The Art of the -Gate

A different version of this article appeared in The New Republic on May 16th.

And so it seems we do have Dick Nixon to kick around some more.

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, Jr., once again and in force, the shade with the five-o-clock shadow returned to haunt the political stage. “It’s going to be Trumpgate, it’s going to be Comeygate, it’s going to be FBI-gate, it’s going to be something-gate,” the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward crowed the next day. “It’s going to be…it’s going to be…it’s going to be,” the one-time-kid-reporter on the Nixon beat, Woodward, chanted like a curse and a promise. Still others have recommended Kremlingate and Flynngate.

Countless times since he entered the Republican presidential primary in 2015, Trump has been likened to Richard Nixon. Once again, Nixon’s ghost appears as the measure for presidential connivance, corruption and cover-up. The clumsiness and arrogance. The brazenness and myopic desperation. The crime and the cover-up. Old familiar faces have returned to the media scene: Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, David Gergen, John Dean, Ed Cox, Roger Stone, Pat Buchanan. And so too the Nixon biographers: Garry Wills, Evan Thomas, Kevin Mattson, Rick Perlstein, Douglas Brinkley and, most recently, John Farrell. They have all returned center stage to assess whether Trump’s misconduct qualifies as Nixonian.

Once again the nation waits to see if partisan loyalty will hold or if Republicans will turn on their long-embattled president. Once again, through firing and recusal, the layers of the federal government peel back as deputies and their deputies—the Rosensteins and Rukelshauses—become household names. Once again murmurs of grand-jury subpoenas grow louder. Trump’s firing of Comey, and his subsequent threatening tweet implying he secretly recorded their conversations, has redounded on the president’s head with a flood of new Nixonian comparison and invective. (In response to this latest turn, MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace coined a new epithet: Tapegate.)

But for all of the trafficking in Nixonian allusion, does Trump’s behavior measure up—or rather, down—to Nixon’s? Is Trump due for impeachment or on the brink of resigning? That is, are we witnessing a new Watergate, the undoing of another American president? Is it now or has it ever been a -gate? Bestowing the –gate label suggests a story that we are not quite sure we are ready to write. For the Nixonian suffix implies a prediction that this scandal will be Trump’s exposure and ruin. A Watergate comparison is a cudgel, a way of cutting a leader like Trump down to size, to forecast his demise. It is, by the light of journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, to outline the finite shape of the president’s seemingly boundless misrule by declaring that he is a threat as great as Nixon, and just as fallible.

***

Political scientists have calculated that between 1972 and 2008, 87 presidential scandals occurred or one every five months: Benghazi, the targeting of Tea-Party groups by the Internal Revenue Service, yellow cake in Niger, torture in Abu Ghraib, the outing of Valerie Plame, Swift-boating, the Lewinsky Affair, Whitewater, Willie Horton, Iran-Contra, Billy Carter and Bert Lance, the Pentagon Papers and the My Lai Massacre, phony claims of shelling in the Gulf of Tonkin, wiretapping Martin Luther King, Jr., the Bay of Pigs, the trumped-up Soviet missile gap, vote-stuffing in Chicago, court-packing in the Supreme, to name a few. And yet Watergate has overshadowed passing comparisons to this waste-basketful of presidential transgressions. No other presidential indiscretion has lived up to (or down to) Nixon’s particularly pungent political violations of his office’s oath. No other president has been forced to resign. So that when presidential scandal hits, the comparisons are inevitably to Nixon, to Nixon and, when in doubt, to Nixon.

To appreciate the omnipresence of Nixon’s crimes and resignation in the American political imagination, let us review the label of his misdeed “Watergate” and what linguists call its semantic broadening. Semantic broadening occurs when a word takes on additional meanings, most often toward the more generic or to an entity with an analogous trait. For example, the word “mouse,” a specific type of rodent, came also to refer to rodents more generically, to a timid person, to the handheld device for remotely controlling a computer’s cursor and now to the definitely un-rodent-like trackpad on a laptop.

Just so, the word “Watergate” has broadened in meaning. “Watergate” began as the name of a popular office and residential complex for, mainly, politicos, just off the Potomac River in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC, next to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It was named for the nearby, large water gate between the Potomac and the Ohio and Chesapeake canals. Then, in 1972, “Watergate” became a stand-in for the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the office complex. The scene-of-the-crime became the name of the crime. However within a year, “Watergate” had also become shorthand for the cover-up of that burglary, for the scandal and whoop-la surrounding the burglary and cover-up, then broadening to include Nixon’s entire portfolio of crimes and dirty-trickery, then a reference to an entire category of political crime and cover-up, then to a category of any crime and cover-up especially if it entailed corruption, covert surveillance, a series of interlocking misdeeds and a media circus.

This multi-definitional malleability would prove not a limitation but an asset for the staying-power and for the seemingly endless associative reinvention and reinvigoration of “Watergate”. (Just so its progenitor, as the New York Times described in its 1994 Nixon obituary: “again and again, Mr. Nixon reinvented himself-so much so that people talked and wrote about ‘the new Nixon’ and ‘the new, new Nixon.’”)

As one senior editor for the Oxford English Dictionary wrote, “Watergate…reshaped the language of scandal and controversy,” itself. For “-gate,” the verbal ending of Nixon’s high crime, became the standard label, not quite the synonym but the suffix to denote scandal. There was Envelopegate at the Oscars, Golden-Showergate in the 35-page dossier, E-mailgate in the Hillary Clinton campaign, Pizzagate in the minds of the alt-right, Gamergate in the culture of video games, Nannygate in Canada, Deflategate, Bountygate and Spygate in the NFL, Sonicsgate in the NBA, Bridgegate in New Jersey, Nipplegate at the Super Bowl, Rathergate at CBS, Bibigate in Israel and Troopergate in Arkansas, New York and Alaska, to name a few. Aiding its rise to colloquiality, the definitive and self-contained “–gate” bore none of the spelling and pronunciation ambiguities of far trickier endings like “–iary” or “–ious” or “ence.” After all, is it “-ible” or “-able” (or “eable”)? “-ize” or “-ise”? Like “-bot” or “-dom,” “-gate” offers an easy-to-add extension, a strong final stroke of clear linguistic resolution.

“It is as if a scandal without an agreed-upon label lacks the identity that turns a story into history,” hypothesized the former Nixon speechwriter, New York Times columnist and maestro of –gate-keeping William Safire. For a ritual of –gate sanctioning developed, of judging whether a scandal was –gate-worthy. This –gate’ing game lifted up “Watergate” as the standard while, oftentimes, diminishing Nixon’s misdeeds through association to far less weighty even silly affairs. As early as April 1979 Safire worried, “the excessive use of this suffix [wa]s becoming a linguistic gategate.”

A similar phenomenon played out in Italy with the suffix –opoli, beginning in 1992 when a bribe (tangent) scandal across Italy between politicians and businessmen became known as Tangentopoli. –Opoli (traditionally the suffix of a city like “-ville” or “-burg”) became a suffix, like –gate, attached to various affairs to denote scandal. And yet, even in Italy, Calciopoli—the name for a 2006 football scandal involving top clubs and payouts to crooked referees—goes often by the name Calciogate.

Moreover, crucial to a “Watergate” scandal is the suggestion that, as with Nixon’s, the conspiracy will not hold, truth outs, and it proves to be the assailant’s undoing. For “Watergate” has also become synonymous with the gotcha and the smoking gun, the self-inflicting incompetency of a third-rate burglary and the bumbling hubris of power corrupted. Such is the morality tale embedded in the “Watergate” mythos. It is the story of a (mis-)step too far, the last straw and the cascade of repercussions. To affix the label of “Watergate” to a crime is to project, not always accurately, the ultimate ruination (and public humiliation) of the criminal. As Dean asserted in 1973, “the truth always emerges.” Just so, in 1994, liberal commentators blasted Safire for “Watergating” Clinton over his shady Whitewater real estate deal: referring to the episode as “Whitewatergate,” comparing it to Nixon’s “cover-ups,” “stonewalling” and “conspiracies” and thereby, specifically, for prematurely predicting Clinton’s demise.

In this way, Nixon, the ringleader of the original Watergate scandal, has become the measure of iniquity gone too far. He is the bar to judge political malfeasance, the intolerableness of the illegality, the length of transgression that stretches presidential prerogative a rung too many so as to demand resignation. When political and especially presidential misconduct is committed, the corpse of Nixon’s crimes are, once again, exhumed. They are, once again, brought to life for the reviewing stand (flanked by the patron inquisitors Woodward and Bernstein) so that we may compare and contrast and compare. And if Reagan’s or Clinton’s or W.’s or Trump’s misdeeds match Nixon’s then, it is concluded, Reagan or Clinton or W. or Trump, like Nixon, deserves an ousting.

Just so in August 1998 Woodward and Bernstein appeared on Meet the Press to assert categorically to host Tim Russert that Clinton’s Lewinsky affair (“Zippergate”) was, as Woodward judged, “not something of [Watergate’s] magnitude” and, as a “chief accuser,” Lewinsky was no Dean. Bernstein added, “this is about the private consensual sexual life of the President. Watergate…was about a vast and pervasive abuse of power.” By contrast, in 2004 Dean wrote a book judging President George W. Bush’s term Worse than Watergate, painting the White House as a secretive, insular cabal of lying liars with Vice President Dick Cheney, once the deputy to then-vice-president Ford, as the bridge between venal regimes.

This year the Trump-Nixon comparisons have flowed steadily. Farrell’s recently published and highly praised biography, Richard Nixon: The Life, was no doubt largely planned and researched far before Trump dipped his toe into the political-press pool. Farrell’s account was meant to be a sympathetic if quite critical portrait. But instead, asked over and over for presidential comparisons on his press tour, Farrell has been added to the list as the latest and one of the foremost Nixon-Trump analogists. As the USA Today headlined its review of Farrell’s 752-page account of Nixon’s life: “New Bio: Why Richard Nixon Matters in the Trump Era.”

***

Key are the ever-lauded Woodward and Bernstein, themselves. That is, inherent in a Watergate tale is a pivotal, persistent and heroic press. The oft-commemorated protagonists of the Watergate saga are not the Republican Congressmen who broke party-lines to threaten impeachment, not the three Congressional investigatory committees, not the countless and faceless staffers who toiled untold hours for those committees and not the FBI and its agents whom Nixon was so intent to stop. The central protagonists are not remembered as the Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, acting Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus whose resignations during the Saturday Night Massacre catalyzed the investigation, not Cox’s replacement Leon Jaworski and his team of lawyers who carried out the prosecution, not U.S. District Judge John Sirica and his 12 grand jury members who voted unanimously to force Nixon to hand over nine of his secret tape recordings, not the countless “leakers” (aside from Deep Throat) who filled newspaper columns with insider information nor Frank Wills, the Watergate security guard, who originally found the duct tape left by the burglars on the door lock of the Democrats’ office.

To a lesser extent, whistleblowers like Deep Throat and Dean have continued to be hailed in the Watergate story for their collaborating. To his great credit, number two on Bernstein’s list of journalistic suggestions at the WHC dinner was the importance of sources: “to listen and empathize with…[,] not objectify simply as the means to get a story.” For the felling of a conspiracy on the scale of a Watergate does, after all, take a village.

And yet, in the popular memory of Watergate, journalists (ya know, those guys Redford and Hoffman played) remain the heroic figures, the rag-tag duo of Davids who felled the Goliathian Nixon administration. All the President’s Men was not The Wire or Norma Rae or Selma celebrating police detectives or union workers or a social movement. It was not celebrating the superhero-stylings of a secret agent like 24 and certainly not reifying the political force of moral suasion like The West Wing. To traffic in the language of Watergate is to place implicitly one’s hopes in a fierce free press as the last, lead detective and prosecutor. –Gate’ing has become a rallying cry for robust reportage.

Even before what’s been called Trump’s Tuesday Night Massacre, parallels were being drawn. It was hard to miss the allusion amidst the hallelujahs to the first amendment at the latest White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Who filled the president’s absence as the keynote or at least most notable guests but the original Watergate sleuths of the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein. Seated on opposite flanks of the podium, as their mutual distaste seems never to abate, they were the stars of the night in the Washington Hilton Hotel ballroom.

As a member of the Nixon generation, Bernstein gave a list of instructions for the next generation of journalists, the Trump generation, on how to (un)cover the next Watergate. “Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy, and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be,” Bernstein said in his speech, clearly identifying where he believed the bones were buried and by whom. “And,” he added, “when lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good roadmap in front of us.” In turn, Woodward extolled the lesson that a reporter must “not have a dog in the political fight except to find that best obtainable version of the truth.” Theirs was a call-to-arms to the media, providing a path for writing a new Watergate. It was a night with one looming lesson. To fell another president, to earn an entry in the pantheon of presidential scandal, to get another -gate, the press would have to hold the shining light. Bernstein finished with advice he learned all those years ago at the Washington Post, not on how to do top-notch reporting, but, specifically, on how to cover a conspiracy, the next Watergate: “Yes, follow the money but follow, also, the lies.”

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On Syria and Confusion…

This essay was first posted on Intellectual Takeout :

We were warned. What would happen? Who could we trust?

In the era of fake news, “alternative facts,” insult, and innuendo, when the time came…who was to be believed? In the fog of war–even of limited war and tactical skirmishes–the truth splinters into half-truths, conflicting conclusions, and incomplete accounts.

On Tuesday, April 11,2017, the Washington bureau of the Associated Press (AP) published a report, headlined “Official: Russia knew Syrian Chemical Attack Was Coming.” According to the AP’s source, a “senior US official,” the Russian government had advance warning that Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad would conduct a sarin attack against his own people. Subsequently, a Russian-made fighter jet “bombed the hospital in what American officials believe was an attempt to cover up the usage of chemical weapons.” Just before the second strike, a Russian surveillance drone buzzed over those rushing to the hospital to treat themselves and their loved ones. This, according to the US official, was the smoking gun because the Russian drone could only have reached the scene of the WMD crime with advance warning. Russian collusion in a chemical weapons attack, the senior US official alleged? Complicity? A game-changer?

One caveat the AP buried in the second of its three-claused opening sentence: the aforementioned senior US official “has no proof of Moscow’s involvement.”

Huh? What does that even mean? What then is this article reporting? Five paragraphs later, the AP wrote that “another U.S. official cautioned that no final American determination has been made that Russia knew ahead of time that chemical weapons would be used.” Furthermore, it wasn’t “clear who was flying the jet that bombed the hospital, because the Syrians also fly Russian-made aircraft.” Are we to trust the lone American, “senior” official, speaking anonymously to the Associated Press? Or his equally anonymous colleague? The AP has certainly built up journalistic capital to spare over the years. And yet the news giant sprinkled a seemingly straight-forward piece of breaking news with enough caveats and quote marks to wriggle out from any future twists and turns that might contradict its claims.

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Who is to be believed?

Pulling from the fringes are conspiracy theories concocted by the Right and the Left. From the alt-right, it has come to be expected. They mastered the art of conspiracy-mongering throughout the 2016 presidential election–from Hillary Clinton’s health to Sandy Hook denial to the child molestation charges of #pizzagate. They helped crown a president who made his name off the baseless and the Birthering. And let’s not forget Swift Boats and Vince Foster. And now the alt-right has spun a moribund web of theories explaining the “#SyriaHoax,” Infowar’s abstraction centers on the inimical plotting of George Soros, the international aid organization, the White Helmets, and al-Qaeda. In a fit of creativity, one of the alt-right’s loudest voices, Mike Cernovich, tweeted: “Did [Sen. John] McCain give ‘moderate rebels’ (ISIS) in Syria poison gas and Hollywood style film equipment?”

Not to be outdone in the Age of Alternative Facts, the Left has jumped into the ring with their own greatest hits. On MSNBC, late-night host Lawrence O’Donnell proffered the most popular falsely flagged hypothetical. “It’s perfect,” O’Donnell preened, “it’s perfect.” What if it was not Assad but Putin who “masterminded the last week in Syria?” What if Putin recommended that Assad launch a “small” chemical weapons attack:

  • so that the Middle East dictator would draw international attention to his civil war,
  • so that Trump would catch the news on television,
  • so that the president would be outraged,
  • so that he would lob a round of Tomahawk missiles on Syria without causing too much damage,
  • so that the American press would pivot their focus head-on to the Syrian affair,
  • so that the media would stop covering the ever-increasingly shady connections between the Trump White House and the Kremlin,
  • and they would see Trump defying Putin by attacking the Russian leader’s ally,
  • so that Trump would no longer be accused of being a Putin crony.

Thus, O’Donnell righteously mused, Putin may have “conspired to kill people as a way of helping the image of the president of the United States.” The MSNBC anchor concluded his stream of implication with the irrefutably vague grandiosity of a conspiratorial flourish: “you won’t hear…proof that what I’ve just outlined is impossible…because with Donald Trump, anything is possible.” The newsish segment cruised along with a luxurious buoyancy not weighed by evidence. AND don’t forget, one of the night’s pundit-guests added, now Steve Bannon can wage his “war against the brown people.”

Far from extolling the turn of events, projecting a mastery of the situation, crowing at their allegedly successful gambit—or adding clarity—the Russians, Iranians and Syrians have replied to the American accusations and airstrikes with their own iffy explanations and cover-ups. They claim that Al-qaeda and/or the anti-Assad rebels secretly stockpiled the nerve agents which were dispersed only after innocent Syrian airstrikes unknowingly targeted the rebel’s chemical-filled warehouse.

As the head spins with baseless accusation, as even the AP has joined into broad conclusions in shallow waters, as the President of the United States ties up countless political resources to prove or disprove his empty accusations against our previous president that he tweeted out as a lark, one solution becomes clear: we must wait.

With patience and with a wary vigilance we must methodically gather the snippets of evidence. We must fight the temptation of the hasty 24-hour news answer. We cannot just rest on an edition of the AP or The New York Times or The Washington Post. We must gather. For we are all journalists now.

And to our questions, in the meantime, to more half-founded accusations, let us remember and repeat what the Cuban scribe Osvaldo Farres once famously wrote, “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.

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Letter to the Editor, New York Times: On “What Was Lenin Thinking?”

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Dear Editor,

In Tariq Ali’s April 3, 2017 editorial in the New York Times, Mr. Ali wove together a good story of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Russian ascent to power. Yet Ali’s nearly hagiographic essay is not even really about Leninism but a simplified take on Marxism. Ali’s Leninism (Marxism) reads as a singular, coherent idea whose mission was to act as a foil or alternative to Western capitalism and Russian monarchism.

Ali fails to grapple with the central nexus: Lenin’s innovative idea of a “vanguard,” the point where Lenin’s politics and Marx’s ideology clashed. For Marx left his followers without an explanation for how the rebellious proletariat (working classes) could organize their Socialist/Communist revolt and how they could sleninportrait2ubsequently rule. Lenin’s key innovation was that the “vanguard,” an elite cabal of ideological warrior-thinker-administrators, would serve as the head of the proletariat giant in another Russian Revolution. [As a side note, this kind of revolutionary rule most likely is Steve Bannon’s fantasy when he evangelizes over Leninism.]

With the idea of the “vanguard” of Red rulers, Marxism became Marxism-Leninism with all of its attendant contradictions: the “dictatorship of the people,” the many led by the few, the corrupt and bureaucratic state of apparatchiks, the Party that developed to administer the “vanguard’s” ideas for/over the masses.

Without understanding Lenin’s innovation, historicizing his tortured sense of betrayal by European Marxists who had chosen country over communism during the First World War, Lenin’s often messianic Russian nationalism, his compromises, Ali misses the central quandary: did the Soviet Union abandon Leninism or was it a product of Leninism in real life? Ali crafts an easy morality tale as he vaguely suggests the former while never grappling with the possible consequences of the latter interpretation.

Sincerely,

Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, PhD

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HER HILL TO CLIMB: the second of two essays re-evaluating the 2016 presidential election

“Her wings are cut and then she is blamed for not knowing how to fly.”
– Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949

I watched my mother cry. These weren’t tears shed over a sad movie or from laughter gone too far. It was pain. “You don’t understand,” with a sudden force, she hurled her words at my father as he sat a bit deeper in the sofa, a bit aloof across the room. The television droned on unresponsively of the election of President Donald J. Trump. Then my mother apologized and apologized again.

There is something singularly wrenching about seeing the woman — the one who gave you life, then held your hand firm through the storms — tear up uncontrollably. My mother’s wave of emotion wasn’t over a death. And she didn’t cry from physical pain. It wasn’t over Trump’s election. She cried for the defeat of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her tears were even a surprise to my mom. Hillary, it turned out, was a woman she had grown to identify with. Clinton had become a symbol for women like my mother. She was a successful woman without the easiest life who, despite the media’s chorus of horribles, despite Trump’s slings, his snickering over how corrupt and unlikeable Clinton was, my mom had grown not just to respect but to like.

I.

The outrage over the unfolding history of Trump’s sexual misogyny blotted out coverage of the larger phenomenon. The question of large-scale sexual discrimination by both men and women was never more than a talking point during the 2016 presidential elections. And when it became a story, it was the story of Trump’s sexist misdeeds. It was not the electorate’s, even as reports surfaced that painted a disturbing picture. Take for example, USA Today’s November 10th account, published after the election, that sketched the scene “on the streets of cities from Phoenix to the Rust Belt, with protesters waving signs displaying the obscene c-word and chanting ‘lock her up.’”

That was four months ago. And we are still left to ponder what happened. A phenomenon has been posed known as the Jill Robinson Effect, first identified in a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Political Science, advanced by professors from Stanford University and the University of Chicago. The theory is named after the Jackie Robinson, who as the first African American to play in Major League Baseball had to perform better and compete harder than his white teammates in order to secure his roster spot. The Jill version suggests that professional women carry a gendered version of Jackie’s burden. Scholars found that “roughly 9% [or $49 million] more federal spending is brought home when there is a woman representing a district in Congress than when the same district is represented by a man.” In addition, on average, female Congressmen sponsor about three more bills per congress in a body that averages 18 bills per member.

If we take for granted (and data has supported this,) that women are no more politically talented than men in general, the authors explained these discrepancies through the Jill Robinson Effect. Women perform better on average because “only the most talented, hardest working female candidates” can overcome a gendered bias to be elected. Like Jackie Robinson, they have a higher bar to reach to stay on the team, a “higher performance threshold.” Thus, once in office these more qualified female candidates outperform their male counterparts. At the same time, the authors concluded that because women have been found more regularly to underestimate their abilities and suitabilities for political careers, “only the most qualified, politically ambitious females” are (self-) selected to run for office. Furthermore, female politicians were found to attract more opponents in primary and general re-election than their male counterparts, again suggesting a lower estimation of female political talents.

Women in the U.S. Senate, 2015, politico.com

What is more, a 2008 Pew survey found that 21% of Americans openly assert that men “make better leaders” than women. A 2007 Gallup poll observed that 11% of Americans refused to vote for a female candidate for president regardless of qualification, another 11% would only do so only “with reservations.” The sex bias did not cease with electoral victory. In 2012 National Journal found that while “more women than men [were] working on the Hill[,]…men were more likely to work in committee and leadership offices.” As Senator Amy Klobuchar described how she learned to gain respect for her ideas in a biased Washington, “I like to say that women politicians speak softly and carry a big statistic.”

Late in the 2016 presidential race, the Washington Post did publish an article arguing that “sexism dr[ove] support for Donald Trump.” Even back in June, even before the Access Hollywood “groping” tape surfaced, the Post found that “sexism was strongly and significantly correlated with support for Trump.” Not just outrageous, but cruel, sexist swag appeared at Trump rallies. Buttons read, “KFC HILLARY SPECIAL: 2 FAT THIGHS, 2 SMALL BREASTS…LEFT WING” and “LIFE’S A BITCH[,] DON’T VOTE FOR ONE.” T-shirts declaimed “HILLARY SUCKS[,] BUT NOT LIKE MONICA.” Bumper-stickers proclaimed “TRUMP THAT BITCH.” And yet to explain their loss, instead of sexism, Democrats across the board have been quicker to turn to a pair of Jameses, blaming James Comey’s dalliance on the public stage or the Clinton campaign’s straying from James Carville’s wisdom that “it’s the economy, stupid.”

II.

Historians have found evidence of feminist movements dating back to the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Questions of women’s rights to equality in marriage, school and work boiled over in the French Revolution, codified in the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the of the Female Citizen.” In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the British Mary Wollstonecraft wrote what is generally considered the first feminist treatise in 1792. But it was not until the later 19th and early 20th centuries that what we call “first-wave feminism” swept through.

Title Page, American Edition, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792from Britannica.com

This “first-wave,” like nearly all of the movements before it, fought for legal rights or equality under the law for women. Campaigning within the system for issues like suffrage, they were almost all “reformers rather than radicals.” Where future feminists challenged notions and constraints of motherhood, this “first wave” looked to protect mothers, appealing for the legalization of abortion, maternal insurance and the rights of illegitimate children.

In the 1960s and 1970s feminism reemerged in a forceful “second-wave.” Having achieved many of their legal rights, feminists turned to unshackling women from gender stereotypes and roles, especially their fixed place in the home. At the same time, this generation of feminists looked to uncover the shame and pangs of inferiority felt by their sex for centuries. “The problem lay buried,” Betty Friedan wrote in 1963:

As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”

Women looked to emancipate femininity as more than just a foil to the masculine. They did not want to be men. Gloria Steinem yelled “women’s liberation!” and professed herself a “radical” in a “feminist revolt.” These “second-wave” feminists aimed to reveal the power in womanhood. A woman could do anything a man could, they rallied, teaching their daughters to seek knowledge and pleasure. “Anatomy is not destiny,” Steinem wrote in Time magazine.

First Wave, from biography.com  
Second Wave, from pinterest.com
Third Wave, from joanreilly.com

Since the 1990s “third-wave” feminism or post-feminism and queer theory have challenged their predecessors for their focus on white, mainly middle-class women. Where “second-wave” adherents celebrated womanhood, the next generation has challenged such binaries as male/female as illusive constructions. Instead, post-feminists forward a “fluid notion of gender.” Queer and transgender identities have become central subjects for equal rights campaigns. So too have women of color.

Other contemporary feminists have fought not to replace but extend the “second wave” of feminism. Responding to a backlash that characterized feminism as “man-hate and hairy underarms,” this more moderate wing of the feminist party tailored its message to the reform not the radical wing of their cause. While rich motherhood was idealized, poor motherhood was shamed, they charged. In The Mommy Myth in 2004, Susan Douglas wrote that,

At the same time that middle- and upper-middle-class mothers were urged to pipe Mozart into their wombs when they’re pregnant so their kids would come out perfectly tuned, the government told poor mothers to get the hell out of the house and get to work — no more children’s aid for them.

Just so, Jenna Goudreau wrote of a big tent of inclusion and equality in Forbes in 2011, polling feminists old and young, famous and unknown. Goudreau found that this generation had concocted a new collection of terms to describe their feminist revolt: “womanist, girrl, mujerista, women’s liberationist, anti-oppression activist.” And yet, the problems persisted: women were responsible for bringing “home the bacon — and the eggs — cook[ing] them up and then lectur[ing] on the importance of portion size.” Women trying to raise children, women trying to climb the career ladder, women trying to do both, they all struggled.

III.

It was in the radical and heady days of “second-wave” feminism that women like Clinton and my mother grew up. They looked askance at the previous generations of Mamie Eisenhowers and Jackie Kennedys as “some little wom[e]n, standing by [their] man like Tammy Wynette” sang, Clinton infamously argued on Sixty Minutes during her husband’s 1992 campaign. She didn’t want to “stay home…bak[ing] cookies and hav[ing] tea,” Clinton quipped weeks later to reporters.

It was her first appearance on the national stage as a tried-and-true feminist. Unreported went Clinton’s conclusions that “the work that I have done as a professional, a public advocate, has been aimed . . . to assure that women can make the choices whether it’s full-time career, full-time motherhood, or some combination.”

Paul Begala, a chief strategist for the campaign, recalled that “as soon as I heard” Clinton’s Sixty Minutes interview, he thought, “people are going to think that’s an attack on stay-at-home moms.” He was right. The Clinton campaign offices were “inundated” with outraged phone calls from housewives and women who had taken years off their careers to raise their children. William Safire called it Bill’s “Hillary problem.” Voters bristled over the idea of too strong a First Lady, what they called a “co-presidency.” It was a sharp rebuke and lesson.

Clinton laid low from the campaign for a few weeks and then, as Politico relates, she paraded out a softer, more traditionally feminine role. “She got her hair styled. She took off her unfussy professional woman headband.” She was stripped of her feminist roots in service of her husband. She competed in a “cookie bake-off” put on by the magazine Family Circle. She submitted to a “puff piece” with People magazine about being a mother, what movies she and Bill allowed their then-12-year-old daughter Chelsea to watch, what they told her about all the “news” about daddy. It was a article centered on Hillary’s personal life and Methodist religion. Professional Hillary had been put in the closet.

That was 24 years ago. And the new professional, no-nonsense 2016 Hillary stood as a rebuke to the “feminizing” that she was subjected to in service of her husband’s presidential ambitions. After three decades of scandals and press scrutiny, she is, as the New York Times described, far more “private and guarded by nature.” It is often said that her friends yearn to reveal to the public the warm “Hillary they knew.” Instead, she made herself impenetrable, neutered. “I’m a fighter” and “stronger together,” became her campaign’s organizing (and defensive) themes.

There were moments of embracing her womanhood: at her nomination speech in Philadelphia, she exclaimed that “when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.” She posted on her website a lengthy “briefing”on her life-long career of fighting for women and girls. Vanity Fair described how Clinton at times “leaned” into the historic nature of her campaign. She had her moment with Beyoncé. Last June, Senator Elizabeth Warren memorably shouted “I’m here ’cause I’m with her!” to a Cincinnati crowd. Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama embraced on a North Carolina stage last October. Senator Klobuchar beamed over seeing two strong women on the dais: “in the past, you thought you’d have to balance it[,]…need a man up there on stage…[He] would give you [an] air of authority. You were acceptable because you brought in a man.” As Alex Wagner wrote in The Atlantic, “these pairs of women on stage combatted stereotypes,” challenging “the notion that women are constantly in competition with one another.”

But so outrageous, Trump’s sexist lifestyle and mouth overshadowed other campaign topics. It was Trump’s misogyny and not a question of a lingering American misogyny or the continuing need to empower women and girls that took center stage. Clinton’s final television commercials focused not on her strengths or her journey but on her opponent’s unsuitability for higher office. On sexist terms alone, here was a man in Trump who had surely disqualified himself for the presidency of the United States. But even as Trump’s record of unwanted sexual advances grew by the week, he denied it all. He swung back, calling Clinton an “enabler” of Bill’s “abuse of women.” He arrived at the second presidential debate with Bill’s sexual assault accusers in hand. And even as “grab them by the p — y” became the quotation of the contest, Trump downplayed his lewd oral history as “locker room banter.”

It seemed midway through the campaign that women had joined together to support Clinton. If not to support the first woman president, at least to stop Trump. Yet the coalition would not hold. In June Nate Silver in his FiveThirtyEight blog found a “massive gender gap” with women favoring Clinton by 33 points. Silver compared the discrepancy to “Eisenhower’s landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson in 1952.” In July USA Today’s Susan Page reported a “yawning 24” point gender gap. Despite the 9-point slide from Silver’s poll just a month before, Page cheered the numbers as proof that “sisterhood is powerful.” In the end, women voted for Clinton over Trump by 54% to 42%. It was a 12-point slide from July. Pew reported that, dating back to 1972, such a gendered preference was “not dramatically higher than in some other recent elections, including the 2000 contest between [George W.] Bush and Al Gore.”

from people.com

There is a sadness to this story. Here is a woman who fought her whole life for the rights of women, loud and proud, to lead any life they wished. In college, Hillary Rodham once debatedwith herself whether she was more “pseudo-hippie” or “educational and social reformer.” Now, in 2016, she felt compelled to prove that she could be as “strong” as a man, to create for herself the image of a serious, experienced but largely sexless candidate. The international Women’s March, the biggest grassroots effort since Vietnam, came two months too late. For Hillary was the last reasonably qualified hope for the far future for a woman to be elected President of the United States.

“It is shameful! This country won’t elect a woman president,” said my mother. I didn’t exactly agree. Trump was a far stronger candidate than he had been given credit. He exploited the popular antibodies that had built up for years against Obama and the re-election of those in his party. Trump rode an international populist wave. And Clinton had won the popular vote. Yet, as my mother argued, sexism exploded to the fore in the 2016 presidential election. And not just from Trump. Despite the fixed focus on his indiscretions by Clinton’s campaign and the media, the sexism came forth from the masses. It was easy to detect in the die-hards chanting “trump that bitch.” It will take much finer-tooth research to uncover the number of voters with subtler sexist proclivities, many unconscious of their Jill Robinson bias, unaware of their uncomfortability with a female president.

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A TRUMP FOR THE PEOPLE: the first of two essays re-evaluating the 2016 presidential election

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The dust has settled on the 2016 presidential election and many conclusions have been drawn as the first draft of history is all but written. The New Republic called it the “Democrats’ Biggest Disaster.” The Washington Post wrote of the “Decimation of the Democratic Party.” But wait, before the ink dries, let us consider, just once more, a/the central tenet that Secretary Hillary Clinton blew her chance against a long-shot underdog in then-candidate Donald Trump. Gallup released a poll of adult Americans three days after the presidential contest: most (75%) were surprised by the results. That week a Huff Post/YouGov survey determined the “very surprised” and “somewhat surprised” at 69%. Americans have taken for granted that this election was Clinton’s to lose and then scraped together the myriad list of reasons when she did: no consistent economic message, few visits to the mythic “blue wall” of the Midwest, the late-October Surprise by FBI director James Comey as he called into question Clinton’s handling of classified information over e-mail, the electoral college.

Implicit in the current narrative that focuses on Clinton’s missteps is a determination that Trump was a joke-of-a-candidate, that, flawed and repulsive, he would have to depend on the kindness of his opponents’ blunders, that he could not gain the presidency in a clean fight, that it was unthinkable for Trump, for this reality television star to be elected Commander-in-Chief, this “con man,” this “clown act,” as the Washington Post’s George Will has called him. The liberal filmmaker and activist Michael Moore was one of only a few prominent voices that predicted a Trump win. Moore extolled the Republican victor as not the improbable amateur. The key was that Trump “was never a joke,” Moore argued.

For what if Clinton didn’t choke? The first female in serious contention for the presidency of the United States? While there have been 46 women to call the White House their home, Clinton came closer than any woman in American history to call the West Wing her office. For we must consider, what if Trump was not an accident of history but a formidable political athlete, a demagogue for his times? What if it were Clinton who over-achieved?

The Fox News anchor Chris Wallace spoke out against reigning press characterizations in an interview with the New York Times shortly after the election. “I thought The New York Times was one of the worst offenders,” Wallace charged. “We were all guilty — myself included — of kind of writing [Trump] off.” According to Wallace, the great oversight was that “a lot of media outlets made a decision sometime after the convention that Donald Trump was beyond the pale and they no longer had to observe the normal rules of journalism and objectivity.” Moore added that “treating him as [an afterthought or a joke] only strengthened” Trump.

With his tough-guy talk, dropping consonants at the end of his words, his sometimes foul comments, his sparring with the mainstream media, picking a fight with the illusive elites, with the elusive hanky-panky, the New York billionaire transformpic-trumptoughed himself into the working-class David from Queens with all but newsy cap in hand, while pitting himself against a Golithian Clinton political machine and her evil feminist empire. The rich-guy-turned-poor posture was an act, a con, a discursive framing of the election.

Yet for nearly a decade, a rift had been opening, division sowed by seemingly endless years of war overseas, simmering racial tensions, the Great Recession, Wall Street bailouts and Obamacare. Conditions “bigly”-banged into the creation of the Tea Party. The Republican establishment erupted. Presidential also-ran Mitt Romney called Trump “a phony, a fraud.” A #NeverTrump leader, the leading conservative pundit, publisher and activist, Bill Kristol called the future president a “loathsome,” “charlatan and a demagogue.” But the new “silent” partisan plurality in the United States that Trump called “the forgotten” and Clinton labeled the “deplorables,” fought back.

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November 2010. Newscom

The Tea/Freedom Party’s political revolt was part of a global trend toward populist demagoguery. Trump was one of a class full of populist barnstormers (in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, France, Austria, Romania to name a few.) Yet unlike many/most of his European populist counterparts, Trump won. He deftly created in-groups and out-groups, fawning over his crowds just to pivot to cast a caustic riposte to his adversaries. He played martyr to the mainstream media even as he dropped a trail of bullying memes. He manufactured nicknames—“Little Marco,” “Corrupt Hillary—ideally suited for the hash-tag generation. He made bold promises (a southern wall, massive tax cuts) with subtle dog whistles (America First, law and order.)

Let us turn to a simple metric gathered by the National Constitution Center. Since 1828, more-or-less when the modern two-party system began, a Democratic two-term president (like Barack Obama) has only been succeeded twice by another Democrat: in 1836 when Andrew Jackson was followed in office by his vice president Martin Van Buren and more than a hundred years later, in 1940, when two-termed Franklin Delano Roosevelt succeeded himself for a third go. The Republicans have accomplished the feat only four times. And since the twenty-year reign of Roosevelt and Harry Truman mid-twentieth century, in seven of the last nine elections, the party in control of the presidency has lost.

It is as though, over four or eight years of rule, antibodies in the body politic—economic distress, disgust with DC doublespeak, disillusionment with political corruption, frustration over unfulfilled campaign promises, vexation over still unresolved long-term issues like medical care and the fairness of taxes—build up against the sitting president. Whether such antibiotic discontent is his fault or not, the incumbent president is the one wearing the lab coat. His party and, in turn, his party’s successor candidate are held to account for the nation’s ills and unresolved promise.

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vanityfair.com.mx

And, as has been well documented, however you slice it, since Obama’s victory in 2008, Democrats have steadily lost the electorate. Obama’s presidency has held true to form as the political antibodies have grown to threaten his administration and party to an arguably historic degree. Since 2008, Democrats have lost 10.2% of their seats in the Senate, 19.3% in the House of Representatives, 20.3% in the state legislatures and 35.7% of their governorships. Entering the 2016 election the Democrats controlled the “trifecta”—the governorship, Senate and House—in seven states. (That was a low since the Civil War when, not incidentally, there were only 35 states.) And after the election, the Democrats were down to five. They have held on to a total of 15 governorships. And for the first time in history, Republicans have taken control of more than half of the Southern legislatures.

 

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Redalertpolitics.com

Indications of a devastating Democratic trend go on. In the key 2016 swing states in which pundits predicted Clinton victories and on which they place the blame of Clinton’s defeat—Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin—the Democratic candidates seeking lower office fared terribly. As The Atlantic outlined, “of the 32 seats the [Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee]…targeted in those states, Democrats won only eight.” Only North Carolina, which the Clinton team “showered with significant attention,” displayed Democratic gains, where the party of Roosevelt won three of its four contested House seats.

In the House overall, despite a general prediction of a double-digit bounce, the Democrats won only six seats (out of 23 battleground races as well as 14 more in question.) Republicans flipped 138 state legislative seats to the Democrats’ 95 for a net gain of 43. Falling far short in the Senate and House in 2010 and 2014 as well, Obama lost more state legislative seats (-968) than any other president during his incumbency. For it has been a Red wave. And it was in this climate, this Republican gale, that Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1%, 2,864,974 votes, the largest difference favoring the electoral-college loser since 1876 when another Democrat, Samuel Tilden lost to Rutherford B. Hayes.

One DLCC executive blamed the Democratic message, imploring for “language that real voters speak in.” The real voters? Such is code for a populist revival, for those that say the Democrats have become too progressive, too focused on the Obama coalition of women, Millenials, brown people and LGBTQ. As one National Review columnist charged, the Democrats have become the “Sanctimonious White Lady Party.” According to such conservative populist thinking, the multicultural big tent is a façade that hides a rigid progressivism of political correctness and coastal elitism. And so, the populist argument goes, rather than free and honest debate, the orthodoxy of the liberal message of strict inclusion has “become more and more a catechism.”

Playing the voters

August 23, 2015. Adam Zyglis, Cagle Cartoons

These conservative populist arguments can be heard across Europe with a particular emphasis on Trump’s anti-Muslim impulses. The anti-Muslim and populist Dutch leader Geert Wilders vociferously cheered on Trump’s immigration ban. “In 2016, the Anglo-Saxon world woke up. In 2017, I am sure that it will be the year of the Continental peoples rising up,” Marine Le Pen, the president of France’s National Front, decreed. A spokesman to the Czech president called the new American president a “trailblazer.” For one German car-parts supplier in Frankfurt, the night of Trump’s election “was the feeling of a revolution.” As the worried editor of the Berlin Policy Journal observed, “you feel it in the little things, the use of language, the way people have started to talk.” For example, just as “fake news” rolls off Trump’s tongue, the term “Lügenpresse!” (“lying press!”), a Nazi neologism, has returned to German parlance as crowds chant the once-distasteful word at rallies and political summits.

And after the election losses to the populist Trump, populist voices in the Democratic Party came back in force as well. Two, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison, competed for the chair of the Democratic National Committee. Democrats like Rep. Marcia l. Fudge of Ohio complained they had no economic message or, for that matter, any message for rural voters. The NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, rather un-self-consciously, blamed an “Eastern Seaboard”-bias. The documentarian and left-wing agitator Moore returned to the fore echoing Trump’s populist critique of Clinton’s elitist erring. “You were in a bubble and weren’t paying attention to your fellow Americans,” Moore groused. Consequently, he continued, workers would vote for a demagogue and against their interests. Populist anger was seething. “On Nov. 8, the dispossessed will walk into the voting booth,” Moore warned. “And put a big fucking X in the box next to the name of the man who has threatened to upend and overturn the very system that ruined their lives: Donald J. Trump.”

Echoed time and again, by President Barack Obama, by Rep. John Lewis, Clinton was the “most qualified” candidate ever to run for the presidency since George Washington. She was the first candidate to have served as both Secretary of State and Senator, not to mention First Lady. The Clinton team ran hard on this message, making it the focal point of the Democratic National Convention and the central point of differentiation between the DC-veteran in Clinton and the political amateur in Trump.

The Democrats shot themselves in the foot. Was Clinton really the most qualified? carped many-a-news-outlet. What about Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower? What about the former governor, Secretary of State and Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson who also happened to pen the Declaration of Independence? What about the former Senator, Governor and Ambassador Martin Van Buren? Or the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA and Vice President George H. W. Bush? The hyperbole over her unprecedented experience all sounded like another Clintonian line of slippery talk. And the record of these long-resumed presidents was uneven, to put it mildly. Jefferson helped found this nation. While “Martin Van Ruin” dearly mis-steered the economy into a depression. For incumbency didn’t predict success.

In a cycle that favored the populist outsider over experience, for millions of voters, such political experience became not an asset for election but a taint. Nonetheless, in this populist, anti-Democratic maelstrom, Clinton stormed through, in hindsight upsetting more reasoned expectations and winning the popular vote definitively.

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Trump, Conflicts and the Business of Bananas

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A shorter version of this article was published in The New York Daily News on Feb 7, 2017.

 

To many (most) it has come as a surprise that the United States has no laws instructing the president to de-conflict his business ventures that overlap his duties as commander-in-chief. No laws mandate the selling off of foreign investments. No laws demand the transformation of companies into blind trusts. As President-elect Donald J. Trump explained to a boardroom full of New York Times editors, with a more than a touch of Nixonian flare, if he’s the president, he “can’t have a conflict of interest.”

More recently, Trump has tweeted that he will “take” himself “completely out of [his] business operations.” Yet it remains completely unclear what he means. Will he sell off all of his assets? Has he really handed over the reigns for his children to run the show? If he were to convert his assets into a blind trust, how blind could a blind trust be when he knows exactly the properties he owns? Many a liberal and anti-Trump Republican have been horrified at the prospects. The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne railed against the problems Trump’s “business dealings would pose to his independence and trustworthiness.” Commentary editor John Podhoretz declared Trump’s business conflicts his “most serious political problem.” Even the Wall Street Journal slammed Trump for not liquidating his assets.

And yet, it all begs the question, so what? What kind of petty corruption can really come from foreign emissaries staying in Trump hotels? So what if there ends up being a few fewer wind farms in Scotland? Will an extra call to Taiwan to shore up a business deal really upset the delicate trio played with China? We certainly do not want to become a kleptocracy, a banana republic in which the president acts as both chief executive and businessman, enriching himself on a large scale at the expense of his people. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has critically termed this practice “deals-based capitalism” (as opposed to rules-based capitalism). The ad hoc practice of “deals-based capitalism” that Summers fears trades consistency, predictability, impartial law and the governing by rules for an economy of inconsistent action, partiality, “corruption, abuse of power, favoritism and selective enforcement” of regulations.

But is Trump really going to go to war over the building of a few hotels? The answer is, it’s happened before. In 1954, in Guatemala, in a now too-much forgotten episode of the Cold War, the United States went to war not over hotels but over the business of bananas.

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After a popular uprising in 1944 that became known as the October Revolution and overthrew the previously American-backed dictator and bloody fascist Jorge Ubico, Guatemala began what appeared to be an attempt to transform the Central American nation into a liberal and capitalist democracy. The new state provided its people near-universal suffrage, stricter labor laws, more spending on public education and a minimum wage.

In 1950 the Defense Minister Jacobo Arbenz was popularly elected Guatemala’s second post-revolution president. He furthered the expansion of government reforms. He challenged the American-controlled monopoly on electricity by constructing a hydroelectric plant that couldarbenzportrait offer his people a cheaper option. Most notably Arbenz confiscated and redistributed some of the unused banana farmland of United Fruit Company (the world’s largest exporter of the fruit) to near-destitute workers.

To maximize profits, the Boston-based UFC had imposed serf-like conditions on its peasant workers. They were paid a pittance. There were electricity and clean water s
hortages in company housing as well as a lack of adequate screens and security. Workers could not afford basic goods in their farm commissaries. They complained about massive unpaid overtime. At the same time, the banana corporation operated hand-in-hand with the previous Guatemalan dictators. The government prohibited unions from forming, even banning the use of the word sindicato for its allegedly Communist connotation. Meanwhile the UFC paid nearly no taxes while becoming not only the nation’s largest landowner but also its biggest employer (nearly 40,000 Guatemalans). The company bought up “shares of the railroad, electric utility, and telegraph.” So entrenched was UFC, Guatemalans called the American enterprise el Pulpo, the Octopus. By 1954, UFC exported 84% of the nation’s bananas. It was a monopoly. And it was thus a monumental shift when the Arbenz government enacted Decree 900, redistributing 1.4 million acres of unused UFC land to 500,000 of his citizens (one-sixth of all Guatemalans) while legalizing the right for workers to strike against unfair labor practices.

The UFC was furious. And, as the historian Gabriel Kolko found, “there was an intricate web of personal and political relations between United Fruit and many of the Republican and Democrat officials dealing with the Guatemalan issue.” Relentlessly the UFC lobbied for American intervention and what today we call regime change. Finally, the US acted with bipartisan support. After an aborted operation by President Harry Truman, President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched operation PBSUCCESS in August 1953. His efforts were
buoyed by his Defense Secretary, John Foster Dulles, and his brother, the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles. The brothers just happened to have a conflict of interest with UFC. They had monetary holdings in the company. Allen Dulles had been on the UFC board of directors.

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The Dulles Brothers: Allen (left) and John Foster (right), Laguardia Field, New York City, 1948

The “dictatorial regimes of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic” joined in by planting a propaganda campaign of their own, warning the Guatemalan people of the peril of Arbenz’s “communist” reforms. Even with American logistical support, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas and his Liberation Army, a ragtag collection of a few hundred peasants, stumbled in their invasion from Honduras. But the Eisenhower administration picked up the torch. While blocking the official Guatemalan radio signals, the CIA’s Radio Liberation broadcast reported on “nonexistent civilian uprisings, military defections and bogus incidents of sabotage,” posing this propaganda as arising from legitimate stations, even “cop[ying] the [signature] music and bells of the government station.”

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Soldiers of Col. Armas’s Liberation Army, 1954

With his push for swift reform in all areas of Guatemalan society, including the military, Arbenz had alienated his officer corps. He turned to the Soviet Union for support, but Soviet leaders refused what they deemed a “bourgeoisdemocratic” leader in the shadow of the United States. The Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Henry F. Holland announced that “the people of Guatemala rose and dispersed the little group of traitors who had tried to subvert their government into another communist satellite.” Yet, in the end, it was not the shoddy army of anti-Arbenz Guatemalan ex-patriots, organized by the CIA, that made the difference but the dissolution of Guatemala forces and a show of American aerial force. American bombers sent Guatemala City into a panic. It was the forbearer of “shock and awe.”

And so, under extreme psychological propaganda ($2.7 million of “psychological warfare” and “subversion”), in fear of the great US menace, harboring an embittered officer corps who resented many of his aggressive military reforms, Arbenz failed to gather the military into a fighting force. Fearing an escalation, the Guatemalan high command forced an “exhausted, confused and cornered” Arbenz to resign. “Our crime,” he declared in announcing his resignation, “is having enacted an agrarian reform which affected the interests of the United Fruit Company.”

With US backing, Col. Armas was installed as the next president of Guatemala. Finally, the US had a leader made of putty. “Tell me what you want me to do,” Armas told Vice President Richard Nixon. “And I will do it.” Guatemalan exiles accused the new dictator of being a Wall Street pawn. He took to his role with relish. Promptly following the coup, Armas ordered the slaughtering of at least 1,000 UFC workers on one plantation. He reneged on the social reforms of the post 1944-democratically elected governments and returned the expropriated plantation land to the banana conglomerate. He eliminated rival political parties and unleashed what the historian Stephen G. Rabe has called “a ghastly cycle of violence, assassination and torture.

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Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, July 1954

Within just a few years a guerilla war raged against the newly installed dictatorship. Armas arrested so many opposition forces that the prisons overflowed, and it was necessary to erect concentration camps to hold all of the new dictator’s enemies. The rest of his foes simply “disappeared”. Meanwhile, in the US, the Eisenhower administration orchestrated a campaign of sensationalist news stories and anticommunist academic experts to paint the new Guatemalan regime as democratic liberators from the “Red” Arbenz. The final nail was the American intelligence’s uncovering of Czech arms secretly sent to aid the Arbenz regime aboard the Swedish ship Alfhem. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that PBSUCCESS became widely known to Americans.

With the aid of the Guatemalan officer corps, the United States overthrew a popularly elected leader, installing a cruel but pliant dictator. Arbenz doomed his regime by alienating the armed forces, guaranteeing their “diluted” support at key turns in the US-Guatemalan conflict. Did the Dulles brothers’ financial interests in the UFC serve as the motivation to go to war? Was it a classic case of “Yankee imperialism”? Of a corporatized, Cold War “intervention lobby” fueled by a “broad network of power on Wall Street and in Washington” as a score of scholars like the political scientist Suzanne Jonas or the historian William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko have argued? It is impossible to prove but impossible to deny. The conflict generated a pall of corruption over the affair which demands that the brothers could not be impartial actors to judge the merits of war and peace. They had skin in the game that went beyond American national interest.

Yet to understand the Guatemalan coup we must still complicate the matter. Through the Cold War, some on the Left as well as revisionist historians of the 1960s and 1970s lost credibility by trying to explain American foreign policy as solely a matter of American greed. They discredited their campaigns by turning their causes into one-dimensional anti-business screeds, blaming government action on business interests alone and slipping into a Marxist determinism in which money was the only concern for high-ranking officials.

The interests of the UFC and the Dulles brothers’ conflicts of interest did not play the only role in convincing first the Truman then the Eisenhower administration to go to war against Arbenz. Crystalizing the American crusade was an aversion against Communism, growing throughout the American government, that would not allow for Arbenz’s socialist-like land reform in their hemisphere. As a classified CIA review concluded years later, “in the context of the growing global Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union… [, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations] feared that Guatemala could become a client state from which the Soviets could project power and influence throughout the Western Hemisphere.” The State Department stated that its explicit plan was to “to remove…the menace of the present Communist-controlled government” in Guatemala and “roll-up” Communist sympathizers. In one popular iteration of this interpretation, published tbitterfruito wide appeal in and out of the academy, the journalists Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer tied the monetary and ideological motivations into a slick international con job in which the UFC executed the “decisive” part by overplaying Arbenz’s Communist leanings, “redbaiting” the Eisenhower administration into action.

According to a more recent CIA-sponsored study, the historian Nick Cullather concluded that it was the CIA and not UFC who did the key anticommunist convincing. Fresh off the success of the CIA-backed coup (its first) overthrowing the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and installing the Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, after Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the Eisenhower administration looked to contain the threat of world Communism through covert means. The Guatemalan Revolution was seen as the latest in Communist coups, its government reforms the latest in socialist plots. In this way, aside from the Dulles brothers’ conflict of interest and the lobbying influence yielded by the UFC, we can see the overthrowing of Arbenz as following the Cold War policy of the containment of world-wide Communism. And with a wider lens, we can see the overthrowing of Arbenz as a continuation of the Monroe Doctrine, an operation to ensure pro-US regimes up and down the western hemisphere.

And so we return to Trump. In the Guatemalan war, the Dulles brothers’ financial conflict of interest was but one factor in driving the Americans into war. And just so, the fear is not that Trump’s every move will be fueled by an avarice to enrich himself, but that his business interests will be one factor tipping the scales of policy decision-making away from American national interest. This multi-determinative view is key to instruct us on the question of Trump’s financial conflicts of interests. His business dealings may not play the sole consideration in his foreign policy. Yet they may be, along with his pro-business ideology and like the UFC in Guatemala, a key consideration in tipping his decisions for issues as large as war to peace or peace to war.

From Brazil to Scotland, Turkey to the Philippines, “the globe is dotted” with Trump business ventures, the New York Times reported. “Trump’s companies have business operations in at least 20 countries, with a particular focus on the developing world, including outposts in nations like India, Indonesia and Uruguay.” No doubt some of these unsteady regimes will stagger and sway as they attempt to develop into modern, first-world democracies. No doubt some of Trump’s holdings will be threatened by insecure even explosive conditions. If Trump retains his business holdings, there is no doubt that situations will arise in which Trump will not be able to act as an impartial observer while deciding whether the United States will intervene.trumpfamily

The former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum went so far as to explicitly accuse Trump of pursuing the presidency in order to advance his business interests. “Pay attention to the money, that is the story of the next four years,” Frum warned on CNN’s “New Day”. The claim is intriguing but far from proven. Yet even if Trump cannot be understood as solely fueled by his business interests—just as the Guatemalan coup was more complicated than a story of the whims of a large American business—we must be vigilant. As Trump’s Chief-of-Staff Reince Priebus warned (ironically) against the corruption charges surrounding Secretary Hillary Clinton, “when that 3 a.m. phone call comes, Americans deserve to have a president on the line who is not compromised” by foreign business operations.

Fifty-seven years later, nearly 200,000 dead in an endless civil war, “in a muted ceremony” carried out in Guatemala City’s National Palace, Guatemala’s President Alvaro Colom spoke of the “great crime” committed in 1954. To Arbenz’s son Juan Jacobo Arbenz, the president apologized, proclaiming that “that day changed Guatemala and we have not recuperated from it yet…It was a crime to Guatemalan society and it was an act of aggression to a government starting its democratic spring.” Arbenz, argues Schlesinger and Kinzer, was no “crypto-communist” but redistributed UFC land in order to “create a middle class in a country riven by extremes of wealth and poverty and racism.” On the other hand, several close to Arbenz, including his widow, have stated that Arbenz “became highly influenced” by the ideas of Communism.communistthreat

And so we circle back. Was it Communism or nationalism that fueled Arbenz’s commitment to land reform? Did it matter? Had his economic reforms failed would Arbenz have turned toward more resolutely socialist even Communist solutions? Would he have nationalized more land? Hawkish, anti-Communists in the United States believed that Arbenz was maturing into the kind of Communist Soviet satellite that Fidel Castro would become half-a-decade later. The scholar Piero Gleijeses revealed that the Guatemalan Communist Party saw the nationalization of land as laying the “groundwork for the eventual radicalization of the peasantry.” And that Arbenz concurred, committing his government to aiding in “foster[ing] control of the reform from below” in order to plant the “seeds of a more collective society.”

According to fearful forecasts, Arbenz would eventually oust the UFC if they continued to make threats against his rule. If his economic reforms faltered and his re-election were threatened, he would sharpen his rule into an unlawful dictatorship. He would turn to the USSR for aid and, if worst came to worst, pull a near-cataclysmic stunt like the Cuban Missile Crisis. And yet it is impossible to say what would have happened. For the US, spurred on by anti-Communist concern, swayed by business interest, never gave the Guatemalan Revolution and Arbenz’s democratic reformation a chance to develop into an independent and free nation of self-governing people.

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An Update on Tyrone Unsworth

Queensland police have completed an investigation into an assault that left Brisbane teenager Tyrone Unsworth hospitalised with a broken jaw, a month before he took his own life.The 13-year-old was hit over the head… [Link to Full Story]

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A Cautionary Tale of American Interests and Bananas from Guatemala

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“Mural depicting Guatemalan President [Jacobo] Arbenz and…the reign of military terror following the CIA backed coup in 1954 [that oustd him,] Collaborative art by HIJOS, Zone 1, Guatemala City, Guatemala. Copyright Donna De Cesare.”


An article of mine published yesterday in The New York Daily News:

Trump and Foreign Policy Entanglements: The Cautionary Tale of U.S. Involvement in Guatemala

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“ARBENZ HAS LEFT POWER; SUCCEEDED BY COL DIAZ. Diaz offers to continue the Revolution. “
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 The newly installed Guatemalan dictator Col. Carlos Castillo Armos  [next to driver.]
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