Per Dictionary.com, shell game is defined as “a sleight-of-hand swindling game resembling thimblerig but employing walnut shells or the like instead of thimblelike cups.” If you’re familiar with the setup of three-card Monte, the logistics are essentially the same, only with cards instead of shells. Find the pea (or the Queen of Hearts) under the shell. Double-down on your ability to find it again. If you’re successful, you win big. If you’re not, the opposite happens.
With Donald Trump, Con-Man-in-Chief, working in cahoots with a party whose agenda seems increasingly predicated on deception—so that you don’t discover how bad their policies actually are for you or the country at large—this diversionary tactic is alive and well. Before your eyes, numerous issues await your attention, but energy/money/time being limited, you can only pick one on which to act at the risk of having all three suffer.
Concerning the events of the last week and change, three “shells” jump to mind being of national import, especially fresh after Election Day. All merit scrutiny as threats to democracy, and yet, there aren’t enough hours in the day.
That press conference
President Trump has had some stupendously bad press conferences during his tenure, but his post-election presser, if not the outright worst, ranks right up there. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get to the nitty-gritty, shall we?
- The great and powerful Republican Party: First things first, Trump started by lionizing the GOP’s “achievements.” Apparently, not losing control of the Senate and ceding control of the House qualify. At any rate, they were achievements because the Democrats had an unfair advantage in fundraising from special interests and wealthy donors and because the media is so gosh-darned mean to Republican candidates. Also, we had a bunch of retirements. But we had big rallies! And we did better than Obama! The country is booming! If the Democrats don’t screw everything up, we’ll all be united and thriving together!
- On bipartisanship: With the whining about the Republicans’ handicap thus dispensed with, it was time for questions. First up, about that spirit of bipartisanship he and Nancy Pelosi talked about. Like, that’s not really going to happen, right? Especially with all the investigations expected to be going on and unless y’all compromise? Trump demurred on the issue. No, we’re totally going to be able to work together with the Democrats. Of course, if we can’t, they’re the ones in control of the House, so you know—their fault.
- Oh, that border wall… We’re gonna build the wall. We’ve already started building it, in fact. Just try and stop it. The American people want it. The Democrats want it—they just don’t want to admit it. Fine by me. I’ll take the political capital and run with it. But the caravan is coming, ladies and gents. I can’t say for sure that I’d advocate shutting down the government for it. But come on—I totally would.
- On the ever-tumultuous Cabinet: Trump is totally happy with his Cabinet. Good Cabinet. Great Cabinet. As long as no one suddenly displeases him, he has love for all. At this point, in a completely unrelated move, the President pushed a button revealing a pool of sharks underneath the floor and lowering a human-sized cage suspended above it from the ceiling.
- The Jim Acosta portion of the program: If there’s one moment of the press conference you heard about, it was likely this. CNN’s Jim Acosta, established persona non grata among Trump’s base, pressed Trump on referring to the migrant caravan in Central America as an “invasion.” Trump was all, like, well, I consider it an invasion. Acosta was all, like, but that caravan is hundreds and hundreds of miles away and you’re demonizing immigrants by showing them climbing over walls, which they’re not going to do. And that’s when things got really interesting. As Trump settled into Attack Mode, Acosta tried to ask a follow-up question. Trump was all, like, you’ve had enough, pal. Nevertheless, he persisted, trying to ask about the Russia investigation. Meanwhile, a female aide tried to grab the mic away from Acosta, which he stifled with a “Pardon me, ma’am” and a hand on her arm. Before Acosta relented, Trump called the investigation a “hoax” and called Acosta a “rude, terrible person.” Fun times.
- More about the Jim Acosta portion of the program: NBC News’s Peter Alexander came to Acosta’s defense as next reporter up—only to get harangued by the President in his own right—but the implications of this kerfuffle and the subsequent revocation of Acosta’s press privileges in covering the White House are serious. I don’t care what you think about Acosta personally, even if you feel he’s a self-aggrandizing hack. Judging by the smarmy attitude of other CNN personalities like Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo, elevated self-appraisals seem to be a fairly common occurrence there. I also don’t care what you think about Barack Obama’s frosty relationship with FOX News and the questionable treatment its reporters received at the hands of the Obama White House. On the latter count, two wrongs don’t make a right, and if Trump and Co. want to distinguish themselves, they should do it by being better and less petty—not the other way around. To that effect, squelching Acosta’s voice in a dictatorial way should be concerning no matter where you stand politically in the name of journalistic integrity and a free press. And let’s not start with the whole “Acosta assaulted that young woman” narrative. If you’re relying on a doctored InfoWars clip to make your argument, you already should take the hint you’re probably on some bullshit.
- More on bipartisanship: After Jim Acosta was given the ol’ Vaudeville Hook, Alexander questioned Trump on why he was pitting Americans against one another. To which Trump asked back—and I am not making this up—”What are you—trying to be him?” He was referring to Acosta, of course. Even after what just happened, it was stunning. For the record, Pres. Trump gave a dodgy “they’re soft on crime” answer and suggested the results of the election would have a “very positive impact.” So, um, yay togetherness!
- If the Mueller investigation is unfair to the country and it’s costing millions of dollars, why doesn’t Trump just end it? I’m posting the whole question here, because the President sure didn’t answer it convincingly.
- On voter suppression: “I’ll give you ‘voter suppression’: Take a look at the CNN polls, how inaccurate they were. That’s called ‘voter suppression’.” Um, what?
- On the individual mandate: You know, I could tell you what he said, but do you have any confidence that, regardless of how people feel about the individual mandate, Republicans have a plan in mind which will allow them to keep premiums down and cover preexisting conditions? Neither do I.
- When all questions by women of color are “stupid” or “racist”: Speaking of three-card Monte, here’s a shell game within the shell game in which you get to pick which one is the most flagrantly dog-whistle-y. PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump about whether his claim to be a “nationalist” has emboldened “white nationalists” here and abroad. Trump said it’s a “racist” question. Putting aside the notion held by many that racism implies power and Trump therefore has no idea what he’s talking about in this regard, it’s a legitimate question. Trump pivoted to his overwhelming support from African-American voters—a fabrication, at any rate—but his lack of an appropriate response betrays his complicity on this issue.
- More on denigrating black female reporters: While the dialog with Alcindor was the only such interaction with an African-American female reporter during the press conference, it’s not his only recent unflattering characterization herein. In response to a question by CNN’s Abby Phillip about whether he appointed Matthew Whitaker as acting Attorney General, he called her query “stupid” and opined that she asks “a lot of stupid questions.” As for April Ryan, Trump recently referred to her as a “loser” and someone “who doesn’t know what she’s doing.” If these comments were isolated incidents, one might be able to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. In such close proximity to one another and based on his track record, though, Trump deserves no such consideration. He’s attacking these women of color because he has a problem with being challenged by strong females and because it’s red meat to throw at his base.
- Other odds and ends:
- Trump evidently can’t turn over his tax returns because he is under audit. This is complete and unmitigated bullshit.
- Trump likes Oprah. Even if she, too, is a loser.
- If anything is going to be done with DACA, it will apparently have to be dealt with in court. Whose fault is that? You guessed it: the Democrats.
- Trump claimed to have a lot of trouble understanding people from foreign news outlets. If there were anything to make him seem like more of the “ugly American,” well, this would be it.
- What did Trump learn from the midterm results? Seeing as he learned that “people like him” and that “people like the job he’s doing,” he obviously didn’t learn a damn thing.
- Will Mike Pence be Trump’s running mate in 2020? Yes. Glad that’s settled. Nice hardball question there.
- How will Trump push a pro-life agenda with a divided Congress? Like a mother trying to give birth, he’s just going to keep pushing—don’t you worry, evangelicals.
- Did China or Russia interfere in the election? The official report’s, as they say, in the mail.
- How can we enact a middle-class tax cut alongside the existing corporate/high-earner tax cut? With an “adjustment.” What kind of adjustment? Trump’s “not telling.” YOU HAVE NO IDEA. JUST SAY IT.
- Per “Two Corinthians” Trump, God plays a very big role in his life. He’s also a “great moral leader,” and he loves our country. On an unrelated note, a lightning bolt ripped through the ceiling during the press conference, narrowly missing Trump as he delivered his remarks.
Au revoir, Monsieur Sessions
Politics makes strange bedfellows. If you’re thinking how strange it is to be protesting the firing of Jeff bleeping Sessions, you’re not alone. Sessions’ aforementioned removal as AG in favor of Trump loyalist Matthew Whitaker—assuming he actually was fired and didn’t resign, though how would we know?—is not something that anyone feels bad about for Sessions’s sake. You make a deal with the Devil, and eventually, you expect to get burned, no? Given his profile as a notorious anti-drug dinosaur who infamously once professed that good people don’t use marijuana, some drug reform activism groups are even happy he’s gone.
Outside of this context, though, the larger partisan hostility toward Robert Mueller and his investigation matters. I’m not going to even get into whether Trump has the right to remove Sessions and replace him with someone like Whitaker who wasn’t confirmed by the Senate, or whether it matters if he was fired or if he quit. Honestly, these questions are above my ken as a citizen journalist.
If past statements are any indication, however, putting Whitaker in charge of the DOJ is suspect. The man didn’t exactly write the book on how to limit the scope of the Mueller investigation, but he did pen an opinion piece for Trump’s favorite news outlet on how it should be done. As with invalidating Jim Acosta’s White House press privileges (a move which has prompted another lawsuit against the Trump administration, mind you), such is a line the president should not cross, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. As Americans, we should all be worried about the fate of the Mueller investigation as it comes to a head, and should implore our elected officials to safeguard the inquiry’s results.
The ghost of the 2000 election
Oh, those hanging chads. It’s somehow comforting—and yet actually deeply, deeply disturbing—that not much has changed since the fracas surrounding the 2000 recount that captivated a nation and prompted cries of a “stolen” victory for George W. Bush. Then again, that Al Gore didn’t win his own state and that thousands of Florida Democrats voted for Bush puts a bit of a damper on pointing to these shenanigans and Ralph Nader as the only reasons why Gore lost. As with Hillary Clinton losing in 2016, alongside legitimate concerns about Russian meddling and James Comey’s untimely letter to Congress, it’s not as if strategic miscues or lack of enthusiasm about the Democratic candidate in question didn’t play a role.
Now that I’ve set the scene, let’s talk about 2018. There were a number of close races across the country this Election Day—some so close they still haven’t been certified or conceded. Depending on your views, some were either disappointments or godsends. If you were pulling for Beto O’Rourke in Texas, while you still should be encouraged, you were nonetheless dismayed to find that enough voters willingly re-elected Ted Cruz, famed annoyance and rumored Zodiac Killer. If you were pulling for Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, meanwhile, you likely were over the moon once the race was finally called.
Of the key races not yet called at this writing, those in Florida and Georgia loom particularly large. In the Sunshine State, the candidates of both the race for U.S. Senate between Rick Scott (R) and Bill Nelson (D) and the race for governor between Ron DeSantis (R) and Andrew Gillum (D) are separated by less than half of 1%. Meanwhile, in the Peach State gubernatorial race, there are enough outstanding votes that Stacey Abrams (D) and her campaign are convinced they can force a runoff election based on the margin.
In all three cases, despite the razor-thin vote disparities, Republicans have been quick to cry fraud or try to expedite certifying the results. Scott, with Trump throwing his own claim around wildly in support, has made accusations of electoral malfeasance without the evidence to back it up.
And this is just speaking about what has happened after the election. Leading up to the election, DeSantis caught flak for telling voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for Gillum, dog-whistling loud enough for racists across the Southeast to hear. Brian Kemp (R), meanwhile as Georgia Secretary of State, oversaw the purging of voters from rolls, the failure to process voter applications, and keeping voting machines locked up—all primarily at the expense of voters of color, a key Democratic constituency.
Depending on how far back you wish to go, the antics of DeSantis, Kemp, and Scott are only the latest turn in a long-standing American tradition of voter suppression aimed at blacks. Carol Anderson, professor of African-American studies at Emory University, provides a concise but effective history of keeping blacks from the polls—by hook or by crook. We may no longer be threatening prospective voters of color with tar and feathers, but voter purges, closure of polling locations, and disenfranchisement of felons from being able to vote aren’t much of an improvement. This is 2018, after all.
As Van Jones and others might insist, Kemp et al. can only win one way: by stealing. To put it another way, if these Republicans were convinced they had won legitimately, they wouldn’t need all the chicanery, subterfuge, and insinuations of impropriety. Even if they do prove to have the votes necessary to win, their conduct is a stain on the offices they have served or will serve.
Like it is with the White House’s revocation of Jim Acosta’s privileges following Trump’s press conference or the suspicious installation of Matthew Whitaker as head of the Department of Justice, the injustice here is such that it should, ahem, trump partisanship. Instead, our “winning is the only thing” mentality and emphasis on results over process all but ensures bipartisan inaction.
Assuming a shell game is run fairly, the customer playing need only follow the correct shell amid all the movement. This itself might be a chore depending on how much and how fast the shells move. Going back to the Wikipedia entry on the shell game, though, there’s an important note about how, frequently, games of these sort are not on the up-and-up:
In practice, however, the shell game is notorious for its use by confidence tricksters who will typically rig the game using sleight of hand to move or hide the ball during play and replace it as required. Fraudulent shell games are also known for the use of psychological tricks to convince potential players of the legitimacy of the game – for example, by using shills or by allowing a player to win a few times before beginning the scam.
In other words, it’s a con. You’ve been following the wrong shell all along because the eyes deceive. In the context of President Donald Trump’s unbecoming behavior, his DOJ shakeup of questionable legitimacy, and the Republican Party’s stacking of the electoral deck, while all of these matters merit your justifiable outrage, they are yet a distraction from something else not even on the table.
For one, shortly after the press conference, Trump issued a directive designed to halt asylum-seeking at our southern border. It’s a particularly problematic order, in that it appears to fundamentally misunderstand asylum law and makes it yet harder to apply for asylum than it already is. It’s also reactionary policy that overstates the dangers of the migrant caravan and illegal immigration in general, and further puts us out of step with international standards on safeguarding refugees/asylees.
This executive order comes on the heels of Trump’s stated desire to end birthright citizenship, another move which would be of dubious constitutional validity and subject to challenge in court by civil rights advocacy groups, not to mention having U.S. troops stationed at the border with Mexico. It’s easy to dismiss these as political stunts designed to fire up his base when you have no skin in the game, so to speak.
For immigrants and would-be applicants for asylum/visas, this rhetoric is more worrisome. Owing to our country’s poor track record of acting on behalf of vulnerable populations—I’ll bring our sordid history of intimidating voters of color and otherwise acting in official capacities to deny them their rights back up, in case you need reminding—this is more than simple hand-wringing based on the theoretical.
In the miasma and noise of a Republican agenda fueled by the views of FOX News talking heads, Koch-Brothers-funded legislative influence, obeisance to moneyed interests and religious conservatives, Tea Party railing against deficits, and Trump’s own prejudicial outlook, it’s legitimately hard to cut through all the bullshit and focus on what we can do as possible influencers. By now, the sense of fatigue is real, especially because when we act to counteract said agenda, there’s also half-hearted Democratic Party policies and media clickbait designed to offend around which to work.
So, what’s the answer? Assuming my words are even that useful in this regard, I’m not sure. As noted, all of the above merits scrutiny, but we have our limitations. It may be useful to zero in on one or a handful of issues that arouse your personal political passions. Plus, if you can afford it, so many causes spearheaded by organizations devoted to the betterment of society deserve your donations, though throwing money at these problems does not automatically equate to solving them.
At the end of the day, though, what is abundantly clear after decades of failed policy initiatives is that tuning out is not a viable option if we want meaningful change. Indeed, people-powered solutions will be necessary if we are to fix our broken democracy—and there’s a lot to fix, at that. Recognize the shell game for what it is, but don’t refuse to play. Instead, change the game.