The problem with comparing Trump to Hitler

Published: MSNBC (November 30, 2015)

Pundits and candidates alike are now accusing Donald Trump of being a fascist or neo-Nazi. Some are even comparing him to Adolf Hitler. This is a serious problem – not for Trump, mind you, but for our collective intelligence as Americans. When we imply that the sinister Trump phenomenon represents something new on the American scene, we gloss over the ugliest parts of our political history, and in the process make it more likely that those mistakes will be repeated.

There are three qualities to Trump’s presidential campaign that invoke parallels to Nazism. The first is his intense cult of personality, which, for Trump supporters, is particularly driven by his reputation as a successful businessman who can “fix things,” and by his willingness to brazenly defy the taboos of political correctness. In addition, there is his blatant racist demagoguery, from his spurious and offensive claims that undocumented Mexican immigrants are largely criminals and rapists to his recent proposal that Muslims carry ID cards identifying their religion. Finally, there are the undertones of violence, both inspired by his rhetoric (e.g. the two Bostonians who savagely assaulted a homeless man while invoking Trump’s name) and directly advocated by Trump himself (e.g. his open agreement with supporters who beat up a #BlackLivesMatter protester).

While these characteristics range from the merely unsettling to the downright reprehensible, none of them are novelties to American political life. Indeed, the campaign that saw the first Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, elected, contained all of these qualities – the former general was revered as a bona fide American hero by his supporters, widely admired for his role in committing genocide against indigenous peoples, and proud of his violent past with dueling, a practice that was enthusiastically emulated by his followers.

And it doesn’t end with Jackson: Cults of personality have elected presidents from William Henry Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama; overt racism has been not only preached but practiced from the White House, from the eight men who owned slaves while serving as president to progressives like Woodrow Wilson, whose promotion of segregation and open sympathy with the KKK recently inspired student protests at Princeton University; and when it comes to violence, nothing beats the supporters of the Southern Democrats’ presidential nominee in the election of 1860, Vice President John C. Breckinridge, who made good on their threats to start a Civil War in the event that Republican Abraham Lincoln was victorious.

In short, by comparing Trump’s presidential campaign to distinctly foreign, extreme right-wing ideologies, we overlook the homegrown antecedents from which he has drawn. Consequently, we deny ourselves one of the chief tools necessary for effectively combating him – namely, historical perspective.

Take the apocalyptic rhetoric that Trump uses to discuss issues like undocumented immigration and the Syrian refugee crisis. Because Trump has presented himself as an opponent of so-called “total political correctness,” his offensive comments about Hispanics and Muslims (to say nothing of women, African-Americans, and other marginalized groups) have been characterized as a bold willingness to slay sacred cows. Yet during the 19th century, similarly erroneous concerns about the criminality and inherent “otherness” of immigrants have been directed against groups ranging from Germans (e.g. Benjamin Franklin notoriously referred to them as “stupid” and “swarthy”) to Irish Catholics (e.g. when former president Millard Fillmore waged the second most successful third-party presidential campaign of all time on a platform devoted to keeping “un-American” Catholics out of the country). Likewise, when Trump argues that Muslims carry ID cards and Syrian refugees be monitored in a federal database, he is following in the footsteps of presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, who established internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II after first considering similar proposals.

This brings us to the twofold advantages of confronting the Trump movement with a well-informed historical perspective. First, it demystifies the rhetoric itself, allowing Americans to recognize that Trump isn’t some sort of trailblazer but rather a cheap imitator of political traditions so shameful that we’ve shuffled them away from our collective memory. More importantly, it helps bring the menace posed by Trump’s campaign into sharper relief.

When Trump supporters and swing voters are told that the Republican candidate is a fascist or latter-day Hitler, it’s easy for them to dismiss those concerns as partisan hyperbole, if for no other reason that they can’t really conceive of them – after all, America has never elected an outright Nazi to the presidency, so that particular threat seems more hypothetical than actual. Not so when talking about patterns of institutional discrimination that, though often overlooked by the media, were demonstrably all-too-real chapters of American history.

Trump’s political power – as well as the power of the right-wing reactionaries who will follow in his footsteps – comes from his ability to create a cult of personality for himself while effectively capitalizing off of America’s latent racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice. Just because these things don’t make him a neo-Nazi doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be devastating for America.

That’s why we must resist the urge to characterize Trump’s racial demagoguery, cult of personality, and authoritarian policy proposals as fascist or in any other way Hitleresque. By doing this, we deny and potentially empower the brutality, oppression, and violence that has marked so much of America’s political history. Trump is certainly pandering to our nation’s worst instincts, but the sentiments into which he has tapped have been with this country for a long, long time.

5 reasons why modern wing-nuts would’ve hated the founding fathers

Published: Alternet (November 29, 2015), Salon (November 27, 2015)

If you’re a Democrat (or, for that matter, a progressive of any stripe) the chances are you’ve heard conservatives evoke the founding fathers when dismissing your beliefs on economic issues. The term “socialist” has become such a toxic epithet in our political culture that the two chief candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have spent considerable time confronting the term – with Hillary Clinton correctly pointing out that it doesn’t apply to her center-left views, even as Bernie Sanders valiantly strives to remove its stigma by self-identifying as a “democratic socialist.”

In light of all this, one might be forgiven for assuming that America’s founders were unilaterally right-wing in their economic ideology. After all, if this wasn’t the case, liberals could easily debunk attempts to delegitimize them by simply citing the incontrovertible facts of American history.

Which brings us to the five reasons why liberals can be just as comfortable as conservatives in claiming the founding fathers as their own.

1. The founding fathers constantly disagreed with each other.

It is easy to talk about the founding fathers as if they were a monolithic body, but asrecords of the Constitutional Convention and The Federalist Papers clearly demonstrate, the men who created this country disagreed on everything from the enumerated powers in each branch of government and the abolition of slavery to, yes, the role that the state should play in regulating economic policy.

Since there are too many examples of the latter to comprehensively discuss in one article, I’ll limit my exploration to one of the most fundamental questions of all — the general welfare clause of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1), which empowers Congress “[t]o lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence [sic] and general Welfare of the United States.”

When conservatives argue that “general welfare” does not cover left-wing economic policies, they often cite James Madison (from The Federalist No. 41), who argued that it should be construed as narrowly as possible, insisting that “it would have been difficult to find a reason for so awkward a form of describing an authority to legislate in all possible cases.” Less than four years later, however, Alexander Hamilton argued that the term “general welfare” simply referred to Congress’s power to impose taxes for any program that would serve the broader public interest, pointing out (in hisReport on Manufactures) that “it is therefore of necessity left to the discretion of the National Legislature, to pronounce, upon the objects, which concern the general Welfare, and for which under that description, an appropriation of money is requisite and proper.”

While legal and historical scholars disagree to this day as to whether Madison or Hamilton was correct, there is no question that they shared the same basic difference of opinion on economic questions as many Americans today. That said, there is one point on which they would not have disagreed.

2. The Constitution was created because America’s first government was too weak.

Despite their penchant for name-dropping the Constitution as proof that the central government should be as weak as possible, conservatives ignore that the Constitution was actually written because America’s first federal government was tooweak. Signed in 1781, the Articles of Confederation did not allow Congress to impose taxes, impose uniform tariff policies throughout the country, or effectively address the economic concerns of ordinary citizens — in particular, those who had incurred massive debt during the American Revolution and were being hounded by their creditors.

This last detail is especially important, since James Madison himself later wrote that it “contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Constitution and prepared the mind for a general reform” than any other problem. As a result, the Constitution included protections for citizens facing bankruptcy, explicitly allowed Congress to collect taxes, and in general focused on fixing the problems that had become apparent in the Articles of Confederation.

That said, as Madison admitted in a private letter in 1832, economic powers that didn’t appear in the Constitution weren’t always rejected or not adopted because the federal government wasn’t intended to have them. “Without knowing the reasons for the votes in those cases, no such inference can be sustained,” Madison observed. “The propositions might be disapproved because they were in a bad form or not in order; because they blended other powers with the particular power in question; or because the object had been, or would be, elsewhere provided for.”

3. George Washington created the United States Post Office.

This may not seem like a big deal today, but when President Washington signed thePostal Office Act of 1792, he created what was then the most far-reaching and sophisticated postal service in the Western world. In the process, the post office actively worked to make Americans into better democratic citizens by shaking them out of the provincial mindsets they would otherwise develop from living on farms or in small towns before the Industrial Revolution. As historian Richard R. John explains in his award-winning book on the subject,

“By facilitating the regular transmission of information throughout the length and breadth of the United States, the postal system provided ordinary Americans with information about the wider world that they could obtain in no other way.”

Perhaps just as importantly, the post office allowed the federal government to create thousands of jobs. By the 1830s, more than three-quarters of the entire federal civilian workforce was employed by the post office (roughly 8,700 people), and the postal service was so widely regarded as necessary that other politicians who advocated creating jobs through infrastructure spending could point to it as an example. This brings us to our next point.

4. Thomas Jefferson reduced the federal debt so he could use the anticipated budget surpluses on economic programs that would be described as left-wing today.

As historian Frank Bourgin explains in his book “The Great Challenge: The Myth of Laissez-Faire in the Early Republic,” President Jefferson had fought since the beginning of his political career for homesteading policies that would give away free land in the Western territories — which, in an era when land ownership often mattered as much or more than financial worth, could have easily been considered “political gifts” by his opponents. Yet Jefferson did this not only because he hoped to encourage Western settlement, but because he sincerely saw no contradiction between maintaining a “small government” and using the state to economically assist ordinary people.

This is why, when Jefferson succeeded in creating a budget surplus, he quickly proposed that the funds be used to create a top-notch public education system, subsidize scientific and technological innovation, and build transportation and other forms of infrastructure that would strengthen America as a world economic power even as it provided jobs for members of the working class. He even hoped that America would one day embrace taxing the wealthy in order to finance programs that helped the general public:

“We are all the more reconciled to the tax on importations, because it falls exclusively on the rich, and with the equal partitions of interstate estates, constitutes the best agrarian law… Our revenues once liberated by the discharge of the public debt, and its surplus applied to canals, roads, schools, etc., the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone, without his being called on to spare a cent from his earnings.”

How was this possible? Well…

5. Thomas Jefferson, despite his small government ideals, was flexible when it came to the important issues of his time.

Jefferson’s economic policies are noteworthy not only because he authored the Declaration of Independence (much as Madison co-authored the Constitution), but because they reveal his willingness to keep an open mind about his earlier ideological assumptions. After all, Jefferson had proclaimed in his first inaugural address that good government should be “wise and frugal” and, though “restrain[ing] men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

While this philosophy may seem irreconcilable with his subsequent policies, Jefferson learned early in his presidency that small government ideals aren’t always practical. This was most famously demonstrated in 1803 when, quite unexpectedly, Napoleon Bonaparte offered to sell the Louisiana Territory (then owned by the French empire) to the United States. Although Jefferson knew that the Constitution didn’t clearly grant him the authority to accept what is now known as the Louisiana Purchase, he believed that the enormous benefit of doubling America’s size (the territory consisted of 827,000 square miles) more than outweighed the ideological objections of those who held to an anti-government philosophy — including his own. “It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory,” he wrote at the time, “and saying to him when of age, I did this for your good.”

* * *

Although technically not a founding father, Abraham Lincoln is without question one of the most widely beloved Americans to ever occupy the presidency. More importantly, though, he was the first Republican president, which makes it symbolically appropriate to conclude with a quote from his 1861 State of the Union message:

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

This, when all is said and done, is the bottom line. At a time when income inequality continues to grow and an increasing number of Americans are attracted to the economic populism of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, it is important to remember that political liberty is hollow indeed if it isn’t accompanied by economic security. While America’s capitalist economy has made it one of the most prosperous nations the world has ever seen, it has also created conditions that require government intervention on behalf of laborers. If conservatives believe that those policies won’t work, they have the right to say as much. When they do this by trying to claim that the founding fathers would have rejected progressive alternatives as un-American, however, they do a disservice to the country they claim to want to help – and get their facts wrong in the process.

The real reason many Americans don’t vote

Published: Salon (November 28, 2015), The Daily Dot (November 11, 2015)

Earlier this week, the Nation declared its support for an online petition urging President Obama to declare Election Day 2016 a national holiday. In doing so, they have joined forces with presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has already introduced a bill to do the same thing. Not surprisingly, the movement has also caught fire on Twitter.

But to understand the issue, it’s important to realize why many Americans don’t vote. While the popular notions are that non-voters are lazy and unmotivated or they “just don’t care,” some voters just can’t afford to.

When the government first established that presidential elections should be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the year was 1845. This was a time when most Americans lived in farms or small towns, and there was less concern that voting in the middle of the work week would be economically prohibitive for large sections of the population. Consequently, Tuesday was chosen because Sunday was widely accepted as a day of worship and Monday needed to be set aside as a travel day to reach the polls.

But America today is a different landscape for workers—in a culture where Americans get little time off, whether it’s to vote or do anything else.

But America today is a different landscape for workers—in a culture where Americans get little time off, whether it’s to vote or do anything else.Forty-two percent of Americans didn’t take a single vacation day last year, partially because they felt too economically insecure to afford it and partially because many of their employers actively discouraged them from doing so. Meanwhile, 23 percent of American workers did not receive paid vacation time, 24 percent did not receive paid holidays, and nearly 40 percent did not receive paid sick leave.

As a result, a Caltech/MIT survey on voting patterns discovered that three of the five most common reasons given by eligible adults who did not vote had an economic component to them: they were too busy, they struggled with transportation, or they faced registration problems. One telling statistic is that 40 percent of voters reported waiting in line to vote—with 17 percent being forced to wait for more than half an hour. That’s prohibitively expensive in a country where time is literally money.

Not surprisingly, the end result is that low-income Americans turn out to vote in far lower numbers. The U.S. Census found that only 47 percent of eligible adultswith family incomes of less than $20,000 a year voted in the 2012 presidential election, compared to 80 percent of those whose earning exceeded $100,000. Overall, only 19 percent of likely voters come from families with incomes of less than $30,000 a year, even though that same group comprises 46 percent of nonvoters.

Similarly, because the poverty rate for Latinos and black Americans is almost three times that of whites, non-whites are disproportionately likely to not vote; although these groups comprise only 22 percent of likely voters, they make up 43 percent of non-voters.

Exacerbating all of this is the recent rash of Voter ID laws that, along with combating a problem that doesn’t exist (as there is no evidence that in-person voter fraud is a serious issue), wind up disenfranchising large numbers of low-income voters who don’t have the time or money to obtain photo IDs.

Although hard data on the impact of voter ID laws is inconclusive, experts fromstatistician Nate Silver to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office(which writes reports for members of Congress) suggest that they could lead to anywhere from a two-to-three point drop in turnout—more than enough to determine the outcomes of close local elections and swing state match-ups.

Forty percent of voters reported waiting in line to vote—with 17 percent being forced to wait for more than half an hour.

In short, if we want to make the process of voting as fair as possible, it is essential that we accommodate the economic realities facing millions of Americans. Just as the growth of corporate lobbying and the impact of Citizens United on campaign financing have disempowered the poor by allowing the affluent to game the system through monetary contributions, so too does requiring Americans to cast their ballots on a day when many of them also work. This unfairly disadvantages prospective voters for whom balancing a busy work schedule with civic responsibility may not be realistic.

While relieving this burden wouldn’t single-handedly level the electoral playing field between the rich and the poor, other countries that have given their workforce a day off on Election Day have benefited from it. The practice of either declaring a national holiday or holding elections on weekends has already spread to Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and New Zealand—all of which surpass America when it comes to voter turnout.

By giving Americans a paid holiday to ensure political participation, we aren’t just empowering the poor. We’re ensuring that America’s electoral process is as democratic as we’d like to believe.

 

Campus protests can go viral in no time–so can the backlash

Published: The Daily Dot (November 27, 2015)

It’s hard to follow the recent flurry of college protests without being reminded of President Harry S. Truman, who famously said that “there is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

As the media continues to fete attention on high-profile student demonstrations at Yale, Wesleyan, Princeton, and the University of Missouri, one could be forgiven for thinking there is something novel about the state of American universities today.

While this assumption isn’t entirely wrong, it’s important to identify what exactly has changed and why. As history shows, and my personal experiences confirm, college campuses have always been hotbeds for radical student activism. The difference today is that, because so many students use social media to gather news and shape their political philosophies, collegiate conflagrations that would have died out on their own in the past can instead blaze on indefinitely and spread more widely thanks to the Internet.

To illustrate my point, a brief look at my own past as an undergraduate at Bard College (which I attended from 2003 until 2006, when I graduated after completing my coursework in three years) can be particularly instructive.

The year was 2004. George W. Bush had just been re-elected and I, like the dozens of other Bard students who had campaigned for Democrat John Kerry, was devastated. Because early exit polls had predicted a Kerry victory but the candidate himself had already conceded defeat, many of us decided that a march on the local town of Red Hook, New York, would tell the world that our voices would be heard. I wrote about the protest for the Bard Observer, the main campus newspaper, roughly two weeks later:

“[A]s the incendiary rhetoric and actions of the radical students became more prominent, the more reasoned individuals – myself included – began to disassociate ourselves from the main proceedings. By the time the sit-in had started in the town of Red Hook, the initial group of 250 protesters had dwindled to what locals approximate was a band of three or four dozen highly determined activists, who found themselves sitting in the primary [four-way] intersection of Red Hook.”

Inevitably, the police were called out to handle the demonstration, and what followed was a seemingly endless dialogue between the protest leaders and law enforcement officials. Although the students were eventually persuaded to end the traffic jam they had started, several of them began tossing pebbles and other small objects at the officers as they walked back to campus. Arrests swiftly followed, leaving the bulk of the student body in an uproar.

Because the prevailing impression among students who hadn’t participated was that the cops had arbitrarily “gone bezerk,” and I had personally witnessed the students provoking the cops, I felt compelled to use my column in the Bard Observer to offer a counterpoint to the consensus story. Unfortunately, after showing the draft of my op-ed to one of the protest leaders, the editorial was leaked throughout the campus. “Matthew Rosza [sic] is trying to print an editorial about what happened on weds,” one widely circulated email declared, “please feel free to write to him what you think of the article in order to help his poor disillusioned soul!”

What followed were two of the most intensely unpleasant weeks of my life.

As I went about my day-to-day business on the campus, I was frequently berated by total strangers–as well as more than a handful of casual acquaintances–who would accuse me of everything from fascism to plain old conservatism. In one bizarre twist, some even declared they were going to “boycott” me–not theObserver, mind you, which would have at least made sense, but me as a human being–a nomenclature faux pas that baffles me to this day (to be fair, I was guilty of a rhetorical imprecision of my own, referring to the Red Hook altercation as a “riot” in my article). The good news, though, is that as time wore on the students’ interest in this particular kerfuffle faded away. By the time I was telling this story to my extended family on Thanksgiving, I was already referring to it in the past tense.

If these same events had occurred today, I suspect the outcome would have been very different.

“What is unique about these issues is how social media has changed the way protests take place on college campuses,” explained Tyrone Howard, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “A protest goes viral in no time flat. With Instagram and Twitter, you’re in an immediate news cycle. This was not how it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

Professor Daniel W. Drezner of Tufts University made a similar point in a recent editorial for The Washington Post, remarking that “as a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students. The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent.”

Certainly there is no arguing that social media has transformed how millennials perceive and participate in our political process. As a survey by the Pew Research Center discovered in June, “when it comes to where younger Americans get news about politics and government, social media look to be the local TV of the millennial generation,” with 61 percent reporting getting their political news from Facebook in a given week. A separate survey also taken this year by the American Press Institute yielded similar results, finding that 57 percent of millennials get news from Facebook at least once a day, with others mentioning social media (or potential social media) sites like YouTube (29 percent), Instagram (26 percent), Twitter (13 percent), Pinterest (10 percent), Reddit (8 percent), and Tumblr (7 percent).

Because so many young people are engaging with politics through social media, the medium itself has shaped how they respond to current events. “Social media favors the bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered,” observedNicholas Carr in a Politico article about the popularity of fringe presidential candidacies on social media platforms. “It also prizes emotionalism over reason. The more visceral the message, the more quickly it circulates and the longer it holds the darting public eye.”

In many ways, this creates a perfect storm of conditions for student protests to be blown out of proportion by both participants and third parties alike. The students provide the first ingredient by using social media to express and/or mobilize a demonstration regarding an intensely emotional position (legitimate or otherwise) that they hold on a touchstone political or social issue. If their rhetoric and/or protest activities are sensational enough to go viral, the media catches on and begins feverishly reporting it, with the subsequent heightened attention exacerbating the pre-existing histrionic climate and further fueling the cycle.While social media was already beginning to take off during my undergraduate days in the mid-2000s, it was nowhere near as pervasive as it is today, and in terms of my personal experience that may have made all the difference. Had the same events occurred 11 years later, it is hard to imagine that either the Red Hook protest or the subsequent backlash against me would have been mere footnotes in the national news.

Certainly the fact that Bard College has consistently been ranked as one of the most left-wing schools in America (then and now) would have featured prominently in the news coverage, along with the fact that I was an active member of the campus Democratic Club and could by no means be considered conservative. The odds are also strong that, as we’ve seen with high profile student protests today, each side would have seen its mistakes mercilessly nitpicked by critics: Cell phone videos taken of the protests would have been analyzed to confirm or contradict both our versions of events, our rhetorical excesses would have been dutifully chronicled, and the emotions that might have otherwise subsided over a couple weeks would have instead intensified and metastasized. For all I know, they would have ultimately defined my entire college experience–or brought it to a premature close.

The point here is not that student protests should be discouraged or condemned. Many important issues have been brought to the fore of our national debate because of these activities, from the anti-Vietnam War and pro-civil rights movements that swept campuses in the 1960s to the concerns about on racial and gender inequality that motivate students today. Although my personal experience has taught me to be critical of student protesters when they attempt to punish or silence dissenting views, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to play a role–however small–in the vibrant political debate that is the lifeblood of American democracy.

That said, as social media continues to transform our world, it is important that we make sure not to unwittingly amplify words and deeds that could conceivably cool off on their own. In the end, this type of excess means that we have allowed our technological tools to manipulate us instead of the other way around–and when that happens, everyone loses.

Autistic Reflections on Thanksgiving

Published: The Good Men Project (November 26, 2015)

On Thanksgiving Day 2015, I am thankful for the following.

Growing up, it seemed like everyone rejected me as an oddball. If I didn’t correctly read the thoughts and emotions people attempted to communicate through their facial expressions and body language, I was weird and rude. When I talked too much about subjects that the people around me didn’t find interesting, it was because I was “Motormouth Matthew.” Anytime I drew attention to how I was being bullied because of my unorthodox mannerisms and tics, I was admonished for being a “tattle” and told that I should “just ignore” my tormentors.

Make no mistake about it, things haven’t improved that much for autistic people. Every day I see news stories about someone with Asperger’s Syndrome being picked on by his or her peers. Most of my close autistic friends continue to live in fear that their jobs and personal relationships will be cruelly, unexpectedly terminated. If anyone says that things are good for autistic people today (much less ideal), they are either deluding themselves or determined to diminish other people’s problems.

Having said all of that, one thing is undeniably true: Unlike my early years, now I have a language with which I can discuss being autistic with others.

Without question, the worst part of growing up on the spectrum was not being able to explain my situation to other people – or, for that matter, to myself. My formative years were spent believing that there was something intrinsically wrong with me, that I was ineffably different and would never be able to connect with other people. It’s bad enough to be marginalized and lonely, but the emotional brutality of that condition is exponentially worsened when you genuinely believe yourself to be a freak. Perhaps there was the incidental advantage of me learning to empathize with others who feel like outcasts, but I would like to believe I could have acquired the same empathetic capacity without the traumatic experiences.

Either way, there is little question that both I and other autistics like me now have a vocabulary that allows us to understand ourselves and demand that others accept us on our own terms. The struggle for full social equality is still more ahead of than behind us, but this is an important first step. It means that, instead of feeling like aliens, we can embrace our own unique corner of the human experience.

For this I am endlessly thankful, and this is the thought I will keep in my mind and heart as I celebrate Thanksgiving with my family.

If Donald Trump becomes president, it’ll be our fault for treating him like a celebrity

Published: The Good Men Project (November 24, 2015) – co-authored with Jill Di Donato

Donald Trump’s ascent as a presidential frontrunner is, without question, one of the major political events of our lifetime. Even if he doesn’t ultimately win the Republican nomination next year, he has already dominated in the polls long past the time when most experts believed his star would wane. As a result, Republican leaders are already beginning to panic that he may actually become their candidate, with some even turning to a reluctant Mitt Romney as their potential savior.

There are many variables that have contributed to Trump’s success, but one detail in particular deserves further explanation: Trump’s prominence in the current news cycle says something distasteful about the political agenda-setting power of celebrity in our country.

This explains, for one thing, why he is able to withstand indignities that would be politically fatal to other presidential aspirants. Take his parody of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” on his Nov. 7 SNL appearance (which was pretty money). Let’s say SNL’s “Hotline Bling” sketch was a parody of a parody—Drake dogging himself is the ultimate form of cool, especially when he’s in the middle of a beef with Meek Mills. That said, Drake isn’t running for president. Why was Trump in on the joke?

Part of the problem is that, because Trump has been a pop culture icon since the 1980s, his image allows him to embrace certain causes simply by appearing to be the embodiment of them. Over the past six months, every time Trump said something outrageous, his numbers went up. Taking on the persona of a celebrity allows Trump (or whoever is running his campaign – Ivanka, is it you?) to avoid discussing many important election topics and instead focus on his cult of personality. As Salon’s Conor Lynch put it in an Aug. 24 article, the Republican debates have attracted record-breaking numbers of viewers because Trump’s participation:

“…Donald Trump is a famous reality star, and the American people crave fame and entertainment. Trump is the antithesis of Sanders, in the sense that his entire campaign so far has been about his ego, rather than ideas. There can be no denying that he is entertaining to people across the political spectrum, and he has largely turned the GOP primaries into a reality show.”

This also explains why Trump’s disturbing ideological views – many of which would normally be hard to swallow, like, Trump’s stance on border control or his views on women) become easily digestible. As political journalist Alisa Solomon wrote in an Oct.31 article in Fortune:

“At a time when voting is treated with the gravity of clicking on a Facebook ‘like’ button … SNL’s invitation to Trump reveals how politicians aren’t just exploiting the entertainment industry for its reach. The entertainment industry can exploit their blustering buffoonery for laughs.”

This celebrity image allows Trump to play Marie Antoinette at a time when many Americans are in dire need for a slice of bread. Rather than sustenance, however, people seem to delight in the spectacle Trump provides instead. Throughout much of his career, Trump’s fame allowed him to serve as the embodiment of concepts that were ingrained in our zeitgeist. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was the personification of wealth and luxurious excess that seemed to define first Reagan era yuppie-ism and then Clinton era prosperity. In the 2000s, right around the time the reality TV boom took off, Trump’s hit show “The Apprentice” captured society’s newfound obsession with fame as a reward for its own sake. Now that Trump desires a political career, he has simply evolved that gift to the next level – the 2010s are an era in which Trump’s Republican Party is in the midst of a reactionary backlash against racial diversity, one exacerbated by the election of the first black president. Consequently his aborted presidential campaign in the last cycle focused on a conspiracy theory tinged with racism (i.e., birtherism) and this time around was kicked off with disparaging characterizations of Mexican immigrants and fueled by subsequent rants against political correctness.

Trump’s shtick of being politically incorrect has worked because like his daughter Ivanka, a purported advisor to her father’s campaign, declared, “He says what he means and he means what he says.” But there’s a point where “straight-talk” became a euphemism for racist, xenophobic, capitalist misogyny, and Trump has been praying on that tacit understanding of hate for the past six months of this election. This is not to say that the public is completely acquiescent. The activist group MoveOn has proactively been rolling out “Dump Trump,” petitions, attacking his corporate backers like Macy’s and NBC. Are petitions enough for the showman-turned-politician?

Because Trump is a seasoned performer, with hosting gigs on “The Apprentice” franchise, before NBC cancelled it, he’s been playing the role of pop star politician with success. This is a man whose hero is Reagan, not only a two-term president, but star of the Oscar-nominated Kings Row and Santa Fe Trail (opposite Errol Flynn).

Will Trump actually clutch the GOP nomination? It’s a long race. However, Trump’s presidential candidate rhetoric and the wave of celebrity that’s carrying it is cause enough for alarm.

 

An aggressive military response is precisely what ISIS wants

Published: Salon (November 20, 2015), The Daily Dot (November 18, 2015)

As the world reels from the last Friday’s terrorist attack in Paris, millions of people have taken to Twitter to share their grief and outrage… and many echoed Donald Trump’s call to “bomb the shit” out of them.

The desire to immediately strike back at ISIS with overwhelming force is understandable. It took under 48 hours for the French military to retaliate for the attack with air strikes against targets in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. However, it’s important to remember why groups like ISIS mount large-scale spectacle terrorist attacks against Western targets in the first place: to provoke a dramatic military reaction that brings moderate Muslims around the world into agreeing with its worldview. Retaliatory strikes against ISIS will certainly weaken the group, maybe even destroy it, but that type of response is precisely what ISIS is hoping to elicit.

“There can be no compromise in a cosmic war. There can be no negotiation, no settlement, no surrender.”

In his book Beyond Fundamentalism, religious scholar explains that the chief goal of radical Islamist groups like ISIS is to create a “cosmic war” in which human beings act out a religious war they believe is simultaneously occurring in heaven: Fundamentalist Islam on one side and that Western Christianity on the other.

“There can be no compromise in a cosmic war. There can be no negotiation, no settlement, no surrender,” writes Aslan, arguing that fundamentalists successfully framing their grievances as a black-and-white existential struggle allows groups like ISIS to set the philosophical terms of the fight. “In the end, there is only one way to win a cosmic war: to refuse to fight it.”

President George W. Bush reacted to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by engaging in a large-scale military campaign first against Afghanistan and then Iraq. The total cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to the American government has grown to a mind-boggling $6 trillion over the past dozen years. There is little doubt that similar military campaigns from Europe would carry a comparably staggering price tag.

“[Bush] responded with precisely the cosmic dualism that those who carried out the attacks had intended to provoke,” Aslan writes.

As thousands of Muslim civilians died in military campaigns led by America and its allies, Islamic extremists fed off the resulting anger and hopelessness felt by those directly impacted or  outraged by the war. Instead of spreading democracy and stifling radicalism in the Middle East, the bombings and other high-casualty military actions wound up having precisely the opposite effect.

America’s intensive military response to Osama bin Laden’s attack also played a large role in creating ISIS today. “Over the years, bin Laden … never made it a secret what he was up to: trying to bait the U.S. into a ground war in his backyard, so that he could defeat us, just as he’d defeated the USSR, in large part by bleeding us dry financially,” writes columnist Paul Rosenberg in Salon.

Not only did Bush’s military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq lend credence to the radical Islamist argument about a holy war between the Muslim world and the secular West, but deposing Saddam Hussein created a power vacuum in the Iraq that ISIS was willing and able to fill.

ISIS didn’t attack Paris at random. They did so with the goal of provoking a specific response.

Furthermore, the Islamophobia spurred by attacks in Paris reinforces the notion that the West poses an existential threat to the Muslim faith. While all of the Paris attackers identified so far have been European nationals, right-wing parties throughout continental Europe are indulging in anti-refugee rhetoric. It’s arguably worse in the U.S., where 25 Republican governors have announced they will attempt to block Muslim Syrian refugees from settling in their states. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have already been reported in both Europe and the U.S.

“This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for–to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,” Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who specializes in terrorism, said in an interview with theWashington Post. “ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.”

The crisis with ISIS is complex; charting an ideal of course of action has flummoxed many of the world’s best foreign policy thinkers. But as the West continues to process the Paris attacks, its main psychological challenge will be to avoid the reflexively overblown military response that will play right into ISIS’s hands. It feels gratifying to talk like Donald Trump about “bombing the shit out of them,” but just because we have awesome military power doesn’t mean the right thing to do is use it awesomely. ISIS didn’t attack Paris at random. They did so with the goal of provoking a specific response.

The West needs to think long and hard if it’s best course of action is giving ISIS exactly what it wants.

Why no one watched the Democratic debate

Published: The Good Men Project (November 17, 2015)

The most recent Democratic presidential debate was the lowest rated of the six held by either party this election cycle, drawing in only 8.55 million viewers. This may seem like bad news for the Democrats, but the truth is actually more disturbing – in all likelihood, they planned it this way.

We can start our analysis with the day on which it was held. As Alvin Chang of Vox explained in a recent article, only seven of the 100 debates held since the 2000 presidential election cycle were held on a Saturday. All of those took place during the primaries, after the voters had already been introduced to and at least partially cast judgment on the wider field of candidates. “TV ratings are generally lower on Friday and Saturday, which probably explains why there has never been a general election debate on a Saturday night,” Chang points out. He adds that Thursday seems to be prime real estate when it comes to attracting TV audiences—a detail the Republican National Committee noticed when scheduling its series of debates.

This works to the disadvantage of candidates who lack name recognition; 38 percent of voters, for example, reported that they don’t know enough about Bernie Sanders to formulate a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him. Nevertheless, the Democrats actually have a second upcoming debate that was scheduled for a Saturday, falling exactly six days before Christmas.

If you’re wondering who would benefit from such a plan, bear in mind that the Democratic establishment has also been criticized for acquiescing to the Clinton campaign’s private lobbying for there to be as few debates as possible leading up to the primaries. To be fair, the Clinton campaign wasn’t alone in doing this, as both the Democratic and Republican National Committees decided to reduce the number of debates as a way of minimizing interparty drama. “I think a traveling circus of debates is insanity in this party,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus argued at the time. “We’re proposing to have fewer than 10, and this time around, we’re going to pick the moderators.” This view was echoed by DNC chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who has commented that “no matter what we decided, there would be individuals who would be unhappy.”

These dismissals haven’t stopped both rival Democrats and the media from asking questions. On the day of the previous Democratic debate last month, Schultz spent most of the build-up time deflecting queries about her scheduling decisions, while rival candidates like former governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland overtly accused the schedule of being “rigged” by Clinton supporters. Although there is no proof that the Clinton campaign used its influence in any unethical way to achieve this result, as the frontrunner she stands to benefit most from a debating schedule that limits voter exposure to possible alternatives.

Making matters worse, the primary schedule itself has been compressed to an unprecedented degree, with more than half of all primary voters casting their ballots in the first two weeks of March. Because only four debates will have occurred before the first primary is held (and only two more will take place after that), this significantly diminishes the impact that any of those debates can have on the outcome of the primaries.

There is little question that, between Clinton and Sanders, members of the Democratic Party establishment would overwhelmingly prefer Clinton. While many Democrats share Sanders’ ideals, he is regarded by party leaders as practically unelectable due to his outspoken association with the far left. Clinton also benefits from the aura of inevitability that caused her to be widely regarded the national Democratic frontrunner for 2016 almost as soon as Barack Obama had been reelected in 2012. This assumption has, perhaps, caused the party apparatus to become complacent in how it conducts its primaries this year.

Regardless of the conventional wisdom regarding next year’s presidential election, though, the party’s voters should always be given as much of an opportunity as possible to pick the candidate they believe will be strongest.

Although conventional wisdom dictates that a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” like Sanders is inherently unelectable, polls have actually found him outperforming Clinton against their potential Republican rivals. At the same time, despite being widely written off as an also ran, O’Malley has a solid case for his candidacy based on his substantive record of accomplishment as governor of Maryland (including abolishing the death penalty, passing gun control reforms, legalizing same-sex marriage, and raising the minimum wage).

This doesn’t mean that Sanders or O’Malley should automatically be preferred over Clinton, but it does suggest that there are practical reasons for all three candidates having a fair shot before the electorate. A candidate’s experience doesn’t inherently qualify him or her for the presidency, but the resume is an important variable in putting them up on that stage in the first place. If nothing else, it entitles them to the right to be taken as seriously as the other Democratic options until they say or do something to discredit themselves or, conversely, to recommend themselves. Unfortunately, all the Democrats besides Clinton have been systematically denied this opportunity by a debate schedule that serves to limit their media exposure.

Regardless of the merits of the individual candidates in question, though, the big loser in the current debating schedule is small ‘d’ democracy itself. On the Republican side, we have seen democracy cheapened by the sickening spectacles of race-baiting, rhetorical extremism, and the rise of Donald Trump’s cult of personality. By contrast, the Democrats seem to have gone to the other extreme, working so hard to avoid potentially embarrassingly drama that they have squelched healthy competition entirely. As Clinton continues her march toward a seemingly inevitable nomination, it remains to be seen whether any candidate, issue, or controversy will ultimately emerge to shake up the Democratic race. One thing is clear, though: If Clinton wins the nomination primarily because Democrats weren’t adequately informed about their choices, the voters will have lost.