The Sweet Smell of Trump

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Con artist. Demagogue. And yes, in many ways, a fascist.

It can seem incredible that such a man is the front-runner for one of our two major parties.

But as shocking as Donald Trump may be, we’ve seen his type before. The trouble is, we Americans forget our history — and that enables his rise.

Back in the 1930’s, there was Father Charles Coughlin. A Canadian-born Catholic priest, Coughlin started out as a progressive who supported FDR’s New Deal, before using his nationwide radio program and magazine to promote anti-semitism, Mussolini, Hitler and, like all such people, himself, above all.

In the 50’s, we had Senator Joe McCarthy, who built his power by whipping up mass hysteria about communists and homosexuals supposedly subverting the U.S. government and army.

By 1957, the toxic mixture of celebrity, fear-mongering, hatred and phony patriotism — which shocks us so in Trump — was already familiar. Familiar enough to shape the plot of a Hollywood classic, “The Sweet Smell of Success.”

“Success” tells the story of an unprincipled, self-aggrandizing gossip columnist and power broker named J.J. Hunsecker, a character based on the real life Walter Winchell.

Check out this scene, with Burt Lancaster as Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as press agent Sidney Falco. Witness Hunsecker’s greed, dishonesty, violence and narcissistic identification of himself with the nation — and just try not to think of Donald J. Trump.

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#ObamaAndKids — My Contributions

Photos of President Obama with kids (many taken by the great White House chief photographer, Pete Souza) range from heart-warming to just plain wonderful. So, like so many others, I love the #ObamaAndKids hashtag that’s trending now. It led me to go back through my own photos of Obama, looking for these ones.

Barack Obama meets three little boys, Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama meets three little boys, before a speech at Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008

Barack Obama and a little boy, Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama and a little boy, before a speech at Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008

Presidential candidate Barack Obama meets a little girl following a speech in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Sept. 8, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama meets a little girl, following a speech in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Sept. 8, 2008. In his connection with her, we can see why there are so many wonderful #ObamaAndKids photos: he wholeheartedly loves children, and they can tell. (Meanwhile the Secret Service agent over his shoulder is doing his job, making sure even she is no kind of threat.)

A little girl who has just met presidential candidate Barack Obama, Michigan, Sept. 1, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

This little girl had just met presidential candidate Barack Obama at Labor Day picnic in Monroe, Michigan, Sept. 1, 2008. He had signed a shirt for her, which she was now wearing.

 

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Suicide Mission: In Embracing Trump, the GOP May Finally Stop Him — And Destroy Itself

[Also published at Huffington Post.] For decades, the GOP has been playing its base for suckers, by running the Grand Old Play: pander to the small-government, traditional-values rubes, and then get back to real business: serving business. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne traces the history of this “serial betrayal” in his new book, Why the Right Went Wrong.

But after falling for it over and over, the marks are finally waking up to the con — and they’re out of their minds with rage.

That’s why so many of them support Donald Trump, who by any traditional measure is an insane choice for a presidential candidate.

Donald Trump by Gage SkidmoreBecause Trump isn’t a candidate in the traditional sense. He’s a giant middle finger to the GOP establishment. Even his hair says “F*ck you.”

And it’s why the establishment can’t say anything to undermine Trump’s support.

It’s the cost of spending decades teaching people not to trust you — especially if you also spent those decades rebranding reason as “liberal bias.” No argument will get you out of paying that bill.

So the establishment seems to be giving up the fight. Instead, it’s making a tentative, nose-holding move towards Trump. It’s a move made not in surrender, but in desperate hope: GOP elites pray that for all his populist posturing, Trump is really just a more flamboyant version of the Grand Old Play.

They’re trusting that eventually Trump will drop the act. As Bob Dole says, “He’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.” After all, deals are what Trump has done throughout his checkered business career. He’s cut them with Democrats, Republicans, Saudi princes, mob-affiliated contractors, whomever, as long as it he thinks he’ll come out ahead (though he’s often been wrong about that). To get the deal done, he’ll say whatever he needs to.

Trump admitted as much in his recent interview with the New York Times editorial board:

Mr. Trump talked about the art of applause lines. “You know,” he said of his events, “if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”

So maybe the GOP can cut its own deal. But let’s step through what happens next.

There are four plausible scenarios party leaders need to plan for:

1. Trump loses the Republican primary to a relatively sane alternative, i.e. not Ted Cruz or one of the other extremist (but unlikely-to-win) choices.

2. Trump loses the Republican primary to Ted Cruz (again, God forbid).

3. Trump wins the primary, but loses the general.

4. Trump wins it all (oh please, God forbid).

You could argue that if the elites embrace Trump, any of these scenarios works out better for them.

Scenario 1. The establishment embrace damages Trump’s brand (and he’s nothing but brand), helping him lose, they hope, to a more palatable candidate. Then the Grand Old Play can proceed more or less as it always has.

Scenario 2. Trump still loses, although after vanquishing one demon, the GOP has summoned a worse one in Cruz. As nutty as Trump is, he doesn’t want to tear down the system that made him wealthy. But Ted Cruz has shown he’s willing to tear down anything that isn’t Ted Cruz. I’ll leave exploring this nightmare for another time, but for now, let’s assume the party would try to adapt its Trump strategy to Cruz.

Scenario 3. After Trump wins the primary, the party’s reputation is beaten down even more for a few months, since it is now officially led by a global and historical embarrassment. But at least the suffering would end in November!

Scenario 4. If a (I hesitate even to write it) President Trump does in fact turn out to be a deal-maker, the GOP establishment does everything it can to run a non-catastrophic presidency. It surrounds Trump with regents who know what they’re doing, prevents him from actually wielding power, and keeps him happy by flattering his Titanic ego (huge but fragile, like the ship).

You can see how to the GOP, embracing Trump might look, if you squint really hard, sort of clever.

But it turns out to be a kamikaze strategy: all the party can win is full ownership of its destruction.

Under each of these scenarios, the rage of base voters will go beyond extreme. This time, finally, they were promised the end of the betrayals. But once again, betrayed they will be, either by the party, Trump, or both. Meanwhile, mainstream Republicans will recoil from their party’s apparently limitless cynicism.

The GOP, left with no valid claim to either its base or its mainstream, will just finish splitting into pieces.

There is another choice, though, unlikely as it may seem. Republican leaders could show true leadership. They could repudiate Trump, Cruz, and all forms of extremism, and make a brave stand for principled conservatism.

They would still be likely to lose. But they would lose with honor. And on that, they could begin to rebuild.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Who Says Trump Is Smart?

Donald Trump photo by Anythingyouwant, via Wikimedia CommonsDonald Trump’s ideas are widely recognized as not just hateful, but idiotic.

And yet the conventional wisdom in most of the media is that, all the same, “he’s a smart guy” — after all, look how successful he is. Even his liberal critics, including the very smart Rachel Maddow, give him credit: Trump may have no principles, but he obviously has brains.

A related line of thought holds that as a smart guy, he must know that what he’s saying is wrong in every way, so he can’t actually believe it, and must be saying it for purely political reasons.

But where is the evidence that he actually is intelligent? If he is, he also must be one of our most brilliant actors, because he’s completely convincing as a lout.

I suspect the reason so many journalists assume he’s only pretending to be stupid is that few of them know much about business — including how to judge business success.

Some examples:

1. Many journalists seem to think that making a lot of money is evidence of high intelligence. But anyone who’s worked in the corporate world can tell you different. Some senior executives are really smart, but many are more or less average. As research has shown, drive and social skills often count more than brains do.

You may have heard the old saying about college: It’s a place where former A students teach B students to work for C students.

2. Few journalists seem to understand how Trump makes his money. They accept his self-presentation as a genius builder. But for a long time it’s looked as if what Trump really does is just license his brand (for now).

He does have a talent for being famous, and that’s worth money. If you want to build something, he can make a lot of money by charging you to put his name on it. But that’s the same kind of “genius” that any celebrity shows when they put their name on perfume or sneakers.

3. There’s little reason to assume that Trump actually has nearly as much money as he claims. We have only his word for it — the word of one of the world’s most notorious fabricators. And as he himself has said, his net worth varies depending on how he feels.

Since a lot of his net worth seems to amount to brand equity, that actually, kind of, sort of, makes sense. I can tell you that the Critchley brand is worth not $10 billion — that’s Trump change — but $20 billion. Since I won’t take a penny less for it, I can claim it’s true.

In fact, I think I will. Would you like to loan me a half-billion or so? I have $20 billion in collateral.

4. Speaking of borrowing money, Trump has had to be bailed out repeatedly, with four corporate bankruptcies to his name. If you want to see someone who’s a genius at making money, take a look at the remarkably non-loutish Warren Buffett. As S.V. Dáte has pointed out, Buffett has used his investing acumen to beat the market about 22 times over during the time since Trump inherited a pile of money from his father. Trump, on the other hand, might have done better if he had put his windfall in an index fund and left it alone.

As I’ve watched Trump get cut all kinds of slack for saying the stupidest things imaginable, I’ve wondered if he just comes across as very different in person. Maybe those who have met him know something I don’t.

But Mark Bowden makes me think, “Nah.” For a profile he wrote for Playboy some years back, Bowden spent quite a bit of time with Trump. His impression, as described in the latest Vanity Fair, sure rings true:

Apart from the comical ego, the errors, and the self-serving bluster, what you get from Trump are commonplace ideas pronounced as received wisdom. Begin registering all Muslims in America? Round up the families of suspected terrorists? Ban all Muslims from entering the country? Carpet-bomb ISIS-held territories in Iraq (killing the 98-plus percent of civilians who are, in effect, being held hostage there by the terror group and turning a war against a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims into a global religious crusade)? Using nuclear weapons? The ideas that pop into his head are the same ones that occur to any teenager angry about terror attacks. They appeal to anyone who can’t be bothered to think them through–can’t be bothered to ask not just the moral questions but the all-important practical one: Will doing this makes things better or worse? [My emphasis.]

Maybe we should take the advice of Maya Angelou: “When people show you who they are, believe them.”

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Conservatives, liberals join in repudiating Trump’s hate speech against Muslims

Donald Trump photo by Gage Skidmore via voter.com, Creative Commons licenseWe knew liberals would be denouncing Donald Trump’s hateful call to ban Muslims from entering the United States — and God bless them. But so too are leading conservatives — and God bless them, too:

(Updated 12/8/2015)

Dick Cheney: “I think this whole notion that somehow we can say no more Muslims, just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”

Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives: “This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for and, more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.”

Reince Priebus, Chair of the Republican National Committee: “I don’t agree. We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values.”

Bill Kristol, Editor of the Weekly Standard: “Trump has entered John Birch Society/Pat Buchanan territory. Important to save conservatism from him.”

Ari Fleischer, former spokesman for President GW Bush: “Trump’s statement calling for a total ban on all Muslims entering the US is nuts.”

Russell Moore, Southern Baptist Convention: “Anyone who cares an iota about religious liberty will denounce the reckless, demagogic @realDonaldTrump plan for Muslims.”

Jennifer Horn, New Hampshire Republican Party Chair: “There are some issues that transcend politics…it is un-Republican. It is unconstitutional. And it is un-American.”

Matt Moore, South Carolina Republican Party Chair: “As a conservative who truly cares about religious liberty, Donald Trump’s bad idea and rhetoric send a shiver down my spine. American exceptionalism means always defending our inalienable rights, not attacking them when it’s politically convenient.”

Jeff Kaufmann, Iowa Republican Party Chair: “I’m here to reiterate that our founding principles are stronger than political cynicism… we don’t make ourselves safer by betraying bedrock Constitutional values.”

David French, National Review: “Even the most hawkish national security conservatives can identify multiple categories of Muslims who should have access to the United States, beginning — of course — with our own citizens. There are many others. What about the interpreters who’ve laid down their lives to serve our warriors downrange and now find themselves under imminent threat from jihadists? What about members of allied militaries who are training to be the Muslim “boots on the ground” that we need to help take the fight to the enemy? Do we treat the Kurds — who are sheltering so many of Iraq’s Christians while also providing the most effective fighting force against ISIS — the same as we treat suspected terrorists?”

Sen. Marco Rubio: “I disagree with Donald Trump’s latest proposal. His habit of making offensive and outlandish statements will not bring Americans together.”

Gov. Chris Christie: “A ridiculous position and one that won’t even be productive.”

Former Gov. Jeb Bush: “Donald Trump is unhinged. His ‘policy’ proposals are not serious.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham: [email protected] has gone from making absurd comments to being downright dangerous with his bombastic rhetoric.”

Regarding earlier xenophobic proposals by Trump, such as requiring all Muslims to be registered in a database:

Jonah Goldberg, National Review: “No movement that embraces Trump can call itself conservative.”

Max Boot, Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations: “Trump is a fascist. And that’s not a term I use loosely or often. But he’s earned it.”

Steve Deace, radio host and pundit: “If Obama proposed the same religion registry as Trump every conservative in the country would call it what it is — creeping fascism.”

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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I get that bigots aren’t ashamed of being bigots — but why aren’t they ashamed of being cowards?

Donald Trump photo by Michael Vadon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsDonald Trump believes we should have a “total and complete* shutdown” of all U.S. immigration by Muslims. And the idea got him a standing ovation at a rally today.

OK, I get that bigots feel no shame over being bigots.

But how is it they feel no shame over being cowards?

Obviously, they are cowards — bigotry is born of fear plus ignorance.

But one thing cowards fear most is being seen as cowards. That’s why cowards tend to be such blowhards — blowhards like Donald J. Trump.

And yet here we have thousands of people at rallies, and presumably millions across the country, just fine with trumpeting (Trumpeting?) the sad fact:

“We’re cowards!”

I don’t get it.

*And redundant.

Photo: By Michael Vadon [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Our Embarrassing Press Corps: President Obama’s ISIS Q&A at the G20

One trivial question after another, ignoring one substantive answer after another.

Obama & Putin at the G20 in Antalya, Turkey

Photo by Pete Souza, The White House

In the near aftermath of what’s been called France’s 9/11, all the U.S. press corps in Antalya wanted to know about was whether President Obama thought he had looked tough enough, or whether he somehow had not considered a bonehead-obvious idea. You can see the whole embarrassing spectacle here (Q&A begins at 5:43).

And after Obama patiently explained how grownups think about difficult issues, they’d ask the same childish questions again.

Why?

  1. Because those are the questions that uninformed people ask
  2. A lot of uninformed people are watching
  3. So we should ask the questions they want asked.

And that’s how far too many reporters, who I’m sure are convinced they’re only serving the public, have made it their job to keep the public uninformed.

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That’ll Do, Pig: If You Care About Excellence, Stop Over-Praising

Also published at Huffington Post. In a meeting of nonprofit leaders the other day, I heard an executive praise some recent work done by his staff as “amazing” and “incredible”.

I hear this kind of thing so often that, normally, it hardly registers — it’s become the equivalent of someone saying “thank you”.

But this time it hit me: it is the equivalent of saying “thank you”. What these staffers had done wasn’t amazing or incredible at all. It was their job.

How did “amazing and incredible” come to mean “doing your job”?

I thought back to the highest-performing organizations I’ve worked with, in entertainment, media, technology or politics: no one talked like this. Among the very best of those organizations was Obama for America. At OFA, superlative performance wasn’t amazing or incredible. It was described simply as “gettin’ it done”.

At mediocre organizations, on the other hand, people get a gold star for finding their way to the office.

Of course, we should recognize good work. Skillful managers catch people doing things right, as Ken Blanchard taught us long ago.

But there’s a long way from there to here. In the years since we discovered positive reinforcement, a kind of praise inflation has taken over. Like monetary inflation, praise inflation reduces the value of the underlying currency.

It’s a formula for mediocrity. If you praise people to the skies for simply meeting your expectations, what does that say about your expectations?

I myself wrestle with the temptation to over-praise. After all, it feels like what a kind, supportive boss would do.

But I’ve realized that over-praise is the opposite of supportive: it tells people is that their work isn’t worth much.

The result? High performers feel that their work is unrecognized, and low performers feel encouraged to get away with even less — after all, “adequate” has now been deemed “amazing”.

Research backs this up. Intrinsic motivation — satisfaction in one’s work — yields better results than does extrinsic motivation — external rewards or punishments. Extrinsic motivation is not only weaker than intrinsic motivation, it undermines it.

It might be better to take a lesson from another model of excellence, the 1995 movie Babe. Farmer Hoggett is the “boss” of Babe, the world’s highest-achieving pig. Babe has learned to do the job of a top sheepdog, and against all odds (spoiler alert), he wins a sheep-herding championship.

Here’s how Farmer Hoggett praises his hard-working genius:

Narrator: And though every single human in the stands or in the commentary boxes was at a complete loss for words, the man who in his life had uttered fewer words than any of them knew exactly what to say.

Farmer Hoggett: That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

And Babe beams with pride.

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Bill O’Reilly and I Killed Bin Laden — But the Liberal Media Doesn’t Want You to Know

Originally published at the Huffington Post: We were right there with Seal Team Six, Bill and me.

Please, don’t call us heroes. We were just two patriotic Americans, doing our jobs.

And our job was to crash land the chopper, hustle up the stairs, and — BAM! Send America’s greatest foe on his way to a date with the Devil.

Now, if you looked around that compound in Abbottabad — if you turned it inside out— you think you’d find any zealots from the left wing media there?

You think they’d have the stones?

Please.

They’d be back the hotel, ordering room service.

But now, these same cowards are saying I wasn’t there either, and neither was Bill.

Surprised? Don’t be. These people aren’t going to tell you the truth — they hate the truth. Because truth gets in the way of tearing America down — and of tearing down our troops.

Folks, here’s the truth — and you’ll only get it here. I saw the photos of the Seal Team Six raid. And so did Bill, with his own eyes. Hell, we both saw the movie.

And we didn’t turn away.

Could have stepped out for another Coke, or a Snickers.

Didn’t.

But they don’t want you to know that. They want you to think we’re the liars.

They’re running an orchestrated campaign, a hit job. They want you to think we said we were actually there with Seal Team Six.

As if that’s what the words, “Right there with Seal Team Six,” mean.

Unbelievable.

What part of, “We saw pictures,” don’t these pinheads understand?

What we meant is perfectly clear — no matter how much the liberal media wants to twist it, or how much they want to apologize to our enemies for the brave actions of our troops.

I’m done talking about this. And so is Bill. And so is the management of Fox News — the highest rated channel in cable, bar none.

But do you think that’ll stop the also-rans and bottom-rungers? Of course not.

Just wait. They’re going to come after us again. You heard it here first.

The next thing you know, they’re going to claim that Bill and I didn’t win World War Two.

World War Two! The war that saved civilization from the Nazis!

You think they won’t? Mark my words.

Because these people?

They have no shame.

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Obama’s Real Crime: Treating Americans Like Adults

Originally published at the Huffington Post: There are obvious explanations for Rudy Giuliani turning himself into a Donald Trump-scale joke this week by attacking President Obama’s patriotism.

#1: A craving for attention, in someone who had fallen out of the spotlight.

#2: Racism, just the latest example of the right’s “othering” of Obama. Giuliani denies he’s a racist, of course, but like Trump, he’s obviously comfortable with exploitingracism, and at that point, sorry, it’s racism.

But, obvious though these explanations may be, I find them unsatisfying — there’s something more going on here, as well as in the failure of Republican leaders (apart from Marco Rubio) to repudiate Giuliani.

Giuliani and others like him can’t possibly believe their own claims that Obama never shows patriotic fervor. Patriotism has defined this president since he first gained national attention with his “No Red America, No Blue America” speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

But they do seem genuinely angry about this: that Obama will now and then grant that, even as it strives to be “a more perfect union,” America has flaws.

Surely only a child would believe that if you love something, you must never criticize it in any way.

Aha.

Here’s what really gets Giuliani and the others. Obama is breaking the unwritten law of modern conservative politics:

At all times, you must treat Americans like children.

Look at the enormous investment in reassurance that seems to go into every GOP event. There aren’t just flags, there are flags everywhere, and on everything. Speakers don’t just express patriotism, they battle to declaim, loudest and longest, that America is the greatest country in the history of the world.

When you’re the greatest country in the history of the world, you might expect that would mean a little less anxiety — as Jerry Seinfeld once asked, how many billions did McDonald’s need to serve before they finally accepted that they were doing OK?

But no. Apparently we’re to believe that the people of the greatest country in the history of the world can’t bear to hear anything but unalloyed praise.

They must never be exposed to the complicated truths of the adult world.

And there goes Obama, saying that America is the greatest country ever known, andsometimes we fall short of our own ideals. Outrage!

Why?

I blame marketing.

At least since the Nixon-Humphrey presidential campaign of 1968, our politics have been dominated by marketing. This has been especially so on the right, whence we get the postmodern, post-reality politics of pioneers like Nixon veteran and Fox News head Roger Ailes, which makes marketing not just the vehicle but the point. Freedom means the free market, and the free market is never wrong. What’s right is what people buy.

Marketing has useful, economy-growing effects, but — here’s another complicated, adult truth — it also has some negative ones, chief among them its tendency to infantilize us. What do we hear from marketers all day long? “You deserve this.” It’s the underlying theme of every ad you see.

And it’s become the underlying theme of GOP politics: you deserve everything you want (wealth, safety), and nothing you don’t (taxes, the consequences of wars). It’s ironic, given that there was a time when Republicans prided themselves on being the grown-ups.

From the marketing-dominant perspective, the charge that Obama is unpatriotic — and the apparently real anger behind that charge — finally makes sense.

In the reality-based world, yes, it’s ridiculous and, as noted, makes a joke of the person behind it. But what if you think America and marketing are more or less the same thing? That this should be a land of child-consumers, swaddled in comforting fictions?

Then yeah, I guess Obama isn’t very patriotic towards that.

And when he shows it, when he acts like he thinks we’re capable of something more, you can see how some would express not feigned, but genuine outrage at the threat to their debased version of American greatness.

After all, there’s money at stake.

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