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Friday, August 18, 2017

I was wrong about President Trump. I thought he'd be even worse.

In 2016, The Globe envisioned a Pres. Trump.
During the 1980 presidential campaign, President Carter was determined to expose Ronald Reagan as a right-wing ideologue who would eviscerate the social safety net, ramp up military engagements abroad, and stoke racial tensions at home. Unfortunately, many of Carter's warnings about President Reagan came to fruition; Reagan became a monumental figure in American politics as his policies spurred decades-long income disparity.

The conservatism Reagan espoused still continues to permeate our political culture. However, Reagan's leadership was, at times, surprisingly pragmatic and conciliatory. As such, his presidency's detrimental societal impact, on the liberal progress of the New Deal and Great Society, was mitigated. His administration ultimately fell short of the tremendous fear that Democratic figures like Carter exhibited in 1980.

Fast-forward over three decades later and another impactful election is held in 2016 between two candidates who also are dramatically different: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. During the campaign, liberals like Clinton (and I) warned of the frightening prospect of Trump's hand on the nuclear button, the possibility that he would succeed in undoing many of President Obama's policy achievements, and the likelihood that xenophobia would define his immigration approach. 

Much of what Clinton and her fellow Democrats predicted about a Trump presidency has come true. Similar to the developments that took place after 1980 though, Trump's administration has, so far though, fallen short of the worst fears imagined. It should be noted that, barring Trump's removal from office or his unlikely resignation, there still remains over three years (at least) of the Trump presidency so I am sure the President will test our imagination. 

Another distinction between the Reagan era and the Trump era thus far has also been that, unlike Reagan, Trump has shown virtually no willingness to work with congressional Democrats to advance scaled back versions of his agenda. From his perspective, he does not have to since Republicans control Congress (the Democrats held a large majority in the House throughout the Reagan presidency).

But in a striking similarity to the Reagan administration, the Trump administration, despite all of its repulsiveness, has been restrained by our institutions, political pressure, and other crucial external factors. Consequently, President Trump has been unable to or unwilling to carry out even more nightmarish policy. On election night 2016, as it became clear Trump would be the 45th President, I feared a war with Iran or at least the end of the nuclear agreement, a total ban on residents from Middle Eastern countries that would survive legal challenges because of presidents' broad authority in that realm, the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the bombing of North Korea, withdrawal from NATO, new surveillance measures (including a registry) targeting Middle Eastern immigrants, the elimination of the Legal Services Corporation and the Community Development Block Grant (among other domestic agencies), the reauthorization of torture, the addition of new detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the prosecution of Hillary Clinton, and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.

Some of these outcomes may unfortunately still come to fruition particularly since, at least with regards to the legislative goals, Speaker Paul Ryan leads a defiantly right-wing House of Representatives and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leads a Republican caucus that is usually mostly united. But so far, President Trump has not succeeded in these aims nor has he even tried in many cases to carry out these efforts. He has flat out failed in some instances and succumbed to the political tides, and other pressure, in other instances -- and has been dragged kicking and screaming into those relieving decisions that he detested. 

Don't get me wrong: Trump has been horrid -- a disastrous president who has stoked fear among nonwhites and immigrants with his rhetoric and actions, tarnished our reputation in the world, and succeeded in squashing key Obama-era policies that protected our climate, public health and safety, and civil rights. That he has not been even worse should not obscure how dangerously effective has has been especially in quiet ways like reshaping Justice Department policies through his Attorney General, the retrograde Jeff Sessions. Nevertheless, beneath all of that, there is still the aforementioned unfulfilled that frustrates him and his allies. 

The reason the absolute worst has not come about is because of the sustained pressure the public, courts, and the press have placed on Trump and elected Republicans. Our exceptionally proactive and rich civil society has demonstrated, through activist uprising and judicial wisdom and dogged journalism, that Trumpism can be restrained. Consequently, it is up to all of us to defend those time-tested institutions -- free speech, free press, checks and balances -- to protect all of our rights, liberties, and protections. We can't expect President Trump to emulate President Reagan in advancing pragmatism but we can expect him, or at least his GOP allies, to fold under pressure. As Joe Biden would say: "keep the faith."


UPDATE: This post has been updated on September 5, 2017 to reflect the fact that President Trump is ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. As I said above, this post should not be construed as any kind of defense of Trump as he has over three years to demonstrate how horrendous he can be and, even up to this point, he has already been repulsive.

UPDATE II: This post has been updated on May 8, 2018 to reflect the fact that President Trump is renewing previously suspended sanctions on Iran and withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran deal. It should be noted that DACA, referenced above, has since been saved by federal courts but Trump continues otherwise to enact harmful, draconian immigration policy. Trump is proving again that he is a uniquely awful leader; we have it within us to do what we can to prevent further harm by voting for progressive candidates this fall.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Trump's domestic policies reveal uncomfortable truths about the right

Photo Credit: Getty Images
President Trump is no stranger to hypocrisyalpha male posturing, and callous indifference to those he perceives as inferior to him. His domestic policy framework, as reflected in his draconian federal budget proposals and in his egregious health care legislation, exemplifies those traits. At the same time, those ultraconservative policies are revealing in an instructive way as they shed light on the parsimonious practices that have long steered the Republican right.

In terms of hypocrisy, the substance of Trump's domestic policy, though unsurprising to close observers of the presidential campaign, flies in the face of his self-professed concern for the working class. These are the individuals and families that would be most dramatically adversely impacted by the American Health Care Act (AHCA) and by Trump's proposed array of cuts to anti-poverty programs. Beyond the horrid policy implications of these measures, the politics provides a strong opportunity for Democrats to expose Trump and his GOP allies for who they really are: the robber barons who genuine working class champion Bruce Springsteen railed against in "Death to My Hometown."

Further, with regards to the ideological underpinnings of these policies, it should be clear by now what the ultimate aim of the Ayn Rand-inspired, Paul Ryan-driven agenda is -- one wholly adopted and embraced by the Trump administration in the form of White House Office and Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney. Recently, Mulvaney condemned individuals with diabetes as people whose "bad choices" ought not to entitle them to the "care" of society.

Putting aside the breathtaking ignorance of Mulvaney's armchair diagnosis of millions, these remarks are unusually candid as they lay bare an unspoken tenant of right-wing dogma. Mulvaney's assessment reflects the deeper strain in the conservative ideological mindset that Social Darwinism, the notion of survival of the fittest, ought to steer public policymaking.

Indeed, the logical extension of the right-wing campaign to promote ostensibly individualistic ideals in domestic policy is that ideally meager public benefits only belong to highly deserving citizens, if anyone at all, at the exclusion of those who suffer supposedly 'self-inflicted' misfortune. Mulvaney uttered the unvarnished truth of the right's guiding belief system, a philosophy billed with appealing language (i.e. "personal responsibility") but grounded in suspicion towards the disadvantaged.

Ultimately, if nothing else, the shamefulness of these policies is that it does not have to be this way. Several years ago, Chris Hayes made a compelling point on his nightly broadcast that struck me with its simple yet clear message that "poverty is a policy choice." The empirical evidence plainly demonstrates that to be the case. There exists, within the right's school of thought, a determination to blame sky-high income inequality on workers.

Yet productivity has not kept up with wages over the course of the last several decades. It is no mistake that as wages and safety net spending declined since 1980, income inequality skyrocketed. Policymakers like Mick Mulvaney argue that, in light of this dilemma, fiscal restraint is necessary anyway. The United States is the wealthiest, most resourceful country on Earth, with the means to alleviate suffering at home and abroad so fiscal responsibility may be an offered justification for Mulvaney's cohort yet one without merit.

If anything, the expenditures of safety net measures are investments that help families prosper and the economy grow. We have the capability, on many levels, to remedy what ails the working class yet we choose not to do it -- all in the service of rewarding the fittest and punishing the unworthy and in the name of fiscal prudence.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

All the good you can: the path forward in Donald Trump's America

He may not have actually said it, it turns out, but John Wesley, a cofounder of Methodism, is often credited with having imparted this wisdom: "do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." In the 2016 presidential campaign, this saying became the motto for Methodist Hillary Clinton's campaign.

As a volunteer on the Clinton campaign, I especially appreciated this slogan. The high school I attended, Wyoming Seminary in Kingston, Pennsylvania, also embraced this motto. The school was founded by Methodists so it made sense that this ostensibly Wesley-originating quote was prominently featured on Sem's campus.

Whenever I heard that message uttered at Sem - "do all the good you can" - I was reminded that there was a higher calling and a broader purpose to the grind of school, to the work I wanted to do. When candidates like Hillary Clinton don't succeed in elections, it's important for progressives, for Democrats, and for anyone who is concerned about the future of our country under President Donald Trump to remember that why we became involved in the first place. For me, part of that motivation was my community.

When I canvassed and made phone calls for President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign in the Wilkes-Barre area, I saw a side of my hometown that I had read about and understood intellectually, as much as I could at that point, but didn't get to see up close and personal much. Voters told me they were looking to support change because they struggled with medical bills, gas prices, and discrimination. To them, these issues and frustrations consumed their lives so much so that they couldn't be as fully productive and energetic as they wished to be. Working for them, doing all the good you can for them, in any way, is what the spirit of progressivism and being Democrats should be all about.

Within this community though there are imperfections. There are deeply troubling sentiments that pervade corners of our neighborhoods; to deny that the nativist Trump campaign preyed on those fears, in my community and other parts of our country, would be delusional. But John Wesley would not want progressives to turn their backs on the least of us. Our brothers and sisters who suffer in poverty, often through no fault of their own, should be treated with "malice towards none and charity for all," as an actually great Republican president preached, regardless of their imperfections.

On the other hand, hate must be rooted out, regardless of economic anxiety. That requires us to seek out the "bravery that resides in every heart," as NEPA's own Joe Biden extolled -- light it, overcome fear, and know that whether it be in your own community or online or in your private interactions, that strength will build your character and strengthen your values. These battles though, aiding the disadvantaged and battling bigotry, need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, the sun is setting now on a presidency that showed us just that as Barack Obama united Americans of all backgrounds, from the small city of Kingston, Pennsylvania to the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, to his side to advance a more progressive America.

So what does this kind of path forward look like concretely? It means identifying the greatest needs in your community and addressing them in measurable ways. It means putting in the blood, sweat, and tears that local politics requires: getting the signatures to put a progressive on the ballot, knocking on doors for that candidate, and writing letters to the editor to make their voice heard -- or doing it yourself.

It means standing up to bullies in your own backyard, in speaking out, even in intimate settings, if you hear something that contradicts your values. It means investing in genuine public service, not just paying it lip service. It means putting your money where your mouth is so shared prosperity isn't just a pipe dream. It means doing all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can. That's our path forward in Donald Trump's America.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

What Obama meant to me

When you grow up with an unusual name in a homogenous community, you are bound to experience all sorts of intrigued reactions when you introduce yourself or even just exist in that universe. "Where are you from?" is a common refrain. (Or "where are you really from?") Responses can range from the genuinely curious to pure indignity.

People project on to you all sorts of emotions, feelings, and fears that have followed them through life, that are displayed regularly on their television screens, and that permeate our culture. It is that fear that produces suspicious sentiments like "this is America, please speak English."

But that reaction, I know, deeply, is contrary to our core identity; it was an American hero, Abraham Lincoln, after all who implored us to appeal to our "better angels." A strain of xenophobia in our history exists but so does a society that adapted, that welcomed immigrants in a way unlike most other advanced democracies, that made people like my parents feel like they are Americans. 

Nobody spoke more compellingly to that optimistic view of our country, in our modern political history, than Barack Obama. When he landed on the national political stage in 2004, he spoke in terms about our country, as Chris Matthews said, like no other politician had in decades, perhaps since Bobby Kennedy.

It wasn't that he brushed aside those stains on our culture. He accepted, acknowledged, and understood them but he embraced a version of American exceptionalism that demonstrated that we were unique because we actually were, and could be, better than all that. That capacity for self-improvement for a nation was demonstrated in our own progress in elevating Obama to power. People with "funny names," immigrants, their children -- there was a place in America for them, too. "Omeed's a pretty good name," said the most powerful person in our country.

It was the same country where others have denigrated me for my heritage and my ethnicity. Nevertheless, that attitude did not define us. It was the election, and the reelection, of President Obama that spoke more about us. Nothing can change the fact that that's part of our history; we still did that and we still appealed to the better angels of our nature. We stand out on the world stage for being one of the small handful of countries to have elected an ethnic minority to the highest office in the land.

For me, and millions of others in our country and around the world, the Obama presidency has been a deeply emotional journey, impactful in immeasurable ways. As our country strived to become a more perfect Union, my own progression, as I came of age in the Obama era, was one marked by renewed possibilities. "If our country is ready to elect Barack Hussein Obama as president, in thirty years, it can be ready for" an Iranian-American president, perhaps, my family friend (a two-time Obama voter) wondered aloud. 

I was interested in politics but with the rise of Obama, I became passionate about it because I could relate to him. His 2008 campaign was the first political campaign I got involved in, in fact. I am a liberal Democrat and I support his policies but my affinity for our first black president went beyond that. He and his campaign represented the notion that it was okay to be different, that we should celebrate and embrace that difference, rather than bully or mock it. It was a validation but so too were the actual, tangible accomplishments of the Obama era.

For Iranian-Americans, it was an "open hand," a message of Nowruz greetings, an agreement that both eliminated a potential nuclear weapon and improved dialogue. No U.S. president before understood Iran in the way this president did, with all of the complications, complexities and animosities that existed in these countries' histories with one another. But he also knew the deep appreciation and love, truly, that Iranians have for America, its people, and its democratic history. To see up close and personal Iranian-Americans, some of the most pro-American people you'll meet, dancing in front of the White House after the passage of the Iran deal, just blocks from my college campus? A powerful sight unthinkable just years before.

Barack Obama's personal qualities were immensely appealing too: his calm in difficult moments, his comfort in his own skin, his confidence in his own judgment, his discipline in his lifestyle, his focus on details, his selflessness in working as a community organizer rather than taking corporate gigs he easily could have landed and his loyalty to his family. As someone who was a teenager when Obama took office and is halfway through law school as he leaves office, having that kind of role model on a national stage was particularly meaningful.

In these ways, though specific policy achievements are at risk, there is a permanence to Barack Obama's legacy. The indelible impact of his leadership and of his promise, of all he symbolizes and exudes, is felt in my upbringing, is appreciated by millions, and is enduring in our society. His presidency brought into focus the "better angels" of our culture. 

Our collective identity is, and forever will be, one where "all things are possible" (said the then-president elect on that balmy November night in 2008), one where we can achieve what the "cynics said we could not do" (said the victorious black candidate in the heavily white state of Iowa), and one where, yes, even someone with a funny name can make it and make a difference.