Email #309: “reality television show”?

“Reality TV is known for its humiliation tactics and its aggressive showmanship and also the idea that either you’re in or you’re out, with momentum building to the final decision on who stays and who goes,” University of Minnesota communications professor and reality TV expert Laurie Ouellette told the New York Times this week. “Absolutely, I see those techniques playing out [in the Trump White House].”

After his healthcare bill failed to pass and the cost of his jet travel triggered a scandal, Health Secretary Tom Price is out, while Secretary of State Tillerson is still teetering after he reportedly called the President a “fucking moron” and the President then challenged him to an IQ test on Twitter.

But even though Ouellette’s comparison seems apt, it isn’t new. Michael Moore wrote last year:

“Coming back to the hotel after appearing on Bill Maher’s Republican Convention special this week on HBO, a man stopped me. “Mike,” he said, “we have to vote for Trump. We HAVE to shake things up.” That was it. That was enough for him. To “shake things up.” President Trump would indeed do just that, and a good chunk of the electorate would like to sit in the bleachers and watch that reality show.”

Moore later wrote that reality TV was the primary reason Donald Trump ran for President:

“Trump was unhappy with his deal as host and star of his hit NBC show, “The Apprentice” (and “The Celebrity Apprentice”)… He had floated the idea before of possibly running for president in the hopes that the attention from that would make his negotiating position stronger… he soon forgot his mission to get a good deal for a TV show… He was the star of EVERY TV SHOW — and, soon, winning nearly every primary!”

CNN’s Dean Obeidallah expressed a similar opinion in July:

“President Donald Trump has finally done it. He has turned his administration into a B-level reality show… And while it may be fun to watch, it’s a travesty for our nation. We deserve a president who is thoughtful, informed and focused on working for all Americans. Instead we have Trump, who seems preoccupied with creating a televised spectacle… it’s increasingly apparent that Trump is following his “Apprentice” playbook in the White House.”

The New York Post continued the comparison:

“In the latest episode of “Survivor: White House,” the West Wing descended into chaos Thursday, as President Trump and his top aides turned on one another like vicious reality-show divas — with no one sure who would be the next to get a knife in their back.”

Perez Hilton, a former contestant on the reality show Celebrity Big Brother, commented too:

“Trump is treating his presidency like The Apprentice. He telegraphed this… I would totally survive in the Trump White House because I’m smarter than Donald. Much smarter than him!”

Actual Celebrity Apprentice All-Stars celebrity Omarosa Manigault has been a White House aide since the President included her in his transition team in December, but her resignation was announced in September. And that is of course after so many top White House staff members have been forced out: Flynn, Dubke, Priebus, Spicer, Bannon, Gorka, Scaramucci.

But I didn’t start to take the “reality show” criticism seriously until I heard it from Republican Senator Corker last week. When asked if the country is in jeopardy, Corker answered:

“Sometimes I feel like he’s on a reality show of some kind… it’s like it’s an act to him and sure that bothers me… it very much feels to me like he thinks as president he’s on a reality television show… I don’t think he understands that the messages that he sends out, especially when you take into account they’re being received in other languages around the world, what that does… I don’t think he appreciates that when the president of the United States speaks, and says the things that he does, the impact that it has around the world, especially in the region that he’s addressing… it’s concerning to me. A lot of people think that there’s some good cop, bad cop act underway, but that’s just not true… it’s like he’s doing “The Apprentice” or something. He’s just putting on an act. And it’s worrisome.”

Since Moore is a professional pundit who makes his living expressing progressive political commentary, his criticism of then candidate Donald Trump is not especially convincing. Although Obeidallah based his later opinion on President Trump’s actions as President, his commentary is still a professional op-ed designed to draw readers to the slightly left-leaning CNN.

Senator Corker, however, is in neither the entertainment nor the news industry. He, like you, is a member of the President’s own party, and, like you, he is a conservative who consistently votes against abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, the ACA, and sanctuary cities. Since, unlike Moore and Obeidallah, his politics align with the President’s agenda, he has reason to ignore the President’s flaws in order to promote that shared agenda.

So when a conservative Republican says President Trump behaves as if he is performing on a reality TV show, that criticism is difficult to ignore. As a fellow conservative Republican, do you agree with Senator Corker’s assessment? Or do you still wish to ignore the President’s flaws? If so, you must also be discounting the larger danger that Corker identifies:

“I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him… One of the reasons that I’ve supported Mattis and Tillerson and Kelly last week is, again, as long as there’s people like that around him who are able to talk him down, you know, when he gets spun up, you know, calm him down and continue to work with him before a decision is made. I think we’ll be fine.”

Do you think we’ll be fine too? Is there a point at which the President’s behavior would force you to set aside your political goals in order to help contain him?

If the President does think of himself as a star of a television show, what part do you think he’s casting you? Level-headed uncle? Obsequious butler? Comic minion? And how do you think this first season is going to end? Will the show be renewed or is the country tired of “shaking things up” yet? The President’s 39% approval rating doesn’t bode well for next year’s mid-terms either. How many of your fellow Republican Representatives do you think will be voted off?

And did you ever imagine American politics could devolve to this?

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Email #292: “presidential visitors”?

The Freedom of Information Act requires public disclosure of government documents. Although ethically bound, the White House is legally exempt. Government ethics watch groups had to sue the Obama administration before it agreed to make White House visitor logs publicly available online—something the Trump administration has since halted. Now the same watch groups are suing the Trump administration.

In July, Federal District Court Judge Failla ruled that the administration had until this month to release the records of presidential visitors at Mar-a-Lago because those records fall under the jurisdiction of the Secret Service, which is a subdivision of Homeland Security not the White House. But instead of complying, the Justice Department announced earlier this month that the majority of the Secret Service records “contain, reflect, or otherwise relate to the president’s schedules,” which are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. They released only the names of the delegation of the Japanese prime minister whose February visit to the President’s Florida resort was already well known.

The lawsuit sought the names of previously undisclosed visitors in order to investigate potential conflicts of interest. The Mar-a-Lago membership list includes nearly 500 individuals whose real estate, Wall Street, and energy corporations are directly affected by the President’s policies. The list includes mining billionaire William Koch and trader billionaire Thomas Peterffy who the New York Times reports spent over $8 million on anti-socialism political ads in 2012.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington argues that the American people should know who is influencing the President. Do you disagree? They are holding the Trump administration to the same standards that they held the Obama administration. Are you? The Justice Department “believes that presidential schedule information is not subject to FOIA.” Do you agree?

Regardless of the scope of the FOIA, why shouldn’t the administration turn over both its Mar-a-Lago and its White House visitor logs? Fighting to keep this information hidden deepens ethical concerns. And since oversight of the Justice Department is your responsibility, those concerns now extend to you. You said before the President took office that people “elected to represent the American people should be held to the highest standards.” What standards are you holding our highest representative?

 

Email #288: “condemn such detestable views”?

Earlier this month a close friend of mine was driving in Lexington when a woman in the next lane yelled at him from her car:

“Move back! Go home!”

My friend (he asked me not to use his name) was born in India, but he is a U.S. citizen and has lived here for twenty-five years. Home for him is Rockbridge county. Both of his daughters were born in the U.S., and his oldest is attending an Ivy League college. Politically, he’s a Libertarian-leaning Democrat. When he lived in India, he was arrested and beaten while in police custody, so he understands a hell of a lot more about government corruption than anyone else I know. You met him yourself during a twelve-person constituent meeting in Staunton about three months ago. I believe he was the only dark-skinned person in the room.

I mention this because after the stranger yelled at him, he drove to our local Republican headquarters and told them that the incident was their responsibility. Xenophobic racism is now a defining trait of the GOP brand.  You know full well that racist driver voted for you last November.

I had assumed the incident was isolated, but then I learned that Republican audience members at the Labor Day parade in Buena Vista yelled “Move back! Go home!” at Delegate Sam Rasoul too. Rasoul is the only Muslim member of the Virginia House of Delegates. His parents are Palestinian immigrants, but he was born in the U.S., the only home he has ever known. I was told that none of the GOP candidates present—Ben Cline, Ed Gillespie, Jill Holtzman Vogel, and John Adams—said anything to their supporters who booed and jeered Rasoul with their racist taunts.

You said after Charlottesville: “The racist and anti-Semitic views embraced by white supremacists have no place in our nation and do not reflect core American values of equality and religious freedom. We are all created in the image of God, and I strongly condemn such detestable views against fellow human beings.”

But what about the racist views embraced by members of your Republican base here in the 6th district? While I hope very few of your supporters would label themselves white supremacists and even fewer would commit violence in support of white supremacy, many of those at the Buena Vista parade openly and proudly violated your stated values of equality and religious freedom.

When my friend spoke to you in person, he said you explained that you have to sometimes support extreme rightwing positions in order to ensure your reelection and so be able to accomplish what you called “the good I want to do.” But what about that bad you do in that process? What about the harm of allowing your voters’ extreme prejudices to go unchallenged? Worse, you and the President fuel those prejudices through your always one-sided rhetoric that paints immigrants as inhuman threats. You are politically profiting from the detestable views you claim to condemn.

 

Email #283: “the Ministry of Truth”?

When you attempted to change the Office of Congressional Ethics in early January, the New York Times wrote:

“The claim by Mr. Ryan and Mr. Goodlatte (who, hilariously, leads the House Judiciary Committee) that gutting the office would improve “due process” for accused lawmakers is a marvel of Orwellian newspeak. So is Mr. Goodlatte’s insistence that dismantling the O.C.E. “builds upon and strengthens” it.”

The editors of the Roanoke Times and Staunton New Leader also titled letters I wrote about you in January: “Goodlatte is Orwellian” and “Goodlatte excels at doublespeak.” I wrote:

“Goodlatte talks like a character from a George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth: “With Republicans holding the White House and the majorities in both chambers of Congress, I am hopeful that we will now have an avenue to move bipartisan legislation that has been stalled over the past eight years.” If that legislation is “bipartisan” why only now is there an avenue to pass it? Goodlatte also told me he wanted us to unite and work together, but using a tactic that is overwhelmingly partisan is the opposite.”

So I was amused when you evoked “the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984” in a letter last month. I assume you know that sales of the novel spiked in January after White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts.” Four days later, the novel was Amazon’s top-seller. A Penguin spokesperson told CNN: “We put through a 75,000 copy reprint this week.” A theater professor at my school and your alma mater, Washington and Lee University, had gotten the rights to produce the play, but as a result of the Trump-triggered popularity surge, she lost the adaptation when it moved to Broadway. W&L is producing an alternate version instead. Will you be attending it?

While I appreciate how tempting it must have been for you or one of your staff writers to direct an Orwellian allusion toward someone other than you or another member of the Republican party, I don’t think it’s a good idea to draw further attention to the novel. As the party currently controlling all three branches of the federal government, the GOP will inevitably attract the brunt of the comparisons. You have also inadvertently lengthened the already long list of browser results when users type “GOP” and “Orwell” into a search engine.

When reading your press releases and newsletter columns over the past nine months, I have been reminded of two terms from 1984, “Doublethink” and “Blackwhite.” According to Orwell, “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” And Blackwhite is “a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands it. But it means also the ability to BELIEVE that black is white, and more, to KNOW that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”

These two concepts have been useful for analyzing your various positions, especially when you ignore shortcomings of the current administration after having so doggedly criticized similar faults of the previous administration. Also some of your longest held principles–reducing federal spending for instance–seem to vanish when President Trump proposes expanded spending initiatives or budgets that rely on implausibly positive economic projections. Party discipline appears to be your guiding priority, regardless of contradictions.

It would of course be hyperbolic to call your House Judiciary Committee “the Ministry of Truth.” But it would only be hyperbolic–because you have provided the basis for the exaggeration. Assuming you earn a sentence or two in our grandchildren’s American history books, do you think those future authors will be tempted to encapsulate your role with the same hyperbole?

 

Email #280: “ignoring history”?

Although you did not respond to my letter asking for your position on the public display of Confederate statues, another of your constituents shared on Facebook the form letter you sent to her.

You expressed “concerns about ignoring history by their removal” and likened the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to take down its Lee statue to the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984. You said “when the government removes facts and history from the past, citizens of today and the future cannot learn the vital lessons they would have otherwise imparted.” You also encouraged “those advocating for the removal of Confederacy related items to find appropriate ways to educate all Americans.”

I agree that these statues are an excellent opportunity for education that we should all embrace, and so let me share with you the historical context of the statue of Lee that was the literal center point of the white supremacist rally last month.

The statue was commissioned by Paul McIntire in 1917 after he purchased and donated the property for what he named Lee Park. This was during the rise of the second KKK and the white supremacist movement of eugenics across the U.S. Although the Klan is most often recalled as a terrorist organization limited to the South during the Reconstruction period, it was reformed nationally in 1915 after the widely acclaimed blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation adapted the 1905 novel The Clansman, a melodramatic best-seller that portrayed the KKK as the righteous and heroic protectors of the South from the villainy of “Negro Rule.” This was a standard interpretation of history during the first decades of the 20th century. Staunton-born President Woodrow Wilson was one of the majority of Americans who agreed. After a special screening of The Birth of a Nation in the White House, Wilson commented: “it is all so terribly true.”

When the Lee statue was finally erected in 1924, the KKK controlled a majority of delegates in the Democratic National Convention. The Convention was held in New York city that year, and after the party defeated a platform resolution that would have condemned Klan violence, thousands of KKK members, including Convention delegates, held a celebratory rally in New Jersey. The following year, 30,000 Klan members marched in full regalia in Washington DC. National membership was estimated well over three million.

The popularity of the Klan reflected the wider white nationalism of eugenics, which in the pre-DNA science of genetics argued for the hereditary superiority of northern Europeans. Following the advice of the Carnegie Institute, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other eugenics advocates, federal and state governments attempted to protect white bloodlines through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, and forced sterilization. Madison Grant’s white supremacist treatise The Passing of the Great Race became a national best-seller in 1916, calling for the sterilization of “worthless race types.” President Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler both praised the book. Hitler also said Germany needed to model itself on the U.S., especially California and Virginia, the leading states in the eugenics movement.

In May 1924, five days after the Lee statue was erected, President Coolidge signed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, drastically reducing the immigration of non-Anglo Saxons and excluding Asians entirely. Coolidge explained: “America must be kept American. Biological laws show¼that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.” Two months earlier, the Virginia Legislature passed The Racial Integrity Act, joining twenty-eight other states in barring marriage between whites and non-whites.  The Virginia Sterilization Act passed on the same day, targeting African Americans and mixed-race “mongrels.”

The 1924 president of your alma mater and my employer, Washington and Lee University, presented the Lee statue at its public unveiling—an event run by the local chapter of the Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, organizations dedicated to the revisionist history of the Civil War and Reconstruction supported by the KKK and the wider eugenics movement. That statue, which the Charlottesville city website describes as “quieter but more dignified and powerful” than the original design which emphasized Lee’s “vitality,” venerates rather than records its selective interpretation of history.

This is the history lesson surrounding Charlottesville’s statue of Lee. Assuming that you were merely ignorant of these facts when you likened the Charlottesville City Council to 1984’s Ministry of Truth, I hope you will reconsider your statement. The continuing display of the Lee statue supports the Orwellian rewriting of history accomplished by white supremacists a century ago.

Email #278: “much needed leadership”?

You said after last year’s election:

“Regardless of which candidate you supported, the most important thing we can do is to come together and rally around the freedoms with which we are blessed. Let’s unite and get to work. I’m ready to do just that.”

You must be especially pleased then to see the President finally following your advice. After a surprisingly productive meeting with Democratic leaders Rep. Pelosi and Senator Schumer last week, President Trump said:

“I think we will have a different relationship than we’ve been watching over the last number of years. I hope so. I think that’s a great thing for our country. And I think that’s what the people of the United States want to see. They want to see some dialogue. They want to see coming together to an extent.”

The bipartisan change follows General Kelly taking over as the President’s chief of staff. After he replaced Reince Priebus, Kelly ousted several extremist members of the White House staff, most prominently chief strategist Steve Bannon. I think even conservatives should recognize this as a good move given the negative influence Bannon had on the President. Bannon said on 60 Minutes that he prevented Governor Chris Christie from receiving a cabinet position when Christie did not defend Donald Trump after the release of the Billy Bush tape in which the President bragged about committing sexual assault.

Kelly also ousted Fox News commentator and Breitbart employee Sebastian Gorka as deputy assistant, who said in his resignation letter: “It is clear to me that forces that do not support the [Make America Great Again] promise are — for now — ascendant within the White House,” because Gorka’s prefered term “Radical Islam” did not appear in the President’s Afghanistan speech.

Even Keith Schiller, the President’s personal assistant, has left. According to Bloomberg.org: “Schiller has told friends that working under Kelly is very different, and that he doesn’t like the job as much. He has said he believes that Kelly doesn’t like Trump personally and is serving as chief of staff predominantly out of a sense of duty to country… That has been deeply demoralizing for Schiller, who is accustomed to Trump being surrounded by devoted employees.”

Schiller could no longer walk freely into the Oval Office once Kelly took charge.” Other staff members have lost similar privileges. Omarosa Manigault, a former star on the President’s reality TV show The Apprentice, is one of several White House aides now barred from “principals only” meetings. Reportedly doors to the West Wing lobby and to the halls and rooms surrounding the Oval Office are now kept closed and access to the President requires a formally approved appointment–including for his own daughter unless she needs to speak to her father about a private family matter. Kelly has limited phone access too, with some outside advisers complaining that their calls are no longer being returned. Kelly is also controlling the flow of print-outs the President receives, especially from alt-right news sites such as Breitbart and The Daily Caller.

One former aide said: “It was like a fraternity house the first six months and now it’s a military compound — it’s a fort.” As a result the President told a senior aide: “I now have time to think.”

Kelly has not curtailed the President’s use of Twitter or his constant viewing of Fox News, and Kelly was visibly upset when the President veered from a prepared statement during a press conference to defend his remarks regarding the KKK rally in Charlottesville. Still, last week’s bipartisan gestures suggest that Kelly’s efforts are bearing fruit.

Since you commended the Senate for confirming Kelly as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in January, you must have been equally pleased when he moved to the more pivotal role of White House Chief of Staff. Regarding Homeland Security, you said, “He will bring much needed leadership to a department that was deeply politicized during the Obama Administration.” He is now bringing that much needed leadership to the deeply dysfunctional Trump White House. And yet you have not praised or in any way commented on the changes Kelly has made. Are you pleased to see Bannon, Gorka, and other fraternity-like extremists leave and the White House operating under an orderly system?

Email #274: “production facility for Democratic beliefs”?

According to the Pew Research Center, 58% of Republicans think colleges have a negative effect on the country and 72% of Democrats think they have a positive effect. Dartmouth social science professor Sean Westwood explains the division: “Colleges are simply seen as a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology.”

Do you agree with that perception? I ask because I am an English professor at Washington and Lee University, and today is our first day of fall classes. If you have read any of my letters, you know that I hold a range of progressive political beliefs, and so you may assume that I use my classroom as a pulpit for them. But it’s one of my political beliefs that teachers should not abuse their professional positions by expressing their personal political opinions to their students who have no choice but to listen and would be wise to at least feign agreement to the person grading them.

I was in high school when John Lennon was murdered, and my P.E. teacher was so opposed to Lennon’s politics that he spent a period of our Health class lecturing us about how bad a person Lennon was and why no one should be upset that he was dead. I wasn’t a particular fan of Lennon at the time, but I was offended that my teacher felt he had the right to inflict his opinions on his students when the topic was unrelated to our course.

Instead of expressing my opinions, I spend most of my class time encouraging my students to express theirs, and then only on the course-related topics that are the focus of our discussion. I encourage them to support their opinions with evidence. I encourage them to disagree and to be persuasive but also to be open to changing their minds when someone else presents ideas and evidence they hadn’t considered yet. Does that make my classroom “a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology”? Only if Republicans are ideologically opposed to conversation, open-mindedness, and the expectation that opinions must be supported by evidence.

Last semester a student in my first-year writing seminar liked to wear a “Make American Great Again” cap to class. I didn’t comment on it. He participated actively, listened closely to others, and enjoyed challenging others’ ideas as well as having his own ideas challenged. He was also one of the hardest workers in the class, was a gifted writer, and achieved one of the highest grades. By the end of the semester, he was considering majoring in English, which I encouraged. I offered to be his advisor, but said he shouldn’t declare his major too soon. Part of the point of attending a small liberal arts college is trying a range of new courses and fields to discover areas of interest you didn’t know you had.

At the end of the semester, he told me how much he enjoyed our class and said he hoped to take more classes with me in the future. He also stopped wearing his Trump cap. I never asked why.

Do you think I indoctrinated him into my Democratic ideology?