Thursday, November 12, 2015

Elections 2015: The Right Strikes Back


Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

A funny thing happened in November 2015 on the way to the supposed self-destruction of the Republican Party and the radical-Right ideology for which it stands. On November 3, in a series of elections so obscure many progressive political activists (including me) weren’t all that aware they were even happening, the Right won sweeping victory after sweeping victory on a wide range of issues in locations as diverse as Kentucky and San Francisco.
In the race for governor of Kentucky, Tea Party Republican Matt Bevin crushed Democrat Jack Conway by nearly 10 percent (511,771 votes to 426,944, or 52.5 to 43.8 percent), despite pre-election polls that had Conway leading by as much as 11 points. In Houston, a city that in its last election chose open Lesbian Annise Parker as mayor, a Queer rights ordinance was repealed by the shockingly huge margin of 61 to 39 percent.
In Ohio, an initiative to legalize marijuana went down to an equally crushing defeat, with 65 percent of voters opposed and only 35 percent in favor — despite polls showing Ohioans broadly in favor of allowing marijuana use. And even in supposedly progressive San Francisco, an initiative to regulate the home-sharing service Airbnb lost, 55 to 45 percent.
Initiatives to raise the minimum wage also fared poorly. After the city council of Portland, Maine voted to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, “Fight for 15” campaigners put an initiative on the ballot to take it up to $15. But Portland voters decided $10.10 was enough and rejected the additional increase. In Tacoma, Washington, there were dueling minimum-wage initiatives on the ballot — one for $15 and one for $12 — and while both passed, the one for $12 got more votes so it will be the one that takes effect.
And in Spokane, Washington, a ballot measure to create a so-called “Workers’ Bill of Rights” — a minimum-wage increase, equal pay for equal work, protections against wrongful termination and preferences for workers’ over corporations’ rights — went down to a sweeping defeat. Over 62 percent of Spokane voters opposed the measure, and even Spokane’s labor unions offered it little support.
There were a few bright spots in the overall gloomy picture for progressives on November 3. Voters in Maine and the city of Seattle, Washington approved public financing of political campaigns on the so-called “clean money” model, in which, once a candidate gets a certain number of small donors, they qualify for public support as long as they don’t take any more private money.
Ohio voters took the power to draw legislative districts away from the legislature and set up a process that no one party can dominate. And San Francisco voters passed a crackdown on major corporations who set up so-called “Astroturf” campaigns — phony citizens’ organizations or nonprofits through which to promote corporate-friendly laws or policies — by requiring corporate funders of such groups to disclose how much they’re giving them.
Overwhelmingly, though, the election results of November 3, 2015 were a strong sweep for the American Right. To progressives, they were a wake-up call that we still live in a profoundly conservative country, one which overwhelmingly distrusts government and believes the “free market,” not legislators or initiative writers, should determine how much people should get paid for their work.
It was also a reminder that despite a few defeats — notably the U.S. Supreme Court decision enforcing marriage equality for same-sex couples nationwide — the so-called “social” or “Christian” Right is still very much alive. The Queer-rights initiative in Houston was crushed partly by the opposition of African-American religious leaders, but mainly by an hysterical campaign that said that because the ordinance included protections for Transgender people, men would dress up as women and pose as Transgender just to get into women’s restrooms and eye women’s private parts.
A rational observer might read such an argument and think it said more about the sick concerns of the people making it than anything that might really happen. But one of the reasons the social Right has won so many battles against the Queer community has been their skill at inventing these freaky straw men. In the 1990’s it was stories about Gay soldiers and sailors ogling their straight comrades in showers that led to President Clinton to retreat from his campaign pledge to allow Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals to serve openly in the military and instead sign into law the hateful “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
In 2008 it was the hideous propaganda that persuaded a majority of Californians to pass Proposition 8, which banned legal recognition of same-sex marriage and lasted five years until the U.S. Supreme Court threw it out on a technicality. Remember the ads about schoolchildren who’d supposedly be “forced” to listen to their teachers talk about same-sex marriage? About the little girl who breathlessly told us that if Prop. 8 failed, she could “marry a princess”? About the claim — demonstrably false, but effective nonetheless — that churches would be forced to perform same-sex weddings?
Well, the radical Right has found a similar weapon to derail the quest for equal rights not only for Transgender people but Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals as well: the public restroom. That’s why I heaved a huge sigh of relief three years ago when a Right-wing attempt to put SB 48, California’s pioneering law to protect the rights of Transgender students in public schools, before voters barely missed getting enough signatures to make it on the ballot.
If it had succeeded, Queer rights advocates in California would have had to face the same ugly, but devastatingly effective, propaganda about potential rapists donning dresses and haunting women’s restrooms that worked so well in Houston. And our cause in Houston wasn’t helped by a typically wimpy campaign defending the Queer rights ordinance which made the same mistakes made by the marriage equality movement until it found its groove in 2012: trotting out celebrities and making abstract arguments about “equality” instead of communicating to voters the real pain suffered by Queer victims of discrimination.

A Right-Wing Country

But it would be a mistake to look for local reasons for the progressive defeats of November 3, 2015 and over-analyze the election results based on them. The fact is the results indicate just how conservative a nation the United States of America is politically — and has been at least since 1968, when Republican Richard Nixon and American Independent George Wallace took a combined 57 percent of the Presidential vote to Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent. The Right didn’t solidify its electoral triumph until Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, but the 1968 results showed an ongoing realignment in the American electorate that ended the New Deal coalition and ushered in a period of Right-wing dominance that, despite occasional hiccups, has continued to this day.
Though Nixon’s and Democrat-turned-independent-turned Republican South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond’s “Southern strategy” in the 1968 campaign was originally planned as a one-time response to the threat of Wallace’s independent campaign, it ensured Republican dominance of Presidential politics for the next three decades. It flipped the two major parties’ historical positions on civil rights and racial equality. The Democrats, once the party of Jefferson Davis and then of the Ku Klux Klan, became associated with the African-American struggle for equality. Meanwhile, the Republicans, once the “Party of Lincoln” ideologically as well as historically, assumed the Democrats’ former mantle as defenders of white supremacy masquerading as “states’ rights.”
The result was a long-term switch in the “Solid South” from once solidly Democratic to now solidly Republican. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, he told his aide Richard Goodwin, “I’ve just handed the South to the Republicans for the next 15 years.” It’s turned out to be a lot longer than that. The three Democrats who have won Presidential elections since 1968 have done so only because they had special characteristics that partially neutralized the Republicans’ structural advantages in the South. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did it by being white Southerners themselves, and Barack Obama did it by mobilizing such a heavy African-American vote it made up for his piss-poor showing among working-class whites in the South.
And not just in the South, either. In 1964 George Wallace mounted an exploratory campaign against Lyndon Johnson in Wisconsin and did so well commentators coined the phrase “white backlash” to describe it. Though Wallace had mounted his campaign as a nominal Democrat, Republicans looked at his success and realized it offered them a recipe for pulling working-class whites away from the Democratic Party and thereby shattering the New Deal coalition that had allowed the Democrats to win seven of the nine Presidential elections between 1932 and 1964.
They were helped by another development of the 1960’s: the rise of the so-called “counterculture.” Working-class whites who had risen from poverty largely due to the efforts of organized labor — and the laws passed by Democrats that made it possible to form unions in big manufacturing industries — saw their sons and daughters grow their hair long, listen to loud, obnoxious music, do drugs and trash the colleges and universities their parents had worked their asses off to raise the money to send them to.
The result was an overwhelming backlash that continues today. It has cost the Democrats any chance at winning a majority of white male votes in a Presidential election, and forced them to rely on the votes of women and people of color to get elected to virtually anything. What’s more, it’s given the Republican Party and its sympathetic media outlets — talk radio and Fox News — a raw, roaring energy that motivates its voters to go to the polls far more often.
Republican voters are motivated because they think that they’re being overtaxed and discriminated against to support people they believe inferior — people of color, undocumented immigrants, Queers and other counterculturalists. All too often, Democrats and progressives in general either tune out electoral politics as a distraction, actively reject them or just don’t bother to vote. The oft-repeated truisms that turnout in mid-term elections is low, and low turnouts benefit the Republicans and the Right in general, are not explanations. They are EXCUSES.

We Sleep — They Live

In 1988 John Carpenter made a science-fiction film called They Live, which was based on the premise that the entire Right-wing political movement had been started by space aliens who had infiltrated Earth by disguising themselves as ordinary humans. They had largely taken over Earth’s politics — in the theatrical and DVD version (though not the one released to TV) there’s a funny scene that revealed that Ronald Reagan was a disguised alien — and their goal was to set up untrammeled lassiez-faire capitalism worldwide so Earth’s environment would be polluted, and when it was so filthy it resembled the aliens’ home world they would come in en masse and take over.
The protagonist of They Live stumbled on a resistance movement when he picked up a special pair of sunglasses that enabled him to see what was really going on, including the subliminal messages — “Obey,” “Stay Asleep,” “No Imagination,” “Submit to Authority” and the like — the aliens were transmitting to ordinary people through the media. The members of the resistance were trying to get the masses to wake up to what was really going on, and their slogan was, “We sleep — they live.” (The premise was similar to that of the later Matrix films, but Carpenter did a lot more with it.)
The difference between Right-wing and Left-wing America can be summed up in the same four words by which the resistance movement in Carpenter’s film attempted to wake up the people: “We sleep — they live.” Over the last 50 years, ever since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign set the template for the Tea Party (read Norman Mailer’s description of a Goldwater rally in his book Cannibals and Christians and you’ll be struck by its similarity to a Tea Party event today) and later Right-wing candidacies, the Right has shown remarkable perseverance and constructed a level of organization that has enabled them to move from victory to victory, and to come back stronger from seemingly devastating defeats.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Left has carefully and meticulously followed a series of insane policies that well earn the description Vladimir Lenin applied to the ultra-Leftists of his place and time: “an infantile disorder.” If the Left in this country had deliberately tried to reduce themselves to irrelevance, they couldn’t have done a better job. So what has the Right done right and the Left done wrong?

Electoral politics and direct action. The American Right has realized that you do not achieve dramatic social change in the U.S. (or anywhere else, for that matter) exclusively through electoral politics. Nor do you achieve it exclusively by street activism — demonstrations, protests, civil disobedience, strikes. It takes both. This simple fact was something the American Left knew and put into effect in the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s. Today we’ve forgotten it.
Instead, all too many American Leftists regard electoral politics and direct action as two opposed alternatives, and think they have to choose one or the other. Often activists who have chosen direct action look down on and even ridicule those who work in the electoral system as “sell-outs” or Leftists in name only. In turn, progressives involved in electoral politics tend to fear the direct-action activists and worry that they’ll do something “extreme” to jeopardize their hard-won positions within the system.
The Right’s electoral activists and direct activists work together to build their influence both within the political system and outside of it. The Tea Party started almost as soon as President Obama took office and parlayed public rage against his administration in general and his health-care plan in particular into a political force that has virtually taken over the U.S. Congress. Tea Party-identified candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are among the leading contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination.
By contrast, the closest equivalent on the U.S. Left, Occupy, didn’t start until more than 2 ½ years after Obama took office, explicitly disclaimed any interest in electoral politics, made an initial splash and didn’t have a Plan B once city police closed down their highly publicized encampments. “We don’t want to be a Tea Party of the Left,” several Occupiers told me during their movement’s brief heyday — making my heart sink because a Tea Party of the Left is exactly what we need and what I was hoping Occupy would turn into.
Bernie Sanders gets it. The Vermont Senator who, after a political lifetime as an independent, joined the Democratic Party to run for President this year (see “The will-o’-the-wisp of ‘third parties’,” below), has been ridiculed by the mainstream media because of his call for a “political revolution.” But what he actually means by that — hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demanding radical change — is essential for achieving the progressive agenda. What all too many progressive and Left Americans don’t realize is electing candidates who are at least persuadable on their key issues is also essential.

The will-o’-the-wisp of “third parties.” One thing the American Right has done right — and the American Left has done wrong — is avoided the tempting trap of organizing or supporting alternative political parties. Instead the Right has focused its electoral involvements almost exclusively within the Republican Party. There have been a few Right-wingers who’ve worked inside the Democratic Party, but the mass Right-wing movements like the Tea Party have concentrated on working with the Republicans in order to take them over; instead of forming the Tea Party Party, they have sought — largely successfully — to remake the Republicans in the Tea Party’s image.
By contrast, all too many progressives and Leftists I know not only avoid working within the Democratic Party but take active pride in having rejected it. Most people I know who’s registered with the Green or Peace and Freedom Party can vividly remember the last Democratic President they ever voted for — and what they did in office that disillusioned them and caused them to reject the Democratic Party and its candidates forever. It’s quite similar to listening to born-again Christians talk about the experience that led them to find Jesus and abandon their former secular lives — and, like being born again, it’s an experience that’s more about personal transformation than political reality.
The bare-bones reality is that, with exceedingly rare exceptions, only Republicans and Democrats are allowed to govern America. Joining any other party means consigning yourself to political oblivion. It made sense to organize the Green Party in the country where the movement was founded, Germany, because their electoral laws guarantee that if you get five percent or more of the vote nationwide, you get that percentage of seats in their legislature even if you didn’t win a plurality in any one district. It did not make sense to organize a Green Party in the U.S., with its system of winner-take-all districts, its long tradition of two and only two important parties, and the power the two established parties have to write the electoral laws to keep both Left and Right rivals out.

Treating electoral strategy as pragmatic, not “moral.” One reason there are so many American Leftists who self-righteously — and self-defeatingly — reject working in the Democratic Party is they feel that making that compromise would literally be “immoral.” Politics is not an arena in which to find “morality” — if that’s what you want, join a church instead. Politics, both in and out of the electoral system, is a series of strategies and tactics to be used or abandoned according to whether or not they work to put your ideas into practice and enact them into public policy. It is not an arena for personal growth or expressing your “morality.”
Closely allied is the delusion many American Leftists have talked themselves into that there is “no difference” between the Republican and Democratic parties. Anyone who’s watched any of this year’s Presidential debates would be quickly disabused of that notion. It’s true that both the Republican and Democratic parties are committed to the defense of the modern capitalist economic system, and it’s also true that they’re both funded by wealthy individuals and (to the extent the law allows) corporations. It’s true that they largely represent the ruling class and are committed to maintaining capitalism.
But the Republican and Democratic parties still differ profoundly in how they propose to maintain capitalism, and those differences are important in terms of where and how effectively both Right and Left activists should work to pursue their political agendas. As weakened as these commitments have become over time, the Democratic Party still believes that government has a right — and, at least in some instances, a duty — to intervene in the economy and put brakes on the ability of corporations to exploit their workers and seek profits, no matter what.
The Republicans, by contrast, blame almost everything wrong on government. Their solution to virtually every social problem is to increase the share of wealth and income going to the rich, “free” corporations from all remaining restrictions on their ability to exploit their workers, jeopardize their health and safety, and despoil the environment. They want to destroy the few remaining avenues for workers to organize into unions and bargain collectively with their employers. They want to abolish Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation and every other part of America’s tattered social safety net.
The modern-day Republican Party believes in an extreme libertarian ideology that regards all taxation of the rich to benefit the not-so-rich as “theft” and “slavery.” Its policies would produce a massive shift of social risk from institutions to individuals. If you got old, you lost your job, got sick, if an accident and hadn’t (or hadn’t been able to) put money aside to pay for those eventualities, tough luck. You’d be on your own and government would be specifically forbidden to do anything about it. They would expect you to ask your local church for help instead, and hope they were both able and willing to help you.
In other words, despite the deficiencies of the Democratic Party, it’s still the only game in town for Americans who reject the extreme libertarianism of the Republican Party and believe in a society whose members accept the existence of a mutual obligation for people to act together collectively to ensure their future. I recently received an e-mail from the Green Party denouncing Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and saying, “A dollar for Bernie Sanders is a dollar for Hillary Clinton.” Well, a vote — or a dollar — for the Green Party’s likely presidential candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, is a vote or a dollar for Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio or whoever survives the demolition derby the Republican Presidential nomination has become.

“Internal democracy.” One of the most staggeringly awful decisions American progressives and Leftists have made in the last 40 years is to impose a regime of so-called “internal democracy” on their organizations that makes it utterly impossible for them to do anything. “Internal democracy” was a shibboleth seized on by Leftists who were horrified at the authoritarian dictatorships Lenin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba had turned into, and it was a way of ensuring that no movement led by them would ever establish a dictatorship once it took power. Unfortunately, it worked by ensuring that the Left would become so chronically disorganized and impotent it would never get anywhere near taking power anywhere at any time.
Every successful Left-wing movement — “successful” meaning that it either launched a revolution that actually took power or built a network of institutions (like labor unions and civil-rights organizations) with long-term impact — has been run in a top-down hierarchical manner. And every Left movement that has attempted to govern itself according to the principles of “internal democracy,” from the Paris Commune of 1870 to Occupy in 2011, has failed. And they’ve all failed for the same reason: they didn’t have the organizational strength to withstand and survive the authorities’ repression.
As Malcolm Gladwell, in his article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” (The New Yorker, October 4, 2010), put it, “If you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment, you have to be a hierarchy.” Gladwell cited the early actions of the African-American civil rights movement, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 and the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins of 1960, and noted that they were organized with what even their enemies, the White Citizens’ Councils, said was “military precision.”
Gladwell quoted movement historian Aldon D. Morris, who argued that the hierarchical structure of the civil rights movement came from the Black church. “Each group was task-oriented and coordinated its activities through authority structures,” Morris wrote in the passage Gladwell quoted. “Individuals were held accountable for their assigned duties, and important conflicts were resolved by the minister, who usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation.”
Likewise, anyone who reads Stephen Spender’s biography of Mahatma Gandhi — the book on which Richard Attenborough based his multi-Academy Award-winning biopic — will note the military precision with which he led his civil disobedience campaigns. In particular, Gandhi was as obsessed as any military commander with surprise; though his “attacks” were nonviolent, like any good general he wanted them to startle and keep his adversaries, the British, off balance, never knowing what he was going to do next.
By contrast, Occupy was organized as what Gladwell called a “network,” in which the decision-making process was kept as loose and open as possible. Occupy made its decisions — to the extent it ever did — in “general assemblies” of whoever showed up, which could be as few as 10 people or more than 100. Though Gladwell wrote a year before Occupy, he uncannily predicted its failure: “Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?”

Talking the people’s language. The American Right’s orators and propagandists speak in simple, direct language, expressing and appealing to the fears and obsessions of its audience. The American Left speaks in academic jargon that doesn’t particularly appeal to anybody outside the choir. I suspect this is a hangover from the days in the 1970’s, when the Leftist movements that had arisen in the 1960’s in support of civil rights and against the Viet Nam war were being violently suppressed by the U.S. government — and many Leftists survived the purge by hiding out in the halls of academe.
Of course, the Left’s association with the academic world — and the Right’s savaging of them for that — long predates the 1970’s. Many of the original progressives of the turn of the last century came from college campuses and sought to remake society by taking over government, purging it of the corruption from big-city political machines and corporate donors, and reorganizing it along “scientific” principles worked out in college political science, economics and public administration departments.
In the 1930’s — a period in which the economic collapse of American capitalism actually benefited the Left (today, by contrast, it seems to be paving the way for a sweep to power by the Republican Party and the political Right) — Franklin Roosevelt’s administration was filled with recent college graduates, as well as some of their professors. They became known as the “Brain Trust,” and their academic backgrounds became a favored target of their opponents on the Right.
By the 1950’s, the Right’s attacks on political intellectuals precisely because they were intellectuals had reached such a fever pitch that political scientist Richard Hofstadter actually wrote a book called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. One of Senator Joe McCarthy’s favorite attack lines against the (alleged) Communists in the U.S. government was that they had all gone to prestigious colleges and learned to be Communists from their equally anti-American professors. In the 1960’s, the availability of student deferments from the Viet Nam-era draft attracted a lot of Leftists to colleges, where if they kept their grades up they could avoid having to fight in the war.
So American Leftists became increasingly reliant on the academic world, first to avoid getting drafted (if they were men), then to avoid the political repression of the 1970’s and finally to find long-term, relatively secure employment. They also used the colleges to recruit other Leftists, and as a result American Leftist discourse became increasingly academic, abstruse and distant from the real world. I remember one article that noted that campus Leftists were wearing buttons and T-shirts that said, “Subvert the dominant paradigm” — and the author joked, “That’ll really inspire them on the barricades.”
And as the Left became more academic, that played into the Right’s strategy of attacking the Left for being academic and making arguments that sounded good to professors and students but didn’t mean jack to anyone in the “real” world. Sarah Palin was neither the first nor the last Right-wing spokesperson to make invidious comparisons between the academic ideas of the Left and the “common sense” of the Right. I remember when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, I startled a lot of my long-time political friends by saying, “I love Sarah Palin!” I quickly added that I hated, loathed and despised everything she stood for, but I admired her ability to speak the language of working-class America and wished more people on our side could do that as well.

Loving and hating America. It also doesn’t help the cause of the Left that the Right has been able to grab hold of the great symbols of America’s history and heritage, while the Left has thrown them away. The Right tells the American people they have a history they can be proud of, while Leftist scolds like the late Howard Zinn tell them they should be deeply ashamed of their past. I don’t know how many articles I’ve read and statements I’ve heard by American Leftists that the entire economic success of the U.S. was founded on its genocide against its Native population and the exploitation of African slaves.
That’s defensible as historical analysis, but it’s lousy politics. Given a choice between a political tendency that tells them they live in the greatest country on earth and they should be proud of their heritage, and one that tells them they should be deeply ashamed of it, it’s not surprising that the American people would pick the one that gives them a sense of pride.
As the late democratic socialist Michael Harrington put it in his 1972 book Fragments of the Century, “If the American Left wants to change America because it hates it, the people will reject it and the people will be right.” Harrington called on the Left not to ignore the less savory aspects of America’s past, but to see “the seed beneath the snow” and celebrate the activism that expanded the definition of “we, the people” in the U.S. Constitution from what it originally meant — “We, the white male landowners” — to encompass people of color, women and working people.

Commitment and perseverance. But the most important ingredient in the American Right’s recipe for success is simply a level of commitment and perseverance that far outstrips anything on the Left. The modern U.S. “conservative” movement (and I put “conservative” in quotes because it seeks a radical reshaping of U.S. politics, economics and social policy, while genuine conservatism usually seeks to preserve existing institutions instead of destroying them) began in the 1930’s as a reaction to the New Deal — and it has survived a series of losses and blows that would have finished off any political movement that didn’t have its incredible tenacity.
The modern American Right survived the exposure of many of its leaders as enemy sympathizers and unregistered foreign agents during World War II. It survived the disgrace and downfall of its first national figure to hold elective office, U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), in the 1950’s. It survived and even prospered from the landslide defeat of its first Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, in 1964.
It survived when President Richard Nixon was driven from office in disgrace over the Watergate scandal in 1974. And it not only survived, it ultimately benefited from, the near-total collapse of the American economy in 2008 and the election of Barack Obama as President — which they were able to turn from a crushing defeat into merely a temporary setback on their way to total dominance of American politics.
As much as I hate the politics of Right-wing columnist Jonah Goldberg, his analysis of the so-called “Obama Coalition” is absolutely correct. As Goldberg has documented, the “Obama Coalition” has been able to elect only one person — Obama himself. Otherwise, the Obama years have been one political disaster for the Democratic Party after another. The Obama Presidency saw the rise of the Tea Party and its crushing triumphs in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014.
In a recent column, Goldberg snidely noted (being snide comes as naturally to Right-wingers as being academic and abstruse does to Leftists) that of the four most prominent Democrats in national politics right now — Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — Obama is the only one who isn’t old enough to collect Social Security. One reason there are so many more Republicans than Democrats running for President right now is that the Democratic “bench” — the hotshot younger candidates who could have provided the party badly needed new blood — were wiped out en masse by the crushing midterm losses of 2010 and 2014. They were beaten by hotshot young Republicans like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who have emerged as major Presidential candidates.
For at least the last two decades — and probably longer — there has been an abysmal “intensity gap” between the commitment, dedication and fervor of America’s Right-wing activists and the relative dispirit and apathetic resignation of its Left. Thomas Frank noticed that when he went to his home state of Kansas to research his book What’s the Matter with Kansas, visited the organizers and shock troops of the anti-choice Operation Rescue — and came away deeply impressed with the intensity of their willingness to sacrifice for their principles. He found himself admiring their dedication even while loathing their cause.
Online commentators on the 2015 elections picked up on the same theme: the dedication, intensity and commitment of the Right versus the relative disinterest of the Left. On November 4 a Daily Kos poster calling him/her/itself “Midwesterners” put up an article called “No, Virginia, the Republican Party is (unfortunately) NOT in Shambles!” ( that showed just what we’re up against in winning back the hearts and minds of the American people:

The bottom line is that a growing number of voters throughout America in 2015 have become increasingly more Republican. They will vote for any candidate with an “R” after its name — plain and simple. In other words, the Republicans have won the Culture Wars they started four or five decades ago. For a growing percentage of people, the Democratic Party has become synonymous with “Guvment” — and that is all that matters. (This is especially true of white voters, but it is by no means inclusive of only them.)

For many voters, “Guvment” equals folks who want to take away their guns, or give everyone in America a free abortion, or let Gay folks marry one another in public places, or whatever updated issue you want to put in the blanks here. Furthermore, with such a large number of Americans obtaining their version of “reality” from “Faux News,” it does not appear as if things are going to turn around for a long time now. Why not? Because these are the folks who get out and vote. The Republican Party figured out long ago that if you gin up people with enough fear, hatred, paranoia, or whatever, that they will somehow make it to the ballot box. [Emphasis in original.]

Another Daily Kos poster, Chris Reeves, put up an article on November 4 ( that noted that Democrats seem to think that political power flows from the top down — that if they elect a decent or halfway decent President with a “D” on the end of his or her name, the power of the presidency will flow downward and the Democrats will be able to accomplish a progressive agenda. The Republicans, by contrast, know that political power flows from the bottom up.
Decades ago, the Republicans launched their own version of what former Democratic Party chair Howard Dean called “the 50-state strategy,” determined to recruit candidates for the lowest levels of public office — school boards, water districts and other positions so obscure many Democrats don’t even know they exist — not only to build support for their candidates and issues but to develop a pool of people they could advance up the political ladder to higher and higher offices. “In 2001, ‘Conservative Networks’ were formed in several states which were designed to look at a long-term way to capture, control and handle statehouses,” Reeves wrote.
Reeves quoted a Republican candidate from 2002 (he didn’t say what name, what office or where) who noted that “Democrats are good about picking up the phone and saying they will vote and not showing up. They keep waiting for their ship to come in, and it never does.” He also quoted a Democratic campaign manager as saying, “Republican voters would walk across broken glass and burning coals to vote for their candidates. Democrats gripe about ‘pinching their nose’ and they turn up to vote as an inconvenience when they have the time and good TV isn’t on.”
“Simply put,” Reeves commented, “Republicans fall in line. Democrats either fall in love or are unmotivated early. … Republicans put their focus on long-term trends at the state level, and how the Republicans work at the state level has worked to permanently change election results.” As a result, 25 state governments are under complete Republican control — the governorship and both houses of the state legislature — while only seven states are fully governed by Democrats. This means that through much of the U.S. Republicans control the process by which Congressional and legislative districts are drawn — which gives them a lock on a majority in the House of Representatives even if, as happened in 2012, more people vote for Democrats than Republicans to represent them in the House.
It also gives the Republicans power to shrink the electorate — to purge it of people who aren’t likely to vote for them — because it’s the states that control who can vote and how easy — or hard — it is to register. When the U.S. Constitution was enacted, it assumed that state governments had absolute control over who could vote and under what circumstances. The great Constitutional amendments that have extended the franchise — the 15th, which (at least theoretically) gave it to people of color; the 19th, which gave it to women; the 24th, which abolished the poll tax; and the 26th, which set the legal voting age at 18 — all began,” The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on the basis of … ” — which meant that the amendments were framed as limits on the otherwise absolute power of state legislatures to determine who could and couldn’t vote.
That’s why the Republicans are not worried about the much talked-about demographic changes in the U.S. population that many analysts think will favor the Democrats. With their power in state governments, they are answering the challenge of potential voters who might vote against them — young people, poor people, people of color — by making it difficult or impossible for them to vote at all. The U.S. Supreme Court’s evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was just one battle in an ongoing campaign by Republicans and Right-wingers to make it harder for theoretically qualified voters to exercise the franchise.
Some of these measures are direct attacks on the ability of people to vote: opening more polling places in affluent areas and closing them in less affluent areas; requiring photo ID’s to vote (especially hard on rural people who live miles from state offices that issue ID’s and don’t have any way to get there); eliminating same-day voter registration; cutting hours polling places are open; and the neat one the Texas legislature came up with in which a student ID isn’t considered an acceptable form of identification to vote, but a permit to carry a gun is.
Others are more subtle. Much of the Republican campaign of obstruction against the Obama administration was directed specifically at the sense of hope Obama’s election had entailed. Every time Republican legislators or judges block something a Democratic president or governor wants to do to advance the progressive agenda, it makes the people who worked so hard to elect the Democrat feel hopeless. They end up convinced that political activity is a waste of time, and therefore they don’t vote. And every potential Democratic, progressive or Leftist voter who doesn’t vote is another vote for the Republicans — as is every progressive or Leftist who throws their vote away on a Green, Peace and Freedom or “independent” candidate.

Fighting the Greater Evil

Ignore a lot of the nonsense that’s been written about the Republican Party being in “disarray.” The plethora of Republicans running for President and the difficulty they had recently in agreeing on a Republican Congressmember to be Speaker of the House are only bits of an unseemly battle over the spoils of a revolution they’re on the brink of winning but haven’t won yet.
The Republican Party is agreed on virtually all the major issues — they all want to see Social Security and Medicare privatized or eliminated, all or almost all government regulation of the economy or the environment abolished, organized labor consigned to the scrap heap of history, racial and gender discrimination made legal again, women driven back to the kitchen and Queers back to the closet.
The only difference — and what’s motivating a lot of the internal battles within the Republican Party — is over how fast to pursue these goals, and how far they want to take the clock back. During the Reagan years, progressives often accused the Republicans of trying to take the U.S. back to the 1950’s — which may have been true then. However, once the Republicans realized that the 1950’s had been the decade during which income taxes on the rich and the percentage of workers organized into unions had both been the highest ever in U.S. history, they started talking about going even further back.
Though they may not be conscious of it, most Tea Party members want to take the U.S. back at least to the 1880’s, when the power of corporations and wealthy individuals to buy elections was literally unlimited and there was no income tax. Tea Partiers often target three specific Constitutional amendments — the 14th, which provided that all people born in the U.S. are citizens (and also provided the basis for virtually all laws banning discrimination); the 16th, which allowed the U.S. income tax; and the 17th, which said U.S. Senators would be elected by popular vote instead of state legislatures — as ones they’d like to eliminate.
And some people want to take American politics even further back, to the 1820’s, when the franchise was restricted to white men with “property” — i.e., land. In 2014, when he wasn’t comparing the Occupy movement to the Nazis, 82-year-old venture capitalist Tom Perkins was calling for a rewrite of the American electoral system so the number of votes you had in an election would depend on the amount of taxes you paid.  The Tom Perkins system is: You don’t get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes,” Perkins said during an event hosted by Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky. “But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How’s that?” (Source:
The Republican Party is not only seeking a far-reaching revolution in American politics — one which would march us back to the late 19th century, when exploitative and greedy corporate leaders regularly ran the economy into the ground and created “Panics” (19th-century speak for “depressions”) that devastated the lives of ordinary people and left them destitute and scrambling to survive any way they could. Our environment would become a soup of toxic gases; our inner cities would be war zones; and the already growing inequality of wealth and income in this country would grow to Marie Antoinette-era levels.
What’s even more amazing, they’ve managed to convince nearly half the American people that the policies that would bring about this outcome would be good things. One of the Republicans’ strongest bases is the white working class — the people who’ve been the most devastated by the closure of America’s factories and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to countries with cheaper labor and dictatorial governments that enforce sweatshop conditions. Even with 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney on record that this was the sort of future he wanted — one in which individuals were left on their own and government didn’t “give” them things — 47 percent of the American electorate still voted for him.
The Republican Party already controls three-fourths of the federal government. They own the House of Representatives (and, due to gerrymandering, are likely to continue to do so for at least the next 15 years, maybe longer), they own the Senate and they own the Supreme Court. All they need to complete their Right-wing revolution is the presidency. And if they win the 2016 Presidential election and keep control of both houses of Congress, they will enact a sweeping program to dismantle public education, the welfare state, all regulation of corporations and all protections for workers’ rights and the environment — just as they did in Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina and other states in which they won complete control of the government in the last three election cycles.
Progressives and Leftists who see political activism in the phony “moral” terms I criticized earlier in this article often ridicule calls to vote for Democrats over Republicans as choosing “the lesser of two evils.” But sometimes the greater evil is so evil, voting for the “lesser of two evils” is a matter of self-preservation. That was the case in Germany in the early 1930’s, when the Social Democrats and the Communists fought a ruinous and destructive war against each other that allowed the real greater evil — Hitler and the Nazis — to take power. And that is also the case in the U.S. in 2016.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

San Diegans Rally to “Fight for $15” Minimum Wage


Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Morning demonstration at McDonald’s (photo: Charles Nelson)

March arrives from City College

Workers stand tall as backdrop for rally speakers

MeCHA contingent shows Latino solidarity

Drummers added energy to the speeches, but sometimes made them hard to hear

Simone Fillmore (center)

LaTanya Klein

LaShayne Harris

Joanne Apuro Hester

While the 12 remaining Republican presidential candidates were debating in Milwaukee on November 10 over which one could do more to screw America’s working people and make our tax system even more favorable to the rich than it already is, millions of Americans were taking to the streets in over 200 cities to demand an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15. The three-year-old “Fight for 15” movement organized a nationwide day of action November 10 that included several protests in San Diego, beginning with a march targeting fast-food outlets and ending with a noisy, inspiring rally at the San Diego Civic Center.
The “Fight for 15” movement began in 2012 with a one-day strike against McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Wendy’s and other national fast-food chains. According to “Fight for 15” advocates, the fast-food industry has built its economic success on the relentless underpayment and exploitation of its workforce. Now that it’s a major sector of the economy, activists say, it needs to give back a fair share of its profits to its workers — especially now that, contrary to the public image of fast-food workers as primarily young people on their first job, learning how to function in the work world, an increasing number of them are mature adults trying to raise families on the pittances fast-food outlets pay.
Simone Fillmore, whose impassioned words led off the evening rally at the Civic Center, is one such person. “I am a mother, a wife and a fast-food worker,” she told the crowd of over 500. “I’m tired of being held back from things I can’t afford. We are tired of being targeted for being poor and Black. My life should be respected as much as a white person’s. … Families like mine cannot survive on the poverty wages the big corporations pay. … We deserve to live our daily lives without public assistance.”
LaTanya Klein, whose speech — punctuated by drums and other noisemakers from the union representatives and others stationed behind the speakers — was even more fiery than Fillmore’s, represented another chronically underpaid group of workers the “Fight for 15” movement has mobilized: in-home caregivers. “My primary client is my husband, a Navy veteran with severe eye problems and impaired mobility,” Klein said. “Is it fair that our veterans are not getting quality care? Is it fair that home care workers make less than $10 an hour, with few benefits and no sick leave? Our clients are mostly poor people, and government is trying to balance the budget on their backs. That’s why we need to join the Fight for $15.”
Though three elected officials — California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, Assemblymember (and former labor leader) Lorena Gonzalez, and San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez — addressed the rally, the focus was on ordinary workers and labor organizers. One African-American man, who didn’t identify himself when he spoke, said he was there “to represent different faith traditions” and had participated in one of the early “Fight for 15” events in City Heights.
“Some people said our movement wouldn’t make it, that we would lose hope, our movement would not last,” he said. “Today our movement is standing tall. We are standing for $15 an hour and the right to form unions. We are tired of people getting up early, going to bed late, working more than one job and still not having enough to pay rent. … We are saying to McDonald’s and all the corporate giants making record profits off our backs that we will win!”
This speaker mentioned some of the other cities and states that have raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The same day as the nationwide mobilization, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill raising that state’s minimum wage to $15. It’s also passed in Los Angeles and Seattle. But in the November 3 election, after the city council in Portland, Maine voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, a voter initiative to take it to $15 lost. In Tacoma, Seattle’s neighboring city, dueling initiatives to raise it to $12 and $15 both passed, but because the one for $12 got more votes, it’s the one that will take effect. California’s statewide minimum is scheduled to go up at the end of 2015, but only to $10 per hour.
In San Diego, thanks largely to opposition from the business community and the Republican Party, workers can’t even get the minimum wage up to $12. City Councilmember Todd Gloria took his minimum-wage proposal down from over $13 an hour to $11.50 and got it through the Council on a party-line vote, with six Democrats in favor and three Republicans opposed. Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer vetoed it, but the six Democrats were able to override. (Since then one of the Democrats has left the Council and been replaced by a Republican.)
But the business community didn’t accept even the increase to $11.50. Instead, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce (currently headed by former Mayor Jerry Sanders, another Republican) and other business groups spent lavishly to get a measure on the June 2016 ballot reversing the hike in the minimum wage. So San Diegans will have a chance to vote on whether the city’s minimum wage should be raised — and given what happened the last time the business community put an issue before voters, when they spent huge sums of money to propagandize against the Barrio Logan community plan and won an overwhelming victory against it, the odds would seem to be against minimum-wage advocates making the former Council’s action stick.
When former Mayor Sanders spoke at the Chamber’s October 2014 press conference announcing their success in stalling the minimum-wage increase and putting it before voters, he made one of the most common arguments against raising the minimum wage: that it would threaten the survival of small businesses. “Many small business owners would have joined me here today, but decided not to,” he said. “Some have come forward in the past but have suffered through their businesses being picketed and their livelihoods being threatened because they stood up and expressed concern. It’s time for the City Council to fight for the city’s job creators, or at minimum, listen to them.” Indeed, Sanders asked the City Council to repeal the minimum-wage increase themselves instead of putting it before voters.
Councilmember Gloria, who was the Council’s president when the minimum-wage increase passed but was later removed from that office in a palace coup engineered by the Council’s Republican members in association with Democratic Councilmember Sherri Lightner, was incensed at the delay in the minimum wage increase. Workers earning the minimum wage “will not have additional help to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table for themselves and for their children,” he said. Gloria also savaged the hypocrisy of the Chamber and other business leaders. “It is surprising that the very same people who led the (referendum) effort and advocated for placing this on the ballot are now asking this council to rescind and to not let the voters decide,” Gloria said. “That is very disappointing.”
Raising the minimum wage remains controversial among economists. Depending on their overall political orientation, economists differ as much as elected officials do about whether minimum-wage increases are good or bad for the economy. The November 10 edition of the PBS NewsHour featured Alan Kreuger, former chair of the federal Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama, arguing that the economy could sustain a raise in the minimum wage to $12 per hour, but $15 would be too much.
“An increase to $12 at the national level [from $7.25] is a considerable increase,” Kreuger said. “It would put the minimum wage above where it’s been in the history of the United States. And if you move it up to $15 an hour nationwide, I’m concerned that that is well beyond what we’ve seen in past research. And if I were advising the President today, I would say I think that’s a risky level.” (Source:
The candidates running to succeed Obama as President in 2016 break on the issue pretty much as you’d expect them to. Insurgent Democrats Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley both favor $15 per hour. In fact, Sanders was shown on the same NewsHour as Alan Kreuger thanking the “Fight for 15” movement for raising the issue. “They have had the impact of moving Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities to raise the minimum wage.” Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton takes the same position as Alan Kreuger — she’d support $12 per hour but not $15.
No Republican Presidential candidate favors raising the minimum wage at all. Indeed, one early Republican Presidential candidate who has since left the race, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, publicly questioned whether minimum-wage laws should exist at all. In two different comments, Walker said, “I’m not going to repeal it but … I don’t think it serves a purpose. … The Left claims that they’re for American workers and they’ve just got just really lame ideas — things like the minimum wage.” (Source:
The economic arguments for and against raising the minimum wage are relatively simple. Opponents say a higher minimum will discourage businesses from hiring new workers and will lead them to cut the hours of people they already have. Supporters say a higher minimum will actually benefit businesses because higher wages mean that people have more money to spend, which will create new customers, stimulate the economy and thus allow businesses to make more money.
But the people who turned out for the “Fight for $15” actions weren’t concerned about economic theories or dueling studies and statistics about what a higher minimum wage would accomplish. They turned out because many of them are workers making minimum wage themselves and are tired of the day-to-day struggle involved in attempting to live on it. “How can you pay people below what they’re worth?” asked African-American activist and minister LaShayne Harris. “Fifteen dollars is important, but it’s also important to build a progressive San Diego.”
The last speaker, Joanne Apuro Hester, national president of the Asian-American Political Alliance and a union organizer for home-care workers, said, “Home-care workers are mostly women and people of color, and they make one of the lowest wages. About 50 percent of African-Americans and 60 percent of Latino workers are paid less than $15 an hour. We join all workers in this effort. We must win, not just for home-care workers but all low-paid workers in this country.”

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Donald Trump: What If He Wins?


Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In Latin America, they would call him a caudillo. The term literally means “man on horseback,” and it’s a product of the 19th century. People in the newly independent countries of central and south America who were trying to put together democratic governments had to deal with the threat that some general or other would either sweep out the government and stage a coup d’état or appeal to a large number of people, convince them that representative government was unworkable, and take over in a revolution. The military leaders who took power that way came to be called caudillos — since 19th century generals usually did ride into battle on horses as a symbol of their leadership authority — and the whole system of dictatorship they embodied became known as caudillismo.
The 20th century was full of caudillos, and the plague of dictatorship they represented spread far beyond Latin America into countries long considered too civilized to succumb to it. Sometimes the caudillos were just thugs (like Saddam Hussein), but sometimes they identified themselves with particular ideologies. On the Left there were Lenin in Russia in 1917, Mao in China in 1949, Kim Il Sung in North Korea after World War II, Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1959 and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1999. On the Right there were Mussolini in Italy in 1922, Hitler in Germany in 1933 and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973. Some of the caudillos, like Juan Perón in Argentina in 1945 and 1972 and Muammar al-Quaddafi in Libya in 1979, invented their own ideologies from a smorgasbord of Left and Right ideas.
But wherever the caudillos ruled, and what excuses they put forward as justification for their dictatorial rule, they had one thing in common. They all took power in countries that were heavily divided politically, in which the established democratic parties had essentially deadlocked and the government was barely functioning. And whatever their claimed ideology, they basically presented the same appeal: they would sweep out the established politicians, take over and be men of action who could get things done. They also generally offered convenient scapegoats on which they blamed all their countries’ problems. The Leftist caudillos blamed property owners, corporations (including outside investors) and rich people in general, while the Rightist ones usually made their scapegoats racial instead of economic. But all said that their country had ceased to be one its citizens could be proud of, and they offered themselves as the saviors who could “Make ________ Great Again.”
Until August 20, 2015 I wasn’t thinking of Donald Trump as a potential American caudillo. I had pretty much bought into the conventional wisdom that he was a politically inexperienced blowhard who would self-destruct under the weight of his sheer outrageousness and overweening pride. I was sure that sooner or later the Republican primary voters who have given Trump such a strong lead — though still only about 25 percent of a pretty small sliver of the total American electorate — would come to their senses, decide they’d made their point and coalesce around someone more “electable” in normal political terms. Then I watched Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN August 20, and Rachel Maddow’s on MSNBC just after it, and all they could talk about was the polls that showed Trump actually broadening his lead after gaffe after gaffe that would have sunk a more ordinary politician.
Trump zoomed to the top of the crowded Republican Presidential field when he said that Mexico was sending murderers and rapists to this country and therefore we had to stop “illegal” immigration. Trump attacked John McCain’s military record and snottily said he preferred war heroes who hadn’t got captured — and his poll numbers went up. Trump responded to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s “gotcha” question on the first Republican Presidential debate, calling him on his record of making openly sexist and blatantly sexual slurs about women, with an openly sexist and blatantly sexual slur about her. Not only did his poll numbers go up again, he had an even greater margin of support among Republican women than Republican men. What’s more, even the dwindling numbers of Republican voters who still support someone else as their first choice for the nomination overwhelmingly name Trump as their second choice — and the actual number two candidate in the most recent polls is Ben Carson, an African-American and a former doctor who, like Trump, has never held elective office and is therefore not considered part of “the system.”
What I gathered from those polls, and from the enthusiasm that both Trump and his Democratic opposite number, Bernie Sanders, are stirring up in their followers — Trump and Sanders have both had to move their rallies to bigger venues because the places they booked originally haven’t been big enough to contain the crowds — is that a lot of Americans have given up on “democracy” as they’ve experienced it in the last quarter-century. They’ve seen their politicians, whatever their party label, become so dependent on campaign donations from rich people that the only policies that get seriously considered are ones that make the rich richer and the rest of us poorer. They’ve seen their home values destroyed by a devastating recession, their jobs swept away by corporate restructurings and “outsourcing” to foreign countries, and in the seven years since 2008 the economy go through a so-called “recovery” whose benefits have gone almost exclusively to the top 1 percent of Americans while everyone else is either not working, working well below their potential, or scared shitless every day that their job will be taken over by a Mexican, a Chinese, or a computer.
They’ve given up on their country’s existing government’s ability to protect themselves against threats from abroad. They can’t help but wonder why, despite the U.S. maintaining a bigger military than the next 25 countries in the world combined (and spending that much more on it, too), we’re getting pushed around in the world by Russia — the country we supposedly won the Cold War from — Iran, China and North Korea. They’re perplexed that after all the U.S. servicemembers who were killed in Iraq and all the blood and treasure that was spent there, Iraq is now the home base of the murderous medievalist thugs of Islamic State. And if they think about it at all, they’re probably wondering why all the pro-corporate “free trade” agreements pushed through by presidents of both major parties only make it easier for businesses to shift jobs overseas and shaft American workers.
What the people who’ve underestimated Trump until now (including me) haven’t realized is just how far the U.S. is on the path towards the people losing faith in the entire idea of “democracy” and desperately seeking a caudillo who can rule with an iron hand and make it all better overnight. When anybody bothers to ask the people who are supporting Donald Trump why — as Republican pollster Frank Luntz did in a focus-group meeting in Alexandria, Virginia August 24 — they get quotes from Paddy Chayevsky’s famous line from the movie Network: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” They get brickbats aimed equally at President Obama — whom they don’t believe actually likes the U.S. — and the Republican-dominated Congress, which they call “useless,” “irrelevant,” “lame” and a few other epithets that can’t be printed in a mainstream U.S. newspaper.
One woman at Luntz’s focus group on Trump said of mainstream politicians, “It’s been years and years of feeling like you’ve been lied to. Nothing getting better; everything, across the board, getting worse.” Another attendee, a middle-aged man, said, “We grew up in an America that was the leader of the world. Today, we’re quickly becoming a Third World [country]. … As a power, [Russian president Vladimir] Putin slaps us around like we’re Tahiti. Nobody respects the United States as an authority on anything.”
Asked what they like about Trump, Luntz’s focus-group participants talk about two things: his success in the private sector and his willingness to say things mainstream politicians consider too in-your-face or electorally toxic. “There’s something about Trump,” said one woman in Luntz’s group. “He looks you in the face. He doesn’t care what you think of him.” Another woman said, “He’s successful in this country just like we want to be.” She added that she didn’t mind his boasting because “he’s proud of his success,” which she felt Mitt Romney hadn’t been. “I like the confidence,” a third woman said. “It makes me feel confident.”
Luntz came away from the meeting he’d organized shaken at the depth, scope, power and seeming unshakability of Trump’s support. “Nothing disqualifies Trump,” he said. Though Luntz had worked for the 1992 independent Presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, who like Trump had come out of virtually nowhere, shaken up the race and ultimately got 19 percent of the vote, better than any third-party Presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Luntz said the Trump phenomenon was “stronger … far more intense” than Perot.

The Cult of the CEO

In another country, or maybe even another historical era in the U.S., the broad dissatisfaction with the way things are going, and in particular with an economy that serves only the rich and a foreign policy that has left us looking weak to the rest of the world, might have inspired large numbers of people to turn Left. But the American Left has done such a good job in the last 50 years of shrinking both its numbers and its influence to total irrelevance, while the Right has come back from seemingly crushing defeats to grow its electoral and ideological hegemony, that it’s not at all surprising that the man millions of people are turning to as their political savior is presenting himself as a Right-winger who blames “illegals” for virtually all his nation’s problems in much the same reflexive fashion Hitler blamed everything wrong with his country on “the Jews.”
I don’t want to suggest that Trump’s politics are comparable to Hitler’s, but it’s indicative of how he’s using undocumented immigrants as an undifferentiated scapegoat that Trump even said the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore over police killings of African-Americans were the fault of “illegals” and that he’d end such civil disturbances by deporting their practitioners. “When you look at Baltimore, when you look at Chicago, and Ferguson, a lot of these areas, you know, a lot of these gang members are illegal immigrants,” Trump told a talk-radio host in Mobile, Alabama August 14. “They’re gonna be gone. We’re gonna get them out so fast, out of this country. So fast.”
If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, it won’t be the first time the GOP has tried to reclaim the White House by putting up a corporate CEO with no political experience. It happened in 1940, when the Republicans saw their hopes of ending Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, with its domestic New Deal and its aggressive challenge to fascism abroad, in industrialist Wendell Willkie. Had the 22nd Amendment been in effect in 1940, Willkie could well have won the election, especially if there’d been a typical fratricidal war for the Democratic nomination between FDR’s conservative vice-president, John Nance Garner of Texas, and the progressive FDR actually wanted to be his successor, agriculture secretary Henry Wallace. But with FDR eligible to run for a third term and many Americans still associating CEO’s in general with the business practices that had sunk the American economy a decade earlier, Roosevelt beat Willkie — not by as much as he’d beat Herbert Hoover in 1932 or Alf Landon in 1936, but enough to win comfortably.
Since 1940, there has been a sea change not only in the way Americans view their government and political system, but the way they feel about businessmen. The original caudillos were military leaders — indeed, that’s where the term came from — but with the demise of the draft, which has led most Americans to think of the military as something “other” people do, military experience has virtually faded completely from the list of virtues Americans look for in their prospective leaders. The last U.S. President who was a general was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who left office in 1961, and the last President who served in the military at all was George H. W. Bush, who left office in 1993.
Instead, thanks to a highly successful propaganda campaign waged by corporate America and the politicians and academics they funded, the cult of the general has given way to the cult of the CEO. The Republican Party is now totally governed by a libertarian ideology that holds that the people who run companies succeed because they’re better, more capable humans than anyone else, and therefore they ought to have the right to run things as they please and any attempts to tax them to help those below them on the socioeconomic scale are not only bad policy but downright immoral. This ideology was expressed in the popular novels of Ayn Rand, whose most important book, Atlas Shrugged (1957), is generally named by Republican activists as the second most significant work of political philosophy ever written (next to the Bible).
At the end of the 19th century, many progressive reformers — Republicans as well as Democrats and independents — believed that private ownership of the financial system, the energy industry and basic utilities like gas, electric, water and public transit was inherently oppressive. Throughout the country so-called Municipal Ownership Leagues were formed to buy out the private owners and make the big utilities publicly owned and therefore more responsive to the people. Even people who stopped short of calling for public ownership still felt the corporations ought to be regulated, and anti-trust laws should be enforced to keep companies from getting so big that they monopolized whole industries and got so rich they used their fortunes to buy control over the political system and shield themselves from public accountability. The basic attitude of the progressives of that era was summed up by activist attorney and, later, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, when he said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
But that view, along with the government regulations, anti-trust laws and other attempts to curb corporate power — including protecting the right of workers to form labor unions — has become, as George W. Bush’s attorney John Woo said about the Geneva Conventions, “obsolete and quaint.” As the governments in the Soviet Union, China and the other countries that claimed to be putting the philosophies of socialism and communism into practice turned into oppressive tyrannies, the American Right was able to argue that this proved that any controls on corporate power, any government interference in the economy, would generate similarly tyrannical results. As memories of the Great Depression faded, corporate CEO’s themselves and their hired propagandists were able to create the cult of the CEO. Self-glorifying autobiographies by people like Trump, Lee Iacocca and General Electric CEO Jack Welch (who became known as “Neutron Jack” because one of his key strategies for building up his company’s stock value was firing large numbers of workers) became best-sellers.
Today the idea that “the private sector” is inherently more “efficient” than the public sector is so widespread in the U.S. that it is taken as an article of faith. Given the opportunity to vote on whether public services should be offered to the private sector, most American electorates overwhelmingly endorse the idea — even though the only ways a private company can deliver a service more cheaply than the government, and turn a profit doing so, is either to cut the wages of the workers or lower the quality of the service, and in real-world privatizations they usually do both. The cult of “the private sector” has reached such dimensions that even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the government agency charged with administering public radio and TV in the U.S., calls itself “a private corporation funded by the American people.”
So with the adulation of CEO’s having reached cult-like status, and with the myth of the super-CEO utterly embraced even by many Americans who have personally suffered from it in lost jobs, lost homes, work-related injuries, environmental devastation and higher taxes, it’s almost inevitable that in a time of public disgust at the way the U.S. is being governed, many Americans are willing to put the presidency in the hands of a CEO and say, “Here. Clean house. Do what you have to do.” They were almost ready to do that in 1992, when H. Ross Perot ran and came a lot closer to being elected President than most people realize. If it hadn’t been for his spectacular psychological meltdown in public, which led him first to withdraw from the race (after he’d spent millions just to get on the ballot in all 50 states) and then to re-enter it, Perot might well have carried enough states to squeeze out an electoral victory in a close three-way race.
And it’s looking more and more like large numbers of Americans are disgusted enough with their so-called “democracy” that they’re willing to see their salvation in Donald Trump. His support so far cuts across all the so-called divisions within the Republican party. Though he hasn’t really talked much about the “social issues” that motivate evangelical Christians and the religious Right in general, and, as Frank Bruni pointed out in an August 25 New York Times column, Trump’s own life hardly makes him the poster child for religious-Right values (“If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America,” Bruni wrote, “I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed? Seems to work for Donald Trump”), he’s leading among Republican evangelicals just as much as he is among the rest of the party.
What’s more, Trump’s appeal extends beyond the Republican Party. Some of the participants in Frank Luntz’s focus group of Trump supporters had voted for Barack Obama. And while the Democratic insurgent, Bernie Sanders, could hardly be more different from Trump on the surface — a self-proclaimed “socialist” instead of a capitalist, a community organizer who eked out a victory in a close race for the mayoralty of Burlington, Vermont in 1981 and has held public office ever since, and someone who’s not only not rich himself but who proudly boasts that the average donation to his campaign is $35 — he’s making a similar appeal to voters disgusted with business as usual in Washington, D.C. and who want an alternative. Frankly, many voters attracted to Sanders in the Democratic primaries will have a hard time accepting Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or some other old-line pro-corporate politician as the ultimate nominee, and despite Trump’s business background and frankly racist platform on immigration, may vote for Trump just because they think this country needs a shake-up and they’ll see him as the man who can deliver it.
It could be that there may be something out there that will prick the Trump balloon, just as the bizarre scandal about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server for State Department business has metastasized and stripped her of the aura of “inevitable Democratic nominee” she once possessed. But more and more, it’s beginning to look like the normal rules of politics don’t apply to Donald Trump — just as the normal rules of business success haven’t applied to him in the career that got him the riches, name recognition and don’t-fuck-with-me reputation that are his principal assets as a politician. It may seem ironic that a country full of people on tenterhooks about how much longer their jobs will last would elect as President a man whose main public presence has been on a “reality” TV show in which he humiliates people and tells them, “You’re … FIRED!,” but when a country’s people feel that their so-called “democracy” has failed them, they’re fair game for a caudillo, a man who can ride in on horseback (or, in Trump’s case, on a state-of-the-art helicopter emblazoned with his name): a Lenin, a Hitler, a Mao … or a Trump.