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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: MAGA

The Covington debacle: No adults in the room

Stephen H. Provost

We see what we want to see, and we believe what we want to believe ... even when someone else offers a different perspective. It’s truer now than ever, and nothing illustrates it better than the reaction to dueling videos of a confrontation involving students from Covington Catholic High School, black activists and a Native American drummer at the Lincoln Memorial.

Images in the initial video show a student wearing a MAGA hat smiling what looked like a smug, self-satisfied smile at a Native American veteran drumming less than an arm’s length in front of him. Other students are seen jumping up and down, chanting in the background. A second video, however, shows another group (unseen in the first video): four black activists angrily shouting nasty, degrading slurs at the students.

Those who had expressed outrage at the students after seeing the first video tended to react in one of two ways upon seeing the second. They either held fast to their initial criticism of the students, or they issued mea culpas for jumping to what they now said had been the wrong conclusion.

It’s these two divergent reactions that illustrate, even more than the incident itself, how polarized we are as a society. And how entrenched we’ve become in our reliance upon dogmatic, black-and-white thinking. The facts be damned: Our side is always right. That’s why the current president’s poll numbers barely move. They’re not based on his actions or any reasoned judgment about those actions. They’re based on tribal identity and an us-versus-them bunker mentality.

Hats vs. slurs

Regarding the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Let’s start with the students. The MAGA hat has become a symbol that invites confrontation. To many people, it represents everything from xenophobia to racism, sexism to fascism. Wearing a hat like that doesn’t invite discussion, it shuts it down. It’s an in-your-face declaration of allegiance that encourages one of two responses: fight or flight.

Critics of the students said they heard them chanting things like “Build that wall!” in reference to Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border. The students deny that, saying instead that they were shouting a school chant.

It doesn’t matter.

A wall chant wouldn’t have been surprising, but it wasn’t necessary, either: It was already plain as day how the students felt about Trump and his policies, thanks to their hats. It wasn’t the contents of the chant that mattered, but the fact that the students started chanting in the first place. Chants are, by their very nature, confrontational and intimidating.

The students said they received permission from their adult chaperones before starting the chant. The adults should never have given that approval. In so doing, they heightened tensions further and created even more room for misunderstanding. Chants, like lectures and shouted protests, are one-sided discussions that leave those on the receiving end feeling bullied, powerless and angry. They don’t defuse tensions, they heighten them.

But the adults’ culpability in the D.C. incident goes beyond this. Not only did they put the students in a situation where confrontation was likely to occur, they allowed – or perhaps even encouraged – them to wear provocative MAGA hats, all but guaranteeing that such a confrontation would take place.

The adults may very well have wanted just such a confrontation. They had come to protest, and they were itching for a fight. But is it ever OK to use teenagers as proxies to make a political statement? I don’t care whether you’re protesting against abortion, global warming, substandard wages or immigration. Putting kids on the front lines in a physical conflict is a war crime, so it stands to reason that you shouldn’t do it in a shouting conflict, either – especially when there’s nowhere to run. (The students, by their own account, had to stay where they were because they were waiting for a bus to pick them up.)

The results in any situation like this are predictable: The kids are attacked – which is exactly what happened here. The cowardly adults, meanwhile, benefit in more ways than one. They can hide behind their kids, using them as psychological human shields, while they pretend to be the grown-ups instead of manipulative instigators. Second, they can reinforce the dogma they’re trying to teach the next generation. Because, you know what? When people are attacked, they get defensive, and they tend to harden their stances against a perceived aggressor. The chaperones didn’t have to reinforce the kids’ prejudices; they allowed the situation to do it for them.

Staredown at a weigh-in

The four black protesters played right into all this, shouting homophobic slurs and calling the students everything from “crackers” to “a bunch of incest babies.” Regardless of the actions of the kids or their chaperones, this kind of language is abhorrent. Full stop. If you’re an adult, you don’t get to attack kids like this, even if they’re wearing MAGA hats, any more than a man calls a woman the “B” or the “C” word. It’s vile and disgusting, regardless of your race, religion, gender or anything else. If they’re breaking the law, have them arrested. Otherwise, leave them the hell alone.

The Native American drummer, meanwhile, stated that he tried to insinuate himself between the two groups, yet he faced the students throughout, not the four protesters. Even more to the point, he did so while banging a drum and chanting as he stared directly into the lead student’s eyes. There’s no reason to doubt that he was, in fact, trying to defuse the situation, but his actions had the opposite effect. Intentionally or not, he escalated the tensions by using the body language of challenge and confrontation (a staredown), and upped the ante by chanting and drumming.

The other students, in response, seem to have at least partially surrounded him, and the lead student’s smirking response sent a message (again, intentionally or not) that he wasn’t about to back down. He held his ground, as if daring the drummer to start something. Regardless of how he might have tried to justify his actions later, his body language said, “Bring it on!” The two looked like a couple of boxers at a weigh-in before a title fight.

The biggest irony in all this is that it took place on a weekend honoring Martin Luther King Jr., whose philosophy was the antithesis of everything that occurred. Can you imagine King yelling the kind of things the black protesters were shouting at the students? Or trying to provoke a confrontation by engaging in a staredown? King was all about nonviolent protests and passive resistance. Not a single party involved in the D.C. incident could be described as passive, and violence was very nearly the result.

Yes, the kids behaved badly. But that’s why you need adults in the room. Unfortunately, in this case, there didn’t seem to be any.



How Citizens United paved the way for Donald Trump

Stephen H. Provost

We went to sleep in Bedford Falls, and we’re waking up in Pottersville. A lot of us would rather go back to sleep.

For years, many of us have yearned for a leader who would “run the country like a business.” Well, we got what we wished for, but despite the shock of waking up more than a year ago with a six-times-bankrupt real estate mogul for a president, none of this happened overnight.

There are two kinds of businessmen. There are the old-school merchants who put the customer first, because the customer could always take his business elsewhere. Then there’s the new corporate model, which puts the shareholders first, because that’s where the real money is. Customers can’t nickel-and-dime you to death if you’ve got investors slipping millions into your back pocket at regular intervals.

There are, similarly, two approaches to government. The traditional approach — which made America great in the first place — puts the voter first. Officials are elected to represent their constituents, and if they don’t, those constituents can take their votes elsewhere. But under the new model, big-money donors come first, because they can control the conversation. Voters can’t elect you if they don't know who you are, and they can't kick you out of office if they don’t know you're robbing them blind.


We’ve been morphing from the traditional form of government into a corporate model for some time: Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics and the Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy were among the early signs of this progression. But the tipping point came in 2010, when the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for corporate donors and blew the last vestiges of a fair playing field to smithereens.  

Once this model was firmly in place, its proponents thought they’d use it, along with the tool of Gerrymandering, to corner the market on public policy for the benefit of their corporate sponsors. One thing they hadn’t counted on, though, is an inconvenient aspect of corporate life: the hostile takeover.

That’s where Donald Trump came in. He knew the voters didn’t like the idea of corporate big wigs telling them what to do, so he tapped into that, presenting himself as an “outsider” who was ready to “drain the swamp” and take on the Washington elites: notably, the Clinton Democratic machine, but also Republican lawmakers like “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz and “Little” Marco Rubio.

George, I am an old man, and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either so that makes it all even.
— Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in "It’s a Wonderful Life"

Whatever you think of Trump, his takeover of the Republican Party was a masterstroke worthy of “corporate raider” Carl Icahn (who later served briefly in Trump’s administration as a special economic adviser). The Republican establishment, which had banked on corporate support from the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and their ilk, was nonplussed at the idea that someone outside their ranks turning the tables on them.

Cruz called him a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” Fellow candidate Lindsay Graham said Republicans should “tell Donald Trump to go to hell.” But that was during the primaries. Cruz eventually endorsed Trump (conveniently forgetting insults toward Cruz's wife and father), and Graham now plays golf with him on a fairly regular basis.

Why the change?

Two reasons: Trump runs the show, but it’s still their show.

Since assuming office, Trump has been anything but an outsider. In fact, he’s become the very thing he ran against in the primaries, morphing into the quintessential NeoCon Republican. During his first year in office, he has, almost without fail, championed the same causes establishment Republicans have supported for years: increased military spending, anti-gay policies, regulation rollbacks and overt “patriotism.” But he’s done so while playing to the crowd as though he were still an outsider.

This is likely one reason Trump has clung to his tweeting habit so tenaciously. His rash and often offensive outbursts, and the conspiracy theories that go along with them, are all that separate him from the people he ran against in the primaries. He’s basically keeping up appearances.

Whether he’s a maverick or a traditional Republican at heart doesn’t matter to Trump, just as ideology doesn’t matter to most CEOs. It’s the bottom line that counts, and for Trump, the bottom line is his own ego. The Republicans who railed against him in the primaries have figured this out, and they know he’ll execute their agenda as long as they play along with his little charade. So, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Imperfect storm

No wonder people on the other side of the political fence are so enraged. To them, the current situation is the worst of both worlds: a Republican majority that’s still indebted to corporate interests, working hand in glove with a president who lacks a moral compass and who insults friend and foe alike.

Trump’s Mad Hatter act is, in part, a function of who he is — a self-serving narcissist who uses chaos to further his own ends. But it’s also a function of the new corporate government system we’ve created. Under the corporate model, a board of directors makes policy to benefit shareholders (not customers), and the CEO both executes and sells that policy as the face of the company. Think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Carly Fiorina. Or, in Britain, the royal family.

Trump likes to think he's royalty, with Mar-a-Lago as his palace and a bunch of toadies groveling at his feet.

Whatever else he is, he's the face of our nation, and it’s an ugly one, rather like Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. Maybe we’re not threatening to jump of a bridge, as George Bailey did in that iconic film, but some people are threatening to move overseas and a whole lot of others are distraught, disconsolate and downright embarrassed.

Trump didn’t create this mess on his own. He merely stepped into the role we created for him when, fed up with gridlock and do-nothing lawmakers, we clamored for a "businesslike" approach to government. We asked for it; now we’ve got it. But is this really what we had in mind?

The sad irony is that we hired a third-rate businessman with a first-rate ego to work for 1 percent of Americans.

Welcome to Pottersville, otherwise known as Trumpsylvania. But don’t make yourself at home. In this little slice of faux-Rockwell Americana, foreclosure’s always just around the corner.