Trump: The Apprentice in More Ways Than One

The Apprentice President

Trump is proving the presidency is no place for on-the-job training.

The Apprentice President

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor–USNews & World Report

Feb. 22, 2017, at 7:00 a.m.

Watching President Donald Trump for the last month, I have made many of the same observations as other critics: He is unstable, his ego knows no bounds, he has no allegiance to the truth and he is unquestionably ignorant of anything other than what he sees on cable news (crisis in Sweden!) or what he gets from briefings from his small and alt-right staff.

But his press conference and Florida rally of the last week show me something else. He is going to behave as president just as he behaved as the star of his TV show “The Apprentice.” He will read from teleprompters when he needs to, he will ad lib and expound on a whim when it suits his fancy, and he will lash out at perceived slights or seek to berate and put down anyone who he perceives as in his way. He will make any statement, no matter how outrageous (the press is “the enemy of the American people”), he will never apologize or admit he is wrong, and he will act as a circus reality-show performer from the stage, not as what is an acceptable president of the United States.


Thus, anyone who believes that there will be a Trump-change and that he will grow into the role of president is, in fact, dreaming. “The Apprentice” show is now “The President” show. Or, at least, it has been over the course of the last 30 days.

His press conference was jaw-dropping. The first two rows in the room were filled by family and staff, then a break before the press was seated. This was absurd and a total departure from precedent – or as Trump would say, “president.” Just as was his January appearance at the CIA, where he reportedly brought cheering and clapping staff.

At least they didn’t applaud at his press conference. At the presser, he read wild accusations from notes written for him and proceeded to attack the press. He repeated ridiculous claims of his electoral victory that he had been making for weeks, which he had to know were wrong. He made statements about General Michael Flynn’s resignation, the role of his campaign with the Russians and his own business dealings which raised more questions than they answered.

I could not help but think – as this presidency is unfolding with the fleeing of the White House for Mar-a-Lago, the continued nasty tweets, the senseless attacks on “enemies” and the embarrassing appearances – that we are experiencing one more episode of “The Apprentice.”

The other thought that occurred to me is that we are in the throes of an old adage: “the presidency is no place for on-the-job-training.” In fact, Trump is the apprentice. But there is no one to supervise him, no adult in the room to help him out, no David Gergen to guide him. Instead, he has Mr. Chaos, Steve Bannon, and his clueless, but arrogant assistant, Stephen Miller, whispering in his ear.

So we have an apprentice president in more ways than one – a P.T. Barnum showman and a man with no sense of history or ability to actually do the job. That is a dangerous, combustible combination.

Time for Democrats to Flood the Zone!

Flood the Zone

Stopping Trump’s deluge of atrocious policies requires ceaseless opposition.

Flood the Zone

(Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor USNews & World Report

Jan. 30, 2017, at 4:35 p.m.

Anyone who expected Donald Trump, or the likes of White House strategist Steve Bannon, to conduct a government that was reasoned, deliberate, thoughtful, fact-based, collaborative or even somewhat rational or professional should have had their heads examined.

For those who felt that it was time to “blow up” our government, discard the advice and counsel of those with expertise and experience and issue dictatorial declarations from day one, they have their man. And for those who thought campaign rhetoric was just another way to vent anger and frustration but would not result in devastating policy to match the blowhard candidate, you were hopelessly naive and voted to install someone who is going to do what he said, and more.

The main tactic of the Bannon-Trump administration is to flood the zone with one action after another without vetting, without serious explanation, without consulting Congress or even those within their own administration. They then follow up these executive declarations with tweets and invective directed against one perceived enemy after another. The desire to create chaos, regardless of the consequences, follows on from the writings of Bannon and the speeches of Trump.


The theory is simple: Flood the zone. Put so much out there, so fast, that all the press and the public can do is react as one outrage after another sucks the oxygen out of the room. So, as the furor builds over the ban from seven Muslim countries, they announce that a Supreme Court appointment will be unveiled earlier than planned on Tuesday. This all resembles a cynical magic trick, where our eyes are kept shifting to the next shiny object.

As Republicans become concerned with one policy and begin to coalesce around alternatives, the Bannon-Trump administration changes the subject. The Republicans will now have a nominee to the Supreme Court to focus on, with likely unanimity. Some will breathe a sigh of relief that they aren’t being asked by the press about the previous outrageous actions – silliness over ego-driven inauguration crowd estimates or spending hundreds of billions we don’t have on a wall we don’t need or Bannon’s takeover of the critical National Security Council or the horrendous immigrant and refugee ban or any of the other executive orders that weren’t vetted or discussed outside the Eagle’s Nest.

Inside the Eagle’s Nest, they are counting on this disruption to further their “alternative facts” and put the press in the position of creating much sound and fury that they say signifies nothing. They will use the demonstrations and the marches to isolate vast numbers of Americans in opposition to “making America great again.”


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The ‘American Carnage’ Speech

Trump’s inaugural address indicates that his presidency will be just like his campaign.


The worst thing we can do is play their game – lose focus and allow them to move on to the next atrocity. Or, for that matter, overly engage in the silly tweets that are emblematic of Trump’s outrageous narcissism. We must build our case and our own movement against his policies, engage experts and lawyers, go to court, go to the media (mainstream and social), continue protests, contribute money, volunteer on the front lines, convince those who may have voted for Trump and Republicans now in elective office that our fundamental values, and even our country, hang in the balance.

In short, we must flood the zone ourselves. We must not lay back and assume that someone else will step forward, that traditional means of waiting two years until the next election will suffice, that we are in normal times. And let’s be clear, we need a growing consensus among the vast majority of Americans and a large coalition of Republicans that what is taking place must be stopped – now. If Trump cannot be convinced to alter his policies, his behavior and his method of governing, removal from office should be considered. At the very least, his policies need to be blocked and investigations conducted into his actions. This is not about Democrat vs. Republican, this is about taking our patriotic duty as seriously as ever.

What we are facing with this administration has real and sustained and, possibly cataclysmic, impact. Whether we are talking about fundamental civil rights and civil liberties, voting rights, destroying our health care system, dismantling environmental protections, upending international alliances or undermining human rights around the world, Bannon-Trump is not playing around the edges. And neither should we.

Trump’s Speech: Will Be Forever Known as “The American Carnage” Inaugural Address

The ‘American Carnage’ Speech

Trump’s inaugural address indicates that his presidency will be just like his campaign.

The ‘American Carnage’ Speech

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor, USNews & World Report

Jan. 23, 2017, at 12:20 p.m.

Clenched fist salute. Hardened jaw. As dreary and downcast as the rainy weather. Depressing. Or as Donald Trump tweets so often: “Sad!”

If you listened to Trump’s crass campaign speech on Jan. 20 – not an inaugural address – you would come away with an image of America in the deepest, darkest depths of its history, with everyone beside him and behind him to blame. Only he, Donald J. Trump, will save us.

If you expected something different from what you have seen and heard from Trump over the past year and a half, forget it; what you saw over all that time is what you’re going to get.

This will be forever known as “The American Carnage Speech.”

For my nearly 94-year-old father, who has all his marbles, this speech was particularly galling. Just like many of his generation, he grew up during the Great Depression, he fought Hitler and Mussolini in Italy during World War II and he lived through those periods of real carnage. While the baby boomers came of age with the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, fearing a war between the Soviet Union and the United States, my Dad served in the Kennedy White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now that was a time when the U.S. and the world faced possible carnage.


What we have now is a country that has emerged from a deep and dangerous recession with unemployment falling to half of what it was, now 4.7 percent, a stock market that has tripled since its low point eight years ago, an auto industry that has been saved and average earnings on the rise. The threat of nuclear Armageddon is past and we see the end of American involvement in two wars. Do we face serious problems to be solved? Of course. But are we in the throes of a cataclysmic disaster in America? You have got to be kidding.

What we have seen in the Trump campaign, culminating in this address, is a rejection of reason, a nihilistic vision of America that demands closing our borders, curbing civil and individual rights and pulverizing the social contract with our citizens. All this from a president who has determined that to achieve his objectives, truth will be the first casualty. Facts don’t matter; tweets that are wrong don’t matter; sending your political operatives out to deny the truth is now a daily occurrence since he placed his hand on that Bible. The operative Trumpian phrase, uttered by Kellyanne Conway over the weekend, is “alternative facts” – otherwise known as falsehoods.

The destructive nature of all this is inescapable – from little things such as crowd sizes or who is better on “The Apprentice,” to big things such as our relationship with our allies or what the real nature of the Russian-Trump arrangement is or has been. We are faced with a man in the White House who is constitutionally incapable of telling the truth. And to him, it does not matter. It is about winning, but winning what? He does not understand governing; he does not understand solving public policy problems; he does not revel in the details of the issues. He will govern by gut. He will make decisions on the fly, just as he tweets on the fly. By all accounts, he has the attention span of a gnat. He can delegate to Mike Pence or whomever, but at the end of the day he is the one who sits in that Oval Office. The hard decisions come to him, as they have to every president for over 200 years. One page flash memos won’t cut it, a clenched fist or angry retort won’t solve the problem and blatant narcissism will simply lead to disaster.

Declaring war on the press or Democrats or Hillary Clinton or the CIA or those who question him is getting old very fast. If he chooses to demonize and degrade and destroy our democracy in order to save it, we will suffer the consequences.

I cannot believe that even the most loyal of Republicans are buying what he is selling, and they must be deeply worried about these first few days in office. A number of Republicans may have thought things might get better after he won, but Trump is not a reassuring figure. In fact, his speech has been condemned by conservatives and liberals alike (George Will: “Trump Gave the Most Dreadful Address in History;” New York Times editorial: “What President Trump Doesn’t Get About America”).

Let’s face it, Donald Trump is not capable of changing. There is no transformation. The American Carnage Speech says it all.

So when my father tells me that Trump is a wolf in wolf’s clothing, I take notice.

The Democrats’ Way Forward

The Democrats’ Way Forward
US News & World Report
Thomas Jefferson Street Blog

(Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor

Jan. 13, 2017, at 4:15 p.m.

I have not written in this space since mid-November when I published a post-election letter to my granddaughter, my first grandchild. For Democrats, and many Americans, it has been a rough couple of months. Grand understatement.

But I think it is time for us, or at least me, to come out of the fetal position. So many people are concerned. “What can I do? What should I do?” they ask.

Some of us are old enough to remember the tsunami of the 1980 election. The conservative movement and the nation’s problems swept Ronald Reagan to a resounding victory over Jimmy Carter and flipped the Senate, unseating 12 Democratic senators, including my boss. Many of us who worked for those senators found ourselves standing in a special unemployment line in what is now the Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Building. Joining us were other Democratic committee staff members, also unexpectedly out of a job. And, of course, there were thousands of people who worked in the Carter administration who were also ousted from their positions.

Dejected. Depressed. Scared. Angry. Plenty of emotions for a lot of young, idealistic, committed people. Some left Washington to look for jobs, some went home to the states from whence they came, and some stayed.

I was lucky. I was offered a job with a political media firm in New York and, also, offered a job as the executive director of Democrats for the ’80s, a new political action committee started by Pamela Harriman and an impressive group of political luminaries, including a young Bill Clinton. I chose to stay in Washington and direct the PAC. The goal was to help rebuild the Democratic Party and to work across the country to elect Democrats at all levels. Juice fundraising, help with messaging, bring together those in the political wilderness to inject a sense of hope and confidence — those were our hopes. I learned a lot from that experience that may be relevant now.

Of course, Pamela and Averell Harriman could get almost anyone to come to the issue dinners at their home, to participate in a salon to discuss the way forward. Anyone in Washington would take their phone calls. Some people even took mine, a 30-something, invisible, former Hill aide.


Here are some of the things I learned from that experience long ago, in a galaxy far, far away:

Focus. As former Sen. Russell Long said at one of the issue dinners where there was intense hand-wringing: “Y’all don’t seem to understand – the job of the minority is to bethe minority.” What he meant was, you’re not in charge now, get over it, and take the Republicans head on. Fight with your ideas, work with them if it works for the country, but it’s time to bring a message to the American people that wins elections. And organize, organize, organize.

This Trump presidency and his appointments, plus the Republican Congress, provides Democrats the chance to be the minority and take them head on. Fight with the confidence and conviction necessary to stop what is wrong and destructive and propose solutions that work and galvanize voters.

Listen. After 1980, the noted pollster Stan Greenberg did ground-breaking work in Michigan, listening to what became known as the “Reagan Democrats” – those working class and disaffected voters who switched their allegiance. We face similar problems today with voters who are angry and frustrated with government, Washington, power elites in general, and their personal lives, in particular. Read “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam or “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance and you get a pretty good picture of the state of our union. Democrats need to listen to and communicate with their natural constituency – working class voters.

Fight back. After the election of 1980, Democrats wallowed in their misery for a while but we fought back. We took on right-wing groups and aired ads against those who tried to take down Democrats such as Paul Sarbanes in Maryland. We produced a factual guide to what the other side was doing, including quotes from the leaders of New Right groups, exposing the hateful rhetoric and attacks against our basic institutions. We used the press, worked with state parties, sent out speakers and engaged in direct mail to get out our message.

We brought together, at Democrats for the 80s, the leading experts in issue areas from agriculture to the environment, from job creation to education, from foreign policy to infrastructure. And we created, for the 1982 elections, a Democratic Fact Book that highlighted the Republican record, the Democratic response, the way forward and speech ideas for our candidates on the stump. These experts wrote chapters and each chapter had the same format and was easy to digest and use by the Democrats, not just in Washington but across the country. We paid for thousands of these books to be printed and distributed. (Now we could just send them electronically!)


Recruit candidates. The Democrats need to expand their efforts to recruit candidates for state and local office, as well as the Senate and House. For years, many of us have worked with some fine state parties that have strong caucus operations, recruiting and training strong candidates. But not enough time and effort has been spent to fund and support local efforts to build up our farm team. To be honest, the other side, especially the far right, has spent much more on their state operations to great effect. If we ignore the grassroots and local activity, we do so at our peril.

Money, money, volunteer. Money is not the only answer but it sure helps! Donations to progressive causes such as Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Sierra Club, the ACLU, NARAL, Emily’s List, Human Rights Campaign and so many others have surged since the election. This happened after Reagan was elected: People were willing to dig deeper when the threat was clear. Not only are they now ready to contribute but many are willing to volunteer and work for grass roots organizations, lend their legal and policy expertise, join online groups to share information and work for candidates for office. But if there was ever a serious threat, this is the time; if there ever was a moment to ratchet up fundraising and volunteering, now is the time.

Coordinate. One of the most effective tactics we used after the Reagan election was to bring together every few weeks various political and progressive groups to share information, coordinate messaging, divide up the workload and focus our energies. Labor, women’s groups, liberal PACs, environmental groups, gay rights, civil liberties, etc. would meet at our offices next to the Harriman house. For over 20 years Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, has convened a Wednesday morning group to coordinate his conservative groups. It is time for regular, disciplined meetings to strategize and plan even more so than has been done in the past. Given the proliferation of organizations these might be divided up by issue area or political focus into smaller meetings, but still share strategy and tactics with one another.


A mid-term June 2018 convention. Democrats have tried mid-term conventions in the past (’74, ’78 and ’82) with mixed success. My guess is 2018 will be quite a different time. We will surely have to deal with what is likely to be a disastrous two years of Trump. Such a gathering could focus the party on the upcoming mid-term elections and set the stage for a presidential race in 2020. Voters will be looking for a reset from the Democrats and ready to listen to solutions for the upheaval that the Trump administration will have wrought.

Messaging. It is hard to conceive that Democrats have lost the message war to a tweeting P.T. Barnum, devoid of a moral compass and severely lacking in basic policy knowledge. One of the difficulties during the campaign, and even now, as he prepares to become president, is that we are so appalled and perplexed with his nasty and unrestrained tweet-storms against individual people and events – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meryl Streep, Russian hacking, the intelligence community, whatever – that we take our eyes off the ball.

Harnessing anger, cynicism and distrust of politicians is easy, and sadly, quite effective. Offering grand, sweeping promises is also a traditional, simple strategy to win elections. But Trump took all this to a whole new level and convinced many voters that he would be the champion of the working class, the disaffected, those in rural towns and those who resented the social change that was taking hold in America. He carried the pitchfork and many rallied to the outsider message of economic populism. It sounded absurd to Democrats that their hard work on education, health care, the minimum wage, family and medical leave, saving the auto industry and lifting America out of the great recession would be overtaken by a charlatan with a “Make America Great Again” hat.

But his message was simple and ours was complex; his rhetoric was hot, ours was lukewarm; his promises, however absurd, were simple and easy to grasp, ours were wonky and hard to communicate. And Trump had the advantage of being the change candidate, someone who never had to get his hands dirty worrying about what it meant to actually govern. And Democrats were the status quo party, with an anti-status quo electorate.

As most in politics know, you can have all the data and money and metrics in the world, but if your message is weak, you are in deep trouble.


So, do we need to get back to our roots and our rhetoric on “fighting hard for hard working families”? You bet we do. Is this about a clear contrast between those Republicans whose policies and programs fight for the wealthiest in our land and those Democrats who battle for everyone else? It sure is. Do we, as Democrats, need to get our heads out of the clouds and realize it isn’t just about white papers on the issues but about connecting with those people who are yearning to hear that we care about them, their plight and their predicament, and that our prescriptions are the right ones to truly improve their lives? No doubt about it.

Fundamentally, we can see from Trump’s cabinet appointments and his decisions thus far that he is the wrong guy, with the wrong party, ready to do the wrong things for working people who trekked to the polls and voted for him. We just witnessed the most issue-less election in modern memory and we failed to draw the right contrasts on what it means to be a Democrat versus a Republican.

All across the board, Democratic policies and priorities support working families, while Republicans consistently side with the 1 percet. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser extent Hillary Clinton, made this point. But not strongly or effectively enough. This makes it all the more important that we understand and empathize and help those who feel helpless – those whose jobs have been lost or incomes remained stagnant, those 29 percent of American over 55 who have neither a pension nor retirement savings, those who cannot survive without a strong Social Security and Medicare backstop.

Republicans in Congress are ready to not only destroy the Affordable Cafe Act and throw our health care coverage into chaos, but they are setting their sights on Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security. Their plans for tax cuts only further exacerbate the problems the middle class faces and reward the wealthy with more tax breaks. Ever since FDR, we have seen a fundamental and historic difference between Democrats and Republicans on the social contract, on standing up for working people, on the role and responsibility of government to create and maintain a safety net that makes our nation stronger. Democrats must rekindle and reinforce that message in the years ahead.

It’s true that there is a debate within the party about whether Democrats made a mistake by talking too much about women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, rights of Muslim Americans, racial and ethnic inclusion, etc. Many believe, sadly, that it is an either/or proposition – you focus on the rights of these Americans or you make a general case to the working class. I do believe very strongly that this is a false dichotomy and that a strong, viable, inclusive Democratic Party must do both.

If the message is created and conveyed properly, they are mutually inclusive and persuasive, one supports the other; it is not about pitting one group against another or one sacrificing their future while the other prospers. It is about, as Barack Obama said in 2004, one America. And melding that proverbial melting pot with a future we can truly believe in is still possible in America. That should be the Democrats’ cause, that should be our message.

A Letter to My Granddaughter — The America I Hope You Grow Up In

A Letter to My Granddaughter

The America I hope you grow up in.

A Letter to My Granddaughter

(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

By Peter Fenn | Contributor  USNews & World Report

Nov. 16, 2016, at 1:30 p.m.

Dear Gwen,

You were born the day after Valentine’s Day, Feb. 15, 2016, bringing great joy to your parents, grandparents and your 93-year old great grandfather (and many others!). You are the first of the new generation in our family. You were also born as the campaign of 2016 was in full swing. You were born during a time when we had the first woman nominated by a major party for president of the United States, raising the memory of my grandmothers who were born when women did not have the right to vote. You were proudly taken to the polls by your parents for the very first time before you were even a year old.

We watched you grow this past year as you thrill us with each passing day, your constant smile, your cheerful engagement with all that you experienced; you are such a happy baby and so fortunate to have loving parents and nurturing surroundings.

But I want to write you today not only about the election we just went through but the world you will inherit, shape and grow up in.

Many are not as lucky as you are. Many live in a world, at home and abroad, that is torn by strife, economic hardship and war. Many are victims of hatred and prejudice because of their religion, their sexual orientation, the color of their skin or where they come from. Many feel left out, ignored, looked down upon by the powers that be in our society. Many are victims of fear created by others to advance themselves. Many are frustrated and angry with their government.


Sometimes it is easier in political campaigns to fan the flames of division and discord than to offer up ideas for making things better. You will find growing up that you will be confronted by people who are mean or simply don’t understand the effect of saying something that is hurtful. You will find you have disagreements or differences of opinion that can escalate and bring out the worst in yourself and others. You will get angry, you will say things you don’t mean that are petty; you will not, alas, be a perfect person. No one is. But, I suspect, you will grow up to be a woman of unbelievable talent and grace, who will be a source of great pride and wonder.

I am glad, in many ways, you did not experience this campaign of 2016. It was not a source of pride, as it should have been, with our first woman nominee, but a source of some revulsion. It was full of petty and mean rhetoric – anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, full of fear – by the man who was ultimately elected president. Now, just two weeks after the election, many hope that this man will change and become more civil and more of a unifier than a divider. We will see; I wish I were more optimistic.

My grandmothers would never have tolerated the language used during the primaries and the general election, the debates on the Republican side, the takeover of Twitter to hurl insults and invectives. They would not have recognized their country during this past year. Nor, my guess, would have the past presidents. Nor did many of us. In a year when the transformative musical “Hamilton” highlighted the diversity and greatness of our country, we sadly went in the opposite direction with the Republican candidate for president. I so hope you will experience the extraordinary cultural phenomenon of “Hamilton” and understand how it affected so many.



But I want to write you about what kind of America I see for you and what kind of America I want you to grow up in. By the time you are old enough to shape this world, I hope that we can at least bring it back from this campaign of the year of your birth to what America has been in its finest hours – kind, tolerant, respectful, honorable and, yes, loving. An America that is increasingly diverse and vibrant with people of all religions, all nationalities, all colors, all sexual orientations, who live with and respect one another.

This is more important than I can express. We can overcome a lot in America if we don’t disintegrate into a country that pits white against Black and Hispanic, straight against LGBT, rural against urban, Christian against Muslim. We have had the benefit of an extraordinary president these past years, Barack Obama, who you will read about in your history books and may even have the honor of meeting one day.

Here is what I hope we do for you in the coming months and years, Gwen. I hope we stand up tall against prejudice by supporting groups and organizations and people who need our help. I hope we march and protest and write letters and Facebook feeds and talk to neighbors and friends and relatives, to listen and bring people together, not tear them apart. I hope we don’t retreat and give up on politics because it is hard, but double down because it is important. I hope we cooperate when we can but are not afraid to confront when it is necessary. I hope we do what many of us did when defeat hit us in the gut in 1980: We form new groups and support old ones that bring about the kind of change that moves us forward into the light. We fight for the issues that matter – health care for all Americans, a protected environment that you can live and breathe in, jobs that matter and pay a decent wage, equal rights for all, a more educated and informed citizenry, a program of universal service in America so that everyone gives back.


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At the end of the day, Gwen, I hope you come of age when people believe in their government again, when they appreciate and understand that it is really about all of us and that it is a source for good. You should know that the people who serve in government are dedicated people who are doing their very best to help others, and should not be the subject of derision and cynical attacks. I hope that the campaign of 2016 won’t be a precursor of what is to come but an aberration that we will figure out how to overcome. Fear and intimidation should not be normal for our country and as you grow up I pray that we have the courage and the conviction and the ability to reverse the trend towards division and hate and prejudice.

Finally, I hope those of us who have a chance to make a difference choose to do so and don’t shrink from the responsibility, but welcome it. When your mother was a little girl, just after she was born actually, I worked for a wonderful woman, Geraldine Ferraro. She was a lot like Hillary Clinton and ran for vice president in 1984. Your grandma gave me her biography after the campaign, with a little inscription supposedly from your mom (not yet 3 years old): “Happy Birthday to Daddy – if she could do it, I could do it! Love, Kristina.” When I showed it to Gerry Ferraro, Gwen, she put another inscription underneath to your mother: “To Kristina, the campaign of ’84 was for you!”

We are not done yet, but we will get there.

So, to my granddaughter, it is for you that we will fight to make sure that, as Hillary said, “women’s rights are human rights,” and that we are, in America, “stronger together.” And I can assure you that we will never give up, or give in to the politics of irrationalism and fear, but instead, we will seek a newer and better world. Because you, and so many others, deserve no less.

Love from your Grandpa

The Better Angels of 2016

The Better Angels of 2016

There’s still cause for political optimism in the midst of a disheartening campaign season.

The Better Angels of 2016

(tomwachs/Getty Stock Images)

By Peter Fenn | Contributor USNews & World Report

Oct. 24, 2016, at 5:30 p.m.

As we approach the end of this long, tiring campaign season we seem to have almost cast aside any discussion of civil discourse as a bedrock of our politics.

In the midst of this years’ difficult back and forth, I have been privileged to serve on two boards that focus on the legacies of two men whose political careers were defined by members of the Greatest Generation: Sen. Frank Church of Idaho and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. The Frank Church Institute at Boise State University and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas both are at the forefront of involving students and the surrounding community in an effort to change the discourse and prove, once again, that politics is an honorable profession.

It’s not an easy climb. But let me tell you why I am encouraged and what I experienced this past week in Lawrence, Kansas. We had the first meeting of the new board of advisers, comprised of Republicans and Democrats, who have extensive experience in government, politics and business. They share one common thread: They are committed to democratic dialogue and they care deeply about the mission of the Dole Institute “to promote political and civic participation as well as civil discourse in a bi-partisan, philosophically balanced manner.”


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We discussed the many impressive programs of the Dole Institute and what we could do to help but, most importantly, we met with the students who are engaged in public life. Four student advisory board members representing the four classes were interviewed by the institute’s director, Bill Lacy, and gave one of the most impressive presentations I have seen during this whole campaign season. From first year Haley Pederson, to sophomore Amanda Bhatia, to junior Vince Munoz, to senior Kevin McCarthy, they were all lively, positive, smart, incredibly articulate and they nailed what is so critical to the future of our democracy: You have to listen, to learn from others, to debate and discuss, to question, to weigh the facts and arguments, and to do your damnedest to achieve common ground. They reveled in meeting with some of the nation’s leading reporters, advocates, office holders, even former presidents.

What I saw that evening lifted my spirits and gave me confidence that many of our young people are able to sort through the events of this campaign season and see the future a lot clearer than many of us who seem mired in the day-to-day. Their experience at the Dole Institute reinforces another part of the mission: “only through political and active participation can citizens redirect the course of our nation.”

As we were finishing our work, prior to the student panel, there was a knock at the door of the board room. It was a surprise guest. Bob Dole himself flew all the way out to Kansas, at 93, to thank all of us for our service. He spent time with the students and thanked them as well, just as he did when he traveled a couple of years ago to all of the 105 counties in Kansas to thank the citizens of his state. A class act.

Later this week, the Frank Church Institute will hold its 32nd annual conference to highlight a bipartisan presentation by former Reps. Tom Davis, R-Va., and Martin Frost, D-Texas, who have authored a book, “The Partisan Divide,” which discusses how best to end the gridlock in Washington. Similar to the Dole Institute, the Church Institute has also laid out its mission: “to provide a forum for open and informed discussion characterized by civility, tolerance and compromise.”


These two places are, in my view, jewels. There are others around our nation that strive to provide experiences for those who want to appeal to the best in America. As President Abraham Lincoln put it in his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

If our politics survived the great Civil War and so much more we can surely turn to the values and the missions of the Dole and Church Institutes to help lead the way. Once this election is over, that should be our calling.

TRUMP: Without Precedent

Without Precedent

Trump is making American political history for all of the wrong reasons.

Without Precedent

(Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

By Peter Fenn | Contributor  USNEWS & WORLD REPORT

Oct. 17, 2016, at 10:45 a.m.

I have had trouble these last couple of weeks writing political columns. Not for a lack of material – there is gobs, really. Not because I don’t feel passionately about the issues and the candidates and the times we are going through – plenty of thoughts on all that.

The reason is pretty simple: The Trump campaign and all that surrounds it is so appalling that I have a serious problem believing that our nation and our politics have come to this.

We have seen some pretty tough words and actions before in American history. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson described in her book “Dirty Politics,” we have witnessed the president of Yale University, Rev. Timothy Dwight, charging that if Thomas Jefferson were to be elected, “we may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution; soberly dishonored, speciously polluted.” (Not one of Yale’s finest hours!) Harper’s Weekly in September 1864 provided some of the opponent’s descriptions of Abraham Lincoln: “Filthy story-teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant….”


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In the campaign of 1884, rumors of Grover Cleveland fathering a child out of wedlock led to the chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” which the Democrats countered after his election with, “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha.” James G. Blaine in that campaign was called “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine the continental liar from the State of Maine.”

We have survived slings and arrows and tough campaigns, and we will survive this one. We have seen the rise and fall of demagogues in America – Father Coughlin in the 1930s who was anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi and who was forced off the radio after initially having 30 million listeners; Joe McCarthy who led a crusade against “Communists in the State Department” until it came crashing down on him in the 1950s; George Wallace who took racism to new heights in the 1960s and 70s.

Donald Trump is of this mold. But he is also the nominee of his party. He is the standard bearer of a new entertainment-infused candidacy that calls into questions not only his own basic values and humanity and competence but the judgment of Republicans who stand beside and behind him. He is also gross. He is disgusting. He is appalling. He is, to use his words, “not nice.” He is so completely out of his element, and as a presidential candidate, that is without precedent. That is why it is so hard to even contemplate the very notion that this man might occupy the White House. It is inconceivable that we would entrust the Oval Office to someone who could wreak such havoc on our country and the world.

Republicans, or most of them, know this. They realize what fury they have wrought. With each passing day of lies about himself and what he did to women, about Hillary Clinton, about insane conspiracy theories, Donald Trump shines more light on his soul. And it isn’t pretty or easy to think about it or write about it. And that is why modern day psychologists are surprised with what his candidacy has done to the national and individual psyches.


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So, I try to put this candidacy into the context of history and try to conclude that we have been here before. But we haven’t – not to this extent, not with Twitter and 24/7 cable, not with the vitriol he has created. Not when the man we are dealing with is so close to the presidency. We have never been here before and that is why it is so hard to wrap your head around Donald Trump, this campaign and the extent of his support.

Trump decided over this weekend to double down on the notion that the election is “rigged,” sending his surrogates on the Sunday talk shows to reiterate the Breitbart conspiracy theories. Newt Gingrich talked on ABC about “stolen” elections and urged citizens to act as vigilantes and go into polling stations. Mike Pence charged that there is “monolithic support of the national media for Hillary Clinton’s campaign” on CBS. And, of course, there is the unbelievable Rudy Giuliani who told Jake Tapper Sunday that “dead people generally vote for Democrats.”

This is absurd. It is also becoming more and more of an attack on our democratic system, a fear-mongering attempt to incite citizens to resort to over-turning an election if the outcome is not to their liking. To appeal to his base with such dishonesty and anti-democratic rhetoric and to spend the final weeks of the campaign talking about how it is all “rigged” against him makes Trump the leading candidate for “Celebrity Demagogue.” Let’s hope that show gets canceled on Nov. 8.

Trump Change is Chump Change

Trump Change Is Chump Change

The Clinton team has an opportunity to reveal the emptiness of Trump’s call for change.

Trump Change Is Chump Change

(Rick Wilking/AFP/Getty Images)

By Peter Fenn | Contributor USNEWS & WORLD REPORT

Sept. 27, 2016, at 5:05 p.m.

Not a great night for the Donald. Ninety minutes is not his friend. The one with the “stamina” and solid, reasoned, substantive answers was Hillary Clinton.

Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway described Donald Trump on TV shows this past weekend as “the Babe Ruth” of debates. What many forget is that in addition to his home run record, Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times and led the American League in strikeouts five times. One could certainly argue very persuasively that there was no home run for Trump last night and several noticeable strikeouts. On the President Barack Obama birther issue, on treatment of women, on his six bankruptcies, on his leaving working people high and dry, Donald Trump more or less whiffed.

The assertion by Trump that beating Clinton in a debate “would be one of the easy challenges of my life” was boasting at its best, but reality at its worst.

In contrast, Clinton was prepared, poised and ready to be president. She was calm, collected and did not engage in side comments, interruptions or frustrated facial expressions, in contrast to Trump. On the likability meter she scored very well.



It will be interesting to see how the next two debates unfold. Already Trump is saying that he will be hitting Clinton harder. So how do both campaigns prepare for the debates on Oct. 9 and Oct. 19?

One of the concerns for the Clinton campaign in these final six weeks is the Trump message of fundamental change. Most campaigns, of course, are about change or fear of change. Even an open-seat race such as this one puts Clinton out as the candidate who is established and will continue the Democratic legacy of President Barack Obama. When you have a nation as frustrated with Washington and our politics as ours, it benefits a self-proclaimed outsider. Trump mentioned numerous times Clinton’s “30-year” involvement in politics and government. He is by no means a new face, but he is a fresh face when it comes to government.

So the question for the Clinton team is how hard to hit the “change to what” theme. On the economy, driving home the Trumped-up, trickle-down tax proposals makes real sense. With studies pointing to a loss of 3.5 million jobs, a $10 trillion increase in the debt and more tax breaks to the top 1 percent, Clinton has a good case to make that this is the change we don’t need.


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On foreign and defense policy, Trump’s call for change also gives the Clinton camp openings. Arming Japan and South Korea with nuclear weapons would be incredibly destabilizing. Pulling our support for NATO and cozying up to the Russians and President Vladimir Putin sends the opposite message that is needed. Clearly, building a wall, expelling immigrants and barring Muslims from the U.S. are precisely the kinds of policies that strengthen terrorists and harm America.

Failing to acknowledge that climate change exists and calling it a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese is contrary to the views of the vast majority of American voters. Trump’s version of change is becoming the oil and gas president – thanks, we’ve tried that.

Clinton campaigners should draw the clear contrasts between pragmatic solutions that she offers on creating new, good-paying jobs; college affordability; early childhood education; paid family leave; and equal pay with the paucity of plans and ideas offered by Trump. How will a massive tax cut for the rich help those who are hurting?

Bottom line: Trump change is chump change that would harm Americans and make the world less safe. Yes, it is about temperament and fitness to be president, but it is also about ideas that are wrongheaded and harmful. We have a lot to fear with the changes Trump is proposing.

The New Campaign “Abnormal”

2016 Isn’t Normal

Don’t let Donald Trump’s ignorant and insulting campaign become America’s new standard.

2016 Isn’t Normal

(Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

By Peter Fenn | Contributor  USNews and World Report

Sept. 21, 2016, at 3:15 p.m.

I have been teaching courses on campaign advertising and presidential politics at George Washington University for more than 20 years. There have been a lot of students, a lot of case studies and a lot of ads created since the mid 1990s. There have been a lot of changes in our politics during that time in terms of the explosion of money spent, the rapidly developing technology, the longer, more grueling campaigns, the 24/7 news cycle and the souring mood in the country.

But, this year – campaign 2016 – is a whole new ball game. The question is: Is it an aberration or is it the “new normal” for our politics? Is this a precursor of what is to come or just a terrible outlier that we will get over and move back to regular order?

Has the unacceptable become the acceptable? I am worried that it has. Let us count the ways: A campaign season so long and drawn out that voters border on exhaustion. An electorate consumed with negative information and negative views of both candidates calling into question our electoral system. An almost complete lack of focus on substantive issues and differences between the candidates on policy makes them irrelevant in this years’ campaign – it is almost all personal. The level of vitriol coming from the Trump side is unprecedented in modern politics. The negative language, the coarse subject matter, the nasty tweets are so ubiquitous that they have resulted in a permanent fog of depression among voters.


The press needs to stop grasping for false equivalencies between Trump and Clinton.


From the start of Trump’s campaign it has been a vacuous collection of insults, racial and ethnic prejudice, gross personal attacks, and an almost total lack of knowledge of the issues the nation faces. He has shown himself to be unfit for office, as President Barack Obama charged: Trump “is not fit in any way, shape, of form to represent this country abroad or to be its commander-in-chief.” He has been called out by many Republicans, such as former Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Lindsey Graham; former President George H. W. Bush indicated he will even vote for Clinton.

Never before has one candidate, by simply opening his mouth, done so much to insult so many in such a short span of time. By attacking Muslims, he has pushed more people into distrusting and hating America; by insulting Hispanics and refugees he has undermined the basic values of our country and fanned the flames of prejudice and hatred; by personally attacking his opponents with lies he has legitimized political discourse of the basest kind. When PolitiFact judges more than 52 percent of his statements as “false” or “pants on fire” and another 17 percent to be “mostly false,” we know we have a candidate who has a problem with the truth. His statements were “awarded” PolitiFact’s 2015 Lie of the Year. What an award!

Even if Trump does not eventually prevail on Nov. 8, his candidacy has led us down a very dangerous path of anything goes, nothing is off the table, the ends totally justify the means and you can say or do anything, no matter how outrageous and wrong, and you won’t pay the consequences. If campaign 2016 becomes the norm, America has indeed lost its moral compass.

Trump Proves Once Again He Is Not Qualified to Be President

A friend of mine, an experienced political reporter and editor, believes there is a decent chance that Donald Trump will win in November because of our country’s celebrity culture and desire to wash their hands of anything resembling “normal” politics. She also believes that Hillary Clinton is in a very deep hole on the “trust factor” and that voters could very likely take the risky path and vote for Trump.

After his bungled photo-op in Mexico and tripling down on immigration in Arizona, I doubt that Americans will see Trump as someone capable of handling the presidency. Just the opposite: Trump every day tries to get over the bar and fails. The word goes out from Trump Tower that he can deal with foreign leaders – but he can’t; after much back and forth he agrees to give a speech on immigration that is supposed to reassure Americans that he can govern with reason and common sense – he disappoints, even with his teleprompter. The more that we hear he is going to gain control of his temper and his message and his racist tendencies, the opposite happens. He inflames. He baits. He appeals to the lowest common denominator in our country.


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So, what evidence do I have that Americans will increasingly reject a Donald Trump presidency over the next two months? A very interesting Quinnipiac poll taken from August 18-24 provides a better clue than many of the ubiquitous horse race polls we see every day. Quinnipiac tests who has the advantage on a number of issues and traits.

On the economy, Hillary Clinton has a small advantage, and on terrorism they are basically tied. On honesty, both are underwater, but Clinton more so than Trump. But the really defining differences come in what voters expect from their president.

Good leadership skills: Clinton +18, Trump -6; the right kind of experience to be president: Clinton +42, Trump -33; level-headed: Clinton +27, Trump -46; cares about average Americans: Clinton +4, Trump -16. These are vast and important perceptions of the candidates. Despite the negativity associated with both Trump and Clinton, when it comes to “presidential attributes” the overwhelming advantage goes to Clinton.

When voters were asked – regardless of how you intend to vote do you believe Clinton/Trump is qualified or not to be president? – Clinton is judged qualified to be in the Oval Office by 66-33 percent. Trump is judged to be NOT qualified by 58-40 percent. Clinton up by 33 percent, and Trump down by 18 percent.


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Trump’s inability to tell the truth about his meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto (“paying for the wall didn’t come up”) and his outrageous speech about the “Great Wall” in Phoenix present a clear image of a candidate out of control and unable to govern.

The decision to go on the trip to Mexico and the prepared remarks were the Kellyanne Conway wing of the campaign; the xenophobic speech in Arizona was the Breitbart Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions’ former aide Stephen Miller side of the campaign. How do you spell schizophrenic?

If you put the two sets of remarks side by side, the one in Mexico and the one in Phoenix, it is as if there are two totally different Donald Trumps. You can not be president, if within hours you completely and totally contradict yourself, once before a foreign leader and the other before a Joe Arpaio.

Fundamentally, Donald Trump is basing his whole campaign on attacking immigrants and those who don’t fit into his white world. Maybe that’s why Americans believe, according to the Quinnipiac poll, that Donald Trump appeals to bigotry by 59-36 percent.

The last 24 hours did very little to change that and may, in fact, have exacerbated it. A presidential day for Donald Trump? I think not.