Populism’s Ineffectiveness at Governing

The first round of France’s presidential election, which took place on April 23, received much international attention. The four leading candidates were so close in the polls that the winners could not be predicted. The issues at stake – France’s continued involvement in the European Union and its immigration and business policies – could have negative global repercussions depending on what changes the new president makes. In light of some recent elections elsewhere, an additional concern is the protest candidate.

After the United States presidential election, there is no need to point out the significance of the protest vote. Many American voters chose Donald Trump as their president because of all the things he was not. He was not a member of the Washington elite or a reflection of the establishment politician. He actively campaigned against the “Washington establishment,” and in his inaugural speech promised to transfer power from Washington back to the American people.

This anti-establishment attitude is obvious in America’s current political culture and is emerging in Europe as well. Citizens have sometimes elected candidates based on their distrust of conventional politicians or because they simply resent the government. This misguided way of electing politicians, however, must be addressed, especially in France. As French citizens choose their next president in the second round of the election, institutions like the EU are on the line.

One needs to look no further than France’s neighbor, Italy, to see why voting for candidates simply because they are not politicians is a horrible way to maintain a functioning government. In 2013, the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle) received more seats than any other party in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and two of its members have since been elected the mayors of Rome and Turin.

The Five Star Movement runs on the issues of public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, the right to Internet access, and environmentalism. While these are all acceptable causes for a political entity to back, the Movement – which was started by popular Italian comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo – does not have enough credentials or policy specifics to run an effective government.

This populist, anti-establishment party is so irresponsible in governing Rome and Turin that, according to the Guardian, Italian health officials are now blaming an alarming rise in measles on its anti-vaccination stance. Many Italians who voted last December to reject Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s reforms – and his role as prime minister more generally – are supporters of the Five Star Movement. Populist movements like the Five Star Movement do not offer solutions to establishment politics. They do not create new, fairer systems of governance or wipe out corruption, as Rome’s “anti-corruption” mayor should now be able to attest after the arrest of her top aide for alleged corruption.

Furthermore, protest candidates simply do not know how to govern. Germany’s populist and pro-nativist party, Alternative for Germany (Alternativ für Deutschland) is facing internal problems for this very reason, especially in light of protests against the AfD in Köln, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on April 23. The AfD exists as a populist alternative to Angela Merkel, her politics, and her refugee policies. When it comes to actually running a government, the AfD, like most other populist parties, deals only with certain specific issues – in this case, promoting anti-Euro policies and attempting to restrict immigration.

In countries that tend to have coalition-run governments, many voters are choosing parties, like the Five Star Movement and the AfD, that cannot and should not form coalitions. As Reuters reported,  no mainstream parties will consider working with the AfD. Should they, too, successfully (and miraculously) win the German federal election in September and oust Merkel from her fourth term, the German government would come to a standstill.

Donald Trump illustrates the problem with populist parties and candidates as well. Although the Republican Party has control of both houses of Congress, his credentials as a reality TV host and businessman and his “America First” foreign policies have contributed nothing to a viable domestic program. The utter failure of Trump’s and Paul Ryan’s health care plan, involving an issue central to Republican campaigns in recent years, to pass Congress is strong evidence of the point.

As France chose among four candidates this past Sunday – the leader of the far-right National Front, a business-friendly, independent centrist, a mainstream candidate mired in corruption and nepotism scandals, and the far-left “Bernie Sanders of French politics” – it was voters’ responsibility to leave their hatred of establishment politics (and politicians in general) outside the polling place. When the economic, political, and humanitarian stakes are as high as they are now, it is irresponsible to choose a president based on who sticks it to the government the most.

Voters must keep this in mind as they make their choice in the upcoming presidential run-off between the “far-right” candidate, Marine Le Pen, and the young “centrist,” Emmanuel Macron.

Anti-Semitism in Trump’s America

On Tuesday, February 21, 2017, more than 150 Jewish graves were knocked over and desecrated at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri, just west of St. Louis. This act of anti-Semitic crime happened amidst a growing number of bomb threats directed at Jewish centers across the country. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has declared these threats a “national crisis” due to their frequency. When asked to address anti-Semitism in America, President Trump and the White House issued a lackluster and reluctant response.

This increasing anti-Semitic sentiment begs the question: What place does anti-Semitism and hate now have in our society, and are Americans feeling more emboldened to express such sentiments? And what will the president do in response?

President Trump’s election campaign is partially to blame for the growing audacity of anti-Semitic vandals, like those who scrawled anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi graffiti on New York City subways on February 6. Trump’s virulently nationalistic, us-versus-them rhetoric could only have encouraged such people to publicly express their hate. Trump has relied on Steve Bannon as a leading campaign advisor and now White House chief strategist. In 2007 Bannon’s ex-wife said in a court declaration that he did not want his daughters attending a specific Los Angeles girls’ school, because it had too many Jews in it. Bannon’s former home, Breitbart News Network, has also featured such headlines as “Hoist it High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.” Hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan support Trump, although he later disavowed them, and seem to use his presidency as a license for expressing prejudices.

And what has Trump said of these crimes or of anti-Semitism in general? The simple answer is: not enough.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the White House issued an official statement from the president that did not once mention Jews. At a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli journalist asked President Trump about the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and what he would say to the American Jewish community. Trump used that question as an excellent opportunity to brag about his electoral victory, state that he has Jewish grandchildren, and reassure the Jewish community that “[t]here’s a lot of bad things that have been happening over a long period of time … [but] you’re going to see a lot of love.”

Trump’s avoidance of addressing the question of anti-Semitism continued the next day at another press conference. A Jewish reporter asked Trump about how the government planned to address anti-Semitism and the rising number of bomb threats against Jews. President Trump interrupted the man, demanded he sit down, and simply stated that: “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your life.” This was an especially weak response because the reporter explicitly said that he was not accusing Trump of anti-Semitism.

After the February 21 vandalism at the Jewish cemetery in Missouri, the White House issued its official statement: “Hatred and hate-motivated violence of any kind have no place in a country founded on the promise of individual freedom. The President has made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable.”

The president has not, however, made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable. It is striking that in this official statement, once again, the White House never states the words “Jewish,” “anti-Semitism,” or even “Jewish cemetery.”

This message that “hate is bad” is elementary at best. What prevents President Trump from simply stating that anti-Semitism is incongruent with American values, that perpetrators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law? Why is he incapable of outright condemning anti-Semitic acts and violence?

Jewish leaders themselves, like the Jewish president of the Interfaith Alliance, are worried about President Trump’s disappointing response to anti-Semitism. Steven Goldstein of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect called Trump’s statement “a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks [of] grotesque acts and omissions reflecting anti-Semitism.” These “grotesque acts” presumably include, but are not limited to: the desecration of the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery on February 21, the anti-Semitic graffiti on New York subways on February 6, the desecration of 100 or more Jewish gravestones in a Philadelphia Jewish cemetery February 25 or 26, and the fifth wave of bomb threats directed at Jewish community centers this past Monday, which brought the total to more than 100 incidents at a comparable number of locations in 30 or more states since Donald Trump was sworn into office.   

When Trump mentioned these occurrences in his address to Congress on February 28, he once again refused to use the term “anti-Semitism.” Though he stated that the country “stands united in condemning hate and evil” he not taken any action to encourage such behavior. In fact, in a conversation with state attorney generals, Trump vaguely implied that the threats and vandalism might not be anti-Semitic acts at all, but rather attempts to “make others look bad”, that sometimes “it’s the reverse.”

President Trump’s refusal to address the problem of anti-Semitism in America will only continue to encourage anti-Semitic acts of vandalism and violence. His general statements about hate and prejudice will do nothing to prevent further minority groups from enduring similar hate crimes. Violent bigots may use his policies, like the travel ban and his revocation of the White House’s support of transgender rights in public schools, as an excuse or as encouragement to expand their list of targets for hate. It seems the president will not defend vulnerable populations like refugees or transgender teenagers from discrimination or attack, but only time will tell.

At the moment, however, anti-Semitic acts are becoming more frequent. In light of the bomb threats to Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries across the country, the president, in his role as leader of the American people, must serve as an example and straightforwardly and substantively condemn and address anti-Semitism in America.

Thank You, Richard Nixon

On Saturday, January 21, the Women’s March on Washington D.C. inspired millions of men and women around the globe to march in solidarity. As demonstrated by numerous colorful and clever signs, the protests showcased a wide range of issues, including Black Lives Matter, reproductive rights, and the environment.

Though the causes and protesters represented were diverse, one issue – one man in particular – was present at every single march: Donald Trump.

From apparel referencing Mr. Trump’s comment that Hillary Clinton is a “nasty woman,” to creative signs with phrases like “We shall overcomb” and “Super, callous, fascist, racist, extra braggadocious,” much of the marchers’ energy was focused directly on the freshly inaugurated American president. One sign called him “Twitler.”

Marches on Washington D.C. are neither a new nor an uncommon occurrence in American history. Such large, organized efforts, however, to protest not just the president’s administration or Congress, but the president himself, are a later development.

Much of the credit for such a march goes, in a way, to President Richard Nixon.

When the Watergate scandal broke in 1973  – and it was later revealed that Nixon used his executive powers to cover up efforts to wiretap the Democratic Party’s headquarters – it greatly increased the already substantial doubt and distrust among the American people toward their elected officials. Some began to suspect that all politicians might participate in crimes like Watergate.

Watergate shook the American political system to its core. On August 26, 1974, for example, U.S. News & World Report reported that the presidential  relationship with not only Congress, but also the people, was damaged forever. Politicians now had an even stronger reputation for being seedy and corrupt and, as Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt said at the time, those who sought a better image would need to bend over backwards to prove to the American public that they were different from other politicians.

The lasting effects of Nixon’s disgrace and resignation were obvious not only in the 1970s, but continue to reverberate in today’s American political culture. In the 2016 election, candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders found popularity with their “outsider” status. Ted Cruz bragged about the fact that his fellow senators disliked him. Trump, in his inaugural address, promised to take away power from Washington politicians he said were reaping rewards to the detriment of the American public. Since 1974, the American electorate has searched for a politician who does not seem like a politician – someone trustworthy and relatable, somebody one could have a beer with.

Richard Nixon, more than any other political figure, changed the type of president we wanted, and he changed how we reacted to the ones we did not want. When he betrayed the public’s trust with his use of executive power to cover up a crime, he opened up the presidency to a level of scrutiny never witnessed before. The public no longer esteemed the office or held it in near-mythological high regard. The president became fair game for more extensive criticism from Congress, the media, and the American people.

Before 1974, marches on Washington – like the 1932 Bonus Army march and the great civil rights march – addressed either Congress or the American public. When 10,000 Americans marched in Washington on April 27, 1974, they did so in protest of the president himself for his gross misconduct in office. On January 21, 2017, 3.3 million people in America alone marched to protest Donald Trump, his personality, his policies, his past sexual misconduct, and his presidency. The Women’s March on Washington is part of a newer tradition of protests, one in which participants feel comfortable directly calling out the president and asking him to answer for his actions.

So thanks, Richard Nixon, for inspiring in Americans the righteous anger needed to publicly gather and demonstrate against our new president.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Americans are in the throes of a national conversation about sexual assault, and yet somehow they are collectively missing the point. Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law a sexual assault survivors’ “Bill of Rights,” meant to formally acknowledge survivors’ rights concerning sexual assault evidence collection kits. This piece of legislation establishes the federal standard that survivors do not have to pay for their sexual assault kits, that they must be notified of any test results from the kits, and that these kits must be preserved for the length of the applicable statute of limitations, whether or not survivors pressed assault charges.

For the first time, sexual assault survivors now have clearly enumerated rights under federal law. Admittedly, this bill does not go very far in the short term. But it establishes a precedent for handling evidence kits that will, hopefully, influence sexual assault laws at state and county levels, thereby effecting concrete change for sexual assault survivors and in the treatment of their evidence kits.

Instead of becoming a national discussion on the future of sexual assault legislation or prevention, the conversation about this historic bill was overtaken by the scandal of a leaked audio clip from 2005 of an Access Hollywood reporter and the future Republican presidential candidate, in which Donald Trump bragged about his ability to sexually assault women due to his celebrity status.

Since the breaking of this audio clip, at least fifteen women have stepped forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault or harassment. Several celebrities and politicians, notably Michelle Obama, Robert De Niro, and Senator Mitch McConnell, have also publicly condemned Trump for his statements and past actions concerning women.

Unfortunately, the majority of discourse about this scandal centers on what it means for the state of American politics or the fate of the Republican Party. Those are serious concerns, of course, but what of the women whom Donald Trump sexually assaulted, who felt silenced by his power, money, and celebrity status? What of other sexual assault survivors across the country, men and women, who are fighting to be believed by their families, by society, and by the law?

Exposing Trump’s repulsive acts and rejecting his “locker room talk” about pursuing women is incredibly important to ensuring that rape culture is not normalized in our society. It is time, however, to shift the spotlight from Donald Trump and instead focus on bringing justice to sexual assault survivors. This scandal could be the opportunity America needs to publicly address its sexual assault problem and offer meaningful solutions and help to survivors of sexual assault.

According to the Department of Justice, 284,000 Americans are sexually assaulted per year. This number does not even account for those crimes that go unreported.

State governments could be diverting more resources into the handling of rape kits, the subject of the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, which wait in huge backlogs across the country. The slowness in testing this evidence potentially allows rapists to roam the country free. American schools could also introduce sexual assault prevention education, among other courses of action.

Donald Trump’s disgusting comments and actions should not be just another excuse to talk about him or to bemoan the state of American politics. Instead, Americans should use this opportunity to address their prevailing attitudes about sexual assault and to have open conversations about consent, respect, and prevention. It would be irresponsible to let this moment become just another of the many instances of public outrage over Trump’s actions, which resulted in neither change nor solutions.

Our Standards for Public Officials

Imagine this scenario: a wealthy and influential politician creates a philanthropic foundation that dedicates itself to global causes. While the public may have only a vague idea of the foundation’s actual doings, its name is famous and it attracts substantial-sized donations from CEOs and celebrities. This politician eventually becomes Secretary of State, heads off to Washington D.C. and hands over the reins of the foundation to his/her spouse, without ever severing formal ties to this organization. During this politician’s tenure as Secretary of State, donors who gifted millions of dollars to the foundation may or may not have received special access to the politician’s time.

Am I alluding to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation? Of course I am. I am also describing former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his charity, America’s Promise. Only one of these people, however, has come under intense media scrutiny for their ties to their charity and its donors.

Comparing the actions of Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell reveals a certain hypocrisy and double standard with regard to how the American public and the American media have treated Hillary Clinton and her time as Secretary of State. This in no way excuses or defends her actions concerning her private email server or her foreign policy. It is, of course, important to hold our public officials to a high standard of transparency and honesty. Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton is the first person to be consistently raked across the coals for not consistently meeting those high standards.

The Wall Street Journal reported early this September that before giving a speech on September 16, 2011 on empowering women at a summit in San Francisco, she “met with nine executives from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for which she once served on the board.”  In the spring of 2012, Wal-Mart promised millions of dollars in grants to 55,000 Latin American women through a “public-private partnership” Clinton had created at the State Department and donated $55,000 to Vital Voices, a charity Clinton had co-founded. Later in the year Secretary Clinton visited India where she argued for the loosening of restrictions on superstore retailers.

The clear implication from the Wall Street Journal is that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. gained influence over Clinton and her foreign policy decisions after donating to her various charities.

Despite Clinton’s representative stating that she was arguing on behalf of all American companies in general, this may very well be the case. The WSJ might take issue with the way Clinton handled her relationship with Wal-Mart, but no one cared when Colin Powell did the exact same thing when he was secretary. According to both Matthew Yglesias at Vox.com and the Non-Profit Quarterly, Ken Lay, chair of Enron, was a major donor to Powell’s America’s Promise. While Colin Powell was Secretary of State, the State Department helped defend Enron in a dispute between that company and the Indian government. Ken Lay was also a big donor to one of Barbara Bush’s charities while George W. Bush was in office.

Can it be proved that the chair of Enron was afforded time or influence with the State Department due to his connections with and donations to the Secretary of State and his charity? No. At that time, the media were not after Colin Powell like they currently are after Hillary Clinton. No one in the media investigated those connections.

The American public considers it almost common knowledge that Hillary Clinton is “corrupt.” This is mostly due to the way the media cover every piece of information about her, as when an ABC investigation “revealed” that a donor to the Clinton Foundation used his connections to get better seating at a State Department function. There is nothing wrong with this level of scrutiny, but let it be applied to everyone else. No one began any investigations or witch-hunts when AT&T donated large sums to Powell’s foundation while Powell’s son was chair of the Federal Communications Commission, the governmental body that regulates AT&T.

Hillary Clinton is in no way less guilty of anything the press or the American public has accused her of. It is time, however, that the charges against her are also brought to the rest of our public officials. If giving time or policy influence to corporate donors is wrong, then it must be wrong for everyone.