Donald Trump didn’t apologize for Bill Clinton’s Serbian intervention after all

Published: Salon (October 14, 2016)

This time, Donald Trump may be the victim. So may be a Serbian magazine that was obscure to U.S. audiences until Thursday, when it published a fake interview with the GOP presidential nominee.

The alleged interview, in which Donald Trump supposedly apologized for America’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, was likely a hoax that someone played on the publication.

The Serbian magazine Nedeljnik initially claimed that Trump told it, “It was a great mistake to bomb the Serbians who were our allies in both world wars. Serbians are very good people. Unfortunately Clinton’s administration was very damaging to the Serbians, they made a mess in the Balkans. I have apologized before to the Serbians for the actions and our policy primarily Clinton’s. I will strengthen the relationship with the Serbian government. When I take office the foreign policy will change the course for the better.”

Nedeljnik was the victim of a hoax by a Serbian-born actor and producer named Vladimir Rajčić, who claimed that he was close to Trump’s vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, according to Politico. Rajčić later emailed the magazine answers to questions that appeared to have been signed by Suzanne Jaworowski, a high-ranking Trump aide in Indiana.

“There was no Trump interview on Serbia,” Jaworowski told Politico. “I don’t know where that came from. I never facilitated any kind of interview with a Serbian reporter.”

Nedeljnik is now internally investigating its story to determine whether a real exchange with the Trump campaign happened.

The U.S. bombed Serbia in 1999 to end the state’s genocide against Kosovar Albanians.

How Donald Trump would destroy America (and possibly the world)

Published: The Good Men Project (May 19, 2016)

America is in a “boy who cried wolf” situation right now. We’ve grown so accustomed to comparing our presidents with tyrants, or insisting that a candidate’s ascent to power will result in calamity, that even those of us who see an actual wolf in our midst aren’t being taken seriously. The people voting for Donald Trump are well aware of our concerns but – having grown jaded to polemical hyperbole – aren’t able to recognize that the threat is real this time.

Make no mistake about it, though: The danger posed by Trump is very, very real. One may disagree with the policies pursued by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but the hysterical response to their presidencies was always grossly disproportionate. Bush was a neoconservative and Obama is a moderate liberal; Trump, on the other hand, is a man driven more by bold stabs in the dark than any consistent ideology. Assuming he follows through on his proposals, it is quite likely that some of them would cause terrible consequences not only for America, but the entire world.

To explain how this is so, though, we need to stop with the inappropriate comparisons to Hitler (which I debunked in this piece for MSNBC) and instead focus on the nitty gritty of what he has said he would try to do:

1. The economy.

Although Trump makes valid points about America’s anti-working class trade policies, his proposed solutions would be disastrous. As president, he would have the power to increase tariffs on Chinese and Mexican goods by as much as 45 percent. If he did this, those countries would almost certainly retaliate with comparable measures targeting America’s products. The resulting trade war would inevitably increase prices and reduce job growth, knocking the American economy back on its heels only a few years after the Obama administration led us to a precarious recovery. Even more troubling than what we know, though, is what we don’t know. The slightest adverse development can have unforeseen ripple effects in our globalized economy, and because America has been a staunchly pro-free trade nation since the 1930s, it is impossible to predict the full impact of an about-face as abrupt as the one Trump is proposing. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t modify our trade policies to be more amenable to the interests of our working class, but we need to do so responsibly.

2. Global warming.

Trump’s is a well-known denier of man-made global warming, a position that perfectly fits in with his other conspiratorial views (he believes the scientific consensus on global warming is a plot by the Chinese to control the world economy). As a result, when he vows to “renegotiate” the Paris deal in which more than 200 nations vowed to curb greenhouse gas emissions, it’s safe to assume that he would not care one whit about slowing our planet’s dangerous overheating. Unfortunately, the science isn’t going to accommodate Trump’s iconoclasm; as the earth continues to overheat, humanity will face mega-storms, droughts, famines, and the mass extinction of countless species. As Peace and World Security Studies Professor Michael T. Klare wrote last October, “Scientists have long worried that climate change will not continue to advance in a ‘linear’ fashion, with the planet getting a little bit hotter most years. Instead, they fear, humanity could someday experience ‘non-linear’ climate shifts (also known as ‘singularities’ or ‘tipping points’) after which there would be sudden and irreversible change of a catastrophic nature.” As Klare notes, there are early signs that this is already happening, and it stands to reason that if Trump torpedoes an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions, that could very well push us past the tipping point.

3. Nuclear war.

Ever since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan in 1945, American presidents have been expected to appreciate the sober responsibilities that come with being a nuclear power. In the 1964 presidential election, when Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was accused of being fast-and-loose about how he’d use our nukes, the threat of nuclear apocalypse helped sink his campaign. More than half a century later, however, Trump has openly discussed using tactical nuclear weapons against the Islamic State, arguing that “I don’t think you’re going to be successful [with Muslim countries] unless they respect you.” Even foreign policy hawks should be concerned by this position, and not merely because Trump has advocated it in places beyond the Middle East (he once told Chris Matthews that he wouldn’t take using nukes in Europe “off the table”). By equating the use of nuclear force with earning respect, Trump reveals an ominous thought pattern – namely that (a) if America is threatened by foreign enemies, it’s because they don’t respect us and (b) we can demand their respect by threatening them with total annihilation. This is the exact mentality that the United States and Soviet Union scrupulously avoided succumbing to during the Cold War, since both superpowers understood that if nuclear nations were permitted to behave this way, the final result would be total destruction.

Regardless of how one feels about Hillary Clinton, there is no sound reason to believe that she poses an existential threat to our future. Trump, on the other hand, has proposed policies that could plausibly result in economic collapse, ecological devastation, and even worldwide nuclear war. Every American voting in the 2016 presidential election is going to have to make one of the most important choices of their lifetime. For once, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that failure here could bring about the end of the world as we know it.

The Trumpian Foreign Policy in ‘Captain America: Civil War’

Published: The Huffington Post (May 16, 2016), Salon (May 15, 2016)The Good Men Project (May 12, 2016)

If you’re a fan of movies and haven’t visited Red Letter Media’s website, you should. The critics there are among the funniest and smartest on the Internet, as evidenced when they started joked about the geopolitics of “Captain America: Civil War.” Founding member Rich Evans summed up the punchline best: “Strangely everyone seems to think that the UN has actual powers. That was the most jarring thing for me.”

This point is especially interesting when you consider the foreign policy debate in this presidential election. The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has defied more than seventy years of bipartisan consensus on the importance of internationalism, abhorring the “dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy” and arguing that, as a result, America should no longer feel responsible to “international unions that tie us up and bring America down.” This is an intriguing inversion of the foreign policy conducted by the last Republican president, George W. Bush, who shared Trump’s disdain for organizations like the UN but did so precisely because he wanted to engage in nation-building. Their shared reasoning, though, is that because America can exercise its might in a way that only a handful of countries could meaningfully check (Russia, China), that means we should… the rest of the world be damned.

There are a number of reasons why men like Bush and Trump succeed in the Republican Party and, as such, in this country. In part it’s because the United Nations itself is riddled with corruption, often controlled by nations whose values are diametrically opposed to our own (e.g., large sections of the Middle East), and has a long history of incompetence (see the Rwandan genocide). That said, our compliance in international unions doesn’t automatically mean that we view all participants as our moral equals. This would be ideal, of course, but we live in an imperfect world, and to change it we often find ourselves needing to choose between lesser evils. If America sincerely stands for the belief that all human beings are inherently equal, we must allow ourselves to be accountable to the international community. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aggressively protect our self-interests and distance ourselves from nations who don’t share our values, but we lose our own ethical authority when we don’t strictly abide by the standards we preach. Holding our nose isn’t nearly as bad as selling our souls.

And what are those ethical standards? I turn to the words of Adlai E. Stevenson, a two-time presidential candidate who played a significant role in developing the United Nations and famously bested the Soviet Union while serving as our ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During his first presidential campaign in 1952, he decided to pay tribute to that organization in a broadcast celebrating its seventh anniversary. “We must not lose faith in the United Nations,” he declared. “We see it as a living thing and we will work and pray for its full growth and development. We want it to become what it was intended to be – a world society of nations under law, not merely law backed by force, but law backed by justice and popular consent.”

It is here that I switch my history nerd cap for that of a Marvel movie nerd (to avoid spoilers from “Captain America: Civil War,” skip to the end of this paragraph). I discuss the politics of that movie at length in a previous article, but suffice to say that it presents Iron Man as the champion of internationalism and Captain America as the advocate of unilateralism. Team Captain America believes that their leader and the Avengers can be better trusted to protect the world than organizations directly accountable (albeit in varying degrees) to its own inhabitants. As Cap himself puts it, “I know we’re not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own.” Team Iron Man, by contrast, acknowledges that “if we can’t accept limitations, we’re boundaryless, we’re no better than the bad guys.” Naturally the movie sides with Captain America, which is a shame because the world of this movie seems to be one in which the UN acts more or less in accordance with its mission. I could be wrong – although if I’m right, this would certainly rank as the most fantastical notion in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe – but if that is indeed the assumption, then it speaks volumes that the filmmakers felt so comfortable having its hero defy accountability to the global community.

We have grown so used to being the most powerful guy in the room that our culture’s biggest pop culture mythology, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, dedicated one of its most important films to the notion that might really does make right – or, at the very least, that it just so happens the mighty are usually also righteous. It’s a troubling moral to say the least, particularly when you consider that we may soon elect a president whose entire candidacy is based around a cult of personality. Trump practically embodies the idea of strength being in an of itself a noble quality, of bullying as an indicator of greatness. Our world may not contain real-life superheroes, but there are a handful of men and women with enough wealth, fame, and power to single-handedly decide all of our fates. These people and the institutions they control must be accountable to the rest of us, and we in turn must be accountable to ideals that value individual human rights above all else. When we fail to remember this, we become a bad guy ourselves, whether by invading other countries or working as an agent for the interests of the wealthy few instead of genuinely representing all of humanity.

The problem, in the end, is that we don’t have anyone like Captain America or Iron Man acquiring real power in our world. All we have are the likes of Donald Trump and the lesser evil running against him in this election, Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure if our reality will ever look like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but if it does, it will be because we join Team Iron Man instead of Team Captain America. The former path offers real justice; the latter, only more of the same.

Why Andrew Jackson never should have been on the $20 to begin with

Published: Salon (April 21, 2016)

It’s official: Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew has announced that abolitionist Harriet Tubman will replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. And, while Jackson will still reportedly remain on the reverse side of the bill, the move is nonetheless a momentous one.

Naturally there are many people who will complain about this decision, but since Tubman’s legacy leading slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad is beyond reproach, these critics will most likely turn to defending Jackson. As a preemptive rebuttal to such arguments, here are the four reasons why Jackson needs to go:

He is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Native Americans.
When it comes to Native American history, Jackson ranks right up there with the worst genocidal tyrants. Because white Southerners in the early 19th century craved the land inhabited by native tribes like the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek and Cherokee, they needed the government to expel the original inhabitants so they could seize the property for themselves. Although the law only permitted voluntary and peaceful removals of natives from their land, Jackson ignored the law (as well as the Supreme Court itself) and forcibly expelled the Choctaws and Creeks from their ancestral home. Thousands of them died during the brutal journey westward, prompting them to refer to their exodus as the “Trail of Tears.”

He was an open practitioner of cronyism.
Although the term “spoils system” became popular during Jackson’s presidency, this isn’t because he introduced the practice of firing existing government employees and replacing them with his own friends and supporters. Presidents and other democratic leaders had been doing this since the dawn of recorded history. But, without question, Jackson made the problem much worse. In his first annual message to Congress, Jackson openly advocated rotating public offices among party supporters, claiming that an applicant’s qualifications mattered less than avoiding the creation of a class of corrupt civil servants. While this position would have made sense had Jackson established an impartial hiring method in its stead, when he fired 20 percent of federal officeholders during his presidency, they were almost invariably replaced by pro-Jackson partisans without regard to their individual merits.

He was an imperialist.
Roughly a decade before the Mexican-American War annexed the West and increased America’s size by 500,000 square miles, Jackson sowed the seeds of discontent between our two countries. In keeping with his expansionist policies, Jackson sought to purchase the Mexican border province of Texas so that whites could acquire land there. Instead of outright invading Mexico, Jackson encouraged American settlement into Texas and attempted to purchase the territory through diplomatic overtures that only increased tensions between our two countries. When Sam Houston led a revolt against the Mexican government in 1835, Jackson avoided supporting either side, but he enthusiastically backed James K. Polk (his protégé) when the latter ran for president on a platform that made outright war against Mexico inevitable.

He probably would have hated being on the $20 bill anyway.
If there is one positive aspect of Jackson’s legacy, it was his courageous battle against the Second Bank of the United States. “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” he declared in a famous statement vetoing renewal of the bank’s charter, arguing that any privately-owned centralized bank could manipulate currency to exploit low-income Americans and exert undue influence over economic policy. The good news is that Jackson succeeded in destroying the corrupt centralized bank; the bad news is that, eighty years later, the Second Bank of the United States would be replaced by another central banking system, the Federal Reserve. Considering the pride he felt in destroying one centralized bank, it stands to reason that Jackson would have been appalled to find his visage adorning a common form of currency from another one.

After spending our entire lifetimes using money that only features white men, it is necessary (indeed, long overdue) that we feature a figure who doesn’t fall within that narrow demographic profile. In light of her remarkable contributions to the cause of racial equality, Harriet Tubman is an ideal choice to break this color and gender line in one fell swoop. That said, even if Tubman had replaced Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill (which was originally rumored to be the plan), Jackson still should have been ousted from the $20. His own poor legacy on race relations, honest government, and honorable foreign policy demand it… and, frankly, it’s quite possible that he would have wanted this anyway.

In short: If anyone tries to tell you that Jackson deserves to stay on the $20 bill, don’t listen to them. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Why Bernie Sanders lost the Jewish vote

Published: Quartz (April 20, 2016)

Senator Bernie Sanders is the most successful Jewish presidential candidate to date. But he did not prevail in the Apr. 19 Democratic primary in New York–despite the state’s massive Jewish community and his personal ties to Brooklyn. Even if Sanders does not end up the Democratic nominee, his efforts to push Americans politics to the left will be remembered for years to come. Among the most notable parts of his legacy may well be his attitudes toward Israel–which may also have cost him the support of his fellow Jews at the polls (who voted against him 58% to 42% in New York).

We can start with Sanders’ views on Israel. Although Sanders is unwavering in his support for Israel’s right to exist, he has also harshly criticized the Jewish state’s myriad human rights abuses against Palestinians. This was particularly apparent in the Apr. 15 debate. Sanders explained that although he is “100% pro-Israel in the long run,” he wants America “to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity” and believes that listening to the Palestinian side “does not make me anti-Israel.” These are bold positions for any mainstream presidential candidate to take. And while the risk of anti-Semitism accusations may be somewhat mitigated for Sanders, his willingness to speak ill of Israel could result in him being accused of something arguably worse—being a self-hating Jew. Even if Sanders does not end up the Democratic nominee, his efforts to push Americans politics to the left will be remembered.

As a Jew who has been on the receiving end of this particular taunt, I can personally attest to how infuriating the insult is. Nevertheless, there are emotionally (if not logically) sound reasons why so many Jews feel intensely protective of Israel.

Chief among them is the existential terror that accompanies the reality of being “a Jew.” Anyone with a cursory familiarity of Jewish history knows that we have been brutally persecuted for millennia: the Roman diaspora, Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogroms, and German Holocaust are merely a few of the most conspicuous occasions in which powerful nations have not only discriminated against Jews, but actively worked to wipe out the Jewish community.

After 5,000 years of such treatment, it makes sense that many Jews are extremely sensitive about potential persecution. This sensitivity translates into the potential abandonment of any presidential candidate who speaks negatively about Israel, even one who is Jewish. After 5,000 years of such treatment, it makes sense that many Jews are extremely sensitive about potential persecution.

At the same time, however, Sanders’s positions on the issue are indicative of a growing liberalism within the American Jewish community. Indeed, numerous pollshave found that Israel ranks relatively low among Jewish voters’ priorities. And progressive humanism is just as integral to the Jewish tradition as support for Israel.
Jews have overwhelmingly voted Democratic since the 1920s—which, not coincidentally, was right around the time the Democratic party was becoming the more progressive of America’s two major political parties. Although assimilation and socioeconomic advancement have somewhat dampened these left-wing tendencies over the past 90 or so years, Jews remain a largely liberal lot.

This is in no small part because our centuries of persecution have left many of us with a keen sense of empathy. Our sympathy for the marginalized, persecuted, or suffering is also why Jews have been disproportionately active in fighting racial inequality, promoting gay rights, organizing and supporting labor unions, and backing left-wing third-party candidates. When it comes to Israel, this humanistic narrative is often at odds with historical fears of persecution. For Sanders, it’s clear which side has more influence. Speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in February, he said his cultural background teaches him “that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me.” As millennial Jews like myself participate in the political process, we are beginning to feel less tied to Israel than ever before.

It also explains why, as millennial Jews like myself participate in the political process, we are beginning to feel less tied to Israel than ever before. “Younger Jews’ waning support for Israel in its dealings with Palestinians may not be so surprising,” explained Jason Horowitz recently in The New York Times.“Unlike their parents and grandparents, who grew up when Jews were still reeling from the Holocaust, they know Israel primarily as a powerful nation rather than an existential necessity.”

From this progressive vantage point, humanist Jews find their religion actually motivating them to criticize their motherland. After all, why would we support any powerful entity that treats others in the same way that Jews were once treated?

Ironically, Sanders’ progressive interpretation of American Jewishness may be hurting him among some segments of Jewish voters. Although Sanders is the most left-wing candidate in this election, the Clinton dynasty enjoys strong popularity within the Jewish community. When Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, Jewish support for the Democratic ticket shot up by 16 points from the previous presidential election, giving him the best showing of any Democratic candidate in a quarter century. During his wife’s first presidential bid 16 years later,Jews preferred Clinton over then-senator Barack Obama by a wide margin.

Sanders’ progressive interpretation of American Jewishness may be hurting him among Jewish voters. This can be attributed in part to the Clintons’ warm personal relationships with individual Jews. Bill Clinton hired more Jews for powerful roles in his administration than any president before him, and the Clintons’ son-in-law is Jewish. But it also has to do with the Clintons’ hawkish commitment to Israel, which was best captured by Hillary’sunequivocally pro-Israel speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Of course, there is no way of knowing what’s primarily responsible for Sanders’ poor showing among Jewish voters–it could be his views on Israel, or the Jewish community’s longstanding loyalty to the Clintons. But for better or worse, the current trend shows that most Jewish voters aren’t going to play the identity politics game when it comes to their electoral decisions.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the way Sanders’ politics have brought a new phase in the identity of American Jewry to the mainstream. We are gradually becoming a culture that perceives its heritage through a distinctly American paradigm. When we assess what being Jewish means to our political values, we don’t think solely in terms of what would be superficially best for the Jewish community specifically. Rather, we use our experience as a historically persecuted minority to inform our advocacy. It’s the difference between memorializing our oppression and committing ourselves to rooting out prejudice and oppression—wherever that may occur.
We aren’t there yet, but we’re getting closer.

Bernie Sanders is a compassionate, intelligent man who has no clue how to run a country

Published: Quartz (April 6, 2016)

If Bernie Sanders wants to be president, he’ll need to do better than this.

The Democratic senator is doubtless feeling pretty optimistic today, fresh off a primary victory in Wisconsin. And yet a much more telling measure of the candidate’s presidential chances happened earlier this week, during an interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News.

Reading the interview is a thoroughly disheartening affair. As editors plied Sanders with questions about how he would implement his radical agenda, it became abundantly clear that Hillary Clinton’s chief rival doesn’t have many answers.

Take his response to questions about his highly touted plan to break up America’s big banks. After reassuring the board that “the idea of breaking up these banks is not an original idea. It’s an idea that some conservatives have also agreed to,” Sanders was asked how he would go about such an impressive task. Sanders’ subsequent waffling should give even the stoutest Sanders supporter pause.

 As editors plied Sanders with questions, it became abundantly clear he didn’t have many answers. First, he suggested legislation (somehow pushed through a presumably Republican Congress) would do the bank-busting. Then he claimed that his administration would have the authority to force through changes on its own, before quickly contradicting himself and reassuring his interviewers that “the president is not a dictator.” When the Daily News pointed out that a federal court had recently overturned an attempt to regulate America’s biggest life insurer Metropolitan Life, and asked how this precedent might impact his own efforts as president, Sanders conceded: “It’s something I have not studied, honestly, the legal implications of that.”

Sanders was similarly evasive when asked how his “political revolution” might be affected by the realities of a GOP-held legislature. After spending most of his time talking about the revolution already wrought by his campaign, Sanders argued that his presence in the presidential race would result in a voter turnout large enough to retake the Senate for liberals and make gains in the House. (This would still result in a divided Congress, but okay.) He also claimed that a win would “mean that millions of people now want to be involved in the political process in a way that has not previously existed,” somehow compelling Congress to act in accordance with their newly expressed wishes.

Sanders’ worst moments, though, came when he was asked to discuss foreign policy. Because the wording of these exchanges is so important, it’s better to just quote directly from the transcript. Here’s Sanders talking about Israel and Palestine:

Daily News: Do you support the Palestinian leadership’s attempt to use the International Criminal Court to litigate some of these issues to establish that, in their view, Israel had committed essentially war crimes?

Sanders: No.

Daily News: Why not?

Sanders: Why not?

Daily News: Why not, why it…

Sanders: Look, why don’t I support a million things in the world?

And here he is on drone strikes:

Daily News: President Obama has taken the authority for drone attacks away from the CIA and given it to the US military. Some say that that has caused difficulties in zeroing in on terrorists, their ISIS leaders. Do you believe that he’s got the right policy there?

Sanders: I don’t know the answer to that.

And terrorist interrogations:

Daily News: What would you do with a captured ISIS commander?

Sanders: Imprison him.

Daily News: Where?

Sanders: And try to get as much information out of him. If the question leads us to Guantanamo…

Daily News: Well, no, separate and apart from Guantanamo, it could be there, it could be anywhere. Where would a President Sanders imprison, interrogate? What would you do?

Sanders: Actually I haven’t thought about it a whole lot.

Just to be clear, Sanders’ character is not in question here. Sanders is an incredibly compassionate man, one driven by a deep desire to help the disadvantaged and correct injustice. His campaign has created an incredibly opportunity for liberal Americans to push their party to do better on the kinds of issues frequently regarded as taboo in the past, from destigmatizing the word “socialist” to boldly pushing for a national minimum wage of $15 per hour. An American president has to do more than simply raise awareness about important issues. 

At the same time, an American president has to do more than simply raise awareness about important issues. A qualified candidate must be able to realistically assess how he or she would implement the policies that they believe to be most important. Sanders was unable to do this during his interview. And his answers revealed a rather shocking lack of knowledge about the many aspects of being president unrelated to his stump speeches, most notably foreign policy. In the process, he raised serious doubts about whether his bid for the White House can, or should, be viewed as anything more than a single-issue campaign.

This brings us to the deeper lesson we can learn from the 2016 presidential election. The presidency isn’t a symbolic title. It is a job,and in order to fill it one must demonstrate a breadth of understanding as well as a depth of conviction. Sanders has copious quantities of the latter. But in the context of this incredibly vital election, that’s simply not good enough.

Donald Trump’s secret weapon against Hillary Clinton

Published: Salon (April 5, 2016)

There is one issue in which Donald Trump is much more progressive than Hillary Clinton – and, unless she learns from history and decisively changes the way Americans perceive her positions here, it may wind up costing her the presidency.

I’m referring, of course, to American trade policy. Although the last president to oppose free trade was Hebert Hoover (and his administration was more than 80 years ago, for those of you keeping track), Trump has been sounding the horn of unapologetic protectionism throughout his presidential campaign. Indeed, opposition to free trade may be the one consistent view Trump has held throughout his public life; when he first mulled a presidential bid in 1988, his main issue was America losing in trade wars with Japan and Kuwait. Twenty-eight years later, Trump’s economic platform focuses on prohibiting American companies from building plants in Mexico, penalizing China for manipulating its currency, and striving to “modify or cancel any business, or trade agreement that hinders American business development, or is shown to create an unfair trading relationship with a foreign entity.” Most notably, he denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – which, if signed, would be the largest trade deal in history – calling it a “disaster.”

Ironically, the only other candidate in this election to share Trump’s long history of outspoken protectionism is Sen. Bernie Sanders. Unlike Trump, however, Sanders’ aversion to free trade makes ideological sense. Throughout American history, trade protectionism has been associated with strengthening labor, the traditional prerogative of more left-wing political parties. In speech after speech, Sanders has hammered away at free trade deals for serving the interests of corporations rather than workers. As he put it during a debate with Clinton shortly before his upset victory in the Michigan primary, “You didn’t need a PhD in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour.” An overwhelming majority of Americans share this view, with a recent Bloomberg Politics poll discovering that opposition to free trade “unites the country like few others, across lines of politics, race, gender, education, and income.”

This brings us to Clinton’s views on trade, which are problematic to say the least. During her husband’s presidency in the 1990s, Clinton undermined Democratic progressives and worked with congressional Republicans to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Despite being lauded as a “no brainer” at the time, NAFTA was a disaster for the American working class, depleting our nation of almost 700,000 jobs by 2010 and allowing employers to disempower labor unions by threatening to move to Mexico if workers dare to assert their economic rights. As a result, Clinton has taken a more mixed stance on trade issues in the ensuing years, voting against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005 and half-apologizing for NAFTA in 2007 by conceding that “we have to drive a tougher bargain” in the future. Although Clinton supported TPP as Secretary of State, even referring to it as “the gold standard” of trade deals, she has since distanced herself from the agreement on the grounds that it would hurt the middle class.

Considering the massive public backlash against free-trade agreements, Clinton’s current stances may not be enough. According to a recent study by J. Bradford Jensen, Dennis Quinn, and Stephen Weymouth of the National Bureau for Economic Research, voters are more likely to punish candidates they perceive as supporting free-trade agreements due to the demonstrable impact such deals have on their livelihoods. Indeed, when you look back at American history, you will find that it is littered with presidential elections which hinged on trade issues – and, if the past serves as a reliable precedent, a candidate whose position isn’t sufficiently aligned with the perceived public interest usually winds up going down in flames.

Take the 1888 presidential election: In a move that was considered shockingly bold at the time, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the entirety of his 1887 State of the Union message to the subject of tariff reform – i.e., the need to increase free trade in America. At a time when tariff rates had reached unprecedented highs and ordinary Americans were suffering under the yoke of high prices, Cleveland’s surprising decision to make tariff reform a front-and-center issue wound up dominating the subsequent national campaign. In one stroke, the Democrats became the party of tariff reform and the Republicans (led by nominee Benjamin Harrison) became the party of protectionism. While it’s debatable whether America was ultimately pro or anti-free trade at this time – Cleveland narrowly won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College – there is little question that his willingness to boldly declare his stance on this issue allowed the campaign to be waged on his terms, and his terms alone.

If Clinton wants to avoid being bested by Trump in the general election, she would be well-advised to mimic Cleveland’s tactics (albeit not his policies). As many observers have noticed, Trump’s outspoken opposition to free trade has played an integral rolein his presidential candidacy’s success, mobilizing workers to his side while giving him the appearance of an outsider willing to challenge the economic establishment. Although Clinton has spent the past decade gradually shifting her positions to be closer to that of Sanders and Trump, right now Trump is currently in control of the national conversation when it comes to this issue. It seems reasonable to assume that, if Clinton and Trump wind up squaring off against each other in the general election, Trump will attempt to put Clinton on the defensive regarding her pro-free trade past, with the goal being to make her look like a flip-flopper if she takes a protectionist stance or like a tool of special interests if she reverts to her free trade guns.

By delivering a game-changing speech on trade, however, Clinton could preempt such maneuvers. For this to work, she would need to deliver a high-profile address that accomplishes three things:

  1. Unequivocally acknowledge the error of her past free trade policies, most notably NAFTA;
  2. Point to her opposition to CAFTA and refusal to support TPP once it became clear that it would repeat NAFTA’s mistakes;
  3. Point out that liberal Democrats have historically been the main champions for workers’ rights in this country, both on trade policy and other key issues.

By achieving the first goal, Clinton would not only effectively apologize for the harm wrought by NAFTA (which she has already tentatively done in the past), but cast her shifting position as a healthy ability to learn from her mistakes rather than as expedient “flip-flopping.” This point would be reinforced by succeeding in the second goal, which would have the additional benefit of demonstrating that her opposition to trade deals which hurt American workers predates the current presidential campaign. Finally, by tying her protectionist stance to the traditional progressive positions she has adopted – including raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour, investing $275 billion in infrastructure to create up to 3 million new jobs, and supporting unions against companies that undermine labor regulations – she would simultaneously underscore how Trump’s anti-free trade stances are more demagogical than ideological and establish her own campaign as the one that truly champions the overall interests of the working class.

Make no mistake about it: It will not be easy for such a speech to be successful. When Cleveland did this almost 130 years ago, it was because he used a platform that guaranteed his words and stances would garner massive media attention. Clinton’s choice of venue and presentation would have to be similarly savvy, and her words would need to not only plant herself squarely on the side of the working class, but do so in such a way that she would be subsequently viewed as the main candidate for workers’ rights vis-à-vis free trade. This will be a tall order for her to fill, and it will be no mean feat if she pulls it off.

At the same time, Clinton pretty much has no choice but to try. Considering the bipartisan opposition to free trade and Trump’s success in fueling his campaign with anti-trade sentiment, Clinton will be an incredibly vulnerable candidate in the general election unless she finds some way of combating Trump on these grounds. While she seems generally aware of the fact that her past on trade policy could hurt her, there is little indication that she recognizes the gravity of the situation in which she finds herself. If she doesn’t pick up on this soon, she risks failing to implement adequate damage control until it’s too late.

Clintonism deserves its due

Published: The Huffington Post (March 21, 2016), The Good Men Project (March 17, 2016)

Whenever I talk to potential voters who doubt Hillary Clinton (not outright oppose her, mind you, but simply have reservations), I find there are two arguments which are most likely to convince them to develop a more favorable view of her potential presidency. One is the possibility that not turning out to give her an extra vote will help elect Donald Trump; the other is that, when all is said and done, she was the single most influential adviser to one of the most consistently popular presidents in modern history – her husband, William Jefferson Clinton. While the former is great for scaring them away from The Donald, I find that one of the best ways to convince voters to want a term for Hillary is by arguing that it’s tantamount to a third one for Bill.

Unfortunately, there is an ongoing trend to convince the general public that they must reevaluate that favorable assessment. While this was predictable given the growing possibility of a Clinton restoration, unfortunately the effort seems to be working. Clinton’s current favorability rating has been down to 53-56 percent since the start of the year, despite remaining solidly in the ‘60s through most of the Obama era. This is especially troubling because Democratic liberals – often Bernie Sanders supporters – are contributing to it as well. Most conspicuous among them right now is author Thomas Frank, who wrote an editorial for Salon criticizing Bill Clinton’s presidency for its policies on welfare reform, free trade, and expanding America’s police state and prison complex. While these are valid criticisms and deserve to be discussed, there is a pervasive implication that they’re also somehow sound reasons for liberals to not vote for the likely Democratic ticket in November. That development would be very dangerous indeed, not only because it deprives Democrats of one of their chief assets in defeating Trump, but because it does a disservice to a legacy that – though flawed – still deserves considerable credit.

We can start with Clinton’s venerated economic record, which like the rest of his presidency is flawed but still quite impressive. Unemployment fell from above seven percent to less than four, median wages increased, the financial market boomed, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by an average 3.8 percent, inflation stabilized, and poverty declined. Although extreme poverty began to grow in part because of Clinton’s cuts to welfare programs, those reductions were part of a broader policy of fiscal discipline that led to one of the most widely discussed aspects of the Clinton era – namely, how a Democratic president managed to balance the federal budget and erase the federal deficit.

When it came to foreign policy, it’s important to remember that the Clinton administration was a brief period stretching from the end of the Cold War to right before the September 11th attacks. Consequently it was a period of relative geopolitical peace, perhaps the closest to a complete Pax Americana that our nation will ever experience. It was in this climate that Clinton pushed through a range of important social legislation, including raising taxes on the rich (remember that budget surplus?), stopping more than half a million people from getting illegal guns with the Brady Bill, passing the National Violence Against Women Act, creating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), raised the minimum wage, and guaranteed unpaid leave for all American workers.

Of course, if you read editorials like the one by Frank (an excerpt from his book “Listen, Liberal,” which I admittedly have not read), you’d have a much different view of these achievements:

Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him—apart from his obvious personal charm, I mean? It proved difficult for my libs. People mentioned the obvious things: Clinton once raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit. He balanced the budget. He secured a modest tax increase on the rich. And he did propose a national health program, although it didn’t get very far and was in fact so poorly designed it could be a model of how not to do big policy initiatives.”

The Brady Bill, the National Violence Against Women Act, and the wide range of positive economic indicators aren’t mentioned here at all, while his other landmark progressive legislation is dismissed with either glibness or deliberate diminution. Nowhere is there a due appreciation for the fact that Clinton was one of two Democratic presidents in the forty year span separating Richard Nixon’s first year in office from George W. Bush’s last (1969 to 2009). During that period, American politics underwent a major shift to the right, with the Democratic Party best embodied by the political impotence of presidents like Jimmy Carter and failed candidates like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. Into this scene strode Clinton, a charismatic Democratic president who, despite losing control of Congress two years into his presidency and surviving a trumped up impeachment effort, managed to actually get things done in a prosperous and peaceful America. To all but the most partisan or jaded, this must be acknowledged as a feat of considerable dimension.

This isn’t to dismiss the meat of Frank’s essay, as most of his criticisms are valid. Clinton did deregulate derivatives and the telecommunication industry, which played a major role in the banking crisis of the late ‘00s. His successful push for the North American Free Trade Agreement resulted in almost 700,000 jobs being shipped overseas, while his support for so-called “anti-crime” legislation helped make the American police and prison state as hellish as it is today. That said, disproportionately emphasizing Bill Clinton’s mistakes – at least in the context of this particular presidential election – risks creating the illusion that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t politically benefit from her association with the legacy of his presidency. This would be unfair even if it wasn’t an election year, but it becomes borderline suicidal in a contest as serious as this one. The Clinton style of government, however flawed, is being juxtaposed with some pretty frightening alternatives on the Republican side.

I personally view Clinton’s achievements as best embodied by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. By forbidding homosexuals from openly serving in the military, it perpetrated a terrible injustice; by eliminating the outright ban on homosexuality in the military, though, it simultaneously constituted an important step forward. That is the alternative on one side… and Trump is the other. While Trump’s quasi-fascism doesn’t in its own right redeem Clintonism, it does help put it in a more nuanced perspective. The Clinton presidency, like all presidencies, was very flawed, but that doesn’t diminish the good that President Clinton did, even when that good frequently came in a cracked package. Few American politicians are overwhelmingly good or overwhelmingly bad; most contain a mixture of positive and negative qualities, with the burden falling on voters to discern which ones are more important within the choices presented to them.

For liberals, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of what Clintonism has stood for in the past, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore or diminish the good in the process. If we do that, we risk being just as simplistic in our approach to politics as Trump supporters – and, in the process, leading America into an Age of Trumpism.