told us the truth about Vietnam!” The crowd exulted. Paul then pivoted to a spirited defense of Julian Assange, chastising the government of Sweden for truckling to alleged American demands that the Aussie be extradited to the U.S. for prosecution.
Paul’s campaign has long touted the fact that he received an outsized percentage of donations from active-duty military. I couldn’t help but speculate that his position on Bradley Manning—who after all has been charged in military court with aiding and abetting al-Qaeda—might not be popular within those ranks. I mentioned this hunch to Kaleb Hornsby, a Paul district coordinator from Augusta, Georgia and Navy veteran. “To maintain good military discipline, order should be followed,” he said. “You make certain agreements when you go into the military. As a soldier, I don’t think Manning should have done it. I wouldn’t have done it.” Even so, Hornsby regarded himself as a supporter of WikiLeaks and admitted to struggling with the issue. Read More…