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The Brains of the Radical Right (Part 2)

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This is a continuation of my previous post on historian Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, a study of the impact of economist James M. Buchanan’s theories on US public policy.

Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981 buoyed hopes that Buchanan’s theories might at last be implemented in the US, as had been done in Chile under a military dictatorship. A conservative resurgence seemed to be developing not just in the US but in Europe as well, where Margaret Thatcher was taking an axe to Britain’s welfare state and state-supported industries after becoming Prime Minister in 1979. Reagan had a huge margin in the 1980 election, and his choice for the general to lead the revolution as budget director, David Stockman, was an avid libertarian. The conceptual field had been plowed by conservative think-tanks like the Koch-funded Cato Institute and the Scaife- and Coors-funded Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, which provided ready sources of like-minded recruits to staff the new administration.

Stockman’s mandate was to radically reduce and restructure big federal programs to shrink the federal budget and the public sector in general–basic libertarian dogma. The ultimate goal would be privatization, and the Great White Whale of federal programs was Social Security. But Stockman soon realized, as he later wrote, that: “A true economic policy revolution…meant risky and mortal political combat with all the mass constituencies” which those programs had engendered, such as “Social Security recipients, veterans, farmers, educators, state and local officials, [and] the housing industry.” By 1982, he had concluded that the Reagan Revolution simply could not happen in “the world of democratic fact.” What happened instead was a massive tax cut without corresponding spending reductions which produced what was then the biggest peacetime deficit in US history. (Does all this sound surprisingly contemporary?)

Social Security survived, but the goal of killing it (or at least taking it private) lived on as well. Buchanan came to much the same conclusion as Stockman about the political impossibility of a direct assault on a program that had such broad support. His solution was to undermine political support with a divide-and-conquer strategy combined with a psyops operation against faith in its viability. He laid out much of his thinking in a 1983 paper published by the Cato Institute called “Social Security Survival: A Public Choice Perspective” in which he memorably labeled Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme”–a meme that remains viral in Republican circles.

The strategy was basically to split the American public into three groups. One would be those who were already or soon would be receiving benefits–they would be reassured their benefits would remain untouched by changes. The second would be those who were a decade or so away from becoming eligible; these would be told that for them to get benefits, there would have to be changes in the rules such as increasing their contributions and raising the eligibility age–changes that would make Social Security less attractive. The third group would be younger people new to the work force; these were to be convinced that it was doubtful the system would even survive long enough to benefit them and that they would be better off by putting their money in private investments. If the rules could be changed for them to opt out, then the demise of the system would become a self-fulfilling prophesy, because the system depends on near-universal participation. Buchanan made no mention of what had happened the year before in Chile, where an economic crisis had just wiped out retirement savings under the newly privatized social security system there.

Indeed, Buchanan’s prescription was partially adopted. In 1983, Reagan signed a law to amend the original legislation, gradually increasing the age for full benefits from 65 to 67 and making up to 50 percent of Social Security benefits taxable. (The taxable portion was increased to 85 percent in 1993). Moreover, for the last 50 years there has been a steady drumbeat of propaganda from the right aimed at dismantling the system. The pitch remains basically the same:  (a) Social Security is a Ponzi scheme that will run out of money in year X, (b) the return to the individual would be higher if invested in private stocks and bonds, (c) the system is unfair to the young and those with higher incomes, (d) the government has no right to take your earnings to fund Social Security when they could get higher yields elsewhere, and therefore (e) the system needs to be radically “reformed” in order to “save” it–albeit in a much changed and diminished form. This has become Republican gospel from Reagan to Gingrich to Bush to Paul Ryan.

That Social Security has survived is testament both to its enduring popularity and to the complexity of the problem. (For an analysis of the later, see here.) But the psyops have had the intended effect on the program’s credibility–especially among younger people who increasingly doubt they will ever get anything from it. However, the fact remains that in 2018 among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 23% of married couples and about 43% of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income. At least one-third of US workers report that they have saved NOTHING for retirement, and more than half of them have put away less than $10,000! For 80 years, however, Social Security has successfully done what it was intended to do: provide the elderly and disabled a basic level of income, which for many would otherwise not exist. The case against it is fundamentally ideological, i.e., that the government should not be doing this because it requires a redistribution of private wealth.

Buchanan’s important role in propagating and providing intellectual respectability for such ideas also got a major boost in the early 80s, when Charles Koch decided to link his vast financial and organizational resources to Buchanan’s academic network.  George Mason University was then an undistinguished state-supported commuter college just outside of the DC Beltway in Fairfax, Virginia, but it had an ambitious president who was eager to get corporate money to build the school’s brand. He was able to lure Buchanan away from his Appalachian redoubt at Virginia Tech in 1983 with a stunning (by academic standards) salary and a promise of virtual autonomy as head of his Center for Study of Public Choice, which would be transferred and largely staffed with Buchanan’s faculty satellites from Blacksburg. GMU had already acquired in 1980 the Koch-financed Center for the Study of Market Practices established by economist Richard Fink at Rutgers as a seminary for the Austrian school of economics. (Fink later became executive vice-president of Koch Industries and, inter alia, chairman of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and director and co-founder of the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity PAC.)

The synergy between Koch money and Buchanan’s academic network in the context of a Reagan administration soon transformed George Mason University into what one Wall Street Journal writer called “the Pentagon of conservative academia”. Just 15 miles from the White House, Buchanan’s program was perfectly positioned to supply consultants, interns, and staff to help implement the administration’s policies. GMU also acquired a struggling law school in Arlington, which with lavish private financial backing soon became the analog in legal circles to what Buchanan’s program was in economic ones–staking out legal arguments advocating for the superiority of unregulated corporate capitalism unfettered by government intervention. (The law school was renamed after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia following his death.) Also in the mid-80s, GMU also acquired the Koch-financed Institute for Humane Studies–a kind of libertarian seminary for propagation of the faith which has since become a haven for climate-change deniers. Koch organizations reportedly have given the IHS an estimated $34 million between 1985 and 2015, while other conservative foundations have contributed at least an additional $20 million.

All of this heady activity reached a crescendo in October 1986 when Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics. (On the politics of the Nobel economics prize and its slant toward free market theory, see this interview. For a skeptical contemporary view of the award, see here.) Becoming a Nobel laureate made Buchanan virtually unassailable at GMU, and the university administration was content–even eager–to let Buchanan do his thing without interference as long as the corporate money kept rolling in, which it did. Few seemed troubled by the increasingly tight nexus between Buchanan’s autonomous Center at a publicly-funded state university and the obviously partisan political activity that its programs supported. (It is ironic that Buchanan, who on principle did not believe in tax-supported education, spent virtually his entire academic career at state-supported public universities.)

If the Kochs and their allies in the privatization campaign were disappointed by the Reagan administration’s inability to deliver and–a decade later–in the failure of the Republican “Contract for America” led in Congress by Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Phil Gramm, they found a long-game strategy in Buchanan’s ideas that might eventually succeed by changing the basic rules of the system. The strategy was to accomplish as much as possible through boring regulatory changes that attracted little or no attention from the press or the public. The more drastic changes would be repackaged as “reforms” that were presented as fiscally “unavoidable” but would inevitably lead to failure of the programs and the destruction of political support for them–the “starve the beast” approach. The targets would include not just Social Security and Medicare, but environmental regulations, the graduated income tax, public education, and even feminism. Eventually, the same strategy would be applied against Obamacare.

In 1997, Charles Koch made another $10 million investment in a new James Buchanan Center for Political Economy at GMU, which combined both Buchanan’s and Fink’s centers under one organization with Koch and Buchanan as co-chairs of the governing board. It was chartered as a non-profit, tax-deductible 501(c)(3) whose mission was “research, education, and outreach”. MacLean notes that most of the people who were brought in to do the Buchanan Center’s “outreach” were political operatives, not academics, who paid little heed to the restrictions inherent in its tax status, which required abstaining from partisan political activity. In May 1998, board member Wendy Lee Gramm (Senator Phil Gramm’s wife) sent out a fund-raising letter so blatantly in violation of the Center’s charter that it led to a blow-up within the university and eventually to a rift between Buchanan and Koch–basically over control, not philosophy.

Once it became clear that Koch was really totally in charge, Buchanan retired to his rural retreat. In 1999, the James Buchanan Center for Political Economy was replaced by the Mercatus Center, which remains effectively the tail that wags the GMU dog. On the Mercatus Center’s website, the History and Timeline page makes no mention either of the James Buchanan Center or of its predecessor, the Center for Study of Public Choice (nor does it mention Charles Koch). But Koch had gotten what he needed from Buchanan: a respectable economic philosophy to justify private greed and a workable strategy for achieving his goals. When Buchanan died in 2013, neither Koch nor Fink attended his memorial service. In the end, the Nobel prize winner was just “the help.”

If you’re looking for a good end-of-summer read on something that’s really important, buy a copy of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Brains of the Radical Right (Part 1)

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Does the name James M. Buchanan ring a bell? No, not the eponymous president who preceded Lincoln, but the libertarian Nobel laureate economist whose ideas and writings have provided the intellectual underpinnings and playbook for today’s radical right and have been promulgated by lavish support from the Kochs and other super-rich dark money contributors. In case a book about that sounds super-boring, I just finished reading Duke University historian Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, and I can assure you that it is a riveting story. But most importantly, it explains how the economic and political theories of the reactionary right from the “Reagan Revolution” to the “Contract with America” to the Tea Party developed and took over the Republican Party in the age of Trump.

Buchanan, who died in 2013, became the most prominent American proponent of something with the anodyne name of “public choice theory” (I know, but stick with me, please!). In a (doubtless oversimplified) nutshell, he argued that individuals vote solely based on their economic interests, and that government programs, which use tax money to take money from some people in order to provide goods or services to other people, create a society of “takers” who violate the economic freedom of the “producers” who are being essentially robbed without their consent. He defined freedom purely in individual economic terms, and rejected any idea of a common good or general social benefit, regarding collective action of any kind (for example, labor unions) as anathema because they violate individual liberty. The problem that Buchanan saw was that government programs that help the many at the expense of the few are popular with the recipients of those benefits, who therefore vote for the politicians who support them, which in turn results in expanded government programs and spending. The same is true with regard to government regulations that place restriction on certain economic activity, such as environmental controls. His solution to that is to write the rules so that government activity is limited to military and police protection and that voting is restricted to exclude the “takers”. Is this starting to sound more familiar now?

Buchanan grew up in Tennessee and, aside from graduate school in Chicago and a brief faculty appointment at UCLA, he spent his adult life in Virginia. Indeed, the philosophy he espoused clearly reflects the South of his era–minimal government serving an oligarchic ruling class, minimal investment in public education or other government services, and virtually no concern about the common welfare or social justice. MacLean draws a direct line from the ideas of the antebellum South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, who defended slavery with the language of economic liberty.

MacLean explains how Buchanan’s evolving academic writing entered the political realm in 1950s Virginia–then the political fiefdom of Harry Byrd, Jr. and a bastion of segregation. There his arguments against tax-supported public schools became one of the pillars of the state’s “massive resistance” to integration, which resulted in the actual closure of some schools rather than admit black students–in one rural country this lasted for 4 years! Buchanan was then at the University of Virginia, which was at the time something of an academic backwater–all male and, of course, all white. There he began to cultivate and attract a coterie of like-minded disciples and colleagues who became known as the “Virginia School” of economists and produced a steady stream of academic research and graduates to propagate libertarian ideas. There he also pioneered the development of autonomous institutes or centers within the university system that were financed by corporate and private money and therefore could operate largely outside of the norms and restraints  of the university administration.

Buchanan didn’t resort to of overtly racist language in justifying Virginia’s massive resistance, opting to stay with the abstruse academic language of “public choice” and economic freedom. (Just as Southerners have always insisted that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but rather preserving states’ rights.) Here, as on other occasions throughout his career, Buchanan was unconcerned with institutional segregation and racism. For this line of thought, inequality is irrelevant and reducing it is not even a goal, and the fact that black kids were being deprived of even an inferior education was of no importance. For people who do care about such things, Buchanan’s role in this sordid effort by Virginia and other states to preserve Jim Crow has tainted every use of his writing against government programs to reduce inequality and expand our democracy. For Buchanan’s libertarian partisans and the Republican radicals who have weaponized his ideas to attack dangerous things like unions, Social Security, and public schools, that’s no problem.

Buchanan’s academic work was purely theoretical, and he disdained empirical research and the kind of sophisticated mathematical modeling that mainstream economists employ. His theories, therefore, were more in the mode of an elaborately worked-out theology than scientific methodology. However, his ideas did get their shot at practical application in a somewhat unlikely place–the country of Chile during the military dictatorship that began in 1973. Starting in 1975 the Pinochet regime sought advice from the monetarist economist Milton Friedman (a mentor for Buchanan at the University of Chicago) and from F. A. Hayek, the Austrian economist who was the dean of the libertarian (aka “neo-liberal”) school which so profoundly influenced Buchanan. But it was Buchanan himself who had the strongest and most lasting influence on the Chilean regime, which became notorious for its ruthlessness and brutality.

A Chilean devotee of the “Virginia School”, Pinochet’s Labor Minister José Piñera devised a series of radical structural changes known as the “seven modernizations” which were implemented starting in the late 70s. These included draconian restrictions on unions, privatization of the social security system, privatization of health care, transformation of the judiciary, free trade in agricultural commodities, drastic limits on government regulations in the economy, and privatization of education through the use of vouchers and “self-financing” of university education–all of which were “public choice” nostrums. The beauty of it, of course, was that in a dictatorship there was no opposition to stand in the way.

Buchanan himself went to Chile in 1980 to deliver a series of lectures and private consultations which went well beyond economic restructuring. His most enduring legacy was in the re-writing of the Chilean constitution to restrict democratic participation and to implement his theories while making them almost impossible to change. Buchanan always distrusted democracy because it empowered “takers” who support the sort of government redistributive programs and regulations that restrict individual economic freedom.  In Chile, he found a way to place shackles on the electoral system which would permanently over-represent the right-wing minority to favor elite interests. (The new constitution was presented in a “yes or no” plebiscite clearly rigged to produce the desired result, and the result was a “virtually unamendable” charter that survived the military dictatorship to the present day.) Buchanan returned to Chile in 1981, when the Mont Pelerin Society (an exclusive club of like-minded economists) held a celebratory meeting in Viña de Mar, which was widely viewed as providing legitimacy and an intellectual rationale for the regime’s actions.

So how did it all turn out for Chileans? In the interest of brevity, we’ll skip over the social costs of the dictatorship (including at least 3,200 Chileans killed or “disappeared”, more that 20,000 tortured while under detention, and an estimated 200,000 forced to flee the country) and just focus on the economic results. Initially, things looked good, especially for those with means. Their privatized social security accounts blossomed as banks loosened lending practices and foreign money flooded back into Chile. Then in 1982–the year after the Mont Pelerin Society’s victory lap–the international financial crisis hit, and the Chilean economy–now largely operating as an unregulated free market–went into a tailspin. Many major banks went bankrupt, unemployment spiked above 20 percent, and middle class retirement savings in privatized accounts evaporated. Between 1970 and 1987, the number of Chileans classified as poor or indigent went from 23 to 45 percent of the population. Without a safety net, precarious and low-income work became the norm for nearly half the Chilean labor force. Chile’s middle class, once the strongest in Latin America, has never fully recovered. The crisis was severe enough that even Pinochet got rid of the “Chicago Boys” who had been running the economy and imposed more orthodox economic policies including nationalizing some banks. Even today, Chile’s index of income inequality is the fifth highest of the 35 OECD countries, exceeded only by Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, and South Africa.

Nothing daunted, the public choice theorists got their next chance to affect policy when Ronald Reagan swept into the White House in 1981. That story will continue in another post.

 

Start the Impeachment Campaign Now!

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In our country’s history, there has never been a president as deserving of impeachment as Donald Trump. The reasons for removing him from office are both manifest and numerous, but his subservience to a hostile foreign power on display in Helsinki has made this both more obvious and more urgent.

The problem is how to do this successfully when the Republican Party controls both houses of Congress (not to mention the Supreme Court) and continues to protect Trump from any accountability. The process is inherently difficult, and indeed no president has ever been removed by impeachment. Nixon, the only president ever to resign, did so under the threat of impeachment, but was never formally impeached.

Constitutionally, the process has two parts. First the House of Representatives must pass a bill of impeachment which lists the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of which the president is accused. Then two-thirds of the Senate (i.e., 67 members) must vote to convict him of such crimes. At present, barring a miraculous Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion of a large number of Republicans, neither of those things can happen. For that reason, the Democratic Party leadership has stifled any attempt to bring impeachment proceedings forward, and moreover has been virtually unwilling to utter the “I” word. We are in uncharted waters here, but I believe this timid approach is the wrong strategy, especially in the current fraught political environment.

So how are we to deal with a president who is plainly being manipulated by a foreign despot? We must begin by recognizing that impeachment is not really a judicial process, but rather a political one. The Constitution does not describe what kinds of acts might qualify as “high crimes and misdemeanors”. In essence, those acts are whatever Congress decides they are.

The three historical examples of impeachment illustrate just how arbitrary these can be.

  • Andrew Johnson was impeached for firing Secretary of War Edward Stanton in alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act which had been passed by Congress to protect Stanton and which was probably itself unconstitutional. (His impeachment failed in the Senate by one vote.)
  • Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky (the formal charges were perjury and obstruction of justice), following a multiyear investigation by Independent Counsel Ken Starr of various unrelated allegations of wrongdoing growing out of the Whitewater scandal while Clinton was governor of Arkansas, which never resulted in indictments of either Bill or Hillary Clinton. (Both charges failed in the Senate.)
  • Richard Nixon was about to impeached for his role in the cover-up of the Watergate burglary of the Democratic National Committee. As noted above, he resigned the presidency before he could be impeached.

Of the three, clearly the Nixon case was the most egregious, but all of these took place amidst a supercharged political environment. However, none of these can remotely be considered as serious as the charge of collusion with Russia to subvert the US election process, and only the Johnson impeachment (immediately after the Civil War) occurred in a political atmosphere nearly as bitterly divided as our current one.

So far, the Democratic Party leadership has opted to put all of its eggs in Robert Mueller’s basket, hoping that his investigation will result in evidence of wrongdoing so compelling that Trump’s Republican protectors will be shamed into doing the right thing. While that isn’t completely inconceivable, there are obvious flaws in that strategy.

First, Trump could simply pull the plug on the Mueller investigation and gut the upper levels of the Justice Department and install his own lackeys. (The first steps in that direction may have already begun with the appointment of Trump transition team official Brian Benczkowski to head the Criminal Division at Justice.) What would happen then is quite unclear, but with a Republican congressional majority that is plainly interested in NOT seeing the investigation through to its conclusion, it could well simply fizzle out, and the evidence that Mueller’s team has assembled might never see the light of day.

Trump could also start handing out pardons right and left in order to avoid the public glare of trials and to discourage witnesses from cooperating with investigators. However counterintuitive it might seem, a president can issue a pardon before a conviction or before formal charges have even been made. Gerald Ford did exactly that for Nixon.

The Democrats’ operating assumption has been that if Trump were to do any of these things the blowback would be so severe that he simply wouldn’t dare. I think that is a dangerous assumption. Would anyone have thought that three days after humiliating himself before Putin in Helsinki, Trump would then invite him to the White House? The Democratic leadership may also fear that by pushing the impeachment idea, it might actually encourage Trump to scuttle the Mueller probe. I think he will do that regardless the minute he decides that Mueller is getting too close.

The other fundamental weakness in this strategy is the assumption that there is some level of evidence that will–by itself–cause the Republican leadership to allow an impeachment bill reach the floor of the House, let alone reach the Senate for a trial. So far there is zero evidence that that assumption is valid.

There are two things that could make a successful impeachment possible. The first is a massive Democratic vote turnout in the mid-term election, which would eliminate the Republican majority in the House and show conclusively that supporting Trump is a political liability. That would allow a bill of impeachment to come to a vote in the House. However, there is absolutely no possibility that the Democrats will have close to the 67 seats in the Senate needed to convict Trump.

That leads to the second necessary condition, which is a report from the Mueller investigation that is so damning that there will be unbearable pressure from the American public on Republican senators to stop defending Trump. I think the Democratic leadership needs to begin laying the ground work for that now, and that means they need to begin a media campaign now that lays out the basic argument for impeachment in order to educate the public that isn’t paying attention yet. And that media campaign must be a central part of the message that Democratic candidates at all levels will be delivering before the November elections.

There is plenty of material already known that in more normal times would provide ample justification for impeaching Trump. Start with the unprecedented levels of personal corruption by Trump and his family, and their flagrant flouting of ethics law and regulations. Or the wanton destruction of the international security apparatus that has protected the US and our allies for 70 years. Or the willful refusal of Trump’s administration to implement our own asylum laws and the inexcusable separation and incarceration of immigrant children away from their parents. Or the big one: Trump’s treasonous subordination of US interests to those of Vladimir Putin.

Lets repeat:  Impeachment is a POLITICAL process! For it to work, it needs a movement behind it. There is tremendous political energy in this country in reaction to Trump, but it is essentially leaderless with disparate goals. It needs to be mobilized in support of one great objective: to destroy Trump and what he represents. If we can’t do that, everything else the opposition is trying to do will fail as well. We are in the middle of a reactionary counterrevolution, but we continue to play by obsolete rules that the enemy has totally abandoned.

The Democratic Party is the only institution that can do this, but its leadership is far too timid and focused on process. It needs to articulate clearly to the American public why Trump cannot be permitted to remain in office and then make that its number one priority. If Schumer and Pelosi can’t do that, then we need to replace them with someone who can.

Why Trump Voters Don’t Care about Russia

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Trump’s disastrous European trip culminating in his ritual humiliation in Helsenki doesn’t seem to have put a dent in his support base.  Here’s my theory about why not: His base despises the US government and is in full rebellion against it, and they believe Trump is leading a revolution that is on the verge of triumph. The fact that he gets foreign support from someone like Putin doesn’t make them angry. Most of them refuse to believe it, and the others either don’t care or actually welcome it. In no way does it affect their loyalty to Trump because he is doing what they want him to do, which is to destroy and replace the government of the United States.

To make an historical analogy: If Trump’s base believes that the US government is a tyrannical King George III, then they have no problem with accepting help for their rebellion from Louis XVI. The Revolutionary War parallel isn’t far-fetched–after all, the Republican radicals named themselves the Tea Party.

Violent resistance by groups who oppose what the central government is trying to force them to do is an integral part of American history. The most obvious example is the Civil War, but other less well-remembered insurrections go back even before independence. The main reason gun-rights advocates want to keep their arsenals is because they fear the US government.

Our current rebellion parallels the 19th century Civil War in several important ways:

  • It is regional–now it’s rural vs. urban, insular heartland vs. the cosmopolitan coasts.
  • It is fundamentally racist in its origins and expressions.
  • It is an older economy vs. a new one.
  • It pits radical individual freedoms against equality and the common welfare.
  • It enlists cultural prejudices and resentments of the many in service of economic benefits to the few.

What wasn’t present in the first Civil War was today’s sharp religious divide with Christian evangelicals in rebellion against a secular urban society and the constitutional separation of church and state. The fact that Trump’s cynical embrace of the Christian right is transparently false doesn’t matter. He does what they want, so they believe in him.

Another difference is a vast and well-funded propaganda machine that incessantly spouts a unified reactionary message. Fox News is unapologetically partisan and propagandistic, unlike most other television news organizations which still feel obligated to present a “on the one hand, on the other hand” version of events, making them essentially irrelevant. Local newspapers, which once presented a variety of viewpoints, are dead or dying, and local TV is overwhelmingly under control of Sinclair, which broadcasts a political message virtually identical to Fox News. Then there is the unrelenting background noise of conservative talk radio which amplifies the same message, validates proven falsehoods, and invents new conspiracy theories. People in Trumpland don’t read the New York Times or the Washington Post. They simply don’t hear an opposing message. They have had drummed into their ears for 40 years that the federal government is the problem, and they are no longer loyal to the America that it represents.

For them, the US government keeps imposing things that they hate, and the resistance changes strategy and tactics but never ceases. Desegregation, enforced school integration, civil rights for minorities, progressive taxation to counter income inequality and provide programs to help the “undeserving” poor, affirmative action, gay marriage, equal housing laws, voting rights for minorities, environmental regulations, immigration rules that are making white Americans a minority in their “own” country–the list goes on and on. The resistance has fought each of these in every possible way, but the election of a black president galvanized it into a rebellion as nothing else did before.

All that the reactionary revolution lacked was a charismatic demagogue, and now they have their hero in Donald Trump. For his followers, he can do no wrong. Attacking the free press? They deserve it because it’s fake news. Serial adultery? No problem. Corruption? No problem. Trade wars that hurt American industries and agriculture? His heart is in the right place. Locking up and deporting immigrants and taking away their kids? So what, they’re not white and we don’t want them here anyway. Collusion with Russia? Not true, but even if it is we don’t care because he’s our savior. Nothing matters. We believe.

TrumpWorld is a cult, and cult members will die for their beliefs.

What’s Wrong with White People?

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“… 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.