Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Choice 2016: Clinton vs. Trump (WGBH/PBS-TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched two politically themed programs on PBS last night, the episode of The Contenders about Mitt Romney’s and Michael Dukakis’ hapless Presidential campaigns and The Choice 2016, the special episode of Frontline PBS shows every Presidential election year dealing with the major-party nominees for President and their backgrounds and histories. This one proved more interesting than usual, especially one day after the debate during which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had at each other, looking less like aspirants for power in a representative republic than like medieval knights jousting for possession of a kingdom. Clinton and Trump emerged from Frontline’s treatment as fascinating figures, though it got off to a bad start when it attempted to locate Donald Trump’s “Rosebud” moment — the time he actually decided to run for President and be the person who assumes power when Barack Obama relinquishes it as per the Constitution on January 20, 2017 — as the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner in April 2011. This occurred right after Obama, following years of urging from Trump and other Right-wing conspiratologists, finally released his “long-form” birth certificate indicating that, as no one outside of the circle of Right-wing nut-cases Trump had been palling with seriously doubted, he had been born when and where he always said he was: August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawai’i. With Trump in the audience, Obama said, “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. [laughter] And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? [laughter] What really happened in Roswell? [laughter] And where are Biggie and Tupac? [laughter] All kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. [laughter] For example— no, seriously, just recently in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice [laughter] at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so, ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. [laughter] You fired Gary Busey. [laughter] And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. [laughter and applause] Well handled, sir! [laughter] Well handled. Say what you will about Mr. Trump, he certainly would bring some change to the White House. Let’s see what we’ve got up there,” showing a slide of the White House with an upper extension built on top and a sign hanging from it reading “Trump Resort Hotel and Casino.”
While the opening of this show seemed really to be reaching — the fact is that Trump was flirting with a Presidential run as early as 1980 and had booked a rally in New Hampshire in 2000 to announce either that he was running or he wasn’t (and of course he didn’t) — the allegation is certainly believable as an example of Trump’s bizarre pettiness, his unwillingness to roll with any punch or take any insult, no matter what or from whom. And coupled with that is his equally bizarre insistence on never apologizing, never admitting he’s wrong about anything, never even acknowledging that he’s ever made a mistake, much less that he’s learned from one. I’m currently working on an article on last Monday’s Presidential debate between Clinton and Trump for my Zenger’s Newsmagazine blog,, and one of my arguments is that much of Trump’s rhetorical strategy comes from George Orwell’s 1984, particularly the concepts of doublethink and “the mutability of the past.” In plain English (instead of Newspeak, the language the rulers of Orwell’s dystopia invented to make dissent literally impossible because the words to speak or think heretical thoughts would not exist), doublethink is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head and believe in both of them at once. “The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision,” Orwell wrote, “but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a sense of falsity, and hence of guilt. … Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge: and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one step ahead of the truth.” The related concept of “the mutability of the past” holds that the past has no objective existence; we know what happened in the past only via public records and our own memories, and if the records are altered and our memories lost or changed, the past itself has changed — and yet the past has never changed, because only one version of the past can be “true” at any moment.
Orwell worked out these concepts observing the totalitarian governments of the 1930’s — Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and especially Soviet Russia under Stalin — and in particular their ability to throw out entire histories once they became politically inconvenient, as Stalin did in 1939 when he decided it was politically convenient to ally the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, and again in 1941 when the Nazis invaded anyway and forced him to shift sides, whereupon he proclaimed that he’d always been anti-Fascist and got the two other major powers in the anti-Nazi coalition, the U.S. and Britain, to accept him as an ally. Trump’s portrayal of his own history is full of doublethink and the mutability of the past; he’s been able to “sell” his business record to the American people as an example of one sparkling success after another, when in fact virtually his entire empire came crumbling down in the early 1990’s after his mega-casino in Atlantic City, the Taj Mahal, bombed financially. Trump’s first reaction was to use his clout on Wall Street to get Marvin Roffman, the analyst who first published evidence of the weaknesses in Trump’s operations, fired. Then he had to deal with the banks who’d loaned him the money to build the Taj Mahal and other casinos, to buy the Trump Shuttle airline,  the Trump Princess yacht, and other investments that now seemed big-time money-losers. “As quickly as the banks loved him, that’s as quick as they saw him as a pariah,” recalled Abraham Wallach, a vice-president in the Trump Organization from 1991 to 2003. “He was, like, ‘Oh, it’s Donald Trump!’ They didn’t want to have anything to do with him. They wanted their money, and they wanted to be rid of Donald Trump.” The only thing that saved him was that the banks suddenly realized that if they did the obvious thing and foreclosed on Trump, they’d be stuck with a lot of white-elephant casinos no one would go to and they’d ultimately have to close them down themselves and get stuck with the losses.
So they cut a deal with Trump by which he got to keep his name on the various buildings because the bankers figured they’d be more attractive to customers with Trump’s name on them than without it — and this led Trump to change the whole modus operandi of his business from actually building housing developments, hotels and casinos to selling the rights to his name, so he could have the thrill of seeing people drawn by his name and receive hefty royalties without actually having the bothersome business of building or running the buildings. (This may help explain the argument he had with editors of a magazine that estimated Trump’s wealth as $4 billion, and he contacted them to say it should be $10 billion. When they asked the obvious question — where did the extra $6 billion come from? — he said, “That’s the value of the Trump name.”) Then he got the offer to host the NBC-TV “reality” series The Apprentice, a political Godsend in being able to merchandise himself as a businessman of infinite sagacity and skill, and therefore just what this country would need as it came out of the Obama years with a deeply troubled sense of itself: a person with tested leadership skills — albeit in a totally different field from politics — offering himself not only as a person uniquely qualified to sweep the cobwebbed institutions and their sclerotic officials from power and to take over, but the only one who can do so. ““We defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia, we defend countries,” Trump said during last Monday’s debate. “They do not pay us, but they should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service and we're losing a fortune.” “There’s certainly an argument that U.S. allies should spend more money on defense, including higher subsidies for U.S. bases in their countries,” Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus wrote in the paper’s September 28 edition. “But do we really want to convert mutual defense treaties into contract-for-service agreements? There’s no sign that Trump has spent even a minute weighing the consequences of such a shift.” That’s an example of Trump’s inability or unwillingness to understand the difference between running a business and running a country — between being in it to maximize returns for your investors and being in it to serve the people of your nation and your world.
Not surprisingly, the Frontline segments on Hillary Clinton — in previous years they actually did one candidate’s profile and then the other’s, but more recently they’ve followed a more chronological approach and intercut between both — aren’t quite as interesting because we’re simply more familiar with her story than his: as the wife of a President (and a state governor before that) and later as a U.S. Senator from New York (where her tenure and her husband’s in the White House overlapped by 17 days, a product of the quirk in the U.S. Constitution that the new Congress takes office January 3 and the new President not until January 20) and as Secretary of State during President Obama’s first term. The most interesting thing this documentary had to say about Clinton is an attempt to explain her obsession with secrecy, saying there were a lot of arguments in her family home when she was a child. “There was a lot of fighting in the Rodham household, and I don’t think she invited many friends home,” author and Clinton friend Gail Sheehy said in the program. “That’s when her whole penchant for secrecy and privacy began.” The show tracks Clinton through to her first public appearance that got noticed nationwide — her controversial speech at Wellesley University’s commencement ceremony in 1969, where she followed Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke (an African-American, a Republican and only the second Black U.S. Senator — Hiram Revels of Mississippi, elected in 1870 during Reconstruction and also a Republican, was the first; an African-American Democrat would not serve in the Senate until Carol Moseley Braun was elected in Illinois in 1992, and she would be defeated for re-election six years later), took notes throughout Brooke’s speech and then got up and blasted him for telling the young people graduating there that politics was “the art of the possible.”
Hillary said that politics should be the art of “making the impossible possible” — which clearly echoed Robert F. Kennedy’s famous remark that “some people see the world as it is; I see the world as it could be and wonder, ‘Why not?’” — and, needless to say, the makers of this documentary couldn’t help but notice the irony that in 2016 Clinton was basically taking Brooke’s side in this debate and marketing herself to Democratic primary voters as “the progressive who can get things done.” (Then again, it’s not uncommon for young firebrands who get elected to office or thrust in the political public eye to move towards the center and appear to contradict the beliefs they started with; just compare John Kerry’s plaint in 1971 about how could the President ask the last man to die for a mistake in Viet Nam with his vote for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq 30 years later.) No doubt Clinton’s penchant for secrecy got a major push when she became part of the staff of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and, as part of her job, she was obliged to keep mum and not tell anyone about its inner deliberations — and her career got thrown a curveball when, after Nixon’s resignation and with the legal world of D.C. seemingly open to her for the asking, she failed the D.C. bar exam and took that as an omen that she should accept the marriage proposal of her on-again, off-again boyfriend, William Jefferson Clinton, even though that meant moving with him to the backwater state of Arkansas. She was viscerally hated once she got there for not being Southern (she even affected a bit of a twang in her voice for a while, shaking it only when she got back to D.C. as First Lady), for dressing like a hippie and wearing big glasses, for not having a child and for insisting on using her family name, Rodham, instead of Clinton. Bill Clinton got elected attorney general of Arkansas and then won the state’s governorship in 1978 — only to lose it again two years later; under the tutelage of sometimes-Democrat, sometimes-Republican political consultant Dick Morris, both Clintons revamped their images. The next time Bill Clinton ran for governor in 1982, Hillary had a baby, Chelsea; she dressed more demurely and lost the big glasses; and she solemnly gave a press conference at which she announced that from then on her name was Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bill won back the governorship and held it until he ran for President in 1992.
The rest of the story we pretty much know: the “bimbo eruptions” and the scandal over Bill’s affair with Gennifer Flowers that threatened to sink Bill’s Presidential candidacy even before it really started; the big election victory in 1992; Hillary’s appointment as head of the administration’s task force on reforming health insurance (and the total secrecy she insisted on, to the point where nobody knew what was in the plan until it was unveiled — and promptly sank in Congress thanks to a Republican disinformation campaign that used some of the same tricks with which they tried to derail Obamacare 16 years later, notably one appearance in which a Republican Congressmember held up Franklin Roosevelt’s original Social Security Act and noted it was only 38 pages long versus the 1,342 pages of Hillary Clinton’s health care proposal); the crushing defeat of the Democrats in the 1994 midterms that (like their equally crushing defeat 16 years later after Obamacare passed with no Republican Senators or Congressmembers voting for it) served notice that health reform was a majority-killer for the Democratic Party; Bill Clinton’s Morris-inspired retreat to “small ball” initiatives and the alienation of many progressives (including Robert Reich, UC Berkeley professor and longtime friend of Bill Clinton, who was Secretary of Labor in the first Bill Clinton Cabinet but eventually quit in disgust and returned to academe; he’s interviewed extensively here about the Clintons’ history but not, surprisingly, about his eventual break with them and his endorsement of Bernie Sanders over Hillary in this year’s Democratic primary campaign); the renewed allegations about Bill Clinton’s sex life that led to his impeachment and near-removal from office (like the only other President to be impeached, Andrew Johnson, he was saved only by the Constitution’s insistence that a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate be required to convict a President and remove him or her for office — and I say “or her” because I think there’s an excellent chance that if Hillary wins the election this year, the Republicans in Congress will immediately file articles of impeachment against her over the e-mail scandal and its alleged threat to U.S. national security, and Hillary could very well become the third President in U.S. history, and the second one named Clinton, to face an impeachment trial); her immediate plotting of a U.S. Senate race from New York as soon as Bill Clinton was acquitted in the impeachment trial and her subsequent adventures and misadventures as Secretary of State in President Obama’s first term.
The end of the story feels rushed — there’s no mention of Bernie Sanders and he’s visible only in a brief still — and it’s an indication that even in the relatively objective precincts of PBS, the filmmakers, director Michael Kirk and his co-writer Mike Riser, are far more interested in Trump than Clinton (he’s a novelty, she’s old hat), beginning their discussion of Trump with the lesson he learned from his father that some people are winners, some people are losers, and it’s the job of the losers to do what the winners tell  them to and otherwise stay out of their way, and ending it with this comment from Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump’s best-selling 1987 autobiography The Art of the Deal, suggesting that, like Alexander the Great, Trump had run out of worlds to conquer. “His deepest hunger has always been for attention, and he had exhausted the ways in which to get attention,” Schwartz said. “He’d gone so far beyond what most human beings can even imagine that he was at the end of that road, still hungry. He wanted the attention of the nation. He wanted the attention of the world. And he’s gotten it.”

Thursday, September 22, 2016

It's Hillary Clinton’s Election to Lose — and She's Losing It


Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The November 2016 Presidential election is Hillary Clinton’s to lose. And she’s losing it.
Just about everything that was being written or said about this election a month ago, after the two major-party conventions and the major “bounce” Clinton got from them (thanks largely to the Democratic National Committee’s scheduling their convention just one week after the GOP’s, they largely neutralized any “bounce” Donald Trump could have got from his), has turned around on its ear.
The race is not “tightening,” as Democratic propagandists keep insisting; Trump has made up his post-convention deficit and the momentum is on his side. The national polls as of this writing show the race dead-even, and a recent Bloomberg News poll showed Trump five points ahead in the critical “swing state” of Ohio ( Democrats, who 16 years ago complained when Al Gore won the popular vote for President but George W. Bush carried enough states to win in the Electoral College, now pin their shrinking hopes for maintaining the Presidency on the hope that Clinton can carry enough states to win the Electoral College even if Trump wins the popular vote.
What’s more, according to Jon Wiener in The Nation, (, the poll numbers probably underestimate the strength of Trump’s support. “Trump voters might be lying to the pollsters,” Wiener argued. “Some voters don’t want to tell a live interviewer that they back a candidate who has been so offensive and outrageous. The pollsters call this ‘social desirability bias’ — ‘the desire of respondents to avoid embarrassment’ in speaking with interviewers on the phone. But on November 8, in the privacy of the voting booth, they will cast their secret ballot for the Republican.”
Through his xenophobic and bigoted attacks on Mexicans, Muslims and just about everyone who isn’t “white” (whatever that means) and Christian or Jewish in their religious affiliation, his attacks on women and people with disabilities, his cries against the media (who have actually been some of the biggest friends he’s had in this campaign — more on that later) and his repeated assertions that “the system is rigged,” Trump has made racism, sexism, religious bigotry and prejudice in general not only acceptable but a source of pride to his supporters. Like talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who built a huge audience 30 years ago by essentally telling his listeners, “The liberals say you should be embarrassed to be racist and sexist. You should not be embarrassed. You should be proud! Those are the attitudes that made America great!,” Trump has mobilized a determined and committed base to vote for him, put white males back in the position of power they deserve and thereby “make America great again.”
And as she slips farther and farther behind in the polls, Hillary Clinton is all too aware of what’s happening to her. The problem is that she’s a lousy politician and the fear of losing the race is provoking her into rookie mistakes. First she made that insane comment at a Human Rights Campaign fundraiser September 9 that “you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables, right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”
When the story about that speech — given at a fundraiser thrown for her by America’s leading mainstream Queer organization and featuring Barbra Streisand and openly Gay singer Rufus Wainwright — broke over Google News, my heart sank. Hillary had just made the same mistake Mitt Romney did on May 17, 2012 when he told a group of his fellow 0.01 percenters at a fundraiser in Florida that “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … 47 percent … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
Clinton made the same mistake Romney did: in a room where she felt comfortable, where she could be reasonably confident she could make an outrageous statement like that and every member of the live audience would agree with her, she broke her usual caution and “cool.” What’s more, where Romney at least committed his gaffe at an event he thought would be private — only a member of the staff of the hotel where it was taking place secretly recorded it and it came out four months later — Clinton, again abandoning her usual caution, had actually invited the media to be there.
What’s more, she not only said half of Trump’s supporters were racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic or whatever, she stuck her foot even farther down her mouth by saying they were “irredeemable.” The last time she and her husband bought into the idea that certain people are so evil they are “irredeemable” was when Bill Clinton pushed all those “tough on crime” bills through Congress that have led to the incarceration of up to one-quarter of all African-American males — and for which Hillary rightly lambasted her principal primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, for having voted for in Congress.
Things got even worse for Hillary Clinton two days later, when she collapsed at the most embarrassing and humiliating event conceivable — a tribute to the first responders to the 9/11 attacks at Ground Zero in New York on the 15th anniversary — from what her staff at first said was simple “exhaustion.” Then her staff came up with dribs and drabs of information before finally acknowledging that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia. All of a sudden, the Right-wing Web sites that had been posting comments attacking Hillary Clinton’s state of health and her physical fitness for the Presidency suddenly looked not only credible but prophetic.
Barring a dramatic last-minute turnaround in Clinton’s fortunes — and given how many times during this campaign Trump has not only recovered but actually benefited from his apparent mistakes, it’s hard to see any way she could possibly say or do anything to hurt him — Trump is likely to build his momentum from now until the election and win the popular vote by a comfortable, if not a landslide, margin. As I write this, the first one-on-one debate between the two is scheduled for Monday, September 26, and it’s being hosted by Lester Holt of NBC, a network Trump used to work for as host of the “reality” TV show The Apprentice and which has been biased in his favor the entire campaign.
During the month between the Democratic convention and Trump’s catch-up in the polls, commentators were saying the debate would be Trump’s last chance to appear before the American people and convince them that he will bring about the change they so desperately needed. Now it’s looking like it’s Clinton, not Trump, who needs the boost from a killer debate performance to avoid having her campaign sink completely.

An Electorate Desperate for Change

One irony is that in that September 9 speech — which Clinton walked back from only enough to say that she was wrong when she said “half” of Trump’s supporters were part of her “basket of deplorables” — is that right after that her analysis of what she’s up against in this campaign was right-on. She hit the nail on the head when she described the other “basket” of Trump supporters as “people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
The Democrats started out this campaign with a lot going against them. First, they’re trying to win their third Presidential election in a row — and only once since the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which limits the President to two terms, took effect has the same party won three Presidential elections in a row. That was the Republicans, who won with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush riding the Gipper’s formidable coattails in 1988. (Four years later, when he had to run on his own record, he lost.)
Not only is Barack Obama not giving Hillary Clinton the tail wind Reagan gave Bush, but throughout his term Obama has shown that, if anything, he has negative coattails. The much-vaunted “Obama Coalition” has been able to elect only one person, Obama himself. Other than his two wins, the Obama years have been one disaster for the Democratic Party after another, first losing the political momentum to the “Tea Party” movement, then losing the House of Representatives, then losing the Senate and ending up with fewer House members than they’ve had since 1928. Millions of Americans are just itching for the chance to vote Obama and everything he stands for out of office — and with Obama constitutionally ineligible to run for re-election himself and Clinton standing as his surrogate, they’re going to the polls to take out all their frustrations with him on her.
What’s more, Hillary Clinton simply isn’t as inspiring a figure as Obama. Obama won first the Democratic nomination and the Presidency by electrifying the country, and particularly the African-American community, with the promise of the first African-American President and a ringing blow against American racism. (This also accounts for at least some of the venom of the hatred against him; many Trump voters see Trump as the man who will restore what they consider to be the natural order of the universe: a white male, not a Black man and definitely not a woman, as the President.) Obama increased the Democrats’ share of the African-American vote from 85 to 90 percent to 98 percent — and in a country as closely divided politically as the U.S., that boost mattered and gave him a solid political base on which to build his winning coalition.
Hillary Clinton has no such base. For quite a few reasons, the promise of the first woman President just hasn’t seized the social imagination the way the promise of Obama as the first Black President did. Women are a far more politically diverse community than African-Americans, and many of the most active women in politics are dedicated Right-wingers who would no more vote for Hillary just because she’s a woman than Hillary’s supporters in the Democratic party would have voted for Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann or Carly Fiorina.
There’s another reason that Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the first female major-party Presidential candidate doesn’t seem ground-breaking as Obama’s as the first African-American: she’s just been around too damned long. Clinton didn’t win the nomination, as Obama did, by galvanizing rank-and-file Democrats who thought the party had been too accommodating to George W. Bush and his Right-wing policy agenda. Quite the opposite: she fended off Bernie Sanders’ challenge partly by keeping voters of color (older voters of color, anyway) in her camp and using her connections with the Democratic Party establishment. I won’t go as far as some former Sanders supporters and say the process was “rigged” against him, but certainly the Democratic National Committee was overwhelmingly behind Clinton and so were the party’s major fat-cat donors — and that mattered more than it should have.
But the same 25 years in the public eye that gave Hillary Clinton the establishment’s support have also made her one of the most controversial and viscerally hated figures in American politics. Indeed, even when Bill Clinton was President the venom with which Hillary Clinton was attacked seemed even nastier and more toxic than it was against her husband. Part of that was due to what Hillary herself called the “vast Right-wing conspiracy” against her and Bill — she was ridiculed at the time for saying that but David Brock, former Right-wing writer who now runs a pro-Clinton super-PAC, wrote in his memoir Blinded by the Right that “when Hillary Clinton said there was a vast Right-wing conspiracy against her and her husband, I knew she was right — because I was part of it.”
The Right-wing conspiracy against Hillary and Bill Clinton was largely funded by a billionaire named Richard Mellon Scaife, who in 1993 started something called “The Arkansas Project.” Scaife agreed to fund Right-wing operatives to flood the state of Arkansas and offer big money to anyone who could come up with derogatory information about the Clintons. The result was predictable: thousands of people came forward with derogatory stories about the Clintons so they could get some of Scaife’s money. Most of them didn’t actually have derogatory information about the Clintons, but that wasn’t a problem. They just made stuff up — and, amazingly, much of the lying crap about the Clintons dredged up by the Arkansas Project keeps crossing my Facebook page, put there by Bernie-or-Bust “progressives” who are using it as an excuse to avoid voting for Clinton even though, under America’s binary political system, progressives (or, as I call them, “alt-Leftists”) who don’t vote for Clinton are just helping Trump.
But the Right-wing operatives who for a quarter-century have devoted themselves to making Hillary Clinton look bad have an impressive, if unwitting, ally: Hillary Clinton herself. Like Richard Nixon (another politician who had a lot of enemies, reacted to them with a fervor verging on paranoia, and suffered politically from it), she is fanatically secretive. Indeed, her decision to use a private e-mail server instead of the official State Department one as Secretary of State was almost certainly motivated by the hope that that would keep pesky Right-wing propagandists from hacking into her e-mails and releasing their contents out of context. Former Obama advisor David Axelrod couldn’t have been more right when he recently criticized Clinton for her “unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems.”
Clinton held onto the information about her e-mails until an FBI investigation and private lawsuits from Right-wing organizations forced her to release them — and she did so in dribs and drabs that only ensured the story would continue and embarrass her over and over again. Like her husband, with his infamous remark that his answer to a simple question would “depend on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” Hillary Clinton makes legal nit-picking statements that make her look ridiculous — as when she said FBI director James Comey had said she told the truth about her e-mails. Comey had said Clinton was truthful when the FBI interviewed her, but had been wrong when she claimed none of the e-mails on her personal server were classified when she sent them.
She treated the recent concerns about her health the same way, first “playing hurt” — maintaining a heavy schedule of appearances, not before ordinary voters but fat-cat donors, in spite of her pneumonia diagnosis; then collapsing at the most politically embarrassing moment possible, at a memorial commemorating the 15th anniversary of 9/11, and once again releasing the truth in dribs and drabs and thus artificially prolonging the political embarrassment. This sort of behavior has been depressingly consistent for Hillary Clinton throughout her entire public life, and is the main reason why two-thirds or more of respondents to polls say she simply can’t be trusted.
Ironically, some of Clinton’s defenders have argued she concealed her health problems until she couldn’t conceal them anymore because that’s what women have to do in the workplace. “Why do women feel they can’t admit to being sick?” Kathleen Parker wrote in the Washington Post ( “You know the answer. It’s because women fear showing any sign of weakness lest others presume the worst — that she’s not as good as a man.”
What struck me about that line of defense was that in some important respects Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have actually reversed the usual gender stereotypes. “Playing hurt” isn’t considered a particularly womanly virtue; quite the opposite, it’s admired in such macho-male venues as the military and the National Football League. In much of her demeanor, from all the wars she wanted the U.S. to fight as Secretary of State except President Obama overruled her, to the tough-love authority she invoked against Bernie Sanders in the primary campaign, to “playing hurt” and not letting anyone know she was sick, Clinton has been living up to the supposed virtues of the macho man.
Meanwhile, despite his surface bluster, Donald Trump — so easily offended, so determined to turn any criticism into the excuse for a blood feud, so sensitive to the slightest insult in the most obscure tweet, so eager to dredge up insults and respond to them long after everyone else has forgotten them — shows all the “weak” stereotypes usually negatively associated with women. Like John Wayne, who somehow managed to convince millions of moviegoers over several generations that he was a macho icon when his mannerisms, including the voice and the famous walk, teetered on the edge of drag-queen (or drag-king) parody, Trump is a delicate feminine flower trying to pass himself off as a tough old-growth tree.

Trump’s Surmountable Advantages

Donald Trump comes into the home stretch of this year’s Presidential campaign with several formidable, though not insurmountable, advantages. First of all, he’s far more credible than Hillary Clinton as an agent of change. Though he’s been in the public eye even longer than she has, and a lot of Americans regard him as a dangerous buffoon, Trump has the huge advantage that he’s not part of either party’s establishment. Once again, he’s helped by America’s damnable two-party political system, and the single-member districts and winner-take-all elections that enforce it, which gives U.S. voters no way to register a protest by voting for an alternative party and actually getting it some government representation the way voters in most European countries can.
Second, he’s running against a candidate who has been part of the political establishment so long she’s virtually a personification of it. The fact that, riding her post-convention “bounce,” Clinton chose to spend two weeks cozying up to fat-cat donors for big checks instead of having mass rallies for ordinary people the way Trump did, just confirmed the instinct of many American voters that a vote for Clinton would be a vote for more of the same — for an economic “recovery” that benefited the 1 percent and left out everyone else, for continued “trade” agreements that grease the skids on the export of American jobs to sweatshops in the Third World, for a government that’s tone-deaf to the concerns of anyone who isn’t rich enough to write big checks to politicians.
Third, as Rick Perlstein wrote recently in Newsweek (, Hillary Clinton really isn’t — and has never been — a Democrat. The first Presidential candidate she ever supported was Barry Goldwater, and if there were still such a thing as “moderate Republican” she’d be far more comfortable in the GOP than she’s ever been in the Democratic Party. In 2015, early on in her current campaign, Clinton gave a speech in Indiana in which she called herself “a moderate, and proud of it.” Early indications, in both that speech and the Atlantic interview in which she criticized President Obama as being too unwilling to use military force abroad — “‘Don’t do stupid’ is not a foreign policy,” she said — were that she planned to run her Presidential campaign in classic Clinton “triangulation” mode, criticizing the extremes of both Left and Right and offering herself as a safe “centrist” choice.
The surprising strength of Bernie Sanders’ challenge forced her — at least in the primary campaign — to abandon triangulation and embrace as much of his progressive agenda as she thought she could get away with. But once she got the nomination, Clinton confirmed the worst fears of the Sandersistas and moved Right with a vengeance. As Perlstein commented in his article, Hillary is running the same sort of campaign Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry did, trying to appeal to independents and “moderate Republicans” (a virtually extinct species now) and drawing a distinction between the “good” Republicans in Congress and the “bad” Republican Trump. The likely result is that, even if Clinton pulls off a miracle and wins the election, she’ll still face a Republican Congress that — as they’ve done with Obama — will systematically obstruct everything she tries to get done on the theory that they can wait her out another four years and then elect Ted Cruz.
“Triangulation” isn’t going to awaken the kind of enthusiasm among the Democratic Party’s base that elected Obama. It isn’t going to reassure the Sandersistas that Clinton can be trusted. Quite the contrary: it will convince them not to vote at all, or to vote for Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein or Peace and Freedom candidate Gloria La Riva — which, under America’s electoral system, is functionally the same as not voting at all. It will give Trump the low voter turnout, dominated by his fanatically dedicated supporters, he’s counting on to win.
And Donald Trump has another surprising ally: the media. That may seem strange, given how much of his speeches he devotes to ridiculing them, but the media have been consciously or unconsciously promoting Trump throughout this campaign. They’ve been doing that first by the sheer amount of coverage they’ve given him — far more than Clinton, Sanders or anyone else — and also by blatantly manipulating the coverage to make him look good. On the one joint forum the candidates have had so far — the consecutive half-hour “town halls” on national security issues hosted by Matt Lauer of the Today show September 7, Lauer was shockingly biased. He used half of his half-hour with Clinton to interrogate her about her e-mails, sounding for all the world like the prosecutor in the trial the FBI decided there wasn’t enough evidence against her to hold for real.
With Trump, Lauer was so cozy I sat and wondered if he could have got his tongue any farther up Trump’s butthole if he’d tried. I couldn’t help but think that maybe NBC was particularly biased for Trump because they consider them “one of us” since The Apprentice was an NBC show, or if there’s a general media bias for Trump simply because they think he’d be a lot more fun than Clinton to cover for the next four years. Whichever is the case, though, it’s obvious that — whether it’s the conscious intent of the media people to help Trump win or he’s simply a skilled enough manipulator he’s “playing” them — Trump is definitely coming out ahead in the media coverage and using the media to keep the campaign on his playing field.
If current trends continue, Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. He will win by a substantial, if not a landslide, majority and he will have a Republican House and Senate as well. Once he’s elected, I predict, he’ll trim a lot of his sails, partly because his fellow 0.01-percenters will take him aside and steer him away from some of the ruinous economic policies (like threatening a default on the U.S. debt and telling our NATO allies we may not defend them unless they kick in more of the cost of sustaining the alliance) that would threaten the world’s economic stability and potentially cost Trump himself and his rich friends a lot of money.
But a Trump Presidency will still be a mega-disaster for the U.S., and in particular for any Americans who regard diversity as one of our strengths as a nation. And so far, no one — not Hillary Clinton, not the Democratic establishment, and not the progressive communities who naïvely thought that “demographics,” particularly the increasing proportion of America’s population who are people of color, would swing this country’s political future towards the Democrats — has figured out a way to stop a Trump Presidency from happening. As I’ve written in these pages before, I’ve heard a lot of people say, in disbelieving tones, “We’d never elect someone like Trump” — and I’ve responded, “I’m sure a lot of people were saying that in Germany in the early 1930’s, too: ‘We’re a civilized country. We’d never let a freak like Hitler take power.’”

Thursday, September 15, 2016

American Umpire (Shell Studios, Hoover Institution, Cato Institute, WETA/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Tuesday night, right after the first episode of The Contenders (an eight-part series about 16 different Presidential candidates, two per episode, that opened with Shirley Chisholm’s run for the Democratic nomination in 1972 despite the dual handicap of being Black and a woman, and John McCain’s candidacies in 2000 and 2008), PBS showed an interesting one-hour program called American Umpire that presented a surprisingly compelling overview of American foreign policy since our declaration of independence in 1776. The surprise was due to the fact that the principal sponsors of the program were two conservative think tanks, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the libertarian Cato Institute — and yet, despite a few factual errors and hints of Right-wing bias, it was overall a fair-minded program whose bottom line was a deep questioning of whether the U.S. should continue in its costly role of being “policeman of the world” that we assumed after being part of the winning side in World War II and then ending up in a 34-year Cold War with our former World War II ally, the Soviet Union. American Umpire featured a wide array of guests, ranging from such pillars of the foreign policy establishment as former Secretaries of State George Schultz (under Ronald Reagan), Madeleine Albright (under Bill Clinton) and Condoleeza Rice (under George W. Bush) to various journalists, historians and others to present a broad picture of U.S. foreign policy’s past, present and potential future.

The show argues that the first President, George Washington, laid down three broad principles that would govern how the U.S. conducted its relations with other nations that pretty much endured until America’s entry into World War I shook them and World War II and the Cold War shattered them completely. The first was neutrality: instead of participating in other countries’ wars the U.S. would impartially offer its resources in trade to anyone who asked. The second was nonintervention: the U.S. wouldn’t get involved either in attacking or defending other countries, so we didn’t get ourselves involved in the round robin of endless wars that had beset Europe for centuries. The third was that the U.S. would not maintain a permanent (“standing”) military; if we found ourselves at war we’d raise one ad hoc on the basis of state militias — the real purpose of the Second Amendment, contrary to the Right-wing crazies who have used it to enshrine an individual right to bear arms, was so that when the nation was in danger and the militia recruiters came a-calling, the people they recruited would have weapons with which to fight. Though as the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military under the Continental Congress during the American Revolution George Washington had been driven nuts by the limitations of relying on state militias — including the fact that if their terms of enlistment ran out in the middle of a battle they could go home and, since they’d been credentialed by their individual states rather than any federal government, he could do almost nothing to stop them; he also worked incredibly hard to instill in them a common sense of purpose and level of discipline similar to that of the British military they were fighting — as President he shared the concern of a lot of his contemporaries that a standing army and a democracy were incompatible: sooner or later the military would use its monopoly on force to unseat the republican government and take over themselves. (The history of the rest of the American hemisphere since it won independence from Spain and Portugal is a sorry testimony to Washington’s correct analysis.)

Indeed, it’s often occurred to me that the framers of the U.S. Constitution would be astounded at the fact that the President’s constitutional power of commander-in-chief routinely extends throughout his term, from the moment he takes office until he leaves it four or eight years later. According to the Constitution, it’s supposed to be Congress’s job to decide when the U.S. is at war by making a formal declaration to that effect, and then — and only then — the President assumes his (or, maybe after this year, her?) role as commander-in-chief of the army raised to fight the war Congress has declared. (The whole idea that Congress declares war is, as Bush II attorney John Yoo said of the Geneva Conventions, “obsolete and quaint” — so much so that the last time Congress actually declared war was December 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor.) The show made a few dubious factual assertions; for one, it said the U.S. was the first country in the world to unite previously existing republics into a federal system (it was Switzerland, which declared independence and founded the Swiss Confederation in 1648, 140 years before the U.S. Constitution went into effect). More importantly, it said that until 1917 the U.S. never directly intervened in another country’s war. That may have been true in Europe and the rest of the eastern hemisphere, but it was decidedly not true for the western hemisphere, which under the Monroe Doctrine the U.S. essentially declared its “sphere of influence” (much the way the Soviet Union regarded eastern Europe as its “sphere of influence” between 1945 and 1989) and claimed for itself the right to intervene in the political and military affairs of any American country, ostensibly to prevent its reconquest by the European colonial powers but actually to make sure they weren’t governed by any leader, party or group that threatened U.S. economic interests in the region.

The show quotes John Quincy Adams as saying, “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” but while he said that he was also serving as Monroe’s Secretary of State and actually writing what came to be called the Monroe Doctrine. In the 19th century, in addition to fighting the Civil War, the U.S. intervened in Mexico in 1846-48 (and ultimately conquered two-fifths of the territory Mexico had inherited when it declared and won independence from Spain), in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898, and in plenty of other places in what it considered its post-colonial American sphere of influence. It also reached beyond the Americas and the former Spanish colonies in the Pacific, establishing a military presence in China in the late 19th century to ensure what was called the “Open Door Policy,” so that instead of China being conquered and divided up among the big European powers the way Africa and southern Asia had been, it would be allowed to remain nominally independent but be subjected to economic exploitation from all Western countries on an equal basis. Nonetheless, as the program argued, the U.S. did pursue a policy throughout the 19th century of noninvolvement in European wars and avoided alliances with any one European country against another. Then World War I began and, though for the first three years the U.S. remained nominally neutral and sold arms and resources to both sides, there was a subtle but unmistakable “tilt” towards Britain and France, and against Germany, that got stronger with the sinking of the U.S.S. Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915 and reached a climax in early 1917, when Germany’s declaration that they had a right to use submarines to sink any ships taking weapons or anything else to Britain prompted President Woodrow Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war and put the U.S. firmly on the side of the British and French against the Germans. Britain and France won the war, largely because American help came in time to tip the balance decisively against the Germans and their played-out allies, Austro-Hungary and Turkey — though, as this show points out, Wilson refrained from declaring the U.S. formally “allied” with Britain and France. Instead U.S. troops fought alongside British and French ones but under separate command and under the mandate of a totally separate declaration of war against Germany.

After World War I public sentiment in the U.S. turned overwhelmingly against future involvement in Europe’s conflicts — the U.S. Senate rejected American membership in the League of Nations (the international organization Wilson had proposed and hoped would settle international disputes peaceably from then on) and Republican Warren G. Harding, who famously (and malapropistically — the word he meant was “normality”) promised “a return to normalcy.” As President, Harding called an international conference in Washington, D.C. in November 1921 — his speech at its opening on November 12 was recorded on Victor and is available at; it’s astonishing in that Harding’s arguments against war — not only the loss of life and the destruction of property but the enormous amounts of money wasted in the production of armaments that could be used for improving the lives of ordinary citizens — sound more like the rhetoric of a radical peacenik than a Republican President. During the 1920’s, as American Umpire shows, under American leadership the major powers — Britain, France, Japan — actually not only signed disarmament treaties but actually destroyed some of their own ships and other military equipment to get their arms down to the limits specified in the treaties. Then the Great Depression of 1929 hit and international tensions escalated, and Germany in particular was taken over by the Nazis (who had actually manipulated the German government because they did so much better when the German economy was tanking, and so much worse when it was doing well, they deliberately sabotaged the German government’s negotiations to reduce the crippling burden of reparations payments the Germans owed to France under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that officially ended World War I), but as the makers of American Umpire, director James Shelley and writers Elizabeth Cobbs and John Mikulsak, use 1930’s newsreel footage to point out, even under the growing threat of fascism in general and Nazism in particular, American public opinion remained strongly isolationist throughout the decade.

The show points out that the U.S. Congress passed no fewer than five neutrality acts, each stronger than the one before it, and President Franklin Roosevelt reluctantly signed each one even though (a point they don’t mention) he was fully aware of the danger the Nazis posed to the U.S. and had carried on a secret correspondence with Winston Churchill, in which the letters on both sides were signed, “Former Naval Person” (since during World War I Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty in Britain and Roosevelt had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the U.S.). Ultimately the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Hitler declared war on the U.S. a day later (which made Roosevelt heave several sighs of relief because he’d been able to get a declaration of war against Japan but it was uncertain he could have got one against Germany, which hadn’t directly attacked us, until Germany obliging declared war on us first). The U.S., of course, ended up on the winning side of World War II along with Britain and Russia, and Russia set up its own “sphere of influence” in eastern Europe and — at least according to the historical analysis of this program; other sources differ — attempted to foment Communist revolutions in Greece and Italy, leading President Harry Truman to proclaim the so-called “Truman Doctrine” that from now on the U.S. would intervene anywhere in the world where “freedom” was threatened — i.e., wherever Communist revolutions, whether Soviet-backed or home-grown, arose and fought against the kinds of conservative capitalist governments the U.S. wanted established throughout the world. The U.S. formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a whole slew of interlocking alliances that eventually encompassed virtually the whole non-Communist “free” world, and also assumed the principal burden of protecting western Europe from any threat of a Soviet attack. The U.S. also decided that Germany and Japan would no longer be trusted to have powerful militaries of their own, and instead we would assume the burden of their defense budget. At the same time the U.S. also decided that the threat not only of the Soviet Union but also China, after Mao Zedong (or however we’re spelling his name this week) and the Communists won their revolution in 1949, required that we build up Germany and Japan as buffer states, under non-fascist but safely conservative governments.

The result was that from the 1950’s to the 1980’s West Germany and Japan built up their economies, vastly expanded their production of consumer goods, and successfully marketed them to American consumers — which they could do at least partly because, without the burden of maintaining a military establishment, they could put more of their national budgets into developing their civilian economies for both domestic consumption and export. Flash-forward again to the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and its eastern European “sphere of influence” in 1989 — presented in this film, as in most American reportage, as the unambiguous triumph of capitalist democracy over Communist dictatorship — and to a growing critique of American foreign policy from the libertarian Right and, in this year’s Presidential campaign, by Donald Trump, to the effect that it’s time for the U.S. to back off the task of defending the rest of the world and insist that other countries, particularly places like western Europe and Japan that are cleaning our clock economically, to pay more of their fair share for their own defense. This show attempts a serious and sober-minded presentation of an idea that when Trump talks about it talks, as my husband Charles has said, like a “protection” racketeer in a 1930’s gangster movie: “Nice little country you’ve got here. It’d be a shame if anything ‘happened’ to it.” While all the former secretaries of state interviewed in the program recite the usual American elites’ party line that the U.S. has to be the world’s policeman and international stability would collapse completely if we withdrew or cut back our defense spending the way the libertarians and Trump are proposing (though Trump is also promising a huge military buildup even though it’s unclear exactly what he wants to do with a much larger version of a U.S. military that is already bigger than almost all the other militaries of the world combined), it’s clear that Shelley, Cobbs and Mikulak seriously believe that the time has come for the U.S. to make its next sweeping re-evaluation of its role in the world and back away from being the world’s policeman and maintaining the network of military bases the late Chalmers Johnson said was the bulwark of America’s version of an empire.

This debate, such as it is, is being played out in the context of a Presidential campaign that, even more than usual, is about trivialities — Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and her personal health, Donald Trump’s swaggering style and the degree to which it’s getting in the way of his winning an election even in an era in which overwhelming numbers of Americans are hungering for “change” without much idea of just what sort of “change” they want. To the extent the campaign is about issues, it’s about domestic issues — particularly the so-called “recovery” from the 2008 recession, whose benefits have gone almost totally to the 1 percent — and the threat of terrorism, though quite a few Americans have retreated to a neo-isolationist position and really don’t care what happens in the rest of the world except to the extent that it looses terrorists to kill Americans on our own soil. You’ve got a foreign-policy establishment unshakably committed to maintaining America’s military pre-eminence in the world, a counter-argument from both the Left and the libertarian Right that we’re spending more than we need to on so-called “defense” that helps other countries to the detriment of the U.S., and a confused political system that doesn’t know how to respond except by throwing up as the two major-party Presidential candidates a woman who’s part and parcel of the Establishment and a man who seems to think in temper tantrums. This year’s election — and the issues American Umpire is raising — will largely be determined by whether the American people so desperately want change they’re willing to take a chance on Donald Trump, of all people, to deliver it; or whether they’re so scared by him they’re willing to vote for the ultra-Establishment candidate on the Shakespearean principle that we should “rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

“Kingdom of Shadows” Airs on KPBS-TV Monday, September 19, 11 a.m.

Unflinching Look at U.S.-Mexico Drug Trade Focuses on Violence Against Innocents


Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine and • All rights reserved

Erin Tsurumoto Grassi

Promotional image from Kingdom of Shadows

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people.”
— Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, June 15, 2015

The issues of immigration and drug smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border got blended together in an unusual way September 12, when the San Diego Public Library gave a preview screening of Bernardo Ruiz’s 2015 documentary Kingdom of Shadows, about the Mexican drug cartels and their lethal attacks on innocent civilians in the border town of Monterrey. The film, which airs locally as part of the P.O.V. (“Point of View”) documentary series on KPBS-TV (channel 15, cable 11) Monday, September 19 from 11 p.m. to 12:15 a.m., dealt specifically with the drug wars — both the military-style operations of Mexico’s drug cartels and the punitive anti-drug policies of both the U.S. and Mexican governments.
But the main expertise of the speaker the library lined up to lead a question-and-answer session afterwards, Erin Tsurumoto Grassi of Alliance San Diego, is on immigration issues. And the audience members who asked questions and made comments were clearly more interested in immigration — particularly whether the “border wall” between the countries proposed by presidential candidate Donald Trump could ever be built, and whether it would help or hurt U.S. workers and the U.S. economy if it were — than in the issues raised by the movie.
Kingdom of Shadows is a grim, tragic tale of the death toll the Mexican drug cartels — particularly the warring Juárez and Sinaloa cartels as well as the Zetas, a group of military men from Mexico’s version of the Special Forces who were trained at the notorious U.S.-led School of the Americas to combat the drug gangs and instead became a drug gang themselves — are inflicting on ordinary Mexicans and the sheer wantonness of their crimes. It’s also about the attempts of local Mexican activists, including families of los desparacidos (“The Disappeared,” as the people kidnapped, tortured and usually killed by the cartels are called because they often vanish without a trace) as well as nuns and activists, to stop the violence by getting the drug lords and their hired killers prosecuted.
That’s a tall order, mainly because the drug lords have so much money they can easily bribe virtually anyone with the legal or political authority to stop them — and to kill anyone they can’t bribe. “Mexico has a very weak judicial system where 93 percent of all major crimes are never prosecuted,” director Ruiz says in the PBS press release for the film. The Mexican police are so notoriously corrupt — and have been for decades — the term la mordida (literally “the little death”) has long since entered Mexican Spanish as slang for the bribes criminals routinely pay police to evade arrest. With the huge amounts of money the drug cartels have to bribe people — and the enormous military power (most of which, the film explains briefly, comes from the U.S., where the cartels buy military-grade weapons because they’re illegal in Mexico but legal here) at their disposal to kill those they can’t bribe, the cartels have basically become untouchable. “Stepping out of the shadows to say, ‘We want justice,’ is a big deal,” Ruiz says.
At some times the efforts of Sister Morales, Sister Consuelo and the other activists profiled in Ruiz’s film seem reminiscent of the 1970’s efforts of Northern Irish women Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire to start a peace movement in the middle of war-torn Northern Ireland and put an end to the escalating violence between the British colonial government and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). But the Mexican nuns and other civil society activists face a situation in which, instead of fighting over the future of their country like the IRA and the pro-British Irish Unionists were, the cartels are just in it to make money — and, increasingly, to take joy in the sheer act of mass killing.
Kingdom of Shadows is built around the stories of three people. One is Sister Morales, who works out of Monterrey with relatives of los desparacidos and stages protest marches and rallies with them to demand an end to the chronic corruption of Mexican law enforcement and the impunity with which the cartels and their hired assassins commit their brutal crimes. “Sister Morales is really the heart of the film,” Ruiz says. “She’s this extraordinary person who helps families whose loved ones have gone missing. She pushes the state government to actually do something and get some kind of justice” — though, alas, there’s scant evidence in the film that her efforts have resulted in prosecutions.
Another of Ruiz’s subjects is Don Henry Ford, Jr., a small farmer in Texas who casually turned to marijuana smuggling because he wanted to get out from under the debt he was under and the control seed and chemical suppliers and bankers wield over U.S. farmers. In the movie he recalls how he took his first shipment of clandestine pot over the border in the bed of his pickup truck and how he worked his way up to larger quantities while still remaining a small cog in the drug operation. He also says he was lucky he was caught when he was — in 1995, one year before tough anti-drug laws passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton ramped up the sentences for drug smuggling and took away the discretion of judges to sentence according to the fact of the case. Because he got in under the wire, Ford says, he got a five-year sentence instead of the 20 years or more that became mandatory just a year later.
Ruiz’ third major character is Oscar Hagelsieb, the son of immigrants who became a U.S. Border Patrol agent. He said his father endorsed his choice of career but told him to be respectful of the undocumented immigrants who were just crossing the border to get jobs and a better life. However, Hagelsieb said, his dad told him to go after the drug criminals with everything he had and see they were punished to the maximum extent possible. Hagelsieb’s dedication to his job comes through strongly in the film, but so does his discontent with how little he’s actually been able to accomplish. In his most rueful moment on screen, he confesses that he would not want his son to follow him into the Border Patrol as a career.
One of the movie’s unlikeliest heroes is Amado Carrillo Fuentes, described on his Wikipedia page as “a Mexican drug lord who seized control of the Juárez Cartel after assassinating his boss Rafael Aguilar Guajardo.” He got the nickname “El Señor de los Cielos” — “Lord of the Skies” — because he pioneered the use of private airplanes to smuggle drugs. He was also instrumental in making sure that after the cartels in Medellín and Calí, Colombia were brought down by prosecutions and assassinations, Juárez and other Mexican cartels picked up the slack and essentially took over the international cocaine business. Carrillo Fuentes was pursued by both U.S. and Mexican authorities, and died in July 1997 from complications from a botched plastic surgery operation — and, in a typical example of cartel revenge violence, his doctors were themselves assassinated four months later.
He’s considered a hero in the movie, however, because while he was alive he managed to maintain peace between the various cartels much the way the formation of “La Cosa Nostra,” an alliance between Italian-American criminals from Naples (the Camorra) and Sicily (the Mafia), largely put an end to the street violence, drive-by shootings and killings of civilians that had characterized American gangsterism in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Indeed, Ruiz talked to many residents of Monterrey who admired Carrillo Fuentes for being able to broker peace between the various cartels, and said that while he was alive people in Monterrey were relatively safe from the cross-fire between cartels that has taken the lives of so many since.
Kingdom of Shadows is a darkly moving film, full of ironies, and if it has a flaw it’s that its 75-minute running time is hardly enough to tackle the issues it raises and then sometimes suddenly drops. One of these is the formation of a new Mexican police force, the Fuerza Civil (“Civil Force”), in 2011, which by recruiting people from outside traditional law enforcement aimed at creating a new agency whose members would receive military-style training as well as psychometric tests to determine whether or not they could be corrupted. The film includes a recruiting video for the Fuerza Civil in which the star is a woman member — itself an indication of how the force is challenging Mexico’s norms. The Fuerza Civil is funded not only by the Mexican government but also by some of the private companies that have located in Monterrey and have — along with the drug cartels — helped make it Mexico’s wealthiest city.
Another comment that’s made briefly is the possibility that the U.S. could put the cartels out of business by ending its reliance on prohibition as its front-line strategy against drug use. There’s a precedent in American history, too: the repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1933 and the plummeting of the U.S. crime rate that resulted, as people who wanted to drink could obtain it legally and people who wanted to make and sell alcoholic beverages could do so in above-ground companies and settle their differences in court with lawyers instead of in the streets with guns. One person in the film says that, as more U.S. states consider legalizing marijuana, the Mexican cartels are seeing the market for it dry up and are planning for the future by diversifying into methamphetamine.
Overall, though, Kingdom of Shadows is a tragic film, with the efforts of the nuns and the relatives of the desparecidos coming off as incredibly noble, courageous and futile. A January 20, 2012 report by Ashley Fantz on the CNN Web site,, says, “[T]he Mexican drug war, at its core, is about two numbers: 48,000 and 39 billion.” The 48,000 refers to the number of people estimated to have been killed by the cartels in 2011, and $39 billion is the authorities’ estimate of the profit the various cartels make in a year.

The Q&A: What About the Wall?

Though Kingdom of Shadows focused on the Mexican drug cartels and how they’ve affected life on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, the post-film discussion led by Erin Tsurumoto Grassi focused largely on immigration and what she called the “increased militarization” of the border. “A lot of us are aware of the rhetoric about the border,” Tsurumoto Grassi said. “We hear it’s unenforced and we need a wall.” Hosting an event held the day after the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Tsurumoto Grassi acknowledged that — even though the attacks had nothing to do with Mexico — they helped bring about more militarization of  the border and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which among other things took over all the U.S. agencies charged with immigration and border security.
Thanks to the vast increase in the size of the Border Patrol since 9/11 and, some argue, the hiring of agents without adequate pre-employment vetting or training, the number of abuses of immigrants and their families has increased, Tsurumoto Grassi argued. “Since 2010, nearly 50 people have been killed in Southern California by Border Patrol agents,” she said. She also saw ties between the increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the growing use of military tactics and equipment by police in the U.S. itself — and the growing numbers of police killings of African-Americans and other people of color that sparked the creation of movements like Black Lives Matter. Tsurumoto Grassi also said that in Tucson, Arizona and other locations, “Border Patrol agents have themselves been caught smuggling drugs.”
Tsurumoto Grassi, who in addition to Alliance San Diego also identified herself as part of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Coalition and a dizzying array of other coalitions that work together on border issues, explained, “A lot of our work has been to push back against the abuses.” She stressed that one major campaign of her organization is to require Border Patrol agents to wear body cameras, the way increasing numbers of U.S. domestic police are being made to do, so any abuses they commit will be documented. But one audience member was skeptical, saying that police wearing body cameras often say they didn’t work because the officer didn’t turn it on, it was “dropped” or “broken,” and even when video from body cameras exists the police and local governments often fight tooth-and-nail in the courts to prevent the footage from being released to the public.
Because Tsurumoto Grassi works for a group organized under Internal Revenue Code section 501 ( c) (3), which prohibits it from endorsing candidates or making statements that could be construed as endorsements for or against candidates, she was a bit skittish when asked point-blank what she thought of Trump’s proposal for a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexico border. She first asked the questioner whether she was asking about Trump’s plan or the partial border fencing that exists now. Then she said, “100,000 people cross the border every day. Our region is economically dependent on cross-border traffic.”
Tsurumoto Grassi then went on to talk about “Operation Gatekeeper” and similar anti-immigration operations in the early 1990’s, which actually increased the numbers of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Before “Gatekeeper,” she said, undocumented immigrants freely crossed the border, spending time in the U.S. when farm labor or other jobs were available, then returning to Mexico and their families when harvest season was over. After “Gatekeeper,” said Tsurumoto Grassi, “people who crossed to work got stuck.” They couldn’t go back to Mexico because they were worried they wouldn’t be able to get back in the U.S. when work was available again, so they stayed here. As a result, she said, “you have a lot of families [headed by undocumented immigrants] with U.S.-born children.”
“Gatekeeper” and similar operations also forced would-be immigrants to take more dangerous routes through the desert instead of coming through major urban centers, said Tsurumoto Grassi — and as a result, the crossing became more dangerous and more immigrants died.
Two African-American women dominated the early part of the questioning. One wondered how the U.S. government could spend billions on border walls and continue to neglect the rebuilding of New Orleans and other areas decimated by Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago. Tsurumoto Grassi sympathized and said, “As we militarize the border it takes away resources from other communities that desperately need them.”
The other woman said, “I totally believe in the border as protection against other people who don’t like the United States.” She echoed one of Trump’s talking points, which is that one reason the border wall is needed is to keep out would-be terrorists from “certain” countries — by which he apparently means countries in the Middle East and other places with majority Muslim populations. Actually, most terror attacks in the U.S. by Muslims claiming affiliation with extremist organizations like al-Qaeda or Islamic State have been committed either by U.S.-born citizens (the Orlando massacre), naturalized citizens (the Boston Massacre bombing, the San Bernardino killings), or people who legally entered the U.S. and then overstayed their visas (9/11).
“The whole situation of 9/11 started things going in a really bad direction,” said a man in the audience at the screening. “Before that, people would complain about Mexicans taking jobs from American workers. Now one Presidential candidate is talking about fear of Mexicans and Muslims. He wants not to let anyone in, and if other countries start doing that it could be detrimental to us.” He asked Tsurumoto Grassi if she thought Trump’s rhetoric was based on fear, and she agreed.
“The enormous problem in Mexico seems to be impunity, and especially after 9/11 we’ve seen a lot more impunity in the U.S.,” said Charles Nelson from the audience. “There’s no sense of responsibility [among law enforcement and security people]. We tell people to take off their belts and shoes at airports, and we’re listening to your phone calls. Militarizing law enforcement is not the answer.”
Tsurumoto Grassi agreed. “A lot of the problem is we need to hold law enforcement accountable,” she stated. Asked what else, besides body cameras, her agency is doing to bring that about, she said, “Attempting to get the Border Patrol agents prosecuted for their crimes.” To another questioner who tied the killings by Border Patrol agents to the killings of people of color by local police that inspired the Black Lives Matter protests, she added, “As citizens, we have a responsibility to continue constant vigilance.” She said body cameras will only serve their purpose if citizens keep pressure on local police departments and city governments to release the tapes.
“The reality is we have to change the culture within law enforcement, so police who see something wrong will feel free to report it,” Tsurumoto Grassi said in answer to a question about the so-called “thin blue line” that discourages police officers and other law enforcement personnel from “ratting” on colleagues’ bad behavior. “We may never reach a stage when 100 percent of incidents are reported. We may never end impunity. But there are things we can do.”
About the only response Tsurumoto Grassi gave to an issue about drug policy was in reference to this reporter’s question, which seized on the hint in the film about how the cartels were shifting from marijuana to meth as more U.S. states consider making marijuana legal. Asked if the U.S. should consider legalizing drugs as a way to put the cartels out of business, Tsurumoto Grassi said, “There are other countries that approach drug use from a different standpoint, but focused more on addressing it as an illness and re-integrating [drug users] into society.”