Paul Ryan: The Silent Speaker

Paul D. Ryan was one of the few reassuring touchstones for traditional Republicans, assuring them that the GOP hadn’t completely imploded. As a result, many of the pieces written about Ryan’s decision not to run for reelection in 2018 conflate his exit with the end of a Republican Party once characterized by people like Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. As the party ambles through the Donald Trump wilderness, its experienced navigators continue to fall away, most notably in sight of an unfavorable wave election. Pew Research Center notes that about 38 Republican House Members will not seek reelection–a near record high. Add to that list, Paul D. Ryan whose announced departure from the House of Representatives has inspired numerous articles about his legacy.

Poring over the pieces recounting his triumphs and failings, I have found the most mystifying articles those castigating the Speaker for not “speaking out” more strongly against President Donald Trump. I truly struggle to understand this critique, if it is, in fact, made in good faith.

I think it is important to note that these articles come from a liberal perspective (there may be conservative writers criticizing Ryan on similar grounds, but I have not seen them yet). This observation matters for two reasons: first, liberals tend to overestimate the power of protesting.

For example, Ronald Brownstein writes in The Atlantic:

“Ryan blinked at confronting the president’s appeals to white racial resentments. Pressed for reaction to comments like Trump’s reported description of African nations as ‘shithole’ countries, Ryan managed to mumble the bare minimum of plausible criticism: ‘The first thing that came to my mind was very unfortunate, unhelpful.’ For most people genuinely distressed by Trump’s remarks, ‘unfortunate’ and ‘unhelpful’ were probably not the first words that came to mind; ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’ were.”

What exactly Brownstein believes a more forceful condemnation would have done escapes me. Donald Trump would not reflect on those comments and apologize. In fact, when Ryan said that Trump’s comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel were an example of textbook racism, nothing changed. Of course, a decent person does not wear the label “racist” as a “badge of honor,” but I suspect that Brownstein would not characterize the President as a decent person. Who would?

On the other hand, what we do know is that President Trump works with people who “say nice things” about him. So, besides obliterate any possibility that Ryan could achieve his own legislative ends, those policies once associated with Republicans, what would harsher criticism have accomplished?

This, of course, is the point, and is the second reason why this particular criticism comes from the left: Liberals want a crippled GOP. A crippled GOP can’t pass tax cuts, or curtail government spending. A crippled GOP can’t reform entitlements, and it cannot do so in Ryan’s image if Ryan is feuding with a mercurial president who has no grand vision. In other words, goading Ryan and other traditional Republicans to follow the Jeff Flake model is a surefire way to ensure that no part of a conservative agenda is served. In the face of criticism Trump doesn’t change. He tweets. The offending politician may lose his or her job, and the GOP distills, becoming even more Trumpian–even more difficult to defend.

Furthermore, Paul Ryan is not a commentator. His role in the political process is to compromise with people with whom he disagrees to win legislative victories for the people who elected him. Ryan worked with President Barack Obama and with the House Freedom Caucus to accomplish as much as he could, a task that required him to speak strategically, not emotionally. Not symbolically. Perhaps in a new role he will have the freedom to speak for himself and to solely bear the responsibility of what he says. Perhaps he will choose, still, to refrain. Either way, he hadn’t that freedom before.

As for the articles suggesting that the Trumpian changes in the GOP are forcing out thoughtful conservatives like Ryan, there can be no doubt.

Prager and the Wolf

Part of what is so disheartening about President Donald Trump leading the Republican Party is discovering that thoughtful people–perhaps even people who you admire–will ignore, excuse, or even endorse Trump’s worst aspects. The kinds of people who saw profound meaning in Barack Obama’s annoying idiosyncrasies (omitting the words “our Creator,” when quoting the Declaration of Independence, for example) appear curiously unable to connect the dots on President Trump’s most troubling behaviors.

Conservative commentator, Dennis Prager, is one such person who I once very much admired. He does not know whether President Trump holds racist views in his heart that inform his policy decisions. Neither do I. Nor would Mr. Prager or I look to the mainstream American left for any elucidation on the issue. But the question is serious enough that Prager writes a piece arguing that the evidence against Mr. Trump is specious.

Here’s why Prager is wrong:

In the first place, Prager argues that the left has lost credibility on using the word “racist,” writing:

“The left labels anyone who opposes race-based quotas, or all-black college dorms, or the Black Lives Matter movement ‘racist.’”

Therefore, he argues, because liberals call so many innocuous things racist, they threaten to embolden “real” racism.

This is mostly true.

I think of the braindead attacks on Senator John McCain, calling him a racist, for referring to then-Senator Barack Obama as “that one,” when distinguishing between their voting records. I think of the many attacks calling President George W. Bush a racist despite the diversity of his cabinet, his electoral successes among Latinos, and his tireless work improving conditions in many African nations–improvements that are recognized across the political spectrum.

But Prager’s argument has two sides: while liberals may overcharge racism, conservatives underestimate it with the same zeal.  A Pew Research Study released last year expresses that very point. It finds that Democrats believe that not enough attention is paid to “real” instances of racism, while Republicans argue that too much attention is paid to “fake” racism. Both can be true: Democrats may pay too much attention to “microaggressions,” while Republicans prefer to ignore racial disparities in police shootings and incarceration.

But all this really means is that the right has lost just as much credibility on the issue of racism as the left.

Prager writes:

“On race the Left has cried wolf so often that if real wolves ever show up, few will believe it.”

And, so here we are: The Left is calling Mr. Trump a wolf, and Mr. Prager suspects that they might be seeing a giraffe.

The event in question finds President Trump in negotiations about DACA recipients and the future of a diversity lottery immigration program. The bipartisan negotiation would have ended the diversity lottery, in exchange for allowing the people who used that program to live legally in the United States (some, for decades) to join the class of DACA recipients and earn the chance to be granted permanent status. Upon learning that some of the people who benefited from the diversity lottery were from Haiti and Nigeria, President Trump asked why the U.S. should allow those people from “shit hole” countries to stay. He reportedly followed up by asserting that we needed more people from countries like Norway.

If whatever subtlety that exists eludes you, as it has Mr. Prager, what the President reportedly said is that if these people were from European countries–regardless of their value to the United States–they should be allowed to be incorporated into the DACA program. Otherwise, they should be sent home at government expense because of where they came from, not because of who they are and what they have contributed.

This sounds like racism to me, but not to Prager who defends Trump’s assertion by tying an imaginary “moral state of an immigrant’s country” to the likelihood that immigrants from those countries would use American welfare benefits.  (Remember, Mr. Trump did not say that the United States needed fewer immigrants who would use welfare benefits– that would have been more tenable.) As it were, none of Prager’s other arguments have anything to do with Trump’s statement, in fact, as nimbly as he claims not to know what Trump actually said, he more boldly asserts to know what Trump meant.

The point still remains, that Prager appears to suffer from the same affliction that the Pew study finds among conservatives more generally. It is true: if this were the only insensitive thing that Mr. Trump said, then one could plausibly deny that Trump is a racist. Just as sharp teeth, alone, do not a wolf make.  

But if only Mr. Prager would touch the pelt of the man who lied about knowing who David Duke was; if he would let the teeth of the man who precluded blacks from living in his developments pierce his fingertips; if Prager would listen to the howl of the beast who said that a Republican judge could not do his job professionally because he is of Mexican descent; study the scat of this animal that peddled a lie about Barack Obama’s birthplace. If only Prager would enter his picture into the Google Arts and Culture app, he would see that Mr. Trump keeps coming back–wolf.

Fire, Fury, Flailing, and Frustration

David French wrote a piece in National Review that speaks for many Republicans in the post-Trump GOP who find ourselves gobsmacked by President Trump’s remarks following the clashes in Charlottesville over the weekend. Those of us who read the 2012 autopsy report and took heart that the party may finally do what it takes to attract more voters and slough off the smear that the Republican Party offers safe haven for white supremacists and racists, excitedly backed every other 2016 primary candidate–except the one who won. The candidate who won traffics in alt-Right conspiracy theories (prominently, in the Birther Conspiracy Theory), prejudged a judge’s ability to do his job based solely on his ethnic background, and dragged his feet to disavow the support of open racists–namely David Duke. His defenders insist that we ignore these data points, attributing them to the inevitable ugliness of modern presidential campaigns; and to consider as coincidences that his Attorney General is named after Confederate heroes, and the head of his legal team shares the name of the most overtly racist baseball player in American history. Indeed, these may be coincidences. However, given the president’s bizarre inability to assure the country that he resents racism as much as he does Mika Brzezinski, that once-tenuous smear against the party that ended slavery appears more tenable. Responsible Republicans resent this.

 

What the hell do you have to lose,” Trump asked a black audience who he hoped to sway to support him in the general election. What blacks (and other decent Americans) have lost thus far is a head of government with the moral clarity to reflexively denounce our most embarrassing citizens–you might call them “deplorables.” These Nazis, Klanners, and terrorists, attacked and killed counter protesters; and while one may argue that the counter protesters may have started some of the physical altercations, there is proof that a large contingent of them came to protest peacefully. That cannot be said for the racists, who appeared carrying shields, helmets and firearms.

 

Responsible Republicans know that the Trump Administration is the disaster we predicted long before it started. Rather than uplift the party and direct it toward a common goal, it has exacerbated Republican infighting, confirmed the worst stereotypes about conservatives, and marginalized the best members of the Party for those Buckley expelled decades ago.

 

White House personnel sniping, the Russian investigation, dismal poll numbers, and embarrassing responses to world events (think North Korea), fueled a spate of reporting, last week, hinting at a Republican coup against the president in 2020.

 

Add Charlottesville to the fire.

 

Worse than the harm the Trump Administration brings to the GOP is the damage it continues to do to the country: we have no Afghanistan strategy. We have no North Korea strategy. We have no Venezuela strategy. We have no Syria strategy. We have no health care replacement. We have no tax reform plan.

 

We do have Trash TV White House appointments. We do have Twitter wars. We do have an opioid epidemic. We do have an idiotic war against the media. We do have rising suicide rates. We do have a gridlocked Congress. We do have a resurgence of American terrorism–white supremacists–emboldened by what Colin Powell called the “Dark Vein of Intolerance” in the Republican Party.

 

Most depressingly, though, we have a president ill-suited to constructively address these issues.

Baltimore: Cops and Robbers

Blacks, Whites, Boys in Blue, and the Unsolved Mystery of Freddie Gray


I’ve lived, my entire life, in one of the most violent cities of America–Chicago (known by some as “Chi-raq” because of the high number of shootings). I’ve experienced racial profiling: I’ve been harassed by police officers who insisted that my car was stolen–that my white friend and I were looking for drugs whenever we visited my relatives who lived in blighted parts of the city. And while I have many friends who are police officers, these events shape the way I view police–with gratitude and respect for the difficult job they do, simultaneously understanding what mayhem arises when the power of life and death rests in the hands of fallen man.

When I drive past police cars, I sit a little straighter, keep my hands at 10 and 2 and watch the cruiser in my rear view mirror until it’s out of my sight. I surely share a fear that many black men do: that having an encounter with a police officer on a power trip is a likely enough possibility–one with deadly consequences. Unlike being faced with a similar encounter with any other person employed in virtually any other line of work, I can’t win. I can’t defend myself. I can’t protect my dignity without fear of facing grave consequences. Even with the proliferation of cell phone videos and social media, my side of the story may never be heard. I can be brutalized unjustly while my family and friends sustain the unhealable scars. My only recourse is to wait until the negative interaction ends, and then complain to the cop’s supervisor (colleagues) in mostly futile hopes that some future citizen will be spared whatever ordeal I have experienced.

“Behavior that might land some defendants in jail, such as beating or even shooting another person, are not just permitted for police officers but are assumed to be part of their work,” writes Michael Wines in the New York Times.

That’s no way to live in America, and my sense is that police officers, by and large, do not want citizens to feel that way about them.

Slowly–hesitatingly–police departments across the country are starting to do the right thing in wearing body cameras. This partial solution, still in its nascent stages, may change things for the better, but is only a small step in the right direction. Had the Baltimore police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s murder been wearing body cameras, the devices likely would not shed much  more light on the mysterious events leading to Gray’s death. Still, though, body cameras would have served Officer Darren Wilson quite well, and more quickly dispelled the myth that Michael Brown raised his hands in surrender when Officer Wilson shot him.

Another legislative change that can improve the relationship between police and citizens would allow citizens to record arrests from their cell phones and other devices given that they are not interfering with police activity. Youtube and Liveleak show scores of videos in which police officers discourage filming, sometimes threatening force against the recorders, or arguing erroneously that the filming violates the law in states and localities in which the filming is actually lawful. Without these videos, like that capturing Officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back, the public loses some context that undergirds black fear of police officers. Furthermore, these recordings, coupled with those produced by department body cameras, may serve to exonerate police actions.

The most important change necessary to alleviate tension between police and certain communities may elude legislators and policy makers. This change in the “code of silence,”  which finds police officers refusing to report bad behaviors committed by fellow officers, would reinforce the desired impression that police forces support the most important aspect of American law–its universal application. The “code of silence” among police officers frustrates the efforts of our legal system to punish wrongdoers similarly to the way “no snitching” hampers justice for victims in troubled communities. The “code of silence” would have protected Chicago Police Officer, Anthony Abbate, a 12-year police veteran who savagely beat a petite female bartender, Karina Obrycka, in 2007–if not for the bar’s security camera that captured the attack. Obrycka reported receiving death threats from Chicago police officers, urging her (unsuccessfully) to drop her charges. This culture of corruption and intimidation sows fear in the minds of citizens, relegating our police forces to tax-supported street gangs. Failure to dispatch with that reputation; and reluctance, by police forces, to adopt common sense solutions aimed at increasing transparency and accountability; threaten the legitimacy of the entire justice system. In many communities, especially communities of color, skepticism about the justice system’s fairness abounds.

Deservedly or not, police departments throughout the country face increased scrutiny while high-profile cases of unarmed black men shot by police officers mount up. Rather than allowing these challenges to further tarnish the front line of our legal system, police departments should proactively address public concerns about their transparency and tactics, show a sign of good faith with the communities they serve and distance themselves from the few incidents of a few departments that may cast a pall over all law enforcement.

Enter Baltimore, Freddie Gray, and the ensuing riots.


Some Baltimore residents argue that Freddie Gray’s arrest (perhaps an unlawful one) and death at the hands of six Baltimore police officers represented the tipping point in an increasingly tense situation between citizens and the police. In 2010, a jury acquitted a Baltimore police officer for shooting an unarmed fleeing man in the back. In 2011, a judge in Baltimore acquitted three officers charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment after driving two teenagers miles from their homes and leaving them in a different county without socks and shoes. Last fall, the Baltimore Sun released the results of an investigation that showed that over the last 4 years, Baltimore paid about $5.7 million to more than 100 people who won court settlements related to police brutality and civil rights abuses.  Today, allegations that police severed Gray’s spine, killing him, when they placed him face down in a transport van and drove recklessly–a tactic known as a “rough ride”–confound Baltimore’s police department as they deal with the resulting indictments, riots and violence.

While the rioters’ rage may be understandable, the riots themselves are not.Of course, not everyone agrees with my claim.  Salon’s Benji Hart argues that the looting and violence is a legitimate black political tactic, and that calling the rioters uncivilized is racist. I hold that arguing that blacks should uniquely be expected and encouraged to victimize others out of frustration, dehumanizes blacks–reducing us to opportunistic thugs, ticking time bombs, using perceived injustices as reason enough act antisocially. One might ask what it means to hold such a flippant, ugly, view of blacks, while not expecting whites to riot after the 2012 elections, for example.There is no logical link between Gray’s death and looting.

Jason Riley writes a brave and important piece arguing that protesters and apologists excused the violent riots in Ferguson because the racial makeup of Ferguson’s city government contained too few blacks. By contrast:

“Broad diversity is not a problem in Baltimore, where 63% of residents and 40% of police officers are black. The current police commissioner is also black, and he isn’t the first one. The mayor is black, as was her predecessor and as is a majority of the city council.”

Unsurprisingly, the riots’ biggest supporters are liberals. Michael Eric Dyson, writing in the New York Times, lays the groundwork for why Baltimore offers such a rich environment for rioting:

“The unemployment rate in the community where Mr. Gray lived is over 50 percent; the high school student absence rate hovers at 49.3 percent; and life expectancy tops out at 68.8 years…these statistics are a small glimpse of the radical inequality that blankets poor black Baltimore. it’s no wonder that black Baltimore erupted in social fury.”

These statistics interest me because so often, liberalism plays a sick joke on Americans who fall for it: liberal policies loot the wealthy (local businesses, big box stores, citizens, etc.) to give to the poor, but when they rule cities, as they have ruled Baltimore for years, the poor live in appalling privation. As a result, according to liberals, citizens of liberal cities resort to stealing from the wealthy (local businesses, big box stores, citizens, etc.) to do what liberal policies failed to do in the first place–equalize the rich and the poor. In other words, liberalism’s thieving policies fail to benefit its constituents, and actually beget more thieving.

Of course, I recognize that the Baltimore riots stem from more than just liberal ideas and policies. Distrust of police forces, and of the justice system it serves, stems from some real grievances that police departments must address. The answer is never to compound the injustice, either by rioting, looting, or convicting officers on flimsy charges. The answer is for police departments to get serious about transparency, kill the “culture of silence” that protects racist emails and violent cops like Abbate, and begin to take seriously the effect bad practices can have on eroding the rule of law. Citizens, of every race, must protest injustice without victimizing others. Excusing further victimization as somehow intrinsic to blackness or sound black political action fuels the suspicions that blacks are latent criminals deserving of disproportional scrutiny.