Trump, Putin and journalism in the post-truth world: A philosophical dialogue

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My conversation with Matti Virtanen, as it appeared online in Finnish.

During my latest speaking tour of Finland, I’ve been discussing the policy implications of the Trump presidency with business leaders, university students and business school alumni. But I’ve also had the chance to talk to some of the top editors in Finland about the ethical and journalistic challenges facing American reporters trying to cover a very different kind of president.Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 1.20.05 PM

Here is my conversation with Matti Virtanen, a veteran journalist with Talouselämä. Click here to read his article in Finnish.

Q: If you look at Trump’s communications as a whole, what do you think is the main difference between his and a professional politician’s rhetoric?

A: Trump’s rhetoric is more colorful and less “politically correct” than an average politician. He seems to enjoy being incendiary and provocative. He never fears the consequences of his own words.

Q: Much of political discourse is full of exaggerations and embellishments, and statements that are meaningless or “not even wrong.” Where do you draw the line that differentiates all this from lying?

A: Lying is intentionally or knowingly saying something that is untrue. It is the same as the distinction between a killing and a murder. Murder is killing with malicious intent. Lying is telling falsehoods or untruths with malicious intent. Saying that 3 million “illegal aliens” voted — and all voted for Hillary Clinton — is untrue. Once you are told it’s not true and you keep saying it, it’s a lie. (Or if you knew it was untrue when you first said it, it’s a lie.) The difference between Trump and typical politicians is that Trump’s supporters do not hold him accountable for not telling the truth. Average supporters and his advisers will lecture the press, saying you are “taking him too literally.” It’s dangerous territory for the media and for politicians when the truth is a philosophical concept and not an objective reality.

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Talking Trump in Finland.

Q: What are the most obvious lies that Trump has expressed in office? (Three examples will do, let’s forget the campaign lies for now.)

He falsely stated, over and over, that he had the biggest Electoral College landslide with Ronald Reagan, when, in reality, Barack Obama (twice), Bill Clinton (twice) and George H.W. Bush all had more. He stated without evidence that Obama tapped his phones in Trump Tower, something flatly denied by the FBI and the former Director of National Intelligence. He claimed, without offering evidence, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote only because 3 million illegal immigrants voted for her. He said she won New Hampshire because of “massive” voter fraud. Elections officials in the states he mentioned all denied his claims, which he has repeated over and over since then. Also, he said more than 100 former Guantanamo Bay prisoners were released by Obama and have returned to the battlefield. (All but nine were released by Bush.)

Q: How is the system equipped to counter lies from the White House?

A: The media ecosystem is not set up to deal with serial lies from public officials, or, as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called them, “alternative facts.” Trump’s strange relationship with the truth has left reporters in an uncomfortable position: report his claims factually, as you would with most public officials, and become part of a disinformation or propaganda campaign — or state that the president of the United States did not tell the truth, which makes many Americans believe that you are taking political sides and are part of “the opposition” to Trump, as Trump aide Steve Bannon puts it.

Q: Why is he getting away with lies better than his predecessors, who were also not quite immune to the syndrome?

A: Many of Trump’s supporters say it is just “Trump being Trump.” They think it is refreshing to have a “politically incorrect” president. Some find it entertaining to see the establishment ridiculed. Thus far, none of the falsehoods seem to have harmed Trump’s public standing. His approval rate has changed relatively little since it dipped during his first week in office, despite a barrage of reporting on false statements from the president.

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Speaking at an AmCham Finland “Brief on the Go” in Helsinki.

Q: What is the threshold that would trigger a formal, legal investigation of the president’s lying?

A: Either a Democratic-controlled Congress (in two years at the earliest) or a lie on a sensitive national security subject, such as his relationship with the Kremlin or possible blackmailing of him by Vladimir Putin or Russian intelligence.

Q: How long can the Republican Party remain united in defense of presidential lying?

A: Party leaders are following their followers. As long as Trump’s support among rank-and-file Republicans remains above 80 percent, as it has been since he assumed office, Republican elected officials will be cautious in they criticism. Some Republican elected officials have dismissed some of Trump’s statements as incorrect (such as his allegations of voter fraud or his claims about wiretapping), but they have not broken with Trump politically. As long as Republican voters do not abandon Trump, he will maintain a base of power in Congress.

Q: How likely is it that we are going to see an impeachment process against Trump?

A: It won’t happen as long as the Republicans control Congress — unless there is evidence that he sold out the United States to Russia for business purposes or under threat of blackmail. There is no evidence of that now. Short of that, it won’t happen in the next two years. I think it would be a mistake for Democrats, should they take control of Congress in 2019, to immediately initiate impeachment proceedings. It would look like crass politics. It would be smarter to have oversight hearings and see where the evidence leads.

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Q&A in Helsinki

Q: What if the Department of Justice refuses to appoint a special prosecutor? Does the Congress have any way around that?

A: Excellent question. Congress can’t appoint a special prosecutor, but it can create a bipartisan investigating committee or empower an independent, bipartisan commission. I think the commission approach is the most likely. It will be less inflammatory and more likely to get at the truth, quietly and over a longer period of time.

Q: How would you rate Trump’s lying if you compare it with the untruths from Russian and Chinese governments?

A: Trump’s relationship to the truth is similar to Putin’s. They both say things that are demonstrably untrue. With the Chinese government, there is a lot of “partisan spin,” but rarely does the government say things that can be easily contradicted. One way or another, an American president doesn’t want to be compared to Putin or other authoritarian regimes when it comes to credibility.

Q: What about the personal level: how do you feel about the situation?

A: I feel that it’s a tough time to be a reporter. You must have a thick skin and be willing to be bullied and threatened. Thus far, no harm has come to an American reporter, but many of my former colleagues have been subjected to online harassment and even phone calls at their homes. The old rules of fairness apply to our reporting, even if the norms of truthfulness are shifting. Reporters have to adjust if they want to maintain their integrity and shed light on the words and deeds of public officials.

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Pay no attention to the man behind the podium.


Day 4 Analysis: Hillary Rodham Reagan

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Did I step into a time machine and wake up in 1984?

“USA. USA. USA.”

“We are the greatest country on this planet,” said retired Marine Corps General John Allen.

American flags waving robustly in the convention hall. Speakers attacking Russian leaders. Sheriffs, veterans, wounded warriors, generals, families of slain cops. God and America.

No, no, this is not 1984. But this is where Ronald Reagan’s optimistic vision of America has taken us.

Welcome to 2016, and one political party’s presidential nominee used Reagan as the inspiration at her convention. The other harkened back to the fearful days of the first “America First” movement in the shadow of Hitler’s rise, the walled-off, fair-trade America promised by Senator Smoot and Representative Hawley, and the hot-button racial rhetoric (if we judge by his approving tweets) of David Duke.

This is not an America I expected to be covering … or living in. It’s a world in which the optimistic legacies of Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush unite against the dark knight of the new American order, Donald Trump.

Yes, America is divided. Deeply divided. Its diversity is lauded by some, feared by others. Its rapid era of social change makes some joyful, others angry. Its no-limits gun culture is treasured by some, lamented by others. Its economic collapse of 2007-2008 has left many deeply distrustful of American institutions, from banks to big business to government.

The times have given us a new Republican Party, one that bears little resemblance to the Party of Reagan. As a historian, I wonder whether this is a one-election aberration (like Wendell Wilkie’s outsider takeover of the GOP in 1940) or a fundamental shift in America’s political lines.

Hearing speaker after speaker at Hillary Clinton’s convention refer to Ronald Reagan, I recalled reading a newspaper editorial early in the Reagan era headlined “Franklin Delano Reagan,” as a nod to Reagan’s frequent invocation of FDR. On the final night of the Democratic National Convention, we could have modified that headline this way: “Hillary Rodham Reagan.”

It’s morning in America. On the other side of the street.

Like Reagan, Clinton is not embracing the policy agenda of the other party. But like Reagan, she is seeking to unite her hard-core party loyalists and disaffected members of the other party. Like Reagan, who gave Democratic hawk  Jeane Kirkpatrick a platform at the Republican National Convention in 1984 to reject the changes in the party she long had backed, Clinton found speakers who implored disillusioned Republicans to switch sides.

“This year, I will vote for a Democrat for the first time,” said Doug Elmets, a former Reagan administration staffer from California. Former Virginia GOP activist Jennifer Pierotti Lim tried to convince reluctant Republicans not just to stay home but to actively thwart Trump — “to not only oppose Donald Trump but to support Hillary Clinton.”

 

 

Clinton’s acceptance speech was vintage Hillary Clinton, more like a Bill Clinton State of the Union speech with a list of dozens of policy priorities than a poetic paean to a shining city on a hill, as depicted by Reagan or the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo. But its “we’re all in it patriotism” and unabashed Northern Methodist morality made it a rhetorical antidote to Trump’s “only I can solve it” message.

Leading up to Clinton’s speech were some of the most powerful speakers of the week, who skewered Trump with ridicule and passion, as they also made the case for Clinton.

Kareem Abdul-Jabaar introduced himself to America as fellow basketball superstar Michael Jordan. “I did that,” he said, “because I know Trump wouldn’t know difference.”

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Donald Trump “smears the character of Muslims,” said Gold Star dad Khizr Khan of Charlottesville, Virginia.

There was no such levity in the words of Khizr Khan, a proud Muslim American whose son Army Captain Humayun Khan died in a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2004.

There was no way Clinton could bring more raw emotion to her speech than Khan. She didn’t try. She delivered a well-written speech effectively, if not effusively. It will be remembered more for its historical import than its historically important phrases.

Still, for the sake of the social media world in the year 2016, one zinger will go viral: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Clinton came into her convention week as a flawed messenger of a divided party. She remains a flawed messenger, but the party has been unified, with the exception of a small band of Bernie boo-birds who will choose a Green Party candidate who this week compared Clinton’s Democrats to Hitler’s Nazis.

To a large swath of America, Clinton will never be acceptable, and Trump will be the lesser of two evils. Or the man who can save America.

Trump’s campaign released a statement dismissing the speech as “a speech delivered from a fantasy universe, not the world we’re living in today.” Roger Ailes couldn’t have said it better. You’ll hear these talking points a lot in one of America’s two parallel political/media universes.

Beyond the spin is the bottom line. There is always a convention “bounce” in the polls. Trump, despite a poorly organized convention, got a bump as a result of the effective demonization of Clinton over four consecutive evenings. I predict that Clinton will surge in the polls, gaining the ground she lost and then some.

As American conventions give way to the Olympics, Clinton is likely to be in the lead. But the election remains in the hands of the Ronald Reagan optimists. The vision they choose  in November will be the face of America in the decade ahead.


Day 3 Analysis: Love, love, love (but not for Trump)

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The dichotomy of America is apparent at the two national political conventions.

Hope vs. fear.

Love vs. anger.

Experience vs. political newcomers.

Diversity vs. shades of white.

Meryl Streep vs. Scott Baio.

Cagney + Lacey vs. The Apprentice.

Hiring vs. Firing.

Gracious loser (Bernie Sanders) vs. unrepentant enemy (Ted Cruz).

It Takes a Village vs. Burn the Village Down.

Even without saying a single word, the Democratic convention has won the battle of images. People look happier, even the Bernie boo-birds. People act happier, especially the elected officials. People seem happier to be speaking there.

And then there is the messaging.

The Republican convention did a very good job sowing doubts about Hillary Clinton, particularly on the subject of emails. It exposed her vulnerabilities as an imperfect messenger. But it missed an important opportunity to demonstrate to America that Donald Trump has any policy vision for America. Voters left that convention without any idea what Donald Trump would do on health care, taxes, budget priorities, trade, relations with China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, NATO, Mexico … the list goes on and on. The only clear policy prescription is that he will build a wall. And Mexico will pay for it.

Clinton’s convention has artfully followed a three-pronged strategy:

  1. Rebuild the battered reputation of the candidate, whose positive ratings fell below 30 percent in one post GOP-convention poll.
  2. Lay out a specific set of policies on family leave, equal pay, minimum wage, anti-terrorism, college tuition and loans, infrastructure, national defense strategy, small business development, job retraining, veterans’ care … the list goes on and on.
  3. Shatter Trump’s reputation one speech at a time. His lawsuits. His persistent sexism. His dissembling. His university. His nativism. His steaks. His admiration for dictators. His treatment of contractors. His crude insults. His outsourced neckties. His ego. “He has no clue about what makes America great,” said Vice President Joe Biden. “Actually he has no clue, period.” Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismissed Trump as a fraud: “I’m a New Yorker, and I know a con when I see one.” John Hutson, a retired admiral, said it most harshly: “I used to serve in the Navy with John McCain. I used to vote in the same party as John McCain. Donald, you’re not fit to polish John McCain’s boots!”

Wednesday night’s show was carefully calibrated and artfully executed. I identified 10 themes that were repeated over and over by speakers ranging from assassination survivor Gabby Giffords to President Obama. The themes almost always reflected an implicit (or expressed) contrast with Trump:

 

  • Clinton is qualified — some, like Obama, called her the most qualified presidential candidate in history.
  • Clinton is persistent. On health care, 9/11 first responders, foster children.
  • Clinton is loyal.
  • Clinton is tough. Just ask Obama about the 2008 primaries.
  • Clinton has the temperament needed to be president.
  • Clinton possesses humility. It’s not about her. It’s about solving problems.
  • Clinton cares. Speaker after speaker gave personal examples, something almost completely lacking at the Republican convention.
  • Trump is a bad person. That theme might have been overdone, but, hey, there are lots of examples.
  • Trump bad businessman. Same as above.
  • Trump is crazy. Well, that may not have been in the official convention script, but Mike Bloomberg went there when he ad libbed “let’s elect a sane, competent person.”

Clinton is a flawed candidate, with a four-decade track record of political controversies accompanying her long record of accomplishments. But, for a week at least, Democrats are Photoshopping out the blemishes. Former Defense Secretary and CIA chief Leon Panetta, who has publicly criticized President Obama’s security policies, rhapsodized over Clinton.

“She is smart. She is tough. She is principled. And she is ready,” he said.

Both Obama and Biden got personal in their endorsement speeches. “No matter how much people try to knock her down, she never, ever quits,” Obama said. The outgoing president’s optimistic rhetoric about America included shoutouts to Republican icons such as Teddy Roosevelt and evoked the “Morning in America” imagery of Ronald Reagan. In November, Obama said, “the choice isn’t even close.” While praising Clinton he warned about a “self-declared savior” and “home-grown demagogues.”

The agony of many Republicans, from Bush loyalists to hard-core conservatives, speaks to the success of the Democratic speeches on Wednesday and the failure of Trump to inspire any positive vision for his supporters.

As Obama finished his oration, the convention hall’s audio system blared the song “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

Democrats can only hope that is the case. There’s still a long time between now and November 8.


Day 4 Analysis: Welcome to ’96 America — 1896, that is

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No “cross of gold” in Trump’s speech. But there was a gold stage.

At their best, presidential nominating conventions are about inspiration and optimism. Ronald Reagan’s “springtime of hope” in Dallas, 1984. Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism.

“We are not here to curse the darkness; we are here to light a candle,” Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy told delegates at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. “As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: If we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.”

Donald Trump’s acceptance speech did not harken back to the optimism of Reagan or Kennedy, to the inclusiveness of Bush and Johnson. Instead, his speech was the most apocalyptic vision enunciated by a presidential nominee since ’96.

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Reagan, 1984. Trump in 2016 was more like William Jennings Bryan than the Gipper.

1896, that is.

That was the year that a populist demagogue seized control of a deeply divided party and used his campaign to rail against the powerful elites in the United States and foreign capitals. It took more than a century for a presidential acceptance speech to choose a rhetorical path that dark.

Trump’s speech angrily mourned an era of American humiliation, degradation, instability and leadership incompetence. He promised, as is his campaign slogan, to “make America great again” by putting “American first.”

In many ways, the 1896 parallels make sense. The United States and the world are being destabilized by profound technological shifts. Millions of American workers have been displaced after having lost jobs that are redundant because of modern technology and increasing globalism. Those left behind — often stuck in shriveling small towns and struggling farms — angrily grasp for the lost America of the past, blaming elites and immigrants for the changes they are ill-prepared to master.

The 1896 Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, like Trump, was the champion of dispossessed farmers and fearful Main Street merchants. His opponent, William McKinley, was a candidate with broad support among business leaders, internationalists and educated urbanites. McKinley talked optimistically about the potential for America if it embraced the changes it faced. Bryan said McKinley would sacrifice American sovereignty before the New World Order. Trump says that he would ensure that other nations treat America with “the respect that we deserve.”

Bryan’s speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention is best remembered for his vow to moneyed elites that “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” That seems a bit outdated in 2016, but many of the Boy Orator of the Platte’s words ring true in Trump’s vision of America.

In his famous speech, Bryan said that McKinley and the Republicans were “willing to surrender the right of self-government and place the legislative control of our affairs in the hands of foreign potentates and powers.”

It’s a remarkable reversal. A century and a quarter ago, the Democrats were the party of the past, the voice of an idealized order. Today, the Republicans long for a gauzy past they insist has been lost by hostile and incompetent leaders in the public and private sectors. Trump promised to represent these “forgotten” Americans left behind by Big Business and Washington power brokers.

“I am your voice,” he said.

Ivanka Trump called her father “the people’s nominee.” That’s exactly what Bryan promised to be. Donald Trump rails against Wall Street capitalism. Bryan called himself a warrior against the “the idle holders of idle capital.” Unlike his opponent, Bryan said he was truly “on the side of the struggling masses” against international competitors and urban elites. Today, Trump said, the party of Bryan has become the party of “corporate spin.”

“We cannot afford to be so politically correct,” he said, choosing a phrase that did not exist in Bryan’s day.

Instead of the “bimetalism” condemned by Bryan, you have “multilateralism” lamented by Trump. If you just substitute “factory jobs” for “farms,” Bryan’s words reflect Trump’s call for a return to the old days of imagined American industrial might:

Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

Bryan’s apocalyptical version has many parallel’s to Trump’s nihilist vision. As he worked his way up to his famous “cross of gold” climax, Bryan told the delegates:

If they dare come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation… supported by… the toilers everywhere.

Trump could not have said it better himself.

 

>>> Read William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech here. It also contains audio of the speech. (Modern technology in 1896.)


Explaining America to the world: I analyze Trump’s populist revolt for a Finnish audience

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When I moved to Beijing in 2013 to explain global best practices in journalism to a diverse group of Global Business Journalism Program students, I had not expected that I also would frequently be asked to explain American politics and democracy to a global audience. I’ve been interviewed regularly in Chinese media, but also in European news outlets from Finland to Slovakia (plus the good old USA).

This week, I discussed the rise of Donald Trump with my friend Matti Posio, who heads up the national news operation for a group of Finnish newspapers, Lannen Media. Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Q: You have met Donald Trump in person. Tell me about it.

I am one of thousands of people who has met Donald Trump at black-tie social events. For me, it was the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington several years ago. He was cordial and polite, very different than his public persona. He was clearly a celebrity among celebrities. Reporters were coming up to him an asking if they could pose for photos with him. He was patient, unlike the hot-tempered character on the campaign trail. Nobody I talked to thought he would ever run for president. I really didn’t do more than exchange small talk. He seems comfortable with social conversation and, obviously, he has been going to formal events for a half-century. From my very short glimpse into his life, I would say that he is a very good actor playing certain roles that are expected of him at different times.

Q: I don’t see how anyone can actually be like that. Is his personality the same in real life than portrayed on media?

How many of us get to see him in “real life”? Real life is his life in his big mansion in Florida. Real life is his family. I can imagine Orson Welles playing the role.

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Cruz + Trump = Volatile mix

Q: What is it that foreigners / Europeans really don’t get about Trump?

Do you mean, “Why is he getting so many votes? Why would anyone vote for him for president?” Politically, he is the right man at a very strange time in American political history. After two decades of anti-elitist rhetoric on right-wing talk radio and the Rupert Murdoch-owned conservative cable news network Fox, there is a large minority of the country that believes their way of life has been taken from away from them by the faceless “them” — minorities, immigrants, big companies shipping jobs overseas, corrupt speculators, too-big-to-fail banks, gays and lesbians, working women, feminists, or Big Government giving their tax dollars to undeserving others, Donald Trump is a reality TV performer and is playing to that audience. He is playing the role of populist demagogue, race-baiter, keeper of the working-class flame, proud leader of the “poorly educated,” ranter against the system and the elites and Wall Street and Big Business. So what if he is a son of privilege, a highly educated billionaire and someone who has played the system for years to make deals and make money.

Q: What are the main reasons he has become so popular?

He strikes a responsive chord with less-educated, lower-income white voters across the political spectrum. He is winning among moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and Evangelical Christians.. He is even getting a modest share of higher-educated, higher-income voters. He is bringing new voters into the system, economically struggling people who thought they had no voice until Donald Trump appeared. While Trump moved relentlessly forward in a media frenzy, his opponents spent months destroying each other rather than going after him. His opponents sound like traditional politicians — which they are — at a time American voters yearn for the myth of “authenticity.” Trump is acting the role of “truth-sayer” supremely well, even if the fact-checking web sites say he is lying much of the time.

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Talking multimedia innovation at Lannen Media’s Helsinki offices last March

Q: He is behind both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the real election. Could he still win?

When it is a one-on-one race, anything could happen. If there are independent candidates dividing the non-Trump vote, anything could happen. There has never been an election like this. Bill Clinton says he expects a close general election. Pundits, who have been wrong all year, are predicting a Trump defeat that costs Republicans control of the U.S. Senate. I’ve been predicting that the public will eventually tire of Trump and “cancel” his election-year reality TV show. But I’ve been wrong for months, along with my fellow political reporters and pundits. So, to repeat an American political cliche, never say never.

Q What would happen if he really became the president? How much would he change?

In recent days, his primary opponent rival Ted Cruz has claimed that Trump told the New York Times editorial board privately that he would act very differently as president than he has during the campaign, as least as far as immigration is concerned. None of us know. As a reporter, I’ve always said that the best way to judge what a politician will do after getting elected to office is to study what he or she promises during the campaign. We can’t read his mind. If he does everything he’s promising to do on the campaign trail, there will be a constitutional crisis and a global economic and diplomatic catastrophe. You’ll have the Putin-Trump axis versus the world. I can’t see it. He would have to change or he would be ineffective domestically and isolated internationally.

Q: Let’s assume he doesn’t become the president. Has he already achieved something, left a lasting mark in the country and its politics? What is it?

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Dismantling the Reagan coalition

Yes, he has achieved something of historical significance. He has destroyed Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party. If he wins the nomination, the party of Reagan will have ceased to exist. It is the same thing that happened to the Democrats in 1972, when George McGovern won the presidential nomination and destroyed the four-decade-old New Deal coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although Democrats won the White House four years later because of Nixon’s Watergate scandal, it took them two decades to recover institutionally from the crack-up of 1972.

Q: You are currently a professor in China. What is told about Trump there? How much of it is true?

Trump has been portrayed in Chinese media as an eccentric, bombastic showman and celebrity. He’s seen more as a curiosity than a threat, so far, at least. Most people who are savvy about the United States ask me, “Could Trump be elected? Why would Americans vote for Trump?” It’s similar to questions people would ask you in Europe. The coverage of him on Chinese state television is generally straightforward, so far, at least. There has been a bit of negative editorial commentary in traditional state print media, but nothing nearly as inflammatory as what Trump has said about China. And Japan. And Korea. And Mexico. And Iran. And Europe. And Obama.

Q: Would you consider moving to China all together, should Trump be elected?

How about Finland?

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Taping an interview at YLE, the Finnish radio network


What would Reagan do? Here’s what he said about immigration, walls and open borders

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Reagan signed into law the bipartisan Simpson-Mazzoli Law that granted amnesty to millions of people living illegally in the United States.

Ronald Reagan was all about tearing down walls, as in Berlin.

But he also was against building them, as in Mexico.

With all of the heated political rhetoric about Mexico today, it’s a good time to revisit what presidential candidates Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush said about immigration as they debated each other during the 1980 campaign.

“Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual concerns?” Reagan asked.

Bush tried to be even more pro-immigrant, noting at one point, “Part of my family is a Mexican.”

Listen for yourself. And ask yourself, “Would Ronald Reagan be welcome in today’s Trump-guided Republican Party?”


Flashback: My 2013 profile of Ted Cruz, when he was first being compared to Ronald Reagan and Joe McCarthy

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Presidential campaign bumper sticker: His supporters think Ted Cruz is always right

Thanks to the wonders of social media, Ted Cruz supporters and detractors are still circulating a profile I wrote of him that appeared on Texas on the Potomac on Feb. 21, 2013, six wild weeks into his Senate tenure. I’m glad to say it still holds up today. The most interesting quote in it may come from then-Attorney General Greg Abbott of Texas, when he discusses the futures of Cruz and freshman Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Here’s the story:

Ted Cruz’s blazing start in the U.S. Senate has proven to be the political equivalent of a Rorschach test.

Cruz is a political Rorschach Test. Everybody sees the same thing — and everybody sees something different.

Cruz’s fans, and there are many, compare him to Ronald Reagan, who happens to be the 42-year-old senator’s boyhood hero. Cruz’s detractors, and there are many, compare him to Joe McCarthy, the controversial Wisconsin senator known for smearing his foes by innuendo and questioning their patriotism. And there are not many in between.

“It’s going to be in the eye of the beholder,” said Timothy M. Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.

To Cruz, the first Latino senator in Texas history, the swirling controversies of the past two months stem from his credo to “speak the truth,” whatever the consequences.

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Official family portrait

The Houston Republican’s first legislative proposal, as promised during his campaign, was a complete repeal of the 2010 health-care law widely known as Obamacare. He was the only senator on the losing side of every key vote in his first month in office. He was one of only three senators to oppose the confirmation of Secretary of State John Kerry, and was one of just 22 to vote against the Violence Against Women Act.

But it’s Cruz’s hard-charging style — and not just his hard-line conservatism — that has attracted national attention.

Texas’ junior senator made a name for himself on Capitol Hill with his hostile grilling of Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense. Showing no deference to his elders, the newcomer also had a tense encounter with Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer on a usually sedate Sunday talk show.

Liberal New York Times columnist Frank Bruni dismissed him as “an ornery, swaggering piece of work” full of “too much quackery, belligerence and misplaced moralism.” NBC Latino commentator Raul Reyes declared that “Cruz knows no shame” and “it’s time the GOP presses the Cruz-control button.”

At the same time, Cruz has been welcomed as a conquering hero by the grassroots conservatives who fueled his upset victory over establishment Republican favorite David Dewhurst in the 2012 Republican runoff contest. The new senator was picked to deliver the closing address at next month’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, the nation’s largest annual gathering of right-thinking activists.

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Conquering hero or dangerous demagogue? (Texas Tribune photo)

“Ted Cruz has not sacrificed his values and beliefs on the altar of political correctness or to become part of the Washington, D.C., circuit,” said Harris County Republican Party chair Jared Woodfill. “Like Ronald Reagan, he can take our conservative values and beliefs and articulate them for the world. He has made a huge mark at the national level in just a few months.”

Republican strategists are particularly pleased that Cruz brings a fresh face — as well as much-needed diversity — to the GOP message machine.

“He’s not a grumpy old white guy like so many of our spokesmen have been,” said Fergus Cullen, a communications consultant and former New Hampshire Republican Party chair. “He comes from the policy/ideas/intellectual wing of the conservative movement, like (2012 vice presidential nominee) Paul Ryan, and we need more of them.”

While assessments of Cruz’s job performance vary widely, there’s one thing everyone can agree on: The former Texas solicitor general is willfully ignoring the age-old adage that in the Senate, freshman are seen but not heard.

“Sen. Ted Cruz came to Washington to advance conservative policies, not play by the same old rules that have relegated conservatives — and their ideas — to the backbench,” said Michael A. Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, the political committee of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It should come as absolutely no surprise the Washington establishment — be it the liberal media, entrenched special interests or even wayward Republicans — is now attacking him in the press for following through on his promises.”

Some Republicans say that Cruz — as well as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — are being targeted for tough criticism from the left because of his Hispanic heritage.

“Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are an existential threat to the liberal status quo,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, Cruz’s boss for more than five years. “For a long time, liberals assumed that if you were Hispanic and went to Harvard, you’d be a Democrat, not a conservative Republican. Not only that, he embodies the conservative principles that exist in a majority of the Hispanic community.”

Cruz, a champion debater in college and a former law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, is undaunted by the criticism.

“Washington has a long tradition of trying to hurl insults to silence those who they don’t like what they’re saying,” Cruz said Tuesday as he toured the LaRue Tactical gun-manufacturing plant near Austin. “I have to admit I find it amusing that those in Washington are puzzled when someone actually does what they said they would do.”

Cruz McCarthy meme.jpg

Critics speak: Another McCarthy?

Democrats, however, are decidedly not amused by his introduction to the national stage.

“He’s part of this right-wing, extreme group in the Republican Party,” said Gilbert Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Party chairman. “He was elected to do the business of all the people of Texas, not just the business of a small group of Tea Party right-wingers. He makes (conservative former Sen.) Phil Gramm look like a progressive.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal from California, went so far as to summon the ghost of Joe McCarthy during a discussion of Cruz on the Senate floor. MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews added former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and Charles E. Coughlin, anti-Semitic radio broadcaster and fiery New Deal critic.

“He’s a potent combination of intellect and demagoguery that really has the potential to light a fire under the freshman Republicans to burn the place down,” said Jim Manley, a long-time Senate staffer who worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “But if you go down that path, you end up as nothing but roadkill in the Senate. If he continues down this path, his base may feel good about it, but he may just become isolated and irrelevant.”

A few Republicans have privately counseled Cruz to tone down his approach. One GOP colleague, Sen. John McCain, went so far as to rebuke him publicly after the Texas senator asked Hagel whether the former Nebraska senator had received payments from Saudi Arabia or North Korea.

“Sen. Hagel is an honorable man who served his country and no one on this committee at any time should impugn his character of his integrity,” McCain said as Cruz sat quietly by.

The two men shared another uncomfortable moment at the State of the Union speech, when McCain responded to Obama’s praise for bipartisan immigration reform with a quick jig while Cruz, two seats away, sat frowning.

Conservative activists are thrilled that Cruz has roiled both Democrats and old-line Republicans.

“We are encouraged that he is standing up to the establishment as a U.S. senator,” said David N. Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United. “Fighting the tough fights for conservative principles is why Ted Cruz was elected to the U.S. Senate.”

L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the conservative group ForAmerica, blamed fellow Republicans for undercutting Cruz.

“The GOP establishment is at it again,” he said. ‘After capitulating to President Obama in negotiations over the fiscal cliff and promising to kneecap conservatives in the 2014 primaries, these moderates are attacking Sen. Ted Cruz for sticking to his conservative principles.”

Cruz’s brand of uncompromising conservatism gives Texas two of the most conservative members of the Senate. New ratings released Wednesday by National Journal indicated that the Lone Star State’s senior senator, John Cornyn of San Antonio, was the Senate’s second most conservative member in 2012.

Cornyn says he looks forward to “working closely” with Cruz “as we fight for a conservative agenda.”

“Ted has quickly proven himself to be among the next generation of leaders of Texas and the Republican Party,” Cornyn said.

It may be a bit early to declare Cruz a leader, but there’s little doubt Cruz is having an impact disproportionate to his seven-week Senate tenure. An editor of the conservative website The Daily Caller recently likened Cruz’s ability to shape the debate over Hagel to the liberal grassroots group MoveOn.org’s impact at the height of the Iraq War.

He’s certainly the most visible freshman senator, appearing on more national TV programs than any of his first-year colleagues, including the much-hyped liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and conservative Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, the first African American senator from the Deep South since Reconstruction.

With the hype, of course, come the jibes.

“Washington is a rough-and-tumble place, and I certainly don’t mind if some will take shots at me,” Cruz said. “What I do think is unfortunate is if the coverage of the political game overshadows the substance.”

“Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are an existential threat to the liberal status quo.”

— Greg Abbott