The fundamental cause of the trouble in the modern world today is thatthe stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.—Bertrand Russell
In our culture, confidence is heralded as an important attribute in defining success. With presentations, interviews, press conferences, and more, we feel most assured when whoever’s addressing us is able to project strength in vision, even if they’re unable to answer all our questions; the age-old mythos that the alpha must lead the pack. But action and rhetoric are so often at the helm of stupidity. Coming out of the Trump and Johnson eras, it is important that we examine the nature of such leadership, for it often undermines our best interests.
Let’s begin by taking a trip down memory lane to the 1980 election. It was Jimmy Carter vs Ronald Reagan. The peanut farmer vs the Hollywood actor. The detail-oriented micro-manger v the guy who fell asleep in meetings. Now, the Carter administration had a host of problems that arose in part from his decision-making to adverse world conditions (inflation, Iran, etc.) but to most people looking in, Carter was clearly the smarter, more even hand. But because things weren’t going so well and because he projected such charisma and confidence on the campaign trail, Reagan was able to make issues (like energy sustainability) far less important than they should have been. He knew the key to victory was presenting himself as the stronger leader. Similarly in the 2000 election, Al Gore’s apparent weakness as a viable “strong” leader undermined his chances against the (shall we call it) broad-stroked George W. Bush.
Indeed, with increasing frequency since the dawn of the TV age and televised debates (starting in 1960), marketability has become the most crucial factor in determining such elections. Where substantive debate is needed in tackling the major but (popularly) uninteresting issues of health care, economics, and more, we find that quick, quipy responses and a “trust me” demeanour most beneficial to the candidate running. As clickbait articles and social media have exasperated this problem sevenfold, so have we seen the rise of a new order of woefully incompetent, if tragically confident leaders. I speak of course of Donald J. Trump.
Now, I could talk about that administration at nauseam but let’s face it, there would be no point. Everyone should know by now that he was a con-man whose interest in the job extended only so far as the reach of his power. The details and long-term projections of departments established previously (such as a pandemic response team) were gutted for the simple gain of “playing the part” and conveying himself as the man who would accept no waste, i.e. strong, confident, decisive leadership.
Politics shouldn’t be reduced to such rampant bravado and ego-pleasing rhetoric. The great works of our time haven’t been accomplished by mindless leaders. The Affordable Care Act became a reality as a result of decades-long campaigning, adjustments and compromise, detail-oriented legislation, and perhaps most crucially, hours of bland, administrative work. The accomplishment of getting a man on the moon didn’t come to pass because John F. Kennedy said it must be so but because the work was put in by scientists at NASA, albeit with the backing of Cold War capital. The reality of historic achievements is far less dramatic and entertaining than you would believe. Just watch Lincoln.
For effective leadership, confidence must be backed by credibility. The act isn’t enough. As shown in the series The Dropout, biotech entrepreneurand founder of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes made her fortune and name off of the back of inaccurate blood-testing data and fraud with investors (who included Ruper Murdoch, the Walton family, and the DeVos family). With further associations she managed to sway and charm such as Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, she legitimised herself (even though her company was publishing what wasn’t there and bypassing the ethics of proper scientific procedure). A fan of Steve Jobs, she understood the importance of selling an image and in 2015, made Time’s “100 most influential people” list. Of course, when the whole charade was exposed, things changed and in 2016, she joined Fortune’s list of “World’s 19 Most Disappointing Leaders”. Karma, at its finest. Except for the people whose lives she played with.
The important lesson to be gained here is that need to be more critical in our thinking and to stop taking images of success at face value. Influencers on social media aren’t necessarily as rich or successful as they purport to be in their calculated, often staged photo ops. Not every rapper has a host of women following them to parties or a yacht. Not every entrepreneur is brilliant or the next Steve Jobs. Heck, even Steve Jobs wasn’t Steve Jobs. Unfortunately, the “fake it till you make it” mantra has become popularised and ingrained in the American ethos. The Jordan Belforts of this world thereby get rich while gambling the fortunes of those less well off, who also think they may have the shortcut to success. Confidence may hold merit in some circumstances but it’s not as important as a healthy dose of doubt, close analysis, and competent thinking.
History is always being rewritten. The heroes of yesterday become the villains of today. We’ve seen this with the toppling of statues recently and the scathing rebukes of once-beloved or admired figures such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, After all, our values change and once ignored facts (inconveniences), such as Churchill’s white supremacy , come into greater light with new appreciation (or lack thereof). This revisionism is natural and no historical evaluation is without fault.
But something’s changed as of late. Our fervent grasps for social justice have left us empty-handed too often when it comes to a nuanced appreciation of certain historical figures. We fail to see these figures as a whole because one nibbling, doubtful, pernicious defect often overrides all common sense. In this case, I’m referring to the scandals that detract from the legacy of William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States (1993-2001).
Speculation and Scandals
Now, don’t get me wrong. The man is problematic, if we must indulge that favored millennial word. Some of the decisions made under his administration have had negative consequences, ranging from the short-sighted (crime bills, economic impairments linked to the 2008 crash) to the devastating (initial inaction in Bosnia and Rwanda). But really, what people focus on, in their retribution, is the man’s personal life. How many affairs has he had? Is his marriage an arranged partnership? What exactly was the nature of his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein? At the very least, the latter one should be investigated because of the differences in accounts being brought forward (it’s said he may have taken up to 26 flights on Epstein’s private jet and visited the island, although no affairs with any of the girls have been exposed). As for the other questions, one could defend him and say he has the right to a private life and that it’s unimportant in the larger scheme of things but instead of doing that, I will touch on the nature of speculation that surrounds the Clintons.
Speculation has hindered both Bill and Hillary’s public image more than any other figure in American politics. There’s always been this pervasive feeling that they’ve been up to something, be it through business connections or the Clinton Global Initiative, which arouses suspicion in the form of a lingering, shadowy question mark. The more questions that arise, the darker that shadow gets, even if there’s no substance or merit behind the question. What was Whitewater? I don’t know, man, but there’s something there. What were in Hillary’s emails? Shrug. And why did Vince Foster kill himself? Did he know something the Clintons wanted kept secret?
Indeed, the latter episode was a most shameful one in American history given the man’s longtime friendship to Bill. But when the Deputy White House Counsel committed suicide, Bill wasn’t even afforded a common level of decency in his grief. Ken Starr and the Republicans spent all their energy trying to discredit the man with a new, nasty kind of politics that involved personal injury at whatever cost. When the Whitewater investigation, which began looking into the real estate dealings of the Clintons, proved unfruitful, they simply kept the heat going. The Paula Jones’ sexual harassment allegations also persevered, though the Republicans were quite ready to redirect their focus when the “gift” of Monica Lewinsky came around.
In this regard, Bill deservedly brought some of the wrath upon himself. In a deposition, he was blind sighted by Lewinsky’s name being brought up and denied any “sexual relations”, given the legal definition provided by the Starr counsel. It was a technically correct answer but an unwise and immoral move that reinforced his image as a dodgy, snake-like politician. For months, he would deny the nature of their relationship, even to his staff and Hillary, until it became too obvious he was lying, or in his words “misleading” the nation. It was a personal embarrassment and a horrible thing to do to both Hillary and Monica, whose life would be greatly affected as a result (although, this enters the realm of cyber bullying for which many millions more than Bill also deserve a portion of blame).
Many people today, in light of the #metoo movement, point to this scandal as a demonstrable abuse of power. A couple of years back, Clinton’s attempts to salvage himself and take on an interviewer who brought it up, only served to convey a seeming lack of empathy on his part. Lewinksy, too, has been critical of the president, who never apologized directly to her.
That’s something he really should have done, straight away. He should have apologized to Monica and her family because they were given an unwarranted amount of press, that was relentless and downright mean. That’s not necessarily his fault but he could’ve stepped in and said “enough is enough, we’ve all made mistakes, leave her alone.” I think that would’ve helped but I also believe nothing he could have said or done would ever have been enough. Remember, this scandal came about, not because the people were concerned with Clinton’s supposed weakness for women but because the Republicans were attempting to destroy his presidency.
The impeachment which resulted was largely a joke, made in a last-ditch effort to humiliate Bill. Already, the Democrats had won back the House while his and Hillary’s approval ratings shot up. Back then, people had a better understanding of what was actually going on and in a universal middle-finger to the GOP, took to the polls. Ordinary people and leaders of other nations, including Neslon Mandela and Tony Blair, would stand by Clinton with the belief that he was a decent man who had done a bad thing. Today, I can’t imagine the same thing would play out and that’s not an effort to outright dismiss our morals. Integrity is important and we should expect it in our world leaders but let’s face it, there are more important things at play in shaping that integrity than personal scandals and failings.
The Record: A Moderate Democrat
Another interesting nugget you might hear about Bill Clinton was that he was not all that progressive or liberal. Correct. In the 1980s, the Democratic Party weren’t exactly on their A-game. Following the largely besmirched Carter Presidency (and for the record, he’s my favorite president), which was plagued by a struggle between moderacy and liberalism in the 1980 primaries, they had a hard time finding their footing. Eventually, the party’s liberals acquiesced to the more pragmatic middle-ground ideologies of the likes of Clinton, which gave way to a presidential victory after three consecutive Republican terms bolstered by the Reagan revolution and a strong but faltering economy. Reaganomics was good politics but very much the “voodoo economics” George HW Bush had called it when up against Reagan in 1980. By 1990, Bush had to rescind his “no new taxes” pledge for the good of the nation. It was a bold but noble move that damaged him in the 1992 election.
The first baby-boomer president made the economy one of his top priorities and actually left the country with a surplus, three years in a row at the end of his tenure. This had not been achieved since the post-war years under Harry Truman. Given Bush’s concession to the Democrats in 1990 and some of the negative consequences that resulted in 2008 (although that can be attributed to several administrations), this achievement has appropriately been lessened but it still remains a positive in most historians’ eyes. In the following years that would see major tax cuts and costly wars, people would naturally look back on the Clinton Presidency, in this regard, with nostalgia. It was a relatively prosperous time, helped by the rise of the Internet but also by a set of steady hands.
Social unrest was also another major concern which helped Clinton get elected. He pledged to invest in more police forces to keep the streets safe. This was a popular stance to take and received bi-partisanship support, resulting in the lowest crime rate America had in decades. Unfortunately however, this also led to a rise in mass-incarceration with arrests of minorities and low-grade drug offenders. Undoubtedly this has tainted his legacy and deservedly so, with both Bill and Hillary admitting that aspects of the crime bill needing to be revisited. Part of the problem, as most people now see it however, also lies with pervasive racism in certain areas and unaccountable police officers; a common trend that stretches back way before this crime bill passed.
The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of 1993 was another controversial measure. Bill had pledged in his campaign that gays could serve in the military. Many opposed this. So, quite quickly, they compromised. Basically, gays could serve but couldn’t come out as gay. Better than nothing? Possibly but ultimately, a pretty feeble gesture, which Bill was quite happy to get rid of, given the controversy surrounding such a topic at the time.
What’s interesting about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, along with some of Clinton’s other compromises is that they demonstrated a strategic tactfulness to his administration. Elected as essentially a moderate, he was willing to settle for what he could get, aware that the Republicans (who swept into power in the 1994 midterms) would accept only certain things. Another example: Hillary’s health-care led initiative essentially stalled that same year with fervent opposition. Aware of this, they worked to at least provide health care to children with CHIP (Children Healthcare Insurance Program).
Compromise is often seen as a dirty word. The Clintons were largely pragmatic though, aware of the political game and very much willing to play it. Even in his memoir, My Life, Bill Clinton can’t help but admire the strategy Newt Gingrich employed to lead his party to victory in 1994. The problem arises when people perceive their party as moving away from their traditional values and causes. The Republicans’ success and move to the right in the 1980s didn’t result in the Democrats following suit towards their side. Rather, they also moved to the right. This meant, for many, that a moderate Democrat was essentially an old-style conservative. Of course, now that the Democratic Party has actually started to move to the left, we’re in a whole different scenario, which lends credence to the liberal critics of the Clinton administration.
Political pragmatism is important though, even if perceived as selling out. Had Ted Kennedy been more willing to work with Jimmy Carter’s more pragmatic approach to health care, then they might have actually gotten something achieved instead of nothing. The Clintons failed to get health care too, as so many before had, but at least they tried and got something done. After all, millions of children as a result were given a safety net they otherwise would not have had.
This pragmatism became all the more crucial however in Clinton’s foreign affairs, which began on a rocky trajectory before steadily improving. First, there was Black Hawk Down, which cast doubt over whether Clinton could really manage a humanitarian crisis. Initially, the US had been successful in their Somalian dealings at the end of Bush’s presidency (Bush being, by most accounts, a masterful player on the world stage). Then Bosnia followed, which saw a massive ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population. At first, the US were hesitant in their approach but by 1995, Clinton came into his own as commander-in-chief, sending in forces. Perhaps he had learned from the Rwandan genocide, which he always regretted inaction about. Part of the problem was public opposition to US intervention elsewhere, given the disaster of Somalia. It seemed navigating the morality of the US’ role in these conflicts was not always that black and white. You were damned if you acted and damned if you didn’t.
By the late 1990s however, Bill Clinton was very much a respected leader around the world. The intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was seen as a prudent step across the board, between Democrats and Republicans, and he had helped negotiate the terms of the Good Friday Agreement the year before, which greatly helped the situation in Northern Ireland. While his efforts to formulate a lasting peace agreement between Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David ultimately stalled in 2000, it was seen later as one of the better attempts made by a US president at resolving the problem.
Towards the end of his presidency, when asked about his legacy, Bill Clinton saw it in terms of navigating the shift from one American age (Industrial) to another (the Information Age) as had occurred a century before. He felt the historians would wonder whether he had succeeded in preparing America for the new century but he was realistic even in his thinking, realizing that if George W. was elected and the Republicans regained power, much of what he had achieved could be undone. Indeed, that became the case notably when the Brady Bill (which acquired some gun control legislation) wasn’t renewed.
It may not stand in the mercurial tide of politics as one of the most important presidencies of American history but in my opinion, it was a good one. Despite personal setbacks and a new norm of vitriolic partisanship, Clinton was able to hone in on what could be achieved and act accordingly. While negative consequences arose as tributaries to the main functions of certain bills (like the crime bill), the overall objectives were usually sound and reasoned. His foreign relations too were smart without recklessness (queue an analysis of the Bush II administration) and where he failed (e.g. Rwanda, Somalia), he at least had the decency to learn and make adjustments so he could help (queue an analysis of the Trump administration).
Of course, consensus and absolute certainty make for a dismal appreciation of any historical figure when discussing nuance. Most US presidents have been imperfect with wildly mixed legacies. It can’t be helped when you’re playing chess on such a massive scale. I decided to write this long piece and read his ridiculously long memoir (958 pages) because I felt we were in danger of simplifying this man’s legacy. In the years that have passed since his presidency, he’s gone from one of the most respected world leaders to a figure of disdain, even for many from his own party. I wouldn’t go so far as to point to Hillary’s loss in 2016 as a referendum on their legacy but in this new age of evaluation, I feel the constraints of examining history through a modern lens should be acknowledged.
Context is key to any historical understanding and we can learn from history. But just as the problems of today don’t necessarily require the attitudes and solutions of years before, so too did the problems of those years not necessarily requite the outlook we would hold now.
Saturday (29th April) will mark the 100th day of the Trump administration and while the reviews have been contemptuously abysmal, the ratings have been ‘huuuuuge.’ This still seems to matter even in the face of overwhelming rejection, criticism, and abject failure. If it didn’t, we could count him out. The struggle, unfortunately, continues for the resistance.
So where do we begin? 100 days is not a long period of time to assess a presidency and Trump does have a point when he discounts it as a ‘ridiculous standard.’ (Yes, this was from a Tweet.) Indeed, most historians would agree on this point, citing LBJ’s commitment to Civil Rights and Reagan’s action on taxes as significant initiatives taken outside this time frame. Even, Clinton was a little slow to start. This president has jettisoned so many disastrous schemes already however that it seems a little naive to conjecture that he may be reading the instruction manual. Trump cannot read. It therefore seems appropriate, as with most administrations, that we should at least consider the tone he has set for what is to come.
Darkness. The tone has been one of great darkness. A little abrupt? Well, let’s flit through some of the things that have occurred these past three months. Before he had even gotten through his first weekend, the women’s march had mobilized millions worldwide in unison against his sexist postulations. Then, his travel ban was overturned as quickly as it had been implemented. (Remodeled versions of this ban continue to dominate the courts, though Trump baffingly still considers this an achievement.) He had little time to reflect on this however, for the American Health Care Act he endorsed was ready to fail, even with a Republican majority. Then, as if that was not enough, he managed to give rise to Cuban Missile-like fears with North Korean relations. While all this was happening, a credibility gap was forming not only between him and his base, but between him and his hapless press secretary, Sean Spicer, who continually referenced tweets, establishing a new low for media relations. To top all this off, he has gathered around him the type of cabinet Sauron of Lord of the Rings fame, would even consider excessive. There’s not enough time to go through every appointee but son-in-law Jared Kushner is basically in charge of Middle East talks and Rick Perry has the EPA. Yes, those are just some of the main talking points…
Trump’s shortcomings as a president not only undermine the values of democracy, civil liberties, and common morality however. They also betray the cause of his campaign, the hopes of his base, and the future of America’s youth. Is rejuvenating the coal industry really a step forward? Is TPP even promising when across the globe, more and more capital has been injected into a green industry? Just who wants this border wall? Yes, there are many questions (and lapses in logic) but don’t expect the answers from Trump. He’s a doer, not a thinker. That is why crude nationalism is the new rationale. That is why diplomacy has been pushed aside in favor of military might. That is why the Age of Terror has been ramped back up to fifth gear. We have suffered in the process but Trump, despite amazingly poor approval ratings for what should be his ‘Honeymoon’ period, only seems to push more and more. After all, in a time of ‘Alternative Facts’, political polarization, and great distrust of the media and the far left, there will always be some band of neanderthals ready to defend him at every turn.
Trump’s first 100 days can therefore be characterized for the tone they have set, in many ways, more so than any other president’s. Besides the fact that there is a steeper learning curve for him than those before (given his lack of political experience), he has moved boldly and without trepidation on many of the causes he said he would address. If Democrats want to succeed, they will need to keep up with the momentum of these past three months as 1,360 days yet remain till the next inauguration.
It is often said that history repeats itself, and like so many platitudes, this is true most of the time. Yet, while fundamental historical tenets and axioms that govern the discipline rarely change, the context and players certainly do. Let’s apply this to the present situation that is currently facing the Republican Party in the United States and the distinct possibility of a contested Republican National Convention this summer.
The last contested convention took place in August of 1976 and pitted B-star Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan against the establishment curry favourer and incumbent, Gerald Ford. This was the first contested convention since the brokered Democratic National Convention of 1952 in which there were 6 hopefuls vying for the nominations. The 1976 card however had just two Republican runners.
As the convention got under way at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, Ford had amassed a greater number of primary delegates than Reagan, coupled with a plurality in popular vote. This was not enough however to get him to the magic number of pledged delegates needed to secure the nomination. As the convention kicked off in the Show-Me State, Ford and Reagan went on the charm offensive.
The President was able to use his executive prerogative to lure straggling delegates to his side by offering luxuries such as: exclusive flights aboard Air Force One, gourmet dinners in the White House (that were accompanied by wanton firework displays), or executive “favours,” the cornerstone of political leverage, longevity, and legacy.
Among the many bulwarks that Reagan’s managers tried to construct in an attempt to stymie Ford’s lead, was the pursuit of Rule 16-C, which stipulated that convention rules would be changed to require any presidential candidate to name his vice-presidential choice prior to mass ballot. This backfired though when Reagan shocked the nation with liberal Senator, Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania.
Schweiker was rated 89 percent by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, and 47 percent by the American Conservative Union, making him an unattractive choice. The risk taken by Reagan’s staff was injurious to his ambition and the vote on Rule 16-C wasn’t passed. President Ford managed to garner the necessary momentum to rubber-stamp his name on the ballot securing 1187 votes to Reagan’s 1070.
Interestingly, Reagan was viewed as an outsider to the Republican establishment, and was disparaged by many within the party elite – akin to Trump, though lacking the profound animus that Trump garners. Reagan left an indelible mark on the 1976 convention with his humble, extemporaneous closing stump speech that was a clarion call for unity within the party in preparation for the general election. It was at this moment when the charged Republican congregation witnessed the content of the former Californian Governor’s character – there was no equivocation, he would return.
Many commentators have, in recent weeks, teased out the potential for a contested Republican convention this summer. In fact, it has become a highly popularised suggestion as a method of stopping the rogue Trump machine that seems to be getting more vitriolic and abhorrent by the day.
The last two weeks have been telling with Trump’s loyal troops marching on, propagating his language of hate and raw xenophobia. It is the results over the next few weeks which will contribute towards a degree of certitude on whether the convention will be a formality, or a tilt-a-whirl of political jockeying. This process can be obfuscating and frustrating to unravel and navigate. The confusion that perforates the aura of the process is muddied further by the semantics of the RNC Rulebook. Indeed, some of the rules referenced through the document are contradictory.
To parse the current situation: Trump has 741 delegates, Cruz has 461, and Kasich trails with 145. If Trump can sustain the momentum throughout the duration of the primaries, he may very well hit the desired 1237 delegate count. Traditionally, if this were the case, Trump would secure the Republican presidential nomination following the first count at this year’s RNC much to the party’s chagrin. Though, it is still unclear whether he can do this. The 2016 election cycle has been unprecedented for many reasons, and it seems set to continue in a carnival style of discourse.
While Donald Trump says that he is confident of securing the nomination after the first count, he has suggested that if this doesn’t happen and a contested convention takes place, there will be rioting in Cleveland – an ominous, but predictable portend from the demagogue. It appears that the establishment wing of the Republican Party, through a series of machinations, are doing all they can to downplay the electability of the billionaire bigot.
Curly Haugland, a member of the RNC Rules Committee, stated this past week in an interview with CNBC that the power is in the hands of the delegates, not the voters. He added, “The political parties choose their nominees, not the general public, contrary to popular belief.” Is this a clumsy warning shot of animosity across Trump’s golden bow? It looks that way. This bumbling anti-democratic statement is corroborated by the RNC rulebook, which whimsically states that:
“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That the following be and hereby are adopted as The Rules of the Republican Party, composed of the rules for the election and government of the Republican National Committee until the next national convention…”
As these rules were adopted before the 2016 election cycle, technically like-minded Republican’s could possibly interpret the phrase, “until the next convention,” to suit their agenda by altering the rules to block Trump’s path to the nomination.
Looking at this from the other candidates’ perspectives, Ted Cruz remains confident that he will showcase a strong performance in the remaining primaries reiterating on Monday to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that his was the only campaign to have bested Trump on a number of occasions. Meanwhile, John Kasich remains steadfast in the face of adversity. He reinforced this stance on CNN’s State of Union exclaiming that he is confident in his electability and that he expects the delegates to act seriously and select the right man for the job when the time comes.
Chairman of the RNC, Reince Priebus, commented that the Republicans are “preparing for the possibility” of a convention in Cleveland. Meanwhile Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, has downplayed the possibility of a 2016 run for the White House if a contested convention is called. That being said, he has not openly denied this media speculated, Twitter trending, notion. Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner endorsed the current speaker for GOP nominee this past week, though he added further that his comments were off the cuff – good save!
One thing is for sure, the phantasmagoria that is this 2016 Republican primary race is set to get even more nebulous as the convention approaches. It has become apparent that the protectorate of the GOP kernel has realised that Ted Cruz, a man who is not entirely representative of their values, is the lesser of two evils when stacked against Trump. Frankly, the marshaling of ‘establishment’ politicians, Mitt Romney, and now Jeb Bush, may have come too late.
Just like Ford in 1976, the importance of a united front is desiderata in order to mount a successful campaign against either Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the autumn. Should Trump be denied the glory in Cleveland, expect rapture. The Republican loyalists have only themselves to blame.