Rothman At-Large

Stupidity Can Kill: How to Vet and Test Would-Be Presidents

March 24, 2020

A nuclear bomb from China or North Korea—that’s how I expected to die if Donald Trump was too inept to handle a major crisis. The Trump-worsened coronavirus threat is so prosaic by comparison.


No, this monster-buffoon didn’t cause the virus, but thousands of Americans may die unnecessarily because he downplayed the threat early on, and his flunkies in federal agencies then clicked their heels. We lack enough masks, ventilators and ICUs. If nothing else, Trump’s PR-ish approach has seriously worsened the problem and jeopardized our doctors and nurses more than they would be otherwise. I am in a high-risk age group and might lose out if, like the Italian doctors, U.S. ones must triage patients.


On top of that, my retirement investments have suffered in part because Wall Street sees a major risk in Trump-crazy virus policies. A J. P. Morgan economist said the U.S. economy could shrink by 14 percent in the second quarter alone. Also, think of the noninvestors deprived of the weekly checks they need to live on; they’re the real people I feel sorry for—the ones who will suffer the most, regardless of some compensatory crumbs thrown their way.


Alas, Moscow Mitch McConnell is keen on keeping the President in office, so we can’t count on another impeachment as a remedy. But we can at least hope for the defeat this November of Trump, McConnell and the other enablers of the “very stable genius.” And if nothing else, we can think about remedies to reduce the chances of another deadly human virus occupying the Oval Office.


Here is what I propose, in the spirit of similar ideas from others for the vetting and testing of would-be president:


–Required disclosure of medical histories, employment histories, political donations histories, tax information, both civil and criminal suits and other pertinent legal matters. If nothing else, bankruptcy information should be public. This should include not just listings of diseases or legal actions and the rest, but the full details or all relevant ones. We should see complete tax returns going back at least a decade and maybe longer.


–Medical examinations by independent physicians and other specialists. Psychiatric examinations would be helpful. Trump’s irrational actions confirm the scary findings of a book where prominent experts several years ago raised serious questions about his mental health.


–Systematic testing of knowledge and certain reasoning-related capabilities (perhaps overlapping with the medical examinations), with scores made public.


I’m not talking about the most challenging tests—no need to be a Rhodes Scholar. Rather, I mean examinations at the basic level in such areas as Constitutional law, American history, logic, reading comprehension, basic practical math and rudimentary science and technology. Our “very stable genius” would have flunked all the tests, or at least most. Here’s a president unable to absorb all but the most dumbed-down briefings.


The disclosures and the tests would not be required of anyone running for president in a primary. But they would be a “must” for candidates hoping to be on the ballot in the general election. Imagine the risk of nominating a dummy like Donald Trump.


Yes, Trump is a dummy in terms of governing. I admit he is a brilliant reality show host, marketer and con artist. But those are quite different skill sets. In general, the man just isn’t up to the task. Call him an idiot savant—someone who excels, but only in limited ways.


Who would oversee the vetting? A revitalized Federal Election Commission or the equivalent—yes, I know the limits of the present FEC—might be one possibility.


And the tests? I propose a respected oversight panel comprised not of politicians but of prominent academics, doctors and other experts.


Once again—I’m not demanding that the president be Einstein-brilliant; who knows how Ronald Reagan would have fared despite his excellence as the Great Communicator? Yes, Roman Hruska, maybe there is even room for a few mediocrities. But the President should be mentally healthy and at least minimally up to the job. Defining mental health is subjective. But surely we can draw the lines somewhere to exclude a perpetual third-grader. The stakes are too high not to.


“The federal government requires applicants for certain civil service jobs to take a written exam,” the New York Times noted in 2011 in broaching the issue of tests for political candidates, including nonPresidential ones. “The same holds true for the foreign service. And to become a U.S. citizen you have to pass a civics test. Why do we not require a similar exam for individuals who seek election to office?”

The Times appears to have meant that simply as a question, and most of the expert and VIP essayists were skeptical about the idea, raising excellent points, such as Who Tests the Testers? But that was pre-Trump. I think it’s time to reconsider—given all the lives and money that our misfit of a president is costing us. You don’t need a 180 I.Q. to be willing to listen to specialists in highly specialized areas like public health.

Even without the hoped-for testing per se, we at least need the aforementioned vetting (along with other reforms such as public financing of elections and reversal of Citizens United).

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Get Out Now, Bernie! It's Joe Biden's Time to Run for President.

March 10, 2020

I’m proud of my vote for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. As an FDR Democrat, how could I have acted otherwise? Roosevelt gave us huge public works projects when we needed them — but, like Sanders, he was far from a Stalin or Castro.


Contrary to hints from his enemies, Sanders is not keen on nationalizing private property just for the joy of it or killing off enemies in stadiums.


Read Sanders’s recent speech at George Washington University and visit the issues section of his website if you want to know where he’s coming from. Shame, shame, shame on Sanders’s detractors for either laziness or sheer dishonesty. Yes, Sanders is angry. Why shouldn’t he be, given the outrageous wealth and income gaps between the rich and the poor — and the “socialism for the rich” compounding the outrages? Or the Democratic Party’s less than stellar record on healthcare or the environment?


So why did I vote for Joe Biden in the 2020 primary, and why am I begging Sanders to leave the presidential race immediately?


Because Biden stands more of a chance of winning the general election against Donald Trump — a traitor, crook, climate denier, life-jeopardizing incompetent, racist, self-proclaimed rapist, xenophobe, and at least an aspiring fascist dictator who, knowingly or not, might pave the way eventually for a full-strength Nazi. Despite Sanders’s good intentions, he has not helped himself by calling himself a “Democratic Socialist,” or gratuitously mentioning Fidel Castro’s literacy programs. To deplore this butcher’s authoritarianism isn’t enough.


Ahead I’ll lay out my serious caveats about the former vice president. But in the end, I must support Biden to the max in the general election. The Democrats must win this one. The White House’s bungling of the coronavirus crisis is just the latest of the multifarious horrors from the Trump administration, a constant threat to life and a sustainable economy alike.


Even in the first term — ideally his only one! — Trump already is well on the way to meeting his malevolent goals. Read George Packer’s Atlantic article headlined The President Is Winning His War on American Institutions. How Trump is destroying the civil service and bending the government his will. The Republican Party at the leadership level is now the Authoritarian Party — eager to suppress votes and otherwise cheat to enable a totalitarian like Trump to stay in power. Dems can’t afford to blow this one.


Caveats about Joe Biden


Before making the case for Joe Biden as a presidential candidate to counter The Existential Threat, let me get my caveats out of the way. He is far more labor-friendly than Trump but not quite the worker’s friend he would have you believe. In the past, Biden went along with billionaire-optimized trade deals that failed to protect blue-collar Americans sufficiently, and he has talked all too often of cuts to Social Security.


Also, as shown by constant gaffes, even more than in his prime, Biden is not as sharp mentally as before. Trump isn’t, either. But he could still put up quite a fight. In regard to Biden, you already know of other troubling matters such as his less than full devotion to the fight against climate change. Bernie Sanders surpasses Biden in all those ways.


Why I’m for Biden anyway


So why am I still for Biden? Well, just as I’ve said, he’s more electable — more likely to replace the traitor-fascist-crook as president. In this era of Russian trolls and bots and massive corporate donations, not to mention the Authoritarian Party’s voter suppression, the Democrats will need all the votes they can get. The probability of Trump contesting a close election makes this even more urgent. Sanders may or may not be able to win, but even if the odds with Biden are just slightly better, I’ll go for Joe. That’s how high the stakes are.


As it happens, in the wake of the Super Tuesday results, Biden at this point appears to have a significantly greater chance against Trump than Sanders.


The youth vote on which Sanders was counting just did not turn out to the extent he was hoping. Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC interview with him on March 4 further weakened his case. I was left wondering how Sanders could sufficiently increase participation from debt-ridden young people, minorities and other screwed-over Americans between now and November. At the national level, are they sufficiently wild about Sanders in the first place to actually get out and vote for him?


How much of the country is like California, where Sanders did win the most delegates but where Biden almost surely would emerge victorious in a general election? Sanders lost the black vote to Biden in South Carolina in the 2020 Democratic primary and fared noticeably worse there than against Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the liberal, heavily minority stronghold of Alexandria, Virginia, where I live, Biden drew 49.9 percent of the vote last week while Sanders claimed a mere 23.1 percent. All this jibed with a Vox commentary, by two political scientists, written before Super Tuesday. The headline and subhead: Bernie Sanders looks electable in surveys — but it could be a mirage. New research suggests Sanders would drive swing voters to Trump — and need a youth turnout miracle to compensate.


Of course, the Democrats need to expand their base for the long run and get set to reach the new generation of voters of all colors through progressive policies like Sanders’s. But above all, we must talk about the here and now to avoid a second Trump term rather than thinking that turnout alone will rescue the Dems — or elect Democratic politicians in typically red states.


The endorsement Biden received over the weekend, from Sen. Kamala Harris, a woman of color who might end up as his running mate or attorney general, just strengthened the case for Biden.


Despite all the above, Sanders supporters might still protest, “Well, they’re both old, Sanders is 78 and Biden is 77, but Sanders has aged better. Trump will chew up Biden in debates.” Yes, that might happen. But to win debates is not necessarily to win elections. The meaner Trump is to Biden, a sympathetic figure to countless voters at the personal level, the more ground the Authoritarian President may lose in the long run.


Speaking of age, just when will Sanders release medical information as reassuring as Biden’s was? Disturbing questions remain following Sanders’s recent heart attack (here and here). Based on publicly known facts, Sanders stands a 50-50 chance of dying in office if elected, in the opinion of some doctors. That percentage might be more encouraging if Sanders obliged with specifics, but so far he won’t — and he even failed to reveal promptly that he’d suffered the heart attack in the first place.


I’ve got other issues with Sanders compared to Biden. I appreciate Sanders’s anger at the multitude of injustices of American society. The angrier he comes across, the more he may appeal to his hardcore supporters and even to people who voted for Trump as the man to fix The System. But he will also alienate other constituencies such as well-educated white women. They and many others, including more than a few union workers, may also worry about their existing health insurance plans, which Sanders’s Medicare for All approach would kill off. I want Medicare for All. But we need a more graceful transition than Sanders has in mind.


With Biden in office, we at least could buy time to debate these issues. If, however, Trump and the Authoritarian Party win, the window might close — perhaps forever.

The faster Bernie Sanders throws his support to Biden, the safer we’ll be from Trump and his Authoritarian Party – Sanders’s early withdrawal from the race would remind voters of the urgency here. Along the way, Sanders ideally would oblige with a detailed explanation to his devoted followers about the high stakes. That way, he’d help avoid the do-it-yourself Democratic voter suppression that otherwise could result. Sanders could make clear that he isn’t budging an inch from his oh-so-well-merited disgust with the status quo. Rather, he would simply evince his full commitment to Trump removal — so that the Authoritarian Party will not prevail for generations to come and maybe forever.

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Facebook vs. Aileen--and Trump Era Freedom of Speech

February 3, 2020

Do you remember the start of The Social Network?

In the 2010 movie, future Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg gets an earful from the Boston University coed who’s been dating him.

"You are probably going to be a very successful computer person," Erica says in response to his social and intellectual snobbery. "But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole."

Zuckerberg and Aileen O'Donnell Joachim L'Etoile have never met, but she has her own, nonromantic reasons for loathing Zuck's blithe haughtiness toward other people and their needs---the same famous arrogance depicted in the movie. She told me of the abuse she has suffered from the global media behemoth Zuckerberg controls.

The shameless Zuckerberg, citing phony freedom of speech reasons, thinks it's fine for the Trump campaign and others to be able to lie in paid political ads on Facebook. But obscure people like Aileen---the equivalents of Erica? They must be held to "Community Standards." 

Zuckerberg's arrogance is in the spirit of Leona Helmsley, the hotel boss jailed for tax evasion, who said that "Only the Little People pay taxes." It's also reminiscent of the line in the movie where Zuckerberg says Erica doesn't have to study because "you go to B.U."

Here's what happened to Aileen, who, although a Bernie Sanders delegate from Massachusetts in 2016, is hardly on equal footing with a bully like Zuckerberg and his enforcers.

Zuckerberg's company suspended certain of her Facebook capabilities this week for violating its so-called standards without, she says, giving her a clear reason why. She could not share, post or comment on Facebook. The suspension started Monday night, with notification coming Tuesday morning, and it lasted until Thursday. It was the second suspension Aileen had suffered in the past few weeks. Suspensions of other Sanders boosters stretched out as long as a month. Was all this trouble for the Bernie people a coincidence? Even if not, this wasn't Zuckerberg's company at its best.

Just how had Aileen been so offensive? Did she threaten someone's life or other harm? Hardly. Incite violence? No---unlike Trump who, in his political speeches, uses violent rhetoric and provokes incidents against journalists and political enemies.

How about punishment for posting links to too many news clips, especially without reading them? Aileen admits that's a possibility. I could understand Facebook's hostility toward that. But if so, why didn't Facebook explain the reason before yanking her access? And why did Facebook not suspend Aileen for such conduct before the past few weeks.

What she can recall doing this week was to repost a go-fund-me appeal in the memory of a Sanders supporter who died suddenly. Oh, and she also has posted dangerous content like a video where Sanders invokes Martin Luther King's words in calling for fairer distribution of wealth among Americans. Perhaps Zuckerberg's peons, watching out for their boss, now worth around $75 billion, took offense.

Justified or not, Sanders-related or not, the mysterious suspensions illustrate the difficulties that Trump foes can experience. Zuckerberg is an unapologetic funnel for a well-funded sociopathic liar whose greedster-friendly campaign enjoys massive access without Kafkaesque complications.

With Zuckerberg's reputation in the pits, I'm not surprised that Facebook has announced the creation of what some have dubbed a "Supreme Court for content." Supposedly it can even overrule Zuckerberg. But so what? Could the Supreme Court have immediately stepped in against cryptic, arbitrary enforcement of "community standards" in cases like Aileen's? And as the Columbia Journalism Review notes, the panel won't be "able to adjudicate whether content that wasn’t taken down should have been—such as the video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi that was slowed down to make her appear drunk. Facebook said that this restriction could change over time, but didn’t say when or why."

Some say the content Supreme Court is a positive and shows that Zuckerberg will be more open to regulation of one kind of another. Others say it's a PR sham. I'd emphatically side with the latter.

Just why is Aileen shown the same contempt that the Zuckerberg oozed toward the possibly fictitious Boston University coed in the movie---while Facebook pockets million after million from the ever-lying Trump campaign? "Over the course of 2019, the Trump campaign spent nearly $20m on more than 218,000 different Facebook ads, a new Guardian analysis shows," according to the newspaper. "Among the ads were some of the images and videos that made front-page news for their xenophobic, fear-mongering, vitriolic and outright false rhetoric."

In character for Mark Zuckerberg! A headline in The Atlantic says it all: "Hillary Clinton: Mark Zuckerberg Has ‘Authoritarian’ Views on Misinformation. Facebook has traded moral accountability for commercial gain, the former secretary of state tells The Atlantic. Clinton says Zuckerberg’s reasoning is 'Trumpian.'” Here, I'm convinced, Clinton is absolutely right.

"Listening to Clinton," writes The Atlantic's Adrienne LaFrance, "I was struck by how remarkably similar her account was to something Zuckerberg had once told me. Facts, Zuckerberg had suggested, are best derived from foraging many opinions, ideally from the billions of humans who use his publishing platform, so that each individual might cherry-pick what to believe. (Cherry-pick is my word, not his.) If journalism’s mantra is 'Seek truth and report it,' Facebook’s might be 'Seek opinions and react to them.' 'It’s not about saying, Here’s one view; here’s the other side,' Zuckerberg had said when I’d asked him to reconcile the apparent contradiction between fact and opinion. 'You should decide where you want to be.'”

Clearly Zuckerberg has decided where or what he wants to be: an enabler for Donald Trump, perhaps the third most powerful after "Moscow" Mitch McConnell and the Murdoch family. I don't care who Zuckerberg votes for. Enabling Trump, while harassing ordinary users, is where the money is. Consider, too, the reduced chances of an anti-trust suit from Trump's weaponized Justice Department.

I find Zuckerberg's snobbery toward Erica in the movie to be abominable. But in loathsomeness, it is small potatoes compared to suppressing Aileen---and Trump's other political enemies. I have no doubt that Facebook can also treat Trump allies callously. But the net effect is to favor Trump, because he's allowed to lie with impunity in his online campaign dwarfing his foes'. He ran more than 218,000 Facebook ads last year compared to just 74,000 for the closest Democratic contender, Pete Buttigieg. Trump's dishonesty was an advantage in the permissive Facebook environment for plutocrats and others with money. A Facebook executive has made clear that he won't feel guilty if the giant social media platform again helps elects Trump as president. Wrong! Facebook is not a neutral platform for paid advertisers. It is liar-friendly, a godsend for the unscrupulous.

Alas, the censorship in Aileen's case is ongoing. Just as I was winding down this commentary Thursday, she updated me with the news that "I am restricted from posting in Groups until Sunday at 5:15 a.m. No idea why!!"

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