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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: election

Selling our soul to the Bundys and other bullies

Stephen H. Provost

We’re missing the point.

When the not-guilty verdict came down against the Bundy Brigade for their takeover of a federal wildlife sanctuary in Oregon, I was outraged. What gave these self-righteous yahoos the right to appropriate my land … and get away with it?

Yes, it is my land. As a taxpayer, I own that place, and so do you. It felt as if Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their cohorts had come into my living room, plopped themselves down on my sofa, grabbed a beer out of my refrigerator (well, I don’t actually have any beer in my ’fridge, but if I did …) and spent the next 41 days violating what’s supposed to be my space. Freedom of assembly, my ass.

But, as it turns out, a lot of people were upset at the decision for a different reason. The jury had just condoned what prosecutors described as an armed seizure of property that didn’t belong to them. They’d disrupted a wildlife refuge, which is supposed to be there to protect wildlife from guys like these – goons with guns who don’t have the decency to respect other people’s (or animals’) rights.

Much of the hue and cry on social media, however, wasn’t over any of this. It was over how the Bundy Bunch had gotten off because of perceived white privilege.

There’s no doubt that deep racial inequities exist in this country, that those inequities have been reflected in court decisions, and that people have been guilty of grave – sometimes fatal – in justices as a result.

But I’ll reiterate: that’s not the point here. This case wasn’t about race. It wasn’t about someone being pulled over for “driving while black” and being beaten senseless without provocation. It wasn’t about a young man being shot for wearing a hoodie and having the audacity to purchase a bag of Skittles at a convenience store.

Those cases do have something in common with the Bundy Bunch’s outrageous acquittal, but that something isn’t race.

It’s bullying.

And that’s the point.

Glorifying the inglorious

To focus on the Bundy case as an example of white privilege is to miss the fundamental issue at play here – an issue that is ultimately more dangerous to our society than any racial divide: the tolerance for, and perversely romanticized celebration of bullying.

Like racism, this isn’t anything new.

Our culture has long been fascinated with outlaws, from the Dalton Gang to Jesse James. Los Angeles Times reporters Courtney Sherwood and Kirk Johnson wrote of the Bundy occupation: “It had a Wild West quality, with armed men in cowboy hats taking on federal agents …”

Romantic? Tell that to the people those Wild West outlaws gunned down, whose property they stole, whose rights they trampled on. There is a law west of the Pecos these days, and there’s a reason for that: The alternative is chaos.

We love it when people “stick it to the man,” even if those people lack the most basic sense of morality or decency; even if they would turn against us at the drop of a cowboy hat if it suited their own self-interest. If we think Jesse James robbed trains and stagecoaches to “stick it to the man,” we’re deluding ourselves. He did it to take something that belonged to someone else by force. That’s what bullies always do.

One of our presidential candidates is a vainglorious bully who has bragged about his ability to sexually assault women and threatened to throw his opponent in jail. Kissing women without permission. Grabbing their genitalia. All because he was a star and could do whatever the hell he wanted.

The other candidate, meanwhile, has dismissed and demeaned women who accused her own husband of sexual abuse, calling their charges a “bimbo eruption.” She said that, if given the chance, she’d “crucify” one of those accusers in front of a jury and that, regarding another, “We have to destroy her story.” Too bad for her that a stained blue dress told the kind of story that didn’t come out in the wash.

Two bullies, nominated by we the people. This is the problem, America, and it goes far deeper than racism, as entrenched and ugly as that most certainly is. It goes to the core of who we are: a people who, on the one hand, celebrate our heritage as a “nation of laws” built on a Constitution and who, on the other, cheer on and glorify those who flout those laws and that Constitution when we happen to be pissed off.

Forcing our issues

Again, this is not a matter of race. It’s a matter of using force, rather than dialogue, to resolve our differences. To take what we believe “belongs to us” without regard to anyone else’s rights.

In November 2015, Black Lives Matter protesters entered the Dartmouth College library, and started shouting things like “Fuck you, you filthy white fucks” and “Fuck you, you racists” to the students trying to study there. According to the Dartmouth Review, protesters shoved people around and even pinned one woman against a wall, calling her a “filthy white bitch.”

Is racism a legitimate grievance? Of course it is. But the Bundy Brigade thought they had a legitimate grievance, too – the point being that, no matter how righteous you think your cause might be, it doesn’t justify you taking something that belongs to someone else, whether that something be property, self-respect, equal opportunity or merely the right to live in peace. If you do that, you’re not an activist, you’re a bully, regardless of your gender, the color of your skin, your sexual orientation or your country of birth.

We don't choose things like race, gender, orientation or birthplace. They are what they are, and no one should be condemned because of them. But we do have a say over our own actions – and whom we glorify as our heroes/role models. Jesse James? The Bundy Brigade? People who push others around in college libraries? Politicians who think they can just “take what they want” or intimidate/shame their victims into shutting the hell up?

Is our country truly a nation of laws that respects civil rights and champions human dignity? Or are we just a nation of pissed-off crybabies who want what we want when we want it, and to hell with everyone else? A collection of bad neighbors who shout across the fence at one another and plot home invasions if we think that fence was placed a few inches on the wrong side of the property line? A motley crew of landlocked petty pirates – of bullies and their enablers?

These are the questions we must ask ourselves, and our futures depend on how we choose to answer them. Starting now.

What if we could vote "no" on candidates?

Stephen H. Provost

I want to vote "no" this election.

Not “none of the above.” This is different: I want to be able to actually vote against candidates I don’t like.

The cold, hard truth is there are a lot more politicians I don’t want elected than candidates I can get excited about, and I’m guessing you might feel the same way.

Sure, we can put photos of them dartboards and engage in some friendly target practice, and we can squawk about them on social media. But what if we had an actual, tangible way to express our displeasure  not by voting for some other candidate we might consider the lesser of two or more evils, but by casting a vote directly against that vile carpetbagger, commie or corporate crony we so despise?

Think of the satisfaction! We bemoan the lack of voter participation, yet just imagine how many more people might come to the polls to bury Caesar (under a mountain of “you suck!” chads) than to praise him.

ONE PERSON, TWO VOTES?

Pollsters routinely measure both favorable and unfavorable ratings for candidates. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to express those opinions at the ballot box?

What if voters got to vote twice: Once for the candidate they like, and once for the candidate they wouldn’t want to see in office before hell freezes over or a Led Zeppelin reunion tour  whichever comes second. (If I were a betting man, I’d put money on permafrost in hell over “Stairway to Heaven.”) Each vote would count equally, so you’d subtract the nays from the ayes to arrive at a net score. Imagine if the winner got 3 net votes instead of 3,000 or 3 million. We wouldn’t hear much talk of a mandate then!

Well, maybe we would. These are politicians we’re talking about.

If we wanted things to get even crazier, we could treat candidates like ballot propositions and vote "yes" or "no" on every one of them!

One complication: We’d have to change “one man, one vote” to “one man, two votes.”

So, as an alternative, we could retain the single vote  but give voters the choice of whether to vote for one candidate or against another?

RELEVANT AGAIN

Either way, the system would likely be a boon to two kinds of politician: moderates (aka centrists) and third-party candidates.

With radicals and true believers on both sides voting against their opposite numbers, the vast American center that’s often drowned out by all the shouting from the extremes might be able to gain a little clout by staying quiet. Third-party candidates would benefit, too, from flying under the radar (which they’re often very good at, despite their aspirations to the contrary.) A modest number of positive votes coupled with almost no negatives might just be enough to win it.

Would such a system result in more positive campaigning, because fewer candidates would want to risk getting too many “no” votes? Or would it give rise to even more vicious smear campaigns against the candidate viewed as the greatest threat?

Those are interesting questions.

CONSEQUENCES

Either way, candidates would have to think even more strategically than they do now, which could be even more fun to watch for political rubberneckers than it is now. We might as well post a traffic sign that reads “Warning: political pileup ahead.” For those who view politics as blood sport, this would be more fun than a trip to the Roman Colosseum in its heyday.

We voters would have to cogitate a little more, too. Do we vote for the candidate we like most or against the candidate we fear most? Or do we vote against someone else because that would be the biggest help to our favored candidate or party?

Delicious, isn’t it? There are all sorts of permutations and possible scenarios to consider.

I’ll leave you to consider the possibilities … and to wonder if this is a serious proposal or whether it’s all just tongue in cheek.

Sorry, but I’m not going to tell you. Instead, I’ll leave you with the same piece of advice that’s given to voters every time they enter the voting booth: You decide.

Trump's sideshow: Smoke, mirrors, pomp and circus tents

Stephen H. Provost

I try not to wade too deeply into the snark-infested waters of political commentary - partly because they're so badly polluted and partly because I'm afraid I'll just add to the snark.

Too many politicians are unscrupulous narcissists  who throw out promises like they're beads at Mardi Gras, hoping we'll expose ourselves so they can get a cheap thrill out of it. For us, the thrill isn't quite so cheap. The quid pro quo for those broken-beaded promises usually amounts to campaign contributions and votes (but mostly campaign contributions).

Which brings us to Donald Trump. 

Unscrupulous? Repeated bankruptcies and more flip-flopping on the issues than your average bear, donkey, elephant or RINO. (Now a Republican, he not so long ago supported gun-control, said he believed in "universal health care" and was even a registered Democrat from 2001 to 2009.)

Narcissist?  Hey, I don't trust anyone who talks about himself in the third person and brags about how he's supposedly a magnet for female attention. (He not only said he'd date his own daughter if they weren't related, he also claimed that every woman who appeared on his TV show "The Apprentice" flirted with him, "consciously or unconsciously.")

But this isn't a piece about the seedy side of politics or even about that guy who has the audacity to call himself "The Donald." It's about us.

What do we, the electorate, see in this guy?

When asked what they like about Trump, people repeat the same thing time and again. It's his bluntness. His directness. His supposed willingness to "tell it like it is," polls and political correctness be damned.

Getting away with it

I suspect it all comes down to this: Many of the people who like Trump wish they could say the things he does and get away with it. Some of them would love to demean women, dismiss their critics as a bunch of morons and build a wall to keep anyone "not like me" on the other side of everywhere. 

Trump's supporters revel in the fact that he can get away with things they'd never dream of trying. Because he's rich. Because he's famous. Because he feels like it. But here's the irony: They're the ones who allow him to get away with it by refusing to ever call him on his you-know-what. It doesn't matter how often he flip-flops, how many people he mocks and scorns or even why he's disrespecting them. It barely even matters what he says at all. What matters is that he can say it. 

Whatever "it" is. And that's the scary part.

Litmus tests

Anyone who knows me knows I hate political checklists, litmus tests and interest group ratings, whether they're issued by the NRA or the NAACP. They're the swords of Damocles that political "purists" hold over the modern candidate's head.  Politicians - and voters - who dare to defy them by thinking for themselves are thrown under the bus routinely because they don't toe the party line, an attitude that's helped create the severe polarization seen in government today.

The political highway is littered with the wreckage of candidates who crashed and burned because they didn't toe the party line. The slightest deviation from the accepted platform is greeted by impassioned calls off "Off with their heads!" - after which donations typically slow, campaigns struggle and candidacies flame out.

Not so with Trump, a tycoon who acts like he doesn't need to placate donors because he can fund a campaign using his personal fortune ... even though he's actually accepted millions of dollars in donations. Regardless of how much cash he's raking in, he perpetuates the idea that he "can't be bought," and with it the  impression that he can say whatever  he wants without any consequences.

Cult of personality

Voters are attracted to rich candidates because they're supposedly not "beholden to special interests." These "mavericks" seem like a breath of fresh air in an age of litmus tests and political dogmatism. Buy do they really change the status quo?

Hardly.

The modern climate of rigid political doctrine (groupthink), doesn't encourage voters to think for themselves. It's all about conformity. Yet the advent of Trumpolitics isn't necessarily an improvement, because it hasn't encouraged voters to think for themselves, either. Instead, it has created a cult of personality in which followers are encouraged to parrot whatever comes out of Trump's mouth, like the "dittoheads" or "clones" who call talk radio programs to regurgitate whatever rant the host happens to be spewing.

What he's saying doesn't matter nearly as much as the fact that he's saying it.

Image is everything

A quarter-century ago, tennis star Andre Agassi did a camera commercial with the tagline "Image is everything." It was a nice play on words, and it worked well with the photogenic Agassi, who then sported not only an athletic figure but a leonine mane of hair that made him something of a sex symbol.

Trump could have come up with that tagline himself. 

He's spent years building up his cult of personality, in which substance is unimportant - or even a drawback. The name "Trump" has become iconic; name recognition has always been a big advantage in politics, but Trump has taken it to a new level. 

The catchphrase "You're fired!" from his TV show has become almost as recognizable. Is it any coincidence that Trump's ability to kick people off that show at his own discretion (whim?)  parallels talk radio hosts' propensity for cutting people off before they finish making their point? 

The phrase, along with Trump's status as host of the show, established him as an authority figure in households across America. Authority on what? It didn't matter. Nor did it matter that many of the people who appeared on his show were intelligent, more creative and even by some measures more successful than he was. What mattered is that Trump set himself up as the authority figure and America bought it, regardless of whether he had anything to back it up.

Now he's doing it again, and the stakes are a whole lot higher than Nielsen ratings. 

Fantasyland

He's not even trying to hide what he's doing.

His own words: "The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies." 

Why?

"People want to believe that something is the biggest and greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration - and a very effective form of promotion."

Trump's open secret: He's essentially giving people a blank slate set against a backdrop of audacity and allowing them to project their greatest hopes and dreams onto it - onto him. Then he takes credit for making them come true before even bothering to lift a finger on their behalf. 

This is nothing new in politics. Voters in every election cycle become excited by some new face on the scene - often an outsider or celebrity who's made a name in some field other than politics. John Glenn, Ross Perot, Fred Thompson, Herman Cain and, most recently, Ben Carson are examples. When they announced their candidacies, they, too, were blank slates. People got excited about who they might be, and their poll numbers spiked. But the voters soured on each these candidates as they discovered more about who they really were. Either they were too boring, too mercurial or too willing to believe that pharaohs built the pyramids as granaries. 

Information was their undoing.

Teflon Trump

Pundits expected the same thing to happen with Trump, who by himself may have said more outlandish things than the rest of the 2016 candidates combined. But as of this writing, his poll numbers remain solid and people keep supporting him for one simple reason: It's not about what he's saying but the fact he can say "it" and get away with it.

Information is no antidote to that, because information is irrelevant in a cult of personality. All that matters is the cult figure's name, fame and salesmanship. He's everyone's instant, ready-made "me I wanna be." Trump doesn't talk about the issues beyond vague generalities because he doesn't have to. He's a celebrity, not a policy wonk. Kim Kardashian doesn't need talent to be popular. Trump doesn't need ideas. Same principle.

The Republicans have spent the past 27 years searching for the new Ronald Reagan, and Trump's the closest thing they've found. Reagan, like Trump, was a showman and converted Democrat with high name recognition and a lot of self-confidence. But even Reagan's ability to promote himself pales in comparison to Trump's. (Agree with him or not, Reagan did actually take specific policy positions on a number of issues, and he never referred to himself as "The Ronald.")

Barnum, not Oz

Trump's invulnerability (so far) to his own foot-in-mouth disease has makes Reagan's legendary "Teflon Presidency" look like a caked-on, baked-on kitchen disaster by comparison. Carson's odd notions on the pyramids sounded ridiculous, and they cost him plenty in the polls. But Trump? He can degrade women, threaten religious liberty - a supposed cornerstone of Republican dogma - spout unsupported stories about Muslims cheering the 9/11 disaster and absurdly claim the current president was born on foreign soil. Yet none of it, so far, has mattered.

That's because Trump has succeeded in convincing a sizable number of people that he's the embodiment of their fantasies - just as he bragged he would. He's not some two-bit circus magician from Kansas hiding behind a curtain and some phony projection; he's a used-car dealer who's spent the past three decades bragging about his ability to sell you a lemon. A fantasy. "The art of the deal," he calls it.

The astonishing thing is, after all this time, that so many people are still buying it.

Trump's no statesman, he's a salesman and a master of self-promotion who's preaching the gospel according to P.T. Barnum (as preserved by one of his critics): "There's a sucker born every minute."

And he's got plenty of us paying to see his sideshow.