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Winter is Coming

This is a sick, sick country. The mass murder in Buffalo brings together two of the most virulent diseases infecting America: white supremacy and gun worship.  I no longer have any hope that I will see anything constructive done about gun violence in my lifetime. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has made white supremacy the bedrock of its appeal to voters, and too many white people seem to be buying it. I think the two are tightly intertwined. Republicans traffic in racial fear, and fear fuels the proliferation of firearms.

There has been plenty of commentary about how the spread of propaganda on right-wing media about “white replacement” (and the linked hysteria about “critical race theory”) have fed into the fever dreams of infantile psychos like Dylann Roof, Kyle Rittenhouse, and now Peyton Gendron, who see themselves as heroes of White America–and who are indeed accepted as such within the MAGA crowd. There really isn’t any doubt that this is true. This pernicious nonsense is Republican dogma now–covertly for some, overtly for a growing number of others.

What I don’t see is any serious effort to do anything about guns. Democrats have basically given up on that. In state after state, the trend is to loosen, not tighten, access to firearms with new open- and concealed-carry laws that have increased the likelihood that the dude at the next table in a restaurant or at the next pump in a gas station is packing heat. Nothing makes any difference–not Sandy Hook, not Pulse nightclub, not Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, not Sutherland Springs, not Columbine, not the El Paso Walmart, not Las Vegas, and now not Buffalo. We are no longer surprised or even much shocked by mass shootings; indeed we hardly notice most of them. So far just this year, there have been almost two hundred shootings in the US involving at least four victims shot or killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

The US is an outlier in this regard among advanced countries. Racism exists to a greater or lesser degree everywhere, but only in the US do we see it manifested in lethal gun violence at anywhere close to the scale we experience in this country. Why? Because there are way more guns.

TV crime procedural dramas always talk about means, motive, and opportunity. Well, opportunity for an armed person to shoot people in a public place is everywhere and anywhere. Maybe we could do something about motive if the Republican Party and its enablers changed their tune, but we know they’re not going to as long as it’s working for them, which it is. We certainly could do something about means if there were enough political will to reduce the number of guns in private hands and eliminate access to firearms of mass destruction. But there is no such will, and it’s not going to happen. There will be other Buffalos, just like there have been other Sandy Hooks. It’s just maddening and infuriating, but we all know nothing is going to change because our government simply doesn’t work.

This country is in a sour, mean mood, for all sorts of different reasons. We are in our own Weimar Republic, and I fear that what comes next won’t be pretty.

On Making Juneteenth a National Holiday

Lincoln Park 1

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy that June 19, or Juneteenth, has been made a federal holiday to commemorate the emancipation of America’s slaves. 

What bothers me is the narrative that is being constructed around the Juneteenth holiday. Why is it that Republican lawmakers in Congress, who universally support their party’s unceasing and increasingly successful efforts to suppress the votes of Black and other minority Americans and who have made Critical Race Theory a conservative bogeyman to scare white people, should so eagerly embrace making Juneteenth a holiday? Could there possibly be another agenda here?

Of course there is. If we now have not one but TWO holidays that celebrate Black America, that means that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in this country, doesn’t it? It’s all fixed, right? Nothing to see here, folks, so let’s just move on. Look, we gave you another day off! America isn’t a racist country, and this proves it. After all, that was the rationale for the Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act:  We don’t have a problem anymore, because all of that was in the past–now it’s all fine. Hey, Walmart is selling the t-shirt!

The critic Hilton Als, in a 1999 essay on the great comedic and dramatic talent Richard Pryor, observed: “People are quick to make monuments of anything they live long enough to control.” Kaitlyn Greenidge cited that aperçu in a New York Times op-ed, saying “I can’t help but think this is the impetus behind the rush to canonize Juneteenth as a national holiday. I worry the lessons of Juneteenth will become lost because we have seen the promising visions of Black freedom-dreaming co-opted before.” Just look at how Martin Luther King, Jr. and even Malcolm X are now piously–and very selectively–cited by politicians who would have regarded them with the same fear and loathing that most of white America did when they were alive and active.

Back in the segregated Texas of my childhood, Juneteenth was the one day out of the year when black folks could go to the public parks and zoos (not swimming pools, however), and of course, white people stayed strictly away. It’s facts like these that are in danger of being whitewashed away in the Disneyfied version now being promulgated. 

Ironically, this is exactly why Critical Race Theory and initiatives like The 1619 Project are needed even more if we as a nation are ever to understand and come to terms with this country’s ugly racial history. Instead, what do we get? A concerted Republican effort to suppress study and teaching of America’s real racist culture as being “divisive” and “unpatriotic”. Teaching of Critical Race Theory has been banned from being taught in public schools in Texas, Florida, and at least 3 other Republican-governed states, and several other states have similar bans in the works. Texas Senator Ted Cruz proclaimed that “Critical race theory is bigoted, it is a lie, and it is every bit as racist as the klansmen in white sheets.” If Republicans can suppress the black vote, why not continue to suppress black history? After all, the holiday itself commemorates the suppression for two years of the news that slaves in Texas had been emancipated.

So yes, let’s make Juneteenth a holiday. But we can’t use another holiday to pretend that we’ve fixed the problem of structural racial injustice in our society. 



Is Cryptocurrency the New Cocaine?


On June 4, an overflow crowd jammed the Mana Convention Center in Miami’s trendy Wynwood district to attend Bitcoin2021, sponsored by the leading cryptocurrency and headlined by such Silicon Valley luminaries as Jack Dorsey, the founder and CEO of Twitter, there to make the case that the blockchain technology is world’s best tool for achieving financial freedom and fighting government censorship. “We don’t need the financial institutions that we have today,” Dorsey said. “We have one that is thriving … that is owned by the community.” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez opened the conference, declaring his goal was to make Miami the “Bitcoin, blockchain and mining capital of the world.” 

The campaign seems to be working. Only the day before, Suarez announced that, whose digital platform lets users buy, sell, and trade Bitcoin and other forms of digital payment, would be moving its headquarters from New York to Miami. Earlier in the week, Atlanta-based Borderless Capital announced the creation of the Borderless.Miami fund, which will use $25 million to “seed startups using the Algorand blockchain and Algo coin. It is also creating an Algorand Miami Accelerator in collaboration with Circle, another heavyweight in the crypto world.” Then on Bitcoin2021’s opening day, eToro, the world’s second-largest exchange by number of weekly visitors, announced it is seeking office space in Miami for a 50-person U.S. hub that will share duties with its current U.S. location in Hoboken, New Jersey.

To top it all off on that same day, the former American Airlines Arena–the home of the Miami Heat–was officially renamed the FTX Arena, part of a 19 year, $135 million renaming deal with FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange founded and headed by a little-known 29-year-old billionaire named Sam Bankman-Fried. It almost overshadowed news coverage of several mass shootings in Miami-Dade County during the same week.

If, like most Miamians, you had never heard of FTX and have only the vaguest idea of what a cryptocurrency is, you might well wonder what all of this is about. It sounds so cool and cutting-edge, but who are these people really? And what does this purported financial revolution mean for the city and the country? 

There is remarkably little information readily available about FTX or its wunderkind founder, and there is no evident connection to Miami. The company, founded in 2019, is based in Hong Kong and incorporated in Antigua and Barbuda, a Caribbean island nation that sells its citizenship for as little as $100,000 (plus processing fees). Forbes did a fanboy interview with Bankman-Fried in May, that ticked off the basic (and oft-repeated) milestones in his bio–MIT, working for Jane Street Capital, founding Alameda (“a crypto quantum trading firm”), and then FTX. “I wanted to incorporate the buyer, the seller, and the exchange. So we launched FTX in spring of 2019 and built it from nothing to where it sits today as the fourth largest global crypto currency exchange based outside of China.” The Forbes interviewer showed no curiosity about the source of the capital that fueled this meteoric rise, focusing instead on Bankman-Fried’s self-proclaimed “effective altruism”, comparing him to Victorian utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

According to one report, Bankman-Fried is now the second most wealthy “blockchain billionaire”–up from being nowhere on the list the previous year. The stunning rise of FTX seems to correlate to a large investment in December 2019 by Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, founded by CEO Changpeng “CZ” Zhao in China, but later moved offshore to a succession of locations reportedly including Malta, Seychelles, and the Cayman Islands. Zhao now reportedly claims that Binance has no headquarters. In May, Bloomberg News reported that Binance was under investigation by the IRS and Justice Department. 

In the world of cryptocurrency, no one seems concerned by such things, but the Miami Herald editorial board expressed some serious qualms in an editorial entitled “Forgive us, but the heady prospect of Miami as a crypto hub makes us a little queasy“: 

“It’s an exciting time. It’s scary, too. To those of us without a Bitcoin to our names, it feels kind of unreal. Don’t get us wrong. We hope cryptocurrency — and the flashing neon welcome mat we’ve set out for the tech industry — elevate this city to new prosperity. We’d love it if this heady new world has real staying power, especially if it can provide the fuel for the gritty, unglamorous things this city needs, like affordable housing, ways to combat sea level rise and better transportation. We hope virtual currency and the underlying blockchain technology provide scads of jobs in this community. Just don’t blame us for being a bit wary.

“Because Miami has history, folks. We’ve been a smugglers’ paradise, the epicenter of the cocaine trade, a mecca for money laundering, ground zero for mortgage fraud, home to the biggest Medicare black market in the United States. When the “frothy” housing bubble burst in 2007, Miami’s overheated market got hurt badly.”

Indeed. Back in the ’80s–the days of Miami Vice–the flood of unbelievable amounts of cocaine cash fueled the local economy and built the glittering skyscrapers that line Brickell Avenue, but it came at a great price in crime and corruption when Miami became the US epicenter of the cocaine wars. No one is suggesting that the influx of cryptocurrency money will bring 80s-style gun battles in the streets. But there are serious concerns about where all of the money bankrolling these companies is coming from and who is paying whom on these platforms. Not to mention questions about whether the entire cryptocurrency phenomenon is just another bubble that will pop and leave another financial disaster in its wake. 

There are also serious concerns about adverse effects of unregulated cryptocurrency on society at large. The near-untraceability of cryptocurrency transactions makes it the ideal medium of exchange for organized crime, money laundering, terrorist activity, tax evasion, and cyber crime.  To cite only the most recent big example, when cybercriminals shut down the Colonial Pipeline last month causing panic buying and fuel shortages throughout the eastern US, the company reportedly paid the $4.4 million ransom in Bitcoin.

Technically, cryptocurrency transactions are not absolutely anonymous, but rather pseudonymous, i.e. the identity of the parties involved is masked by a public key which is published on the bitcoin blockchain and a private key or “signature” known only to the user. It is therefore theoretically possible to identify parties to transactions through cluster analysis of patterns in the keys, but there are also ways of evading this scrutiny, e.g., by using a different key for each transaction. Some cryptocurrency exchanges and digital “wallets” require some minimal level of personal information in order to set up an account. But there are also a number of cryptocurrencies whose primary selling point is that they offer enhanced security features or options that help to keep users’ identities and activities concealed. The bottom line is that it remains extraordinarily difficult for law enforcement or national treasuries and central banks to identify the parties to any given transaction and the odds of detection are extremely small, especially if someone takes measures to conceal his identity. So for all practical purposes, almost all cryptocurrency transactions are indeed virtually anonymous.

If you look for the one thing that most distinguishes cryptocurrency from fiat currency like the dollar, euro, yen, or pound, it would be precisely its secrecy and absence of oversight by government agencies. Since there are no intermediaries like banks that are subject to scrutiny and regulation, there is no entity to police what happens on the cryptocurrency exchanges other than the exchanges themselves, which have little or no incentive to do so.  That is exactly what makes it so attractive to individuals and organizations that don’t want their activities revealed. It takes little imagination to see applications in politics, like dark money payments to influence elections (already hard enough to trace) or bribery of public officials by opening up a cryptocurrency wallet invisible to prying eyes. 

To be fair, advocates claim that cryptocurrencies can do some things that traditional currencies can’t and are intrinsically more democratic by being available to people who lack access to traditional banking. For example, they assert that cryptocurrencies offer a safe way to store monetary value in countries that lack a stable currency, like Venezuela. The problem is that upon closer examination, these arguments start to melt away and seem more a specious rationalization for a medium best suited for illicit activities. A desperate Venezuelan may indeed see a cryptocurrency as a way to get money out of his country’s abysmally failed economic system, but access to an exchange would be largely limited to the richer strata of society, not those who have seen their meager savings vanish and have to scramble daily for necessities. Moreover, the value of individual cryptocurrencies themselves is highly volatile and subject to abrupt swings. For example, Elon Musk’s remark on Saturday Night Live last month that dogecoin, a bitcoin rival that he had been pushing, was really “a hustle”, sent its value immediately plummeting by 40 percent.

Still, it’s easy to understand the allure of speculation in cryptocurrency when the overall trend in the market value of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin continues to rise, fueled by the speculation itself and the belief that this is The Next Big Thing. Many people have made a lot of money by betting on Bitcoin and its rivals. At this point, however, the market value is based on faith and faith alone, which is why things like naming rights to Miami’s biggest sports arena become important. If the Heat are playing in the FTX Arena, it must be real, right?

What could make it Not Real is if the US Government decides to impose regulations that would pull back the veil of anonymity in cryptocurrency transactions. This is why it is critical now to get political support for the free-wheeling status quo and project an aura of both inevitability and Too Big to Fail. It’s no accident that Sam Bankman-Fried gave $5 million to the Biden campaign–the second-largest individual donation after Mike Bloomberg’s.  The party affiliation is unimportant, as long as politicians see the “industry” as legitimate and its survival to be in their interest. Any effective regulation is viewed as a threat that could bring the whole thing crashing down. The prevailing ideology in the cryptocurrency world is Libertarian where any regulation is a bad regulation. 

Governments and central banks around the world have been slow to react to the cryptocurrency phenomenon or recognize its implications. As long as cryptocurrency represented only a tiny fraction of financial activity, it could be essentially ignored as insignificant. But if, say, a quarter or a third of financial transactions took place with cryptocurrency, that would represent an existential threat not only to the established banking industry but also to governments’ ability to impose effective monetary and fiscal policy because an enormous chunk of economic activity would be beyond their control. That may be Jack Dorsey’s Libertarian dream, but it would be Janet Yellen’s nightmare. 

So far, the US government has not really tackled cryptocurrency-related issues. Back in February 2020, then-Treasury Secretary Mnuchin told Congress that regulations were being developed at Treasury for cryptocurrencies, which he cited as “a major threat”, but then nothing happened. The crypto industry has created its own lobbying force to try to insure that nothing does happen. There is even a bi-partisan “Blockchain Caucus” in the House of Representatives, whose website says “we believe in the future of blockchain technology” and “as a Caucus, we have decided on a hands-off regulatory approach, believing that this technology will best evolve the same way the internet did; on its own.” In May, Treasury announced that any crypto transfers greater that $10,000 would have to be reported to the IRS, adding that “cryptocurrency already poses a significant detection problem by facilitating illegal activity broadly including tax evasion.” It was unclear, however, how this could be enforced. China has also called for a crackdown on cryptocurrency trading and mining. 

As if all this weren’t enough, it turns out that “mining”–the computer processes that create and manage the blockchains that are the essential element of cryptocurrency trading–is a huge environmental threat because of the enormous amounts of electrical power that it requires. According to one study, the energy expended on this worldwide already equals the entire energy consumption of Sweden or Argentina. Moreover, powerplants are being put online specifically to power mining, which increasingly is being done by largescale “mining rig” farms rather than the decentralized individual computers of crypto mythology. About 70 percent of mining takes place in China.

There is a TV series now trending on Netflix called “Start Up“, which coincidentally takes place in Miami and involves a bitcoin-like cryptocurrency created by a brilliant young Cuban-American woman and the efforts taken by her and her associates to find the capital to realize it as a successful business venture regardless of what it takes. Without being too much of a spoiler, let’s just say that it doesn’t end well. But, of course, that’s fiction. In real life, she’d have the backing of the Mayor, and her company’s name would be going up on the Miami Heat’s downtown arena. Right?


The Biggest Lie of All: White Supremacy

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Amidst all of the commentary on the assault on the Capitol and American democracy, we should not lose sight of one important thing: This was an insurrection by white Americans to preserve white dominion in this country. White supremacy has always been the bedrock beneath Trump and Trumpism. Sometimes it lurks beneath the surface, sometimes it crops up in plain sight, but it is always there. 

The Big Lie of white supremacy is implicit in Trump’s preposterous claim that he “won the election in a landslide”. What do the battle cries of “take back your country” or “stop the steal” really mean? Take it back from whom? Stop the steal by whom? Who is “stealing” the country and the election? Obviously, it’s the Democrats, but who are they but a mongrel coalition of black and brown people, immigrants, and their perfidious white liberal allies who want to trample all over the rights of Real Americans, i.e., white people.

The message was clearly on display during the Republican National Convention in August, where one after another, Trump’s acolytes took the podium to scream alarm that if Joe Biden won the election those people from the crime-ridden war zones of Democrat-run cities [i.e., black people] would be coming to destroy America’s idyllic [white] suburbs. There would be uncontrolled rioting in the streets, “mob rule”, and “no one will be safe in Biden’s America”, as Trump himself proclaimed. Rudy Giuliani could barely contain himself, calling–literally–for locking more people up and portraying New York City as a cartoonish Gotham City where criminals rule the streets and chaos reigns.

Trump’s claim that he would win by a landslide unless the election was rigged rests on the belief that the champion of white people can’t lose. And millions of Americans–overwhelmingly white people–have bought into that idea. No evidence can shake that belief. Trump and his minions traffic in fear, and their lies fall on ears primed to believe them. As columnist Leonard Potts, Jr. correctly observed:

But for all the other things that riot was, it was also an expression of fear — the panic of those who find themselves outnumbered. One cannot overemphasize a simple fact: In only one of the eight presidential elections since 1993 — Bush v. Kerry in 2004 — has the Republican Party won the popular vote. Seven times, the majority of voters have sided with the Democrats. GOP leaders — and the resentful white voters who are their core constituency — understand what this means. They know they’ve lost the debate over LGBTQ rights, immigration, race and all the other issues marking the line between left and right. They realize the nation’s population of angry white people is dwarfed by its rainbow coalition of white, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Islamic, Jewish, LGBTQ and others who demand, in the words of the pledge we learned as children, liberty and justice for all.

It certainly wasn’t lost on the virtually all-white mob that invaded the Capitol–or on Trump and the rest of those whipping them up–that they had just lost two senate seats in Georgia the previous day by a bigger margin than Trump’s own loss in that state. Or that Georgia had elected its first ever black senator, a man who holds the pulpit in Martin Luther King Jr.’s church. It’s also no coincidence that Trump’s first public appearance after cowering for five days in the White House will be to inspect The Wall he built on the Texas-Mexico border–his monument to white fear of Latino immigrants.

From its earliest days, America was built on the lie of White Supremacy. It justified displacement and genocide of Native Americans. Our Founding Fathers enshrined it in the Constitution. Our Civil War was fought because of it, and even the victors more or less believed it. The defeated South created an entire “Lost Cause” myth based on it, imbuing it with specious nobility and religious sanction. It rationalized legal apartheid and terrorism against black Americans to keep them from full citizenship, as well as the myriad more subtle instruments of institutional racism that still pervade American society. And that lie elected Donald Trump, who again in 2020 got a majority of the votes cast by white Americans–both male and female.

Reduced to its essence, the rationale for Trump’s absurd claim to have “won by a landslide” rests on the idea that the votes of black people are inherently illegitimate and shouldn’t count–a notion that until fairly recently in our history was reality in the United States. Without any evidence whatever, the legal challenges thrown out by court after court made unfounded allegations against specific urban counties with large black populations, not against the same entire states which were operating under identical rules. The Republican congress members who “objected” to counting the state-certified electoral votes on January 6 certainly knew that their arguments were lies and nonsense, but they are ready break the system if that’s the only way they can win. 

As historian Timothy Snyder wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “Thanks to technological capacity and personal talent, Donald Trump lied at a pace perhaps unmatched by any other leader in history. For the most part these were small lies, and their main effect was cumulative. To believe in all of them was to accept the authority of a single man, because to believe in all of them was to disbelieve everything else. Once such personal authority was established, the president could treat everyone else as the liars; he even had the power to turn someone from a trusted adviser into a dishonest scoundrel with a single tweet.” Some of those lies were big enough to matter a great deal, however. And when he delivered the big one, millions were ready to believe it. “The claim that Trump was denied a win by fraud is a big lie not just because it mauls logic, misdescribes the present and demands belief in a conspiracy. It is a big lie, fundamentally, because it reverses the moral field of American politics and the basic structure of American history.”

I think I understand what Snyder is getting at here, i.e., that the “moral field” and “basic structure” of US history has been towards respect for rule of law and increasing inclusiveness for all Americans–the “moral arc” of Dr. King, if you will. Where I would take issue is that in fact Trump’s Big Lie is firmly embedded in the even bigger lie that runs counter to that “moral arc” throughout American history, namely the Great Lie of white supremacy.

What we saw at the Capitol on January 6 is just the latest manifestation of that Great Lie. It won’t be the last. 

It’s Still the Party of Trump

attack on Capitol

Democrats keep dreaming that Republicans are going to see the light and abandon Trump, but we need to wake up and realize that’s only a dream. Never mind that he incited an deadly insurrection that trashed the Capitol in order to stop the electoral vote count, or that he was recorded threatening Georgia election officials if they didn’t alter the vote count in Georgia. THEY DO NOT CARE! To quote the Rachel Maddow mantra: Watch what they do, not what they say.

Two days after the riot at the Capitol, Republican officials held a party conference at Amelia Island, FL. As the New York Times reported: “Party members, one after another, said in interviews that the president did not bear any blame for the violence at the Capitol and indicated that they wanted him to continue to play a leading role in the party.” The party chair Ronna McDaniel lamented the attack, but “neither she nor any other speaker so much as publicly hinted at Mr. Trump’s role in inciting a mob assault on America’s seat of government.”

Only hours after the attack on the Capitol, 147 Republican members of Congress persisted in “objecting” to the counting of electoral votes, in a quixotic attempt to stop the count and overturn the election results. This represented a majority of the Republican members in the House including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. (McCarthy is the guy who in 2016 was caught on tape opining to the congressional Republican leadership that Trump was controlled by Putin.) Florida senator Rick Scott (who has not been particularly closely tied to Trump) voted–in the middle of the night when no one was watching–to disqualify the Pennsylvania electoral votes.

Mitch McConnell got praise in the media for accepting the election results and not voting for disqualification of state electoral votes (a low bar indeed), but he continues to protect Trump from efforts to remove him from office. As Democrats move to re-impeach Trump, McConnell let it be known (in a memo obtained by The Washington Post) that the Senate would not take up impeachment until January 19, meaning that the Senate trial could not begin until after Trump leaves office on the following day (and, of course, McConnell is no longer Majority Leader).

VP Mike Pence, who has been personally attacked by Trump and his minions for doing his duty and presiding over the electoral vote count in Congress, refuses to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump, despite a growing chorus of voices–including Rupert Murdock’s Wall Street Journal editorial page–that Trump is dangerous and must be removed. Meanwhile, cabinet members like Elaine Chao and Betsy DeVos have resigned their posts, insuring that they will never be forced into voting on removing Trump.

The official GOP line is becoming clear: What a shame that the Capitol was attacked, but Trump had nothing to do with it. No one even mentions that Trump was recorded blatantly suborning the Georgia Secretary of State to alter election results, and threatening him if he didn’t do it.

Off the record, individual Republicans may mumble into their sleeves that maybe Trump went too far and perhaps needs to be held accountable, but still they remain loyal. Republican office holders like Lisa Murkowski or Ben Sasse or Mitt Romney, who have publicly said Trump should go, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The reason for their cowardice is glaringly obvious: The Republican Party has become a cult of personality and Republican voters are not voting for the party, they are voting for Trump. Those 75 million votes that went to Trump in November were for him, not the party. If Republicans splinter to form another party or leave the party altogether, no one is going to follow. The calculus is simple. If Republican politicians want to keep getting elected, they must stick with Trump.

We keep reading about the demise of the Republican party, but it’s not dying, it’s just mutating. The so-called “moderate Republican” is all but extinct, and the traditional wing of the party knows which way the wind blows and is adjusting quite easily to the new reality. Just look at Ron Johnson! Marco Rubio does his usual thing of muttering gobbledygook to suggest that he has “reservations” about what just happened, but he always falls into line in the end. Lindsey Graham has shed his skin more times than a copperhead, but he’s still backing Trump. There are few, if any, significant differences on policy between the Trumpistas and the traditionalists, and the latter see that Bolshevik tactics work so they’re fine with it. 

The lesson has been learned by the jackals who now set the tone for the party’s style and tactics: Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Jim Jordan, Tom Cotton, Ron DeSantis, Matt Gaetz, etc. They are smart, glib, slick, and utterly amoral, willing to utter any lie with a straight face if it advances their agenda. For now, they follow along in Trump’s wake, feeding on the carcasses.  They are the future of the Republican Party, and it’s a frightening prospect. 

For them, as for Mitch McConnell, it’s all about power. I think the tensions in the party that we see are purely about personal power, not direction or substance. The only real fundamental principle of the party is white privilege. As Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote: ” It is being framed, and not without reason, as the ultimate statement of white privilege; a white mob allowed to ransack the Capitol — virtually none was arrested and some even took selfies with police — in the same city where peaceful protesters asserting that Black Lives Matter were met with military force. But for all the other things that riot was, it was also an expression of fear — the panic of those who find themselves outnumbered.”

So forget the pipe dreams about the Republican Party self-destructing. Instead, we need to see clearly what we and the country face: A Republican Party that is mutating into neo-fascism and willing to use any means necessary to keep itself in power.  

I would love to be proved wrong.

Fomenting Insurrection

Texas lawsuit

Consider what it actually means when the Republican Attorneys General–the chief law enforcement officers–of 17 Republican-controlled states join a lawsuit initiated by the criminally indicted Attorney General of Texas to disqualify the duly certified election results of four other states that voted narrowly for Joe Biden. The lawsuit seeks nothing less than to overturn the election of Biden as president by eliminating those four states’ electors from the official electoral college vote on December 14, thereby assuring the re-election of Donald Trump, who lost nationally by more than 7 million votes.

Unless the Supreme Court has become utterly debased, this frivolous lawsuit will be summarily dismissed and never heard in court. But that’s not the point. What it means is that the entire Republican party–specifically including those Republican officials charged with upholding the Constitution and enforcing the rule of law–are willing to enlist in an attempted legal putsch that they certainly know will fail. Why are they doing this? It has to be that they are terrified of the belligerent anarchic forces that Trump has mobilized throughout this country. 

With “Stop the Steal” rallies being organized to trumpet ever more fantastic lies about the November vote, citizen election officials receiving death threats from Trump supporters and armed demonstrators showing up at their homes, the tinder is being laid in place to ignite violence when Biden officially becomes president-elect. And the Republican Party remains silent and complicit. 

The Texas lawsuit might have been disregarded as a transparent attempt by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton–currently under indictment for felony security fraud charges and reportedly under investigation for other crimes–to secure a Trump pardon. The lead attorney for the lawsuit, John Eastman, is a fixture of the radical right and in August published an op-ed piece in Newsweek arguing that Kamala Harris, who was inarguably born in Oakland, California, is ineligible to be vice-president because her immigrant parents were not yet US citizens at the time.  [Newsweek later added a kind of faux-apology for the piece, saying that it had failed “to anticipate the ways in which the essay would be interpreted, distorted and weaponized” and was “horrified that this op-ed gave rise to a wave of vile Birtherism directed at Senator Harris.”] And yet 17 Republican state attorneys general joined in the lawsuit. 

This case, like most of the other failed cases mounted by the Trumpistas, rests on an inherently racist premise because it focuses its challenges not on vaguely alleged voting irregularities in the entire states of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin, but specifically on the cities of Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, and Milwaukee, where a large proportion of the population is non-white. The unstated, but clearly implicit, assumption is that those votes are therefore suspect and probably illegitimate. Even when the lawsuits all lose in court, they stoke the belief among the white faithful that they are the aggrieved in a corrupt system.

The damage that this is doing is both incalculable and long-lasting, because it seeks to destroy the belief of ordinary Americans in the integrity of the country’s elections. It is now essentially out of control, with Trumpista attorneys like Lin Wood and Sidney Powell telling people at a Georgia “Stop the Steal” rally that they shouldn’t vote in the Georgia senate runoff elections until the “fraud” has been fixed. If American can’t trust in their elections, then what is left but insurrection? 

That’s where we are now, and that’s why this ridiculous case matters. 


Trump, America’s Caudillo–Why it Matters


And the impossibly dark punchline offered by the Broadway-caudillo drag of Trump’s latest phase is that the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy, did not even get a real Perón. The authoritarian style arrives in America not in the form of a general or an intelligence-agency thug, but in the form of a guy who was sweating along to the disco cover of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” at Studio 54. Charles Homans, in the New York Times

As Americans  wait incredulously to find out whether Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and remain president are an attempted coup or just another con, either way the damage will be deep and lasting. Once elections become viewed by a large segment of the population as rigged and illegitimate, then democracy really is on the ropes.

In the US, we don’t know how to deal with this because we’ve never had to before, and the clueless public doesn’t even recognize the milestones of impending authoritarianism as we keep passing them.  But Latin Americans, including the millions who have immigrated to this country, certainly do or should, because they’ve been through this many times before. 

Political instability has been the enduring curse of Latin America, preventing democracy from ever taking firm root. Virtually every country in Latin America–not just the much-mocked “banana republics”, but big advanced complex societies like Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Venezuela, and Cuba–have seen their constitutions discarded, elections manipulated or overturned, and watched as their freedoms disappeared in a descent into capricious thuggery or outright authoritarianism. Very often the US–both government and private corporations–has played a major role in abetting or instigating such changes and supporting anti-democratic caudillos once they achieved power. 

No two cases are alike, but the patterns are basically the same whether it’s authoritarianism of the Left or the Right. This is how it goes:

  • A large segment of the population festers with inchoate economic and/or social grievances against the existing regime.
  • A charismatic leader comes along who is able to exploit those grievances and present himself as the savior who will solve everyone’s problems. 
  • The charismatic leader is swept into power, often by (sometimes disputed) election or possibly with the support of the military or security forces.
  • Once in office, the caudillo makes radical changes in the country’s institutions to make sure he stays in power.
  • He gains control over the country’s law enforcement and judicial systems. 
  • He secures authority over the economic engines of the country either by nationalizing them (usually, though not always, if coming from the left) or co-opting the economic elite who then give him financial and political support and kickbacks in exchange for tailored favors from the government–always with the threat of retribution if their support should waver. 
  • Corruption inevitably increases, as it becomes evident that the only way to get approval and funding for projects is to secure the favor of the caudillo and his supporters. 
  • As opposition and criticism grow, the caudillo attacks the media and uses the levers of government to stifle dissent coming from the press, academia, and the political opposition. He mobilizes paramilitary groups and militias and popular mobs of supporters to intimidate opponents.
  • The caudillo panders to the military for their support and encourages  the police to target and harass groups that oppose him.
  • Subsequent elections are manipulated and tightly controlled to insure the caudillo is kept in power.

What is important to keep in mind is that caudillos usually retain strong bases of popular support. Even in cases where they are somehow removed from office, they remain major political power centers because of their hold over their true believers. Juan Perón was ousted by the Argentine military in 1955, but then regained power (initially through a surrogate) in 1973. In Cuba, Fulgencio Batista served as elected president from 1940 to1944 and then left for Florida when his handpicked successor lost the election. But he continued to conspire from exile, got elected to the Cuban senate in absentia, and ran for president in 1952. Then three months before the election, he staged a coup with military backing and reinstalled himself in the presidency which he held until ousted by Fidel Castro on January 1, 1959. Peru’s strongman Alberto Fujimori, even after fleeing the country following the disputed 2000 election, being extradited and sentenced to prison for corruption, still retained strong support among the Peruvian electorate. 

It’s easy put Trump somewhere in the authoritarian paradigm outlined above. There is no exact analog for him among the rogues gallery of Latin caudillos, but rather elements of several different ones.  He clearly has channeled Perón’s use of public pageantry with his White House balcony appearances. He even managed to create his own Evita, using Ivanka as an eager substitute when Melania proved unsuitable for the role. (Evita is reportedly Trump’s favorite Broadway show ever, and he claims to have seen it at least 6 times.)

But even caudillos from the right, like Perón and Batista, actually initially promoted labor reforms that strengthened unions and boosted wages for his political base. Trump has done nothing of the sort. The economic benefits of his policies have gone overwhelmingly to the very rich and big corporations–the very forces that created the conditions that his base claims to be upset about. His primary appeal was and remains rhetorical validation of the prejudices and perceived grievances of “forgotten” white Americans, who have stayed passionately loyal despite getting nothing tangible from his administration beyond stoking their resentments. So far, that seems to be enough.

Ironically, given the support Trump received from Cuban-Americans in South Florida, the caudillo who most closely represents a more extreme version of Trump’s own style and inclinations is indeed the Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista. Cubans who fled the island after Castro took over often look back with gauzy nostalgia on pre-Castro days as a time of Edenic prosperity and freedom. For a small minority, perhaps it was. But by the mid-1950s, the Batista regime was a thuggish and repressive criminal enterprise that had sold off most of the national patrimony to US and other foreign owners and was thoroughly in bed with the Mafia, which controlled the gambling, drugs, and prostitution that attracted Americans for hedonistic holidays in Havana. 

As John F. Kennedy stated in an October 1960 speech, the US supported the Batista regime with weapons, which reinforced the repressive apparatus, and gave “stature and support to one of the most bloody and repressive dictatorships in the long history of Latin American repression. Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in 7 years…, and he turned democratic Cuba into a complete police state – destroying every individual liberty….We used the influence of our Government to advance the interests of and increase the profits of the private American companies, which dominated the island’s economy. At the beginning of 1959 U.S. companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands – almost all the cattle ranches – 90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions – 80 percent of the utilities – and practically all the oil industry – and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports.”

The first wave of emigrés that fled the new Castro regime to the US in the early ’60s included wealthy property owners who were targeted by the revolutionaries precisely because they had collaborated with or directly participated in the Batista government. Some had seen the writing on the wall, and left Cuba before the fall along with a substantial portion of their wealth. They didn’t leave because they were opposed to dictatorship in principle; after all, they had been quite comfortable with the one under which they had prospered. 

One example of those who did was Rafael Diaz-Balart (the brother of Fidel’s first wife, Mirta Diaz-Balart), who had been a deputy in Batista’s Ministry of the Interior which controlled Cuba’s internal security forces. Two of Rafael’s sons (Lincoln and Mario) would later be elected US congressmen from South Florida; a third (Jose) is now a successful anchorman on NBC and Telemundo.

That first wave had both money and influence with the US government, and they set the tone of implacable hostility to the Castro regime which has dominated both US policy and Cuban-American politics to this day. Only a few months after taking office, the same President Kennedy who had lamented US support to Batista approved the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion which was intended to topple Castro and restore the old regime. Sixty years later, almost nothing has changed, and Cuban-Americans who support Trump don’t want it to, because reactions in the community have become so Pavlovian that all they have to do is press the button to get the desired response. They don’t really want to change Cuba; they just want that rush they get from imposing punishment and extracting revenge. 

Trump doesn’t yet have a political police force that kills and jails his opponents, but he has turned the US Department of Justice into his personal law firm and has fostered heavily armed white supremist vigilante militias who turn out to intimidate and occasionally kill peaceful demonstrators. He used the US military against protests on the streets of Washington, DC, and he claims that he has the loyalty of police departments across the country. In the midst of a pandemic that has so far killed 250,000 Americans, his inaction and disinformation campaign have been responsible for tens of thousands of needless fatalities and economic devastation. 

Trump has turned the presidency into a personal cash machine, while delivering lucrative political favors to his supporters who eagerly pay to try to keep him in the White House. He has turned the Republican Party into a cowering cult of personality that openly or silently endorses his every whim, fearful of his wrath if they don’t. He has normalized blatant nepotism, putting unqualified family members–the only people he can really trust–in positions of critical importance, thereby expanding the opportunities for graft, corruption, and incompetence.

And now, having clearly lost an election by any measure, he persists in his preposterous claim that he actually won, while his minions pursue increasing ludicrous, but conceivably successful, stratagems to overturn the vote. Importantly, these efforts are blatantly racist, focusing on urban counties with large black populations, which are being smeared as being inherently suspect.  According to polls, around 70 percent of Republicans believe that the election was not free and fair–a finding that will inevitably feed further attempts to manipulate the election system and disenfranchise selected segments of the population.

Americans used to look with condescending contempt on Latin America with its instability, violence, corruption, and the preening dictators that would come and go, fleecing their countries while in power and then fleeing into exile with their loot when the public (or the military) finally turned on them. Now this is us. We have our own caudillo.

In May 2016, Adam Gopnik wrote a prescient essay in The New Yorker about what electing Trump would mean:

If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump. Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right—not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak. If he can rout the Republican Party in a week by having effectively secured the nomination, ask yourself what Trump could do with the American government if he had a mandate.

Maybe we managed to escape the worst this time, but I think he’s right: The damage will never fully heal. After a century and a half, America has never really recovered from its Civil War, and Trumpism is just another outbreak in a somewhat different form of the same national disease. More than 70 million people voted for Trump, which means that almost half the electorate–and a majority of white people, both male and female–were just fine with keeping him in power.

Trump may be evicted from the White House, but he will remain a hugely disruptive force in American politics. Like Perón or Batista, he will be plotting a comeback, and it’s entirely possible that he might succeed.

Welcome to the Third World, America! 


American Horror: Trump Country and Lovecraft Country


If you’re looking for a diversion from the non-stop horror show that is our daily newsfeed, may I enthusiastically recommend Lovecraft Country, the television series now streaming on HBO.

I have never been a big fan of the horror genre. Or, for that matter, of fantasy fiction and films. But there are exceptions, and this is decidedly one of the best. I had to reconsider my prejudices after seeing Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out, in which he reimagined the horror genre as a pretty realistic way of viewing the black experience in America.  Peele’s brilliant insight was to use the conventions of horror films to illuminate the real life dangers of just being black in this country, where there are few places of real safety and a simple ordinary encounter with a white person or, worse, law enforcement can in an instant turn dangerous or even deadly. Where even seemingly friendly white folks can’t be trusted not to conceal some variety of monster with malign intent.

Peele followed that up in 2019 with Us, a more complex narrative that uses the horror genre to look at race, inequality, insecurity, and fear of the “other”–all issues that actually what our politics are all about. As he put it in an interview, “On the broader stroke of things, this movie is about this country. And when I decided to write this movie, I was stricken by the fact we are in a time where we fear the other. Whether it is the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us, take our jobs, or the faction that we don’t live near that voted a different way than us.” It is a highly ambitious film and full of ideas, and I loved it even though it did not quite receive the critical acclaim of Get Out.

Now Jordan Peele is executive producer of Lovecraft Country, an even more ambitious undertaking that so far, in my opinion, is nothing short of amazing. A new episode is released on HBO every Sunday at 9 Eastern.

The series is based on a novel by Matt Ruff, who took the title from H. P. Lovecraft, an early 20th century writer whose “cosmic horror” style is reflected in the series, where danger lurks at every turn both in the normal realm as well as in the supernatural. But Lovecraft was a blatant racist and Nazi admirer. As the NY Times observed, Ruff (who, incidently, is white) “upended this legacy by centering Black characters and making the story a parable about throwing off the constrictions of white supremacy.” 

The showrunner, Misha Green (“Underground”), has taken the book and run with it. The series is unapologetically written from a black point of view and isn’t at all concerned about sparing white sensibilities.  And why should it be? The story takes place in the early 1950s just before Jim Crow began to crack, and its flawed protagonist Atticus Turner (played by Jonathan Majors, of The Last Black Man in San Francisco–count me as a total fanboy!) is a Korean War vet returning to a very racist and hostile country. Interestingly, the action mostly takes place in the supposedly more enlightened North, not the segregated South, and it also has a pronounced feminist theme throughout and complex female characters, led by Jurnee Smollett and Wunmi Mosaku as half-sisters Leti and Ruby. 

I won’t be a spoiler and attempt to summarize the plot, but I will say that each episode has layers and layers of references to literature, pop culture, music, and black history. Sometimes they zing by so fast that you can easily miss some of them on a single viewing. If you followed all of them up, they would amount to a very interesting course in American history. I would also recommend listening to the illuminating commentary on the podcast Lovecraft Country Radio after each episode is released. It is available on HBO on demand, as well as Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Prime, and other podcast sources.

It’s nerdy, pulpy, sexy, horrifying, serious, and funny. Just simply great television. And most definitely NOT for the kiddies. Most of all, it tackles themes that we are very much still dealing with in our own real life daily horror show. Just go with it.

When the president is deliberately spreading a deadly disease which he insists is no big deal, when QAnon believers can be elected to Congress, when cops can burst into your home and kill you while you’re sleeping or kill you on the street in front of witnesses, when backwoods “militia” can plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, Trump country doesn’t  seem all that different from Lovecraft Country. 

An Election About Justice

Last night my partner and I were among thousands of people who lined up to pay respects to Ruth Bader Ginsburg as her body rested on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC. That immense outpouring of respect, grief, and love by ordinary people was happening because of what she represented: The expansion of justice and equality against the entrenched forces of privilege, money, and caste. Fundamentally, that’s what the 2020 election is about.

This morning, I watched the ceremony where her body was placed in state in the rotunda of the Capitol. The Republican leaders of the House and Senate were absent. Had they been there, the hypocrisy would have been unbearable, because as the ceremony was going on they were preparing to ram through a yet-unnamed replacement for Ginsburg before the presidential election less than 6 weeks away. Trump, of course, was absent as well. The day before he had made a perfunctory appearance at the Supreme Court, where he was greeted by the crowd with a chorus of boos and chants of “Vote Him Out”.

The network then cut away to an anguished protest in Louisville, Kentucky over the failure of law enforcement there to bring any charges against police who killed an innocent black woman, Brionna Taylor, in her own apartment. The message was clear. There will be no accountability. Some people can be killed with impunity. This came after a summer of nationwide protests prompted by the police killing of George Floyd against racially-motivated police violence to which Trump’s response was to dismiss the validity of the grievance and double down on police repression. 

That’s this election in a nutshell. Trump and the Republicans are doing everything possible to suppress voter turnout from targeted purging of state voter rolls to destroying the Post Office which will have to deliver an unprecedented numbers of mail-in votes. Trump, of course, continues his campaign to impugn the credibility of the election itself, setting up a pretext for refusing to accept the results if he loses. This, too, is a question of justice and may well wind up in the Supreme Court.

The basic theme of American history is ferocious resistance by reactionary forces to any expansion of rights and justice to those who had been denied them. After eight years in which a black man had violated American caste restrictions by winning the White House and expanding access to health care, the Republican Party declared its policy of implacable resistance and obstruction, and Trump rode that into the presidency. The result has been the most massive epidemic of official lawlessness, corruption, and malicious destruction since the Civil War. 

It all comes down to questions of justice. Do we want to live in a country where cops can bust into your home and kill you without accountability, or arrest and shoot you without provocation? Where the president and his officials can ignore legal subpoenas and exploit their offices for personal gain? Where the tax laws are skewed to protect the fortunes of the wealthy while programs that protect low income Americans are starved of funds? Where adherents of certain religions can impose their doctrines on everyone? Should good health care depend on your income? The list could go on and on. Virtually every major issue shaping this election hinges on a vision of justice.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg represented a expansive vision of justice, using the force of government and the courts to help people who had been oppressed and relegated to the margins of society, often by the force of law: black folks, gays, women, immigrants, asylum seekers, etc. If Trump succeeds in imposing his choice to replace her, the result will move the country in the opposite direction.

Should We All Quit Facebook?

mark zuckerberg

Netflix has just released the new documentary The Social Dilemma by Jeff Orlowski in which a series of Silicon Valley apostates argue that social media like Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, etc. have effectively changed human behavior. The result, they argue, is increased anxiety, anomie, distrust, fear, social isolation, and political polarization which threaten democracy and exacerbate economic inequality throughout the world. These are the unintended consequences of social media platforms designed to be incredibly efficient money-making machines that manipulate users by predicting our responses with uncanny precision. We are the product they are selling.

It’s a compelling argument because we all see the evidence everywhere we look. Who hasn’t had the experience of doing a Google search and seeing a related ad pop up on our Facebook feed within seconds? Why do we see posts from the same limited number of people and little else? Because the algorithms used by social media know what we want to see and serve it up specifically tailored to us relentlessly. When we do a Google search, the results it delivers depend on the data Google has on us, and Google knows pretty much everything about us.  If social media is where we go for our information, then all we get is we want to hear. The system is both much more subtle and more complex, but this gets to the general idea. 

Facebook and the others sell us to political manipulators who bombard us with material exquisitely crafted to push our buttons. That’s what happened in 2016 (see another excellent documentary The Great Hack), and they have only gotten better at it since then.  The Social Dilemma focuses mostly on Facebook, perhaps because it’s the biggest and Mark Zuckerberg is so easy to despise, but all of the platforms are doing essentially the same thing. For my money, Twitter is the most pernicious of all, and I avoid it like the plague. 

I was among the last people on the planet to open a Facebook account. My concern then (and still now) was with the risk it posed for identity theft. I had long conversations with a dear friend years ago who argued that Facebook was a way to have a real dialogue with people all over the country on critical issues. I was skeptical about that then. Then Trump got elected, and I wanted to do what I could to raise the alarm about what I was seeing. So I succumbed in hopes that Facebook would be a medium for amplifying that message. Looking back, I think both my friend and I were naive. We didn’t persuade anyone who wasn’t already persuaded. We just got locked into a feedback loop of people with similar opinions. I now understand at a personal level just how addictive it is. We are the ones being manipulated. 

Recently, Facebook has the rep of being a platform for old folks, though the available demographic statistics don’t bear that out. (The biggest age cohort for FB users remains 25-34 year-olds. Some 88% of online users age 18-29 are on FB, versus 62% of online seniors 65+ and 72% age 50-64.) The company has lately taken a few token steps to limit its complicity in spreading disinformation, but continues to resist any systemic changes that might make a real difference. Like other social media platforms, their business model requires that. 

So should we abandon Facebook now? Several of my friends have done that already and others have told me they’re considering it. How much is it worth to you? What do you really get out of it? Do you really need it to keep in touch with friends and family? Or is it something else? And how do you weigh that against the harm that it does to society? If you quit Facebook, are you also going to leave Instagram and WhatsApp, which Facebook owns? Are you going to quit Google? Is that even possible? Are we all too addicted to these private companies to stop supporting them?  Honestly, I don’t know what I think at this point.

But by all means watch The Social Dilemma. And, of course, Netflix will then use that data to suggest other content that you might like…