The debate from hell

For the Globe and Mail, some thoughts on the worst presidential debate in US history:

Who won the debate? Does it matter? When this country has sunk this low – after a year dominated by bigotry and threats and now revelations about sexual assault – is it possible to contemplate anything but loss? Loss of trust, loss of respect, loss of dignity, loss of purpose. Loss of faith in our leaders, loss of faith in each other – in the ability of our media to challenge a candidate’s worst behaviour instead of exploiting it for profit, in the willingness of our leaders to defend the most vulnerable instead of exacerbating their pain.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” wrote poet Maya Angelou, a St. Louis native. Sunday night, 10 kilometres from Ms. Angelou’s childhood home, Mr. Trump took the stage and stereotyped black Americans, insulted Muslims, threatened to jail his opponent, and lied so blatantly about his past statements that we were forced to remember what exactly the Republican nominee had said about checking out that sex tape.

Ms. Angelou was right: You never forget how someone made you feel. What we felt was gross, and sad, and scared. The campus felt coated in slime. The debate was a lurid soap opera, in which everything unsaid loomed larger than what was spoken.

The stagecraft lent itself to grotesque microdramas of physical exchange. You may not remember what the candidates said, but you’ll remember that they did not shake hands at the start of the debate. You’ll remember how he stood behind Hillary Clinton, hulking and hovering. You’ll remember his strange sniffing, his ceaseless interruptions, and her withering disdain.

Read the whole thing here

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Midwestern Nice, Midwestern Lies

Last night I got to watch two Midwesterners debate each other in a style any Missouri resident knows well — “Midwestern nice.” On Kaine vs Pence:

The vice-presidential debate was Midwestern Nice meets Midwestern Lies. An anticipated snoozefest between two mild-mannered Midwesterners – Mr. Pence, a life-long Indiana resident now serving as Governor; and Mr. Kaine, who lived in Minnesota, Kansas, and Missouri before becoming Senator of Virginia – the debate was actually vicious, if you could read between the lines. To do this, you must comprehend Midwestern Nice.

Midwestern Nice is a vernacular of wholesome politeness masking bitter contempt. It is employed primarily by white Christians of the U.S. heartland. To speak Midwestern Nice, you must know certain key words, and Mr. Pence and Mr. Kaine lobbed them like they were in a Norman Rockwell battle royale. Mr. Pence rhapsodized about small towns and cornfields; Mr. Kaine hit back with Little League and Sunday school. Mr. Pence praised the power of prayer; Mr. Kaine name-checked a Methodist youth group.

Eventually, a “faith-off” commenced, as the moderator asked each candidate to speak about their religious values. Mr. Kaine and Mr. Pence each spoke reverently of their Christianity, and made sure to praise the piety of their opponent. In Midwestern Nice, this was actually them telling each other to where to go.

Read the whole thing at the Globe and Mail

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The Murder of Darren Seals

For De Correspondent, I wrote about the murder of Darren Seals, a Ferguson activist who believed the local movement here had been coopted:

September 6, 2016, Darren Seals, a Ferguson protester and local activist, was found dead in St. Louis’s Riverview municipality in a car that had been set on fire. He had been shot to death before the car was torched. The crime is being investigated by St. Louis police as a homicide. There have been no arrests. Seals was 29 years old.

Do you know who Darren Seals is? Maybe you do, since his murder quickly became international news,covered by the very media outlets which, in life, he chastised for ignoring him and the other St. Louis protesters whose activity did not stop after the cameras left town.

Did you know who Darren Seals was before he died? If you live in St. Louis, and were involved in the Ferguson protests, you did. On Facebookand on Twitter, Seals had been criticizing the cooption of Ferguson activism since late 2014, detailing an internal division between the Ferguson movement and the national civil rights movement known as Black Lives Matter. At the heart of this division, wrote Seals, was the exploitation of black pain for profit – conducted not only by white media and NGOs, but by out-of-town black elites who seized on Ferguson as a stepping stone to glory.

You can read the full story here. RIP Darren.

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The soft bigotry of Trumpian expectations

More on the presidential debate for Quartz:

That is the difference between skepticism and nihilism. The latter is what some elite journalists did by declaring Trump the winner before he opened his mouth. That is a capitulation to incompetence, the bestowing of a free pass to man known for bigotry and hate-mongering, and a show of naiveté toward Trump’s mastery of spin, which he wields as staunchly as Clinton does facts. Reactions like Todd’s and Brooks’ show that Trump has not lost his touch, as they responded by pandering to the standard of expectations set in part by Trump’s own campaign.

Trump did, however, lose the debate. Because the debate existed in its own realm, free from selective edits and crowd feedback, divorced—in the moment at least—from “post-fact” punditry manipulation. The candidates had to speak candidly. They had to react on the spot. They had to argue their case on merit. They had to deal with expectations, and Trump could not meet them, and there was no one who could cover for him and nowhere for him to hide. Hype and hyperbole dissipated as the contrast between the candidates became clear. Reality TV ceded into reality, an arena where Trump has always faltered.

Heading into the next two debates ahead of the election, we must remember to keep expectations high—not because we believe they will be met, but because if we surrender expectations, we will not notice when they have been betrayed.

Read the whole thing here

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Hillary Clinton destroyed Trump in the debate

My take on last night’s presidential debate for Globe and Mail:

Last night, Hillary Clinton, the daughter of a drape maker, revealed the man behind the curtain. Combining the personal with the political, she hit Trump where it hurt – his brand, revealed to be as bankrupt as the businesses he bottomed out.

Before last night, Trump had never been confronted directly by an adversary for a sustained period of time. He had appeared before cheering crowds and chatted with sycophants, but dodged or banned any journalist who challenged him. Unlike, for example, Sarah Palin and Katie Couric in 2008, Trump never had an extended interview with an objective party. At the first presidential debate, it was painfully evident why.

Clinton’s brand-destroying strategy emerged early on, when the two candidates were asked about the economy. As Trump lied that he was given a “very small amount” by his father – in reality, it was millions – Clinton noted not only his wealth but his reluctance to spread it. She ticked off a list of workers who he refused to pay, adding that she was grateful that her father was not among them.

Trump’s attempt to present himself as someone who understood American economic pain crumbled when he was outed as a man who caused it. Clinton debunked not only Trump’s origin story, but the ethics of his business practices and, in turn, the ethics of his candidacy. He never recovered.

Trump not only failed to deny that he fleeced workers; he implied they deserved it. When the issue of his tax returns was raised, Trump lied about why he couldn’t release them, citing an audit – which does not prohibit release – and stating that not paying taxes “makes me smart” and is “good business.”

Clinton gave names to these unethical practices: “the Trump loophole” and “Trumped up, trickle-down economics.” Trump, who has spent his campaign devising nicknames for rivals, faltered when his own beloved name was cast in a disparaging light. Lauded by some for his potential to shake things up, Trump was now inextricably tied with shaking people down.

Read the whole thing at Globe and Mail

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The terrible new gun law of Missouri/Missourah

For Quartz, I wrote about Missouri’s terrible new permitless carry law and our state’s cultural divide:

Gun culture, in Missouri, is indeed ubiquitous: that Kander, running as a Democrat advocating gun control, assembled a rifle on TV to show his bona fides speaks to its dominance. But while gun culture may shape state discourse, and gun regulation is the subject of heated debate both in Missouri’s media and legislature, the issue of gun ownership itself remains more of a mystery. Who are Missouri’s gun owners? How does ownership vary by region, gender, and race? Where are the guns coming from? What are they being used for?

The answer is that no one really knows. That’s because in 1996, the National Rifle Association goaded Congress into forbidding the US Centers for Disease Control from spending funds “to advocate or promote gun control,” stripping the center of $2.6 million in funding to research gun violence. Despite an executive order by president Barack Obama prompted by the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, the CDC continues to refuse research funding, in part because of fear that they will be hassled by the NRA. The result, a Los Angeles Times study concluded, is that “we’re flying blind on gun violence.”

It may be that gun ownership in Missouri—and in the US in general—is not as pervasive as it seems. This week, the Guardian gained access to a rare piece of quantitative research: an in-depth study from Harvard and Northeastern Universities showing that half of all guns are owned by only 3% of American adults. While Americans own an estimated 265 million guns—more than one gun for every adult—133 million of these guns are owned by the 3%. The authors of the study note that gun ownership in the US has actually fallen from 25% to 22% since 1994, but the number of guns available has risen dramatically.

The primary reason for increased gun ownership? Fear. “The desire to own a gun for protection—there’s a disconnect between that and the decreasing rates of lethal violence in this country. It isn’t a response to actuarial reality,” Matthew Miller, one of the authors of the study, told the Guardian, noting that the gun ownership surge occurred as violent crime decreased nationwide.

In Missouri, that fear is palpable, and it’s also self-perpetuating. While crime has plummeted since the 1990s, Missouri gun deaths are increasing, as is paranoia.

Read the whole thing at Quartz.

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For the Globe and Mail, I wrote about Trump’s long-running birther crusade against President Obama:

What Americans did not know is that this was arguably the moment Mr. Trump’s serious presidential ambitions began. When Mr. Trump announced his 2016 candidacy, he had not yet shaken the mockery of President Obama’s riposte, nor had he gained, in the interim, the “credentials” or “breadth of experience” Barack Obama said he lacked.

What he had managed to do was turn birtherism into a national narrative. Birtherism is a vision of the U.S. that excludes Mr. Obama and any American whose name or heritage marks a break in white Christian dominance. Mr. Trump’s vow to “make America great again” always rested on rendering non-white, non-Christian citizens inherently suspect. Proclaiming Mexicans “rapists” and Muslims “terrorists,” Mr. Trump propelled white nationalism out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Birtherism was never truly about where Barack Obama came from. It was about where he was allowed to go. Power, for Mr. Trump, a wealthy real estate scion, was rooted in birthright. Birthright became a theme of his campaign, as he insisted to supporters that illegitimate outsiders like Mr. Obama had taken what was rightly theirs. In ways both subtle and overt, Mr. Trump promoted whiteness as assurance, for white Americans, of immunity from hard times.

Read the whole thing at the Globe and Mail

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Did Trump buy the Fourth Estate?

I have been writing and tweeting about Trump’s relationship with the US media for over a year. Now I have written a summary of the fiasco, appropriately published in a Canadian newspaper, where I can speak freely. An excerpt:

Some have accused the media of fabricating a “horse race,” but this is an erroneous assumption. As shown over the summer – when Mr. Trump insulted the family of a fallen veteran, feuded with a baby and called on Russia to obtain Ms. Clinton’s e-mails, among other things – one does not need to cover Mr. Trump favourably to get favourable ratings. Viewers will tune in because it is the Trump Show. Ms. Clinton, similarly, is a source of both fascination and contempt. Americans will watch no matter what.

Something more ominous seems to be guiding the skewed coverage. Mr. Trump has named the media his enemy, despite its history as his friend. He has banned multiple organizations from his rallies. He has a history of litigation, is currently suing several outlets over articles on his wife, and is backed by Peter Thiel, the billionaire who sued Gawker out of existence. He is also advised by Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chief who has compiled massive dossiers on journalists he despises.

Mr. Trump’s campaign is run by Steve Bannon, a veteran of Breitbart, a paramount right-wing website. On Aug. 18, Mr. Bannon’s employees told the Associated Press of their plan to “humanize” Mr. Trump in the media and “use the Internet to win a general election.” The AP went on that week to release a Trump puff piece ignoring all scandals, a widely debunked exposé on the Clinton Foundation, a fake map showing the candidates tied, and other pro-Trump coverage. The AP’s behaviour was so egregious that it was questioned on CNN, where AP editor Kathleen Carroll admitted they were printing lies, but shrugged off the complaints. (On Friday, The AP admitted they had erred in their election coverage.)

CNN, meanwhile, has hired Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a paid commentator while he is still being paid by the Trump campaign. CNN is headed by Jeff Zucker, former CEO of NBC, which produced Mr. Trump’s reality-TV series The Apprentice. Today Mr. Zucker keeps a framed Trump tweet in his office.

On Twitter, Mr. Trump gleefully brags about his insider knowledge of the media industry. Given his 40 years working in or with the media, he likely has secrets that could destroy careers. Trailing in the polls, Mr. Trump is planning to launch his own media empire should he lose the election. Some U.S. journalists appear to be auditioning. Others seem scared into silence.

Americans in general should also be afraid. Mr. Trump, who spent his life buying buildings, appears to have bought the Fourth Estate.

Read the whole thing at the Globe and Mail

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No, Uzbekistan is probably not going to be invaded by terrorists

For twenty-five years, an invasion of Uzbekistan by Islamic terrorists has been predicted, and for twenty-five years, it has not happened. Instead, that fear has been used as a pretext for the state to clamp down on domestic dissent. For Politico Europe:

Despite Uzbekistan’s reputation as a hotbed of Islamic militancy, terror attacks in the country are extremely rare. Islamic militant groups have no substantive presence within the country, and few Uzbeks are interested in joining one. If there is a threat to the country and its citizens, it’s more likely to come from government security forces than from Islamic insurgents.

Karimov died as he lived, shrouded in secrets, discussed by his countrymen through the mish-mish— gossip — that forms the primary source of communication in his insular, authoritarian state. During his 27-year rule — he served first as secretary of the Communist Party before becoming president in 1991 — Karimov repressed the rights of his people and suppressed evidence of the repression.

His control of the country’s information system seems to have outlived him. On August 26, Uzbek officials abruptly announced that September 2 would be an official “day off,” claiming Uzbeks needed time to rest after the festivities. In reality, it appears to have been a pre-planned day of mourning. Late that evening, Karimov was announced dead, and he was buried the next day in an elaborate funeral in Samarkand.

The perception that Uzbekistan is beset by Islamic militants is a product of Karimov’s propaganda apparatus and his efforts to maintain control. Karimov encouraged Uzbeks to follow their Muslim faith, but in an extremely narrow way that conformed to state directives and acquiesced to state-approved mosques and imams.

Read  on as to what the death of Karimov means for Uzbekistan 


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A Trump rally without Trump

What is a Trump rally like without Donald Trump present? To find out, I drove to a Harley Davidson lot in Festus, Missouri, where the local branch of the Tea Party was holding their own rally without them. It was very different than the last time I attended a Trump rally in St. Louis. For Quartz:

But Trump rallies, which attract fanatical followers, do not tell the whole story of Trump’s support. This raises an interesting question: What is a Trump rally like without Trump? What happens to the crowd when the demagogue is absent?

In an attempt to answer this question, I drove to the parking lot of a Harley Davidson outlet in Festus, Missouri, a small city outside of St. Louis. This was where the local branch of the Tea Party was holding its own Trump rally—without Trump in attendance. Speakers included local Tea Party leaders like Jim Hoft, a popular right-wing blogger better known as the Gateway Pundit, and Ed Martin, Jr., an associate of ultraconservative pundit Phyllis Schlafly, a St. Louis native herself. This was a St. Louis gathering. Both in tone and topic, it was far more in the spirit of St. Louis—white, bigoted St. Louis, that is—than in the spirit of Trump.

I knew this because, back in March, I attended a Trump rally in St. Louis—the first to be significantly disrupted by protesters, and one of the bloodiest rallies to date. As Trump spewed hateful epithets from the podium that were broadcast through speakers placed outside the building where the rally was held, Trump fans and opponents clashed both inside and on the streets, sometimes getting into physical altercations. Novel at the time, this has since become standard for Trump rallies.

In Festus, the atmosphere was quite different. A comparatively small audience of roughly 200 people were in attendance—still overwhelmingly white, and mostly middle-aged or older. There were Trump hats and Trump signs on display. But there were just as many for local politicians like Eric Greitens (the Missouri GOP candidate for governor best known for ads in which he is shown shooting an Gatling-style machine gun). The differences between a Trump rally and a Trump fan-only rally were so stark, both in topic and tenor, that it raised the question of how closely Trump and Tea Party interests are aligned, particularly in a region home to many evangelical conservatives.

Read the whole thing here

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