Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, March 1, 2017 9:05 pm

In which your news media attempt to polish a turd

A couple of months ago, I warned you that whatever came of Donald Trump’s likely disaster of a presidency, the news media would be of no use in helping us fight it. We got proof of that last night and today in the media’s coverage of Trump’s joint address to Congress.

To begin with, as several media fact-checking outlets reported, practically every factual assertion made by Trump was a lie. Despite having an army of researchers at his disposal, the president of the United States stood before Congress and told lie after lie after lie. One can only conclude that the lies were intentional, and that alone should have led to universal condemnation of the address.

But, no, it gets worse.

Trump highlighted his executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to create something called the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, to work with people who are victims of crimes created by immigrants. He did this despite the fact that immigrants commit crimes and are incarcerated at a rate significantly lower than native-born Americans. He also did this despite the fact that it is quite reminiscent of the practice of Nazi Germany of publicizing crimes committed by Jews.

If the lies didn’t turn off the media, the Nazism should have. And if Trump had stopped there, it would have been bad enough.

But no.

As the grotesque centerpiece of his speech, Trump “honored” Carryn Owens, who was widowed in late January when her husband, Navy SEAL Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens, was killed on a mission in Yemen.

Keep in mind that this mission was launched without adequate intelligence, one result of which was that both Ryan Owens and numerous civilians were killed. As commander-in-chief, Trump bears the ultimate responsibility for the outcome, yet earlier Tuesday he had tried to throw military officers under the bus:

“This was a mission that started before I got here,” the president said. “This is something that they (his generals) wanted to do. They came to see me; they explained what they wanted to do.

“My generals are the most respected we’ve had in many decades I believe.”

Indeed, The Washington Post quoted Trump as saying of his generals, “The y lost Ryan.”

Trump touched all the bases of appallingness in this set piece.

He insisted that the military had obtained actionable intelligence from the raid, a claim the military insists is not true.

He overlooked the fact that not only was Ryan Owens’s father, William, not present, William Owens has strongly criticized Trump’s handling of the raid, had refused to meet with Trump when his son’s body arrived back in the United States, and has called for an investigation of the raid.

And then, as applause for Carryn Owens filled the chamber, Trump added, “And Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record” with that applause.

I am running out of words to say how vile this construction is. He was using  Carryn Owens as a hostage, a human shield against his manifest mishandling of the raid. And he managed, by remarking on the level of applause, to make it all about him, not Carryn Owens or her late husband.

One would think that a perceptive and competent media would recoil at this performance. And as I predicted, you would be wrong. While there were a few dissenters, many commentators focused purely on Trump’s tone — which was, in fact, significantly more reserved than in his previous speeches — in saying that he had been “presidential.”

I would expect a toad like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to say something like that, even if, in doing so, he was admitting that up until now, Trump has not been presidential. McConnell is about GOP power, not the public interest.

But CNN commentator Van Jones, normally a liberal stalwart, announced, “He became President of the United States in that moment. Period,” and added that if Trump can conjure more moments like that, “He’ll be there for eight years.”

Perhaps the second-worst offender behind Jones was Chris Cilizza, who writes for The Washington Post’s political column The Fix:

1. Trump rapidly grasped that this was a real moment — and he didn’t step on it by trying to immediately return to his speech. Lots of politicians, obsessed with making sure they got the speech out in the allotted time, would have moved on too quickly — missing the resonance of the cascades of applause that washed over the rawly emotional Carryn Owens. Trump understands moments; he stepped away from the podium, looked to Owens and just clapped. For the better part of two minutes, the only thing you heard in the room was loud applause and the only thing you saw was Owens crying and looking heavenward. Very powerful stuff.

Critics will say — and have already said — that Trump was using a widow’s emotion for political gain. But Owens willingly agreed to come to the speech knowing Trump would single her out. And, politicians of both parties regularly use these tragic moments to make broader points about our country and its policies. That’s politics. To suggest that Trump somehow broke with political norms here is to turn a blind eye to virtually every speech like this given by any recent president of either party.

2. Trump showed some grace. There has never been any question that Donald Trump is happiest when people are talking about, looking at and generally obsessed with Donald Trump. He’s never shown much grace in the public eye, often exhibiting a sort of ham-handedness in situations where some delicacy is required. But not Tuesday night. Trump, dare I say, gracefully handed the spotlight to Owens — even taking a few steps back to let her have that moment. For a candidate, a man and a president who has shown a stunning inability to ever make it about anyone other than him, it was a very deft move.

Well, no. As regards Point 1, Cilizza is engaged in the perennial DC media both-siderism that deprives the American people of an honest understanding of what is causing our problems. It’s true that both parties have used widows/widowers of fallen heroes in political appearances, but no one — no president ever — has used a newly minted, grieving widow as a human shield the way Trump did. As for Cilizza’s Point 2, the “grace” Trump showed was that of a person with narcissistic personality disorder who, for perhaps 30 seconds, became asymptomatic. Applauding that is like cheering a grown man for not deliberately shitting on the carpet.

Cilizza must have been stung by some of the comments, because he then posted on Twitter, “I ask again though: Why can’t Trump be praised for delivering a good speech full stop?”

SpecialKindOfStupid

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But his column did not hide him, nor his Twitter feed give him shelter. Among some of the Twitter responses:

“Because speech as performance is meaningless to non-pundit human beings deeply impacted by the substance of a president’s policies.”

“Because you eat up everything he says, no matter how dangerous it is, as long as he leaves you out of it.”

“Only reason you think it’s ‘good’ is Trump avoided saying Jewish bomb threats = false flags. You know, like he did EARLIER THAT DAY.”

“Gee, Chris, you know who ELSE gave nationalist speeches while hating on immigrants?”

You get the idea: There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who aren’t employed by the Washington Post who were just happy to point his errors out to him.

But that’s not good enough. The errors do damage, and corrections or walkbacks, if any, don’t undo that damage. The media need to be calling out this bullshit for what it is, and they need to be doing it in the moment.

But that’s not going to happen. The earlier post I linked to at the top of this post goes into most of the reasons why, and the media’s performance after last night’s Trump speech merely confirms what I predicted months ago: We are well and truly on our own.

 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 7:42 pm

What we have learned this week about U.S. conservatism

I would not have bet a beer on the likelihood that Nazi provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos could do anything useful. But this week, and quite by accident, he did: He found that the moral depravity of U.S. conservatism does, apparently, have a bottom. I just wish it were not as deep as it is.

Milo (normally I’d use his last name on second reference, but I’m lazy) had been invited to be not just a speaker at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, but the keynote speaker. The conference provides a lot of entertainment and amusement for people who are not batshit, but it also serves as a canary in the coalmine for U.S. politics by offering a beauty contest of current and future GOP political candidates.

So this was the guy who was to get this week’s main spotlight. A guy who had risen to fame by fomenting “Gamergate,” a huge harassment campaign against women in gaming. Who led a racist harassment campaign against Leslie Jones, who appeared in the all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot. Who, though not a U.S. citizen himself, reviles immigrants. Who’s openly gay, yet mocks efforts to make life better for LGBTQ people.

So what did Milo do to be shown the door so ungraciously? A video surfaced in which he suggested that, hey, just maybe pedophilia had gotten a bad rap.

To hear him tell it, he was just engaging in freedom of speech. And there’s a certain truth to that. He has the absolute right to say that. And everyone else has the absolute right to recoil in moral revulsion, which pretty much everyone else did. CPAC, the biggest GOP event short of the quadrennial Republican National Convention, revoked its speaking invitation. Simon & Schuster, which had offered Milo a book deal, rescinded it. And Breitbart, whose then-editor, Steve Bannon — yes, the same Nazi who now advises the president* –had hired Milo, fired him. (Which, by the way, means that Milo, who’s here on an O visa, no longer has a job and has to leave the country. I wonder how this has affected his views on immigration.)

In 1983, Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards supposedly quipped to reporters that the only he could lose an election would be to be caught with a dead girl or a live boy. To judge from what has happened to Milo, Edwards is right; a live boy is too much for U.S. conservatives. We still don’t know about the dead girl, and given everything else that the GOP and the intellectually bankrupt American conservative movement generally will sit still for, I’m afraid some girl, somewhere, actually is going to have to die before we find out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017 8:33 pm

Where are we going from here?

Former Bush speechwriter David “Axis of Evil” Frum, having lately had the scales fall from his eyes, has written an article about how America can transition, and likely already is transitioning, to authoritarianism under Trump, and what that might look like.

Donald Trump, however, represents something much more radical [than any previous president]. A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service? Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics? Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off? If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it. It’s happening here instead, and so we are baffled.

He arrives at his prediction via a speculative 2020 re-election win by Trump whose basis assumes facts not in evidence (e.g., growing real domestic wages), but that’s less important than his plausible scenario for what America becomes under Trump. Given Trump’s already-demonstrated penchant for using the power of the presidency to enrich himself and his family — and to hurt his enemies financially, as he did with a single tweet — Frum thinks Hungary’s ongoing slide into kleptocracy is a likely model for what we can expect:

The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”

He provides more detail on what he expects:

It is essential to recognize that Trump will use his position not only to enrich himself; he will enrich plenty of other people too, both the powerful and—sometimes, for public consumption—the relatively powerless. Venezuela, a stable democracy from the late 1950s through the 1990s, was corrupted by a politics of personal favoritism, as Hugo Chávez used state resources to bestow gifts on supporters. …

Trump will try hard during his presidency to create an atmosphere of personal munificence, in which graft does not matter, because rules and institutions do not matter. He will want to associate economic benefit with personal favor. He will create personal constituencies, and implicate other people in his corruption. That, over time, is what truly subverts the institutions of democracy and the rule of law. If the public cannot be induced to care, the power of the investigators serving at Trump’s pleasure will be diminished all the more. …

A mistaken belief that crime is spiraling out of control—that terrorists roam at large in America and that police are regularly gunned down—represents a considerable political asset for Donald Trump. Seventy-eight percent of Trump voters believed that crime had worsened during the Obama years.

In true police states, surveillance and repression sustain the power of the authorities. But that’s not how power is gained and sustained in backsliding democracies. Polarization, not persecution, enables the modern illiberal regime.

By guile or by instinct, Trump understands this.

As it happens, I have been thinking along a separate but related line: What happens if Republican gerrymandering and vote suppression cannot be stopped? I think that’s a real possibility. Here’s why.

For starters, earlier today Trump demanded that Senate Republicans “go nuclear” if Democrats oppose his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, meaning end the filibuster. Aside from the hypocrisy — the filibuster, which appears nowhere in the Constitution, was the Republicans’ main tool of opposition during the eight years of the Obama administration — that means that Republicans can put anyone they want on the Supreme Court. And given the ages of Justices Kennedy, Breyer and Ginsburg, he might be able to do that real soon. That means we can expect, fairly soon, a Supreme Court overwhelmingly against advancing voting rights and willing to tolerate vote-suppression measures many federal judges do not now find constitutional.

Because lower courts are bound by the Supreme Court’s decisions, that means we can expect judicial defeat of all efforts to expand and protect voting rights and likely all efforts to end gerrymandering for partisan political purposes. (It *might* remain possible to toss out gerrymandered districts based on rights, but I doubt it. Chief Justice John Roberts once clerked for then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist, whose antipathy to minority voting concerns dated back to his early political days in Arizona, and his work in the Justice Department during the Reagan years offers little encouragement.)

I think, then, that America will become a de facto one-party country. There will be no remaining checks and balances, because there will be no one in power in the White House, Congress or the Supreme Court who believes in them. As Frum describes above, business leaders will pledge fealty to, if not Trump himself, then at least the GOP, either out of hope for goodies or fear of retribution. Sure, some people will remain Democrats, and some Democrats will continue to get elected, almost exclusively to local office, but as a national party, and as statewide parties in most states, they’ll be done.

And once America becomes a one-party country, we’re screwed. If the Affordable Care Act hasn’t already been repealed, it will be, with all the deaths and other human suffering appertaining thereunto. Wage-and-hour regulations, meant in many cases to protect worker health and safety, will be destroyed. As for equal rights, the Republican Party already has demonstrated that it doesn’t believe in the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and several sitting justices already have ruled in ways that make clear that they are disregarding it, a trend that will only grow worse as Trump or a GOP successor appoints more justices.

An assault on individual rights will almost certainly commence, because that is what has happened everywhere else. Speaking publicly and critically about the government might not become a crime, but it likely will have serious effects on one’s career.

Our economy will become a kleptocracy. Wealth will no longer be created by ingenuity and entrepreneurship, but by getting a piece of Trump’s Big Grift.

And the pie will grow smaller, not least because the world’s best and brightest entrepreneurs, engineers, software developers, and other talent, put off by the U.S.’s xenophobic immigration policies, will choose to go elsewhere, so that wealth creation in the U.S. slows. Our store of intellectual capital will diminish as the world’s best and brightest students choose to study in other countries, while more and more of our own students will be unable to afford college because of declining real wages, rising costs, and cuts in federal aid.

And so we will enter a whirlpool of declining economic activity and personal freedom. It won’t be an apocalyptic hellscape, at least at first, but in many ways the U.S. will become what we once referred to with smug superiority as a Third World country.

Can any of this be stopped? Maybe. If the Democratic Party finally finds its spine, some of the worst might be avoided. But I have no confidence at all that 1) the Dems will find their spines, and 2) it’s not already too late.

I’d love to be wrong about this. I hope I am. But current facts certainly point in this direction, and hope is not a plan.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017 8:07 am

A fledgling coup?, cont.

Looks like I went to bed too soon last night. I woke up a little while ago to learn that several staffers of the House Judiciary Committee worked with the White House on the wording of Trump’s executive order on immigration.

Now, the White House and Congress work together on legislation all the time, and much of that work is done by staffers. That much is totally normal. What’s not normal in this case is that 1) the staffers didn’t tell the committee chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., or their respective House bosses what they were doing, and 2) they signed a nondisclosure agreement about their work.

As Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo points out:

To be clear on one point, Goodlatte isn’t some moderate or softy. He’s an immigration hardliner. It’s unlikely he would have disagreed with at least the broad outlines of the executive order, though perhaps he might have disagreed with some of the particulars.

Still, as a result, Congress knew nothing about the order until the White House announced it on Friday, although work apparently began during the transition period after the November election. That’s not the kind of move that is likely to further a good working relationship between the White House and Congress, as Politico points out:

“Their coordination with the Hill was terrible,” said one senior GOP source on the Hill, who seemed flabbergasted that congressional Republicans didn’t receive talking points from the White House on the executive order until late Saturday night, about 24 hours after President Donald Trump signed it. “We didn’t see the final language until it was actually out.”

The fumbled roll-out serves as a cautionary tale to Trump officials who decide to go it alone in enacting controversial policies without help from Congress. Indeed, the lack of consultation has set off a wave of resentment on Capitol Hill. GOP insiders believe that the White House and Goodlatte staffers could have avoided the drama that unfolded over the weekend had they looped in relevant lawmakers on the front end.

The episode also has instilled a wariness among GOP aides about the White House.

“These executive orders were very rushed and drafted by a very tight-knit group of individuals who did not run it by the people who have to execute the policy. And because that’s the case, they probably didn’t think of or care about how this would be executed in the real world,” said another congressional source familiar with the situation. “No one was given a heads-up and no one had a chance to weigh in on it.”

When I read about this, I immediately wondered whether AG nominee Jeff Sessions, a bigot of long standing, had had something to do with it. Per Politico, I was right:

Insiders told POLITICO that the botched roll-out of the immigration executive order was coordinated for the most part by White House policy director Stephen Miller, a former Sessions staffer, and Trump senior strategist Stephen Bannon.

So why is this all a big deal? If you’ll recall, Congressional Republicans said during the presidential campaign that they would serve as a check on Trump’s worst ideas, just as the Constitution envisioned that Congress would do to the executive branch. But Trump and his staff now have demonstrated that they are willing to seek to bypass congressional oversight, just as they are defying federal court orders. And like all bullies, they’ll keep going until they get smacked.

We’re about to find just how constitutionally oriented the Republican Party is. Given the GOP’s voting record over the past 20+ years, I don’t think we’re going to like what we find.

 

 

 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 8:32 pm

Could Trump be a Russian spy? That train might have left the station years ago

Boy, life really does come at you fast. One day we’re (almost all of us) making golden-shower jokes; the next day, an ex-journalist like Dan Conover, whom I’ve known for more than a decade, takes the time that news-media outlets didn’t to peruse the document dump made public by BuzzFeed to bypass the salaciousness and get straight to the news.

For those of you playing catch-up, this Guardian article provides both background as to where the documents came from and some explanation of the basis for believing they might be reliable. (That said, the article itself is not well sourced.) Several outlets have identified the source of the documents as retired MI6 agent Christopher Steele and the author as an opposition-research specialist initially hired by one of Trump’s Republican primary opponents and later by a party or parties unknown.

Washington media apparently have known of the existence of the documents for weeks, if not months. Buzzfeed finally posted them; editor Ben Smith’s justification for doing so is here. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan thinks this was an ethically bad call and explains why here. Normally I would stop and dig into the details of that ethical decision — I’ve always been fascinated with ethical hard calls in journalism — and at some point I will. But right now I want to try to keep focused on the actual news in the dump.

Nota bene: The documents remain unverified. But more on that in a bit.

I haven’t had time to read the whole thing. But Dan did and wrote about it on Facebook; with his permission, I’m reposting a good bit of what he said here:

The real meat is in Report No. 95. It’s the only report in the Buzzfeed dump that is incomplete, as it appears to be missing the final page, which would include the date on which it was filed.

If it is deemed credible, then it accuses Trump and his campaign of an actual crime — not poor judgment, not allowing themselves to become vulnerable to blackmail at some point in the future. Report No. 95 says that “TRUMP’s team” passed intelligence on Russian oligarchs and their families living in the United States directly to Russian agents.

In other words: Espionage.

The report is titled “RUSSIA/US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: FURTHER INDICATIONS OF EXTENSIVE CONSPIRACY BETWEEN TRUMP’S CAMPAIGN TEAM AND THE KREMLIN”

The opening summery claims that a Trump associate admitted that the Kremlin was behind WikiLeaks’ DNC hack, and that “TRUMP’s team” used “moles within DNC and hackers in the US as well as Russia.”

It further claims that Russians received intel from Trump’s team on “Russian oligarchs and their families living in US,” and that the mechanism for transmitting this intel involved “pension disbursements to Russian emigres living in US as cover, using consular officials in New York, DC and Miami.”

Detail item No. 1 cites a “Source E,” described as “an ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP.” In late July, Source E told a compatriot that:

“…there was a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between them and the Russian leadership. This was managed on the TRUMP side by the Republican candidate’s campaign manager, Paul MANAFORT, who was using foreign policy adviser, Carter PAGE, and others as intermediaries. The two sides had a mutual interest in defeating Democratic presidential candidate Hillary CLINTON, whom President PUTIN apparently both hated and feared.”

Detail item No. 2, still citing Source E (who appears to be an unwitting source), talks about the WikiLeaks operation and claims this was conducted “with the full knowledge and support of TRUMP and senior members of his campaign team.”

Highlighted: “In return the TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue and to raise US/NATO defence commitments in the Baltics and Eastern Europe to deflect attention away from Ukraine, a priority for PUTIN who needed to cauterise the subject.”

Detail item No. 3 discusses the structure of the anti-Clinton intelligence network, and the mechanics of the two-way flow of intelligence between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

And there’s Detail Item No. 4, which I quote in its entirety:

“In terms of the intelligence flow from the TRUMP team to Russia, Source E reported that much of this concerned the activities of business oligarchs and their families’ activities and assets in the US, with which PUTIN and the Kremlin seemed preoccupied.”

Detail items Nos. 5 and 6 describe the Trump team’s political calculations and Trump’s investment efforts in Russia.

But let’s go back to the important part. Detail No. 4 alleges a crime, and other passing references in other reports reinforce the claim — particularly in Report No. 97 (30 July). In the opening summary of the July 30th report, the opposition research consultant writes:

“Source close to Trump campaign however confirms regular exchange with Kremlin has existed for at least 8 years, including intelligence fed back to Russia on oligarchs’ activities in US.

“Russians apparently have promised not to use ‘kompromat’ they hold on TRUMP as leverage, given high levels of voluntary co-operation coming from his team.”

The consultant expands on that claim in Detail No. 4:

“As far as ‘kompromat’ (compromising information) on TRUMP were concerned, although there was plenty of this, he (ed note: the source is described as a Russian emigre in an earlier Detail item) understood the Kremlin had given its word that it would not be deployed against the Republican presidential candidate given how helpful and co-operative his team had been over several years, and particularly of late.”

Long story short: This material is unverified, but if it can be verified, it means that we’ve gone way past “conflict of interest” and “potential security risk” and have wound up at “Trump is guilty of having spied for the Russian government for the past eight years.”

Can it be verified? I don’t know. Dan knows a lot more about the national-security apparatus than I do, and he doesn’t know.

But here’s what I do know: We as a country can’t afford not to try to find out. If this doesn’t call for a joint select Congressional committee with an investigative staff full of hard-nosed former prosecutors, nothing does. This is sure as hell more important than Hillary’s emails. This is about giving a longtime Russian spy the keys to the thermonuclear kingdom.

And here is where we find out who the real patriots are. They’ll be the ones, in Congress, elsewhere in government, and in the media, who make an effort to find out the truth. They’ll face some of the most vicious opposition in the country’s history. And it is not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the country could depend on whether they succeed — even if the ultimate truth is that Trump, for all his bad qualities, is innocent.

 

 

Monday, January 9, 2017 10:26 pm

Acculturation

Earlier today on Twitter, I stumbled across an interesting rant, which starts here. You can read it for yourself, and I encourage you to do so. But basically it’s an attack on the notion that Donald Trump won the Electoral College because liberal coastal elites didn’t thoroughly understand and sympathize with the concerns of the white working class.

The writer, who claims to have grown up poor and white in Texas, makes a number of good points:

  • Conservatives don’t really care about people like him.
  • People like him “are not worth romanticizing.” (Honestly, who among us is?)
  • Impoverished white Americans “are used as a political cudgel by rich Republicans against blacks, against women, against Muslims, against Jews and LGBTQ folks … “
  • Those Republicans “have gotten a shit ton of mileage from impoverished and blue-collar white folks by claiming the people in power live in some ‘bubble’ in Washington and are out of touch with ‘real Americans.'”

It goes on. And it’s really worthwhile, a big slice of both self-aware and more broadly aware understanding of just how America came to be under the control of a sociopath, someone with narcissistic personality disorder and a symptomatic Alzheimer’s patient who surrounds himself with Nazis and is empowered and protected by the most corrupt Congress in the nation’s history.

Well, enter a guy on Twitter who objects to it because of the language.

This individual’s bio describes him as a “philologist and dog trainer,” which is sweet. This individual has four followers, which is unsurprising inasmuch as this individual’s account was created on Dec. 31.

Now, I think I know who this individual is. I think he’s somebody local, somebody who has blogged for years about an obscure but (to me) interesting local subject. I’ve not met him in real life, but I know where he works and I’ve interacted with him on his blog, and he on mine. I could be wrong about this, which is why I’m not naming him. But I’m about 99% certain.

He characterized this rant as “hysterical” and added, “Well, repeated use of derivatives of ‘f***’ and ‘moron’ give the rant a certain cheap discourse continuity.” He also called the rant “just a vomit of self-aggrandizing outrage.”

Well.

This individual has been on Twitter for nine days. I’ve been on it for nine years. So here’s an observation he might find useful: If Facebook is more or less an online family restaurant, Twitter is a dive bar, complete with frequent spilled drinks, vomiting, and the occasional knife fight. Don’t like it? Don’t go in.

Oh, and you’re a philologist? Well. I’m impressed. Perhaps, being a philologist, you have some familiarity with the language of the ancient Greek comedists. If so, then you know for a fact that 1) clean language wasn’t at the top of their list of concerns, and 2) humor flows, and satire races, uphill only.

And if you find language objectionable, count your blessings. Because apparently you’ve been able to live for decades a life free from the kind of desperation that makes the author of that thread use language you find so offensive. Because a lot of people use that kind of language out of desperation because they are so utterly lacking in resources, options, opportunities and luck that they can’t do anything else.

Also, pro tip: When the country is being taken over by someone who was not legitimately elected president, someone who has narcissistic personality disorder and early-stage Alzheimer’s AND is an agent of a hostile foreign power (update 1/10/17: additional evidence has surfaced that the Russians are blackmailing him), someone who surrounds himself with Nazis, someone who gives every indication of intending to use the office of the presidency to grift and who is empowering his blood and marriage relatives to do the same with all the power of the United States executive branch behind them, someone whose actions to date, from firing the supervisors of the country’s nuclear-weapons program to nominating a Cabinet full of inept and/or corrupt scumbags, someone who clearly poses a threat to the future of freedom and democracy in this country, well, your concern with how often someone says “fuck” is just a tad precious.

More to the point, son: Not despite but because of your education, you’re going to be one of the first people they come after. And all your learning, all your pretentiousness, all your decades of voting Republican, and all your concerns about objectionable diction aren’t going to save you when they do.

So if you want to live, you’d better wake up.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017 8:03 pm

When the watchers are doing the pillaging

The Associated Press, noted for its balance and sobriety, seldom uses the word “eviscerate” in the lede of any story not datelined from a butcher shop. So when it announced that, in the dark of night on a national holiday, House Republicans had voted Monday to “eviscerate” the Office of Congressional Ethics, I sat up and paid attention.

The vote, in a closed-door meeting the night before the new Congress was sworn in, was to severely weaken that office, ending its independent status and placing it under the partisan (and therefore Republican-controlled) House Ethics Committee. The measure, authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, was part of a larger package of House rules covering the 2017-2018 legislative session that was to be voted on today. (There is no corresponding Senate office. You might wonder why that is.)

Not the least of the reasons for paying attention was that the whole reason the office was made independent in the first place, by House Democrats in 2008, was in response to the congressional lobbying scandals created by Jack Abramoff, who went to prison on corruption charges. The Abramoff case demonstrated that the House Ethics Committee was either unable or unwilling to police the House. Last night’s vote was so bad that Abramoff himself strongly criticized the measure today. (I believe it was one of Charlie Pierce’s commenters who said that if Jack Abramoff says you’re corrupt, you should strongly consider the possibility that you are corrupt.)

In addition to stripping the office of its independence, the measure also would have prevented staff from making public statements independent of the Ethics Committee and would have prevented it from investigating anonymous tips. It even would have prevented the office from reporting crimes, even crimes against children, which is not just a hypothetical:

Last year, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for fraud charges linked to allegations that he sexually abused boys while he was a high school wrestling coach more than 30 years ago.

During Hastert’s tenure as Speaker, congressional Republicans turned a blind eye to Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley’s inappropriate relationship with an underage male page. Foley resigned after text messages he sent to the page were leaked to the press.

A number of media outlets reported that this package passed over the objections of senior GOP leadership, including Speaker Paul Ryan. That’s bullshit of the purest ray serene, as well known Marxist political analyst Norm Ornstein of the radical-hippie American Enterprise Institute points out:

Rules packages get up or down votes, and are top priority for the majority leadership. They are not rejected by the majority party. The package is put together by the leadership; nothing gets included or excluded without the say-so of the speaker.

My local daily, which is also my former employer, didn’t post a story until 10:26 this morning. But a good number of news outlets did last night, and the issue went viral. Both independently and at the urging of Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, citizens nationwide bombarded their GOP representatives’ offices with calls and emails demanding to know how their reps had voted, and why. Many also insisted that the measure be reversed. (It should be noted here that Talking Points Memo’s similar response to an initially secret GOP plan to privatize Social Security in 2005 smoked that plan out, and ultimately strangled it in its cradle, in much the same way.)

Earlier today, the measure was stripped from the House rules package in response to public pressure, although there’s nothing that would keep Republicans from sneaking or ramming it through at any future point. President-elect Donald Trump issued a statement objecting to the timing of the measure but not the substance. Naturally, he later took credit for its reversal.

Worse, The New York Times and some other media outlets also wrongly credited Trump for bringing about the change, with CNN saying Trump had “dramatically strong-armed” the change.

So what have we learned from all this?

First, and once again for those who aren’t paying attention, we as a nation are screwed because the people in charge of the executive and legislative branches of government for at least the next two years simply cannot be trusted. They cannot be trusted to make policy in the public interest. They cannot be trusted to police themselves. And they cannot be trusted to attack public corruption on the part of others. That’s just not what they do. That’s just not who they are. And you should not believe anyone who tells you differently.

Second, and worse, it is clear that the agenda of both executive and legislative Republicans right now is plunder, pure and simple. Trump and his family show no intention of doing anything but using the presidency to fill the family coffers to bursting. The Congressional Republicans appear inclined let them do that so long as, in return, he allows them to plunder public resources and what remains of the wealth of the middle and working classes, by gutting Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act and selling off public assets for cheap to cronies, all of which will result in huge upward transfers and concentration of wealth.

As Ornstein wrote:

Given Ryan’s solidarity with President-elect Trump on Russian hacking—preceded by his deep-sixing any bipartisan statement during the campaign warning against foreign attempts to influence our elections—along with Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s indifference to any investigation of conflicts of interest or ethical problems with the president-elect and his cronies, this is chilling evidence that we are headed for a new age of official embrace or at least acceptance of unethical and illegal behavior. The core of America’s political system depends on real checks and balances, on a Congress that puts country ahead of party. The House leadership showed this week that party comes first.

Third, and unsurprisingly, Trump shows no compunction whatever about telling whatever lies he thinks he needs to tell to inflate his public image and feed his own ego, no matter how demonstrably untrue they are. This isn’t news.

Fourth, and more dismayingly also not news, is that even major-league mainstream news outlets like CNN and The New York Times appear uninterested in fighting Trump’s lies. As I said before, the media will not help us. We’re going to have to fix this ourselves.

Which brings us to Point 5: Encouragingly, we have seen evidence once again that if Middle America pitches a bitch at Congress, Congress — even this Congress, saturated in its own pustulence — will, at least temporarily, take a hint. Screaming at the top of your lungs all the time gets tiresome, and it’s hard on a body. But when the evidence shows that it works at least some of the time and other available tools appear to lie thin on the ground, maybe that’s just what we have to do.

 

 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016 1:53 pm

“There is no kindness in them.”

Neal Gabler, author of a number of books examining the intersection of U.S. history and popular culture, has posted an essay that is, I think, essential to what we who would oppose Trumpism must stand for. It also, unfortunately, helps to illustrate why I think resistance to Trump can expect very little help from the media.

The gist of it is that kindness, and such related tendencies as community responsibility and mutual aid, have gone by the wayside in American culture in general and Republican politics in general. He traces this change from a 1961 essay by Gore Vidal on the subject of Ayn Rand and the psychopathic “philosophy” she espoused. Vidal quotes Rand:

It was the morality of altruism that undercut America and is now destroying her.

Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. Today, the conflict has reached its ultimate climax; the choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequence of freedom… or the primordial morality of altruism with its consequences of slavery, etc.

To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men.

The creed of sacrifice is a morality for the immoral …

Keep in mind here that Rand was writing in the giant shadow of World War II, which democratic countries (and, yes, the Soviet Union) would not have won without “the creed of sacrifice.” And yet she argues that altruism undercuts America, she conflates selfishness with freedom and altruism with slavery, she values money above relationships and dismisses everything that every great religion and moral code going back thousands of years has taught us about the value of unselfishness.

Gabler comments:

In most quarters, in 1961, this stuff would have been regarded as nearly sociopathic nonsense, but, as Vidal noted, Rand was already gaining adherents: “She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who hate the ‘welfare state,’ who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts.”

Because he was writing at a time when there was still such a thing as right-wing guilt, Vidal couldn’t possibly have foreseen what would happen: Ayn Rand became the guiding spirit of the governing party of the United States. Her values are the values of that party. Vidal couldn’t have foreseen it because he still saw Christianity as a kind of ineluctable force in America, particularly among small-town conservatives, and because Rand’s “philosophy” couldn’t have been more anti-Christian. But, then, Vidal couldn’t have thought so many Christians would abandon Jesus’ teachings so quickly for Rand’s. Hearts hardened.

The transformation and corruption of America’s moral values didn’t happen in the shadows. It happened in plain sight. The Republican Party has been the party of selfishness and the party of punishment for decades now, trashing the basic precepts not only of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also of humanity generally.

Yep, that’s where we are, folks. Our House speaker, Paul Ryan, who famously grew up and got educated with the help of Social Security benefits, equally famously gives his staffers copies of Rand’s works to read and is planning to privatize (read: kill) Social Security. And writ large, that is the problem with today’s GOP politicians and the large swath of the electorate that supports them, Gabler says: “There is no kindess in them.”

Moreover, Gabler blames this lack on the media:

The media have long prided themselves on being value neutral. It was Dragnet journalism: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Or: “We report, you decide” — a slogan coopted by the right-wing Fox News, ironically to underscore that they weren’t biased, at least not liberally biased.

Of course, not even the most scrupulous journalists were ever really value neutral. Underneath their ostensible objectivity there was a value default — an unstated moral consensus, which is the one Vidal cited and the one to which most Americans subscribed throughout most of our history. But it took a lot to activate those values in the press. The mainstream white media moved ever so slowly to report on the evils of segregation. Yet when they finally did, they didn’t behave as if African-Americans marching for their rights and Sheriff Bull Connor siccing dogs on them were moral equals. Value neutrality had its limits. The reporting of the movement was one of journalism’s proudest moments, and you can read about it in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanonff. It is a story worth telling and remembering in these frightening days — a story that shows how the press can serve us.

However long it took for them to grow a conscience, those journalists who covered the civil rights movement didn’t think they were violating their professional code of objectivity by exposing the heinous conduct of the Southern authorities, because they knew what they were upholding wasn’t subject to debate. The morality was stark. (I have a suspicion from the way the Black Lives Matter movement is covered that it wouldn’t be so stark today.)

Taking sides against the KKK and redneck sheriffs, however, was one thing, as was taking sides against lunatic fringe right-wingers like the John Birch Society who hated government. But what happens when those extremists who advocate a bizarre morality that elevates selfishness and deplores altruism commandeer one of our two major political parties? What do you do then?

We know the answer. You do nothing.

The media sat by idly while American values were transmogrified. Even the so-called “good” conservatives — David Brooks, David Frum, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, et al. — refused to speak the language of kindness, preferring the language of free markets. As far right conservatives took over the Republican Party — the very same conservatives who just a few years earlier were considered crazies — the media dared not question Republican opposition to anything that assisted the disempowered and dispossessed, which is how a value-neutral media wound up serving the cause of conservatism and Republicanism and how the moral consensus was allowed to be turned upside down.

Read those Ayn Rand quotes to your children as moral instruction, and you will see how far we have fallen. This is Republican morality. This is Trump morality. And the media, loath to defend traditional American values in an increasingly hostile conservative environment, let it happen. That is what value neutrality will get you.

Gabler acknowledges the potential pitfalls of media determining not only facts but also values. And yet, he says, the risk is greater if we do not:

It is true that we don’t all share the exact same values, though in the past I think our fundamental values were pretty close to one another’s. But even if values differ, all values are not created equal. Some are better than others. Most of us do know what is right. Most of us do know that we have moral obligations to others. Most of us understand kindness. It is just that we have been encouraged to forget it. That was Ayn Rand’s mission. Trump is proof of how well she and her acolytes, like Paul Ryan, succeeded.

This election turned on many things, but one that both the public and the press have been hesitant to acknowledge is the election as a moral referendum: the old morality against the new Randian one Republicans had advanced for years and Trump fully legitimized. There is no kindness in him. We prefer the idea that Trump voters were economic casualties, that they were frustrated with the system, that they felt marginalized and misunderstood. It lets us avoid seeming condescending.

Perhaps. But I think it behooves us to recognize that many of those voters bristled under the old morality and turned to Trump because he removed the guilt Vidal had cited when we tried to harden our hearts. Shame helped keep the old morality in force. Trump made shamelessness acceptable. We are reaping that whirlwind every day.

And so he charges the media:

“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness and truth,” Tolstoy said. Going forward, that could be the basis for a politics. And we must press our media to understand that they can only restore the values they once took for granted by doing what the best of them did during the civil rights era: observe events through a moral lens. Appealing to our worst selves is usually a winning strategy, as it was for Trump. The media must remind us of what it means to be our best selves. This should be their new mission: a media in opposition. It should be unrelenting, regardless of the right-wing blowback.

Moreover, Gabler observes, it’s not just that Americans are selfish. For many Americans, including Trump, it’s not good enough merely that they succeed; their competitors or opponents also must be punished (indeed, in Trump’s case, humiliated):

America is in moral crisis. Many Americans seem far more interested in making sure that those they consider undeserving — basically, the poor — get nothing than in making sure that they themselves get something. A friend recently told me a joke told him by a Hungarian acquaintance, who intended it as an example of Hungarian schadenfreude, but I have modified it because I think it is a harrowing parable for contemporary America and its strange moral turnabout. This is Trump’s America:

There were three farmers: a German, a Hungarian and an American. Each had a cow. One day, misfortune befell them, and their cows died. Each remonstrated against God, saying God had failed him, and each lost faith. God realized he had to do something to make amends. So he came to Earth and approached the German.

“What can I do to restore your faith?” He asked. And the German answered, “God, I lost my cow. Please give me another cow.” And God did so.

“What can I do to restore your faith?” He asked the Hungarian. And the Hungarian answered, “God, I lost my cow. Please give me that cow and another to compensate.” And God did so.

And finally God came to the American, and He asked, “What can I do to restore your faith?” And the American answered, “God, I lost my cow. Shoot my neighbor’s cow.”

Not only can no civilization embrace such “values” and be called great, no civilization can embrace such values and even survive. As for the media’s role, I have argued for years that media should be transparent not only about methods but also about values, a notion that went over like a rock because being transparent about values first requires you to have some. But what might a news outlet’s values be?

I have suggested such examples as loyalty to the Constitution and the rule of law. The presumption that the best government is that which governs in the open. That government service be just that, service, and not merely the opportunity to enrich oneself and one’s cronies. That policy be based on what produces the greatest good for the greatest number. And so on.

To that list, Gabler adds, and I agree, that the news media must view the personnel and policy choices of the Trump administration through a moral lens that encourages each and all of us to be our best selves. Rand argued that the pathway to our best selve was money, but we have millennia of experience to shows us that not only couldn’t she write, she also couldn’t think.

To Gabler’s point, I would add only that both the media and we, the people, must watch not just Trump and his administration through such a lens, but also the choices of government, corporations, nonprofits, and powerful individuals at all levels. If, as a lot of Christians like to suggest, God has turned his face from us, it’s because we have failed to do so.

Monday, December 26, 2016 7:40 pm

Metaphor — and other nonliteral language — under siege

Twenty-one years ago, on Jan. 14, 1996, I published this piece in the Sunday Ideas section of the News & Record. I think it has held up well and is likely to serve us well as we face the linguistic depredations of an incoming administration bent on dispensing with the entire notion of truth. I’ve added a postscript at the end.

* * *

METAPHOR UNDER SIEGE: Are we so literal-minded today that we imperil figurative speech, dumb down civic discourse and jeopardize democracy?

Whatever else Congress is full of, it can’t have many English majors. Otherwise, the proposed constitutional amendment banning the burning of a U.S. flag might never have gotten as far as it did. The Supreme Court already has ruled that flag burning is constitutionally protected, if figurative, speech.

The U.S. Senate recently rejected the amendment. But the controversy surrounding flag burning — some see it as a metaphoric protest against government policies; others see it as a threat to democracy — is but one example of America’s growing inability or unwillingness to communicate in nonliteral language.

Mankind has embraced this rich language since ancient times; the 23rd Psalm – “The Lord is my shepherd” – might be the world’s best known metaphor. It weaves itself through Aesop’s fables and Shakespeare’s tales; its irony and satire define the works of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.

For centuries, even the simplest people understood and enjoyed this complex language. Few Oxford dons would be found quaffing ale among the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

But in recent years, that understanding and enjoyment of nonliteral language have come under attack, many students of the language believe. They see a growing intolerance of language that purports to express anything but the plain, literal meaning of the words. And they fear that the consequences could go far beyond duller language. They worry that our political institutions and society’s ability to solve problems are endangered.

Is metaphor dying? Can it be saved?

“Dying,” a metaphor itself, is overstating the case: To use language is to use metaphor, intentionally or not.

“We invent words through a process of association that is basic to making metaphors,” says William Covino, professor of English at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Concrete analogies help people grasp concepts more easily, he says: “What is the ‘leg’ of a table except a metaphor created by associating the structure of the table with human anatomy?”

But anatomy is the province of science, and metaphor has been suspect since the rise of modern science. Soon after the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge was chartered in 1662, it “castigated figurative language in general, and metaphorical language in particular, for veering from the ‘plain English’ that must be employed to validate scientific truth,” Covino says.

This scientific emphasis on the literal deviates sharply from the outlook of Aristotle, a natural scientist himself. In the 4th century B.C., he wrote in his “Poetics”: “But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.”

But many linguistics experts believe that an eye for resemblances is less valued today than in Aristotle’s time.

“People only see the truth as factual truth, whereas metaphor presents the truth via analogy,” says Art Berman, professor of language and literature at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“We suspect metaphor as fraudulent,” Covino says. “We tend to devalue metaphor in our educational systems as something that belongs to poetic understanding and stands apart from ‘facts.’ ”

Linguistics experts today fear nonliteral language faces more suspicion – even opposition – than ever. One reason is that the technique relies on shared information and a shared background, which are in short supply, particularly among youth.

“Metaphor ‘works’ when it fits the psychology of the audience – their background, education, basic premises and beliefs,” says Covino.

Dan Taylor, a professor of classics at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, says metaphor needs even more – a shared context.

“On MTV, there’s no context,” he says. “You go from one image to another, and there’s no continuity. You try to tell a story in pictures, but they’re disjointed, disconnected. Today’s kids tend to think visually rather than verbally, and they’re missing the complexity of verbal connections that metaphor makes possible.

“In classics, we have this wonderful database called Perseus. There are thousands of images in it of ancient coins, temples, archaeological sites and so on, but there’s no context for any of it; you can pull 10 images from 10 different centuries. I’ll have students go through it, and they’ll pull a 5th century statue and a 3rd century coin and try to make the two go together.

“If I’m using metaphors that deal with a cultural background that is not yours, we’re not talking to one another. We’re not communicating.”

When Jonathan Swift published his classic essay “A Modest Proposal” in 1729, it provoked strong reaction. But it did not do so on the basis of its literal message, which was that the problem of Ireland’s starving children should be solved by butchering them and selling them as delicacies. Rather, it did so on the basis of its actual message, a protest of English economic exploitation of Ireland – a problem that was widely known. People understood, then, how Swift used irony.

Has our understanding of figurative language so atrophied since then? Earlier this summer, in newspapers across the country, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette penned an editorial cartoon that depicted a black man shining the shoes of a white male executive. The executive accuses the shoe shine man of exploiting affirmative action to take the job from a white man.

That cartoon was an example of irony. But in Greensboro, some members of the NAACP said the literal depiction of a black man shining a white man’s shoes was so offensive that the newspaper shouldn’t have published it, regardless of what Marlette’s real meaning was.

Tom Lisk, head of N.C. State’s English department, doesn’t worry as much as some linguistics experts that nonliteral language is in trouble. Ensuring that writer and reader have shared information is not a failure of metaphor but “a challenge to any writer,” he says.

But he acknowledges that more and more people struggle with nonliteral language. And he’s not surprised that irony is in the most trouble of all.

“Irony is a pretty subtle form of communication because it depends on shared values as well as shared information,” Lisk says. In a culture in which politicians such as Patrick Buchanan speak of coming “wars” about societal values, finding shared values is hard to do.

“We’re much more interested in what differentiates than what assimilates, the ties that bind,” says Doug Northrop, professor of English at Ripon College in Wisconsin. “Critics used to be interested in those responses people had in common: What was the central quality of a play, poem or short story that we agreed on? Now critics are interested in how responses differ.”

Another reason we lack that common background and context, some professors believe, is that we don’t read as much as we used to, or read for the same reasons. We need not all have read the same works, but we need to have read the same kinds of works — works that incorporate metaphor, irony and other complex language.

“After Dr. Seuss, we abandon the genre — both at home and at school — in favor of novels, popular songs, television and film,” says Pat Hargis, associate professor of writing and literature at Justin College in Illinois. “But these modes of literature seldom teach us to think in metaphors. We are teaching the current generation to read only for information, not for pleasure and mental development.”

Television is the biggest culprit, says Victor Harnack, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He says a reader processes information in linear fashion, an approach that requires certain rules — syntax — and that offers a clear delineation of cause-and-effect relationships.

But young people aren’t reading; instead, they’re watching TV four to seven hours a day. As they do, they process information globally — that is, they hear dialogue and, at the same time, receive a variety of other cues: the actors’ tones of voice, costumes and facial expressions; the scenery; the background music.

“All kinds of things are built into that that lead us to conclusions that we don’t have to work out ourselves,” Harnack says.

“The current generation of students, and even two or three older generations of students, were pretty much raised on television,” says Joseph Pitt, chairman of the philosophy department at Virginia Tech. “And unless you have an appreciation of metaphor to begin with, you won’t be able to capture any metaphorical meaning in a TV program, because I think TV producers are increasingly leaving out the subtleties of symbolic communication. So you have a generation that is increasingly told and expects that what they hear or see is what they get.”

Some members of those same generations are among the parents who want such works as Mark Twain’s novel “Huckleberry Finn” removed from schools. That book incorporates the infamous ‘N’ word and other language considered objectionable today. But in its own time – and until very recently – it was widely understood as satire and a criticism of slavery.

Another factor possibly fragmenting society – and fracturing communication – may be the increasing proportion of Americans who have had to learn English as a second language. In Greensboro, those numbers nearly doubled during the 1980s.

“Second-language learners tend to take things literally at the start, steering clear of idiomatic expressions and figurative language,” observes Vivian de Klerk, professor of linguistics and English at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

And, finally, many linguistics experts say that political correctness has made metaphor a mine field.

“Everything that goes under the rubric of political correctness is extremely literal-minded,” says Peter Stitt, a professor of English at Gettysburg College.

“It’s such a politicization of discourse. You have people who are extremely sensitive to a cause, and you can’t argue with the reasons – they’re very powerful. But the sensitivity is so great that anything that deals with those subjects and has a little twist on it is misinterpreted. It’s sort of like boarding an airplane: If you mention a gun, it’s not a joke.”

Such misinterpretation is widespread.

During this fall’s Greensboro mayoral race, a political action committee affiliated with the Greensboro NAACP endorsed incumbent Carolyn Allen over challenger Tom Phillips. That committee organized a get-out-the-vote effort targeting black voters, using the slogan “Underground Railroad To the Polls.”

Before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was the network of people and safe houses that enabled runaway slaves to reach freedom in the North. Some Greensboro residents helped in the effort.

Phillips criticized the slogan as racist. But the appropriation of the phrase “Underground Railroad” for the voter turnout effort didn’t mean black people saw Phillips as literally a slave owner, or even, by extension, racist.

Rather, the slogan functioned as metaphor on two levels. First, it was an expression by black leaders of their belief that of the two candidates, both of whom are white, Allen would be more responsive to black residents’ concerns. Second, it encouraged black people to vote by likening voting — the exercise of political power — to a journey toward greater self-determination, success and happiness.

If the trend against such nonliteral language continues, what may the consequences be? Many linguistics experts believe that civic discourse, the basis of our political system, will be dumbed down.

“The first impact is already apparent — we’re going to lose a lot of richness and beauty and color and force of language,” says Northrop of Ripon College. “Political language, in particular, will become increasingly gray, colorless and lacking in vitality.”

Art Berman of the Rochester Institute of Technology wonders whether our political system can function without it.

“Our democracy was founded on the belief that language was important and that we should all be able to use it in a complex and sophisticated way, which is why one of the first measures of this nation was to make public schools free,” he says.

“It was assumed that a citizen couldn’t be a good citizen without education and intelligent deliberation on the issues. Metaphor allows us to deliberate.”

But some scholars fear even worse consequences than deteriorating political debate.

Metaphor is an implied comparison, but a comparison implicitly includes both similarities and differences. When we grasp the similarities but not the differences, we can be led to false conclusions on public issues.

“Instead of saying government is like a business, we say it is a business and should be run on the same limited criterion of cost-effectiveness,” says Ed Haley, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. “You don’t see the flaws (in the comparison) unless you push the argument to the extreme: Wouldn’t a private army be more efficient in delivering firepower? Well, yes. But government is charged in the Constitution with doing things regardless of efficiency.”

Haley adds: “Government is not a business, and we put ourselves in a mess if we think or imagine that it is. Among other things, we create false expectations. And the dangerous side is, what if these expectations can’t be realized? It invites demagoguery.”

Outside of politics, some fear a loss of metaphor will erode our problem-solving skills.

“If we are in the process of reading metaphor out of our means of communication, I think it will have disastrous consequences for creativity across the board, from sciences to the arts,” says Joseph Pitt of Virginia Tech. “It’s metaphor that transports us through new avenues of inquiry, new ways of ‘seeing’ things. … That creativity lies at the heart of our ability to deal with the problems we face.”

Can metaphor be saved? Yes, say linguists. How?

First, eliminate political correctness – which, those linguists argue, proposes the wrong solutions to real problems.

“Instead of talking about ‘diversity,’ why not talk about ‘inclusiveness?’ ” Pitt says. “Why not talk about bringing as many voices to the table as possible – not to revel in our differences, but to bring them together in hopes we can benefit from one another?”

Second, if language is inherently metaphoric, these linguists say we must accept that there is no such thing as plain, literal truth in any language.

“The written word is symbolic of the sound we enunciate, but the word that’s uttered – ‘pen’ or ‘light’ or ‘sailboat’ – clearly is metaphorical and will always be imprecise,” says Peter Stitt of Gettysburg College. “There is no perfect communication between any two people, period. Those seeking it are doomed to fail, and I think they ought to give up their evil ways and return to the glory of metaphor.”

Third, we must instruct ourselves in the glory of metaphor. That, linguists say, means turning off the TV and picking up a book.

“When you read great literature, you encounter marvelous metaphors,” says Dan Taylor, the Lawrence University classics professor. “You not only know them, you learn how to recognize new ones.”

Finally, linguists say, we must teach our children.

“If you have young children who have not already mastered the concept of metaphor and you sit them down in front of the TV … we’ve almost lost the battle from the beginning,” Pitt says. “The key lies in educating the young, who are far more intelligent than we give them credit for and far more capable of understanding and developing language. We treat them like morons when they’re not. …

“Either we accept the cost of educating the young or we accept the long-range cost of an impoverished society – culturally and economically.”

* * *

If I were updating this piece for today, I wouldn’t change much. But I understand political correctness, and accusations thereof, very differently now than I did then and would treat them differently in this piece. Primarily, based on my experiences since writing this piece, I’ve found that of every 10 or so complaints about political correctness, only about one is legitimate. The other nine are rude people complaining about being called out and held accountable for being rude.

More importantly, I see now that our shared language, our shared understanding, and our ability as a society to solve problems have far bigger problems today than complaints about political correctness, let alone actual instances of it. The whole notion of objective truth is under assault by people who want to use confusion on this point as cover to loot the country. And while “loot” is indeed a metaphor, it’s an apt one for the new era we are entering.

Friday, December 23, 2016 1:13 pm

Think North Carolina doesn’t feel like a democracy? There’s a reason for that.

The political dystopia of my home state has made international news, primarily because of the autocratic behavior of the Republican-controlled legislature. Deeply and safely gerrymandered, our senators and representatives are free to disregard the public will almost completely and act not just in their own interests but also in direct opposition to the public interest. And if that weren’t enough fun for your Friday, thanks to the theft of the presidency by Donald Trump and the vote-suppressing GOP, we’re about to enjoy the same experience on the national level.

That is what makes this piece in the Raleigh paper today so eye-opening and important:

In 2005, in the midst of a career of traveling around the world to help set up elections in some of the most challenging places on earth – Afghanistan, Burma, Egypt, Lebanon, South Africa, Sudan and Yemen, among others – my Danish colleague, Jorgen Elklit, and I designed the first comprehensive method for evaluating the quality of elections around the world. Our system measured 50 moving parts of an election process and covered everything from the legal framework to the polling day and counting of ballots.

In 2012 Elklit and I worked with Pippa Norris of Harvard University, who used the system as the cornerstone of the Electoral Integrity Project. Since then the EIP has measured 213 elections in 153 countries and is widely agreed to be the most accurate method for evaluating how free and fair and democratic elections are across time and place.

When we evolved the project I could never imagine that as we enter 2017, my state, North Carolina, would perform so badly on this, and other, measures that we are no longer considered to be a fully functioning democracy.

In the just released EIP report, North Carolina’s overall electoral integrity score of 58/100 for the 2016 election places us alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. If it were a nation state, North Carolina would rank right in the middle of the global league table – a deeply flawed, partly free democracy that is only slightly ahead of the failed democracies that constitute much of the developing world.

Indeed, North Carolina does so poorly on the measures of legal framework and voter registration, that on those indicators we rank alongside Iran and Venezuela. When it comes to the integrity of the voting district boundaries no country has ever received as low a score as the 7/100 North Carolina received. North Carolina is not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project. (emphasis added)

That North Carolina can no longer call its elections democratic is shocking enough, but our democratic decline goes beyond what happens at election time. The most respected measures of democracy — Freedom House, POLITY and the Varieties of Democracy project — all assess the degree to which the exercise of power depends on the will of the people: That is, governance is not arbitrary, it follows established rules and is based on popular legitimacy.

The extent to which North Carolina now breaches these principles means our state government can no longer be classified as a full democracy.

Yeah, you read that right. Now, it’s one thing for me to say that the U.S. is a fascist country, even if I’m right about that. But here, some of the world’s leading experts on democracy — people who have worked in and studied democratic government, and its lack, in countries around the world, people who have objective standards for determining whether or not a government is democratic — say North Carolina isn’t a democracy.

(And all y’all morons who are about to jump in, screaming, “But we’re NOT a democracy, we’re a REPUBLIC!” need to sit down and shut the fuck up.)

Definition of democracy

plural

democracies

  1. 1 a :  government by the people; especially :  rule of the majority b :  a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

Put another way, if North Carolina were a foreign country and the U.S. weren’t being taken over by autocrats at the moment, America might well be pondering ways to bring about regime change here.

This isn’t just differences on policy, however substantive those differences might be. This is a clinical diagnosis by some of the most knowledgeable people on the planet that our state government is deeply, systemically broken. Here is just some of the evidence:

First, legislative power does not depend on the votes of the people. One party wins just half the votes but 100 percent of the power. The GOP has a huge legislative majority giving it absolute veto-proof control with that tiny advantage in the popular vote. The other party wins just a handful of votes less and 0 percent of the legislative power. This is above and beyond the way in which state legislators are detached from democratic accountability as a result of the rigged district boundaries. They are beholden to their party bosses, not the voters. Seventy-six of the 170 (45 percent) incumbent state legislators were not even opposed by the other party in the general election.

Second, democracies do not limit their citizens’ rights on the basis of their born identities. However, this is exactly what the North Carolina legislature did through House Bill 2 (there are an estimated 38,000 transgender Tar Heels), targeted attempts to reduce African-American and Latino access to the vote and pernicious laws to constrain the ability of women to act as autonomous citizens.

Third, government in North Carolina has become arbitrary and detached from popular will. When, in response to losing the governorship, one party uses its legislative dominance to take away significant executive power, it is a direct attack upon the separation of powers that defines American democracy. When a wounded legislative leadership,  and a lame-duck executive, force through draconian changes with no time for robust review and debate it leaves Carolina no better than the authoritarian regimes we look down upon.

What do we do about it? The author has some suggestions, but at least some are problematic:

The first step to recovery is self-awareness. We need to put aside the complacent hyperbole and accept that in North Carolina we no longer live in a functioning democracy worth its name. We have become one of those struggling developing world states that needs to claw its way slowly toward democratic integrity.

Practically we need to address the institutional failures which have cost us our democratic ranking – districting, equal access to the vote and the abuse of legislative power. An independent commission is the sine-qua-non of democratic districting (no democracy in the world outside of the U.S. allows the elected politicians to draw the lines). Voter registration and poll access should make voting as easy as possible and never be skewed in favor of any one section of society. Last, elected officials need to respect the core principles of democracy – respect the will of the voters, all the voters and play the game with integrity.

Those are nice thoughts. Unfortunately, they presume good will on the part of our current leaders, who have demonstrated amply that they have none. To the extent that those leaders are aware that we “have become one of those struggling developing world states,” they see that as a feature, not a bug. Despite absolute power, they have not lifted a finger to implement independent redistricting; indeed, they have defended their unconstitutional and deeply dishonest gerrymandering in court at enormous expense to all the state’s taxpayers. They have cut back on access to the franchise and intend to do more despite judicial rebuke. And the behavior and public comments of outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory, Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, have not demonstrated respect for the will of voters or integrity, but only contempt and corruption.

Three-quarters of a century ago, when countries fell under the sway of governments like ours, America spent blood and treasure to liberate them. Now, America will be spending treasure — and, I predict, blood — to become more like them.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016 1:55 pm

“When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Former President Richard Nixon made the argument above in an interview with David Frost. He tried to elaborate by saying that a president has to balance concerns of national security with the law, but honestly, all he did was repeat himself.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has gone even further, using the specious claim that we’ve never had a president like Donald Trump before to argue that Trump should simply pardon advisers (including his kids) who do wrong and, further, that Congress should change conflict-of-interest laws to benefit him:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested that Donald Trump could pardon members of his administration who break the law.

Referring to a law that could prevent Trump from hiring his daughter and son-in-law to serve in his administration, Gingrich said on “The Diane Rehm Show” Monday morning: “In the case of the president, he has a broad ability to organize the White House the way he wants to. He also has, frankly, the power of the pardon.”

“It is a totally open power, and he could simply say, ‘Look, I want them to be my advisers. I pardon them if anyone finds them to have behaved against the rules. Period.’ Technically, under the Constitution, he has that level of authority,” he said, according to Politico.

Gingrich also suggested that Congress change ethics laws so Trump can avoid any conflicts of interest that his global business empire may pose.

“We’ve never seen this kind of wealth in the White House, and so traditional rules don’t work,” he said.

What’s the technical term for this? Oh, yeah, horseshit.

“We’ve never seen this kind of wealth in the White House”?? Objection, Your Honor; assumes facts not in evidence.

For starters, we don’t know that Trump is all that wealthy. Indeed, as Josh Marshall has said, there are some very good reasons to think he’s not a billionaire at all.

Moreover, even if he is as wealthy as he says, there is no obviously good reason to change ethics laws on his behalf, and plenty of good reasons — indeed, reasons in the national interest, such as keeping the President of the United States free from any potential pressure from foreign debt holders — not to change them.

Moreover, changing an ethics statute wouldn’t change the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which basically forbids the president from receiving anything of value (or certain things of intangible value, such as appointments to the nobility) from foreign countries. The Framers had very good reason for inserting that provision; they had seen how nobles in Europe sometimes enriched themselves in endeavors and arrangements of questionable, or less, benefit to their own countries. They wanted the president to be both able and obliged to act in the national interest, not his own.

Gingrich, having been a history professor (as he loudly and frequently reminds us), knows all this, and yet he doesn’t even pretend to offer any kind of factual or logical basis for his notion that because Trump is supposedly so rich, he should get a pass on ethics requirements that were imposed post-Watergate for very good reasons.

That’s bad enough. What’s markedly worse is his insistence that Trump should simply allow his advisers, including his children, to do as they like and then pardon them if they run afoul of ethics laws. That, folks, is how we transition from a republic under the rule of law to a dictatorship, because history is (ahem) replete with examples of folks who got get-out-of-jail-free cards and then went on to live selfless lives of duty and sacrifice for the greater good.

Gingrich’s notion is, quite simply, appalling to anyone who believes in the rule of law. Moreover, it clearly sets Gingrich apart as someone who does not, which is pretty fucking funny coming from the guy who impeached Bill Clinton. Gingrich’s new role in the Trump administration appears to be as a cheerleader for kleptocracy. The guy who used to brag about his patriotism has become the cheerleader for its destruction and the destruction of the rule of law in this country.

Thursday, December 15, 2016 7:42 pm

The battle is joined

My friend Beau Dure, who, among other things, writes for The Guardian, both sounds and heeds the call to battle against fake news:

Let’s be absolutely clear. This is not “left wing” vs. “right wing.” The two sides here are not equivalent. This is truth vs. lies. In this case, it’s an attempt to label demonstrable facts on border crossings as “fake news,” lumping it in the same category as the websites that have made Weekly World News look rational.

And it’s part of an ongoing deliberate attack on the nature of truth, one that leads to many Americans going against overwhelming scientific consensus on everything from climate change to vaccines (with creationism still lurking in there somewhere). It leads to the propagation of absurd conspiracy theories like the one that prompted a North Carolina man to walk into a D.C. pizza place armed to the teeth in what we would call an act of terror if a Muslim did it.

Do Democrats sometimes bend the truth? Yes. Call them out on it. We all should.

But don’t pretend that it’s the same as what you’re seeing here, where the powers-that-be don’t just want to spin something but want to undermine the very forces that hold them accountable.

And we cannot allow that to happen.

Like Pichard in the “Star Trek: Next Generation” episode in which he is captured and tortured by the Cardassians, we are about to be placed under enormous pressure to believe things that simply are not true and, worse, are lies told with malicious intent. Journalists are the first line of defense. Their bullshit meters will need to be sensitive, high-capacity, durable, and loud, or else the U.S., after 240 years of relative freedom, will emerge as an autocracy within the next four years.

Friday, December 9, 2016 9:45 am

“I saw how it was, and I was ready.”

Last in a series

First installment
Second installment
Third installment
Fourth installment
Fifth installment
Sixth installment
Seventh installment
Eighth installment

To sum up: We live in a fascist nation in which a fascist leader just stole a presidential election and is installing some not just unqualified but also malignant people into positions of power. We are in grave danger of tipping into autocracy. Nothing’s going to be done about the stolen election, and the media almost certainly won’t be much help going forward. So who will?

Nobody. Nobody is going to help, as Athenae pointed out in a different context two years ago:

No one is coming to save you. Repeat after me. Nobody is coming to save you. So save your own goddamn motherfucking glorious selves. Think about the freedom of that. Think about the way it unties you, shoves you off the cliff, and trusts you to fly.

It’s up to you. I talk about this all the time in my offline and online lives, in my life: If you give a shit about something you are the one who is morally obligated to act, so spare me your peroration on how you’d show up at the protest if only the other people there were dressed the way you wanted them dressed. Spare me the opinion columns about the wars you think other people’s children should fight, the wars you yourself have such a good reason for not fighting. …

Stop WAITING. For God’s sake, stop being disappointed when no one comes. Stop hating everybody else for being stupid and trivial and obsessed, stop hating the technology at your disposal, stop hating the world you live in for not being the world you want to live in, and stop being so goddamn willing to let yourself off the hook.

Work HARDER. Get better. Get up.

Yes, we will have to do this ourselves. We don’t know how and can’t imagine why, but that’s because America seems to have an enervating fondness for the “Great Man” theory of history. That’s a huge obstacle to what must happen right now, as Megan Carpentier writes:

Liberals should stop asking whether Donald Trump—or his chief strategist and the former head of Breitbart, Steve Bannon—is a Nazi. Not because the employees of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser said so in an embarrassing paean to the “zealous Zionist” who has Trump’s ear, or even because, like one high school history teacher and Holocaust expert in Northern California, you could be forced into retirement. No, the reason to resist the temptation to whether our president elect and his ghastly racist retinue are bona fide Nazis is that it’s the wrong question, and it’s always been the wrong question. …

The Nazis gained power in Germany through democratic elections and maintained it through maintaining the support of a plurality, if not a true majority, of Germans well into the 1940s. Thus, the question isn’t whether Trump and his ilk are Nazis; it’s whether Americans are, or would be willing to accept it if they were.

On one level, Americans’ obsession with whether various leaders are more or less like actual Nazi leaders speaks volumes about the failures of the American educational system: our approach to history, for better and mostly for worse, stems from the nineteenth century Great Man philosophy of history. Under this view of things, all historical change is a project reserved for our leaders; the rest of us are just drawn along in their wake with little agency or responsibility.

The “with little agency or responsibility” disclaimer ought to ring a few bells here. That’s the underlying philosophy that allows white Americans to evade responsibility for the institution of slavery and the long-term harm it has created for African Americans by saying that their ancestors never enslaved anyone. If we conceive of our leaders as the only (or primary) agents of history or change, then the rest of us need to own up to the systemic injustices that our actions uphold—or, indeed, to any of the changes our chosen leaders impose and we accept.

But history is lived and influenced by more than just “Great Men”; going along to get along is as much a choice as taking to the streets to protest (and possibly risking your life to do so).

As Pogo famously observed, we have met the enemy and he is us. We got us into this. And there’s no cavalry coming; we are going to have to get us out. So what should we do? The short answer is: resist. There is, of course, a longer answer.

Let’s start by defining where we want and need to be. That, to me, is a United States of America devoted to the promises it made and the checks it wrote to itself in 1776 and 1787. A country that is prepared for war but works for peace at home and abroad. A country that does the public’s business where the public can see it, values its people over its property, and is at least moving toward living in harmony with nature rather than exploiting it. A country where decisions are based on science and facts. A country where all lives really do matter,  where equal protection under the law is a real thing and not just a joke that the powerful snicker at over cocktails.

A country that, for fuck’s sweet sake, is not a fascist autocracy.

The Americans who will lead that country won’t be born in my lifetime or yours, but we need to start the work right now. We need both short-term tactics and long-term strategies, because the challenges we face are both short-term (global warming, overpopulation) and long-term (eradicating prejudice, attenuating greed).

And the most important short-term tactic is opposing Donald Trump by any means necessary. As I’ve noted, he is the single most unqualified candidate ever to be elevated to the presidency:

On July 7, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, met privately with House Republicans near the Capitol. I was present as chief policy director of the House Republican Conference. Mr. Trump’s purpose was to persuade the representatives to unite around him, a pitch he delivered in a subdued version of his stream-of-consciousness style. A congresswoman asked him about his plans to protect Article I of the Constitution, which assigns all federal lawmaking power to Congress.

Mr. Trump interrupted her to declare his commitment to the Constitution — even to parts of it that do not exist, such as “Article XII.” Shock swept through the room as Mr. Trump confirmed one of our chief concerns about him: He lacked a basic knowledge of the Constitution.

There is still deeper cause for concern. Mr. Trump’s erroneous proclamation also suggested that he lacked even an interest in the Constitution. Worse, his campaign rhetoric had demonstrated authoritarian tendencies.

He had questioned judicial independence, threatened the freedom of the press, called for violating Muslims’ equal protection under the law, promised the use of torture and attacked Americans based on their gender, race and religion. He had also undermined critical democratic norms including peaceful debate and transitions of power, commitment to truth, freedom from foreign interference and abstention from the use of executive power for political retribution.

There is little indication that anything has changed since Election Day.

That is to say, the dangers of fascism and autocracy he poses, from recession to nuclear war, threaten not just our well-being but also our lives and those of our children and those yet unborn.

Trump appears to this layman to be a textbook example of someone with narcissistic personality disorder. Because I am a layman, I could be completely wrong about this (and most non-lay people would refuse to diagnose at a distance, for that matter), but boy howdy, does he match up with the symptoms. And there are a lot of things you need to know about people like Trump with narcissistic personality disorder, as Medium contributor N. Ziehl explains:

1) [Narcissistic personality disorder] is not curable and it’s barely treatable. [Trump] is who he is. There is no getting better, or learning, or adapting. He’s not going to “rise to the occasion” for more than maybe a couple hours. So just put that out of your mind.

2) He will say whatever feels most comfortable or good to him at any given time. He will lie a lot, and say totally different things to different people. Stop being surprised by this. While it’s important to pretend “good faith” and remind him of promises, as Bernie Sanders and others are doing, that’s for his supporters, so *they* can see the inconsistency as it comes. He won’t care. So if you’re trying to reconcile or analyze his words, don’t. It’s 100% not worth your time. Only pay attention to and address his actions.

3) You can influence him by making him feel good. There are already people like [chief counsel-designee Steve] Bannon who appear ready to use him for their own ends. The GOP is excited to try. Watch them, not him. President Obama, in his wisdom, may be treating him well in hopes of influencing him and averting the worst. If he gets enough accolades for better behavior, he might continue to try it. But don’t count on it.

4) Entitlement is a key aspect of the disorder. As we are already seeing, he will likely not observe traditional boundaries of the office. He has already stated that rules don’t apply to him. This particular attribute has huge implications for the presidency and it will be important for everyone who can to hold him to the same standards as previous presidents.

5) We should expect that he only cares about himself and those he views as extensions of himself, like his children. (People with NPD often can’t understand others as fully human or distinct.) He desires accumulation of wealth and power because it fills a hole. (Melania is probably an acquired item, not an extension.) He will have no qualms *at all* about stealing everything he can from the country, and he’ll be happy to help others do so, if they make him feel good. He won’t view it as stealing but rather as something he’s entitled to do. This is likely the only thing he will intentionally accomplish.

6) It’s very, very confusing for non-disordered people to experience a disordered person with NPD. While often intelligent, charismatic and charming, they do not reliably observe social conventions or demonstrate basic human empathy. It’s very common for non-disordered people to lower their own expectations and try to normalize the behavior. DO NOT DO THIS AND DO NOT ALLOW OTHERS, ESPECIALLY THE MEDIA, TO DO THIS. If you start to feel foggy or unclear about this, step away until you recalibrate.

7) People with NPD often recruit helpers, referred to in the literature as “enablers” when they allow or cover for bad behavior and “flying monkeys” when they perpetrate bad behavior on behalf of the narcissist. Although it’s easiest to prey on malicious people, good and vulnerable people can be unwittingly recruited. It will be important to support good people around him if and when they attempt to stay clear or break away.

8) People with NPD often foster competition for sport in people they control. Expect lots of chaos, firings and recriminations. He will probably behave worst toward those closest to him, but that doesn’t mean (obviously) that his actions won’t have consequences for the rest of us. He will punish enemies. He may start out, as he has with the NYT, with a confusing combination of punishing/rewarding, which is a classic abuse tactic for control. If you see your media cooperating or facilitating this behavior for rewards, call them on it.

9) Gaslighting — where someone tries to convince you that the reality you’ve experienced isn’t true — is real and torturous. He will gaslight, his followers will gaslight. Many of our politicians and media figures already gaslight, so it will be hard to distinguish his amplified version from what has already been normalized. Learn the signs and find ways to stay focused on what you know to be true. Note: it is typically not helpful to argue with people who are attempting to gaslight. You will only confuse yourself. Just walk away.

10) Whenever possible, do not focus on the narcissist or give him attention. Unfortunately we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the president, but don’t circulate his tweets or laugh at him — you are enabling him and getting his word out. (I’ve done this, of course, we all have… just try to be aware.) Pay attention to your own emotions: do you sort of enjoy his clowning? do you enjoy the outrage? is this kind of fun and dramatic, in a sick way? You are adding to his energy. Focus on what you can change and how you can resist, where you are. We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.

I’ll talk more in a bit on what that leadership might look like.

It’s hard to say what’s worst about Trump or most dangerous about him (although that whole unassisted-nuclear-war thing is a strong contender), but I think what is most fundamentally un-American about him is his bigotry and that of those with whom he surrounds himself. Yeah, yeah, I know, racism is as American as apple pie, but it also is most fundamentally at odds with the vision and the ideals expressed in our founding documents — all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws,” etc.

And if we are to reach our long-term goals for this country, we must therefore address bigotry as a huge obstacle to those goals and as a huge part of the makeup of the person who has stolen the Oval Office and the people who surround him — and who voted for him. And to address it, we cannot allow ourselves to live in denial about it.

Accordingly, I wanted to share something Tess Rafferty said not long after the election. Her perspective, I think, is essential to our national progress in general and dealing with Trump in particular:

You voted for Trump – I am tired of trying to see things your way while you sit in your holier-than-thou churches/white power meetups, refusing to see things mine. Did I just lump you in with white supremacists? No, you did that to yourselves. You voted for the same candidate as the KKK. You voted for a candidate endorsed by the KKK. For the rest of your life, you have to know that you voted the same way as the KKK. Does that feel good to you? Here’s a hint – it really shouldn’t, especially if you call yourself a Christian.

I’m tired of pussy footing around what offends your morals while couching what offends mine, because racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia offend mine.

Let me say it right here – if you voted for Trump, I do think you are a racist. I do think you’re homophobic. I do think you’re a misogynist. Racism, and homophobia, and misogyny are all a spectrum, and you’re on it. You might not be a ‘cheering while a black man gets lynched’ racist, but boy, did you just sell them the rope and look the other way. …

I tried to be polite, but now I just don’t give a damn, because let’s be honest, we don’t live in polite America anymore. We live in ‘grab ‘em by the pussy America now. So thank you for that, being polite was exhausting. …

So now’s the time you might want to see things from my side. Because, if we’re all going to have to be friends after this, imagine me having to be polite and having to respect your vote to take away my rights and freedoms and those of my friends, while we fight desperately to try to hang onto them, because that is what you did. …

Being racist isn’t the same as liking Dire Straits. This isn’t the same as just disagreeing about musical tastes. Being racist is always racist, and if you voted for Trump, you’re racist.

Rafferty speaks my mind: If you voted for Trump, then you are a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe. (And, yes, in case anyone reading this wonders, you can quote me on this. And if you voted for a third-party candidate? I have a position on that, too.) Yeah, as Rafferty says, it’s a spectrum, and despite the denials of bigots we’re all on it somewhere. But if you voted for Trump, you’re on it at a spot that is fundamentally incompatible with this country’s highest ideals, and I want nothing to do with you.

But, besides acknowledging that bigotry and refusing to tolerate it, what else can we do?

If it makes you feel any better, that question has been tossed around for a bit. Of all people, Robert Kagan, who’s something of a neocon and therefore not presumably all that opposed to fascism, saw it coming when he wrote in May:

But what [Trump] has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the “mobocracy.” Conservatives have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty. But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.

O hai, as cats say on the Internet.

And while Kagan didn’t specifically set out to say what we should do, he did break down into categories what he thought our politicians, at least, were likely to do, and so far he ain’t been wrong:

In such an environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories — and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.

A great number will simply kid themselves, refusing to admit that something very different from the usual politics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they insist, and then we can pick up the pieces, rebuild and get back to normal. Meanwhile, don’t alienate the leader’s mass following. After all, they are voters and will need to be brought back into the fold. As for Trump himself, let’s shape him, advise him, steer him in the right direction and, not incidentally, save our political skins.

What these people do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted only to him.

And yet Democrats can — indeed, must — resist. As David Faris writes at TheWeek.com, it’s time for Democrats to fight (at least figuratively) dirty:

So after the GOP’s unapologetic, eight-year incineration of America’s surviving governing norms, the Democrats have a stark choice. One option is to continue to be the party of decent government and compromise, and ride into power every eight or 12 years to clean up the GOP’s mess. And indeed, all available signals from Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — the de facto leaders of what little remains of the institutional Democratic Party — suggest that they intend to cooperate dutifully with their new GOP overlords when the opportunity to accomplish something meaningful presents itself.

That this is the first instinct of the Democratic Party even after a crushing, incomprehensible defeat is actually kind of admirable. The urge to minimize the damage in defense of the public interest is broadly shared, and understandable. It must make many Democrats proud to support a party that truly believes in the public good, even at the expense of winning.

On the other hand, no. It’s time for Democrats to say no. To everything.

Democrats must comprehend, at long last, what is being done to them by the Republican Party. The Democratic negotiating position on all issues put before them while they are in the House and Senate minority for at least the next two years should be very simple: You will give us Merrick Garland or you may go die in a fire.

Not only that, but they should do what they should have done the day Antonin Scalia died: Make it clear that the next time the Democrats control the Senate while the Republican Party controls the presidency, whether that is in 2019 or 2049, there will be an extraordinarily high price to pay for what just transpired. The next Republican president facing divided government will get nothing. This president will run the entire federal government by himself. Zero confirmations. No judges, not even to the lowliest district court in the country. No Cabinet heads. No laws. Budgets will be approved only after prolonged and painful crises. Whoever this GOP president is, he or she will be forced to watch while their presidency and everything they hoped to achieve in government is burned down while the Democrats block the fire hydrant and laugh.

And Democrats should be confident knowing that American voters will never, ever hold them accountable for it. On the contrary, they will almost certainly be rewarded with sweeping power.

It helps that the Republicans — led by a man who rage-tweets fake news in the middle of the night — are about to embark on a long voyage of turning every single thing they touch into garbage. There should be no Democratic fingerprints whatsoever on the coming catastrophe. Democrats must not give the imprimatur of legitimacy to the handsy Infowars accolyte who is about to take the oath of office. Not to get some highways built. Not to renegotiate NAFTA. Not to do anything.

At long last, Democrats must learn from their tormenters: Obstruct. Delay. Delegitimize. Harass. Destroy. Above all: Do. Not. Help. This. Man. Govern.

How might such a massive resistance effort be organized? For one thing, it will take a huge amount of grass-roots pressure on Democratic lawmakers from voters. (Of course, pretty much any progressive initiative requires that, but this will require EVEN MORE of it.) But it will need something else, too: Real leadership in Washington. Jeet Heer, a senior editor at The New Republic, has an excellent idea for how Democrats can best resist the worst of what Trump and the GOP will try to do: create the U.S. equivalent of the head of the opposition party in a parliamentary system, and put U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in that role.

That position, Heer says, could organize and coordinate Democratic opposition to Trump and the GOP in a way that no current, formally empowered Democrat can (Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, say). Moreover, Heer says, that person should be Warren because no one else in the party combines focus, policy credentials, and a demonstrated willingness to fight. Schumer won’t fight, and Bernie Sanders is returning to Congress not as a Democrat who could be the voice of the party but as an independent who is a critic of it.

And Heer didn’t say this, but I will: Pelosi already is suspect to many in the grassroots for not having impeached George W. Bush over torture and warrantless domestic wiretapping. A lot of Democrats simply don’t believe she has the moral fiber for the role, not to mention the stomach for the kind of total war that will be required, let alone the organizing, messaging, and inspirational skills such a war will require. (And a word about that war: Democrats need to wake up and realize that Republicans have been fighting it since 1994. They’re in it whether they want to be or not, and as Faris noted above, they need to get right out of the habit of bringing a knife to a gunfight.)

Heer sees it working like this:

With her sharp, relentless, and often funny criticism of Trump, Warren has already stepped up to the plate as the party’s most stalwart voice. If the Democrats could invent a way to formalize her role, it would make her all the more effective.

One path might be for Schumer and Pelosi to get the congressional Democrats and party leaders together for a private meeting where they agree that Trump needs to be opposed as relentlessly and ruthlessly as Mitch McConnell’s congressional Republicans opposed Obama. In this new scenario, Schumer and Pelosi would play the role of party whips, strategizing the opposition to policy proposals and obnoxious nominations while keeping the votes in line to make sure Democrats don’t defect or turn into Trump collaborators—Vichy Democrats. But these are essentially behind-the-scenes tasks. Warren, by contrast, could be given a title (Chief Presidential Critic? Democratic Opposition Leader? Shadow President?) and be tasked with going out to the media and laying out the party’s talking points.

As Chief Presidential Critic (or whatever title the Democrats conjure), Warren could take on the crucial task of message-discipline. As Rich Yeselson, a writer for Dissent and other left-of-center journals, notes, “The biggest problem for the Democrats versus the Republicans in getting out a message is that there is not nearly the level of coordination. This may become different in the age of Trump, but the GOP has been agit-prop excellent in having all of its top players ‘on message’ and saying the same thingobviously, eliminating Obamacare is a classic example and there are many others.”

Warren would be the go-to person when the media wants the Democratic Party’s response to Trump’s latest words and actions; other politicians and surrogates would take their cues from her. She would take the lead on setting and articulating the party’s talking points, while Pelosi and Schumer work to whip Democrats in Congress. Warren would give the party the tough-but-appealing face, and voice, it so badly needs. And grassroots Democrats could, and would, amplify her voice—they’d have someone to rally around, to point to as their key anti-Trump champion.

I would add that this role also is particularly suited to Warren inasmuch as she has by and large said she has no intention of seeking the White House. (Yeah, I know, things can change — and has there ever been a senator who didn’t look in the mirror at least once and see a president looking back? — but that’s what she says now.) Further, she could assume it while still being the party’s Most Valuable Player in the Senate. It’s a lot to ask of her, but if she embraces the role, I think she’s up to it.

What else can Senate Democrats do? Apparently a number of them are thinking hard about delaying and dragging out the confirmation process on Trump’s Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointees, either because of legitimate questions about his appointees (of which there are oh, so many) or just as payback for the Republicans’ having refused to hold hearings and a vote on President Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.

Senate Democrats can’t block Trump’s appointments, which in all but one case need only 51 votes for confirmation. But they can turn the confirmation process into a slog.

Any individual senator can force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold procedural votes on nominees. Senior Democrats said a series of such votes are likely for many of Trump’s picks.

Democrats could conceivably force up to 30 hours of debate for each Cabinet nominee, which would be highly disruptive for a GOP Senate that usually works limited hours but has big ambitions for next year. The minority could also stymie lower-level nominees and potentially keep the Senate focused on executive confirmations for weeks as Trump assumes the presidency and congressional Republicans try to capitalize on their political momentum.
Reasonable people in the center and on the left can disagree on exactly how many Trump nominees should be filibustered outright, but I think everyone can agree on Jeff Sessions for attorney general. As for the rest, unless they are mainstream people with clear expertise in the field — and at this writing, none is — they need to be grilled like a fresh-caught salmon. And I think requiring 30 hours of debate on every single confirmable position is merely the karma that refusing hearings on Merrick Garland deserves. I try not to be a petty person, but frankly, not being petty hasn’t gotten the good guys very far.
But there’s another good reason to drag things out, too: A growing number of Trump voters are experiencing buyer’s remorse. Trump’s favorability rating is the worst of any president-elect at this point in the transition since Gallup started asking the question. Even among Republicans, support for repealing Obamacare has fallen almost 30 percent just since the election. Delay would buy us crucial time: The longer the administration and the Senate are tied up with getting nominees confirmed, the more time we have to build opposition to Trump’s policies and those of the Republican Congress.
And even minority leaders in Congress can request the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s nonpartisan investigative arm, to look into various Executive Branch activities once the policy makers get seated. Whether anything gets done with the results is another matter, but at least the information would be out there for voters to see.
So those are some of the things Congressional Democrats can do to resist. But what can we do?
Let’s start with what we shouldn’t do: violence. Self-defense is one thing, and some of Trump’s backers in the past year have acted in ways that certainly justified self-defense. But unprovoked violence in protest of any political leader is morally wrong. If you’re prepared to go that route, you had better be prepared to fight to dissolve the political bands which have connected you with the American people and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle you. Also, you had better be prepared to hang if you lose. Besides, as Slate writer Jamelle Bouie observed:

The simple truth is that reaction feeds on disorder. And when there are legitimate means to stop Trump, you’re just as likely to cause a backlash in favor of his effort by forsaking them to attack his supporters. (At the risk of tripping Godwin’s law, German Communist violence against ultra-right targets in the 1932 elections didn’t stop Hitler and his enablers as much as it emboldened and enabled them.) If anything, Trump wants violent attacks on his supporters. Don’t give them to him.

Which is to say that, yes, we can open the box labeled violence, but consider this: There’s little guarantee we’ll be able to close it and almost none that we’ll prevail in the end.

But, yes, we must resist. Consider this concession speech:

Thank you, my friends. Thank you. Thank you. We have lost. We have lost, and this is the last day of my political career, so I will say what must be said. We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based.

Obviously, Hillary Clinton did not deliver that speech. But she should have, argues Masha Gessen in The New York Review of Books. Gessen maintains that some important falsehoods, including some Hillary Clinton included in the concession speech she actually did give, are preventing us from responding appropriately to Trump.

For one thing, Gessen writes, Clinton elided the distinction between civil resistance and insurgency, which Gessen calls “an autocrat’s favorite con, the explanation for the violent suppression of peaceful protests the world over.” For another, Gessen writes, Clinton, President Obama, and all the other political leaders who said conciliatory things after Trump’s Electoral College victory are refusing to grasp the reality of what is before us, instead embracing:

… the pretense that America is starting from scratch and its president-elect is a tabula rasa. Or we are: “we owe him an open mind.” It was as though Donald Trump had not, in the course of his campaign, promised to deport US citizens, promised to create a system of surveillance targeted specifically at Muslim Americans, promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, advocated war crimes, endorsed torture, and repeatedly threatened to jail Hillary Clinton herself. It was as though those statements and many more could be written off as so much campaign hyperbole and now that the campaign was over, Trump would be eager to become a regular, rule-abiding politician of the pre-Trump era.

But Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election. Trump will be only the fourth candidate in history and the second in more than a century to win the presidency after losing the popular vote. He is also probably the first candidate in history to win the presidency despite having been shown repeatedly by the national media to be a chronic liar, sexual predator, serial tax-avoider, and race-baiter who has attracted the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. Most important, Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won.

Gessen points out that she has lived in autocracies much of her life and has spent her career writing about Putin and Russia. So she probably is better situated than many to offer advice on how to survive autocracy. They are, in brief:

  1. Believe the autocrat; he means what he says.
  2. Do not be taken in by small signs of normalcy.
  3. Do not count on institutions to save you.
  4. Be outraged.
  5. Don’t make compromises.
  6. Remember the future.

Regarding No. 1, Donald Trump has been remarkably clear about his bigoted, autocratic aims. He also is the world’s best example of narcissistic personality disorder and all the misery that that entails for people around him and the people he is scheduled to govern. He is a liar of world-historical proportions, but he has made one campaign promise that I believe we all can take to the bank: “I will never change.”

Regarding No. 2, and relatedly, Trump will occasionally moderate his extreme statements or even contradict them. One cannot be fooled. For example, he has called the legality of same-sex marriage “settled law.” Does that mean LGBTQ people who wish to marry can relax? Hardly. The right to an abortion is even more settled, and yet he has pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices who will vote to overturn the case that legalized it. Are we to believe those same justices would not overturn the ruling that legalized same-sex marriage? Indeed, after watching the Supreme Court practically beg for cases that would enable it to gut the Civil Rights Act, are we to believe that Trump-appointed justices, aided and abetted by the likes of John Roberts, Sam Alito and Clarence Thomas, would not beg for the chance to ban same-sex marriage once again? Yeah, no.

Regarding institutions, I’ve already dismissed the likelihood that the news media will be any help. Congress already has been gutted — Trump once said that he could shoot someone down in the middle of Fifth Avenue and people would applaud him for it; now, he could do it and the GOP-controlled House would not impeach him for it, either. And if they’re not going to impeach him for that, they won’t impeach him for his many conflicts of interest, or for torture, or anything else. Might our courts help us? Maybe, but we’ve already gotten a look at the list of jurists from which Trump has said he would appoint, and they appear to be enablers of autocracy, not opponents of it. And keep in mind, there were lawyers up to their eyeballs in the decision at the Wannsee Conference to liquidate European Jewry as well as the Bush 43 administration’s justification of torture.

As for No. 4, outrage is no trouble now. But how will it be in a month, or a year? “Outrage fatigue” is real. And yet, with Trump and his allies in charge of the White House, Congress and, soon, the Supreme Court, he will be able to move quickly and far. The outrages will be many, yet they must all be called out and not ignored, because each one will be damaging, perhaps lethally, to some of our fellow Americans.

And No. 5, don’t make compromises? This is an issue on which Gessen has special insight:

I grew up knowing that my great-grandfather smuggled guns into the Bialystok ghetto for the resistance, which staged an armed uprising there in August 1943. As an adult, researching a book about collaboration and resistance, using my own family history, I found out why my great-grandfather had been in a position to arm the resistance: he was one of the leaders of the Bialystok Judenrat, the Nazi-appointed Jewish council that ran the ghetto.

My great-grandfather’s story was at once an extreme and a typical example. Criminal regimes function in part by forcing the maximum number of subjects to participate in the atrocities. For nearly a century, individuals in various parts of the Western world have struggled with the question of how, and how much, we should engage politically and personally with governments that we find morally abhorrent.

With the election of Donald Trump—a candidate who has lied his way into power, openly embraced racist discourse and violence, toyed with the idea of jailing his opponents, boasted of his assaults on women and his avoidance of taxes, and denigrated the traditional checks and balances of government—this question has confronted us as urgently as ever.

As Kagan noted above, compromise is useless: Trump and his followers will get you in the end anyway. And Tom Levenson, posting at Balloon Juice, adds:

I’m convinced Gessen is correct.  More, I believe her demand that we make the moral choice first, and then pursue whatever particular tactic seems most likely to embody that choice, will be the most effective, as well as the right thing to do.  A Democratic response to Trump that says we can make this work a little better enshrines Trumpism, and all the vicious GOP assumptions as the ground on which such matters get decided.  One that says “No. This is wrong.  Democrats will oppose, not mitigate…” is the one that creates a real choice going forward on the ground on which we want to fight.

Finally, Gessen wrote, remember the future. True, nothing lasts forever, but as I said above, none of now living will see the end of U.S. fascism. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting. And Trump and his followers are worth fighting if we value the kind of country the United States has always said it strives to be — even if it takes a long time, even if we’re not around to see his ilk vanquished. We do some things not because they’re practical or easily achievable, but because they are the right thing to do.

So where are we now? Like the protagonist in my friend Andy’s story in the first installment, we’ve gone somewhere we’ve never been, someplace miserable, where suffering is a feature rather than a bug and from which there may be no return. And as in the story, and as noted in earlier posts, some very, very unpleasant people are now in charge.  And if you’ve read this far, I hope that, like that narrator, you see how it is, and that you are ready.

And where are we going from here? That, my friends, we will each of us have to decide on our own. I can’t speak for “we,” only for myself. I’ve read a lot about life in autocracies, and one recurring theme is that you have to remember what “normal” is like because the pressure to forget normal will be intense. So I see part of my job as reminding whatever audience I might have of what “normal” is like, to stand up against the pressure to forget — to forget the Constitution, to forget the Golden Rule, to forget simple human decency. I also see part of my job as to witness, to tell you what I see going on and what I think it means.

Unfortunately, we know from other autocracies that there will be enormous explicit and implicit pressure to go along to get along, sometimes from the people closest to us in the world. Under this regime, going along will certainly mean legal discrimination on the basis of religion, race, sexual orientation/identity and other bases. It might well mean ethnic cleansing and even genocide. And I imagine that all the best people will just go along. That is, Pastor Martin Niemöller reminds us, how it worked in Nazi Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Yeah, all the best people went along to get along. But I’ve never been one of the best people. If they come first this time for, say, the Muslims, we must respond: Not this time, motherfuckers.

Gessen says, “It is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock” — not surprise, because nothing this gang would do would surprise me or her — but shock, which implies a sense of moral offense. And that is essential, because what Trump and his supporters are up to is nothing if not immoral. Going along to get along will mean violating two of the West’s most important principles: the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Christ’s Second Great Commandment. I won’t, can’t do that. I will not betray my country, my faith nor, through either, my fellow Americans. The martyred anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that if we go along to get along, “God will not hold us guiltless,” and he was right. Gessen urged us to make the moral choice first, and so I have: I see how it is, and I am ready.

Accordingly, I say to Donald Trump: You and your supporters can say whatever you like and try whatever you think you can get away with. But I’m out: As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

Saturday, December 3, 2016 9:54 pm

Knowing fascism when you see it; or, If the jackboot fits — Part 2

Eighth in a series

First installment
Second installment
Third installment
Fourth installment
Fifth installment
Sixth installment
Seventh installment

When we left off last, we had just reviewed the question of whether, by Mussolini’s definition, the U.S. is a fascist system. I concluded that it isn’t, but I also thought Mussolini’s perspective on what fascism was wasn’t necessarily the only one with which we should concern ourselves. Another important perspective to consider is an essay written more than 20 years ago by the Italian postmodern novelist and critic Umberto Eco, perhaps best known for the novel “The Name of the Rose.” Eco had been active in the Resistance as a child during World War II and was there for the liberation of Italy by the Americans. In 1995, Eco wrote an essay for The New York Review of Books in which he posited the characteristics of what he called Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. Of them he writes, “These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.” (emphasis added) In other words, as few as one of these features could lead to fascism.

I’ll list his 14 features, and we’ll talk about each in terms of whether and how it applies to the U.S.

1.The Cult of Tradition: Eco elaborates:

In the Mediterranean basin, people of different religions (most of them indulgently accepted by the Roman Pantheon) started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. This revelation, according to the traditionalist mystique, had remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten languages—in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little known religions of Asia.

This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice”; such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a silver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.

As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.

One can argue that this applies to the U.S. The country’s founding documents — primarily the Federalist papers, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — often are treated by Americans as a revelation. And, yes, they’re sometimes contradictory, most obviously in the original sin of this country, combining aspirations toward freedom with institutionalization of slavery (and native genocide, and denial of rights to most women). And, yes, to some Americans — perhaps most notably the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia — truth already has been spelled out once and for all. Other interpretations, even — indeed, perhaps, particularly — in the light of new historical and scientific discoveries, are irrelevant.

Do all Americans think this way? Of course not. But many do, and some of them hold or are about to hold real power.

2) The rejection of modernism. Eco notes that while Nazi Germany was proud of its scientific, technological and industrial advances, its culture was a much more ancient strain of Blut und Boden (blood and earth) and sees the Enlightenment as “the beginning of modern depravity.” Similarly, much of the U.S., including many now in power, have rejected efforts by the country to cash checks the country wrote to itself in 1776 and 1787, and while some of the conservative movement’s opposition to, say, the notion of global warming is driven purely by economic gain and political convenience, a nontrivial part is based on the absolute rejection of science, or, as Eco describes it, irrationalism.

3) Embrace of action for action’s sake and denigrating thought and reflection. Action is seen as beautiful in itself, particularly when undertaken without prior reflection and even when reflection might give us an edge on our adversaries. This trend is exemplified, in Trump’s embrace of torture even though professional interrogators find it generally unproductive and perhaps even leading to false information. Eco writes:

Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.”

The U.S. conservative movement has been anti-intellectual for at least the past 50 years. Today, as I write, the current target on Twitter is #liberalelites. (Some people who value thought and reflection are embracing that hashtag while posting such things in response as, “If expecting that my POTUS [president of the United States] is better-educated and better-informed than me makes me #liberalelite, so fucking be it.”

4) Rejection of analytical criticism. Remember in Item 1 when Eco said that a fascist culture must not just incorporate things from different sources but also tolerate contradictions? The problem this creates, of course, is that analytical criticism exposes and highlights contradictions. As Eco puts it:

The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

This characteristic might help explain a phenomenon discovered in recent years by researchers: When people believe something false and are exposed to correct information that exposes that falsity, they often cling to the false belief even more tightly:

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. …

Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

Sound like the U.S. to you? Sounds like it to me.

5) Fear of difference: 

Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

Slavery is often described as America’s original sin, but racism underlay slavery and made it possible, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have pointed out. Every fascist movement — indeed, every American populist movement — sooner or later (and usually sooner) advances and grows by exploiting fear of The Other. The presidental campaign just past differed from other recent campaigns only the explicitness of Trump and followers of his such as Steve Bannon.

6) Appeal to a frustrated middle class:

Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.

As I’ve noted before, polling data strongly suggests that racial animus was the primary driver of political support for Trump (see characteristic 5 above) and also shows that enough affluent people supported him to suggest that economic frustration also was not a main driver. Yes, there is some frustration, and it does have real causes — real wages haven’t grown, for example, and although nominal unemployment is now under 5 percent, demand for labor still hasn’t risen enough to boost labor-force participation to pre-recession levels. But the American conservative movement opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has opposed periodic reauthorizations of the act since, and as noted in the second installment of this series, it has fought to keep the very young, the very old, recently naturalized citizens and especially minorities from voting. So, yes, America, this is you.

7) Obsession with a plot:

To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the US, a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat Robertson’s The New World Order, but, as we have recently seen, there are many others.

Again, Eco wrote in 1995; more recently, Trump and other prominent Republicans including white nationalists have made targets out of not only Jews, but also African Americans, Mexicans, immigrants generally, and particularly Muslims.

8) The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies:

When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. [Remember, as noted in characteristic 1, contradictions are embraced.] Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

Yep, that’s us, and I worry that Trump and his “brain trust” to date are incapable of objectively evaluating any enemy, be it ISIS or climate change.

9) Life is permanent warfare:

For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.

By one calculation, the U.S. has been “at war” for 233 of the 240 years of its history. Most Americans might disagree with that assessment, either through ignorance or because they do not accept certain types or scales of military operations as “war.” (We’re flying air combat missions in Syria, now, for example, but are we at war in Syria now? Certainly the people on the other end of our bombs would say so.) What is true, however, is that the Framers’ fears of a standing army have been ignored since at least the Civil War, and inarguably since World War II, and that the military-industrial complex against which President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us in his 1961 farewell address is more powerful than ever. Trump’s cavalier attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons will make all Americans — indeed, all the world — less safe, a fact voters chose to ignore.

10) Popular elitism:

Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians. In fact, the Leader, knowing that his power was not delegated to him democratically but was conquered by force, also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler. Since the group is hierarchically organized (according to a military model), every subordinate leader despises his own underlings, and each of them despises his inferiors. This reinforces the sense of mass elitism.

Welp, the U.S. scores here not only in popular elitism but also in aristocratic elitism, inasmuch as modern Republicans have indeed evinced contempt for the weak, not only in attitude but also in policy. To want to repeal Obamacare — even some Republicans are now admitting that “replace” is a joke — means being OK with the fact that millions of Americans will once again be uninsured and that, as a result, thousands of them will die prematurely.

11) A cult of the hero, inextricably bound with a cult of death:

In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. It is not by chance that a motto of the Falangists was Viva la Muerte (in English it should be translated as “Long Live Death!”). In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

Some on the left would argue that Memorial Day alone is a U.S. practice that ties in with this characteristic of fascism. I think that’s a reach and that this characteristic has not been a characteristic of America, by and large. And I can’t point to anything Trump has said or promised to do that qualifies. But, again, Trump’s remarks about nuclear weapons should chill us.

12) A culture of machismo:

Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

*U.S. raises hand* I mean, just Google “war on women.” Moreover, Trump has pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade, the case that established a constitutional right to an abortion for women. He has been less aggressive in challenging LGBTQ rights, calling the constitutionlity of same-sex marriage “settled law,” but there’s no reason he couldn’t appoint justices who would overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the same-sex marriage case, and little reason to suspect that he wouldn’t.

13) Selective populism:

Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. One of the first sentences uttered by Mussolini in the Italian parliament was “I could have transformed this deaf and gloomy place into a bivouac for my maniples”—“maniples” being a subdivision of the traditional Roman legion. As a matter of fact, he immediately found better housing for his maniples, but a little later he liquidated the parliament. Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.

Oh, hi! We like to talk a good game about the American public and its power in elections, but making that argument means confronting at least two significant problems: 1) About half of Americans don’t take part, and 2) One major party has made disenfranchisement the central part of its plan for survival; 3) Gerrymandering, particularly by the GOP, has been perfected to the point at which voters do not now select their representatives, but representatives select their constituents. Thus it has come to pass, as Eco said, that “citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People.”

Moreover, we’ve had throw-the-bums-out congressional elections in recent years in 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2014, benefitting both major parties. But Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” was the simplest, clearest call of 2016, and already he is populating his cabinet (as noted in the fifth installment of this series) with some of the very alligators he campaigned against.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak:

Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.

“You’re fired!”, anyone?

So, by my count, we’re 14-for-14 on fascism characteristics as identified by Eco, which makes some of his closing words even more important:

We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task.

* * *

I also wanted to see how the U.S. stacks up against Lawrence Britt’s “14 Characteristics of Fascism,” published in the Spring 2003 edition of Free Inquiry magazine — after 9/11 and as the U.S. was invading Iraq. Britt, a political scientist, compared Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia), and Pinochet (Chile), and found 14 traits those regimes had in common. They are:

  1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
    Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays. 
  2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
    Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc. 
  3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
    The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc. 
  4. Supremacy of the Military
    Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized. 
  5. Rampant Sexism
    The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia and anti-gay legislation and national policy. 
  6. Controlled Mass Media
    Sometimes to media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common. 
  7. Obsession with National Security
    Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses. 
  8. Religion and Government are Intertwined
    Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions. 
  9. Corporate Power is Protected
    The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite. 
  10. Labor Power is Suppressed
    Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed . 
  11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts
    Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts is openly attacked, and governments often refuse to fund the arts. 
  12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment
    Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations. 
  13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption
    Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders. 
  14. Fraudulent Elections
    Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections

As you can see, there’s some overlap with Eco’s list, but that’s not really important. What’s important is how many of these conditions obtained in the U.S. even before Donald Trump’s election.

Nos. 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 were pervasive even before 9/11. Since then, Nos. 2, 3, 6, 7, 13, and 14 have come into play or grown more powerful. Once again, we’re 14-for-14, and slated to become even more of a fascist state once Trump and his cronies assume power in January.

Which, finally, leaves us the question of what to do about it. I’ll address that next, in (whew) the final installment of this series.

 

Knowing fascism when you see it; or, If the jackboot fits — Part 1

Seventh in a series (first installment, second installment, third installment, fourth installment, fifth installment, sixth installment)

A lot of people, myself included, have called Donald Trump a fascist and/or have said the U.S. will become a fascist society under Trump. But what does that mean?

The word is most closely associated with Benito Mussolini’s dictatorial reign in Italy from 1922 until he was ousted, briefly reinstalled by the Nazis, and then captured and killed in 1943 1945 (thanks, Fred). Mussolini frequently is said to have defined fascism simply as “the marriage of corporation and state,” but the truth is a little more complicated. In 1932, Mussolini wrote this definition of fascism:

Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism — born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put men into the position where they have to make the great decision — the alternative of life or death….

…The Fascist accepts life and loves it, knowing nothing of and despising suicide: he rather conceives of life as duty and struggle and conquest, but above all for others — those who are at hand and those who are far distant, contemporaries, and those who will come after…

…Fascism [is] the complete opposite of…Marxian Socialism, the materialist conception of history of human civilization can be explained simply through the conflict of interests among the various social groups and by the change and development in the means and instruments of production…. Fascism, now and always, believes in holiness and in heroism; that is to say, in actions influenced by no economic motive, direct or indirect. And if the economic conception of history be denied, according to which theory men are no more than puppets, carried to and fro by the waves of chance, while the real directing forces are quite out of their control, it follows that the existence of an unchangeable and unchanging class-war is also denied – the natural progeny of the economic conception of history. And above all Fascism denies that class-war can be the preponderant force in the transformation of society….

After Socialism, Fascism combats the whole complex system of democratic ideology, and repudiates it, whether in its theoretical premises or in its practical application. Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation, and it affirms the immutable, beneficial, and fruitful inequality of mankind, which can never be permanently leveled through the mere operation of a mechanical process such as universal suffrage….

…Fascism denies, in democracy, the absur[d] conventional untruth of political equality dressed out in the garb of collective irresponsibility, and the myth of “happiness” and indefinite progress….

…iven that the nineteenth century was the century of Socialism, of Liberalism, and of Democracy, it does not necessarily follow that the twentieth century must also be a century of Socialism, Liberalism and Democracy: political doctrines pass, but humanity remains, and it may rather be expected that this will be a century of authority…a century of Fascism. For if the nineteenth century was a century of individualism it may be expected that this will be the century of collectivism and hence the century of the State….

The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality — thus it may be called the “ethic” State….

…The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone….

…For Fascism, the growth of empire, that is to say the expansion of the nation, is an essential manifestation of vitality, and its opposite a sign of decadence. Peoples which are rising, or rising again after a period of decadence, are always imperialist; and renunciation is a sign of decay and of death. Fascism is the doctrine best adapted to represent the tendencies and the aspirations of a people, like the people of Italy, who are rising again after many centuries of abasement and foreign servitude. But empire demands discipline, the coordination of all forces and a deeply felt sense of duty and sacrifice: this fact explains many aspects of the practical working of the regime, the character of many forces in the State, and the necessarily severe measures which must be taken against those who would oppose this spontaneous and inevitable movement of Italy in the twentieth century, and would oppose it by recalling the outworn ideology of the nineteenth century – repudiated wheresoever there has been the courage to undertake great experiments of social and political transformation; for never before has the nation stood more in need of authority, of direction and order. If every age has its own characteristic doctrine, there are a thousand signs which point to Fascism as the characteristic doctrine of our time. For if a doctrine must be a living thing, this is proved by the fact that Fascism has created a living faith; and that this faith is very powerful in the minds of men is demonstrated by those who have suffered and died for it.

That’s a fairly lengthy passage, so let’s hit some of its high points; to wit, Mussolini says that he believes:

  • Fascism considers perpetual peace not just impossible but also pointless; moreover, war “ennobles” its participants.
  • Fascism doesn’t believe in economic motives (such as, but not limited to, those of Marxism).
  • Fascism repudiates democracy and universal sufferage and believes that humans are inherently unequal.
  • The 19th century was the century of democracy; the 20th will be that of the State.
  • People are to be conceived of and understood only in terms of their relationship to the State.
  • That (fascist) State decides how much liberty individuals are to have and which freedoms are “useful,” granting those few and withholding the rest.
  • States must grow, imperially, or they are dying, particularly if, like Italy at the time, they are recovering from “abasement and foreign servitude.” This movement in Italy, which he calls both spontaneous and inevitable, can, nonetheless, only be brought about in his view by punishing opponents severely.

So let’s just take these at face value. Does the U.S. think perpetual peace pointless? Not pointless, I think — just damn hard to get to but still worth trying for.

Does the U.S. think war “ennobles” its participants? Less so now than in other points in our past; we have mixed feelings about that now that we didn’t have after, say, World War II. That’s to be expected. During that war, our moral aims and purposes seemed pretty clear. But in every conflict in which we’ve engaged since, moral clarity has been various shades of hard to come by; indeed, many respected scholars believe our invasion of Iraq in 2003 was both illegal and immoral.

Does the U.S. believe in economic motives? It would be difficult to argue otherwise. Economists study both people and institutions as rational actors in pursuit of rational economic interests, although in recent years some are acknowledging that the field might have overstated the rationality of the decision-making processes of both people and institutions. Public policy certainly has been debated and implemented with economic motives in mind.

Does the U.S. repudiate democracy and universal sufferage and believe human beings unequal? On paper, it has embraced those things from the beginning; in real life, of course, progress toward that position has been a process. The official policy of the state now is that it supports democracy and near-universal sufferage, and human equality under the law is enshrined in the Constitution. However, nontrivial numbers of Americans have always repudiated democracy, universal sufferage and the equality of human beings, with women, racial and ethnic minorities, some religions, and LGBTQ people, among others, being singled out for lesser status and less advantageous treatment. Such disparate treatment has been reduced greatly in the past half-century or so, although it still remains. What is alarming about the ascension to power of Trump and his cronies is that they appear intent on making that lesser status and less advantageous treatment state policy and rolling back some of the gains of the past half-century.

The U.S. does not conceive of and understand people only in terms of their relationship to the state; indeed, for least some of its citizens, the U.S. has done a pretty fair job through its history of having let people alone. That’s in significant part because of a law-review article, “The Right to Privacy,” published in 1890 by the Harvard Law classmates and law partners Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. (Brandeis would go on to serve on the Supreme Court.) That article literally defined privacy primarily as “the right to be let alone.” The meaning of privacy has evolved over the years along with, among other things, technology. Indeed, government today has such enormous surveillance powers at its fingertips that claiming a right of privacy in practical terms is much harder than ever. Still, though the government probably has the capability of surveilling everyone at once, it is not clear that it has the will to do so in any meaningful way: Machines can gather all the data in the world, but at some point, at least for now, human beings still have to decide what it means and what, if anything, to do about it. The danger is that a group in power can choose to use these vast capabilities to oppress and harm its political opponents, and that is a legitimate fear with Trump and at least some of his backers.

Does the State pick and choose which freedoms we Americans will have? Again, on paper, no; although the Constitution spells out certain rights we Americans have, it also says that we have other, “unenumerated” rights. The State has circumscribed some of those rights, even the most fundamental. We have freedom of speech but cannot shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre; we may keep and bear arms, but not everywhere or all the time. Still, the State’s control over our rights is not, at least for now, anywhere near broad enough as to suggest that we live in a fascist regime.

Must a state grow to be vital? The U.S. has not accepted a new state into the union in more than half a century, and the likeliest possible candidates for admission, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, seem nowhere near it. And yet the U.S. does not see itself as in a declining state for lack of growth. (Some Americans see it that way for other reasons.) That might be because it has in no meaningful way been “abased” or “under foreign control” since the British burned Washington in 1813. And yet Trump, with his campaign rhetoric has argued exactly the opposite: that the U.S. is getting screwed by other countries on trade deals and that he alone can fix it. His backers frequently buy into this argument, although he and they seem to insist that his relationship with Russian dictator Vladimire Putin will somehow help this problem, not make it worse.

So, as Mussolini defines fascism, is the U.S. a fascist country? Hardly. It has some fascist tendencies, some of which appear likely to become more pronounced as Trump and his backers take power, but it is not, or not yet, a fascist country.

But one must ask: Is Mussolini a reliable narrator of his own philosophy and practice? The question answers itself. And so it is useful to consider other perspectives, which I’ll do in the next post.

 

 

The media and Trump

Sixth in a series (first installment, second installment, third installment, fourth installment, fifth installment)

So what is to be done about the president-elect and the executive branch he is forming? I’ll get to that in the next installment, but I first want to make a point that I believe is crucial: Whatever we try to do, we will get no help from most news media. They are hobbled by the interests of ownership and, worse, their own blinkers as they confront what faces us.

The concentrated corporate control of most of the largest news media outlets has been covered in great detail elsewhere, and I won’t rehash that fact except to say that it is the rare outlet where the financial interests of the owner or chief executive does not, from time to time, interfere with news judgement in a way that disadvantages the less powerful. Does that happen every day, at every outlet? With the possible exception of a few outlets like Fox News, and with the obvious exception of propaganda mills like Breitbart, I’d say no, but it happens often enough even at outlets, like The New York Times, that are perceived as left-leaning. (In point of fact, true leftists in other countries — we have few here in the U.S. — would consider the Times center-right, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Moreover, I’ve argued off and on for 20 years or more that news media need to be more forthright about defining their interests in more detail than vague platitudes such as “all the news that’s fit to print” or “provide a free people the information they need to govern themselves.” For example, I think that, if pressed, most mainstream news outlets would concede that they have an interest in requiring government at all levels to do its business in the open, and the more advanced among them would frame this discussion not just as an interest of the news outlet but also as an interest of the public.

But I have thought for some time — and the ascension of Trump, I think, demands — that news outlets also must explicitly state additional values, in particular equal justice under the law and the Constitution, and should make clear that upholding those values means opposing all who would oppose them. If someone wants to make an argument for changing the Constitution for this reason or that, that’s a perfectly legitimate political argument to make, and news outlets should cover it like any other. But if someone wants to ignore the Constitution, U.S. statutes, and Supreme Court precedents, news outlets should, at the least, take the position in editorials and news reports alike that the individual supports positions that would be at odds with the oath of office and therefore is unfit for office.

That’s a radical position for most U.S. journalists for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, for most of the past century, U.S. journalism has embraced what journalism scholar Jay Rosen and others have called “the view from nowhere” — in perhaps too short, objectivity carried to the point that it omits even the most relevant context.

For another, journalists have a mostly-well-justified fear of becoming “part of the story.” Avoiding that is a good way to try to achieve fairness and accuracy, but sometimes it is not sufficient to deliver to the reader/viewer a fully accurate story. For example, extraordinary efforts by bureaucrats to hinder journalists’ access to records essential to documenting a story should indeed become part of the story, even if that means including steps journalists had to take to obtain those records, such as suing.

And for another, news journalism has almost by definition sought to avoid advocacy. But in America, I would argue, in some cases, advocacy journalism is essential to preventing the destruction of what makes America America and/or what makes journalism journalism. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson (formerly the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials after World War II) famously observed that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. Well, neither is journalism, in that it should not just report on but also should actively oppose that which would make journalism difficult or impossible, not only for the sake of the outlet but also for the sake of the citizens that outlet purports to serve.

But American journalism has not just the right but also an affirmative moral duty to oppose that which would destroy our constitutional form of government and/or the journalism that provides the information that citizens of our democratic republic need to govern themselves. And not only must American journalism take this position, it must hold it without compromise.

Unfortunately, doing so directly endangers the financial interests of most owners of journalism outlets. So we’re back to Square 1, even if individual journalists try here and there to do the right thing.

And most journalists won’t.

There have been signs of this from the very beginning of Trump’s campaign. Cable news, in particularly, gave Trump large chunks of free air time to spew his views to American viewers, without editing, curation or context, even though their executives knew that doing so gave Trump a huge advantage over the rest of the large and ungainly Republican field.  And they did it for one reason: ratings. As Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, stated, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Media outlets also have proven themselves unable to resist outside forces, from Trump himself to the Russians. Worse, they’re making unforced errors. The broadcast networks, for example, devoted far less time in 2016 to coverage of issues than they did in the seven previous presidential campaigns dating back to 1988 — and devoted more than three times that amount of coverage to Hillary Clinton’s emails, a “scandal” that, despite numerous Justice Department and congressional investigations, never amounted to so much as a credible allegation of wrongdoing, let alone an indictment or conviction.

Print and online media did no better, UNC sociologist Zeynep Tufekci found: Her survey of pre-election coverage by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Politico found that they devoted five times as many stories to Clinton’s emails, 1,372, as to Trump’s conflicts of interest, 279 — again, despite numerous Justice Department and congressional investigations, never amounted to so much as a credible allegation of wrongdoing, let alone an indictment or conviction.

Since the election, there has been no sign that things are getting any better. New York University professor Jay Rosen highlights one example of news media’s inability to grapple with Trump’s numerous, outrageous lies: The media provide what he calls “accusation-driven” journalism rather than what is needed: evidence-based journalism.

And the news media, with little education, perspective or background and no fucking sense of history, is utterly ignorant of Hannah Arendt’s trenchant observation about the Nazis’ lies and the German newspapers’ failed 1930s efforts to fact-check: The Nazis don’t lie to tell you what they think is true. They lie to explain what would have to be true to justify what they’re doing. For example, Trump didn’t claim on Twitter that millions of people had fraudulently voted for Hillary Clinton because it was true. He claimed it to lay the groundwork for even worse restrictions on minority voting once he takes office. It was his Reichstag fire.

Some journalists are ready to admit defeat. Others are at least suggesting ways in which journalists might combat Trump effectively; Ned Resnikoff at Thing Progress has done better at this than most. (I personally think that every time journalists at a Trump rally are derided by the president-elect, they ought to respond with birds and wanking gestures, just as a start.)  But none of them, with the honorable exception of Jamelle Bouie at Slate, seem willing or even able to grasp the reality that Arendt laid out a half-century ago.

Which leads us to a poignant question raised just this morning by the editorial-page editor of my local paper, a paper where I once worked for 22 years. Allen Johnson asked on his blog: Are we out to get Donald Trump?

My response was pretty simple:

First, he didn’t win the election “fair and square.” A large, multi-state effort coordinated by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach illegally purged large numbers of voters — primarily voters from demographics statistically likely to vote Democratic — from rolls in several swing states, as documented by journalist Greg Palast on his website and in his new book. Forget allegations of Russian interference and voting-machine tampering; we know for a fact that this happened and that its effect was more than large enough to have swung the Electoral College vote. See Palast’s website and book “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” for more information.

Second, Trump is doing and and has announced plans to do things that are not just mean-spirited, destructive and dangerous, but also unconstitutional. Opposing such an individual is the highest form of patriotism.

But for reasons outlined above, the media almost certainly aren’t going to be any help.

So where does that leave us, as a nation and as individuals? I’ll discuss that in my next post an upcoming post — sorry, but the next post got so big it needed splitting into pieces.

 

 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 9:36 pm

People are policy — and Trump’s people are poison

Fifth in a series (first installment, second installment, third installment, fourth installment)

“People are policy,” President Ronald Reagan used to say. He was right. And Trump’s people are poison. These are not people who have equal justice under the law, fairness, or even simple, human decency in mind. Consider, in no particular order:

Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence: For God’s sake, just Google “bad things about Mike Pence.” If Trump dies, becomes incapacitated, gets impeached, or just gets bored and quits, Pence, policy-wise, will be every bit the disaster that Trump will be. From opposing abortion to supporting fake “religious freedom” laws that legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people, Pence is a darling of those who want to remake the United States as a Christianist fascist nation. While governor of Indiana, he tried to start his own news service and wasted $365,000 of state money on a PR contractor, he dilly-dallied and allowed an AIDS outbreak to grow exponentially,  approved an education budget that cut funds to public schools while boosting charters and a sketchy voucher program, fought the settling of Syrian refugees in Indiana and also tried unsuccessfully to cut off federal aid to those already in the state, fought to de-fund Planned Parenthood (which, remember, provides not just reproductive health care but also affordable primary health care to many women), signed limits on abortion (including requiring women who had them to hold funeral services for their fetuses) that were so extreme a federal court blocked them, fought increases in the minimum wage (surprisingly or not, two-thirds of workers who make minimum wage are women), said, in the face of all logic, research and reason, that increased gun ownership increases public safety, and fought to reimpose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses despite the documented problems they cause and lack of proof that they work. Mike Pence is a vicious human being who is particularly vicious toward women. He has no business anywhere near a position of public trust. (In fairness, I should note that Snopes.com casts doubt on the widespread claim that he supported electroshock therapy as a means of turning gay people straight.)

Chief political counselor Steve Bannon: On Nov. 22, Trump expressed puzzlement that the racist, anti-Semitic white nationalist movement should have been in any way encouraged by his election. If he was sincere — unlikely, but work with me here — he need have looked no further than this staff choice for the reason. Bannon, formerly head of the right-wing “news” site Breitbart.com, was a focus of the racist movement even before Trump picked him; indeed, Trump had to have been familiar with his work. Bannon’s Breitbart called conservative Jewish pundit Bill Kristol “a renegade Jew” in a headline. Bannon’s ex-wife accused him during their divorce trial of having made anti-Semitic remarks. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racist hate groups in the U.S., has called Breitbart “part of the extremist fringe of the conservative right.”  And Bannon’s elevation was cheered by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other white-nationalist groups, The Hill reported. One would think that Bannon’s documented tenure at Breitbart would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind, but in case there is any doubt left, his former screenwriting partner, Julia Jones, says that Bannon once said that limiting African American voting might be “not such a bad thing.” When Jones pointed out that Bannon’s longtime executive assistant, Wendy Colbert, was black, Bannon replied, “She’s different. She’s family.” Insert groan here.

Trump has said that if white nationalists — racists and Nazis — are energized by his campaign, he wants to find out why. As Jon Ralston has written, that’s like O.J. Simpson vowing to find the real killer.

And as if Trump cashing in on his own presidency weren’t bad enough, Bannon will be cashing in on it, too.

Attorney General-designee Jeff Sessions: Here’s all you need to know about Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III: He was so racist that a Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee rejected him for a federal judgeship in 1986. But there’s more you probably will want to know. He once called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union “Communist-inspired” because they “forced civil rights down the throats of people.” He once said of civil-rights cases, which he would have to litigate as attorney general, “I wish I could decline on all of them.” He opposes immigration reform. Sessions also has suggested increasing the segregation of disabled students in public schools, calling the inclusion of students with significant disabilities “the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.” If Senate Democrats are looking for a hill to die on, or on which to sacrifice the filibuster, this nomination would be an outstanding one.

Health and Human Services, U.S. Rep. Tom Price: I’m guessing Trump picked Price because of Price’s opposition to Obamacare, which is well-documented. But Price also is an awful choice because he supports “privatizing” (which means “killing”) Medicare; Igor Volsky said on Twitter that Price’s nomination is a big “screw you” to seniors who voted for Trump because had had promised not to touch their Medicare. Make no mistake; enacting such a policy would bankrupt a large percentage of America’s seniors; as such, although it has lots of competition, it might be the single most immoral policy priority of the new administration — and certainly indicate that Democrats of good faith have NO common ground with that administration. As Esquire’s Charlie Pierce says:

For progressives of any stripe, Medicare has to be a bright, hot line. One of the great triumphs of progressive government in the 20th century was its virtual elimination of hopeless poverty among the elderly. Because of Medicare, and Social Security before that, old people were freed up to have the opportunity to consider their quality of life, rather than living from one can of catfood to another. And there was no more shame in them than there was in young Paul Ryan when he was living off Social Security survivor benefits after the death of his father. (You’re welcome, by the way.) There can be no backsliding on this one, no attempts to “work across the aisle,” no appeals to “civility” or “bipartisanship.” Loyalty to Medicare has to be a defining characteristic of a Democratic politician and any Democratic politician who doesn’t like it deserves to be primaried out of office.

Myron Ebell to oversee the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency: It’s truly hard to know exactly what Trump thinks about climate change; he generally says he doesn’t believe in it, but occasionally drops hints to the contrary. There’s no doubt about the guy he has tasked with handling the administrative transition at the EPA, however: Myron Ebell not only doesn’t believe in climate change, he doesn’t even believe in science. Take it away, Business Insider:

Ebell is not a scientist and has no degrees or qualifications in climate science. But he serves as director of global warming and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a libertarian advocacy group in Washington, DC.

In practice, that means he spends his time rejecting and trying to discredit scientists who work to understand the global climate.

Ebell believes climate scientists are part of a coordinated ‘global warming movement’
In an interview with Business Insider in August, Ebell repeatedly referred to climate scientists as “global warming alarmists” and suggested that climate research is in fact an arm of a coordinated political movement.

“I think that the global warming movement has three parts,” he said. “One is to exaggerate the rate of warming, one is to exaggerate the potential impacts of warming and how soon they may occur, and the third is to underestimate wildly the costs of reducing our emissions by the magical amount that they have picked.”

Business Insider spoke with several climate scientists who described Ebell as a kind of gadfly — someone’s whose views they must occasionally stoop to address in forums and debates where he’s brought in to represent a discredited anti-climate-change perspective, but not a particularly serious person.

“He doesn’t really know anything about science,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a top Earth scientist at NASA who has faced off with Ebell in the past. “He uses science like a talisman.”

Ebell’s technique, Schmidt said, is to point toward “some little fact” and use it to extrapolate some larger irrelevant and scientifically incorrect point.

As for Ebell’s current employer, CEI, it used to be funded by ExxonMobil. Now it’s funded by a group called Donors Trust, which, according to The Washington Post, “is staffed largely by people who have worked for Koch Industries or nonprofit groups supported by the conservative Koch brothers.” The Koch brothers, of course, own Koch Industries, which is heavily into extraction and which spends a lot of money trying to convince people that climate change isn’t real, when more than 99% of climate scientists are convinced that it’s real and that people are causing it.

CIA director: U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan.: Not only is Pompeo a Benghazi truther, he also encouraged sedition within the military:

“It’s unconscionable to put our military leaders in this position, where the commander-in-chief asks of them something that is unlawful,” Pompeo told [Frank] Gaffney. “And my intention was not to put pressure on those amazing soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, but rather to inform everyone that you can’t ask folks in the military to execute an unlawful order. And I hope that they understand that there are members of Congress that have their back in the event that they choose to make a decision that comports with their duty.”

And maybe I’m weird, but I’d prefer my CIA director not see himself and the country as being in a religious war with Islam, because that’s exactly what ISIS wants Muslims worldwide to think.

Mike Flynn to head the National Security Agency: Colin Powell, who may have turned out to be a big ol’ ho’ but has never been credibly accused of stupidity, thinks Flynn is a nutball.   You also would like to think that a guy picked to head the National Security Agency would be concerned about, you know, security, but you would be wrong.

Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: One of the main jobs of this position traditionally has been fighting discrimination in housing, but Carson, who demonstrated during his inept presidential campaign that he has all the smarts of a paving stone, wants to gut housing anti-discrimination law, even though fighting such discrimination is a key component of fighting poverty.

Betsy DeVos, Education Secretary: The difference between your gun and your public schools is that someone really is coming for your public schools, and that someone is Betsy Devos. She never attended public school, and her kids have never attended public school. She is a front for for-profit interests who want to use charter schools to scam taxpayers. If that weren’t enough evidence of what a jewel she is, she also wants to bring back child labor.

Secretary of State: As I write, Trump apparently is considering naming as Secretary of State Gen. David Petraeus, who, you will remember, lied to the FBI about giving classified material to his mistress. Trump was all “lock her up” about Hillary Clinton possibly having mishandled classified emails (she basically didn’t), so this pick strongly suggests that he isn’t a serious person.

There are many more, but I had to draw a line somewhere. Still, no examination of Trump’s personnel picks is complete without at least a quick look at the extent to he is giving his kids and son-in-law roles in things that should be none of their goddamned business. To wit:

  • Son Donald Trump Jr. met in October with a Syrian politician with strong ties to Russia, in defiance of current U.S. foreign policy, which supports certain Syrian dissidents. Someone needs to explain to me how this was not a felony violation of the Logan Act.
  • Daughter Ivanka Trump sat in on Trump’s talks with Japan’s prime minister as well as with officials from Turkey and Argentina. While not felonious, this does raise questions of how a child of Trump’s who is supposed to run Trump’s business affairs while he’s president without conflicts of interest can actually, you know, do so. Or, as The New York Times puts it:
    • Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is in charge of planning and development of the Trump Organization’s global network of hotels, has joined in conversations with at least three world leaders – of Turkey, Argentina and Japan – having access that could help her expand the brand worldwide.
  • Son-in-law Jared Kushner is widely described as having played a key role in Trump’s campaign. His dual role as a key player in the transition and as publisher of The New York Observer contains some inherent conflicts of interest that so far aren’t attracting much attention, but should.

These are the people who will be making public policy, America. If you think that public officials should pursue the public interest and scrupulously avoid self-aggrandizement and self-enriching at the public trough, well, you’re pretty well fucked.

Sunday, November 27, 2016 2:05 pm

You go to war with the president-elect you have

Fourth in a series (first installment, second installment, third installment)

So we’re left not only with an illegitimate president-elect, but also, by temperament, background and training, the least qualified man ever to win, or “win,” the office.  He simply doesn’t know things a president ought to know. Worse, he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that he doesn’t know them; he is proudly, aggressively ignorant and incurious, Idiot America incarnate.

He understands nothing about the economy. His tax plan would raise taxes on many middle-income Americans, including a majority of single-parent households and most married-couple households with three or more children,  while giving breaks averaging $317,000 to millionaires. His plan also will add more than $7 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.

He understands nothing about foreign relations, particularly the crucial role of NATO in maintaining peace since World War II.

He knew nothing about the nuclear triad, something I read about in seventh grade. And his other comments on the subject of nuclear weapons — asking why we have nukes if we can’t use them, suggesting that nuclear proliferation is not something to worry about — should have been disqualifying.

He had telephone conversations with foreign officials on unsecured phone lines in Trump Tower without having been briefed by the State Department.

He either doesn’t know or doesn’t care anything about global warming, a position that puts him at odds not only with most climate scientists but also with most of the world’s leaders.

He has invited with open arms into American discourse a way of thinking and of treating others that we spent 425,000 American lives to purge, and 50 million lives worldwide, within the lifetimes of many now still living.

His business affairs appear to conflict, at times sharply, with the nation’s best interests, if not with statutory law and the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. His involvement with Russia includes both loans from Russian banks and Russian payments to his de facto campaign manager, Paul Manafort. His overall indebtedness, including loans from the state-owned Bank of China, totals more than $650 million, twice what he reported earlier on his federal disclosure form.

Trump displays a smug contempt for the very idea of constitutional law, as legal scholar Garrett Epps summarizes:

Donald Trump ran on a platform of relentless, thoroughgoing rejection of the Constitution itself, and its underlying principle of democratic self-government and individual rights. True, he never endorsed quartering of troops in private homes in time of peace, but aside from that there is hardly a provision of the Bill of Rights or later amendments he did not explicitly promise to override, from First Amendment freedom of the press and of religion to Fourth Amendment freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures” to Sixth Amendment right to counsel to Fourteenth Amendment birthright citizenship and Equal Protection and Fifteenth Amendment voting rights.

And, finally, he sees and treats other people, whether employees, business partners, customers, or voters, purely as marks to be grifted.

So this is the person who is going to become our 45th president. Whether he will try to do everything he says, no one knows: Trump has said he likes being unpredictable, but how does that manifest? He “can be swayed by the last person he talked to.”

But as Ronald Reagan regularly said, people are policy, meaning that the people Trump is appointing to various positions in his administration are likely to have a big influence on policy, given Trump’s incurious approach to it. That prospect ought to keep you up nights, and I’ll talk more about that in the next installment.

Friday, November 25, 2016 7:51 am

… but no one will do anything about the stolen presidential election

Third in a series (First installment, second installment)

I would dearly love to be wrong about this one.

But unfortunately for the country, no one is going to do anything about the fact that the U.S. presidential election was stolen.

There are a lot of reasons for this.

One is Americans are awful at math. Accordingly, no matter how good a case the researchers at, say, the University of Michigan’s Center for Computer Security and Society might be able to make that vote totals in certain swing states were monkeyed with (and again, as of this writing, I remain agnostic on that whole question), Americans won’t buy it because they can’t follow the math.

(I realize that the trolls’ next question is, “Well, if you can’t follow the math, why should you believe them?” And the answer is that I didn’t have to be a computer programmer or an advanced mathematician to believe that, say, America could send people to the moon. I just had to look at what these same people already had accomplished and make reasonable inferences about what else they might be capable of, using the same skills.

Another is that Americans have an unwavering ability to ignore facts and research if those facts and that research conflict with strongly held beliefs, however untrue those beliefs might be.

But the biggest reason is that fixing a stolen election would be a lot of hard work. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s say that a miracle happens and America reaches the consensus that not only are some of the voting-machine totals squirrely, but also that enough of them are squirrely in the right way that it proves Trump stole the election. Or let’s say, per Greg Palast’s journalism, tens of thousands of likely Democratic voters really were purged illegally from the voting rolls in a number of swing states, and that if even a tiny percentage of them had cast ballots it would have been enough to change the outcome. What would be the solution?

Even with the foregoing hypothetical consensuses, there’s no way America would reach consensus on simply awarding the presidency to Hillary Clinton. And even if it did, consensuses aren’t self-enforcing. There would have to be a legal mechanism of some kind to overturn the Nov. 8 results and award the presidency to Clinton. I Am Not A Lawyer™, and real lawyers can feel free to jump in here and correct me, but the only mechanisms I see are the Electoral College and, maybe — barely maybe — the courts.

Let’s look at the Electoral College first. If the Electoral College, which votes on Dec. 19, decided in this case to affirm the national popular vote, that would be a way, but 1) that ain’t likely even if Donald Trump was shown on video standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shooting someone, and 2) that mechanism would be available only if proof emerged and a consensus was reached before the Electoral College vote on Dec. 19.

That leaves us the courts. I suppose it’s just barely possible that someone could file a lawsuit on behalf of the voters who supported Hillary Clinton, address all challenges to standing, provide proof of harm, and so on and so forth and get the case to the Supreme Court. (I realize the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in some cases, and perhaps this would be one, but I don’t want to bet on that.) We’d then most likely lose on a 4-4 tie and Trump would become president anyway.

Beyond those two options? We’ve got nothing. This is election theft on a scale we have not seen in the modern era and perhaps ever. The imagination of the thieves here far surpassed the imagination of those who were robbed and the few who have even tried to anticipate a theft such as this, let alone prevent or undo it. Our system of government appears to have left us utterly defenseless against such a ruthless and effective attack as this.

And I say that before we even get to the Republican Party. Republican politicians, as an almost ironclade rule, no longer respect the rule of law, particularly when it comes to elections. In Republican-controlled states, it’ll take a federal court order to get all the provisional ballots counted unless, as here in North Carolina, a Republican candidate (like our apparently one-term governor, Pat McCrory) is behind. No Republican-controlled legislature is going to intervene and force a recount, let alone a true audit, where vote totals are flaky. Not only do they not respect the rule of law anymore, neither do they recognize the notion of country over party anymore — indeed, they don’t recognize even elected Democrats as legitimate leaders and haven’t since Bill Clinton’s first election.

If you’re wondering how a dwindling minority of white Christian males manages to hang onto an outsized share of power in a country that is becoming less white, male and Christian every year, now you know. As I say, I’d love to be wrong about this. But I don’t think I am.

(And don’t expect the media to help on the theft. More on them later.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016 12:07 pm

On a train we never wanted to board, en route to a place we never wanted to go

First in a series

I first read this passage roughly 20 years ago, when Donald Trump was still only a crooked businessman and a short-fingered vulgarian.

Everybody else got off the train at Hell, but I figured, it’s a free country. So I commenced to make myself a mite more comfortable. I put my feet up and leaned back against the window, laid my guitar across my chest and settled in with my hat tipped down over my eyes, almost. I didn’t know what the next stop was but I knew I’d like it better than Hell.

Whoo! I never saw such a mess. All that crowd of people jammed together on the Hell platform so tight you could faint standing up. One old battle-hammed woman hollering for Jesus, most everybody else just mumbling and crying and hugging their bags and leaning into each other and waiting to be told where to go. And hot? Man, I ain’t just beating my gums there. Not as hot as the Delta, but hot enough to keep old John on the train. No, sir, I told myself, no room out there for me.

Fat old conductor man pushed on down the aisle kinda slow, waiting on me to move. I decided I’d wait on that, too.

“Hey, nigger boy.” He slapped my foot with a rolled-up newspaper. Felt like the Atlanta paper. “This ain’t no sleeping car.”

“Git up off me, man. I ain’t done nothing.”

“Listen at you. Who you think you are, boy? Think you run the railroad? You don’t look nothing like Mr. George Pullman.” The conductor tried to put his foot up on the seat and lean on his knee, but he gave up with a grunt.

I ran one finger along my guitar strings, not hard enough to make a sound but just hard enough to feel them. “I ain’t got a ticket, neither,” I bit off, “but it was your railroad’s pleasure to bring me this far, and it’s my pleasure to ride on a little further, and I don’t see what cause you got to be so astorperious about it, Mr. Fat Ass.”

He started puffing and blowing. “What? What?” He was teakettle hot. You’d think I’d done something. “What did you call me, boy?” He whipped out a strap, and I saw how it was, and I was ready.

From “Beluthahatchie,” by Nebula Award winner Andy Duncan

My friend and former colleague Andy made his literary bones with this Hugo Award-nominated story, first published in Asimov’s in 1997, about a dead blues musician who finds that Hell is the Mississippi Delta.

Like the story’s narrator, since Nov. 8 I’ve just been sitting and observing.

And like him, I see how it is, and I am ready.

In some upcoming posts, I’ll be talking about how it is, and what I think that means, and what I think being ready means. It’s only a small spoiler to point out that the narrator’s assertion that he was ready means that he had reached down to his sock, where he had a razor hidden, because metaphorically and perhaps literally, that’s where we’re headed.

More soon.

Monday, November 7, 2016 7:30 pm

Jay Rosen on what the media missed, and me on what we need to work hard to miss

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has posted a piece titled “A Miss Bigger Than a Missed Story,” his final reflection before the election on how badly U.S. media have lost the thread of this election. It’s not that long, and its underlying thread is how politics simply doesn’t deal in reality anymore and how unprepared the media  have been for that change. He makes clear that this trend didn’t arise overnight with Donald Trump’s candidacy.

The real value of the piece, though, is this conclusion:

Yesterday I read something by a philosopher, Jason Stanley, that illuminated what I mean by “a miss bigger than a missed story.” Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality. Stanley made the point that fact checking Trump in a way missed the point. Trump was not trying to make reference to reality in what he said to win votes. He was trying to substitute “his” reality for the one depicted in news reports.

“On a certain level, the media lacked the vocabulary to describe what was happening,” Stanley writes. And I agree with that. He compares what Trump did to totalitarian propaganda, which does not attempt to depict the world but rather substitutes for it a ruthlessly coherent counter-narrative that is untroubled by any contradiction between itself and people’s experience.

The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power. Its open distortion of reality is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Trump’s campaign was “openly intended to distort reality” because that is a show of power. Power over his followers. Over the other candidates he humiliated and drove from the race. Over party officials who tried to bring him to heel. And over the journalists who tried to “check” and question him.

That last graf is really what Donald Trump is up to, and it’s the one I want most to commend to the attention of my friends at the Times and the Post and Politico and CQ and The Hill and all the other primary drivers of national political coverage in this country.

I’ve made quite the pest of myself with y’all by emphasizing that this was the campaign that repealed Godwin’s law. That tenet of Internet dialogue holds that the longer a discussion goes on, the greater the likelihood that someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Naziism. A corollary, also itself often referred to as Godwin’s law, is that whoever does so automatically loses the debate.

But in this campaign we have seen a candidate, Donald Trump, who has, in no particular order, advocated torture; advocated massive forced relocations; espoused racism, sexism (including sexual assault), many other forms of bigotry, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualismHe has embraced some of the most virulent anti-Semites currently operating in U.S. media and made them a key part of his campaign. His campaign’s final television ad was one long anti-Semitic dogwhistle. Look, I realize no one wants to look hysterical AND that comparisons to Hitler/Naziism have been overplayed on other subjects in the past. But, kids, at some point, if the jackboot fits, you’ve got to wear it. Trump and his campaign have been functioning in exactly the same way, with largely the same result, as all of the big totalitarian propaganda efforts of the 20th century, from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to China. And while some in the media get this, way too many are still in denial.

But, you say, Trump isn’t going to win tomorrow.

And as I write this, that looks like it’s probably true. My own prediction remains what it was once the two major-party nominees were determined last spring: Clinton wins with at least 310 electoral votes, and the Democrats tie for or retake the Senate. (Fun fact for us North Carolinians: Our polls close at 7:30 p.m. In 2012, the Associated Press called the state for Romney at 10:53 p.m. If North Carolina gets called for Clinton, particularly if that happens a lot earlier than it did in 2012, it’s game over for Trump. Clinton can afford to lose North Carolina. Trump cannot; he simply has no road to 270 electoral votes without us.)

But a huge number of Americans have supported Trump, and in so doing, they’ve demonstrated that they’re OK with the hatred, they’re vulnerable to the propaganda, or both. And those people will still be around and still creating trouble Wednesday and probably for years, perhaps decades, after. This campaign hasn’t just injected massive doses of hate into our political mainstream, as Rosen and Stanley point out, it has tried to make that the new reality.

Even worse, I can guarantee you that right now, this minute, someone both smarter and more disciplined than Trump already is plotting how to build on Trump’s accomplishments to capture those voters in off-year state and local races and in a race for the White House in 2020 and beyond.

That is what our news media will be facing, and denialism could be lethal to the American experiment as well as to nontrivial numbers of individual Americans. I realize that after this longest and ugliest of campaigns, no one wants to hear this — and God knows I’d love to be wrong about it — but I think the media, and all Americans of good faith and good sense, must fight this, starting immediately. I pray to God we’re up to it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 6:52 am

I fear that I have found the perfect metaphor …

… for this year’s presidential election:

Saturday, September 17, 2016 2:45 pm

The press is lying, but so are the voters

Two of our greatest American institutions are badly failing us today — our news media, and our very electorate. Both like to think of themselves as standing up for our essential American-ness, embracing values as defined in, say, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and even the Pledge of Allegiance. But both groups are lying, to us and to themselves.

Evidence of the problem can be found in the news media’s problems in covering Donald Trump, which I addressed earlier this week, and I’ll have more to say on that in a bit. But let me start with the electorate.

We voters like to think of ourselves as spokespeople for American values, holding these truths to be self-evident — a free and independent country, a democratic republic where all are equal, with liberty and justice for all, and so on and so forth. In point of fact, those truths are not self-evident; they are evident only to the extent that we do the work of making them real, every day, everywhere. And that is not what American voters have chosen to do. Largely although not exclusively by embracing Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, a large minority of Americans has said something quite different: that they choose to be ruled by a tyrant.

This is not a new development. That segment of Americans has always been present and has been politically active continuously since World War II. They were there in the 1950s, lining up behind Joe McCarthy; they were there in the 1960s, hailing the domestic spy and hypocrite J. Edgar Hoover long after it was clear he was a constitutional abomination; they were there in the 1970s, defending the indefensible Richard Nixon; they were there in the ’80s, supporting the lawbreaking and increasingly senile Ronald Reagan; they were there in the ’90s, cheering George H.W. Bush’s pardons of the Iran-contra lawbreakers as he left the White House; they were there in the aughts, angrily denigrating anyone who didn’t support the Bush administration’s serial violations of U.S. and international law; and they are here today preparing to cast a ballot for a dyed-in-the-orange-wool fascist. Take it away, Esquire’s Charlie Pierce:

A substantial portion of this country wants someone not to govern, but to rule, to defeat the imaginary enemies they have concocted so as not to bestir themselves to resist the forces that actually are working against their interest. For the balance of this election cycle, and largely due to the presence in it of this ridiculous man and his ridiculous campaign, the American people have proven themselves profoundly unworthy of being called citizens. …

[Trump’s personal and financial involvement with Moammar Qaddafi] likely will occasion another spasm of impotent introspection on the part of our elite political media on the topic of, “Why doesn’t any of this stick?” But few of the members of that media will dare to look at the real answer, which is that there is a substantial constituency for what Trump has been peddling. …  Americans are bored with their democracy and they don’t have the democratic energy to do anything about it, so they’ll settle for an entertaining quasi-strongman. When they decline, democracies get the dictators they deserve. A country mired in apathy and lassitude gets a dictator who can’t even put in the hard work of becoming very good at it. …

But the truth is that the facts are out there if anyone wants to make the effort and find them. (The elite political media makes this harder by its curious reluctance to let these stories fully inform its coverage of the campaign.) That’s our collective job as citizens, and to do it requires a collective national will that no longer may be in us. With every new poll that is released, I comfort myself with the knowledge that Donald Trump is not willing to put in the hours to be a competent authoritarian, which is cold comfort, I know, but you take what you can get.

That cannot be said of the next guy to try it, and there will be a next time, because the basic tectonic plates beneath our democracy have shifted so as to make the next guy inevitable. The mechanics of tyranny are not a magician’s prestige, the third part of a trick in which the lady is reassembled or the rabbit brought back to the hat. The mechanics of tyranny are primal in all of us, and vestigial in very few. They are reflexes, like breathing or flinching. We engage them without thinking. In fact, that’s the very best way to do it.

These are people who largely have decided not to do the hard work of self-goverance. Rather than seeking wisdom, or at least knowledge, they seek candidates who reflect their preconceptions and prejudices and who seek extraconstitutional power. They do so secure in the belief, though lacking any proof of that belief, that should such a tyranny come to pass, they would never suffer.

Why do they do so?

One big part of the problem, as I noted on Monday, is that the U.S. news media, for the most part, has not provided the information that a free people need to govern themselves, but the problem with the press is bigger than that. Donald Trump has presented the press with a campaign in which it is important, perhaps for the first time, for the press to respond not only with facts but also with values — and the press has almost completely failed to do so.

When Web 2.0 and social media began to become a thing back in the early 2000s, I wrestled with this issue in my role as an editor, Web jockey and blogger for the News & Record in Greensboro. Among the many things that seemed clear to me was that “objectivity,” the standard of the mainstream U.S. news media for the past century or so, was an inadequate standard for a changing industry. I suggested to co-workers at that paper and in the industry, and to the occasional reader who asked, that we needed something different, something more.

I argued, in different times and places and with differing levels of coherence, that we needed not objectivity, but fairness, accuracy and transparency in pursuit of what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their book “The Elements of Journalism,” called “the discipline of verification.” With respect to transparency, I said, news organizations need to be open to their publics about how they do what they do, and about why they do it. And those reasons, I argued further, should stem from clear, well-defined values.

What should those values look like? I never completed a list, but I did start one. I would have hoped, for example, that a U.S. news organization would embrace and stand for some of the country’s fundamental values — like, well, liberty and justice for all. Equal protection under the law. Government by the people, which meant, as a practical matter, that the people needed to be able to know in almost all circumstances what the government was doing, and how, and with whose money and for whose benefit.

It sounds pretty basic and pretty logical, but the longer I spent in newspapers, the less I believed that the U.S. news media really stood for this stuff anymore, if it ever had. (Some of the country’s best, and best-known, newspapers were segregationist until relatively recently, for example. For another example, U.S. news media did not uniformly criticize our government’s use of torture, a crime against both U.S. and international law for which it had hanged representatives of other governments.)

And that is part of the reason why the media are failing to confront the danger that a possible Trump candidacy poses to those American values, writes Brian Beutler in The New Republic: The press hasn’t expressed those values because it hasn’t embraced them except in very attenuated circumstances. What it values most is itself.

The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade. By and large, it doesn’t act as a guardian of civic norms and liberal institutions—except when press freedoms and access itself are at stake. Much like an advocacy group or lobbying firm will reserve value judgments for issues that directly touch upon the things they’re invested in, reporters and media organizations are far more concerned with things like transparency, the treatment of reporters, and first-in-line access to information of public interest, than they are with other forms of democratic accountability.

That’s not a value set that’s well calibrated to gauging Trump’s unmatched, omnidirectional assault on our civil life. Trump can do and say outrageous things all the time, and those things get covered in a familiar “did he really say that?” fashion, but his individual controversies don’t usually get sustained negative coverage unless he is specifically undermining press freedom in some clear and simple way.

Even then, though, the press has no language for explicating which affronts to press freedom are more urgent and dangerous than others. All such affronts are generally lumped together in a way that makes it unclear whether the media thinks it’s worse that Trump blacklists outlets and wants to sue journalists into penury or that Clinton doesn’t like holding press conferences.

The result is the evident skewing of editorial judgment we see in favor of stories where media interests are most at stake: where Clinton gets ceaseless scrutiny for conducting public business on a private email server; Trump gets sustained negative coverage for several weeks when his campaign manager allegedly batters a reporter; where Clinton appears to faint, but the story becomes about when it was appropriate for her to disclose her pneumonia diagnosis; where because of her illness, she and Trump will both be hounded about their medical records, and Trump will be further hounded for his tax returns—but where bombshell stories about the ways Trump used other people’s charity dollars for personal enrichment [or about how his financial dealings conflict directly with national interests — Lex] have a hard time breaking through.

News outlets are less alarmed by the idea that Trump might run the government to boost his company’s bottom line, or that he might shred other constitutional rights, because those concerns don’t place press freedoms squarely in crosshairs. Controversies like his proposal to ban Muslim travel into the U.S., create a deportation force to expel millions of immigrants, and build a wall along the southern border are covered less as affronts to American values than as gauche ideas that might harm his poll numbers with minorities. Trump’s most damaging scandal may have been his two-week political fight with the Khan family, but even there, the fact that Trump attacked the Khans’ religious faith was of secondary interest to questions like whether attacking a Gold Star family of immigrants would offend veterans and non-whites who might otherwise have voted for him.

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that when liberal intellectuals argue the press’ coverage of Trump and Clinton is out of whack, in ways that imperil the democracy itself, members of the media don’t see a world-historical blindspot that must be urgently corrected. They see an attack on the trade itself—and reflexively rush to protect it.

So when someone points out weaknesses — often huge ones — in the press coverage of Trump, the press doesn’t perceive the criticism as highlighting a danger to the country, it perceives the criticism directly as a danger to itself. As Beutler notes, this tendency was highlighted by Liz Spayd, the grossly inferior successor to Margaret Sullivan as public editor (ombudswoman, if you will) of The New York Times.

This problem can be prevented if the press will define and then act in accordance with its explicit values as elucidated in the founding documents, crafting those values as reflective of the press’s historical role as the representative of the people, all the people, who govern this country: its citizens. It also can be prevented if journalists will stop spending so much of their time worrying about what effect this proposal or that comment will have on one candidate or the other’s standing, and worry instead about what we talked about earlier: pursuit of the discipline of verification, including eyewitness verification.

Beutler agrees, in a separate article published just yesterday:

Most prominent political reporters have covered more than one election. This is my third election as a professional political writer; James Fallows has been doing this since the 1970s. Whether you have a short or long view, you’ve seen enough to say authoritatively that Trump is different from all major party nominees in living memory. It is not normal in modern times for a major party nominee to be an erratic, racist demagogue; and it is almost definitionally abnormal for a major party nominee to be described as such by leading members of his own party.

These are the cardinal facts of this election. They should be the dominant upshot of any significant increment of news coverage and analysis—the thing that reaches and sticks with casual news consumers, in the same way that even musical dilettantes can hum the leitmotif of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

That is a journalistic judgment, just as sending hundreds of reporters to Louisiana to cover Hurricane Katrina was a journalistic judgment. It is not a Democratic or liberal judgment. It is not the equivalent of saying that unflattering revelations about Clinton should be suppressed or that any particular new revelation about Trump should be overhyped. It’s simply to say, through the many means we have to indicate what is important, what is breaking news, what is worthy of discussion, “we have seen this, it is ongoing, and it is extraordinary.” And then let the chips fall where they may.

For several weeks now—including since Labor Day, when most Americans truly began paying attention to the campaigns—these truths, which we all took for granted six months ago, have not been communicated to glancing news consumers. They’ve receded from most article leads, headlines, front pages, and A-block TV segments.

That development is the product of many collective choices and thousands of individual ones. It is an institutional failure, and as such, a major and abrupt course correction seems highly unlikely. But that doesn’t absolve reporters, editors, producers or anyone else who is part of the system. There’s still time to alter our focus, however incrementally, so that it better captures what’s new and alarming, and all journalists have some degree of power to nudge it in that direction. The goal is not to swing an election, or call Trump mean names, or render partisan judgment about whether electing him would be a world-historical mistake. It’s simply so that after this is all over, however it shakes out, we can say we bore witness faithfully.

What we do about the large minority of the electorate that appears to desire, or at least be content with, the election of a tyrant is a larger and more difficult question, likely encompassing everything from family dynamics and civic education to neuropsychology. And the stakes could not be higher outside the realms of global warming and giant meteors: The future of the 240-year-old American experiment depends on our finding an answer, for as Pierce observes, while this tyrant is quasi-comical and in many ways inept, the next tyrant quite likely will be neither. But one thing that cannot hurt and almost certainly will help is a press that strives to pursue the discipline of verification within the context of explicitly stated and observed values that will inspire us to be our best national self, which is the best the world has to offer.

Monday, September 12, 2016 6:32 am

The normalization of Donald Trump

If Donald Trump is elected our next president, there will have been several reasons why, but the most important one by far will have been the national news media’s performance. The media have both beaten up Hillary Clinton over nonexistent “scandals” and ignored or downplayed aspects of Trump’s character and actions that in any sane society would render him fundamentally unfit to be a major party’s nominee for the highest office in the land.

Examples of the former date back at least as far as the original New York Times story on the Whitewater real-estate deal in 1992, in which Bill and Hillary Clinton were suspected of having somehow benefitted improperly — the fact that they lost money notwithstanding. In Hillary Clinton’s case, they have included allegations of wrongdoing over investing in cattle futures, misplacing documents, and mishandling emails, and in no case was Clinton found to have committed wrongdoing.

Most recently, the Associated Press purported to prove that donors to the Clinton Global Foundation had somehow benefitted improperly with their relations with Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State. In point of fact, none of them did. Two weeks after it tweeted that it had found “pay for play” in those relationships, a claim the AP’s own reporting did not bear out, the AP took that tweet down with no explanation or apology that I’m aware of.

And just this weekend, the media, following as always the lead of their GOP sources, have acted outraged that Hillary Clinton referred to half of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Only here’s what Clinton actually said:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people (and) now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroine, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

Was it scandalous that Clinton said this? On the contrary, polling shows that she is understating the problem. Hell, The New York Times found that almost 20 percent of Trump supporters thought freeing the slaves was a bad idea and another 17 percent weren’t sure. They’re not just a basket of deplorables, they’re a kettle of vultures and a gen-u-wine Bucket o’ FAIL. Hell, Trump himself frequently retweets people who are white supremacists themselves and/or follow some of the leading white-supremacist Twitter accounts.

And yet somehow Republicans and the media alike thought Clinton owed these people some kind of apology, with CNN describing Clinton’s assertion as a “shocking statement.”

Meanwhile, the media continue to normalize Trump’s bullying, narcissism, and bigotry, which has been blatantly obvious since he started his campaign more than a year ago with this assertion:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Oh, some are good people. How big of him.

Trump has proven himself to be a serial liar of world-historical proportions. He has lied about tariffs, reporters, his own political performance, the economy’s performance, and whether he was self-funding his campaign. He has lied, bigly, about his charitable givingHe even has lied about who was the biggest liar in the GOP nomination race. And one finding of the independent fact-checking site Politifact is that not only is Trump the most dishonest major politician on the U.S. scene today, Hillary Clinton is second only to Barack Obama in honesty.

His temperament, which some professionals have identified as narcissistic personality disorder, makes him a significant threat to place in charge of the nation’s nuclear weapons.

Yet despite clear evidence that Trump is too deeply flawed to be qualified for president, cable news gave him far more free air time than it gave his GOP opponents for the nomination:

According to The New York Times, Trump has received $1.9 billion worth of earned media, which includes coverage of the candidate on television and social media, and in newspapers and magazines. That is more than twice the amount of earned media Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton has received and more than six times the amount received by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the second-biggest earner of free media among Republicans.

Meanwhile, print/online pundits have persisted in reassuring the American people that he would “pivot” away from such views after winning the nomination to appeal to more moderate voters. This is staggering, for there has been no evidence whatever that such a transformation was ever in the cards. Trump has lied voluminously, but he has said one thing that the media need to take to the bank: “I am who I am. It’s me. I do not want to change.”

As I write, Trump trails Clinton by 5 percentage points in national polls, and, also at this writing, the way to 270 electoral votes appears shorter and straighter for Clinton than it does for Trump. But given the dramatic difference in qualifications of the two major-party nominees, the gap ought to be much wider.

Part of the problem is that about three in four white evangelical Christians say they’ll vote for Trump. That group makes up almost half the Republican primary vote and, on the basis of Christ’s teachings, might be expected to reject Trump’s bullying and bigotry. A number of prominent evangelical leaders have done so, but the rank and file appear almost all in (and some other evangelical leaders are just cashing in).

But I think a significant segment of the blame also lies with U.S. news media, who seek to create equivalence between Trump and Clinton when there simply is none.

Why? I don’t know. I suspect sexism plays a nontrivial role. In addition, perhaps the people who run news media are, as a group, Trump supporters. Perhaps they simply want to see a close race, figuring that that would generate higher ratings and readership (and possibly increased political-ad revenue as well). Perhaps reporters and pundits are in a rut of adhering to narratives that either were never true or, if they once were true, no longer are. Perhaps all of the above.

But whatever the reason, it adds up to journalism that is at best lazy and incompetent and at worst dishonest and dangerous, given the stakes for the Republic if Trump wins. And that will be the big takeaway of news-media coverage of this campaign, whatever the outcome of the election.

 

 

 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 7:35 pm

Why Colin Kaepernick is right and you are wrong and need to sit down

San Francisco 49ers quarterback — for the moment — Colin Kaepernick got a whole bunch of people’s panties in a twist when he sat down during the national anthem this past Friday. But, to paraphrase Esquire’s Charlie Pierce, at least he’s shouting at the right buildings:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

“Getting away with murder.” That is the issue. Please to focus.

Kaepernick, who is himself of multiracial ancestry, has more than just his literal skin in this game: At this writing, it’s unclear whether he even still has a job with the 49ers independent of his protest (although he’s slated to start the final preseason game), and his protest makes it less likely that another NFL team might hire him and makes him a less likely prospect for endorsement deals. That’s a ton of money to be potentially walking away from, but he has made it clear that he couldn’t care less.

I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

First things first: Is what he is doing “legal”? Yes. There’s no First Amendment issue here because government is not involved, and there’s no law against what he did. The NFL does not require players to stand for the national anthem. 49ers coach Chip Kelly told reporters, “It’s not my right to tell him not to do something.” And the team itself issued a statement:

The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.

DeMaurice Smith, head of the players’ union, the NFL Players Association, made clear that the union stands behind Kaepernick even though Smith said the form Kaepernick’s protest took made him personally uncomfortable:

I’m not sure that any father, son, mother, you know, brother whose family member is on that playing field would want to hear that their family member should just shut up and play, because that reduces you to something less than human.

Next question: Is his cause justified? Based on the facts, on the merits, absolutely. Even in recent years, discrimination against African Americans and other minorities has been documented in employment, housing, lending, and other areas. And the recent cases of unarmed African Americans being killed by police, to which Kaepernick spoke directly, speak for themselves. This country wrote itself some huge checks in 1776 and 1787, checks that we are still struggling to cash today. That’s a fact, and Kaepernick is not wrong at all to point it out. And I’ll have more to say on that in a bit.

Next question: Was his method “appropriate” — i.e., the best way to get his message across? A lot of people don’t think so. Former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, now at the University of Michigan, initially said, “I don’t respect the motivation or the action,” before later “clarifying,” “I apologize for misspeaking my true sentiments. To clarify, I support Colin’s motivation. It’s his method of action that I take exception to.” And New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees told ESPN, “there’s plenty of other ways that you can do that in a peaceful manner that doesn’t involve being disrespectful to the American flag.” Brees particularly thought Kaepernick’s protest was disrespectful to the military even though Kaepernick specifically said that what he did was not intended to disrespect the military. And the San Francisco police union wants an apology (more on that in a bit, as well).

But here’s the thing about protest: It’s meant to make people at least a little uncomfortable, because comfortable people usually don’t often get involved in unpopular but positive change. From the Boston Tea Party to the Pullman strike, from the March on Washington to the Greensboro sit-ins and beyond, Americans have stood up, or sat down, for all kinds of issues, most of which resulted in the betterment of society and some of which made this country possible. Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in major-league baseball, felt the same way as Kaepernick:

There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

And of course there’s the case of Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1966 because, as a conscientious objector, he refused to be drafted. He was convicted of draft evasion, but he took the U.S. government all the way to the Supreme Court and whipped it like a rented mule. Upon Ali’s recent death, he was hailed as an activist and a man of conscience for his actions. Kaepernick is getting a lot of criticism, but his action was less disruptive than Ali’s and sits squarely within the same long tradition.

And here’s another thing about protest: You don’t get to choose the means for protesters to protest. That’s their call, and as long as it’s within the law (or, for civil disobedience, as long as protesters are willing to pay society’s price), you don’t get to say anything about it. You have no — what’s the word? — standing.

Beyond all that perspective on protest, there’s the particular nature of what’s behind objection to this particular protest: political idolatry. God commands the Israelites in the Second Commandment not to worship graven images. But that’s what a lot of Americans do when it comes to patriotism. They’ve tried to ban flag burning (the Supreme Court, including the late Antonin Scalia, held it to be protected political speech). They seek to enforce conformity in how people express their patriotism, either not knowing or not caring that to do so is the very opposite of political freedom. In short, they confuse patriotism’s idols — the flag, the anthem, even the U.S. military — for the actual qualities we say we embody. Meanwhile, issues like discrimination, poverty, and abusive police officers continue to go unaddressed without a whole lot of complaint, or even caring, by the majority of Americans. Kaepernick was pointing out an inconsistency, if not a hypocrisy, between what we say about ourselves and what we actually do. Yeah, it stings — but it stings because he’s right.

Moreover, there is racism in the national anthem itself, as this excellent article at TheRoot.com shows:

To understand the full “Star-Spangled Banner” story, you have to understand the author. Key was an aristocrat and city prosecutor in Washington, D.C. He was, like most enlightened men at the time, notagainst slavery; he just thought that since blacks were mentally inferior, masters should treat them with more Christian kindness. He supported sending free blacks (not slaves) back to Africa and, with a few exceptions, was about as pro-slavery, anti-black and anti-abolitionist as you could get at the time.

Of particular note was Key’s opposition to the idea of the Colonial Marines. The Marines were a battalion of runaway slaves who joined with the British Royal Army in exchange for their freedom. The Marines were not only a terrifying example of what slaves would do if given the chance, but also a repudiation of the white superiority that men like Key were so invested in.

All of these ideas and concepts came together around Aug. 24, 1815, at the Battle of Bladensburg, where Key, who was serving as a lieutenant at the time, ran into a battalion of Colonial Marines. His troops were taken to the woodshed by the very black folks he disdained, and he fled back to his home in Georgetown to lick his wounds. The British troops, emboldened by their victory in Bladensburg, then marched into Washington, D.C., burning the Library of Congress, the Capitol Building and the White House. You can imagine that Key was very much in his feelings seeing black soldiers trampling on the city he so desperately loved.

A few weeks later, in September of 1815, far from being a captive, Key was on a British boat begging for the release of one of his friends, a doctor named William Beanes. Key was on the boat waiting to see if the British would release his friend when he observed the bloody battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore on Sept. 13, 1815. America lost the battle but managed to inflict heavy casualties on the British in the process. This inspired Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” right then and there, but no one remembers that he wrote a full third stanza decrying the former slaves who were now working for the British army:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

In other words, Key was saying that the blood of all the former slaves and “hirelings” on the battlefield will wash away the pollution of the British invaders. With Key still bitter that some black soldiers got the best of him a few weeks earlier, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is as much a patriotic song as it is a diss track to black people who had the audacity to fight for their freedom. Perhaps that’s why it took almost 100 years for the song to become the national anthem.

Some opponents, including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, have suggested that Kaepernick is hypocritical for complaining about a country in which he has achieved professional and financial success, saying, “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try. It won’t happen.” These people miss another point Kaepernick made clear in interviews: It’s not just about Colin Kaepernick, but also about a lot of other people who are less fortunate. Kaepernick has a platform, at least for now, and he has chosen to use it in that way. Donald Trump, of all people, is utterly unqualified to lecture Kaepernick about anything.

And, finally, to get back to Kaepernick’s original point: We have too many cases in this country of African American people dying wrongly at the hands of police without anyone being held accountable. From 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cincinnati to Freddie Gray, who died while being transported in police custody, it’s happening and not enough is being done about it. Rogue officers are not being held accountable. That’s about as serious a problem of political governance as they come, yet large numbers of Americans don’t even see a problem. The San Francisco police union apparently doesn’t see a problem, so don’t talk to me about a “few bad apples.”

In a democratic republic, the government is us, and those police officers are acting in our name and with our tax dollars. Do we really want this to be a country in which people die unnecessarily at the hands of police? If not, I grant you, there may not be a hell of a lot any one individual can do. But the least you can do is to sit down and stop shoveling shit at the guy who’s pointing out the problem.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 7:19 pm

Well, that was different

I didn’t plan this blogging hiatus; it just happened. So what messes have y’all gotten into during my absence?

Trump and Clinton are now their party’s presumptive nominees. (Sorry, Bernie backers — of whom I am one — but math is math, and you know as well as I do that the superdelegates aren’t going anywhere.) Clinton is everything wrong with modern politics except that she’s not a racist or bigot, she doesn’t hate women (or men), and she’s not anti-science. Trump? Well, as some guy on Twitter said, I am voting against Trump because I am a single-issue voter, and my single issue is not opening the seventh seal and ushering in the Apocalypse.

Related to Trump, it is fascinating to watch all the GOP leaders like Paul Ryan condemn Trump’s racist remarks and then say they’re going to support him anyway. Oh, it’s simple enough to understand. The GOP has spent the past 50 years whipping its base into a frothy mix of bigotry and know-nothingism. Donald Trump is the natural, predictable and predicted outcome of that approach. Now, GOP politicians who don’t embrace Trump lose their base. And given our current political schism — as a country, we’re more divided than we’ve been since 1860 — without that base, their careers are over.

Relatedly, #OneAndDone N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory has officially endorsed Donald Trump for president, which, as Facebook commenter Mike Conway sagely noted, is like two albatrosses wearing each other around their necks.

Also here in North Carolina, the GOP’s ill-begotten HB2 “bathroom bill” is not looking long for this world. Earlier, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a very similar Virginia law. Then, last week, the full 4th Circuit refused to hear additional arguments. So, for the 4th Circuit, which includes North Carolina, equality is settled law. The problem is that there are parts of that law as evil or worse that aren’t within the scope of the Virginia law the 4th Circuit ruled on. To fix that, I fear, we’re going to need a Raleigh housecleaning, and I don’t think even the prospect of losing billions in federal aid will be enough for that this time around.

In my neighborhood but not where I can do anything about it, Eric Fink is trying to get onto the ballot to face otherwise-unopposed Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger. All best to Fink; Berger’s an evil little shit, and it is a mark of the state Democratic Party’s ineptitude that it could find no one to face him in a year when Trump may lead the GOP to the biggest defeat since Mondale. (No, it won’t be as big a defeat as Mondale’s; the political chasm is too big for that. But Clinton wins with 310+ electoral votes and will have some coattails, I bet.)

I have watched with a combination of outrage, horror, and fascination, as the Brock Turner rape case has gone viral. He’s an entitled, sociopathic little shit, enabled by an entitled, sociopathic little shit of a father and a mother who thinks that posting a Facebook photo of a teenage girl fellating a kid in a Franzia box-wine costume while her son’s case is being adjudicated is somehow a good idea.

The judge in the case, Aaron Persky, could have given Turner 14 years; he gave him six months, which was much too much for Daddy, who bemoans the fact that Brock no longer enjoys eating steak or some such shit. The judge is unopposed for re-election (why are the shits of the world always unopposed for re-election?), but there’s a recall movement afoot. And just today we learned that Judge Persky also is a Stanford graduate and was captain of the lacrosse team there. I suppose it’s possible there’s no white male athlete privilege going on in this case, but, Lord, it sure don’t LOOK that way, do it?

Related to that case, it took until yesterday — after Turner’s sentencing and many months after his arrest — for Turner’s mug shot to finally show up on social media. That’s because the arresting agency, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department in California, played a shitty little public-records game until national media finally called them out on it. I’ve argued for years that intentional withholding of public records ought to be a crime, and episodes like this are Exhibit A for the prosection. Maybe when cops start losing law-enforcement certification and (and they and bureaucrats start doing time) behind this shit, they’ll start doing their jobs right.

Oh, if you’re considering asthmatic bronchitis as a hobby, I strongly recommend you pursue something else instead.

 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016 5:40 am

The Big Lie: Andrew Sullivan on Donald Trump

You can tell people who actually think from the poseurs by what they think of Andrew Sullivan’s new piece for New York magazine.

Sure, Sullivan’s main point is unassailable: The rise of Donald Trump puts America closer to tyranny than it ever has been (except, maybe, immediately after Pearl Harbor and 9/11, I would add). But how he gets there is shot through with errors and omissions large and small, not least of them the fact that Sullivan has both enabled and defended what gave rise to the situation he now decries.

He places an inordinate amount of faith in Plato’s take on democracy: that it is probably the only path to tyranny, and that a democracy gets closer to tyranny the more democratic it becomes. Uh, Andy, just within living memory of a nontrivial number of Americans and Britons, let us examine the examples of Weimar Germany, which turned to tyranny after just 15 years of not-particularly-accelerating democracy, and Russia, which has lurched from tyranny to tyranny in the past century with barely a few years of anything resembling democracy.

Which wouldn’t matter if he didn’t then go on to blame “our own hyperdemocratic times.” But, of course, he does, because in Sullivan’s worldview, democracy is part of the problem:

And so, as I chitchatted over cocktails at a Washington office Christmas party in December, and saw, looming above our heads, the pulsating, angry televised face of Donald Trump on Fox News, I couldn’t help but feel a little nausea permeate my stomach. And as I watched frenzied Trump rallies on C-SPAN in the spring, and saw him lay waste to far more qualified political peers in the debates by simply calling them names, the nausea turned to dread. And when he seemed to condone physical violence as a response to political disagreement, alarm bells started to ring in my head. Plato had planted a gnawing worry in my mind a few decades ago about the intrinsic danger of late-democratic life. It was increasingly hard not to see in Plato’s vision a murky reflection of our own hyperdemocratic times and in Trump a demagogic, tyrannical character plucked directly out of one of the first books about politics ever written.

Yeah, about that book: See above.

He goes on to blame hyperdemocracy for the emergence of such ultimate presidential losers as Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson, Steve Forbes, Herman Cain, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Trump, ignoring the fact that in every case but Jackson’s, personal wealth and/or corporate backing was the only thing that made the candidacy anywhere near viable (and Jackson at least had a history of leading a movement, which the others lacked). For reasons known only to Sullivan and God, Sullivan characterizes this trend as “our increased openness to being led by anyone; indeed, our accelerating preference for outsiders,” without mentioning the role money plays.

Indeed, he actually argues that money plays no role:

But the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultrarich has been mostly a dud. Barack Obama, whose 2008 campaign was propelled by small donors and empowered by the internet, blazed the trail of the modern-day insurrectionist, defeating the prohibitive favorite in the Democratic primary and later his Republican opponent (both pillars of their parties’ Establishments and backed by moneyed elites). In 2012, the fund-raising power behind Mitt Romney — avatar of the one percent — failed to dislodge Obama from office. And in this presidential cycle, the breakout candidates of both parties have soared without financial support from the elites. Sanders, who is sustaining his campaign all the way to California on the backs of small donors and large crowds, is, to put it bluntly, a walking refutation of his own argument. Trump, of course, is a largely self-funding billionaire — but like Willkie, he argues that his wealth uniquely enables him to resist the influence of the rich and their lobbyists. Those despairing over the influence of Big Money in American politics must also explain the swift, humiliating demise of Jeb Bush and the struggling Establishment campaign of Hillary Clinton. The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics.

True as far as it goes, which is not far: He ignores the toxic effect of money, particularly corporate money, on Congress and statehouses, where fact-based action on issues ranging from climate change to education are stymied by corporate cash. And he continues to blame “hyperdemocracy” for our current problems:

But it is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.

Oh, please, Andy. Ronald Reagan, whom you so idolize, was the epitome of a shameless demagogue. (Tell me what in the pluperfect hell else kicking off one’s presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., is supposed to be besides a dog whistle to white racists.) And George H.W. Bush with his Willie Horton ads. And George W. Bush with his shameless cautions against “terra” after blatantly ignoring warnings that might have saved us from it. And Mitt Romney with his “job creators” and “job takers” bullshit. Hell, the only GOP presidential contender of the past 36 years who wasn’t a demagogue was Bob Dole in ’96, and even he ultimately, and desperately, caved on the topic of tax cuts in a vain effort to win an election he already had lost.

These candidates and presidents did nothing more or less than what the GOP in general has done for the past 50-plus years: They trafficked in racism, sexism, other forms of bigotry, xenophobia, voting restrictions, anti-elitism, and class warfare, all of which helped create the conditions in which we now find ourselves. Democracy didn’t create Trump; to the contrary, the GOP’s own antidemocratic tendencies did.

Sullivan also blames part of our current problems on the Internet, which, Andy, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the Internet did not create or cause “feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness.” They were always there, and one party, the GOP, has trafficked in them far more than the other. The narcissism that enables people to believe that their common sense trumps the informed opinion of disinterested researchers is almost exclusively a GOP product. Hell, Andy, it enables you to pose as historian and philosopher when you are neither. “Yes, occasional rational points still fly back and forth, but there are dramatically fewer elite arbiters to establish which of those points is actually true or valid or relevant,” Sullivan writes. “We have lost authoritative sources for even a common set of facts.”

What horseshit. We haven’t “lost” authoritative sources; the GOP has abandoned them when they didn’t serve the party’s purposes. Supply-side economics was exposed as a hoax by David Stockman within a year of Reagan’s taking office and confirmed as such by hundreds of economists since, but it remains a staple of GOP platforms from Greensboro to Raleigh to Washington. The scientific community is roughly 99.9% convinced that human activity is causing global warming; it is the Republicans who take money from the carbon industry (which has roughly 27 trillion reasons still in the ground to lie about this subject) to pretend there’s any question about it.

Where  Sullivan fails most greatly, however, is to blame “hyperdemocracy” for Trump without analyzing that without which Trump never could have become so popular: the GOP electorate. It is bigoted, obtuse, fact-averse, and often sociopathic. And how did it get that way? Because the GOP has spent the past 50 years encouraging it to be so. Sullivan grants that Trump has played a role in this —

Trump assiduously cultivated this image and took to reality television as a natural. Each week, for 14 seasons of The Apprentice, he would look someone in the eye and tell them, “You’re fired!” The conversation most humane bosses fear to have with an employee was something Trump clearly relished, and the cruelty became entertainment. In retrospect, it is clear he was training — both himself and his viewers. If you want to understand why a figure so widely disliked nonetheless powers toward the election as if he were approaching a reality-TV-show finale, look no further. His television tactics, as applied to presidential debates, wiped out rivals used to a different game. And all our reality-TV training has conditioned us to hope he’ll win — or at least stay in the game till the final round. In such a shame-free media environment, the assholes often win. In the end, you support them because they’re assholes.

— without acknowledging that it wasn’t just Trump, but the whole damned GOP, that built this Frankenstein’s monster of a voting base. And he doesn’t get to whine like a little bitch now that the monster has decided that it will make the decisions.

Sullivan to the contrary, it is not the pro-democratic and progressive movement that has given rise to Trump. That movement has expanded the rights of minorities, women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, even convicted felons, and in no instance has it given rise to demagoguery. Bernie Sanders has correctly identified real problems — problems affecting many people in the GOP base, for that matter — and while his solutions strike the media as outside the mainstream, they are hardly demagoguery. Indeed, they work well in some of the most successful democracies on the planet.

Having misused Plato, Sullivan goes on to misuse Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer:

In Eric Hoffer’s classic 1951 tract, The True Believer, he sketches the dynamics of a genuine mass movement. He was thinking of the upheavals in Europe in the first half of the century, but the book remains sobering, especially now. Hoffer’s core insight was to locate the source of all truly mass movements in a collective sense of acute frustration. Not despair, or revolt, or resignation — but frustration simmering with rage. Mass movements, he notes (as did Tocqueville centuries before him), rarely arise when oppression or misery is at its worst (say, 2009); they tend to appear when the worst is behind us but the future seems not so much better (say, 2016). It is when a recovery finally gathers speed and some improvement is tangible but not yet widespread that the anger begins to rise. After the suffering of recession or unemployment, and despite hard work with stagnant or dwindling pay, the future stretches ahead with relief just out of reach. When those who helped create the last recession face no consequences but renewed fabulous wealth, the anger reaches a crescendo.

The deeper, long-term reasons for today’s rage are not hard to find, although many of us elites have shamefully found ourselves able to ignore them. The jobs available to the working class no longer contain the kind of craftsmanship or satisfaction or meaning that can take the sting out of their low and stagnant wages. The once-familiar avenues for socialization — the church, the union hall, the VFW — have become less vibrant and social isolation more common. Global economic forces have pummeled blue-collar workers more relentlessly than almost any other segment of society, forcing them to compete against hundreds of millions of equally skilled workers throughout the planet. No one asked them in the 1990s if this was the future they wanted. And the impact has been more brutal than many economists predicted. No wonder suicide and mortality rates among the white working poor are spiking dramatically.

“It is usually those whose poverty is relatively recent, the ‘new poor,’ who throb with the ferment of frustration,” Hoffer argues. Fundamentalist religion long provided some emotional support for those left behind (for one thing, it invites practitioners to defy the elites as unholy), but its influence has waned as modernity has penetrated almost everything and the great culture wars of the 1990s and 2000s have ended in a rout. The result has been a more diverse mainstream culture — but also, simultaneously, a subculture that is even more alienated and despised, and ever more infuriated and bloody-minded.

This is an age in which a woman might succeed a black man as president, but also one in which a member of the white working class has declining options to make a decent living. This is a time when gay people can be married in 50 states, even as working-class families are hanging by a thread. It’s a period in which we have become far more aware of the historic injustices that still haunt African-Americans and yet we treat the desperate plight of today’s white working ­class as an afterthought. And so late-stage capitalism is creating a righteous, revolutionary anger that late-stage democracy has precious little ability to moderate or constrain — and has actually helped exacerbate.

For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome. This is just one aspect of what Trump has masterfully signaled as “political correctness” run amok, or what might be better described as the newly rigid progressive passion for racial and sexual equality of outcome, rather than the liberal aspiration to mere equality of opportunity.

Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.”

And so they wait, and they steam, and they lash out.

Not a word about how Republican policies of the past 35 years have, with occasional Democratic assistance, created this misery. Not a word about retrograde tax policies. Not a word about releasing the hounds of unfettered corporatism. Not a word about so-called free-trade treaties with toothless or nonexistent job protections or retraining measures. Not a word about Big Government spying. Not a word about ongoing, deadly racism and sexism. No, what we get is a Bizarro World in which the white working class is somehow the only victim, and these victims are being mocked by progressives. Whatever else voting for Bernie Sanders might mean, it also is a recognition of the white working class’s problems and an effort to bring about a means of fixing those problems, a possibility that never crosses Sullivan’s mind.

Again and again, Sullivan casts Trump as not a real Republican, as part of The Other and somehow a uniquely dangerous proposition:

And so after demonizing most undocumented Mexican immigrants, he then vowed to round up and deport all 11 million of them by force. “They have to go” was the typically blunt phrase he used — and somehow people didn’t immediately recognize the monstrous historical echoes.

Well, gee, Andy, that couldn’t possibly have been because the party has been saying only slightly milder variations of this very thing for 50 years, could it? That couldn’t possibly have been because almost every other Republican candidate in the whole damn Klown Kar was saying the same damn thing, could it?

Sullivan even insists that threats of violence are unique to Trump —

And while a critical element of 20th-century fascism — its organized street violence — is missing, you can begin to see it in embryonic form. The phalanx of bodyguards around Trump grows daily; plainclothes bouncers in the crowds have emerged as pseudo-cops to contain the incipient unrest his candidacy will only continue to provoke; supporters have attacked hecklers with sometimes stunning ferocity. Every time Trump legitimizes potential violence by his supporters by saying it comes from a love of country, he sows the seeds for serious civil unrest.

— apparently having forgotten that t-shirts bearing the words “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” were widely available years before Trump became a candidate.

And having misread Plato and Hoffer, Sullivan turns to Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here to suggest that “the elites” are to blame —

An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: “We Respectables” deserve a comeuppance.

— once again without pointing out that in almost every single instance, the problems of the “American elite” he’s talking about are overwhelmingly the fault of the GOP. The massive debt was caused primarily by the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the debt is now falling as a percentage of the economy and so is not as pressing a problem as it was), the failure to prevent 9/11 lies squarely with George W. Bush and his cabal, the hands-off attitude toward Big Finance was the direct, predictable, and predicted result of GOP deregulation in the ’90s, and the “bitter division” is actually unprecedented GOP obstructionism that began the night President Obama was elected.

Sullivan concludes as he began and continued, with a deluded implicit belief that the GOP somehow is not the problem:

… those Republicans desperately trying to use the long-standing rules of their own nominating process to thwart this monster deserve our passionate support, not our disdain. This is not the moment to remind them that they partly brought this on themselves. This is a moment to offer solidarity, especially as the odds are increasingly stacked against them. Ted Cruz and John Kasich face their decisive battle in Indiana on May 3. But they need to fight on, with any tactic at hand, all the way to the bitter end. The Republican delegates who are trying to protect their party from the whims of an outsider demagogue are, at this moment, doing what they ought to be doing to prevent civil and racial unrest, an international conflict, and a constitutional crisis. These GOP elites have every right to deploy whatever rules or procedural roadblocks they can muster, and they should refuse to be intimidated.

And if they fail in Indiana or Cleveland, as they likely will, they need, quite simply, to disown their party’s candidate. They should resist any temptation to loyally back the nominee or to sit this election out. They must take the fight to Trump at every opportunity, unite with Democrats and Independents against him, and be prepared to sacrifice one election in order to save their party and their country.

What universe is Sullivan living in? On what planet would the GOP actually stand up for the good of the nation and not simply fall in line behind Trump? Sullivan knows this. He’s not earnestly pleading with his party to do the right thing. He’s simply trying to save his own skin, hoping desperately that no one will notice that he has been one of the GOP’s most slavish apologists and defenders. Sorry, Andy, but come the revolution, you, too, are going up against the wall.

In short, Sullivan’s dishonesty is staggering, and the chutzpah that lets him believe he can fool people with this crap is breathtaking. But it is all of a piece with the Republican Party’s past 50 years of profoundly anti-democratic secrets and lies. The party built the electorate it wanted, and in a natural progression, that electorate has chosen the candidate it wanted. That candidate will win the nomination, and the party will fall in line behind it. And no matter what Sullivan, or David Brooks, or Chuck Todd, or any other Apostle of Both-Siderism has to say, America’s Democrats and independents had nothing to do with it. The fact that Sullivan can be well paid to suggest otherwise merely shows how willing — indeed, desperate — Americans are to mistake cunning for wisdom.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 12:19 pm

Why “Bernie or nothing” will kill us dead

If there’s anyone out there who seriously thinks there’s no difference between Hillary Clinton and the Republicans, just get over yourself right now.

We’re taught as kids that voting means choosing the person we think is best for the job. Unfortunately, what we’re too often faced with when we come of voting age is a choice between the lesser of two or more pretty evil evils. But you know what? That’s true in a lot of situations in life, not just electing a president. Adults deal with it and move on.

I was around in ’80 and ’00 and I saw the damage that “perfect or nothing” causes: It gave us Reagan and Bush 43, two of the three worst presidents of the postwar era. Moreover, as a result, I’ve spent my entire adult life cleaning up the messes created by people who think like you, and I’m damned tired of it. I’d like to play offense for a change — work for things, not just try to stave off, or clean up, disasters.

I voted for Bernie in the primary, but I’m going to vote for the Democratic nominee in November, no matter who it is, because ANY Republican in or currently contemplating the race would be an unqualified and unmitigated disaster. (Voting for third-party candidates like Jill Stein, nice and appealing as she is, is like voting for a Republican, too.) Hillary won’t deny anthropogenic global warming, and that difference alone could save millions of lives in coming years. Hillary will work for a saner gun policy, which also will save lives. And if nothing else, Hillary Clinton would not put a Sam Alito or a Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, and by God, that matters to anyone who doesn’t want to be pledging allegiance to MegaCorp or the Last Global Bank and the exploitation for which they stand.

Yes, Hillary is a huge letdown for people who believe in and voted, or plan to vote, for Bernie. But if you throw a snit fit over Hillary’s becoming the Democratic nominee, if in fact that’s what happens, your tantrum will have a body count.

 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016 6:15 pm

Unfortunately, racism probably is more durable than Whiggery

Here it is, Super Tuesday. And before the polls start to close, I wanted to say something that I hope to be wildly wrong on, but don’t expect to be.

A number of observers from a number of points along the political spectrum have suggested that nominating Donald Trump for president will be the end of the Republican Party. One in particular is Esquire’s political blogger, Charlie Pierce, who wrote today that the likelihood that Trump will emerge later tonight as the undisputed front-runner (if not nominee-apparent) — he’s likely to take seven of 11 states holding contested primaries today — will equate to the “implosion” of the GOP in much the same way the Whigs fell apart after the election of 1852.

I don’t follow this stuff as closely as Pierce, and I ain’t a political scientist. But I have been watching this stuff for almost 50 years now, and here’s what I think.

I don’t think the GOP is going anywhere, the fact that Pierce almost certainly is right about tonight’s results notwithstanding.

And the reason I don’t think the GOP is going anywhere is that Trump’s GOP constituency is racist, and I don’t think the racists in the party are going anywhere.

Wait, you say, not all Trump supporters are racist. And that’s probably true. Indeed, Trump’s supporters cross a wide variety of demographic lines: age, sex, rural/urban, education, and so forth.

But the one line they don’t cross is race. No, not all Trump supporters are racist, but the overwhelming majority of racists with a preference seem to prefer Trump. And that bloc has turned out to be larger than anyone, particularly pundits, thought.

And why would those people leave the GOP? After all, Trump didn’t just spring full-blown out of RNC chair Reince Priebus’s head. No, Trump is the natural outcome of a party that has been unashamedly racist in its whispers, sub-rosa appears and dog whistles, from Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in ’68 to the G.W. Bush campaigns rumormongering about the racial provenance of Sen. John McCain’s offspring during the 2000 Republican primary to the “voter ID” (read: vote suppression) campaigns post-2010.

Racism is where the Republican Party has dined for the past half-century. All Donald Trump has done is say that shit right out loud where God, pundits, and everybody else could hear it.

No, the GOP ain’t going anywhere because the racists aren’t going anywhere, and they’re the heart and soul of the party right now, as the (lack of) response to Trump’s non-rejection of Klansman David Duke’s endorsement shows. But the thing is? Most of the non-racists in the GOP aren’t going anywhere either. For one thing, they’ve got no place to go. For another, even if they did, as the old saying goes, in politics, Democrats fall in love but Republicans fall in line. Slightly more scientifically, Republicans, and Trump supporters in particular, tend toward the authoritarian. No other political institution gives them the top-down control they crave.

So there it is. As devoutly as the implosion of the current GOP is to be wished, it’s not happening tonight, it’s not happening this year, and whether Trump wins or loses in November, it’s not happening anytime soon. The reason, though too often unspoken, is obvious, and intractable. Like it or not, we’re stuck with this shit, and with the GOP as an institution, until a lot more bigoted Americans die.

 

Sunday, August 30, 2015 6:35 am

New Orleans 10 years after Hurricane Katrina

When you need an elegy, always hire an Irish poet.

Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce:

All archaeology is about layers, one city laid atop the others, as though civilization were coming from deep in the earth and piling itself up toward the sky. In the late nineteenth century, when the German adventurer and archaeologist—and part-time fantast—Heinrich Schliemann went looking for the city of Troy, he found eleven of them, one atop another. At one level, Schliemann found a cache of gold and jewelry that he pronounced to be the treasure of Priam, the king of Troy at the time of the events of the Iliad. He was wrong. The gold had been found at what later was determined to be only Troy II. It is popularly believed now that Troy VII was the site of the war about which Homer wrote. There are bronze arrowheads there, and skeletons bearing the marks of hor-rendous injuries, and there is evidence of a great fire. What Schliemann wrote when he first made his discoveries there has held remarkably true for all the layers of Troy that have been unearthed since then:

“I have proved that in a remote antiquity there was in the Plain of Troy a large city, destroyed of old by a fearful catastrophe, which had on the hill of Hissarlik only its Acropolis, with its temples and a few other large edifices, whilst its lower city extended in an easterly, southerly, and westerly direction, on the site of the later Ilium; and that, consequently, this city answers perfectly to the Homeric description of the sacred site of Ilios.”

There is an archaeology to human lives, too, and it is very much the same. Human lives have layers, one atop the other, as though the individual were rising from the dust of creation toward the stars. Some of the layers show nothing much at all. Some of them, like the dark layers at Troy that indicate a vast fire, show that something very important happened to the lives in question. Hurricane Katrina, and all of the myriad events surrounding it, both good and bad, is that vast, sweeping layer within the lives of the people of New Orleans. Almost fifteen hundred people died. There was $100 billion in damage. The levees failed. The city flooded. The city, state, and federal governments failed even worse than the levees did. It was estimated in 2006 that four hundred thousand people were displaced from the city; an estimated one hundred thousand of them never returned. Parts of the city recovered. Parts of the city were rebuilt. Parts of the city gleam now brighter than they ever did. There will be parades on the anniversary of the storm because there are things in the city to celebrate, but it is the tradition in this city that the music doesn’t lively up and the parade really doesn’t start until the departed has been laid to rest, until what is lost is counted, and until the memories are stored away. Only then does the music swing the way the music is supposed to sound. Only then do they begin to parade.

There will be some joy in the tenth-anniversary celebration because of this, but the storm is there in everyone, a dark layer in the archaeology of their lives. For some people, it is buried deeply enough to be forgotten. For others, the people who live in the places that do not gleam and that are not new, it is closer to the surface. A lot of the recovery is due to what author Naomi Klein refers to as “disaster capitalism.” The city has been reconfigured according to radically different political imperatives—in its schools and its housing and the general relationship of the people to their city and state governments. Many of them felt their lives taken over by anonymous forces as implacable as the storm was. There will be some sadness in the tenth anniversary because of this, fresh memories of old wounds, a sense of looming and ongoing loss. The storm is the dark layer in all the lives. And because it is, the storm is what unites them still, like that burned layer of Troy.

It is what connects the memory of [New Orleans police officer] Daryle Holloway to that of [Dr.] Bennett deBoisblanc, both of whom worked to save lives at Charity Hospital, which is now closed, never to reopen. It connects them all, this dark layer in the deep strata of their lives. It connects Charity Hospital to the Lower Ninth Ward in the life of Irma Mosley, who was born at Charity fifty-four years ago and who now works at a community center in the Lower Ninth. It is on St. Claude Avenue, not far from where Daryle Holloway, whose mother worked at Charity, was shot and killed.

 

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