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Opinion: Trump and the upside-down world

Opinion by Richard Galant, CNN

(CNN) — The title on the cover of Cass R. Sunstein’s 2021 book, “This is not normal,” is printed upside down. If it were a US flag, the inverted positioning would signal “distress or great danger.”

The legal scholar and behavioral economics pioneer starts his book with the idea that what is considered normal can shift with the political and cultural context of the times. But he argues that however threatened it is right now, “democracy is the best form of government” given its emphasis on the “equal dignity” of people.

“It is a luxury, and a blessing, to be able to take it as normal,” Sunstein writes.

When the Republican candidates gathered for their first primary debate in Milwaukee on August 23, it was still possible to perceive glimmers of a “normal” primary process, far different than the high drama of the 2016 and 2020 presidential races. But by the time the second GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, ended on Wednesday, that view seemed like a fantasy.

It wasn’t only the chaotic nature of the debate and the bizarre mentions of “Donald Duck,” “sleeping with a teacher,” and costly curtains, but the overall environment:

The failure of any candidate to dislodge the Republican frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, despite four indictments and a judge declaring him liable for fraud last week.

The beginning of a Trump-backed House Republican inquiry into impeaching President Joe Biden with no clear evidence of his wrongdoing.

A retiring Joint Chiefs chairman, accused of treason by Trump, who declares, “We don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator.”

A president who becomes the first in history to join strikers on a picket line while in office.

All of it was capped off with the government coming within hours of shutting down. A last-ditch move Saturday kept federal agencies funded for 45 days while putting more aid to Ukraine in jeopardy. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decision to pass the measure with votes from Democrats could cost him his job, given that far-right members of his party opposed that move and appeared willing to risk a shutdown, as was Trump.

Taken together, the state of US politics today is the kind of scenario no one has witnessed in the 247-year history of the American experiment in democracy.

One Republican, Rep. Mike Lawler, who represents a suburban district in New York state, recently referred to the behavior of some members of his own party as a “clown show.” He wrote for CNN Opinion that the legislators willing to risk a shutdown “either don’t understand the concept of divided government and can’t grasp the realities that come with it, or they care more about whipping up elements of our party’s base so they can milk them for $5 contributions online…”

“These folks don’t know what they want, they can’t define a win, they won’t accept ‘yes’ for an answer, and they refuse to work together as a team.” 

If a shutdown arrives in mid-November, more than 3 million federal workers, including troops on active duty, would have to work without receiving their paychecks. And the effects go further — just one example is Rosa Cruz, a contract worker hired by a private company, who has cleaned the offices of the Department of Labor for 35 years. “I still support my 81-year-old mother who lives with me and who is 100% handicapped. It’s hard to be in a financially precarious situation when someone depends on you.

By contrast, members of Congress, who are failing in their budget-making role, would still get paid. “The very people who are causing the government shutdown will not suffer the consequences,” wrote Rob Rosenthal, a professor emeritus at Wesleyan University. “We can taste the hypocrisy when politicians tell us cutbacks, sacrifices, belt-tightening, government shutdowns are necessary for some greater good: if these things are so necessary, why aren’t you also living the plan?”

For more:

Brian Riedl: Washington is quickly hurtling toward a debt crisis

‘Flashing red signs’

In a speech in Tempe, Arizona, Biden declared that the opposing party “is driven and intimidated by MAGA Republican extremists. Their extreme agenda, if carried out, would fundamentally alter the institutions of American democracy as we know it.”

Democrats hope that message will carry them to victory 13 months from now in the 2024 election. But John Avlon warned that “there are flashing red signs that the division and dysfunction is fueling a pox-on-both-your-houses alienation,” among voters.

“A recent Pew Research Center study found that 65% of Americans say that thinking about politics makes them feel exhausted,” noted Avlon, who also pointed to an NBC News survey showing “that Republicans have an 8-point advantage when it comes to ‘protecting constitutional rights’ and a one-point advantage on ‘protecting democracy.’”

“This doesn’t square with the facts,” he wrote.

On Monday, a New York judge found Trump and his adult sons liable for insurance and bank fraud and canceled the Trump Organization’s business certification.

As Frida Ghitis noted, this was not surprising. “Trump’s record of civil and criminal cases is so long that journalists have struggled to keep up, routinely publishing articles that

“Nothing Trump does or says can shock us anymore — not his thinly veiled calls for the execution of a US general, or his continuing claims that he won an election he lost by a wide margin or even his threats to punish his critics if he wins reelection.”

But, Ghitis asked, “How is it possible that such a man is not only the leading candidate for a once-conservative, traditional-values party but also that few of those challenging him in the primaries dare spell out the truth that he nearly destroyed US democracy — and is still at it?”

For more:

Julian Zelizer: Look who is weaponizing the government now

Steven Lubet: Why Trump’s bid to get rid of Judge Chutkan was a lost cause

Dean Obeidallah: Democrats’ response to the Menendez indictment tells all you need to know about today’s GOP

A raucous debate

Wednesday’s GOP debate often degenerated into a shouting match as the candidates turned on each other and desperately tried to have their say. Yet there were some remarks that stood out.

The strongest moment of hope, wrote Hal Boyd, came when Sen. Tim Scott responded to a question on education. “After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis noted his state’s push to remove critical race theory from the school curriculum, Scott took the opportunity to both critique his opponent — something he did well throughout the night — while also pivoting to a uniting and inspiring message.

“Black families survived slavery. We survived poll taxes and literacy tests,” Scott said. “What was hard to survive was [Lyndon] Johnson’s Great Society … where they decided to take the Black father out of the household.”

“If you want to restore hope,” he continued, “you’ve got to restore the family, restore capitalism and put Americans back at work.”

Jeff Yang asked, “Why are Republicans so bad at telling jokes?”

“From former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s terrible pun targeting the absent frontrunner (‘You’re ducking these things … You keep doing that and no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We’re going to call you Donald Duck’) to former Vice President Mike Pence’s faux-folksy attempt at a wink-wink-nudge-nudge gag about his wife (‘I have been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years’), the candidates showed a remarkable inability to deliver zingers at a debate held in the memorial library of a Republican president who was a master of them. Facing off against Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in 1984, Ronald Reagan famously said: ‘I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’”

SE Cupp was impressed with Nikki Haley’s preparation for the debate. “She pointedly took on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on his fracking record, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott on what he failed to do in the Senate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy on his embrace of TikTok and his foreign policy inexperience. The point of debates and campaigning is to create contrasts in hopes of whittling down the field, after all. In that respect, Haley came ready to play in a way that truly set her apart from the rest — and made her the night’s winner.”

Sophia Nelson faulted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for not dealing “effectively with the controversy over Florida’s educational guidelines, which mentioned the idea that there could have been benefits for people who were enslaved. For me, as a Black woman and a direct descendant of slaves, his answer was clueless and offensive.”

W. James Antle III questioned the candidates’ criticism of Joe Biden for appearing on the UAW picket line and said it was understandable why Trump went to Michigan instead of the debate stage. “The 2016 presidential election was won in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden won them back in 2020. Republicans will need to take them again in 2024 to return to the White House.

For more:

Todd Graham: ‘Lacking even the slightest hint of swagger.’ A champion debate coach grades the performances

David Axelrod: The seven Republicans competing for the role of Trump understudy

Musa al-Gharbi: It’s incredibly obvious what voters want. Republicans – and Democrats – won’t listen

Cassidy Hutchinson’s ‘Enough’

Cassidy Hutchinson, the former White House staff member who became a surprise star witness before the House January 6 committee, tells the story of her young life in her new book, “Enough.” Nicole Hemmer wrote, “Despite repeated warnings that she is embedded with some of the least trustworthy people in politics, it takes quite a long time for Hutchinson to reach her breaking point — a point that only comes after she has been abandoned and betrayed by nearly everyone she had come to trust…”

“From the start, Hutchinson found herself in a mostly-male world where casual sexism thrived. At the Office of Legislative Affairs, she recounts being the only woman on the team. The people she worked for in both Congress and the White House were uniformly male.”

“Many of the men around her are paternalistic or creepy,” Hemmer notes. Ultimately powerful women like Alyssa Farah Griffin and then-Rep. Liz Cheney lend Hutchinson moral support.

“At their urging, and inspired by the legacy of Watergate whistleblower Alexander Butterfield, Hutchinson says ‘enough.’ And while she was pushed to that precipice by the behavior of older, more powerful people — and held on to her loyalty far longer than most readers likely would have — it was ultimately her decision to jump, an act of courage that far more people far older and more secure failed to do.”

‘Two-parent privilege’

The title of Melissa S. Kearney’s new book tells the story: “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind.” In the Wall Street Journal, Jason L. Riley describes it as “an attempt to explain the importance of marriage to her fellow liberal intellectuals” and says conservatives like himself “hardly need convincing that there are strong links between family structure, the well-being of children and outcomes later in life.”

Yet, in Jill Filipovic’s view, conservatives are wrong in arguing that “liberal mores around family formation have destroyed the nuclear family and left children worse off.”

“A closer look at the facts on the ground, though, shows that the problem isn’t a cultural rejection of marriage, or a nationwide feminist rejection of the nuclear family (I wish). Most people want to get married. The problem is that decades of largely conservative policy-making have fueled inequality, gutted the working class, left a generation of men isolated and under-employed and unmoored, impoverished families and made it harder for women to both control their own fertility and find suitable partners.”


He has a storied name, appears fit and is a decade younger than Biden. Yet there are strong reasons why Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the president’s challengers in the Democratic primary, should never get to the Oval Office, wrote Peter Bergen, who recently interviewed Kennedy. “He disputes that Covid-19 vaccines saved many lives, he has doubts about the official explanation of the cause of the 9/11 attacks, he promises that he could settle the war in Ukraine by simply negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin and he thinks the media works for the pharmaceutical industry.”

“To boot, he would be only the second president (the first being Donald Trump) who has neither held prior political office nor had any military experience.”

‘Golden Bachelor’

Gerry Turner, the 72-old star of “The Golden Bachelor,” is “a widower, father and grandfather who hails from the Midwest. For fun, according to his bio for the show, the retired restaurateur cheers on Chicago sports teams, flips burgers at backyard family barbecues and (like many of his potential dates) plays pickleball,” wrote sociologist Deborah Carr. “Promotional ads for Turner’s debut tout him as a handsome and refined gentleman, who — like a classic car, aged Camembert or a fine wine, brings a touch of class to the historically low-brow franchise….”

“Will viewers be as up for it as I am watching Gerry Turner in his quest for love? And might there be a ‘The Golden Bachelorette’ on the horizon? The ratings will answer those questions, but my money is on Turner being the first, but certainly not the last, retiree to seek love on this long-running franchise. Older adults — and especially older women — are a demographic force to be reckoned with.”

Don’t miss

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Matthew F. Delmont: This lawsuit could go far beyond West Point

Vincent Doumeizel: Seaweed is nutritious, not slimy. Eating it could save the world

David A. Andelman: Ukraine’s bumpy road ahead just got rockier

Adam Larson: The invasive species overrunning our habitats won’t be easy to dislodge. But there are a few things we can try

Michael D. Smith: Biden’s American Climate Corps could be the lasting legacy of this generation


Travis and Taylor

Tickets for Sunday night’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the New York Jets jumped in price on word that Taylor Swift will be attending. Sales of Chiefs’ star Travis Kelce’s jerseys zoomed up too, amid the furor over unconfirmed reports that he is dating the music superstar.

True or not, the “the megamerger of football god Travis Kelce and pop goddess Taylor Swift,” Rick Reilly wrote in the Washington Post “actually makes a lot of sense.”

“They both love earrings, love to dance at work and can bring a stadium of 75,000 people to its feet.”

“They’re both 33, blue-eyed- and have perfect Colgate smiles … They’re both at the top of their games and at the top of the tax brackets (although Travis’s $30 million looks a little puny next to Tay Tay’s $740 million.)”

Frankie de la Cretaz observed, “There is an obvious narrative appeal to a potential relationship between one of the most popular NFL players and one of the most popular pop musicians, like fairy-tale lyrics from one of Swift’s early songs come to life.” But it’s not a totally edifying spectacle: “The entire maelstrom of attention here comes off like a bunch of men spinning a narrative they want to create, with no encouragement from the woman on the other side of it.”

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