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When he was campaigning in New York, Bernie Sanders visited an art gallery in Brooklyn hosting a show dedicated to works that he had inspired. They were, as you’d expect, creative and iconic (see the video here). While Senator Sanders is human, and no doubt humbled and flattered, he should also have been more than a little worried because these artists, like so many of those who have been swept up in his campaign, clearly have lost the plot. The very worst thing that can happen to Sanders’ “Revolution” is exactly what is happening- instead of building a viable political movement, it’s become a hero worshiping cult of personality.
The most surprising thing about Sanders’ astonishing rise to national prominence has been how disciplined he was been on his message, speech and demeanor. Like him or not, you have to be impressed by this, how a man who toiled in almost abject anonymity, and essentially regarded as a crank and a crackpot over a career of fifty odd years suddenly became a media superstar, going from speeches in strip mall parking lots and the back rooms at Denny’s to stadiums filled with tens of thousands of rabid fans. Few of us can even begin to imagine what it’s like to be him right now, which is what makes his ascent and iron discipline all the more incredible. And even the most rabid Hillary Clinton supporter, to say nothing of the Clintons themselves, must know that beyond the network of “the establishment” of the Democratic party, the calendar is their primary weapon. Like a boxer on the ropes who is ahead on points, the sound of the bell can’t come soon enough, and fortunately for Ms. Clinton, it is about to sound.
The real question then for Bernie Sanders is, then what? He has far too much money and momentum to just quit the race, but he is clearly not going to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, and never really had a serious shot at it. Not only has Sanders never been a member of the party, declining its many invitations to join, but Ms. Clinton and her husband have spent twenty five years reshaping the party- and its donors and power networks in their own image. Her success in the southern red states with African American voters, for example, was less about her connection with voters per se than about her long connection with the pastors, churches and local politicians and their get-out-the-vote networks. There are no art galleries doing Hillary Clinton installations.
At some point, Sanders will hopefully realize he really has only one path moving forward and it’s one that is not about him but about the longer term. A third party run is out of the question however tempting it may appear to anyone involved in his campaign. Even the optimistic prospect of draining support equally from Clinton and Trump, still leaves the prospect of none of the candidates getting to 270 electoral votes, which would throw the presidency to the House- and literally Paul Ryan- to decide, which would create a national constitutional crisis. Sanders’ options are further narrowed by having joined and sworn allegiance to the Democratic Party in order to make this run for the party’s nomination. To turn back and bail back out now to start a new party would look opportunistic to put it mildly.
And herein lies the rub with any “revolution”- moving past the revolt stage to creating a functioning establishment of its own, which Sanders had hoped he could do from the OVal Office. Historically this transition has never gone well, as most revolutions tend to end up in totalitarianism, more often than not around the cult of a charismatic leader, from Napoleon onward. Those that lacked charismatic leadership, such as the recent events in Egypt’s Tahrir Square for example, fizzle out.
Sanders not going to be president and has to choose between four bad options. He’s already ruled out a murder-suicide pact third party run, for the White House, so there’s the first down. He’s not just been an outsider from the Democratic Party for his entire career, he’s been at public odds with the party and virtually everything about it. Were he forty-four instead of seventy four, he might have been able to lead a revolution inside the party, but he simply does not have the time to do that even if he could manage the organization that would be required. At 74 years old, Sanders is clearly not going to be that leader if transforming the Democratic Party along the model of his own campaign and ideas- a long and grinding job of sacking the money changers from the temple, even if it were possible- is the goal. There’s number two down. He could turn and back away from the Democratic Party with a Trumpesque declaration of “unfairness” and indeed start a new party and engage in a generation-long war of attrition with the Democrats, which would require all of the nuts and bolts of establishing a party structure. There is option three, but it would be a gargantuan undertaking.
Which brings us back to the Brooklyn art gallery. Bernie Sanders has indeed created a movement, but the reality is that it is not a political revolution, at least not yet. While he has been joined by several organizing groups such as Democracy for America, the big crowds, the Facebook posts, the bumper stickers and yard signs did not translate into actual votes, even accounting for the shortcomings of the primary system- which should not be surprising given he was not just taking on the Clinton machine but was not even a member of the party he’s running in- but it is the case nevertheless. Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee short of an indictment over her email server, and with no third party option or other avenue, Bernie Sanders will assume the loyal role of campaigning for her, and then he will go back to being the senator from Vermont. Most of his supporters will be deflated and probably vote for Clinton to avoid Trump or worse, and the whole “Berniemania” episode will shrink in our national rear view mirror as it will be eagerly encouraged to do as it is trivialized by an entrenched establishment from Washington to Wall Street to the the six major corporations that own the mainstream media. The only question left is will it have made any difference in the long run, and that will be answered by anyone who steps up to continue his Democratic Socialist movement- and his model of direct funding by actual people- and to grow it into a functional political entity, almost certainly a new political party. It would mean new leaders willing, ready and able to reject the system as it currently runs- and reject the many monetary and other offers that will be offered to sabotage them as they emerge- to build it. And it will require Sanders himself stepping up to help in that process.
Sadly for us all, the gruesome and terrible images coming out of Lahore are now all too familiar. These incidents, and the pictures that come out of them, have almost become white noise to most people- except of course those who are actually involved. Boko Haram just burned children alive- killing a shocking 86 people. Burned. Alive. No doubt you don’t, or can’t, ponder that- 86 children being burned alive- for even a moment. It’s horrific beyond most human imagining. The bombing in Lahore, however, brings a bitter irony to Pakistan because that country is literally both the original source and the continued sponsor of the disease of modern Islamic terrorism.
History is filled with incidents and decisions that seemed insignificant at the time, but turned out to be of incalculable importance. One was the decision by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to pass over six superior officers to appoint General, Muhammad Zia ul-Haq the next Chief of Army Staff- in practical terms to be Bhutto’s second in command. Bhutto had come to power himself five years earlier in the wake of the failures of successive military dictatorships on the promise of returning the country to democracy, a promise that had yet to show any signs of materializing. Bhutto, always naturally fearing the next military coup, made the calculation that given Zia’s deeply held religious convictions he would be less likely to stage one than the rest of the generals. He could not have been more wrong, and Bhutto himself became the first casualty of his disastrous miscalculation.
It’s easy to understand Bhutto’s mistake. Military dictators, as a general rule, are very predictable. They are not ideologues or nationalists and uniformly simply seek personal power manifest in a cult of self. Once they get it, keeping it is all they generally care about. They typically surround themselves with luxury, and dispense it to those around them to maintain their regimes. But most importantly they are risk adverse focusing instead on the conservative and the pragmatic and predictable maintenance of power- which is why they have always been so attractive to Western powers. The United States in particular not only actively sought relationships with military dictators, it used the CIA to facilitate their ascent to power- from Carlos Castillo Armas in Guatemala (“Operation Washtub”) to Augusto Pinocet in Chile (“Operation Condor”) to the Shah in Iran (“Operation Boot” in conjunction with the British) It should be noted that all three of these CIA operations focused on carrying out the murder of foreign leaders- Arbenz, Allende and Mossadeq- respectively. President Eisenhower justified these murders and operations, in painful irony, because he hoped to avert another world war with “communists” and because dictators are easy to make deals with. They are personally greedy and not generally adverse to selling out their countrymen in trade and natural resource deals, especially when you help keep them in power.
Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, however, was not like other dicators. He cared nothing for luxury and instead subscribed to the most radical, fundamentalist and puritanical Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam. In a historical coincidence, after the December 1979 Soviet attack on Afghanistan, it was to Zia that the United States, and Saudi Arabia, turned with the most powerful weapon they possessed- money. In addition to arms and cash to fight the Soviets, the Saudis chose to spread radical Wahhabi ideology into Pakistan through funding front group “charities” such as the Muslim World League, the International Muslim Relief Organization and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan, always seen by the Pakistanis as their front yard, raised the battle cry “Allah Akbar” (God is Great). Billions of Western dollars funneled through Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Service Intelligence) funded schools to teach Wahhabi ideology to the next generation of Pakistani children who would grow up to become the Taliban, which was used to attack and dominate the otherwise moderate Afghan people. The additional financial resources of a Saudi radical named Ossama bin Laden, a new group called al Queda was born, which in turn would spawn its own progeny, ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, Boko Haram and others.
What makes this all the more incredible and tragic is that it has continued, unabated. As you read this, the United States and Saudi Arabia continue to fund these radical groups through the ISI, the Pakistani military secret intelligence apparatus. The schools and networks that support the Taliban in Afghanistan, al Queda in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere- and even ISIS- are still headquartered and anchored in Pakistan, feeding off international aid- even the bulk meant to go to Afghanistan continues to be routed through the ISI.
The reasons for this, even more tragically, are not a “conspiracy theory.” Conspiracies take imagination, planning and work- which is why they are so rare in real life. Instead the very opposite is the reality- bureaucratic inertia. The reality of international interaction is structures and networks of contacts upon which careers, small and large, are built and maintained. They do not shut down easily, especially when they facilitate the transference of billions of dollars passing through a sea of outstretched hands, each set of which develops it’s own network. These networks can’t be turned off without created even more havoc, and that which politicians hate more than anything- uncertainty. And so, they continue, like a heroin addiction.
And so now the people of Pakistan are getting a taste of the horrors their government has spent a generation exporting throughout the Middle East- and most devastatingly to its neighbor Afghanistan who has suffered almost two full generations of torture and murder at the hands of Pakistani operatives. And, most tragically of all- there is no end in sight. Like mass shootings in America, events like this- and their inexorable spread- are simply becoming accepted parts of life in the world. We turn our faces away from ISIS and Boko Haram and listen to politicians and media figures, almost none of whom understand the region, regurgitate useless and facile talking points while “arms” continue to be sold to the worst actors, “foreign aid” checks continue to be written, and literal suitcases filled with cash, continue to be delivered and the bloody cycle grinds on unabated.
Will anything ever change? Yes, eventually, change is inevitable and no one should be more worried than the Saudi Royal Family, because the entire relationship between the West and Middle East- from the CIA, MI6 and Israel’s Mossad- is built upon them and their networks. When the day comes, as it surely will, when the Saud family are the ones getting their heads lopped off by an ISIS type group who ascend to power over all that oil and wealth, the world will indeed change, and in unpredictable ways that politicians so hate.
There was a reason those who negotiated the founding of the United States of America limited the vote to those men who owned land- they didn’t trust those who didn’t, to say nothing of women and slaves. Their biggest fear was some pamphleteering rabble-rousers who threatened them and their wealth accessing power. But it was more than just a threat to their material wealth, they also believed that the common people lacked the sophistication to understand the issues of the day, and were the last people that should have decision making power. In the two hundred and fifty plus years since the nation’s founding there have been many who have continued to echo that sentiment. But had you suggested to members of the Constitutional Congress that an actor might capture the imaginations of the public and the voters, such was the low general regard for the acting profession, they would certainly have laughed. It was writers they worried about because writers are thinkers and pamphlets were the media of the day.
But that is exactly what happened in the California governor’s race in 1966. An actor named Ronald Reagan with no political experience at all used his celebrity, the generous backing of the many corporate interests whose favor he ingratiated, and most importantly his visual media skills to become the governor of the state. He came to the job equipped with a few rough outlines of ideology and years of practice in front of a camera and microphone and from day one on the job, he had no idea at all what he was doing. Actual public policy was not just far beyond his intellectual grasp, but also his interest. He rarely read anything and happily delegated the part of the job that required thought and study, but always had his scissors ready for the ribbon cutting photo op.
Fourteen years later he was ready for the biggest stage of all, the presidency of the United States, and he brought his well honed skill set to the race- he memorized his lines and pithy one-liners and acted the simple but convicted tough guy in front of flags and balloons. But in the years as governor of California, he had learned almost nothing about the dry business of actual governing and public policy. He promised to make America “Great again,” but not surprisingly, with no understanding of the actual systems of governing, he had no idea what to do. Instead, his self-interested backers took over and ordered billions of dollars worth of military equipment the country didn’t need, paying themselves handsomely, and even going so far as to con him with a cartoon about a futuristic “Star Wars” missile defense system that was pure fantasy. They then borrowed from the Social Security fund to subsidize dramatically cutting their own tax burden. The deficit, predictably, skyrocketed. Without a manager cat at the top of the organizational chart, corruption blossomed as the mice began financial, ideological and illegal rogue operations that defied the law to launder money, and among other things, trade arms to Iran in return for hostages and illegally fund the Contra rebels. All of this resulted in the investigation, indictment, or conviction of over 138 administration officials, the largest number for any US president. But, of course, he is not remembered by the American public for his blank stares and fumbling for words or the epic corruption and graft, he is remembered for the flags and the balloons. That is his great legacy, and this willful negligence is what paved the way for worse.
Fast forward to 2016 and now the bar is being lowering still further from a dimwitted actor who had at least occupied a governor’s mansion to a game show host who wants to stride directly from the sound studio into the Oval Office like a colossus. Like Reagan, Donald Trump brings his media skills and a simplistic view of governance to the presidential contest. Modeling himself on Reagan, Trump claims to be a strong “I’ll show ’em who’s the boss” style leader who can “make America great again,” but offers only the vaguest of generalities for not only how to achieve that goal, but what that goal even is. What “greatness” has America lost? What “great things” would he bring, and how would he bring them? Trump complains about “trade deals” endlessly, for example, but has yet to propose any solutions or changes. Like Reagan, Trump doesn’t see the need to actually understand public policy, that’s the sort of tedious work you hire people like tax accountants and plumbers to do.
Like Reagan, only with even less subtlety, Trump expresses the vile idea that what made America “great” in the past was its domination by “white” people of European descent in a mythical land of two car garages and milk and cookies after school. America was “great” when people of color lived on their own sides of town and were only seen carrying trays and railroad luggage- or not seen at all as they labored in the fields and orchards. Where Reagan used coded terms like “welfare queen,” to express his racism, Trump comes right out and claims Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and literally “rapists.” Trump either has zero shame, or he is a very shrewd judge of the character of much of the American electorate. An exceedingly ugly proposition either way given his astonishing success.
But unlike Reagan, who was not only a pedestrian intellect to start with but was almost certainly suffering symptoms from Alzheimer’s virtually throughout his presidency, Trump is a shrewd operator and a control freak. Where Reagan’s administration, and life, was heavily and infamously managed by his controlling and domineering wife, Trump runs his own show like a mafia don. Where Reagan rarely read any briefing materials and paid little attention during policy discussions, and relished his more ceremonial roles, Trump actually believes in his own intelligence and likely his own infallibility. This should scare people, and scare them deeply.
While it is highly unlikely that Trump will prevail in November, if he does, America may learn a very hard, perhaps even tragic, lesson in democracy and the increasingly widening gap between what it takes to become president versus what it takes to actually be president.
The sudden death of Justice Anton Scalia has dropped an already bizarre and surreal presidential election season into warp speed into the Twilight Zone. Whereas the Supreme Court has always been a peripheral issue in presidential politics, it’s always been one step removed and too abstract for the average voter. But that is no longer the case because suddenly the politics of the court for the next generation is on the line. Like it or not, the American electorate is about to get a Civics lesson.
The most important dynamic for both parties is now the status of their leading outsiders. With Trump soaring and Hillary floundering, the prospect of a Trump versus Sanders November showdown is becoming closer and closer to reality- helped along by a gleeful press corps that can already taste the ratings boon it would be. No one can possibly predict the outcome of a Trump versus Sanders final- so much relies how either of them would win and on the wildcards of what happens around the world. With Trump looking increasingly likely to emerge from the Republican circus of losers, the real question for Democrats is what do to about Hillary. Scalia’s death should give many Democrats ready to roll the dice and jump on the Bernie Revolution Bandwagon pause. What if he turned out to be like another Democratic candidate that rode to the nomination of his party on the backs of enthusiastic young people- George McGovern- who got historically crushed once the general election season came? The very thought of Donald Trump in the Oval Office reviewing Supreme Court candidates- let alone anywhere near any sort of nuclear trigger- is the stuff of night sweats and Pepto-Bismal. It would trigger a flood of passport applications.
But the sobering question for Democrats also has to be- would Hillary really be a better, safer or stronger candidate than Sanders? It might seem absurd to Democrats over 40, but it is a real and valid question. Just weeks into the primary season, Bill Clinton is again grinding his teeth and his wife’s campaign is- once again- embroiled in discord and sending out mayday signals. Her attempt to replay the ’08 campaign is yielding the same results- “inevitability” dissipating to reveal a deeply flawed candidate. Perhaps even a hopeless one. To make matters worse, there is the additional investigations of her private email server- another showing of inexplicably bad judgement on her part- compounded by her Nixonian responses which illustrate nakedly exactly why so many people do not trust her, and even detest her. Her like/don’t like and trust/don’t trust- always essential readings into a presidential candidate’s viability- are horrendous. Could she put all of this behind her, and could the party activists move over to her camp from their Democratic Socialist dream? Could the Democratic party, with a smiling and supportive Sanders, stage a Hillary Love Fest at their convention, complete with Fleetwood Mac and go into November unified and formidable? As unlikely as that sounds, is this even the party’s best- and only- real hope to keep the presidency in Democratic hands to be able replace not only Scalia, but also Ginsburg’s seat which will sadly undoubtedly become vacant in the next few years?
The reality of 2016 for even the most partisan Democrat is that the party does not have a solid and reliable nominee available. That is the stark reality. What it is is a party now torn in half by two opposite candidates and camps- and increasingly bitterly so. Sanders has the radical politics- and his detractors are right that no one has even begun to unload the heavy, negative “crazy communist” artillery on him yet. But he has personal integrity and even those opposed to his politics, and even who dislike his cranky old man “get off my lawn” demeanor, concede that he is an honest man who believes what he says. Ms. Clinton is the diametric opposite, a tested poll watcher who guards a zealously vague and middling political course that reveals as little as is possible to maximize her potential support- and more importantly to minimize vulnerabilities. She is the quintessential stuff of the opaque, big money driven presidential politics of the past- but startlingly few people trust her personally or believe she has integrity. That’s a problem. Sure, one could argue, no one “trusts politicians,” and even so oily and repellent a figure as Richard Nixon won the White House, so she’s not that bad.
The answer for Democrats will become apparent in the next few weeks- and the question will not be about Sanders or Clinton- it will about about where the American electorate is. Have those who supported Barack Obama had their appetites whetted for real reforms by his mixed result presidency? Are they now ready to push forward boldly with Bernie Sanders? And are Republican voters so alienated from the establishment of both the government and their own party that they are also ready to get behind a more radical candidate- even if it’s a goon like Trump? And will the Supreme Court really matter all that much to these voters? With every passing day, the answer looks more certainly to be a bipartisan shunning of everything establishment and the impulse of both party establishments to try to engineer a safer, more traditional presidential candidate to have the chance to reshape the Supreme Court for a generation- or it could well be the real path to defeat in November in an America they no longer recognize.
Even though after her New Hampshire humiliation, Hillary Clinton still has the deck stacked in her favor to win the Democratic nomination, nothing spoke to the sad trajectory of her second bid for the White House than the tone-deaf rants from 70’s feminist icon Gloria Steinem and hedge fund manager Madeline Albright. Both came off like female versions of John McCain in his bathrobe as they wagged their fingers at the next generation of women for being ingrates who care more about chasing boys than respecting their elders. It was a sad display of generational detachment that is emblematic of why Clinton’s presumptuous campaign has foundered. The world has moved on, as it always does, leaving old people to grouse about being the recipients of the very same disrespect they themselves heaped on to the old people of their youth. America has always been a youth and vitality oriented culture, so this should be no surprise- but it is, for every ensuing generation who are shocked that no one cares about “back in the day” stories. Young girls do chase boys, and boys do chase girls- and now boys are free to chase boys, and girls to chase girls and few of them take time to appreciate those who came before them. Welcome to 21st Century America- same as it ever was.
Once America’s press and media corps stop gaping and fawning over the giant orange turd named Trump who has blotted out the Sun with his truck stop political solutions and live decapitation ratings, they may finally get around to the really astonishing story of the 2016 election race- the collapse of the two major, ossified political parties. What was supposed to be a pedestrian stroll by the two establishment figures in either party, with the powerful legacy names and even more powerful bankrolls, simply blew up as two of the least likely outsiders- neither even a member of the party- have taken over the leadership and momentum of the race for not just the White House, but the hearts and minds of the American people. Where the demise of Jeb! Bush was swift- he barely made it out of the corner of the ring before he face planted, the struggles of Hillary Clinton are, like all things Clintonian, fraught with outsize drama and an acid rainstorm of bitterness. As was recommended in this column more than two years ago, Secretary Clinton should never have run for the presidency again. When she left the Obama Administration she was one of the most admired people in the world and a pioneer for American women. She could have retired as a cherished American icon. Instead, if the Sanders contagion spreads, she could very likely emerge from a grinding and agonizing slog as a two-time frontrunner who snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. A loser. But even if she does go on to win, with great help from establishment “super delegates,” it will be ugly.
Some of this will, of course, be her own fault. She should have won in 2008, and it took a remarkable series of blunders to lose to an upstart, first-term senator, however charming. Hiring a dimwitted toad and political hack like Mark Penn to run her campaign was at the top of the list, but that was her moment and she fumbled it- and fumbled it very, very badly, displaying terrible judgement at every turn. But now there is an even bigger problem for her. While she was doing all the things she thought presidential candidates needed to do- raise money and maneuver the establishment of her party, lock up “super delegates,” etc- the political ground shifted under her feet and she didn’t see it happen. Like Louis XVI, she one day looked out her her carriage and was shocked to find the people holding torches and pitchforks. While thankfully she will not meet Louis’ gruesome end, her time nevertheless has passed. While she remains a brilliant and formidable political mind, and would probably be a very effective president, she is now a relic of the past fading in our national rear view mirror.
But wait, I can hear you say, how can her problem be that she is a relic when the person who has taken over the Democratic race is even older than she is? The answer is simply that Ms. Clinton’s problem is not simply calendar age but being- no matter now disingenuously she tries to deny it- at the very front of “The Establishment” She is to the Democratic Party what Pablo Escobar was to the cocaine smuggling business and it has lost all credibility and has run itself in the ground.
“The Game,” in her husband’s day was about raising money, triangulating issues, watching polling data and raising more money. The recipe for Bill Clinton’s success was a simple one- posture to the left with ample servings of bromides, while disarming and cuddling with establishment wealth to navigate a middling and amoral path to electoral success. Barack Obama followed this outline too, but turned out to actually mean more of what he said- championing Speaker Pelosi’s health care plan and shutting down George W. Bush’s Hellscape, winless, inferno wars. His tenure will rightly be remembered as the “clean up on isle White House” presidency, but he set the table for more change, not less. This, pandering rhetoric aside, is what Hillary never really understood. She is still living in Bill and Rahm’s world of shameless, money grubbing, 90’s politics.
The politics of the past no longer work in America, however, and no one is more representative of that than the Clintons and the machine they built- with a voracious appetite for money that endlessly vacillates on directions and qualifies outcomes without the benefit of a moral compass. Out of the ashes of the cynicism of Clintonism have come two very different phoenixes- a model of integrity who has never wavered from his moral center and never taken a dime of corporate money and…well, Donald Trump, a person with a “let me just tell ya” political philosophy barked from a bar stool who hates anyone colored like a paper bag or darker and is so obtuse and stupid that it’s literally hard to know where to start without putting on rubber gloves and turning your face away.
But in the final analysis, for all her failings- her disgraceful judgement over the Iraq War at the top of the list- Hillary Clinton should never be remembered as a loser. She has faced, and battled, an unyielding and unprecedented attack on her person for twenty five years- and the vast, vast majority has been unwarranted, unfair and untrue. Brett Arends lists the absurdities beautifully. She is a brilliant legal and policy mind, if like her husband, not a foreign policy expert (the list of clueless blunders she shares with her husband on the foreign policy front, which paved the way for most of today’s global miseries, await a future column). But one can say with confidence that she didn’t shoot Vince Foster in the park and does not feast nightly on the flesh of late-term abortions. She did, however, put herself into too many morally dubious ethical and financial arrangements to ever enjoy- even should she win the presidency- the full confidence of the American people. She will always be perceived as being of suspect moral character.
The best we can all hope for is that the next generation- the ones that rightly roll their eyes at Steinem and Albright- builds upon her legacy and will learn the value of values and integrity in the political process. Money in the system turns out not the be as important as everyone assumed and actual values and conviction are actually kinda important. And that is a good and hopeful thing.
And so, the shiny, grotesquely gaudy Trump mylar balloon finally comes to its deflated end. Will Trump go on to win New Hampshire in a week? He may, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t because his campaign, which is hardly even a fitting term for his buffoonery, is over. Had he won in Iowa by more than a few points, Trump certainly would have gone on to New Hampshire and then South Carolina and would have had real momentum, and his national embarrassment would have continued for a while. He would have done well in the Southern states, though almost certainly he would not have lasted to see the balloon drop at the convention in Cleveland.
There are many reasons for Trump’s collapse, but sadly, being the flag bearer for the very worst and most unamerican traits is not first on the list. Trump could have very successfully incorporated his racist and xenophobic themes into a very long and successful campaign, and could have taken that message all the way to the Republican Convention floor and won there. It was not his message of intolerance that did him in- and that is a tragedy. What kept him from every gaining real traction with real voters was that he never developed a real message or actually built a campaign. It was all just fun and games, a thrilling romp through a narcissistic fantasy- but it was never anything more than that.
Trump never listened to anyone because, like a lot of successful business people, he never thought he had to. He was so convinced of his own righteousness- which was endlessly reinforced by crowds of thousands of adoring and chanting fans- that he became convinced he was like the Kaaba in the center of Mecca, and that all he had to do was be there and the faithful would come to worship in their millions. Though he put a lot of fear into a lot of folks- wealthy establishment Republicans probably more than anyone else- the reality is that no one is the history of American democracy has been the Kaaba. It just doesn’t work that way.
The prosaic, unshakable reality of America presidential politics is the organized ground game. What really elects people to the nation’s highest office is an army of devoted, unpaid folks who knock on doors and make phone calls. That- and nothing else- is what actually works. Yes, a candidate has to have the rest of the package- public speaking skills, media charisma and a compelling narrative and message. But without the organized door knockers, they can never win over the long haul. Someday, when people can all vote on the Internet, that will be different, but that day is not coming anytime soon. Barack Obama understood this, and that’s why he’s just wrapping up his second term as president.
What Trump, and so many ego-driven others before him, never wanted to accept is that in order to have a winning ground game, you have to hire an experienced political staff who knows how to run one- and they are not cheap and you have to leave them to it and not interfere. People like Trump- business people- generally find this impossible to do. They are used to knowing how their business works, being on top of it and relying on their own decisions and judgement. Being in the position of having to write big, fat checks to people they don’t know who are doing jobs they don’t understand is really, really hard for them. Trump’s biggest expenditure? $1.2 million- on hats. Hats he understands. Voter data and actual outreach, not so much.
For all of its many shortcomings, American democracy at the presidential level is not fertile soil for those who rely on the cult of their own personality alone. While many issues get people riled up, in order to win there also has to be a coherent and understandable message and comprehensive plan for governing. A candidate has to have answers not just to the hot button issues, but to the wide and complex landscape of problems and day to day decisions that a government must make to keep running. Most of it is deadly dull and the mastery of it takes a career, which is why so few people make their way all the way up the food chain to become serious candidates for the presidency. “Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it,” will appeal to the losers on the political spectrum, but thankfully, America is not in economic free fall and losers who use their welfare money to buy “Make America Great Again” hats a big enough voting block to elect a president. At least not yet.
Will Trump hang around? Yes, certainly for a while unless his collapse is so swift that he loses in New Hampshire, then he will throw in the towel to avoid further embarrassment. It won’t be fun for him anymore, and that’s what this is all about. And losing is no fun.
Iowa is nationally known for several things, corn, Jesus loving people who eat all manner of fried things on sticks, and their outsized role in the selection of American presidents. While generally overrated, that role has never been more crucial than it is in 2016 because this year it could very likely prove definitive for both parties.
For Republicans, Iowa has not been serious or important for several cycles. The Republican caucus-goers have skewed so radically towards the hardest core Evangelicals that national no-hopers like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have been the winners. In 1988, Televangelist, and all around national treasure, Pat Robertson fared a decisive 7 points higher than George Bush Sr., and in 1996 Bob Dole barely beat Pat Buchanan by a mere 3 points. You get the pattern.
2016, however, poses a very different decision because of the looming presence of Donald J. Trump. Trump can be called many things, but “Evangelical” is not one of them. Ash he has unwittingly demonstrated in several interviews, he has almost no familiarity with the Bible. Head bowing, Christian radical Rafael “Ted” Cruz should be the runaway leader in Iowa in a normal cycle, especially after winning the prized endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, but he has remained in a virtual tie with Trump. This has the Republican establishment, the donors and office holders, sweating because it means Trump’s bare knuckles message of snarling pseudo-fascist racism, which has long been the conveniently silent moral underpinning of the Republican brand, has come belching to the surface and has so engulfed the party that even the crucifix clutchers have to take a back seat. That would be a stunning outcome.
A Cruz victory, as loathed as he is by virtually everyone within his party and the halls of government, can simply be written off as another Christian crackpot winning a home game. A Trump victory, however, would be a show of brute electoral strength in unlikely territory which would be followed a week later by a huge win in New Hampshire and another in South Carolina ten days after that. He is currently up 13 points in Nevada which votes three days later and then on to Super Tuesday. A win in Iowa makes Trump almost unstoppable unless he stops himself.
For the Democrats, Iowa has been more relevant. Other than in 1988 and 1992, the eventual nominee has won the Iowa caucuses going back to Jimmy Carter, and in both ’88 and ’92 those cases local favorite sons Dick Gephardt and Tom Harkin prevailed. But it is no overstating it to say that Iowa was essential to Barack Obama, who almost certainly would not have become president had he not won Iowa in 2008. Hillary Clinton, then as now, was deemed the unstoppable force that only need to trot the course to her coronation. She did not even try very hard, and her campaign, which proved to be stunningly inept at every turn, didn’t consider the momentum Obama would get out of Iowa. She barely squeaked out a win in New Hampshire, but the damage was done and she never regained her footing. This year, she learned her lesson and has invested significant resources into the state, opening offices and hiring staff. She knows she can’t afford to lose, because she’s already behind in New Hampshire. Starting 0-2 would feel like instant replay and she can’t have that happen because it would once again expose the essential problem with Ms. Clinton- she has never been a good candidate or politician. Her strength has always been the organization that she and her husband have built over the twenty five years since they emerged out of the backwater of Arkansas. She and her husband embraced the cynical ethos of Bill’s 1992 finance director, Rahm Emanuel, that money, and not issues, is what really matters in politics. Bill Clinton hardly needed convincing, haven already eagerly climbed into bed with Don Tyson, creating tax-free zones that would help Tyson’s Chicken become the mega-corporation that it is today at the expense of farmers and the environment.
The other great problem with the Clintons has historically been what Winston Churchill sarcastically called being “economical with the truth.” The both lie, and lie bald faced and win impunity. From Bill’s infamous finger wagging denial of “having sex with that woman,” or definition of “what ‘is’ is” to Hillary’s stunning account of surviving sniper fire as her plane landed in Bosnia in 1996 as first lady, the list is long and it is not lost on the American people. Her recent episodes around her private email server offer more example of lies, and the point is that people simply do not trust or believe her. Not a good quality in a politician- especially one facing Bernie Sanders, who for all his challenges, is universally respected for integrity.
While an Iowa win for Sanders, does not make him the juggernaut a win there would make Trump, it would very likely still be a blow Clinton could not recover from. Where Sanders support comes from a rock solid base of over two million folks who have given him money, Clinton relies on Wall Street and other corporate donors and the establishment of her party, and that is soft ground to stand on indeed. What folks in any political establishment care about more than anything else is staying there, and loyalty to Ms. Clinton is predicated on facilitating that. If the Clinton ship begins to take on water, especially after having sunk so spectacularly once before, the rush for the lifeboats will come almost instantly and it will be a stampede.
If Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both win Iowa, the country will very likely be facing the most polarizing presidential election since Lincoln and Breckinridge in 1860. With Trump in the mix, it will be far more vulgar and nasty to put it mildly, perhaps rivaling only the infamous Jefferson/Adams race of 1800 for sheer vitriol- only with 24/7 media to spread the fertilizer constantly and evenly until November. Wouldn’t that be fun?
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