Sunday, February 12, 2017

Donald Trump: Republican on Steroids

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In the 1934 film Viva Villa!, classic Hollywood’s weird but compelling depiction of the 1910 Mexican revolution, Francisco “Pancho” Villa (Wallace Beery) assumes the presidency of war-torn Mexico after the assassination of his predecessor, Francisco Madero (Henry B. Walthall.) In his first speech as the new President, Villa announces that he’s going to continue the program of the late Madero, but he’s going to be much more forceful about it. He says Madero’s weakness, and in particular his attempts to negotiate with his political adversaries and seek common ground, were the reasons he failed and ultimately got killed. So, implementing Madero’s liberal program with an iron hand, he ultimately becomes a bloodthirsty dictator.
That, in a nutshell, is the difference between Donald John Trump and his immediate predecessors as Republican Presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. All were united in their determination to end government’s involvement in protecting the lives and health of working Americans, privatize or eliminate safety-net programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, allow corporate leaders free rein to do just about anything they want without regard to the consequences for either the economy or the environment, build up the U.S.’s already swollen investments in military personnel and hardware, and get government out of corporate boardrooms while using its power to micromanage what happens in people’s bedrooms, particularly how they express themselves sexually and deal with the consequences therefrom.
During the campaign Trump gained a thoroughly unearned reputation as a “populist.” He isn’t. His choice of fellow billionaire CEO’s like Rex Tillerson of Exxon as Secretary of State and Steven Mnuchin as Secretary of the Treasury (Trump is at least the fourth President in a row to pick a Treasury Secretary that used to work for Goldman Sachs) showed that, instead of “draining the swamp,” he’s dredging up the swamp creatures and putting them in his government. His pick of Georgia Congressmember Tom Price, longtime advocate of privatizing Social Security and Medicare, as Secretary of Health and Human Services gave the lie to the promises he made during the primary campaign to protect those programs — lies that no doubt got him a lot of votes among nervous Republican senior citizens who heard all the other candidates be honest that they planned to cut them.
Trump’s very first action as President was to rescind a mortgage rate cut by the Federal Home Administration (FHA) that would, if it had been allowed to take effect, have made it easier for ordinary Americans to buy homes. His nominee for Secretary of Labor, fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder, said flat-out that people who work in his industry don’t deserve a $15/hour wage. Two weeks after his election, Trump appeared publicly in Washington, D.C. with one of the slimiest of Wall Street’s swamp creatures, Citibank CEO Jamie Dimon, to announce that he was issuing executive orders gutting the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill passed in 2010 to try to keep Wall Street financiers from melting down the economy again the way they did in 2008. Trump said “there’s nobody better” to advise him about financial policy than Dimon, and one of his actions was to get rid of an Obama-era rule proposal that would have made it illegal for administrators of retirement funds to enrich themselves at the expense of their clients.
What’s more, Trump’s practice of stocking his administration with people who fundamentally don’t believe in the missions of the departments they’re supposed to administer — an Environmental Protection Agency head, Scott Pruitt, who routinely sued the EPA to allow his state to pollute more (while, in his confirmation hearings, questioning whether he’ll continue to allow California to set tougher clean-air rules so the state pollutes less); a Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who’s campaigned to effectively destroy public education in her home state, Michigan, through voucher programs and charter schools; a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, who not only has no track record administering anything but has said he doesn’t believe in public housing — has its origins in previous Republican Presidents dating back at least as far back as Richard Nixon.
In 1973 Nixon, flush from his landslide re-election and before the Watergate scandal cost him his political capital, appointed far-Right Howard Phillips to head the Office of Economic Opportunity, the agency formed under his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, to carry out the War on Poverty. Phillips made no secret of his disdain for the whole idea of the federal government trying to end poverty, and he later quit the Republican Party because it wasn’t conservative enough for him and ran for President as candidate of the Constitution Party, the remnants of George Wallace’s old American Independent Party.
In 1981 Ronald Reagan likewise appointed Anne M. Gorsuch to run the Environmental Protection Agency even though she, like Scott Pruitt, made no secret of her opposition to the EPA and everything it’s supposed to do — and she was eventually driven out of office. There could be no more vivid demonstration of how tightly Trump’s issue priorities fit into those of his Republican predecessors than his recent appointment of Gorsuch’s son Neil to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attitude, Not Policy

What separates Trump from Reagan and the two Bushes is not his basic policy — it’s the same mix of economic libertarianism, social conservatism and military bluster that has sustained the Republican party nationally for 40 years or more — but his take-no-prisoners attitude towards implementing it. Reagan talked in his speeches of America as “a shining city on a hill.” George H. W. Bush called for a “kinder, gentler America.” His son George W. Bush called himself a “compassionate conservative.”
Not Donald Trump. His speeches are dark, apocalyptic, describing an America literally on the point of collapse and one that, as he said at the Republican Convention last summer, “only I can fix.” Everything we know about Trump as a businessman, a politician and a human being shows that he has no kindness, gentleness or compassion in his heart at all. To Trump, kindness, gentleness and compassion are the marks of losers and wimps.
Whereas George W. Bush disguised that his administration planned to use torture in the “war on terror” — they cooked up the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” and then further abbreviated that as “EIT’s” — Trump proudly embraced the T-word and said, “Torture works.” (People who’ve actually fought wars, including Trump’s Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, know it doesn’t.) As Trump and his ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, put it in Trump’s first book, The Art of the Deal, “My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”
In just two weeks, Trump has shown that he’s going to govern the country the same way he ran the Trump Organization: with total self-righteous belief in his own genius and course, a fierce intolerance with dissent both from within and without, a Manichean division of the country into “us” — the people who elected him — and “them,” who didn’t, and an insulting, vindictive response to anyone who criticizes him, from John McCain (“weak”) to Meryl Streep (“overrated”). As Atlantic and Los Angeles Times columnist Ronald Brownstein wrote on January 26 (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/are-liberals-launching-their-own-tea-party/514403/), “Trump’s tumultuous first week made clear that even after his narrow victory he is determined to pursue the sweeping policy changes, at home and abroad, that typically follow a landslide.”
Indeed, I think Trump’s attitude towards power is even worse than Brownstein’s description. In the first 14 days of his Presidency he signed no fewer than 20 executive orders, and he reportedly has his staff carrying around the texts of further executive orders he can sign in whatever sequence pleases him at any given moment. What’s more, instead of signing his executive orders in his office and handing them to his staff to implement, he’s staging full-blown ceremonies in which he’s photographed sweeping his signature across them using a giant Sharpie, I guess because any less flamboyant writing instrument wouldn’t be big enough for his … hands.
I’m old enough to remember that when Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, the bills creating Medicare and Medicaid, and the other landmarks of his administration, he used a separate pen for each letter of his name so he could give them to the people, both elected officials and grass-roots activists, who had helped steer them through Congress. Not Trump: he’s presented with each executive order in a beautiful leather case and he sweeps his Sharpie across each one in a huge signature that sends the visual message, “This is what I am doing for you. No one but me had anything to do with it at all.”
The effect is a striking visual demonstration of how Trump views the Presidency: not as a powerful but Constitutionally limited office to which he has been elected to do the people’s will, but as a plebiscitary dictatorship which allows him to do whatever he wants at any time. When he sweeps his hand and his big Sharpie across those leather-encased orders he looks less like a democratically elected leader than like a general who’s just taken power in a coup d’état and is ruling by decree. As Trump himself said at a rally in Louisiana shortly after his election, “I don’t need your votes anymore. Maybe in four years I will.” In Trump’s world, he’s an absolute dictator and the only recourse the American people have against him is to vote not to renew his option when it comes up four years from now.
And what Trump is planning to do with the dictatorial power he has — or at least thinks he has ­— is fundamentally remake America as completely as Lenin remade Russia after November 1917 or Hitler remade Germany after January 1933. During the 2016 campaigns Democrats, frantically looking for traction against the Trump phenomenon, sometimes asked the rhetorical question, “When does Trump believes America was ‘great’ and what’s the era he wants to return to so it will be ‘great again’?”
Now we know: the 1880’s, when the power of giant corporations to pay their workers pittances, run unsafe workplaces that killed many of them, combine into ever-larger monopolistic trusts, openly buy elective office for themselves or their stooges, and pollute the environment to their hearts’ contents was unchallenged. Trump wants to return to the era in which the federal government pulled back from its commitment to protect African-Americans in the South, and the Supreme Court routinely overruled civil rights legislation designed to protect people of color and first declared that corporations were “persons” and therefore had political, economic and social rights equivalent to those of live human beings.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise because Ayn Rand, the founder of the Libertarian political and economic philosophy that dominates the Republican party, named the 1880’s as the greatest decade in American history, before the original Populists started organizing and demanding reforms that are anathema to the supposed “populist” Trump: laws to break up the big monopolies that controlled the economy, protect workers’ health and safety on the job, ensure them at least a somewhat livable wage and have public utilities owned by the public, not for-profit corporations. The great irony of the constant references to Trump as a “populist” is that his program will return the U.S. to the state of total corporate power the real Populists of the 1890’s were rebelling against!

Immigration

On at least one major issue, immigration, Trump’s idea of when America was “great” and to which it needs to return to become “great again” is considerably later than the 1880’s. It’s 1924, when Congress passed and Republican President Calvin Coolidge signed the most restrictive anti-immigration bill in U.S. history. Not only did it drastically cut the opportunities for documented (so-called “legal”) immigration into the U.S., it assigned each nation in the world a specific quota of how many people it could send here as immigrants. The law gave by far the largest quotas to European countries, because it was designed to make sure the U.S. remained a nation with a white majority — and it achieved that goal. This bill was the basis of U.S. immigration policy for 41 years, until U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) pushed through a reform in 1965 that, among other things, made it illegal for U.S. immigration policy to discriminate against any particular nation.
Though Trump made a lot of attacks on so-called “illegal” immigrants during his campaign and promised, among other things, to build a wall across the entire 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico (already the most highly fortified border in the world between two countries that aren’t actually at war with each other), one speech he gave on immigration was virtually ignored. It called for a drastic cutback in the number of visas available to immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. lawfully, and it was based largely on the ideas of a writer named Peter Brimelow. I first encountered Brimelow’s name in the 1980’s, when I was researching an article on immigration and found a series of articles he wrote for the National Review, later collected into a book called Alien Nation, in which he said the U.S. needed drastic cutbacks in documented immigration to, as he put it, “preserve the ethnic mix” of the U.S. — in other words, to keep America a white-majority country and reverse the demographic trends that threaten that status.
So it was no surprise when Brimelow turned up as an advisor to Trump on immigration policy and Trump gave a speech last summer that echoed Brimelow’s program: severe cutbacks on documented immigration, a shift away from reuniting families as the basis of U.S. immigration policy (as it has been since Kennedy’s 1965 bill that replaced the quota system) and towards targeted immigrants who have marketable skills for high-end employment. It also was no surprise when Brimelow turned up at that remarkable rally celebrating Trump’s victory headed by white-supremacist “alt-Right” activist Richard Spencer, in which Spencer led the crowd in chants of “Hail Trump!” and the stiff-armed Nazi salute.
And it’s been no surprise that immigration — the issue that catapulted Trump to the top of the Republican primary field when he announced his candidacy in June 2015 and helped keep him there and ultimately win him the election — is the issue on which Trump has faced the most volatile controversy of his first three weeks in office. On January 25, Trump issued a sweeping executive order putting all admissions of political refugees into the U.S. on hold for 120 days, and designating immigrants and travelers from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — for a 90-day ban (an indefinite ban in Syria’s case) and so-called “extreme vetting.” Trump presented this as an anti-terror move rather than an implementation of his campaign promise to ban all immigration from Muslim countries. “This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe,” he said, and he denounced anyone who questioned it (including U.S. Senator and 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain) as “weak” on fighting terrorism.
Yet, as MS-NBC prime-time host Rachel Maddow noted on the day the order was issued, none of the lethal terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the last 16 years, from September 11, 2001 to date, have been committed by nationals (or descendants of nationals) of any of the seven countries on Trump’s list. Other commentators noted that nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, from which the leaders of al-Qaeda and most of the 9/11 hijackers actually came, contain hotels or other businesses with Trump’s name on them while the seven he singled out don’t. What’s more, as Maddow pointed out, Trump issued his order on Holocaust Remembrance Day — and one of the aspects the Remembrance Day is supposed to make us remember is that by refusing to admit Jewish refugees from Europe in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the U.S. sent them back home, where many were caught up in the Holocaust and killed in the death camps.
Since I began writing this article, Trump’s sweeping executive order has been challenged in the courts, and a federal district judge in Seattle, Jason L. Robart — originally appointed by George W. Bush and confirmed by a Republican Senate — slapped a temporary restraining order to keep it from staying in effect. Trump’s response was predictable: he denounced Robart as a “so-called judge” and said that if another terror attack occurs, the blood will be on Judge Robart’s hands. Robart’s order was upheld unanimously by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and Trump got even more furious when he, like much of the country, listened to the hearing on his order and heard the judge daring to question whether Trump could just declare everyone from seven specific countries persona non grata without any evidence.
As Amy Davidson noted in a February 8 post on the New Yorker Web site (http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/the-ninth-circuit-and-president-trumps-lies), August Flentje, the Trump administration’s lawyer, said that putting a hold on Trump’s order “overrides the President’s national-security judgment about the level of risk,” One of the judges, Michelle Friedland — another Bush appointee — asked Flentje, “Have you offered any evidence to support this need you’re describing for the executive order, or are you really arguing that we can’t even ask about whether there’s evidence because this decision is non-reviewable?”
“Well, the President determined that there was a real risk,” Flentje replied, making it clear that his position was that Trump had sole authority to decide which immigrants from which countries posed a risk to the American people, and the courts had no right to review or question his decisions. It sure sounded an awful lot like former President Richard Nixon’s infamous statement to interviewer David Frost in 1977 that “when the President does it, that means it is not illegal.” Trump has already made clear in a lot of ways his belief that he’s above the law: he’s seized on an obscure 1970’s statute to claim that he can’t be held to any of the conflict-of-interest restrictions that cover all other employees of the U.S. government, and he’s insisted that he will never release his tax returns publicly and it doesn’t matter because the only people who care are reporters.
When Trump lost at the Ninth Circuit, his first response was to issue a defiant set of tweets in all caps that said, “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” Since then, he’s come up with a way to have his cake and eat it too: he’ll withdraw the executive order in question, thereby invalidating the whole case, and just write a new one (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/white-house-considers-rewriting-trumps-immigration-order/2017/02/10/ddcf5a6a-efb5-11e6-b4ff-ac2cf509efe5_story.html?utm_term=.5de129133e39). One can imagine this process going on forever: Trump’s previous order gets thrown out, he writes another one and throws people out of the country based on it, then when that order gets thrown out he just writes another, and so on.

TrumpAmerica: No Checks, No Balances

January 19, 2017 was the last day of the United States of America, a relatively free and democratic nation-state governed by the rule of law. Since then we have lived in TrumpAmerica (branding is everything!), a petty dictatorship governed by the whims of one man and the ideology of one political party. TrumpAmerica is an ever more frightening place to live, but the scariest aspect of it is how helpless we are in the face of Trump’s and the Republicans’ assault on basic human, social and political values and how little hope there is that anyone or anything will stop him.
Not the Republicans, certainly. The hopes some people had that Trump didn’t have a set of deeply held ideological convictions were dashed early on when Trump adopted whole-hog the conventional orthodoxy of the Republican party on issue after issue: giveaway tax cuts for the rich; abolishing government regulation of business, the environment, workers’ and consumers’ health and safety, or anything else; rollbacks of civil-rights protections for people of color, women and Queers; abolition of women’s right to reproductive choice and defunding any organization that defends it; ending “Net Neutrality” and thereby allowing Right-wing voices to monopolize the Internet as they have done with every other medium of electronic communication; and even such a long-standing and definitely ideologically driven priority as getting rid of public broadcasting and government funding for the arts.
I think Adam Johnson went a bit too far in his February 10 Los Angeles Times column, “Stop comparing Trump to foreign leaders. He’s a distinctly American phenomenon” (http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-johnson-trump-is-like-x-20170210-story.html#nt=oft12aH-3li3), in saying that Trump shouldn’t be compared to other countries’ authoritarian leaders. Certainly studying how other countries transitioned from democracy to dictatorship — Russia in 1917 and again in 2000, Germany in 1933, Venezuela in 1989, Hungary in 2010, Turkey in 2014, the Philippines in 2016 — can offer valuable comparisons to Trump’s rise in the U.S., even though it can also be depressing to see from those examples how difficult it is to restore democracy once a pseudo-populist demagogue has seized power and set out to destroy it.
But Johnson is absolutely right when he says, “Trump’s agenda is largely the same as the broader Republican Party; his rise, moreover, was the logical manifestation of the xenophobic, ‘insurgent’ tea party movement — funded and supported not by foreign governments, but by entirely domestic billionaires. … The groundwork for Trump was laid by Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, Fox News and the Drudge Report. All pushed the limits of ‘post-truth,’ all spent years stoking white grievance, demonizing immigrants, spreading ‘Black-on-white crime’ panic. Trump is a raw, unfiltered expression of American nativism and white grievance. The effort to stop Trump would be better served attacking these threads — and their specific Right-wing ideology — than continuing to draw lazy parallels to foreign enemies in bad standing with the U.S. national security establishment.”
That’s why, despite the visible distaste of old-line establishment Republicans for Trump, he’s getting his way on virtually every issue he’s bothered to present to Congress — most notably his choices for his Cabinet, who are being ratified one by one in the U.S. Senate. Aside from the two Republican Senators who dissented on Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, all Trump’s Cabinet choices have won the lock-step support of all 52 Republican Senators. And, as Johnson writes, “There’s a reason why Republican senators from John McCain to Marco Rubio have voted to confirm Trump’s nominees: They basically agree with him.” The Republican establishment has reacted to Trump largely the way the old-line German Right did to Hitler: at first they denounced him as a pretentious lower-class parvenu who wasn’t even German (Hitler was Austrian), but when he looked like he was about to assume power they supported, embraced and gave money to him because they realized he was about to implement their agenda: suppressing the Left and the unions, rebuilding Germany’s military and (dare I say it?) “making Germany great again.”
So don’t hold out any hope that dissident Republicans will stop Trump. And don’t hold out much hope that the Democrats will stop him, either. The Democrats have fallen so far so fast in the last eight years that Time magazine just ran a cover story asking if they still matter. The Republicans have gained absolute power in Washington, D.C. largely by shrewdly exploiting the anti-democratic provisions originally built into the U.S. Constitution — the makeup of the U.S. Senate, the Electoral College and the near-total control state legislatures have over determining who can vote and drawing legislative districts. They have carefully and savvily made sure they control as many state governments as possible, and in state after state they are zipping through a hard-Right legislative agenda at warp speed (see “State G.O.P. Leaders Move Quickly as Party Bickers in Congress,” New York Times, February 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/11/us/state-republican-leaders-move-swiftly.html?_r=0).
While the Republicans have focused on where political power really resides in the U.S. — in Congress and, even more emphatically, in the states — the Democrats have been way too concerned about the Presidency. The result was that, once they lost the Oval Office in the 2016 election, they had literally nothing to fall back on. As I’ve pointed out in these pages before, the so-called “Obama coalition” was able to elect only one person — Obama himself. Otherwise the Obama years were one political disaster for the Democrats after another, culminating in the 2016 rout and the rise of TrumpAmerica. Even if more Americans vote for Democrats than Republicans, not only for President but Congress, that’s largely meaningless because it’s where and how those votes are distributed that really counts. Indeed, if I were running the Democratic Party right now I’d forget about Congress and the Presidency and focus on the battles where the real future of American politics will be decided: control of the states.
The Democrats have several handicaps that severely limit their ability to act as a restraining force on Trump and the Republicans. First, unlike the Republican Party, which is ideologically unified along an agenda of economic libertarianism and social conservative, the Democrats remain a mixed party, an uneasy and contentious blend of progressives and pro-corporate moderates. Second, while the interests of the grass-roots activists and the corporate donors to the Republican Party are basically the same — both want government out of the boardrooms and into the bedrooms — the Democrats’ big donors have fundamentally different interests from the Democrats’ young activists. (That was one reason why the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was so bitter, and why Clinton lost so many of Sanders’ voters: either they stayed home, they threw their votes away on alternative-party candidates, or, in many of the Rust Belt states that were key to Trump’s victory, they actually voted for Trump.)
What’s more, the Democrats can’t copy the strategy the Republicans used so effectively against Obama — do what we want or we shut down the government — because the Democrats actually want government to work. The Republicans’ key constituencies don’t suffer — or at least they don’t believe they suffer — when the government shuts down. The rich don’t need government’s help to make themselves even richer — though, when it’s offered, they certainly welcome it — and the white working-class people see government programs as things that take money away from them to help people of color and other “undeserving” types. The Democrats, who in order to win elections at all need the votes of women and people of color to overcome the Republicans’ overwhelming advantage over white men (though in the 2016 election the Republicans won white women as well), can’t afford to shut down the government and thereby immiserate their key constituencies.
If the Republicans won’t stop Trump and the Democrats can’t, who’s left? At one point I was hoping that Trump would at least be reachable by his fellow 0.01-percenters, who would talk him out of some of his dumbest and potentially most destructive ideas by pointing out to him how much money they and he stood to lose if they were implemented. There is a certain degree of evidence that that’s going on — Trump has pulled back from at least some of his most extreme attacks on the NATO alliance and he’s endorsed the so-called “one-China policy” the mainland Chinese government insists on if we’re going to have a relationship with China at all. (Given that China is both the largest manufacturer of “U.S.” goods and the biggest holder of the U.S.’s national debt, the U.S. government cannot afford to alienate China without collapsing both its own and the world’s economies.) But for the most part the corporate ruling class of the U.S. has gone along with Trump — as shown by how much the stock market has gone up since his election despite quite a few predictions that it would go down.
Also don’t hold much false hope that the American judiciary is going to hold Trump accountable — even though that appears to be what happened when a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to lift Judge Jason Robart’s order blocking enforcement of Trump’s ban on refugees. The federal court system may be an island of independence from TrumpAmerica for now, but it won’t be much longer. After the Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate in the 2014 election, they refused to hold hearings or vote not only on President Obama’s appointee to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, they also blocked the filling of over 100 vacancies throughout the federal court system. Now Trump will get to appoint people to all those judgeships — and he’s already made clear what he wants in his judges. He wants them to “do what is right” — i.e., what the Boss tells them to do. Besides, as Andrew Jackson (reportedly one of Trump’s heroes) once said when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against him, “The Court has made its decision. Now let them enforce it.
The last group that could at least conceivably hold Donald Trump to account is the American people themselves. A lot of progressives have been hailing the extraordinary turnout at rallies and protests held against the Trump administration, notably the Women’s Marches on January 21 (the day after Trump’s inauguration) and the pickets at airports and elsewhere targeting the refugee ban. But street protests only work when they’re targeted at adversaries who have some degree of conscience, some sense of moral justice to which the protesters can appeal. Trump and the Republicans have none. To them — and to their supporters, who have been brainwashed by talk radio, Fox News and other Right-wing propaganda outlets for decades to believe that anyone who opposes them is part of some deep, dark conspiracy out to ruin America — the fact that people are protesting Trump is only proof that he’s right and he’s doing the things he promised, the things that will “drain the swamp” and restore the white working-class America of their dreams.
Besides, for the last half-century the American Left has basically willed itself into irrelevance by stubbornly clinging to values, policies and practice that assure it will never again come anywhere near hailing distance of power. Among these are the fanatic pursuit of “internal democracy” through consensus decision-making — which ensures that no Left organization can actually plan strategically or follow a long-term strategy — and an intellectual contempt for the non-college-educated that expresses itself in impenetrable jargon like the word of the moment in Left circles, “intersectionality” — a word I would like to see stricken from the language now and forever!
Whatever “intersectionality” meant when the term was coined — I must confess I looked it up on Wikipedia and couldn’t make heads or tails of it — in practice it has come to mean that the more oppressed communities you can claim to be a part of (female, person of color, Queer, Transgender, disabled), the more worthy you’re considered. It’s yet another way the U.S. Left gives the finger to anyone who isn’t poor, Black, Queer or female — and with the thinly veiled contempt for the white working class the Left expresses by using words like “intersectionality” and the fetishization of oppression that lays behind them, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the American white working class has embraced the Right en masse and found its chosen champion in Donald Trump.
The American Left — particularly that part of it that clings to the useless, counterproductive policy of attempting to organize alternative political parties — also keeps making a mistake that helped create one of the greatest historical disasters of all time. In the early 1930’s the German Communist Party took the line that their center-Left rivals, the Social Democrats, were the “real enemy” — and thereby they helped the real “real enemy,” Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, come to power and bring on World War II and the Holocaust. To my astonishment, I’m still getting messages from people in the Green Party taking a similar line that the Democrats are the “real enemy” and that there’s no difference between them and the Republicans — a message that encouraged Leftists to sit out the 2016 election (or to throw their votes away on the Green Party or other Left splinter parties, which under the U.S.’s election system means the same thing) and thereby helped the real “real enemy,” Donald Trump and the Republicans.
What’s more, within the Left there exists a so-called “black bloc” tendency which has hijacked some of the major anti-Trump protests and engaged in wanton, counterproductive violence against people and property. The “black blockers” have been an irritant to the various attempts at creating a mass Left protest movement since they emerged in Seattle at the anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations in 1999, and they serve Donald Trump in the same way that Marinus van der Lubbe, the crazy Dutch Communist who burned the German Reichstag on February 27, 1933, thereby giving Adolf Hitler the pretext he needed to suspend the German Constitution and push through the “Enabling Laws” under which he proclaimed his dictatorship.
The “black bloc” and the other protesters who kept Right-wing speaker, journalist and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at UC Berkeley on February 1 handed Donald Trump and the “alt-Right” movement a major propaganda victory. Instead of organizing a disciplined, peaceful vigil outside the hall as Yiannopoulos spoke, or — better yet — staging their own event in direct competition with his, the protest organizers allowed 150 “black blockers” to hijack the event and start a riot that led the campus police to cancel Yiannopoulos’s speech. Trump was therefore able to argue that he and his “alt-Right” allies were defending freedom of speech against a cabal of sinister Leftists too afraid of open dialogue to allow views contrary to their own to be expressed on campus.
Indeed, conservative author and speechwriter David Frum has argued in his Atlantic article “How to Build an Autocracy” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/how-to-build-an-autocracy/513872/) that protest against Trump only serves Trump’s aims — and the more violent and antisocial the anti-Trump protests are, the better they work for him. “Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency. It will be a resource,” Frum wrote. “Trump will likely want not to repress it, but to publicize it — and the conservative entertainment-outrage complex will eagerly assist him. Immigration protesters marching with Mexican flags; Black Lives Matter demonstrators bearing antipolice slogans — these are the images of the opposition that Trump will wish his supporters to see. The more offensively the protesters behave, the more pleased Trump will be.”
If Trump can’t or won’t be stopped by Congressmembers (who are ideologically aligned with him and also afraid of him targeting them politically), the courts (in a couple of years Trump will be able to pack the federal judiciary and therefore will effectively own the courts), the nominal opposition party (already reduced to virtual irrelevance in the corridors of power), or a mass protest movement, what can? He could lose the loyalty of the people who voted him into office, but so far not only hasn’t that happened, but every move he’s made has cemented them even more tightly to him. Trump won the Presidency with 46 percent of the vote, and the latest polls put his approval rating at 45 percent — a statistical tie.
Trump’s open defiance of political norms, his total refusal even to look like he’s reaching across the aisle, and the carefully cultivated macho swagger with which he presents himself publicly all have cemented his coalition ever tighter to him. Unless significant numbers of Trump’s voters not only get disenchanted with him but can be persuaded to view the Democrats as a legitimate and preferable alternative, Trump will be able to stay in power indefinitely. It’s clear that not even age and the Constitutional limitation of the Presidency to two four-year terms by the 22nd Amendment will stop Trump in his quest for perpetual power. That’s why he’s made his children and son-in-law such integral parts of his administration; clearly he’s grooming them for the succession.
Donald Trump’s Presidency and the near-total power the Republican Party has over modern American politics is the culmination of a decades-long struggle by a far-Right tendency that emerged in the late 1930’s in opposition to the New Deal and U.S. involvement in World War II and has managed to sustain itself ever since. It’s had setbacks — the downfall of its first elected official with nationwide stature, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) in 1954 (McCarthy not only anticipated much of Trump’s rhetoric and his unashamed lying, there’s even a direct connection with them: attorney Roy Cohn, who as a young man was on McCarthy’s staff and decades later helped Trump break his family’s real-estate development business out of New York’s outer boroughs and into Manhattan); the landslide defeat of its first Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, in 1964; and the Presidential victories of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — but it has brilliantly recovered from them and kept its eyes on the prize.

Now the prize is within reach. Under Donald Trump the Republican Party is poised to achieve what Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s political strategist, called “full-spectrum dominance” of U.S. politics. Ironically given how basic Trump’s demonization of Mexico is to his politics, their model is Mexico in the last two-thirds of the 20th century, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) occasionally allowed other parties to win the odd election but kept the presidency, the federal power and virtually all the states under their tight control. Today’s Republicans want to convert the American political system from one in which multiple parties exist but only two parties matter to one in which multiple parties exist but only one party matters. And they want to use that power to repeal the entire 20th century and return America to the dark ages of the 1880’s, when corporate leaders had near-absolute power, workers had no rights, people of color were at best second-class citizens, women were the legal property of their husbands and Queers, when their existence was acknowledged at all, were considered the scum of the earth.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Trump, the Republicans and the Libertarian Coup d’État

 
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It’s taken me a long time to be able to write about the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election and how the transition from Barack Obama’s administration to Donald Trump’s is going. The night of November 8 I sat at home alone in front of my TV gob-smacked at the sheer scope of the defeat not only of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats but of every principle I hold dear in my political orientation and have held dear since I had political beliefs at all.
It was the fourth time in my life my fellow Americans have gob-smacked me with the awareness of just how Right-wing a country this is and just how strongly many Americans are motivated to vote against their economic self-interest by the clever manipulation of race and culture. The other times were 1972, when Richard Nixon won re-election with 61 percent of the vote — though his political capital was soon eaten up by Watergate, which essentially was a series of revelations of just how far he had gone to manipulate the election to achieve that result — and 1980 and 1984, when the American people elected Ronald Reagan.
I think the biggest difference this time was how old I was. When Nixon was re-elected I was 19 years old, and in Reagan’s two elections I was 27 and 31, respectively. I could look philosophically and say to myself, “This too shall pass. Someday this country will return to its senses and regain a progressive majority.” When Trump won in 2016 and the Republican Party held on to its majorities in both the House and the Senate — essentially gaining complete control of the federal government and rendering the Democrats basically irrelevant — I was 63, all too conscious of the fact that even if the Trump phenomenon is reversed and America once again has a progressive government, it’s not likely to happen until after I’m dead.
If you’ve been following my previous blog posts about the 2016 election, you’ll know that my head was well aware that Trump could win the election. I knew that the historical odds were against the Democrats because, since the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1947, which limits the President to two terms, only once has the same major party won the presidency three times in a row: the Republicans, with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. I had seen the polls showing not only that Trump was making major inroads into traditional Democratic constituencies, I’d read the interviews and focus-group reports of how fervently Trump’s supporters believed in him and his message.
Indeed, I not only predicted that Trump would win the election, I even correctly figured out how he would do it: Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote by running up big majorities in large blue states like California and New York, but Trump would win the Electoral College, and therefore the Presidency, by eking out narrow wins in “Rust Belt” states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania where huge numbers of people have been put out of work by the de-industrialization and globalization Clinton and her husband have been pushing throughout their career in national politics.
But while my head understood that Trump could win, my heart refused to believe it. Even in the last two weeks — which, according to the post-election polls, were the crucial time (a huge majority of voters who made up their minds in the last two weeks voted for Trump) — I was watching Trump seemingly lose his sanity on national television. I guess I didn’t think Americans were so boorish that they could elect as President a man who was almost pure id, who not only showed no sign of grace or compassion but actually reveled in his lack of grace and compassion and even took pride in that.
I knew that there were people in those parts of America between the two big coasts — those often derided by America’s cosmopolitans as “flyover America” — who admired Trump because they read his boorishness as a refreshing assault on “political correctness.” But I had a hard time believing there were enough people like that to elect him … until they did. Indeed, if you look at the so-called “county map” of the election, which aside from a couple of narrow strips on the East and West Coasts and a few pinpricks of blue elsewhere in the country shows the U.S. as a solid block of Trump red, you’ll get even more depressed and traumatized by the result.
My age when Trump was elected has another effect on how I’ve received the news. I have lived most of my adult life in the expectation that Social Security and Medicare would be there for me when I got old and I needed them. Now, just as I’m knocking on the door of the age at which I’d be eligible for those programs, the federal government is under the complete control of an ideologically driven political party determined to cut them back drastically and ultimately eliminate them altogether.

The Libertarian Ideology

And don’t tell me I’m being too doomy-and-gloomy: I’ve been watching and writing about politics for at least the last 40 years and I’ve seen the Republican party come under the sway of a consistent ideology that regards Social Security, Medicare and all social-welfare programs as not only wrong but downright immoral. That ideology has many names, but is usually known as Libertarianism. It was founded in the mid-20th century as a response to Marxism, and particularly to Karl Marx’s concept of the “labor theory of value.”
According to Marx, a piece of iron ore resting peacefully in the ground, doing nothing, had no real value. It only acquired value when human workers dug it out of the ground, ran giant furnaces to smelt the iron out of the rock, further refined it into steel and manufactured useful products out of it. The biggest thing Marx didn’t like about capitalism was it took money away from the workers and gave it to capitalists who, Marx argued, had done nothing to create the value from which they profited.
Libertarianism grew out of the Austrian school of economics, founded in the 1930’s by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek. Its basic argument was that Marx was wrong when he said workers created value. Instead, it argued, the real creators of value were the visionary entrepreneurs who figured out how to dig iron ore from the ground, smelt it and make useful things out of it. Where Marx criticized capitalism for driving workers’ wages down and reducing their income to the bare minimum to keep them alive and productive, Libertarians thought this was a good thing because it meant the “makers” — the great capitalist entrepreneurs — were getting the full value of their contributions to the economy instead of having to share it with the “takers,” everyone else.
The Libertarian philosophy was popularized by novelist Ayn Rand, who fled the Soviet Union in 1928, established herself as a writer in the U.S. and wrote two major novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), which outlined the basics. The heroes of these books are fiercely independent entrepreneurs who triumph at the end against the “little people” who try to take over their innovations and divert some of the capitalists’ income to help others. At the end of each book, Rand’s capitalist superhero delivers a long speech expressing her philosophy. Though Rand said it was morally O.K. for capitalists voluntarily to contribute money to help others, it’s clear from her overall plots that the capitalists she most admired were the ones who kept it all for themselves.
While at least some traditional conservatives join liberals and progressives in expressing concern over the increasing inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. and throughout the developed world, Libertarians regard increasing economic inequality as a good thing — because it means the “makers” are protecting more and more of what’s rightfully theirs against the “takers.” One of the most powerful statements of the Libertarian philosophy was given by 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a private fundraiser among fellow super-rich people on May 17, 2012 when he said of his opponent, President Obama, “[T]here are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.… I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
In the Libertarian world, no one is “entitled” to food, housing, health care or anything else. You earn those things in the capitalist marketplace, and if the market is allowed to work without any opposition or regulation from government, the greatest rewards will automatically flow to the worthiest individuals. The statement Republican President Theodore Roosevelt made in 1903 that many of the corporate leaders of his time were “malefactors of great wealth” is anathema to a Libertarian. According to Libertarians, the mere fact that you are rich shows that you are a superior human being — much the way Puritan theologian John Calvin preached that only a handful of people, the “elect,” were going to go to Heaven, and the way God had of showing humanity in general who those people were was through their material success in this world. Indeed, in Rand’s novels she arranges her plots so her capitalist superheroes lose all their money through machinations of less worthy humans — and get it all back again, thereby demonstrating their physical, intellectual and moral superiority over the rest of us.
One other weird quirk of Libertarianism, especially the way Ayn Rand preached it, is it is fanatically anti-environment. Libertarians do not believe in environmental regulation because they regard it — along with minimum-wage laws, social-welfare programs, regulations protecting workers’ health and safety, consumer protections, and laws allowing workers to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers — as just one more way the “takers” can exploit the “makers” and essentially steal from them. In fact, Rand seemed to believe that capitalist entrepreneurialism was so powerful it could literally change the laws of physics; the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, invents a motor that runs on air.

Republicans Become Ideological; Democrats Don’t

The American political system has generally resolved itself into two major political parties, each so-called “broad tent” coalitions whose members had a wide range of ideologies. Indeed, for years one of the rules of American political science was that a major party that got too ideological — that positioned itself too far either to the Left or the Right — would be punished by losing a major election by a landslide margin and would have to move back to the center to survive, regroup and eventually win. When I majored in political science at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University in the mid- to late-1970’s, that was the standard explanation for why Barry Goldwater lost the presidency in 1964 and George McGovern lost in 1972.
What we didn’t know was that the Right-wing movement within the Republican party that had pushed Goldwater and got him nominated took a very different lesson from his defeat. That Right-wing movement had actually started in the 1930’s in opposition to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it had already survived blows that would have killed less dedicated, committed and perseverant activists. It had survived World War II, during which a lot of its early adherents had been exposed as isolationists and, in some cases, outright Nazi sympathizers. It had survived the fall of its first elected official with a national following, Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), in 1954. It survived Goldwater’s defeat largely by coalescing around someone else who could deliver Goldwater’s message but soften it up and thereby make it appealing to enough U.S. voters to win a Presidential election. The someone else was Ronald Reagan, and in 1980 he did just that.
But recruiting Ronald Reagan to put a kinder, gentler face on Libertarian conservatism than Goldwater had was just one aspect of the Right’s winning strategy. They also shrewdly exploited the two great divisive issues, race and culture, that emerged during the 1960’s and gave the Right entrée not only into the formerly solidly Democratic South but also to the working-class white ethnics in the East and Midwest that had once been bulwarks of the Democratic Party’s base. Whites who had applauded the New Deal programs when they were their principal beneficiaries suddenly turned against them when the administrations of John F. Kennedy and especially Lyndon Johnson started extending them to people of color in general and African-Americans in particular.
Republicans and Right-wing independents like Alabama Governor George Wallace saw an opening: if they could rile up working-class whites by appealing to their racism, they could break up the New Deal coalition and create a working, enduring Right-wing majority. They got a boost from another phenomenon of the 1960’s: the rise of a counter-culture among young people that eventually took the form of sexual liberation and drug use. Older whites who had sacrificed to send their kids to college were horrified to see them drifting into the counterculture, and eagerly voted for Republicans like Reagan who promised to put an end to all this “permissiveness” and re-impose discipline on young people in general and college students in particular.
In the 1960’s, the Republican and Democratic parties reversed their traditional positions on civil rights. Barry Goldwater started that process when he voted against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act on the basis that, while government should not discriminate on the basis of race, it also should not tell private businesses that they could not discriminate. (More recently, Senator Rand Paul [R-Kentucky] told interviewers that had he been around in 1964, he wouldn’t have voted for the Civil Rights Act for the same reason Goldwater didn’t.)
Though Goldwater lost the presidency in a landslide vote, he carried six states — his own, Arizona, and five in the Deep South: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi (where he won a whopping 87.1 percent of the vote to Johnson’s 12.9 percent) and South Carolina. This set the stage for the next Presidential election in 1968, when the nation was torn apart by racial and cultural chaos and Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, saw his chance to win by coming forward as the candidate of “law and order” and what he called “middle America” — i.e., older white America put off by the ferment of the civil rights movement, the protests against the Viet Nam war and the sex-drugs-and-rock-’n’-roll lifestyle of the young counterculture.
Faced with a major Right-wing independent challenge from openly racist Alabama Governor George Wallace that threatened to split the Right-wing vote and keep the Democrats in the White House, Nixon and Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) concocted what became known as the “Southern Strategy.” This basically flipped the two major parties’ historic stands on civil rights: the Democrats, once the party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, became the party of racial inclusion, civil rights and voting rights for people of color.
Meanwhile, the Republicans — the “Party of Lincoln” — became the home of racism and reaction. It worked like a charm in 1968 — between them Nixon and Wallace got 57 percent of the vote to Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent. (It helped that Humphrey, like Hillary Clinton in 2016, was the choice of the Democratic party bosses and his nomination, like hers, profoundly alienated young political activists and led many of them either to vote for third-party candidates or just stay home.)
What’s more, the “Southern Strategy” didn’t just win for Republicans in the South; many white working-class voters in the Midwest who’d become Democrats because they’d directly benefited from the New Deal programs in the 1930’s resented the Democrats of the 1960’s for expanding these programs to help people of color. Thanks to their appeals to race and culture, the Republicans broke the New Deal coalition and created the Right-wing majority that, with occasional exceptions, has dominated American politics ever since.
Don’t believe analysts who have prematurely reported the “demise of the Right.” It triumphed when Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980 and triumphantly re-elected in a 49-state landslide in 1984. It held on to the Presidency with George H. W. Bush in 1988 — the only time since the passage of the 22nd Amendment limiting the Presidency to two terms that one major party has won the White House three elections in a row — only to lose it partly because many Rightists abandoned Bush Sr. as an apostate because he broke his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge, and partly because the Right-wing vote in 1992 was split between Bush and H. Ross Perot, who between them got 57 percent of the vote to Bill Clinton’s 43 percent.
The Right struck back against Clinton when the nation gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives in 1994, largely as a reaction to an unpopular health-care reform sponsored by Hillary Clinton (sound familiar? Hillary’s constant reminders during the 2016 campaign that “before it was called Obamacare, it was called Hillarycare” were some of the dumbest things she said all campaign), and when they made him only the second U.S. President in history to be impeached and put on trial before the Senate for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” (Had Hillary won in 2016 she would quite likely have been the third.)
By the time George W. Bush won the Presidency — largely due to the efforts of the National Rifle Association, which swung Tennessee and West Virginia to the Republicans (had Democrat Al Gore been able to hold on to his home state, Tennessee, he would have been President and Florida wouldn’t have mattered) — people on the Right were once again talking about what Bush adviser Karl Rove called “full-spectrum dominance” of American politics. Partly through the ample coffers of mega-rich donors like Charles and David Koch, Dick and Betsy DeVos, Sheldon Adelson and Art Pope, and partly through the incessant Right-wing propaganda on talk radio and Fox News, the Republicans were able to develop a huge hard-core following of working-class whites and others profoundly disturbed by the racial and cultural changes that had been going on since the 1960’s — and ready to vote accordingly.
The result was that, after Barack Obama was elected President in 2008 (a race he was actually on his way to losing — John McCain and Sarah Palin were creeping up in the polls until the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 tanked the American economy and convinced enough voters it was time for a change), the Democrats suffered one political defeat after another in the Obama years. As Right-wing writer Deroy Murdock chronicled in a New York Post op-ed on December 25, 2016 (http://nypost.com/2016/12/25/obamas-legacy-is-a-devastated-democratic-party/):
  • Democrats surrendered the White House to political neophyte Donald J. Trump.
  • US Senate seats slipped from 55 to 46, down 16 percent.
  • US House seats fell from 256 to 194, down 24 percent.
  • Democrats ran the Senate and House in 2009. Next year, they will control neither.
  • Governorships slid from 28 to 16, down 43 percent.
  • State legislatures (both chambers) plunged from 27 to 14, down 48 percent
  • Trifectas (states with Democrat governors and both legislative chambers) cratered from 17 to 6, down 65 percent. …
Obama has supervised the net loss of 959 such Democratic positions, down 23.5 percent, according to Ballotpedia, which generated most of the data cited here. This far outpaces the 843 net seats that Republicans yielded under President Dwight Eisenhower.

The so-called “Obama coalition” is a paper tiger that was able to elect one and only one person: Obama himself. Otherwise, despite Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote majority over Donald Trump (which was politically irrelevant because her support was concentrated in the urban centers on the East and West Coasts, while Trump dominated overwhelmingly everywhere else, in what urban cosmopolites insultingly dismiss as “flyover America”), the U.S. is, was, has been since 1968 and overwhelmingly remains a profoundly Right-wing country. That is the lesson what’s left of the American Left needs to learn from Donald Trump’s victory and the Republicans’ final achievement of the “full-spectrum dominance” of U.S. politics they have sought for so long.

Hitting Bottom and Facing Up

It’s a major part of 12-step programs for addiction recovery that the process starts when you realize you have “hit bottom” and you can either die or get your life back together and work on getting better. The Trump election — indeed, the long string of political triumphs for the Right that began with the Congressional and state legislative elections of 2010 and culminated with Trump’s win — should be the bottom-hitting moment for the American Left. This should be the time when we start shedding the illusions we have surrounded ourselves with and thereby rendered ourselves irrelevant.
First, the Trump victory was largely a Republican coup d’état. Like Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in 1933, Trump and the Republicans in 2016 took over America by shrewdly exploiting the anti-democratic features of their country’s constitution. And I don’t just mean the Electoral College, either — though after a run of 26 elections from 1892 to 1996 in which the winner of the popular vote for President also won the Electoral College and therefore the presidency, in two of the five 21st century elections that hasn’t happened. (Also, in the four elections since the end of the Civil War in which the popular and the electoral vote have diverged — 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016 — it has always been the Democrat who won the popular vote and the Republican who won the presidency, never the other way around.)
The biggest undemocratic feature of the U.S. Constitution the Republicans were able to exploit in 2016 is the huge power it gives to individual states. It is states that set the rules for who may and may not vote in elections. The great Constitutional amendments that extended the franchise — the 15th, which allowed people of color to vote; the 19th, which gave the vote to women; the 24th, which abolished the poll tax; and the 26th, which lowered the voting age to 18 — are all framed as limits on the otherwise absolute power of state governments to decide who is and isn’t qualified to vote.
Through much of the Obama Presidency Democrats sanguinely expressed confidence that they would build a partisan majority in the future because of “demographics” — that is, because the percentages of the population that voted Democratic (young people, poor people, people of color, women) were growing and the segments that voted Republican (white people, old people, men) were shrinking. The Republicans had a solution for that: a concerted effort on the part of Republican governors and state legislators to rewrite election rules so those voters not likely to vote Republican would not be able to vote at all.
These sorts of disenfranchisement — an end to same-day voter registration, eliminating or cutting back on early voting, photo ID requirements for voters, restrictions on who could turn in a ballot for someone else, and selective closings of polling places in poor regions and communities of color — were key factors in swinging several close states Obama won to Trump. And Trump’s appointment of openly racist Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) as his attorney general is an indication that the Republicans are doubling down on disenfranchisement as a long-term strategy to shrink the electorate and make sure so few of their opponents can vote that they can’t threaten Republican dominance at both national and state levels.
Indeed, Trump’s Cabinet choices are the biggest indication that, despite his so-called “populist” rhetoric and appeal, he intends to govern as a hard-core Libertarian ideologue. Despite his pledge during his campaign to preserve Social Security and Medicare, Trump picked as his Secretary of Health and Human Services Representative Tom Price (R-Georgia), a long-term advocate of “reforming” Medicare by privatizing it. As Secretary of Labor Trump picked Carl’s, Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder, who is against raising the federal minimum wage and is a strong advocate of replacing human workers with robots wherever possible.
As Secretary of Education Trump picked Betsy DeVos, a strong advocate of public funding of private schools and of union-busting charter schools, who along with her husband largely funded the campaign to turn her native Michigan from a bastion of union power to a right-to-work state (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/betsy-dick-devos-family-amway-michigan-politics-religion-214631). As Secretary of Energy Trump appointed former Texas Governor Rick Perry, and as Secretary of the Interior he’s picked Representative Ryan Zinke (R-Montana), both strong supporters of fossil-fuel development and opponents of the idea that humans are causing climate change.
The rest of Trump’s Cabinet appointments (http://www.marieclaire.com/politics/a23922/donald-trump-cabinet-appointments/) pretty much fit the same mold. They’re all either corporate CEO’s, long-time Republican officeholders or heroes of the social-conservative Right like Health and Human Services nominee Dr. Ben Carson. They’re united mostly by a deep-seated hostility to the stated missions of the government departments Trump has picked them to run. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he followed a similar strategy, which he called Gleischhaltung — one of those indigestible German words that don’t translate well (it’s usually rendered as “rectification” or “social agreement”).
It meant that if you didn’t like what a particular government department was supposed to do, rather than go through the rigmarole of eliminating it, you simply appointed someone who didn’t believe in its mission and would run it to accomplish the opposite of what its creators wanted. That’s what Richard Nixon did in 1973 when he appointed far-Right Howard Phillips to run the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the anti-poverty agency created under his predecessor Lyndon Johnson, and it’s what Trump has done throughout virtually all his Cabinet choices, especially those dealing with domestic policy.
Also, as political commentator Ronald Brownstein noted (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/trump-is-making-little-attempt-to-reconcile-the-country/511451/), Trump is totally uninterested in reconciling a divided country. In line both with the Republican demand for “full-spectrum dominance” of American politics and Trump’s own personality, which divides the world into “winners” and “losers” and holds that the winners have the right to dominate the losers and force them to submit, “Trump has appointed a Cabinet and White House staff that braid the competing factions of the Republican Party, but offer virtually no outreach to voters beyond them,” Brownstein wrote last December. “His nominations for most Cabinet agencies — as well as for the Office of Management and Budget and the Environmental Protection Agency — point toward Trump launching a much more ideological crusade to retrench government than he stressed during the campaign.”
We know from all those state governments Republicans have taken control of in the last decade or so just what Trump and the Congressional Republicans will do with their absolute power. They will move to slash government spending on education and health care. Their replacement for the Affordable Care Act — if they come up with one at all, since their whole objection to it is it promised a major expansion of the social safety net the Republicans have vowed to eliminate altogether — will be a Libertarian concept of “health savings accounts” in which it will be the responsibility of individuals, not either the government or private insurers, to save enough money to cover their own health care, or if they won’t (or can’t) simply to do without.
The Age of Trump and the Republicans will be one in which what’s left of America’s labor movement will be so burdened by regulations and restrictions it will virtually disappear. It will be one in which all controls on greedy corporations and financial institutions to keep them ripping off consumers, poisoning or disabling their workers, or polluting the environment will be abolished. It will be one in which the tax code is rewritten to make America’s distribution of wealth and income even more unequal than it already is. It will be one in which the promise of public education to give all Americans equal opportunity — a promise that has not always been fulfilled — will be explicitly rejected. And it will be one in which corporations will have the power to pollute and destroy the environment as much as they please in the pursuit of short-term profit.
Trump has already targeted all four of President Obama’s signature accomplishments — the Affordable Care Act, the nuclear arms deal with Iran, the Paris agreement on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement — for elimination. That’s why Obama said during a rally last fall that he was “really, really into making Hillary Clinton the next President” — because if Clinton had won the election Obama would have had a legacy. With Trump as his successor, it will be like Obama never served as President at all. He will be as thoroughly forgotten as Heinrich Brüning, who served as Chancellor of Germany from 1930 to 1932 and thought he could bring the rival parties together and unify the country politically. Like Obama, Brüning never realized that he wasn’t dealing with a normal opposition, but with a gang of thugs who didn’t care how much damage they did to the country as long as they got their way in the end, and — after a couple of insignificant interim appointments in between — Brüning was ultimately replaced by Adolf Hitler.
America’s progressive community has one weapon against the full-spectrum dominance of Donald Trump and the Republicans which can be quite effective if we know how to use it. The American people like Right-wing policies considerably better in the abstract than they do when they actually have to live under them. Donald Trump’s determination to return to the world of the 1880’s in which corporations and their leaders openly and unashamedly ran the government to their liking is going to be disastrous for all those white working-class people who thought he was going to bring back their jobs, all the senior citizens who thought he was going to protect their Social Security and Medicare, and all the people in his coalition whom he persuaded to blame the nation’s problems on Mexicans and Muslims.
In fact, for all the media references to Trump as a “populist,” what he and the Republicans have in store for the U.S. is a return to the conditions that generated the original Populist movement in the 1890’s. As has been proven time and time again, what happens when you let corporations do whatever they like, including driving down the wages of their workers to subsistence levels and running the political system to enrich themselves, is economic collapse. It happened in 1873, 1893, 1897, 1929 and 2008. The workers who flocked to the polls to make Donald Trump President in 2016 are going to be disillusioned when they start feeling the pain of his actual policies, and they could respond by finding someone even crazier and even farther Right.
Or they could move Left. Bernie Sanders won two of his biggest primary victories in Michigan and Wisconsin, two of the key Rust Belt states that ultimately carried Trump to the presidency. That’s an indication that a lot of voters in the states that deindustrialized from the 1970’s through the 1990’s — and who remembered Hillary Clinton as the wife of the man who pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress and thereby shipped their jobs to Mexico — wanted far-reaching social change and were so intent on getting something different from their government they didn’t really care whether that change came from the Left or the Right.
But in order to take advantage of Trump’s and the Republicans’ likely failure, the American Left is going to have to cure itself of a long string of rotten habits that were previously damaging and are now potentially lethal. First, the American Left has to develop an appeal to the entire population, not keep salami-slicing the American people into narrowly constructed “identity politics” categories. One reason the Right has been cleaning our clock for the last 36 years is they address Americans as Americans, not as members of a race or a gender or a sexual orientation. Political satirist Mark Russell’s acid joke during the 1972 campaign that the perfect delegate for Democratic nominee George McGovern was “a disabled Native American Lesbian lettuce picker on welfare” accurately sums up the limitations of “identity politics” and the way they have hobbled the Left.
We also have to end the poisonous rancor and mutual distrust between those on the Left who work through the system — both in electoral politics and in the kind of organizing and lobbying big groups like the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, National Organization for Women and Human Rights Campaign do — and those on the outside of the system who do direct action, stage demonstrations and practice civil disobedience. Social change does not come about exclusively through working within the system. Nor does it come about exclusively through demonstrating and risking arrest. It takes both. The Right understands this — this is why the double-pincer movement of the Republican Congressional campaign and the direct-activist Tea Party was so effective in retaking control of U.S. politics from Obama and the Democrats in 2010 — while the Left used to in the 1890’s, the 1930’s and at least some of the 1960’s, but has long since forgotten it.
Another thing we have to do if we want an effective mass Left to exist in America again (it doesn’t now and hasn’t for nearly 50 years!) is give up all attempts to organize alternative political parties. It’s long past time for the Green Party, Peace and Freedom and all the other pathetic attempts to set up mini-parties to close up shop and go out of business. It made sense to create the Green Party in its birthplace, Germany, because the German electoral system allows alternative parties to compete for real legislative power. The U.S. system does not. The Constitution itself and our practice of single-member winner-take-all electoral districts essentially bakes the two-party system into our political DNA. The kinds of progressive office-holders we want to see will get into office in one and only one way: by running within the ballot access mechanism of the Democratic Party.
Once again, the Right gets this and the Left doesn’t. Every grass-roots movement of the American Right over the last 50 years, from the Young Americans for Freedom in the 1960’s to the Tea Party in the 2010’s, has rejected the idiocy of organizing alternative parties. Instead, they’ve maintained a laser-like focus on capturing the Republican Party and moving it ever farther Right — and they’ve succeeded. As a result, they’ve made ideas like abolishing organized labor and privatizing or eliminating Social Security, totally beyond the pale in the 1960’s, seem acceptable and reasonable today. Here, as in so many other things, we need to study the wins of our adversaries and learn from them.
It is also time to end one of the most pernicious ideas that has hobbled the American Left: the sheer visceral hatred of the Democratic Party among what I call the “alt-Left,” those willfully ignorant idiots who insist that because both the Republican and Democratic parties are committed to maintaining and protecting capitalism (true), they are the same and it doesn’t make any difference which one is in power (emphatically untrue). Indeed, over the next four, eight, 20 years or however long the U.S. government is completely controlled by Republicans, these alt-Left nitwits are going to learn a hard, long and bitter lesson on just how different the two major U.S. parties are and how important it is to confine our electoral work to the Democratic Party, not as the “lesser of two evils” but as the only viable alternative through which we can contest for electoral power against the overwhelmingly dominant Republicans.
And if, as was true in the 2016 Presidential campaign, the Democratic candidate really does appear to be “the lesser of two evils,” we still have an obligation to vote for her. Alt-Leftists are fond of saying, “The lesser evil is still evil.” What we should be saying is, “The lesser evil is still lesser.” As I argued during the campaign with my friends who said they could never vote for Hillary Clinton, sometimes you have to vote for the lesser evil because the greater evil is so evil it can’t be allowed to prevail. There is no question that on all the issues I care about — workers’ rights, the social safety net, the environment, racial and gender equality, Queer rights — this country would be a lot better off under Hillary Clinton than it will be under Donald Trump.
We can’t sit back and hope that the Trumpublican regime will collapse of its own accord. We also can’t afford the mistakes the American Left has been making for the past 50 years. We need to stay organized and active — not wimp out en masse the way all too many Leftists did 36 years ago when Reagan was elected — but we also need to get smart about what we do and how we relate to each other. Donald Trump’s election was a catastrophe for the Left and for any sane notion of social justice. We will only compound the tragedy if we continue to make the same stupid mistakes we’ve been making over and over for the last five decades.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Transgender Day of Remembrance Draws 200

Event Honors 26 U.S. Victims of Anti-Transgender Hate Crimes

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Nicolette Ybarra and Connor Maddocks

Nicolette (right) with Jolene (left) and Dee (center)

Marchers near the Pride Flag

Sierra Bush

On Thursday, November 17 I went to the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center for the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. I’ve been to these events before and found them profound and moving, even though at the start of the last one I told one person there I looked forward to the day when we don’t have to have them anymore. For the Transgender Day of Remembrance is just what its name implies: a memorial ceremony in which the victims of anti-Trans violence in the United States and elsewhere in the world are honored and acknowledged.
The event was advertised as lasting from 6 to 9 p.m., but it began with an assembly outside the Center and a march through the heart of Hillcrest, with people bearing candles to honor the Transgender victims of hate crimes. One woman who saw the march later joined it, followed it into the Center and became one of the volunteers who read the names of victims. She called the event “awesome” and told the audience at the program, which started at 7 p.m. in the Center’s big hall, that she had been moved to join in and read a name.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance was started in 1998 by Gwendolyn Anne Smith to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a Transwoman who was killed that year. It has grown into an elaborate commemoration put on in various cities across the U.S. and elsewhere. The names of the victims, along with whatever is known about them — their ages, where and how they were killed, and some personal information to put a face on each one — are posted to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s (GLAAD) Web site at http://www.glaad.org/tdor, and groups in various cities download this information and use it as the basis for their own event.
This year the official GLAAD site listed 15 U.S. victims of Trans-related murders, though as more information came in about additional incidents the list was expanded to include 26 names. Unlike in previous years, the 2016 San Diego Transgender Day of Remembrance included only Trans people killed in the United States, though the organizers were well aware of incidents in other countries. Indeed, though the GLAAD list contained just one victim from Mexico, the San Diego organizers knew of at least 10 and decided to honor them by having two featured speakers from the Trans community in Tijuana.
“In Mexico, the country of my parents and my grandparents, the country with whom many of us have a connection either to its people or its culture, the country right next door, there has been since September of this year a wave of Transphobic hate crimes, with many of these actually leading to murder against persons of our community, the Transgender community,” said activist Nicolette Ybarra. “And I say our community, because regardless of this or that border, we are to be found everywhere. For we are truly a worldwide community, and the welfare of our Trans brothers and sisters over there, as well as elsewhere, is also of concern to many of us here.”
According to Ybarra, at least 10 Trans people were killed in Mexico in the 2 ½ months preceding the event, even though the GLAAD Web site listed just one Mexican victim for all of 2016. She said that would be proportionate to 30 Trans murders in the U.S., a country with three times Mexico’s population.
Ybarra compared her status as Transgender with her activism in the U.S. and Mexico, and said that in both she crosses arbitrary “border” lines. “I have always had a relationship with the border,” she explained. “Or, rather, with many borders. With the border between male and female; with the border between just simply ‘infected’ with HIV and actually living with the disease and the stigma; the border between Spanish and English; and of course, in geographical terms, the border between the United States and Mexico.
“My position relative to the border has varied over the years,” she added.” Sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other, and sometimes on both, it would seem, concurrently. Now I’m sure this sounds complex, but I’m also sure that this is something that we as Trans folks can more readily understand, because it is within our own individual journeys as we transition, we face and deal with multiple issues, often all at the same time. These different states of being along the journey of my life have led me to become aware of and concerned with various communities and issues, in particular that of the Transgender community, both here and also beyond the border.”
This year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance was also held under the long shadow of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the U.S. Presidential election just nine days before. In a November 15 column in the British newspaper The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/15/trump-disaster-modern-masculinity-sexual-nostalgian-oppressive-men-women), Jacqueline Rose wrote that, among other things, Trump’s supporters boldly asserted an old-fashioned definition of masculinity that regarded Trump’s insults towards women, and his claim that he could sexually assault them with impunity, as sources of pride, not shame. Trump, Rose wrote, “tapped into the deepest, most disturbing strata of the human mind. And men, as well as women, will be the casualties.”
A New York Times Web post on Rose’s article (http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2016/11/20/donald-trumps-victory-threatens-to-upend-progressive-notions-of-masculinity/) quoted a specifically anti-Trans tweet by Joe Walsh, a former Congressmember from Illinois and now a Right-wing talk radio host. “If you want a country with 63 different genders, vote Hillary,” Walsh tweeted on November 6, two days before the election. “If you want a country where men are men and women are women, vote Trump.”
Many members of the audience at the Transgender Day of Remembrance expressed fear of what a Trump Presidency could do to the status of Trans people in the U.S. But there was also a spirit of defiance, as if they were there to show the nation and the world that even the election of a President based on openly racist, sexist, homophobic and Transphobic appeals would not deter them from speaking out and saying that Trans lives matter.
Connor Maddocks, Center staff member and a key organizer of the event, used the threat of Trump’s presidency to call for unity within the Queer community. “With this election that we’ve just had, with the way things are going in our world, more than ever we all need to be together and work together,” he said. “And we need to stop tearing each other apart within our community. We have got to stop putting each other down and tearing each other apart and saying things about each other on Facebook that are not nice. How can we expect the rest of the world to stand with us and respect us if we don’t do it in our own community?”
The highlight of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, as usual, was the solemn ceremony of the reading of the names of the victims. Each name was followed by the lighting of a candle and the sounding of a bell. The people reading the names were asked to do so in the first person, as if they themselves were the victims. They eloquently turned the bare facts listed on the cards with the information about each victim into moving human stories, emphasizing the tragedy that prejudice and hatred had snuffed out these lives too soon.
At least four of the information cards indicated that the victims had been “misgendered” — meaning that media reports had referred to them by their birth sex rather than the gender they preferred or were presenting as when they were killed. Nicolette Ybarra had mentioned this in her speech as well. “In the reports of some major media outlets,” she said, “when a Transwoman is murdered, she is labeled as a man; or, more salaciously, as ‘a man in a dress.’ In death, as in life, she is still a man in the eyes of many. And in addition to this Transphobic attitude about our existence, our sexuality, and our identity, the fact is that there is no trustworthy central database to keep track of Transphobic and homophobic hate crimes, which can feed into our being mischaracterized, misunderstood and mistreated, in life as well as in death.”
The name I was given to read was that of Sierra Bush, a.k.a. Simon Bush, from Boise County, Idaho. The card I was given gave their age at 18 and said they were “gender non-conforming” (which is why I’m referring to Sierra with the plural pronoun), though a report on their memorial service I later found online (http://people.com/human-interest/sierra-bush-idaho-student-dead/) gave their name as Sierra and identified them as “she.” Sierra’s body was found near Idaho City, Idaho on October 22, 2016, though they had been missing for over a month. Sierra’s parents told police they thought Sierra had been kidnapped.
The online report on Sierra Bush’s death, written by Alexia Fernandez and published October 28, contained a comment from Boise Police Sergeant Justin Kendall. “Sierra’s disappearance  has been suspicious from the beginning and this is a tragic discovery for everyone who knows her,”  Kendall said in his statement. “Every missing person’s case is initially investigated as being suspicious, and Sierra was not the type to disappear without telling anyone. For weeks, our detectives have been following up on leads and our investigation is ongoing.”
The story also filled out more details on Sierra Bush’s life than I had been given in the card from which I read. It said that they were a freshman student at Boise State University, studying engineering in the Honors College and participating in a wide range of school activities. Sierra’s memorial at the Boise State campus was so well attended, Fernandez wrote, that the organizers had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate the large crowd. The story also contained quotes from Sierra’s friends that fleshed out their portrait and showed how inspirational they had been.

“One of my favorite quotes from her is, ‘If I can be as weird as I am, you can be as you as you are,’” Sierra’s friend Samantha McGraw told local TV news station KTVB. McGraw said she and Sierra’s other friends are committed to carrying on her legacy, which McGraw described as “loving yourself, being what you want to be and not letting anybody stand in the way of your dreams.”