Sunday, September 25, 2016

Donald Trump's Barrel of Squirrels

How Does The Donald Do It?
Why do you watch sports on television? It's the only thing that happens on television. It actually occurs; that's why you can't stop watching it. Trump occurs. That's why we can't take our eyes off him.

-- Ron Suskind, on Chris Lydon's "Radio Open Source," September 8, 2016
In 1939, Robert Hutchins, boy wonder president of the University of Chicago, abolished its football program. I once asked another president of a major American university if he believed a semi-pro athletic program was a good fit inside "the academy," and how it could be justified. He replied, "I've always just considered it an anomaly."

Is that how we should think about a Donald Trump inside the American political system? As an anomaly?

Of course, part of the answer lies with his squirrels. But it's so much more.

For starters, there are solid, conventional explanations for what we have been doing to our politics ever since the Democratic Party joined the Republicans in ignoring the plight of the poor, working poor, beating back the unions that once enabled the working class to create a middle class, and then relying on the 1% to pay the party's bills.
Both parties failed to listen, and thus did not hear, the mounting public despair, disgust, and distrust that the parties created, and had by this year risen well above flood stage to rage. The Democratic Party's leadership refused to budge, even as primary and poll results revealed the state of the union was a demand for change, for representation, and a rejection of the establishment.

The Democrats offered a disaffected public their party's most quintessential establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, with her 1950's-style campaign, and the second highest negatives of any presidential candidate ever. They had to have seen her struggle trying to best two of the nation's most unlikely presidential candidates -- Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders showed the Democrats what they had to do to win, how to generate not just numbers of voters but enthusiastic voters, how to attract new members from independents and first-time voters, and how to crowd-fund a presidential campaign with $27 contributions rather than billionaires. Not only did they not support him, or learn from him, or even thank him, they affirmatively fought him at every turn.

Then, of course, there's Hillary's familiar 30 years of baggage.
But there is much more to Trump's success and style than can be understood with conventional analyses of the Democratic Party's failures. [Photo credit: Wikipedia]

Who is this guy? What is he doing? Why is he doing it? How come so many Americans are supporting him? Are there any explanations?

In fact, there are an increasing number of theories as to how Donald Trump seems to have single-handedly bent what was once the American democratic process to his own ends.

One of my earlier theories emerged during conservative Hugh Hewitt's interview with Trump:
Hugh Hewitt (HH): You said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.

Donald Trump (DT): No, I meant he's the founder of ISIS.

. . .

HH: I think I would say . . . they created the vacuum into which ISIS came, but they didn't create ISIS. That's what I would say. . . . I'd just use different language to communicate it.

DT: But they wouldn't talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?

HH: Well, good point.
See, e.g., "Trump Might Not Be Blundering in Race," September 9, 2016; and "Understanding Trump," OpEdNews, August 29, 2016.

In other words, Trump's serious, presidential campaign strategy -- or perhaps just his personal, narcissistic goal -- may simply be to ensure he remains a visible ingredient in the media's ever-bubbling pot. There are very few ways for even America's most highly paid, skilled publicists to accomplish that. Trump has found, and seems to be comfortable with one of them: an outpouring of shocking assertions in colorful language, even if it often requires that he roam well outside the ample tent of truth.

Recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind provided a thoughtful expansion on my mere modest hunch, in an interview with one of America's brightest and most thoughtful talk show hosts: Chris Lydon, on WBUR's "Open Source." “Election 2016: Unreality T.V.,” September 8, 2016.

As Suskind explained,
"He [Trump] understands that the reality-based community is now being replaced by reality show values. And he knows how those work.

Here are some of the principles. Try to make sure it happens on the screen. Try to evolve, or devolve; just keep moving. Make sure their eyes are always on you. Make sure, even if what you say is nonsensical, and you flip back later and say 'I lied,' or 'I was wrong,' that they can't take their eyes off of you. . . .

Why do you watch sports on television? It's the only thing that happens on television. It actually occurs; that's why you can't stop watching it. Trump occurs. That's why we can't take our eyes off him.

And he understands that that's power. He flip flops four times in a day. Did he say it? Did he not say it? Is he taking it back? There's four different news stories between the morning and the night.

Hillary Clinton, what did she do that day? Was she even working?

He's got another day when you're only thinking about what Trump thinks, feels, or is going to say next. And because he occurs, actually happens in front of your eyes, you can't stop watching."
And a part of what you're watching are his almost constantly changing facial expressions -- a practiced skill of those who spend much time before a camera.

It's also possible, of course, that Trump was introduced at Wharton, and has long been, a student of Niccolò Machiavelli's 16th Century guidebook for tyrants, The Prince (1513) (Wikipedia: "Machiavelli described immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and killing innocents, as being normal and effective in politics."), or other literature by and about more recent dictators.

Suskind's point could be made, or expanded, to include the concept of "narrative," or "story;" or perhaps the distinction between appeals to emotion and appeals to intellect, which President Reagan so well understood. But Trump doesn't just "tell stories" -- Trump is the story, an ongoing story, like a soap opera, or episodic television series.

We love stories -- from Greek and Norse mythology, to Bible stories, to modern day comic book, film and television heroes. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Donald Trump may be playing, and Americans may be seeing him as, the World War II patriotic super-soldier and national savior, Captain America.

The childhood lessons from Aesop's Fables to The Little Engine That Could stick with us, and may be played out by us even as unaware adults. (The National Education Association once named the book one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children.")

Yes, give Americans a choice between a feature film or TV show of their liking and a serious and significant lecture (or political speech) and most will prefer the movie or TV show. Even on the rare occasions when serious subjects make it into the newspapers or onto our TV screens, many journalists (and politicians) will lead with the personal details of a single individual's experiences, their story.

Hillary's political speeches, and serious policy proposals, are now trying to compete with Trump's entertainment, and story.

It's not easy to get the kind of crowd for a political speech that is attracted to a rock concert, or whomever happens to be the most popular stand-up comic of the year. Frank Mankiewicz, campaign director for Senator George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, frustrated with the lack of media coverage, once made the point by saying he wanted to hire a campaign arsonist. The arsonist's job would be to set a fire in the early afternoon, wait for the TV trucks to arrive, cue McGovern to begin his speech, and hope that at least 30 seconds of it might make the evening news programs along with pictures of the fire.

As Suskind points out, Trump is doing the equivalent of setting four fires a day without ever striking a match.

Mark Hannah headlines that Trump is, in fact, a novelist, and that the presidential election is less about political choices than choices between fantasy and reality. He says of Trump's resistance to "inconvenient facts":
"We saw this resistance . . . when Trump denied that his campaign manager manhandled a reporter when video footage indicated otherwise. . . . [W]hen he claimed that the 'Obama administration was actively supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq,' that Ted Cruz's father 'was with Lee Harvey Oswald' before President Kennedy was assassinated and that 'crime is rising' in America. It's gotten to the point where those checking the facts are simply throwing their hands up in exasperation . . .. The contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton isn't so much a contest of conservatism versus liberalism, isolationism versus internationalism, outsider versus insider, or incivility versus tact. it's a contest of the fantasy of one man versus the reality of the rest of us."
Mark Hannah, "Donald Trump, Our Great American Novelist," TIME, June 30, 2016.

Of course, while Trump's offensive and degrading remarks about women, African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Gold Star mothers, prisoners of war, and people with disabilities, among others, can make news, they can also make enemies. If a candidate is serious about getting elected, how can that be handled? Charles Krauthammer has a theory that fits with Suskind's. As Krauthammer notes about the extraordinarily competent Kellyanne Conway:
"[Trump campaign manager] Kellyanne Conway has worked . . . on the theory that if [Trump] can just cross the threshold of acceptability, he wins. . . . Can you really repackage the boasting, bullying, bombastic, insulting, insensitive Trump into a mellow and caring version? . . . Turns out, yes. How? Deflect and deny -- and pretend it never happened. Where are they now -- the birtherism, the deportation force, the scorn for teleprompters, the mocking of candidates who take outside money? Down the memory hole. . . . In this surreal election season, there is no past. . . . [Trump] merely creates new Trumps."
Charles Krauthammer, "Clinton Sharpens, Trump Softens. He's Rising, She's Falling," The Washington Post, September 15, 2016.

Garrison Keillor, in what amounts to an open letter to Donald Trump, has a different take on what he's about. Keillor says to Trump: "The New York Times treats you like the village idiot. This is painful for a Queens boy trying to win respect . . .. Running for president is your last bid for the respect of Manhattan. . . . [Y]ou wish you could level with [your fans] for once and say one true thing: I love you to death and when this is over I will have nothing that I want." Garrison Keillor, "When This is Over, You Will Have Nothing That You Want," The Washington Post, August 9, 2016.

Trump probably doesn't see the possibility of a loss from his efforts. As he tells his African-American audiences, "What have you got to lose?" As he has bragged, “I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” After all, 20 percent of his campaign expenditures are going to his own companies.

Donald Trump's name, his brand, which others pay handsomely to use, is perhaps his largest asset. This suggests another theory. What has he got to lose from a presidential race? Either he wins the presidency and puts his name on the White House, or he wins the lottery as he watches the value of his brand increase by millions if not billions of dollars.

Meanwhile, whenever he needs to change the subject, there's always that barrel of squirrels. [Photo credit: Edwin Kats/Rex Features, Daily Mail.]

Oh, look, there's one now.

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

First Thoughts on 911 -- 15 Years Later

From 1998 through 2001 I added to my law school teaching and research obligations the tasks of a local school board member -- plus an every-two-week column on K-12 issues in the local paper. As it happened, the final column was written following September 11, 2001, and published September 25. Rereading it recently, I was struck with how little the truths have changed during the course of our multi-trillion-dollar 15 year "war on terror."

For this September 11th, the fifteenth anniversary of that awful day, it seems worthwhile to share the thoughts that came to mind so soon after those events. Here they are. -- N.J.

Teach Our Children Tolerant Ways

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," September 25, 2001, p. 9A

Oct. 4 [2001] will mark the 44th anniversary of a shock to our nation. Not a deafening explosion. A faint beep from a 183-pound, basketball-sized orbiting satellite. Sputnik meant the Soviet Union was ahead of us in the space race.

Our response? Something called “The National Defense Education Act” – emphasis on “defense.” More money for math, science and foreign language instruction. This time let’s include social studies.

This is the 79th and last column in a series begun Oct. 12, 1998. It was originally planned to be thanks for those who elected me to the School Board, my fellow board members, administrators and staff. A review of the board’s accomplishments. Its remaining agenda. My continuing Web page. And an announcement of the John Haefner Social Studies Award I’ve created through our district’s foundation.

Two weeks of shock, grief and anger from terrorists’ barbaric attacks on our nation changed that.

President Bush urged us to get back to what we were doing before Sept. 11. What was he doing that morning? Campaigning for his education bill.

It’s time for the president and Congress to get back to it.

Some call for a U.S. revenge of violence. Others plead for greater understanding. Either way, education is a major part of the answer.

We have the world’s finest intelligence gathering technology. What we don’t have are enough folks who can translate those millions of conversations and e-mails into English.

How can you spy, let alone infiltrate if you don’t know the language? If you can’t find the country on an outline map? If you know nothing of its people – their history, culture, economic conditions and religion?

We have more military power than many nations combined. And yet we’re still vulnerable. Not to the wars of the last century. Those we could still fight and win. Vulnerable to the wars of this century. Wars without nations, front lines and tanks. Wars fought with cardboard box openers and commercial airliners.

A terrorist used to be “someone who has a bomb but doesn’t have a plane.” Now terrorists use planes as bombs.

It’s good to tighten airline security. But terrorists have many alternatives to bombing buildings with hijacked planes.

Terrorism is not about “winning wars.” It’s not even about death and desgtruction, as such. Terrorism is about fomenting terror.

Terror comes from the innovative and unexpected attack. A bridge, nuclear power plant or natural gas pipeline here. An electric power grid or Internet there. Atom bombs in backpacks. Poisoned air in a subway one day. A water supply another.

Such attacks are easy for perpetrators willing to die. Especially in countries where individual liberties are highly desired and valued.

We don’t want to turn America into an armed camp. But even if we imposed martial law we could not eliminate our vulnerability.

Retaliation may make us feel better. But it will likely increase terrorism.

So what can we do?

Something our school district’s already doing. Encourage children to celebrate – rather than hate – the community’s and world’s diversity.

Prejudice against all Muslims is abhorrent. Attacking Sikhs, thinking them Muslims, reflects basic ignorance as well. We must provide more understanding than do our corporate media about others’ living conditions. Whom do they blame for their misery? Their oppressive regimes? What attracts them to a bin Laden?

America is a generous nation. But it’s also capable of overt and covert government and corporate practices that oppress and exploit others for convenience and profit.

Practices often seen as arrogant. Policies reflecting ignorance of others’ cultures.

Such ignorance contributed to our misjudgments in Vietnam, the hostage taking in Iran and this terrorist attack. Not to mention failecd global marketing efforts.

Our students will be better able than we to deal with the globalism and terrorism we leave them. Is education the only answer? Of course not. But it’s an imperative beginning. And it’s something we can do.

Goodbye, and thanks for the opportunity to serve.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site:

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

At Last, the Agnostic, Insomniac, Dyslexic Answer

Is There Really a Dog?

For years, agnostic, insomniac, dyslexics have been losing sleep at night, awake and wondering whether or not there really is a dog.

This morning, one of our nation's very finest cartoonists, Dan Piraro, the creator of the daily cartoon "Bizarro," has provided the answer. (Of course, if for any reason he would like me to remove my praise of him, link to his page, and today's Bizarro cartoon from my blog -- even though I believe a "fair use" argument could be made for its appearance here -- I will promptly do so. I first saw the cartoon in The Gazette, September 10, 2016, p. A13.)

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Friday, September 09, 2016

Trump Might Not Be Blundering in Race

Trump Might Not Be Blundering in Race

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 9, 2016, p. A7

Donald Trump says we don't understand him. “These politicians, they don’t know me. They don’t understand me." He's right. Politicians, reporters and voters have had little to go on beyond speculation about his motives.

Some armchair psychiatrists think he displays evidence of classic narcissism. Others believe he's just naturally mean-spirited and crude when he disparages captured military personnel, women, people with disabilities, Muslims, Gold Star families — whoever’s in view when his mouth opens.

There's speculation he’s never been serious about running, surprised he won the nomination, and is already preparing for a loss — blaming a hostile media ("the lowest form of life") and "rigged" voting.

But wait; there's more.

There are at least three ways to get the goods and services for a political campaign: pay for them yourself, solicit and spend others’ campaign contributions or get what you need without paying.

Given the proportion of campaign advertising dollars spent on radio and TV (80 percent) getting it free is the preferred option.

So how has Donald Trump made out with free media? Like a bandit! Two billion dollars’ worth by March this year.

Which brings us to a possible understanding of Trump.

One of his wildest and most recent assertions is that ISIS was created by President Barack Obama, its “founder.”

Many, including myself, have noted that our entry into Iraq, exit, and then re-entry have increased recruitment of terrorists and attacks on American military. When Trump appeared on conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt’s program, Hewitt tried to use this analysis to help Trump. Trump was having none of it:

Hugh Hewitt: You said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.

Donald Trump: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS.

HH: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.

DT: I don’t care. He was the founder.

HH: But by using the term "founder," they’re hitting you on this again. Mistake?

DT: No, it’s no mistake. Everyone’s liking it. Do you not like that?

HH: I don’t. I think I would say they created the vacuum into which ISIS came, but they didn’t create ISIS. That’s what I would say...I’d just use different language to communicate it.

DT: But they wouldn’t talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?

HH: Well, good point.
"They do talk about my language." Trump’s six words tell the tale. Maybe Trump’s strategy is that there’s no bad publicity — especially when it’s a $2 billion value for free.

And recall his brag Fortune reported, “I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” Already roughly 20 percent of his campaign expenditures involve payments to his own companies.

Plus, since much of his "property" is his brand, his name, he will continue to make money post-election — not to mention larger royalties for ghost-written books, lecture fees and a higher rated TV show.

His is a win-win strategy. If his loyal followers deliver 270 electoral votes, he’s president. If not, the value of his brand, his name on his properties, will have increased by hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

And all because, as he says, "they do talk about my language, right?"
Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner and media law professor, lives in Iowa City. Contact:

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Sunday, September 04, 2016

Labor Day for All 2016

United We Bargain Divided We Beg

NOTE: This blog essay was first posted September 2, 2014 -- the day after Labor Day that year. It seems even more applicable today, prior to the September 5, 2016, Labor Day Picnic of the Iowa City Federation of Labor.
I am glad to know that there is a system of labor where the laborer can strike if he wants to! I would to God that such a system prevailed all over the world.
-- President Abraham Lincoln, "Notes for Speech at Hartford, Connecticut," March 5, 1860, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 4, p. 7

Labor unions have meant new dignity and pride to millions of our countrymen—human companionship on the job, and music in the home -- to be able to see what larger pay checks mean, not to a man as an employee, but as a husband and as a father -- to know these things is to understand what American labor means.
-- Adlai Stevenson, Democratic Party Presidential Nominee, 1952, 1956

Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice. I have no use for those -- regardless of their political party . . ..
-- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954

Every advance in this half-century--Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, one after another--came with the support and leadership of American Labor.
-- President Jimmy Carter [Previous three quotes from "Presidential Quotes."]

It was working men and women who made the 20th century the American century. It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today. The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label.
-- President Barack Obama, "President Obama on Labor Day: The Fight for America's Workers Continues," Milwaukee, Sept. 6, 2010

Yesterday, Labor Day, September 1, 2014, I attended the Iowa City Labor Day Picnic in the Iowa City Park -- as I usually do on Labor Day. There are pictures, below, that capture a wee bit of the spirit of that gathering. It is an opportunity once a year for members and friends of labor to gather, share food everyone has provided (what we used to call a "pot luck" meal), listen to political candidates and quality live music, and generally share what was a lovely summer day in the park.

Most union members have at least some notion of the history of labor in this country, and the sacrifices that were made by our predecessors to gain the right to bargain with management collectively rather than individually. There are brief references to that history in Labor Day speeches, but that's about all. The folks present yesterday know that history, and didn't need anyone to run through all the details.

But the day before Labor Day I put a brief comment on Facebook for the benefit of those who don't attend Labor Day picnics, and are apt to know much less about the history of America's working people. It has since gained a couple dozen shares, and many more comments and "likes." But on the assumption you haven't seen it, I'm going to reprint it here, along with the picture of a poster I used with it.

When I wrote it I had done no research, and just spoke from the heart and memory. As you'll see from the quotes above, which I've just found on the Internet, apparently a great many others -- of all political stripes -- have shared these sentiments over the years, from President Lincoln to President Obama.

Here is that Facebook entry:
Regardless of your politics or what you've been told about unions, take a moment tomorrow to thank "Those wonderful folks who brought you the weekend, the minimum wage, the end to child labor, the 40-hour week, a safer workplace than you otherwise would have had, the decades-long fight for healthcare (remember, health INSURANCE is not health CARE), Social Security in your old age -- among a great many other things."

Remember, they also were beaten and died and imprisoned when they stood up for their rights (and ours) in the face of police and National Guard called out by public officials as much in the pocket of the corporate interests of their day as ours are today. Unions were the muscle that built the post-WWII middle class, and booming economy, and elected officials who talked to each other and did stuff. This poster tells it all: "United We Bargain. Divided We Beg." It's the only way that's ever worked. Since the 1980s we've been begging.
Here's my point. On July 4th every American celebrates the Revolutionary War, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the beginning of our nation. It is not a day limited to the descendants of those who fought in that War -- such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. We all celebrate, we all remember.

No, I'm not saying everyone needs to go to a labor union's Labor Day picnic, anymore than everyone should go to a DAR meeting on July 4th. But on both days, I believe, it contributes to our nation's civic health for all of us to reflect upon the debt we owe to those who have gone before us -- along with the ways in which the economic and other problems we have as a nation today are a product of our failure to remember, and apply, the lessons we should have learned when labor unions were a partner with business in building one of the greatest periods in our history.

From 1945 until the 1980s unions were strong. The rich paid substantial taxes, and income inequality was nowhere nearly as stark as it is today. The economy was booming; union workers were paid well, and spent freely, which increased the profits of business, created a demand for more jobs, enabled parents to afford college for their kids, and kept things humming. As a result, both the rich and their workers did better than they otherwise would have.

We need to realize, for example, that what is called a "raise" in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.50 is not a raise at all -- it is merely bringing the minimum wage back up to the level of buying power it had in 1968.

When Wall Street and big business treat the human mothers and fathers who are their workers as a "cost center," and expense item -- even putting aside the human consequences for a moment -- the resulting decline in the economy, as those workers lose buying power, ends up harming the rich as well as the poor.

Unions, the ability of workers to bargain collectively rather than individually, and to be paid at least a living wage, has always been the only way to maintain any economy -- especially one like ours that is 70% dependent upon consumer spending.

OK, enough of all that. Here are some pictures from a great Iowa City Labor Day.

Here is what the shelter and the grounds looked like when I arrived on my bicycle. Tom Jacobs took this picture; the others are ones I took. Congressman Dave Loebsack had a lot of Labor Day events to hit yesterday, and so was allowed to speak and run before all the food had even been set out.

But the food was soon laid out on a table as long as the shelter house for these folks who like to talk almost more than they like to eat. Some stayed out in the sun, but most gathered at the shelter house tables, as I did.

One of the continuing highlights of the event most years, as it was this year, was the very generous provision of live music throughout the afternoon provided by Pigs and Clover, otherwise known as Matt and Jamie Kearney. They have one of the greatest collections of union songs I've ever heard, great voices, a driving guitar and drum rhythm, and a good sense of fun.

To give you a sense of the music (and the crowd noise) here is a one-minute excerpt from their rendition of "Mean Winds" (taken by me with an iPhone):

As a special event, our Johnson County Attorney, Janet Lyness, took and passed the ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Ice Bucket Challenge executed by her daughter.

All in all it was a really great day.

September 5, 2016, promises to be as great a day as September 1, 2014 (although no ice bucket challenges are on the program this year so far as I know).

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