Archive

February 13th, 2017

Trickle-down ethics at the Trump White House

    Kellyanne Conway took to Fox News on Thursday in defense of Ivanka Trump's much-discussed clothing and accessories business, which has fallen out of favor with some big retailers like Nordstrom. "Go buy Ivanka's stuff is what I would tell you," the president's senior adviser recommended to her interviewers. "I hate shopping but I'm gonna go get some myself today."

    To reinforce her pitch, Conway also told the Fox crew that she was one of Ivanka's satisfied customers.

    "It's a wonderful line, I own some of it," Conway beamed from the White House briefing room, with the presidential mansion's logo visible on a plaque hanging behind her. "I'm gonna give a free commercial here: Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online."

    Fox helpfully kept the free ad posted on one of its websites, with a cheery, promotional headline: "Go Buy It Today!" And with that, Conway had created a problem for herself.

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Why Al Franken makes a weird amount of sense as a 2020 presidential candidate

    Ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 election, people have been asking me who Democrats could -- and/or should -- put up against him when, presumably, he seeks re-election in 2020.

    My rote answer goes something like this: Someone who is not a politician.

    Why? Because the way Trump won was by casting himself as the ultimate outsider to a political system that lots and lots of Americans -- in both parties -- hate. As a celebrity (and not a politician), Trump was held to a different standard of behavior too. Things that would have ended -- or badly handicapped -- other candidates bounced off Trump with little damage done.

    Nominate just another politician in 2020 and, I've believed, that Democrats are playing into Trump's hands -- allowing him to continue to run as an outsider and against a broken system despite the fact that he will have spent four years in the White House. Pick a Mark Cuban or Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, on the other hand, and now you are fighting Trump on equal terms.

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Long before Trump, boycotts led to big influence

    Boycott Trump? The movement to stick it to the billionaire-turned-president has been gaining momentum, with groups like Grab Your Wallet targeting the business ventures of Trump and his inner circle. Both Nordstrom and Nieman Marcus recently dropped Ivanka Trump's product lines, though both companies denied the boycotts had anything to do with their decision.

    Trump's opponents are even targeting companies deemed too cozy to the administration, forcing Uber's CEO to resign from the president's advisory council as a boycott campaign called #deleteuber rocked the company. Not to outdone, pro-Trump partisans have vowed to boycott companies that ran pro-immigration ads during the Super Bowl, with Lumber 84 and Budweiser among the targets of their ire.

    All this can seem like a distraction from the real issues. But consumer boycotts have been incredibly effective in U.S. history, not only altering the behavior of rulers but building a cohesive, powerful political movement from the ground up.

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Trump, our elected algorithm

    There's been some controversy over when Donald Trump decided to run for president. Some say it was at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Association dinner, when he was roasted by both Seth Meyers and President Obama. I think it happened much earlier: August 29th, 1997, the date that Skynet became self-aware.

    Skynet is the artificial intelligence in the 1984 James Cameron movie "The Terminator." Its original purpose was beneficent: Make humans more efficient. But once it became self-aware, it realized things would be much more efficient without humans altogether.

    Skynet is an example of a dystopian singularity, the popular Silicon Valley-esque notion of an artificial intelligence that has somehow evolved beyond a point of no return, wielding power over the world. Some imagine that this will happen soonish, depending on how much one believes in Moore's Rule of Thumb.

    I think Trump is Skynet, or at least a good dry run. To make my case, I'll first explain why Trump can be interpreted as an artificial intelligence. Then I'll explain why the analogy works perfectly for our current dystopia.

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Just The Truth: No Alternative Facts Here

    This time last year in the middle of Black History Month and approaching Women's History Month we had some optimism that soon the need for separate history might be fading away. Both groups might soon be integrated into the general history of the nation. Alas, that was not to be.

    With the election of November 2016 the lid was off allowing all the old prejudices to spring forth anew. It was not totally surprising given the nature of the campaign but we were not prepared for the force with which it boiled over. All during the campaign there had been much to concern us but we simply did not believe that our society had progressed so little that the population would buy such false rhetoric as was being offered. It is little comfort that the majority did not buy it but that our outdated electoral college gave us the worst of the bunch.

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Trump may find surprise doesn't help a superpower

    One emerging theme of the Trump administration's foreign policy so far has been destabilization and surprise. President Donald Trump has used phone calls and tweets to shake up previously rock-solid relationships like those with Australia and Mexico. Traditional allies in Europe and Asia are worried about whether they can still rely on the U.S. for protection from Russia and China respectively.

    Changing the status quo in surprising ways can be an effective foreign policy strategy, as Russian President Vladimir Putin showed with the unexpected takeover of Crimea and his intervention in Syria.

    But there's a key difference between Russia, a weakened power seeking to improve its position, and the U.S., the world's reigning superpower. Change and unpredictability favor rising powers. Continuity and predictability favor powers that are already dominant. What works for one kind of power won't work for the other.

    The reason is simple: If you have more, you have more to lose. The U.S., richer and more powerful than its competitors, has further to fall.

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Five myths about Frederick Douglass

    At a Black History Month event recently, President Trump seemed to suggest that Frederick Douglass is still alive: He's "done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more," Trump said. If he was referring to our awareness of Douglass's important historical legacy, then the president's remarks were on the money: More than 120 years after Douglass's death, the great abolitionist's impact on our country is still unfolding. The former slave who became one of the nation's most widely read authors and most popular orators speaks to us still through his prolific writings, and his legacy is ensured by his solid place in the literary canon and the treasure trove of images that he seemed determined to leave behind. But as Douglass's fame has grown, so too have myths about his history and personality.

 

    Myth No. 1: Frederick Douglass was an American patriot.

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Trump is doing precisely what he criticized Obama for doing on foreign policy

    During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump accused Barack Obama of treating America's adversaries "with tender love and care" while our allies were "snubbed and criticized by an administration that lacks moral clarity."

    "We've picked fights with our oldest friends," Trump declared in his April 2016 foreign policy speech, adding "We've had a president who dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies."

    Trump was absolutely right. From Iran to Cuba, Obama bent over backwards to court our adversaries. At the same time, he mistreated our closest allies - allowing Israel to get bullied by the U.N. Security Council and canceling missile defense deals with Poland and the Czech Republic in a misguided effort to curry favor with Moscow.

    So why, less than two weeks into his presidency, is Trump doing precisely what he criticized Obama for doing - picking fights with one of our oldest friends, Australia, while treating our adversary, Russia, "with tender love and care"?

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February 12th

Trump inflicts pain with political purpose

    President Donald Trump's chaotic first weeks have featured a recurring theme not generally associated with deliberate means and ends of U.S. government policy.

    His sudden travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries left grandmothers stranded incommunicado in American airports, unable to reach family members waiting to receive them. Other detained travelers were denied access to lawyers, as well as family. An infant girl, whose grandparents are American citizens, was prohibited from traveling to Oregon for treatment of a serious heart ailment until extraordinary pressure was applied by Oregon politicians.

    It's possible that these instances of seemingly pointless cruelty resulted merely from incompetence. From the sloppy travel ban, to his damaging and bizarre conversations with and about foreign leaders, to his attacks on the federal judiciary, Trump's presidency has been consistent with his haphazard, improvised campaign. As Bloomberg View columnist and Trump biographer Timothy O'Brien points out, Trump's only experience running large organizations -- casinos -- ended in chaos and bankruptcy. He is not the business manager many Americans imagined.

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Trump's ethics plan is worse than it seems

    Just about a month ago, Donald Trump gave his first press conference since last summer to try to reassure voters, ethics watchdogs and political analysts concerned about financial conflicts of interest that might entangle and compromise his White House.

    Like many Trump press events, it was a carnivalesque affair, featuring meandering attacks on the media and the intelligence community before finally offering an outline of how Trump would insulate his public policymaking from his own business dealings.

    In short, Trump said he would extricate himself (and his daughter and political adviser Ivanka) from the Trump Organization by turning it over to his eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, and keeping them under the watchful eyes of a pair of internal ethics and business monitors. Trump also promised to forward some profits from his hotels to the federal government to avoid violating constitutional restrictions against the president receiving gifts or money from foreign entities.

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