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Trump’s State of the Union Expected to Depart From Vague Epithets About ‘Radical Leftists’

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Photo illustration by Spencer Means

WASHINGTON, February 5, 2019 — When President Donald Trump arrives in the chamber of the House of Representatives to deliver his second State of the Union address Tuesday, the bipartisan-minded speech he is expected to deliver will be a dramatic departure from the apocalyptic rhetoric he frequently uses to describe his political enemies.

In a briefing with reporters last week, White House aides attempted to cast his annual message to Congress as an olive branch. In one excerpt of the speech, which is entitled“Choosing Greatness,” Trump is expected to call on Congress to “break decades of political stalemate, we can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary process of America’s future.”

Trump’s turn to bipartisanship may only be a momentary break in character. Since the midterm elections, the president has consistently described those opposed to him interms both vague and extreme.

Midterm election rhetoric laced with concerns about the ‘radical left’

During the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, applause lines warning of “radical Democrats” who“want to tear down our laws, tear down our institutions in pursuit of power, demolish our prosperity in the name of socialism and probably worse” were a staple of the president’s campaign stump speech. At least one tweet warned of “radical leftists” supporting Democratic candidates.

During the 35-day partial government shutdown he instigated over his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump used a Pentagon event on missile defense to complain to an audience of military officers that the “radical Democrats” in the House majority had come from the “radical left.”

He also spoke of a “radical left” opposed to border security during his first prime-time Oval Office address, telling Americans: “The radical left can never control our borders.”

The president’s preferred phrase for his perceived enemies has filtered down to Congressional Republicans and conservative media, both of which are replete with examples of the use of terms like “left-wing,” “leftist,” “radical left,” and “radical Democrats.”

These can refer to anyone ranging from moderate Democrats opposed to the president’s border wall to so-called “Never Trump” conservatives who’ve remained stalwart in their opposition to a president they say is not one of them.

Trump’s epithets show the hallmarks of an ‘authoritarian statist,’ says consultant Rick Wilson

According to conservative strategist Rick Wilson, the use of such vague epithets by both thepresident and his supporters marks Trump as an “authoritarian statist” and canbe traced back to two inflection points involving Fox News architect Roger Ailes.

“One of the great tricks of authoritarians and statists is the amorphous other. There’s always a threat — the evolving threat of the other,” said Wilson, a veteran GOP ad maker and the author of “Everything Trump Touches Dies.”

Ailes, Wilson said, understood there was a mass of Democratic voters who were “not of the Ted Kennedy type,” meaning that they were not progressive on social issues.

Speaking of Republican strategy generally, he said, “We went after them on cultural issues and on describing an effete elite possessed of amazing power and pure evil trying to destroy our way of life.”

Wilson explained that such thinking became even preeminent in GOP politics in 2010 during the rise of the Tea Party, in part because the internet had lowered the cost of communicating to a targeted audience.

“If you poke the average guy in a focus group who’d easily use the term ‘cultural Marxism’ and ask ‘what does that mean, exactly?’ the dumbfounded stare is always the same,” he said. “They don’t know what it means, they just know that they hate it.”

Wilson noted that as a prominent anti-Trump Republican, he often is confronted by people who accuse him of being a “socialist, liberal, blah blah blah,” based solely on his opposition to President Trump.

“It always comes down to one thing — you don’t like Trump, therefore your politics are of the left.”

“That’s how they look at everything, though this one prism of ‘are you a socialist liberal or are you Trump supporter?’” “The only thing they can ever say is ‘you don’t like Trump, therefore you’re a leftist. It’s kind of shocking and frightening at the same time.”

Wilson said that none of the characteristics or beliefs shared by him or other anti-Trump Republicans could by any means be considered to be “of the left” – until now.

‘Stabbed in the back’ by moderate Republicans and mainstream conservatives

“[Trump is] great at playing the statist politics of these guys, who Republicans on paper believe are oppressive to human freedom,” Wilson continued. These are the same kinds of “games that Saddam [Hussein] played, and Kim [Jong-un] plays, and [Vladimir] Putin plays.”

Wilson theorizes that Trump’s praise of Putin as an exemplar of “strong leadership” stems from apolitical impulse akin to the “stabbed-in-the-back” myth popularized in Weimar Germany. In the current iteration, Wilson says, mainstream conservatives and moderates Republican stand-in for German Jews.

Charlie Sykes, editor of “The Bulwark” and author of “How The Right Lost Its Mind,” echoed many of Wilson’s sentiments about the zero-sum thinking common with Trump and his supporters. The constant demonization of a hard-to-define enemy is good politics for the president.

“In a lot of ways, this is not surprising for Trump because he’s much more effective running against someone and running against something than running for something,” said Sykes, who hosted a conservative talk radio program until 2016.

“[Trump] needs a foil, so casting the Democrats as dangerous and radical is going to be the formula for his 2020 campaign — to convince his base and swing voters that no matter what his feelings will be, the Democrats are much scarier, that they are coming to catch you, that they hate you.”

Virtue signaling to the right on religious freedom

Sykes said much of Trump’s appeal is predicated on his supporters’ belief that the other sidewants to destroy the things they care about most, particularly regarding religious freedom.

“That’s been a very bright, powerful message to groups like evangelical Christians who have been convinced that religious liberty is on the line because Democrats will rollover their rights,” he said.

Trump and his political allies are purposefully creating an exaggerated, cartoonish image of a political enemy that hates both him and America itself, said Sykes. That way, he doesn’t have to run against a specific policy or a specific idea.

“Trump is trying to make it not about him so that it’s not being pro-Trump or anti-Trump, it’s being pro-American, pro-values, pro-Christian religious liberty,” Sykes said. He referred to Pennsylvania state representative Rick Saccone, who lost a special election to Conor Lamb, a Democrat who now represents the state’s 18thCongressional district. Saccone said that Democrats “hate Trump, hate America and hate God.”

Trump’s rhetoric parallels recent history in strongman states like Turkey, Hungary, Poland and the Philippines

While Sykes maintained that casting his political opposition as vague yet terrifying was in Trump’s own political self-interest, Michigan State Political Science Professor Dr. Erica Frantz warned that the use of such rhetoric parallels recent history in places like Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and the Philippines — countries that have seemingly retreated from the practice of western-style democracy in favor of a more populist authoritarianism.

“What Trump has done is not unique to the United States,” she said. “It’s happened in other parts of Europe and in the developing world as well.” She believes that the American political climate is entering a situation in which anytime anybody speaks out against the president, he and his allies immediately label them as unpatriotic or not loyal to the United States.

“You have very vague rhetoric,” she said. “The virtue of vagueness is that it doesn’t have to pinpoint you to any specific thing.”

“Any category that is vague, loose, and encompasses anybody they don’t like is useful. In this instance, the ‘enemy’ is ‘the left.’”

Is Trump’s political rhetoric paving the way for anti-democratic behaviors?

Frantz noted that such behaviors are effective because pointing to political opposition as an enemy can easily paves the way for anti-democratic behaviors.

“Because those who support the incumbent are fighting against an enemy, they’re going to be more likely to accept such activity,” she said, calling Trump’s talk of declaring a national emergency at the border “very troubling in these contexts.”

“Historically speaking, we’ve seen emergencies being used as opportunities for these individuals to clamp down,” she said, citing Turkey’s ongoing national emergency used by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as justification for the continued imprisonment of thousands of journalist, academics, and civil society activists.

Because the one thing that can hinder such authoritarian takeovers of an established democracy is resistance from the would-be authoritarian’s own party, elected Republicans’ failure to stand up to Trump could have lasting consequences, Frantz said – particularly if he is able to declare a national emergency on the border without much meaningful pushback or consequences.

Trump’s power within the Republican Party has been bolstered by his outsider status, she said. It’s “not usually not a good thing in established democracies when we see these outsiders suddenly swoop in and win office.”

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Andrew Feinberg covers the White House, Capitol Hill, and anywhere else news happens for BeltwayBreakfast.com and BroadbandBreakfast.com. He has reported on policy and politics in the nation's capital since 2007, and his writing has appeared in publications like The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Silicon Angle, and Washington Business Journal. He has also appeared on both daytime and prime radio and television news programs on NPR, Sirius-XM, CNN, MSNBC, ABC (Australia), Al Jazeera, NBC Digital, Voice of America, TV Rain (Russia) and CBS News. Andrew wishes he could say he lives in Washington, DC with his dog, but unfortunately, he lives in a no-dogs building in suburban Maryland.

White House

Despite Efforts To Calm Americans’ Fears, Trump’s Coronavirus Approval Drops

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Vice President Mike Pence greets sailors on the hospital ship USNS Comfort

President Donald Trump’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States is leaving Americans less than impressed.

A Morning Consult poll released Tuesday shows less than half of voters surveyed — 49 percent — approve of the president’s approach to dealing with the threat posed by the virus’ spread in the US.

The results of that poll, taken from February 28 to March 1, showed a marked drop from the 56 percent of voters who said they approved of Trump’s actions when surveyed from February 24 to February 26th, a decline caused by a 9-point drop in independents approving of his performance, as well as a 7-point drop among Democrats.

The same February 28-March 1 poll showed the number of voters who disapprove rising to 37 percent, which leaves the president’s net approval on the coronavirus issue at 12 points. That’s less than one third of what it was three weeks ago.

The president’s declining approval numbers on coronavirus come despite his attempts to project calm during two press conferences last week, during which he attacked Democrats for supposedly politicizing the issue.

Trump also tried to stem discontent in the financial markets by putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating his administration’s response to the outbreak.

But Pence has a checkered history when it comes to public health matters. As governor of Indiana in 2015, the future Vice President presided over an outbreak of HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — among intravenous drug users that saw over 200 people infected.

Although Pence was advised by public health experts to declare a public health emergency and issue emergency regulations to allow needle exchanges to operate in Indiana (which bans them).

Citing his own belief that needle exchange programs encourage drug use (a belief which is contradicted by most public health experts), Pence refused to allow any such emergency measures until roughly two months after the outbreak peaked, when he approved an exchange which would operate for 30 days.

In 2018, Yale University epidemiologists found that the outbreak could have been stemmed had Pence and other state officials acted faster.

“Our findings suggest that with earlier action the actual number of infections recorded in Scott County — 215 — might have been brought down to fewer than 56, if the state had acted in 2013, or to fewer than 10 infections, if they had responded to the [hepatitis C] outbreak in 2010-2011,” the study’s lead author, Forrest W. Crawford, said at the time. “Instead, they cut funding for the last HIV testing provider in the county.”

Another of the paper’s authors, Yale University’s Gregg Gonsalves, tweeted on Wednesday that Trump’s decision to place Pence in charge of coronavirus response ““speaks to a lack of seriousness by the White House.”

When asked on Saturday whether he and Pence would pledge that politics and ideology would play no role in determining how the Trump administration responds to a coronavirus outbreak, Trump refused to do so.

Speaking in his own defense, Pence downplayed the seriousness of the 2015 outbreak, which he said occurred “in a very small town.”

“I think my experience as a governor, dealing with two different infectious diseases and seeing the vital role that local healthcare providers play, that federal officials play, it has really informed me,” he said.

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White House

Trump’s Attempt To Delay Bolton Book Unlikely To Pass Muster With Courts, Experts Say

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President Trump is personally seeking to block publication of his former national security adviser’s book by asserting that any conversation with him is by its very nature classified.

The heretofore unprecedented theory would prevent Ambassador John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser until last fall, from publishing his book, “The Room Where It Happened,” until either Trump relents and allows it or a judge intervenes after litigation that would undoubtedly delay the book’s publication until well past its announced March 7 release date.

According to The Washington Post, Trump has told aides that he will endeavor to block the book’s publication on the grounds that his conversations with Bolton are classified in their entirety, no matter the topic.

While the president has broad authority to declare information classified — or to declassify it — an assertion that all conversations between him and his national security advisor are classified would contradict the posture taken by the career National Security Council staff tasked with reviewing the manuscript prior to publication.

In a letter sent last month to Bolton attorney Charles Cooper, NSC records office senior director Ellen Knight warned that Bolton’s book “appear[ed] to contain significant amounts of classified information” which had been deemed top secret, but also maintained that the NSC would assist with revisions to excise that information so as to “move forward as expeditiously as possible.”

Knight, a career official whose role places her in charge of the prepublication review process, told Cooper that NSC staff would “do our best to work with you to ensure your client’s ability to tell his story in a manner that protects U.S. national security.”

Joshua Geltzer, a Georgetown University Law Center visiting professor who served as the NSC’s Senior Director for Counterterrorism from 2015-2017, said an assertion that any conversations between Bolton and the president are per se classified was unlikely to pass legal muster.

“At best, that’s mushing classification together with executive privilege,” he said. “Sometimes people think of [classification] as a form of privilege, but it’s not the same as the privilege that attaches to the communications between the President and his closest advisor.”

Geltzer said he would hope that the career NSC officials who’d normally review Bolton’s book would do their jobs “as they understand them to be best and correctly done,” but conceded that Trump could, in theory, overrule them.

If the President wants to overrule them, he definitely has that authority in many, many areas. But I would hope that their instinct is still to do the job correctly, rather than to do it incorrectly.”

Steven Aftergood, a physicist who heads the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said claiming any conversation with the president is classified would be an “unusually aggressive and expansive view of classification,” but said such an assertion would not necessarily pass legal muster because the White House would need to indicate to Bolton what information in the book is classified “with a degree of specificity.”

Knight, Aftergood said, would most likely not tolerate such an abuse of the prepublication review process because she is “a career professional who has spent decades distinguishing carefully between what is classified and what is not.”

If Bolton is forced to file suit to ensure publication of his manuscript, Geltzer said judges might not take kindly to such a sweeping declaration of classification in the post-Snowden era.

A judge, he said, could ask for the government to submit an ex parte affidavit — one that is submitted to the court without a copy being seen by the other side — explaining why certain information has been deemed classified at a level that disclosure would cause “grave harm” to national security.

But forcing Bolton to take the White House to court could backfire, he explained.

“Are they really going to claim that John Bolton, a hard, right conservative, is trying to jeopardize national security by disclosing classified information? Who is really going to believe that?” he asked.

“Everyone will understand what what game is being played right now if publication is is blocked, or significantly deferred,” he said. If his book is is delayed for months or longer, everyone will understand that it’s not because of national security reasons, but because of political ones.”

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Party-Line Votes Stop Schumer’s Subpoena Push

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The Senate has rejected a succession of amendments to the rules governing President Trump’s impeachment trial which would direct Chief Justice John Roberts to issue subpoenas to the White House and several executive branch agencies which refused to honor subpoenas issued during the House’s impeachment inquiry.

Senators voted along party lines, 53-47 to table a series of amendments offered to the proposed Republican-authored trial rules by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, which would have compelled the White House, the State Department, and the Office of Management and Budget to produce documents for the Senate to consider as evidence when deciding whether to remove Trump from office for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, condemned Democrats for objecting to the “very reasonable proposal” of using a process similar to that used to try President Bill Clinton in 1999.

“This seems to be a time for Adam Schiff and the house managers to attack the president and lecture the American people,” he said.

While speaking to reporters during a break in the trial, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar hit back against White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who during part of his arguments on Tuesday remarked that “some of you” (referring to senators who are currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination) “should be in Iowa” rather than sitting in the Senate chamber.

“I’ve made clear from the very beginning that I’ve got to do my constitutional duty,” she said.

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