Explaining Why Trump’s Charlottesville Comments Were a Mega-Fail

Because I write so often on politics and culture, people who know me often bring questions or something they’d like to discuss.  The thing I keep hearing lately, especially from folks who aren’t big political partisans, is a question about why Trump’s comments regarding Charlottesville are such a big deal.  I want to try and address that.

Let’s begin with an admission.  Much of what the president said about events in Charlottesville was factually accurate.  There were people in the counter-demonstration who were ready to use violence and who were provocative.  If the question has to do with simple law and order, it is entirely possible that the counter-demonstrators were the spark that lit the fuse.  The problem is that to see events in this light lacks substantial context.  And in this case, context is everything.

It would be one thing if the Charlottesville protesters were your standard Southern men who collect Civil War (or the War between the States as many would have it) memorabilia and who cherish the gentlemanly reputation of Robert E. Lee.  Whether you agree with them or not, that’s a debate that can be had without necessarily entailing a strongly racist view.  After all, the defenders of Lee typically see him as something of a tragic figure.  He was arguably the best military man in the nation, but his sympathies were with his native Virginia.  Had Virginia been a Union state, Lee might well have ended up as president of the United States.  I’ve never heard these folks promote Lee as some kind of champion of the slavery cause.

But the reality seems different.  It appears that the Charlottesville protesters did, indeed, embrace something like white nationalism.  If we put the best possible face on it (which takes some work), then we can see them as people who believe that the European culture promoted the highest level of civilization.  Unfortunately, they believe that to continue enjoying western civilization artificial or political means must be employed to keep minorities out or limited to marginal numbers.  That’s where we get away from the best possible face (which still has problems) and move toward the marred side of the Janus profile where white supremacy lurks.  They are not really defending Lee so much as they are cynically using Lee to promote an ugly form of racial superiority.

When President Trump entered the picture, which was made necessary by the ultimately fatal consequence of the clash of protesters, he spoke almost as if addressing two gangs of kids who had mixed it up and needed to be dressed down and sent home.  To paraphrase, “Hey, now, you kids are better than this.  There’s plenty of blame to go around.  Clean yourselves up and go home.”

The problem is that this is the wrong frame.  Even if both sets of protesters were bad in certain ways, the simple fact is still that one set is setting forth a form of white supremacy (white nationalism can’t get away from that charge) and the other is opposing (unfortunately, violently) the first group’s speech.  Yes, it’s bad to start swinging clubs at white nationalists holding a demonstration.  But there is nothing good about the particular demonstration in the first place.  Like I said, they aren’t the good-hearted apologists for Lee.  They are promoting the idea that western civilization has to be protected from many non-European races.

In addition, the President didn’t speak to the situation with American history adequately in mind.  In all my 47 years I have hated carrying around the legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism.  It seemed like some unjust tax I have always had to pay.  But the simple fact is that I do live in this particular world with the history that we have and it can’t be escaped.  I would never dream of speaking about a protest like the one in Charlottesville without fully recognizing that this is not a conflict conducted in a vacuum.  The history is fresh enough that white supremacy connects to a time when it had a lot more power behind it.  To fail to adequately describe that reality as a president is to fail in the spiritual and emotional sense of leading.

These are the reasons why President Trump’s comments caused so much distress.  He isn’t living in the cutthroat world of New York real estate any more.  Neither is he any longer the type of celebrity who benefits from any story so long as his name is correctly spelled.  He’s the leader of a country with both a tragic and a great history that still wields more power than almost all the others combined.  Shooting from the hip is just not an option.

Trailing Edge Review: Spider Man Homecoming

  1.  I’m just gonna say it at the outset: I greatly prefer the Sam Raimi Spider-Man, which is much more true to the source material.
  2. This Spider-Man is the first one who actually IS the menace J. Jonah Jameson repeatedly claimed him to be.  His reckless incompetence is part of the story here, but it bothers me.  The Peter Parker I knew was deeply responsible after failing to stop the death of his Uncle Ben (now a missing figure).  Now, his destructiveness sets the stage for a new origin of sorts.
  3. I like Zendaya and enjoy seeing her liberated from those Disney shows.
  4. The film is effective at bringing multi-culturalism to the cast.  Makes perfect sense in New York.  MJ is half-black.  Flash is Indian-American.  Pete’s sidekick (previously a non-factor because his secret always made him a loner) is an Asian kid.
  5. Pete has a side-kick.  I don’t like it because it interferes with the tragic nature of Spider-Man.  He can’t be known because of what will happen to Aunt May.
  6. Aunt May is Marissa Tomei.  I miss the Aunt May who was Pete’s one solid source of love in his life and who needed him, too.  She was old and frail, which made her all the more compelling as someone he had to protect.
  7. What is up with the crazy 70’s outfits Marissa Tomei is wearing?
  8. Spider-Man wears a suit that is basically a Stark creation with its own “Jarvis.”  While it provides comic relief and drives the story in certain ways, I can’t stand it.  Please, please let this Iron Spider concept go away.  In the 1980’s we saw Spider-Man develop in ways (see his battle with Titania in Secret Wars) that showed he was one of the most formidable characters in the Marvel Universe.  He doesn’t need Tony Stark’s technology to get there.
  9. The Vulture of long-standing comic fame was a lawyer.  Spider-Man Homecoming presents us with a Vulture who is basically a Trump voter.  The uncaring elites come and take away his honest work, thus earning his lasting enmity and convincing him to do things he would never have otherwise done (like voting Trump?).  But pay attention, the Vulture has gone from being a member of the elite (by implication who feasts on carcasses) to being a working class type guy tired of being oppressed.  What’s wrong with this guy?  Couldn’t he just take unemployment or go on disability???  I hope my sarcasm comes through.  The Vulture has effectively been transformed from a parasite lawyer to a working class criminal.
  10. Is the spider sense gone?  I think the spider sense is gone.  This Spider-Man gets taken by surprise in combat.  Unthinkable.

Thoughts from the Treadmill: Dirty Dancing Edition

  1.  How long is this vacation, anyway?  There’s time for a tremendous amount of drama and an awful lot of dance training.  Do people stay at resorts in the Catskills for a month at a time?
  2. Why is Patrick Swayze putting so much effort into a dead-end dance career?
  3. Parents during this time clearly have different expectations regarding knowledge of their teen’s whereabouts than most of us do today.
  4. Isn’t Jennifer Grey headed for the same kind of unexpected pregnancy that landed Swayze’s dance partner in trouble?
  5. What’s all this business with training barefoot on an elevated log?  Is Patrick Swayze training to be a ninja?  Will Jennifer Grey become a ninja, too?
  6. Are they training to become ninjas of dance?
  7. Or is it something deeper they seek?  Is dance merely a pretext for something else?
  8. Are they becoming — dare I say it? — ninjas of love?
  9. Is the film really about Marxism?  The owner of the resort is clearly an oppressor.  Grey’s parents are obviously members of the uncaring, corrupt bourgeoisie.  Dance is setting the proletariat free from the drudgery of labor.  Jennifer Grey is an intellectual from the bourgeoisie who recognizes the real potential of the proletariat in the form of beautiful, chiseled Patrick Swayze.  She clearly thinks that revolution never looked so good.

Donald Trump and Sticks and Stones

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Being conservative and having Donald Trump for your president is pretty much the opposite of having Ronald Reagan.  Where Reagan was full of class and fought back well when he had to, Donald Trump is on the wrong side of the sticks and stones debate.  He thinks that words are the weapon of choice and frequently wields them with the intent to wound.  When it comes to presidential rhetoric, Donald Trump is a boor.  That’s just a fact.  It’s silly to argue otherwise.

It’s even sillier to have a presidential spokesperson standing on a podium defending the president in a situation like this one.  What’s the point?  The only one who can defend the comments is him.  Why would a reporter even bother to ask a spokesperson about it?  And why would the spokesperson bother to answer?

How should we go about discussing it?  Should I post that I disapprove of his comments?  Should others?  Isn’t it basically obvious?  If anyone defends his remarks with regard to a television host’s purported facelift, then they expose their own lack of class.  Look, we’ve hit upon a self-evident truth!

These days we sometimes talk about signal versus noise.  We’ve gotten the signal.  It’s not the first time.  Donald Trump lacks class and restraint.  That’s known.  I’m not sure why we need belabor the point.  If we choose to have a national freak-out every time the president tweets badly, I contend we’ll just waste our time and satisfy a lot of emotional needs.  We’re endlessly thrashing about in an ocean of noise.

The whole thing makes me think of my wife’s approach to behaviors she disapproves of from our kids (and sometimes even from me).  She just refuses to acknowledge it.  She calls it extinction.  My suggestion is that we just extinguish the behavior from the president by refusing to acknowledge it.  But that won’t happen because there are points that need to be scored.  I get it.

Every second we spend fussing over a non-event like this Mika Brzezinski blow-up is still less time spent talking and thinking about real policy.  The hotter the president runs, the cooler the rest of us need to be.

 

Why I Spend Time on Facebook

I think I’ve been on Facebook just about as long as it is possible to have been on the social media site without being a college student.  (If you recall, that was once a requirement.)  One of the questions that anyone has to ask themselves is why they choose to do the things they do.  What types of activities are worth our time?  I have invested significantly in Facebook and to a lesser extent in Twitter.  To what end?

As I think about how to get down to the essence of what social media offers me, the simplest answer is that it provides me with access to other minds.  The group of people I have collected and who have collected me make up a valuable resource that would be difficult for me to replicate in any other way.  I have a ready-made cloud of various types of people — pastors, professors, politicians, corporate professionals, teachers, mothers, fathers, family members, fellow Christians, sometimes even the occasional celebrity, and many more — from whom I can learn and with whom I can seek to communicate and share.

Let’s start with how social media provides input to me.  Before Facebook and Twitter, I had a morning routine.  I visited about 5-10 different political, news, and religious websites.  Then, I consulted another handful of blogs.  It was a good routine.  It worked for me.  But it was inferior to what I have now.  By merely scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I get a sense of the stories many people I find intelligent and interesting recommend.  These links take me to publications I may not have known exist and expose me to new writers and thinkers.  Is there some chaff with the wheat?  Certainly, but the overall effect is better.  I know too many smart people not to benefit from the things they are reading and discussing.

The personal side is pretty obvious.  Facebook is now the way we hear about so much of what is happening in people’s families, their professional lives, and sometimes their personal struggles.  I absolutely understand the people who choose not to spend time on social media.  There are definitely virtues to it, but staying out also brings a degree of isolation simply because so many people use it as a way of communicating about personal events.

Alright, so what about output?  Some people are Facebook lurkers.  They don’t have a desire to ever make a post and not even really to comment.  They are satisfied to read, observe, and simply be in the know about what’s going on.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  But if you are reading this, then you probably know I’m the opposite.  I am a professor, a writer, a former professional public policy combatant, a husband, and a father.  All of these activities, for me, fall under the Lordship of Christ over my life.  I am accountable to use what I have been given and to be a good steward.  It has always seemed to me that I should enter the fray if I have something to offer and that I should share the things that I have that are good.  It is perhaps not surprising that what people like the most about my Facebook activity are the interactions I share with my children.  Unfortunately, those are spontaneous and I don’t have a great kid moment every day!

Again, though, this is a question of having access to minds.  I feel that I should try to reach out and touch other minds when I have something I think is worth saying.  For me, social media is not some little added activity.  I consider it something like a personal ministry.  I have to be accountable to Union University, to my church, and to others for what I do there, but that only makes sense.  I want to be an integrated person with everything in my life relating to the other parts in a consistent way.  The goal is to speak and write so as to give something that is of benefit to others.  Sometimes that is funny or cute.  Other times it has to do with matters that are urgent and serious.

There is something else, too.  I have found that relationships on Facebook often turn into real relationships.  I’m not sure I could produce an adequate inventory of the people I have met online and through social media and then had an opportunity to meet in person.  Not only have these people very often become some of my closest friends, but they have also been incredibly helpful to me professionally.  We form networks that lead to opportunities to speak, to write, or to put together projects.

If you are reading this, maybe you are asking yourself about your own social media use.  My advice would be simply to use it intentionally and not just passively or reactively.  Sure, it can be entertaining, but it can also be an opening into all kinds of new fellowship, cooperation, and shared influence.  Have a strategy for how you use Facebook and then allow your sense of purpose to help you avoid the mistakes of mockery, unwarranted aggression, and allowing disagreement to too easily turn to disassociation.

 

Anatomy of a Protest and a Form of the Smear

I just noticed that students at a Christian college protested a speaker who has held political office and is now a media personality. In justification of their protest, they associated this man with racism, sexual violence against women, police brutality and various other sins. So, I thought of this public individual and asked myself a few questions.
 
1. Does he argue for the supremacy of a particular race, for the inferiority of a particular race, or for giving different rights to different races?
2. Does he argue that women should suffer sexual violence at the hands of men or commit such violence himself?
3. Does he argue that police brutality is a good thing? Does he try to do away with investigative processes established to determine fault in the area of police brutality?
 
No. What you will really find is something more like the following:
1.  He explicitly argues against racial supremacy and discrimination, but disagrees with various legal remedies proposed to address racial inequality (such as affirmative action).  The way the game is played, this gentleman is now a racist.
2.  He does not argue for sexual violence against women and is not known to commit such acts.  However, he supported then-candidate Trump.  If that choice establishes him as a supporter of sexual violence against women, then I suppose people who supported President Clinton were proponents of intern seduction.  (See, the logic gets a little funny.)
3.  He does not embrace police brutality.  What is far more likely is that he has looked at an incident where police brutality was charged and came to a different conclusion regarding the guilt of the officer involved.
You will notice that the examples here are all instances of left-wing political sensibilities being used to make someone radioactive (a racist!) when in fact they simply disagree with proposed solutions for addressing a particular issue.  However, I would be wrong not to admit that the same thing happens in the opposite direction.  Here is an example:
Assertion:  “Left-wing politician X is an anti-semite.”
Question:  “Why is politician X an anti-semite?”
Response:  “He believes the Palestinians should have more rights to territory occupied by Israel than I do.”
What can we conclude?  Politician X may be an anti-semite (who knows but God who sees hearts), but not because of his position on this particular policy.  His chosen policy simply indicates that he believes the Palestinians have a stronger claim than you do.
Having now examined this abusive rhetorical strategy from left and right, I very much hope we can agree to stop using it.  It is unfair, dishonest, and intellectually lazy.

Getting Past the Drama: What Trump Means for Policy

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Donald Trump has been elected president.  People are processing lots of emotional feedback, much of it related to the headline scrum that took place over Donald Trump’s purported racism, sexism, etc.  But the reality is that Trump’s presidency offers the possibility for a particular turn in public policy that has the potential to benefit virtually all Americans.  My argument is that the Trump administration will work to improve the American balance sheet through the development of national assets.  We don’t tend to think of public policy in those terms, but we should.  I’ll explain why.

The Democrats have emphasized the redress of racial or sexual grievance (such as the highly disputable pay gap) and the delivery of money and benefits through redistribution.  So, for example, President Obama managed to expand health coverage (though at a cost to many working class people) and aggressively increased the pool of food stamp recipients.  Republicans, on the other hand, have argued for the power of the growth that free markets can generate.  While the historical record is quite good on that front, it has seemed more recently (whether fair or not) that the benefits of such growth have not been widely shared.

Where does Donald Trump fit into this picture?  I think he embraces a third way.  He will prefer some kind of strong industrial/infrastructure strategy over the left-wing emphasis on entitlements and dependency.  And he will decline to believe with Republicans that free markets are the key to human flourishing (alas, but so be it).  Trump will try to build and protect America, Inc.

As a fairly orthodox small government, free market, free trade conservative, I prefer the Paul Ryans of the world to the Donald Trumps, but I think there is some benefit to Mr. Trump’s approach.  It may help to begin by considering comments from a 2012 Wall Street Journal interview with European Central Bank president Mario Draghi:

In the European context tax rates are high and government expenditure is focused on current expenditure. A “good” consolidation is one where taxes are lower and the lower government expenditure is on infrastructures and other investments.

Draghi’s insight is one American policymakers need to understand. If the government is spending a great deal of money simply to put dollars in people’s pockets, pay salaries, etc. (in other words, “current expenditure”), then we are not getting nearly the good we could obtain with better government spending that develops real assets.  Plus, we go bust trying to afford those ephemeral “current expenditures.” The superior situation is one in which you can keep taxes low and government spending is on items that last and have the potential to spur growth into the future.  I have the sense that Donald Trump, the businessman and builder, instinctively understands this point.

For example, consider the difference between a government paying for things such as the interstate highway system or the Tennessee Valley Authority power plants versus a government that sends out a lot of entitlement checks. The first government will see substantial benefit over the long run. Just consider the return on investment those highways, dams, and nuclear plants have generated decade after decade.  The second government (the one that focuses on entitlement payments) is mostly just poorer at the end of the year.

What I am suggesting (and friends on the left get ready to choke on your organic wheatgrass juice) is that Donald Trump buys into strategies suggested by John Kenneth Galbraith in The Affluent Society.  Galbraith encouraged liberals to stop focusing so much on income redistribution and to concentrate instead on investments in public goods.  Galbraith complained that we have a policy that encourages private consumption (both tax cuts and entitlements do that) when we should instead have one that tips the balance in favor of creating goods that benefit whole communities and provide a platform for better lives.  Thus, he argues that roads should be improved, power lines should be buried, better parks and libraries should be built.  Donald Trump’s thinking follows those same movements.

The upshot is that if a Trump presidency manages to shift our public policy away from simply encouraging more private consumption (via tax cuts or government checks) and in favor of providing work and generating public goods which could potentially serve us in good stead as national assets for a long time to come, then I think he could achieve something with broad based benefit to American citizens.

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is a university fellow at Union University and the author of three books on politics and religion.