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The Biggest Lie of All: White Supremacy

capitol riot 1

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

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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

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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…

Blaxploitation: The RNC Version

Your black friends

What a black friend posted on Facebook today.

WAR IS PEACE.
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Having just watched the Trump Party’s four-day festival of mendacity and corruption (aka the Republican National Convention), I think it’s time to add a fourth oxymoron to Orwell’s famous trinity:  EXPLOITATION IS BENEVOLENCE.

What most stood out during the event was the mind-bending juxtaposition of a parade of African-Americans there to praise the benevolence of Donald Trump while party leaders were simultaneously making the mostly outrageously racist appeal to White America’s primal fear of black people.

The latter loomed as the principal theme of the convention. 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. The solution, repeated endlessly by speaker after speaker, was total support for the police.

The intended message was crystal clear: Black people are dangerous. Black Lives Matter means riots, looting, and burning down private property.  The Democrats are the party of black people. Therefore Democrats want looting and rioting and sending black welfare queens to live in your safe white suburban neighborhood, bringing crime and who knows what else. Good white people will not be safe in their homes.

And all of this was taking place immediately following another grotesque police shooting of an unarmed black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Then a 17-year-old white vigilante named Kyle Rittenhouse had his mom drive him and his long gun up from Illinois so he could prance around with his rifle threatening protesters in the demonstrations that followed, where he promptly shot and killed two people and grievously wounded another, and then was ignored by police until video of him emerged on social media. Young Kyle was quickly adopted as a hero by such luminaries of right-wing America as Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter, who gushed that she wanted him “as my president” on the same day that Trump went full-on “American carnage” in his acceptance speech. No one at the RNC condemned or even mildly admonished the Kenosha police; their denunciations were entirely directed at those protesting police violence.

Then there was the cognitive dissonance of a series of black Americans giving Trump glowing testimonials about how he had helped them. If you had just arrived from Mars and were watching the convention on TV, you could be forgiven for assuming that the Republican Party was mostly African-Americans or other people of color. I won’t speculate on the motives of the black folks praising the most racist president since Woodrow Wilson, but the general tone of their speeches (and indeed of the entire convention) was one of a grateful subject expressing gratitude for some favor gratuitously bestowed by a benevolent sovereign. It’s equivalent to fulsomely thanking the boss who has been paying his workers starvation wages all year for giving them a Christmas turkey.

The stress of the physical and emotional and political abuse of black Americans is clearly taking a toll. Black journalists and analysts commenting on the RNC were visibly struggling to contain their hurt and fury at what they were witnessing and to maintain their professional composure. As several people observed, the point of having black folks praise Trump wasn’t really to persuade black voters to vote Republican, but rather to give white voters who might have qualms about Trump an excuse to vote for him anyway.

The sports world reacted immediately. The players of the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play, and then the entire NBA suspended its playoff games. Several other sports leagues including the WNBA and MLB suspended play as well. A series of black sports stars spoke up, expressing their dismay and outrage at what is happening. Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, “How dare Republicans talk about fear. We’re the ones that need to be scared. We’re the ones having to talk to every Black child—what white father has to give his son a talk about being careful if you get pulled over? It’s just ridiculous…It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.” Charles Barkley said, “It’s exhausting being black in America.”

What I’m seeing from some black friends on social media is akin to despair.

I admit that I share that sense of despair. As a white man, I have never had to deal with the daily indignities that White America dumps on black folks, but my eyes have been gradually opened to the pervasiveness of racism in our country. Even so, until Trump won I really thought that things were getting better.

What feels different now, is that for the first time in my lifetime we have both a president and a Republican party that openly base their appeal on racial divisiveness. They are actually willing and often eager to inflame racial divisions if that’s what’s needed to stay in power. Before Trump, white nationalists had to stay in the shadows, but now his winking approval has enabled them to operate in the open. The message to racist cops and gun-packing white nationalists is: Don’t worry, we got your back.

They’re not quite mainstream, yet. That’s why Trump and his supporters still need to pretend to care about people of color and put on a show of faux inclusiveness as seen at the RNC. But it’s really just another form of contempt, because it says either that they think black folks won’t see through their hypocrisy or they just don’t care if they do or not because the show isn’t for them anyway.

It feels like we are at a watershed. I wish I felt some confidence about which way things will go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scaring White People at the RNC

Kenosha

HEY WHITE PEOPLE…Y’ALL SCARED ENOUGH YET? Vote-for-Trump scared?
Because that’s the entire platform of the Trump Party: SCARE WHITE PEOPLE.
How do you do that? Well, there’s socialism, religion, guns, and best of all: black and brown people!
Trump desperately needs rioting in the streets for his Nixon-on-steroids law-and-order strategy to work. Thanks to the police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, prayers have been answered.
They’ve been laying the groundwork for four years: overt encouragement for white nationalist nutjobs to arm themselves, pandering to them as the “real patriotic Americans” and unofficial auxiliaries to the police. They’ve been fanning fear with the phantom threats of crime and “Democrats taking away your guns”, and sure enough, the Home of the Brave has responded by going on a buying spree for guns and ammo.
Add to that the near certainty that there will be at least a couple more police or vigilante shootings of unarmed black men before November 3. But maybe Kenosha alone will be enough. We’ve already got black Americans and their white supporters in the streets enraged because yet another black man was shot by a cop for absolutely no reason, and we have armed white vigilantes openly packing guns showing up, while the police are more than fine with it. And then one of those vigilantes fires into a crowd, killing two and wounding a third person. And the police let him get away.
And what do we hear from the Trump Convention? Full-on support for the police, and the “law and order” mantra. Anything for the victims? You gotta be joking. Naw, they just put that crazyass, gun-waving white couple from St. Louis on national TV!
Black people have been dealing with this over and over and over again forever, and they have every reason to be fed up. We all should be. We are told that violence isn’t the answer, just let the justice system work. The real message is: just suck it up.
But the justice system fails time and again, and nothing really changes. Police still kill unarmed black men with impunity, while white vigilantes prance around in camo with AR-15s anywhere they like, and the police give them a wink and do nothing. The Trumpistas have no interest in dealing with police violence, because it works for them.
So the Republican Party does its convention happy dance, because pouring gasoline on this flame is how they think they can win in November.
They might be right.

Conspiracy in Search of a Theory (Part 3): Epstein/Trump/Deutsche Bank/Russia

epstein island

Epstein’s private island

The Friends of Jeffrey Epstein

Jeffrey Epstein’s 2019 re-arrest may finally have made him socially radioactive, but his 2008 conviction in Florida did not seem to have damaged his social acceptability too much. His plea deal made the front pages in the Palm Beach Post and the New York Post, but only rated placement on page 1 of the Business Section of the New York Times. It was all pretty discreet, considering, and most people probably just figured he had gotten caught with a couple of young hookers, so not that big a deal.

Most important, the deal kept his fortune (aside from legal fees), property, and business ventures intact. Even if he had to sleep in a special wing of the Palm Beach County jail for 13 months, six days a week he was out and about to his West Palm office and elsewhere and could visit freely with business associates and personal friends who came calling. Five months of his sentence was dropped, so by August 2009 he was able to go to his Manhattan mansion or to his private island in the Virgin Islands whenever he pleased.

Quite quickly, Epstein was again mingling in New York society. Consider this item from  gossipy Page Six from August 24, 2010 recounting Epstein’s appearance at a special screening of the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in Southampton:

“Guests included hedge funder Jeffrey Epstein, who was ‘greeted warmly by guests’ after he completed a prison sentence in June. ‘It was the first time he has been out in two years, but nobody blinked he was there,’ a witness reports. ‘He was chatting to Jonathan FarkasWilbur Ross and Leon Black. He was sitting right near Rudy Giuliani.'”

[Farkas is an heir to the Alexander’s Department Store fortune, Wilber Ross became Trump’s Secretary of Commerce, and Leon Black is a billionaire owner of a private equity firm who, according to the NY Times, once employed Epstein and had various connections to him dating to the late 90s.]

Or this, from The Daily Beast:

“On the evening of December 2nd, 2010, a handful of America’s media and entertainment elite—including TV anchors Katie Couric and George Stephanopoulos, comedienne Chelsea Handler, and director Woody Allen—convened around the dinner table of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. It wasn’t just any dining room, but part of a sprawling nine-story townhouse that once housed an entire preparatory school. And it wasn’t just any sex offender, but an enigmatic billionaire who had once flown the likes of former President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak around the world on his own Boeing 727. Last spring, Epstein completed a 13-month sentence for soliciting prostitution from a minor in Palm Beach. Now he was hosting a party for his close friend, Britain’s Prince Andrew, fourth in line to the throne.”

Epstein had hired publicist Peggy Siegal to ease his re-entry, but the one who really greased the tracks was Ghislaine Maxwell, who had emerged unscathed from the Florida scandal. According to the Daily Beast story, “The conventional wisdom among his friends was that Epstein has been victimized by greedy, morally dubious teenage girls and unscrupulous lawyers.”

Or this, from The Hollywood Reporter:

“Even in the post-#MeToo era, Epstein, 66, frequently attended industry events, like the Gotham Awards in November 2017. Amid a climate where figures including Harvey Weinstein and CBS’ Leslie Moonves had instantly become persona non grata for alleged misconduct, Epstein had been convicted and still enjoyed film-world access. As he traveled behind the velvet rope with ease, his alleged co-conspirator Ghislaine Maxwell was also embraced…Despite well-publicized claims that she wrangled teen girls for Epstein and partook in sexual abuse, Maxwell in recent years has been spotted at top-tier awards-season parties in New York and Los Angeles, where she hobnobbed with a pre-scandal Weinstein, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. She even attended the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar bash, posing with the magazine’s editor, Graydon Carter.”

Epstein also cultivated friends in the scientific and academic community with large donations. According to the NY Times, Epstein launched a PR campaign around 2013, placing self-generated articles describing himself as “a selfless and forward-thinking philanthropist with an interest in science” on websites like Forbes, National Review and HuffPost. He gave money to MIT and to Harvard, which had accepted over $9 million from him before his 2008 conviction. But other donors who Epstein introduced to Harvard faculty members gave $9.5 million between 2010 and 2015, and Epstein frequently visited an office given him on campus at the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, a research center created in 2003 with $6.5 million from Epstein. It wasn’t until after Epstein’s 2019 re-arrest that the universities again started looking closely at their ties with him, especially after journalist Ronan Farrow published details in The New Yorker. Epstein also was still a member of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations until 2009 when his membership lapsed for “nonpayment of dues”.

But it wasn’t quite like the good old days. After his release from detention, Epstein was fighting lawsuits for damages brought by his alleged victims, and tantalizing details about his ties with the rich and famous were continuing to spill out. In January 2015,  the on-line blog Gawker published the flight logs for Epstein’s private 727, revealing that lots of bold face names had flown on the so-called “Lolita Express” back in the day, including Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz, and Prince Andrew. That same month, Gawker published Epstein’s “little black book” containing the phone numbers and emails (redacted) of scores of famous and semi-famous people with whom he may or may not have had ties. After his 2019 arrest, New York magazine published an annotated list of people included in the “black book”, observing that:

“Collectively, these documents constitute just a glance at the way society opened itself to Epstein in New York, Hollywood, and Palm Beach. ..Though some observers have likened Epstein’s enigmatic rise as a glamorous social magnet to that of Jay Gatsby, a more appropriate archetype may be the fixer, sexual hedonist, and (ultimately disbarred) lawyer Roy Cohn.”

The sex offender label did make some people reluctant to do business deals with him. According to the Miami Herald, when Epstein decided to buy a large parcel of land on Great St. James Island (just across the water from his home on Little St. James in the Virgin Islands) he had to set up a shell company because the owner, a wealthy Dane, was unwilling to sell to him. The company was set up in the name of a wealthy Dubai businessman, who confirmed that Epstein had asked to use his name in an unspecified deal, but he said no. Epstein apparently did it anyway, and the purchase was completed in January 2016.

Donald Trump was among those important people who had been in Epstein’s orbit. So many photos and videos have emerged of Epstein and Trump together that there is no doubt that they knew each other a lot more than just casually from at least the early 90s until around 2007–i.e., during Epstein’s heyday. A video tape shows them partying at Mar-a-Lago in 1992, and other videos show them together and engaged in bro-style banter about women on other occasions. As the Washington Post reported, “Here they are, Epstein and longtime girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell, Trump and his then-girlfriend, Melania Knauss, double dating at a celebrity tennis tournament at Mar-a-Lago. Partying with Britain’s Prince Andrew. Hanging out with National Football League cheerleaders. Dancing, laughing, palling around at a party Trump threw to celebrate his “freedom” after he divorced his second wife, Marla Maples.”

A 2000 profile published in Maximum Golf magazine describes Trump impatiently waiting at La Guardia for Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, who were hitching a ride on Trump’s plane to Palm Beach.   A 2002 profile of Epstein in Vanity Fair, quotes Trump as saying: “I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”

After Epstein’s 2019 arrest, Trump claimed that Epstein was never a member at Mar-a-Lago, but a new book titled “The Grifters’ Club” (authored by reporters from the Miami Herald and Wall Street Journal) has unearthed evidence that he actually was a member for more than a decade until October 2007. According to the book, Trump expelled Epstein from the club after he allegedly hit on a teenage daughter of another member. If that story is accurate, that would have been more than a year after Epstein was indicted in Palm Beach County, something that was well-known in Palm Beach society.

Another version has it that the split was over competition to acquire an expensive beach property in Palm Beach in a bankruptcy auction. According to the Washington Post, the rift began in 2004 when both Epstein and Trump were bidding on the “Maison de l’Amitie”, which had previously been owned by Leslie Wexner, the retail magnate who had been Epstein’s most important patron and the only known client for his wealth management firm. Epstein wanted to live in the house; Trump wanted to flip it. Epstein bid up to $38.6 million, but Trump got the property for $41.35 million.

[Digression: The property sat unoccupied until 2008, when Trump sold it for $95 million (through a shell company) to Russian oligarch (“the Fertilizer King”) Dmitry Rybolovlev. At the time, the price of the sale raised eyebrows, because the Florida real estate market was already slumping. Also at that time, Rybolovlev was going through a spectacularly expensive divorce and was looking for places to stash his money. The Russian owner never moved in, and in 2016 the existing house was torn down and the property was divided into 3 parcels, each put on the market for $35-40 million. End digression.]

Typically, after Epstein was arrested again in 2019, Trump insisted that he barely knew him. “I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you,” the president said from the Oval Office the day after the arrest. Well, relationships come and go.

There’s a scene in the 2016 movie version of Absolutely Fabulous, where Edina and Patsy go on the lam, believing they had accidentally killed supermodel Kate Moss. When they get to the French Riviera, Edina exults, “We’re free! In the South of France, everyone’s a criminal!”

Kind of like Palm Beach. Or Wall Street.

Was Epstein a Spy for Israel?

In December 2019, a “bombshell” book titled Epstein: Dead Man Tell No Tales hit the stores just in time for Christmas. Among the most sensational allegations in the book was that Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell were working for the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad to blackmail powerful people. The book claimed that the ‘honey trap” operation set up underage girls with politicians to squeeze them for information or influence for Israel. The source for the claim was Ari Ben-Menashe, who purported to be a Mossad operative and the handler for Robert Maxwell (Ghislaine’s press mogul father) who he claimed had spied for Israel and also that he had introduced Epstein and Maxwell into Israeli intelligence.

Ben-Menashe is an Iranian-born Israeli, who claimed to have served in Israeli military intelligence from about 1977 to 1987, and reportedly was a source for information about Reagan administration arms shipments to Iran, known as Iran-Contra. He wrote a book published in 1992 called Profits of War: Inside the Secret US-Israeli Arms Network. He was arrested in the US in 1989 for trying to sell aircraft to Iran, but was acquitted and then moved to Canada where he became a citizen. He also reportedly was a source for Seymour Hersh’s 1991 book The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and US Foreign Policy that revealed Israel’s nuclear weapons program and claimed that Robert Maxwell was an Israeli intelligence asset. In October 1991, Maxwell and his Mirror Group newspapers sued Hersh and his publisher in the UK for libel, but Maxwell’s death under mysterious circumstances (see Part 1) in November 1991 effectively ended the legal action which formally terminated in 1994 when Hersh and his publisher were awarded “substantial damages and an apology”.

A purported interview with Ben-Menashe in which he made his claims re Epstein and Maxwell had been published in September 2019 on the website Narativ, run by a former CBS and Canadian TV producer Zev Shalev, whose podcasts often focus negatively on both Epstein and TrumpWorld. This seems to be the earliest appearance of the Ben-Menashe story.

The three co-authors of Epstein: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Dylan Howard, Melissa Cronin, and James Robertson are all alumni or current employees of American Media, Inc., the parent company of The National Enquirer. When the book came out, the Enquirer headlined the story. According to a fascinating plunge into the seamy world of scandal journalism in the Columbia Journalism Review,  the primary author Dylan Howard (who is Australian) “is best known as a scandal-ridden acolyte of Donald Trump. In the summer of 2016, he and [David] Pecker negotiated a $150,000 “catch and kill” payoff that buried the story of an affair between Trump and Karen McDougal, a Playboy Playmate. (Howard also helped arrange Trump’s 2015 payoff to Stormy Daniels, the porn star, even though it didn’t involve AMI.) After Trump’s election, Ronan Farrow reported in The New Yorker that Howard had worked with Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer, to help him discredit Rose McGowan, an actress who was accusing him of abuse.”

AMI’s CEO David Pecker went way back with Trump and famously worked hand in glove with him to kill negative stories about him and to flog sensational tales about his adversaries. According to the CJR story, “after Trump declared for president, the Enquirer changed course. It began running a few kinds of stories: One, nonstop pathological content about how Hillary Clinton was on the verge of jail or death. Two, unprovable scoops about Trump’s primary-campaign rivals (e.g., Ben Carson left a sponge in someone’s skull). Three, uncomfortably gauzy first-person tell-alls from Trump.” But the Enquirer’s sales slumped, “And then, suddenly, in the spring of 2018, it stopped. No more Trump ass-kissing. No more Hillary deathwatch. Thanks to the Justice Department—or, …, because ‘sales of issues covering politics had a fatigue factor’—it was back to good old kidnapped Suri Cruise and emaciated Nicole Richie. Everything snapped into place, as if the Enquirer’s maga era had been nothing more than a wavy-lined dream sequence.”

So…what is the game here with regard to Epstein? Is there a game? Or is it just plain old-fashioned exploitation and sensationalism? Could it even be true? After all, once in a while an Enquirer story has turned out to be a real scoop.

Mainstream news outlets like the Times, Washington Post, and WSJ pretty much ignored the book and the Ben-Menashe allegations, but right-wing organs and websites and British tabloids were all over it. Russia’s semi-official organ RT hopped on it, as well as the left-leaning UK publication Middle East Monitor. So, belatedly, did Fox News. Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller focused on the book’s allegations by Steven Hoffenberg that Epstein had been a celebrity spy for Mossad and was killed because he had become a liability. Hoffenberg had been a business associate of Epstein in the 90s in the Towers Financial Group, a Ponzi scheme that collapsed in 1993 losing $475 million for its investors. Hoffenberg pleaded guilty to fraud and went to prison; Epstein skated free. Hoffenberg claimed that Epstein then evaded punishment because of his ties with intelligence agents from Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Russia.

The Observer, owned by Jared Kushner, published an article in July 2019 that concluded: “It appears that Jeffrey Epstein was involved in intelligence work, of some kind, for someone—and it probably wasn’t American intelligence either.” It noted that Ghislaine Maxwell’s father, “a swindler and a spy”, was suspected by “British counterintelligence” of doing work for Russia’s KGB, “while pervasive allegations that he was working for Mossad too are equally plausible.” The piece focused on the remark attributed to former US Attorney Alex Acosta by Daily Beast reporter Vicki Ward (see Part 2) that he backed off on Epstein because he had been told that he “belonged to intelligence” and to leave it alone. 

The discovery in Epstein’s Manhattan home of a fake Austrian passport with his photo but a Saudi address and a different name (along with loose diamonds and lots of cash) also fed the espionage narrative. According to the prosecution filing, the passport had stamps from France, Spain, the UK, and Saudi Arabia.

Why exactly the Right found the spy theory so attractive isn’t exactly clear. It turns out that the Really Far Right had been pushing this idea well before Epstein was re-arrested in July 2019. In March of that year, The Daily Beast published a piece scoffing at a pretty blatantly anti-Semitic video from TruNews which alleged that Epstein was part of a Jewish cabal directed by Mossad that includes Ghislaine Maxwell, Monica Lewinsky, and Jared Kushner. [I have no idea how to parse that; watch the video yourself, if you dare.] Apparently, somehow this makes everything go back to the Bushes and the Clintons, which fits with TrumpWorld demonology and presumably deflects attention from Trump’s own connections with Epstein. Maybe?

Curiously, Epstein: Dead Men Tell No Tales author Dylan Howard played up this Jewish conspiracy angle in a piece he wrote to hype the book: “Epstein’s attorney Kenneth Starr at one point went over Acosta’s head to Republican appointees at the Department of Justice, demanding that they drop the case. The Attorney General in 2008, who likely would have received the request, was Michael Mukasey — an Orthodox Jew with such deep ties to Israel, he has been accused of having dual citizenship.” [Note: This is almost certainly untrue. Politifact investigated a similar accusation made against Bernie Sanders and other Jewish-American political figures, which concluded that this had probably sprung from a list, on which Mukasey was number 1, posted on line without evidence by the American Freedom Party, a right-wing white nationalist organization.]

The allegations of Epstein’s involvement in espionage have certainly been helped along by the mystery surrounding how he made so much money–something no one has yet successfully explained. At the time he was re-arrested in 2019, his assets were worth at least $500 million, including his properties in Manhattan, New Mexico, Paris, and the Virgin Islands, according to court filings.

The outline of his career trajectory from private school math and science teacher, to working at Bear Stearns, to his linkup with Leslie Wexner is clear enough, but then it all gets blurry. Epstein claimed that he left Bear Stearns to set up his own wealth management firm, dealing exclusively with clients with at least $1 billion in net worth, but the only named client discovered to date was Wexner. Epstein appears to have first hooked up with the above-mentioned Steven Hoffenberg in 1987, an association that crashed when Hoffenberg went to jail for fraud. Epstein was unscathed and rich and by then knew everyone who mattered. How did he do it? Donald Trump had his daddy to bail him out of his financial disasters, but the closest Epstein had to that was Wexner.

One thing that is clear is that the Epstein case has had political fallout in Israeli politics, because of Epstein’s past ties to Netanyahu’s political rival, former prime minister Ehud Barak. Netanyahu, who has been tightly aligned with Trump, quickly weaponized the connection last year to deflect from his own corruption issues, charging that the Wexner Foundation (where Epstein had been a board member) had given Barak $2.3 million for a phantom research program in 2004. The Jerusalem Post reported last year that Barak had been photographed entering Epstein’s New York mansion in January 2016 on the same day that a large group of young women were seen entering as well. Barak admitted he was there that day, but maintained that his visit had nothing to do with sex, and he also admitted that he had been to Epstein’s island in the Virgin Islands. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz also reported that Epstein was a major investor in a start-up security company Barak set up in 2015. Barak was also reportedly named in a sealed deposition as one of the men Virginia Giuffre was trafficked to and forced to have sex with. He denies the accusations.

So yes, there was definitely an Israeli connection, though not necessarily one with Mossad. Could Epstein have been feeding useful information and/or blackmailing powerful people to secure Israeli influence over them? Based on the publicly available information, the most one could say is that it’s a fairly plausible theory, but far from proven.

As they say, dead men tell no tales, but Ghislaine Maxwell is still alive in a Manhattan jail.

TO BE CONTINUED…