Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 8:20 pm

Rachel Maddow and Trump’s 2005 tax return (redux)

Immediately after Rachel Maddow’s show ended last night on MSNBC, I jotted down a few thoughts on Facebook, which follow:

1) Maddow tweeted she had “returns,” plural. That implied she had both full returns and multiple years. Neither was true.

2) We learned not much substantive from one year’s 2-page Form 1040. Without the schedules, we don’t know WHERE he got his income, which is much the more important question.

3) The long intro at the top of the show ground on a lot of people’s nerves, including mine, and for people who don’t watch Maddow regularly it probably was almost unwatchable. But she often has long intros that serve valuable purposes. In this case, it was valuable for two reasons: to provide background to low-info viewers, and to suggest future avenues of inquiry for other reporters.

All of that said, this was a 30-minute segment that someone unwisely stretched into an hour.

4) It’s a start. It’s a bloody start.

I had more thoughts, but I also wanted to go to bed, so I did. The additional thoughts follow, in no particular order:

While I’m sure MSNBC scored high if not record viewership on Maddow’s show last night, it did so at the cost of a big chunk of its credibility. It grossly overhyped what it had in terms of substance. Although Maddow (or the $25,000-a-year production assistant who actually runs her Twitter account) tweeted only twice before the show started, as noted in Point 1 above, even she implied that she had more substance than she really did. Maddow’s unspoken schtick has been that her show isn’t like the rest of cable news. That schtick took some big hits below the waterline last night.

Although I am not confident that Johnston’s source for his copy of the Form 1040 was Trump himself, as Johnston suggested it might have been, the two pages almost certainly were sent to him with Trump’s knowledge. (Johnston explains here how he got the return.) It smacked of what the Watergate-era Nixon folks called a “limited, modified hangout,” meaning they would admit to the absolute minimum truth that they could admit to without further damaging themselves. Because, after all, what did we learn about this? Trump earned about $153 million and paid about $37 million in taxes. Those numbers aren’t abnormal for people presumed to be rich. So for a lot of low-info viewers and voters, this release was the equivalent of Trump saying, “Here, see? There’s no THERE there! Lying media! Fake news! Thorax!” And a lot of those people will believe that. (More in a bit on what else we learned, most of which will fly over the heads of low-info viewers despite Maddow’s best efforts.)

Johnston’s own reporting on the Form 1040 is much less breathless and more substantive. Among his findings and observations:

  • “Donald Trump was paid that year like a member of the 0.001%, but he paid taxes like the 99%. And by at least one measure, he paid like the bottom 50%.”
  • “There is one clear expense, however, that can be discerned because portions of Trump’s 1995 state tax returns became public last fall. Trump got out of repaying nearly $1 billion he borrowed for his failed casino business. When you don’t repay a loan Congress says that money is income and you owe taxes on it immediately. Instead, Trump made use of an abusive tax shelter that Congress soon closed to newcomers. Like magic, the tax shelter converted what should have been a tax bill of about $360 million into future tax breaks. Ten years later, on his 2005 return, Trump was still saving tax dollars thanks to that tax shelter.”

Johnston also finds that the only reason Trump paid as much in income taxes as he did was because of the Alternative Minimum Tax, which he has said he wants Congress to abolish — a move from which he would benefit directly. And, he says, the return tells us more about the $916 million tax write-off contained in his previously-released 1995 state tax return — the write-off that led to suspicions that Trump had paid no income taxes for 18 years thereafter. Johnston explains it like this:

To understand the Trump tax returns it’s important to realize that America has two income tax systems. The regular income tax was supplemented by a parallel tax system, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, called the Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT.

How these two systems interact is central to understanding the Trumps’ taxes.

Viewed in terms of the regular federal income tax system, here is what Trump did:

Trump reported $152.7 million of income. He also reported $103.2 million of negative income, the remainder of the roughly $918 million tax shelter he bought in 1995. That deal was disclosed earlier in three summary pages of his 1995 Connecticut, New York and New Jersey state income-tax returns.

That Trump had only $103 million of his $918 million tax shelter left in 2005 also tells us something about his past income. Using up the other $815 million of negative income in the tax shelter indicates that he earned an average of $81.5 million annually during the 10 years from 1995 through 2004.

Deducting the negative income lowered Trump’s adjusted gross income or AGI to $48.6 million. AGI is the last figure on the bottom of the front page of a federal tax return.

From that, the Trumps took $17 million in itemized deductions, which are not specified. That left  $31.6 million of taxable income.

The Trumps paid just $5.3 million of regular federal income tax. Measured against their cash income of almost $153 million their federal income tax rate was 3.48%.

That figure is slightly lower than the tax rate paid by the poorest half of Americans. The half of taxpayers whose income was less than $33,485 that year paid 3.51% of their money in federal income taxes.

Trump’s total federal tax bill was larger, though, because of the Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT.

The President, in writing, has called for eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax. Now we know one reason why—he lives like a king, but wants to pay taxes like a Walmart cashier.

All high-income Americans must calculate both their regular income tax and their AMT income tax and pay whichever is larger.

Most of that $103 million of negative income was ignored under the AMT, which meant that for tax purposes Trump’s income was larger than under the regular system.

The Trump income subject to AMT was $111.7 million, according to Daniel Shaviro, a New York University law professor who as a Congressional staffer helped draft the AMT three decades ago.

The Trumps paid $31.3 million in AMT which, together with the regular tax, made their total federal income tax $36.6 million.

Viewed in terms of their positive income of almost $153 million the total Trump tax bill came to 24%. That’s in the range paid by two-income career couples who both work all year to earn about $400,000. The Trumps income was $418,460 per day.

So Trump is, to be kind, manipulating the tax system to pay a lot less tax than a person earning as much as he might be expected to pay. But you know what? A lot of rich people do that. It shouldn’t be legal, but it is, and it probably always will be as long as rich people are the only ones writing the tax code.

Still, this wasn’t a non-story. Seth Abramson, in this thread on Twitter, wrote last night that we actually learned some other important things:

  • We got confirmation that Trump has been lying about not being able to release his 2005 and other returns because they’re being audited.
  • We therefore have reason to believe that if the White House has reason to think other returns might be released soon, it may do so on its own.
  • Someone, somewhere who had access to at least some part of Trump’s tax returns was able and willing to send them to a reporter, with or without Trump’s knowledge. (And I would add that he knew to send them to Johnston, perhaps the most qualified reporter on the planet to address them.)
  • Maddow’s and Johnston’s publication of the return proves that the press is willing and able to publish the material despite allegations that doing so is illegal. (The 1971 Supreme Court case on the Pentagon Papers backs this up, by the way.)
  • Trump made only $150 million or so in 2005 despite the housing market’s still being way up at that point. (I have said all along that Trump’s claim of a $10 billion net worth is bullshit; Abramson thinks this return confirms my suspicions.)
  • Trump may have lied to the FEC at some point, which would be a crime. (Maddow touched on this too last night, but I admit she was talking so fast I wasn’t clear on the details.)
  • The White House now has a “tell” that the press and public can use to gauge its responses to any future revelations regarding Trump’s taxes: “The WH’s willingness to talk about this return sets a standard we can use later on if/when the WH balks at discussing other returns. Indeed, the moment the WH reacts differently to the possible release of a tax return than it did tonight, we’ll know something’s up.”

One last thing: My friend Dan Romuald wonders whether the White House might have made a copy of this one particularly nonthreatening 1040 available to certain White House staffers suspected of leaking to the press, to see whether they could catch a leaker in the act. That, too, is possible and would not be out of character for this administration. I like my modified-limited-hangout scenario better. But that’s just a gut feeling. I could be wrong.

So where do we go from here? In search of more tax returns — the whole things, not just the two-page summaries. I would not encourage anyone to do anything illegal to get them, but in the unlikely event Congress gets sufficiently incensed, that wouldn’t be necessary: Congress, as we saw during the Clinton and Obama years, can subpoena anything it damn well pleases and probably get it. And if more news outlets get returns in their mailboxes with no return addresses, they need to publish them (after verifying their authenticity, of course). It’s perfectly legal and it would be a huge public service.

Because at the end of the day, there’s still a huge question hanging over this country: To what extent do our so-called president’s financial and political ties to the Russians allow Russia undue influence over American policy? Keep in mind that 1) for all Trump’s praise, Vladimir Putin is and always has been a dictatorial, murdering fuckhead (to quote Eddie Izzard), and 2) the Russian government, the Russian banks and the Russian Mafia are all pretty much the same thing.

Trump’s tax returns — in full, all of them — would be the quickest, easiest way to answer that overarching question. And I’m not the only one willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that that’s why he has been keeping them hidden.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Monday, January 30, 2017 6:48 pm

A fledgling coup?

Scary, and illegal, as Donald Trump’s executive order limiting immigration was, it was still a conventional policy initiative.

But there was nothing conventional — or legal, or constitutional — about what happened after a federal judge, Ann Donnelly in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, issued a ruling on the order. (A federal judge in Alexandria, Leonie Brinkema, later issued a similar ruling in a similar action on behalf of some people who were detained upon arrival at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. Brinkema’s order went further than Donnelly’s, mandating that those people at Dulles be allowed to talk with lawyers.)

Customs and Border Patrol agents kept stopping and preventing people covered by the executive order from entering the United States, detaining them in direct violation of the judges’ orders. CBP agents at Dulles, informed by representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union that the detainees were entitled to legal counsel, responded, “That’s not happening.”

That means one of two things: Either the judges will hold a federal official, likely someone with CBP, in contempt, or the rule of law is dead in this country. And I’m not sure even a contempt citation with actual jail time would convince the Trumpites not to do what they’re doing.

As Yonatan Zunger writes at Medium:

That is to say, the administration is testing the extent to which the [Department of Homeland Security] (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored.

Zunger asks whether this is the beginnings of a coup. When executive-branch officials directly disobey a federal judge’s orders, I think the answer is probably yes.

The judges’ rulings empower the U.S. Marshal’s Service to enforce those rulings. Were I Judge Donnelly or Judge Brinkema, I’d have whoever was overseeing the CBP at JFK Airport and Dulles, respectively, in jail, and possibly higher-ups as well.

And even if the judges did that, I don’t know whether it would be enough. I honestly do not believe the Trumpites are going to stop until they are forced to. And it is clear that the Republican Party in Congress, supposedly a check on executive power, does not have the will to force them to.

And if that didn’t bug you, consider this: Steve Bannon, the unreconstructed Nazi who is now Trump’s top advisor, has been given a seat on the National Security Council — and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s top military officer, has been booted out of the group.

My friend David Gwynn said this on Facebook:

Steve Bannon is basically your crazy alcoholic uncle who lives in a broken down trailer on the outskirts of Merced. And he tells the President what to do. This should frighten just about everyone.

This is true, but it’s even more appalling, as Gail Young posted in the Facebook group Indivisible Concord:

Bannon has no government, intelligence, or high-level military experience; his experience is leading a propaganda outlet (Breitbart News) that peddles nationalist and white nationalist viewpoints.

This would be deeply concerning in and of itself. But one of the jobs of the NSC is to oversee a secret panel that authorizes the assassination of “enemies of the United States Government” – including American citizens. These targeted killings are fully authorized by law under the Congressional military authorization act following 9/11. There is no trial, no due process, and no public record of the decision or the assassination itself.

Just to recap the absurdity: the President of the United States has appointed a known propagandist, nationalist, and white supremacist to replace the highest military advisor in the country on a council that authorizes secret, legal, targeted killings of American citizens (and others) without due process.

And if you’re thinking, “Oh, they’d never do that to a U.S. citizen,” well, they already did, when President Obama ordered the extrajudicial assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. I said at the time that Obama should have been impeached for it.

So, you folks who like to say, “If I’d been there back then, I’d’ve …,” here we are. It’s time to do whatever you would have done.

UPDATE, 8:06 p.m. 1/30: A federal judge in Los Angeles, apparently annoyed that ICE deported a man in violation of HIS order, has ordered ICE to go bring him back, per the L.A. Times. That’s good, but holding some people in contempt, too, would’ve been better.

UPDATE, 9:35 p.m. 1/30: Earlier today, Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, announced that the Justice Department would not defend Trump’s executive order on immigration in court. A few minutes ago, Trump fired her. He said in his statement that she had “betrayed the Department of Justice.” This is, of course, bullshit of the purest ray serene. She swore an oath to uphold the Constitution — not the Justice Department or any president or administration — and that’s what she did.

Trump and Bannon are basically claiming that they are the Constitution. This is officially the biggest constitutional crisis since Iran-contra, if not the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre.

UPDATE, 8 a.m. 1/31: Steve Benen at MSNBC reminds us of some fairly recent history. Scene: Sally Yates’s confirmation hearing in March 2015 after being nominated to the post of deputy attorney general:

At the time, none other than Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), now Trump’s nominee to be attorney general, reminded Yates that she’ll have to be prepared to stand up to the White House should a president urge her to do something she considers unlawful. From the transcript:

SESSIONS: Well. you have to watch out, because people will be asking you to do things you just need to say ‘no’ about. Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that’s improper? [„,] If the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?

YATES: Senator, I believe the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and to give their independent legal advice to the president.

Two years later, Yates did as she promised. For her trouble, Donald Trump fired her and accused her of “betraying” the Justice Department.

History will remember only one of them kindly.

Monday, January 23, 2017 10:38 pm

How the media should strike back

On Saturday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held the first “press conference” of the new administration. Only it wasn’t a press conference, or anything more than a tantrum, really. As Dan Gillmor wrote for Slate [disclosure: I hosted Gillmor when he spoke at the News & Record in 2005], “Press secretaries almost always alienate White House reporters, but typically that takes a while. Spicer took care of it on his first full day in the job by spouting demonstrable untruths about the inauguration audience even as he lambasted the press.”

He kept reporters waiting for more than an hour. Then he read a vitriolic screed in which he falsely insisted that the news media had deliberately understated attendance at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Then he excoriated the press. And then he left without taking questions. Watch:

There are several things going on here.

First, he’s lying about the crowd size.

Second, he’s claiming that the administration refuses to be held accountable by the news media, despite that having been the media’s role since the framing of the Bill of Rights.

Third, he’s refusing even to take questions, let alone allow response to his unreasoning accusations against the media.

Why is he doing all this? I don’t know what’s in Spicer’s head, let alone in the heads of his bosses, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Trump himself. But here is what I believe: He’s doing it not because he actually thinks he’s right, but because he’s trying to create a media atmosphere in which readers/viewers simply conclude that there IS no objective truth, that the truth is not knowable, and that therefore the media cannot and should not be believed. In such an atmosphere, a government leader may act, and even do terrible things, secure in the knowledge that the public will not hold him accountable because he can simply say that whatever the media claims about him never happened. And people will either believe that it never happened or they will shrug and conclude that there’s  no way ever to know and so there’s nothing that can be done.

Then, on Sunday morning, administration spokesflack Kellyanne Conway insisted to NBC’s Chuck Todd that what Trump and Spicer were saying about Friday’s attendance numbers were “alternative facts.” Counting on Chuck Todd to do the right thing where Republicans are involved is almost always a fool’s game, but on this day he pretty much did the right thing, pointing out to Conway that her “alternative facts” were actually “falsehoods.” I wish he, and NBC generally, would learn to call these things “lies,” as CNN did in its chyron on the same subject:

cnnaltfacts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We continue.

What the Trump administration wants to do to objective knowledge is not only, a short, wide road to dictatorship and atrocities, it’s also incredibly dangerous. Forget such issues as foreign relations (and tricky negotiations about nuclear weapons), that hurricane off the coast is going to strike somewhere, sometime, whether you say it is or not.

So, kind of a big deal. What can the news media do about this?

I don’t have all the answers, but I know where they can start: Trump and his administration want to make the news media their bitch, and the media simply should not allow that to happen.

At the White House, I suggest two parallel steps: 1) The media can inform Priebus that their reader/viewer mindsharer is off-limits, live or otherwise, to such inveterate liars as Spicer and Conway. They can tell Priebus that he simply will have to pick someone to speak on behalf of the president who is not an inveterate liar. I neither know nor care whether Priebus/Trump would even try to do such a thing, so I also suggest 2) that news media simply abandon, for all intents and purposes, its presence in the White House and go elsewhere after different kinds of stories: enterprise and investigative stories that will show what is actually happening in the administration, what policies are being formulated, and what the effects of those policies on everyday people. And then only contact the White House for comment on those stories when they are completed and ready to be broadcast with or without official comment.

Spicer has said he intends to “hold the press accountable.” The only problem with that is that this is America, not Russia. In America, the press holds the administration accountable, whether that whiny liar likes it or not, and if he doesn’t like it, I’m sure Vlad Putin is hiring.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University (disclosure: I was on a panel with him once about a decade ago) posted today on this subject and offered his own suggestions, including:

When I say #sendtheinterns I mean it literally: take a bold decision to put your most junior people in the briefing room. Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden. That’s why the experienced reporters need to be taken out of the White House, and put on other assignments.

Look: they can’t visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up. The dream of the White House briefing room and the Presidential press conference is that accountability can be transacted in dramatic and televisable moments: the perfect question that puts the President or his designate on the spot, and lets the public see — as if in a flash — who they are led by. This was always an illusion. Crumbling for decades, it has become comically unsustainable under Trump.

He elaborates:

“Send the interns” means our major news organizations don’t have to cooperate with [what Spicer is trying to do]. They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props. They need not televise the spectacle live (CNN didn’t carry Spicer’s rant) and they don’t have to send their top people to it.

They can “switch” systems: from inside-out, where access to the White House starts the story engines, to outside-in, where the action begins on the rim, in the agencies, around the committees, with the people who are supposed to obey Trump but have doubts. As I wrote on December 30:

During the Trump campaign who had better access: The reporters in the media pen, or those who got tickets and moved with the rest of the crowd? Were the news organizations on the blacklist really at a disadvantage? I can hear the reply. We need both: inside and outside. Fine, do both. My point is: outside-in can become the baseline method, and inside-out the occasionally useful variant. Switch it up. Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim.

How likely is this to happen? Not very, if one Twitter exchange Rosen had with a New York Times reporter is any indication. (Although, as you’ll see if you read on down the thread, it didn’t work out too well for the reporter.)

If you don’t want to take my word for it, or Rosen’s, you might want to take the word of Russian journalilst Alexey Kovalev, who has learned about covering Trump by covering Vladimir Putin, Trump’s BFF:

Welcome to the era of bullshit

Facts don’t matter. You can’t hurt this man with facts or reason. He’ll always outmaneuver you. He’ll always wriggle out of whatever carefully crafted verbal trap you lay for him. Whatever he says, you won’t be able to challenge him. He always comes with a bag of meaningless factoids (Putin likes to drown questions he doesn’t like in dull, unverifiable stats, figures and percentages), platitudes, examples of false moral equivalence, and straight, undiluted bullshit. He knows it’s a one-way communication, not an interview. You can’t follow up on your questions or challenge him. So he can throw whatever he wants at you in response, and you’ll just have to swallow it. …

Don’t expect any camaraderie

These people are not your partners or brothers in arms. They are your rivals in a fiercely competitive, crashing market and right now the only currency in this market is whatever that man on the stage says. Whoever is lucky to ask a question and be the first to transmit the answer to the outside world wins. Don’t expect any solidarity or support from them. If your question is stonewalled/mocked down/ignored, don’t expect a rival publication to pick up the banner and follow-up on your behalf. It’s in this man’s best interests to pit you against each other, fighting over artificial scarcities like room space, mic time or, of course, his attention.

This is particularly the case in Russia, where Putin holds an annual news conference, four hours or more in length and attended by journalists from across Russia. We can hope, at least, that journalists covering the White House, a smaller cohort whose members generally see each other every day, can come to a common agreement on how and how not to cover the Trump White House. Even better, we can lobby our news outlets on how and how not to do it, just as Rosen, whose work is widely read in the news industry, is doing now. More from Kovalev:

Expect a lot of sycophancy and soft balls from your “colleagues”

A mainstay of Putin’s press conferences is, of course, softball questions. Which also happen to be Putin’s favorites. Mr. President, is there love in your heart? Who you will be celebrating New Year’s Eve with? What’s your favorite food? “Questions” of this sort, sure to melt Putin’s heart … A subtype of this is also statements-as-questions, but from people who really love the man on the stage and will bob their head and look at the stage adoringly and say something to the tune of “Mr. President, do you agree that a lot of media are treating you unfairly?”

You’re always losing

This man owns you. He understands perfectly well that he is the news. You can’t ignore him. You’re always playing by his rules — which he can change at any time without any notice. You can’t — in Putin’s case — campaign to vote him out of office. Your readership is dwindling because ad budgets are shrinking — while his ratings are soaring, and if you want to keep your publication afloat, you’ll have to report on everything that man says as soon as he says it, without any analysis or fact-checking, because 1) his fans will not care if he lies to their faces; 2) while you’re busy picking his lies apart, he’ll spit out another mountain of bullshit and you’ll be buried under it.

That final point is essential and echoes mine and Rosen’s: You can’t win Trump and Spicer’s game, so don’t even start to play it.

Gillmor also recommends:

  • Don’t air live press conferences or other events featuring known liars. And don’t live-tweet them either except to document the lies. As Gillmor points out, tweets are like headlines, and many readers don’t read past the headlines.
  • With this administration, assume deceit well beyond the “normal skepticism” of journalists.
  • Always, always, call lies lies in the headline and top of the story — again, because so many readers never read past that, but also because simply repeating the untrue statement, even as pure stenography, helps reinforce it in the minds of readers/views.
  • Try to determine whether the “story” is news in and of itself, or whether (like so many of Trump’s tweets) it’s an attempt to divert media attention away from other news that makes the administration look bad.

Gillmor concludes:

… journalists now realize that the new president and his senior staff view the press in the way all authoritarians see real journalism: not a vital part of a functioning system of government. Not a sometimes annoying collection of insecure people who would rather watch the action than join it. Not even an occasional adversary.

No, for Trump, the press is truly part of the enemy—the people and institutions who might challenge his unfettered right to say and do exactly what he pleases, publicly or in secret, in the most powerful job on the planet.

Please, journalists: Act accordingly.

hope they realize that. I pray they do. And I hope and pray that they will be smart and brave enough not to play Trump’s game. Because nothing is riding on that except the future of our democratic republic.

Finally, if journalists are successful, will Trump’s supporters pitch a bitch about this? Wrong question; Trump’s supporters will pitch a bitch about this whether journalists are successful or not. A nontrivial minority of Americans already are inclined to believe both that anything Trump says is true and that anything the news media say is false. Fuck their feelings. Real journalists and the rest of us are going to have to save freedom in spite of them, just as we won freedom from Britain in spite of people like them, so let’s get started.

 

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.

 

 

Lindy West, Gamergate, and the alt-right Nazis

Feminist writer and educator Lindy West quit Twitter today because Nazis:

Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.

 

That wasn’t why she quit though, or wasn’t what prompted her to pull the trigger. No, that was something rather more than personal:

I hate to disappoint anyone, but the breaking point for me wasn’t the trolls themselves (if I have learned anything from the dark side of Twitter, it is how to feel nothing when a frog calls you a cunt) – it was the global repercussions of Twitter’s refusal to stop them. The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad”, and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.

On 29 December, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted: “What’s the most important thing you want to see Twitter improve or create in 2017?” One user responded: “Comprehensive plan for getting rid of the Nazis.”

“We’ve been working on our policies and controls,” Dorsey replied. “What’s the next most critical thing?” Oh, what’s our second-highest priority after Nazis? I’d say No 2 is also Nazis. And No 3. In fact, you can just go ahead and slide “Nazis” into the top 100 spots. Get back to me when your website isn’t a roiling rat-king of Nazis. Nazis are bad, you see?

Well, yes, Nazis* are bad, and Twitter isn’t the only medium or social medium wrestling with what, exactly, to do about that. Still, Twitter has been almost unique in its ratio of encouraging talk to gross inaction. And I suspect that, as with most problems, it probably comes down to money.

What I mean by that is this. I’ve been online in various ways for going on 30 years, and in all that time I have yet to see an online community that wasn’t ruined by, for lack of a better term, trolls in the absence of moderators. (For the first decade or so of my life online, I wasn’t convinced moderators were necessary; not for the first time, I admit I was wrong.) But moderating takes time, and time takes money, and over its life as a public company (i.e., since late 2013), Twitter has, per generally accepted accounting principles, never made money. Since its 2006 founding, it has burned through more than $2 billion. And its user growth has slowed to the point at which near- to medium-term profits look unlikely.

More to the point, though, CEO Jack Dorsey has never said anything publicly that suggests to me that he truly understands that he has a problem. But he does. As Leigh Alexander (no relation) wrote in the context of Gamergate, “When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.”

Dorsey, his executives and his board absolutely have a moral obligation to users of their service not to let that service become a sinkhole of Nazi shit. And for a lot of people who don’t look like me — a cishet middle-aged, white, until-recently-Republican male — it already is.

Moreover, I would argue that they have an obligation to their shareholders not to let the service become a sinkhole of Nazi shit, because while that might give you a profitable quarter or two, it spells doom for the business’s long-term financial interests and those of its shareholders.

And, finally, I would argue that they have an obligation to the public in general, in the U.S. and abroad, not to allow their service to become a sinkhole of Nazi shit because Nazi shit is gaining popularity and causing problems around the world. It is competing with Vlad Putin right now as the No. 1 danger to small-l liberal democracy worldwide. And it should be denied any foothold it attempts to seek. Twitter isn’t just a medium anymore; it’s also an organizing and fundraising tool. Dorsey et al. need to deny its benefits to Nazis and their backers.

And it’s especially important to do so here in the U.S., where an illegitimate president-elect is backed by Nazis. As an article a month ago in the Guardian by Matt Lees explains, what happened in Gamergate absolutely predicted what has happened in the past year, and is happening now, with Donald Trump:

The similarities between Gamergate and the far-right online movement, the “alt-right”, are huge, startling and in no way a coincidence. After all, the culture war that began in games now has a senior representative in The White House. As a founder member and former executive chair of Brietbart News, Steve Bannon had a hand in creating media monster Milo Yiannopoulos, who built his fame and Twitter following by supporting and cheerleading Gamergate. This hashtag was the canary in the coalmine, and we ignored it. …

n 2014, the media’s reaction was often weak or overtly conciliatory – some sites went out of their way to “see both sides”, to reassure people that openly choosing to be affiliated with a hate group did not make them in any way responsible for that hate. Olive branches were extended, but professional lives continued to be ruined while lukewarm op-eds asked for us to come together so we could start “healing”. The motivations may have been sound, but it’s the language Trump and his supporters have used post-election to obliterate dissenting voices.

In 2016, new wave conservative media outlets like Breitbart have gained trust with their audience by painting traditional news sources as snooty and aloof. In 2014, video game YouTube stars, seeking to appear in touch with online gaming communities, unscrupulously proclaimed that traditional old-media sources were corrupt.

Everything we’re seeing now, had its precedent two years ago. …

Looking back, Gamergate really only made sense in one way: as an exemplar of what Umberto Eco called “eternal fascism”, a form of extremism he believed could flourish at any point in, in any place – a fascism that would extol traditional values, rally against diversity and cultural critics, believe in the value of action above thought and encourage a distrust of intellectuals or experts – a fascism built on frustration and machismo. The requirement of this formless fascism would – above all else – be to remain in an endless state of conflict, a fight against a foe who must always be portrayed as impossibly strong and laughably weak. This was the methodology of Gamergate, and it now forms the basis of the contemporary far-right movement.

We have no idea where this will lead, but our continued insistence on shrugging off the problems of the internet as “not real” – as something we can just log out of – is increasingly misled. 2016 has presented us with a world in which our reality is being wilfully manipulated. Fake news, divisive algorithms, misleading social media campaigns. The majority of people who voted for Trump will never take responsibility for his racist, totalitarian policies, but they’ll provide useful cover and legitimacy for those who demand the very worst from the President Elect. Trump himself may have disavowed the “alt-right”, but his rhetoric has led to them feeling legitimised. As with Gamergate, the press risks being manipulated into a position where it has to tread a respectful middle ground that doesn’t really exist.

Prominent critics of the Trump administration need to learn from Gamergate. They need to be preparedforabuse, for falsified concerns, invented grassroots campaigns designed specifically to break, belittle, or disgrace. Words and concepts will be twisted, repackaged and shared across forums, stripping them of meaning. Gamergate painted critics as censors, the far-right movement claims critics are the real racists.

Perhaps the true lesson of Gamergate was that the media is culturally unequipped to deal with the forces actively driving these online movements. The situation was horrifying enough two years ago, it is many times more dangerous now.

Obviously, Jack Dorsey and Twitter aren’t responsible for all of this. But within his own lane, Dorsey and the organization he leads have an obligation to the service’s users and their fellow Americans to run a service that, if it doesn’t facilitate the best that America on the Internet can be, at least doesn’t allow the worst to prey on everyone else.

 

*In this post, and on this blog generally, I do not use the term “alt-right.” That’s Orwellian nonsense. These people are Nazis, just as their dads were when I was covering the Klan and other right-wing white-nationalist groups back in the ’80s. They’re not even “neo-Nazis”; there’s nothing neo- about them.

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.)

Thursday, November 24, 2016 12:34 am

The presidential election was stolen

Second in a series (first installment here)

One way or another, and maybe in more ways than one, the 2016 U.S. presidential election was stolen. There are several ways it could have happened — not did happen, but could have happened — so let’s look at them first.

We’ll start with FBI director James Comey’s late-October announcement that investigators were examining “additional evidence concerning Clinton’s use of a private email server.” And if we’re going to start there, we need to look at the context of that issue.

Yes, it was a dumb goddamned thing to do for Clinton to have used a private email server for government business. But some of her predecessors had done the same, including Colin Powell under President George W. Bush. And the W. Bush White House ran tens of millions of emails through a private server at the Republican National Committee without many complaints from the media or any complaints from Republicans. Meanwhile, Republicans conducted multiple congressional investigations in hopes of finding evidence of a crime, as did the FBI itself. And what did they all come up with? Bupkus.

Still, Comey’s 11th-hour announcement did affect Clinton’s standing in the polls:

An ABC/Washington Post tracking survey released Sunday [Oct. 30], conducted both before and after Comey’s letter was made public on Friday, found that about one-third of likely voters, including 7 percent of Clinton supporters, said the new e-mail revelations made them less likely to support the former secretary of state.

The poll found that Clinton received support from 46 percent of likely voters to Trump’s 45 percent, suggesting the race is a toss-up. That contrasts with the 12-point advantage that Clinton held in the same poll a week ago.

And what Comey did wasn’t just damaging, it was also wrong. He caught hell from some of his Justice Department colleagues for having spoken out so close to the election on a matter likely to influence it (such matters usually aren’t supposed to be discussed by federal investigators or prosecutors within 60 days of an election):

“I got a lot of respect for Jim Comey, but I don’t understand this idea of dropping this bombshell which could be a big dud,” said former federal prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg, a veteran of politically sensitive investigations. “Doing it in the last week or 10 days of a presidential election without more information, I don’t think that he should because how does it inform a voter? It just invites speculation … I would question the timing of it. It’s not going to get done in a week.”

Nick Akerman, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, was more critical: “Director Comey acted totally inappropriately. He had no business writing to Congress about supposed new emails that neither he nor anyone in the FBI has ever reviewed.”

“It is not the function of the FBI director to be making public pronouncements about an investigation, never mind about an investigation based on evidence that he acknowledges may not be significant,” Akerman added. “The job of the FBI is simply to investigate and to provide the results of its investigation to the prosecutorial arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. His job is not to give a running commentary about any investigation or his opinion about any investigation. This is particularly egregious since Secretary Clinton has no way to respond to what amounts to nebulous and speculative innuendo.”

That was also a theme of a former Justice Department and former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matthew Miller.

“The Justice Department’s longstanding practice is don’t do anything seen as trying to influence an election. That’s usually interpreted as 60 days, let alone 11. … It’s completely unfair to Secretary Clinton and it’s really unfair to the voters. There’s no reason he had to send this letter,” Miller told POLITICO.

So what Comey did was wrong and damaged Clinton’s chances. Was what he did solely responsible for her Electoral College loss? I won’t say that because I don’t think anybody has proved it, and I doubt anyone can. What I am confident in saying is that it eroded Clinton’s lead significantly, possibly enough to have contributed to some swing-state losses and enough to have hurt some downballot Democrats’ chances as well.

What else hurt Clinton, or might have? For the first time, we have credible evidence that Russia tried to interfere with the outcome of a U.S. presidential election. The most spectacular accusation is that Russia hacked enough voting machines to give Trump the win, and let me say right up front that I don’t necessarily buy it. I am, for the moment and pending further research, agnostic as to whether the Russians hacked any voting machines and/or vote-counting systems at all, let alone enough in swing states to tip the election to Donald Trump in the Electoral College. I just don’t know. But what do we know?

We’ve known since at least as far back as my work on “Black Box Voting: Ballot-Tampering in the 21st Century” more than a decade ago that electronic voting machines simply are not secure. We know that hackers breached voter-registration databases in Illinois and Arizona this summer, and that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, vice-chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, claimed before the election that based on briefings she and other congresscritters had received, Russia was trying to influence the outcome of the election. And we know, from the Russians themselves, that Trump’s folks and Putin’s folks, if not the principals themselves, were in contact during the campaign, which should raise Logan Act red flags irrespective of questions about hacking.

There were things about the differences between vote totals and exit polls — more on those in a second — that simply weren’t explainable by random chance, whether you think Russians were involved or not. Journalist Bill Palmer summarizes them pretty well here. As he says, they don’t conclusively prove that the election was rigged, but if the polling really was simply off, it should have been off in a different way.

And we also know, thanks to journalist Greg Palast (and more about him below) that electronic voting machines in Ohio had an audit security feature — which a Republican judge allowed Republican state election officials to turn off for the Nov. 8 election. That still blows my mind: A judge basically issued an order making it possible for machines to be hacked without detection.

And there are other discrepancies. A group of prominent computer scientists affiliated with the University of Michigan’s Center for Computer Security and Society is pressing Clinton to seek a recount in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which went to Trump, and Michigan, where votes are still being counted and it’s too close to call. Flipping those three states to Clinton would give her the White House. Again, the experts are not claiming they have proof of fraud, but they have found what they consider statistically suspicious differences in voting patterns in areas with electronic touch-screen machines compared with areas with other forms of vote tabulation. As I wrote this tonight, Jill Stein, former Green Party candidate for president, was pressing for a recount in those three states.

Now, about exit polling: The exit polls failed to match up with vote tallies in a number of key states, particularly Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, any three of which — or, with Florida, any two — would have swung the Electoral College to Clinton. Exit polling is generally more accurate than pre-election polling, for obvious reasons. In pre-election polling you’re asking people to tell you what they’re going to do, which they might not get around to doing or might change their mind on, or what-have-you. In exit polling, you’re asking people what they actually did, right after they did it. Exit polling generally is so reliable that the U.S. has used it as a gauge of voting integrity in other countries around the world. It could be wrong here, but its record here and in other countries makes that less likely. That said, Election Day-only exit polling fails to account for early voting in states that have it, and, like all election polling, is only as strong as its computer models.

So although I am suspicious that the vote totals may have been monkeyed with by agents foreign and/or domestic, I grant that all the evidence — and there is a lot — is circumstantial, not directly probative. Therefore, as I said, I remain agnostic on that point, subject to the discovery of new information one way or the other.

So why am I stating as a fact that the election was stolen? Because while there’s some doubt about the shenanigans I’ve listed above, I am much more certain about another effort: Republican officials conspired to purge the voter rolls of a number of states in ways that overwhelmingly affected people likely to vote Democratic.

Journalist Greg Palast, whom I mentioned above, first documented in Chapter 1 of the first (2004) edition of his book “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” how this approach was used in the run-up to the 2000 election to kick enough minority and other likely Democratic voters off the Florida voter rolls improperly — and I’ll explain “improperly” in a second — to have swung the vote totals there, and thus the 2000 election, to George W. Bush.

I say “improperly” for this reason. The purging was supposed to remove from the rolls primarily convicted felons who had not yet had their civil rights restored and people who were, inadvertently or otherwise, registered to vote in two different places at once. However, the database query used only the loosest matching criteria, so that fathers ended up being purged because of their felon sons with the same name and vice versa, the John Smith on Main Street was purged when it was the John Smith on Elm Street who was the felon, John Adam Smith got purged when the felon was actually John Benjamin Smith, and so on. This work was done by a contractor with ties to the family of George W. Bush and retained by W’s brother Jeb Bush, then governor of Florida.

The scheme worked then, so the Republicans decided to take it national. No sooner had the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, Palast has found in an updated version of his book, than in 2013 a group of Republicans led by Kris Kobach, secretary of state in Kansas (and more about him to come), developed a system called Crosscheck to apply the technique to more than a dozen other states (most controlled by Republicans), looking for people who were, or who appeared to be, registered in two different states. From Palast’s article in the Aug. 24 issue of Rolling Stone:

The data is processed through a system called the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which is being promoted by a powerful Republican operative, and its lists of potential duplicate voters are kept confidential. But Rolling Stone obtained a portion of the list and the names of 1 million targeted voters. According to our analysis, the Crosscheck list disproportionately threatens solid Democratic constituencies: young, black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters – with some of the biggest possible purges underway in Ohio and North Carolina, two crucial swing states with tight Senate races. (snip)

On its surface, Crosscheck seems quite reasonable. Twenty-eight participating states share their voter lists and, in the name of dispassionate, race-blind Big Data, seek to ensure the rolls are up to date. To make sure the system finds suspect voters, Crosscheck supposedly matches first, middle and last name, plus birth date, and provides the last four digits of a Social Security number for additional verification.

In reality, however, there have been signs that the program doesn’t operate as advertised. Some states have dropped out of Crosscheck, citing problems with its methodology, as Oregon’s secretary of state recently explained: “We left [Crosscheck] because the data we received was unreliable.”

In our effort to report on the program, we contacted every state for their Crosscheck list. But because voting twice is a felony, state after state told us their lists of suspects were part of a criminal investigation and, as such, confidential. Then we got a break. A clerk in Virginia sent us its Crosscheck list of suspects, which a letter from the state later said was done “in error.”

The Virginia list was a revelation. In all, 342,556 names were listed as apparently registered to vote in both Virginia and another state as of January 2014. Thirteen percent of the people on the Crosscheck list, already flagged as inactive voters, were almost immediately removed, meaning a stunning 41,637 names were “canceled” from voter rolls, most of them just before Election Day.

We were able to obtain more lists – Georgia and Washington state, the total number of voters adding up to more than 1 million matches – and Crosscheck’s results seemed at best deeply flawed. We found that one-fourth of the names on the list actually lacked a middle-name match. The system can also mistakenly identify fathers and sons as the same voter, ignoring designations of Jr. and Sr. A whole lot of people named “James Brown” are suspected of voting or registering twice, 357 of them in Georgia alone. But according to Crosscheck, James Willie Brown is supposed to be the same voter as James Arthur Brown. James Clifford Brown is allegedly the same voter as James Lynn Brown.

And those promised birth dates and Social Security numbers? The Crosscheck instruction manual says that “Social Security numbers are included for verification; the numbers might or might not match” – which leaves a crucial step in the identification process up to the states. Social Security numbers weren’t even included in the state lists we obtained.

We had Mark Swedlund, a database expert whose clients include eBay and American Express, look at the data from Georgia and Virginia, and he was shocked by Crosscheck’s “childish methodology.” He added, “God forbid your name is Garcia, of which there are 858,000 in the U.S., and your first name is Joseph or Jose. You’re probably suspected of voting in 27 states.”

Swedlund’s statistical analysis found that African-American, Latino and Asian names predominate, a simple result of the Crosscheck matching process, which spews out little more than a bunch of common names. No surprise: The U.S. Census data shows that minorities are overrepresented in 85 of 100 of the most common last names. If your name is Washington, there’s an 89 percent chance you’re African-American. If your last name is Hernandez, there’s a 94 percent chance you’re Hispanic. If your name is Kim, there’s a 95 percent chance you’re Asian.

This inherent bias results in an astonishing one in six Hispanics, one in seven Asian-Americans and one in nine African-Americans in Crosscheck states landing on the list. Was the program designed to target voters of color? “I’m a data guy,” Swedlund says. “I can’t tell you what the intent was. I can only tell you what the outcome is. And the outcome is discriminatory against minorities.”

Confronted by Palast, Kobach lied about his purge lists being publicly available and insisted that what was manifestly happening couldn’t possibly be.

In addition, some voters about whose eligibility someone raised a question were forced to cast provisional ballots which, in many cases, were never counted and which, in some cases, were simply thrown out, Palast found.

Palast also has evidence of widespread, illegal vote caging; indeed, thousands of North Carolina voters successfully sued just a few weeks ago to have their voting eligibility restored after an incidence of attempted caging here by the state GOP in a process the federal judge in the case called “insane.” But similar efforts went on elsewhere and most likely were successful.

And that’s on top of the efforts by states to impose onerous voter-ID requirements and limits on early voting, both of which disproportionately affect young and senior voters, minorities and the poor — who disproportionately vote Democratic. The courts threw out some, but not all, of these changes, which carried the force of law and helped provide at least a small bit of help for the Republican ticket.

Palast has an updated version of his book out that discusses some of the 2016 fuckery, along with an identically titled documentary film that you can order on DVD from GregPalast.com or rent on Amazon or Vimeo.

Despite all of this, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes (and counting, at this writing). She won more popular votes than anyone in history not named Barack Obama. But the GOP efforts provided a narrow edge — 1% or less — in a few key swing states to give the Electoral College vote, wrongly, to Trump. The question, which I’ll address in an upcoming post, is what can be done about it.

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.

Thursday, October 13, 2016 9:42 pm

A tale of two speeches

If you needed any more proof that Godwin’s Law has been repealed, Donald Trump’s speech today should be all you need. Substitute “the Jews” for “the establishment,” “the Clinton machine,” or “the media,” and Adolf Hitler could have given this speech himself, albeit more elegantly. Hell, all it needed was “Goldman Sachs” and “the Sulzbergers,” as Adrastos pointed out. You could practically hear the Nuremberg crowds roaring as Trump all but concluded with, “Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Fuhrer!

Coincidentally, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit that normally worries more about journos in the war-torn Middle East than here in the U.S., issued an unprecedented statement today, which it had approved several days ago, criticizing Trump for his anti-press statements and positions:

This is not about picking sides in an election. This is recognizing that a Trump presidency represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern history.

Amen. History is going to ask a lot of pointed questions about who stood where in this year’s election season. And what has mattered to me, this time around, hasn’t been so much policy specifics — Trump’s “policy positions” are chimerae anyway — as a very simple test: What choice will enable me to look myself in the mirror? This year, the choice has been more stark than at any other time in my conscious life. And if I have done nothing else, I have made good and goddamned sure that my grandchildren will never have to ask me, “Grandpa, why are people calling you a good German?” And you can bet your ass that in years to come, I’mma be pointing my finger at the Trump supporters and shouting, “J’accuse!”

Adrastos also had this to say:

The good news is that Trump is going to lose; bigly. The bad news is that right-wing extremists have captured one of our major political parties. The B3 Brownshirts are infinitely worse than the teabaggers. I’m not alone in being concerned what happens if a less self-destructive, more intelligent demagogue *continues* the takeover of the Republican Party. It *can* happen here. I never thought I’d say that but I just did.

I think it’s important for those of us who know history to take a firm stand against Trumpism. That’s why I’ve started comparing him to Hitler at his least disciplined. Hitler had the good sense to *keep* the ugly underneath until he had enough support to enact his racist program. Trump has no self-control but he is every bit as ugly, which is why he needs to lose in a landslide. Some of us are worried that he’ll refuse to concede on election eve, whip his supporters into a frenzy, and provoke a sort of American Kristalnacht. The good news is that most Trumpers are, well, pussies and are unlikely to riot if it’s a blow-out. Let’s hope so.

(Honestly, and I admit I am a bad person for thinking this, there is a very small part of me that hopes that these “pussies” pull some shit after the election. The U.S. military is still by far the strongest on Earth, and my government lately has shown, as was illustrasted in January, a refreshing reluctance to kiss seditious white ass. Inasmuch as we don’t get a do-over on the botched Reconstruction, there’s a small part of me that thinks watering the Tree of Liberty with the blood of some bigoted, would-be tyrants of the so-called alt-right — and can we just call the “alt-right” what it really is, racists and neo-Nazis? — would have a salubrious effect on the body politic.)

Sadly but unsurprisingly, that speech wasn’t all Trump did today. He also had his lawyer send The New York Times a letter demanding retraction of an article about two women claiming Trump had sexually assaulted them and threatening a libel suit.

A couple of things about that letter. First, although some states require would-be libel plaintiffs to send such a letter before filing suit, to the best of my knowledge, New York is not one of those states, so this is probably bullshit. Second, and more importantly, as an investigative reporter and editor, I’ve seen real libel-suit letters. What with all the whining about anti-Trump media conspiracies, this letter was not the letter you send when you’re seriously considering a libel suit. No, this letter was the letter you send when you want the rubes you are grifting to think you’re going to file a libel suit. In other words, it’s the letter you send to keep the rubes donating, which harkens back to Lex’s First Law of the 2016 Campaign: Grifters gonna grift.

(Worth reading: The New York Times VP/general counsel’s letter in response, particularly the second paragraph and the final sentence. I haven’t smoked in more than 30 years, but after reading this, boy, howdy, did I want a cigarette. The TL;DR version: Your boy hasn’t got a reputation left to damage, but if you want to dance, we brought our stiletto heels.)

I know: Pretty depressing, all in all. But lest we all succumb to the sweet and seductive incantations of the Sweet Meteor o’ Death, I should point out that there was another speech today, by First Lady Michelle Obama. And I probably am not the first person to suggest that this was the opening shot of the 2024 campaign:

The fact is that, in this election, we have a candidate for president of the United States who over the course of his lifetime, and the course of this campaign, has said things about women that are so shocking, so demeaning that I simply will not repeat anything here today. And last week, we saw this candidate actually bragging about sexually assaulting women. I can’t believe that I’m saying that a candidate for president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women. And I have to tell you that I can’t stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.

So while I’d love nothing more than to pretend like this isn’t happening and come out here and do my normal campaign speech, it would be dishonest and disingenuous to me to just move on to the next thing like this was all just a bad dream. This is not something that we can ignore. This is not something that we can sweep under the rug as just another disturbing footnote in a sad election season because this was not just a lewd conversation. This wasn’t just locker room banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior. And actually bragging about kissing and groping women, using language so obscene that many of us worried about our children hearing it when we turned on the TV. And to make matters worse, it now seems very clear that this isn’t an isolated incident. It’s one of countless examples of how he has treated women his whole life.

And I have to tell you that I listen to all of this, and I feel it so personally. And I’m sure that many of you do, too, particularly the women. The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman. It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street, minding your own business, and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin. It’s that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them or forced himself on them, and they’ve said no, but he didn’t listen. Something that we know happens on college campuses and countless other places every single day. It reminds us of stories we’ve heard from our mothers and grandmothers about how back in their day the boss could say and do whatever he pleased to the women in the office. And even though they worked so hard, jumped over every hurdle to prove themselves, it was never enough. We thought all of that was ancient history, didn’t we?

And so many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect but here we are. In 2016 and we’re hearing these exact same things every day of the campaign trail. We are drowning in it. And all of us are doing what women have always done. We’re trying to keep our heads above water. Just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us. Maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak. Maybe we’re afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet because we’ve seen that people often won’t take our word over his. Or maybe we don’t want to believe that there are still people out there who think so little of us as women. Too many are treating this as just another day’s headline. As if our outrage is overblown or unwarranted. As if this is normal. Just politics as usual.

But New Hampshire, be clear: This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. It is intolerable and it doesn’t matter what party you belong to — Democrat, Republican, Independent — no woman deserves to be treated this way. None of us deserve this kind of abuse. And I know it’s a campaign, but this isn’t about politics. It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong and we simply cannot endure this or expose our children to this any longer. Not for another minute, let alone for four years. Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say “enough is enough.”

This has got to stop right now, because consider this: If all of this is painful to us as grown women, what do you think this is doing to our children? What messages are little girls hearing about who they should look like, how they should act? What lessons are they learning about their value as professionals, as human beings? About their dreams and aspirations? And how is this affecting men and boys in this country because I can tell you that the men in my life do not talk about women like this and I know that my family is not unusual. And to dismiss this as everyday locker room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere. The men that you and I know don’t treat women this way, they are loving fathers who are sickened by the thought of their daughters being exposed to this kind of vicious language about women. They are husbands and brothers and sons who don’t tolerate women being treated and demeaned and disrespected. And, like us, these men are worried about the impact this election is having on our boys who are looking for role models for what it means to be a man. …

And in this election, if we turn away from her, if we just stand by and allow her opponent to be elected then what are we teaching our children about the values they should hold, about the kind of life they should lead? What are we saying? In our hearts, in our hearts, we all know that if we let Hillary’s opponent win this election then we are sending a clear message to our kids that everything they’re seeing and hearing is perfectly okay. We are validating it. We are endorsing it. We are telling our sons that it’s okay to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated. We’re all our kids that bigotry and bullying are perfectly acceptable in the leader of their country. Is that what we want for our children?

And remember, we won’t just be setting a bad example for our kids, but for our entire world. Because for so long America has been a model for countries across the globe — pushing them to educate their girls, insisting that they give more rights to their women. But if we have a president who routinely degrades women, who brags about sexually assaulting women, then how can we maintain our moral authority in the world? How can we continue to be a beacon of freedom and justice and human dignity? Well, fortunately, New Hampshire, here’s the beauty: We have everything we need to stop this madness. You see while our mothers and grandmothers were often powerless to change their circumstances, today we, as women, have all the power we need to determine the outcome of this election. We have knowledge. We have a voice. We have a vote. And November the 8th, we as women, we as Americans, we as decent human beings, can come together and declare that enough is enough, that we do not tolerate this kind of behavior in this country.

That, bitchez, is what leadership sounds like.

Don’t misunderstand me: Whether Hillary Clinton wins or loses in 2020, I will support Elizabeth Warren to be the Democrat to succeed her. But if Warren chooses not to run in 2024, a speech like this, calling Americans to be our best selves and not to tolerate anything less, would be a damn fine thing to line up behind.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016 7:51 pm

Phyllis Schlafly, dead

Schlafly spent a far-too-long life masquerading as a Christian while doing everything she could to make millions of women, minorities, LGBTQ folks, and others miserable. The fact that she lived to 92 while David Bowie is dead is proof that there is no justice in the world.

Schlafly was reputed to have said that there would be a woman president over her dead body (Snopes claims otherwise, h/t David Harley Boyd). If she didn’t say it, she might as well have, given how hard she worked to eliminate that possibility and many others for so many women, and I for one am glad God found those terms acceptable.

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.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016 8:28 pm

Odds and ends for June 8

The House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives was set up to “investigate” claims that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue for profit, despite the fact that four federal and a dozen state investigations have found that PP did no such thing and despite the fact that the video fraudsters who raised those allegations have themselves been indicted. Now that committee has just — oops! — “accidentally” released information on several researchers and Planned Parenthood clinic staffers. This, of course, has happened in an era in which people working in any way with the abortion-rights movement are being threatened and even killed. Accident, my bony ass; this was a deliberate move by the committee chair, U.S. Rep. Marcia Blackburn, R-Tenn., to endanger and thereby intimidate people involved with Planned Parenthood. No, really; there is no other logical interpretation of her behavior. A House of Representatives with any ethics would expel anyone who willingly placed another human being in such danger, but that’s not the House of Representatives we have.

Former CIA agent Sabrina de Sousa has lost a court fight and will be extradited from Portugal to Italy to serve a four-year sentence for having taken part in the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” kidnapping/torture program there. A number of legalities aren’t clear to me on this. But from a standpoint of responsibility, if not legality, if de Sousa is being held legally accountable, so must everyone above her in the chain of command who was involved. Otherwise, there’s no point.

Apparently sedition is the new right-wing hobby. A bunch of Utah yahoos is trying to prevent President Obama from designating historic, federally owned land, Bear Ears, as a national monument, which he has a perfect legal right to do. Naturally, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Republicans from that benighted state, are giving aid and comfort to those who would violate the law. I almost hope these yahoos do push this. This president showed at Malheur that he is not inclined to dance with seditionists, and the country approved of his actions by a wide margin. If a few traitors get shot behind it, I’ll sleep just fine, and if Hatch and Chaffetz get charged with giving aid and comfort to the enemy, so much the better. My government has been kissing seditious white ass for way too long.

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.

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