Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Trump acts and talks like a stand-up comic, but the joke is on the American people

By Marc Jampole

At first listen, Donald Trump’s speaking style when he eschews the teleprompter seems chaotically free form, as if he tossed a few dozen tweets and sound bites into one of his “Make America Great Again” caps and picked a few out, one at a time, not bothering to supply connective material or an overarching direction. But there is a method to Trump’s rhetorical madness—a tried and true method that has been around since at least the British music halls of the 19th century.
It’s called stand-up comedy, a style of public speaking with which voters are familiar from late night comedy shows and prime time specials, a style which generally makes its live and broadcast audiences feel good because it makes them laugh, even when the comic is discussing something serious or infuriating. Talking like a stand-up comic may be as significant a part of Trump’s appeal to his core as his nativism, racism, misogyny and isolationism.
Most elected officials and candidates use the same speaking style, which after salutations and a short joke follows a basic three-part structure: 1) Tell them what you’re going to say; 2) Say it; 3) Tell them what you just said. Within that overall framework, the typical political speech will go from issue to issue. In each part of the speech, the speaker will employ a rather limited set of rhetorical devices: using more words than are necessary as opposed to speaking directly; referencing a mix of anecdotes and isolated statistics; and hedging bets with such weaselly phrases as “anticipate” “start to address” and “return to American traditions.” The speaker typically builds tension through repetition, especially of the first few words of a sentence, as exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream…” speech. For example, in a speech warning of the danger of electing about Trump that Hillary Clinton made in June 2016, she repeated “He said…” to begin a series of five sentences in a row, and later repeated “It’s no small thing…” to begin three sentences in a row. In a typical stump speech, Bernie Sanders would embed the emphatic rendering of the simple phrase, “we are going to” in four or five sentences in a row.
Except for the use of anecdotes and statistics, both often fabricated, Donald Trump rejects this standard stump speech style in favor of stand-up comedy.
We can identify several characteristics of stand-up comedy that Trump has repurposed for the political arena. First and foremost is the lack of a recognizable formal structure in Trump’s rants. The contemporary comic for the most part doesn’t tell traditional jokes, but rambles from topic to topic, free form and without apparent goal, occasionally telling a story or saying something funny or zinging a sacred cow or well-known human foible. You never have the feeling that the contemporary comic is scripted, but rather speaking a spontaneous stream of consciousness rap. And yet she-he manages always to tell the same jokes and even sling the same insults at audience members in all routines. Doesn’t that sound like Trump? For Trump, the jokes are the insults, the zingers, the boasts, the false facts, the inaccurate characterizations and the unrealistic promises. Instead of starting with the standard “Great to be here,” Trump will often begin in the middle of an anecdote, sometimes even borrowing the “A funny thing happened on my way to the show” joke that begins many classic stand-up comedy routines. For example, the first words of his speech of his victory tour, in North Carolina, were “So the weather was really bad, really bad, and they said, ‘You know these are great people in North Carolina. They won’t mind.’ No, but they said, ‘they won’t mind, sir, if you canceled and made it another time.’ And I said, what?”
The contemporary comic will take a complex social issue, reduce it to one or two points which will be inflammatory but not necessarily salient and then melt away our anxiety with simplistic, often aggressive and senseless exhortations. Lewis Black and Chris Rock both take this approach. Doesn’t it also sound like what Trump has done to many issues, for example, reducing the complexities illegal immigration to building a wall and the fight against terrorism to limiting immigration from Muslim countries?
Stand-up comics frequently find humor in playing on stereotypes or insulting people.
Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Ron White, they all reduce people to stereotypes consisting of one or two traits, and then make funny remarks or tell stories that exemplify those traits. It’s what Trump does to issues and to other politicians—“Crooked Hillary,” “Lying Ted, “Little Marco.” While some comedians, such as Don Rickles, Dom Irrera and Lisa Lampanelli, built their routines entirely around insults, most will throw in at least some name-calling, sometimes of the audience, sometimes of well-known people, sometimes of themselves. Insult humor is also a mainstay of situation comedies like “Big Bang Theory,” “Two Broke Girls,” “Everybody Love Raymond” and “Two and a Half Men,” for example.
In stereotyping people, stand-up comics will often briefly leave their own persona by changing their voice and body movements to imitate another person. A wide range of comics will play several parts in their routines, from Bill Cosby to Chris Rock. Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher often breaks into their respective versions of Trump’s voice for a sentence or two. A few extremely gifted mimics like Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams have built their entire routines going from character to character. Some of Trump’s most notorious moments occur when he is briefly playing another person, such as his imitation of a reporter with a physical disability. Trump imitated others in the North Carolina speech referenced above. No other politician of recent vintage would dare take on the voice and gestures of another person.
The contemporary comic is self-referential, either drawing from her or his own life or interrupting a thought process to refer to her or himself—how the performance is going, why something makes the performer angry, the effect of current events on the comic’s personal life or something else just as extraneous to the topic at hand. Those who believe that Trump is unqualified for office because of his instability often cite his extreme narcissism as a character flaw. Many of his lies stem from an irrational desire to self-aggrandize. His early speeches after the inauguration, to the Central Intelligence Agency and members of the military, started with and returned often to his personal issues—poll and voting results and insults he may or may not have hurled. There are many comics who focus on themselves, from Jack Benny to Rodney Dangerfield on to Elaine Boosler, Wendy Liebman, Amy Schumer, Lewis Black and Jeff Foxworthy, among myriad others.
Other than talk-show hosts who pretty much deliver jokes in the tradition of Bob Hope, most contemporary stand-up comedians play a comic character that is a well-known stereotype. There are red-neck comedians like Ron White, Bill Engvall and Jeff Foxworthy. Wendy Liebman and Sarah Silverman are promiscuous Jewish-American princesses. Chris Tucker is an angry black man. Amy Schumer is always a party girl. George Lopez plays a series of Hispanic stereotypes and D. J. Hughley and Eddy Murphy play a series of African-American stereotypes. Playing a role is a cherished tradition of stand-up comedy: Jack Benny was a miser. Red Skelton was a clown. Lenny Bruce was a hipster; Cheech and Chong were dopesters. Irwin Corey was a gasbag.
Trump plays a stereotype character whose roots go back to the Italian commedia dell’arte in the Renaissance. But every comic type with origins of a thousand years will have many manifestations. The left, Democrats, many centrists and the mainstream news media see one version of the classic type upon which Trump has modeled, subconsciously or not, his public person. But Trump supporters saw a different version, comic to be sure, but also heroic.
At essence, Trump is Pantalone—the older, wealthy man, often vain, often a lecher, often a bully, often pompous and ignorant, who usually gets his comeuppance in commedia dell’arte skits, sometimes even wearing the horns of a cuckold. Moliere’s “bourgeois gentleman” is the classic example of this comic type. A friendlier, sunnier and definitely de-sexed precursor to Trump was Ted Baxter of the Mary Tyler Moore show, played by Ted Knight.
Most of the intelligentsia across the political spectrum view Trump as the know-nothing buffoon version of Pantalone, the bourgeois gentleman who thinks he knows more than the dancing, speaking, music and other experts he has hired to aggrandize his reputation, or perhaps a Ted Baxter as a sexual predator.
To New Yorkers, Trump has long been a puffed-up and vain buffoon—a wealthy fool, someone with a lot of money but no taste. Before running for president, the properties he built were garish. His private life exemplified what used to be called the “nouveau riche,” those who have money but spend it tastelessly and foolishly. His “Apprentice” TV show was a parody version of the business world, his gruff and insulting style a parody of a type of executive who is not all that prevalent nowadays, certainly not among public companies responsible to shareholders.
But the rich and pampered oaf is not what his followers saw in Trump. To Trump voters, he was the Rodney Dangerfield and Jackie Mason characters of the two Caddyshack movies of the 1980’s that are still frequently aired on a number of broadcast and cable stations. Both play extremely rich white males who made their money at least partially in real estate development. Their vulgarity, apparent ignorance of social etiquette and kind treatment of the “hired help” turn them into average Joes who are breaking down the barriers of elite institutions. Viewers may laugh at Dangerfield and Mason as they commit social faux pas or make ridiculous statements, but we treat them as heroes who upend the social order for the good of the whole when they insult, trick or defeat pompous and snobby rich folk. There is no difference in what the audience feels for these rich disrupters in the Caddyshack movies from what supporters feel about Donald Trump. In the numerous interviews with core Trump supporters since the election, they forgive his vulgarity and stumbling as part and parcel of his outsider status.
How much has Trump’s stand-up comic style contributed to his success in connecting with enough former Democratic voters to win an electoral majority? Did delivering his nativist, racist, misogynist messages like a comic serve to enhance his dystopic ejaculations? It certainly made them seem “funny” to those who despise so-called “political correctness,” but did his voters respond to the jokes positively, or would Trump have won by a greater margin if he had delivered his material in the traditional style that characterized every other candidate on the campaign trail this year?
The very fact that Trump’s language and rhetoric so little resembles the standard fare certainly contributes to the view that he is a disrupter. That he distills his messages into short statements—be they insults, lies or simplifications—make them easy to remember, transmit on social media and use in television news, which now favors quotes of less than ten seconds. His performance might steal a movie satire of elections. On the other hand, the news media treats his rally speeches and early morning tweet rant as manifestations of instability, inexperience and ignorance.
We can’t really know whether his performance helped him win the election unless a progressive Democrat attempts the same approach. I’m certain that any number of Hollywood and New York comedy writers would love to help a candidate of the left try the stand-up style.
Meanwhile, we can anticipate that Trump is going to ramp up campaign style rallies to rile his base as his ratings continue to tumble and he continues to implement unpopular policies and made racist, sexist and otherwise distasteful statements. Like any stand-up comedian, Trump loves the immediate applause, the laughs and the hoots, the love and attention unmediated by polls, computers, experts or media spins. It’s the love of attention that has Trump now actively seeking deals with the Democrats.
Like any professional comic, Trump’s inventiveness feeds off the audience response. Playing to live audiences will therefore likely incite Trump to make more of the type of embarrassing and ignorant statements that marred his campaign and that he has continued to make in the first year of his administration. In the best case scenarios, Trump or others walk back the assertions he makes via Twitter, news conferences and large rallies by twisting the meaning, denying he said it or quietly restating long-standing American policy. We have already seen this dynamic play out again and again—with North Korea, Charlottesville, transgender military service, Israeli settlements and the one China policy. The worst case scenario, as may happen with DACA, has Trump turn a federal department on its head to implement a legally suspect executive order that hurts individuals and the economy, all so that Trump can say he delivers on a promise he makes in his large tent meetings.
In other words, Trump may talk and and act like a stand-up comedian, but the joke is on the American people and the world.

Monday, September 18, 2017

If the goal is a strong economy, tax reform should lower taxes on poor & raise them on wealthy

By Marc Jampole
Politicians of both parties seem to take for granted the idea that a tax cut leads to economic growth and more jobs. As it turns out, they are only half right. Tax cuts to the poor and middle class lead to growth and jobs. Tax cut on the wealthy create no new jobs and generate no new economic growth.
One reason for this phenomenon is that poor and middle class people spend more of the extra money produced by a tax cut and save little, if any, of it. By contrast, the upper middle class and wealthy will save most of the additional money, typically burying it in deep holes that have no real impact on job creation except when a burst bubble leads to massive layoffs—in stocks on the secondary market, artwork, collectables, real estate and other non-productive investments. Remember that when you buy a share of IBM or Apple, not one penny goes to the company to expand or develop; the company only collects from selling the initial sale of a stock offering.
To understand the other reason that raising taxes on the wealthy creates jobs and economic growth, compare the spending and saving patterns of all people and the government. Poor folk spend a lot, save a little. Even the most spendthrift of rich folk eventually run out of things to buy and end up burying their money in non-productive assets. But the government spends every dollar we send it—circulating trillions of dollars back into the economy by sending checks to millions of individuals and businesses. That spending grows the economy and creates jobs.
While paying a bit more in taxes than a few years ago thanks to Obamacare taxes and the unwinding of some Bush II tax cuts, the wealthy are still paying much less in taxes than they did in the golden age of the American economy, approximately 1945-1975. Compared to other industrialized democracies since the beginning of the 20th century, the current rich in the United States pay historically low rates and amounts.
Economists have discovered that one beneficial side effect of high tax rates on the wealthy is that it leads to greater equity in income and wealth. When the highest incremental tax rate was 90%, executives had less incentive to pay themselves large salaries and so plowed more of their company’s earnings into R&D and salaries and benefits for other employees. As top individual tax rates declined—from Kennedy to Reagan to Bush II—the salaries of top execs soared, while those of everyone else stagnated or diminished. In the 1960’s, for every dollar the average factory worker made, the average chief executive officer made $42. By the 21st century, the ratio exploded to anywhere from $340 to $540 paid to every CEO for a dollar paid to factory workers, depending on the year. In Europe, by the way, the ratio is a much lower 25 to 1! Thus by raising taxes on the wealthy, we will not only give the government more money to spend on education, healthcare, infrastructure, alternative energy development and the social safety net, we will also encourage large companies to invest more and give more to employees, which will grow the economy and reverse decades of growing wealth inequality.
Donald Trump and Republicans are clamoring for a cut in the corporate tax rate. While the rate is high, with all the loopholes and deductions corporations are paying less now than they did 20, 30 and 40 years ago, and, depending on the survey you see, about the same or a little less than corporations pay in the rest of the developed world. It’s those loopholes we have to look at. Which of them serve a policy end and which merely make it easier for corporations to reduce their taxes? Take the social policy of protecting the environment and transitioning to renewable energy. Our current corporate loopholes and deductions heavily favor oil and gas exploration and use. We would be much better off ending all subsidies to the oil and gas industry and replacing them with greater incentives to develop and use alternative energy and pollution-lowering devices and systems. In the end, whatever the set corporate tax rate and systems of deductions, the real rate corporations pay should rise a little, and certainly not be lowered.
One of the big lies of right-wing economic policy is that Americans pay more in taxes than most other countries of the world. We pay very low taxes when compared to the rest of the developed world. The Tax Foundation found that the total tax burden faced by average wage earners in the United States is 31.7 percent of their pretax earnings, which 24th highest of the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), far below the 34-country average of 35.9 percent. Maybe that explains why most of the rest of the industrialized countries have universal health care, better kept roads, more extensive mass transit systems, lower-cost higher education and better retirement plans. According to the Tax Policy Center, total U.S. tax revenue—individual and corporate—now equals 26% of gross domestic product, well below the 34% average for developed countries.
If the goal is to transfer wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy, than the best tax reform is to lower taxes on the wealthy, like Trump and the Republicans seem to want to do.
If, however, the goal is to create more jobs, improve the economy and invest in our future, we should keep taxes as they are on the poor and much of the middle class and raise taxes on the wealthy.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Editorial: Let Our Dreamers Stay

It remains to be seen whether the hurricanes that ravaged the Texas and Florida Gulf coasts will cause Donald Trump to reconsider his dismissal of the effects of climate change. But it might give Trump a pretext to rethink his campaign promises to expand the wall along the length of the US border with Mexico and his determination to expel the children of undocumented immigrants who have remained in the United States under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Trump is capable of mental gymnastics to justify whatever he really wants to do. On Sunday, Sept. 10, Trump cited Hurricane Irma, which had just made landfall in Florida, as his rationale to ask Congress “for a speed up” on his proposed tax cuts for the wealthy.

“We will discussing our plan for dramatic tax cuts and tax reform. And I think now with what’s happened with the hurricane, I’m going to ask for a speed-up,” Trump told his cabinet at Camp David. “I wanted a speed-up anyway but now we need it even more so.”

There was no need for a tax cut before the hurricanes hit the Texas and Florida Gulf coasts. If anything, the federal government needs more revenue to pay for infrastructure improvements, including seawalls and other protections against flooding and higher winds as a result of climate change. And Republicans who voted against $15 billion in emergency appropriations to address needs in Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast because they objected to further driving up the national debt now have no excuse for supporting tax cuts that will increase the debt even further.

The grassroots resistance to Trump has bolstered Democrats’ determination to oppose Republican plans to repeal Obamacare, build a border wall and “reform” the tax code, which would give more advantages to corporations and the rich at the expense of the working poor. Republicans have yet to offer anything but broad concepts on tax reform and many oppose the border wall. And that was before Trump threw Republican leaders for a loop Sept. 6, when he agreed with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to accept a three-month fix on spending and the debt ceiling and a six-month stay of execution on the order to deport as many as 800,000 young “Dreamer” immigrants.

The tax “reform” bill would require a 60-vote supermajority, as long as Senate Republicans keep the filibuster rule on legislation — and many Republican senators want to keep the filibuster because they prefer to let Democrats save them from casting record votes on some of the crazy ideas House Republicans send them.

Trump has given the Republican Congress an ultimatum: Pass a bill within six months that replaces DACA, or Trump will decide whether to scrap the program and start deporting those young would-be Americans. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly pressed Trump to end DACA. House Speaker Paul Ryan has promised a fix, but nativist Republicans such as Steve King (R-Iowa) are vowing to stop anything that looks like amnesty.

In the meantime, US immigration agents continue to round up and deport undocumented immigrants, as well as women and children who have fled murderous gangs and narco-terrorism in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The presence of millions of undocumented immigrants in the US continues to enrage Americans who have seen high-paying industrial jobs moved to Mexico or overseas. As they see it, they have to compete with immigrants who are willing to work for lower wages. But middle-aged white men who don’t want to compete with young Dreamers for minimum-wage jobs at $7.25 an hour should support an increase in the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour and focus their complaints on the corporate executives who look to Mexico or overseas for lower-wage workers to increase their corporate profits. And despite the statement by Sessions, in announcing Trump’s decision to rescind DACA, that the program “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens” stretches the truth, as the Department of Labor reported a 4.4% unemployment rate in August, which is considered full employment, particularly since a record six million jobs remain unfilled in the US. We need immigrants to work on farms and nursing homes, mow lawns, clean hotels and bus tables at restaurants, and do other jobs that Americans won’t do, at least not for the minimum wage.

It is ironic, of course, that many farmers who voted for Trump now find it hard to hire field hands, as ICE agents go after undocumented immigrants. We’ll need all hands available, including undocumented immigrants, to help rebuild cities on the Gulf Coast in Texas and Southern Florida.

Sessions also argued that ending DACA “protects taxpayers,” which is inaccurate since undocumented workers pay taxes but don’t get access to most social welfare programs. DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal means-tested welfare, such as cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid or most other federally funded programs, but the Social Security Administration estimated in 2014 that unauthorized immigrant workers paid $13 billion in payroll taxes in 2010, its most recent estimate. If the immigrants aren’t paying federal taxes, it’s because their employers are not withholding those taxes. Go after them.

Nichole Chavez reported at CNN Sept. 6 that DACA recipients have paid $2 billion in state and local taxes, but they are not eligible for Medicaid. In seven states they do not qualify for lower tuition as state residents, but they must have at least a high-school degree to enter the program and 36% of DACA recipients older than 25 have a bachelor’s degree while another 32% are pursuing a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

“The NAS finds that among recent immigrants who entered as children, those with a high school degree are positive to the government, to the tune of $60,000 to $153,000 in net present value, meaning it’s like each immigrant cutting a check for that amount at the door. For those with a bachelor’s degree, it’s a net positive of $160,000 to $316,000. Each DACA permit canceled is like burning tens of thousands of dollars in Washington,” David Bier of the Cato Institute wrote in the Washington Post Sept. 7.

Sessions also claimed that DACA repeal “saves lives” and “protects communities,” and he implied that DACA “put our nation at risk of crime.” But DACA participants are not criminals, Bier noted. “Unauthorized immigrants — the applicant pool for DACA — are much less likely to end up in prison ... More important, to participate in DACA, applicants must pass a background check. They have to live here without committing a serious offense. If they are arrested, DACA can be taken away even without a conviction.”

The Senate in June 2013 passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill 68-32, as 14 Republicans joined the then-Democratic majority. The bill, proposed a pathway to legal status and eventually citizenship for undocumented residents with otherwise clean records, as well as more resources for border security, but not a bigger wall along the US-Mexico border. Teabaggers prevented the bill from coming up for a House vote, and that failure in the House prompted Obama to order DACA.

Congress should pass a law formalizing the DACA provisions, but they also should dust off the 22013 immigration reform bill and put it forward again. It could easily pass the Senate and it would pass the House if House Speaker Paul Ryan denies the teabaggers’ veto of bipartisan legislation. We don’t need a border wall, certainly not as long as there are cities along the Gulf Coast — as well as the Atlantic and Pacific coasts — that desperately need infrastructure improvements to survive the next few decades of rising sea levels and fiercer storms induced by climate change. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2017

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Selections from the October 1, 2017 issue

COVER/Steven Rosenfeld
Trump’s banishment of Dreamers may become GOP’s worst nightmare


EDITORIAL
Let our Dreamers stay


LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

DON ROLLINS
Economic sanctions in fact and fiction


DISPATCHES
Scientists minimized Irma’s damage, but Trump policies make future storms riskier;
Right-wing media pushed fa?
Sanders' single-payer bill gains Democratic support;
Evangelical preachers have one weak excuse after another for sticking with Trump;
Former rail exec in line to head pipeline safety agency;
Controversial pick for civil rights chief appears headed for confirmation ...


ART CULLEN
Try running like a Democrat for a change


JILL RICHARDSON
Trigger happy with toxins


GRASSROOTS/Hank Kalet
Nativism is alive in the White House


GENE NICHOL
Seeing Ricsy Sanchez


JOHN YOUNG
Meet human needs? Nah, let’s play tea party games


ROBERT BOROSAGE
When the parades are over, who stands with unions?


SETH SANDRONSKY
This is your brain playing football, research says


HAL CROWTHER
Horse and buggy politics


HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Our kaleidoscope-in-chief: Below-the-fold havoc


SAM URETSKY
Trump protects Confederate statues but puts natural monuments at risk


WAYNE O’LEARY
Trumplandia


JOHN BUELL
Harvey: None dare speak its real causes


MARK ANDERSON
Guaranteed income could be a game changer


ROB PATTERSON
Lyrics swing low


MOVIES/Ed Rampell
New biopic chronicles UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, working class heroine


SATIRE/Rosie Sorenson
What Donald Trump and Republican men know about women


and more ...