White-collar criminologist Bill Black says that President Donald Trump’s stumbles and the GOP’s policies give Democrats an opportunity to win over voters, if they can offer a meaningful alternative.
Aaron Mate: It’s the Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. Democrats have hoped President Trump’s stumbles will help them win over his voting strongholds. Well, there are new developments on that front. In New York, Democrat Christine Pellegrino has just won a state assembly seat in a district that voted Trump in November. Pellegrino was a delegate for Senator Bernie Sanders in the primary. Meanwhile in the red state of Oklahoma, Democrats are talking about making gains as Republicans face the state’s worst budget crisis in recent state history. Joining me is Bill Black, associate professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He is the author of “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.” Professor Black, welcome. Bill Black: Thank you. Aaron Mate: So let’s get to Oklahoma. That’s a state where we have this massive budget crisis, and for the first time in a long time, people are talking about Democrats capitalizing and picking up a fair amount of seats in the state legislature. Bill Black: Right, so the Democrats are close to an endangered species within Oklahoma state politics. And what’s particularly interesting about this case, like Kansas, is this was an unforced error. There was no reason for this budgetary crisis to occur. The Republican legislatures in both cases ran through dramatic reductions in taxes on the wealthy and in particular on the oil industry, and then supposedly this was going to spur record economic growth. It did nothing of the kind, and even though there has been at this juncture a pretty much complete recovery in terms of unemployment percentages at least from the Great Recession, Oklahoma and Kansas have been growing unusually slowly as opposed to rapidly. So the big lie about the tax cuts causing an economic boom has again proved to be a big lie. And now people are finding that their schools are having to drop programs, that they are dropping programs to support the disabled. We’re talking about kids with really severe medical disabilities that can no longer afford their medicine. And of course, this is happening at the same time that Trump’s budget is taking a meat-ax to precisely these same programs, with the claim that if problems arise, the states will simply deal with it. Well, the states, particularly the red states, are slashing even more heavily. And the point is of all this, of course, A) it’s bad. But B) it’s profoundly unpopular. And it’s profoundly unpopular in precisely the groups of people that most heavily supported Trump. Which is to say you’re starting to see the first real signs of a reversal where a district in New York that you were talking about, goes for Trump by something like 23 points, and then not only do the Democrats win in a special election, but a Bernie Sanders delegate wins. So you can see how powerful it is when the Democrats focus on these human, bread and butter issues that are present all the time. The Russia stuff obviously, you can see the attraction, but Americans don’t tend to be as interested continuously in foreign and national affairs. They are very interested in their schools, very interested in whether they get health care. And of course, Republicans are in the midst of dramatically, tens of millions of people being denied insurance. The last time we had good polling, that suggested that 17 percent of Americans approved of that. So they have deeply unpopular policies and if the Democrats emphasize these policies and how terrible they are, and how unpopular they are, they are capable even in the reddest of districts, and they’re in the reddest of states, in making real gains. Aaron Mate: Well, professor, I think that’s a very big if. Because when I look at the Democrats on a national level, I see a huge emphasis on Russia. I see even now talk of impeaching Trump over the firing of James Comey and allegedly obstructing justice. But not that much talk on the issues that you’re identifying. Bill Black: No, and it’s not just the Democrats. You can see things like MSNBC, as well. This is obviously very critical of the Trump administration, that’s spending 95 percent of its time on the issues involving Russia and national security. And again, everybody understands some of the things are happening in that area, but if you want to get voters to come to the polls and actually reverse these elections, it’s the bread and butter issues, it’s whether your elderly grandparent or parent will have adequate care. These are the gut punches that send them to the polls and create things like a President Trump. But they can also unmake President Trump, and they can unmake a whole bunch, 50, 60, 70 elected officials at the national level. Aaron Mate: Well, Professor Black, since you mentioned the amazing developments, to use your word, when it comes to this Trump White House on a national level, let me put to you the most recent one that’s come up. The intercept revealing yesterday that Trump called his counterpart in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and praised him for his campaign of extrajudicial killings that have killed some 9,000 people in recent period. Your response to that? Bill Black: Sure. So this is one of my other hats, I teach public finance, so that’s why subjects like Oklahoma are near and dear to me. But I’m also white collar criminologist. And the president of the Philippines runs deliberately death squads. And these kill in many cases, people involved with drugs, but including simply users. But in many cases they are not, they are simply somebody doesn’t like them, or they’re political opponents. And this is always the case, that vigilantes always, we will teach you in criminology, become murderers. This is an absolutely disgusting thing, but also by the way fits into the discussion we were just having. So most of the media is presenting the release of the transcript of the call between President Trump and President Duterte as an issue, “There goes Trump again, national security,” because he revealed that there were two US nuclear submarines in Korean waters, which is absolutely insane. But the far broader issue is that Trump praised the death squads, the masked murder of often completely innocent people. And complained that President Obama had been critical of death squads. Now, there’s been a lot said about Trump’s fascist tendencies, but Trump has just made it inescapable what his views are. And to bring it back to drugs. What do we have? By everyone’s agreement in the United States, we really bona fide have an opioid crisis. And that is largely in red states, and is particularly true among demographics that were most supportive of Donald Trump. What does the Trump budget propose? Cuts to all of the services we have that help people get off of opioids. This is the insanity that touches people, it’s your kid. Some cases, your parent that has this terrible dependency on opioids. You can see what it’s doing to them, you know how valuable treatment is, and Trump wants to take it away. And what would he like, really in his heart of hearts to put in its place? Death squads to kill your kids and your grandma. Aaron Mate: Well, Professor Black, just to jump in. Just because he praises Duterte’s death squads doesn’t necessarily mean he wants to impose them here in the US. Bill Black: No, but it tells you what his instinct is. He’s praising it. He’s not saying, “Oh, I understand in your specialized circumstances,” it’s, “Man, I’m really impressed with the toughness you’re showing.” Admittedly, this comes back to, he’s very bad at understanding the world. But to come to the point we were discussing earlier. Recall that he praised the head of state, I believe of Australia, if not New Zealand, but I think it was Australia, saying “You have vastly better healthcare than we do.” Which is true because they have public healthcare. None of this stupid insurance stuff. They have direct provision of healthcare for everyone and Trump is right, it’s much better. And you’re correct. Just the fact of the fact that he praises Australia for its healthcare doesn’t mean he’s gonna bring it here, that would be too sensible. Aaron Mate: Okay, Professor Black. So all this speaks to the issue of ethics in the White House. A level of ethics that has been criticized. And on that front, let me ask you about one more development. This was reported by the New York Times this week. The Times reports that the Trump administration has moved to block an effort to disclose the names of former lobbyists who have been granted waivers to work in the White House or federal agencies. The Times goes on, in a highly unusual move, sent a letter to Walter Schaub, the head of the office of government ethics, asking him to withdraw a request he had sent to every federal agency for copies of the waivers. Bill Black: Right. So institutionally, let me tell you first, the office of government ethics, which I dealt with as a federal official, is known for not being terribly tough. So when they have become the tough folks, we have real problems. Yes, people will recall, Trump blasted the role that lobbyists had at the White House, promised to transform it. Well, he has. He’s going to transform it so that you can lobby secretly without your conflicts being known and without having to recuse yourself, even though you stand to make a fortune for your private interest. And that is telling, of course. Trump is not here with the message that we are here to help the people of America. This administration is a billionaire’s club that’s going to get rich through not public service, that’s an obscenity. But through being at the top of the pecking order, changing the policies to benefit them. Just like in Oklahoma. The oil industry was dominant, so it created a massive tax cut for oil interests. And voila, we can’t afford Johnny and Mary’s school, but the billionaires are happy. Aaron Mate: So it’s kinda like Trump doesn’t want to drain the swamp, he wants to just block it off so we can’t even see it. Bill Black: Oh, he wants to enlarge it and make it even more opaque. Again, in our terminology, in the criminology biz, he’s creating the most criminogenic environment in the history of the White House. A criminogenic environment is one where the incentives are so perverse that they produce widespread crime. In this case, by elites, in which they are the predators and we, the people of the United States, are their prey. Aaron Mate: Well, on that not-so-mild note, we’ll leave it there. Bill Black, associate professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, author of “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.” Professor Black, thank you. Bill Black: Thank you. Aaron Mate: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.