About Joe Weber

Now the Jerry and Karla Huse Professor Emeritus at the University of Nebraska's College of Journalism and Mass Communications, I worked 35 years in magazines and newspapers. I spent most of that time, 22 years, at BUSINESS WEEK Magazine, leaving in August 2009 as chief of correspondents. So far, I have worked in central New Jersey, New York City, Denver, Dallas, Philadelphia, Toronto, Chicago, Beijing, Shanghai and Lincoln, Nebraska. The adventure continues.

Today’s Droit du Seigneur

Just how far does Donald Trump’s sense of privilege go?

Stormy Daniels, source: Apatow Productions, via Variety

Breathless announcers on CNN clued me in on the latest permutations of the Trump trial as I was assembling a desk we ordered on Wayfair. And it got me to thinking: did Trump ever put together IKEA furniture for his kids? Did he ever buy anything other than something gold-embossed, gaudy and pricey? Has he ever lived like a normal person?

It seems unlikely that this millionaire racist landlord’s kid would ever have roughened his short-fingered vulgarian’s fingers with do-it-yourself anything. With that thought, it seemed to me that the gulf between him and the ordinary folks he pretends to speak for widened just a bit more. Between the cossetted life he led and crimes for which he may at last face an accounting, that Grand Canyon-sized gap seemed just a mite bigger.

This is a man – a reality-show invention, really – who claims to be the voice (and the “retribution”) for millions of ill-schooled and disenfranchised Americans. But, as he pals around with his billionaire friends at his exclusive clubs and then coarsely rambles and rails before the proletarians at his rallies, does he really know how most folks live? Does he have anything in common with them? Would he ever welcome into his home or clubs people he has said he finds disgusting?

Source: The Daily Beast

As his trial will demonstrate, Trump thought nothing of cheating on his pregnant wife (No. 3) with a porn star, as will become publicly clear (again), though prosecutors will not be allowed to mention Melania’s pregnancy. He had, of course, quite publicly cheated on the prior two wives. Do most of the evangelicals who cheer him on do that sort of thing? Do they think such behavior appropriate for a leader, an occupant of the White House, a place that in the past provided role models for children? How can they embrace a man who believes his “star” status entitles him to grab women by the genitals and brag about it, someone who would stride through the backstage areas of beauty pageants to gawk at teenage girls changing their clothes?

It is extraordinary that so many can turn a blind eye to the conspicuous faults of an habitual liar who uses the Bible as a prop. Presumably, they care less about his personal lack of morality and more for the opportunistic stances he takes on matters they care about, such as abortion and gay rights (for them, preferably, the lack thereof), and, perhaps, racist stances on immigration. To them, he is G-d’s flawed instrument, perhaps.

And yet, one has to wonder how much lower our political and social culture can go that someone facing the panoply of unsavory criminal charges that he is can get within a hair’s breadth of a partisan nomination. How low has the GOP sunk? How did so many smart people in it – and there were many, even if one disagrees with them — become such dupes? How did the decent folks in the party let it be hijacked by Trump and the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene?

The trial, of course, is only incidentally about Trump’s personal morality and sexual wanderings. Legally, it is about his lying about them in financial disclosures, specifically covering up hush-money payments to his fixer, Michael Cohen, so they would not be revealed before his 2016 election. In effect, he denied voters a full picture of his depravity, one that arguably could have swayed some against him (despite his crack about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue).

Karen McDougal, Source: BBC

And yet, the underlying facts of the case – as will be showcased by his dalliance partners, Stormy Daniels and former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal – will again make clear for the American public just how unsavory this man is. Will that persuade enough voters, particularly women, that he doesn’t deserve the White House? The testimony is sure to prove sordid and his reaction to it – his brazen denials and pinched, furious demeanor, as well as his attacks on the judge and legal system – will offer still more profound insights into his character.

Mitt Romney, a principled Republican who would likely have made a decent president, has said he cannot abide the man because character is important in a national leader. He clearly found his former rival wanting.

Much of Trump’s extracurricular activities were widely reported, particularly in New York, even prior to the 2016 election. So, it’s entirely possible that this rehash will roll off the backs of his diehard supporters as it did before. Still, a detailed showcasing of his perversity could make a difference to younger voters unacquainted with his record. Moreover, it will bear the official stamp of court action, not just be dismissible as “fake news.”

The trial will provide some interesting sidelights, too. Will Melania and Ivanka Trump, his wife and daughter, show up by his side? Or will their absence suggest that they don’t want to be sullied still further by his vileness? Perhaps he will coerce them into appearing as things progress, but one can only imagine how either would react to the unsavory details the women in the case will provide. Certainly, they must be repulsed by his behavior, much as they have decided to look the other way on it.

Source: Reuters, via CNN

In the meantime, it’s been enlightening to see how poorly he has looked as he has twisted solo in the wind. His constipated scowl suggests a guilty man who feels like he is facing judgment day and knows he cannot avoid it any longer. Soon, we’ll find out how decisive that judgment day will be.

The droit du seigneur in medieval Europe supposedly allowed feudal lords to have their way with any female subject, particularly on a woman’s wedding night. Trump’s privileged upbringing apparently made him think such practices could suit him, as well. Will American voters agree?

Bias vs. disinformation

Can media outlets, such as The New York Times and NPR, maintain their credibility in the Trump era?e

Source: UC Berkeley

Ah, the power of disinformation. It distorts the truth and, sometimes sullies the media that report it. Consider a couple matters that raise issues of bias:

The New York Times, in the recently published  “The Method Behind Trump’s Mistruths,” offers a rich catalog of the former president’s misstatements and distortions – all accompanied by real facts that undercut his claims.

To take a couple examples:

  1. “While Joe Biden is pushing the largest tax hike in American history – you know, he wants to quadruple your taxes.”

In fact, as the piece notes: “President Biden has not proposed quadrupling taxes. In fact, he has consistently vowed not to raise taxes on anyone earning less than $400,000.”

  1. “I mean, what he’s doing with energy with an all-electric mandate, where you won’t be able to buy any other form of car in a very short period of time.”

In fact, as noted, “Mr. Biden has not implemented an electric car mandate. The administration has announced rules that would limit tailpipe emissions from cars and light trucks, effectively requiring automakers to sell more electric vehicles and hybrids. It doesn’t ban gas cars.”

Such correctives – and those applied to more than a dozen more misstatements by the former president – are appropriate and helpful. The disgraceful roster of mistruths by Trump should be beneath anyone running for the presidency, much less a former president.

But the Times piece is not called “opinion” or, better, “analysis.” And yet the author offers a lot of both in framing his view of Trump in the opening paragraphs:

“Since the beginning of his political career, Donald J. Trump has misled, mischaracterized, dissembled, exaggerated and, at times, flatly lied. His flawed statements about the border, the economy, the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election have formed the bedrock of his 2024 campaign.

“Though his penchant for bending the truth, sometimes to the breaking point, has been well documented, a close study of how he does so reveals a kind of technique to his dishonesty: a set of recurring rhetorical moves with which Mr. Trump fuels his popularity among his supporters.”

Source: The Washington Post

None of that is untrue, though much is a matter of interpretation – “bedrock of his 2024 campaign” and “kind of technique to his dishonesty,” for instance. Moreover, there’s no attempt to balance any of this with comments from, say, Trump’s spokesman. The author doesn’t present “the other side” from a Trump defender, perhaps from someone who would rationalize away the former president’s claims as just hyperbolic.

Is it fair journalism, nonetheless? Is it a good-faith effort to combat disinformation of the sort that has marked Trump’s career for years, both as a real-estate mogul whose failures are legend and as a politician given to fabrication?

Indeed, would efforts to get another side be an example of “bothsidesism,” an approach that critics rightly say gives credence to falsehoods?

For my part, I see the Times piece as very much on target and factually devastating. But I suggest that labeling it as something other than straight news would be helpful. When such pieces go unlabeled, the media are dismissed by Trumpists as incurably biased.

Sadly, that gives credence to Trump’s attacks on the “fake news” media. Such attacks have driven many on the right, I suspect, to not pay attention to troubling stories about Trump’s business interests and his political plans.

Some turn, I suspect, to Fox News, Newsmax or similar outfits that don’t hold their golden boy to account for his untruths.

To be sure, the Times and others should carry opinionated material. But it’s not straight reporting and shouldn’t be portrayed as such.

Bias – or perceived bias — though, goes further than just labeling. Media outlets can betray their viewpoints both in the stories they choose to cover and those they avoid.

Uri Berliner, source: The Free Press

Troubling examples come in a scathing piece about National Public Radio in the conservative outlet, The Free Press. In it, longtime NPR staffer Uri Berliner bemoans the lack of “viewpoint diversity” in the outlet’s news operation. Because of its groupthink, Berliner suggests, stories are not being done that should be.

Criticizing NPR’s coverage (or lack of coverage) of the COVID-19 lab leak theory, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and allegations that Donald Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 election, he contends that “politics were blotting out the curiosity and independence that ought to have been driving our work.”

To detail one example, NPR paid little mind to the Hunter Biden laptop story in the fall of 2020, even though, Berliner argues, “(i)ts contents revealed his connection to the corrupt world of multimillion-dollar influence peddling and its possible implications for his father. The laptop was newsworthy. But the timeless journalistic instinct of following a hot story lead was being squelched. During a meeting with colleagues, I listened as one of NPR’s best and most fair-minded journalists said it was good we weren’t following the laptop story because it could help Trump.”

The NPR veteran also lambasts the lack of conservative voices on staff, saying that “people at every level of NPR have comfortably coalesced around the progressive worldview.” He backs that up with a look at the Washington offices: “Concerned by the lack of viewpoint diversity, I looked at voter registration for our newsroom. In D.C., where NPR is headquartered and many of us live, I found 87 registered Democrats working in editorial positions and zero Republicans. None.”

That observation begs the question: can a Democrat fairly cover a Republican, and vice versa? I would argue yes, but it’s also helpful if one can find more stripes than one in a news organization. If nothing else, the lack of variety means one risks everyone moving in lockstep, in questions not being asked. Even the Times has bona fide conservatives writing for its opinion pages.

A lack of intellectual diversity, Berliner contends, shapes NPR’s work and is costing listenership. “An open-minded spirit no longer exists within NPR, and now, predictably, we don’t have an audience that reflects America.” 

“Back in 2011, although NPR’s audience tilted a bit to the left, it still bore a resemblance to America at large,” Berliner writes. “Twenty-six percent of listeners described themselves as conservative, 23 percent as middle of the road, and 37 percent as liberal. By 2023, the picture was completely different: only 11 percent described themselves as very or somewhat conservative, 21 percent as middle of the road, and 67 percent of listeners said they were very or somewhat liberal.”

“We weren’t just losing conservatives; we were also losing moderates and traditional liberals,” Berliner argues.

Media outlets will lose their audiences if they don’t reflect them and speak to them in their journalistic work. That doesn’t mean pandering and certainly doesn’t mean reporting untruthfully or incompletely.

Finding the truth is a messy matter and giving charlatans platforms to spout unchallenged misstatements – as the right-leaning media often do – is not good journalism, of course. It’s the media’s job to hold officials and would-be officials to account, to call out their shortcomings and misstatements — but to do so in appropriate ways.

Sources; AFP/Getty Images, via CNBC

Later this year, I suspect we will see Trump and Biden square off in debates, at least if major news organizations get their way. And we can expect many misstatements to be aired, probably more from the former president than the current one. Will fact-checking help? Will partisans simply dismiss that? And can it be done in real-time, as the contenders rail against one another?

Politicians who shun facts have made a mockery of the most cherished journalistic tenets. Sadly, they could drag sound journalistic organizations down to their level, hurting all of us. The smartest outlets shouldn’t fall for that.

All the President’s Men

The list of people sullied by their connection to Donald Trump grows

AP Photo, via NPR

Why do so many people in Donald J. Trump’s orbit get sullied? Some have gone to jail, while others continue to fight charges related to misdoings on his behalf.

The list is extraordinary. It includes Steve BannonPeter NavarroMichael CohenPaul ManafortGeorge PapadopoulosRick GatesAllen Weisselberg and Roger Stone, whose 40-month sentence Trump commuted. Others face prosecution and have been financially ruined (think of Rudy Giuliani and the $148 million judgment against him). Still others, such as former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, have accepted plea deals to testify in cases against Trump.

Of course, some 1,350 people have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that Trump fomented. More than 800 have been sentenced, according to CBS News, with about two-third getting jail terms ranging from several days to 22 years. Trump calls them “hostages” that he vows to free.

The Shvartsmans and, in tie, their lawyer. Source: AP via The Detroit News

Now, two more names can be added to the roster — even if their connection is tangential. Two Florida men have pleaded guilty to insider trading in a company connected to Trump Media & Technology Group. Brothers Michael and Gerald Shvartsman may face up to four and three years in prison, respectively, and must forfeit $22.8 million in ill-gotten gains.

The pair had been tipped that Trump Media planned to go public by merging with Digital World Acquisition Co., a shell company seemingly created for that purpose, and they traded in DWAC securities and told others to do so, driving up its stock price. While the men were not acquainted with Trump, they were linked to DWAC, according to a richly detailed account in The Washington Post. They profited by its connection to Trump.

DWAC had raised $300 million in an initial public offering in the fall of 2021 after its then-CEO, Miami financier and Trump pal Patrick Orlando, had told people Trump Media was knocking on its door. This was despite the company denying the existence of such discussions in legal filings, according to regulators. DWAC paid $18 million to settle charges related to those denials.

For his part, Orlando wound up tarnished, as well. After he was driven out of DWAC, he claimed in a lawsuit that he was shortchanged when Trump Media merged with the shell company. He unsuccessfully tried to block the merger.

Meanwhile, TMTG’s shares continue to slide. Once worth as much as $79.38 each, the shares closed on April 3 at $48.81. For those keeping track, this amounts to a 38.5% slide for people who bought at the peak. No doubt, this is gladdening the hearts of short-sellers, folks who expect to cash in on the stock price’s fall. As The New York Times reported, citing financial data company S3 Partners, TMTG’s shares are the most shorted stocks in the country. (Short-sellers borrow shares and sell them into the market, hoping to buy them back later at a lower price, before returning the shares to the lender and pocketing the difference as profit, as the newspaper reported).

Are all the people associated with Trump and his new company victims of what Trump loudly calls “witch-hunts?” Are they all targets of persecution by vindictive partisans and the deep state that Trump promises to dismantle?  Some of his followers, infused with a religious fervor, as The New York Times suggested, certainly see it that way. “He’s definitely been chosen by God,” Marie Zere, a commercial real estate broker from Long Island, told the newspaper. “He’s still surviving even though all these people are coming after him, and I don’t know how else to explain that other than divine intervention.”

Ah, the power of rationalization. The list of prosecutions that Trump faces is extraordinary, ranging from charges of election interference and misuse of classified documents to paying out hush money to silence a porn star who claimed they had had sex (that trial is set for mid-April). Of course, he’s already been found liable in civil cases related to business fraud (a $454 million judgment) and sexual abuse ($83 million).

But can all these prosecutions and court actions be baseless, merely the mechanizations of the deep state in revolt against a noble people’s avenger? And, in the face of all of them, how can so many voters be polling in support of Trump against Biden in six of seven crucial swing states, as The Wall Street Journal has reported?

Really, are all these voters blind? Do they not read? Have newspapers been so decimated that former readers don’t have access to the news anymore? Of course, in this age of the Net, such voters must be aware – at least marginally – of the news about their golden boy. The Net makes the news more widely available than ever.

But, stunningly, Trump’s devotees set that all aside. They disregard reports of how Trump sunk a deal to fix the southern border crisis so he could weaponize the issue against Biden. They ignore his record of business failure and his legal woes. They forget his two impeachments. They appear to see only a righteous avatar, a man who speaks to their anger, their fury at social and ethnic change, in some cases their racism. Recall his phrase: “I am your retribution.” And no amount of evidence will persuade them about his deep flaws.

Source: The New York Times

As longtime political consultant Mark Mellman has written, “People don’t change their minds easily, especially about matters wrapped up with their identities.” He cited cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier, who holds that “Any message that clashes with our prior beliefs…is overwhelmingly likely to fall on deaf ears.” 

Before November, still more of the president’s devotees may join the ranks of those who’ve already fallen on their swords for him. Will he manage to avoid a similar fate before the Republicans convene in Milwaukee in July? How much more debasement will our political culture face thanks to him? Unless Trump succeeds in delaying his hush-money trial set to begin April 15, the former president’s resume could soon include a new entry: felon. Will that be enough to disqualify him for the GOP or voters?

Is Trump Media proof of the Greater Fool theory?

Really, it’s a wonder investors have fallen for this falling outfit

Source: Google

A few decades ago, I wrote about scamsters active in the Denver penny stock market. This was a market in which hustlers such as the folks at Blinder, Robinson (known as “Blind ‘em and Rob ‘em”) would take public companies that made big promises but lacked assets, business plans, etc. The stocks would come out at $1 or so per share, rise as the firm’s salespeople hawked them, and then plummet as the lack of intrinsic value became apparent.

The underwriters and those in early made money, while suckers paid the tab by buying the shares. Sometimes, these penny deals involved shell companies, which had no assets or business, but were already publicly traded. Thus, they were ideal vehicles for other outfits wanting to go public — especially for merger candidates that didn’t want to tell much to investors at first. By contrast, legitimate companies, making initial public offerings, had to provide lots of information about themselves in elaborate pre-offering documents.

I’m reminded of this by Donald J. Trump’s Trump Media & Technology Group, which went public through a shell company (now dressed up as a “special purpose acquisition company”). By merging with a SPAC, Trump Media avoided having to make uncomfortable disclosures before going public that might have given investors pause.

Source: TMTG

For instance, Trump Media didn’t have to reveal that, as The Wall Street Journal reported, “it nearly ran out of cash last year and would have struggled to survive without the recent deal that took it public.” That disclosure, along with an auditor’s note saying the outfit’s “operating losses raise substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern” came out only after Trump Media started trading. The company lost more than $58 million last year, if anyone is counting.

Would smart investors have bought in anyway? Well, some traders would have – and did – as they played the rise and (mostly) fall of the stock. But would those who want to buy into a company with real business prospects have done so? Or would only devotees of Trump buy in, thinking they were getting a stake in a brilliant businessman’s newest venture? It has to pay off since the golden boy is running it, right?

Well, the fall to earth for Trump Media began, fittingly, a couple days before April Fool’s Day. The stock, which had opened at $70.74 on March 26 and added a bit to hit $79.38, started a deep slide from $69.70 on March 28 to $51.77 by April 2. That means that folks who bought at the opening have now lost nearly 27 percent of their investment.

Does this strike anyone as the Greater Fool theory in operation? Does it remind anyone of the penny stock world? Indeed, is it possible that Trump Media & Technology Group may someday fall to nearly nothing, as Trump’s casino stocks did a couple decades ago, when he ran those businesses into the ground?

Source: The Wall Street Journal

A lot of people lost money when Trump’s casinos failed, and they weren’t just investors. Folks who had done work for Trump or were otherwise owed money by him lost big. Cushioned by his wealth – money that had come by way of his rich father and that he had siphoned off the gaming halls — Trump managed to float above the disaster.

All this was reported, and folks who followed Trump’s career had long known about his failures. But, even as his casinos were being managed by others for the benefit of his lenders, the broad public didn’t see him as anything but golden, a god whose name adorned their still-glittering Atlantic City gaming palaces. I saw this firsthand in reporting out a story for BusinessWeek when I spent time with Trump, including a tour of one of his bankrupt casinos where gamblers sought to touch him in hopes his good fortune would rub off on them.

Even then, long before The Apprentice put a glossy sheen on this much-tarnished mogul, the gulf between the real Trump and the Trump his devotees see was apparent.

Of course, before his newest business whimsy craters, Donald J. Trump will likely cash out of Trump Media. His 57% stake in the company is worth a lot less than it was on opening day, but it’s still worth a bundle. And in time he could sell it off in bits and pieces as he needs cash, perhaps to pay off one $454 million civil judgment levied against him or another one, for $83.3 million – both of which he will delay paying as he appeals, of course.

When this is all reported, do Trumpies just dismiss it as the work of the “fake news” media? Do they shrug off such reporting as simply the product of people with anti-Trump agendas? Do they look on the justice system’s operations as nothing but persecution of their hero? No doubt, some do, and they may even just avoid reading such accounts. There are none so blind as true believers, after all.

Reporting accurately on Trump raises major problems for journalists, though. For one, they risk losing a good part of their audiences.

Chris Quinn, source: Advance Ohio

The editor of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer recently addressed the challenge in a note to readers. “The truth is that Donald Trump undermined faith in our elections in his false bid to retain the presidency,” editor Chris Quinn wrote. “He sparked an insurrection intended to overthrow our government and keep himself in power. No president in our history has done worse. This is not subjective. We all saw it.”

As reported by HuffPost, Quinn expressed sympathy with Trump fans who were frustrated that their local news source does not “recognize what they see in [Trump].” But he suggested that won’t stop the coverage.

“The facts involving Trump are crystal clear, and as news people, we cannot pretend otherwise, as unpopular as that might be with a segment of our readers,” Quinn wrote. “There aren’t two sides to facts. People who say the earth is flat don’t get space on our platforms. If that offends them, so be it.”

It’s possible that some Trump devotees will chalk up the frothy debut of Trump Media and its likely slide over time to what they see as their leader’s business brilliance. After all, he’ll do well, probably. As Trump Media slides, he will be in a position to ride the stock down quite profitably; it’s all found money for him, much as was the case with penny stock insiders.

As for his investors? Perhaps they will have the satisfaction of knowing they helped their boy out in a pinch. They could consider their investment a donation, though the IRS might not agree. They could tuck their investment records into one of the Bibles Trump recently sold.

Of course, the smartest investors may be those who have avoided the stock but, instead, watch it slide from the sidelines. Perhaps they could take bets on how quickly the shares fall and on when Trump Media will crater altogether.

Taylor Swift sings her heart out for us

But just what is the megastar’s appeal?

Source: Los Angeles Times

Improbable as it may seem, our six-year-old grandson turned me on to Taylor Swift. First, I watched her Eras Tour film a week or so ago in his living room, and then I watched him on a couple long plane rides to and from Europe as he mimicked some of Swift’s moves, screening the film on his tablet at least five more times. As she pointed around the SoFi Stadium to her fans, he did the same from his airline seat.

Frankly, however, I couldn’t see Swift’s appeal. Similarly, it has been difficult for me to see the attraction Swift had for his 40-year-old mom, a draw strong enough to get her to pay a couple hundred dollars and bike quite a ways to one of the singer’s shows last July (a lucky bargain when some folks have paid as much as $18,000). I’ve also been challenged to see the allure for my 37-year-old son, who plans to take his six-year-old daughter from Germany, where they live, to a Swift show in Paris.

In the film, some of her appeal is the stunning staging on her tour. As she rises on a moving cube above the stage at times and struts along on top of and in front of dazzling lighting effects, the technology and choreography is captivating. It’s far superior to the most impressive concerts I went to decades ago. Her patter and warmth with her audience, too, is both gracious and intimate. Give her this, Swift is an extraordinary showwoman.

Her music, however, struck me at first blush as workmanlike, but bland – nothing like the pyrotechnics of the Stones or the Moody Blues, the ingenious and inventive sounds of The Doors and the Beatles, the thrilling power of Springsteen, or the passion of Janis. And on stage her lyrics seemed rushed, barely giving a listener a chance to let their meaning sink in, as seemed far easier with such brilliant lyricists as Dylan, Joan Baez, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Don McLean, Neil Young and others.

Source: Getty Images, via The Independent

Still, there’s no denying that Swift has eclipsed all those setting stars. Her billion-dollar tour is a global phenomenon, lifting some national economies. Her romance with Travis Kelce has been a cultural touchstone. And should she again side publicly with Joe Biden against Trump (as she did in 2020), she could have a potent political impact (one that Springsteen was unable to have with Clinton against Trump). There’s no question that Swift deserved to be Time’s Person of the Year last year.

Indeed, even before my grandson’s fascination with her, I have wanted to understand the magic that is Taylor Swift, the passion that Swifties feel. Was it like the depth of feeling I once had for my rock and folk icons, musicians whose songs spoke to my deepest yearnings, my joys and sorrows, my hopes and fears, even to my sense of justice and injustice? Does her music speak to the angst of teens everywhere, as my aging heroes once did for me?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, source: The Times

recent podcast from The New York Times, provided by my son-in-law, went far to help develop my understanding. Journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner refers in the pod to Swiftmania as “the cultural event of my lifetime.” As a 48-year-old, the writer said, “I remember the way my parents used to talk about Woodstock …  And I began to see, first, that it was going to be Woodstock, and then it was going to be bigger than Woodstock. Then it was going to be something, like everything else about her, that we don’t have words to compare to. And that is what Taylor Swift is.”

Well, that’s quite a description, of course. But the author backs that up. For instance, when concertgoers in Seattle responded to Swift’s “Shake It Off” song, seismologists measured the stadium’s movements as equivalent to a 2.3 magnitude earthquake (it’s a wonder the Lumen Field venue didn’t collapse). Beatlemania pales by comparison.

The author, who also wrote about Swift for The New York Times Magazine, seemed to be onto something (at least for me) when she noted that listeners may not get what Swift is about during the first time listening to her lyrics, or even the second or tenth listening. Eventually, though, they realize that Swift is a “songwriting savant,” says Brodesser-Akner, and that the singer is “is telling the story of girlhood into womanhood…. I see her in real time cataloging the experiences of what it means to grow up.”

Bad romances, business and personal betrayals, self-doubt and even self-loathing fill Swift’s lyrics, Brodesser-Akner points out. And that is why so many fans, particularly women, respond. Swift speaks to their experiences, as if she’s holding up a mirror and letting them know they are not alone in their pain, in their disappointments. Concertgoers sing passionately along with her.

For anyone who has been wronged in love, she offers lyrics such as “You call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest” and “You can plan for a change in weather and time / But I never planned on you changing your mind.” In their simplicity and clarity, she strikes chords with phrases such as “Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it / I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it / After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own / Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone” and “You said it was a great love, one for the ages / But if the story’s over, why am I still writing pages?”

As Times podcast host Michael Barbaro, a self-confessed Swiftie, put it in talking with Brodesser-Akner: “the Taylor Swift project of internalizing pain and turning it into music has the effect that you’re describing on tens of millions of people. It makes them see anew a lot of the pain in their lives, to look it squarely in the face, and to try to better understand it and to have a catharsis around it.”

Source: Hollywood Life

Now, that is not what is happening, I’m sure, with my six-year-old grandson. For him, I suspect, the simple music is the draw (though he sings along with some of the lyrics), along with the extraordinary staging and Swift’s amazing costumes. In those powerful lights, she is riveting, of course, whether she is wearing skin-tight sequined bodysuits or others filled with snake images – all of which suit her Barbie-like figure. She stuns us even in oversize chiffon dresses.

Some of Swift’s 16 outfits on her tour; source: Getty Images via WWD

In her costuming, bright-red lipstick and glittering eye makeup she is something else, as well, something that I feared had disappeared among powerful women. She is remarkably feminine, a demeanor one might think would cost her among feminists and gay women. And yet, lesbian writer Kat Tenbarge writes of Swift: “It’s incredibly gratifying to feel a little seen, and feel a little understood, by an artist whose presence has guided you from adolescence to adulthood, like Swift’s has for me. In ‘Folklore,’ Swift rolled out a moody blue carpet that chronicles all the nuances of my life so far, and all the reward of having lived through them.”

Perhaps our culture has evolved from the time when such women felt compelled to chop short their hair, eschew makeup and dresses and other talismans of traditional femininity? One might ask whether Swift, with flowing hair hanging down to her mid-back and her stunning smile, has made it okay again to exult in being a woman, just as football star Kelce can feel free to cry in public and yet be as macho as they come.

Of course, feminism need not be incompatible with femininity. Just as Springsteen can look very much like a traditional working-class stud in T-shirts and jeans and yet sing the gay anthem “The Streets of Philadelphia,” so can Swift sport chiffon and still sing of injustices dealt to women in the workplace. Her song “The Man” says “… if I was a man, then I’d be the man.” Ironically, as my son-in-law pointed out, she is “the man” when it comes to running her career; she’s unquestionably in charge.

Janis Joplin; source: AP via Variety

Certainly, earlier generations such as mine adored, emulated and sang along with their heroes on stages around the world. For me, at 69, there will never be equals to Dylan, Springsteen, Joan Baez, Neil Young, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, CSNY, Blind Faith, the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Don McLean, Paul Simon, Janis, and so many more. At tumultuous times in my life – especially in my teens – they seemed so very important. In fact, my wife and I look forward eagerly to seeing the Stones live in June, though it’s both sad and funny that we got our tickets through AARP.

Even as the Taylor Swift phenomenon surpasses the legacy of her forerunners, at its base it is a powerful echo of them. She is a megastar because her work speaks to the needs, desires and struggles of her fans, much as that of earlier stars did to her fans’s parents. May her time in the sun last for a long while yet – at least to the day when my grandson understands her powerful and personal messages.

Will economics matter in November

Social issues — together with some economic factors — could decide the fate of Team Biden

Source: Investopedia

Economics, we were taught in grad school, assumes that people will act rationally and in their self-interest. But do they always? And do they always act on valid information? Beyond that, can other factors outweigh economic ones?

The coming election may test some common economic assumptions. And it may be decided on matters entirely apart from household finances.

By most Big Picture indications, the U.S. economy is faring pretty well. As President Biden has repeatedly noted, the unemployment rate has been below 4% for the last 26 months, the longest such stretch in more than 50 years. That is a stunning contrast to the 14.7% jobless rate of April 2020, when Covid shut down much of the economy.

And, to take a couple more key indicators, wages have grown substantially since January 2021, when Biden took office, with the 12-month moving average of wage gains starting at 3.4% that month and rising to 5.4% in February 2024 (with an uptick a year ago to 6.4%). By contrast, inflation has slipped to a 3.2% annual rate so far this year, down from its annual high of 7% in 2022, and falling well below the gains in pay most workers are enjoying.

Even in manufacturing – a long-declining sector – employment recently has been topping 12.96 million each month, the largest number since the fall of 2008. While still a far cry from the 17.9 million jobs in the sector we saw in 1990, it’s a healthy gain from the 11.4 million of the worst Covid period in early 2020.

But it is also true that we live in a split-screen economy. Behind the big numbers are unsettling realities that many Americans are having trouble coping with, factors that could outweigh the macro achievements that Team Biden points to. As a friend noted, things are pretty good for the upper middle class and above. Below that, not so much.

Mortgage rates and housing prices are too high for many folks to afford homes, for instance. And high prices, coupled with high loan rates, even put cars out of reach for some — certainly the electric cars that the administration is incentivizing.

“Anyone who wants to buy a house or a car faces a double whammy of higher prices and far higher rates,” The Wall Street Journal noted. “Few are even bothering to apply for a mortgage, with applications for loans to buy a home in the past year at their lowest since 1995. Those who have already achieved the American dream are fine, but it’s getting further away for those still reaching for it.”

And, while inflation rates are coming down, the price of groceries isn’t dropping. Sticker-shock at the cash register continues to be the kind of in-your-face reality that American shoppers face regularly. “Average annual food-at-home prices were 5.0 percent higher in 2023 than in 2022. For context, the 20-year historical level of retail food price inflation is 2.5 percent per year,” the USDA reported. “Price growth slowed in 2023 compared with 2022, when food-at-home prices rose by 11.4 percent.”

Gerald Ford’s failed effort against inflation, source: Wikipedia

Such inflation, it has been said, had a lot to do with turning Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford into one-term presidents. While the average inflation rate under Biden has been far lower than the others experienced (9.9% on average under Carter and 8% for Ford), Biden’s 5.7% average rate so far has him tied with the rate that obsessed Richard Nixon in his day – hardly a welcome comparison for Team Biden.

And inflation hits some folks far harder than others. Those on the lower end of the economic scale – historically more likely to vote Democratic – are those struggling the most. Many may not realize that presidents have little power over inflation, a challenge that falls to the independent Federal Reserve. But they keenly understand the cash-register effect and that could drive them to seek a change, especially since inflation during the Trump years averaged just 1.9%.

So, if one asks whether a voter is better off now than he or she was four years ago – a line that got Ronald Reagan elected over Carter in 1980 — the answer will vary. Are most voters in Michigan, Ohio and other swing states better off? Unquestionably, they are better off than when Covid raged, but aside from that aberration, are they faring well enough to reward Biden with a second term? Have they been aided enough by the billions Biden pumped into the economy to prevent a repeat of recession after the two-month downturn of early 2020?

Beyond questions of economics, though, social issues such as immigration and abortion policy may weigh heavily, along with the age of both candidates and perceptions about their mental capacities. Will voters recall that Trump quashed bipartisan efforts in Congress to fix the southern border problem, or will they just hear his often-racist podium-pounding on it? Will they react to Republican efforts to bar abortion, even to the extent of curtailing IVF procedures, as the Alabama Supreme Court sought to do before state lawmakers hastily decided to put in protections? Will they consider Trump’s questionable thinking processes, which may far overshadow Biden’s gaffes, as well as Trump’s many self-induced legal woes?

Source: LA Times

Indeed, provided he stays out of jail, will those legal woes help Trump with his backers, as they play into his victim narrative? They certainly keep him in the headlines.

Voters have an extraordinary ability to overlook flaws in the candidates they pin their emotions on. The passion that MAGA enthusiasts feel for their candidate blinds them to his legal and personal flaws, it seems, and their depth of commitment far exceeds the feelings that Biden generates among his backers. Will such passions, coupled with a mixed bag of economic realities, be enough to put Trump back into office?

Moreover, given the distortions of the Electoral College system, where each vote in a less populous and more socially conservative state counts more heavily than each one in more urbanized states, the coming election is hardly assured for the man whose team can claim a lot of credit for restoring a healthy U.S. economy. It’s no wonder the polls put the contenders pretty close to neck and neck. The coming few months promise a lot more drama and, one hopes, better things for voters in time for November.

About those city resolutions and university administrator statements …

Should mayors, city councils and school chancellors take stances on the war in Gaza?

We are lucky to live high in the mountains of Colorado, a bit over an hour’s drive to Denver, just over three hours flight time to Washington, D.C., and about 14 and a half hours to Jerusalem by plane. Despite the distance, serious issues in these places – matters such as the Israel-Hamas war that trouble people in those cities — trouble us. We care a lot.

But should our local officials take a stand on that war, casting votes that suggest that their views represent the views of most of us? And, beyond sending a message – one way or another– to Washington, D.C., do resolutions at their meetings do anything beyond making proponents feel good? Are they anything more than empty gestures?

In many places around the country, pro-Palestinian organizations have called on local government leaders to back their demand for a ceasefire in Gaza, winning support in at least 48 cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and Seattle. By contrast, leaders in at least 20 communities have passed resolutions condemning the Hamas atrocities of Oct. 7th, with a handful more calling more broadly for peace.

Recently, the Denver City Council hosted a heated debate about a proposal to issue a proclamation calling for a ceasefire. Hours of public testimony were logged as citizens loudly made their voices heard. The mid-February proposal failed by an 8-4 vote.

A few days later, the council in Boulder shot down a similar proposal, with only two of the nine members urging it to be put forward. Both councils parted company on the matter with folks in Glenwood Springs, whose council members some days earlier unanimously endorsed a call for a ceasefire, becoming the first city in Colorado to do so.

Now, in today’s local paper, the Summit Daily News, a letter-writer called on officials in our neighborhood to press for a ceasefire. “Ending the killing should be a no-brainer,” writer Birrion Sondahl argued. “The least we can do in Summit County is call for an end to the killing.”

But is international policy and the conduct of other nations – even the actions of officials in Washington, D.C. — really within the purview of people elected to deal with issues such as local development, homelessness, municipal finances and even the proverbial potholes?

Source: Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center

As Aaron Brockett, mayor of most-progressive Boulder, argued, don’t councils have enough on their plates already?

“We have so many huge problems right here in our town of Boulder, Colorado, dozens of people living out on our streets, people dying in traffic violence on a regular basis,” Brockett said, as reported by the Boulder Reporting Lab. There are “any number of major local problems and issues where the nine of us can have a very direct and immediate impact. And I feel that that is what we need to focus on as a council.”

Another council member, Matt Benjamin, concurred. “As Mayor Brockett pointed out, we have people dying right now in this community,” Benjamin said. “A lot of them,” he added, before referencing the homeless and formerly homeless people who died in Boulder County last year.

In their stances, the Boulderites agreed with editorialists at The Denver Post, who lambasted the failed local proclamation and others like it. They argued: “All of these resolutions and proclamations are misguided wastes of precious time that would be better spent on the business these legislative bodies can actually change.”Further, the Post writers noted that the war in Gaza has split local residents, saying debating such a proclamation “only deepened those divisions.” They added: “All of this would be worth the public pain and the precious time of our elected officials if it were going to do more good than harm, but this drop in the bucket will neither convince Hamas to release the remaining hostages nor soften Israel’s stance on bombings that have killed thousands of Palestinians.”

Chicagoans demand a ceasefire, source: Scott Olson/Getty Images via Prism

Just how divided are we? In Chicago, the city council vote in January on a resolution calling for a ceasefire was split 23-23 when Mayor Brandon Johnson cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of what Politico oddly called a “nonbinding resolution.” Indeed, who could be bound by it? The status of the resolution shows how impotent and pointless it is.

Such resolutions are reminiscent of the stances leaders of many universities took in the fall, with many condemning Hamas for its atrocities. As The Washington Post reported, Rabbi Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University in New York, argued that college presidents have a moral obligation to speak out. He circulated a statement about the war, headlined “We stand together with Israel against Hamas.” The statement also expressed solidarity “with the Palestinians who suffer under Hamas’ cruel rule in Gaza and with all people of moral conscience.”

I quite agree with the rabbi’s view of Hamas, a loathsome and murderous organization that needs to be stamped out, and it’s entirely reasonable for the leader of a Jewish university to take such a stance. I applaud him for doing so and I echo his views. Indeed, condemning terrorism is truly a no-brainer (though the Summit Daily News letter-writer pointedly didn’t do so).

But do leaders of public universities or private schools with no religious or community affiliation have such an obligation to offer condemnations (much as they may rightly feel the need to speak out against wanton murder)? Do their comments – one way or the other – do anything beyond alienating some members of their faculty and some students?

It’s one thing for faculty members to write open letters, perhaps differing with other faculty members. Indeed, as teachers and opinion-shapers on their campuses, faculty members should take stances. But it’s another thing for administrators to jump into the fray, pretending to speak for all their university constituents.

New York Times opinion writer Pamela Paul recently cited comments that Diego Zambrano, a professor at Stanford Law School, made at a conference on civil discourse at the California school. “What, he asked, are the benefits of a university taking a position? If it’s to make the students feel good, he said, those feelings are fleeting, and perhaps not even the university’s job. If it’s to change the outcome of political events, even the most self-regarding institutions don’t imagine they will have any impact on a war halfway across the planet. The benefits, he argued, were nonexistent.”

All that such statements do is “fuel the most intemperate speech while chilling moderate and dissenting voices,” Paul wrote in paraphrasing Zambrano. Moreover, “In a world constantly riled up over politics, the task of formally opining on issues would be endless.”

Such statements, she noted “ask university administrators, who are not hired for their moral compasses, to address in a single email thorny subjects that scholars at their own institutions spend years studying. (Some university presidents, such as Michael Schill of Northwestern, have rightly balked.) Inevitably, staking any position weakens the public’s perception of the university as independent.”

Northwestern University President Michael Schill, source: The Daily Northwestern

In October, Schill actually condemned the “abhorrent and horrific actions of Hamas,” saying they were “clearly antithetical to Northwestern’s values — as well as my own,” according to The Daily Northwestern. “Whatever we might feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, our shared humanity should lead us all to condemn these barbaric acts.” But he also maintained that in attending a vigil organized by Jewish students to mourn lives lost in the war, he did so as an individual, not on behalf of the University.

In public universities, administrators who take stances on polarizing matters – whether dealing with politics or social issues – could jeopardize their jobs and school funding.

To be sure, it sometimes is necessary and relevant for them to take stances and it takes courage to do so: at the university where I taught for 14 years, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, former Gov. Pete Ricketts and few legislators drove out a superb chancellor, Ronnie D. Green, because of his support of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Even so, budget cuts followed, as conservative legislators sought to punish academics there whom they see as too liberal.

As budgets were slashed, Rodney Bennett, who succeeded Green, bowed to the will of his political overseers, moving to cut $800,000 from the school’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services, against the will of many on the faculty. Conservative politicians in many states have similarly pressured school officials to quash efforts at expanding diversity, equity and inclusion, a bête noire of the right.

We’re all entitled to our views on such campus affairs, as well as local, national and international matters – and those views will differ. So can the Summit County Board of Commissioners reflect my views on Gaza along with those of the county’s other 31,000 or so residents? And should it try to? I suspect it would fail miserably, and we are awash in plenty of issues it would be better off attending to. Leave global policy issues to those who can make a difference on them and let us each have our own takes on such matters.

Is the war on Hamas a hijacking of the Holocaust?

Israel’s battle for survival is no Hollywood production

Jonathan Glazer, source: Getty Images via Vox

No one doubts that the warfare in Gaza is horrific. The deaths of innocents are monstrous. But did a speech at the Academy Awards by Jonathan Glazer, the Jewish and English director of the Holocaust film “The Zone of Interest,” serve in any way to bring that awful bloodshed to a reasonable and enduring end?

In tortured and confusing language, Glazer lambasted Israel for “an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza. All the victims of this dehumanization. How do we resist?”

Noting that his German-language film showed where dehumanization leads at its worst, he suggested that Judaism and the Holocaust were being “hijacked” by that occupation, saying he and his fellow filmmakers “refute” such an expropriation.

But is the battle against Hamas really such a “hijacking?” Is it, in fact, rather a battle for the survival of the state of Israel against a group that would kill far more Jews than the 1,200 murdered on Oct. 7th, given the chance? In that sense, isn’t the fight against a repeat of the Holocaust?

For that matter, is the fight against Hamas really a fight, as well, for Palestinian innocents who would rather not have this ISIS-like group running their lives? For Palestinians in Gaza who have lived under the group’s thumb for nearly two decades?

Depending on his meaning, Glazer may have been correct in one respect: it is not within the psychology, the religion and the tradition of Judaism to dehumanize people, much less to kill noncombatants. Every human life is invaluable, Jews are taught, and the shedding of innocent blood is forbidden.

However, the monstrousness of Hamas – as demonstrated on October 7th, in the group’s ongoing imprisonment of hostages, and in its perverse and suicidal interpretation of Islam – has made it all but impossible for Israeli soldiers to avoid killing innocents. Israel faces a terrible choice: it either vanquishes Hamas or it will see the end of Israel, if not now then in time.

And the problem is that Hamas so immersed itself in Gazan society, since it was elected in 2006, that rooting it out has led to the deaths of thousands of innocents. The group burrowed into the social fabric in much the way it tunneled into the geography of the land, controlling all aspects of life in Gaza, from the medical establishment to all governing entities. Its grip has been reminiscent of the Nazi hold on Germany – a grip that took in even innocent Germans and that gave us WWII.

In the face of that burrowing, Israel’s military has done what it could to avoid civilian casualties, telling people to evacuate from areas that were to be attacked. Hamas stopped many from doing so, no doubt driving up the death toll.

In this, Israel has behaved far differently than some of its neighbors. For instance, the leader of Syria in 1982, Hafez al-Assad, killed tens of thousands of fellow Arabs in besieging the rebellious city of Hama as he sought to exterminate the Muslim Brotherhood (ironically, the philosophical parent of Hamas). The bloodletting led New York Times journalist Tom Friedman to coin the term “Hama rules” to describe the Syrian regime’s savagery.

It is possible that the death toll in Gaza will top the 25,000 believed to have been killed in Hama and may already have. But we may never know the true cost. The reported numbers of Palestinian deaths – more than 31,000 at this point – are suspect, as a Wharton statistics professor has argued.

Deaths reported in Gaza, source: Tablet

Wharton Prof. Abraham Wyner, in a piece in Tablet, contends that the amount of regularity in the figures the Hamas-controlled ministry reports shows that the “numbers are not real.” By plotting out recent reported tallies, he shows that a “graph of total deaths by date is increasing with almost metronomical linearity.”

Rather than the steady ascent of figures that we’ve seen, there should be daily variations and the lack of them suggests that Gaza authorities are fabricating their numbers, Wyner maintains. Moreover, he contends that the numbers of women and children killed – based on an estimate of 70% of the overall tally –are overestimated.

“Most likely, the Hamas ministry settled on a daily total arbitrarily. We know this because the daily totals increase too consistently to be real,” Wyner writes. “Then they assigned about 70% of the total to be women and children, splitting that amount randomly from day to day. Then they in-filled the number of men as set by the predetermined total. This explains all the data observed.”

In all wars, it’s been long observed, truth is the first casualty – a military maxim attributed to ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus. And in the Israel-Hamas war, Hamas weaponizes reported “facts” to build sympathy around the world — including in Hollywood. As many commentators have observed, the climbing death tolls serve the group’s propaganda ends (see here and here for a couple commentaries). And, pathetically, the group’s lack of value for human life seems based in its perverse interpretation of Islam: its glorification of martydom.

Wyner says the true death figures may never be known. Even the Gaza health ministry admitted in November that the collapse of the health system and the numbers of bodies buried in rubble made it unable to count the dead precisely. The actual figures could be higher or lower.

Indeed, the Gaza ministry’s own numbers suggested in January that the daily counts then were shrinking. As The New York Times reported late that month, the “number of Gazans dying each day ha[d] fallen almost in half since early December and almost two-thirds since the peak in late October.” The newspaper attributed the decline to a reduction in Israeli troops and a shift in military tactics.

Whatever the actual number, the toll in death, injury and destruction is unquestionably awful. If Israel mounts a major move on Rafah, as expected, and if Palestinian civilians are unable to find safe harbors, the number could climb anew.

Source: Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

Tragically, the deaths of thousands of civilians are not unprecedented. Along with Hama, consider the WWII firebombing of Dresden (perhaps 25,000 deaths, perhaps more) and, worse, the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (perhaps 214,000 deaths together). With some justification, Israel’s defenders have argued that it’s hypocritical for the world to accept that such tallies from WWII were tolerable in destroying the Nazi and Japanese military regimes, but not in Israel’s efforts to destroy Hamas.

Supporting the Israeli military view, Wyner maintains that Israel is doing much to prevent civilian deaths. “By historical standards of urban warfare, where combatants are embedded above and below into civilian population centers, this is a remarkable and successful effort to prevent unnecessary loss of life while fighting an implacable enemy that protects itself with civilians,” he holds.

That may be so. But one has to wonder how much misery it will take for Hamas’ murderous mentality to be extinguished, much as Naziism was almost entirely stamped out in Germany. Can the awful bloodletting that Glazer suggested he couldn’t stomach give way to some sort of peaceful coexistence someday?

It is a tragic irony that Israel, in continuing to try to eliminate Hamas, is doing the group’s bidding in killing civilians, in creating “martyrs” the group can showcase to the world. And yet, does Israel have much choice? Can the Glazers of the world not see the bind that a terrorist group — one no other nation would tolerate — has put Israel in?

Just what do we want in a President?

A look at what drives Trumpism and its potential for the fall election

Bret Stephens, source: New York Times

It’s funny how important things often come in threes. At the base of today’s triptych is Donald J. Trump, the likely victor in tomorrow’s sweep of primaries. All the matters that popped up today deal with the mystery of the man’s appeal and his potential second term. They are worth probing.

First, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens offered some interesting insights on what drives Trumpism – a source of wonder for anyone with half a brain, a sense of history and respect for responsible and responsive government. How can this boorish, immoral, often-unhinged would-be autocrat seem so inspiring to so many people?

Stephens, in a conversation with a colleague, offers the following:

             “He’s a raised middle finger at all the people whom his supporters see as a self-satisfied, self-dealing cultural elite. The more that elite despises him, the more they love him. That’s why any good analysis of the Trump phenomenon has to begin with an analysis of the Us phenomenon, if you will: Where did those of us who were supposed to represent the sensible center of the country go so wrong that people were willing to turn to a charlatan like Trump in the first place? I have endless theories, but here’s another one: We tried to change the way people are instead of meeting them where they are. Neocons (like me) tried to bend distant cultures in places like Afghanistan to accept certain Western values. Didn’t work. Progressives tried to push Americans to accept new values on issues like identity, equity, pronouns and so on. That isn’t working, either. Trump represents a complete rejection of all that. For every American he scandalizes, another one feels seen, heard, reflected and understood by him.”

Source: USA Toda

There’s a lot there. To unpack it, consider the “basket of deplorables” phrase that Hillary Clinton deployed to disastrous effect in September 2016. Speaking of half the Trump supporters, she said: “They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.” The deplorables phrase was quickly snapped up proudly by such supporters, who took to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with it. Clinton even mentioned it in a book as contributing to her loss.

As Stephens suggests, the more the elites loathe Trump (and his supporters), the more his backers love him. The more they are pilloried by those of us who have benefitted from such forces as globalism, economic change and the need for education, the more Trumpists dig in behind the lead critic of such forces. The more they are accused of racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc., the more they will bask in such traits, wearing such qualities all the more brazenly.

Source: KRCR

The second development has to do with the national Supreme Court and its ruling that Trump can remain on the ballot in Colorado, despite the state Supreme Court’s ruling striking him from it because of his role in the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. The decision was not surprising, of course, given that the Colorado ruling was a 4-3 one to begin with and, as a cynic might suggest, the conservative majority on the national court includes three Trump appointees.

But it was surprising that the national court’s decision was unanimous as the justices agreed that individual states don’t have the right to bar candidates from federal offices, noting “especially the Presidency,” although they may do so for state offices. The majority held that federal legislation would be needed to determine who would be disqualified under section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which bars insurrectionists from holding office. Interestingly, the justices dodged the question of whether Trump had engaged in insurrection.

Unless something extraordinary happens – perhaps turning on any one of several Trump legal woes that all seem, oddly, to entrench Trumpists even more deeply — this decision suggests that we will see a Trump-Biden rematch in November. That prospect looks troublesome for Team Biden, in large part because voters seem to see Biden as much more enfeebled by his age (81) than they do Trump (77). Of course, both men are prone to mixing up facts and faces (Trump recently confusing Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi and suggesting Barack Obama was still in office, and President Biden confusing the presidents of Mexico and Egypt). Experts say such verbal stumbles aren’t necessarily signs of a loss of mental acuity, though Joe Q. Voter may disagree, at least in Biden’s cas

Allen Weisselberg, source: Rolling Stone

The third development involves Trump’s dishonesty and the hold he, nonetheless, commands on some associates. Some go to the mat for him, lying or refusing to cooperate with investigators, even when that means jail terms. The latest is former Trump chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, with his guilty plea for lying under oath in the Trump civil fraud trial that will cost the former president $455 million. Weisselberg faces five more months in jail after the 100 days he served in an earlier case, but he can console himself with a $2 million severance payment Trump provided on the condition that he not cooperate with law enforcement unless forced to.

In that case, Trump seems to have purchased an underling’s loyalty. An exceptional number of Trump associates and supporters have been convicted of or faced various charges, with many going to jail without such payouts, though. Former aide Peter Navarro, who devised a plan to overturn the 2020 election, recently got four months in jail for ignoring a subpoena to testify in Congress about the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Of course, some Trump loyalists turned against him. Former longtime attorney Michael Cohen is perhaps the best known because his testimony was instrumental in Trump’s most costly civil fraud trial. But others have owned up to missteps they made on Trump’s behalf.

Trump’s support among the undereducated is well-documented. He even bragged about this in 2016, saying “I love the poorly educated.” But just why he appeals to people who should know better is a mystery as profound as that of his appeal to a broader base of Republicans. Along with the support his associates provide, his backing among college-educated white GOP members doubled to 60 percent over the last year, according to polling by Fox News.

What do they see in the man? How can they back him in spite of – or perhaps because of – his broad array of legal problems? How do they fall for his victimization narrative?

I’m reminded of a day in 1992, when I spent time with Trump visiting one of his then-bankrupt casinos in Atlantic City for a story for BusinessWeek. He was in financial ruin, his empire controlled by others for the benefit of his many creditors, and his reputation in New York City real estate was in the toilet. And yet, as he strode through the since-sold (and renamed) Trump Taj Mahal, gamblers reached out to touch him for luck, one begging him to autograph her slots-playing hand. No matter the reality that he was a wreck financially, he looked to them like a god, much as he does now to those at his rallies.

Part of this may be narcissistic self-delusion on his part. He casts himself publicly – and perhaps in his mind — as paradoxically godlike (“I alone can fix it”) and as a victim, perhaps much as his followers see themselves as victims of social and economic change. But it also may all be good acting of the sort that he honed on his years on “The Apprentice,” the show that elevated his tough-guy image for a national audience. For all his many verbal flubs, he is an extraordinary performer, one who even managed to disguise ill-health during and after his time in the White House.

Source: Whyvert

If one believes he is the alpha, perhaps he is the alpha, at least to his devotees. The analysis I find most intriguing – albeit the most unusual and entertaining – is research related to animal behavior.

As Wikipedia notes, psychology researcher Dan P. McAdams pointed to the dominance behavior of alpha male chimpanzees such as Yeroen, the subject of a study of chimp social behavior by primatologist Frans de Waal.  McAdams describes the similarities: “On Twitter, Trump’s incendiary tweets are like Yeroen’s charging displays. In chimp colonies, the alpha male occasionally goes berserk and starts screaming, hooting, and gesticulating wildly as he charges toward other males nearby. Pandemonium ensues as rival males cower in fear … Once the chaos ends, there is a period of peace and order, wherein rival males pay homage to the alpha, visiting him, grooming him, and expressing various forms of submission. In Trump’s case, his tweets are designed to intimidate his foes and rally his submissive base … These verbal outbursts reinforce the president’s dominance by reminding everybody of his wrath and his force.”

Primatologist Dame Jane Goodall compared Trump’s behavior with that of other male primates. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: Stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks,” Goodall said. “The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”

The comparison has been echoed by political observers sympathetic to Trump, Wikipedia recorded. Nigel Farage, a Trump backer, said that in the 2016 United States presidential debates where Trump loomed up on Clinton, he “looked like a big silverback gorilla“, and added that “he is that big alpha male. The leader of the pack!”

Sadly, in all his reasonableness and moderation, as well as his frailness, Biden looks like someone the alpha chimp can stomp at will. Just how the two will compare in face-to-face debates (assuming that Trump doesn’t hide from them, as he has in the primaries), will be a telling spectacle, I suspect. Will America go for sober, thoughtful and measured, albeit it physically challenged, or will it go for a more ape-like manner? What will that choice say about our country?

Can Noise Give Way to Civility?

An exploration of the limits of free speech

Source: Democracy and Me

One my favorite legalistic maxims goes like this: my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins. The idea, of course, is that we all have a marvelous amount of freedom in the U.S. – much more than in many other countries — but we also must live amongst others. And that “living amongst” part means our individual freedoms go only so far; they are not unlimited.

In physical terms, the limits are easy to define. Along with not having the unfettered ability to toss our hands about, we can’t drive the wrong way down a one-way street. We can’t run naked through our neighborhood, no matter how entertaining that might be for some folks. No matter how much we like the Stones, we can’t blast loud music at all hours in most communities. And we can’t, of course, shout fire in a crowded theater.

But when the subject is intellectual freedom, what are the boundaries? When does one’s ability to argue, to question or to demonstrate cross a line into harassment or intimidation? And what ideas or values are simply beyond the pale, too extreme to tolerate even on a college campus dedicated to academic freedom? When do noxious notions become the equivalent of shouting fire?

Since the atrocities of October 7th in Israel, we have heard much shouting, particularly by pro-Palestinian groups at campuses nationwide. We have also seen efforts to suppress or to contain such outpourings, in part because administrators fear violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires schools to provide all students an environment free from discrimination based on race, color, national origin or shared ancestry.

The noise has grown since the federal Department of Education on Nov. 7 issued a letter reminding schools of their obligations under the law. The DOE has also launched a bevy of investigations, including into a slew of K-12 districts around the country and at least 44 universities and colleges for alleged violations of that law. The allegations include incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia, often as a result of demonstrations that make Jews or Arabs feel threatened.

Source: Harvard Gazette

Indeed, at Harvard dueling investigations have been spurred by students or alumni who feel aggrieved. The DOE on Feb. 6 announced an investigation into whether the university failed to protect Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students and their supporters from harassment, threats and intimidation. This came on the heels of probe announced in November alleging that the school failed to respond to antisemitism on campus.

The Muslim Legal Fund of America filed the complaint that generated the early February inquest on behalf of more than a dozen anonymous students. A lawyer for the group told The Harvard Crimson that the students complained of “negative treatment by both the administration and Harvard officials as well as fellow students on campus.” The most common complaint was that students were verbally abused for wearing a keffiyeh, a scarf that has become a symbol of advocacy for Palestinians.

“When they simply walk around campus wearing the keffiyeh, they have been verbally attacked, they have had things thrown at them,” the lawyer said. “They have had students and others accuse them of being terrorists for what they’re wearing.”

On the flip side, the department’s investigation begun in the fall followed a complaint by several alumni that Harvard failed to protect students from antisemitism. And separately, a group of students at the school sued on Jan. 30 in federal court, alleging that Harvard “has become a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.”

As the lawsuit describes it, Harvard seems like a hellish place.

“Mobs of pro-Hamas students and faculty have marched by the hundreds through Harvard’s campus, shouting vile antisemitic slogans and calling for death to Jews and Israel,” the suit says. “Those mobs have occupied buildings, classrooms, libraries, student lounges, plazas, and study halls, often for days or weeks at a time, promoting violence against Jews and harassing and assaulting them on campus. Jewish students have been attacked on social media, and Harvard faculty members have promulgated antisemitism in their courses and dismissed and intimidated students who object.”

While the lawsuit maintains that Harvard refused to “lift a finger to stop and deter this outrageous antisemitic conduct and penalize the students and faculty who perpetrate it,” in fact Harvard has created two presidential task forces to combat Islamophobia and antisemitism on campus. In a wrinkle curious because of its academic freedom overtones, one task force is co-chaired by Derek J. Penslar, who heads the school’s Center for Jewish Studies and who became a lightning rod for critics who damn him as too critical of Israel. Ironically, Penslar’s book “Zionism: An Emotional State,” was named a finalist for the 2023 National Jewish Book Award by the Jewish Book Council, and he was widely defended by scholars and rabbis.

Setting up task forces to develop policies to curb Islamophobia and antisemitism has become a common first step at several campuses. But some schools have also taken aggressive action — action that troubles free-speech advocates.

MIT, Source: The Times of Israel

As reported by Inside Higher Ed, MIT, Stanford and Brown, for instance, have all cracked down on pro-Palestinian actions that they said flouted university rules. MIT, along with several other schools, recently suspended student groups for failing to follow rules about protests and Stanford quashed a 120-day sit-in on a campus plaza by first threatening disciplinary action and then by agreeing to talk over the student concerns. At Brown, 19 students taking part in a weeklong hunger strike for Palestine claimed that university officials removed “memorial flags” and washed away chalk messages at recent gatherings as they urged the university to divest its endowment from arms manufacturers.

The question this raises is: just what is acceptable speech and action on campuses? Where does one draw the line?

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression takes a maximalist view: “The mere expression of an opinion — however repugnant — is always protected. The authority to regulate ‘hate speech’ — an inherently vague and subjective label — is a gift to those who want an excuse to stamp out views they personally detest. FIRE knows from its long history defending free speech on campus how often both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate face censorship under this rationale. The target simply depends on who holds power at a given time and place.”

But when does free expression slip into harassment and intimidation? Some cases seem clear. For instance, at the University of Denver, religious items affixed to student doorposts – mezuzahs – were recently torn down from couple dorm rooms and one was defaced. Those are incidents of vandalism, not matters of acceptable expression, and the school administration deplored them. At one dorm there, moreover, pork, which observant Jews shun, was left at a student’s door – a clear case of harassment, it would seem.

Is that the same, however, as people marching and carrying banners that decry the deaths of members of various groups, whether Jews or Palestinians? Should it be illegal to stand up for one’s group, even loudly? And if those marches make members of one group or another feel threatened, should such feelings be the test? Is the freedom to speak one’s mind in an academic setting a value to be protected, regardless of whether it discomfits some students?

Surely, some expression can go over the line. For instance, would any responsible university tolerate students marching with Nazi banners? Indeed, would any tolerate marches with explicitly pro-Hamas or pro-ISIS imagery? The advocates for Palestinians seem mostly to avoid such sentiments as they instead protest “genocide”  or call for ceasefires or an end to the killing in the Israel-Hamas war. Sadly, they often seem ignorant, though, about how phrases such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” are calls for the eradication of Israel.

As Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, contended in a recent U.S. News and World Report commentary, “Students can and should debate important matters like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ethics of war in civilian areas.” Disagreeing, protesting and robustly exchanging ideas are appropriate, he suggested.

Still, as Rabbi Dr. Berman also noted, it would be useful to have “moral clarity” about the war on the agenda at campuses all across the U.S. Making his point, he argued that those who protest for a “free Gaza” should also want it free of Hamas. “In fact, being clear about this distinction could actually help calm campus waters and enable more productive conversations,” he maintained.

Certainly, defenders of Israel will agree that the nation has the right to quash a terrorist group whose barbarism is on par with that of ISIS or other similar groups. Indeed, that may be where well-informed faculty need to step up and educate those who are doing much of the shouting.

Of course, such schooling won’t end disagreements. If education could “calm campus waters” such that civil discussion can replace shouting, we’d all be better off. Sadly, however, at a time when many are dying, emotions are understandably running hot. And that makes free speech difficult.

“People are unrealistic when they say, ‘We want free speech, we want debate, we want difficult conversations,’” legal scholar Randall Kennedy recently told The New York Times. “But then we want all smiles.”

Source: The Philadelphia Citizen

Indeed, the arguments over free speech are slipping into debates over academic freedom, which has come under threat from conservative politicians such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. As the Times noted, DeSantis “has led the passage of laws that restrict what can be taught and spearheaded efforts to reshape whole institutions.”

As the newspaper reported, the Israel-Hamas War has upended longstanding campus arguments over whether conservative voices and ideas were being suppressed. Now, it seems, liberal defenders of Palestinians are making the case that they are being muzzled.

“Some ask why, after years of restricting speech that makes some members of certain minority groups feel ‘unsafe,’ administrators are suddenly defending the right to speech that some Jewish students find threatening,” the paper wrote. “Others accuse longtime opponents of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts of cynically weaponizing those principles to suppress pro-Palestinian views.”

Still, academic freedom, too, must have limits. Such freedom, some note, depends on expertise and judgment – and is not just the right to say whatever one wants. As legal scholar Robert C. Post put it, free academic inquiry depends on the notion that “there are true ideas and false ideas,” and that it is the job of scholars to distinguish them.

The protests and, perhaps, the counterprotests will continue. Arguments over Islamophobia and antisemitism will rage, too, perhaps to be clarified by lawsuits and policies that various task forces can develop. One hopes that amid all the noise, education about truth and falsity can emerge.