Mainstream news media created the conditions in which a bottom-feeder like Trump could thrive by focusing on celebrity culture to encourage conspicuous consumption

Those seeking to put the Trump phenomenon in a broader context will usually point out that his rhetoric and actions typically stay within the margins of 21st century Republican thought, especially as it concerns taxes, regulation, healthcare insurance, women’s health issues and white supremacy. Sometimes Trump has extended those margins with more outrageous versions of standard Republican fare. Others label Trumpism as the American version of the movement throughout the West to embrace ultranationalist, anti-immigration autocrats.

As insightful as these analyses are, they miss Trump’s cultural significance. Not only does Trump represent the bitterly racist and classist endgame of Ronald Reagan’s “politics of selfishness,” he also is the apotheosis of our cultural decline into celebrity-fueled consumerism. Remember that in the real world, Trump was a terrible and unethical businessperson who drove companies into bankruptcy six times; had at least a dozen failed business ventures based on his most valuable asset, his brand name; lost money for virtually all his investors; often lied to banks and governmental agencies; and has been sued by literally thousands of people for nonpayment or breach of contract. 

But while Trumpty-Dumpty was engaging in a one-man business wrecking crew he managed to get his name in the newspaper for his conspicuous consumption, his attendance at celebrity parties and his various marriage and romances. His television show was a hit, which reaped him even more publicity. But make no mistake about it, before he started his run for political office by promoting the vicious, racially tinged lie that Obama hails from Kenya, the public recognized Trump primarily for the attributes he shared with the British royal family, the Kardashians, Gosselins, Robertsons, the housewives of New Jersey, Atlanta, South Beach and elsewhere, Duane Chapman, Betheny Frankel, Paris Hilton and the rest of the self-centered lot of rich and famous folk known only for being rich and famous and spending obnoxious sums of money.

Trump’s celebrity status always hinted at his master-of-the-universe skills in business and “The Apprentice” never missed an opportunity to reinforce that false myth. Thus, whereas the business world recognized Donald Trump as the ultimate loser, celebrity culture glorified him as one of the greatest business geniuses in human history. It was this public perception of Trump—completely opposite of reality—that gave him the street cred he needed to attract unsophisticated voters. Trump is completely a creation of celebrity culture.

When we consider the general intellectual, moral and cultural climate of an era—the Zeitgeist, which in German means the “spirit of the age”—we often focus on defining events such as presidential assassinations, Woodstock, the moon landing, 9/11, the election of the first non-white president. But a Zeitgeist comprises thousands upon thousands of specific events, trends and personal choices. 

Which brings us—finally—to the subject of this article, AARP the Magazine, the semi-monthly slick magazine of the American Association of Retired People (AARP). The magazine usually uses celebrities and celebrity culture to give tips on personal finances, health, careers, relationships, retirement and lifestyle to its members, people over the age of 50. Because AARP membership rolls is so enormous, I have no doubt that AARP is one of the four or five most well-read periodicals in the United States.

Now AARP the organization must have many qualms about Trump and Trumpism. Trump has already rolled back consumer protections that prevent seniors from being taken advantage of by both big businesses and small-time con artists. Trump is vowing to dedicate his second term to cutting Social Security and Medicare, two programs of utmost importance to the well-being of AARP’s members. The leadership of AARP certainly understands that Trump’s cruelly aggressive effort to end immigration from non-European countries is the main cause for the growing shortages of the home care workers so vital to many if not most people in their final years. They must also realize that a tariff war affects people on fixed incomes the most.

What AARP leaders—of the organization and magazine—show no signs of understanding is that they played a role in creating the monster. The focus of AARP the Magazine and the other AARP member publication on promoting celebrity culture helped to create the playing field that Trump dominates—that shadow land of aspirations for attention and materialism in which all emotional values reduce to buying and consumption and our heroes have either done nothing to deserve their renown or have worked in the mass entertainment industries of TV, movies, sports and pop music.  

As an example of how celebrity culture permeates and controls the aspirational messages of AARP the Magazine, let’s turn to the feature on the last page of every issue, something called “Big5-Oh”: Big5-Oh always has a paragraph story with photos of a famous person who is turning 50 sometime during the two months covered by the issue. The bottom third of the page consists of one-sentence vignettes with head-and-shoulder photos of famous people turning 50, 60, 70 and 80. The copy typically describes something the famous person is doing that demonstrates she or he is continuing to thrive and do great things despite advancing age.

I’ve seen Big5-Oh in every issue of AARP I have ever read, and I have perused each issue for about 18 years. And in every issue, the famous people mentioned are virtually all celebrities, by which I mean actors, pop musicians, sports stars and those known only for being known like the Kardashians and Snooki. Only quite rarely a film director, popular writer or scientist sneaks in.

The latest issue, covering August and September 2019 exemplifies the celebrity-driven approach that hammers home the idea that only celebrities matter (since it’s only their birthdays and ages that are seemed worth memorializing). The featured person turning 50 is Tyler Perry, an actor and writer-director. The smaller features include four actor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jason Alexander, Richard Gere and Lilly Tomlin, plus the athlete Magic Johnson and the rock star Bruce Springsteen.

Not one scientist, not one historian or sociologist. Not one civic leader, politician, physician, novelist, poet or classical or jazz musician. No astronaut, architect or engineer. I did a little cursory research to come up with a reconceived Big5-Oh for August and September 2019: The big feature, always about someone turning 50, could be the chess player Ben Finegold, the best-selling but much scandalized popular writer James Frey or the filmmaker Noah Baumbach. That’s pretty much a wash with Tyler Perry. If I were editor of this feature, I would probably still pick Tyler Perry over this competition. 

But when we get to people who turned 60 and 70 during these months, you realize how much celebrity culture guided the editor’s choice of subjects: ignored are the designer Michael Kors, the current governor of Virginia Ralph Northam, the distinguished Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, the even more distinguished journalist James Fallows, the important literary novelists Jane Smiley, Martin Amis and Jonathan Franzen, the leader of the Irish Green Party, astronaut Scott Altman and Beverly Barnes, the first woman to captain a Boeing 747. All these people are non-celebrities and all have made more significant and lasting contributions to America than the people the column’s editor selected, with the possible exception of Magic Johnson and Bruce Springsteen. 

What’s more significant, though, is including some of these people instead of all celebrities would make an important message about what we value in our society. It would say that we honor the intellectual contributions of our writers, scientists, knowledge professionals and civic leaders. The fact that AARP always selects celebrities for Big5-Oh and tends to build other stories and features around celebrities makes the opposite message about value—that all that matters is the gossip surrounding celebrities and the promotion of celebrity culture.  

Now AARP shares the blame for our culture’s emphasis on shallow consumerism and superficial celebrities with many of our cultural organizations and educational institutions. For example, the political reporting of the mainstream media reduces all political discourse to celebrity terms—name-calling, who is feuding with whom, who’s winning in the polls, the skeleton-closet scandals of the candidates’ families, which celebrities love and hate them, zingers and misstatements, the candidates’ theme songs and other main themes of celebrity culture. Notice that Trump is as much a master in these endeavors as he is an inexperienced and ignorant buffoon in matters related to governance such as policy, history, the inner workings of the government and the scientific research informing governmental decisions. Note, too, that based on how much ink and space is given to endorsements by the media, in the hierarchy of value, celebrities rate above elected officials who rate above unions, business and scientific organizations and luminaries in fields other than entertainment. 

AARP the Magazine is thus a small part of the giant propaganda machine that created the celebrity culture that created Donald Trump. It took from the first stirrings of consumer culture in the 1890’s until the 21st century for the focus on celebrity to pollute our marketplace of ideas enough for a toxic algae boom like Donald Trump to emerge (with apologies to algae blooms worldwide!). But unlike cleaning up the environment, saving our political discourse is conceptually easy—all the news media has to do is dedicate more of its feature coverage to those whose accomplishments can’t be measured by money made or spent, and cease to cover every issue like a reality show featuring celebrities. Not one big action, but a bunch of little actions are needed to stem the tide of celebrity culture. AARP could do its part by working into the mix a healthy share of scientists, historians, civic leaders, activists and literary figures into Big5-Oh and other parts of the magazine.

To win Electoral College in 2020, Dems would do well to follow Trump’s lead and play to their base of progressive, young, minority and college educated voters

The argument of former vice president Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill that he is the most electable Democrat running puts the emphasis on what is an increasingly trivial concern. Recent polls show all of the front-running candidates beating Trumpty-Dumpty. 

Trump has energized minorities, women, sexual minorities and those offended by racism by his statements and actions to campaign and vote against him no matter what. The threat of an imminent and deep recession caused primarily by his tariff actions will hurt Trump’s chances for reelection. Now that they have their tax cut and the gutting of thousands of environmental, safety, labor and other regulations, the moneyed classes have nothing more to extract from Trump and may no longer be willing to hold their noses and vote for their useful, and cunning, fool. The tar from the Epstein scandal won’t wash off as easily as that from the “Access Hollywood” tape and the accusations by 19 different women of harassment or assault by Trump. When it’s children under the age of 18, people are not so forgiving of the powerful male perpetrator.

Moreover, while Trump and his factotums will try to sling personal and political mud at whomever the Dems select, none of the current candidates carries the long-time baggage that Hillary Clinton had to tote around.  

But beyond these secular concerns is the simple fact that the Electoral College has suddenly tilted against the Trumpster. In 2016, Trump always had a narrow path to victory, based on a number of unlikely occurrences such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan all voting red by miniscule margins. Everything broke right for Trump in 2016. As the results of the 2018 mid-term elections demonstrated, political and social changes have made it much less likely, if not impossible, for Trump to follow the same path to victory in the Electoral College. 

Trump’s losing hand in 2020 plays out in six states. Three consist of the former blue wall of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. They are all now in the hands of Democratic governors, meaning that it will be much harder for minority voter suppression activity to occur in those states, all won by very narrow margins by Trump in 2016. The Democrats completely ignored Wisconsin in 2016, and that won’t happen again. The various trade wars are having a particularly adverse effect on the manufacturing sectors so important to workers in these three states. Trump should lose at least one and maybe all three of these states.

A battleground state that the Republicans usually seem to win is Florida. In 2018 Florida voters voted by an overwhelming margin to restore voting rights to ex-convicts, adding more than a million potential voters to the Florida voting rolls, most of whom are expected to lean Democratic. The Republican-controlled state legislature passed a de facto poll tax law mandating that, before getting voting rights back, ex-cons had to repay all court fees owed to the government. People are now assuming that the ex-con effect won’t tip Florida to the Democrats. This analysis, however, ignores the fact that 200,000 ex-cons have already paid off these fees and are eligible to vote. If every Floridian votes as she or he did in 2016, only 57% of these new voters will have to vote Democratic to place Florida’s 29 electoral votes in the blue column in 2020. 

The final two states spelling doom for Trump are Georgia and Texas. An influx of minorities and educated young people is inexorably turning both states purple. And in 2020 the voter turnout efforts by Democrats in both states figure to be aggressive. Latinx, women, sexual minorities, African-Americans and environmentalists all have strong reasons to vote for any Democrat over Trump and most of those populations are growing rapidly in Texas and Georgia. The Dems don’t need Texas or Georgia: if the Democratic nominee takes Florida and only one of the old “blue wall,” she or he wins the Electoral College. But the fact that Dems now have excellent chances in these two former bastions of the Confederacy will cause the GOP to dissipate resources there and increase the Dems odds of winning the Electoral College.

In short, Trump needs another series of miracles to win reelection. Virtually any Democrat should beat Trump. Biden’s electability—based more on his name recognition than on his policies—doesn’t really matter, since in the vast scheme of things, Warren, Bernie, Harris and Buttigieg are all equally as electable, and perhaps Booker and several others as well.

Instead of focusing on electability, the Dems should focus on these criteria:

  1. Who has the best vision and the most realistic plans?
  2. Who is the best campaigner?
  3. Who is most likely to stand up to Trump and any hostile moderators (such as Matt Lauer was in 2016) in debates?
  4. Who is willing to devote the most resources to registering Democrats and getting out the vote?
  5. Who is most willing to campaign everywhere to help all the downcard candidates so that Dems can keep the House, take back the Senate and make inroads in many state legislatures?

On at least two of these criteria, campaigning and debating, Biden rates among the worst of all the Democrats currently in the race. His positions are about as rightwing as a Democrat gets, which may prove to dampen support among millennial progressives. I really don’t think Dems need to pander to any-one-but-Trump centrists-who-lean-right, which Biden appears to be doing. These voters will have nowhere to go but blue in 2020 and will likely only be scared off by the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders. Trump showed everyone the importance of strengthening your base (a principle he probably did not pick up from the chess genius Nimzowitsch, for whom strengthening your strength was a key strategy). Virtually every Democratic candidate speaks more to the Democratic base of minorities, millennials and the educated than Biden, except Delaney and perhaps Mayor Pete.  My own choice is Elizabeth Warren, who to my mind rates first or tied for first in all five criteria I listed. But really, any Democrat. Which I believe is the mood of the country. Anyone but Trump, which in the United States means any Democrat!

Let’s close with what I predict will be the enormous irony of the 2020 elections. If my analysis is correct, the only way that Trump can win in the Electoral College in 2020 is if he cheats—if someone like the Russians hack into the voting machines in closely-fought swing states, as many conspiracy theorists think happened in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2016. But let’s assume that Russian interference does not unfairly give the election to Trump and the Democrats triumph. In that case, Trump has given every indication that he will call into question the legitimacy of the election. Thus, while the only way for the cheater-in-chief to win is to cheat (again), if the cheater loses, he will call the winners cheaters. And that could lead to a constitutional crisis.

New York Times disseminates false assumption that there will be assault weapons in the streets for at least a century even after a ban

A signed New York Times editorial by Alex Kingsbury over the weekend presented the false assumption that even after outlawing automatic weapons, these weapons of mass destruction will be on the streets for at least another century.  

The piece, presented as the lead editorial in the print edition of the Times only several days after it appear online, is titled “It’s Too Late to Ban Assault Weapons.” It makes the false assumption that there is nothing we can do to get existing guns off the streets, so we will have to live in a gun-clogged nation for generations to come, even if we ban assault weapons and pass other gun control laws. 

Kingsbury’s harrowing factual beginning sets us up for his false premise: “With proper care and maintenance, an AR-15 rifle manufactured today will fire just as effectively in the year 2119 and probably for decades after that. There are currently around 15 million military-style rifles in civilian hands in the United States.”

So what. 

If we can pass a law outlawing the sale of military style (assault) weapons, we can also pass a law making possession of one a federal crime, with penalties including a steep fine and jail time. 

Don’t scoff at the power of such a law: if it were in place, when local police investigated a case of domestic violence and found an assault rifle, they could take custody of the weapon and the owner. We could create a computer program that goes through the rolls of every gun seller who does background checks to identify everyone to whom they ever sold an assault weapon and contact that individual to arrange the surrender of their now illegal weapons. A gun call-back program would represent no invasion of privacy, since at the time of sale the gun owner voluntarily surrendered his information for the purpose of registering the purchase. 

The federal government could also provide funds for local task forces to stop illegal sales of the weapons that have been outlawed. 

On the softer side, a law banning assault weapons could mandate and subsidize gun buyback programs. I am fairly certain that many large corporations would fund the buyback, either in hard cash or in gift certificates. About twenty years ago, deep in the heart of rural upstate New York, my public relations firm developed and coordinated a gun buyback program in Syracuse that was a joint effort of the Syracuse Mayor’s office, the police department and my client, the largest supermarket company in upstate New York at that time, P& C Foods, and its parent company Penn Traffic. P&C provided the buyback premium–$100 gift certificates, good in any P&C store. The results blew away our goals for the program, and also the P&C’s budget. The company didn’t mind, though, as the good will with both the public and municipal officials was very important to the company. In total, people handed in 316 weapons, a lot considering the small size of Syracuse and the fact that there was no legal mandate to surrender the weapons. 

Imagine an assault weapons buyback with a premium of $250-$500 versus the authorities discovering you have illegally kept possession of your AR-15 and fining you $5,000 and throwing you six months in jail for six months.

There can be no doubt that no matter how many of these “fixes” we establish to make sure that outlawing assault rifles actually gets these horrible weapons off the streets, we will never collect all of the weapons out there. We can also assume that those already prone to commit crimes will be more likely to break the new law and keep their AR-15s.

Again, so what?

We should never make the impossible-to-achieve perfect the enemy of the achievable good. A combination of public relations, education and aggressive law enforcement will harvest virtually all of assault weapons out there. All research tells us that the more guns in a society the more people die or are injured by gun violence, and conversely, removing guns from society reduces those killed and injured. Thus, if a law outlawing the possession of assault weapons is passed and aggressively enforced leading to the collection of 12 or 13 million assault rifles it would assuredly reduce deaths and injuries.

Kingsbury ends his signed editorial with another typical Times effort to blame the “left” for pushing too hard and not understanding the mentality and needs of the rest of the country. He uses a classic club-the-reformer formulation: “Perhaps if gun control advocates frankly acknowledge that military-style rifles are going to be present in American society for many generations to come, it will help assuage fears of mass confiscation and give gun owners the space they need to support sensible safeguards that will save lives.

Note the conflation of “gun” owners” with assault weapons owners; and the corresponding conflation of confiscation of assault weapons with “mass confiscation.” A mere one-third of the adult population owns guns—and not all of them own assault weapons. When surveyed, most gun owners are in favor of banning military style weapons. They are also in favor of increased background checks and other gun control and safety legislation. Once AR-15 are outlawed, the next step of getting them off the streets shouldn’t be that hard for responsible gun owners and the rest of the population to stomach. Keep in mind that after winning the battle to prevent the sale and possession of AR-15 and their ilk, the momentum will be on the side of gun control advocates. As long as hunters, shooting range enthusiasts and rural inhabitants who feel they need a firearm to protect their homes have other options, I don’t they are going to care that much about others having to surrender their illegal firearms. 

Instead of giving space to hand-wringing and pessimism in way that is tantamount to saying “we might as well do nothing,” the Times should publish more information on the implementation of gun safety laws. Once gun owners see how convenient and easy it will be for responsible gun owners to register their legal weapons and once they understand how universal gun checks, a robust national no-gun list, the banning of AR-15 and the end of open carry and stand-your-ground laws protect everyone, including their families, most will “have the space they need to support sensible safeguards.” The National Rifle Association gains its power because of lies and loosey-goosey rhetoric. Instead of taking that rhetoric for granted, the Times should join in the battle to correct NRA mendacity. It should be helping to prepare the country for a program to confiscate assault weapons instead of assuming it’s impossible to implement.

Real reason for new Trump policy not to admit poor immigrants is to “make America white again.” Won’t work since no non-poor European would want to come here

The proposed Trump Administration rule to deny entry into the United States to immigrants who would likely need public assistance—the so-called means test—is an incredibly dunce-headed policy change for the simple reason that it will not accomplish its objective. 

The objective—unstated, but understood by everyone—is to keep non-Europeans AKA non-whites out of the United States. But this mean-spirited attempt to make America white(r) again will never work. Why would anyone from Europe want to come to the United States? Sure, taxes are a little lower in the United States, but most “white” countries offer cradle-to-grave healthcare; inexpensive and sometimes free college and vocational training schools; great unemployment and employee benefits; and decent pensions. In the 21st century, there is more socio-economic mobility in virtually all other “white countries,” meaning someone from the middle class has a better chance of getting rich in Europe than in the United States. Only the very rich in European countries could possible find the United States an attractive place to live. For everyone else already in the middle class, it just doesn’t make any sense.

Odds are that the effect of the new rule may thus be to increase the number of middle class coming from autocratic countries in Africa and the Middle East, plus the overspill of educated workers in India and the Far East. In other words, more non-whites, albeit with more financial means than refugees from Central America and Syria.

The meanness and small-mindedness of the new policy are closely intertwined with the racism of Trump, Steven Miller and others supporting it. Racism creates a lesser class of humans. Because they are “lesser,” we don’t have to apply the same rules of jurisprudence or civility to them. We can treat them with cruelty, because they are no longer “poor people,” whom the Jewish and Hebrew bibles tell us to cherish and protect. No, they aren’t poor people, because they aren’t people at all, but something other and inferior. The difference between the goodness of a “poor person” and the badness of a “poor other” was underscored when Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, made the contrast between the poor Italians—his ancestors—who once came to the United States with nothing and our current stock of immigrants. 

Like establishing the tariffs against China, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Accord and publicly hammering the Federal Reserve Board, adding a means test to the requirements for immigration to the United States strikes a heavy blow to the American economy. The economy depends on a supply of workers at every level, and for a long time—certainly since the end of slavery—immigrants have supplied large numbers of our lowest paid employees. Many farmers are already complaining about not having enough workers to pick crops. Recent reports also highlight a growing shortage of home health workers in many metropolitan areas. Impoverished immigrants are a major part of the workforce serving the construction, home care, home cleaning, agricultural and hospitality industries. That’s a pretty large chunk of the economy that will suffer from worker shortages and increased labor costs. Note that many of these jobs consist of doing things that most people don’t want to do—hauling debris away from construction sites; changing great grandma’s catheter; picking grapes and lettuce in hot fields; cleaning the vomit off the walls and floors of hotel rooms left by binge-drinking guests.   

As usual for the Trump Administration, this new policy not only is not based on facts, it goes against what we know to be true. Studies show that immigrants end up contributing more to the American economy than the cost to process and care for them. What they pay in taxes far outweighs what the country spends on social welfare spending for immigrants. To be sure, every year, a group of recently arrived immigrants cost their local and the federal government money. And there must be some number of immigrants who never successfully integrate into our economy and remain a burden on American society all their lives. But overall, immigrants—rich ones and poor, both legal and undocumented—are essential to the American economy.

One common theme underlies many Trump economic actions such as trade policies, support of dying industries like coal instead growth industries like solar and wind power, cutting the flow of immigrants, and giving the wealthy a tax break paid for by cutting programs and deficits. That theme is shrinkage. All will tend to shrink the base of the economy. Our current economic leadership is the most ill-informed since at least the Hoover Administration. Their headlong rush to lead us into a severe recession is mind-bogglingly dim-witted.

They are, in short, stupid people blinded by their prejudices.

That is, unless Trump, Mnuchin, Ross, Kushner, et. al. are secretly buying up puts, selling stocks short and loading up on cash to take advantage of a crash of financial markets. 

Idiots or traitors? Doesn’t that always seem to be the final two choices when considering what Trump and his entourage do? 

One thing that we can be sure of though: whatever the goal, the motive and driving principle behind Trump is usually racism.

To paraphrase GOP, now is not the time to blame Trump for racially-inspired mass murders. No, now is the time to blame the real culprit—GUNS!

It’s inaccurate to blame Donald Trump’s racist spewing for the latest mass murders in El Paso and Dayton. As incendiary as Trump’s words have been, it’s not his fault.

Nor is the white supremacist ideology professed by both Trump and the El Paso killer to blame. 

Nor can we blame racism in general.

As for those—mostly rightwingers—who want to put the blame on the mental illness of the perpetrators of the 255 mass murders that have occurred in the United States so far this year, they’re barking up the wrong tree and they know it.

Quite obviously, the culprits identified by cultural wingnuts such as violent video games, homosexuality and a decline in church attendance are not to blame.

No, it’s none of these things that is the primary cause for El Paso, Dayton, et. al. 

Only one place to point the finger for virtually all mass murders: guns. Or should I say, the large number of guns in our society and the ease at which people—including religious fanatics, crazies and racists—can get them.

Every other country has mental illness. Many other countries have seen an uptick in racism over the past few years. Many other countries have leaders who make divisive remarks that are de facto calls for violence. 

What’s so different about the United States? Only that it has loose gun control laws and is already awash in weapons, many of them military grade.

Those who respond that when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns have it wrong on two levels. In theory it would seem as if outlaws would go to great lengths to get weapons, but that doesn’t explain the small number of mass murders—and all gun injuries and gun deaths, for that matter—in France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Great Britain, Italy, Canada, Japan, the Philippines and just about the rest of the world. The plague of mass murders has really only stricken the United States. The real world shows that when guns are outlawed, fewer outlaws have guns. When there are fewer guns in society, there are fewer guns for outlaws to steal, buy black market or do what most of them do now, just pick one up on the Internet without a background check.  

The “when guns are outlawed” argument has a second message to it—that non-outlaws can and should use guns for protection. But again, statistics disprove the idea that citizens are safer when they own (and carry) a firearm. Year after year, studies show that the number of lives saved because a citizen was carrying a gun is a miniscule portion of the number of civilians killed or maimed by friendly fire. Whether nonprofessionals can learn how to use a gun well enough to protect themselves remains an open question. What is not open is the undisputable fact that owning or living in a household that contains a gun puts one in more danger of injury or death than not owning one.

Many Republicans are getting behind a “red flag” bill to keep guns out of the hands of people identified as nut jobs. What a convoluted and inefficient way to stem just one of the many reasons people commit mass murder. Looking for mental illness won’t identify the religious fanatic, the racist, the white supremacist or the anti-government activist. 

The single most important piece of legislation for reducing the number of mass murders in the future would be to ban military-style weapons, assault weapons and conversion kits. They are the weapon of choice for the American mass murderer. If, however, we want to reduce gun violence, injury and deaths ubiquitously, we would institute a national licensing system as strict as drivers’ licensing, requiring all gun owners to have an up-to-date license. It goes without saying that 21 would be the minimum age for license eligibility. We should also require gun owners to carry gun insurance and modernize and expand our national registry of those not allowed possess firearms. A 10- or 15-day waiting period for all gun sales seems reasonable, as would banning all Internet sales of guns and ammo.

Surveys have shown that virtually all Americans agree with those proposals. I personally would go further by limiting gun ownership to those with a need, which essentially means people in rural areas for safety reasons. Cities and most suburbs are well enough patrolled and densely enough inhabited so that people are safe without guns. Hunters and target shooters only need weapons when in pursuit of their hobby, and so could rent firearms at gun lodges and shooting ranges. 

By all means, everyone, and especially the 20 Democratic candidates for president—should vociferously call out Trump for his odious racism. But to paraphrase a standard bromide piously proffered by National Rifle Association factotums after every mass murder, Now is too soon to condemn Trump regarding El Paso.

No, now is the time to raise our voices as loudly as possible in favor of stronger gun control laws.  

Big takeaway from Dem second round of debates is that we’d be better off if each debate were on a single topic

The second round of debates between the Democratic candidates for president demonstrated how imperfect the presidential debate system is. The candidates basically repeated the talking points that they had mouthed in the first round. Important issues such as taxation of the rich were all but ignored, while issues such as healthcare and immigration tended to focus on distortions that left out important facts, e.g. Medicare coverage is much better than most commercial policies or seeking asylum is not a crime. There was the usual amount of deviousness, most specifically the focus on the cost of Medicare for all—the more rightwing candidates such as Biden and Bennet focused only on the increase of what would be taken out of pocket A without considering that it would cost less money to society overall.   

The inability to drill down to the facts and truth of any issue had nothing to do with the large number of candidates and everything to do with the decision not to have topic-specific debates. Topic specific debates would solve all but one of the structural problems that the debate system currently has. Individual debates could cover immigration, climate change, foreign affairs, the economy, social issues and wealth inequality. By focusing on one topic, the viewers and the American public would get more information about what the candidates will really do. We would also get to see how similar all 20 Democratic candidates are on most issues, with differences only concerning the speed with which each wants to move ahead. Candidates would have time to dismantle the false rhetoric of their opponents on an issue instead of merely trading slogans. 

In a single topic debate, we would also learn which candidates have only talking points and which have an in-depth understanding. Candidates with detailed plans, such as O’Rourke and Booker on immigration, Inslee on the environment, Harris on health care and Warren on everything, would have time to explain them. Other candidates could disagree on specifics, or get on board.

The one problem not solved by going to a one-topic-per-debate format is the desire of the moderators to create arguments and magnify differences. That seems to be the motivation behind Tapper’s insistence on spewing bad math by asking candidates whether they supported raising taxes on the middle class to pay for single-payer healthcare insurance. The question was inflammatory and wrong-headed, since under a single payer system premiums, and maybe even deductibles and copays, would disappear to be replaced by taxation resulting in a lower total cost to society that would translate to lower costs for healthcare than most people currently pay. Tapper knows these facts, but like most of the mainstream news media, he poses questions based on Republican message points. It also was a trivial detail in the grand scheme of things—the main point is that virtually all 20 of the candidates want some form of universal health care.

Talking from the Republican playbook certainly is behind the disdain that the mainstream news media retains for straight-talking, truth-telling Bill De Blasio. New York’s Mayor certainly made the best points of the second night. He reminded everyone of the fairness of and necessity to raise taxes on the wealthy. He also pointed out how inadequate health insurance coverage is for most people, the ready answer to those who are worried that people with commercial insurance won’t want to have Medicare instead. 

If the constant interruption by the moderators when candidates’ time ended seemed especially irritating this round, it was because in an overwhelming majority of the cases, the candidates already knew they were running out of time and were obviously winding down their remarks. While we would never want a Trump-like demagogue to take control of a debate, it seems to disruptive not to give a candidate an extra 5-10 seconds to complete her or his thought.

As to the debates themselves. Warren and Bernie won the first night, with no other candidate really distinguishing her or himself. The second night featured a much stronger set of secondary candidates—I could imagine Castro, Gillibrand, Yang and especially De Blasio being excellent presidents, but can’t say the same for O’Rourke, Delaney, Bullock or Ryan. Forced to declare “winners,” I would give the second night to Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. 

Biden showed himself to be gracious and good-natured, but did not distinguish himself as either an issues wonk or a brilliant speaker. The contrast with the other “Silent Generation” candidate—Bernie Sanders—was stunning. Bernie maintains the energy, sharp wit and enthusiasm of a young person; Biden looks ready to sign whatever order his advisors put in front of his face without reading it to be followed by nine holes of golf. To be sure, a Reagan or Bush II type of disengaged leader managing a Democratic administration would be a lot better than a sociopathic, ignorant, mendacious racist who surrounds himself with yes-white-men. But I like the person in charge to actually be in charge, and I’m not sure that would be the case with Biden anymore.

The biggest losers were O’Rourke and Buttegieg, because the debates tested their superficial appeal and they failed to show anything special under the charisma. Unless Buttegieg can turn a little of his horde of money into support in the polls, what could have been a Big Five or a Big Six rolling into the primaries and caucuses is already down to just a Big Four: Biden, Bernie, Warren and Harris.

For the record, my first choice at this point is Elizabeth Warren, followed in order of preference, by Inslee, De Blasio, Harris, Castro and Bernie. I would like to say that Biden, Beto, Williamson, Delaney, Bennet and Bullock are absolutely unacceptable, but I would vote for any of them over Donald Trump (or most other Republicans). Today, more than perhaps any other time in U.S. history, the party matters more than the candidate. The biggest lesson from these first two rounds of debates is that to save the country and the planet—literally—we must vote straight Democratic for every office from president down through dogcatcher.