Memes

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Yesterday I saw a meme on Facebook which consisted of an unflattering picture of an angry looking Hilary Clinton and a caption “I’ll get you and your little bird, too,” a reference to the finch that landed on the podium during a Bernie Sanders speech. It was posted by a progressive woman (a Sanders supporter) with a note saying that it should be taken as humorous.

Let’s be clear: this was meant to remind you of the wicked witch from Wizard of Oz (who is eventually killed). The word ‘witch’ is often used as a euphemism for the word ‘bitch.’ What struck me about this is the number of times I’ve heard right wing white men make misogynistic and racist remarks and then excuse it with: It’s just a joke. Don’t you have a sense of humour?

I get it. We often make rude jokes among ourselves – denigrating people for aspects of their character or background because attacking their policies is just too time and energy consuming. My wife and I have often said that it’s a good thing our living room isn’t bugged, given some of the snarky remarks we’ve made about politicians and, even, about tragic public events. We say things to each other that we would never dream of saying in public. Or on Facebook.

What’s the harm, you might say? When politics is reduced to memes, discourse is reduced to angry shouts, democracy becomes demagoguery and racists and sexists are given a free hand. It is no more acceptable for those on the left to do it than those on the right.

But it is so damn easy, isn’t it? I’ve been guilty myself. I made a meme showing a smarmy looking Ted Cruz with the logo beneath his face saying “Five Affairs” as if he were bragging. Below that was Vezzini from the Princess Bride (Cruz is a big fan) saying “Inconceivable.” With two images and three words I both call attention to the rumours around Cruz and question his ‘manhood.’

Here’s an easy one for Clinton supporters to use. Find a picture of Sanders making a speech – hand raised, preferably in a fist. The caption? “Old Man Shouting at Clouds” Now we get to point out that Sanders is indeed the oldest candidate for President ever and suggest that his policies are not only fuelled by anger but also that they are unlikely to change anything.

Would that be fair? Not in the least. Would it be funny? To some people maybe; others would see it as ageist and simple-minded. That’s what memes do. Make light of everything and reduce it to the lowest common denominator – usually by playing on half-truths or outright lies. Lies seem to be the main currency of modern politics in America.

The solution to division in America is not more insults, lies, invective or bad and unpleasant jokes. The solution is honest discourse and spirited but reasoned debate. You actually see that, for the most part, between Sanders and Clinton. It even, from time to time, appeared in the Republican debates. Maybe, whoever becomes the candidate for their respective parties, we’ll see it in the presidential debates.

But in America in 2016, I suspect it will all be reduced to an insulting picture and a few simplistic insults. Funny? In a sick kind of way, I suppose. I’m sure anti-democratic thugs the world over are laughing their heads off.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Bull Moose

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The presidential election in the USA looks to be one of the most interesting since, oh, let’s say, 1912. During that campaign, there was a split in the Republican Party between the conservative wing and the progressive one, a stolid middle of the road Democrat and, yes, a viable Socialist candidate. It sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it?

The Republicans had always been a troubled and troublesome party. In those days, you must remember, the Republicans were the party of civil rights (Lincoln was a Republican) and had a strong environmentalist bent (Teddy Roosevelt, who had left office in 1908, established many of the federal reserves in the west). They even were – for the times – slightly pro-labour. The Democrats were the party of the south and were hardly the progressive group they are today. And it wasn’t illegal to be a socialist – which it sort of was after the Russian revolution of 1917.

After a fractious primary campaign (one of the first as at that time only 15 states held primaries) the Republican convention resulted in accusations of corruption and vote buying. Teddy Roosevelt, returning to the campaign trail after 4 years absence, had won most of the primaries but, at the convention, he found himself outmaneuvered by sitting President, William Taft, a conservative. He eventually withdrew and took his delegates and supporters with him to form the Progressive party.

Meanwhile Eugene Debs, running a grassroots campaign (he spent all of $66,000 on his campaign) was campaigning hard for the Socialists which had won a number of local and state elections in the previous decade. He had no real hope of winning and was mostly running to help build up the party – but he did make an impact, on the race, on the other parties and on the growing labour movement.

The Democrats had nominated the somewhat stolid Woodrow Wilson, a former college professor and administrator, who ran on a campaign to essentially “make America great” though he didn’t exactly use those words. American influence was growing in the world but Wilson believed that involvement abroad, especially in in Europe – where war was imminent – would risk American interests. The Republicans were much surer – they, and especially Roosevelt, had won the Spanish-American war and wanted to assert US dominance — as a Christian nation — on the world.

The campaign was vigorous with candidates trekking across the country by train. In the end Roosevelt’s personal popularity was not enough to break the habit of the two party system. He finished a distant second as the Progressive (aka the Bull Moose Party) candidate. The Republican, Taft, suffered the greatest defeat ever for a sitting President. Deb’s socialists finished a distant fourth with 6% of the vote – the most ever, before or since, for such a candidate.

Now we can flash forward to 2016. A conservative candidate wins the nomination of the Republicans but is challenged for the right of centre vote by a more moderate independent Republican. Meanwhile the Democrats nominate a fairly stolid centrist candidate. To keep things interesting and promote the revolution, a plucky socialist decides to run an underfunded campaign from the left. Trump, Bloomberg, Clinton, and Sanders.

It’s enough to make a political junky salivate.

And that’s ten minutes.

The O’Brien Factor

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Do business people make good political leaders? This question seems to be particularly relevant these days. Donald Trump wants to be President of the United States while as mentioned yesterday; Kevin O’Leary wants to be leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.

This is a difficult question to answer because the sample size is too small. In The USA, other than a couple of men who dabbled in small businesses (Harry Truman made and sold hats, for example), the only two business people to occupy the White House were the two Bushes. It was far more likely that you had your origins as a farmer than a store owner.

In Canada, our second PM was from the world of business and served a single term. After that it was more than a hundred years before Brian Mulroney – a corporate executive – moved into 24 Sussex Drive. Paul Martin was also from business. Both of these men had a long history of political involvement, however, Mulroney from university days. As for Martin, he was the son of a long serving Cabinet Minister and must have picked up a little knowledge of the political sphere from that.

You can make your own verdicts as to how good these men were in their role as government leader, but it is tough to make a judgement on such a small sample.

Even governors and provincial premiers are not a good measure; while the percentages of business people who reach those offices are a little higher, they are far outnumbered by lawyers or even teachers and their results are mixed. It is only when you get to the municipal level that you tend to see a higher percentage of business people take office.

I’ve hardly made a scientific study but it strikes me that it takes a certain kind of mind set to transition from success in business to effectiveness in government.

The case of Larry O’Brien – mayor of Ottawa for one term – might be an object lesson. O’Brien was a successful – if sometimes controversial – entrepreneur and businessman who decided that he knew how to make improvements in city government – though he’d never been elected to any office previously. He handily won the mayoralty in a three way race (with 47% of the vote) and immediately tried to implement his promise of 0% tax increases. It lasted a single year before he had to cave in to the growing demands of an expanding city and raise taxes by a significant amount.

Then there was his management style. This was a man used to getting his own way. The buck stopped with him and if he didn’t like how things were going, he could say: You’re fired! Trouble is you can’t fire the public and you can’t make community organizations do what you tell them. O’Brien soon discovered that managing a city – which was involved in dozens of different policy areas – was far more complicated than running a business that had at most two or three things to focus on.

Then there were the criminal charges. O’Brien had to step down for 2 months to face bribery charges related to the election (the charges were later dropped). When he had left office (defeated – with only 24% of the vote), he admitted that he had completely underestimated and misunderstood the difficulty of political leadership. It’s a lesson others might want to learn from.

And that’s ten minutes.

Trump-lite

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There is nothing better on a cold winter day than a good belly laugh. That’s why I was so happy to hear the news: Kevin O’Leary wants to run for the leadership of the Conservative Party. For my American readers, Mr. O’Leary is a kind of Trump-like figure – Canadian style. Or is that Trump-lite?

I should explain that some Canadians want nothing more than to be Americans but they are not very good at it. Oh, some of them manage to pass – mostly comedians and other entertainment figures. A few baseball players manage to get by too, once they remember not to say they’re sorry for tagging someone out at second.

Mr. O’Leary is a pale version of Donald Trump – if it is possible to be paler than The Donald already is. He isn’t actually a billionaire – he just plays one on TV. And, unlike Trump, he isn’t burdened with bad hair. In fact, he has no hair at all. And I haven’t heard him make overtly racist statements – though I wouldn’t put it past him.

But there the dissimilarities end. Mr. O’Leary loves the limelight. He was one of the first members of CBC’s The Dragon Den, a reality show where rich people decide whether to fund business ideas of start-up entrepreneurs. Turns out that show was mostly, well, a show, a lot of the deals promised on air don’t actually get made when the cameras are turned off. Mr. O. is famously known for ducking one commitment to a venture that eventually made a lot of money. The entrepreneur says Kevin probably missed out on making $500,000 a year. Oh, well. Donald Trump has had his share of failures, too. Four bankrupt companies and counting.

Turns out that is something else Mr. O. has in common with The Donald. They are both successful business men, just not quite as successful as their claim to be. Donald has been claiming to have twice as much cash as most analysts say is true; Kevin seems to suffer from the same desire to overinflate his importance.

Then there is the mouth. Kevin O’Leary likes to say the most outrageous things. And he does it with gusto. It hardly matters that he is frequently proven wrong. The facts are a mere inconvenience and can be brushed aside simply by saying it louder. Never mind that some of the things he says border on illegal (sound familiar Trump fans) such as offering money to a politician if they will quit politics. Well, he didn’t actually say that – since it would be considered an attempt at bribery – he said he would invest it in the oil industry in Alberta if the Premier would quit.

That’s right. He offered… wait for it… ONE MILLION DOLLARS! Who would have thought of it? A self-important bald guy thinking a million dollars was real money. I just want to know when mini-Kevin will show up.

A million dollars in the oil patch won’t even pay for a single job to be created. Hell, it barely covers the budget for most companies’ Stampede pavilion (well, during the boom years anyway).

Chump change from a chump. I can hardly see what he rolls out for his leadership campaign.

And that’s ten minutes.

Promises

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Promises are the lifeblood of politics. People want to hear them; politicians want to make them. Political platforms are full of both specifics and aspirational goals. We will do this and we want to do that as well. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between them. Parties out of power can only guess what the financial and legal situation will be after election day; the incumbent party closely guards the bad news while still trying to present an attractive platform.

Some promises are simple and easy to keep (or break). For example, in his first election, Stephen Harper promised to reduce the GST from 7% to 6%. Doing that took a single line amendment in the tax code. Of course, the consequences for public finance were huge and ultimately quite complex but fulfilling the promise was dead simple. Harper also promised massive increases in accountability. He even passed a complex and substantial bill to that effect – called the Accountability Act. However, when faced with opposition to his chosen public appointments Commissioner – an oil company executive with strong Conservative ties, Harper threw up his hands and refused to appoint an alternative. The implementation of the Act suffered and, gradually, his government became the most secretive we ever had.

You can see a similar set of promises in the current government. One of their promises was simple – cut middle class taxes and raise those on people making more than $200,000 in taxable income. Again, it was quite simple to do – a few lines of amendments to the tax code and voila, mission accomplished. The tax changes will come into effect this Friday, despite grumblings from those in higher tax brackets.

The more complicated promise was that to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of December. While some – including many in the Liberal party – may have believed this was feasible, few experts thought it was more than aspirational. When the Liberals reduced the goal to 10,000 by year’s end, the experts said maybe. As it turns out, even that goal will be difficult to make – though the government is going all out to move the process along as expeditiously as possible. Recognizing that it may be difficult to reach 25000 even by the end of March, the government has upped the ante to 50000 over the next few years. Some might say the Liberals have reneged on their promise but, at least, when faced with difficulties and opposition, they didn’t’ throw up their hands and give up. And, I suspect, most Canadians recognize that the promise was too ambitious and more complicated than most elements of the short term election platform. And in any case, the main opposition party has little really to say on the refugee issue – whatever numbers the Liberals achieve by December 31 they will exceed in 6 weeks what the previous government managed in the last twelve months or more.

Of course, the ambition of Trudeau and his cabinet are high and time will tell whether the more complicated parts of the platform – such as improved relations with indigenous people, tackling climate change in a real and substantive way and managing the fiscal framework to provide stimulus without letting debt loads rise faster than the growth of the economy – can be achieved. Plus there are a whole bunch of economic issues and social justice matters, barely mentioned in the platform, that require urgent attention.

I like to be optimistic but I expect there will be bigger stumbles ahead than the trivial issues the media is currently focusing on.

And that’s ten minutes.

President Trump

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So suppose Donald Trump were to become President. It would take quite a strange turn of events – half the country coming down with the flu on Election Day and millions of people who mostly don’t bother to vote, finding themselves walking by an open polling station. Stranger things have happened. Not in real life but in fantasy novels and bad political movies.

So let’s engage in a flight of fancy and suppose in January 2017 Donald Trump is inaugurated. Well, first, there is the chance that Obama would try to declare a state of emergency and extend his own Presidency. Not likely (or legal), but we are dreaming in technicolor, so why not? And, of course, the whole country might rise up and refuse to let the Donald enter the Oval office. Two and a half months is not a lot of time to organize a revolution but it could be done.

But let’s say Mr. Trump is allowed to take office, would he serve out an entire term?

The first obstacle is Mr. Trump himself. He hasn’t, in his marriages and his business ventures, shown a lot of stick-to-itiveness. He has had a number of marriages and a similar number of bankruptcies. And there is a sense that Donald is more interested in winning the presidency than in actually being president. It may be that all that time on The Apprentice has made winning the contest more important than getting the job. I sympathize with DT – I too have suffered from long term adult attention deficit disorder. Staying with something – even a good thing – can be a challenge for some of us.

So Trump might take office and then just stop coming down from the Lincoln bedroom to go to work. Let Paul do it, might become his slogan. (Yeah, I’m picking Paul Ryan for VP – he has experience, running at least). The Trump presidency might be a lot like the way he deals with real estate – as an absentee landlord.

But it is possible that Mr. Trump will feel inspired and actually try to do the things he says he will do. Round people up and deport them; close the borders to all Muslims – including presumably the Presidents of Turkey and Indonesia, two of America’s allies. And, of course, all other Indonesians would also be prohibited from visiting too. It, not countries in the Middle East, is the biggest Muslim country in the world.

The trouble is; some of these actions are unconstitutional, intruding on both states’ powers and the Bill of Rights. The courts – those pesky defenders of the common man – might well thwart him at every turn. And he can’t simply say to them – you’re fired. He doesn’t have that power; no legitimate president does. And if he tried to do it anyway, there is the army, which is sworn, more than anything else, to uphold the Constitution. Being Commander in Chief doesn’t change that (which is also why Obama couldn’t really extend his presidency). And let’s not even get into what would happen if he actually tried to nuke Daesh.

Donald might soon wind up in his own internment camps. See – even bad political movies can have happy endings.

And that’s ten minutes.

Trumped

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The general consensus is that Donald Trump will not ultimately win the Republican nomination and that, even if he does, he won’t win the Presidency. I don’t exactly disagree but in a crowded and largely lackluster field, Trump’s continued ability to draw the spotlight to himself makes his nomination a distinct possibility.

Months remain between now and the first primaries. New Hampshire will hold its first while the Iowa caucuses are held a day or so later. Right now, polls are mixed but, on average, Trump is leading in both. Ben Carson has faded as predicted while Ted Cruz – Trump Light – is charging hard. Only Rubio and Bush appear to have still viable campaigns though others are hanging in. Most of the rest of the current candidates will drop from the ballot after the first votes are counted.

Can Trump win in New Hampshire and Iowa? Certainly, he will face a steady barrage of attacks – mostly from his fellow Republicans. The Democrats don’t mind a Trump Candidacy. He does worse against Clinton – the heir presumptive despite Bernie Sanders – than any of the other major alternatives. Still, the criticism will not strictly come from the right; Trumps blatantly racist, unconstitutional and inflammatory statements have drawn fire from a huge number of people, including, most recently, Muhammad Ali.

The problem for Trump – if you care about his problems – is that he has painted himself into a corner. His anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and posturing on a wide range of issues certainly fires up those who like him and/or agree with him. But for every supporter he whips into a frenzy, he permanently alienates several more. Hispanics certainly have no reason to support Trump – but can any other immigrant group think that they will be treated better? Asian communities have long memories of being rounded up and interned or having their rights otherwise denied. Does anyone think they will flock to Trump in large numbers – even though they may otherwise hold conservative values?

Jewish voters may like Trump’s unflinching support for Israel (though he apparently doesn’t have their unflinching admiration) but must feel a certain frisson at hearing him suggest that members of a religious group should be forced to wear publicly visible ID tags. Yellow stars, public beatings and Kristallnacht still exist in living memory.

And will Trump persist? He is rapidly being abandoned by former business partners and other allies – people who make Trump money. Will the Donald – whose wealth is his self-definition – continue to campaign if it will cost him a billion dollars? Two?

But even if Trump fails to win the nomination, he has already done something few candidates manage. He has changed the conversation – if you want to call inchoate screaming a conversation – in America. Racism and bigotry – fascism – is now part of the mainstream. The fringe has become the centre. America will be changed by this but made great again? Not for a minute.

But what if Trump wins the nomination? What if he wins the Presidency? Now that is another story.

And that’s ten minutes.