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What’s Wrong with White People?

White People

“… But the thing is, we treat racism in this country like it’s a style that America went through. Like flared legs and lava lamps. Oh, that crazy thing we did. We were hanging black people. We treat it like a fad instead of a disease that eradicates millions of people. You’ve got to get it at a lab, and study it, and see its origins, and see what it’s immune to and what breaks it down.”  Chris Rock (2014)

If you voted for Donald Trump, the odds are roughly 7 to 1 that you’re white (and, of course, you probably wouldn’t be reading this). Trump got 58 percent of the white vote. Most white women voted for Trump! He won whites with a college degree by 4 points and whites without a degree by 39 points! And now we have the most overtly racist administration since Woodrow Wilson’s. Think of it as an ongoing white riot.

Since the election, a lot of people have tried to analyze how this happened. Most of the theories boil down to two things. One is the systemic loss of decent-paying blue collar jobs–especially in manufacturing–which has fueled anger among working class voters. The other is a heightened cultural clash between religious conservatives and secular elites.

Both explanations sound plausible except for one big thing:  They have produced very different outcomes depending on the race of the voter. The black working class has been hit at least as hard–often much harder–as whites by the the loss of manufacturing jobs and the erosion of blue collar wages. And black churches are usually even more conservative in their theology and social values than most white congregations. And yet black voters overwhelmingly rejected Trump–including in the rust-belt states that made the difference in the electoral college. In Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Trump got no more than 7 percent of the black vote in any state.

Clearly something else is going on here, and I think fundamentally that something is resurgent racism. Conservative pundit David Brooks has opined that Republican voters “went for the tribalism of Donald Trump because at least he gave them a sense of social belonging”, which is a genteel way of saying the same thing. Yes, it’s more complex than that, but that’s the bedrock that everything else is piled on top of.

We could see it during the campaign at Trump’s rallies in which brown faces were as rare as hen’s teeth. We could see it in the travel ban imposed on oddly selected Muslim countries (a modified version of which a deeply divided Supreme Court has just upheld). We could see it in Trump’s slanderous characterizations of Mexicans and his greatest-hit demand to “build the Wall”. We could see it in his referring to black communities as dysfunctional “war zones” and his obvious disdain for black political leaders. We could see it in his flirtations with avowed white supremists, the inclusion of white nationalists like Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and Sebastian Gorka in the White House staff, and his implied defense of white nationalists in the lethal Charlotteville confrontations. Trump’s supporters ate it up! And the more Democrats and mainstream media criticized him, the more they loved it.

Before the campaign, we saw it in Trump’s “birther” lie and his role in what amounted to a judicial lynching of the five young black and hispanic men convicted of rape (all eventually and definitively exonerated) in the Central Park jogger case. It all goes way back.

And now we have seen the manufactured “crisis” at the southern border created by snatching migrant children away from their parents under a “zero tolerance” policy explicitly designed to show “toughness” on border security in order to rev up enthusiasm among Trump’s base.

There’s no longer any question about where Trump is on the racism spectrum. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his book We Were Eight Years in Power,  “His ideology is white supremacy in all of its truculent and sanctimonious power.” The question is why do most white people support him?

The fact is that racism is as American as apple pie and goes back to the country’s earliest roots. Historically, African-Americans have most often borne the brunt of white America’s physical, legal, economic, and cultural abuse intended to keep them from true equality as citizens (which Carol Anderson’s excellent book White Rage documents in unflinching detail), but the same has been true for Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and other non-whites. Our history (mostly untaught in school) shows that whenever barriers come down allowing people of color to exercise rights they didn’t have before or claim social space that they should be entitled to, there is a virulent white backlash. We saw this latest wave unleashed when Barack Obama was elected president, and Trump has ridden that wave into the White House.

Where does all that hatred come from? Theories abound, but they all basically come down to fear. It can be fear of losing status or of being supplanted. If life is viewed as a zero-sum game, then someone else’s rise means that you have gone down a peg. It’s often fear of something distant and heard about rather than something experienced on a personal level. It’s not an accident that anti-immigration attitudes are greatest in places where there is the least amount of it. An entire media industry is based on fear-mongering. Right-wing radio, Fox News, and social media pound fear into the eyes and ears of millions of people every day, but mainstream media do a lot of the same thing, if less crudely and egregiously.

What seems different now is that we have a president and a Republican party whose operating principle is to exacerbate those fears and are willing–even eager–to tell lies to advance their agendas. The message they’re sending is that it’s okay to be racist, and it’s being heard loud and clear. White people are being told that they’re the real victims, and they believe it with cult-like immunity to reason or facts. Images of Honduran toddlers wailing for their mothers have no emotional impact because they are told that these people are here to “infest” the country with crime and drugs, and rural white communities dying from self-inflicted opioid addiction lap it up like gospel. There’s no sympathy for people fleeing far worse horrors. These are people ripe for a fascist demagogue and they’re getting one.

Let’s be real. The future of democracy in America rests in the hands of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and other people of color, because they are the ones that still have the American dream that too many white Americans have corrupted or abandoned. That’s why I, for one, will not be sad to see the day when whites are no longer the demographic majority. If you’re white like me and hate what you see happening to this country, it’s time to embrace that future before it’s too late.

If you want a little empathy, listen to Dave Chapelle, whose comedy specials have perhaps the most incisive social commentary available anywhere today:

“I’ve never had a problem with white people ever in my life. But full disclosure: The poor whites are my least favorite. We’ve got a lot of trouble out of them. I looked them right in their coal-smeared faces. I didn’t see one deplorable face in that group. They felt like decent folk. I felt sorry for them….I know the game now. I know that rich people call poor white people ‘trash.’ And the only reason I know that is I made so much money last year that the rich whites told me they say it at a cocktail party…I stood in line–nobody skips the line to vote–and I listened to them say naive poor white people things–‘my man Donald Trump is going to go to Washington and he’s gonna fight for us.’ I’m standing there thinking, ‘you dumb motherfuckers… you are poor. He’s fighting for [rich people like] me!”

Watch the whole clip here.

 

Is Racism a Winning Strategy for Trump’s GOP?

detention center

This past weekend, the New York Times Magazine published a piece about “whiteness” in America–basically the idea that being white can no longer just be assumed to be the default identity, a synonym for “American”. Buried at the end of the article was the following astonishing sentence:  “A majority of white Americans currently believe that their own race is discriminated against.

As preposterous as that might sound, it seems to explain a lot, particularly about the impervious loyalty of about 30 – 40 percent of Americans to a president who has all but overtly adopted white supremacy as the bedrock idea of his appeal. Trump made anti-immigration the centerpiece of his campaign–not all immigration, but specifically Latinos which he equated with illegal immigration (most of which is actually from overstaying visas) and crime. Nothing quite got his crowds roaring like “build the wall”!

Then last week in the midst of the appalling spectacle of screaming children being torn from their asylum-seeking parents’ arms and incarcerated in internment camps, there was Jeff Sessions’s henchman, the dead-eyed Stephen Miller, boasting that this was deliberate political strategy“You have one party that’s in favor of open borders, and you have one party that wants to secure the border…And all day long the American people are going to side with the party that wants to secure the border. And not by a little bit. Not 55-45. 60-40. 70-30. 80-20. I’m talking 90-10 on that.” Indeed, all the protests seem not to have made a dent in support from Trump’s base.

Let us be clear: This is a bogus crisis manufactured by the Trump administration. The idea clearly is to inflame the fears and prejudices of white voters by claiming–falsely–that unprecedented hordes of brown people are pouring across our southern border to “infest” (Trump’s word) our cities with drugs and crime and ruthless gangs like the MS-13. (Factual note: The MS-13 actually originated in California and was effectively exported to Central America through US government deportations, where it metastasized and contributed to the horrific violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador that families now being arrested at the border are trying to flee.) They are calculating that white voters simply won’t care about Latino kids being turned into orphans, as long as Trump looks “tough” on border security. And it may well work!

Indeed, the Republican Party self-identification with white non-Hispanic voters is no longer disguised in the Trump era, the culmination of an evolution begun with Nixon’s “southern strategy” a half-century ago. Trump’s rallies are about as white as a bag of marshmallows. His rhetoric uses racist imagery of dysfunction, crime, and poverty to describe black communities. His campaign basically ignored black voters (except for his notorious “What have you got to lose?” line), and black voters rejected him in turn.

Based on exit polls, only about 8 percent of black votes went for Trump, barely more than Romney got running against Barack Obama. This latest debacle is likely to further erode remaining support for the GOP among Latino voters. In 2016, Clinton won two-thirds of the the Hispanic vote nationwide. (Her margin was almost identical among Asian-American voters.) If the party has alienated African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian-Americans, it is left with whites. And they are a declining asset in this country.

According to a new demographic study reported in the New York Times, deaths now exceed births among white Americans and there is now a very small, but growing, absolute decline in the white population. Whites have previously been projected to fall below 50 percent of the population by 2045, but it now appears that threshold will be crossed even sooner.

So what does that portend for a party whose support comes overwhelmingly from white voters? The Times article notes that whites without a bachelor’s degree–the Republicans’ core demographic–will be about 44 percent of eligible voters in 2020, and whites with a college degree will be another 23 percent. I.e., whites will still be two-thirds of the entire voting pool, and Trump won both categories in 2016–both men and women.  The key is how many actually turn out to vote. And how better to ramp up the turnout than to stoke white people’s feelings of victimization and fears of being supplanted?

The other part of the GOP strategy is to rig the rules in their favor. The tools include:

Voter suppression aimed at people likely to vote Democrat. A number of states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures have imposed voter ID laws clearly aimed at disenfranchising minority and student voters while simultaneously making it more difficult to obtain the required ID documents. Some states have purged registered voter lists based on dubious criteria, and the US Supreme Court just made that easier to do. Red states have reduced early voting periods and eliminated polling stations particularly in minority neighborhoods, thereby making election-day voting more onerous and time-consuming–especially for low income people who can’t afford to take off from work. Then there is the systematic denial of voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their sentences–even for those imprisoned for non-violent crimes like drug possession. Such measures are particularly prevalent in southern states and have their heaviest impact on black men. In Florida, for example, an estimated 1.6 million people cannot vote for this reason.

Partisan gerrymandering. Yes, both parties have done this, but the Republicans have embraced this tactic particularly zealously and have truly made a science of it. It especially impacts congressional districts and state legislatures, and controlling the latter makes it easier to manipulate the former. As a result, in many states the party split in the legislatures and congressional delegations does not even remotely reflect the actual vote totals by party–almost always to the benefit of the Republicans.

Dark MoneyOpen Secrets defines “dark money” as “political spending meant to influence the decision of a voter, where the donor is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown.” The amount of money involved has increased astronomically as a result of two SCOTUS decisions–“FEC v Wisconsin Right to Life” (2007) and “Citizens United v FEC” (2010)–and one appeals court decision, “Speechnow v FEC” (2010). Such spending roughly tripled between the 2008 and 2012 election cycles and then increased another 10 times in the 2016 cycle to something around $3 billion. That doesn’t include money spend on TV ads outside of the the official election period. For example, in the last half of 2015 a dark money group supporting Marco Rubio spent $8 million on ads that did not have to be reported to the Federal Electoral Commission. Best of all, most of this money is not taxable and can be written off by corporations and individuals as donations. Both parties have dark money groups that support them, but the total sums overwhelmingly support conservative causes and candidates and can buy massive TV ad campaigns.

The electoral college itself is a kind of built-in gerrymander for presidential elections, because it makes a vote in certain states carry far more weight than in others. In the 2016 election, there were only 85,283 popular votes for each of Wyoming’s electoral votes, versus 324,829 votes in Florida. In other words, a individual vote in Wyoming carries almost 4 times the weight of a vote in Florida. Of the 25 states with the least popular votes per electoral vote, 15 went to Trump vs. 9 to Clinton. (Maine’s votes were split–3 for Clinton, 1 for Trump.) Such states tend to be more rural and whiter. This increases the likelihood that we will elected a president who gets fewer total votes than his opponent, as happened in 2000 and again in 2016, and again favors the Republican candidate.

All of these function as force-multipliers for Republicans. Therefore election campaigns playing on the fears and perceived grievances of white voters could be a winning formula.

The larger and more important question is this: What’s wrong with white people that makes this even a possibility? 

That’s a subject for another time.

When a Cake is Not Just a Cake

Gay Wedding

I have rarely, if ever, read an entire Supreme Court decision, but I wanted to try to understand the rationale for the ruling on Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission which said that baker Jack Phillips could refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple based on his religion. Pundits are saying that the decision was very narrowly stated and does not set a major precedent for the ongoing legal battle between religion and gay rights, but it strikes me as yet another important step favoring religious belief over secular law. If, as I do, you think that’s a bad idea, it’s time to pay close attention.

What I find fascinating–and a little frightening–is how differently the various justices approached and interpreted the same set of facts. In a nutshell, in 2012 two gay men asked Phillips to bake a cake for a wedding reception to be held in Colorado–before that state recognized same-sex marriage and before the Court decision that made such marriages legal nationwide (their actual wedding was in Massachusetts, where it was already legal). Phillips refused to bake a wedding cake, saying that doing so would violate his Christian religious belief that same-sex marriage was immoral. He would sell them other baked goods, but would not create a wedding cake because that would imply his approval of their union. The couple lodged a discrimination complaint citing a Colorado anti-discrimination law, and won before the state civil rights commission and state courts, including the Colorado supreme court, whose ruling was overturned by today’s Supreme Court decision.

The decision hinged principally on the majority’s view that “the Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of [Phillips’] case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.” I.e., that the commission was biased against that particular religious belief. The opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, highlighted the following statement by one of the commissioners as particular evidence of this bias:

“I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination
throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.”

Now that, to me, is nothing more than an obvious statement of demonstrable historical fact. But Kennedy and the other six justices who signed on to the opinion saw that as “impermissible hostility” to religious belief. Go figure!

The other major piece of evidence cited in the majority ruling (and other justices’ opinions–both supporting and dissenting)  was a series of cases involving one William Jack who had sought to have three Colorado bakers create cakes decorated with explicit anti-gay symbology and Biblical inscriptions. All three bakers refused on the basis that the messages were offensive and hateful, and the civil rights commission backed them up. Here it is important to note that there was never any discussion of decoration of the wedding cake in the Phillips case–he refused the order before it ever got to that point. The justices in the majority basically argued that if the Jack cakes could be refused, then the commission erred in not allowing Phillips to refuse as well–never mind that the bakers who turned down Jack did not cite religious reasons and that the only message in the cake Phillips refused to make was implicit, in that it would have been a wedding cake for two gay men.

In their supporting opinion, Gorsuch and Alito really went to town on this aspect, writing a–what’s the right term? Talmudic? Jesuitical? baroque? hairsplitting?–dissection of the nuances of the Jack cakes versus the Phillips case. In their too-clever-by-half discussion, Gorsuch and Alito assert that “to suggest that cakes with words convey a message but cakes without words do not—all in order to excuse the bakers in Mr. Jack’s case while penalizing Mr. Phillips—is irrational.” (Kagan, in her separate supporting opinion, ridicules this argument.) Gorsuch advances the idea that religious-based abhorrence of gay marriage is an embattled belief in need of protection. “It is in protecting unpopular religious beliefs that we prove this country’s commitment to serving as a refuge for religious freedom.” And then this: “It is our job to look beyond the formality of written words and afford legal protection to any sincere act of faith.” Wow! Really??!! Like maybe, say, female circumcision? Forced marriage of 12 year old girls? Human sacrifice? There you have it, folks.

The arguments heretofore have been based primarily on the “free expression of religion” constitutional language, but Justice Thomas really steps it up in his supporting opinion going full out on the “freedom of speech” argument. Hilariously, much of it reads like a rave Yelp review for Masterpiece Cake Shop:

Phillips considers himself an artist. The logo for Masterpiece Cakeshop is an artist’s paint palate with a paintbrush and baker’s whisk. Behind the counter Phillips has a picture that depicts him as an artist painting on a canvas. Phillips takes exceptional care with each cake that he creates—sketching the design out on paper, choosing the color scheme, creating the frosting and decorations, baking and sculpting the cake, decorating it, and delivering it to the wedding.

Seriously, there’s more. (Sorry, I’m getting a bit moist!) He even helpfully provides the company’s website! Then there is an extended gloss on the evolution of the wedding cake and its meaning. Then more about what a religious man Phillips is and how he “routinely sacrifices profits to ensure that Masterpiece operates in a way that represents his Christian faith,” and won’t make Halloween cakes, or cakes with offensive messages, etc.

But Thomas’s main argument is that Phillips’ artistry is deserving of protection as free speech alone. “If Phillips’ continued adherence to that [traditional Christian] understanding [of marriage] makes him a minority after Obergefell, that is all
the more reason to insist that his speech be protected.”

Thomas can barely disguise his contempt for the ruling that legalized gay marriage.

In Obergefell, I warned that the Court’s decision would “inevitabl[y] . . . come into conflict” with religious liberty, “as individuals . . . are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.” … This case proves that the conflict has already emerged. Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise, it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day. But, in future cases, the freedom of speech could be essential to preventing Obergefell from being used to “stamp out every vestige of dissent” and “vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.”

Again, with the beleaguered Christian minority victimization thing. Who knew that the Christian religious right was on the ropes and barely hanging on?!

As usual, Ginsberg is having none of this nonsense, and in her dissent (joined by Sotomayor) she cuts right to the heart of the matter. She sees nothing to “evidence hostility to religion of the kind we have previously held to signal a free-exercise violation, nor do the comments by one or two members of one of the four decision- making entities considering this case justify reversing the judgment below.” She rejects the argument on the Jack cases, noting “the bakeries’ refusal to make Jack cakes of a kind they would not make for any customer scarcely resembles Phillips’ refusal to serve Craig and Mullins: Phillips would not sell to Craig and Mullins, for no reason other than their sexual orientation, a cake of the kind he regularly sold to others…. What matters is that Phillips would not provide a good or service to a same-sex couple that he would provide to a heterosexual couple.”

What is perhaps most disturbing about this ruling is that two reliably liberal justices bought the religious argument, even if only a little bit. Here we see an aggressive push by Gorsuch, Alito, and of course, Thomas to extend a dubious religious freedom further into secular affairs, and they are signaling that this is only the beginning of the counter-revolution by the religious right.

The fundamental problem here is that literally anything can be a sincere religious belief. Religion is, by definition, faith in something that cannot be proven to be real. Religion may sometimes encourage morality and concern for the well-being of others, but it is uniquely prone to abuse when combined with political power. Why, therefore, should it be given a more exalted status than belief based on science, secular philosophy, or simply pragmatic experience? Whoever made the statement cited by the majority opinion about the use of religious belief to justify forms of oppression certainly was not wrong. Why is it okay for religious people to denigrate and reject and actively discriminate against groups like LGBT people, but it shows “impermissible hostility” to be even slightly critical of demonstrably harmful religious beliefs that directly contradict secular values enshrined in the constitution?

I shutter to consider what will happen when giants like RBG are no longer around to push back against the anti-democratic forces now mobilized in this country. This is just the beginning.

 

“…You might say I ain’t free. It don’t worry me…”

AltmanNashville

Last night I watched the great Robert Altman film “Nashville”. I hadn’t seen it since 1975 when it was released, and I was struck by how amazingly well it holds up and how relevant it is in the Age of Trump. (FYI, it has little or no relation to the recent TV series, other than the title.)

For those too young to have seen it, “Nashville” takes place over the course of five days during which the lives of more than 20 major characters–all in some way linked by the city’s country music scene–intertwine and reach a stunning climax. The story is framed by the campaign of an alternative presidential candidate named Hal Phillip Walker, who is never seen in the movie.

The film is not overtly political, certainly not in a partisan sense. However, viewing it now it’s impossible not to find in the unseen Walker character a precursor for Trump. His message is not identical, but his methods and appeal are the same–the manipulation of resentments fueled by radical changes in American society. It’s like watching the early stages of this country’s cultural and political divide into two hostile tribes.

The film was made in a time of national turmoil, eerily similar to today. The movie was shot on location from July to September 1974, and Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal on August 8 of that year. The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the country was still riven over the Vietnam War. Echoes of all of these emerge in the film, though they are not really central to the story. Other national issues such as racism, religion, and violence in our society are also touched upon. And, of course, celebrity worship and the pursuit of fame.

But I think the most important theme is the political co-optation of the country music industry and the sub-culture in which it thrives.

To me the most interesting aspect of the movie is the light it sheds on role of country music (which had only recently started going by that name, as opposed to “hillbilly” music) in creating a false nostalgic mythology of the “real America”. You know–rural, white, Protestant evangelical and filled with loving, hard-working families living hard-scrabble but fiercely independent lives. This was the meme seized upon by Nixon as “the silent majority” back then and which has become the fundamental gut appeal of the Republican Party. We see it manifested today in the resurgent White Nationalist movement and Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign.

Of course, this rosy-colored musical vision was bogus then and is even more so now. What began as a genre authentically rooted in Appalachian culture, had become by the 1970s a slickly formulaic money-making machine whose style and content was tightly controlled by the Grand Ol’ Opry and the Nashville recording studios. The Opry itself had decamped from the church-like downtown Ryman Auditorium to snazzy new digs in suburban Opryland, which then morphed into a theme park. Nashville country music was on its way to becoming what it is today, Vegas with a southern accent.

The movie subtly satirizes the various country song formulas with lyrics that deftly hit all the requisite notes–sometimes hilariously. Many of the songs were written and performed by cast members, none of whom were professional musicians, let alone country musicians. Some of them are actually pretty good–one won the Oscar that year. Some are sly parodies, but just close enough that they could almost pass for the real thing. (The movie includes more than a hour of performed music.)

Ironically, in the early ’70s there was a rebellion among some country singers against the Nashville straight jacket–a movement that became known as “outlaw country” led by performers like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. This was actually what put Austin on the musical map as artists shed their Nudie suits and turned their backs on the Grand Ol’ Opry and headed for the Armadillo World Headquarters. This turned into something of a cultural/political divide as well, with Willie Nelson famously smoking massive amounts of weed, while Merle Haggard claimed that “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” The film barely touches on all of this, but it does give a brief nod to the fact that some non-country artists were coming to Nashville to record with local musicians, as Bob Dylan did in 1969 with “Nashville Skyline”. It was complicated.

All of that is now ancient history. The Nashville establishment had its counter-reformation and re-invented itself as Glam Country, with elaborate stage productions, fancy arrangements, and fabulous clothes, hair, and makeup for female artists. (The cowboy hat became de rigueur for male artists–something almost never seen outside of Texas or Oklahoma before the 70s.) The women became Hollywood-style divas, while the men had to project that scruffy, bad boy vibe. The song lyrics kept pretty much to the same themes (although with more sexuality), but the packaging was very different. The lyrics said: “Your lives may be crappy, but you’re the real Americans.” The production values said: “Wouldn’t you like to be rich like me?!”

The conservative political orthodoxy of country music also stuck and hardened. And woe betide the country artist who dared buck the party line, as Natalie Maines of Dixie Chicks discovered when she declared in a London concert in 2003: “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas”. Suddenly, the group was being denounced on talk shows, they were being boycotted, their CDs were ceremonially destroyed in public protests, and they were blacklisted by corporate broadcasting networks. Country music had become the official soundtrack of red state America, which it remains today.

Maybe they didn’t smoke pot in places like Muskogee in 1974, but they’ve sure graduated from white lightnin’ to crystal meth, Oxycontin, and smack now. Rural America–the stronghold of country music–is in sad shape, and the people who live there are angry, resentful, isolated, and susceptible to manipulation by a demagogue who knows how to press their buttons. Country music, with its defensive and often belligerent edge, plays right along.

There is a song in “Nashville” that is threaded throughout the complex story, but which becomes central at the climax of the film. The refrain goes:

It don’t worry me.
It don’t worry me.
You might say I ain’t free,
But it don’t worry me.

That could be the theme song for Trump supporters.

[Note: Robert Altman’s “Nashville” is available on Amazon Prime.  Of course.]

 

Update on Protest: Publix Blinks

DieIn

Die-in Protest at Publix. From The Miami Herald

This is stunning!

According to the Miami Herald, the Publix supermarket chain announced this afternoon that it is stopping all political contributions. The move was in response to a protest organized by David Hogg, a high school student who survived the February massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The protest was in reaction to news that Publix had donated $670,000 to Republican Adam Putnam, a self-described “NRA sellout.”

Publix apologized for putting its employees and customers “in the middle of a political debate”. The Miami Herald story says that in “this election cycle alone, Publix has donated $2.1 million to state candidates, according to the Florida Division of Elections website. In the 2016 elections, the database shows the company gave $3 million.” According to Open Secrets, for the 2018 election cycle about 90 percent of the company’s contributions went to the Republican Party or candidates.

This change in policy will not affect any contributions already made. Nonetheless, it seems like a signal achievement by these amazing kids from Parkland, who have moved the needle on gun control where no one else could.

There is a lesson here for the rest of us.

 

Publix and Pay-to-Play vs. #NeverAgain

Putnam

This is a Florida story, but it has national importance because it brings together at least two major threads of American politics in a single dramatic confrontation.

David Hogg is one of the survivors of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida who have galvanized the gun control movement in the US by organizing the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC and by forcing politicians throughout the country to own up to their ties to the NRA and the gun lobby. Now he has started a boycott of the dominant supermarket chain in Florida over its enormous campaign contribution to Adam Putnam, the Republican candidate for governor who has actually described himself as a “proud #NRASellout”.

For those of you not lucky enough to live in the Sunshine State, it is difficult to convey just how ubiquitous Publix is and how thoroughly it has woven itself into everyday life here. I have written before about the “inevitability” of Publix, because although IMHO it is only a slightly-above-average supermarket, it is literally everywhere. For most Floridians it is the default option for grocery shopping if for no other reason than it has routed the competition and there really aren’t that many alternatives.

The clash began when the Tampa Bay Times published a story on May 15 revealing that Publix had given Putnam, who is currently Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, some $670,000 in campaign contributions over the past 3 years–more money than “any other candidate since at least 1995 and likely for the entirety of the company’s history.” The story added that “no other Florida candidate has ever come close to that kind of subsidy from Florida’s largest Fortune 500 company. Its most recent contribution, a $100,000 donation on April 30, was the largest, too, according to the latest campaign finance filings.”

Now I suspect that Publix couldn’t care less about Putnam’s ties to the NRA, but the company surely does care a great deal about having a friendly and beholden Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, and having him installed as Governor would doubtless be even better.

Putnam appears to have delivered on the investments Publix has made in his campaigns since 1996. The department he heads conducts food safety inspections and customer complaints pertaining to grocery stores. According to the TBT story:

In 2016, WFTS-Channel 28 discovered seven Tampa Bay area Publix stores failed health inspections. In those stores, food inspectors found rodent droppings, hundreds of pounds of meat and other food stored at unsafe temperatures, bugs and employees not washing their hands, according to the report.

Putnam responded the next day by pulling the inspections from the department’s website and eliminating the pass/fail grading system.

He replaced it six months later with a new rubric. Instead of a failing grade, the worst rating issued now is “re-inspection required.”

 

Moreover, he publicly defended Publix, calling it an “industry leader” that “ought not be mislabeled based on minor infractions.”

But it gets better. It turns out that the chairman of Putnam’s PAC “Florida Grown” is Justin Hollis, the grandson of the former president and chairman of Publix. And the TBT reports that Putnam’s PAC has paid Justin Hollis’ consulting firm, Silloh Consulting, more than $1 million this election season. So, in essence, one could say that Putnam is recycling some of those campaign contributions right back to Publix’s founding family.

But all of this was before those incredible kids from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High changed the national conversation about guns, and David Hogg’s idea of boycotting Publix has–rather surprisingly–caught on with a lot of people. He is now calling for a
“die-in” to disrupt Publix stores by having supporters lie down inside supermarkets for 12 minutes at 4 p.m. today. Hogg told Miami’s CBS affiliate station that he would call off the protest if Publix would contribute double the amount it gave to Putnam to the Stoneman Douglas victims fund and pledge never to support a politician who is A-rated by the NRA.

Of course, not everyone is on board with the protest. While being interviewed outside a Publix store, Hogg was bombarded with shouted insults by a few gun-rights supporters chanting things like “God bless America” and “USA NRA”. Florida has been and still is, overall, a very gun-friendly state.

Publix isn’t accustomed to this kind of scrutiny and criticism and seems somewhat flummoxed by the whole controversy. The company released a statement saying, “We support bi-partisan, business-friendly candidates, regardless of political affiliation and we remain neutral on issues outside of our core business.” Unfortunately, the “bi-partisan” part is clearly nonsense. For the 2018 election cycle, roughly 90 percent of its contributions have gone to the Republican Party or Republican candidates, according to the watchdog organization Open Secrets.

The Publix statement added: “As a result of this situation, we are evaluating our processes to ensure that our giving better reflects our intended desire to support a strong economy and a healthy community.” I guess we’ll see if that actually means anything.

So where should you shop instead if you want to support the protest? There is no easy answer. According to Open Secrets data, Winn-Dixie, which is a distant competitor to Publix, apparently has all but stopped making political contributions after contributing heavily to Republicans during the 90s and 00s. Walmart speads its money between both parties, but the majority goes to Republicans, which generally means NRA supporters. Whole Foods is now owned by Amazon, which gives more to Democrats. Target went heavily Republican during the Bush years, but now bestows its largess roughly equally between the two parties.

If you want to know where your shopping dollars end up in the political swamp, you can get some idea at www.opensecrets.org.

Of course, the fundamental problem is the poisonous influence of money in politics, which has grown worse by orders of magnitude since Citizens United. Corporate money is especially corrupting because corporations don’t have political views, they have financial interests. And the money they give to parties and candidates are essentially legal bribes, because they do expect favorable treatment in return. That is the sad state of our corporatocracy today.

So who knows how the Publix protest will turn out, but I wish the MSD kids all success and have nothing but admiration for them!

 

 

Michael Cohen: Trump’s Fixer or Trump’s Pimp?

cohen

Ever since Stormy Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, released a document detailing more than $4 million in corporate payments to the shell company “Essential Consultants LLC” (reportedly set up to pay hush money to Ms Daniels), a narrative has been taking shape which places most, if not all, of the blame on Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer and “fixer”.

The narrative goes something like this: Cohen hyped his close (if receding) relationship with Trump to peddle access to the Trump White House to companies scrambling to get influence over a president they never expected to win, but then Cohen couldn’t actually deliver. Put another way, Cohen was pimping out Trump to rich johns, but he couldn’t produce the bitch for the party.  The companies paid anyway because (a) they didn’t want to risk pissing off Trump, and (b) besides it wasn’t really that much money to them.

This explanation is convenient to Trump and his enablers because it casts Cohen as acting on his own out of personal greed and arguably puts some distance between the White House and a blatant pay-for-play scheme. It also lets the companies that paid the money off by making them look like naïve marks who got played by the venal schemer Cohen–kind of embarrassing but goodness gracious certain nothing illegal here!

Well, not so fast. There are all sorts of elements that don’t fit neatly into that narrative.

For starters, what happened to all the money that poured into Essential Consultants? We now know something about where monies paid to Cohen came from (though perhaps not all of it–there may well have been other payments by other entities that didn’t get caught in Avenatti’s net). But we know nothing about where the money went. Did some or most of it go to Trump? If so, how much? If he did benefit from such payments, isn’t that prima facie evidence of corruption?

Trump’s new loose-lips mouthpiece, Rudy Giuliani, has said that money was “funneled” through Cohen’s shell company to pay off Stormy Daniels and that Cohen was reimbursed by Trump for that payment–all perfectly normal for rich people and their lawyers to get rid of people with false claims about embarrassing behavior. But if money was “funneled” in one direction, what’s to keep it from being “funneled” in the reverse direction, i.e., into the Trump Organization, which remains an opaque black box to the American public. After all, AT&T, Novartis, etc. were paying money into Essential Consultants, not being paid off.

Then there’s the murky status of Cohen’s relationship with Trump. Is he still Trump’s personal attorney, as he was reportedly presenting himself to be as late as last month? Trump himself referred to Cohen as “my attorney” aboard Air Force One on April 5 when he denied knowing anything about the hush money payment. On May 11, Giuliani told Politico that “as far as we know” Cohen is no longer playing an active role in representing Trump. Rudy added that Trump’s legal team has “never really determined” a precise day when Cohen stepped away. Huh? They seriously don’t know?

That’s important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that, according to the New York Times, Cohen entered into a rather nebulous “strategic alliance” in March 2017 with the prominent DC law firm of Squire Patton Boggs (SPB), a major K Street lobbying firm–something that, strangely, has been little remarked upon by major news sources. According to the National Law Journal, Cohen was to be paid $500,000 plus bonuses by SPB, which terminated the relationship after the FBI raid on Cohen’s office, home, and hotel in April. Before that, however, Cohen reportedly referred five “client opportunities” to SPB, including the US Immigration Fund LLC, which according to the Wall Street Journal, supplied Chinese investors to companies run by the family of Trump son-in-law and alleged White House advisor Jared Kushner. That fund is now reported to be among SPB’s top ten lobbying clients this year, and earned SPB $220,000 in 2017.

Now, given the…uh…flexibility of lobbying regulations, perhaps none of this is technically illegal. But at a minimum, it is unseemly for the president’s personal lawyer to be accepting payments from corporate clients who are seeking favorable treatment from that president’s administration, even if those payments actually did remain in Cohen’s pocket and weren’t somehow delivered to the Trump Organization. Moreover, lobbyists are supposed to be registered as such, which apparently Cohen was not. It looks as if Cohen’s arrangement with SPB was carefully crafted to keep him in a gray area, and as we all know, white collar miscreants in gray areas almost never get prosecuted, let alone go to jail. But even SPB seemed a little squeamish about the deal, because according to the NYT, Cohen operated largely independently during his association with SPB, which did not have a key to Cohen’s office (and which was kept locked at all times), and he “used his own computer server which was separate from that of the firm.” Still, it all smells pretty bad.

Then there’s the $500,000 payment to Essential Consultants from Columbus Nova, a wealth management company associated with Viktor Vekselberg, the multibillionaire Russian oligarch and pal of Vladimir Putin. Once the news broke about the payment, the company lawyer (not Cohen) stated: “Columbus Nova is a management company solely owned and controlled by Americans. . . . Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else other than Columbus Nova’s owners, were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement.” However, as The New Yorker pointed out, Columbus Nova is a “family office”, that is a company “technically owned by others but which looks after money owned and controlled in large part—if not entirely—by Vekselberg and his family. (Columbus Nova’s president, Andrew Intrater, is Vekselberg’s cousin.) It’s the kind of clever corporate structure that allows a lawyer, at a crisis moment such as this, to say truthfully that the company is not owned and controlled by the man who owns and controls everything of value within the firm.”

So why did Vekselberg’s “family office” give Cohen a half million dollars? The official explanation the company provided (that it wanted Cohen’s advice on “potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures”) is ludicrous on its face. What companies like AT&T, Novartis, and Korean Aerospace were after seems fairly obvious, but what was the quid for Vekselberg’s quo? Could it have been a payoff? Or maybe just a “donation” for favors to be collected at some future time–you know, an investment in “other ventures”?

Perhaps the larger and more important question is what this all says about the culture of institutionalized corruption that our corporatocracy has engendered.  The 2016 Supreme Court decision in McDonnell v United States, which overturned the conviction of Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife for bribery, has made it much more difficult to prosecute corruption cases unless there is a specific “ask” for which there is an explicit payoff. The ruling read, in part:

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute…A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this Court…Setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an ‘official act.”

That ruling–like the Citizens United ruling–suggests a disturbing naiveté on the part of the Supreme Court about how things actually work in the real world. Setting up meetings, calling other officials, and hosting events is exactly how the green light is given to favor the interests of a company or wealthy individual who has just given money or luxury items to an official in a position to make things happen.

We now have an administration that has gleefully and shamelessly turned government into a mechanism for private enrichment, and there has not been a single instance of serious accountability for any of it. And that’s on top of a pre-existing culture where lobbyists actually draft legislation to favor their own interests and where politicians of all parties are heavily dependent on–and influenced by–unlimited donations from corporations, associations, and wealthy individuals. All of that has become normal and acceptable.

The Mueller team is clearly aware of the payments to Cohen’s shell company and undoubtedly a lot more than that. So maybe something will come of all of this. But I’m not holding my breath.