The sins of the son

The multiple tragedies of the family Biden

Hunter and Joe Biden, source: AP

One of the first rules of questionable PR is to change the subject when your client is feeling heat. Get people talking about something – anything – other than, say, his conviction as a felon. Put something or someone else under the Klieg lights.

Defenders of Donald J. Trump, the convict, are doing this to a fare-thee-well with the plight of President Biden’s son, Hunter. Hunter’s trial on three felony gun charges, all based on his lying on an application for a gun license in 2018 and on his drug addiction, began today with jury selection. The court action is expected to last two to three weeks.

Trump’s trial took five weeks. It led, of course, to guilty findings on 34 counts related to false bookkeeping for covering up hush-money payments to a porn star in 2016. It was about burying troubling information during an election.

So, now, the media – particularly right-wing media – are having a field day with Hunter. They are busily making comparisons between Trump’s sordid disgrace and the young Biden’s drug-addled misbehavior.

Fox News analyst Jonathan Turley, for instance, noted that the jury pool in Wilmington, Del., the Biden family’s home turf, is likely to be friendlier than the Manhattan jurors were to Trump. “This is the hometown of the Bidens, and they may be hoping for a type of jury nullification,” Turley opined. “This is the opposite of Manhattan. This is a great jury pool for the defendant.”

Never mind that the pool included a former Delaware police officer who said he believed that the FBI prosecutes over politics and who mentioned the Steele Dossier (a much-attacked report in the Trump-Russia probe) and the trial against former President Donald Trump in New York, as Fox reported. The potential juror – who would seem likely to be tossed — said he once supported a candidate who challenged Beau Biden, Hunter’s deceased brother, in the race for attorney general.

Once the jury pool was winnowed down and the dozen members were selected, Fox also reported that the panel includes three black women and three white women, four black men and two white men. Just why their race and gender were relevant was not clear — but, hey, you gotta report something, right?

Calling the federal litigation an “historic trial,” Fox also referred to defendant Biden, 54, as “the first son,” a derivation of first lady. In three simple words, the phrase does two things that a spinmeister might like: it ties Biden to his presidential dad even as it misleads, since Hunter’s brother, Beau, was older and died in 2015.

The late Beau Biden and wife, Hallie, right

Not to be outdone, the New York Sun suggested that President Biden’s visit to his daughter-in-law Hallie’s home eight days before his son’s trial began “could raise the possibility of accusations of witness tampering.” One might note the exceptional array of fudge words there: “could,” “possibility” and “accusations,” all of which raise the question of whether such speculation is good journalism.

For its part, the more fair-minded Newsweek took note of a comment by a White House spokesman that Biden’s visit to Hallie was about the then-impending ninth anniversary of Beau Biden’s death; the president wasn’t there to talk about the trial, the spokesman said. The piece also helpfully recounted a laundry list of rightist fulminations on X, including this over-the-top one by former Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass: “Biden crime family boss uses presidential muscle to pressure witness: Joe Biden visits Hallie Biden days before she testifies in Hunter’s gun trial,” Kass wrote on X.

Hallie had been Beau’s wife, but she took up with the then-divorced Hunter years after Beau’s death. As recounted by The Washington Post, Hallie found the gun that Hunter improperly bought in her home after he had spent the night. She bagged it and tossed it in the trash some miles away. After the two split, Hunter married anew in 2019. The New York Post’s Page Six site helpfully reported that Hallie was wedding anew, too.

The Sun also gushed about how this is “the first trial in American history in which the child of a sitting president has been prosecuted.” It further tied the younger Biden to his dad – and mom – with the headline “First Lady Makes Surprise Appearance” at the trial’s opening. We seem to be in for breathless gavel-to-gavel coverage in some venues at least, troublingly like the sort given to a much-sullied former president.

Of course, some of this is legitimately newsworthy, though it’s not clear why the support of a mother for her son is surprising. There also seemed to be little in the conservative-media coverage about Hunter’s graduation from Georgetown University and the Yale Law School and his work in business, law and government. It will be up to his lawyers to sketch out Biden’s not-inconsequential resume for the jury.

For his part, President Biden issued a statement saying he has “boundless love” for his son, “confidence in him and respect for his strength.” He added: “I am the President, but I am also a Dad … Jill and I love our son, and we are so proud of the man he is today.” He said he would have no further comment on the case.

The mainstream media gave the younger Biden’s missteps a great deal of attention, too. As it did with Trump’s trial, the New York Times offered a stream of updates on the case, including one taking note that First Lady Jill Biden was “wearing a purple blazer and scribbling on a white legal” in the courtroom. The Washington Post similarly offered such updates but, so far at least, attire has not been part of its coverage. One wonders if such fashion details may yet come, as hard-pressed reporters cast about for information to share.

This live-update process mirrored the approach journalists took to the Trump trial. If it continues, that process itself amplifies the false equivalence that Trump enthusiasts are making between the two bits of litigation.

Source: Thinking is Power

Personally, I was touched by this false equivalence in a family feed. When I posted a link to my Substack piece about Trump’s conviction that asked “Is decency returning to our politics?,” that sister responded: “I guess we’ll find out next week after Hunter Biden’s case.”

Of course, Hunter is not a candidate for president or a former president. Moreover, Hunter’s issues have nothing to do with the election, other than that they are arising as his father is running again. Trump’s, of course, had a great deal to do with his last election and his early days as president. Indeed, it’s notable how Biden has not tried to pull strings in the case (something Trump, no doubt, would do for Ivanka, if needed). But such subtleties apparently elude Trump enthusiasts.

One has to wonder, moreover, whether this case would have even gone this far if it didn’t involve a president’s son. “Hunter Biden has argued that he was only charged because of his last name,” legal podcaster and Justice Department veteran Sarah Isgur noted in a guest essay in The New York Times. “And he has a point — there are far more gun crimes committed than can be handled by federal prosecutors.”

Colt Cobra .38, the type of weapon Biden bought, source: AthlonOutdoors

Rather than shining a reflected light on President Biden, perhaps this case should raise questions about why it’s so easy for a drug addict to obtain a gun. If we had tighter gun laws, perhaps, none of this would have occurred. Pols, are you listening?

Isgur argued that Biden should seek a plea deal, even though it might be tougher than one he almost had last summer. She noted that the DOJ rarely loses its cases, so jury nullification may be what Biden hopes for. To that end, one might expect that sorrowful events in his life – dating back to the 1972 car accident that killed his mother and sister and left him, at 3, with a fractured skull, as well as his descent into addiction that saw him booted from the U.S. Navy Reserve in 2014 – will be shared with the jury.

For a full account of Hunter Biden’s woes, The Washington Post did a creditable job. One piece, “For Hunter Biden, a dramatic day with his brother’s widow led to charges,” offered a tick-tock on how the cocaine-addicted and grieving Biden fell into a series of mistakes that led to the litigation. Another, by fact-checker Glenn Kessler, ably sketched out the man’s descents and dealings.

Together, those pieces – as well as others in respectable places — should disabuse conspiracy-theorizing Trumpists of some of their more bizarre claims about Biden le père, and Biden le fils. Will they, though?

As the trial proceeds, one can expect the false equivalences to continue, apparently in hopes that Americans will look on all politics as corrupt and be inured to that. The GOP and Trumpists will sling as much mud as possible on the president, hoping it will take eyes off Trump’s thick coating of slime. The question for the thinking American public is: should the sins of the son be visited upon the father?

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 syracuse.com

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.

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 Playboy model Karen McDougal, though prosecutors will not be allowed to mention Melania’s pregnancy. Only a few months after his son was born, he cheated again, that time with porn film star Stormy Daniels. 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? Someone whose sexual abusiveness and dishonesty about it has cost him more than $83.3 million?

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.

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.

A Spoiler Alert

Could a real third-party candidate mean a Trump victory?

Source: Videos Index

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce – or so goes the saying attributed to Karl Marx. This year we may see a sorry mixture of both, if a credible third-party candidate arises to threaten to do what one arguably did 32 years ago, that is to unseat an unpopular incumbent president.

A friend, a committed Republican of the old-school sort, wrote me recently to say she has become an elected officer of the No Labels party in Maryland. “No Labels is likely to put forth a Unity presidential ticket that will work to deliver commonsense solutions to this country’s many problems,” she wrote. “It is my hope that we can all commit to working together for the greater good, while celebrating the differences that enrich us all.”

What is troubling is that if No Labels launches a serious contender and gains traction, he or she may do what H. Ross Perot did in 1992. The billionaire outsider’s third-party candidacy garnered just under 19% of the popular vote back then, the largest share of the vote for a third-party contender since an election in 1912. While Perot didn’t grab a single Electoral College vote, he served as the spoiler who helped to oust President George H.W. Bush and install William J. Clinton in the White House.

 “Dissatisfied voters of all stripes flocked to his call, creating one of the most powerful third-party movements in American history,” wrote Prof. Russell L. Riley of the UVA Miller Center. “Although Perot drew support from both Republicans and Democrats, he probably hurt Bush disproportionately more than Clinton, owing to his harsh attacks against the incumbent and the timing of both his departure and re-entry into the 1992 campaign.”

Joe Lieberman considers Haley, Source: AP

Could this happen again? Could President Biden be unhorsed by Donald J. Trump thanks to a third-party spoiler? Well, No Labels has gained access to the ballot in at least 13 states so far and is aiming for all 50. It doesn’t have a presidential candidate yet, but depending on how things go in the GOP primaries in coming months, it could land someone such as former South Carolina Gov. and presidential hopeful Nikki Haley to lead its ticket. Founding party chairman Joseph Lieberman said that she “would deserve serious consideration.”

While a campaign spokeswoman, responding to Lieberman’s mid-January comment, said Haley had no interest in No Labels, that was before her loss to Trump in New Hampshire. If she loses in her native South Carolina, as expected, on Feb. 24, her view could change, of course.

Haley has polled ahead of Biden in head-to-head matchups. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, for instance, the former governor tops the president by 47% to 42% in a two-person contest. By contrast, Biden tops Trump in a two-way race, 50% to 44%, making one wonder why a GOP in its right mind would stick with Trump instead of Haley. (Of course, the operative phrase in regard to the MAGA-dominated party is “in its right mind.”)

Source: The Hill

When one tosses in other independent candidates (Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West and Jill Stein), the results get murkier, according to Quinnipiac. Haley drops to 29%, but Biden also drops, to 36%. Of course, it’s not clear how many votes Haley might siphon off of Biden (or Trump) if she ran with No Labels in a three-way race, but Democrats fear she would do more damage to their man. As the Wall Street Journal reported in analyzing a couple polls last fall, “When voters are given options beyond Biden and Trump, the president tends to bleed the most support …”

Let’s look back to 1992 for some guidance, though. The erratic Perot quit the race in July 1992, but re-entered in October. That gave him just enough time to take part in three debates, where he impressed some voters with his phrase “giant sucking sound,” describing a feared loss of jobs to Mexico if the NAFTA treaty went into effect. At the end of the debates, his chances seemed so good that we at BusinessWeek had to prepare three cover stories in advance of election day, so we’d be ready for anything.

Source: Miller Center

In the end, Clinton won, of course. But he took office with the support of substantially less than half the electorate, collecting just 43% of the vote to Bush’s 37.4% and Perot’s 18.9%. Clinton prevailed because he won in the states where it mattered, swamping Bush in the Electoral College vote – with 370 to Bush’s 168. The president carried only 18 conservative states, including Texas and Florida, both rich in Electoral College votes, but Perot gave them both a run for their money in a couple states, finishing second in Maine (which Clinton won) and Utah (which was Bush country).

Ironically, my friend now helping the No Labels group served in the Bush Administration that Clinton tossed out. She saw first-hand the scorching effect a third-party candidacy can have. As I described in a biography of the late Clayton Yeutter, who was a top adviser to Bush, despondency was widespread in the Bush ranks in mid-1992 and things didn’t get much better as Election Day neared. The president’s approval rating, according to Gallup, dipped to 29% that July and rebounded, but only to 34% soon before he lost the election.

As things stand today, Biden is in better shape than Bush was, but not by much (the Quinnipiac poll, notwithstanding). One can only imagine the depression afflicting his camp. Biden’s approval rating now stands at a disappointing 41%, according to Gallup, though it dropped to 37% last April, October and November. The numbers are reminiscent of those logged by one-term Jimmy Carter, who averaged a 37.4% approval rating in his third presidential year (Biden’s third-year average approval rating is just 39.8%).

Many things can happen between now and November, of course. No Labels, in fact, may not find a credible candidate, especially if Haley demurs or (as seems unlikely) wins enough primaries to be a viable GOP contender. Would Sen. Joe Manchin be a potent contender for the group? Also, Trump may finally be nailed on any number of criminal charges, which likely would erode his support outside of the MAGA diehards (and could force the GOP to seek an alternative). Trump could even be ruled off the ballot in some states, though his appointees to the Supreme Court would shock the world with such a decision.

One thing seems pretty certain, though: a successful third-party candidacy would be a pipe dream. While many Americans don’t like the idea of a Biden-Trump rerun, history suggests that a real third alternative would likely not get very far – but, troublingly, perhaps far enough to make for a repeat of 1992.