“When one begins to live by…quotation, one has begun to stop living.”
“Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those who we cannot resemble.”
– Samuel Johnson, July 2, 1751
Recipe for a Donald
Serving Size: 1 Litre
Cooking Time: 4 Years
1. In a large skillet, melt a generous portion of Jacksonian populism (clarifying, not necessary.)
2. Coat a yuuge slab of T Rex’s grandiosity with a glaze of Taft’s ample appetite.
3. On the side, whip up Wilson’s fears over Espionage and Sedition.
4. Grate a generous amount of Harding’s embroilment in scandal, stir and Make It Grate, Again.
5. At this point, traditionally, one measures out a serving of Coolidge’s relish for the laissez-faire, but for now set this aside for decoration.
6. Combine remaining constituents in skillet and thicken with Hoover’s protectionism.
7. Sauté until tender to the press.
8. In a crucible, mash a pinch of FDR’s one-on-one charm and a dash of his hypomanic policy-making with a touch of Truman’s nuclear-trigger finger.
9. Trickle down a few drops of Ike’s pro-business solutions.
10. Carefully stir the above into a marinade of JFK’s womanizing (by this point should be saucy.)
11. Cover up and check for leaks.
12. Let stew over night (expect some sourness to set in.) And don’t forget to leave the Sean Spicer out to dry.
13. The next morning, strain out liquidity.
14. Inject with LBJ’s crassness for acidity.
15. Apply a mixed rub of Nixon’s chip-on-his-shoulder and his
fermenting paranoia in a froth of lies.
16. Then transfer to roast in the oven at Fahrenheit 451°s in order to smoke out disloyalty.
17. Once a tanned orange hue, return to pot. Add a splash of Carter’s tart self-righteousness with a Reagan zest for the camera-ready and the ready cameras.
18. Raise to a high flame, bring to a Washington bubble and reduce to Ford’s knowledge of Poland (if out, Ukraine will substitute fine.)
19. Sweeten with a good deal of George H. W. Bush’s desire for compromise over a sieve, making sure to separate out his dignity.
20. Garnish with a healthy heaping of Clinton’s impulsiveness. (Remember to put aside a can of impeachment for later.)
21. Season to taste with George W.’s one-time nuttiness over Vladimir Vladimirovich.
22. And finish with a side of Obama’s skewered plans over crushed hope and change.
23. (Hillary bitters optional.)
From his time overseeing credit default swaps as a partner at Goldman Sachs in Manhattan to his job heading foreclosure filings at OneWest Bank in Pasadena, Steve Mnuchin, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, has been tagged by Sen. Elizabeth Warren the “Forrest Gump of the financial crisis.” The disclosure of OneWest’s pernicious foreclosure practices during the Great Recession—while the bank was headed by Mnuchin—has brought forth a great hooting and hollering of news coverage and Congressional outrage. Mnuchin has been labeled the “foreclosure machine,” the “foreclosure king,” the “anti-populist from hell.” Seemingly every newsroom has run (at least) one round of stories castigating his notoriously corrupt lending record. And now, as the confirmation hearing for Trump’s prospective Treasury Secretary nears, the next round of stories revealing Mnuchin’s bad-faith banking has begun to be posted to news sites and advocacy-group forums.
Meanwhile, OneWest and Mnuchin have also been accused of flagrantly employing the practice of redlining, a euphemism for forced racial housing segregation. The data is clear. The case is considerable. And yet the accusation that Mnuchin and OneWest practiced widespread housing discrimination has drawn a relative whisper. Only a handful of news outlets have covered the charge. A headline here. A sentence there. No independent media or Congressional investigations have been opened to judge Mnuchin’s redlining culpability. His turn as a movie producer of the likes of X-Men and Avatar has made more noise. For it appears we have entered a new political era in housing reform in which the camera’s focus has shifted from the Civil Rights Movement to Occupy Wall Street, an age in which racial segregation and urban blight have been replaced on the front page by the epidemic of callous foreclosures and “too big to fail.”
This very lack of attention on the allegation of OneWest’s redlining is indicative of the problem. Although illegal and deemed culturally unacceptable in the mainstream, redlining endures discreetly. So that, the questions become, if Mnuchin is found to have authorized the racist practice, can he be entrusted to serve as the cabinet member in charge of the nation’s monetary regulations, the lead administrator assessing many of this country’s discriminatory complaints and the overseer of the Community Development Financial Institution Fund, the very bureau that works to “expand economic opportunity for underserved people” and further “economic revitalization?” Forty-nine years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, should a clear signal be sent that such racist actions will not be tolerated?
It is of both symbolic and concrete concern. Symbolically, with the long-standing practices of segregation by local, state and federal governments and now the appointment of an allegedly aggressive redliner in Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary, the “government imprimatur normalize[s] a series of ethnic and racial prejudices, ” argues the Harvard Professor and Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Lizabeth Cohen. At the same time, on concrete grounds, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Emily Badger, then of The Washington Post, have thoroughly outlined, “racism is still rampant in real estate.”
Redlining is the banking scheme of not lending mortgages to minorities in majority white neighborhoods. During the heyday of segregation, northern lenders aggressively employed the informal practice of segregation in lieu of the unabashed, violent methods of segregation carried out in the South. The idea was that an all-white neighborhood would yield higher rents than a mixed or minority neighborhood. Mortgages would be paid. Driveways would be paved. The idea was that by redlining, landlords could keep their properties clean of the “taint” of minorities.
In 2014 and 2015, across a swath of land in Southern California where 52 branches of Mnuchin’s OneWest were located, the bank doled out only two mortgages to African American borrowers. The advocacy group California Reinvestment Coalition (CRC) found that, out of the bank’s 74 Southern Californian locations, none were placed in majority African American neighborhoods. Mnuchin’s bank located only eleven in Latino communities while Asian areas housed one.
Branch data and mapping by National Community Reinvestment Coalition and CRC
Furthermore, in 2015, Latinos made up 43.3% of Los Angeles residents. While the industry average of mortgages loaned to Latinos was 22.4%, only a paltry 8.4% of OneWest’s loans were given to Latinos. African Americans were less than half as likely to receive a mortgage when compared to the industry standard. Most mercilessly, during the Great Recession, in 2009, the bank lent only 424 mortgages in majority minority neighborhoods while foreclosing on 11,970 homes in those same zip codes, a ratio of 1 to 28.
Branch data and mapping by National Community Reinvestment Coalition and CRC
The Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California (FHANC), one of CRC’s partners in investigating Mnuchin’s bank, observed that in white neighborhoods serviced by OneWest, nearly all of the lawns in front of REO [Real-Estate Owned] homes were well-mown, healthy green and clearly picketed “for sale.” By contrast, OneWest’s minority neighborhoods were ravaged by blight as if exploited and forgotten.
The executive director of FHANC, Caroline Peattie, found yards replete with dead and overgrown grass, littered with garbage. Among unswept leaves, untamed plants and untended shrubs, weeds tangled out of freshly fractured cracks. Peattie noted busted fences. She saw “unsecured” and “broken doors.” Some were “boarded-up” like many of the windows (if they weren’t smashed.) Siding was busted. Gutters hung or were missing. Some utilities appeared “exposed or tampered with-.” And unlike their white-owned counterparts, these lots lacked visible “for sale” notices. According to FHANC, 61.5% of REO properties in these majority minority communities exhibited such signs of urban decay while in white neighborhoods, Mnuchin’s bank dutifully kept all of the REO homes well-maintained and ready for sale.
The figures are drawn from studies by the pair of fair-housing advocacy groups CRC and FHANC with the aid of the Urban Strategies Council and the National Community Reinvestment Strategies Council. The advocacy groups lodged a joint grievance against OneWest’s discriminatory policies with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in mid-November. Their hope is that HUD will mandate CIT bank (formerly OneWest) to open branches in majority minority neighborhoods, fix up their crumbling REOs and lend at an equivalent interest rate to minorities or face federal fines.
For his part, Mnuchin denies the charges and declines to comment on the issue. Former CEO Joseph Otting maintains that their bank “worked hard to focus on building an easily accessible platform serving all clients and all communities across its physical network of branches.” Through thin times, Otting adds, the company line persisted: “while new mortgage originations were minimal in 2014 and 2015, OneWest remained committed to fair lending.”
And yet during that part of 2014 and 2015, Mnuchin and Otting’s bank “was far more likely to foreclose in communities of color than to make loans available,” CRC’s Associate Director Kevin Stein shoots back. Two-thirds of the bank’s 25,000 foreclosures between 2009-2015 were handed out to minorities. For years Mnuchin’s OneWest has boasted of their extending affordable housing. But, as Stein sums up his coalition’s findings, “the branches aren’t really there, and the home-lending is not really there. It’s like what are they doing? What is this bank? They’re primarily foreclosing on people…kind of like a foreclosure machine.”
Branch data and mapping by CRC
It was a journey for Mnuchin from successful New York hedge-fund manager to successful Pasadenan bad-faith banker. OneWest was actually a new name slapped onto the insolvent IndyMac bank, “one of the first major lenders to collapse as a result of its [mortgage] portfolio” and the second largest bank to crash during the Great Recession. The transformation of the crumbling IndyMac to the booming OneWest became the stuff of legends in the industry—the golden bank “born from the ashes of [a] failed high-risk home lender,” exclaimed the Los Angeles Times—and made Mnuchin, perhaps not a god or a titan of industry, at least an expert in assessing risk and rebranding. (The redlining was, of course, for a different story.)
The bankrupt IndyMac combined a toxic mix of frequent loan-servicing with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with a collection of tens of thousands of subprime and predatory mortgages. Still living in Manhattan, Mnuchin first set sight on the ailing lender in far-off Southern California while watching a TV news segment that pictured an angry line of customers trailing out of the doors of an IndyMac branch. That “bank is going to end up failing,” Mnuchin turned to a co-worker. For it wasn’t misfortune but opportunity that caught Mnuchin’s eye. The lines at IndyMac, the bank scare, it all reminded him of the savings and loan crisis of the Reagan years. “We need to figure out how to buy it,” he concluded. “I’ve seen this game before.”
Due to a strategy of President Barack Obama’s administration that focused on bank bailouts and stimulus spending to dig out of the financial crisis of 2008, as Bloomberg recalled, the federal government, “through its discount window, was practically giving money away.” Amidst the collapse, “a run on the [IndyMac] bank triggered its takeover” by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). At a price tag of $13 billion, the deal amounted to the most expensive handout of federal bank deposit funds ever. And after bailing out the failing IndyMac, the FDIC needed to offer a sweetheart deal to unload the enfeebled asset on a willing buyer. “In 2008 the world was a scary place,” Mnuchin recalled. “When we agreed to buy the bank, committing capital to the financial system was viewed as a pretty risky proposition.” A similar anxiety arose from the other end of the bargaining table. “There was no price certainty at that point,” the former FDIC Chairman William Isaac remembered. “The financial markets had ceased functioning, nobody wanted to buy anything.” To put a cherry on it, seemingly intent on bringing together all of the bad-faith actors of the financial crash, the FDIC enlisted the soon-bankrupt investment firm Lehman Brothers to advise the deal.
To make the agreement palatable in the uncertain and non-competitive banking environment, the FDIC agreed to dole out $9 billion of financing, cover IndyMac’s losses from its assemblage of rotten loans and sell the $23.5 billion portfolio of loans and mortgages for $13.9 billion. Mnuchin and a consortium of billionaires (including George Soros) jumped at the bid. He, more than any of his competitors, it seemed, had spotted the opportunity amidst crisis. “Which is how,” writes Bloomberg, one night in October 2011, Mnuchin “found himself trying to explain to his three children why approximately 100 protestors waving ‘Make Banks Pay’ signs had set up camp outside the family’s 21,000-square-foot, $26 million Bel Air mansion.”
For Mnuchin, the IndyMac deal was no side project. Renamed OneWest, it was a step up from his hedge-fund management days in New York. It was the first bank he had ever run. For it, Mnuchin made an undisclosed but “significant personal investment.” And under Mnuchin, the bank was an astonishing success. Between the end of 2009 to the end of 2010, buying up smaller banks, OneWest’s capital base rose twofold. By 2011, the bank had markedly appreciated, holding $27 billion in assets. The plan was to increase earnings by 12% to 14% a year.
And yet, amidst its success, the bank would be loudly dogged by advocacy groups and Occupy protestors for flagrant foreclosure scandals. As early as 2012, as Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept_ first reported, the heads of California’s state attorney general’s Consumer Law Section sent a 22-page memo to then-Attorney General, now-Senator Kamala Harris’s office. The brief outlined “a thousand legal violations in the small subsection of OneWest loans they were able to examine.” Hoping to grease the legal organs, the state consumer advocates even included a sample legal complaint for the AG alongside their findings beseeching Harris to file suit, to force OneWest to reform and pay millions-of-dollars worth of fines. She ignored the recommendations. “We went and we followed the facts and the evidence, and it’s a decision my office made,” Harris recently defended her inaction to The Hill. “We pursued it just like any other case. We go and we take a case wherever the facts lead us.”
Mnuchin may come across to many as tight-lipped, maybe overly amenable or stiff. “I’m never the main attraction,” he explained. “I’m the facilitator.” And he means it on a minute level. Take an episode at a presidential-campaign fundraiser hosted at a country club in Canton, Ohio while Mnuchin still worked for Trump as his finance chairman. While his boss was busy with the cameras outside, Mnuchin took stock of the dining room and the “U-shaped table” around which they would mingle and hobnob with their donors. Mnuchin decided that his boss’s chair was two feet too close to the wall. So concerned with this detail of Trump’s possible discomfort, just minutes before the meal was to commence, he scurried the staff to rearrange all of the furniture. “Mnuchin is an oasis of blankness in a campaign of chaos and fervor,” Bloomberg concluded.
And yet, as The New York Times notes, “Mnuchin is known among Manhattan’s elite as part of one of the city’s most influential families.” His father climbed the ranks of Goldman Sachs to its management committee. He reinvented himself as an art dealer and showed exhibits of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. And, as bland or unassuming as he may present himself, like his father, Mnuchin always has his sights set higher. To date, the acquisition of IndyMac was by far the most significant business venture of his career. The turnaround of the toxic lender into a robust OneWest gained him great accolades in the upper circles of the financial cast. Yet Mnuchin was not satisfied. First he was thinking of taking OneWest public and jumping back into his old Wall Street climes in Manhattan. Then, in 2014, together with his partners, he sold the bank to CIT Group, one of the largest financial holding companies in the US, for $3.4 billion (Mnuchin et. al. had paid $1.55 billion cash in the original purchase.)
Perhaps Icarus had flown too close to the sun. The deal was too big not to draw the attention of all of the housing watchdogs in the state of California. For it was then, while looking into the proposed OneWest-CIT merger, as part of their routine duties monitoring the large banks in the state, that CRC advocates smelled something rotten. It was then that they began to notice the disparities, disparities that seemed to correlate with race. First FHANC concluded their investigation on Mnuchin’s bank, producing a report that demonstrated the vastly different levels of investment in REO-home maintenance between white and black neighborhoods. Then there were the discrepancies in the location of OneWest’s branches and the gaping inequities in home lending according to race.
“All banks are different but it’s not surprising to find banks engaging in problematic behavior in one or more aspect,” reflects CRC’s Stein. “But it is surprising to find a bank that’s not engaging in some of the positive behavior…like lending money to people to become homeowners or lending money to small businesses which are vital parts of the community or helping to invest in…the development of affordable housing[,]…even to engage in philanthropy that will support economic development.” It was not just the apparent infractions over race. Stein was taken aback by discovering OneWest’s apparently singular, profit motive: “there are banks with more foreclosures, but most banks do something beneficial…[Mnuchin’s] just didn’t seem to be doing any of that.”
As the complicated merger progressed, CRC and FHANC gathered their findings of banking violations and filed eight comment letters, pushing for investigations of OneWest’s lending and foreclosure practices. They addressed the formal complaints to government regulatory agencies including the Federal Reserve Board, FDIC, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The final letter, the eighth, explicitly accused Mnuchin’s organization of redlining. It lobbied for a “fair housing and fair lending investigation.”
As the merger procedures progressed, the advocacy groups heard no reply. Just as Harris’s office passed on prosecution regarding Mnuchin’s foreclosure practices, the Feds did not seem interested in the new round of allegations. In August 2015, regulators approved the bank merger. OneWest was no more, swallowed up by the “too big to fail” goliath, CIT. Mnuchin earned a $10.9 million severance. At that point CRC and FHANC forwarded their redlining charges against OneWest, now CIT, to HUD.
“Unfortunately,” HUD Secretary Julián Castro lamented to CNN last July, “too many Americans find their dreams limited by where they come from.” His mantra at HUD was that a “ZIP code should never determine a child’s future.” And yet, a banker accused of redlining, of furthering and expanding segregation, Mnuchin is expected to be confirmed on January 19th without further investigation. Beyond the black and white statistics, segregationist policies along the lines of the redlining alleged against Mnuchin’s OneWest have had deleterious effects for decades. The “basic danger,” explains the prominent sociologist of Public Policy and Administration at George Washington University, Prof. Gregory D. Squires, is the “undermin[ing of] quality of life and future opportunities (e.g. access to good schools, jobs, healthy food, [and a] clean environment.)” In its latest form, the sudden flight of grocery stores from urban and minority neighborhoods has earned the nickname, “supermarket redlining.”
As a result segregated neighborhoods “perpetuate…[the] powerlessness” of the powerless, argue Princeton sociologist Douglas S. Massey and University at Albany-SUNY sociologist Nancy Denton. Segregation “concentrat[es] drug use, joblessness, welfare dependency, teenage childbearing, and unwed parenthood.” More and more, the “Black English” of the ghetto has grown distinct from Standard American English, slowing its users’ advancements through school and work. As Massey and Denton conclude, “these conditions [have become] not only common but the norm.” And the kicker: by the very definition of segregation, far-flung whites can hear a figure or read a news clip, but they do not see, let alone experience, the extremity of urban blight. So that locked away in the poverty of the ghetto, poor African Americans and Latinos are locked in a cruel stereotype as well: no job, unwed and pregnant, illiterate, lazy, snide and dependent.
The numbers tell this story clearly. The “costs of ghettos,” Harvard Profs. David M. Cutler and Edward L. Glaeser calculated, are lower rates of high school graduation, a higher likelihood of being “idle (neither in school nor working)” and greater rates of single motherhood. In turn, segregated minority neighborhoods correlate with higher crime rates—not all types of crime like theft and larceny—but with “violent crimes such as aggravated assault and robbery.” Pointing specifically to the on-going practices of redlining like Mnuchin’s and the re-segregating of public schools as primary causes, in 2011, the public policy organization Demos determined that in comparison to the median wealth of white households ($111,146), black families held down just $7,113, a ratio of 15.6 to 1.
Since the 1930s, redlining has existed, dating back to the days when mortgage lending was adopted as the primary mechanism for financing home loans. In the late 1960s, the Northwestern University sociologist John McKnight first used the term to describe the actions of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), established in 1933, an offspring of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The HOLC aimed to refinance loans for millions of families struck down by the Depression. To capture mortgage data, the HOLC drew maps, differentiating between the most desirable neighborhoods for lending and those in disrepair.
At the top of the community ratings were green-outlined “Type A” blocks, the best neighborhoods, “hot spots.” They were, as the HOLC described, “homogeneous,” a none-too-veiled euphemism for all-white, specifically affluent Protestants. Outlined in blue, “Type B” filled largely with “less desirable whites” (Jews, Irish, and Italians) and were described by the HOLC manual as a “1935 automobile still good, but not what the people are buying today who can afford a new one.” The next level down, “Type C” neighborhoods were outlined in yellow. They were “Jerry built” and “characterized by age.” They had been “infiltrate[ed by] a lower grade population…lacking homogeneity” (read: working-class whites) and suffered from “inadequate transportation” and “insufficient utilities.” Finally, “Type D” housing blocks, circled with a red line and crowded with African Americans and Latinos, were deemed riskiest for mortgage lending. They housed “undesirable population[s].” And were characterized by “very poor maintenance,” where “vandalism prevail[ed].”
With these maps, the HOLC aimed to aid the collapsed housing industry by giving a tool to the lending industry that could help organize banks’ targeting of potential mortgage seekers. Banks streamlined their practices by using the colored maps drawn by the HOLC to discriminate. Just as the different “Types” suggested, somewhat implicitly, somewhat explicitly, the banks gave loans in the wealthiest neighborhoods to whites while reserving the poorest neighborhoods for minorities. Lenders copied the exercise by drawing maps of their own in order to expand segregated communities. The practice was especially rampant in McKnight’s nearly segregated Chicago. At the same time, Prof. Cohen adds, “redlining was a particularly pernicious contributor to the segregation of metropolitan areas…because [as part of the New Deal,] it began as part of…a federal program…to help homeowners protect their homes in the depths of the Great Depression [italics added.]”
The practice of redlining was reinforced by other public programs that damaged minority neighborhoods. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was another part of FDR’s greater New Deal, forged from a coalition of Northern Democrats and segregationist Southern Democrats. In order to forward their agenda of social reform, the Northerners compromised with segregationist demands. The FHA, bending to its discriminatory Southern wing who “fear[ed] possible future integration,” consistently followed loan practices to keep the races separate. Further depressing minority communities, Bouie adds, “public housing projects…were placed in these segregated, depressed neighborhoods as a compromise with conservatives who opposed them outright.”
When suburbs like Levittown, NY—usually thought of as the “original suburb,” although the historian Kenneth Jackson has found that the residential phenomenon dated back to Babylon and third millennium B.C., the word to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—when hundreds of suburbs like Levittown were constructed in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, developers like Levitt and Sons worked hand-in-hand with the FHA. The Levitts had the idea of bringing mass production to the real estate business to offer “inexpensive home[s] with state-of-the-art gadgets in a…storybook town.” Each home immaculate. Each home identical. A “cookie-cutter suburb,” as the historian David Kushner has called it, a “brave new town.”
For to live in these brand-new suburbs like Levittown, you had to sign a certain covenant. And there were quite a few rules in these leases: “Item 17: No fences, either fabricated or growing…Item 21: No laundry poles or lines outside of the house.” The key stipulations in the covenant were capitalized: “THE TENANT AGREES TO CUT…THE LAWN AND REMOVE…TALL GROWING WEEKS AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK BETWEEN APRIL FIFTEENTH AND NOVEMBER FIFTEENTH.”
Abraham Levitt, the founder of the company business and the father of William Levitt, the founder of the development, made the rounds in his bulky black Cadillac, slowly surveilling the neighbors, the “nascent lawns and saplings.” He penned a column for the Levittown Tribune called “Chats on Gardening” that became a list of grievances and violations. “I have said so many times that the use of a hose with a metal nozzle attached should never be used in a garden,” he complained and continued. Nonetheless, “I see hundreds doing this very thing and then wondering why their trees and plants die.”
But there was one more rule to realize the stuff of Stepford, another capitalized statute in the Levittown covenant that prospective residents needed to sign: “THE TENANT AGREES NOT TO PERMIT THE PREMISES TO BE USED OR OCCUPIED BY ANY PERSON OTHER THAN MEMBERS OF THE CAUCASIAN RACE.”
As the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein lays out, there was no way that William Levitt could have gathered the money by himself to build his gated dream, “to construct 17,000 homes where there were no buyers.” Levitt’s solution was government lending. It was, Rothstein explains, “the only way he assembled the capital to build that development, and this is true of every metropolitan area nationwide where they were…building these suburbs in the ‘40s and 50s and 60s.”
So to build, on mass, the new American landscape with a sprinkler on every lawn and a Cadillac in every driveway, real estate developers struck a deal just as the Northern Democrats had with their segregationist Southerners to pass the sweeping legislation of FDR’s New Deal. In exchange for federal loans “came the condition, [along the same lines as HOLC’s maps,] that no homes be sold to African Americans.” It was a literal segregationist covenant, signed and delivered, that, regardless of the lenders’ personal views on race, was mandated by the federal government. And so, the construction of the suburbs, Rothstein concludes, became the codification of segregation in the United States.
Furthering the legacy of whites-only Levittowns and other mass-produced suburbs, has been the fiscal phenomenon that racially exclusive suburban homes that sold in the 1940’s for $8000 (a price that many working-class African Americans could have afforded at the time if not prohibited from owning by the FHA,) these homes now go on the market for $500,000. What was once an affordable step-up out of the ghetto morass for working-class black families is now an unaffordable leap, a dream.
Moreover, these white families further widened the wealth gap as they invested the exponential earnings of their home equity appreciation into investments, college funds, retirement packages and life insurance. As Prof. Cohen writes, “as homeowners’ houses increasingly became their greatest asset in the postwar period, those ratings contributed to great inequality in the investments of individuals and in turn in their accumulated wealth.” In other words, the insidiousness of segregation was that with white flight to suburbs so too went future earning potential.
Meanwhile many in local, state and federal governments continued to support redlining. On the lines of Levittown, in the 1950s, the Federal Housing and Veterans mass-produced suburbs on both coasts East and West. They relied on federal loans, drawn up like Levittown’s covenants, on the “explicit condition” that African Americans would be barred from buying their homes and, furthermore, that owners could not re-sell their properties to African Americans. The FHA would not budge on retaining its right to evaluate mortgage insurance applications on racial lines. In 1961, as EPI’s Rothstein states, President John F. Kennedy’s “FDIC Chairman Erie Cocke asserted that it was appropriate for banks under his supervision to deny loans to African Americans because white homeowners’ property values might fall if they had black neighbors.”
The turn came finally with the Civil Rights Movement. Redlining was first banned with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. In 1975 the law was strengthened by the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, requiring banks to share their lending data with the public in order to help community groups fight discrimination. With the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, banks were required to lend in underserved communities. It was a step forward for urban renewal even though it had no impact on ameliorating desegregation. It took until 1992, when the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston released a report on on-going redlining in the limits of its city, that the Federal Reserve began to systematically gather data on discriminatory practices in home-lending.
And yet, researchers from the Universities of North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia found that, from 1999 to 2004, blacks were “almost two times as likely” to be turned down for a mortgage than their white counterparts. Mnuchin and OneWest is another such case. In another, as Badger noted in a May 2015 article for the Washington Post titled “Redlining: Still a Thing,” HUD settled a housing discrimination case against Associated Bank, the largest bank in Wisconsin. Although a settlement, the case was deemed by HUD to be a victory against “one of the largest redlining complaints” ever made. Currently, the cities of Memphis and Baltimore both have pending cases against Wells Fargo for redlining practices.
Banking practices to widen the wealth gap and reinforce another generation, even generations, of segregation have continued to develop. In the early 1990s, there developed a new discriminatory scheme for banks like Mnuchin’s for a new financial climate. It was called reverse redlining, a term coined by Prof. Squires. Instead of the redlining practice of denying loans and housing; employing reverse-redlining, banks targeted minorities who had worked and waited desperately their whole lives to escape the ghetto confines to middle-class, even working-class, neighborhoods. Banks convinced these disadvantaged home-seekers to sign toxic, often subprime mortgages that they could not afford nor, given how convolutedly constructed, could they hope to understand. It was, as CRC described, “the latest iteration of Wall Street Predation.”
To maximize their revere-redlining portfolios, banks developed a myriad of ways to rope in new, vulnerable minority clients. Leading up to and during the financial crisis, Countrywide, which built its image as a “dream factory” for poor and minority homeowners, aired a set of ads portraying “canny black women talking their husbands into signing mortgages.” In 2012 Countrywide stood before Obama’s Department of Justice, accused of 200,000 instances of reverse-redlining. The statistics were not on the bank’s side: a “strong correlation” was found between race and the shadiness of their mortgage provisions. Countrywide settled for $335 million, a large number that, nonetheless, compensated each victim only $2000. Wells Fargo employed a different tactic to generate customers, persuading black reverends to host “wealth-building seminars” in their parishes. In exchange for every loan made, the bank promised to give $350 to the church’s favorite charity (most often the church.) As the longtime advocate for the poor, Barbara Ehrenreich found at Wells Fargo, subprime mortgages were often called “ghetto loans”; minorities received the nickname “mud people.”
The Baptist Reverend Clyde Hargraves of Washington, DC preached of Bibles and brimstone to a principally black congregation in his Greater Little Ark Baptist Church at Second and S streets, NW. He had about 120 faithful. And he had a problem. His church owed $70,000-worth of debt. As if from some benevolent Providence, it was then that his phone rang. The call was unsolicited, a broker from Capital City Mortgage whose name the pastor had never heard, but who had apparently heard of the church’s debt problem. The broker convinced the clergyman that the church could never find an offer for a smaller loan. So that Hargraves agreed to borrow $160,000, which, he learned only at their last meeting, had a $26,000 origination fee (or 16% of the loan) tacked on. Moreover, Hargraves learned only in their final meeting that in the first four years of the loan, the Little Ark Baptist Church would have to pay an additional 25% interest rate.
In the agreement Hargraves signed, “many of the key loan terms [were] left blank, such as interest rates, monthly payments, and [the] duration of the loan.” He was refused a copy of the final note and deed of trust. And after settlement, when he called the Capital City offices for a coupon payment book and to argue over the addition of the last-minute $26,000 fee, Hargraves received a message that his broker’s phone had been disconnected. He had no recourse. For two years he labored to make the loan payments of $4,200 a month (mostly to cover the 25% interest payments.) The broker then “arbitrarily and fraudulently” hiked up the church’s monthly due. For the next two years, unable to afford the $160,000 balloon payment that had kicked in (although he had been promised that no balloon payment would incur,) Hargraves waited for the worst. Targeted for a loan whose many-hidden provisions he could never hope to pay, Hargraves had been the victim of reverse redlining.
When the day came, the church-goers were “stunned [and] confused…when federal marshals served an eviction notice” at their place of worship. “It don’t make no sense,” Gwendolyn Turnbow remarked, smoking a cigarette as she watched the team of evictors disembowel her church. They just kept removing things. “It’s embarrassing, is what it is,” Turnbow continued, “putting a church out like that. No, sir, never seen them put a church out before.” Insolvency had finally caught up to the Greater Little Ark Baptist Church at Second and S. Capital City foreclosed. By the end of the day, nearly everything the church owned had been hauled out to the curb: “broken desks and rusty metal filing cabinets and rickety bookcases,” “an upright piano,” some “volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961.”
The broker resold the property to another African American church for $450,000. The Little Ark was not alone. As Benjamin Howell calculated for the California Law Review, Capital City made reverse redlining their company policy. The mortgage dealer aimed its shady exploits at black neighborhoods, businesses and institutions like Hargraves’s church all across the capitol: “94% of its loans in the District were tied to properties in majority black” communities. And then, of those properties Capital City foreclosed, 97% were in the same such areas.
Encouraged by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, a group of plaintiffs led by Hargraves decided to sue Capital City Mortgage. According to a 1998 brief submitted to the District Court of DC by the Acting Assistant Attorney General on behalf of the plaintiffs, the bank demonstrated a clear “pattern…of predatory lending targeting African American communities.” The bank specialized in subprime lending and reverse redlining. It was the first time the government had taken a side on the matter of predatory mortgages targeted at minorities. As the plaintiffs contended, Capital City’s “loans were designed to fail.” The bank had “intentionally stripped equity from African American neighborhoods.”
It was a landmark case. “No court, to date,” explains the fair-housing advocate John P. Relman, “had been asked to decide whether predatory lending could also be a violation of fair housing laws,” if reverse redlining breached the Fair Housing Act. The case set a powerful series of precedents. Hargraves and his co-plaintiffs won a “ringing victory.” The court found that “predatory lenders could be held liable” for reverse redlining. “As a catalyst for reform,” inspiring “profound” tightening of government regulations in the industry, Obama’s former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan concluded that Hargraves’s case laid the groundwork for “important new laws and in the process empowered minority communities.” Capital City became the symbol of bad-banking behavior across the country.
And yet because of the intransigence of segregation and the insidiousness of redlining, the 2008 crash hit disproportionately minority neighborhoods. These segregated communities, crammed with subprime mortgages and the type of reverse-redlined deals signed by Hargraves, fell like dominos. As each home or apartment foreclosed, each other home declined “one percent in…value…within an eighth of a mile.” It was not a colorblind toll. Secretary Donovan estimates that “between 2005 and 2009, fully two-thirds of median household wealth in Hispanic families was wiped out. From Jamaica, Queens, New York, to Oakland, California, strong, middle class African American neighborhoods saw nearly two decades of gains reversed in a matter of not years—but months.”
And even after a crash built significantly on the kind of racially-targeted subprime and predatory lending still rampant despite the Capital City ruling, almost two decades later, redlining, reverse-redlining, high closing costs, seductive but exploding “teaser” rates that begin with artificially low interest payments but soon balloon to unaffordable monthly costs, these toxic real-estate practices continue to beset disproportionately African American and Hispanic borrowers. These schemes have brought forth pandemics of foreclosures in minority communities. As a result, these practices have led to a renaissance in segregation. As the EPI’s Rothstein argues, minority families, displaced by deviously constructed mortgages they could not afford, are caught in the web of predatory lenders. In turn such reverse redlining exacerbates the division of the races. For unable to pay their ballooning costs, minority borrowers go underwater. And, Rothstein explains, they are forced to move to even “more racially isolated neighborhoods or suffer homelessness.”
As an advocacy group for fair lending, they aim to analyze the banking practices of the largest institutions in California, CRC’s Stein explained his organization’s mission. And relative to its size, CRC found, Mnuchin’s OneWest fell disastrously short. Even when measured against the government-approved “plan [OneWest, itself,] proposed to invest in communities going forward,” CRC found that the bank’s development and preservation of affordable housing placed them “toward the very bottom of institutions.” For the coalition of watchdogs headed by CRC concluded that Mnuchin’s bank was just “doing a poor job of the things most people think of when they think of banks.”
House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi has slammed Mnuchin for his dealings during the 2008 financial crisis. Pelosi protests that in his cabinet nominees, Trump has “hand[ed] over the keys to the same players who drove our economy into a ditch.” Likewise, Senators Bernie Sanders and Warren sent out a joint press release for Trump’s reneging on his campaign promise to “drain the swamp” by nominating the likes of Mnuchin, another “Wall Street insider,” who “pocketed billions in taxpayer dollars from the bailout” while “mak[ing] a fortune…[by] aggressively foreclos[ing] on families still reeling from the crisis.”
Congressmen have pointed to the foreclosure practices of Mnuchin’s bank and not yet spoken out on the redlining accusations. Eighteen Senators (from both sides of the aisle) who were contacted for this article chose not to comment on the nominee nor the allegations of banking discrimination. The Democrats failed to make the accusations of racism stick to Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign. His racist language, threats and practices have been seemingly excused even though, from his heading of the “birther movement” to his proposal of a Muslim ban, Trump has exhibited consistent bigotry. Indeed in 1973 Trump had lodged against him a housing discrimination suit all his own. The Justice Department alleged that, as Hillary Clinton put it during the presidential campaign, Trump “would not rent apartments in one of his developments to African-Americans, and he made sure that the people who worked for him understood that was the policy.” Trump settled the matter.
Now we have Mnuchin on the docket. In their complaints over Mnuchin, lawmakers have overlooked the significant criminal allegation lodged against the nominee for Treasury Secretary, his leading a company that committed racist violations of the Fair Housing Act. Mnuchin and OneWest’s home loans to borrowers in minority neighborhoods lagged far behind their local competitors. The bank refused to build branches in majority minority communities. Exacerbating the issue, OneWest aggressively foreclosed homes in struggling minority communities even as the bank maintained a practice of keeping those minority homeowners out of thriving white neighborhoods.
Given the clarity of the evidence of racially discriminatory practices during the Treasury Secretary nominee’s time heading OneWest bank, we can come to only a few conclusions. Either Mnuchin is racist and sees it as part of his lending mission to keep the races separate. Or Mnuchin and his staff’s racist proclivities are, in general, unconscious, and they cannot help but be drawn to lend on racial lines, set up branches in and maintain only white communities. Or, so concerned about the bottom line, Mnuchin is callous to the suffering caused directly by on-going segregation. Or, derelict of duty and unaware that redlining was going on in his bank, Mnuchin was a poor manager of those in his chain-of-command. Or perhaps, so institutionalized was redlining in the OneWest culture, it would have taken more political capital to end the practice than Mnuchin was willing to spend.
In a twist, it will most likely be Trump’s nominee as HUD Secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, who will head the very department that will judge the redlining complaint against Mnuchin and OneWest put forth by CRC et al. EPI’s Rothstein finds the prospects most frightening. Carson has described as “social-engineering” the Obama administration’s new HUD policy that mandates cities to assess and work to desegregate or incur federal fines. Obama’s reforms would mean an emphasis on the largely neglected second mandate of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, that is to “affirmatively further” the goal of integration. Some legal scholars have declared Obama’s policies the first meaningful ones since those reforms of 1968. Carson wants to reverse the president’s regulations that he views as reminiscent of a “communist” state.
In turn, Rothstein laments what he sees as Carson’s basic misunderstanding of urban history. Rothstein argues that it was “social engineering” through deliberate government action that produced segregation in the first place. It was FDR’s HOLC that laid the groundwork for redlining. It was the FHA that doled out the home loans to create whites-only suburbs. Obama’s efforts, so loathed by Carson, are meant to undo these historical and contemporary wrongs. And to confront banks like Mnuchin’s OneWest who still make it harder on average for a black family earning $157,000 to secure a prime loan than for a white family who brings in $47,000.
A shorter version of this article was published in The Hill on Jan 1, 2016.
You can hear the bass drum pounding away as you read the headline of Paul Krugman’s latest New York Times editorial: “How Republics End.” Hitler, Franco and Mussolini. Here we have the other Big Three, the degenerate offspring of the 1920s and 1930s, and the list to which Krugman proposes to add President-elect Donald Trump. “What’s about to happen here is populist style, with a heavy racist component, wedded to oligarch-friendly, middle-class destroying policy,” Krugman tweets. “This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes…but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac,” adds Robert Kagan in the Washington Post. For shorthand, we can define the ideology of fascism as ultra-nationalist, populist, anti-political and authoritarian incited by calls for mass participation in extreme violence. And, indeed, according to Krugman, “it takes willful blindness not to see the parallels between the rise of fascism and our current political nightmare.”
Krugman is just the latest to call Trump the next great fascist. Comparing Trump to Hitler has become a parlor game on the Left with the likes of Ken Burns, Angela Davis, Louis C.K., Bill Maher and SNL and some Republicans including Glenn Beck and the former Governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, joining in. When Trump began asking crowds to raise their hands to swear oaths of loyalty, the quasi-“Seig Heil” had the Huffington Post immediately decrying the similarity between a “Trump Rally… [and] a Scene from Nazi Germany.” Sporcle, a popular website of trivia quizzes, even created a new distraction: they provide a quote, and you guess who said it, Trump or Hitler. The billionaire’s rise has even created a renaissance in political cartoons:
No doubt the name-calling springs from genuine fear. Key to the Hitler mythos is the story of a scary leader who became a tyrannical monster. Hitler did not invade Poland in 1933. He did not open concentration camps on his first day in office. He began his Chancellorship with only 43.9% of the seats in the Reichstag. Never a savory sort, Hitler nonetheless descended into the horror we know now only over time. This spiraling trajectory has engendered a fear and a vigilance to catch the scary leader before he becomes the tyrannical monster.
This model of gradual degeneration lies at the heart of the parable of “First they came for the [insert minority], and I did not speak out…” It is the implicit anxiety that fascism is a slippery slope. We must be on guard to spot the illiberal canary. Laws to stop immigration today can be the first step in a succession of policies descending into genocide tomorrow. This anxiety fuels the desire, however hastily, to hunt and ferret out the latent fascists before they commandeer uncontrollable power and reveal themselves as fiends. It was the story of Sinclair Lewis’s wildly popular (and sarcastically titled) 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here in which fascism arises in America when a demagogic Democratic Senator degenerates into a brutal, totalitarian president.
And Trump can be scary. He likes to play the tough guy. His glorifying of himself as the anti-politician of “outsider populism” while surrounded by jeering fans recalls fascists before him. He lies, cheats and steals. He threatens women, Mexicans and Muslims. As one Northwestern University psychologist concluded in The Atlantic, Trump exhibits troubling signs of “narcissism, disagreeableness, [and] grandiosity.” But Trump’s “grandiosity” is small fry compared to Hitler’s. In his declaration of war on the United States in December 1941, Hitler ranted that “Providence[, itself, had…] entrusted [him] with the leadership in a historic conflict that will be decisive in determining the next five hundred or one thousand years, not only of our German history, but also of the history of Europe and even of the entire world.” Playing the Hitler card can provide a momentary flush of relief by denigrating the frightening new commander-in-chief as the unctuous symbol of evil incarnate. But Trump is no Hitler, even if it is fun to say.
Trump has not called for an end to democracy. He has not promoted international conquest. He does not glorify mass violence. He has not set up paramilitary ranks of goose-stepping goons elaborately uniformed in crisp regalia. Trump’s regalia has amounted to mis-measured ties and a little red hat. As the German historian Thomas Weber argues, the defining difference between the two leaders is that “for Hitler, every compromise…was a rotten compromise… For Trump, ultimately a compromise is what you do.” So that Trump has no master plan. The Art of the Deal is no Mein Kampf.
At the center of the nightmare of a fascist America is the notion of an unprecedented illiberal descent. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of American history. It rests on the recalcitrant myth (often unconscious) of a democratic immaculate conception in which the United States was born a “perfect union” when, with their signing of the Constitution, the Forefathers created a fully formed nation of equality, freedom and justice under the law. Creeping fascism, it is feared, now threatens this most cherished of political experiments.
Yet American liberty has been an evolutionary process of amendment and error, of steps toward more and more liberal democracy like the Bill of Rights, abolition of slavery, Women’s Suffrage and gay marriage, interrupted by major illiberal steps back like the Alien and Sedition Acts, nullification, Jim Crow, Japanese internment and Abu Ghraib. Trump’s proposal of “banning Muslims” would fit comfortably on this latter list. It would devastate the lives of countless refugees while promoting a policy of bigotry against a select group of people. It would be an American tragedy demanding swift appeal. It would be a stain. But it would not signal Krugman’s end to the Republic.
The problem with throwing around the word fascism is that it immediately connotes historical meaning beyond the strict definition engineered by political scientists. As the historian Theodore Draper wrote, “we may be told that…fascism has nothing to do with German concentration camps, the German dictator, a mass fascist party, and all the
rest. But the word is shocking and frightening precisely because it is historically linked to concentration camps, dictators, and all they imply.”
German fascism rose in the 1920 and 1930s out of specific, historic and economic conditions that Krugman, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist, has somehow forgotten. Aside from the weak and ineffectual Weimar Republic in the period between World War I and the rise of the Nazis, Germany completely lacked a democratic tradition from which to draw stability, norms and custom. The land and its people were devastated by their defeat in the Great War. They lost a generation of men. Their economy was sunk by exorbitant war debts and reparations. And even as many celebrated the wide-open milieu of avant-garde art and the creation of their first social welfare state, the fracturing of the Weimar Republic—the economic crises, hyperinflation, rage and suffering—threatened to pull Germany apart. Over and above that, it was then that the Great Depression hit. By 1931, the Republic was “virtually bankrupt.” In his first radio address to the German people, in February 1933, Hitler decried the German’s historic humiliation in losing World War I. A brooding Führer focused his ire on the misfortune of the “starving industrial proletariat [who] have become unemployed in their millions, while the whole middle and artisan class ha[s] been made paupers.”
Vladimir Putin did not rise because his face just screams cult-of-personality. He followed in the long Russian authoritarian tradition of Tsars and General Secretaries. He grabbed inordinate, undemocratic power from a state in collapse, one that suffered from decades of Soviet terror and misrule, from the humiliating loss of the Cold War, its loss of status as a world power, the loss of wealth and resources from its dissolved empire, a “lost decade” in the 1990s with empty store shelves, desperate peasants and runaway inflation. Putin capitalized on the disappointment over the drunken, corrupt face of Russian democracy, Boris Yeltsin. He capitalized literally with the rise of a new oligarchic class funded by oil. The seeds of fascism of the likes of Putin, of the likes of Hitler, are desperation and humiliation. It is desperation on a massive, national scale with no democratic tradition for succor.
In the heyday of fascism, like during the Red Scares, fears ran high that Hitler’s ideology would infiltrate the American body politic. Fascist movements like the Black Legion, Sentinels of America, Silver Shirts and Free Society of Teutonia “murdered, flogged, and bombed” their way through the 1930s. Famous and respected figures like the poet Ezra Pound, Joseph Kennedy, the billionaire publisher of yellow journalism William Randolph Hearst and the immensely popular hard-right-radio host Father Coughlin, an anti-Communist and rabidly anti-Semitic Catholic priest, proved to be Nazi-sympathizers. The threat, it appeared, had jumped the Atlantic Ocean. “SPREAD OF FASCISM REPORTED IN WEST,” in 1936 the New York Times sounded the alarm.
During these years of fascist power in Europe, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was himself accused of leading a fascist vanguard. In the pages of the Saturday Evening Post and at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the former president Herbert Hoover warned that the New Deal was an attempt at a “fascist” takeover and for it, he received “wild cheering” and the “greatest ovation [he had] ever [been] given.”
Hoover was far from alone. With the creation of “a centralized Government of unlimited power,” the Governor of Ohio and vice presidential candidate John W. Bricker warned that Roosevelt had “adopted the basic doctrines of Nazism and Fascism.” An ardent opponent of big government spending, the historically influential Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek wrote of the “unpalatable truth” behind Roosevelt’s policies: “that it is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating.”
The fascist takeover never occurred. In the United States, democratic values triumphed over the Axes’ ideological appeal. And after the defeat of fascism in World War II, Americans turned to Communism as the next great threat internationally. Their anxiety was drawn to a new group of subversives. Now it was Reds that needed the ferreting. But the fear of a rising tide of fascism did not die with Hitler in his bunker.
In the Nixon era during the seemingly endless war in Vietnam, as the economy struggled, the debate resurfaced in force over whether the United States was “destined to suffer the fate of Weimer Germany.” Young 60’s protestors proclaimed the Vietnamese war effort a fascist endeavor. Civil rights leaders compared Nixon’s relations with African Americans to the Führer’s treatment of the Jews. In the Times Krugman compares the United States today to the fall of the Roman Empire. In the Times, forty-five years ago, another economist, the prominent libertarian Murray N. Rothbard wrote a similar column, declaring Nixon “our Caesar in the White House.” As Nixon took the US off the gold standard and implemented a wage-price freeze, “on August 15, 1971,” Rothbard wrote, “fascism came to America.” Even the highest authority of dissent condoned the comparison as Nixon’s presidential opponent, Sen. George McGovern, made it a habit of equating the two.
A “liberal caricature” of President Ronald Reagan routinely painted him as a “fascist buffoon.” But it was only after the arduous election of 2000 finally settled with George W. Bush finally ascendant to the White House that the accusations of fascism really flew again: over Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, John Ashcroft even Condoleeza Rice. Michael Moore wrote that the “Patriot Act [wa]s as un-American as Mein Kampf.” Left-wing websites lit up with the comparison. Bush was “routinely portrayed as a Nazi…with a Hitler mustache” while it became commonplace to find “T- shirts with Bush’s name spelled with [the ‘S’ exchanged for] a swastika,” noted the right-wing columnist Rich Lowry. The billionaire George Soros, a major contributor to liberal causes and a survivor of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes, drew a direct parallel.“When [he] hear[d] Bush say, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ Soros said that “it remind[ed him] of the Germans.”
We have a rich history of fearing fascism. We have seen the cruelty and devastation it can wrought. No one wishes to be the next Lindbergh or Chamberlain whistling in the wind as the next Hitler heils his way to power. Vigilance against Trump’s undemocratic proclivities is vital. But we must also correctly diagnose the problem. Is the American economy suffering a “breakdown of Weimarian dimensions?” Critically, we are not in the major depression-like conditions out of which, without exception, fascism has historically grown. We have a rich democratic tradition. This year there were healthy marches of protestors in the hundreds on both sides. And instead of violent riots, the great upheaval in our democratic order amounted to seven faithless electors (out of 538) changing their votes. We have suffered no grand humiliation (aside from a handful of Rick Perry’s costumed performances on Dancing with the Stars.)
The Democrats must see Trump for what he is. The Hitler analogy leads to the characterization of Trump as a singular phenomenon of enormous power when in fact he is a small man with small hands.His beefs are petty. His thoughts are contradictory and confused. He has stumbled into power. His grand strategy is non-existent.
And there is a danger in throwing around the moniker of fascism. It suggests in one’s opponents an “intolerable barbarity” that when coopted by radical individuals or movements, as Draper argues, provides “an implicit license to use any weapons and any methods to overthrow it.” The power in the word is the reason that America’s foreign revolutionary enemies use the term to rally their people against the United States. It is a call to arms. It is the kind of dangerous hyperbole found in fake news.
“Back in the 1960s, when not-quite-grown-up children began to refer to policemen as pigs and to their fathers as Nazis, both pigs and Nazis lost a little of their toxic heft,” wrote William F. Buckley, Jr. “If everybody is a son of a bitch, then a son of a bitch becomes a pretty routine thing.” With every comparison, Buckley explained, “Hitler becomes a little less the definitive evil.” He becomes just a step more normalized.
There are real fascists in the world. But we must call a spade a spade, not a knife. Trump poses a danger due to his shallow and inconsistent thinking. His craving for populist approval, his longing for flattery, leaves Trump vulnerable. He has proven to be easily swayed. It is terribly troubling that one day Trump and Putin call each other “friends” and the next for a nuclear arms race. The relationship and Russia must remain under firm scrutiny. But Putin has blood on his hands. Trump has frosting from this morning’s chocolate éclair.
– Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, PhD
Richard Nixon sent 18 bombers, loaded with thermonuclear payloads, to threaten the borders of the Soviet Union. They flew aggressive patterns for three days. For Nixon had an idea. He called it his “Madman Theory.” And he believed it could win, or at least end, a war in Vietnam that had stretched nearly five years. “I want the North Vietnamese [and their Soviet backers] to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war,” Nixon told his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. According to his “Madman Theory,” if the Soviets and the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh thought Nixon crazy enough to start a total nuclear war, Nixon believed he could scare Ho into a peace deal.
Lest we think the “Madman Theory” a dangerous anachronism that died with the trials of Richard Millhouse Nixon, an apparent, new pair of adherents are just weeks away from moving into the West Wing. President-elect Donald J. Trump’s controversial chief strategist Steve Bannon recently spelled out Nixon’s theory to a tee. Bannon preached that the key to besting one’s opponents is instability and the threat of malice. You must keep your adversaries off-balance so that they cannot predict how far you will go, to what extreme you might act, how mad you might be. “Darkness is Good,” Bannon pontificated in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they (liberals) get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing [only then do we gain true power over our enemies.]” Nixon couldn’t have said it better himself. Or perhaps worse.
Trump agreed most pithily with his advisor. As he told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, “I want to be unpredictable.” And to the New York Times, “there’s such, total predictability of this country, and it’s one of the reasons we do so poorly.” He continued, “the problem we have is…democracy…[W]e have to be so open.” He didn’t want China “to know what my real thinking is.” Like Nixon, Trump prefers “secret plans.”
For most of the Cold War, the assumption among the American people was that the superpowers aimed for more predictability in international relations. The idea was that war would be less likely if each superpower knew how and why the other was acting. In 1963 a direct “hotline” was set up between the White House and the Kremlin for just such purpose. Honest relations bred trust. And trust bred peace. The Soviets would be less likely to act belligerently if they knew in advance the mighty deterrence the United States had in store.
As Ronald Reagan once asked the American people, “just suppose with me for a moment that an Ivan and an Anya could find themselves, oh, say, in a waiting room, or sharing a shelter from the rain or a storm with a Jim and Sally, and there was no language barrier to keep them from getting acquainted…Before they parted company, they would probably have touched on ambitions and hobbies and what they wanted for their children…They might even have decided they were all going to get together for dinner some evening soon. Above all, they would have proven that people don’t make wars.”
But by acting unmoored, Nixon believed he could succeed where his predecessor had tragically failed. To complete his bomber plan, to end the Vietnam War, Nixon told his chief of staff that “we’ll just slip the word to [the Soviets and Vietnamese] that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button.” Nixon promised that “Ho Chi Minh himself w[ould] be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
Ho and the Soviets didn’t flinch. The plan that Nixon had named Giant Lance went nowhere, and Nixon recalled the 18 bombers, having been willing to dangle the threat of Armageddon, to play the “madman,” but not to act on it. Instead, he began to shift toward incremental withdrawal and “Vietnamization” of the war.
Nixon may have been its first high-level adherent, but he did not invent the “Madman Theory.” It was in the air in the late-1950s as prevailing minds in American foreign policy debated the utility of and necessary abstention from nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In an earlier form President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called for “brinksmanship” and a deterrence of “massive retaliation.” The ambiguity that would be at the heart of the “Madman Theory” lay implicitly in the question of how Eisenhower would react to Soviet aggression. Would he really one-up his opponent with “massive retaliation,” escalate his response, cross the Rubicon and order an all-out nuclear war?
A group of strategists including the Nobel Prize-Winner in Economics Thomas Schelling and Nixon’s National Security Advisor and future-key-confidant Henry Kissinger gathered to debate the merits of “ambiguity” in the new field of game theory and international relations. They mainly studied or worked at Harvard and the Rand Corporation. They became known as the “whiz kids” of the nuclear age. Schelling called their field the “strategy of conflict.” They debated such dilemmas as whether “the Soviets [would] be more [or less] likely to attack Western Europe if [the US] kept missiles there or if [they] didn’t.”
Kissinger scoffed at Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” strategy. Would Ike really break the “nuclear taboo” if the Soviets fed arms to Communist insurgents in the Philippines? While the Americans remained bound to their giant nuclear deterrent, the Reds would undertake “salami tactics,” Kissinger believed, carving out slices from the Americans’ sphere. The Americans, armed only with one option, “massive retaliation,” would be paralyzed to act against relatively trivial Soviet tactics.
Eschewing “massive retaliation,” John F. Kennedy’s administration adopted a strategy of “flexible response.” It was pragmatic. Act small against a threat that was small; respond with force against a larger opponent. The “Madman Theory” was a reaction to the predictability and stability of this doctrine of proportional force. To coerce peace, to retain a respected deterrence, for true intimidation, Kissinger explained to one Defense Department official, “the other side…[must] think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further.” Nixon and Kissinger played on the cliff’s edge. One could not judge grand strategy from sheer madness.
And now, in Trump, we seem to have a new adherent. He takes telephone calls from the president of Taiwan without consulting the State Department. He blasts tweets regarding unsubstantiated, mass voter fraud. He invites Kanye West to meet him at Trump Towers. He preaches “America First” to thousands at his rallies. Has he lost it, or does it all fit in one master plan? Is he the grand strategist, following in the footsteps of Nixon and Kissinger, or is he an irresponsible political naïf who can’t control his unhinged excesses?
Perhaps Trump wants to upend the United State’s relationship with China as he has been advised to do so by Senator-turned-Presidential-candidate-turned-Taiwanese-lobbyist Robert Dole. Or perhaps Trump does not understand the ramifications of cozying up to the Taiwanese for a little business favor. Perhaps he is a master tactician, using his trail of loony tweets and outlandish accusations to distract the media from what could be a maelstrom brewing over his international business conflicts of interest. Or perhaps Trump is truly a mad-tweeter, unable to control himself, sending out missives before his staff can convince him otherwise. Trump has left us with the fundamental question: is he a “madman” or a mad man?
Maybe he hob-knobs with celebrities like Kanye in order to get a beat on the millennial generation. Or maybe he is scratching an itch, a pathological insecurity, aching for attention and adulation, wasting precious hours of his transition to try to prove that he is a part of a glitterati who so long rejected him.
Trump may be play-acting the racist, chanting “America, First” at rallies to woo white supremacists while having no intention of furthering their cause. Or he may harbor the maniacal bigotry contained within the sloganeering. (Or perhaps either is too generous an interpretation. Perhaps he does not understand the incendiary with which he plays. Perhaps he does not even know the history of “America First,” Charles Lindbergh, the isolationist, the anti-Semitic, the fascist and pro-Nazi movement of 800,000 members who joined together in the run-up to World War II.)
Trump even has a direct connection to Nixon in Roger Stone. Stone, a Nixon operative, “Watergate dirty trickster” and former partner of Lee Atwater has acted as an informal confidant and part-time conciliary to Trump for 36 years. Like Trump, he prefers New York, dye jobs and spreading scandalous rumors to eliminate his opponents. Like Bannon, he gets a thrill from his nickname the “Prince of Darkness.” (His lobbying firm represented Zaire’s Mobuto Sese Seko and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.)
Stone prefers the “Nixonian hardball” to “Sunny Reaganism.”
Stone also purportedly quit (or was fired, depending on the account) over Trump’s slandering Megyn Kelly, Politico reported in August. Stone warned against the name-calling campaign tactic, but Trump only escalated his attacks. Trump had gone too far even for Stone who bristled that “Trump’s campaign was feeding his bad habits: megalomania and peevishness.” Finally Stone believed Trump had gone beyond the theory of the madman. “He is losing his grip on reality,” Stone told close confidants. “He has these yes-men around him. And now he’s living in a parallel world.” (Not to worry, Stone and Trump have broken up with great sturm und drang before, and they always find a way to break bread again.)
It was Joseph McCarthy’s infamous henchman Roy Cohn who introduced Stone to Trump. And now Stone has connected Trump with Alex Jones, the scandal-mongering firebrand who promotes conspiracy theories on his radio and web-streaming program. From his perch in Austin, Jones airs his show in a “semi-secret location” that he calls “The Central Texas Command Center and the Heart of the Resistance.” The Washington Post names Jones “America’s foremost purveyor of outlandish conspiracy theories.” He calls the elementary-school shooting in Newtown, CT a “hoax” and proselytizes that the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11th attacks were carried out by the United States government. To great success, he sold “Hillary for Prison” t-shirts. “It’s not that Jews are bad,” Jones explains. “It’s just that they are the head of the Jewish mafia in the United States.”
A year ago, in the midst of the Republican primary, Trump gave a half-hour interview to the Alex Jones Show. The two hit it off over their determination that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the September 11th attack. Stone imagines that Jones can act as the liaison between his unruly followers and the Trump presidency, a “valuable asset—somebody [who can]… rally the people around President Trump’s legislative program.” Scheming and spinning a web of dirty tricks, Stone carries the Nixonian torch. Nixon liked to play with fire. But in Jones, Trump may not realize, he’s not playing. In Jones, Trump has found himself a real, authentic madman.
There is a hubris buried at the heart of the “Madman Theory”. At its core, the “madman” must consider himself the wiser man, confident enough to outwit his opponent while maintaining supreme control as he minutely gauges the risk of his perilous behavior. What is more, both the key and the conundrum of the theory is the difficulty for onlookers to determine whether the “madman” persona is an act for strategic advantage or if the actor is truly mad. In 1969, was Nixon playing a part when he sent those 18 bombers? Or was he truly unmoored from reality to take such a chance on nuclear war? Even at the time opinion was split.
In 1969-70 Nixon expanded his secret bombing in Cambodia. It was another example of his employment of his “Madman Theory”. Nixon instructed Kissinger to tell the North Vietnamese that if they didn’t sue for peace, the president would “take measures of the greatest consequence” (i.e. go nuclear). Ho called Nixon’s bluff, and the war continued. While we do not have exact figures, approximately 6,000 Cambodian civilians died because of Nixon’s failed ruse. It is a lesson for Trump. For when one acts madly, mad acts tend to ensue.
– Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, PhD
Australian Tyrone Unsworth was gay. He was 13. He was bullied violently and relentlessly. He killed himself.
Let’s Americans support our Australian brothers and sisters, in whatever small way we can, to “creat[e] safe and supportive school environments” and “reduce homophobic and transphobic bullying and discrimination in schools.” Please sign and share the petition begun by Tyrone’s mother to support the Safe Schools Coalition.
UPDATED (Dec 28, 2016): “Heartbroken Family and Friends,” funeral is held.
It was not too long ago that Vietnam stood as the model war against which to measure all other wars. It took years to digest the tragedy. But, eventually, a consensus was reached that the first and most vital lesson learned from the ill-fated incursion was that the United States should not fight a war unless its people fully supported the effort. Those military adventures that lacked the backing of a majority of the American people and its media were doomed to fail because the resources and effort needed for victory would be at least, in part, withheld. The image of one arm tied behind one’s back became the lasting symbol for the message. And how far have we come? Has this lesson of consensus support been digested and respected? Do we fight only those wars backed by the American public? For that matter, do we fight wars the American public understands? How many Americans know the difference between Mosul and Aleppo? the Balkans and the Baltics? Implicitly, the idea that the American public need support American foreign interventions rests on the assumption of an inherent wisdom in the American people to understand the world and all its complexity. It is a naïve and fanciful conception. And yet, what is the alternative?
It is said that Vietnam, what Lyndon Johnson called “that bitch of a war,” was a conflict fought to defend American “credibility” in the world (and, of course, the credibility of the Democratic Party, John F. Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson.) At the war’s outset in 1964/5, most Americans, if paying attention at all, “tended to support the effort.” The United States needed to contain Moscow and Beijing lest it tempt the Soviet Union and China to meddle on the Vietnamese peninsula and tip the balance between the free world and its communist foil. It was a time to “rally around the flag,” a time of “Cold War Consensus.”
Carpet bombing, bloodshed, sit-ins and dissent, a $167 billion price tag and runaway inflation, eight years later the war was lost. Four million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, 10 percent of the population died. It was a strategic failure at the highest level of the American government. The United States was humiliated. “Stay away,” Senator John Kerry felt the message from his fellow Americans on his return as a soldier from Vietnam. “Don’t contaminate us with whatever you’ve brought back.”
In 1980 a survey was taken of Vietnam veterans. Eighty-two percent believed that they had lost the war because they did not have the full support of the American people and government to win; 66 percent were willing to resume the conflict if what they saw as the shackles were shed. The notorious General William Westmoreland blamed President Lyndon Johnson for fighting a limited war. He (among many American military officers) also blamed a biased American media. “A lesson to be learned,” he espoused “is that young men should never be sent into battle unless the country is going to support them.” General Fred Weyand, the last American military leader to leave Vietnam agreed. “The American army is really a people’s army,” he professed. “When the American people lose their commitment it is futile to try to keep the army committed.”
Many claimed that the war was doomed from the start. The Americans’ investment could never compete with North Vietnamese fervor. “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours,” the North’s leader Ho Chi Minh crowed. “But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” The final lesson was codified years later in the Powell Doctrine: “you don’t get into a conflict unless you are willing to exercise all means necessary to winning it.”
Simultaneously, a belief developed that American leaders caught the “Vietnam syndrome.” Afraid of a repetition of the catastrophe, they were unwilling to intervene in even righteous foreign causes. And yet intervene we did. And we must ask if the lesson that leaders needed popular support to sanction foreign intervention was ever really adhered to. The list of unsanctioned and/or unpopular interventions is plentiful. It is a murderer’s row of foreign entanglements: Angola (1976-92), Iran (1980), Libya (1981, 1986, 2011), El Salvador (1981-92), Nicaragua (1981-1990), Lebanon (1982-84), Grenada (1983-84), Iran (1984, 1987-88), Bolivia (1986), Philippines (1989), Panama (1989), Saudi Arabia (1990-91), Iraq (1990-91, 2003-2011, 2014-?), Somalia (1992-1994), Yugoslavia (1992-1994, 1999), Bosnia (1993), Haiti (1994, 2004-5), Afghanistan (2001-2014, 2015-), Yemen (2000, 2002, 2009), Syria (2014-?).
There was a time not too long ago that the Vietnam War stood as the war by which to measure all wars. “Vietnam is still with us,” Henry Kissinger once mused. “It has created doubts about American judgment, about American credibility, about American power—not only at home, but throughout the world.” The Iraq War has replaced Vietnam as the standard to judge foreign entanglements. And yet, the Vietnam question persists over whether the idea that Americans need vehemently support every foreign venture is not a cloying naïve confection. Is it realistic? Is it desirable?
First, rather than announce its every intention to the American public, does the American military need to maintain a level of secrecy from its enemies for its strategy and tactics to perform at peak proficiency? Second, are Americans only engaged by foreign policy when something has gone terribly wrong? Can their interest ever be maintained long enough to act as a consistent force for oversight during times of conflict that have not reached a catastrophic pitch? Third, and more controversially, are the international affairs too complicated for the lay American to understand? Is it best (if not necessary) to eschew direct democratic control in which each American has equal voice in affairs foreign for a reliance on representative democracy in which we elect leaders whom we rely on to make the difficult decisions of war and peace while maintaining strict oversight by fair-minded committees and a strong balance between the branches of government? Of course, the conflict here is a question of whether the representatives making foreign policy decisions are the same leaders selecting the committees to oversee them. And whether the United States, for better or worse, would be tied up in so many foreign interventions, whether Pax Americana would stretch so far, if the people really had their say.
 Fredrik Logevall. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of Wart in Vietnam. Berkley: University of California Press, 377.
 George C. Herring. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 4th edition. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002, 346.
 Karnow, 11.
 Karnow, 27
 Stanley Karnow. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin Books, 15-16.
 Herring, 355
 Victor W. Sidel. War and Public Health. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 332.
(Posted on dailykos.com Nov 29, 2016.)
President Ronald Reagan has gone down in history as the Great Communicator for his ability to pare down complex ideas into simple, understandable prose. Reagan was artful, articulate and pithy, using seemingly simple mantras to capture the complex issues of his day: “Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev,” “Trust but verify,” “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” “Morning in America.” He had the ability to artfully and succinctly excoriate his opponents. Let’s not forget, Reagan had an edge. In debating his Democratic opponent in 1984, with just four words—“there he goes again”—Reagan filleted Senator Walter Mondale for the Democrat’s tendency to drone on with the same old, tired liberal orthodoxy. And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Democratic Party has finally found its very own Great Communicator. Her name is Elizabeth Warren. Born June 22, 1949, hailing from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Senator Warren has proven that she can fight word for word, sly remark for sly remark with Donald Trump. As MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough summed it up, the two are like “prize fighter matching up against prize fighter,” a bob and weaver against a “crazy southpaw.” Even with her hands she jabs the air. For, most vitally, Senator Warren, like President Reagan before her, pares down complex ideas into simple, understandable prose. Like Reagan she can eviscerate her opponent, get just as “nasty” as President-elect Donald Trump while maintaining a smile on her face and a lilt in her voice.
Why could Senator Warren take on Trump where so many flustered and failed? Marco Rubio failed to adopt Reagan’s persona of the smiling assassin. He fumbled over a water bottle, over small hands and phallic allusions. Jeb Bush stammered his way back to Florida. Ted Cruz…well he was just creepy. Trump, on the other hand, ran circles around the Republican field as he captured news headline and free television spots with crippling attacks and sarcastic, purposefully un-PC punches. Yet unlike Trump’s Republican rivals who focused on the great fear of a Trump presidency, Warren often went small. She didn’t merely aggrandize. She belittled. She didn’t make him big. She made him small. One need only look to her opening salvo when she called Trump a “small, insecure money-grubber.”
As for Trump’s democratic opponent, daily Secretary Hillary Clinton proved a bit too wooden and rehearsed when she criticized Trump’s policies. But Warren, for all of her seemingly irrational aversion to anything that smells even a whiff of Wall Street, her oftentimes polemical tone, her tendency to simplify complex problems into an uncomplicated anti-elitism, that is her flattening out multi-dimensional issues into paint-by-numbers populism, for whatever her shortcomings, she delivered. She nailed Trump. As Clinton declared at a rally in Cincinnati in late June, Warren “tells it like it is.” Clinton, so often stiff, so often uncomfortable speaking to big crowds, beamed in Cincinnati as she praised Warren’s abilities. “And I must say,” Clinton exclaimed, “I do just love to see how she gets under Donald Trump’s thin skin.”
Moreover, Warren could act as Hillary’s more articulate doppelganger. Both were born in the South. Both grew up in working class families with strong-willed fathers, children of the ‘60s, devoted to campaigns for the rights of the under-privileged, both are women still breaking through stubbornly thick glass ceilings. Despite such life-long hardships, both maintain a belief in the American dream, in the basic meritocratic compact that, as Clinton put it, “you work hard, you do your part, you will get ahead and stay ahead.”
What is more, Warren was able to turn Trump’s insults against him. She’s not the “goofy” one, he’s the one with the “goofy hat” (not to mention his hair). She’s a “nasty woman.” While Clinton dove into the details of Wall Street reform, Senator Warren waxed poetic on the evils of Wall Street fat cats. Warren went toe-to-toe with Trump’s name-calling. He “cheats.” He’s a “racist bully,” she exclaimed. There was no euphemism. The financial class, according to Warren, are “poor, sad little Wall Street bankers”
At the same time, Warren eloquently highlighted Clinton’s strengths, her “thick skin” against brutal right-wing attacks, her “steady hands,” her “good heart” and, most importantly, that like Warren herself, Clinton was a prizefighter. Furthermore, Warren’s words even inspired Clinton to step outside her comfort zone of policy wonk and political prescription. In Cincinnati Clinton appeared elated with Warren on her side. She suddenly forgot her usual nerves and with a Reaganesque lilt of her own, she tore through Trump, characterizing him as “temperamentally unfit and totally unqualified to be president of the United States.”
There is a downside. To secure Warren’s support and court Senator Bernie Sanders’s supporters, Hillary had to move to the left, promising voters, for instance, that she would raise taxes on “corporations and the wealthy.” It was a “read my lips” kind of moment, but one seemingly necessary to bring together the Democratic (read: Obama/Sanders/Warren voters, thus young people and minorities) coalition.
Warren pointed with a laser focus at the evidence against the Republican presumptive nominee: how the 2008 financial crash elated Trump as an opportunity for cheap real estate grabs and the possibility of more Trump-named golf courses, how he bled vulnerable students dry, fleecing them with worthless degrees from Trump University, how, now, he cheered for Britain’s break-up with the European Union, even as it “sucked billions of dollars out of [Americans’] retirement accounts.”
Warren, the new Great Communicator, cuts out the euphemism and political-speak. She speaks with the eloquence of Reagan. And now she has found her target, her cause, her anti-muse. For, as Senator Warren exclaimed in sheer bafflement, “Donald Trump calls African-Americans thugs, Muslims terrorists, Latinos rapists and criminals, and women bimbos.” And as Clinton remarked, Warren can even make C-SPAN a must-watch event.
(Posted on dailykos.com Nov 19, 2016.)
The great irony (or perhaps paradox) of the 2016 presidential campaign was that Donald J. Trump, the grand wizard of misogyny, the dean of sexism, won his election by subordinating his campaign to a woman. On August 17th, an unruly and undisciplined Trump campaign hired Kellyanne Conway as its campaign manager. And now, amidst the wide-ranging disappointment over the defeat of the first possible female president, barely acknowledged has been the fact that Conway’s leadership stood as a milestone in American democracy. She became the first female to manage a successful presidential campaign. How to square the circle? How to reconcile that a man as sexist as Trump won the presidency by following the lead of a woman? Conway confesses, in the world of campaigning, she finds herself in a “male-dominated” profession, what the Guardiancalls “macho environments”. She takes for granted the misogyny of men like Trump as an obstacle obstinate, but one that can be overcome—one not to fight but to accept. To do her job, to succeed in her world, she accepts rather than challenges the misogynistic milieu. As she told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, “Don’t be fooled…I am a man by day.”
In March Trump let go his original campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. The firing transpired after rumblings surfaced over Lewandoski’s battery assault on a reporter, growing concerns over his lack of ability to run a campaign on a national scale as well as his inability to (and lack of interest in) harnessing Trump’s impulsive nature— best exemplified by Lewandowski’s motto “Let Trump be Trump.” In particular he rubbed the Trump children the wrong way. His replacement, Paul Manafort, lasted five months. Along with criticism over a “sloppy” Republican National Convention, Manafort could not outrun accusations of monetary ties to Ukrainian oligarchs as well as intimate dealings with Russia.
Conway was a quirky replacement. She had worked as a pollster for Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Newt Gingrich and Mike Pence. In 2004 she won the Washington Post’s prestigious Crystal Ball Award for her previous year’s accurate polling and predicting. But rather than a strong mentor, powerful family member or traumatic event that most so often attribute the inspiration for their accomplishments, Conway credits blueberries, or, more specifically, blueberry-picking as key to her working ethos. Starting at 12, for eight summers she picked blueberries. At 16 she earned the title New Jersey Blueberry Princess. At 20 she reached the highest heights, winning the World Blueberry Packing competition. And for this she credits much. “Everything I learned about life and business started on that farm,” she stated. “The faster you went [picking blueberries], the more money you’d make,” Conway explained. “I wouldn’t stop to drink for hours. I would just keep going.” And going she has.
Conway had developed a reputation for helping male candidates, especially those accused of sexist language, policies and behavior, to attract more female votes. Her first rule: candidates cease using the word rape as a metaphor for unrelated issues. Conway had worked for Ted Cruz’s super pac. On her hiring by Trump, the New York Times labeled her a “provocateur” and a “media firebrand” who never shrank from attacking the Republican establishment on her frequent television appearances. Conway was known as an expert on closing the “gender gap.” It was hope that Conway could help Trump close his. For when Conway was hired by Trump more than half of American women had a “very unfavorable” view of Trump.
Simultaneous to Conway’s hiring was Trump’s bringing aboard Steve Bannon, chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News who, after the announcement, Bloomberg News’ Joshua Green called “the most dangerous political operative in America.” Conway’s rise was vastly over-shadowed by Bannon’s. (In the New York Times article announcing the dual hirings 30 paragraphs were devoted to Bannon. Conway garnered one.) Nonetheless, Bannon became a shadowy conciliary while Conway emerged a feisty Trump defender across cable news. As Lizza noted, Conway became a mini-celebrity, swarmed at Trump events to autograph posters and hats. Michael Steele, a former RNC chairman, raved that Conway was the “Trump whisperer.” She could convince her boss to stay on teleprompter and the avoid off-the-cuff ad-libs that would need to be cleaned up the following day. She taught “restraint” as a “presidential virtue.” While Conway could not fully muzzle Trump, she became a master of cleaning up his verbal excesses.
Most importantly, at the time of the co-hiring of Bannon and Conway, Trump trailed by eight points nationally. Five weeks later Clinton’s lead had shrunk to 2.5%. And from the jump, as the Washington Postreported in its article announcing their hirings, Bannon and Conway would shift Trump’s strategy to focus on Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania—the strategic shift that would prove essential to Trump’s victory.
The cognitive dissonance between Trump’s misogynistic mindset and his dependence on a woman is a mighty contradiction. Trump’s hiring and reliance on Conway did not erase his sexist ways. Despite Conway’s presence, there was no time during the 2016 presidential campaign when the shade of Trump’s sexism did not loom over the contest. Before Conway, at the very first Republican debate, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly confronted Trump over his calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” To which he responded in a late-night interview with CNN’s Don Lemon by pontificating from which orifices Kelly spewed blood. After Conway’s hiring, the trail of denigrating women continued as he harped over and again on Clinton’s stamina to be president, called a former Miss Universe “Miss Piggy,” and the now infamous Access Hollywood tape surfaced in which he spoke of “grabbing” women (to name just a few examples of his misogynistic behavior). In her typical response, after a group of Republican leaders renounced Trump for his comments, Conway lambasted them as “wishy-washy” to CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
In 2005 Conway wrote a book with the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, What Women Really Want, about women’s shared “common views” and their enormous cultural gains. They argued that “women are the most powerful force reshaping the future of America.” The United States, they wrote, has become “women-centric.” And because of these gains, Conway grumbles over feminism that she sees as serving to fuel women’s hate toward men. She holds views of essentialist differences between men and women. In the 2004 election, she saw John Kerry’s reputation as a flip-flopper as a key obstacle to his election among women because she believes that “women don’t like to rock the boat,” that “to women, a flip-flopper is the functional equivalent of the guy who never calls, and always changes his mind.” Men, she argues, “prefer more sex,” women more sleep. She has not shied away from taking on anti-feminist issues. She garnered infamy within the Washington beltway when she appeared frequently on cable talk shows to defend the Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s claims over “legitimate rape.”
For Trump, he didn’t hire the first woman to successfully manage a presidential campaign. Conway was just one of the boys. She once remarked, “I’m a female consultant in the Republican party, which means when I walk into a meeting … I always feel like I’m walking into a bachelor party in the locker room of the Elks club.” Conway may have become a figure in women’s history. But she picked up no pitch fork. She inspired no parades. And she failed to curtail her bosses misogynistic ways.