Political Animal

Donald Trump’s Surprising New Critics

The editorial board of the Trump-supporting Washington Examiner has condemned the president’s attacks on Joe Scarborough, arguing that “observers might even someday look back at this incident as the instant when things began to unravel.” I laughed derisively when I read that, but it’s probably true that there will be people who say this. In itself, the Scarborough incident is nothing new or particularly noteworthy. Accusing a former Republican congressman and impeachment manager at Bill Clinton’s Senate trial of murder is not categorically different from accusing Ted Cruz’s father of involvement in the assassination of a president. Making baseless accusations against his critics is on page one of Trump’s playbook. I don’t think there’s anything game-changing about this story at all, but it coincides in time with a major downturn in the president’s fortunes. It’s quite possible that in retrospect, the two things will look causally related.

For one thing, the Washington Examiner is not alone. The New York Post and the Wall Street Journal have also published editorials blasting Trump over his actions with Scarborough. Why these staunchly pro-Trump editorial boards have chosen this incident as their bridge-too-far is anybody’s guess, but they’ve both put their foot down. Everywhere we look, there are surprising breaks with the president. On Tuesday night, Sean Hannity of Fox News took the extraordinary step of chastising his listeners for following Trump’s example and not wearing masks or observing social distancing guidelines: “If you can’t social distance, please wear the mask. Do it for your mom, your dad, your grandma, your grandpa.” Also, on Tuesday, Twitter humiliated it’s most valuable patron by adding a disclaimer to a Trump tweet explaining his claims about vote-by-mail are untrue.

This is all happening at the same time that fresh compelling evidence is piling up that Trump is headed for defeat and that he’s going to drag the Republican Party down with him. A Firehouse Strategies-0ptimus poll out on Wednesday has Joe Biden leading nationally 54-43 percent, and state polling looks just as bad. Another survey says Trump is trailing in Arizona, while a Tuesday poll showed him leading by a spare three points in Utah. The congressional preference shows the Democrats up by eight points, which is higher than their 2018 midterm advantage and leads Nathan Gonzales of Roll Call to write, “Democrats at this point in the cycle look more likely to gain seats than to lose their majority.”

POLITICO reports that Trump’s 2016 braintrust has already staged an intervention:

David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski, two key allies and former political advisers to Donald Trump, went to the White House last week to issue him a warning: The president was slipping badly in swing states, and he needed to do something to fix it.

Three days later, the Trump campaign’s political directors in Arizona and Florida — states the president won in 2016 but where surveys show him lagging — were summoned to the White House Roosevelt Room. The officials offered a detailed rundown of his organization in the battlegrounds and tried to reassure the president that he was on firm ground.

We’ve arrived at the 100,000 victim threshold in the the COVID-19 pandemic, and while blue areas are trending down, the South is trending up. If that trend continues, Trump’s push to quickly reopen the country will look like a lethal mistake even in his political strongholds.

In a normal political cycle, we’d now be in a climate where Republicans are too concerned about November to give any ammunition to the Democrats by questioning their leader. Instead, the exact opposite seems to be happening, with some of Trump’s most dependable defenders suddenly challenging him. His unsubstantiated murder accusations against a MSNBC morning host are not the explanation or last straw, but this is happening at a time that definitely looks like an inflection point in the president’s fortunes.

There will be people who say that Joe Scarborough cost Trump the election, even if they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Are Elite Business Schools Swindling International Students?

When Arun Swaminathan applied to Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in early January, COVID-19 was just one of many world events. There were no known cases outside of China. In the United States, headlines were dominated by Donald Trump’s ongoing impeachment trial. Even Wuhan had yet to enter lockdown.

By the time Swaminathan was admitted in March, the virus was exploding across the globe, and countries everywhere were asking citizens to shelter in place. The U.S. had sealed its borders and suspended almost all visa processing.

Swaminathan was still excited that he was accepted into the program. “You see all your hard work has resulted in something tangible,” he told me. He sent in a $2,000 deposit to secure his place in the class of 2022. At the same time, he knew that the pandemic had radically transformed the shape of travel and education. If he couldn’t start the year in person, it would be difficult to do remote learning from Mumbai, which is ten-and-a-half hours ahead of Evanston, Illinois. It would be even harder to engage in the kind of networking opportunities and internship hunts that make business school so valuable. Eventually, he reached out to Kellogg to ask if he could defer his start.

It wasn’t long before Kellogg gave him an answer: probably not. If he couldn’t attend in person, he should either be ready to attend online or withdraw.

Swaminathan told me it’s not much of an option. “If I’m willing to forgo the $2,000 and my application, all the hard work, yeah, I suppose I have a choice,” he said. He plans to take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans to cover the cost. “It’s not very fair.”

Across American higher education, the coronavirus has had disastrous consequences. With dwindling enrollments precipitated by mass campus closures, universities are slashing costs. Many colleges, including some business schools, are worried that they will have to close if they can’t fill their incoming class.

Yet for elite and wealthy institutions with far more latitude, COVID-19 has created a divide. Several top schools, including Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and Harvard Business School, are giving all admits the chance to postpone enrollment. But many others, like Northwestern Kellogg, are not. MIT’s Sloan School of Management is only granting deferrals in rare circumstances. Columbia Business School told one inquiring student that it “does not defer students” and that admits uncomfortable starting online—or shifting to its internship-free, one-and-a-half-year program—would need to “withdraw and reapply.” Similarly, Cornell University’s Johnson School of Business rejected one foreign admit’s pandemic-related deferral request by explaining that such delays were reserved “for candidates who truly cannot begin their program due to extenuating circumstances.”

These policies have prompted an outcry from incoming students in general and international students in particular. Many students from abroad applied to these programs in hopes of joining new communities, shifting jobs, and perhaps even immigrating to the United States. Instead, they feel like they are now placed in an untenable situation. They can either give up the thousands of dollars they’ve already paid to schools, withdraw their acceptance, and forgo a chance to advance their careers—or they can spend six figures to pursue an online education from thousands of miles away.

“It was a really bad experience,” said Marcelo Stilman, describing his lengthy attempt to get Cornell to grant him a deferral. Stilman, 31, reached out to the university because he was unsure if he could get into the U.S.—and was wary of leaving his older parents alone in Brazil while COVID-19 raged throughout the country. The business school ultimately rejected his request. “I felt like in the end, they only wanted my money,” he said.

For major American universities, business schools are a lucrative enterprise. With well-paid faculty and upscale amenities, their operating costs are high. But with six-figure prices (an MBA from Columbia costs over $170,000) and generous alumni donations, MBA programs provide schools with a sizable source of revenue. International students, who generally pay more than domestic ones, are especially valuable. Roughly a third of Kellogg’s MBA students come from overseas. In return for the large investment, attendees get an expansive network of classmates and alumni who can help them eventually find high-salaried jobs. Much of the structure of MBAs is designed around making these critical connections, such as by hosting recruitment events.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended this arrangement. All students will face some reduction in quality if MBA programs move online, but the reduction will be particularly acute for international students, many of who face effective travel bans. It’s likely that most can’t even be in the same time zone. They will either have to be awake at strange hours to actively participate in online class sessions, or they will have to watch pre-recorded lectures, a process one student compared to subscribing to YouTube for a six-figure cost. And if these schools do offer any in-person activities—be it classes or networking events—international students will be unable to physically attend.

If universities won’t let them start late, almost all the students I interviewed hoped their schools would at least grant them a discount. “There is genuinely a reduction in one of the most essential points of being in business school, which is networking,” said Swaminathan. For many internationals, including Indians like himself, the currency exchange rate made the over $100,000 dollar price tag even more formidable. “We’re not cheaping out,” Swaminathan said. “It’s only asking for something that’s fair.” As of this writing, Northwestern, Columbia, Cornell, and MIT have not announced any reductions in tuition.

International students also say that the shift to online learning jeopardizes their odds of finding jobs in the United States after graduating, something most of the people I spoke with expressed interest in doing. MBA students traditionally intern with major companies or consultancies during the summer between their first and second years, experience that later helps them land full-time employment. But the U.S. government often requires that international students spend at least nine months studying in America before working for the summer. Only some programs have taken steps to ensure that students starting remotely will still qualify for summer jobs.

The lack of clarity from universities has compounded existing work visa difficulties. The Trump administration’s outward hostility toward foreigners has only intensified since COVID-19 made landfall. The president recently announced a slew of new immigration restrictions and plans to curtail a popular program that lets international students work in America for several years after graduating. Many prospective students worry that if the pandemic persists and Trump is re-elected, staying in America will only grow harder

“Unemployment rates will probably keep rising, and then of course the administration in the U.S. will try to prevent immigrants from staying,” said William Ramos, who lives in São Paulo. A first-generation college student, Ramos plans to take out $130,000 in loans to attend Duke University Fuqua School of Business. To pay them off, it will be all-but essential that he spend several years after graduating working in America. “I’ve lost half my savings,” Ramos told me. They were savings he planned to use to pay for his continuing education.

He is asking for a deferral.

Duke Fuqua has been unclear about whether and under what circumstances it would allow international students to delay their starts. In an interview Monday, William Boulding, the school’s dean, told me that the program would grant deferrals to students who could not make it into the United States by the fall. This would likely include Ramos. Last Sunday, the Trump administration said it would ban non-citizens who had been to Brazil in the last 14 days from entering America.

Representatives at Columbia Business School and Cornell Johnson did not respond to requests for comment. MIT Sloan declined to comment.

“As we have always done, Kellogg will consider deferral requests from admitted students with exceptional circumstances,” said Kate Smith, Kellogg’s assistant dean for admissions and financial aid. “Admitted students can submit a request for deferment that will be reviewed by our admissions team. These requests will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis since each situation is unique.” Multiple international Kellogg admits said their school has indicated to them it would not issue deferrals because of the pandemic itself. So, too, did students at Columbia and Cornell.

These three institutions have almost no financial incentive to grant delay requests. All accept less than a third of applicants and maintain waiting lists if admits decide not to attend. Indeed, Northwestern Kellogg has said that it will now reconsider applicants it had previously rejected. “It’s a brilliant business decision,” said one irritated admit.

Experts say the unforgiving stance is likely driven by fears about enrollment. It’s not all unfounded. Prestigious business schools are selective, but they have seen a drop in applicants over the last several years. COVID-19 is putting even more downward pressure on attendance, particularly by students from abroad. “This matters a great deal because international students almost invariably are paying retail prices,” said Steven Conn, a professor at Miami University Ohio who studies the history of U.S. business schools. Some institutions have pushed back their start dates, hoping travel will open up in time for students to arrive

But while closed campuses may keep enrollments temporarily low, the economic collapse could be good for business schools in the long run. Historically, Conn told me, recessions help business schools attract more students. The robust labor market of the last few years kept applications down because “you didn’t need a business school degree to do well for yourself,” he said. But with millions of layoffs, these schools may soon see a spike in applications once the pandemic subsides.

In the meantime, selective business schools remain extraordinarily wealthy. Cornell Johnson has an endowment of over $200 million. Columbia Business School’s is $750 million. As of 2018, Kellogg had an $882 million endowment. Each parent institution, meanwhile, has a multibillion-dollar endowment. But unlike other rich business schools—such as Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business—they are refusing to let international admits simply defer.

That may change, especially if more schools alter their policies. Until then, however, students say they are left with extreme uncertainty. Many schools, for example, haven’t said if students who withdraw because of the coronavirus outbreak will get refunds on their deposits. When I asked Kellogg whether it would do so, the school told me it is “monitoring the situation this summer to inform our decision.”

Other schools have been clearer. After Cornell rejected his deferral request, Stilman withdrew from the school and asked that they return his $2,000 deposit. “It’s more or less like a month to a month-and-a-half of my salary here in Brazil,” he told me.

Cornell declined.

How Mask Protestors Distort the True Meaning of Freedom

As Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman suggested a few weeks ago, wearing a mask during the coronavirus crisis has become a part of our so-called “culture wars.”

Views on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic have become increasingly polarized, yet another political issue that for many culture war combatants is filtered through an ideological lens. The left has been almost uniformly — and loudly — in favor of sacrificing many personal liberties in exchange for containing the virus’ spread. The right has been divided, but the vocal activist wing of conservatism that has enormous influence on social media and Fox News, has been far more willing to attack the various infringements on where people can go and what they have to wear.

The mask has become the ultimate symbol of this new cultural and political divide.

That divide was captured by this pair of photographs from Memorial Day.

In my home state of Minnesota, the clash took on a whole new level of confrontation when a local reporter showed up wearing a mask to interview people protesting the state’s restrictions.

No longer content to simply refuse to wear masks themselves, those protesters harassed the reporter with chants of “take it off.” While they insist that requirements to follow public health guidelines during a pandemic pose a challenge to their own constitutional freedoms, they demonstrated that they were also intent on controlling the behavior of that reporter. You won’t find a better example of what “freedom” actually means to conservative right wingers. It is all about the freedom to impose their will on others.

The conservative obsession with freedom feeds into an argument that began with our founding fathers when John Adams warned about the perils of true democracy, proclaiming that “they want equality more than they want liberty.” In modern times, that cause of placing freedom over equality has been taken up by (primarily white) Republicans.

During Jared Kushner’s attempt to turn the Republican Party platform into a public relations document, the conservative emphasis on “freedom” came up.

Two sources said they recalled Kushner making a more sweeping point — that they should rethink using the word “freedom” altogether in the GOP platform because polling showed it doesn’t appeal to African Americans.

I have no idea what polls Kushner had seen that led him to that assumption, but he clearly has no sense of the history of that word in the African American community.

What Kushner was probably reacting to was the fact that African Americans are smart enough to reject the kind of “freedom for me, but not for thee” that has been the hallmark of this country’s denial of equality.

The rugged individualism that is often championed as freedom has long been one of the challenges we face in a democracy that requires us to come together to solve the challenges we face. But it takes a toll on a more personal level as well. One of my all-time favorite songs is “Desperado,” written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey. It includes this wonderful line in the third verse:

And freedom, oh freedom
Well that’s just some people talking
Your prison is walking through this world all alone

Many of those protesters who are claiming that their their freedom is compromised by wearing masks are the same ones Vivek Murthy wrote about in his book, “Together,” in which he identifies loneliness as a major public health issue.

As Murthy details, the leading researcher on the health impact of loneliness has shown that people with weak social connections are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than people with strong connections. Stunningly, the health outcomes of social disconnection are akin to the impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

While Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his life advocating for freedom for all Americans, he understood that none of us can go it on our own.

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.

A freedom that is disengaged from the responsibilities we have to each other is not only destructive to our humanity, it becomes a pathway to anarchy. Here is what Barack Obama said about that in 2012.

We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations…

We, the people recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As Americans, we should always cherish our freedom. But divorced from commitments to equality and citizenship, it rings hollow as nothing more than selfishness.

The GOP’s Incredibly Shrinking Policy Agenda

According to Jonathan Swan, Jared Kushner has taken on yet another task: “a radical overhaul of the Republican platform.” Apparently Kushner wants to reduce it from 58 pages down to a single card that people can fit into their pockets. Rather than a document outlining policy statements, he wants it to be more of a mission statement that “looks something like the 10 principles we believe in.”

Kushner’s efforts are the perfect example of how the entire GOP is about to complete its journey toward being the post-policy party. What the president’s son-in-law wants to accomplish is to turn the Republican Party platform into a public relations document rather than a policy statement. That aligns perfectly with what I reported recently about the Trump campaign website, which contains no issue statements or policy proposals, but is simply dedicated to selling campaign merchandise and raising money from contributions.

The pathway to becoming the post-policy party didn’t begin with Donald Trump. The process started back in the 1970s when Richard Nixon revived the party by adding southern Dixicrats to the base via the Southern Strategy. Then, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Paul Weyrich brought Christian nationalists into the fold, primarily by exploiting the Roe vs Wade Supreme Court ruling. That allowed the GOP to use grievance politics (i.e. “cultural issues”) to keep their base in line while continuing their policy agenda of shrinking the federal government, lowering taxes, gutting regulations, and implementing military adventurism abroad.

By 2008, that policy agenda had brought us the fiasco in response to Katrina, involvement in two endless wars in the Middle East, and the Great Recession. In the midst of all of that, the Democratic candidate of “hope and change” got elected. Rather than rethink their policy agenda, Republicans made the decision to ignite grievance politics in support of their strategy to simply obstruct everything Democrats attempted to do. Their base voters responded by eventually electing Donald Trump—who made grievance politics his platform.

Over the holiday weekend, we saw all of that in action with the president retweeting mockery of Stacey Abrams’ weight, lies about Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s drinking, a reference to Hillary Clinton being “a skank,” accusations that Joe Scarborough is a murderer, and attacks calling a Marine Corps veteran “an American fraud.” Those were combined with lies about mail-in voting and Joe Biden’s record as vice-president. While we edge towards the mark of 100,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, this little gem was retweeted by the president.

That’s all Trump has, and his enablers in right-wing media are content with that. Even those who previously engaged in post-truth politics in order to convince the Republican base that tax cuts for the rich would eventually trickle-down to them seem to have given up on all of that and devoted themselves entirely to documenting conspiracy theories.

Beyond how that will play out in the 2020 election, it is important to note that the reason the GOP resigned itself to being the post-policy party is that their policies were a failure. A perfect example of that comes from Jennifer Rubin, who, as a Never Trumper, remains one of the few conservatives still interested in policy. Over two years ago, she wrote a column stating that the Republican Party can’t be rebranded, but must be completely junked. Rubin went on to ask “what would a replacement party that cares about governing look like?” Here’s her answer:

…those who favor reform conservatism; responsible internationalism; free trade and robust immigration; tolerance and the rule of law; and market economics with an ample safety net.

Other than “reform conservatism” (who knows what that means?), Rubin demonstrates why she would feel at home in the “big tent” version of the Democratic Party. Not only did the Republican agenda fail, but Democratic policies worked.

How long can the GOP sustain itself as a party based on grievance propped up by conspiracy theories about their so-called “enemies?” That is the question of the hour and needs to be posed clearly to American voters because, if Republicans continue on their current course, it is a recipe for fascism.