Of Men and Ideas

Listen to the people in your world that vigorously disagree with you. Don’t try to change their mind. Don’t argue with them. Not yet. Not until you’ve listened. Just listen and seek to understand.

It’s a rare and difficult principle to maintain. I do try to get outside the echo chambers that agree with me as much as I can. But sometimes, I don’t know I’m in one until it’s too late. Recently, around October 8th maybe, I realized that I’d been in one for quite a while. It was one that told me that Donald Trump was personally too despicable to be president of the United States of America. Clearly I was wrong. Because I didn’t do that thing I just said to do. I didn’t seek to understand. I saw the man. And I dismissed him, with good cause to be fair. But I never dug down deep into understanding Trump-ism. I fought the man, never the idea. And that’s a problem.

So what is Trump-ism?

You can find the answer wedged somewhere between Scott Baio and Jerry Fallwell Jr. telling Yo Mama jokes at the Republican National Convention this year. A man named Peter Thiel spoke. Thiel is a billionaire Silicon Valley businessman who is one of the few men in the world who have founded multiple billion dollar corporations. He sits on the board of directors for Facebook. He counts people like Elon Musk as his partners and peers. And if there’s a Mount Rushmore of the modern “dot com” business ecosystem, Thiel is on it. You could write ten thousand words on what’s right and wrong with Thiel and still not be done. You could write another ten thousand on why he doesn’t fit any molds that we like to put people in. I’m not going to do that here. But I’m familiar with him. And as someone who works in the tech world and moves in the Silicon Valley circles, I can get you pretty far with a few sentences.

Peter Thiel has had success listening to what everyone is saying and doing, and going and finding something else, building it before anyone else does and winning before there is competition. He asks aloud in his books and speeches, and urges us to ask ourselves, what truth do you believe, that almost no one else does? It’s a hell of a question, especially in business. He is, after all, Silicon Valley’s contrarian. If you want to know more about him, Google him. There’s loads of stuff, much of it ugly and negative. But as far as this discussion goes, that stuff, is noise. Because it’s fighting the man again, not the idea. His ideas, though, are at the emotional center of Trump-ism, whether or not he ever intended them to be. They can be summed up in two Peter Thiel quotes:

“For a long time our elites have been in the habit of denying difficult realities. That’s how bubbles form.” Thiel is the anti-bubble.

Yes.

People incorrectly believe that “If you don’t conform (to diversity), then you don’t count as diverse. No matter what your background”

I love it.

When I read those quotes as a business leader and someone who has worked on my own start-up, I get pretty fired up. It evokes emotion. It stimulates me. They are powerful words that speak directly to the psyche of change makers-people who want to drive to a better tomorrow. And when I posted those quotes and his name on my Facebook page without commentary, I got a very heavy dose of feedback about Thiel being a white nationalist and an anti-semite and a rape apologist and an opponent of the free press. All of which may be true. I don’t know. I’ve never been in the same room with the man. But none of the dissenting commentary addressed the ideas he had. Because in a vacuum, they are ideas that are nearly impossible to discredit.

We don’t live in a vacuum though. And right now, those words are being spoken in the Trump-ist echo chamber with great excitement.

So what exactly is that truth Trump-ists believe that no one else does? Except all other Tump-ists of course. Steve Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News and recently appointed chief strategist of Donald Trump’s administration can help explain it. Now, it’s possible that hearing the words Steve Bannon evokes a blinding rage in you and a need to spout out a laundry list of grievances about white supremacy, misogyny and maybe even a twenty year old arrest report for domestic violence. And that’s fine. But realize, you’re doing it again. That’s the man. The man is easy to beat. The idea, well, that’s another thing all together.

So here’s the idea in his words.

America is in “a crisis both of capitalism and the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian west in our beliefs.”

Bannon says that crony capitalism and globalization have eroded the stability of our country and weakened us to the point of crisis. Whether or not he believes it matters far less then what it means. Thiel and Bannon are Trump-ism. They form a combination of contrarian, anti-elite non-conformists, conforming together behind the belief that the key to restoring righteous capitalism is a focus on the return to a Judeo-Christian led world.

If not…it’s going to be China for a hundred years…

That’s the idea. And it comes in the form or a red hat, and a slogan.

It’s powerful idea. And it represents one side of the modern political argument in America today. You couldn’t have sent a worse champion than Hillary Clinton to strike it down if you tried. She was perfect if you were fighting the man. But she wasn’t fighting the man. She was fighting the idea. And she was powerless against it. Perhaps if we had taken the time to understand the idea, we may have thought differently. Perhaps that’s why the Democratic National Committee is in ruins, when most of us thought that it was the Republicans on the edge of oblivion.

That doesn’t mean Trump-ism is right though. In fact I believe it’s quite wrong. But it took a little digging and understanding to get there for me. And in order to do that, you have to be willing to divorce the ideas from the men saying them, especially since some of those men are only saying those ideas because they know they are the ideas that work right now. Because the ideas are not wrong because of the men saying them. The ideas, by themselves, on their own merit are wrong. Dangerously so. And we need to start screaming from the mountain tops why.

First, intended or not, the core argument of Trump-ism, Judeo-Christian leadership of the world, is a substantial part of the argument that white supremacist groups use to further their message. Trump-ism left off the part about racial superiority. Those groups gladly add it back in. And when you deliver the Trump-ism message, and you are willing to accept anyone who believes it, without strong condemnation of those specific groups that add racial superiority to it, it provides oxygen for them to grow and breed and start to normalize and call themselves things like “Alt Right”. And then they form groups that sound snappy like The National Policy Institute. Make no mistake about it.The National Policy Institute is a white supremacy organization. If you can’t get a couple hundred of your members in a room without a bunch of them throwing out Nazi salutes or yelling sieg heil, and the first Op-Ed on your pretty web page is about the folly of desegregation in schools, then you are a white supremacy group.

You can call yourself something else. And you can ooze into the room with lots of other dis-enfranchised people and tell them you are the same. But you aren’t. And unless the leadership of the new Republican Party denounces it and cast it out of their numbers, a dangerous political discussion is on the horizon. Because whether or not to denounce and eliminate from prominence groups that further white supremacist ideology cannot become a political debate.

Secondly, because frighteningly the first part isn’t enough, if the “Judeo-Christian” portion of your message really is the whole message, than that’s a problem. Because that’s not American. America, imperfect in her ways, has been defined by relative inclusivity. Our strength has come from differing people coming to us from places with their ideas and their drive to build something. And my opposition to Trump-ism is grounded on the belief that I’m not willing to give on that. Not because I’m full of love and togetherness and because I’m naive to those out there that want to do us harm. I’ve fought them all over the world in places you’ve probably never seen doing things you’ll probably never do. I’m not willing to give on that relative inclusivity because turning inward makes you weak. And ignoring the skills and ideas that others have, and forcing them to seek other places to have them, makes others stronger. My message of dissent is about making and keeping us strong.

It pretty simple for me.  If that big idea that you have that no one else agrees with, that Peter Thiel disruptive change the world for the better idea, is that the words penned in our Declaration of Independence or in the Bill of Rights are wrong, that all men aren’t created equal and that only some are born with liberties and the freedom to pursue their faiths, then fine, let’s have that debate. And let’s have it in earnest. The fact that middle America, my strong patriotic brothers and sisters that took up arms with me to fight Islamic fundamentalism and other ideologies that threatened our way of life appear willing to have it, hurts me. It hurts me down to my soul. Because I believed, and I still need to believe that we are better than that. And that the principles that I swore to defend with my very life didn’t only apply to me and people like me. They applied to everyone.

So let the debate begin.

What Now?

I’m not a liberal. I’m not a safe space, social crusader.

I’m not a sore loser who can’t get over the fact that Hillary Clinton wasn’t elected president. The notion that I had to put what lukewarm support I had for a candidate behind her was a source of great frustration for me.

I am, at my very core, someone with conservative foundations.

I believe that men and women, whenever possible, should be free to live their lives without government intervention. My family and my Christian faith are the center of my life. I like my guns. Chances are, I’m better than you at using them.

I’ve worked with and for the toughest most dangerous men on the planet. Men you’ve read books about. Men you’ve seen movies about. I’ll never claim to be one. But I’ve proven myself useful in their presence. I share this with you so you understand where and who the message I’m about to deliver comes from.

I’ve been all over this planet. And there’s a troubling observation that I’ve made on my way. It’s that mankind, when left to our own devices, does not naturally accept different people. Whether I saw Sunni and Shia in Iraq refusing to recognize the humanity of the other because of relatively nuanced differences in their common faith, or tribal warfare and genocide in sub-Saharan Africa or racial oppression and modern slavery of East Asia, the ingrained need to divide and subjugate others is ever present. In mankind’s darkest moments, the most common culprit has been that division.

For most of the last seventy thousand years, since the cognitive revolution of man drove us to organize, we’ve programmed ourselves to trust and support those that are similar to us. The result is that there have been frighteningly few societies in the history of mankind which have not been separated by either race, class or gender.

Where there is one race, we make caste systems.

Where lack of structure provides no castes, we subjugate gender.

It’s as consistent across time and region as the number of our limbs or the shape of our organs.

Fifty years ago in America, we made the first real effort, at scale, in the history of man, to change it in a society as diverse as ours. And since then, we’ve made great but imperfect progress. The work isn’t done. But we’re further than where we were 50 years ago. When we get there and make good on the promise penned by our forefathers, it will be the greatest, rarest accomplishment in our history.

On Tuesday, we took one giant leap backward on the arc of our journey to one people. And over the last four days, I’ve been bombarded by explanations of why Donald J. Trump was just elected president. I don’t need any more. I didn’t need them in the first place.

I know why he was elected.

He was elected because the only message that matters for the American government in 2016 is a need for change. And when the alternative to that change was someone who moved into the White House when I was fifteen, (I’m 40 now) that choice was clear for some.

But it was a choice.

And the ultimate choice that was made, the one people will remember a hundred years from now, was a willingness to ignore personal decency and fair treatment towards people who are different in service to that change. That was the choice that the minority of the American electorate made. That was the choice that about a quarter of eligible American voters made.

I’m not here to argue the legitimacy of the results. And I don’t get to pick and choose whether I support democracy because of the outcomes. I won’t tell you that you are a racist or a bigot if you voted for Donald Trump. I won’t even tell you that you personally are indecent. But I will tell you what you just bought with your choice.

You bought a very vigilant, sensitive and loud American majority who will cry foul at the drop of a hat for anything that resembles attacks on those we have fought so hard for these last fifty years.

Because what you showed us with his nomination and your vote in the election, is that you can’t be trusted to do it without us.

Many of my devout conservative friends were remarkably quiet when their candidate trashed their personal values. And they were remarkably quiet when their candidate made inexcusable first hand remarks about minorities, women and disabled Americans. And they were remarkably quiet when the dark forces of white supremacists aligned themselves in support of their candidate.

I understand why. You couldn’t live with the alternative. So you rationalized out of fear that speaking up would enable it. Well, that risk is gone now. You avoided the end you couldn’t live with.

That excuse is gone.

And now it’s fair to say that tolerance of that behavior from here on can only be seen as an endorsement of it. So when there’s a KKK rally in North Carolina to celebrate the election of the candidate you support, you no longer have any excuse not to condemn it with the same uncompromising vigor that you condemned Hillary. Let’s see the memes. Let’s see the Facebook posts. Let’s see the outrage.

Perhaps the rest of America can trust you to hold the leader of our government to the change you so uncompromisingly sought. But we won’t trust you to look out for our fellow Americans who are different.

So, get ready for four years of vocal, loud, peaceful I pray, dissent. If you thought the core Trump supporters would be loud if Hillary Clinton won, what do you think is going to happen now that you’ve  marginalized a group that has much more to lose than freedom from background checks for guns and a ten percent lag in wage growth?

At stake for them, is participation in our society. And if their vocal insistence on it is something you aren’t willing to tolerate, then perhaps you might consider a different path in thirty months when you get to choose your next leader without the looming evil of Hillary excusing your choice.

You can’t point to her any more as cause.

If insistence on decent treatment of all Americans makes me a liberal in the eyes of conservatives, then maybe we should take some time to reflect on who our modern conservatives actually are. The world is watching.

So What Did We Learn?

As the exhausted, miserable people on my television reported that Secretary Clinton had conceded the election by phone and our new president elect addressed his constituents for the first time after the political upset of an American generation, I sat up in my bed, quietly trying to digest what just happened. My wife, a woman of Mexican descent, a mother to a special needs child and a military wife who suffered through three wartime deployments nodded off in disgust a few hours earlier. I’ve already started to make my peace with it though.

I’ve been about as vocal a critic of Donald Trump as anyone you’ll find. I can’t and wouldn’t revise anything I’ve said about him. But I make it a point to stay objective about things. And to deliver a level headed clear-eyed assessment of things that matter. And right now, before I make that peace, I’ve got to account for a few things that I know now, that I didn’t know four hours ago.

So here goes…

-Donald J. Trump is the most effective political marketing machine of our time. It’s not close.

-Crowds mean more than polls. In retrospect, that makes sense. But I was stone cold dead wrong on it.

-There’s still enough white working class men out there that if you make an election a referendum on their value as a part of America, you better have them on your side.

-No one gives a rip about third party candidates. No matter how much more qualified they are.

-Many white men-and women-are more comfortable with the idea of a black man being president than a woman.

-Hillary Clinton is un-electable.

-The message of change is the only one that matters.

-The people still choose the president.

-This actually wasn’t close. (Trump won every contested state)

-We know nothing. (I actually knew that one already.)

Tomorrow, in a few hours, the sun will come up in America as it has for centuries. And things will go on uninterrupted. We’ll get the kids off to school. I’ll sit in traffic forever and I’ll think about a few things. I’ll think about what it all means and about what’s going to change about what it tells us about ourselves as a people. I’ll think about what to tell my kids about our president. Big problems. Big thoughts. Big questions.

There’s one other thing worth noting though. For the first time in my life, Donald J. Trump and I are on the same team. And I don’t know what to do with that other than hope like hell that he’s the best God damn president of my lifetime. Because there were dark and frightening powers that helped this come together for our new president elect. But there were also good and decent people who believed that this was their best option to drive change in our political process. And the only way that we get through this in one piece is for those good and decent people to help hold our new leader accountable for delivering on what they saw in his message-a  change for the better from the political status quo.

Democracy…warts and all.

What You Need to Believe

I want to take a very brief moment to make a very important point. Because there are some very serious people in very serious positions that are making a very public declaration that I feel is extremely harmful. I heard as recently as this morning, from someone I respect, the following:

Donald Trump, after at least 50 years of despicable behavior and after being caught on tape bragging about how he can do anything he wants to a woman, up to and including “grab her pussy” because he’s a star, is the most appropriate option available for the highest office of the most powerful nation the world has ever seen.

It’s probably appropriate to point out, that it should be the least surprising thing in the world that a man who behaves worse publicly than anyone I’ve ever seen would also behave worse than anyone I’ve ever seen when he thought only Billy Bush was looking.

But I digress. I said I wanted to make a very quick point. Because it’s important that we get on the same page here. We’ve got a few weeks left. So here it is:  By now, after all we’ve seen from Donald Trump, in order to believe he is the most suitable candidate for president, you would also have to believe the following, with a level of certainty that only can come with seeing it or hearing it yourself personally (perhaps hearing it said to Billy Bush on a leaked tape):

-Hillary Clinton was not simply negligent, but willfully so, in her conduct as Secretary of State during the time and events that lead to the death of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi. You are certain of this (certain like you heard her saying it on a leaked tape to Billy Bush). And though one of the longest congressional inquiries ever held investigating the incident showed nothing more than instances of poor judgment by multiple levels of government and defense, the Republican led congress either failed to do their due diligence or is in fact secretly supporting Hillary Clinton.

-You also need to believe that former Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff and Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said in a private email that he felt like Clinton got a “bad rap” has no idea what he’s talking about. And that you have a firmer handle on the role, appropriate conduct and reasonable expectations of outcomes for the Secretary of State of the United States. You may also need to believe that Michael Bay makes movies worth watching not named “Transformers”.

-Hillary Clinton has clear, certain knowledge (certain like she heard him caught on tape saying it to Billy Bush) of the 42nd President of the United States sexually assaulting women. Moreover, armed with that knowledge, she has taken no action to prevent future or seek justice for past acts.

-Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server was intentionally done to harm the United States of America or promote personal gain on a criminal level, and though a six month investigation was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and no criminal charges have been brought against her, you either know better than the FBI or you are certain (certain like the director got caught saying it on tape to Billy Bush) they are either corrupt or complicit.

-You are not just pro-life. But additionally, you view abortion to be murder. And electing Donald Trump will enable an immediate or near term change in the Supreme Court ruling of Roe -V- Wade and therefore voting for someone else is actually not just endorsing, but enabling murder. The ability to actually affect change here matters. Because if he can’t change it himself, then this issue is actually not really in play and ceases to meet the criteria for belief stated above.

-Public defenders that defend criminals as a critical function of our system of justice actually are in favor of those criminal activities. And accepting to defend people who cannot stand trial without representation is an endorsement of their behavior and character.

-You believe that there is proof that Hillary Clinton, while Secretary of State, was criminally trading U.S. interests for donations to the Clinton foundation. And though the author of the book Clinton Cash, Peter Schweizer, has gone on the record saying there is no proof that it happened, you are certain (certain like you heard her say she did it to Billy Bush on a leaked tape) that you know more.

There may be more. I might not have gotten all of them.  And you don’t have to believe all of them. Believing any one of these might be enough to start, but not finish, the following debate:

Someone who we know with 100% certainty is guilty of the behavior highlighted above is more or less suitable to be president than someone we know with 100% certainty brags to people that he barely knows that he is allowed to sexually assault women because he’s a “star”.

If you believe these things, I really can’t argue with you. Because you either have information that the global media community hasn’t gotten their hands on. Or because you don’t really believe it, you just can’t get past the politics. And since the rest of us know that the first one probably isn’t true, then the second one is. You don’t believe it with certainty (certain like you heard it on a leaked tape to Billy Bush). You may just be a die hard conservative. Which I applaud because we need those. We really do. And I want to help you. Because when the rest of us hear you say these things, all we really hear is that grabbing women’s genitals because you’re famous is OK. What we really hear is that sexual assault is not that big a deal.

Consider this a public service message. For your own good, just go quietly into the night on this one, without a fight. You might maintain your strength in Congress. Which is good, because conservative ideology is important. But you have to stop. Because it won’t end well. In fact, for many, it already hasn’t. Consider the following from Mark Cuban:

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-2-35-27-pm

That may be a bit heavy handed. And it’s probably unfair to those just trying to work hard and make a living. But for those with a choice, it’s probably not. And for those with a vote, it’s probably not either. We’ve wandered into a territory we never have before in our political history. Which usually requires you to do something you’ve never done before. It’s this: Put down the political looking glass and see this for what it is. Stop the false equivalency comparisons. This is a rare time when the burden of proof has been met to make this a clear binary decision. It’s not enough to condemn the words. Condemn the man. Condemn his goals. Condemn his participation in the future of our country.

Or condone the actions they represent.

The American System

Mass conflagration.

It’s one of my favorite terms. It’s a kind of training exercise on a naval ship. It simulates a scenario where everything has gone so horribly wrong in combat that the crew is no longer trying to focus on the military objective of defeating the enemy. Instead, they’ve shifted their resources to saving the ship and themselves. It’s not an easy thing to do. It requires lots of coordination and expertise. So you have to practice it. I did it more times than I can remember during the two years when that’s what I did with my life-serve on a ship.

I’m not on a ship any more. I’m not even in the navy any more. But I experience mass conflagration often-for about an hour, every morning,  in my house, when my wife and I are getting our children ready for school. If you have grade school aged kids, you know exactly what I mean. If you pretend you don’t, you’re a bald face liar.

No matter how hard we try, within the first 30 minutes of our day, my wife and I surrender all attempts at making this a “great” morning and instead are forced to focus on two things 1) getting them to the bus alive and 2) staying married. Save the ship…and her crew…Both are in question more times than I’m happy to admit. To be fair, neither are ever her fault.

The risk to #1 is caused by my kids. Every morning they appear to be both equally surprised by the existence of school and unaware of the any activities required to get them there. Again, if you have kids, you know exactly what I mean. The risk to #2, staying married, is more interesting-and also why I’m talking about getting my kids ready for school in the morning in a politics and society blog. Why my wife hates be by the time the bus gets there is really the issue.

I have what I like to call a linear approach to solving the problem of getting through the morning with school aged children. I like to think that waking up earlier, preparing lunches the night before, waking the kids up earlier, or limiting breakfast options are all things that give us more time to get out of the house. Yelling louder makes them move faster…gives us more time to get out of the house. My approach is more rigor, leads to more efficiency, leads to less time required, leads to less hurrying, leads to less stress, leads to a calmer, happier morning-a better outcome.

It seems like a common sense approach.  Many people like common sense, effort in-results out approaches. Because it makes us feel like we’re in control. But here’s why I’m wrong-and she’s right.  And here’s why my approach has the opposite effect of a calm, happy morning for my family. I’m not in control.  Neither is she. No one is. Because morning in the Hughes household is complicated.

My kids, are young. And their needs vary. Some are autistic and can’t really communicate-yelling makes it worse, not better. Some have very real medication needs. Others are simply a pain in the ass-yelling helps them-hurts others.  Sometimes my wife has clients she has to see early. And sometimes she doesn’t. And sometimes my job emails me in the middle of the night and an emergency is waiting for me when I wake up. So even if I wake up early, my attention goes there instead of making pancakes. And then I’m grumpy about work and no pancakes all at once.

Mornings in the Hughes household look a lot more like a living breathing organism then an assembly line. Living breathing organisms are hard to control. Assembly lines are not.  Assembly lines are linear. Input, effort and execution yields outputs. Organisms are systems. Sometimes inputs don’t match outputs the way you would think. Some things work with others better than others work with some.  Improving a single aspect (screaming at one kid) can potentially have a negative effect on another (an autistic panic in the one sitting next to him). Doing some things worse (waking up later) can actually make others better (more rest, less grumpy-but still grumpy-dad).

Mornings in the Hughes household are a system-a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole. And the goal of that system is to get our children to school fed, clothed and in a state of mind to learn. And when you apply a linear strategy to a system, well, you get yelled at by your wife for being stupid. Because it doesn’t work. Doing things that don’t work over and over again is stupid.

About the only time I don’t apply systems thinking is when I’m being an obtuse rock head dad or husband. I don’t really know why, but I know I’m not alone. Outside the home though, I’m a systems thinker. I’ve taken a systems approach to fighting wars and insurgencies. I’ve used it to build software products. I’ve used it to market this blog. Just about any problem more complex then brushing your teeth takes systems thinking. I live by it. Because its how you solve hard problems. Which are the best kind to solve.

America is a system-a giant system. Problems like poverty, job creation, racial inequality and terrorism take systems thinking-because they’re hard, complex problems with lots of overlapping and inconsistent inputs. Doing something logical and linear may sound like a good idea. (We have too many people from outside our country inside our country. We must build a wall.) Because it’s simple and it makes you feel in control. But it actually doesn’t solve the problem. Because it’s not actually designed to solve a problem. It’s designed to make people angry or happy. Because it’s politics.

The core difference between a political debate and a debate of any other kind is that other debates focus on differing opinions to solving an issue. Political debates focus on differing opinions of what the issue is. There are no solutions to political debates. And nowhere besides government do we focus the energy on the politics of something and not the solution. Good non-government entities usually use the word politics at the beginning of a sentence used to describe an effort or decision that didn’t make any sense. My wife and I never argue over whether or not its good if the kids get to school on time-only how effective me yelling at them is. See the difference? Spending a morning on the former would be stupid.

This is a round about way to get to the following fairly simple point.

Politics are stupid.  

Political cycles are a long standing dialogue that argues whether the problem at hand is making our country great again or keeping it great. Those are two very different problems. And it’s party agnostic. Whatever party owns the government, owns the burden of arguing to keep our country great. Whatever party  is out in the cold owns the burden of arguing that we must return the party to greatness. The problems you identify when your task is keep are very different then the problems you identify when your task is return.

Here’s my point again: Politics are stupid.

Systems thinking is not. Political thinking is linear. You are allowed and expected to make simple arguments that people can digest that have no chance at solving any material problem in politics. Political motivation and systems motivation cannot occupy the same space at the same time. You cannot solve hard problems without systems thinking. You cannot solve problems with politics.

Politics are lunacy. Political opinion is a waste of time.

So the next time you are about to engage in a political debate with someone or spend time listening to two gas bags argue about whether or not something is a problem by proposing simple bite sized ideas that won’t solve anything important, pause and say to yourself, out loud.

“What I am about to do is an absolute and thorough waste of time.”

If you must continue, realize you’re using the same part of your brain that argues whether or not Lebron James is better then Kobe Bryant-or whether or not the best Pebbles are Co-Co or Fruity. Political thinking is capable of solving one problem-maintaining or taking control of government. The less time you spend there-says the guy with the political blog-the freer you are to think about the things that matter.

Like how the hell your son can lose his shoes twice in one morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Losing

During three weeks in October of 2002, Army veteran John Allen Muhammad and seventeen-year old Jamaican immigrant Lee Boyd Malvo shot 13 random people in random parking lots in the Washington D.C. area from the trunk of their car.  Ten of them died.  For 23 days, the nation’s capital and the nation at large was in the grips of fear.  It would have lasted longer had Malvo not dropped a rifle magazine with his finger prints on it at the scene of one of the shootings.  He did though.  And they were caught, tried and convicted. In 2009, Muhammad was executed. Malvo is presently serving six consecutive life sentences in Red Onion State Prison in Virginia.

At the time, my parents lived in the D.C. area. Those events impacted their lives daily.  They talked about parking their cars differently in parking lots. They thought about using gas stations that had limited access. And in talking to them about it, something occurred to me. We were a year past 9/11.  And we were still recovering from those spectacularly horrific attacks. We were unified though, all focused on preventing the next big sucker punch. As a result we had sweeping authorities for surveillance and travel security in place already.  All were aimed at combating international terrorist organizations. I quietly wondered though, what if the real threat were different than the one we knew?  What if it wasn’t a massive plot that involved years of planning, flight school and an international network of support? What if it just took a gun? And some people willing to do it. Maybe even American citizens.  If that happened, we might be in trouble.

That’s a really hard problem to fix.

But it didn’t happen. And I forgot about it.  Until a handful of gunmen walked into a few places in Paris and killed over a hundred people with guns 13 years later. They tried to kill some with bombs.  But that’s hard to do. There’s a lot that can go wrong with a bomb and even when you don’t get caught, or blow yourself up, bombs are sloppy, inefficient weapons. It was the guns that did the trick. And then I remembered that sinking feeling from the past. Perhaps, they’d finally figured it out.  And then San Bernardino three months later.  And then Orlando.  Without question, we’ve entered a new phase of the threat.

The hard problem is here.

There’s a sobering truth to countering domestic terrorist activities in America.  And yes, someone born and raised in Queens shooting people in the name of their religion is the definition of domestic terrorism.  Even if the religion isn’t Christianity.  Because the important characteristic that separates domestic terrorism from other types are the liberties that the offenders are born with. Which results in the following troubling circumstance:  Currently, there is no legal preventative measures that would stop an American citizen, with no criminal record, who has not been observed to be committing a crime, from practicing his religion, purchasing a fire arm and walking into a nightclub and shooting people. And though we might like to think that there is, there isn’t.

It’s a hard problem. One that currently has no solution. And though the issue of the moment is Orlando and the fiery debates that it has brought about, it’s simply one of many hard issues that we Americans face in the 21st century world that currently have no solution.  Like a lack of funding for entitlements, a changing economy that has eroded the middle class quality of life and crippling urban societal decay.  These issues need a solution.  But right now we can’t get one. Because solutions require us to go a few steps past blame. And we just can’t right now.

That’s a really bad problem.  Not a hard one.  But a bad one.

Blame is the standard you are satisfied with when the outcome doesn’t matter to you. Blame is really not where you want to put your energy in circumstances where the current situation has no existing solution when one is needed.  Blame doesn’t stop the bleeding. Action can. Blame won’t. Even intentional appropriate inaction can. But we can’t do either right now.  Because as a nation, we’re walking hand and hand down the path that was the intent of our enemies 15 years ago when this war started.  It’s been a slow boil.  But it’s hit a fever pitch and the result isn’t good.

Let’s try this thought experiment.  What was the first thing that popped into your mind when you heard about the shooting in Orlando?  If you told me it wasn’t, “Was the shooter a Muslim?” then you are in the minority. There’s actually nothing wrong with that question, in as much as there can be something wrong with any group of words. But the reason for asking it is really the problem. Were you hoping for an outcome?  Were you hoping it was? So that you could be “right”.  Were you hoping it wasn’t?  So they could be wrong.  Honest answers to that question highlight a deep problem that we have.  It was a question we cared less about the answer to 14 years ago.  And it tells us something about where we are now relative to then.

Fourteen years ago, the prospective presidential nominee for our strong conservative conscience would not have gloated about its answer by the way.

Why not? Because we are a weaker nation today then we were in the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when John Muhammad and Lee Malvo did basically the same thing that Omar Mateen did.  It’s not because of our military or the economy or even the government.  Though they’re weaker too, but only because they are a reflection of us. We’re weaker because we are a house horribly divided.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, in a speech given in the Illinois State capital upon his acceptance of the Republican nomination for his state’s upcoming Senate race, delivered the famous phrase, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”

Lincoln spoke of the scourge of slavery.  And he was right, though he lost the election. In doing so, he developed the national voice that would win him the presidency two years later. The nation would split over our perspectives on slavery and suffer through a gauntlet of death and economic catastrophe not since duplicated. But we saved the union.  And as painful as it was, it was possible because we were split over a tangible issue.  One that had a clear point and counterpoint, a solution and an outcome. Very little time was spent on who was to blame for the bondage.  Today, though, division is actually the point.  It’s independent of issue.  So the debate stops with blame.

Over the last twenty years, the boom in information and human connectivity has allowed people to exist, like they never have before, in the consciousness of other people.  We have a constant stream of perspectives that gets beamed, literally, into our hands, every day.  And what that’s resulted in is unprecedented exposure to information and opinion.  And one thing that we humans don’t like to do is sit through an opinion that is counter to ours without the opportunity to weigh in.  So we’ve chosen to put our consciousness in the spaces where we’re less likely to encounter those opinions. And we have limitless ways to pick and choose them.  From the sites we like on Facebook, to the cable news channels we watch to the Twitter feed we construct through our choices, we are shaping the info we receive and the opinions we are forced to tolerate.  Which means we’re dividing first, then exploring our issues second.  We are foundationally divided. And like Lincoln said, it’s not good.

So when an issue like an American born, Muslim man, legally purchasing a weapon and shooting 100 or so people in a gay night club after pledging allegiance to a nonsensically misaligned bunch of Islamic extremist groups comes up, we can’t handle it. Instead of a unifying debate about how to solve that type of issue, you have people shouting back and forth at each other the importance of their favorite liberty-specifically, which Constitutional Amendment is more important and which one is only conditionally so.

We actually have a group of people who are responsible for doing that on our behalf though.  It’s called our government.  If you’re looking for a startlingly clear example of the fruits of our poisoned tree of division, start there-our three floundering branches of government.

We have a congress that votes only with their own party at a historically unprecedented level.  Which means that nothing ever gets done because nothing ever gets agreed on. The result is a lack of ability to facilitate basic responsibilities like selecting Supreme Court justices.  Or passing a budget without threat of shut down. Then engine is bogged down. And it spreads to the other branches.

We have eight Supreme Court justices ruling on important issues right now. There’s supposed to be nine.  Because you can’t really have a vote with eight.  It’s like having a best of six games World Series.  It doesn’t work.  Just today, as I wrote this, they came to a four-four tie in ruling on the President’s executive orders on immigration.  And they had to defer their decision to a lesser court.  That’s not the intent of our founders or our people.

And lastly, but by no means least, we have one of the most disheartening presidential elections in the history of our country, where for the first time, we couldn’t muster two suitable candidates to run.  It’s bad.

Our government has actually stopped working.  And not the way that we used to just joke about because sometimes they did things that we disagreed with.  In a literal sense, it no longer facilitates even basic effective outcomes. And that’s where we are in trouble.  Because when we get a real live hard problem, like what to do about the rise of domestic, religiously motivated, firearms perpetrated terrorism, we have no hope. The energy pulls all the thinking into the extreme fringes of the debate leaving the majority of us voiceless and defenseless.  Again, this problem wasn’t there fourteen years ago, at least not the way it is now.

Which takes us to the truly sad outcome of our division. We’re losing this war.  Our enemy is a faceless amorphous body with no resources and no state. We can kill them off. We have, just about all of them.  And they come back in different forms. Because they have the one thing that we don’t-unity of purpose.  It’s horrible.  But simple.  And they all agree. They want to hurt the western way of life.  We, on the other hand, care more about our specific brands of outrage then anything else. Which is why fifteen years into this war, we are worse.  They are the same.  That’s the definition of losing.

The conflict that Lincoln led us through was resolved just as much through legal and legislative action as it was through blood on the battlefield.  We simply can’t do those types of things any more.  And it’s entirely our fault.  The people of America-all of us.

So what do we do?  Perhaps we should put our outrage in one spot.  Outrage that we, as Americans, do not have the ability to do the things we used to, as a civic entity.  Which should be in service to upholding and sustaining the American way of life.  Which means relative safety, prosperity and preservation of liberties-all of them, in as much as they can be preserved and still maintain the other two mandates-life and the pursuit of happiness.  Don’t be outraged at people. Don’t be outraged at opinions. Be outraged at a lack of solutions, not the solution.

If you think that eliminating guns are the answer to reducing domestic terrorism, and your congressmen wasn’t sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, then pick up the phone and complain, and vote differently in November.  If you think that healthcare reform has gone horribly wrong and you’re not happy with the outcomes and your congressmen hasn’t been proactive at forwarding an acceptable alternative, then pick up the phone and complain.  And vote differently in November.  That’s what outcomes based civic responsibility looks like. It’s not pissing and moaning about how awful the humans involved in the process are.   That doesn’t do anything.  And doing is the point.

Democracy is a winning strategy when its participants are unified in their desired outcomes. It’s not, when they can’t be.  We don’t have to agree on politics, but we do have to agree that good, sustainable outcomes for Americans, even the ones not like us, are the goal.  It’s time to stop rooting for or against politicians and start rooting for outcomes. This problem is ours to solve. Because what we have right now, is what losing looks like.  But being behind isn’t the same as losing.  Staying that way is. Five months, until election day.  And we’re all on the clock.  You can it get wrong.  And we will lose.

Good Night…And Good Luck

On the evening of March 9th 1954, the American free press produced one of it’s finest hours. That night, from the now legendary Studio 41 in New York,  esteemed World War II correspondent and acclaimed radio/television journalist,  Edward R. Murrow dedicated the entirety of his evening news program, See It Now, on CBS, to addressing an infamous figure in American history. At the time, his infamy was not yet fully documented.  In a little under an hour, Murrow changed that.

Senator Joseph McCarthy and his ongoing investigations of American citizens who were suspected of being members of the Communist Party had a grip on the nation’s hopes and fears.  Over the previous four years, McCarthy had set off a national panic by persecuting members of government, the media, Hollywood, even the military.  McCarthy’s activities as the Chairmen of Senate Operations Committee assumed guilt and publicized hearings in which the burden for closure was laid at the feet of the accused to prove they were not communists.  McCarthy had taken advantage of the national anti-communist fervor to gain and wield personal power-accusing anyone that challenged of the same crime as those being challenged already-communism.

By 1954, McCarthy set his sites on Murrow, who responded with one of the most famous and important media broadcasts in our history.  He concluded the broadcast that was filled mostly with McCarthy’s own recorded words with his own.

“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Good night, and good luck.”

The broadcast hit its mark.  McCarthy’s televised response in which he accused Murrow himself of communist activities was too obvious for the American public, even in their inflamed and fearful state, to ignore.  By the end of the year, McCarthy was formally censured by the Senate and stripped of most of his power.  Three years later, his chronic drinking killed him- cirrhosis of the liver.

Murrow’s coverage of Senator McCarthy showed the power and importance of the de facto “fourth branch” of American government-the free press.  It was a clear and inarguable victory of the power the American people, armed with information and empowered by a government that actually still cared about public opinion.  The river that ran underneath the event, carrying it to it’s historically fantastic conclusion, was trust.  Specifically trust in Murrow.  And more broadly, a trust in the press.  How far we’ve come from then to now, is a problem that weighs heavily on our future and our ability to adjudicate the actions of our leaders, through the democratic process.  If democracy is our vehicle, the free press is our fuel.

Sixty years later, we’ve found the tenets of our branches of government in dire straights.  A congress so frozen by partisan motivation that we’ve ushered in two decades of executive directives as the sole way to accomplish anything-an incomplete Supreme Court, unable to provide decisive rulings-the Office of the President, likely to be turned over to flawed candidates.  And as much as we would like to vilify all of them, I’ll take Murrow’s lead.  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”

In a democracy, it is always the fault-and the prerogative- of the people. But the root of the problem is not in our judgement or our collectively failing conscience.  It lies somewhere else.  Somewhere exposed by the silent response to the following question.  Who could stand in front of a television camera today, and in less than an hour, deliver information in such a clear and trusted manner, that America as a whole, would uniformly join in a chorus of American will and effect immediate change?  Who could do that, and have it be anything other than noise?  The silence, is telling.  Here’s why.

We’ve got intentionally partisan entertainment organizations masquerading as journalistic entities-groups like Breitbart, Huffington Post, Fox News, MSNBC and countless others that look and feel like they are giving us information so that we may better form our opinions.  But they’re really just picking and choosing parts of reality to weave into the tapestry of a narrative that is their brand.  True journalism is dictated by truth and relevance. Not brand.

Let’s be clear though. It isn’t the journalists at the core of the issue. There are talented,  professional people everywhere, as many as there ever have been, laying it on the line to bring air and light to things that desperately need it.   Most of these stories in a vacuum, are meaningful, worthwhile pieces.  For the most part, in it’s molecular form, journalism is alive and healthy.  The problem lies not in it’s production, but instead, in it’s distribution-a lopsided delivery, designed to meet the brand and voice criteria of an outlet.  There are very few media outlets, where one can get both sides of a story, beyond a point-counterpoint of two talking heads yelling at each other on a panel.  No matter what point is made, someone will jump on the ratings lift generated by a counter point. Even when there is no responsible counter point.

The only one left to argue against Murrow in favor of McCarthy, was McCarthy.  And so he did.  And so he went.  Because he was that wrong.  And when someone is that wrong, silence is not unbiased.  It’s consent.

Which leads us to another troubling reality.  Those stalwarts of objectivity, those happy few bands of brothers who refuse to be outlets who overtly slide one way or another seem to have lost their nerve.  The major network news organizations, the lions of the free press, have confused objectivity, with passivity. One can still be objective and non-partisan, and slay a dragon that is in the wrong.  The dragon is slain, not because of a given agenda.  But because it is a dragon–that’s what we do with dragons.

Murrow was not partisan.  He was trusted and objective.  But he knew McCarthy was wrong.  Dangerously wrong. So he acted.  That’s not happening right now.  And the outcomes, are the normalization of outrageous behavior an the ineffective execution of societal norms.  There’s no counter argument, to serious people, that Donald Trump’s behavior, statements and track record should ever have be tolerated by the press.  The press not tolerating a candidate is different than him not getting elected mind you.  If the conservative base in our country wants to nominate him, fine.  But that doesn’t make his statements and actions appropriate.  And right now our serious press outlets, in an effort to remain objective, are tolerating things they should not.

This week, after being questioned by the press about the delay in payment to a veterans charity from a highly publicized charity event, Trump struck back with frightening rhetoric. And the press took it, allowing him to carry the narrative that there was an inherently dishonest press, one the American people could not trust.  The tone, all of this will change when I’m president, hung silently behind each word.  And the press, largely took it. And then took it when he called in to question the suitability of a federal judge and celebrated drug prosecutor because of his ethnicity-because he ruled against Trump. A few headlines.  No hard questions.  More silence.

But it did awake a lion from the past.  From the days when powerful men feared the truth brought upon them by men of conviction-organizations of conviction.  Dan Rather, 84 years old with 50 years of American accountability filed behind him since the days of Eisenhower, Vietnam, Kennedy the civil rights movement, the Cold War- answered.

I felt a shudder down my spine yesterday watching Donald Trump’s fusilade against the press. This is not a moment to be trifled with. It wasn’t his first tirade and it won’t be his last…

…I know what it is like to sit in those seats and feel the scorn and even wrath of politicians of all political persuasions. Attacking the press for unfair coverage has long been a bipartisan pursuit. Sometimes it works. I am happy to say that more often it doesn’t. But Trump’s brand of vituperation is particularly personal and vicious. It carries with it the drumbeats of threatening violence. It cannot be left unanswered.

This is not about politics or policy. It’s about protecting our most cherished principles. The relationship between the press and the powerful they cover is by its very definition confrontational. That is how the Founding Fathers envisioned it, with noble clauses of protection enshrined in our Constitution.

Good journalism–the kind that matters–requires reporters who won’t back up, back down, back away or turn around when faced with efforts to intimidate them. It also requires owners and other bosses with guts, who stand by and for their reporters when the heat is on.

I still believe the pen is mightier than the sword. And in these conflicted and troubled times, we should reward the bravery of the men and women not afraid to ask the hard questions of everyone in power. Our nation’s future depends on it.

 

The days of Woodward and Bernstein, of Murrow and Wallace and the voices of our past are far closer in time than they feel in our memories.  Our nation’s future depends upon them continuing the call.  The countless online presences may serve to dilute the dialogue.  But we have to be more vigilant. We must not continue to be satisfied with equal treatment for unequal actions.  And now more then ever, we must rely on that entity, whose creation separated us from all other ruled men before us. The Press, in its entirety, cannot be perceived to be dishonest.  It is not.  People are dishonest.  Information, when vetted and delivered with the motivation of truth and relevance is omnipotent.  Men with much to hide have but one recourse-discredit.  We owe it to our society to not bite that hook.  Too much is at stake.

Mr. Trump is correct.  The press in this country is a real problem.  For those with unclean hands, it always has been.  And I hope it always is.

 

 

 

 

The Unknowable

My life on Wall Street was short lived.  I had the good fortune of starting a money management career at a major firm in 2006. My particular species wouldn’t survive the extinction event that was the 2008 financial crisis though. Luckily, I think, I was recalled back to active duty in the navy six months before it all happened so to some degree, I was spared the pain of the death spiral that my colleagues suffered through. I had the simpler fate of getting sent to Iraq one more time instead.

I don’t remember many positive things about my brief time in the financial management world. There was one particular conversation, a one sided statement actually, that I’ve never really been able to shake. It was the beginning of an incomplete thought that has grown over the last decade. And it’s helped form the foundation for how I look at the world; most recently the 2016 presidential election.

A few days after I started at the firm, the site director who hired me was introducing me to the rest of the team. He walked me down to one of the corner offices in the high-rise that looked out over the city. We poked our heads in to see two of the oldest and most successful money managers at the firm. They were old school. No mutual funds, no synthetically structured investments-just straight buying and selling stocks.

Sitting at two desks facing each other, separated by three monitors strung together with a massive display of market prices, were two guys who looked like they should be sitting in the balcony at the Muppet Show. One of them broke his gaze on the screen just long enough to turn to me and say something.

“Sell insurance kid. You’ll live longer. A stock is good ’til it’s bad…”

We quickly ducked out of the office and I never spoke to either of them again. A year later, the firm, in business as a global financial powerhouse for over a century, was bankrupt.  A stock is good, ’til it’s bad right?

A few years later, stuck on an overnight layover when our plain broke down in Dubai, I found myself wandering the massive airport. After a few pints at an Irish Pub, (with real Irish people) I wandered into a bookstore and saw a book on the shelf that would complete that thought that old trader put in my head. It was called The Black Swan and it was written by a man named Nassim Talib. The first paragraph of prologue read:

“Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds) but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge.  One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans.”

Translation: We don’t know anything about the future.  At least not anything that matters.

Nassim Talib built financial models for a living prior to writing the book.  And like the poor souls sitting in the corner office trading stocks, came to the realization that these models he was building were entirely based on historical information to make future decisions. And that was dangerously flawed. Because everything works fine, until it doesn’t.

Until something unexpected happens like Russia suddenly defaults on their debt,  which happened in 1996, sinking the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management, triggering a massive government bail out and endless case studies for business school students for the next 20 years.

The best laid plans to manage the future are unprepared for the only things that require the most management, because those plans are entirely devoid of the one thing you need to know to plan-which thing that hasn’t happened before could possibly happen again. It’s broken logic.  The chances that a thing is going to happen are minimal.  The chances that something is going to happen is certain. And that’s the problem.

Talib continued with examples. The world was a safe place until someone flew a couple of 767’s into the World Trade Center on national television.

His home country of Lebanon was a tourist hub and beacon of the eastern Mediterranean until it suddenly descended into a horrible civil war in the 1980’s that is still being fought, in some lesser form today.  The civilization and society that existed was destroyed with little hope of ever returning.  No one was prepared. Because you can’t be prepared for the impossible. Because the possible in the human mind is a collection of those things we’ve observed in our past. But that’s really not the case.

Monte Python said it best. “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

A stock is good, ’til it’s bad. The things that pivot the trajectory of mankind, are the ones we never see coming. That’s the thought…completed.

Let’s take that thought and apply it to the current political landscape in America.  We are sifting through what is happening in the 2016 presidential election as best we can, trying to figure out what is going to happen next, using what we’ve seen before. And it’s going horribly wrong. Donald Trump is a political black swan. And try as we might to find instances in the past that are similar enough to the present to help us chart a course for what lies ahead, we are failing miserably.

Donald Trump isn’t Barry Goldwater in 1964 running on an anti-civil rights legislation platform. He’s not George Wallace in 1968 running as an independent on a segregation platform. He’s not Ross Perot. And he’s not Hitler, or Mussolini. From time to time, he’ll look or sound like one of them, and the forces that move him into prominence in our political discourse may be similar, but it’s not something we’ve seen before. So, predicting the demise of the Republican party or the rise of a fascist state or a white supremacy motivated political movement isn’t really useful. Because as we’ve seen with black swans of the past, they are inherently impossible to prepare for. So I’d like to suggest another approach.

“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” said the Spanish born philosopher George Santayana. It’s a famous quote. But it’s flawed. Repeating the past isn’t really where the risk is.

Sure we can fail by not learning from our mistakes, but the planet killing asteroids are the ones we can’t remember. Because they haven’t happened. That doesn’t mean that history is useless. Quite the contrary. It’s critically important. But not for predicting things.

When you use the past to predict the future, you end up successfully predicting the past. And sometimes you get it right. But not on purpose. The real purpose of history is to provide context to understand the present. And it’s the understanding that starts to inform our opinions of what to do next. Which is really where we should start to spend a little more time.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next. If Donald Trump’s head split open and an alien popped out of it, I’d be a slightly more surprised than if he were elected president. Some may be hoping for the former. But that’s not the point.

So what’s the point?

It’s this-be wary of people telling you what’s going to happen. And be wary of arguments against ideas that may solve things that include warnings of catastrophic outcomes. Because when you get right down to it, we know very little about the future that actually matters. So try this instead. When it comes to selecting the next leader of the free world, go ahead and evaluate them on the things you actually can evaluate-their character, their past performance and the principles for how they approach problems.  Look at their capacity to serve others and compromise. How do they meet the three layered test of principle, compassion and pragmatism? These are much better questions to ask yourself then “what’s going to happen?”

So stay away from the unhelpful thought processes of predicting nebulous change.  Because a stock is good, ’til it’s bad. And all you’ve got left to lean on when it goes south, is the people you’ve selected to lead you through it. So choose wisely.

At All Costs

A little over a year ago, we launched this website to give people a safe place to gain some background and context for things that were happening in the world around them-a place free from political spin where we didn’t tell people what to think.  Instead we told them the why behind things and challenged them to come to their own conclusions.  The last two publications on chartwellwest.com have been intentional departures from that practice.  They were opinion pieces motivated by a political end-to encourage opposition to the candidacy of Donald Trump.  Though focused on Trump, he was not actually the greater end to our intent.  Instead, the focus was defeating something larger-authoritarianism.  For such an important message, I’m fine with the purposeful hypocrisy we’ve indulged.  There’s more at risk here than most people appear to be grasping.  But we’re going to get back to talking about the why anyway.  Because when you shine a light on what is behind the political rise of Donald Trump, opposition grows a strong and graspable handle.  Whether or not you grab it, is up to you.

This past weekend, Amanda Taub wrote a thorough and appropriately candid review of several research projects conducted by PhD candidate Mathew MacWilliams at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Professor Jonathan Weiler at Vanderbilt and Professor Marc Hethrington at the University of North Carolina.  Taub’s article is magnificently detailed and long.  But it can be effectively summed up by three insights and a conclusion that will help paint the why behind my vitriol opposition to Mr. Trump.

These insights are based on the assumption that there are people who, as a function of their personality, are predisposed to gravitate towards authoritarian ideology.  This assumption is backed up by data and research in the field.  Authoritarian ideology being formally defined as favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.

Here’s the big story of their findings highlighted in Taub’s article, in her words.

  1. “In the 1960s, the Republican Party had reinvented itself as the party of law, order, and traditional values — a position that naturally appealed to order- and tradition-focused authoritarians.”
  2. “many authoritarians might be latent — that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism had been activated. This activation could come from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect.”
  3. “when non-authoritarians feel sufficiently scared, they also start to behave, politically, like authoritarians.”

It’s fair to point out that not all Republicans are authoritarian.  But it is also fair to imply that if you were of authoritarian disposition,  and you were inclined to choose a political party over the last 50 years, it would be Republican. Which leads to the compelling conclusion that explains the phenomenon that has culminated in the symptom of our national political sickness-Donald Trump:

“… if social change and physical threats coincided at the same time, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of American authoritarians, who would demand a strongman leader and the extreme policies necessary, in their view, to meet the rising threats.”

Pretty straight forward.  Now consider this timeline:

  • 1964-The Civil Rights Act
  • 1973-Roe V. Wade
  • 1984-The First Woman Vice Presidential Candidate
  • 2008-The First African American President
  • 2015-Same Sex Marriage Equality
  • 2016-The First Female Presidential Candidate

These represent a half dozen landmark social progress milestones that, at the time, the Republican party opposed in some way. Which tells us that we’ve been marching forward with social progress for 50 years and the Republican Party, as is it’s function as our conservative voice, opposed it. I’m not bashing them.  It’s their job. But we haven’t had Donald Trump until now.  Why did it change?

There’s another critically important event that’s missing.  On September 11, 2001, foreign born, Muslim terrorists hijacked and flew four planes into two skyscrapers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing over three thousand Americans, live on national television.  There was no state to defeat in order to declare an end to this threat.   The broadly amorphous entity that did execute it and other attacks since, still exists.   The slow warming pot of fear and social progress had been brought to a roaring boil over the last 15 years.  Social progress and physical threats are happening at the same time.  And now, we’re facing the fallout.

But why is it that some of us, more than others, are so concerned with the rise of an authoritarian sounding candidate?  Why don’t we just take it in stride and surrender to the “he’s gonna tell it like it is and show those guys who’s boss”  mentality?  Why do we refuse to say the words “at all costs” when it comes to protecting our sovereignty and our traditional culture?  I can’t speak for everyone, but I know for me, the reason is clear.  I’ve actually seen it and experienced it first hand.  And most of the people I know who have at the level I have, are shouting right along side me.

I’ll start with a not too unique experience of mine.  The first time I actually felt it was when I was on a trip to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.  I was a freshmen at the Naval Academy, there on a trip for one of my classes.  If you’ve ever been there, you probably know where this is going.   I walked into the “shoe” room.  The room where thousands of shoes from the people murdered by the Nazi’s were piled four feet deep in a display.  They were all shapes and sizes and styles-womens shoes, kids shoes, baby shoes- representing the horrible, indiscriminate massacre of Europe’s Jews.  For the first time in my life, I was in the room with the human toll of authoritarian rule.  It was one of a handful of times where I have been overcome with grief and was unable to contain my emotion.  It would not be the last time I would see it though.

A few years later as a lieutenant in the Navy, I was a part of a humanitarian mission to East Timor, a small Pacific Island nation north of Australia. After decades of occupation, the Indonesian military had pulled out two years earlier. I was on my way to an orphanage to supervise a construction project.  Our driver suddenly veered off course and into a back alley.  Just about the time that I was about to hit the panic button, we emerged from the alley and onto a loading dock next to a seawall in the harbor.  The driver got out and stood on the sea wall and started to shout.  Our guide translated.  He was telling us that the children we were going to see lost their parents on that sea wall. They were lined up and shot there about 18 months before we arrived, by the authoritarian forces leaving the island. The driver’s brother was one of them. As he stood there, screaming at us, that feeling, the one you get when you are in the presence of true, avoidable human tragedy, grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. You know it when you feel it.  If you haven’t you won’t understand.

Later in Sub-Saharan Africa I witnessed a land forgotten by time and progress as resources funneled from the people to the government to sustain their own power.  Later in Iraq, I saw the dysfunction of a society that had lived for so long under authoritarian rule that it had lost its ability to self regulate decency and good will towards their fellow man.  Like an abused child, you could not undo overnight what took decades of abuse to cause.  The problems in all three of those areas rage on.  Some are getting better-too slowly.  Others are falling back into darkness.

When I hear Americans, most who by virtue of living in this great land have been entirely sheltered from the true destruction of authoritarian rule, calling for a leader who embodies it to rescue them from their deepest darkest fears, I feel compelled to shout back as loudly as I can, because they know not the evils of the cure they seek.  So I’m going to keep shouting.  And I’m not going to stop.

In the spirit of fairness, this isn’t really Donald Trump’s fault.  He is a symptom of our disease, one fifty years in the making.  And maybe it’s not as dire as I think.  About a third of Americans are registered Republicans.  And less than half of them are actually supporting Donald Trump.  They are those vocal few who subscribe, perhaps even subconsciously to the “at all costs” authoritarian mentality.   That means that about 80% of Americans do not.  So maybe this goes quietly away after the general election.

But maybe it doesn’t.  I’ve seen what the end of the path looks like-in the eyes of those whose lives have been destroyed by it.  And I know how few off-ramps that path offers.  So I’ll shout as long and as loud as I have to in order to keep us from taking it.  Because there is no fear great enough, no tradition strong enough worth abandoning our true founding principle to be a more perfect union built by our people, for our people-all of our people.   No one ever promised us safe. No one ever promised us traditional.  They promised us freedom and liberty-two inherently unstable, unpredictable and delicate things.  Be wary of who you entrust with their preservation.