May 27, 2023

Lessons from the CNN Trump Town Hall

No doubt, many are still reeling from the Donald Trump town hall staged on CNN earlier this month. The former president was questioned by Kaitlan Collins before an audience of seemingly rabid Trump devotees.

Although Collins asked reasonable questions and tried valiantly to elicit relevant answers, she failed to force Trump to answer what was asked or to prevent him from lying boldly and repeatedly. A particularly distressing aspect of the town hall was the enthusiastic audience reaction to Trump’s falsehoods and outrageous assertations. The town hall was nothing so much as a mini-Trump rally.

Whereas CNN was widely criticized for its Trump circus, the network defended its presentation as a service to the nation, exhibiting the true character of the once and future president. Trump, of course, exhibited no surprises.

We already knew that Trump was a sociopath and pathological liar. His performance was perfectly predictable. CNN did perhaps offer insights into the MAGA phenomenon. The town hall made clear that all too many Trump supporters are at least as devoid of compassion, thoughtfulness, and commitment to democratic ideals as is the object of their perverse affection. And CNN demonstrated how difficult it is for a normal journalist to get Donald Trump to behave like a normal interviewee. Collins attracted criticism for her failure to control Trump, but she did sincerely try. But she was overmatched.

It is to be hoped that the CNN debacle—for that’s what it was—will have taught journalists and their managers lessons they will take into the developing campaign for the GOP presidential nomination and, God forbid, beyond. Those lessons, of course, should already have been learned.

Lesson number one for the journalistic community is that Trump deserves the same sort of coverage provided to other candidates. He might never have become president had not his deranged rallies been covered on television as if they were as important as a State of the Union Address or a Superbowl. (They may have been so for ratings, but the health of the Republic is more important than ratings.) Trump enjoyed more free media than any candidate before him. Repeated and extended exposure to Trump propaganda unleashed the darkest impulses of susceptible viewers. Journalists should excerpt Trump rallies and town halls, not cover them slavishly from start to finish.

Like any candidate, journalists will want to interview Trump. Fine. But interviews should never be broadcast live. As was so graphically demonstrated in the CNN town hall, Trump’s steamroller tactics can easily control an interview despite the interviewer’s intentions. Recorded interviews can be edited to minimize Trump indirection. Better still, when a question is asked and Trump does not answer it, the question should be asked again, possibly in a slightly different form. An unanswered question should be asked as many times as necessary to elicit either an actual answer or an explicit admission by the candidate that he is refusing to give an answer. It may be tempting to edit out the back-and-forth attempt to evoke an answer, but that temptation should be resisted. Viewers should see Trump’s evasiveness for what it is. An interview should not have an audience, and the press should think twice about extensive coverage of any event at which an audience has excluded any but Trump supporters. Fox News will, of course, ignore all this advice.

Finally, there is the matter of campaign debates (or whatever it is that we stage every four years). Although debates can be excerpted for newscasts, the events themselves must be offered live to the public. Neither moderators nor other candidates have shown the ability to control the Trump juggernaut. Moderators (or producers behind the scene) need to be given a secret weapon against Trump bluster. That secret weapon is a microphone switch. Trump’s microphone should be on when he has the right to speak and off when he does not. Fairness, or the appearance of fairness, demands that other candidates be treated the same way. Debate producers should also demand other rules designed to facilitate civil discourse. These might include tolerating only a brief period before a candidate begins a relevant response to a question. If a candidate blatantly digresses, the secret weapon can be used. Also, ad hominem attacks should be prohibited and likewise dealt with. Criticizing a candidate’s actions or policies is fair game. Name-calling or criticizing a candidate’s person should be off-limits. This includes Trump’s insulting names for his competitors.

In reality, I suspect that Trump, as the flamboyant narcissist that he is, will indeed get more free media than he deserves. I hope that it is less than formerly. A second Trump presidency would be a catastrophe for humanity.

May 20, 2023

Kill the Debt Ceiling Once and for All

It has often and rightly been said that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. And yet, some substantial numbers of Republicans in the House of Representatives seem willing to throw the country, and in fact, the world, into economic chaos by refusing to raise the debt ceiling without demanding spending cuts for which they do not have the votes to enact through regular legislative order. Their position has properly been called blackmail.

It is ironic that the World War I era debt ceiling was enacted to facilitate government borrowing, not to preclude it. Congress grew tired of the executive’s repeatedly returning for authorization to borrow money in a time of war. In recent times, however, the debt ceiling has become a weapon for the minority party to get its way. Well, to try, anyway.

This country is increasingly governed by Republicans, even though they represent a minority of citizens. This is the result of gerrymandering and accidents of history combined with singleminded strategizing to pack the judicial branch with radical, barely qualified, right-wing judges. It is time to remove the debt ceiling as yet another anti-democratic weapon from the GOP arsenal.

Although President Biden has repeatedly said that he would not negotiate spending cuts in order to increase the debt ceiling, negotiations nevertheless appear to be ongoing. But the president should stick to his guns. It is fine to negotiate with the blackmailers about spending, but a clean debt ceiling increase must be a separate, nonnegotiable issue. And if Republican legislators want to talk about controlling the federal debt, the administration should not even be speaking to them unless they are willing to consider tax hikes. Republicans don’t actually care about the nation’s debt; they want instead to cripple or destroy the welfare and administrative state.

Various procedures have been suggested to avoid the country’s going over the fiscal cliff if Congress cannot agree on a debt ceiling increase. The idea of minting a trillion-dollar coin is one of the more intriguing schemes that has been proposed, but the idea suffers from simply being weird.

Then there is the matter of the Fourteenth Amendment. Section 4 of the amendment reads

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

This amendment was passed after the Civil War to assure that the Union’s war debt would be paid. Its provisions are general, however, and they are helpful in maintaining the rock-solid integrity of federal obligations. Allowing the government to default on its debt is surely unconstitutional. If Congress has authorized spending and that spending has taken place, the government must stand behind any debt obligations incurred to finance that spending. The government, by analogy to individuals, must pay its credit card bills. (Paul Klugman recently pointed out, however, that this analogy can be taken only so far.)

No doubt, President Biden is reluctant to cite the Fourteenth Amendment to continue paying government obligations in the absence of a legislative debt ceiling increase. Republicans would view such a move as a kluge, as somehow illegitimate, though not as bizarre as the trillion-dollar coin trick. It would likely attract a lawsuit to block or undo the president’s action. This might even cause a delay that, in the end, did in fact, result in default. That is a chance that must be taken.

If the Republican House does not pass a clean debt ceiling increase lasting at least two years, Mr. Biden should let things stand until the government is on the brink of default. He should then announce that the government will continue paying bills, as the Fourteenth Amendment requires it, and he has sworn to uphold the Constitution.

It is interesting to consider who could file such a lawsuit in response to such an administrative action. Who would have standing? Would standing require a plaintiff harmed by the government’s not defaulting on its debt? These are crazy times, and if doctors whose sensitivities could be assaulted by having to treat a patient who had a bad reaction to a medicinal abortion can file a lawsuit to reverse an FDA drug approval, who knows who could get through the courthouse door opposing the plain meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment? Likely, the House or House members would file, arguing that the authority had been usurped. Let them do so.

Any such suit would quickly reach the nation’s highest court. But even today’s conservative Supreme Court recognizes that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. The government should not only argue that the Fourteenth Amendment means that the government must pay its bills but also that the very idea of a debt ceiling is unconstitutional. The administration and the court will have an opportunity to kill the dysfunctional debt ceiling once and for all.

They should, by all means, do so.

April 28, 2023

Lamenting the Loss of the Red Envelopes

I was very upset by the recent announcement that Netflix was terminating its DVD delivery service this fall. I first joined Netflix when all content was delivered by the Postal Service. I have continued to receive DVD and Blu-ray disks in the mail, though I use Netflix’s streaming service as well. The good news is that I will be paying Netflix less, but much is being lost.

Why do I continue to receive physical disks? No, I am not a Luddite; I enjoy the content I can receive via streaming. There are two losses I will experience when the red envelopes cease to arrive in my mailbox, however. The most important loss is access to films not available via streaming. Secondarily, I will lose access to the extra content that is frequently found on DVD or Blu-ray disks.

My interest in watching movies is atypical of Netflix users generally, but may not be atypical of subscribers. I do not search available movies for “somethng to watch.” In a sense, I am not looking for “entertainment.” Instead, I am seeking insight into movie history, seeking classics every movie buff should see, and exploring the films of particular actors or directors. Because of my somewhat academic interest in cinema, I will even watch moves that I don’t expect to like. On physical disks, I can see older movies and movies lacking universal appeal. And, of course, I can even watch well-liked movies that are simply not available on Netflix for whatever reason.

Of course, the bonus of getting those disks in the mail is the extras usually found on DVDs and Blu-ray disks: commentaries, deleted scenes, “making-of” documentaries, biographical information, and the like. Such extras help put a film into a larger context and provide insight into the movie-making process. Seldom do I return a disk without watching all the extra on that disk.

In principle, there is no reason that movies available only through the mail could not be streamed. And why couldn’t those extras be streamed as well?

Will the demise of result in movies now only available by mail becoming available to stream? I can hope, though I don’t expect it. I wonder what will happen to the large inventory of physical disks held by Netflix.

While there is still time, I am trying to see all the movies I can before the service ends.


Netflix (DVD) envelope
One of the famous red envelopes

April 10, 2023

Fed Up

I often post graphics on Facebook that never appear here on my blog. What appears below began as a Facebook post. I thought others might want to see or use it. This may be copied freely.

April 4, 2023

Of Course, It’s Political

I am tired of hearing Trump and his minions complain that the various investigations of the former president—and now at least one actual indictment—are “political.” Yes, in fact, they are, but being political does not make them illegitimate. The primary meaning of “political” is, according to Merriam-Webster, “of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government.” In this sense, the judicial system is definitely and intrinsically political.

Of course, “political” can also refer to party politics. This is clearly the meaning in Trump’s mind and those of his supporters when they complain of political persecution. The term is imprecise and technically ambivalent. What they should be saying—not because it’s true but because it is what they want the public to believe—is that the investigations of Trump’s behavior is partisan. This word means “feeling, showing, or deriving from strong and sometimes blind adherence to a particular party, faction, cause, or person.”

One suspects that Donald Trump, who exhibits little concern for truth, is equally indifferent to the subtleties of the English language. 

April 1, 2023

A Walking Tour of Clifton Springs

Today was the first day of sunny, 70-degree weather in Clifton Springs since I moved here in November. I had to go outside just after noon and decided to walk south along Sulphur Creek. I was surprised to see dozens of ducks both in the creek and on its banks. (I’m still learning to identify ducks. I can recognize mallards, but I’m not good at naming other waterfowl.) The creek flows past the Clifton Springs hospital, and I discovered a pond with a fountain on the hospital grounds. There were more ducks around the pond, two mute swans in the water, and two turtles sunning themselves on a rock. I had a very pleasant stroll.

I’ve wanted to explore Clifton Springs further. The pleasant weather and my discoveries along the creek inspired me to take a longer walk through the town. Clifton Springs is a small village, and it is not unreasonable to plan to explore each of its streets. I thought of doing this by car, but today it seemed like a walking tour was indicated. My walk lasted more than an hour. Although I have not yet explored every street in the town, I am off to a good start.

I returned home with a number of impressions. First, the town has a large amount of parkland for such a small place. The housing stock seems surprisingly good, sometimes even charming. And, although sidewalks are not universal, there are a lot of them. Finally, I was already aware that this area is not a bastion of liberal sentiment. (I have disliked virtually every vote my Republican congresswoman has cast, for example.) I was a bit taken aback by a number of Christian-oriented signs I saw in front of houses, which I assume were not indicating the presence of Episcopalian families. (One house had a large cross that said: “JESUS SAVES.”) I saw only one Trump sign and a distressing banner: “JESUS IS MY SAVIOR/TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT” No, actually, he isn’t.

On the whole, Clifton Springs, New York, is a fine place. I doubt I will be able to do much to improve the sentiments of its residents.

March 30, 2023

Baseball Changes

 Major League Baseball begins a new season today. And the season begins with new rules intended to increase scoring and get games over with faster. A sport that was distinctive for lacking a clock will now have a pitch clock, larger bases, restrictions on pickoff plays, and a prohibition of the defensive shifts that have frustrated batters. The universal introductions of the designated hitter and video replays seem like minor tweaks compared to the rule changes that will color the 2023 season.

Baseball rules have been remarkably stable over the game’s long history. Past changes have primarily been made to increase safety or fairness. (Changes to the mound height and the introduction of pitchless intentional walks are exceptions.) I have always thought that the size of the diamond and its bases are perfect. The dimensions make scoring a single or stealing a base difficult, which makes them more exciting when they occur.

I am not looking forward to the new MLB season. In fact, I think the game should no longer be called baseball. Like the reformulation that produced New Coke, the MLB game should be called New Baseball. We can hope that the history of New Baseball will be a replay of the history of New Coke.