CDS Column: Elections and Trumped up charges

Next week we get a new president.

Next week we get to watch one of the most remarkable aspects of the American experiment — the commander of the largest military in the world relinquishes his claim to the most powerful nation in history. Obama’s term is ending, and soon he will step aside peacefully without complaint.

It’s a crazy idea, a system where power moves effortlessly from one leader to the next, one party to the next, without bloody upheaval. Imagine such a trade-off in Syria or Sudan, Somalia or Saudi Arabia. Such handovers are unimaginable. There and elsewhere wars are fought for less.

But somehow America has found a way stave off the corrupting influence of power, enough so that every four or eight years the transition occurs. Elections come and go, presidents come and go, without a hitch. Steel-edged self-interest is ignored in favor of stability.

And as a result, year after year, we reap investments in businesses, community, family. No one wants to pour themselves into a future at risk of being torn down every four years, but Americans have figured out how to let the veneer of government change while the substance of our country continues. It is our American legacy, our 200-plus-year history, something so elemental to our democracy that anything else seems absurd.

Maybe it was bound to be taken for granted.

When Donald Trump raised the spectre that this election could be rigged, when he said he might contest the results of Nov. 8 if on Nov. 9 he isn’t White House-bound, he drew a line between himself and our American past. He pointed to the most fundamental of American concepts — those clean transitions of leadership — and opted to take a pass.

This is the history that makes America remarkable, a pillar of our greatness. The candidate who would “Make America great again” would also smear her best qualities, reject her democracy at its roots.

And on what cause? What evidence? Mad claims of rigging, unpunctuated by fact? Trump has offered this show before. It’s a reprise of his Obama birth certificate blowout: all fiction and farce, a ball of lies, a con. In shouting “It’s rigged!” he does more to show his disdain for the American civic process than to enlighten voters with any truth. In the land of honesty Trump is a foreigner, a hustler looking to get America on the cheap.

But his boasts are inconsequential. We are made of stronger stuff than this, and we have faced more meaningful crises before. Remember 2000? Imagine the chaos that would have followed had Al Gore had refused to accept defeat. Considering the irregularities — Florida, butterfly ballots, a monthlong recount, the U.S. Supreme Court — the loser had cause to protest but, as a player in the American political game, Gore recognized the rules. His personal stake in the outcome did not trump the American tradition of graceful defeat.

American politics, as messy as it may seem, is largely about such grace, about high ideals and civic virtue. Though a strain to live up to, American democracy was founded on such optimism. The country’s first president famously stepped down after only two terms in office, which at the time was itself something of a revolution. This was the time of kings and emperor generals, but, like Cincinnatus, George Washington relinquished power after only eight years. Elected in 1789, he retired to his Virginia plantation in 1797 and died there in 1799.

Washington’s civic example, however, outlasted him. It set a precedent for presidents that lasted through the next century, and it wasn’t until World War II that a commander in chief exceeded eight years in office.

Congress passed the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms in 1947, but for a century-and-a-half before that there was no need for such a rule. American politicians lived by Washington’s example. They recognized the decorum of the office, that their position only held for two terms. Stepping aside gracefully was a presidential prerequisite.

Such grace eludes Donald Trump. The Republican nominee (the party of limited government) is conducting his campaign in a way that almost shouts for more rules, more written laws. But how do you write a rule for presidential candidates unwilling to accept the outcome of elections? How do you put in print the most basic tenet of electoral decorum? Trump has no evidence to back his claims of rigging. We are a week from the election and the Republican nominee is calling into question the very backbone of our democratic system. There ought to be a rule against it.

But actually there shouldn’t. To echo good conservatives, we don’t need more rules. Trump’s behavior begs for laws and regulations designed for the worst of us, legislation designed for that one windbag willing to make outlandish claims. But America is built of stronger stuff than that. Our democracy runs deep. Our rules and laws and governance are meant to be thin. They are the paper covering on something more substantial, a vast nation that the drama of politics only plays on top of. Any swindler with a lawyer can find his way through one more law. Trump has proved that again and again.

What we need is a trust in our roots and our traditions, paired with a demand that claims of election impropriety be followed by evidence. Shouting “The sky is falling” doesn’t make it rain, much less uproot the sun and clouds. Trump needs to be held to account.

And he will be. Next week, ballots will be cast, and we will see where America stands.

And Trump may well win. He’s on the ticket, and it’s the voters who decide. That’s how the system works, how it has worked for 240 years. Next week, we’ll know the outcome.

But, unlike Trump, Americans will accept the results even if they don’t like them. Because in America, that’s how it’s done.


This column ran in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: A Mini America

49895953510__6feb8924-ea7f-4930-ae0b-20f4a8fb15f3-1Maine is a modern political allegory. In a lot of ways it can serve as a stand-in for the entire United States—liberal coast hemming a vast but sparsely populated conservative heartland, with bustle and trade, vibrancy and a smattering of diversity along the shore but both tempo and complexion changing once you leave the ocean. Isolated pockets clustered around centers of higher education (rather than midwestern cities) retain the progressive flavor of coastal life, but otherwise inland culture is very different, as is the economic outlook.

America Mini: Yeah, we’ve got that.

And politically Maine has America covered too: one Republican congressman and the other rep a Democrat, in the U.S. Senate a moderate Republican regularly accused of being a RINO and an Independent who leans liberal. Maine voters, like voters across America, support every political stripe.

And then there’s the governor. If Maine is an American metaphor then loose-lipped Gov. Paul LePage is a glimpse into the future, a hint at what a possible presidency with Donald J. Trump would be like.

“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” Gov. LePage told a radio host last spring. And he’s right: Gov. LePage is a shining example of what loose cannon leadership looks like, how an executive who takes no notice of facts likes to govern. It’s impossible to watch the trapeze act of Trump’s campaign and not be reminded of Maine’s own mini-circus, the pro-business bark adorned by rude racist comments and a constant confusion on facts. Trump hardly has a corner on that market. LePage never had his own TV show but in terms of political buffoonery and chicanery he’s got a six-year head start.

How do candidates like this get to power? Of course there’s the business of third party politics and Maine’s 61 percent, but there is also that vast white interior, the working class industrial heartland of Maine/America, the places where good jobs were once plentiful and now are hard to come by. These are the forgotten lands where infrastructure is crumbling as quickly as communities. This is the seat of power for “straight talk” politicos today, the home of the frustrated white worker.

And why shouldn’t they be frustrated? These voters live in the economic sectors of yesteryear, places like Rumford and Skowhegan (Cleveland and Milwaukee) that have suffered setback after setback. They’ve watched their communities drown in joblessness while their elected officials lead in other directions and focus more on talking over them than talking to them. The American Dream, long at their doorstep, is now far away and doesn’t look to be coming back.

It is to those voters that politicians like Trump and LePage offer their promises: a rejuvenated working class and a reborn heartland. “Make America Great Again.” It’s a slogan aimed at them, and it has hit its mark. It may be hogwash, a fantasy in today’s changing world, but when no one else is speaking to this constituency there is room for LePage and Trump to find support. They took a read on the pulse of frustration among white working class voters and they spoke to it. Their words may be hollow, but any sound booms across a vacuum. They noticed a bloc and reached out; they should not have been the first.

LePage and Trump are blowhards, but their political foresight should not be overlooked. It’s now clear that white rural voters are ignored at our collective peril. While Maine and the rest of America quibbled over policy nuance these factless windbags climbed ranks: LePage won both election and then reelection, and Trump cleared the Republican field. Disillusioned and disenfranchised working class voters led the way, showing up in droves to exercise what power they have left, supporting the candidates that speak to their situation as everyone else looked on.

Maybe next time Republicans and RINOs, Independents and Democrats will approach this frustrated constituency, listen to what they have to say and speak to them. Maybe next time working class Maine’s sole option won’t be a bluster-filled bully.

Maybe that can be part of America’s story too.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: The American Locker Room Tradition

CDS Column: The American Locker Room Tradition

13475016_1517641101595303_7355454198074171565_o“Locker room talk” is a catchy phrase and now the talk of the nation. Never have the tiled quarters of towels, benches and shower stalls garnered such attention. It is, however, a presidential year, so no wonder.

It’s been interesting to watch lines drawn around Republican nominee Donald Trump’s comments, “locker room talk” or “sexual assault” depending on your political leanings. His supporters rallied, some Republicans used the comments to justify severing support, and opponents pointed aghast saying, “See! See! We told you!”

But Donald Trump’s comments don’t make him a monster; they put him squarely within American culture. They mark him as an American male, the personification of American masculinity stated in stark terms, its dark edges exposed, things we don’t often dwell upon out. His “grab them by the pussy” comments are not so far fetched or outlandish, not as far afield as many claim. This is the raw of American male conversations on sex, particularly among young men — proud, boastful men still finding their way across the landscapes of adulthood.

Trump’s comments shine a light into a world we look to ignore. Not a political point; this is a truth about us, about American male culture and the customs we carry. Donald Trump is no outlier here. He lives squarely within the American psyche, the sexual culture we cultivate. This is about American men, our mores and a tradition of celebrating aggression.
Sounds dramatic, but it’s not meant to be. American men are not predators. But we carry a school of conditioning, a cultural norm: From a young age, American men learn to talk about sex in grand terms. Sex is not a subject to ask questions about, something for discussion, learned easily within our social network. It is instead something to boast about, a way to prove your position within the pecking order. If you are an American male you’ve seen this before: raunchy conversations where participants compete to be the most brash, the most raw, the most confident and loudest. If you’re an American male, chances are you’ve felt your place within the hierarchy, and you’ve probably either striven to prove yourself or else felt ostracized by it. Likely both.

From middle school on there is pressure to conform, pressure to be the most experienced, the most promiscuous, the silverback, the alpha. Sex talk, “locker room talk,” is never gentle, thoughtful or considered. It is “grab them by the pussy” and worse. This is how we grew up, our sexual education. It is where and how American men learn to talk about women.

Most men don’t act out these lessons. For most it is a show, a performance we make to fit in, part of joining the tribe of our peers. It does not become foundation for sexual assault or sexual violence but remains the bluster of “locker room talk.” Is it necessarily happening in locker rooms? No, but make no mistake, it’s happening.

And that bluster does two things: It leaves young men and boys feeling ostracized, wondering how their peers know so much about sex when they themselves are clueless (despite whoever or whatever we just claimed to have carnal knowledge of), and it permanently impacts the language we learn to use around sex, the character of the conversation we embrace. We adopt the swagger and bravado to fit in, and it is the swagger and bravado that make us afraid to ask questions, afraid we are the only ones who don’t know. To speak in opposition to the boasting rhetoric becomes unthinkable — it risks exposing ourselves as ignorant children, fakes. And with that coincides a tumbling loss of social position, a risk we cannot take.

And if men know the bragging and rough talk, women know the ignorance, the bumbling, the delicate male egos propped on false claims of past deeds. This is our “sexual education,” the path carved for young American men and women to reach adulthood, our incubator for home, family, partnership.

And it has consequences. It leaves young men groping to prove themselves, to show they are who they say they are. From private New Hampshire high schools to the swimming pools at Stanford we’ve seen young men from the top of the pecking order strike out, thrash their way into sex rather than risk a question, an about-face. Boys employing the crude tools our culture has equipped them with.

And their thrashing has consequences. Their thrashing leaves victims.

But they, too, are victims. They are victims of our collective unwillingness to talk openly about sex, our timidity and our vision of American maleness. They grow to be men never baring their ignorance, never risking what they don’t know. They learn only through thrash and bluster, bumping their way down the hallways. Then they have their own boys, and the cycle continues.

Donald J. Trump. Alpha. Silverback. He stormed the pecking order with braggadocio, and now like so many of us he cannot risk an about-face. He is a man, built of words like so many other men. Some of us may fumble our way out of the locker room but still we find ourselves back there at times, fighting our way within the hierarchy. Billy Bush, the other man on the Trump tape, knows that fight.

What that tape shows us is ourselves. This is how we as Americans engage in conversations about sex. We learn young, and we learn well. Maybe we spend the rest of our lives unlearning it. But this pattern shapes our perspectives, forms our culture. And what we never learn to say shapes our children.

And so we should be grateful to Donald Trump. Because this conversation is one way overdue.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Entertainment? Debatable.

This week included the first debate of the 2016 presidential election. Did you watch?

You could sense the excitement Monday evening, the closing of doors as people rushed home to make sure not to miss anything. It had the feel of the Super Bowl: blue lights of the TV screen flooding living room after living room, the proud rooting for a chosen team, a clawing desire to win.

But it also held the feel of a car accident, a train wreck that people wanted to glimpse. What would go wrong? What outlandish things would Trump say? Would Clinton be able to hem him in and fend him off, or would he eviscerate her as easily as he did the Republican field?

I met three friends for dinner Monday night. In town for an afternoon of rock climbing, they were on a mission to make it home in time for the debate. “I want to see what happens,” one of them said. “It won’t change who I’m voting for, but I know it’ll be good.”

He was not the only one to say so — another friend stopped by to ask if I was watching. He too wanted to see the drama unfold onstage. The unpredictability of 2016 has transformed the race for the White House into top-rated reality TV.

That is our election today: entertainment. A sideshow. We are ostensibly choosing America’s next commander in chief, but it feels more like a trip to the Colosseum.

What has happened? This isn’t the first time a presidential election has taken on the carnival feel — the selection of Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office was another step in that direction.

She brought folksy appeal to the ticket but neither experience nor a global perspective. After the 2008 election loss, the former governor moved on to reality TV, hosting a 2010 show called “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” According to People Magazine (always a trusted source) she is currently developing a Judge Judy-type courtroom program.

Reality is no longer real enough. We now select candidates more focused on Hollywood than Washington. Is this what voters consider “meaningful change”?

But two policy wonks standing behind podiums arguing the merits of Social Security reform makes for terrible television. No one is going to tune in for that show. Analysts projected the Clinton-Trump debate will be one of the landmark viewing events of 2016, with 17 percent more television viewers than Romney-Obama in 2012. And in the intervening four years much watching has migrated to online streaming media, which those numbers don’t account for. If we are upset with our choices for president, we sure give them our undivided attention. Perhaps our interest is really to be entertained.

A Palin presidency, however, would not have been entertaining, and neither would a Trump presidency. While it may be hilarious to watch the Republican nominee resurrect his signature tagline “You’re fired” in political form, he is without experience, temperament or the necessary judgment to lead. He is a conman stoking divisions and discontent. More of it won’t be entertaining to watch, and a Trump presidency wouldn’t be entertaining to live under.

So, what were viewers looking for? How many of the millions of them were trying to decide which one of these two candidates had the makings of a president? Or is that not what debates are for anymore?

Television companies appreciate them. If discord as entertaining as Trump versus Clinton could face off every year, it’d sprout a cottage industry with as many advertisers as the Super Bowl. And who wouldn’t want to see creative, funny depictions of red state versus blue, candidate versus candidate, issue versus issue. Perhaps Planned Parenthood could deploy croaking frogs and Focus on the Family a new World’s Most Interesting Man.

Maybe this is how we make America great again. Maybe we can sell ourselves back to viability. Maybe taking a page from our reality TV nominee’s book and stenciling our last names across the top floor of all of our houses from the North Country to the coast, from Cleveland to inner city Chicago, we pull us up by our bootstraps.

Really? That seems like a con. Rural America is struggling, and meanwhile Congress fails to meet to make basic compromises. America finds itself in a multipolar world amid powers not necessarily our friends. These are not joking times, not the moment for a clown, a conman. It will take vision, solid policy and hard choices to navigate the times we find ourselves in.

And yet, we as a country elect to tune in, to be entertained. We are trained to watch. We gripe about Washington and then refuse to engage in the boring meaningful work required to change it. We rush home in anticipation of getting to watch grownups act like toddlers onstage and then curse our lack of better choices. Is that true, we are without choices? Or are our politics a reflection of us? Do we have anything to offer, an attention span to listen on policy rather than vote for entertainment value?

There will always be conwomen and conmen. There will always be someone selling something we don’t need at a price we can’t afford, a shill looking to entertain.

And so, we have been left with one choice in this election. The cynical view has always been presidential elections are a choice between two evils, but not this year. This year we have a consummate politician, someone who in normal circumstances would be the very definition of bum in a call to “throw the bums out.” But the conman has transformed Hillary Clinton from sleaze into white knight. There is no other choice, the alternative is absurd, unthinkable.

So we have the election we built for ourselves. But at least we are entertained.


This column ran in the Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Reality Politics

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 9.41.37 AMDonald Trump’s popularity is sagging.

Or that was the news story in New Hampshire last week: Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers climbed to more than a dozen percentage points over the Republican nominee in the Granite State. True, some respondents voiced concerns about whether the former first lady is fit to be president, but their concerns were eclipsed by the same question regarding Trump.

Polls are only a snapshot though, one of those things that flare up suddenly like wildfire, make their rounds and scorch everything in their path before they disappear.

The only poll that really matters is in November. Everything before then is a cupped ear to the whispering mood of public opinion, a national game of telephone guaranteed to amplify distortion by the time it ends.

And that’s in a normal election year. This year is anything but normal. A little over a year ago, Trump’s candidacy appeared an extension of his television career, a shot of reality TV drama dumped into politics. It didn’t register as real, left no hint it might transform the entire presidential debacle into reality TV.

But maybe it should have. Maybe Donald Trump is the candidate we’ve been asking for all along. Other countries elect leaders in a matter of weeks; American presidential elections last years. They unfold in campaign events choreographed for the cameras and polls that track competitors’ progress like runs per inning in a baseball game. Candidates campaign on words like “Hope and Change” and “Make America Great Again” rather than policy positions, and scandals and affairs unfurl like celebrity gossip. Democracy has turned into daytime drama. No wonder Trump does so well.

Clinton, meanwhile, makes something of an easy villain for the television narrative. Or the persecuted heroine. It all depends which side of the aisle you stand on. She has certainly had to bump her way to the top, and such wrestling leaves bruises. The reality of candidate Clinton is likely somewhere in the middle, however, neither nemesis nor innocent. She is a politician, one with hands dirtied by history.

But as a former senator and secretary of state she knows the system and has been an integral part of it. Is that what we need at this moment, one of the cooks long in the kitchen?

No? OK, then consider the alternative.

What a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Anything but a normal election year. A frequent complaint of America’s two-party system is that it leaves voters to choose between the lesser of two evils. But not this year. This year, the choice is between the distasteful and the absurd. Would you prefer the consummate politician or the TV host? It brings to mind the famous Winston Churchill quote: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

But Churchill never saw democracy made for television. Celebrity democracy. Production democracy. Campaigns run for the cameras, voters transformed into consumers, candidates as packaged products rather than people. It’s democracy’s latest form, and the worst possible.

It is distasteful, but it’s definitely ours.

It often appears America is prepared to “snap out of it,” ready to let go of its fetish with things flashy and loud in favor of substance, but it never quite happens. Politics is just the latest version.

Remember the days immediately following 9/11? Journalists left behind celebrity-styled reporting to reorient readers and viewers to America’s place in a complex world. And for a brief instant we cared. We spent time listening, learning, treating our news like information rather than entertainment.

It happened again in 2008 after the financial meltdown: As Americans watched their banks fail and their investments disappear they stopped watching financial news modeled on Sportscenter and started looking for stories and sources that actually explained what was happening. Again, for the briefest moment, the character of the conversation changed.

Perhaps we are in another of those moments now. The two major party candidates are both deeply disliked, and yet they rose to the top. Many Americans, including those who took part in the nomination process, are dissatisfied. We watched as one candidate was considered for investigation by the FBI and the other got in a public tussle with the family of a fallen soldier. This does not seem American democracy’s finest hour.

When the dust clears, once either Trump or Clinton is president, will we reflect on this election? Will we look at our political conversation the way we looked at our approach to foreign affairs and finance in those moments after more immediate disasters? Will we have the wisdom to revisit our celebrity fetish, to let go of the flash version of modern democracy in favor of something more concrete, long term?

Or will the cleared dust mark the moment we forget about all this? Will we never ask what went wrong, what led to a race between an obviously unfit candidate and one so divisive?

If our recent past is a guide, then we are in trouble: The lessons of history are able to blind us, but only momentarily. We reverted to national conversations devoid of historical perspective in the post-9/11 days. We returned to the “too big to fail” practices of the pre-meltdown era. Our slow-moving political disaster, one without the same immediacy as those, will likely suffer the same fate. Reinvent ourselves? No, not so long as our elections are entertaining, like game shows with only the slightest twist from “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” Or “American Idol.”

Or “The Apprentice.”


This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.