Is decency returning to our politics?

Trump’s conviction may herald a swing back to morality

Image source: The New Yorker

In mid-1954 the chief counsel of the U.S. Army, Joseph N. Welch, asked two questions that triggered the end of the paranoid, conspiracist-dominated era of McCarthyism. With those queries, both Washington and America generally began a slow road back to respect for law, due process and simple reasonableness. “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Welch asked Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Now, with the conviction of Donald J. Trump as a felon in his tawdry case involving a porn star, a Playboy model, dishonest lawyers and accountants and infidelity, one might ask: “Is America again beginning a return to decency?” Is it possible that, in time perhaps, we will get back to a point where longstanding American virtues can prevail in our civic lives, where our leaders can be moral and fundamentally decent? Does the return begin with the careful judgments applied first by a state grand jury that indicted Trump and then by 12 trial jurors, one of whom spoke favorably of him before the trial? She, along with the others, apparently was persuaded about his perfidy by the mountain of evidence she saw.

Roy Cohn and Trump, 1983, source: Vanity Fair

With its attack on the Washington establishment for a fabricated infiltration by Communists, McCarthyism preceded Trump’s assaults on the “deep state.” It  is not accidental that the period saw the rise of Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel – the same oft-disciplined Roy Cohn who taught Trump how to play the legal and PR games that helped him survive financial disasters and rise to the presidency. As a writer for Politico put it, “Trump was Cohn’s most insatiable student and beneficiary.” His techniques included refusing to apologize and never backing down, but instead sticking by lies even as they are debunked, counting on a gullible public to buy them.

Indeed, whether out of calculation, willful blindness or narcissistic self-delusion, Trump continued such deceit in a press conference Friday. He insisted, for instance, that the case was orchestrated by President Biden, though, in fact, it was a state case, not one involving the federal Department of Justice or the president, as a CNN fact-checker noted. Trump argued that the judge barred his lawyers from calling an elections expert, when, in fact, the judge would have permitted the man to testify, though he limited the scope of questioning to issues in the case, so the defense withdrew him. And Trump claimed that the prosecutors were bringing his case, while not dealing with crime that is occurring at levels never before seen in New York (something statistics show is false, with the early 1990s a far more deadly time in the city).

Of course, Trump is given to wild overstatement (a charitable term for it), as he again showcased. He said that his witnesses were “literally crucified” by Judge Juan Merchan, a man he said who “looks like an angel but he’s really a devil.” No crucifixions, literal or otherwise, were reported.

As Trump again derided the trial as “rigged,” he drew the first public rebuke on the case from Biden. The president asserted that the “American principle that no one is above the law was reaffirmed.” Speaking from the White House, Biden said: “It’s reckless, it’s dangerous, it’s irresponsible, for anyone to say this was ‘rigged,’ just because they don’t like the verdict.”

“Our justice system has endured for nearly 250 years, and it literally is the cornerstone of America,” Biden added, as reported by The New York Times. “Our justice system. The justice system should be respected. And we should never allow anyone to tear it down. It’s as simple as that. That’s America. That’s who we are, and that’s who we’ll always be, God willing.”

America’s justice and political systems haven’t always been respectable, of course. They have been subject to cycles, moving in Hegelian lurches from nuttiness to comparative sanity. The move in the 1950s from the darkness of McCarthyism to a sunnier Eisenhower/Kennedy era marked one such turn, for example. That shift required courageous people who stood up to fear mongering and dishonesty.

Someday we may look back on the New York prosecutors and the jurors as similarly gutsy people, folks who separated the facts from the BS. Depending on how the election goes, we may see those dozen men and women as ordinary citizens who turned the wheel of history.

We have a long way to go first, of course. The sort of rot that McCarthy brought into parts of the GOP in the 1950s has resurfaced to dominate the Republican party today. An opportunistically paranoid view of reality, as so eloquently described by Richard Hofstadter, now reigns in the party that Trump seems to own. It never really went away there, of course (recall Barry Goldwater, the John Birch Society and Richard Nixon), but it was suppressed by such leaders as Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush – men of basic decency and morals, even if one disagreed with them.

As it has driven out reasonable people, today’s party of Trump has come to lack respect for morality and shun decency. His lapdogs, such as VP-hopefuls South Carolina Sen. Tim ScottOhio Sen. J.D. Vance and New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, along with House Speaker Mike Johnson and No. 2 House Republican Steve Scalise, wasted no time in rising to Trump’s defense. Such prominent figures in the self-described party of law-and-order dissed the judicial system, managing to be simultaneously hypocritical and cynical – a far cry from the Republican leaders who persuaded Nixon to quit in 1974.

Larry Hogan, source: AP

To his credit, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is running for the Senate, seemed like a lone voice on the right. Ahead of the verdict, he urged the public to “respect the verdict and the legal process.” “At this dangerously divided moment in our history, all leaders — regardless of party — must not pour fuel on the fire with more toxic partisanship,” Hogan posted on X. “We must reaffirm what has made this nation great: the rule of law.”

But the Trumpy response came swiftly, echoing the sort of cancellation that Trump delivers to GOP officials who cross him. “You just ended your campaign,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior Trump advisor, on X. (As it happens, Hogan could turn the Senate red if he wins, so LaCivita may have helped undermine that GOP effort).

Unless something momentous happens, we will witness the spectacle of a convict becoming the presidential nominee of his party in mid-July, only days after his scheduled July 11 sentencing. Even felons can run for office and take the job if they win. Of course, in Cohn-inspired style Trump will appeal, something that will drag out the process well into the next presidential term. Trump, who knows how to play the legal system like a fiddle, could even win a reversal (if his apologists at The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere are right about the legal questions the case raises).

All along, Trump will do what he does best – stay in the news, oozing or muscling his way past President Biden in the headlines. He is a master of attention-getting stunts as shown by his vice-presidential sweepstakes, which has kept him in the public eye for months. He will stay in the limelight, overshadowing the real achievements Biden can point to from his time in office.

If issues come into the race, Trump will use them in his manipulative fashion to generate rage. In the din, it could be hard for Biden to remind voters, for instance, that Trump in February sank a promising bipartisan effort to fix the southern border, a bit of naked demagoguery designed to give the GOP an issue to run on. And Trump will hammer away at inflation, ignoring its decline and counting on voters’ ignorance that it’s the independent Federal Reserve that operates the levers on inflation through interest rates.

Source: MedPage Today

Certainly, as a product of a normal political culture, Biden would like to run on the issues. Indeed, while Trump courted the press as he played the victim in his pathetic legal melodrama, Biden was on the job as president, endorsing a plan to help resolve the Gaza war. Such diplomatic efforts seem far more newsworthy.

Until this conviction, in fact, Biden has been loath to speak about Trump’s many legal woes and it remains unclear just how hard the president will hit his rival over them, going forward. Will Biden make much of the twice-impeached Trump’s remarkable legal woes in their June 27 debate? Certainly, Biden is all too aware that the conviction is not a knockout punch for the GOP contender and that only voters can deliver that in November. Indeed, Trump and his minions already are trying to turn the conviction to their advantage with supporters, raising funds by playing the persecuted outsider-victim role that resounds with his die-hard backers.

Stormy Daniels, Trump, Karen McDougal; source: Getty Images, via

There’s no question that Trump has upended our electoral system and much of our culture, politically and otherwise. It wasn’t so long ago that voters would shun a potential candidate for being divorced (Reagan broke that barrier). Now many would tolerate a philanderer who cheats on his third wife while she is pregnant and pays hush money to suppress information about his infidelities. Also, despite widespread evidence to the contrary, Trump has managed to cast doubt on the integrity of elections (as he would certainly do again if he loses in the fall). Not incidentally, he has managed to drive suspicions about science and institutions.

But perhaps focusing on the conviction is taking a too-narrow view, as is dwelling on polls that show a close presidential contest. It’s possible that the national return to decency began in 2020, with Biden’s defeat of Trump, or in 2022, when the GOP lost the Senate and many Trump-backed candidates in competitive areas lost races up and down the political ladder. If there is, indeed, a return to decency in our political culture, history will have to fix the turning point. While, the climb back appears likely to remain uphill for a while, Trump’s new description as a felon surely helps.

Is Free Trade Really Dead?

Mark Twain might weigh in to the contrary

Source: Global Trade Review

Ah, what is old is new again.

Consider the fast-expanding battle over free trade. A new piece in The Atlantic argues that a longstanding Washington consensus in favor of relatively unfettered global trade is dead. The author contends the view has been replaced by “a much older understanding of economics, sometimes referred to as ‘political economy.’”

Journalist Rogé Karma maintains in “Reaganomics Is on Its Last Legs” that the new consensus is more mindful of the costs of trade. “The basic idea is that economic policy can’t just be a matter of numbers on a spreadsheet; it must take political realities into account,” he holds. “Free trade does bring broadly shared benefits, but it also inflicts extremely concentrated costs in the form of closed factories, lost livelihoods, and destroyed communities.”

And he suggests that the new anti-trade view is bipartisan. “Congressional Democrats, many of whom vocally opposed Trump’s tariffs, have been almost universally supportive of the increases, while Republicans have been largely silent about them,” Karma writes. “Rather than attacking the tariffs, Trump claimed credit for them, telling a crowd in New Jersey that ‘Biden finally listened to me…’”

But is this really so? In fact, isn’t trade still growing – albeit more slowly and with a few new limits and some fresh political targets, particularly Russia and China? The Boston Consulting Group, in a report titled “Protectionism, Pandemic, War, and the Future of Trade, predicts that world trade will grow 2.3% per year through 2031. Yes, this is less than the 2.5% projected for global economic growth, but it still represents gains.

Source: OECD, via World Economic Forum

And while there has been a slowdown in recent years – driven by geopolitics and COVID-19 – this year could see more than a doubling of trade over last year. “That’s according to the three major international economic organizations – the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) – which all forecast an uptick in global trade flows in 2024,” reports the World Economic Forum.

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the consensus remains as President Reagan and his barrier-busting trade representative Clayton Yeutter set it, but that it’s been tweaked and is under threat? That’s hardly as sexy a headline but it seems to represent reality better than the somewhat apocalyptic vision Karma sketches out.

Of course, there continue to be bogeymen on the global stage. Back in the mid-1980s Japan was the trade enemy of the U.S. Between protectionist forces in Japan and retaliatory advocates in the U.S., things got quite ugly.

Representative James Jarrell “Jake” Pickle, a Texas Democrat, suggested introducing what he called an “ah-so amendment” in legislation, for instance. This targeted Japanese negotiators whom Pickled said “say ‘ah so’ to everything and then don’t do anything” about trade complaints, as I reported in my book “Rhymes with Fighter.” By April 1987, the brouhaha worsened to the point that Reagan announced plans to slap hefty tariffs on $300 million worth of Japanese electronics exports to the United States, moves that would have doubled the prices of televisions, computers, disk drives, hand-held tools, refrigerators, electric motors, even X-ray film.

Under Yeutter’s guidance, however, Japan and the U.S. largely patched up their differences in time. And that and other steps fueled the huge expansion in world trade that, overall, has been an astonishing success. Not only have poor countries raised their living standards by leaps and bounds in the last quarter-century, but they have done so while wealthy countries have grown richer.

Consider a few numbers: per capita GDP growth in globalizing countries soared from 1.4% a year in the 1960s and 2.9% a year in the 1970s to 3.5% in the 1980s and 5% in the 1990s, according to a 2001 study. Since 2000, a pair of recessions and COVID dampened growth in the U.S., but even so the median income of U.S. households by 2018 had climbed to $74,600. This was 49% higher than its level in 1970, when the median income was $50,200.

Source: Chief Investment Officer

Today, China is the main bête noire of both American political parties. Thus we see President Biden imposing tariffs on a bevy of imported goods from China, including a 100% tariff on electric cars, and 25% to 50% duties on a handful of “strategic sectors,” listed in White House fact sheet as including solar cells, batteries, semiconductors, medical supplies, cranes, and certain steel and aluminum products. And we see that former President Trump is threatening to outdo that with 200% tariffs on Chinese-made cars hailing from Mexico, as well as 10% tariffs on all foreign imports and 60% on all imports from China.

Trade has long been a handy cudgel for politicians to wield as they target voters in areas disadvantaged by economic shifts. Consider Michigan and other swing states that both Trump and Biden are courting.

Indeed, despite the overbroad claim of Karma’s piece, it seems clear that critics of global trade are on the ascent, at least rhetorically. Fears about strengthening a growing China and a militarily expansive Russia undergird the worries.

But to trade-watchers this is an old story. When Yeutter and Reagan were opening the doors to world trade in the mid-1980s, they ran into buzzsaws from politicians of all stripes as well as from assorted industries. In an early epic battle, for instance, American shoemakers demanded protection from cheap foreign imports. But Reagan told Congress in a message and Yeutter in a memo that he wouldn’t inflict a cost of about $3 billion on American consumers by limiting such imports. The president fretted that if he granted protection to shoemakers, other industries would line up for similar shields, hurting consumers. “Protectionism often does more harm than good to those it is designed to help,” the president said. “It is a crippling ‘cure,’ far more dangerous than any economic illness.”

Source: The Spokesman-Review

Of course, the North American Free Trade Agreement, for which Yeutter set the table with a pioneering trade deal with Canada, became a huge bugaboo for protectionists before and after it was enacted in 1992. Maverick presidential contender H. Ross Perot made news that year for referring to the “giant sucking sound,” a phrase referring to the jobs that he said NAFTA would destroy. Years later, Trump made attacking NAFTA a key part of his first presidential campaign.

But, surprisingly, as president in December 2019, Trump transformed the deal into the U.S-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). That pact actually boosted trade and deepened cooperation, while adding some crucial modernizing elements.

Trade advocates, moreover, have also long recognized that some industries are so strategic and sensitive that letting them settle into the most economically congenial countries is risky. In the 1980s, Japan was accused of dumping semiconductor chips on the world market in a bid to dominate the industry, so Yeutter et al. cut a market-sharing deal that preserved U.S. supremacy. Fast-forward to Biden: he championed legislation designed to keep U.S. semiconductor makers dominant in the business.

Still, it would be a mistake to argue that trade going forward won’t be different. If anything has threatened frictionless trade, it has been the vulnerability of the global supply chain, something thrown into sharp relief by COVID-19. When Americans and other westerners couldn’t get badly needed personal protective equipment (masks) and medical supplies (ventilators, respirators, and dialysis machines), they saw in life and death terms the risks of what might be called excessive economic interdependence.

As the BCG report maintains, U.S. government efforts to promote domestic manufacturing and encourage companies to diversify supply chains started during the Trump Administration and are continuing under the Biden Administration. It cites such measures as the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, the USMCA and the U.S. CHIPS Act, all of which aim in part to lessen the country’s trade dependence on China.

Of course, as classic economic theory teaches, no one country can or should do everything economically. If low-cost countries have comparative advantages in various areas, it still makes sense for them to exploit those, even to the disadvantage of some domestic industries elsewhere. Not all boats rise, but most do.

Source: CNN

Nonetheless, there is reason to fret about the eagerness with which some leaders – in the U.S. and elsewhere — embrace economic nationalism. As a couple World Bank economists noted in a February blogpost, “Global trade has nearly flatlined. Populism is taking a toll on growth,” trade could prove to be “anemic” in coming years. “Trade growth will improve this year, but it will still be half the average rate in the decade before the pandemic,” economists M. Ayhan Kose and Alen Mulabdic wrote. “In fact, by the end of 2024, global trade will register the slowest half-decade of growth since the 1990s.”

They noted that many countries have lost their taste for trade deals. “In the 2020s so far, an average of just five agreements have been signed each year—less than half the rate of the 2000s,” the economists observed. “Their appetite for trade restrictions, meanwhile, seems insatiable. In 2023 nearly 3,000 trade restrictions were imposed across the world—roughly five times the number in 2015. Not surprisingly, the protracted weakness in trade has coincided with a pronounced slowdown in investment.”

Back in the day, Yeutter and Reagan prevailed in their battles against protectionists. Whether the successors to Biden and Trump will do so in time isn’t clear. But it seems too early to write an obit for market-opening moves just yet. As Mark Twain wrote upon reading news accounts of his death in 1897, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Should Jews abandon the Ivy League

There are better remedies for antisemitism

Alma Mater, sculpture at the heart of Columbia’s campus

As longtime bastions of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, several Ivy League schools were once terrified of opening their doors to Jews. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president from 1909 to 1933, contended that “where Jews become numerous, they drive off other people and then leave themselves.” He dismantled the university’s Semitics department and tried to introduce a quota for Jews, alarmed that the share of Jewish students grew from 6% to 22% between 1908 and 1922.

At Yale, a 1922 memo from an admissions chairman urged limits on “the alien and unwashed element,” a phrase from a document found in a university folder labeled “Jewish Problem.” Reflecting a general distaste for diversity, Yale medical school Dean Milton Winternitz in the mid-1930s said: “Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all.” As it turned out, Yale in 1923 adopted an informal quota limiting Jews to no more than 10% of the undergraduate student body, a figure that held sway until the early 1960s.

Worried about the large share of Jews enrolled at Columbia, the school went so far in 1928 as to set up a separate preprofessional college in Brooklyn, Seth Low Junior College, where many Jewish students were routed. As the Columbia Spectator reported, SLJC was created expressly to reduce the number of Jewish students on the main Morningside campus. In “Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University,” Columbia historian Robert McCaughey notes that enrollment of Jewish students at Columbia College after the junior college opened dropped from 40% to 25%.

The two-year junior college was shuttered in 1936, but not before editors on the school paper, “The Scop,” derided Jews as displaying “sneering, hypercritical, protesting, and disloyal characteristics.” The editors added that “only a small limited number of Jews can be assimilated each year. They [the universities] often cite incidents, from past experiences, of disloyalty, redundant individualism, and undeserved disparagement which they claim have been characteristically displayed by large bodies of Jewish students.”

As reported by The Current, the editorial board at the paper was almost entirely Jewish, a discomfiting element that Jews who camped with today’s antisemites might take note of. “The fact that a predominantly Jewish group of students wrote such a virulently anti-Semitic editorial proves how deeply ingrained these impressions of Jews were within society at the time, or at least within the academic elite,” The Current noted. “The Scop editorial board internalized the unfavorable rhetoric about Jews that surrounded them, and believed it was smart for Columbia College to limit its number of Jewish students, for if it didn’t do that, it would end up as miserable as Seth Low.”

Issac Asimov

At SLJC, one student was a young Isaac Asimov, who later wrote of a bad conversation with an admissions officer: “The interviewer didn’t say something that I eventually found to be the case, which was that the Seth Low student body was heavily Jewish, with a strong Italian minority. It was clear that the purpose of the school was to give bright youngsters of unacceptable social characteristics a Columbia education without too badly contaminating the elite young men of the College itself by their formal presence.“

Given that background, the debate over the best response to Jews coming under siege – sometimes physically — amid pro-Palestinian encampments at such schools is especially painful. After decades of Jews having to hammer on the doors to get into the nation’s top schools, it is troubling to read impassioned arguments that they should stop knocking and go elsewhere.

Attacking several elite schools for antisemitism and a host of other evils that he conflates, for instance, Mosaic Magazine publisher Eric Cohen writes in “The Exodus Project:” “These colleges are controlled by true believers. Their faculties and administrators enthusiastically embrace the very world view – call it ‘intersectionality,’ call it ‘critical race theory,’ call it ‘wokism,’ call it ‘DEI,’ call it ‘social justice,’ call it whatever you want – that nurtured the civilizational assault that now treats the Jews and Israel as target number one and America itself as the big game.”

Cohen’s answer: Jews should abandon such Northeastern schools and instead head to Texas, Florida, Alabama and such. “We simply need to celebrate and encourage the new exodus; and we need to help make the best of these schools into true exemplars of academic excellence. ‘Wow Harvard!’ should give way to ‘Why Harvard?’”

Earlier, in a City Journal piece headlined “Columbia is Beyond Reform,” Tablet editor at large Liel Leibovitz similarly argued: “The administrators seem beyond redemption. Sad to say, but the students are, too: very few at Columbia, veterans of seminars about allyship and intersectionality, bothered stepping out and standing together with their beleaguered Jewish peers.”

Leibovitz, an Israeli who earned his doctorate at Columbia, concluded: “Maybe it’s time to let Columbia, Yale, and other elite schools become what they already basically are: finishing schools for the children of Chinese, Qatari, and other global elites. And let anyone interested in America’s future pursue education elsewhere. For some, this will mean applying to alternative institutions, like the University of Austin; for others, trade schools might offer a remunerative alternative.”

But is shunning such schools really the best course for Jews, for the schools, for American society? Would it not be better if, instead, more Jews attended them and if Jewish donors stepped up to fund programs aimed at educating all the students on such campuses about antisemitism and Jewish history (particularly in Israel)? Would it not be better if curricula such as Columbia’s famous core curriculum were modified to include such mandatory instruction?

Dara Horn, source: Jewish Boston

Indeed, amid a national rise in antisemitism, is fleeing to schools in Florida, Texas and elsewhere even reasonable? Dara Horn, a Harvard graduate and author of the nonfiction essay collection “People Love Dead Jews,” writes of her travels around the country in which she met many Jewish college and high school students who accepted the casual denigration of Jews as normal. “They are growing up with it,” she writes in a piece for The Atlantic. “In a Dallas suburb, teenagers told me, shrugging, about how their friends’ Jewish fraternities at Texas colleges have been ‘chalked.’ I had to ask what ‘chalking’ meant: anti-Semitic graffiti made by vandals who lacked spray paint.”

Horn served on a now-disbanded antisemitism committee created at Harvard by ousted president Claudine Gay, but has become a critic of the university’s efforts to combat antisemitism. She is also a member of a group of Jewish alumni examining Harvard’s courses for antisemitism, according to The Boston Globe. As reported by the Globe, she told the group that “there are entire Harvard courses and programs and events that are premised on antisemitic lies.” Horn cited the spring 2024 course Global Health and Population 264: ‘The Settler Colonial Determinants of Health’ as an example of one such class in her article for The Atlantic.

Would it not be better if alumni and others likewise scoured courses at Columbia, Yale and other schools – including many not in the Ivy League – in efforts to eliminate antisemitism? Would many courses in Middle East Studies departments survive such scrutiny? Should they? Already, Columbia has taken steps to review or oust academics who’ve violated school policies with antisemitic comments – see the cases of Mohamed Abdou, Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Andoni Massad – and should more such efforts not be encouraged? Would such departments do better for students and the research world with a faculty that is not overwhelmingly Arabist, but more balanced?

And would it not be better if, instead of abandoning appropriate efforts at education in diversity, equity and inclusion — a bête noire of the right — that DEI training be broadened to include Jews as a vulnerable group? Have the repeated instances of antisemitic violence not demonstrated such vulnerability enough?

To be sure, this would take some doing, as Horn implies:

“Many public and private institutions have invested enormously in recent years in attempts to defang bigotry; ours is an era in which even sneaker companies feel obliged to publicly denounce hate,” Horn writes. “But diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have proved to be no match for anti-Semitism, for a clear reason: the durable idea of anti-Semitism as justice. DEI efforts are designed to combat the effects of social prejudice by insisting on equity: Some people in our society have too much power and too much privilege, and are overrepresented, so justice requires leveling the playing field.”

As she argues, antisemitism is a different sort of animal and one, I submit, that demands a different approach in DEI programming.

“It is a conspiracy theory: the big lie that Jews are supervillains manipulating others,” Horn writes. “The righteous fight for justice therefore does not require protecting Jews as a vulnerable minority. Instead, it requires taking Jews down. This idea is tacitly endorsed by Jews’ bizarre exclusion from discussion in many DEI trainings and even policies, despite their high ranking in American hate-crime statistics. The premise, for instance, that Jews don’t experience bigotry because they are ‘white,’ itself a fraught idea, would suggest that white LGBTQ people don’t experience bigotry either—a premise that no DEI policy would endorse (not to mention the fact that many Jews are not white).”

Apparently unlike the critics of DEI, I should note that I learned a lot from DEI programming at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Talking with Black colleagues about issues generally never aired was helpful; in fact, few white faculty members are aware of everyday slights that some Black colleagues face — one told me he routinely was questioned by police when he approached a university building in casual clothes on a weekend, something his white peers didn’t run into. I also read several helpful books that I otherwise would not have picked up.

And I learned a great deal co-teaching a course in which students examined past news coverage in Nebraska of racial and ethnic matters; it was a remarkable experience for me and my students alike. That course came about because issues of racial discrimination in the state were much on the mind of some administrators and faculty and a past Omaha World-Herald editor in the wake of the George Floyd killing.

Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, source: Columbia

As should be evident from my questions, I find the arguments for abandoning the Ivy League schools and others unpersuasive, even harmful. In part, this is because I have had warm ties to such schools – much of my professional and academic success came from my attending the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, a place that was eye-opening for me (in part because of a brilliant Jewish faculty member). Also, one of my daughters graduated from Columbia College and the other, who is now a rabbi, from the Jewish Theological Seminary, which associated with Columbia.

Source: Michigan State University Press

But I am not blind to the flaws at Columbia and elsewhere. They’ve been dramatically underscored by the encampments, which to me are evidence of poor education about Israel, Palestine and the Middle East. Personally, in fact, I felt the sting of some of the bigoted attitudes among faculty members; my book about Islamist terror, “Divided Loyalties,” was accepted a few years ago for publication by the Columbia University Press, only to be blackballed by a lone faculty member on the press’s advisory committee because the person objected to the university publishing anything on Islamist terror. (The Michigan State University Press, fortunately, did not share those objections).

Nonetheless, I believe the answer to the gaping flaws at such schools is not to boycott them, a response oddly reminiscent of the boycott Israel efforts so common among some academics now. Rather, the answer is to fix the schools, to implement curricula that would combat the ignorance that fuels the encampments and drives antisemitism. I believe the answer includes endowing positions for academics who can teach from the viewpoint of fostering coexistence between Israelis and Arabs in and around Israel.

In sum, I believe the answer is to engage with such schools, not to desert them. They are too important to leave to the antisemites.

Trump’s odd appeal

How a high school student council offers some insight

Source: Facebook

“History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce,” as Karl Marx is reputed to have said.

I’m reminded of the maxim as I mull over the prospects of a second Trump term, though I wonder if the order of the tragedy-farce progression would be reversed if the former president takes power again. The man’s first term was a bad joke and his second seems to promise many truly ugly things. Just see the recent Time cover story for evidence of how bad things might go: using the military to evict undocumented millions, detention camps, immunity for harsh police action (and for himself), stiff trade barriers, and, as noted elsewhere, removal of protections against political retribution for government employeespresidential control of the independent Fed, etc.

So why might Trump win? Well, the hush-money trial in New York is far from a lock, even as it looks damning for Trump, with an accountant testifying that Trump signed checks from a personal account to reimburse his lawyer for the payment to his paramour, Stormy Daniels. Certainly, that trial has had plenty of farcical elements – reminders of a porn star and a Playboy model, marital infidelity, illicit payments, disregard of the law and ordinary decency, etc. It would be a laughable parody, if it weren’t distressingly real.

But it’s not clear whether the evidence produced so far will persuade a jury (beyond a reasonable doubt) that Trump broke the law personally by knowingly falsifying business documents. Did he do that or order that? Or did his minions just do that while he was busy running for president in 2016? Can the prosecutors prove the former? That seemingly boring detail is the pivot on which the case turns.

And, even if the jury does pronounce him to be a felon, it’s doubtful that his legions of fans will decline notably. Even as his sordid history is rehashed — as Times columnist Bret Stephens put it — Trump’s favorability ratings in polls still linger at or above 40%. Despite knowing about much of his seedy and dishonest behavior during his first campaign, his fans backed him then; indeed, evangelical supporters saw him then (and likely see him still) as G-d’s flawed instrument, a sinner who nonetheless would do their bidding on things such as abortion and gay rights. Against all odds, a cousin of mine, for instance, is still posting amazing imagery about the divine embrace of Trump:

Source: Facebook

What is Trump’s secret sauce? Well, the usual suspects are white fear of national ethnic change (of which illegal immigration is actually a small part), rage at economic dislocation (global trade eroding jobs), and social change. Trump is brilliant at exploiting all that, for sure. Unlike the tumultuous and complex present, he invokes a gauzy past in seeking to “Make America Great Again.”

But some part of this is something more subtle and, perhaps, more pernicious – and for that, I must hark back to a small-bore event of over a half-century ago. Bear with me, gentle reader, as I draw your attention to my central New Jersey high school student council election, of all things.

Len E. Carmella, Source: Loomis Funeral Home

In my junior year at the all-male prep school, a most unusual candidate ran for president of that council. Unlike his academically distinguished and sober-minded opponent – a boy who later went on to graduate from Wharton and become a health insurance company vice president – this candidate, Len E. Carmella, was described by a longtime friend as “a showman and an entertainer.” As the friend wrote in our school paper, Lenny sought his identity in applause, “in the warmth afforded all beloved clowns.”

Noting that Lenny’s campaign was marked by “a lack of depth,” this friend pointed to his ability, instead, to “make sweeping gestures and rhapsodize.” And he quoted him on his trenchant platform: “I’m going to be known as the entertainer-king. Every month, there’ll be a Dance, a Movie Night and a folk night. And we’re going to put on three shows, with costumes and everything. Movies, bus trips, anything like that, I’ll give money to. Anything that’s gonna keep them happy, that’ll take their minds off their problems, that’ll keep them entertained, is fine with me.”

Mind you, this was in the spring of 1971, when Nixon was still in office and the Vietnam War was still much on the minds of all of us of nearly draft age. Anything distracting would be welcome and Lenny, if nothing else, was remarkably distracting.

Lenny and some fans

Lenny won. And his time in office was notable for just one major thing, a dance night featuring Bruce Springsteen and his band. Also, at one point, Lenny somehow was photographed strutting in front of a line of dancing girls, certainly an improbable image at our school (one where girls in the halls caused many to gape, stumble and stagger). Few of us are sure to this day of how either thing came to be.

So what’s the connection to events now, 53 years on? Well, if nothing else, Trump is an entertainer, even if a far meaner spirited one than Lenny ever was (though Lenny did enthusiastically and — often with Trumpesque vulgarity — back Trump back in 2016). After all, Trump made his name in “The Apprentice,” where he looked every bit like a capitalistic dark clown. And he continues to entertain even today, grabbing center stage in the news as he faces an astonishing legal onslaught. Even as President Biden claims all sorts of real gains – for helping keep the economy afloat, rebuilding our infrastructure, etc. – Trump dominates the headlines.

Because of his personal style – his autocratic strongman image – Trump is the dominant figure in our politics today, lording himself over other Republicans and Democrats alike. Next to him, Biden looks pallid and old.

“Politicians’ language reflects their dominance orientations,” a writer in The New York Times contended in an unsettling opinion piece. “Mr. Trump uses entertaining and provocative parlance and calls opponents — and even allies — weakgutless and pathetic. Still, neuroscientists monitoring listeners’ brain activity while they watched televised debates found that audiences — not just Mr. Trump’s followers — delighted in the belittling nicknames he uses for his opponents. His boldness and provocations held audience attention at a much higher level than his opponents’ play-it-safe recitations of their policy stances and résumés.”

It’s as if Trump took a page from my high school student president’s handbook (which at times included taking shots at some fellow students). Substance – the sort of bland, by-the-numbers approach that marks Biden and other establishment pols – is nothing to many in the electorate. It’s all a matter of style, a question of keeping the masses entertained. Voters have a hard time with boring (see Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter).

It’s also a matter of offering the middle-finger to those establishment types in both style and content. As the writer John Ganz put it in a conversation in March with Times podcaster Ezra Klein: “Yeah. I think that there is no separating form and content, as you said. That the figure has to represent the middle finger in order to be effective and get the constituency behind them…. But I don’t think it works without the theatrical, outrageous parts of it. And I think that that is part of the reason why people gravitate towards it. I think you speak — you could speak to people, and they may not have very clear ideas about any given policy issue, and yet, what they do believe is that the political establishment sucks, and they like somebody who tells them to fuck off.”

We have a long history of raucous table-pounding figures appealing to voters. Klein pointed to Pat Buchanan, an anti-immigrant firebrand who in many ways paved the way for Trump,  and former KKK head David Duke, who was elected to the Louisiana State Legislature and made an unsuccessful run as a Republican for governor of the state. As Klein put it: “… there has long been demand for a right-wing populist showman in the United States. That demand has been at times unmet. It has been at times suppressed. These people were not given a candidate to vote for in a two-party system. But it never went away. Perhaps it will never go away.”

Oh, and there’s one more thing. At a time of seeming chaos in many quarters – see the many campus protests over the Gaza war – the strongman appeals to many. That’s no small part of the reason Nixon was reelected in 1972, when he ran as the law and order candidate against the dovish and gentlemanly George McGovern. In this, the campus protesters may inadvertently help Trump oust Biden from the White House, as writer David Brooks argues, and that is something that likely won’t go well for their cause.

Sadly, we lost Lenny a few years ago. He had many friends in our high school and later in college at Loyola in Montreal, where one person described him as a “genius at satirical graphics,” sharing his illustrations with staffers at The Loyola News. He was an entertainer and a mold-breaker in a small political way, but he had real talent and basic decency, something that the all-but-named GOP nominee lacked in 2016 and lacks even more now.

Carole King’s “Beautiful”

It is, indeed, a beaut worth seeing

Carole King, Source: Elissa Kline photo, via PBS

Sometimes, it takes a while for something timely and delightful to reach me. Today, I found my way to “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” catching a road show performance in Philly only 10 and a half years after the show debuted in San Francisco, which was a tad before its opening on Broadway.

But, a decade on, the show remains a nostalgic wonder and something that, in opposition to our tortured times, seems like a throwback to what was in some ways a less troublesome era. When Carole Klein (stage named King) was breaking into pop music in the late 1950s and early 1960s, her earworms such as “The Loco-Motion” and “Take Good Care of My Baby” were the background sounds for the young lives of many of us.

Sure, these simple tunes seem a mite saccharine nowadays, especially when compared with, say, Dylan’s superb work and grittier stuff from the Stones, the Doors and such. King’s tunes don’t address social issues, but they do tug at one’s heartstrings and can be remarkably danceable.

King’s bouncy early work preceded her more anguished and world-weary stuff. That was slated for her 1971 album, Tapestry, which offered such touching hallmark pieces as “So Far Away,” “It’s Too Late” and “You’ve Got a Friend” – the last also rendered so well by King’s professional partner for a long time, James Taylor.

Source: Amazon

As I listened (and, with difficulty, kept myself from singing along) to the tune-packed “Beautiful” at the Walnut Street Theater, it struck me that her evolution from a 16-year-old pop prodigy into someone both scarred and enriched by the world was something of a mirror for American society. The torments so many of us were witness to over the decades – from big things such racial strife and wars to small-bore and more intimate relationship difficulties – were reflected in King’s experience. In real life, she was married four times, including once to a drug-addicted abuser, and she had several professional ups and downs along the way.

The show, and her music, touches only mildly on the dark personal stuff. But some of the tunes in the production, such as “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” a bleak 1965 piece written by a couple of King’s colleagues in Don Kirshner’s remarkable songwriting operation, echo larger and very troublesome things. The song was adopted as a kind of anthem by young Americans mired in Vietnam. And, on a more personal note, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling,” by three King colleagues, was a very much on the sad side. Even King’s pleading “One Fine Day” had a touch of melancholy beneath the bubbly surface.

As a friend, former Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks, wrote of a 2015 production: “Some of the best sequences are emotional settings of some of King’s most famous songs: King, leaving for Los Angeles and singing a farewell to [some early colleagues and] a post-divorce King in an L.A. recording studio, mustering the strength to belt out a rousing ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.’”

The Shirelles, source: Getty Images, via Britannica

Much of the show dwells on King’s early stuff, written before many of the social troubles of the later ‘60s and early ‘70s, and it’s notable how much she wrote to be sung by Black groups. The Shirelles, the Chiffons and the Drifters, for instance, had big hits with ditties penned by this petite Jewish girl from Brooklyn. For them all, there was an innocence about such tunes as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.” So, too, with Aretha Franklin’s smash, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a 1967 product by King and colleagues.

Admittedly, I was late to the party in seeing “Beautiful,” but it was a joy to hear those tunes again, along with others from the era, such as the Gene Vincent rockabilly hit “Be Bop a Lula,” and “Who Put the Bomp” (cowritten by King’s first husband, Gerry Goffin, and a colleague) along with “On Broadway,” and “Uptown” (both by a couple of King’s colleagues) And, of course, there was King and Taylor’s enduring “I Feel the Earth Move,” very much a grownup song from Tapestry, and the titular “Beautiful.” Each, in their own way, made for performance that leaves one humming.

King today, source: Instagram

If you haven’t seen the show, put in on your list before it fades away. At 82, King may be with us for a while yet, but her work is very much of its time and, in its light touch, that time is past. Today’s phenoms, such as Taylor Swift, owe much to King – both in terms of women making their marks in pop music and in being able to draw on their personal lives to make their art. In her own subtle way, King blazed the trail for them.

Hamas and Columbia — Part 5

Rooting out the rot in the faculty

Mohamed Abdou; source: Middle East Institute

Soon after the Oct. 7 atrocities by Hamas, a visiting scholar at Columbia University declared, “Yes, I’m with Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.” The man, Mohamed Abdou, was brought onto campus for the spring 2024 semester and teaches a weekly class on “Decolonial-Queerness & Abolition.” A website at UC Berkeley, where he recently spoke, describes him as “a North African-Egyptian Muslim anarchist interdisciplinary activist-scholar of Indigenous, Black, critical race, and Islamic studies, as well as gender, sexuality, abolition, and decolonization.” 

Hamid Dabashi, Source: X

Another faculty member, Iranian studies and comparative literature Prof. Hamid Dabashi, in 2018 wrote on Facebook that “Every dirty treacherous ugly and pernicious happening in the world just wait for a few days and the ugly name ‘Israel’ will pop up in the atrocities.” As reported by the New York Post, in a separate post “Dabashi also allegedly bashed Zionists as ‘hyenas’ – sparking calls from a pro-Israel student group for the professor to be rebuked.” Critics circulated a petition calling for his firing.

Joseph Andoni Massad, Source: X

A third Columbia figure, Joseph Andoni Massad, last October described the Hamas attack of Oct. 7 as a “resistance offensive,” according to The New York Times. Massad, who teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia, where he also received his doctorate in political science, has long been known for his anti-Israel positions, the paper reported. A day after the Hamas horrors, he published an article in The Electronic Intifada replete with adjectives such as “shocking success” and “astonishing.” “No less astonishing was the Palestinian resistance’s takeover of several Israeli settler-colonies near the Gaza boundary and even as far away as 22 kms, as in the case of Ofakim,” he wrote. “Perhaps the major achievement of the resistance in the temporary takeover of these settler-colonies is the death blow to any confidence that Israeli colonists had in their military and its ability to protect them.”

Is it any wonder, then, that otherwise intelligent students at the Ivy League school demonstrated against Israeli actions in Gaza? With such propagandists lecturing in classrooms otherwise known for careful and respectful scholarship, should we expect nothing else from students presumably ignorant of the long history of Hamas terrorism and the group’s origins and aims? What can we expect when professors recast the Oct. 7 monstrosity as “just one salvo in an ongoing war between an occupying state and the people it occupies” in a statement signed by more than 100 Columbia professors? When they say the massacre could be regarded “as an occupied people exercising a right to resist violent and illegal occupation,” as they did?

Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, source: Columbia Spectator

Belatedly, Nemat “Minouche” Shafik is taking aim at least at a few such toxic academics. At her April 17 hearing in Congress, the Columbia president said that Massad and a questionable law school professor, Katherine M. Franke (who is associated with the university’s Center for Palestine Studies) — were under investigation for making “discriminatory remarks,” the Times reported. She also said that Abdou “will never work at Columbia again.”

Of course, Shafik also took aim on April 30 at demonstrators who damaged and occupied Hamilton Hall on the campus. Her action in bringing in the NYPD to arrest the 40-50 occupiers was necessary, in my view, because they had gone well beyond setting up tents and chanting. They were, instead, disrupting the work of administrators whose offices were in the building, were damaging property and, in the case of outsiders, were criminally trespassing on university grounds. Far beyond merely exercising legitimate free speech, they posed a real danger on the campus.

Some number of them – and possibly some encampment demonstrators – were not even associated with Columbia, but were “professional outside agitators,” according to New York officials and university officials. Mayor Eric Adams blamed such outsiders for radicalizing students. For their part, Columbia officials said of the Hamilton occupiers: “We believe that the group that broke into and occupied the building is led by individuals who are not affiliated with the University. Sadly, this dangerous decision followed more than a week of what had been productive discussions with representatives of the West Lawn encampment.”

Columbia arrests, source: Financial Times

Indeed, it appears the occupiers were not even associated with Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the group that had been in talks with university officials. In a statement, CUAD identified the protesters occupying Hamilton as an “autonomous group.” In other words, these outsiders co-opted the students, using them as fodder.

Still, at best, the protesting Columbia students and probably many at other schools around the country are distressingly ignorant. I’m sure that many are responding to the ugliness of the Gaza war, an horrific affair that, in my view, is a necessary assault on a murderous and suicidal group that cannot be permitted within rocket range of Israel. It appears that the students, as they react to the ugly news of the day without any historical context, are responding to the propaganda spewed by some of their teachers.

It’s also possible that the students, both at Columbia and outside, are responding to what one researcher called “the ovation model.” Prof. Omar Wasow of the University of California, Berkeley, compares this effect to the response of a theater audience, saying “if some people in the front stand up, then other people start to stand up, and it’s a cascade through the auditorium.” By that theory, protestors in the media capital of New York City are mimicked by others who read and see about the action and are keen to join in.

Anti-Israel protest at UNL, source: The Daily Nebraskan

Even the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where I taught for 14 years, is apparently subject to this effect. A so-far small group of protestors gathered today on campus for a daylong series of “trainings and teach-ins.” The group, which includes outsiders from Nebraskans for Peace, does not appear to include in any of its “teach-ins” views from anti-Hamas groups or pro-Israel groups. No one, so far as I can tell, will be calling on Hamas to lay down its arms and seek peaceful coexistence. So, one must wonder what sort of education the Nebraskans will get on these matters?

Prof. Ari Kohen, source: Lincoln Journal Star

Will any of them be invited to take a course taught by a friend, Prof. Ari Kohen, that looks at the issues from other than a one-sided view? In that class, which he has taught for several years, Kohen acknowledges that “there is unlikely to be a single, simple solution to the many interrelated problems that we will identify…. But in recognizing the depth and complexity of those problems, we will undoubtedly learn a great deal about what any solution must include.”

Universities in the past have risen to the occasion when demagogues spewed hate. At UNL, for instance, Nazi appeared on campus a few years ago. “When one of these students was ‘outed’ by groups like Unicorn Riot and the Nebraska Antifascists, many students called for removing him from campus for his speech,” Kohen wrote last fall. “University leaders considered the demands and rejected them. Instead, the university threw itself behind more speech, namely rallies against hate and a campaign about the inclusivity we want to promote on campus. A “Hate Will Never Win” rally drew 1,500 people to the school’s basketball stadium, and the school helped distribute T-shirts with that message to anyone who wanted one. The message could be seen all over our campus.”

Alex Chapman leads the Hate Will Never Win rally at the Coliseum. February 14, 2018. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication

“Jews are being asked to deal with a level of hostility that feels like targeted harassment due to its repetition, intensity and pervasiveness,” Kohen wrote. “And, rather than people telling us they’ve got our back, we’re being told, especially on social media and especially from people on the left, that perhaps we’re being overly dramatic about our feelings. The university presidents should have been able to explain that people can say odious things but that all of the rest of us must respond by calling out those things for being odious. They should also have been able to explain that calling for genocide almost certainly would amount to harassment and an unsafe environment but that we have to work together to be clear about what is and what isn’t targeted harassment.”

Should Columbia distribute pro-Israel T-shirts? Would large-scale rallies denouncing Hamas as murderous and suicidal be effective? So long as there are faculty members at the school who espouse noxious views, such measures would be fruitless, except for those from on or off campus who think otherwise. Indeed, Jews on campuses including Columbia initially protested for Israel last fall, but they’ve largely been driven into fearful silence, sad spectators in the latest uproars. “I think people make uneducated assumptions,” a young Jewish leader at Columbia told The Washington Post. “They look at Jewish students and assume what they believe. They assume [the Jewish students] want a certain group of people dead, which isn’t true at all, whatsoever. What everyone wants is peace.”

A friend has suggested that the pro-Hamas demonstrations are clarifying and that they have served to reveal the underlying anti-Semitism at some of the nation’s leading universities. Indeed, the growth of such anti-Semitism around the country may be simply on display now at schools, bubbling up from the thugs to the academy, where people should know better. He pointed to a piece by Tablet editor at large Liel Liebovitz, an Israeli who earned his doctorate at Columbia, that argued: “Maybe it’s time to let Columbia, Yale, and other elite schools become what they already basically are: finishing schools for the children of Chinese, Qatari, and other global elites.” Referring to “four years in an airless, ideological gulag,” he argued that such schools are “national security threats that we must address forcefully” and complained that the Columbia faculty “long ago lost its decency, its courage, and its reason.”

Clearly, some of the faculty have lost their ability to reason and to teach students to do so, based on facts. But I’m not ready to toss them all. If this moment gives universities the opportunity to replace the pro-Hamas zealots with real scholars, it will serve us all well. That will take time.

The academic ranks have been infiltrated for years by anti-Israel colleagues who have masterfully driven the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions effort to the forefront on campuses. It is not accidental that the protestors on many campuses are pressing their schools to divest themselves of securities in companies tied to Israel and to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The idea is to isolate the Jewish state and ultimately destroy it.

Undoing the work of the BDS-supporting faculty will take time. Perhaps driving out the likes of Abdou will be a start.